September 26, 2007

DVD Review: Elton John: Someone Like Me

Sixty years on in age, nearly forty years into his illustrious career, Elton John personifies one of music’s most dynamic and colossal success stories. While selling over 200 million albums worldwide, John has scored seven successive number one albums, charted a top-forty single for twenty-six consecutive years, and holds the record for the highest-selling single in history. Those highlights, among others, are featured in a new documentary, entitled, Elton John: Someone Like Me.

While the story of how an introverted English boy named Reginald Dwight transformed himself into a flamboyant Rock and Roll superstar named Elton John is nothing short of extraordinary, the manner in which the story is told through this documentary leaves the viewer ultimately dissatisfied. Because Elton John’s career is so extensive and prolific, this 98-minute biography only skims over the highlights (and the lowlights) without offering much context to or analysis of any details.

In addition to the documentary’s narration, a small assortment of journalists and biographers add commentary and a modicum of insight. As well, sparing clips of Elton John, most of them outdated and superfluous, are scattered throughout the film.

The narrative begins by chronicling the childhood of Reginald Dwight, a young boy living with his quarreling parents, who took to playing the piano by age four. Able to play by ear yet unable to read sheet music, he won a junior scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music by age eleven. While he learned to play and appreciate classical music, he was most inspired by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino, musicians who effectively turned the piano into a Rock and Roll instrument.

Scanning over the intervening years, the film mentions Reginald Dwight’s first band, Bluesology, which released the single, “Come Back Baby,” only to see it promptly obliterated in the charts by the Rolling Stones “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Bluesology subsequently dissolved without making any discernible dent on the British music scene.

After assuming a pseudonym and, ostensibly, a whole other identity, the newly named Elton John answered a magazine advertisement that called for songwriters. His compositional skills were paired up with the lyrical talent of Bernie Taupin and, together, their professional partnership took root.

At this point in the documentary, notable occurrences like album releases and hit singles flash by in rapid succession. Granted, this was an era that, for Elton John at least, yielded a torrent of output and creativity. Unfortunately, though, this film fails to adequately examine the significance of those occurrences. Rather, it merely presents them in a cursory overview, a timeline stretching from John’s 1969 solo debut, Empty Sky, right on through to 2006’s The Captain And The Kid.

In a nutshell, Elton John: Someone Like Me fails to measure up to its intent of presenting an authoritative biography of this music legend. The life story of Elton John, with all its splendor and despair, is certainly one worth exploring in depth. It’s unfortunate that this documentary does not approach it as such.

September 23, 2007

"Hello To My Beautiful Mind": Jesca Hoop - Kismet

The kids must’ve had a grand time whenever Tom Waits and the wife went out for the night, given that their nanny was Jesca Hoop. If her nurturing attributes are at all reflected on her debut release, Kismet, it’s not difficult to imagine her as a kooky Mary Poppins with a madcap imagination, a provocative voice, and a fondness for things that go boom. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Peculiar rhythms, picturesque lyrics, and resonant melodies accentuate this album, making it a work of distinguished beauty.

Some songs ricochet in syncopated sound, their often-eccentric architecture lending to the album’s overall intrigue. On “Seed Of Wonder,” for instance, Police drummer Stewart Copeland assembles a patchwork of percussion around Hoop’s sinewy vocal. As well, “Out The Back Door,” with its throbbing beat and Hoop’s cocksure delivery, could incite a block party. “All the brick houses gonna shake da rump,” she playfully sings, “And the swingers gonna swing it some more.”

The lyrics, which often suggest visual and tactile sensations, play a central role in the sound and shape of this album. Such is the case with “Summertime,” on which Hoop depicts a pastoral landscape to underscore an anticipated moment of passion: “Bring a soft blanket baby/Lay it down for me/And roll me daddy daddy/Roll me in the wheat.” The consonance of the words creates an almost poetic expression, giving the lyrics a momentum within the framework of the song.

In contrast to the tracks that emphasize curious rhythms and funky percussion, some songs underscore utterly enchanting melodies, striking in their simplicity, piercing in their emotional impact. Perhaps the finest example of this sort is “Love And Love Again,” a piano-laden song so richly melodic it could pass for a Richard Rodgers composition. Adding to its charm, Hoop’s singing sounds wistful and elegant as it rises and falls in relation to the music’s fluctuating tones.

A stunning performance, arguably the album’s best, comes on “Love Is All We Have,” homage to the victims and survivors of Hurricane Katrina. The song sways with a plaintive acoustic guitar and Hoop’s breathtaking vocal. Midway through the somber ballad, a marching drum commences, injecting a poignant urgency to the lyrics, “Love me now, love is all we have.”

Kismet conveys an aesthetic quality, one that balances the roles of rhythm and melody with the imaginative writing of lyric imagery. While each song harbors its own idiosyncrasies and character, the album as a whole represents a remarkable artistic achievement.

September 21, 2007

Bruce Springsteen, Under Review 1978 - 1982, Tales of the Working Man

Next month promises a unique enthusiasm among Bruce Springsteen fans. Sparked by the October 2 release of his new album, Magic, Springsteen will embark on his first concert tour with the E Street Band in nearly five years. Within the midst of that excitement, a new documentary about the Boss will hit retail shelves on October 9. Bruce Springsteen: Under Review 1978 – 1982, Tales of the Working Man examines the work that Springsteen wrote and released over the span of three pivotal albums: Darkness On the Edge of Town, The River, and Nebraska.

In this 82-minute analysis of, arguably, the most prolific phase of Bruce Springsteen’s career, journalists including Robert Christgau and Anthony DeCurtis offer critical insights along with assorted Springsteen biographers, Backstreets Magazine editor Chris Phillips, and Vini Lopez of the original E Street Band. As well, vintage clips of Springsteen on stage and in interviews are thrown in for good measure.

The documentary frames the discussed trilogy within the context of what album preceded it and what album followed, which consists of Born To Run and Born In The U.S.A., respectively.

By unanimous consent among the commentators, Born To Run signaled a watershed moment in popular music, one that summoned the spirit of early rock and roll as it yielded a new language to the songwriting lexicon, with lyrics that read like literature on the page and sounded cinematic blasting out of car radios.

Also a consensus is that Springsteen realized how his effort had set a high precedent for himself. One factor he didn’t bank on, though, was litigation with his former manager that would put him, in his words, “out of commission,” for three years.

In 1978, following his three year prohibition from recording new material, Springsteen released Darkness On the Edge of Town. Described in this documentary as the sound of hope and dreams colliding with the cold, hard truth of life, this album presented Springsteen as a more concise and, ultimately, a more grievous storyteller.

For a guy who was previously “pulling out of here to win” on “Thunder Road,” songs like “Badlands,” “Something In The Night,” and “Factory” illustrate that winning does not come easy, if it ever comes at all.

According to Chris Phillips of Backstreets Magazine, Springsteen subsequently intended to release an album entitled The Ties That Bind, but he scrapped the project because he felt it was “too personal” as it addressed issues of men and women. In its place, Springsteen eventually released a double album, The River, in October 1980.

While the documentary characterizes Darkness On the Edge of Town as a concentrated focus almost to the degree of being a concept album, The River is described as, essentially, a large batch of songs, expansive in its scope and varied in its themes. From the blind ambition of “Independence Day” to the existential crisis of the title track, Anthony DeCurtis asserts that such topics were “not the stuff of pop songs. Nobody else did that.”

Commenting on some of the lighter fare of the album, DeCurtis offers a perceptive view, which he says Springsteen once agreed with him on, that it’s those songs that the album’s characters would’ve listened to in their respective lives. Such an acknowledgement by Springsteen underscores the depth of thought and detail he instilled into the creation of his albums.

With the release of Nebraska in September 1982, Springsteen created his darkest and most desolate landscape yet in which to set his narratives. On songs like “Atlantic City” and the chilling title track, characters that are “tired of coming out on the losing end” resort to violence and murder to make ends meet. Borrowing a phrase from Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor, the serial killer in “Nebraska” rationalizes his murder spree by squarely saying, “Sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world”.

Following a pattern that he would maintain to present date, almost to the letter, Springsteen followed up the stark sounds of Nebraska with a full-scale rock record. Born In The U.S.A. introduced Springsteen to an even wider audience, yet it also attracted a myriad of misconception.

For serious fans, Bruce Springsteen – Under Review 1978 – 1982 Tales of the Working Man will suitably compliment your overflowing collection of Springsteen music, videos, and memorabilia. Sure, you may already know some of the basic facts that are addressed, but the thorough analysis contained within this documentary will certainly put this era of Springsteen’s work into a sharper context and, for that, it’s well worth watching.

September 19, 2007

Come Get To This: Marvin Gaye Greatest Hits Live in '76

On the heels of his erotic masterwork, I Want You, Marvin Gaye took the stage at the Edenhalle Concert Hall in Amsterdam for a concert featuring classics from his career to date. Marvin Gaye – Greatest Hits Live In ’76 captures the hour-long event in its entirety.

While not known as a prolific (or even the most eager) concert performer, Gaye certainly had the goods – the songs, the talent, the charisma – to put on an impressive show when the opportunity arose. A meticulous vocalist in the studio as well as on the stage, he understood the precise distance to hold a microphone away from his mouth to produce a desired tone or volume. Such expertise is evident in this performance.

Starting off with “All The Way Round” and “Since I Had You,” both from I Want You, Gaye exudes a sexual magnetism that would only grow more assured with each passing song. As satisfying as these songs sound, though, they underscore the exclusion of far superior songs from the same album, most notably the title track and the sweltering groove of “After The Dance”.

Saturated in soul, a simmering rendition of “Come Get To This” plunges into “Let’s Get It On,” an unadulterated throwdown with Gaye reaching his arms above his head, moaning in ravenous desire.

A medley of sixties hits highlights how much Marvin Gaye genuinely appreciated his audience. By this point in his career, he’d already broken from the Motown mold in which songs were virtually interchangeable among the record label’s roster. He simply didn’t need to perform many of these songs anymore, yet he understood the public’s wish to hear them. Highlights of this portion include “You’re A Wonderful One,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” which serves as Gaye’s gesture of thankfulness to his fans.

The most gripping segment of the concert comes with a medley of songs from Gaye’s seminal work, What’s Going On, an album that continues to rank as one of the most astute social commentaries ever set to music. His piercing eyes seemingly glaring into oblivion, Gaye sings these songs with so much conviction, it’s almost unnerving to watch while, at the same time, impossible to look away.

Another medley follows, featuring a sequence of duets including “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Vocalist Florence Lyles capably stands in as Gaye’s duet partner, but it’s difficult to detach the songs from their original artists. With the lone exception of “It Takes Two,” which was originally recorded with Kim Weston, all of the duets here were originally recorded with Tammi Terrell. Only six years after her tragic death, Gaye doesn’t appear all that keen on performing these songs, especially the ones he’d made with Terrell. Like the previous sixties medley, though, this duets medley seems like it was done for the benefit of the grateful audience.

A thrilling and thoroughly expressive performance of “Distant Lover” ends the concert with Gaye dropping to his knees in palpable agony, growling out the words to this desperate plea for love.

By and large, Marvin Gaye – Greatest Hits Live In ’76 emphasizes the soulful depth and immeasurable talent of one of music’s most consummate artists.

September 17, 2007

From the Park I Hear Rhythms: Stevie Wonder - Live in Atlanta

In times of war and hostility among nationalities, ethnicities, and political persuasions, music has proven its power to put such tensions into context and, at its best, to transcend conflict in favor of a peaceful resolution. In an awesome performance on September 14 at Atlanta's Chastain Park Amphitheatre, Stevie Wonder reminded us that injustice in all its forms should be recognized for what it is, and remedied through exertions of faith, family, and love.

Escorted to the stage by his daughter, Aisha Morris, Wonder received an ovation appropriate not only to his status as a legendary and gifted musician, but also as a cultural icon.

In a poignant preface to the music, Wonder dedicated the event to his late mother, explaining that through her love and guidance, he learned that despite his physical blindness, there was no reason for him to grow up blind to the ways of the world. With his daughter at his side, he then commenced, fittingly, with “Love’s In Need Of Love Today.”

Backed by an eleven-piece band, Wonder illustrated his social consciousness and optimism in a brilliant sequence of songs, sparked by a sprawling and spellbinding take on “Visions” that culminated with a rousing protest to “Stop the War! Stop it!” before “Living For The City” brought his message into a more concise focus. Remarkably, albeit unfortunately, the latter song packs much the same punch in depicting current urban conditions as it did when initially released in 1973.

In the face of highlighting those societal ills, the Bob Marley inspired gem, “Master Blaster (Jammin’),” ushered in a positive hope for the future. A scorching gospel version of “Higher Ground” sealed the deal with Wonder’s vehement promise for the faithful to sing, “Gonna keep on tryin’/’Til I reach my highest ground.”

The soulful strains of “Golden Lady” set the tone for a gorgeous assortment of love songs, underscoring Wonder’s astonishing talent for expressing such vulnerable and intimate emotions. On an extended version of the majestic slow jam, “Ribbon In The Sky,” surprise guest India Arie joined Wonder, eliciting a lively audience sing-a-long. “The women were better in Chicago,” Wonder deadpanned as thousands of swooning females harmonized with their male counterparts. A yearning version of “Overjoyed” preceded “You And I,” one of Wonder’s finest articulations of love in a mortal world. A mournful, immensely touching rendition of “Lately” served as the crowning highlight of this stunning portion of the show.

Infused with Latin-tinged percussion, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” brought out a bit of levity before “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)” brought the ecstatic audience to its feet. After playing the latter song’s original version, Wonder humorously rearranged it with a country music styling for the Georgia crowd, turning the Motown classic into something more in tune with the Grand Ole Opry. “Another hit for me!” Wonder exclaimed. “I love country music,” he added with a sly grin. He then proceeded to play a credible snippet of the Charlie Rich classic, “Behind Closed Doors,” to effectively prove his point.

Mischievously recounting his teenage exploits to win the affection of a young lady, Wonder conceded that his shifty efforts had only yielded a kiss on the cheek from his crush. His adolescent ambition did, however, inspire “My Cherie Amour,” much to the crowd’s elation.

The unmistakable funk of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” assured the audience that it need not sit down for the rest of the evening. Caribbean rhythms and drums introduced “Boogie On Reggae Woman,” which segued into a climactic version of “Do I Do,” inspiring Wonder to stand atop his piano bench, with harmonica in hand, and blow to his own irresistible groove.

Given the pace and rising momentum of the previous few songs, the subsequent and final songs felt like what an encore would have included had one been taken. During “Isn’t She Lovely,” Aisha Morris, the original star and subject of the song, appreciatively sat next to her father. An all-too-brief rendition of “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” sounded exquisite until a crashing snare drum and music’s most famous synth riff erupted into “Superstition.” Another audience sing-a-along preceded “Part-Time Lover,” which prompted Wonder to jokingly comment, “If you don’t know this one, I’ll be upset!” Everyone knew that one, of course, as well as the next one, “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”

In a magnificent finale, Wonder performed “As,” a beautiful and superb culmination of everything the man professed during this incredible concert. “Just as hate knows love’s the cure,” he sang, “You can rest your mind assure/That I’ll be loving you always.”

Indeed, Stevie Wonder personifies that of which he sings and his songs serve as reassurance in a world that seldom measures up to the visions in our own minds.

September 11, 2007

Album Review: The Red Button - She's About To Cross My Mind

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think The Red Button hailed from North West England, near the docks of the River Mersey. The songs on this band’s debut album, She’s About To Cross My Mind, recall music made in the mid-sixties by the likes of Gerry & The Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, and, of course, those four moptops from Liverpool.

The truth is that The Red Button, comprised of principle singer/songwriters Seth Swirsky and Mike Ruekberg, call Los Angeles home, but the nostalgically groovy sound they create transcends its origin and era.

With eleven quick shots of quintessential pop, She’s About To Cross My Mind gives credence to the notion that good music is indeed timeless and, in this case, comes with a wicked backbeat. The garage-rock styling of “Gonna Make You Mine,” for instance, sounds like a blend of The Searchers and the 13th Floor Elevators, melodic yet with drums pounding.

In fact, drums play such a crucial role on these songs that even the direst lyrics sound optimistic within the framework of such buoyant music. The album opener, “Cruel Girl,” serves as an ideal example, telling a story of a susceptible guy who, despite his girl treating him wrong, can’t muster the willpower to walk away. Even as this admitted fool narrates his anguish, you can’t help but bop your head with a smile on your face.

As much as rhythm factors into the momentum of this music, it’s ultimately the inspired use of melody and harmony that distinguishes it as remarkable. Songs like “Can’t Stop Thinking About Her” and “Floating By” seamlessly thread Swirsky and Rueberg’s vocals into a lovely two-part harmony. And the modest melodies of “It’s No Secret” and the title track, especially, impart a warm sensibility that’s not expressed enough in contemporary pop music.

While the songs undeniably strike a nostalgic chord, for the most part, they don’t sound overtly derivative. The only instance that cuts it close is on “Free,” which begins with a guitar progression so comparable to The Beatles’ “Rain” that you almost wind up doing a double take to make sure you’re not listening to Past Masters, Volume 2. Even then, though, the song soon takes its own direction and ultimately sounds like something fresh.

Overall, She’s About To Cross My Mind is a commendable effort by The Red Button. In the span of thirty-two minutes, this band has crammed a staggering amount of musicality and heart into eleven infectious pop songs.

September 09, 2007

Album Review: Ringo Starr - Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr

Since The Beatles disbanded, Ringo Starr has sustained a respectable solo career, one that’s allowed the iconic drummer to call the shots and make music by his own accord. Much of the finest music he’s made comes together on the newly released retrospective, Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr.

This solid compilation features twenty tracks, many of them bona fide hits, most of them instantly familiar. What this disc underscores, besides the songs themselves, is the quality of musicians that Starr worked with in making them, from his three former bandmates to the likes of Elton John, Billy Preston, and Eric Clapton.

Of all the artists that contributed to this music, none resonate as often or as profound as George Harrison. “Photograph” and “It Don’t Come Easy” rank as two of Starr’s most recognizable recordings, not least because of Harrison’s involvement in their creation, having co-written and produced the former while producing the latter. He also contributed the loose and bouncy track, “Wrack My Brain,” and produced the weird and wonderful smash, “Back Off Boogaloo”. Starr wrote the poignant song, “Never Without You,” which features Eric Clapton on guitar, in tribute to his departed friend.

During his “Lost Weekend,” John Lennon offered Starr two songs, “Goodnight Vienna” and the tongue-in-cheek humor of “I’m The Greatest,” which illustrates that Lennon was, perhaps, not quite as “lost” during this time as he’d claimed.

While Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have collaborated on various projects ranging from McCartney’s Tug of War and Flaming Pie to Starr’s Vertical Man, his only appearance on this compilation comes on “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine)”.

Other highlights of this disc include the rollicking groove of “Oh, My My,” featuring Billy Preston on piano, and “Snookeroo,” an Elton John/Bernie Taupin composition on which the Rocket Man participated in recording.

Given his stature, it’s not surprising that Ringo Starr recruited such renowned artists with whom to make music. What’s impressive, though, is how well these songs have held up, and, moreover, how much fun it is to listen to them now.

In the liner notes, Starr offers commentary on what he remembers most about each track. While nothing jumps out as exclusive news or insight, what does come through is his lasting enjoyment of the music he’s created and covered, often with a little help from his friends.

September 06, 2007

Concert Review: Mandy Moore Underwhelms at Jannus Landing

Mandy Moore (photo: Donald Gibson)
Earlier this year, Mandy Moore signaled her ascent into the realm of singer/songwriters, releasing Wild Hope, an ambitious album on which she co-wrote every track. Unfortunately, on Tuesday night at Jannus Landing, Moore’s live showcase of that album, along with a few other songs, proved underwhelming.

On tour for the first time in earnest, Mandy Moore appeared out of her depth in translating her recorded music to a live concert setting. For most of the show, she stayed put behind her microphone stand and offered only sparing comments to the crowd, ultimately failing to engage the audience. At times she seemed more intent on getting through the show rather than putting on a show.

Beginning with “Slummin’ In Paradise” and “All Good Things,” two of Wild Hope’s strongest tracks, the concert initially seemed promising and, even further along in the show, Moore offered inspired performances. Her voice in fine form, she sounded best on songs like “Can’t You Just Adore Her?” and the ethereal gem, “Gardenia,” which brought the singer to tears.

The glaring flaw in the performance, regrettably, rested in her remote demeanor. While her mere presence elicited cries of “I love you, Mandy” from young, teenage girls, as well as from older, college-aged boys (underscoring two completely different sentiments, mind you), her ability to interact with the audience seemed awkward, if not amateurish. She often spoke to her band members and occasionally introduced a song, but she rarely thanked the audience for its applause or enthusiasm. Mostly, though, she looked genuinely uncomfortable in her role as a concert performer.

She concluded the set with a slow rearrangement of Rihanna’s hit single, “Umbrella,” as well as a revamped version of one of her own past hits, “Candy”. The latter song, she inexplicably conceded, held no sentimental value for her whatsoever, despite the crowd’s palpable desire to hear it. That moment, more than any other of the night, symbolized the disconnect between Mandy Moore and the hundreds of fans who attended her show. While some allowance should be given for her live inexperience, the audience did its best to embrace Moore, but she unfortunately neglected to do the same with her audience.

September 02, 2007

He Seems To Have Arrived: Fionn Regan - The End Of History

Some music compels a certain concentration of its listeners, when the surface of the sound suggests a more sophisticated resonance underneath. The End of History, by Irish singer/songwriter Fionn Regan, is one such album.

For this, his debut release on Lost Highway Records, Regan wrote and produced all twelve tracks. Guided mostly by an acoustic guitar, while accentuated with assorted strings, piano, and tempered drums, the songs resonate as sincere and tender folk ballads. Regan’s voice sounds like a cross between Damien Rice and Ron Sexsmith, crestfallen in its inflection, charming in its warmth.

Rich with nuance and melody, the music on The End of History arcs to the shape of the lyrics. A guitar line weaves its way through and around a piano progression on “Bunker Or Basement”. A violin and viola shade the verses of “Noah (Ghost In A Sheet)” with a density that emotively underscores Regan’s voice. Muffled drums steer the stark arrangement of “Snowy Atlas Mountains” toward its ominous descent and conclusion.

On the page and through the speakers, the lyrics echo like poetry, wherein any specific intent may not seem literal or obvious, while nonetheless yielding an impression. For instance, on “The Underwood Typewriter,” Regan sings, “I’m changing the ribbon in this old Underwood/Step out of your dress and I’ll wear you like a hood/For a hood is a home/For someone who lives alone.” On a visceral level, the lyrical obscurities and imagery leave their meanings open to interpretation, which ultimately personalizes their appeal to each listener.

In the liner notes, Fionn Regan writes, “Making this record has been like building an ocean liner with a butter knife.” Such an effort is obvious in the music’s details, like in the bending of a note, the phrasing of a lyric, the aesthetic of a lone acoustic guitar. Not only did Regan’s diligence and skill pay off with The End of History, it produced an evocative and magnificent album that will reward its listeners for their undivided attention.