Trying To Get To You

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Jesus Is Waiting

I was looking for some inspiration in finding a something to post on, and I came across this. Taken from Soul Train sometime in the mid-70's (it's not the classic Hi Records band backing him), this is an otherworldly performance of one of the man's greatest lesser known songs. The grooves and swells, following the lead taken from Al's phrasing and off mike moans are incredible.

This what they mean by testifying. It won't make this Jewish boy convert, but I found my inspiration tonight just the same.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

It's Not Better Than "Disease Of Conceit?"

It’s December, which means the holiday season, parties, friends and family and (hopefully) some time off to rest and recharge for the coming year. But for another species of human being called “music geeks”, December means it’s time for the “best of the year” lists. I have no plans to do a best of 2006 list as of yet, and even if I was, I’m not ready to do it. But some are starting to trickle in, namely Uncut’s 50 best albums of the year list. Dylan’s Modern Times tops the list, which isn’t surprising, given the almost universal praise that the record is getting. The word “masterpiece” has been bandied about liberally. I’ve listened to the record around 10 times, and while I like it, sometimes very much, I can’t say that I’m in love with it. I enjoy all the songs, but I feel passion for none of them. But my favorite contrary word in the matter comes from my dear friend and fellow music geek John Franck via IM this morning:

JF: I like the Dylan record, it's a solid 3.5 star (out of 5) record

JF: Anyone who says it's better than Time Out Of Mind is stupid

JF: It's not even better than Side 1 of Oh Mercy

Well, there you have it. The gavel has struck.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Early Winter

Of all the female pop singers out there now, the one who I find it easiest to root for Gwen Stefani. I’ve never been a huge fan of No Doubt, but Gwen’s last record I found kind of irresistible – she appeals to that part of me that loved AM radio when I was but a small lad in the 70’s, before I knew that it wasn’t cool to like that kind of stuff. Plus, it’s obvious that she works her ass off, and despite her success, she carries herself with a real air of humility.

I got an advance of Gwen’s new album, The Sweet Escape, and I’ve found myself getting more and more into it over the last few days – it’s an extremely well crafted pop record, and if the Neptunes produced tracks make you think that their style might be turning into formula, it doesn’t make the songs any less resistible.

The song I’ve found myself going back to most often is a mid-tempo number called “Early Winter.” Produced by Nellee Hooper and co-written with Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane, it’s a mid-tempo track that begins as a U2 homage (check out the digital delay on the guitar and bass rumble – it’s right out of the U2 playbook circa 1985-1987), but despite it’s derivativeness, the song becomes something more.

Download: "Early Winter"
Buy It At Amazon

Monday, November 20, 2006

My New Conception Of Hell

I'm not particularly religious. But I've wondered, on occasion, if there is a hell, what is it like? Eternal fire? Nah. I had come to believe that hell, like most things, is relative, meaning that each person would have their own hell tailored to suit their worst nightmare. Obviously, in my hell, I'd be forced to deal with some truly horrible music. I figured that the soundtrack for me would be an endless loop of really horrible and cheesy club music at volumes that would make the music inescapable. Or maybe I'd be at an eternal H.O.R.D.E. festival show with not a joint in sight.

But I think I found a new version of hell that might be worse.

I was with my girlfriend yesterday in North Jersey, at a great produce market right near my parents, doing some food shopping before we went back to Brooklyn. As we started shopping, I heard the sounds of an acoustic guitar that I didn't pay any mind to initially. I didn't see a performer, so I figured it was a CD or the radio. But then the chords and the words started coming together, and I realized that it was "Tangled Up In Blue." And it was a version that in no way was good enough to be documented by anyone. The chords were halting, and the voice was plainly bad. It had to be someone playing live. So I looked around, and there he was; early 20's, long brown hair parted in the middle, checkered work shirt and Levi's. He looked like he stepped right out of "Almost Famous." About 6 people were watching him. I muttered a quick "ugh" to myself and went back to shopping. My girlfriend told me to stop it and be nice.

After "Tangled Up In Blue" came "Mr. Charlie," a not particularly well known (or particularly good) Grateful Dead song from Europe '72. Now I'm thinking, "Ok, here's the sensitive suburban stoner kid, pulling out the deep Grateful Dead cuts. He's smart, knows some stuff, but has no talent. This could be bad." And then it was.

The opening chords for Tom Petty's "American Girl" are instantly recognizable to me. After seeing "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" for about 30 times and being a child of the 80's, it's just one of those songs that's inescapable. It's a great opening riff; high on the guitar neck, they're an invitation to a blissful three and a half minute world. I think I had it on a 45. My new young singer songwriter friend hit the riff of "American Girl" and played it ok. My eyebrows were raised, waiting for him to get to the lyrics. Petty sings "American Girl" pretty high in his vocal register; I imagine that karaoke singers all over the world have strained to hit the notes, especially in the "she was an American girl" chorus. Our friend couldn't even come close to hitting the notes, even in the verses. And the chorus? Oooooooof. I don't know what key the song is in (I think it's D), but he was singing it about a half step off. Even my girlfriend, who's a much nicer person than me, made a face like she had just smelled a carton of milk that had curdled about six weeks earlier. I almost staggered around, half laughing, in utter disbelief of what I was hearing. I'm thinking, "Dude! Don't you know you're not even CLOSE to hitting this?"

After literally a five minute version (he added an instrumental bridge for effect) he then tacked Neil Young's "The Needle And The Damage Done," another classic that I know well from my own teens. Again, our boy just wasn't even close to singing in key. I was in the back of the store, ordering something at the deli, listening, saying "Oh my God" often and looking around to see if anyone else had the same pained expression on their face. If they did, I couldn't see it.

Then, for the coup-de-grace, we had a duet! A version of the great Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash version of "Jackson." And now, instead of having one singer off key, we had two, as a young woman joined our hero onstage. She wasn't much better. It was almost cool though, because they were off in the same key, so strangely enough, it sounded harmonious in it's disaster.

It was then that I muttered to myself, "This is hell." And it then dawned on me that hell wouldn't just be hearing music that I hated. Hell would have to be two things simultaneously; horrible music, but horrible music that would also turn a memory of music I had loved into a nightmare. It would make me wish that I had never heard Blood On The Tracks or Live At Folsom Prison or Harvest. It would rob me of any shelter or refuge that I could take in memory.

But hopefully, it would be awful enough that I'd be able to get a laugh out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Great Weekend Song

I didn't pay too much attention to Hard Fi's album "Stars of CCTV" when it was released earlier this year in the U.S. (it came out last year in the U.K.). I liked the single, "Cash Machine," and probably gave the rest of the album one or two listens tops. I thought, "Pretty good, nothing too special."

On the F train yesterday I had the shuffle on, and their "Living For The Weekend" came on, and it completely shifted what my opinion had been on the band. It's a great, modern variant on the classic, "Spending all my money on a Saturday night" motif, featured by rockers from Little Richard to the Stones to Springsteen - and just about every R&B artist of all time.

This is a record I'm going to go back to to see what I missed the first time around.

Download: "Living For The Weekend"
Buy It At Amazon

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Band Grows In Brooklyn

The fact that anyone can make a record in their home is an amazing thing. Completely liberating, it's allowed for music to be made outside of the narrow artistic restrictions of the major labels. An artist can find their own style without needing to bend to anyone else's conception of what should be.

And the fact that anyone can make a record in their home is a horrible thing. Just because "anyone" can make a record doesn't necessarily mean they should, and it's created a vast glut of mediocre to awful music that clutters up both the marketplace and cyberspace. I can't begin to count the amount of truly awful bands I've encountered in the past year online; there have been times that I wanted to email them, if only to tell them to "please stop."

Elizabeth & The Catapult are not part of that glut of mediocrity. Based in Brooklyn, they've just released a self-titled, self-produced debut EP (yes, recorded in their basement) that I've kept coming back to over the past couple of months. It's not the usual Brooklyn hipster indie rock - there's some actual talent here. It's ambitious and smart; the lyrics are clever, literate, ocassionally sexy and actually funny at times. Musically, the songs are arranged meticulously; rhythmically assured with a strong jazz feel, but always in service to the song. Elizabeth Ziman's vocals are delicate with an underlying strength underpinning them; there's nothing wimpy here. It's not a perfect EP; occassionally, the band becomes too cute for it's own good and I'd love to hear a couple of songs without the tasteful restraint that's all over this EP, but this is a strong debut and makes me look forward to hear what they're going to come up with next.

Elizabeth & The Catapult will be at Sin-e this Friday, November 17 at 8pm.

Download: "My Goodbye"
Elizabeth & The Catapult On MySpace
Buy the EP

Monday, November 13, 2006

Stop The Presses - I Like A Metal Record!

I've never been a metal fan. Despite growing up in the heyday of metal in the 80's, it just was never something I could get into. I had friends in ninth grade that were huge Iron Maiden fans - they had the Maiden mascot Eddie painted on the back of their jean jackets, but I was way too "mature" (i.e., far more serious than I should have been at that age) to get into it. Yeah, I loved Zeppelin, but by 1984, Zeppelin wasn't even considered metal anymore. I grew to like Metallica a whole lot, but I was way behind the curve on them - the first time I saw them was when the Black Album came out. Even when I made a concerted effort to "understand" metal in my early 20's, I couldn't get through half of the first Black Sabbath record. At my most arrogant, I decided that metal was "stupid music made by stupid people for stupid people." Lovely, huh? (I apologize for that comment.)

Lyrically I could never get into it; so many of the lyrics felt like these weird Dungeons and Dragaons fantasies that I couldn't relate to at all. And while the playing was often technically excellent, it always felt like some sort of weird homo-erotic wank off to me - a bunch of guys showing off for each other.

So when I started reading the near universal praise for the new Mastodon record, my curiosity was piqued. I finally got the record this weekend and wow, I actually really like it! (I feel like Mikey from the Life cereal commercial.) I can't discern the lyrics much at all, and from the titles of the tracks ("Capillarean Crest," "Colony Of Birchmen") I probably don't need to - but man, the playing is great. It's been a while since I've heard shredding guitar that wasn't either totally cliche or done ironically. Pretty astounding drumming as well. I'm not going to pretend I can write about it or that I even really understand it - I just like it. These guys play it like they mean it.

Download: "Sleeping Giant"
Buy It At Amazon

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bruce and The Seeger Sessions Band Meet Chabad House...and Sparks Fly!

Other than Bob Dylan, I've never heard an artist rework his material the way Bruce Springsteen does. And unlike Dylan (who's maddeningly inconsistent), the results with Springsteen are almost uniformly great. Different keys, different tempos and different phrasing bring out new things in songs that you couldn't imagine hearing anything new from ("The Promised Land," "Born In The U.S.A.," "The Rising" are just three of many examples.).

The current Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band tour will be the first Springsteen tour I've missed since the early 80's, unless he does some closing shows at home. (I was in Italy when he hit the East Coast in June.) Reports from Springsteen diehards whose taste I usually align with has been extremely positive, and I've enjoyed the live shows I've gotten. (I thought the album was very strong, albeit slightly uneven. "O Mary Don't You Weep" and "Eyes On The Prize" are out and out classics, but I could have done without "My Oklahoma Home.") And his cover/reworking of Blind Alfred Reed's (discovered through Ry Cooder) "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" (on the 2nd edition of the album) is one of my contenders for song of the year.

Bruce started opening his shows in Europe last week with "Blinded By The Light." This morning I got a copy from last night's show at Wembley Arena in London and it is NOT what I was expecting. I thought it'd be similar at least in key to the original, but this is completely reworked and fantastic. It could use a little more work in the phrasing, but it puts an immediate smile on the face. It almost sounds like if Bruce and his band had been signed up to play a Hasidic wedding on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. I'd LOVE to see this live.

Download: "Blinded By The Light" 11/11/06, London

My Favorite Post-Election Article

I don't plan on writing about politics much. But I do need to confess that I was an out and out political junkie this election season. I was even reduced to Tivo'ing the Sunday morning talk shows.

This piece from Salon is a great slice of America on Election night 2006, chronicling some "fair and balanced" folks that really didn't like which way the wind was blowing.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I Heart Stylus

Stylus is a great online music zine. Smart, literate and enjoyable to read, Stylus may be somewhat indie rock centric, but I find it much more accessible than Pitchfork.

They published a fun U2 Vs. R.E.M. piece this week. I haven't really listened to either of those bands in a long time, but like a great piece of writing should, it made me want to put those old records on. My vote goes with U2 - I cringe sometimes at Bono, but their high points for me have been spine tingling, which I can't quite say for R.E.M. (with the exception of "Losing My Religion").

Download: R.E.M. - "Pilgrimage" 7/9/83, Toronto, ON
Download: U2 - "Seconds" 10/23/84, Nantes, France

Friday, November 10, 2006

Mushy Magic Numbers

There’s a story I once read that when Smokey Robinson first met Berry Gordy, Smokey showed him over 100 songs that he had written. Berry liked one of them and told him the rest were “mush.” Smokey was kind of pissed, but he went home, tightened it up, and then showed up with “Got A Job,” which Berry released and was his first semi-hit (albeit not on Motown) and the beginning of a wondrous partnership. Smokey learned quickly that just because he had written something, it didn't mean that it was any good.

I can’t help but recall that story while listening to the Magic Numbers self-produced new album, Those The Brakes. It’s a lovely sounding record; warmly recorded with very pretty sounding Beach Boys inspired harmonies – but I keep finding the songs frustratingly mediocre. It’s as though they think that sounding pretty is enough in and of itself.

The harmonies between lead singer (and producer) Roman Stodart and his sister Michelle (bass) are great, though. Next time, they need someone in the producer chair who’ll let them know when they’re making magic, and when they're making “mush.”

Download: "Boy"

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Autumn In New York Means The Hawk

I love the autumn in New York City. The weather is often wonderful; cool and clear - and on the right day, you can almost smell the crispness in the air. Autumn to me feels like the beginning of something; there's a new sense of romance and possibility in the air. (And the ladies break out their knee high boots, a great source of joy for me.)

I have come to associate this time of year with the music of Coleman Hawkins, legendary jazz saxophonist extraordinairre. I first heard him one rainy autumn night in November of 2000, laying in bed with my girlfriend, listening to WBGO, the jazz station based I believe in Newark. At that point, I was just starting to develop a small interest in jazz, and the songs I heard that night blew me away. "Who IS this," I kept wondering. Finally, the DJ explained that we were listening to the Hawk, the great Coleman Hawkins, the man who made the tenor saxophone a dominant instrument in jazz. I went out the next day and bought a box set. I've gone back to his music over and over again ever since, and get something new out of it each time I listen.

I leave you with a song recorded in 1944, "How Deep Is The Ocean." It is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, filled with wonder and romance. I cannot recommend strongly enough his body of work, especially in the 1940's.

mp3: "How Deep Is The Ocean"

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

If God exists, I can't think of better proof

Aretha from the Cliff Richard show (UK) in 1970 doing "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" (originally written by Ahmet Ertegun for Ben E. King in 1961) from Spirit In The Dark.

It's not just the voice, the phrasing or the piano playing...look in her eyes during the closeups. It's all there, the sadness and heartbreak, but also the transcendence and sense of possibility.

It's Nice To Be In America Again

Great election last night. I feel like I have my country back. Watching Bush's press conference today, I couldn't help but think that of seven deadly sins, pride is the most deadly.

My favorite email/IM about the election comes from an old friend quoting Bob Marley:

"You can fool some people some time/But you can't fool all the people all the time"

NP: "Get Up, Stand Up"

Saturday, November 04, 2006

CMJ Thought #1

It's been a busy CMJ week. I've seen a bunch of bands - yes, I saw Cold War Kids (I liked, didn't love), and have had a lot of great music talk with old friends and new acquaintances. One thought keeps coming up for me:

There are a lot of truly great, smart and talented people in all areas of this business who really love music and are committed to it. The record business as we once knew it may well be beyond saving, but I've been really heartened by the conversations I've had. Yes, there's a certain amount of the inevitable cynicism, but there's an awareness that in the uncertain space that we're in, there tremendous opportunity. I'm happy to be a part of it.