August 30, 2015

DVD Review: 'Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued'

The task at hand was enough to make even the most self-assured songwriter wither in excruciating insecurity: Set to music assorted lyrics and poetry by Bob Dylan from 1967 — a box of the music legend’s handwritten texts dating back to his infamous refuge with The Band in Saugerties, New York had at long last been unearthed — and record the songs for a new album.

Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued tells the story. Directed by Sam Jones, the documentary (which premiered late last year on Showtime and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Eagle Rock Entertainment) chronicles and contextualizes the making of the 2014 LP, Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes, for which producer T-Bone Burnett recruited a select group of artists — Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Rhiannon Giddens, and Elvis Costello — to rise to the challenge.

The backstory of The Basement Tapes is adeptly underscored throughout, not least of all with new and incisive commentary from Bob Dylan himself, whose reflections overshadow the documentary’s narrative much like his songwriting overshadows the efforts these musicians are shown to make in composing music to his words.

Indeed, what begins as a relatively informal songwriting workshop in due course evolves into an intense, often intimidating endeavor as everyone involved at some point finds their talents being tested beyond their comfort zones. The very idea of making an album that in any way shares some piece of history or perspective with one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most mythologized episodes had to have thrown them all for a mind-boggling loop on some level. Even Burnett, whose own storied career includes a stint as guitarist on Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue, acknowledges the surrealism at play. 

“The chance to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan, now, with 50 years of hindsight,” he says with a modest, nervous grin, “was... interesting.” 

Whether the songs these artists brought to life compare to the insouciant, never-intended-for-release performances on The Basement Tapes is beside the point, really. The album has more than enough highlights — particularly from Giddens (“Lost on the River #20”) and James (“Down on the Bottom”) — to stand on its own.

That, in the end, is what this film illustrates and affirms the most.

August 18, 2015

The Temperance Movement: Ain't No Telling How Far They'll Go

The Temperance Movement had already opened for the Rolling Stones on a handful of dates last year, but when the nascent British-based band got the nod to do it again this past June at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl, age-old anxieties emerged. Of the sold-out audience, for starters, Australian-born drummer Damon Wilson recently told Write on Music on the phone from his UK residence, recalling his speculations, “What kind of mood are they in? Are they sitting down? Are they drunk? Are they sober? Is it daytime? Is it nighttime? What’s going on out there? What’s the feeling? What [was] the main act’s soundcheck [like]? What are they gonna do? You’ve got to factor in quite a lot of things.”

As showtime loomed, however, Wilson was at least sure of one thing:

Nobody was coming to see his band.

“When you go to a Stones gig it’s all about the Stones,” he said, “probably more than any other band. They’re actually a bit of a challenge to open for because they don’t need any warming up. People are there and they’re ready to go.”

Since forming in 2011, the Temperance Movement (whose self-titled debut LP was originally issued on indie label Earache Records in 2013 and was re-released this past February on Fantasy/Concord Records) have built a burgeoning fan base all their own. Messengers of chiseled, rhythm-and-blues-soaked rock ‘n’ roll in the vein of The Faces and Humble Pie, they deliver rambunctious album standouts like “Midnight Black” and “Ain’t No Telling” with a swagger that comes from having hit the proverbial jackpot. For the band’s five members — besides Wilson the lineup includes frontman Phil Campbell, guitarists Luke Potashnick and Paul Sayer, and bassist Nick Fyffe — that’s not too far from the truth.

In fact, as Wilson recalled, the band’s earliest rehearsals not only proved to be worthwhile for everyone involved but enlightening and inspiring as well.

“The sound came instantly,” he said, “so it was very clear that we weren’t a pop group. It was also clear we weren’t a death-metal band.

“If I was to make it really simplistic,” he continued, “I think we kind of jokingly said, ‘Let’s be the next Black Crowes.’ I guess. That’s kind of the dream for any musician, to be in a band that people respect the musicians and the music [of] but you also get played on the radio and you get to travel the world. I think that’s what most musicians want.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been any tentative moments in the band’s evolution thus far.

“For the first probably six months, I remember,” said Wilson, “when we did bits of recording, a handful of gigs, it was very part-time. But even as that was going, I knew what we were doing was brilliant. I just didn’t think that anyone else would think it’s brilliant.

“It’s not that we didn’t have any confidence,” he continued. “We had loads of confidence. I’d never really taken a band from nothing to as far as we’ve gone before.”

Greater success seems all but certain to follow. Performing their music to audiences at every opportunity, the Temperance Movement are currently touring across the United States and Canada — the band’s latest single, “Take It Back,” currently tops the Canadian Active Rock chart — and no doubt earning new fans each step of the way.

“It’s not necessarily how good the musicians are, because there are plenty of better musicians than us,” said Wilson. “It’s just that it works. That’s a really nice thing about music — that’s why people never get sick of new bands — because there’s something special that goes on that you can’t put your finger on, that at least one unique combination of people works.”

For more information, please visit the Temperance Movement online.

August 01, 2015

Album Review: Bill Wyman - Back to Basics

Although he officially retired from the Rolling Stones in 1993, founding bassist Bill Wyman hasn’t exactly led a quiet life of leisure in the meantime, having curated various pursuits in photography and prose while also leading a revolving cast of fellow trad-jazz and blues enthusiasts called the Rhythm Kings.

Apart from all that activity, however, Wyman’s solo efforts (beginning with 1974’s Monkey Grip) have been few and far between. Indeed his latest, Back to Basics, is his first in 33 years.

The album finds the 78-year-old rock legend embracing a stately, intimate mood throughout as if engaged in a confidential conversation or, in other moments, solitary reflection. Wyman’s singing voice, with its whispery resonance (which with age now sounds like a cross between Robbie Robertson and latter-day Nick Lowe), suits its twelve songs like a well-worn winter coat.

In light of Wyman’s primary instrument and in contrast to the strident pulses he once meted out on Stones classics like “Under My Thumb” and “Miss You,” it’s worth noting that the grooves he generates in the most rhythmic moments here are, while less-pronounced — such is the subtle thrust of “She’s Wonderful” and, especially, “Stuff (Can’t Get Enough)” — no less present. Overall, though, the emphasis is more on the stories these songs tell rather than on any particular displays of technical prowess or pageantry within them.  

July 26, 2015

An Interview with Rickie Lee Jones

In interviewing Rickie Lee Jones about her music, come up with a question that piques her interest and you’ll likely end up fielding a few comparable inquiries of your own in return.

That Jones should welcome or even seek out such insights from those who admittedly appreciate her music isn’t all that surprising, however. Indeed, with such expository songs as “Chuck E.’s In Love,” “Stewart’s Coat,” and “We Belong Together,” the two-time GRAMMY® winner has not only distinguished herself as one of the most gifted and versatile singer/songwriters of the past 40 years but among the most sentient as well.

On her first new work of original material in more than a decade, The Other Side of Desire, Jones marries influences (from jazz to blues to Cajun to rockabilly to pop) that are often indigenous to New Orleans, where since leaving her Los Angeles stomping grounds last year she has lived and written songs with renewed passion and purpose. “I’ve got nothing to prove,” said Jones, 60, recently from her Big Easy abode. “I feel and want to spread a little joy, so that’s what I’m doing.”

And that’s what she’s done with the songs that make up The Other Side of Desire, culminating in one of her most intimately personal and poignant albums to date.

“One of the things I wanted to do was to write things that I could sing for the rest of my career and not have to do only old songs,” she explained, “things that would be fun and that the audience would want to hear as much as their sentiment with the old songs.

“I’m pretty sure that anything I write is relatable to anything else,” she added, “and there wouldn’t be that much of a difference because they’re all coming from my own personal color palette.”

Are you a songwriter whose songs naturally reflect your environment? Or, in the case of this latest album, did you deliberately intend for it to reflect musical influences of New Orleans?

Well, the first thing was to build a new life, and I also wanted to write a new record; and those things happened simultaneously. I think that’s why the environment is woven into the work, because they were one in the same. Then I thought, Why not? I’ve always shied away from that stuff because there’s something contrived about it, even if you make good work … because it always has an “I’m playing you” kind of thing about it. It’s not fair, really, to anybody, because so many people do that. They take an idea and they squash it to death, so that somebody who might sincerely feel that way, it’s harder to convince. At least now I don’t feel that way so much, because I think the sincerity of your heart is what people hear. But it’s harder to be heard, right? If you’re the twenty-seventh person making a record of Nelson Riddle stuff, even though the twenty six before you had never done jazz in their life… Anyway, all those reasons had made me shy away from thematic things, but this time I knew I didn’t want to do anything in L.A. and that act in itself is gonna make it reflect what I’m hearing around me and so in a roundabout way I did make the choice to reflect this music.

It seems to me that if you use any sort of filter into which you invest your heart and soul, your heart and soul would still reflect through the filter.

Most definitely. I think that there’s no getting around my personality and in this case they’re really simpatico, these kinds of music and how I feel and what I want to say.

One song from the album that struck me straightaway is “Infinity,” and for a couple reasons: its sense of transience; the way the lyrics are sung almost in a murmur, like water rippling off a rock; how the snare shots seem to punctuate each moment as if delivering each one to history. It’s a striking piece of music.

That song, in particular, that was a dream. I woke up and wrote it down exactly as it was and went into the studio the next day. It was a Sunday. Somebody had to come in [to produce it]. I heard it all whole. … Then I just sang it. It just came out like that. “This is where we’ve always been and it will always come again,” was so exciting to sing. It was very exciting. … I had a picture of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to articulate it. I said to the producer, “I’m trying to evoke these sounds and feelings from the ‘80s or things that were more dance or ambient kinds of tracks.” I didn’t really know any names or things to use, but that was as close as I could come to tell him what I was trying to do.

On another song on the album, “Christmas in New Orleans,” you wrote a lyric, “And I still can’t recognize the sound my scars make when I sing,” that hit me especially hard.

Finally! I thought that was one of my better lines, and you’re the first person to mention it. Thank you.

It’s such a powerful reminder of how deep you cut in your music. You’re one of the few musicians I’ve seen in concert who doesn’t shy away from vulnerability. I’ve seen you cry on the stage, just overcome by a song in the moment. It must take a lot of guts to be that honest. Is that something you consciously strive for?

You’d have to be really courageous to do it [by design]. I think it’s just the way I am. It’d be hard to make a choice to be vulnerable. I can’t imagine any other way to sing a song but the way I sing it, because that’s the joy of singing it, is that I feel all of it every time I sing it. It’s like stepping into a movie instead of watching it, and I can be anybody I want to be in the course [of it]. I’m also the narrator, so it’s very wonderful and complex. Sometimes in acting or feeling one of the parts, when I pull back to be the narrator I get choked up sometimes and I do cry. I don’t mind that, but my dad said to me, “You must not cry. You have to pull back so they can cry, because if you cry they can’t.” It was really wise. As much as I enjoy feeling all that, as a performance it doesn’t really… I’m not ashamed of crying, but it’s not my favorite thing to do. But I allow it now. I don’t chastise myself for it. I just try not to go that deep.

Are there emotions or certain experiences that are too profound or painful to share in a song?

Yeah, I would say that’s true. I’m not sure if I would use the word “emotions,” but there are subjects that are still sore or active or haven’t been resolved and so to sing them is really to just bring them up on the table — and it’s not good. So, when that happens I just avoid those songs until I can sing them. You know, like, puppy dogs make you cry. Singing about my child is always emotional. Singing about anybody in my family, as a matter of fact, is emotional. And on stage, everything’s turned up louder. So, if I was sitting in a cafĂ© with you and said something about my dad I might feel a tear, but I could breathe and hold it back and finish talking. But on the stage where things are turned up loud, it’s a much harder thing to do. So, I try to just avoid things that… You know, I don’t know if that’s true if I try to avoid them. I wish I would try to avoid them. [Laughs] But shows are really instinctual. I go here, I go there, and I always feel like I’m going in these directions because of the collective consciousness that’s directing me. That’s the audience and what I’m feeling from them, the way that their laughter, the way that their sighs tell me what direction to go in.

That’s in a live setting, but are there subjects you would avoid to even write about if you hadn’t processed them earlier?

No, no. Anything that wants to be said gets to be said whether or not it… I’d probably write some violent songs and listen to that expression and see if it finds its way to something else whether it’s a line or some part of a cynicism or whatever. When I’m writing everything gets to come out.

Some songwriters I’ve spoken to have conceded that they’re sometimes reluctant to reveal too much of themselves in what they write, but that’s clearly not how you approach it.

No. I’m just exploring all… There are so many ways to tell a story. I tend to naturally like to tell a story rather than tell a feeling, but in the course of telling the story can build feelings. But it’s not so much, “I feel like this,” and, “You did that.” In the past it hasn’t been the best way I’ve told a story. This record is kind of different. I think there’s a lot of “I”: “How can I tell you how I feel?” [“Valz de Mon Pere (Lover’s Oath)”]; “O Cheri, come and take a ride with me” [“Jimmy Choos”]. I mean, as I’m talking now, [I realize] I figure heavily into this record. I didn’t really think of that before. That’s kind of good. It’s healthy.

One reason I believe people are so affected by your music is the honesty in your voice, and of course that element resonates even when you’re interpreting works by other songwriters. When you take on someone else’s song, what do you generally latch onto first? Is it a lyric or narrative? Is it the melody?

I think it’s usually both. There are only a few songs in my career — I’m thinking of “My One and Only Love” [on 1991’s Pop Pop] — where I was attracted to a melody, but didn’t relate so much to a lyric. Like, “Sympathy for the Devil,” I did [on 2012’s The Devil You Know] because I did this Rolling Stones tribute so I had to pick a song and I picked that song because it relies so much on the band and so much on the “woo-woo” [witches chorus]. I thought, This is a powerful and frightening story, and I don’t know if anybody ever hears it because they’re busy dancing around.

If you break it down and tell it like you would tell it if you were just making up a song with a guitar, “Allow me to introduce myself, I am the scariest motherfucker that you’ve ever met. I’ve killed people for 2,000 years, and by the way I have my eye on you as well.” In the course of doing it — because, you know, it’s how I am — I tend to become the demon. It’s fun, but it’s scary.

I like playing it live because I like the series of things the audience goes through. They laugh at first, nervous laughter. Then it’s the laughter of recognition — and I don’t try to hurt them with it; I don’t go too far — but then either they keep giggling and looking away or they slowly listen to the text of the song. By the last verse, they’ve converted now. They did it. I really love that because it’s like I showed them the song instead of the Rolling Stones performance.

If I can do that with somebody else’s song — if I can show them the song again — I feel like that’s a worthwhile goal, because usually I don’t have a goal. I just want to sing a song because of the way it makes me feel, but some of these songs are used up and it’s kind of exciting to me if I can sprinkle something new about them.

In a far different lyrical context, of course, but that’s also what you achieved so convincingly with your rendition of The Beatles’ “For No One” [on 2000’s It’s Like This], which is, for me, one of your all-time greatest performances. 

“For No One” I heard when I was little, 11 or 12. I liked the story, but what is the word for it? “There’ll be times when all the things she said will fill your head. You won’t forget her.” Even at 11 or 12, I knew how that felt, that melancholy of loss, that all your life you would have this little scratch inside and you would always have to live with that sorrow. That’s the part that attracts me about that song, in particular.

Going back to something you said earlier, that you have nothing to prove now… What, then, drives you to still be creative? Considering that this is the first album you’ve written for since The Evening of My Best Day [in 2003], what made you want to return to writing?

Without something to prove is what makes me able to take the lid off and play music again, because no matter what I did there was always … this sense of loss that permeated everything I did. I’m not sure how — it feels a little miraculous — but it was probably just having to work so hard so long, but I was able to go, “There’s no relationship to the past. I am making a record here in this year right now and I have a name so I have an audience out there, but for the most part people under 30 don’t know who I am. This is a strange blessing because I can speak to them for the first time, but I have no hope or expectation of a resurrection or anything. All I can do is do the best work I can and hope that it does something good for somebody somewhere.”

Finally, you learn whether people notice you or not — I don’t know why — you still have to go up on the stage and play the song. … It was a relinquishing of my own thing: Am I ever gonna get my crown back? Finally it was, No, you aren’t. And I [thought], Thank God.

I’m just a musician. I’m just a singer. I got a band. I’m playing in your local town. I know what I’m worth. The things you said to me are so wonderful to hear because they’re how I see myself, that what I’ve contributed is a kind of an emotional honesty that hopefully rings through. But in the end when you die, you die. Sometimes it seems like we feel like if we’re really famous and if we’re really successful, we won’t really die. It seems like we’re running real fast so we won’t die. So, that’s been the expectation of hope that has permeated this work, a hope of a joyful time. That’s really all I wanted was to have some fun, and I feel like that’s kind of happening. It’s pretty cool.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

For more information, please visit Rickie Lee Jones online.

July 05, 2015

Book Review: 'After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye' by Jan Gaye with David Ritz

“I thank God for the time that he gave us together, good and bad,” Jan Gaye writes at the conclusion of her recent memoir, After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye, “for without both I would’ve had none.” Even thirty-one years after the tragic death of the music legend that was her husband and father of her two children, such an acknowledgement could not have been easy to come by. The eleven-year relationship she recounts here in stark and often forthright detail is fraught — despite its many gentle, loving, and passionate moments — with simmering distrust, betrayal, and, on occasion, violence. Still, hindsight has afforded the author a balanced, empathetic perspective with which to tell her story.

Already smitten with the suave, sophisticated image she’d seen on Soul Train and on various album and magazine covers of the day, seventeen-year-old Janis Hunter’s celebrity crush on thirty-four-year-old Marvin Gaye developed into an all-too-human hunger thanks to a fortuitous meeting with the Motown superstar at his Los Angeles recording studio during a session for his landmark 1973 album, Let’s Get It On. The attraction between the two was immediate though furtive at first and while a courtship ensued, odds of them enjoying anything beyond a fleeting affair seemed anything but promising. Particularly encumbered was Gaye, who was then embroiled in a bitter divorce from his first wife, Anna Gordy (older sister of Berry, president of Motown Records), as well as myriad financial plights and professional anxieties. Regardless, Hunter and Gaye’s mutual passion would not be denied. 

Such baggage couldn’t help but intrude on their relationship (and, come 1977, marriage), though as underscored throughout the book, the couple’s greatest burden — indeed, the prime catalyst for whatever chaos they wrought and suffered both individually and together — was substance abuse. The author is unflinchingly explicit at times in her recollections, in particular when depicting her husband’s gradual descent over the last few years his life amid the throes of hard drugs and their destructive, psychotic effects. Such moments come across not as an indictment on Marvin Gaye’s character or his legacy, however, but rather as unvarnished examples of the way things were at the time. If anything, the author places just as much scrutiny on her own past behavior, conceding amongst other indiscretions how her own substance abuse affected her marriage and life in general, so much so that not even Gaye’s death at the hand of his father in 1984 could at once compel her to seek help in an effort to quit.

While not a biography of Marvin Gaye — the definitive one being Divided Soul by David Ritz, who serves as co-author here — After the Dance nevertheless includes truly fascinating insights to his creativity and talent, the sort which are revealed in the most inconspicuous moments or in drowsy, late-night conversations in bed. In other words, the sort which only an intimate confidant could know. In a broader but no less personal context, the same could be said for this overall gripping memoir as a whole.