Trying To Get To You

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Alicia Keys: As I'm Bland

Listening to Alicia Keys is a deflating experience for me. She’s gorgeous, has a solid voice and is obviously talented – but in listening to her new album, As I Am, I get the experience of listening to the musical equivalent of table scraps – someone who has something real to share, but instead serves up the same vaguely empty platitudes of self-empowerment and love over and over. It’s ultimately disappointing, because despite her blandness, I can’t help but think there’s more there.

The album’s songs and arrangements, steeped in touches of 70’s soul, are supposed to signify authenticity, but all they do is reinforce the suspicion that I’m listening to a facsimile of something real. “Superwoman,” in which Keys “overcomes” her sorrow by recognizing her inherent greatness, comes off as vaguely icky and redundant, almost like reading the modern R&B version of a Hallmark card. It all comes off as formula – and even the enjoyable moments of the album, like the luminousness of the melody in “Teenage Love Affair,” all occur as insufficient, missing some sort of key ingredient to make the thing really cook.

Listening to Keys, I can’t help but recollect my joy upon listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill for the first time. What I was hearing was not just a wonderful and singular album, but the expression of a woman taking on the world with incisiveness, humor, spirit and sensuality, glossing over nothing and making even her pain seem beautiful.

That was a soul album. As I Am isn’t. It’s a pleasant contemporary R&B album performed by a talented singer who, if she ever going to be a significant artist, needs to dig far deeper into herself and get to something real, maybe even something ugly. As I Am is very pretty...but very vacuous.

Buy Alicia Keys As I Am at Amazon

Monday, November 26, 2007

Wow. Three Weeks.

I haven't blogged in three weeks, by far the longest time between posts since I started last August. I thank those of you who inquired what's been going on. I can't account for the lapse - just one of those periods where I'm very unkind to what I write. Everything I put to the page, seemed, well, inadequate.

To get back in the swing of things, here's some required reading. A wonderfully informative essay on the Rascals ("Good Lovin,'" "People Got To Be Free") and the battle they waged for civil rights, risking (and harming) their career in the process. This is the story of a (white) band inspired by R&B and soul who wanted to give something back -- and who gave much more than they ever thought they would. They walked it like they talked it.

The Rascals - Anthology: 1965-1972 at Amazon

Monday, November 05, 2007

Aretha On Her Own

While most of the music world has been aflutter over Radiohead's decision to bypass the major labels, I'm more excited to discover (via yesterday's NY Times) that Aretha Franklin has completed her deal with Clive Davis and has started her own label, Aretha Records. For years, I've lamented Aretha's continued pursuit of the young R&B audience, which necessitated having songs and producers that simply did not suit her, at the expense of music that could showcase the continued power and emotional range of her singular voice. This is very good news.

Her first album, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out Of Love, will feature songs written and produced by Aretha herself, and I simply can't wait to hear it. Of other note, Atlantic/Rhino has just released a live album of Aretha in Philadelphia from 1972. I haven't heard it yet, but I look forward to getting my hands on it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bootleg Friday: Dizzy Gillespie, 1953

I find it very intimidating to write about jazz. I know far less about it then I know about rock and soul, and the history of the music is simply so vast. It's a music that I have come to love only in the past few years, and it occurs for me much like my love of wine: I know what I like, I am ready for more, but writing as an expert would be fraudulent.

That being said, here's a wonderful five song collection of Dizzy Gillespie and his quintet in Hamburg, Germany from 1953. You can hear in the songs what he brought to the table: a fusion of Latin sounds and rhythms with jazz and the darker, richer tones of bop, the revolution in jazz which he helped to usher in.

Listening to this music fifty plus years after the fact, you don't hear the radicalness of it. You hear the beauty in it.

Download: "Manteca" 3/8/53, Hamburg, Germany
Download: "Alone Together" 3/8/53, Hamburg, Germany
Download: "They Can't Take That Away From Me" 3/8/53, Hamburg, Germany
Download: "I Can't Get Started" 3/8/53, Hamburg, Germany
Download: "Tin Tin Deo" 3/8/53, Hamburg, Germany

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Brett Dennen At The Bowery

Brett Dennen won me over on Tuesday night at the Bowery Ballroom.

This was a surprise to me. I had listened to his album, So Much More, a few times and thought that it was somewhat unassuming. The songs were pleasant, but didn't leave that much of a mark on me. Another pretty good singer-songwriter, or so I thought.

What struck me about Dennen live is that he is completely his own man. Most performers try (unsuccessfully) to be something they're not, using the stage to attempt to hide some element of themselves that they'd rather die than admit to. Dennen is just...himself. Holding his guitar high up on his chest, chunky in build and wearing a headband that no one would ever confuse with cool, he is so warm, open and engaging on the stage that everything that could be seen as a "flaw" suddenly begins to work for him. His music may not be completely original, as he works in the tradition of singer-songwriters started by Dylan (Paul Simon seems to be a big influence), but he himself occurs as an original, and damn if that isn't refreshing.

Dennen's songs, while good, will have to reach the next level for him to have the possibility of being a major artist. But I'm looking forward to hearing his next album...there's something happening here.

Brett Dennen on MySpace