Staff Picks: Music
I'm currently listening to the latest from Metric--Fantasies. The variety of moods and the voice of Emily Haines will catch your attention from the first track to the last. I had the pleasure of seeing her perform live and she's as good in person as she is in the studio. Give her a listen and you'll be pleased you did.
Fantasies by Metric
The recent death of Michael Jackson of a reported heart attack at the age of 50 will undoubtedly cause a storm of crazy stories about his life. Before we are drowning in such tales, I wanted to reflect upon one of the greatest albums of all time, Thriller. No matter how you felt about R&B at the time this album was released, you became a convert to Jackson's ability to bring together that style of music with rock, pop, dance and soul. Jackson was one of the artist who ushered in a new age in music in which artists did not feel confined to a particular style. Others were allowing other types of music to creep into their songs, but the infectious grooves of Thriller blasted through the standard conventions.
I was into roller skating when Thriller was released and I cannot remember a skating session that did not include four to five tracks from the album. Can you honestly say there is a weak song? Even today when most look through their music collection they may have only one R&B record and chances are it is Thriller. Last year I played some tracks for my daughters and they were mesmerized.
What were you doing in your life when Thriller was released? Rest in peace King of Pop and thanks for the music.
Kalamazoo’s annual Island Festival always features some of the finest reggae acts in the world. This year’s festival features a very special performance – Saturday night, Jamaica’s legendary roots reggae harmony trio Culture takes the festival stage. Creators of dozens of brilliant singles and long players since their formation in the 1970’s, they would be hailed as legends even if they’d never released anything beyond their very first LP, Two Sevens Clash, widely considered one of reggae’s true masterworks.
Culture’s lead vocalist Joseph Hill wrote the title track after having a vision of the year 1977 being a year of judgment on Earth (based on prophecies made by Marcus Garvey). A devout Rastafarian (along with his fellow band mates), Hill translated his vision of apocalypse into a song which became a massive hit in his home country in the early part of ‘77. So profound was its effect on listeners that, on July 7th, 1977 – the day of all sevens clashing - many Jamaican businesses stayed closed, and residents refused to leave their homes for fear of being swept up in the coming apocalypse. Though the infectious bounce of the song’s groove and its joyous musical hooks might strike non-believers as running counter to the subject matter, the celebratory sound really underscores the message of liberation that followers of Rastafari believe will come at the world’s end. That mixture of devotional lyricism and upbeat music and rhythm flows throughout every song included on the album.
Though Joseph Hill has passed on, his son Kenyatta has taken his place as Culture’s lead vocalist, alongside original harmony vocalists Albert Walker and Telford Nelson. Kenyatta has proven to be as dynamic a stage presence as his father, so Culture’s legacy will surely continue to grow, even as Two Sevens Clash has already guaranteed their place in the pantheon of reggae greats.
Two Sevens Clash
Members of the Irish band Clannad have been making music individually and collectively since the mid-1970’s. Deeply rooted in traditional Irish and Celtic folk tradition, Clannad (Gaelic for “the family from Dore”) have expanded over the years to define the contemporary Irish genre. Purists will recall the aural simplicity of their early albums, which were very much in the vein of such contemporaries as Pentangle and Planxty. Their scope (and popularity) expanded greatly over the years, however, to include elements of worldbeat, jazz, adult contemporary, new age, pop, and progressive rock. U2 fans were introduced to Clannad during the mid-80’s when the haunting “Theme from Harry’s Game” was used as a concert pre-show opener. The same tune was later featured the film Patriot Games. The current popularity of Irish mega-shows like “Riverdance” (and Flatley’s spinnoff “Lord of the Dance”), Celtic Woman, and others owe much to Clannad’s groundbreaking work.
From the KPL collection, their Grammy Award winning Landmarks (1997) is typical of the latter-day Clannad style, combining elements of Irish folk with contemporary jazz and pop themes – think Sting meets Dire Straits somewhere in County Kerry. After nearly a decade of independent projects, the original members of Clannad reunited for a brief UK tour in 2008 and are reportedly working on a new album.
Apart from the collective Clannad, individual members have achieved a significant degree of success on their own. Lead singer Moya Brennan (Máire Ní Bhraonáin) has achieved a great deal of acclaim as a contemporary vocalist. Máire’s style very much mirrors the band, but further emphasizes her lush vocal harmonies. From the KPL catalog, Whisper to the Wild Water is a terrific place to start.
And in case Máire Brennan's voice and cover image seem somehow familiar, rest assured, there’s good reason. Though she left Clannad early on to pursue a solo career, Máire’s sister Enya (Eithne Ní Bhraonáin) should be no stranger to anyone who is a fan of contemporary Celtic music. KPL holds the majority of Enya’s solo works, including Paint the Sky with Stars, a compilation released in 1997. Call me old school, but for me, Watermark (1988) still remains the essential (quintessential?) Enya recording.
Bain sult as. (Enjoy!)
"Landmarks" by Clannad
Though Seal’s most recent album, Soul, was released late last year, it took months for any of its cuts – all covers of soul standards from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s - to get any substantial radio play. In recent weeks, Seal’s cover of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ classic slow jam “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” has become a fixture on some stations’ airwaves, introducing a new generation of listeners to one of the most heartfelt lover's pleas of understanding ever put into a pop song.
The arrangement on Seal’s version lacks the lush orchestration Gamble and Huff provided the Blue Notes on their 1972 version, but the more stripped-down arrangement (reminiscent of a previous hit revival of the tune in 1989 by Simply Red) still captures the romantic essence carved into the groove of original hit. While not as intense as Blue Notes lead vocalist Teddy Pendergrass’ aching reading of the song, Seal’s unmistakeable vocal does the song justice, his soaring lead cushioned by the accompanying vocalists’ hushed, close-harmony refrains.
Anyone unfamiliar with the original versions of the songs contained on Soul should find the collection to be a decent soul primer. Seal and his production team do a fine job with the interpretations, which are all generally faithful to the original arrangements, though none of them are a patch on the originals – when you’re covering the likes of Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, and Al Green, it must be understood it’s no contest. Still, with such an impeccable song selection, voiced by such a charismatic performer as Seal, Soul is a collection worth hearing beyond its breakout hit - especially if it leads listeners to the original sources.
The mere mention of a “reunion concert” makes me cringe. Far too often, we find ourselves subjected to lackluster performances by well-past-their-prime performers who go through the motions for all the wrong reasons – ego, nostalgia, and yep… lots o’ money. Others seem to prefer the Townshend/Daltrey school of perpetual goodbyes and make virtual careers out of “farewell” performances – equally or perhaps even more disappointing.
Happily, Cream’s brief reunion in 2005 departs sharply from both of these stereotypes. Recorded at London’s famed Royal Albert Hall (nearly four decades after the band’s “farewell concert” in the same noble venue), the enthusiastic, if not star studded audiences are treated to compelling run-throughs of all the expected rock radio anthems – “Badge,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “White Room,” the live standards – “Sweet Wine,” “Spoonful,” “Sleepy Time Time,” plus a few pleasant surprises – “We're Going Wrong,” “Stormy Monday,” and a delightful version of “Pressed Rat and Warthog.” Like watching three veteran scholars rather than mere relics of some bye-gone era, Bruce, Baker and Clapton mesh like the finely skilled craftsmen they are.
But what makes this set particularly enjoyable is director Martyn Atkins’ no-frills approach to the visuals. The filming is superb as one might expect, yet the clean and unpretentious production leaves it feeling uncluttered and genuine. Interview segments add interest and context, but are quite thankfully kept separate from the performance footage, which gives the film the spontaneous feel of a historical document, rather than a contrived montage of multiple overlays and retakes so typical of “superstar” concert films. Nice!
So, just for fun, here is “White Room” from Royal Albert Hall, 26 November 1968…
And the same track from the same venue in on 3 May 2005…
Alas, after just four shows in London and three in New York, “pressed rat and warthog have closed down their shop. They didnt want to; twas all they had got.”
Cream, Royal Albert Hall, London 05