July 31, 2007

Music DVD Review: Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built

The son of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States, Ahmet Ertegun could have been an affluent diplomat like his father. Instead, he followed his early passion for Jazz to establish Atlantic Records, becoming the label’s CEO and, ultimately, one of the most significant figures in the course of twentieth-century music. Ertegun’s legendary life and times are recounted and discussed on a fascinating new DVD, entitled, Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built.

This remarkable documentary traces Ertegun’s biography, from his birth on July 31, 1923 in Turkey to his death on December 14, 2006 in New York City.

Founded in 1947, Atlantic Records began as a modest Jazz-orientated record label and progressively grew to encompass Soul, Rhythm & Blues, and Rock & Roll. Among the artists and bands that Ertegun signed to the label include Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bobby Darin, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones.

Bette Midler, also a former Atlantic recording artist, narrates the documentary, but most of the commentary comes straight from Ertegun, either in clips of him reflecting alone or reminiscing with many of the musicians he had worked and socialized with throughout his life. Seeing him casually trading anecdotes with Mick Jagger, Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, and Ray Charles, among others, is indeed a treat.

One particular highlight comes when Ertegun recalls hiring Clapton to play guitar on a session for Aretha Franklin’s 1968 album, Lady Soul. He remembers Franklin’s initial reaction upon meeting Clapton, as she laughed at his psychedelic attire and flamboyant hairstyle. A wry Ertegun remembers telling her, “You’re not gonna laugh when he starts to play.”

What comes across most in this documentary is how much Ahmet Ertegun was a genuine fan of music. In turn, the musicians featured herein hold the man in high regard not just as a business executive but, moreover, as a friend.

While Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built pays tribute to the life of Ahmet Ertegun, in doing so it also honors some of the twentieth century’s greatest music. Thus, for music scholars and fans alike, this documentary will have you reaching for your record collection in search of a soulful groove.

July 26, 2007

Minnie Driver Knows How To Be Good

Make way for the lady. Minnie Driver knows what she’s doing and on Seastories, her sophomore effort in music, she sounds even better than she did on her ambitious debut album.

On 2004’s Everything I’ve Got In My Pocket, the actress introduced her music-making chops, revealing a talent for writing credible songs that suited her smoky vocal approach. On Seastories, Driver sounds more secure, lyrically more straightforward, and musically more concentrated.

Much of the album is tinged with folk and alt.country flair, featuring acoustic accents and, on some songs, the efficient use of a pedal steel. Fittingly, Ryan Adams & The Cardinals join in on four tracks, the standout being “Beloved,” on which Adams offers some agile guitar accompaniment. Perhaps the most affecting song in this vein, though, is “How To Be Good”. On this countrified lament, Driver sounds plaintive and direct as she sings in apparent frustration, “I do everything I should/I still got to learn how to be good”.

Driver doesn’t have to learn to get much better with her music, though. On songs like the raw “Cold Dark River” and the raucous “King Without A Queen,” she channels her inner Lucinda Williams to strikingly visceral effect.

Almost an anomaly among the alt.country tracks is “Coming Back To Life,” a poignant, piano-laden song seemingly about a loved one’s struggle through depression. Recognizing that the worst may be over, Driver sings with compassion, “You’re sleeping hard alone but/Now I think the darkness is done”. Set to such gentle music, its considerate and encouraging lyrics make this the most stirring song on the album.

The rich simplicity of the music throughout Seastories compliments the candor of the lyrics. As well, Minnie Driver’s soothing and lovely voice gives this album a certain charm that makes each listen all the more enchanting.

July 24, 2007

Prince Restrained On Planet Earth

Prince needs to tap back into his dirty mind. His previous album, 3121, offered some hope that the man could still deliver the erogenous goods, with songs like “Black Sweat” and “Lolita.” However, his latest release, Planet Earth, regresses into safe and average R & B territory. If this album were released by anyone other than Prince, few people would even take notice. 

One crucial factor to Prince’s appeal has long since been his gift for writing intriguing and innovative songs that, usually through adept use of metaphor, addressed sex (in its myriad facets and emotions) without sounding gratuitous. For clarity’s sake, if you’re still thinking that “Little Red Corvette” is a cute song about a car, well, it’s not.

Unfortunately, most of the songs on Planet Earth come across as pale derivatives of Prince’s libidinous past works. “Somewhere Here On Earth,” for instance, which is perhaps the most sensual song on the album, sounds like a clichéd and timid remix of an assortment of previous Prince slowjams. On “I’m The One U Wanna See,” he blandly says to a prospective catch, “So if you ain’t busy later/And you want some company/I ain’t trying to be a hater/But I’m the one U wanna see.” This is now the pick-up line for the man who once proposed, Excuse me but I need a mouth like yours/To help me forget the girl who just walked through that door?” How come Prince won’t do that anymore?

Most likely, Prince has curbed his carnal expression due to the influence of his faith, as he is a converted Jehovah’s Witness. In the 1980s, though, Prince openly practiced Christianity and he skillfully reconciled his sexual and sacred callings to create some of the most visionary music of the decade. Yet, his faith, at least on this album, appears to have hindered his natural creative drive. “Lion Of Judah,” a song with religious imagery that, for all intents and purposes should feel inspired, sounds downright dull.

The closest Prince comes to flirting with his own past brilliance is on the title track. In this one instance, he offers direct and relevant commentary on the current sociopolitical climate in the world to the sound of a guitar-driven fury.

That being said, little else on this album lends credence to Prince’s stature as the uninhibited musical genius he has proven himself to be time and again. Ultimately,
Planet Earth is a disappointment, not only because Prince is more than capable of producing invigorating and innovative music, but also because, for once, the artist sounds restrained.

July 19, 2007

Dig This: The Best Of Sammy Davis, Jr. Live

Too often, the magnitude of an artist’s talent is not wholly known or recognized until after that person is gone. In the case of Sammy Davis, Jr., who died in 1990, the legend, with its Rat Pack and Las Vegas associations, has sometimes overshadowed the man. Thankfully, a newly released DVD, The Best Of Sammy Davis Jr. Live, highlights the singular gifts of one of the twentieth century’s consummate entertainers.

Filmed in Germany in 1985, this complete hour-long concert includes some of Davis’ most beloved songs, including “Candy Man,” “What Kind Of Fool Am I,” and “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” sung with swagger, prowess, and inherent cool. Davis’ voice is in superb form here, consistently rich and resonant, whether sounding vulnerable and tender or resilient and soaring. Also impressive, following a jazzy version of “Singing In The Rain,” Davis delivers a spectacular tap-dance routine, to the sheer amazement of the live theatre audience. The most gripping and endearing image of Sammy Davis, Jr. in this performance, though, comes during the final number, “Mr. Bojangles.” Personifying the title character with a bowl hat and walking cane, Davis delivers a definitive and iconic rendition of this signature song.

For long-time fans or even for the curious, this remarkable concert DVD confirms that Sammy Davis, Jr. was a quintessential entertainer by virtue of his own merit and talent.

July 16, 2007

Bryan Ferry - Dylanesque Live: The London Sessions DVD

While plenty of people condemned Bob Dylan to Hell for going electric in 1965, a separate faction praised and enjoyed the new sonic territory Dylan explored. At the time, Bryan Ferry was among the latter ilk. Admittedly, Ferry didn’t even like Dylan’s early folk albums. Since then, though, he changed his way of thinking and grew to appreciate the full spectrum of Dylan’s gift as a songwriter.

On Dylanesque Live: The London Sessions, Bryan Ferry offers such insight as to his reverence for Bob Dylan’s music in addition to studio performances of each of the eleven tracks on his recently released album of Dylan covers, Dylanesque. A performance of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” a song not on the album, along with Ferry’s 1973 promotional video for “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” rounds out the disc.

While the performances comprise the bulk of the content on this DVD, it’s Ferry’s commentary between the tracks that is most interesting. For instance, Ferry concedes that he based his interpretation of “All Along The Watchtower” on Jimi Hendrix’s iconic version of the song, not Dylan’s original. Incidentally, Dylan himself plays the Hendrix arrangement in concert to this day.

Of the performances, Ferry delivers his finest effort with “Gates Of Eden”. With its cavernous feel and the vocalist’s weary inflections, the song sounds like a march toward the end of the world.

Ultimately, though, this DVD should interest people for the commentary, not necessarily the performances. While the tracks sound fine, watching one song played after another in a studio, without an audience to provide reaction or an environment of a concert, becomes tedious. It’s simply easier to listen to the songs on CD.

The most rewarding aspects of Dylanesque Live: The London Sessions are the instances when Bryan Ferry explains how he approached interpreting each of the songs on Dylanesque. Those instances, more than anything, comprise the overall purpose of this DVD: To illustrate how a unique vocal talent handles the work of a songwriting giant.

July 13, 2007

The Resurgence of The Police: Live In Tampa, Florida

The Police, 7/11/07 (photo © Donald Gibson)
It didn’t feel nostalgic. It felt electric and immediate, the sound and the synergy combustible at any second. On July 11, 2007, a capacity-crowd within the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida witnessed the resurgence and the enduring vitality of the Police.

Sting, Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland took the stage to a roaring reception, kicking off with “Message In A Bottle” before running roughshod through “Synchronicity II” and eliciting an audience sing-along to “Walking On The Moon.”

The energy and enthusiasm of the crowd seemed to encourage levity among the notoriously temperamental band. Sting engaged the audience often, trotting around the stage to countless camera flashes, casually chatting between songs, and exchanging knowing looks with his band mates. Summers and Copeland, likewise, genuinely appeared in high spirits.

The band was at its best when it took a few chances to breathe fresh life into some of their most familiar radio singles, like “De Do Do Do De Da Da Da” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” the latter featuring Copeland deftly switching back and forth between a riser of auxiliary percussion and his Tama drum kit.

Some risks weren’t worth taking, though. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” sounded erratic throughout, thus bewildering those attempting to sing along. Also, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” dragged with muddled bass, a far cry from the dexterous original on 1980’s Zenyatta Mondatta.

Fortunately, such instances were rare, and thereafter the band fared much better on “Walking In Your Footsteps” and “Can’t Stand Losing You,” which segued into the title track of Reggatta de Blanc. An extended version of “Roxanne,” rock’s most recognizable ode to a prostitute, closed out the main set under a flood of red light.

No less than three encores followed, featuring “King Of Pain,” “So Lonely,” “Every Breath You Take,” and “Next To You.”

While all of the performed songs ranged in age from twenty-four to thirty years old, the concert did not feel like a reminiscent event. Quite the contrary, it seemed like the Police reconvened as a relevant force, and in Tampa, perhaps as in other towns on their current tour, they punctuated their collective career with one emphatic exclamation mark.

July 10, 2007

Album Review: Anjani - Blue Alert

Originally released in 2006 on one disc, this 2007 reissue of Blue Alert comes with a bonus DVD that features intuitive interview footage with Anjani and the album’s lyricist and producer, Leonard Cohen.

As an album, Blue Alert resonates with sensual warmth, blending Anjani's fluid feminine voice with Cohen’s sagacious lyrics. Anjani's sultry inflections accentuate the album's adult observations on intimacy, love, and remorse. Illustrating Cohen's legendary clout with language, Anjani shines, most notably on "Never Got To Love You," which, in part, says, “The memories come back empty/Like their batteries are low/It feels like you just left me/Tho’ it happened years ago”. The album, as a whole, offers a plethora of equally crafted lines and phrasings.

The accompanying DVD features a mini-documentary, “The Making of Blue Alert,” which more than compensates for any additional cost of this reissued 2-disc set. Directed by Lian Lunson, who also directed the feature-length documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, this short film includes insightful commentary by both Anjani and Cohen. While Anjani’s recordings are highlighted and discussed, Leonard Cohen’s lyrics underscore the entire endeavor. Thus, it’s Cohen’s observations on the album that seem the most pertinent and, given his stature, most valuable. Two brilliantly shot music videos, for “The Mist” and “Thanks For The Dance,” round out this impressive bonus disc.

While the bonus disc provides worthwhile insight into the making of Blue Alert, it’s the balance of lyrics and music on the album that ultimately shines brightest. And given Anjani's impeccable vocal delivery, this album deserves its own suite in Leonard Cohen's tower of song.

July 06, 2007

Still Atomic: Blondie's Eat To The Beat (CD/DVD)

The bombshell of the Bowery, Debbie Harry fronted one of music's most eclectic bands of the Punk/New Wave era. Blondie infused straight-ahead rock, punk, dance, and funk into an amalgam all their own. They’d reached the apex of their popularity by their third album, Parallel Lines. Yet, with their follow-up, Blondie proved they still had plenty of ammo in their creative coffer by unleashing 1979’s Eat To The Beat.

This reissue of Eat To The Beat, courtesy of EMI, comprises a digitally remastered version of the album as well as a DVD featuring the original promotional videos for all twelve tracks.
More brazen and slicker than its predecessor, Eat To The Beat comes across, even twenty-eight years after its initial release, as invigorating rock and roll. Clem Burke’s thunderous drumming sets the tone throughout while guitarists Chris Stein and Frank Infante, bassist Nigel Harrison, and keyboardist Jimmy Destri follow suit. 

The album’s two major hits, “Dreaming” and “Atomic,” still sound magnificent, with Debbie Harry’s silken voice booming above the swirling music. Songs like the title track and “Living In The Real World” evoke the band’s early rough and ready brand of punk, perhaps paving the way for a subsequent female-fronted band, the Pretenders. And the pulsating groove of “The Hardest Part” could very well put listeners into a Studio 54 fantasy funk.

Granted the nonexistence of MTV at the time, it’s hard to fault the lack of originality in Eat To The Beat’s accompanying music videos. Most of the promotional films are low-budget, lip-syncing performances, typically shot in a warehouse or on a soundstage, with scaffolding and audience extras used to fill the frame. The most redeeming quality of these videos, without question, is Debbie Harry. One of the most photogenic women in music history, Harry’s playmate persona and ballsy posturing look utterly luscious on film. Occasionally, as in the video for “Atomic,” Clem Burke grabs the spotlight for a few seconds with an exhilarating drum fill, but just as quickly, Harry again assumes her role as the film’s sexual focus. Stein, Infante, Harrison, and Destri serve their respective functions as musicians, but they are clearly not camera-friendly individuals, at least not at this point. On record, Blondie is a band. On film, however, the bleached bombshell steals the show.

This reissue of Eat To The Beat should mostly interest die-hard fans, specifically for the twelve video performances, which aren’t available collectively in any other package. Unfortunately, though, the videos fail to convey any context of what made Blondie such a fantastic band in their prime. So while the music on Eat To The Beat is essential, the videos ultimately serve as a mere screensaver for the songs.