Trying To Get To You

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Louis Armstrong, Collagist

From the Paris Review (as emailed to me this morning by Rock and Rap Confidential). Great to see how genius translates in other forms.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Al Green: Lay It Down

Let’s get this out of the way: Al Green’s new album, Lay It Down, is not a return to the form of his 1973 masterwork Call Me or the flawed genius of 1977’s The Belle Album. It doesn’t have a song on the level of “Let’s Stay Together,” “Love and Happiness” or “Tired of Being Alone.” It simmers rather than burns. And with that said…

Lay It Down is a lovely album that is probably his best since he returned to recording secular music in the mid-90’s. Producers Ahmir (?uestlove) Thompson (The Roots) and James Poser (Common, Erykah Badu) use Green’s and producer Willie Mitchell's mid-70’s sonic template, but rather than creating a completely retro-vibe, they do a fine job of making that classic Memphis sound feel modern and present. ?uestlove, the finest drummer of his generation, does an especially impressive job emulating the subtle restraint and groove of Stax drummer Al Jackson, Jr., one of the greatest drummers ever and a key component of Green’s greatest records in the 70’s. The Dap-King horns (of Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones fame) punctuate the proceedings nicely without being obtrusive and the strings shimmer. It’s a recreation of a sound without being regurgitation of one.

But let’s face it – given that the songs, with the exception of “Just For Me,” do not exactly imprint themselves upon the brain, the album works for one main reason – that one-of-a-kind voice. Al has lost little-to-nothing of his range and to hear his falsetto whoops, gravelly assertions and sanctified moans is a slice of soul heaven. John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae appear on the album, adding a bit of marketing heft and little else; they all acquit themselves nicely and sound somewhat unnecessary. Bailey Rae, especially, lacks the sensuality to make "Take Your Time" something more than just nice. But hey - marketing is marketing.

There’s a phenomenon in record reviews that I call “Rolling Stones Syndrome.” Basically, it’s when a legend comes out with an album, the reviews say it’s the “best thing they’ve done since [insert classic album title here].” I can’t say for certain whether Lay It Down is the best album he’s done since his classic period. It's almost an impossible standard to live up to. But simply hearing Al Green sing well is one of the great pleasures of life on this planet – and for that alone, I’m happy to have Lay It Down to listen to.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On Thriller And A Shared Cultural Experience

Chris Rizik, the publisher of Soul Tracks, has a fantastic piece about Thriller's 25th Anniversary and what it means in our era of niche marketing and audience fragmentation.

A sample:

Today, a new CD struggles to attract a focused target group of urban college aged men or 30 year old suburban housewives, but nothing approaches the mass audience of Thriller and its progeny a quarter century ago. We are instead in the age of choice, where my love for classic Philadelphia or Detroit soul vocal groups can be satisfied 24/7 and in an exclusive fashion. Not only can I ignore fringe or temporal acts like Maktub or Arcade Fire, I don't even have to waste my time on the biggest stars of the era such as Kanye West or Maroon 5. Instead I can focus exclusively on what I already know I like, as I listen to XM in the car on the way home to plug in my iPod.

If music serves a cultural purpose, if there really is a message in the music (good or bad), the big issue is the price we pay for gratifying our insular tastes at all times. While the purveyors of profanity-laced or violent music love to argue that music simply reflects the culture, the true power of music is its ability to shape culture. The 60s and 70s illustrate this point. Music's power at one end advanced racial equality and changed public sentiment against a no-win war in Southeast Asia. At the other end it healed culture's open wounds by singing that "Love's In Need of Love Today" and "You've Got A Friend." We understood these together. What would we have lost if Curtis Mayfield or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had instead been narrowcast to only their most obvious audiences?

Pop radio, while imperfect (political messengers like Mayfield were often forced to become more opaque to get airplay), was one of the great methods of mass communication during the last century. Even beyond the question of its political effect, popular music served to unify, or at a minimum provide the common language that spanned races, genders and ages.

I love what the Internet has made possible - infinite choice and information available for my satisfaction 24/7. But I also miss the experience of a song or album transcending barriers of race, class, gender and age. Maybe such a thing is still possible with the right song and/or artist. I prefer to think it is - despite much evidence to the contrary.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Three Week Dispatch

Oh dear readers. Did you think that I had abandoned you? Never. I just, well…never mind the explanation. Here are some random recaps from the last three weeks:

One Tuesday morning a couple of weeks back, I’m standing on the platform waiting for the 6 train. A few feet away from me is a doo wop group comprised of four black men in their 50’s. At first, I pay them no mind, but then they start singing the Persuaders classic, “Thin Line Between Love And Hate,” and everything shifts. They nail the opening harmonies and I break into an enormous grin that is returned by one of the singers and I start singing along to myself. The fact that I know both the lyrics and the exact phrasing of the vocals is recognized by the quartet and now they’re all nodding and smiling at me, which in turn, is to be noticed by more than a few people on the subway platform – who begin to rain change upon the quartet, looking utterly mesmorized. The song ends and applause rains down on the singers – just as the subway comes. I bow to the quartet who bow in turn to me. One of life's great little moments.

* * *
I went to Atlanta on April 25 to see Springsteen & the E Streeters, which, in the wake of Danny Federici’s death, I found somewhat depressing. The show began with a video tribute to Danny, which was lovely. What was sort of sad was that it was clear that a good 60% of the audience had no idea who Danny was. People chatted, yelled “Bruuuuuuce,” chatted on their cell phones (easily the most annoying occurrence at any concert) and impatiently waited for the show to start. It really pissed me off and put me in a foul mood for most of the night.

Springsteen looked understandably exhausted and played one of the most random set lists I’ve ever heard him perform. Some nights are magical and some nights aren’t; this night definitely fell into the latter category. But Max Weinberg played perhaps the finest drums I’ve heard him play. I’m frequently critical of Weinberg; he often plays way too rigidly for my tastes. But on this night, he seemed to take it upon himself to provide the momentum for the band, and he played with a combination of power and groove that was masterful.

* * *
I’ve been listening to a lot of different stuff: Santogold (thumbs up), a leak of the new My Morning Jacket (I like it, but I don’t believe that this is the breakthrough that’s been predicted for them – the songs aren’t strong enough), Jamie Lidell (I like the soul vibe, but it feels a little generic), Madonna (a couple of strong tracks, the rest sounds mediocre to drecky to me) , the Kooks (utterly forgettable) and the new Death Cab For Cutie, which upon a couple of listens, I found far more enjoyable than I thought I would.

And all of the above pale in comparison to the 15 disc Chess Records 1947-1975 box set I got last month. It’s 15 discs of magical American music – blues from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; r&b from Etta James and a holy host of others and rock from Chuck Berry and many, many more. Each song feels like a gem and it makes the strongest case for Chess being utterly the equal of Atlantic during this particular era. It rewards upon repeated listening – the only danger for me is that it makes everything else sound, well, vaguely unnecessary.

* * *
And finally, being a political junkie and having followed the campaign a little more closely than I’ve needed to, I really wish Hunter S. Thompson were alive and in good form to chronicle it and savage what needs to be savaged. Watching Hillary Clinton’s metamorphosis from the candidate of experience to working class hero has reminded me like nothing else is that the one true guarantee of success in American life is to be utterly shameless. Her campaign has reminded me of a Richard Nixon affair; the seething resentment, the vindictiveness, the ruthlessness and the willingness to say anything to get elected, no matter what. Perhaps that’s true of most, if not all campaigns. The difference is that Clinton, like Nixon, actually gets off on it. Beware of sexless people. They’re dangerous.