Friday, December 31, 2010
Monday, December 27, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
For the holidays I got Jay-Z's new book, Decoded. Part autobiography, part collection of thoroughly annotated liner notes, part coffee table art piece, this book is undeniably and wholly Jay-Z. I was around friends and family for a few days and I promised myself I wouldn't hole up with the thing, but one day later and I'm halfway through it. Here are a few thoughts.
Right off the bat, I consider this a seminal and important book, not just about Jay-Z, but about the music, culture, and industry of hip hop, specifically East Coast hip hop. For a genre and culture that has spent decades slowly gaining credibility with critics, too few excellent books have been written on hip hop. (More on this later.) Alternatively, Jeff Chang's Can't Stop, Won't Stop is a book many fans and academics consider the book on the music, which leans heavily toward West Coast. (Chang, who I love, is from California.)
Oliver Wang, another California hip hop devotee who I deeply respect, recently posted on soulsides that he considers the new book The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop to be "one of the best books ever written about hip hop." His list includes Chang as well as The Book of Rap Lists, but leaves out Tricia Rose's Black Noise, notable for its early publication (1994), its compelling critique of the rap industry, and Rose's treatment on misogyny in rap. This book doesn't get enough credit.
But Wang left Decoded off that list too. Jay-Z's career again and again sums up hip hop's relationship with white audiences, and the release of what is essentially an art book to give new perspective to his career is the perfect show-and-tell here. Jay-Z writes believably about hip hop defined his experience as a young black boy in New York and then about how his commitment to reaching a wide fan base does not, in his opinion, compromise his integrity as an artist. What Jay-Z leaves out (so far), but what everyone knows (including Jay) is that rap's primary industry target is young white adolescents and teenagers.
But now Jay-Z is on Fresh Air, ribbing with Terry Gross, and releasing a book that teenagers will not buy nor really understand. The man has broken into a demographic and is communicating directly with an audience that rap has largely ignored: white adults. How many rap artists can claim that? I mean artists who are still putting out solid music. No disrespect to Chuck D.
The truth is that lots of hip hop artists, and not just the so-called socially conscious ones, share a worldview very similar to whites who read the New York Times. . Jay-Z writes, "New Orleans was fucked up before Katrina. This was not a secret. The shame and stigma of poverty means that we turn away from it, even those of us living through it, but turning away from it doesn't make it disappear." When I read a line like that, I think of my suburban parents, Times Magazine in their laps, turning to me a week after Katrina telling me this was a social and government disaster more than it was a natural disaster. They might not have gone as far as "George Bush hates black people"-- but they weren't far off. The same parents, though, wouldn't hear shit from me when I tried to explain why I believed an album like Illmatic defined a generational experience as much as The Beatles or Marvin Gaye.
The crazy thing about Jay-Z is that, with the release of this book, with his interviews, with his legitimate business status, people like my parents can listen to him and begin to "get it". Just like middle-aged HBO viewers can watch "The Wire" and suddenly have an intense sympathetic and nuanced view on the toll that poverty and addiction take in Baltimore, now white adults can finally begin to see what many kids of all colors have been saying for some time: rap tells an important and complex story about a part of America whose voice is typically skewed, if not altogether silenced. Jay-Z, for all his self-promotion and braggadocio, is a major force today in getting that message out.
Friday, December 10, 2010
Sometimes a music fan gets lucky when checking out the liner notes of a new album. On the lookout for connections across bands and genres, I usually turn first to the lineup of backing musicians on a record. I'm interested in which notable musicians may be behind the scenes on an album. Just last week I was surprised to find, while leafing through the Sticky Fingers booklet, that 70s guitarist (and later producer of the Buena Vista Social Club) Ry Cooder played guitar on the Stones' "Sister Morphine". Not being a Stones
It made me wonder when I was reading the extensive liner notes of Roky Erikson's release True Love Cast Out All Evil: how many artists have released an album where one of the backup guitarists is simply credited as "Unknown Inmate"? Although the bulk of the songs off of this album are new recordings backed and produced by Austin band Okkervil River, "Devotional Number Two", the first and one of the best songs, was recorded in 1972 while Erikson was confined to a maximum security psychiatric prison. Based on the band of inmates he was playing with at the time, that guitarist had either stabbed a young girl to death with a screwdriver or raped and murdered a twelve-year-old boy. Erikson was in there after being arrested for possession of a joint and a misguided attempt to plead insanity at his trial.
I start this post with a description of Erikson's time as an inmate because it is in many ways it is at the core of his tragic story. Once the visionary leader of and forceful singer in the garage-psychedelic-rock band the 13th Floor Elevators, he spent the next 30 years of his life in an LSD-induced schizophrenic state, confined to his home without access to medical care due to a legal guardian-his mother-who feared and resisted all forms of modern medicine. It was not until the late-90s when Erikson's younger brother won a lawsuit that allowed him to take legal custody of Roky. Within a year, Roky Erikson was radically changed, beginning to live independently for the first time in 15 years, and playing music again. His mother's argument at her son's custody trial was that she thought the practice of yoga (rather than antipsychotic medication) could rid Roky of his schizophrenia. She was a complete nut.
Yet by reading about Roky Erikson's tragic story in the liner notes to this album, watching the excellent documentary of his life, You're Gonna Miss Me, there is a danger in only listening to and interpreting Erikson's music through the lens of his illness and tumultuous life story. It is easy to mesh an artist's biography with an artist's music. Think of Brian Wilson's triumphant return with Smile. Warren Zevon's later-career recording of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" took on a certain resonance as he hurried to record The Wind in the final months of his life. Jazz guitarist Pat Martino's later albums have always been of interest to me, as a brain aneurism in 1980 wiped out his ability to play guitar. He spent seven years re-teaching himself by listening to his old recordings. His albums from 1987 onward showcase his new (old) talent.
I've tried, since picking up True Love Cast Out All Evil, to make the case to myself that this album should be heard independent from Erikson's life story, that somehow this confusion of the man and his music would serve as a sort of golfer's handicap for the songs. Any flaws in the material might be explained away by the sadness in Erikson's struggle and the ultimate redemption in the fact that a written-off artist had at last made a new recording. Try as I did, I've come to the conclusion that the opposite is true. These songs require an understanding of Erikson's story. His lyrics are somewhat veiled, but they are about his own experience. He references years of electro-shock treatments ("Electricity hammered me / Through my head / Until nothing at all / Is backwards instead"), his relationships with his mother and brothers ("I don't care what they tell me / I don't care what they say / I don't care what they think / I love my family always"), and his times in and out of psychiatric prisons ("They said you were a criminal / No one sees no crime / They said I might need their dirty prison, / But I love the way you don't give me time.")
The songs on this album are strangely shaped, dotted with wordplay reminiscent of schizophrenic linguistic tendencies, allusions to God and Hell. In short, True Love Cast Out All Evil is not a return to form. It is not a 13th Floor Elevators record. It is a decent album that serves as yet another document to help listeners piece together one of the strangest musical lives in the second half of the 20th century.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
A month ago, I started listening to Teenage Fanclub's Bandwagonesque on endless rotation. I had heard the album before, but this time I was listening to it from a specific angle; I was considering why the album is often named as a forebear of the so-called power pop revival, and, more generally, how to define power pop. Conversations with friends and loved ones had often lead to arguments about the basic merit of the genre, but now I was instigating again, this time just trying to figure out what the hell the label meant. For me, basic knowledge included identifying Big Star as early purveyors of the revival and the New Pornographers as current exemplars. I love these bands. A few internet searches also led me to Guided by Voices (makes sense), the All-American Rejects (huh?), and the Jonas Brothers (what the fuck).
The subject came up again upon the release of Elvis Costello's latest studio album, National Ransom, and a concurrent profile of Costello published this week in the New Yorker. I read once again about how Costello was first classified in that late-70s punk/new-wave circle. I've always considered him a pop artist. I think he says the same, though the lines have blurred for him in the past, I don't know, 20 years. This new Costello action prompted a revived debate between me and my girlfriend, Emma, about whether he is part of the power pop world and, if so, why. Emma rather astutely commented that the power pop bands she dislikes tend to feature style over substance. And while I don't agree with that definition for Costello (his lyrics brim with substance), I can see her point for various other acts. Joe Jackson, for example. I love Look Sharp! and I'm The Man but his music's main asset is its punchiness, not its depth.
The thing is, I really like punchiness. I like it in music more than I like it in most other things, actually. My thought about all these artists is that they are bound by an emphasis on melody, tight song construction, and an inclination to rock with a great deal of gusto. So, yea, style more than substance. Some of them (Fanclub, GBV, some Big Star) can sound rough and jarring, and I like that. Others have a more manicured sound. But part of the definition now for me is that these artists' songs only contain essential parts. Their verses, choruses, bridges, musical breaks, solos, usually come in short spurts and when these things repeat, they don't repeat needlessly, just enough for effect. This is why some of that late-70s punk sound can fit in with the definition, as well as your typical rock bands over the past few decades. Jackson, Cheap Trick, the Cars, the Replacements--they all have their place.
Allmusic.com tells me that Tom Petty's fourth album Hard Promises owes a lot to the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, but, in light of the thoughts above, I've been hearing it from a power pop perspective. I've read that when the Heartbreakers first came on the scene in the late 70s, some thought of them in the same vein as the Clash and Costello, loud and jittery but with a well defined influence from American and British popular music. It makes sense when you hear this nice album of tightly written and performed songs. When I listen to "A Thing About You", not the best but certainly the most up-tempo and satisfying song on the album, it makes me think about something I said about a year ago to a friend and how it still holds true: if I could be in any kind of band, I would want it to be a power pop band.
Saturday, October 23, 2010
In 2008, I got the chance to see Bonnie Raitt perform at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I was surprised to admit it was the highlight of over three days (and nights) of music. Her electric slide guitar has always been a force capable of that dirty, raunchy, blues sound yet always tasteful and respectful of other sounds in the band. In other words, what my old jazz combo leader used to call, simply, "musical." And you can't argue against her voice, which is nearly as unchanged as is possible for an artist with 30+ years of recording and touring behind her.
After hearing her set, I set out to find some of Raitt's early recordings, which I had never heard. (Basically, I grew up listening to Nick of Time, which is what my parents played around the house. Not that Nick of Time is a bad album, but why do the Boomers always get hooked on mid-career material from artists that put out blazing stuff in the early 70s? Toward that end, I also think that the marketing of the I Am Sam soundtrack to the "adult contemporary" audience damaged a lot of Beatles collections out there, but that's just me.) Today I finally picked up her self-titled debut from 1971.
Once again, I am impressed at how deftly Raitt combines traditional blues, New Orleans romps, and the West Coast singer-songwriter sound on her early albums. And it's a nice perk that "Any Day Woman" sounds like it could be a Townes Van Zandt song (it's not, and she didn't actually write it, but what a nice tone to add to the record). Not to mention, the ultimate wtf moment, reading that Junior Wells plays harp. It's a testament to Raitt's diversity of sound that her back-up musicians include a bar-band from Minneapolis (the Bumblebees) and staples of the Chicago blues scene (Wells, plus A.C. Reed, a member of Buddy Guy's band at the time). Not to mention she plays songs by Stephen Stills and Robert Johnson and the record still feels like a solid whole.
I'm not sure why I've gone on a particular binge of woman singers and songwriters lately, but it's gotten me thinking about why so many of us boys grew up listening to mostly male singers in our youths. (Okay, speaking for myself here, but this is clearly a trend.) When I was 15, I used to think that every member of a band had to play an instrument in order for the band to be legit (e.g., Beatles = good, Rolling Stones = okay). That's changed. Clearly. Because that is stupid fucking criteria for music. But at that time I also had a similar bias against pretty much all woman singers (except Laura Nyro, see previous post). Again, stupid fucking criteria. I'm glad I've outgrown the part of me that thought that way when I was 15. Any guys who still think that way, let's talk.
I watched The Runaways last night and the not-so-subtle theme resonated in light of these thoughts: that men don't want to see women with guitars on stage. I wonder what it will take to make that change. I think probably not Lady Gaga. Maybe more Bonnie Raitts.
Friday, October 1, 2010
I'm on a two-week fall break from work, which means I have some extra time to sit in front of Garage Band with my guitar and record some songs, or at least ideas for songs. It makes sense that my minimal, amateur songwriting mostly takes place in spurts when I am not working. This happens for some of my friends as well. (Check out Charlie Hely's Wednesday for an excellent example.) But I was surprised to read this morning a 1978 interview with Van Morrison, in which he describes a similar process. In not-the-most-nuanced way of describing his songwriting muse, Morrison says, "When you make an album you write some songs. You might have four songs and maybe you write two more, suddenly you've got enough songs for an album." Van the Man. You just blew my mind with your math.
Apparently this was how Morrison put the set of songs together that would become Veedon Fleece, released in 1974. That spontaneity is one reason why the album is often compared to 1968's epic Astral Weeks. There is an element of so-called stream-of-consciousness in the songs. But the albums are actually more similar for their sound. Both feature auxiliary instruments (strings, flute) that float around songs that meander within a simple structure. Astral Weeks will always be my favorite Van Morrison album. Nonetheless, Veedon Fleece holds up on its own quite well. Morrison's voice is high and strange and his lyrics are fresh, as when he croons "... the architecture I'm taking in with my mind." And I could listen to "You Don't Pull No Punches, But You Don't Push the River" all day. Actually, considering I have another week of this break, I might just do that.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
A while back I picked up Mulgrew Miller's Work at the yearly Newberry Library book sale here in Chicago. It's worth a listen. Miller came on the scene in the 1980s with a piano sound that many compared to McCoy Tyner, and for good reason. It's definitely bop, but he delivers a light, open sound that rarely loses its strong melodic force. Personally, I prefer Miller's earlier Hand in Hand for its soulful horn and vibes arrangements that remind me of Lee Morgan (and not just because I saw David Weiss's excellent tribute to Morgan at the Chicago Jazz Festival a few weeks ago). But Work is solid as a trio album, as are most of the trio albums that became a force in the 80s. Great cover too!
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Whenever Bruce Springsteen comes up in conversation, well, usually it's because I bring him up. But, when I do, I like to say that there's no single artist out there about whom my opinion has made a bigger turn-around. I grew up in a New Jersey household where Bruce Springsteen was rarely played. When I heard him, it was usually on a classic rock station, which meant it was usually "Glory Days" or "Hungry Heart" or something or other from Born in the USA. I quickly took to the idea that Springsteen had too much bravado and way too much synthesizer. It's weird my sixth-grade self was wary of machismo and muscle on a popular musician, but for many years I did truly believe Springsteen was, above all else, an act: a guy who was not so much a songwriter or artist as an empty New Jersey fixture that, for some reason, would never really go away.
Turns out what I mistook for simple bravado and sweat was bravado and sweat, but it was deeper than that. What I love about Bruce is that he has written a generation of songs that show the sweetness, vulnerability, loneliness, and fear of characters who will stop at nothing to maintain a sense of their own (traditional, often blue-collar) manhood. For many, Nebraska is where listeners first discover this type of side to Springsteen, if only because the spare production of the songs offers an emotional intimacy unlike anything else he's recorded. Nebraska was always my favorite Springsteen album because it sounded the least like Bruce Springsteen. (Although they don't put it this way, I think this may be true for many so-called indie kids.) But after coming around to the man's major works between 1973 and 1984, I believe that the songs on Nebraska are as typical of Springsteen as anything he recorded on The River or Born in the USA. The songs on all these albums share a lot. All that differs on Nebraska is the way the songs are expressed musically. Case in point: maybe "Born in the USA" could've made it on Nebraska; maybe "State Trooper" could have held its own on Born in the USA.
So that gets me thinking about how, now that I've embraced Springsteen's sound, Darkness on the Edge of Town may be my favorite of his records. I'm also wondering why so many Nebraska fans would put songs from that album over "The Promised Land", "Factory", "Streets of Fire", and "Darkness on the Edge of Town." Nick Hornby once wrote that a great song with a guitar solo always beats a great song without one. I'm not with him 100% on that, but I know that a good electric Springsteen song is nothing to shake your head at. And maybe all this means is I've finally come around to the Springsteen songs that sound like Bruce Springsteen.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
I didn't realize until we got home from Sunday yard sales that we had ended up picking up a Motown triple-feature: Thriller, Innervisions, and an early greatest hits compilation from Marvin Gaye. The comp was actually originally released by Tamla in 1964 and features hits from his first wave of success. "Hitch Hike" was familiar upon first listen. The rest I admit were totally new to me. The slow conga groove on "It Hurt Me Too" will be a revelation for anyone who thinks they know the early Funk Brothers song formula.
I came across both Blood and Chocolate and King of America for the first time just a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, these were albums I had never heard, recorded both in 1986, from a songwriter whom I had long ago targeted as one of my favorites. The albums also share the odd trait that they were released under half-baked pseudonyms: Elvis Costello goes by Napoleon Dynamite on the former and, well, his actual name, Declan MacManus, on the latter. You might think the aliases portend a change in style or departure from form, but both albums are characteristic of Costello's main influences: literate pop and, to a slightly lesser degree, country western.
Blood and Chocolate is the better album, with Costello firing off lines surreal and toxic over music that rocks harder than anything since This Year's Model. "Uncomplicated" is one of his greatest simple songs. "I Want You" might be the best break-up song ever written. But not surprisingly, Blood and Chocolate suffers from the same flaws as most mid-career albums from prolific artists. It feels rushed and inconsistent, like it was recorded by a singer who had too many songs to put out in one year. King of America (same year, remember) is even more spotty; Costello could have taken out a third of the songs and had a solid record led by "Brilliant Mistake," "Indoor Fireworks," and the story song "American without Tears." But what else can you expect from a guy who recorded nine albums in the 80s. After Get Happy and Trust, these were his best of the decade.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
I think Tumbleweed Connection is the only Elton John album you could buy at a place like Permanent Records and not feel like a total loser at the register. This was his 1970 semi-concept-album set in the outlaw American West and it has some standout tracks. The funky "Ballad of a Well Known Gun" could have been a Dr. John hit if it were set in Looziana and the first two tracks of Side Two, "Where To Now St. Peter?" and "Love Song", have the dramatic and melodic reach of a Joni Mitchell or Nick Drake song. What leaves a bad taste, however, is the album-closing "Burn Down the Mission", which is ultimately steered in the wrong direction by a careening train of horns and violins. John sacrifices restraint for the overbearing, cinematic pomp that became his trademark for the following four decades. I can't think of any good reason to change tempo in the middle of a pop song. Can you?
Recorded in 1979, this record is really a tribute to a master and often under-recognized country folk songwriter. The highlights here are "Sunday Morning Comin' Down", "Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" and "You Show Me Yours (And I'll Show You Mine)". So basically all of Side Two. Nelson's voice is solid and the band arrangement is sparse, similar to albums he recorded around that time, including The Troublemaker, which is worth a listen if you want to hear country-inflected spirituals mixed with an extended and confused metaphor about hippies and Jesus (check the album title for a hint). Anyway, this album was definitely worth my 50 cents, especially for the picture on the back. Kristofferson is such a hunk. It's like this, only taken 30 years earlier.
Laura Nyro's Gonna Take A Miracle is one of those enduring albums that I will probably listen to for my entire lifespan. I think many of us have these albums in our lives. We have heard them since before we can remember. We grew up with them because our parents played them around the house and it just seemed like they would always be there. Many have Rubber Soul, Thriller, What's Going On. I have Motown comps and this: Laura Nyro's 1971 collaboration with Labelle and Gamble & Huff on a set of perfect soul songs from Philadelphia, NYC, and Detroit. Here's a decent review that includes some back story on the album.
The double-fold image on the inside of Aretha Franklin's Live at Fillmore West is striking. It is a photograph taken from behind the stage, looking out on the band in the spotlight and the audience beyond. Aretha is holding court. There's Ray Charles to her right. Behind him, Billy Preston. To the left, King Curtis. And how could Bernard Purdie not be holding it down on drums for this kind of lineup? While Side One features the band moving through a variety of popular-turned-soul tunes (they take "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to church, for example), Side Two features the jam session party captured by this photo. Having Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin taking turns on electric piano in 1971 at the Fillmore pretty much required that "Spirit in the Dark" be featured on the album twice. A good example of a live record that captures the feel of the concert.