Trying To Get To You

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Stax Hearts The Beatles

The Beatles were my first musical love. After John Lennon was killed in December of 1980, I dug up my older brother and sister’s copies of Revolver, the White Album, Let It Be, Sergeant Pepper and Rubber Soul and I was immediately hooked. They became an obsession, and I was soon reading everything I possibly could about them (my favorite Beatles book remains Philip Norman’s Shout) and rock in general, so my love of the Beatles soon took me to the music that influenced them, mainly 50’s and early 60’s rock, r&b and soul. The first time I ever heard the word Stax was from reading a John Lennon quote about his favorite music.

The Beatles exposed millions of people (like me) to American r&b and soul, and the artists at Stax were grateful for the exposure and enthralled with the Beatles music. And you can hear the Stax artists version of some Beatles classics on the new compilation, Stax Does The Beatles, due out on February 26. Featuring the likes of Booker T. and the MG’s, Isaac Hayes and Carla Thomas, it’s a collection I’m looking forward to getting.

But my favorite r&b cover of a Beatles song is not by a Stax artist, but by Al Green. His version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded the Beatles version, taking the innocence out of it and making it ridiculously sexy and funky. The horn lines, swelling in the bridge, add something that the Beatles, for all the infectious greatness of their original version, didn’t have.

Download: Al Green "I Want To Hold Your Hand"

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Harmlessness Of Shelby Lynne

I haven’t paid much attention to Shelby Lynne in years, since her 2001 “disaster,” the Glen Ballard produced Love, Shelby. I think I might have listened to Identity Crisis, her 2003 release on Capitol a couple of times and then forgot all about it. I had been a fan of I Am Shelby Lynne, her 1999 album that won her a Best New Artist Grammy, despite the fact that she had been signed by Epic Nashville in the late 80’s. (Another example of the stupidity of the Grammys.) I Am… reminded me of a modern Dusty Springfield record in its combination of both earthy and dramatic tones that occurred on occasion as diva-worthy.

So when I heard via the New York Times that Shelby Lynne’s new album, Just A Little Lovin’, is a collection of songs inspired and made famous by Dusty Springfield, I became momentarily excited. But unfortunately, while the album is eminently tasteful, it is a thorough bore. Lynne’s (and producer Phil Ramone’s) arrangements are striking only in their lack of risk and originality; the drama, risk and vulnerability that Springfield sang with is instead replaced by an overwhelming sterility, a celebration of “good taste” that does not even approach the realm of soulfulness. It is utterly harmless music.

Lynne fancies herself a rebel who bucked the conventions of Nashville and has a deluded sense that it makes her a superior artist. What it makes her instead is a snob who uses her commercial failures to justify her utterly false notions of what it is to be a rebel. Perhaps this album will be the commercial breakthrough that she has been looking for for the better part of two decades – but most likely, it will be another chapter of a career in which the artist comforts her own missteps by saying to herself, “They don’t get it,” instead of asking, “What’s missing in my music that could make a difference?”

If you don't have Dusty In Memphis, buy it immediately. But Just A Little Lovin' is one of the most unnecessary albums I've heard in years.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Strange Dreams: Me And The Beatles

I've been sick with a pretty bad cold the past few days. It's not fun, but the silver lining is that when I'm sick, I have very strange dreams which I almost always remember. (When I'm well, I almost never remember my dreams.)

Anyway, last night I dreamed I was in the Beatles. I was the piano player, which is kind of weird, because I don't even play piano. The setting was 1961. I was in the audience at the Cavern Club (the band was still in the black leather period) and after one of their sets, I went up to John Lennon and told him that they needed a piano player who could "play like Jerry Lee Lewis," and that I was the guy for the gig. I forget exactly what he said, but the next thing I know, I'm playing "High School Confidential" with the Beatles. (In the dream, Ringo was already drumming for them, even though he didn't join until August, 1962. But hey - who cares? It's a dream.) Anyway, John loved it, George and Ringo were pretty psyched as well, and Paul was pretty cool to the whole idea. But I got in. As dreams go, it was a pretty excellent one.

That's all I remember. Maybe tonight I'll dream that auditioned to be the drummer in the E Street Band in 1974 and that I beat Max Weinberg for the gig.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Loving The Amazon MP3 Store

One of my biggest gripes with the major labels has been the lack of real choice in the matter of purchasing music digitally. iTunes 128k AAC files (with DRM) hold no appeal for me, due to both the sound quality and the DRM on the file, and up until recently, there was no alternative if I wanted major label music, except for illegal downloading. (I have and love my subscription to eMusic, but that's limited to independent labels.)

With the advent of the Amazon mp3 store, that is no longer true. I love it. It's not quite as seamless or sexy as iTunes, but the prices are better, sometimes significantly so, and the quality of the file, a 256k unprotected mp3, blows iTunes' offerings out of the water. I've been doing a lot of purchasing on the store, and I can't recommend it highly enough. I've found some great albums (Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane) for great prices ($5.99) and I'm trying really hard not to get addicted to the service.

Warner Music has just signed on with Amazon, leaving the SonyBMG label group as the last major to join. I'm sure they'll be on soon. Very quietly, the labels seem to have quietly put up the white flag in regard to DRM. Good for them...and good for the consumer. I absolutely recommend spending some time on the Amazon mp3 site; it's great to see, finally, quality offerings in the realm of major label digital music.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Remembering The Rules

A happy and soulful New Year to you all.

On New Years Eve I went to a great party at a friend's apartment in Brooklyn. There were a lot of great people, great food, great drink and great dancing. As it happened, I was asked to DJ, which is not an unusual occurrence amongst any gathering of my friends. So I took my iPod and made a playlist that I thought would work; a combination of old and new rock, soul, r&b I thought the revelers would get into.

It didn’t work.

I forgot one of the two cardinal rules of DJ’ing for a party. Play the music people know and love. I had cued up a lot of great, but obscure songs, the kind of tunes that if I was playing them in a car with friends, they’d all say, “Wow! This song is great. Who is it?” I’d explain what songs they were, and I’d get to wow everyone with the depth of my impeccable taste and musical knowledge. But at a New Year’s party with a crew of thirty-somethings, playing an obscurity like Candi Staton’s “Heart On A String” just ain’t gonna work, no matter how great the song might be.

So, needless to say, we quickly switched it up, and on came the Madonna (“Into The Groove,” “Holiday”), Prince (most of Purple Rain), Justin Timberlake and other more familiar favorites, and then it became a sweaty dance party. It cooked.

So next time I DJ a party, I will remember the following; it is my job to entertain the audience and get their asses on the floor, not to turn them on to anything they haven't heard before. It’s about them, not about me. Because if it was up to me, I'd be playing most of Otis Blue.

Oh – and the other cardinal rule of DJ’ing for a party? Make sure the women are pleased with what you’re playing. Make the women happy and you’ve got your party made.

Actually, that’s a pretty good rule for all of life.