While The Black Keys have had a committed fan base since the release of their first album in 2002, The Big Come Up, it wasn’t until the success of their 2010 release of Brothers that the band really took off. Three Grammys later, and over 847,000 albums sold, “The Keys” are back to release what is perhaps their most awaited album yet, El Camino.
The album’s hype may be entirely new to the band, but the music found within it is strongly rooted in sounds The Black Keys have been creating since the beginning. El Camino is drenched in the tones of raw, overdriven guitars, and hard-pounding drums. This is a very “earthy” sort of blues-rock.
Yet, the album also remains incredibly soulful. Dan Auerbach’s vocals are routinely backed up with a choir of harmonies on choruses, and no song is ever too far removed from the next great organ accompaniment. It’s the use of these small, subtle sound arrangements that give El Camino its style and keep the listener coming back for repeat plays.
Some fans of early Keys material have complained that the album sounds too slick and overproduced, possibly as a result of working with legendary producer Danger Mouse. However, the core of what makes The Black Keys sound is definitely still intact on El Camino, even if the production has evolved somewhat from their humble beginnings. Think of it as a fresh, new coat of paint on an otherwise old and changeless factory building, sitting somewhere near the rough side of town.
Let’s hope The Black Keys are a structure that will remain standing for a very long time.
Check out “Lonely Boy,” “Gold on the Ceiling,” “Little Black Submarines,” or “Run Right Back” if you’re ready to get the jams started!
El camino [sound recording]
The music world lost another blues guitar legend this week with the passing of Hubert Sumlin. Born in Greenwood, Mississippi in 1931, Sumlin played and recorded with some of the best, and gained great acclaim as the guitarist behind the mighty Howlin’ Wolf during the 1950s and ‘60s. Guitarist Bob Margolin writes in his biography of Sumlin, “Listen to ‘Built For Comfort,’ ‘Shake For Me,’ ‘300 Pounds of Joy,’ ‘Louise,’ ‘Goin’ Down Slow,’ ‘Killing Floor,’ and ‘Wang Dang Doodle.’ How did this grinning genius come up with these original, emotional, Hell-to-Heaven guitar parts? Fortunately, we don’t need to know to enjoy them.”
In 2008, Hubert was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame by The Blues Foundation, and was the winner of The Blues Music Award for Best Tradition Artist of the Year.
My good buddy Bill LaValley was backstage with Hubert before a show here at the State Theater a few years ago and fondly remembers him... Hubert wasn’t feeling well at all that evening, he could hardly walk. But according to Bill, when it came time to take the stage, it was as if a dark cloak had been lifted. Sumlin stood up and headed for the stage with a spring in his step and the blues in his heart. He played that night (and always) as if his life depended on it.
Hubert so loved his music and contributed much—he’s another who will be sorely missed.
Here’s a great clip of “Little Hubert” tearin’ it up with Sunnyland Slim in 1964. That’s Willie Dixon on bass and Clifton James on drums. Sonny Boy Williamson introduces them...
I Know You
Public Media Network, the local cable access channel, airs some very fine programs. Among my favorites are those excellent travel videos by Chuck Bentley and Donna Kaminski. I could watch those for hours. In fact, I have done just that. It was while viewing the ones on the British Isles several years ago that I became interested in modern Celtic music, particularly that of the Irish singer Enya. KPL has many of her CDs, including her 2008 release And Winter Came. Ten of the 12 tracks were unfamiliar to me, but I did know the Advent hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' and the Christmas carol 'Silent Night.' Both of these receive contemplative and thoughtful renditions. This has become one of my favorite holiday albums. The word beautiful does not do justice to it. This is a lovely, meditative, clear-voiced, atmospheric, lyrical offering!
"And winter came... [sound recording]"
Having grown up listening to the famous crooners of the nineteen fifties and sixties (Nat King Cole, Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis e.g.) attach their signature voices to well known holiday tunes, I struggle to embrace contemporary musicians and their slickly produced and artificial versions with much enthusiasm. But my favorite album to listen to while wrapping presents and clogging my arteries with holiday cookies is Vince Guaraldi’s timeless classic--A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was released in 1965.
A Charlie Brown Christmas [sound recording]
I will admit that after reading the description of Ernest Cline’s new book, Ready Player One all of my inner-geek alarms went to Red Alert! Any science fiction novel with video game, movie, TV, role playing game and music references directly from the 1980’s is a book I want to read. Cline did not fail me and has written easily one of the most entertaining books of the year. You can read Teen Librarian, Stewart Fritz’s excellent review of the novel to learn about the story, but I want to talk about the music.
Cline did a magnificence job of mining the rich music of the decade that helped usher in the popularity of hip-hop, indie, new wave, and techno. I could not help but craft a playlist of the great tracks featured in the book.
1. Wild Boys – Duran Duran
2. Beds Are Burning – Midnight Oil
3. Blue Monday – New Order
4. Union of the Snake – Duran Duran
5. Rebel Yell – Billy Idol
6. James Brown Is Dead – L.A. Style
7. Time After Time – Cyndi Lauper
8. Atomic – Blondie
9. A Million Miles Away – The Plimsouls
10. Change – John Waite
11. Rock Me Amadeus – Falco
12. In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel
13. In My Dreams – Dokken
14. Pac-Man Fever – Buckner & Garcia
15. Tank – Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts
16. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap – AC/DC
17. Subdivisions - Rush
Ready player one : a novel
I am a grown man in his thirties with no children and I can unabashedly say that my most anticipated pop culture event of 2011 is the forthcoming movie The Muppets. Both my wife and I were raised watching The Muppet Show, which aired from 1976 to 1981, and we developed a deep appreciation for creator Jim Henson’s sense of humor, which managed to cater to both children and adults while remaining cheekily subversive. Other Muppets projects like Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were all enduring, but between the original TV show and the first three feature films (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper and The Muppets Take Manhattan), our hearts belonged to Kermit and the gang.
But after the shocking death of Henson in 1990, quality control of the Muppet brand went downhill. Suddenly, the Muppets were being plugging into existing stories like A Christmas Carol, Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz. These puppet-infused literary adaptations lacked true imagination and creativity—two things the Muppets themselves had long represented. Ownership of the Muppets changed hands a few times. During these dark days, it was most certainly not easy being green.
And then, sometime at the end of the 00s, a potential (and unlikely) savior emerged for the Muppets: a comic actor known for his goofy charm and often crude sense of humor named Jason Segel. The How I Met Your Mother star had just come off the success of the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Wanting to capitalize on his cachet, Hollywood suits approached him and asked what he wanted to do for his next project. And of all things, he said he wanted to make a Muppet movie. Turns out, Segel, too, grew up watching the variety show and missed the days when Kermit and Co. had been relevant and irreverent. Disney, who had purchased the brand, was more than happy to oblige. That film, loaded with guest stars and smart humor, opens November 23rd and will hopefully re-launch Henson’s greatest creations back into the pop culture zeitgeist. I, for one, will be there opening day.
In the meantime, however, Disney has taken a step towards promoting the film by gathering together a group of alternative artists and producing Muppets: The Green Album. This collection puts a modern spin on some of the Muppets most beloved songs. Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams perform “The Rainbow Connection,” alt-rock group The Fray pulls off the catchy “Mahna Mahna,” and My Morning Jacket covers “Our World.” Other artists featured are Andrew Bird (“Bein’ Green”), Matt Nathanson (“I Hope that Something Better Comes Along”) and The Airborne Toxic Event (“Wishing Song”). But the albums best songs belong to Alkaline Trio’s fast-paced road song “Movin’ Right Along,” Sondre Lerche’s groovy “Mr. Bassman” and the ever-inventive OK Go’s cover of the “Muppet Show theme song.” (Check out their video below.)
Green is great for nostalgic fans as well as being a fantastic introduction for a new generation of Muppet enthusiasts. I can only hope that Segel has succeeded in making the Fuzzy Ones witty and inventive again. Even though I still have over a month of anticipation before the movie comes out, this album is helping to get me through the wait.
Muppets: The Green Album
The sound of San Francisco band Girls is one both familiar and refreshingly new. It’s one of those records that harkens back to older influences (Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Spiritualized, British Invasion era Pop) while retaining a bright and contemporary energy that comes through these well written songs. There are plenty of beautiful ballads full of melodic tunefulness sutured together with a variety of instrumentation (flutes, acoustic guitar, keyboards, back up singers), not to mention the occasional, soaring guitar solo. But there are also a few up-tempo, catchy pop songs to contrast with the more contemplative numbers. This record will definitely be on my best of the year list.
Father, son, holy ghost
For her latest album, Night of Hunters, Tori Amos delved into the world of classical music to find inspiration. There are no guitars or drums here and no radio-friendly singles; the piano is paired with strings and woodwinds to create a whole-album experience where one song flows into the next. It is to me, in a word, beautiful. Night of Hunters is highly conceptualized; it uses the story of a dissolving relationship to discuss themes of creation and destruction, the hunter and the hunted, within everyone. The lyrics are full of natural imagery and references to Celtic mythology, both of which fit very well with the classically-inspired music. It may not be for the casual listener, but for anyone interested in spending some time with Night of Hunters, I believe there is a lot to find here.
I’m completely biased when it comes to Tori Amos. I’ve been a fan of hers since I was twelve, and I’ve continued to be a fan even though her last few albums have felt bloated and a bit self-indulgent to me. But Night of Hunters showcases some of her best piano compositions and vocal work in years, and I recommend it to anyone willing to give it a try.
Night of Hunters
Have you noticed the trend toward two-person bands? From the White Stripes on, there appears to be an increased number of groups that have stripped down the traditional rock and roll model, forsaking interest in drummers and bassists. Here are several recently formed duos that don’t seem to be limited by a lack of group membership.
The Fiery Furnaces
She and Him
The Civil Wars
The Black Keys
I became a fan of PJ Harvey way back in 1995 when I heard her song “Down by the Water” played on the radio, a song that mesmerized my thirteen-year-old mind with its weird lyrics and slightly dissonant sound. The videos off the album To Bring You My Love, which I caught late at night on MTV’s Alternative Nation, only furthered my fascination; her bright red lipstick and heavy eye makeup lent an odd theatricality to the videos that was unsettling and so very cool.
I’ve followed PJ Harvey through many albums in the subsequent years, and she never fails to captivate my attention. Each album seems like a departure from the last, whether it’s due to the introduction of a new instrument (such as the piano on 2007’s otherworldly White Chalk), a change in her vocal styling, or the subject matter of the songs. Her ability to stave off boredom in her album-making has made her a musician who always manages to entertain me, and her latest album, Let England Shake, is no exception. The subject matter—the destruction and devastation caused by war—is darker (somehow) than her other albums, and the use of the auto harp and saxophone lend a distinctive sound to the songs. It’s a dark album, but it’s catchy and will stay with you for days.
Let England Shake
Josh T. Pearson’s stark country-folk album The Last of the Country Gentlemen is a plaintive and personal work that calls to mind the rustic laments of down-and-out troubadours like Townes Van Zandt. Pearson’s approach is to lift the veil on his bittersweet melancholia with a pained voice and delicate finger plucking of his acoustic guitar, drawing in the listener to his raw confessions on love, loss and redemption.
The Last of the Country Gentlemen
Long-time fans of the noisy, art/rock band Sonic Youth will not be surprised to find out that singer/guitarist Thurston Moore has a sensitive and melodic side to his writing. Many SY songs possess these qualities of intricate melodies and emotionally compelling elements but are often buried under feedback or a whirling dervish of sonic fury. Demolished Thoughts is a beautiful record, stripped down and spare, mostly featuring acoustic guitar, harp, violin, synthesizers and the occasional wail of a strangely tuned electric guitar. Fans of Beck’s equally downcast yet beautiful record Sea Changes will likely pick up on the similarities in recording methods and overall sonic tone (Beck produced Demolished Thoughts). Moore’s lyrics are poetically abstract but always fitting of the songs’ brooding mood. If you like this record, try the work of British singer-songwriter Nick Drake.
“Once in a while you get shown the light, in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” —Robert Hunter, ca. 1974
Advertisements in Rolling Stone for the double live “Steal Your Face” album proclaimed, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” I also remember reading an article in one of the hi-fi magazines at the time about the Grateful Dead’s famous “wall of sound” state-of-the-art concert sound system. While I might have been a bit too young to have seen the Grateful Dead during the hippie heyday of the late 1960s, I made it a goal to attend at least one of their shows during my lifetime. That goal was realized a few years later in 1979.
In the years that followed, I was fortunate enough to see the original band four times, a somewhat modest record when compared to some, I realize. (I know people who saw them play hundreds of times!) Indeed, there was always something special about seeing the Grateful Dead play live, especially out-of-doors during the summer. The sets were leisurely, and unlike most typical rock concerts, each event carried with it a unique “festival” atmosphere.
Sadly, those days are gone. Since Jerry Garcia’s passing in 1995, remaining band members have made several respectable attempts to carry on in various incarnations. While these projects are fresh and interesting, the era of the original band has clearly passed.
Yet, there are times when the music of the Grateful Dead is still the perfect complement to a warm summer afternoon with a cold beverage, and thankfully the legacy of those spectacular live shows lives on through an impressive collection of recordings. Even though the band only released a dozen studio albums during the course of its thirty year career, listeners are blessed with a plethora of live recordings—nine “traditional” live albums, more than a dozen concert films and videos, plus more than a hundred official archive releases (not to mention the many thousands of amateur recordings from the famous band-approved taper’s sections.)
KPL provides a generous cross section of the Grateful Dead story; in print, on film, and on record. Several books in the collection document the life and times of the band and its various members. Of particular note are Searching for the Sound : My Life with the Grateful Dead by bassist Phil Lesh, A Long Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead by Dennis McNally, and Jerilyn Lee Brandelius’ Grateful Dead Family Album. Films include The Grateful Dead Movie (a film version of 1974 “Steal Your Face” tour), and a pair of View from the Vault releases, documenting the band’s 1990 appearances at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. For listeners, the collection includes decent retrospectives like Flashback with the Grateful Dead, The Very Best of the Grateful Dead, and Skeletons from the Closet. You’ll even find an archival release of a concert at the famous Fillmore East in 1969. “What a long strange trip it’s been.”
The Grateful Dead
It's not uncommon to feel a nostalgia for music of another time and place that may cast today's sounds in a less favorable light, even if the evidence doesn't justify the position. However, fans of '60's pop radio can point to any of the following 45s from the summer of 1966 - listed in no particuar order - to make a very strong case for the excellence of that era:
The Beatles: “Paperback Writer” – before the late-summer stateside furor caused by John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” interview remarks, the Fab Four ruled US airwaves with this dose of proto-psychedelia, cut during the sessions for their landmark Revolver LP. Dig the “Frere Jacques” backing harmonies in the third and fourth verses.
The Rolling Stones: “Paint It, Black” – moving further away from their R’n’B roots with this brooding Middle Eastern-flavored recording from their Aftermath sessions, the Stones released the first rock single to feature the sitar. Keith Richards remains non-plussed by the US record company’s random insertion of the comma in the song’s title.
The Supremes: “You Can’t Hurry Love” – Motown’s biggest act charted their 7th number one smash (after a couple of singles that “only” made the top 10) with this infectious Holland-Dozier-Holland production that, for many, defines the Sound of Young America today. Despite the lyrics’ recommendation for patience, the song’s insistent rhythms (laid down by the legendary Funk Brothers) guarantee body movements by anyone within earshot.
The Lovin’ Spoonful: “Summer in the City” – it’s hard to detect the Greenwich Village quartet’s jug band roots on this driving ode to urban summertime heat, the misery it causes in the minor-key verses countered by the fun it promises in the major-key choruses. This is the first rock single to feature a jackhammer.
The Beach Boys: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – the third single from the Hawthorne, CA quintet’s timeless Pet Sounds LP had such a great flipside – “God Only Knows” – that both sides made the top 40 charts. In the UK, the single sides were flipped, gaining even greater chart success.
Dusty Springfield: “Goin’ Back” – Dusty’s soulful reading of this wistful Goffin-King composition was an international smash everywhere but in the US, where, for whatever reason, Springfield’s record company declined to release the song (which eventually became a minor hit in a version by the Byrds released the following year). The yearning nostalgia of the song’s lyrics is in sharp contrast to the youthfulness of the song’s performer and composers.
Bob Dylan: “I Want You” - the third of four singles from Dylan’s epochal Blonde on Blonde double-LP charted just weeks before the artist’s extended disappearance from the public arena after a mysterious motorcycle accident. The remarkably simple chorus lyrics are quite atypical of the increasingly complex wordsmithing Dylan fans came to expect, but that seems to be the point (driven home by the singer’s repeated, excited pleas of the title) of what’s essentially a simple love (or, more accurately, lust) song.
The Troggs: “Wild Thing” – one of the most covered (to this day) hits of the ‘60’s was a make-it-or-break-it follow-up to a failed debut single by the UK act almost named the Grotty Troggs. Though the track and its performers have a reputation for being “primitive”, few cover bands could pull off the ocarina solo featured in the song’s instrumental break.
The Velvelettes: “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You” – the final ‘60’s 45 release from Kalamazoo’s very own stars of Motown, this modest R’n’B hit – loaded with classic Hitsville touches, from a finger-snappin’ intro to catchy vocal harmonies in support of an arresting lead - should have found wider airplay, but with so much competition on the airwaves in the summer of ’66, it’s no wonder that it became a buried treasure waiting for discovery, along with so many other worthy single sides from this period, by music lovers today… and forever.
For a music fan, having the opportunity to sample a record prior to purchasing it, is a great way to avoid having to sift your way through the array of online and print review sources and getting straight to the tunes. NPR now allows its listeners to listen to full album recordings prior to it’s official release. Eleanor Friedberger is one half of the brother/sister band The Fiery Furnaces, a band that better than most, bridges pop music with less than conventional experimentation to form an original sound that is truly their own (imagine if The Carpenters were a lot more weird).
This summer, Eleanor releases a solo album and it really hits the mark with strong lyrics, singing and songwriting. The record is titled Last Summer (soon to be at your KPL!) and stand out tracks include the sugary, sweet Heaven, the psych pop of Inn of the Seventh Ray and the driving opener My Mistakes, which feels like a summer anthem.
I'm Going Away
When the summer comes around and the weather turns hot, it just feels right to listen to music from a sultry part of the world. For me the music of Cuba just sounds perfect on a hot and humid summer day, and I can be instantly transported to Havana where the sweltering heat is perfectly normal; but really, I just love it any time of year and KPL has a great selection of Cuban music to choose from. If you are new to the music of Cuba or a fan wishing to expand your knowledge, KPL is sure to have something that will interest you. A great place to start is with The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba which offers a good sampling of the various flavors of Cuban music. For many, myself included, their first real exposure to the rich history of Cuban music came in 1997 from Ry Cooder and the Buena Vista Social Club and it remains one of my favorites and a fantastic collection of musicians and tunes. Check out the group live at Carnegie Hall! A Buena Vista Social Club member and one of the giants of Cuban music is Ibrahim Ferrer and KPL has a good selection of his recordings that any fan of Cuban music should check out. Another standout of the KPL collection is the album Afrocubism that highlights the African influences on the music. Explore Cuban music even further with Cuban Counterpoint: history of the son montuno or Machito & his Afro Cuban Orchestra and discover even more with a music search for word or phrase = Cuba.
Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall
Known widely for his collaborative work with director David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti’s movie and television scores are both haunting and beautiful, resulting in a stirring mix of ominous undertones splashed with gorgeous melodies. His most well known work is the Theme to the television show Twin Peaks but he’s also scored the films Blue Velvet, A Very Long Engagement, The City of Lost Children, The Straight Story, and Mulholland Drive; all of which are fantastic movies filled with unique stories and oddball characters.
Music for film and television
I love to make music mixes for my friends. When I can get the response, “Wow I never would have listened to that song if it wasn’t on the mix you made me,” I feel like I have done my part to push good music out into the world. My seven year old daughter considers a good mix one in which you can roll down the windows and turn up the volume. Below is a playlist that consists of what I feel are the best tracks of the first six months of 2011. Mix it up and roll down your windows.
1. Weekend by Smith Westerns (Dye It Blonde)
2. Take Me Over by Cut Copy (Zonoscope)
3. Rolling In The Deep by Adele (21)
4. Sad Song by The Cars (Move Like This)
5. Discoverer by R.E.M. (Collapse Into Now)
6. Me, Me, Me by Middle Brother (Middle Brother)
7. Make Some Noise by The Beastie Boys (Hot Sauce Committee Part Two)
8. Dig A Little Deeper by Peter Bjorn and John (Gimme Some)
9. Don’t Carry It All by The Decemberists (The King Is Dead)
10. Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow)
11. Sim Sala Bim by Fleet Foxes (Helplessness Blues)
12. Shadow of Love by Sloan (The Double Cross)
13. Helena Beat by Foster the People (Foster the People)
14. If I Wanted Someone by Dawes (Nothing Is Wrong)
15. Future Starts Now by The Kills (Blood Pressures)
16. Till I Get There by Lupe Fiasco (Lasers)
17. Damn These Vampires by The Mountain Goats (All Eternals Deck)
Stripping away all of the electric guitar distortion and big rock sound that has defined the majority of his substantial body of creative work, J. Masic’s new solo album Several Shades of Why showcases the immense talent that is cloaked within one of rock musics ultimate slacker personas. I’ve always considered Mascis (best known as lead singer of the mighty alt rock band Dinosaur Jr.) stylistically to be a sort of Neil Young of Generation X. And like Young’s singing, you either enjoy J.’s twangy rasp or it grates on your nerves after a matter of seconds. I happen to be in the first camp, so I was pleased to hear his vocals front and center on this his first solo effort. Mainly acoustic guitar driven and stripped to a bare minimum of added instruments, Several Shades of Why is beautiful in its simplicity and allows the quality of the songs and the talent of the performers to really shine.
Several Shades of Why
Kalamazoo's Arcadia Creek Festival Place has been a summer concert hot spot for many years now, hosting music artists storied for filling stadiums full of fans, now playing more frequently to modest-sized audiences. This summer, bands such as Great White, 38 Special, and Gin Blossoms take the Arcadia stage, adding (or returning) their names to the growing list of the venue's veteran performers.
While most fans will be cheering loudest for the big radio hits, in some cases they'll be getting earfuls of new sounds. Gin Blossoms, for example, released No Chocolate Cake late last year. None of its tracks are dominating the airwaves as their mid-'90's string of power-pop classics had, but some of its cuts will fit nicely alongside the more familiar songs in the band's setlist. Listeners need to be patient, as the disc is front-loaded with generic tracks that don't highlight the group's strengths (Byrdsy guitar lines, wistful lyrics, memorable vocal hooks). Those guilty pleasures make their appearance a few cuts in, with a couple of curveballs in the mix (check out the horn section on "Dead or Alive on the 405") that let you know the combo's not interested in settling for nostalgia-act status.
Even so, more than a few Arcadia concert-goers will be singing along to the songs they know best this summer. Mark those calendars and start getting those voices in shape!
No Chocolate Cake
I've discovered some of my favorite music and artists from watching television. When songs play in the background or at the start or end of a show, I often search for the lyrics online to find the name of the song and the performing artist. This has served me well. House and Fringe (as well as various commercials) have provided insight to artists and performers such as Massive Attack, Damien Rice, Editors, Langhorne Slim, and Ryan Adams.
When watching a recent episode of NCIS, Cote de Pablo's character, Ziva David, was singing Temptation--a Tom Waits creation. So, in true form, I went online to search for it to see where I could find a version of her singing it (beautiful rendition!). And, that is when I found that NCIS has two soundtracks available. I was able to easily check these two CDs out through our MeL interlibrary loan system.
While I recognized artists such as Jakob Dylan, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Keaton Simmons, Sheryl Crow and Norah Jones, I was able to add artists such as Oasis, Blue October, and Sharon Little to my list of new folks to investigate.
NCIS: The Official TV Soundtrack
If you lived in Kalamazoo during the 1970s and listened to WIDR (WMU campus radio) you undoubtedly heard a lot of Gil Scott-Heron – like others I’m sure, that was my first exposure to this highly influential musician and poet. Scott-Heron is often described as “the godfather of rap” for his sharply pointed spoken word infused jazz and soul. In his 1970 single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” his deep soulful voice—accompanied only by a steady drum beat—brought life the hot-button issue of racial inequality; not as a radical street preacher but as an articulate street-smart professor (he held a master’s degree in creative writing). His words were riveting and immediate. “The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox in four parts without commercial interruptions. The revolution will not give you sex appeal. The revolution will not make you look five pounds thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.”
He collaborated with many of the jazz heavyweights of his time – Brian Jackson, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws to name a few and his influence is acknowledged by a generation of artists, from Kanye West and Public Enemy to Eminem. His work touched on a variety of social and political issues, including addiction (“The Bottle” - 1974), slavery (“Rivers of My Fathers” - 1973) and racial oppression (“Johannesburg” - 1976). In 1979, he joined other high profile artists in Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) and contributed “We Almost Lost Detroit,” a poignant reminder of a close-by nuclear near-disaster in 1972.
In 2010, Scott-Heron released his fifteenth studio album, I’m New Here, to great critical acclaim. A track called “Where Did The Night Go” is highlighted here. Gil Scott-Heron passed away last Friday in New York after a brief illness. He was 62.
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman on 24 May 1941, today marks Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday. Celebrate the occasion right along with Bob by lending a fresh ear to the Best of the Original Mono Recordings, a single disc sampler from the recently released 9 CD set featuring Dylan’s first eight albums. Recorded between 1962 and 1967, these recordings are “universally regarded as some of the most important works in the history of recorded music, painstakingly reproduced from their first generation monaural mixes.” (www.bobdylan.com – Sorry, I couldn’t have said it any better myself.)
During the 1960s and before, monaural (mono) was the most common format for recorded sound, though many of us today might not have ever heard these records that way. The subsequent “stereo” versions often suffered from unrealistic separation—voice center, harmonica on the far left, guitar far right, etc.—and for technical reasons, simply flipping the switch from stereo to mono only makes matters worse. (I say “stereo” because early stereo was often faked for novelty effect rather than sonic clarity.) Now presented for the first time on CD in their proper format, these songs can all be heard as the producers—and probably Bob—originally intended. And in many cases, the differences are not subtle.
So, Scotty, “what is the antidote to stereo? Well, it’s been right in your home all along. Good old American mono.” Happy birthday, Bob!
The Original Mono Recordings
The latest release from Emmylou Harris (her 21st studio album) is a collection of heartfelt tales of love and tragedy; stories about lost friends, family and deep-seated faith. Recorded in the home studio of her producer Jay Joyce, the production is lush and spacious, and her signature voice shines as always. The sound very much recalls the atmospheric feel of her work with Daniel Lanois, which is amazing considering that only three musicians play on the record; Harris, Joyce (guitars and keyboards), and drummer/keyboardist Giles Reeves.
Ms. Harris penned eleven of the thirteen songs herself (unusual since she’s only ever recorded a handful her own songs), but she includes a couple of tasty covers here, too... “Cross Yourself” is written by Joyce and the title tune is by Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Emmylou says that she finds songwriting difficult, but honestly, she should do more of it—her writing is articulate and her songs are genuine.
Standouts for me include the album opener, “The Road,” a fond remembrance of her early years with Gram Parsons. (If you’re quick, you can still grab a free download of this song on Emmylou’s website.) “Darlin’ Kate” is a tribute to her close friend Kate McGarrigle, who recently died of cancer. “My Name is Emmett Till” recalls the story of a 14-year-old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in 1950s, and considers “all that might have come” had he been allowed to live. “The Ship on His Arm” explores the life and love that her parents perhaps shared during the Second World War, while “Goodnight Old World” (written with longtime Steve Winwood collaborator Will Jennings) hopes for a better world for newer generations (Harris recently became a grandmother).
Like a glass of Pinot and a nap in the sun, Emmylou’s voice soothes the soul—melancholy never felt so good. Yet after 40 years as a professional musician, 25 albums and a dozen Grammys, she still drives a Hard Bargain.
Emmylou Harris: Hard Bargain
I’ve been listening to the music of Gram Parsons lately since I watched the documentary film Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. Parsons musical gifts and passion for country and roots music was a major factor in his influencing of such legendary bands as The Rolling Stones and The Byrds. He is cited as the one who helped to usher in the genre of country rock during the late sixties when he worked with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He later introduced to the musical world a young singer songwriter named Emmylou Harris. Parsons lived fast and died young but he left behind two very strong records, GP and Grievous Angel. If you’re interested in musical documentaries, you may enjoy:
Kurt Cobain: About a Son
The Velvet Underground: Vanishing Point
No Direction Home: Bob Dylan
Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
The Heart is a Drum Machine: A Documentary Film About Music
Here is a video clip from the documentary.
GP [sound recording] ; Grievous angel
Over the past couple of years there has been a spike in retro-sounding soul musicians whose work echoes the groundbreaking sounds of early sixties Motown and Stax recordings. For starters, the soul enthusiast looking to delve into some of the newer troubadours will want to grab a copy of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings’ I Learned the Hard Way, Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Mayer Hawthorne’s A Strange Arrangement, Fitz and the Tantrum’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces, and the forthcoming Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’.
I Learned the Hard Way
As a collector and (ahem) connoisseur of “underground” Bob Dylan recordings since the 1970s, I was of course thrilled with the official (and thankfully ongoing) release of The Bootleg Series. Now nine volumes and counting, these releases represent the hidden side of Dylan’s work – especially during the early years. Akin to browsing through an artist’s sketchbook, these recordings give us a fresh glimpse at Dylan’s writing and recording process and a chance to hear otherwise lost performances.
As an addendum to this historic series, Columbia has just released the stand-alone version of Bob Dylan In Concert - Brandeis University 1963, a previously unreleased and seemingly un-bootlegged early live set.
On May 10, 1963 – 48 years ago today – Bob Dylan performed at the Brandeis First Annual Folk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts, just two weeks before the release of his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. A seven inch reel-to-reel tape recording of Dylan’s performance that day sat tucked away on a shelf in Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Ralph J. Gleason’s home for more than four decades.
Recently discovered, these recordings represent a glimpse of how Dylan sounded while he was still touring the small clubs and coffee houses on the brink of fame. Michael Gray, author of The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, calls this “the last live performance we have of Bob Dylan before he becomes a star... way back when Kennedy was President and the Beatles hadn’t yet reached America.”
So how does it sound? In a word… amazing. Bob… his guitar… his harmonica… and seven audible slices of 1963. The version of “Masters of War” is alone worth the effort.
Bob Dylan in Concert
If you’re a fan of extended atmospheric guitar work with a slightly intense edge, you might want to dive into the seventh and latest studio album from the Scottish band Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Mogwai first came to my ears through an NPR live webcast soon after the band formed in 2006, and I’ve since become quite fond of them. Their sound is unique but familiar, combining elements of post-punk Radiohead, Sonic Youth and even Flipper with gorgeous atmospheric textures of old school prog rock ala Pink Floyd. The result is what the band calls “serious guitar music.” But don’t let that scare you, Mogwai creates some truly beautiful and accessible (mostly instrumental) music. The band will take part in the iTunes Festival in London this summer and return to the US for a (rescheduled) tour in the fall.
Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
As of late, the attention of the world's media has been drawn to the United Kingdom and the Royal Family. I don't have a British heritage in my ancestry, yet I have for a long time enjoyed studying British history, geography, arts, and culture. Part of that is some really thrilling music. KPL has a 3-CD set that serves as a good sampler of a wide variety of the best. As a collection of works by top composers that is conducted, played, and sung by some of the UK's finest musicians, these recordings are well worth the listening. One of my favorites on here is 'Crown Imperial' by Sir William Walton, which was the recessional at today's royal wedding.
Best of British [sound recording] : the nation's favourite classical music
At best I would say that the new music released so far in 2011 has been so-so. The best CD by far has to be The King is Dead, the newest from the Portland based band The Decemberists. Lead singer Colin Meloy has never hidden his love for extremely smart lyrics that make listeners feel that they are in a college level Literature course. The new CD not only has songs with beautiful language and obscure subject matter, but also a musical sound that pays homage to the alternative sound of the 80’s. The extremely talented musicians in the band are able to sound like The Smiths and R.E.M. without losing their unique style or falling into the trap of sounding derivative. Meloy has been hinting that the band is going to take a hiatus, which is unfortunate because this Billboard #1 CD is their best effort since The Crane Wife.
The King is Dead
It’s amazing how some artists are able to reveal their true selves on stage, while others simply go through the motions.
Back about 1978 or so, Phoebe Snow performed at WMU’s East Ballroom (today’s Bernhard Center) in what appeared to be another case of a big time star giving an obligatory concert in a smallish market. She was singing, but that was about it. It was clear that she just wasn’t feeling it.
Phoebe’s career was still riding high at that point... she had a HUGE hit with Poetry Man in 1974 and a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine a year later. I assumed that she could probably care less about Kalamazoo… get in, get through it, and get back to the real world on the East Coast.
After plodding through a couple of songs, Phoebe stopped and apologized to the audience for her lack of enthusiasm. It seems her best friend was in the hospital back East at that very moment having a baby. Phoebe admitted that her body was on stage in Kalamazoo but her mind was clearly with her friend far away. Well, at least she was being honest. The show continued.
During the middle of the very next song, a stage hand came out and whispered something in her ear. Phoebe stopped the song immediately and jumped and screamed, “It’s a girl!”
With that, the veil was lifted and a very different Ms. Snow took the stage. Expressive, exuberant, entertaining; the mundane became magnificent! I had yet to see (and have seldom since seen) a performer so genuinely reveal her true “self” to an audience.
I will always remember that show… and appreciate how Phoebe allowed a small audience in Kalamazoo to be part of a very special moment in her life. And that, I guess, created a very special moment in ours.
Phoebe Snow passed away Tuesday in Edison, New Jersey, due to complications caused by a brain hemorrhage she suffered a year ago. She was 60.
I’d like to throw the spotlight on some recent and upcoming releases from the world of non-radio-friendly musicians that I’m excited to be ordering for the rock and folk/country collections. For the touchy feely folkies and pastoral Americanaists out there, you’ll want to get your hands on Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues (garnering big buzz and positive reviews), Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Here We Rest, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, Steve Earle’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far, and Emmylou Harris’ Hard Bargain. For those who prefer blips, sugary melodies, fuzzed guitars, and a louder volume on their wax platter, keep your eyes peeled for the newest long players from Panda Bear, The Raveonettes, TV on the Radio, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Yuck, Telekinesis, Foo Fighters, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, and Bright Eyes.
The People's Key
Today marks the 17th anniversary of the death of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain. Cobain led the early nineties Seattle band Nirvana from college rock radio obscurity to radio-friendly, mainstream fame. Their most successful album, Nevermind, has sold close to 30 million copies worldwide. Nevermind featured their hit single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, a song that became a generational anthem of sorts, embodying Generation X’s ennui and collective angst. Of local interest, the famous photograph of Cobain that appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine after his death was taken in Kalamazoo.
Crazy for You by the California band Best Coast blared from my car speakers all of last summer. This year it will be the band Tennis and their debut record Cape Dory; a thematic homage to summer sailing and an inspired musical nod to The Ronettes and early nineteen sixties, girl groups. Hardly breaking new, creative ground here, Cape Dory will still have you humming along with catchy tunes like Marathon, Take Me Somewhere, Cape Dory and Pigeon while you look cool in your tortoise shell wayfarers.
One of the overlooked treasures in our music collection is our movie and television soundtracks. We have an excellent collection that represents some of the legendary composers (Philip Glass, John Barry, John Williams, Itzhak Perlman, Quincey Jones, Thomas Newman, Ennio Morricone) from the past, those who have been working for some time and the inventive scores being produced from contemporary musicians that straddle both the world of film scoring and their own personal works (Jonny Greenwood, Jon Brion, Danny Elfman, Yann Tiersen, Randy Newman). Here are some of my favorite albums from the collection.
Good Bye Lenin by Yann Tiersen
Midnight Cowboy by John Barry
Schindler’s List by Itzhak Perlman and John Williams
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion
The Hours by Philip Glass
Out of Africa by John Barry
Twin Peaks by Angelo Badalamenti
Good bye lenin
Music lovers first heard John Grant’s amazing voice when he fronted the Denver-based band The Czars. The Czars were signed to the Bella Union label and released several critically acclaimed records throughout the late nineties and early 2000’s. Grant has now gone solo and released The Queen of Denmark, an album which received Mojo Magazine’s album of 2010 award. Fans of The Red House Painters, early Elton John, and 1970’s soft rock will enjoy Grant’s bathetic musings and one of a kind baritone.
Queen of Denmark
Boogie-woogie piano legend Pinetop Perkins, one of the last of the pre-war bluesmen, passed away on Monday. Born Joe Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi, on 7 July 1913, Perkins became known as “Pinetop” after his famous 1953 Sun Records recording of Clarence “Pinetop” Smith’s “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.”
Perkins was perhaps best known for his work as a member of Muddy Waters’ legendary band between 1969 and 1981. He released his first album under his own name as a leader in 1992—followed by some 14 more during the years since—and he toured almost constantly. Perkins performed with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith at the State Theater a year ago and just last month, Perkins and Smith won the Best Traditional Blues Album Grammy award for their recording Joined at the Hip. Pinetop won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.
“He was one of the last great Mississippi Bluesmen,” said fellow blues legend BB King in a statement on Perkins’ website. “He had such a distinctive voice, and he sure could play the piano. He will be missed not only by me, but by lovers of music all over the world.” Said Perkins, “I just wanna make people happy and make a dollar or two. It’s all I know to do.” Pinetop Perkins was 97.
Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, photo by Steve Azzato
I cannot get the first track of Adele’s new album 21 out of my head. “Rolling in the Deep” is soulful and catchy, and one of those songs you want to sing along to while driving in the car. Adele is a British singer, who at age 22 has already made huge waves in the pop charts—it’s no wonder, her voice is amazing. The album as a whole is a little uneven; it starts out strong but loses energy in the middle due to a few slow, uninspired ballads right in a row. The end of the album picks up a bit with a unique take on the Cure’s “Lovesong.” All in all, it’s definitely worth a listen.
The Smith Westerns are a very young band from Chicago, having only released two albums, the first record coming when the members were in high school. Their sophomore effort Dye It Blonde is a catchy tour de force of power pop that has elicited comparisons to some historical heavy weights like George Harrison and T. Rex. I also hear a little bit of Oasis and Suede echoing from these well-crafted songs. There are plenty of hooks and infectious melodies to keep you humming the entire way through this album, full of hand claps, jangly guitar riffs and complimentary synthesizers. Stand out tracks include: Weekend, Still New, All Die Young, and Only One.
Dye it Blonde
Swedish songsmith Jens Lekman writes with an oddball flare yet pens some of contemporary music’s most bubbly and accessible songs. Lekman’s English delivery springs from a rich baritone that echoes the work of Stephin Merritt and Jonathan Richman, both of whom, Lekman borrows from liberally when constructing his use of deadpan phrasing and droll tales about life’s follies and love’s pitfalls. The songs draw their influence from a wide range of sources including early 70’s soul, strings-laden baroque pop, and Mexican folk music while tossing in the occasional sample. His 2007 release Night Falls Over Kortedala is truly an internationally inspired work fused together in such a way as to be seamlessly perfect. Fans of Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, 70’s Motown and The Modern Lovers will enjoy Lekman’s sunny gems.
Night Falls Over Kortedala
Having a difficult time in getting through the doldrums of a long winter? Tired of the salt on your car and the perpetually gray skies? Well, kick yourself out of your gloomy ennui with some music that will evoke the summertime sun and lakeside vistas waiting just around the corner. Here are some great albums known for taking your mind to a warmer, mental climate.
Sunflower/Surfs Up by The Beach Boys
Crazy for You by Best Coast
Exodus by Bob Marley
Creedence Clearwater Revival by CCR
#1 Record/Radio City by Big Star
King of the Beach by Wavves
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain by Pavement
Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams
The Original by The Ventures
Rainy Day Music by The Jayhawks
Sun Flower; Surf's Up
Kalamazoo’s local music scene these days is diverse and richly vibrant. One look at the Gazette’s Ticket supplement and you’ll find everything from talented local amateurs to nationally known superstars performing in dozens of different venues across the area, even Kalamazoo Public Library!
But has Kalamazoo always had this kind of passion for music? You might be surprised!
If you’re like me, you wonder what popular entertainment sounded like in Kalamazoo a century or even a century-and-a-half ago. What instruments were being played? What music was being played? Who was playing it, and where?
Admittedly, there isn’t a CD called “Early Kalamazoo Music” (yet!), but All About Kalamazoo History, KPL’s aptly titled collection of Local History essays, has a wealth of information on that very topic. Check the newly created Music category, and you’ll find articles about everything from Kalamazoo’s very first band (formed in 1837 shortly after Kalamazoo—then Bronson Village—was established) right through the Ragtime Era at the end of the nineteenth century and into the Jazz Age of the early 1920s. There’s information about Kalamazoo’s leading music organizations, the early dance bands, the musical leaders, and some of the local performers who “made it big.” Learn about the early efforts to establish the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, and discover the various local businesses that grew up around the music industry. There’s even an article about “That Gal from Kalamazoo.”
So dig in, you’ll never know what you might find.
Kalamazoo Ragtime Music
I just read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids and wrote about it on our book blog.
Not surprisingly, I then listened to Horses and realized it had been many years since I had played what had once been one of my favorites. I have renewed appreciation of what a great album this is, now that I more fully understand her earlier work first as a poet, then as a performance artist, then a musician, and now an author. What a talented woman!
I rediscovered an old favorite and won’t wait so many years to listen to this again.
“Horses” by Patti Smith
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently chose to induct the following musicians: Tom Waits, Neil Diamond, Alice Cooper Band, Dr. John, Leon Russell, Art Rupe, Jack Holzman, and Darlene Love.