Trying To Get To You

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bootleg Friday: The Jacksons, 1979

Of all the periods of Michael Jackson's career, the one that may be among the most neglected is the late 70's, post-Jackson 5 and before Off The Wall. After leaving Motown in 1975 and being forced to give up the name "Jackson 5" as part of their settlement to leave, the group, re-named "The Jacksons" began recording for CBS, first for Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's Philadelphia International label (which went through CBS) and then Epic.

By 1978's Destiny, the Jackson were producing themselves, and the results included the double platinum single "Shake Your Body" (written by Michael and Randy Jackson). The band was complete with their transformation from bubblegum soul to something edgier - hard r&b and funk that shredded.

This week's Bootleg Friday is the Jacksons at a Destiny tour stop in Amsterdam in February 1979. By the end of the year, Off The Wall would be released, and everything would change.

Download: The Jacksons - 2/1/79, Amsterdam, Netherlands (zip file)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Undeniable Peaches

I haven’t paid much attention to Peaches since her debut album, 2000’s The Teaches Of Peaches. I loved “Fuck The Pain Away,” a song from that album that defines the term “underground classic.” But I stopped looking out for her, and we had no chance encounters.

That was until recently, when I got her new album, I Feel Cream. I like the album, but there’s one song, “Talk To Me,” that I’m absolutely, positively floored by. It’s like a cross between Betty Davis and Johnny Rotten, and it’s one of the purest (and most likely, unintentional) fusions of punk and soul that I’ve ever heard, in it’s blend of raw vulnerability and hot-tempered demand.

Instrumentally, the song is obviously based in electro, but the construction of the song is rooted in the blues, and when Peaches sings the lyrics that are a plea for communication from a lover who is hiding out, she is absolutely impossible to ignore – she pierces the air, grabs you by the throat and makes you deal with what she has to say. She manages to convey everything – frustration, lust, anger, desire and pain in a little over three minutes. Most artists don’t do that in three years.

Peaches is the kind of artist that Johnny Rotten wanted to see more of back in the halcyon days of the emergence of punk in England; original characters who invented themselves, unshackled by the past, confrontational, subversive and completely authentic. In that, she’s a true inheritor of punk in ways that most of those awful bands on the Warped tour will never be. And she’s a punk with soul.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Laura Izibor: Let The Truth Be Told

Why does Laura Izibor’s debut album, Let The Truth Be Told, irk me so much? Is it the glossy, semi-generic songs and arrangements? Is it Izibor’s vocals, vaguely characterless, an approximation of soulfulness rather than actually being soulful? Or is it that her songs, like “Shine” and “Don’t Stay,” which take on inspiration and love, do it so safely that they end up feeling like a cliche, resulting in a diminishing of love and inspiration themselves?

Perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above. Izibor has a technically powerful voice, but there’s nothing in it that makes it uniquely her own, rather than just an amalgamation of a boatload of soul singers before her. What’s missing in Izibor’s voice is any hint of the blues, that great ingredient that makes a song land as more than just a platitude. Any great soul singer, be they Otis Redding, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, or hell, even Amy Winehouse, sings even their most buoyant material with a bluesiness that comes from living with the existential knowledge of the pain that living brings. Listening to Let The Truth Be Told, it's clear that while she may have taken on singing soul because she genuinely loves it, she doesn’t have it in her bones - and the resulting music ends up dismayingly hollow.

The obvious models for Izibor’s music are Alicia Keys, Joss Stone and John Legend – bland, inoffensive and safe as possible, made for film and TV placements, commercials and marketing departments, lacking any of the risk, originality and emotional rawness that make soul music, you know, soulful. Izibor says of her music that “the foundation starts with soul,” but she’s flattering herself with her conceit. Or maybe she doesn’t know any better.

No, why this irks me is that this is the kind of stuff that fools people who don’t know any better that this is the real thing. It’s so maddeningly competent and nothing more that it lands as pointless. It's very nice music - and real soul is never nice. If Izibor is going to be a soul singer that matters, she's going to have to dig a lot deeper into her own self than is evidenced on Let The Truth Be Told. The truth is never as flimsy as this music is.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Coming Attractions: Soul Power

I'm sort of looking forward to this:

Sun City: The Best Of The 1984-85 Benefit Singles

I watched the Michael Jackson memorial show on Tuesday and was pleasantly surprised with how well it came off. The tributes were heartfelt and authentic, and the musical performances, for the most part, worked. It did him justice, unlike the disaster that was the B.E.T. Awards the Sunday following his death.

Unsurprisingly, the show ended with some of the schmaltz that Michael loved, namely, “We Are The World,” a song whose ickiness has grown exponentially for me as I’ve encountered it over the years. Whether it’s the trite and solipsistic lyrics (as Jackson Browne said, “That’s the problem with North America – we think we ARE the world”), or the mushy arrangement, the song has always occurred for me like the experience of eating Sweet N’ Low right out of the packet – so sweet I want to wretch.

Most of the singers on the project were at or near their pop pinnacle in the winter of 1985, and many of them – Kim Carnes, Huey Lewis, Al Jarreau, Jeffrey Osbourne, Kenny Rogers and Kenny Loggins – were bland MOR fare at best. Neither the song or the assemblage of talent has worn well over time, even though seeing Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan singing on the same song will always hold a thrill for me.

Contrast that with the best of the 1984-1985 “benefit” songs, Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City,” created by Little Steven Van Zandt, who at the time, had just recently left the E Street Band, just prior to Springsteen and the band embarking on the immensely successful and lucrative phenomenon that was the Born In The U.S.A. tour.

Van Zandt, producer Arthur and journalist Danny Schecter assembled greatest collection of rock, rap and soul artists ever on one single. The Lineup: Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Ruben Blades, Bob Dylan, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr, Pete Townshend, Lou Reed, Run DMC, Peter Gabriel, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, Jackson Browne, U2, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil-Scott Heron, Nona Hendryx, Pat Benatar, and Joey Ramone.

It was an incredible lineup then – and in retrospect, it seems even more incredible. Most of the artists, in direct contrast to the ones on "We Are The World," have gained in stature nearly a quarter century after the recording. Back then, as I wasn’t familiar with many of the artists on the record, it didn’t seem like a big deal. But thinking about it now - Lou Reed and Miles Davis and Springsteen and Joey Ramone and Bobby Womack and Melle Mel and David Ruffin on the same single? Jesus!

And to Van Zandt’s eternal credit, he structured the song so that the rappers would have their own indelible contribution to the song. Remember, “Sun City” was recorded and released prior to rap’s explosion to national prominence with Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way,” which was released in the summer of 1986. The rap section that opens the song leads perfectly into the first chorus – in retrospect, the song is perhaps rap-rock’s greatest moment.

The song was tough and defiant – capturing the best of rock's rebellious spirit . It was independent minded, clear in its intent to bring down Apartheid and wasn’t afraid to point fingers at home, namely at President Reagan’s “constructive engagement” policy with Pretoria.

Incredible song, eclectic lineup, a powerful and crystal clear message – and relative to “We Are The World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas” – a commercial dud. “Sun City” peaked at #38 on the Billboard Top 40, as many radio stations wouldn’t play the song due to its explicit criticism of Reagan, its tough minded sound, and most likely, the inclusion of so many rappers, which in 1985, top 40 radio had no use for.

More importantly, “Sun City” raised over a million dollars and significantly raised awareness of the scourge of Apartheid. In 1986, Congress passed sanctions against South Africa, overriding a veto from President Reagan. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and in 1994, he was elected president of South Africa.

"We Are The World" may have been the pop hit, but "Sun City" was by far the better song. Given that the song itself, with Apartheid gone, is now superflous, it's even further testament that the record holds up so wonderfully, in groove, spirit and soul.