October 26, 2007

Book Review: Making Records - The Scenes Behind The Music

Imagine yourself facing the task of telling Tony Bennett during a recording session that he’s hit a few bum notes. Not only should you have the credible acumen for identifying such flaws, but also the knowledge of how to correct them. Fortunately, Phil Ramone has an abundance of both. One of music’s most prolific and distinguished producers, he candidly shares experiences from his career in his new book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music.

While neither a strict memoir nor a technical manual, the book blends elements of the two, usually within the context of representative and applicable anecdotes.

Ramone writes an engaging account of his ascension in the music industry, from working as a studio apprentice to engineering recording sessions and ultimately producing albums and live events. As a result, the reader gains priceless insight on some landmark recordings as well as perspective on the evolution of music production over the last 50 years.

What makes this book such an enjoyable read is the producer’s unassuming way of relating his memories and knowledge. One would suspect that someone as proficient and experienced as Phil Ramone would have, by now, lost all sense of wonder in regard to how music is made. Quite the contrary, while he undoubtedly knows what he’s doing in the studio, he seems just as amazed and inspired by the creative process as any typical fan would feel.

Fans of Billy Joel, in particular, will take pleasure in reading what Ramone recollects about producing many of the Piano Man’s greatest albums. He recounts how certain iconic sound effects were achieved, like the shattering glass that opens “You May Be Right” and the reverberating helicopter propellers that bookend “Goodnight Saigon.” He explains his view on what was lacking in Joel’s first four albums—which he didn’t produce—and why that deficiency resulted in releasing Songs From The Attic. He even divulges how he would humorously blackmail Joel and his band into working whenever they got hungry or distracted.

In sharing his experiences of working with Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, and a plethora of others, the consistent factor is how Ramone approached (and still approaches) each project with the artist’s intent foremost in his mind. He astutely notes that his name doesn’t appear on the covers of the albums he produces. Thus, instead of attempting to conform an artist to a certain style or standard, he respects and caters to each artist’s creative goal.

Ramone and Billy Joel, 1986, during sessions for The Bridge
At the same time, Ramone justifiably points out the credentials that he brings to the making of an album. A classically trained musician in his own right, he understands music from both sides of the glass. Even when he has worked with artists who’ve had production experience, like Paul Simon or Paul McCartney, Ramone says that he contributed a sense of objectivity that the artists found helpful.

Accommodating in his profession as well as in his prose, Ramone has graciously written a book that music fans of any age or education can appreciate. Given his expertise, he could have easily filled these pages with professional terminology related to record production. While he certainly refers to technological aspects and specific equipment associated with his work, he does so without leaving the average reader overwhelmed or confused. Rather, he only mentions something of this sort within the context of recounting a pertinent (and understandable) experience.

Making Records: The Scenes Behind The Music offers an intriguing glimpse into the art of music production, and few careers in this field have rivaled that of Phil Ramone. Now, in addition to albums, concerts, and other live events, Ramone has once again produced a quality work. And this time, finally, his name is on the cover.

October 23, 2007

Weird and Wonderful: Cat Power in Concert

Cat Power and The Dirty Delta Blues Band: October 21, 2007: State Theatre, St. Petersburg, FL

The sound didn’t fit the vision. While her voice reverberated through the room to mostly slow and bluesy music, Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, timidly pranced around the stage as if craving a sugar fix. Odd as it was to watch, however, on Sunday night at the State Theatre, her singing fortunately didn’t suffer from her incongruous demeanor.

Backed by The Dirty Delta Blues Band, Marshall’s low and smoky voice was initially overpowered by the volume of the music. Because of this the first few songs, which included a tempered version of “The Greatest,” sounded almost indecipherable.

Contributing to the sonic obscurity, the spotlights scarcely illuminated the stage and, in particular, the singer, who seemed more comfortable in the shadows. Whether intentional or caused by an electrical glitch, the darkness effectively concentrated the audience’s focus on the show’s genuine center of attention: Chan Marshall’s voice.

Thankfully, the audio engineer adjusted the mix and a swift run through of “Naked If I Want To” fared much better. The subtle southern funk of “Could We” also came off rather well, its groove reminiscent of records produced in the sixties and seventies by Stax. 

Much to the bewilderment of the standing-room-only audience, Marshall, looking nervous and distracted, called for an abrupt “eight-minute” intermission. Returning with enough refreshments for the front quarter of the crowd, she then spent a good 10 minutes pouring water into cups and passing them out one by one. While a thoughtful gesture, it seemed strange nonetheless, given that the concert was in a modest air-conditioned room rather than at some outdoor venue. 

Apologizing for the sudden break and promising not to stop again until the very end (which would feature no encore) Marshall appeared more focused and sounded, more often than not, incredible. What she lacked in vocal might she more than compensated for with resonance and raw emotion. 

Case in point, her understated rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “I Can’t See Myself Leaving You” yielded one of the night’s finest performances. Also, “Where Is My Love” ached with palpable tenderness and solemnity.

“Lived in Bars,” which had garnered incessant requests from the fervent crowd all night, suitably brought the concert to a close.

At times, the woman with the superhuman-sounding pseudonym of Cat Power appeared all too human, exhibiting indiscriminate quirks and signs of reticence, perhaps even stage fright.

Yet, whenever Chan Marshall settled into a song, her captivating voice saturated the room and satisfied everyone within it, rendering all of the evening’s peculiarities utterly irrelevant.

October 16, 2007

Forever, For Always: Luther Vandross - Love, Luther [4-CD Box Set]

When Luther Vandross died on July 1, 2005, soul music lost one of its preeminent exponents. An incomparable vocalist as well as a consummate songwriter, producer, and arranger, Vandross instilled his gifts into songs that will forever symbolize authentic romance.

Released on October 16, a superb four-disc box set highlights every phase and facet of the late legend’s career. Appropriately, it’s entitled, Love, Luther.

Quite possibly the finest male vocalist of his generation, Vandross possessed one of music’s most unaffected, inherently brilliant voices. His resonated with astonishing depth and range while, at the same time, being a masterful instrument of intricate and intelligent phrasing.

Listen to how his voice soars and descends in measured tones on songs like “Never Let Me Go” and “Wait For Love”. On up-tempo tracks like “Never Too Much” (which comes in an extended version here) and “Stop To Love,” you can hear how Vandross reins in his vocal might to favor each of their dominant grooves. And to behold a flawless confluence of technical skill and intuitive soul, look no further than the stunning live medley of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classics, “Windows Of The World/What The World Needs Now.”

Indeed, Vandross interpreted other artists’ material so well and with so much conviction that, in many cases, his renditions surpassed the quality of the original versions. With some covers, he even wound up delivering the definitive versions.

“Always And Forever,” a popular hit for Heatwave, reached an even wider audience once the Vandross version hit the airwaves in 1994. The rendition included here, recorded live at London’s Royal Albert Hall, makes one almost forget that this wasn’t his song to begin with.

Undeniably, though, the full force of his interpretive ability was demonstrated on “A House Is Not A Home.” Dionne Warwick, the song’s prior most-familiar interpreter, lost her primary claim to it once Vandross released what ultimately became his signature song. Two renditions of this classic are featured in this collection, the original studio version and a heart-wrenching live performance recorded at Radio City Music Hall in 2003.

Perhaps because of his interpretive and vocal prowess, Vandross often found his own songwriting abilities overshadowed and vastly underrated. Nevertheless, he wrote (or co-wrote), produced, and arranged the majority of his material as well as doing the same for several other artists. From the aching loneliness in “Don’t Want To Be A Fool” and “Any Love” to the joyful affirmations in “She Loves Me Back” and “So Amazing,” he suitably proved himself a songwriter of distinguished talent.

Even with such talent, what ultimately set Vandross apart from many of his contemporaries was, simply, his integrity. The personification of class in an era that didn’t always espouse it, he never sacrificed his creative or moral standards by singing explicitly about sex. His music certainly inspired and implied genuine romance and passion, yet it never relied upon intimate or gratuitous expression to do so. His exquisite performances of “If Only For One Night” and “I Want The Night To Stay” are prime examples of such sophistication.

Listening to this collection not only confirms the indelible contribution that Vandross made to music, it also offers striking insight as to some of the creative efforts he never finished to his satisfaction. “Ready For Love,” a cloudy-sounding demo discovered on a cassette tape dated 1979-1980, finds Vandross singing in remarkable form to a piano accompaniment.

Also, “There’s Only You,” recorded in 1985, sounds utterly spellbinding, with a metronomic synthesizer underscoring a riveting and ominous vocal. “I’ll be missing you,” Vandross sings as the song ebbs towards its end.

On the day of his memorial service, thousands of mourners braved a New York City rain shower to witness the funeral procession as it rolled past the Apollo Theater in Harlem, on its way to Riverside Church. During the service attended by 2,000 guests, Aretha Franklin sang “Amazing Grace.” And, at the service’s conclusion, the entire congregation rose to sing “The Power Of Love/Love Power,” one of the most familiar songs in the career of Luther Vandross.

Love, Luther represents a lifetime devoted to music. This music inspired people to stand in the rain to pay their last respects to a man they’d likely never met, but with whom they felt a bond. This music inspired the Queen of Soul to sing the most revered of gospel standards, even as she grieved the passing of a friend. This music inspired everyone inside Riverside Church to pay homage to Luther Vandross by singing one of his own songs.

And now, in our own ways, this music can inspire us as well.

October 12, 2007

Lucky On The Side: The Very Best of Mick Jagger

For a few years in the mid-eighties, it almost seemed like Mick Jagger’s primary objective in releasing solo albums was to tick Keith Richards off.

Once the Glimmer Twins reconciled and the Stones got rolling again with Steel Wheels in 1989, though, Jagger’s subsequent solo ventures assumed their own distinctiveness and purpose. What’s more, they ceased to threaten a permanent derailment of the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band.

Newly released by Rhino Records, seventeen tracks, three of which had remained in the vaults until now, comprise The Very Best of Mick Jagger.

Skeptics will instinctively dismiss or diminish much of the music on this retrospective by drawing lopsided comparisons to the Rolling Stones’ superlative catalog. Yet, if listeners will consider this compilation for what it represents (rather than what it doesn’t), they’ll encounter, for the most part, some fine songs.

Out of Jagger’s four proper solo albums, 1992’s Wandering Spirit stands as the definitive high point, appropriately yielding the most tracks on this collection. Cuts like the radio singles, “Don’t Tear Me Up” and “Sweet Thing,” radiate with insatiable swagger and irreverence. As well, the understated country lament, “Evening Gown,” illustrates Jagger’s versatility in delivering a stirring vocal performance.

Some of the tracks stemming from Jagger’s other solo efforts offer sufficient, albeit sporadic, moments worth praising. A rousing duet with Bono, “Joy,” soars with a gospel optimism and energy that the U2 frontman imparts as if it’s second nature. “God Gave Me Everything,” co-written with Lenny Kravitz, forges through a guitar bombardment while Jagger growls each lyric like a man possessed. And dated though it sounds with its drum machines, “Just Another Night” brandishes a boyish spunk that remains hard to resist.

Alas, certain songs have not held up as well over time (if they ever did to begin with). For instance, “Lucky In Love” drowns in a flood of ‘80s music clichés, with far too many synthesized instruments and not nearly enough authenticity. And, worst of all, “Let’s Work,” sounds like a caffeinated Jagger instructing an (all-female) aerobics class.

Sounding anomalous yet utterly striking among this collection’s more lustrous material are two tracks dating back to 1968 and 1973, respectively. Jagger’s very first solo recording, “Memo From Turner,” originally tapped for the film, Performance, finds the rocker in his inimitable salacious form. Likewise, on the previously unreleased nugget, “Too Many Cooks (Spoil The Soup)”, which John Lennon produced, Jagger sounds downright raw and malicious.

Ironically (and perhaps much to Keith Richards’ chagrin), Jagger’s most successful solo efforts, to be precise, have consisted of collaborations. “Old Habits Die Hard,” the theme from the 2004 remake of the film, Alfie, saw Jagger writing with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics. Their composition ultimately won a Golden Globe award. Contrasting with such critical acclaim, “Dancing In The Streets,” the 1985 duet with David Bowie, ranks as the most successful song of Jagger's solo career.

The Very Best of Mick Jagger certainly isn’t the best music Mick Jagger has ever made. However, some of the better music Mick Jagger has made without the Rolling Stones, much of it included here, still makes for a great listen. So, have a bit of sympathy for the old devil and give this album a chance.

October 10, 2007

An Interview With Jesca Hoop

Last month, singer/songwriter Jesca Hoop released her debut album, Kismet, which illustrated the emergence of an exceptionally talented and imaginative musician. Currently on tour with Matt Pond PA, she performs with a three-piece band before audiences upward of 500. “The show is a must-see,” she says, and, based on the quality of her music as well as her artistic fortitude, I’m inclined to take Ms. Hoop at her word. In the following conversation, she speaks about the lineage of musical influence, her curious approach to songwriting, and what Stewart Copeland taught her about the creative process.

Are you writing on the road or are you just concentrating on the tour right now?

I haven’t done any writing yet, but I think I will. I would like to, but just finding a place to do that has been an issue. There isn’t a lot of privacy, anywhere. [Laughs]

How different is the dynamic in performing the songs than it was from recording them? 

Very different. The show is still reminiscent of the record, [but] it’s not a carbon copy. 

When you started with the album, did you have a particular sound that you wanted to project overall?

The main criteria were to maintain a true dynamic of small and intimate and then more fantastical. So in order to create more of the fantastic, we tripped the songs to make them a little more rhythm-based. And then [we] indulged in sound effects and things like that. We wanted it to be really playful…I wanted it to be really fun and a cross between traditional and modern. Some of the songs are traditional songwriting and then some of them are more modern in their approach, just in the base of the song.

Even the songs that have the effects and more of the enhanced production can be broken down to an acoustic song. You still have the basis of a song there.

Yeah, although they stem back to different influences and eras and genres. So we needed to come from an original standpoint with old influences.

In particular, on the track, “Out the Back Door,” was there a singular influence on that or was it where you just used a rhythm-based approach, as far as the lyric? Because even the words have a rhythm when you read them.

Probably early '20s Jazz, or '30s and '40s maybe, and Hip/Hop. I love that combination. Actually, I wrote it years ago, and then the movie, Idlewild, came out and it kind of reinforced my concept in that arena. I’ve heard that old Jazz [mixed with] Hip/Hop before, but that’s probably where I wanted to head with it. Some of these songs are quite old. And I’ll hear people refer them to other people or compare them to other people when I had never heard these people at the time when [writing them].

You weren’t conscious of them being an influence?

No. I was conscious of Hip/Hop being an influence on the songs as a genre, but I keep getting references to people that I don’t listen to or comparing me to people that I’m…

…Not necessarily familiar with.

Right. I think it’s interesting. I think that maybe we’re more affected generation-wise.

That you could be influenced by someone now who was influenced by something further back.

We’re all influenced by something further back. Because maybe one person steps out before, we think we’re following that lead, but, rather, we’re working in sync with each other. But I think the general public doesn’t necessarily think that way.


Norah Jones is a good example. When you start comparing people to Norah Jones, you have to think, “Maybe you’d go further back.”

Like to Billie Holiday…

Right, exactly. Just because someone starts to use Jazz inflections in their music doesn’t mean they’re following suit, necessarily, with what’s popular right now. It’s an old, old style and something that will live on, possibly, forever.

My personal favorite song on the album is “Love And Love Again.” Was it based on one memory or experience or on a culmination of experiences?

It was actually a project I did with David Baerwald for a film. And it was based off of the script and the film ended up not being made. Whether it was made or not, we probably would’ve put it on the record. But it was more [for the purpose that] it fulfilled the need of a particular script.

The imagery in that is really beautiful.

Oh, thank you. That was a fun one. David Baerwald wrote the melody and the music and he needed lyrics for it. He called me up and I was going to drive to his house and learn his melody. I had [a recording of] it in the car and I was going to go over and just record some vocal thing but I didn’t have anything written. But there was so much traffic [in route] to his house, coming from Topanga [Canyon] to downtown Los Angeles; it took about an hour and a half. And, by the time I got there, I had the whole song written because of all the time in between. So when I got there, we were just able to record the song.

On “Seed of Wonder,” you got to work with Stewart Copeland.

Yes, and [drummer] Matt Chamberlain. They both were on that track.

What was Copeland like to work with?

If you don’t know the secret of the song, if you haven’t learned it through and through, which he hadn’t when he came in…He was familiar with it but he hadn’t learned all the little idiosyncrasies. It’s kind of a cryptic song, in a way. And so he kind of just dove into it and took over, really.

I learned that he was really trusting of his process. If you were making a little mistake, of course you’re going to make…I guess he didn’t make any mistakes. Do you know what I mean? He would fall in and out of the pocket of the song, not knowing it, and didn’t ever consider it a mistake. It’s a part of the process. So I learned that from him. When in the process of creating what is your work, you never apologize for keeping an engineer an extra 15 minutes or having to take the path again…

…to get what you want at the end of it.

Right. He was like a mad scientist with his kit…I have worked with him one other time and he was really a joy to work with. He’s got an extremely dark, dry, and intelligent wit. We were an odd pairing, for sure. [Laughs] It was really fun.

For the song you wrote about Hurricane Katrina, “Love Is All We Have,” was that based on a particular story? Or were you influenced by the whole event and the aftermath?

I would go online and pull little specifics out, of things that I could find. Like, the Plow Boys wereto play in town, right around that same [time]. It’s more of a general account of what I observed as the importance of the event, what I brought from it. It was more of a general account. I put it on the record, not necessarily because I thought it was an accurate account or that the song was worthy of being a record of [the event], but more to help bring people’s minds back [to its attention].

But there’s an emotional impact that resonates, not necessarily as a news account, especially when you get to the chorus.

Right. I can’t sum [the event] up. I couldn’t try to sum it up, but I know what the basic underlying message is. That’s really the purpose of the song.

In reading the lyrics from your songs, they have a flow to them. You don’t necessarily need the music to appreciate the lyrics.

I like to approach writing songs like I don’t speak English.

And you just like the sound of the words?
Yeah, because the sounds change when you don’t know their meaning, necessarily, or if you haven’t used them before.

In knowing Tom Waits, was he an influence on the sound of the record or a creative influence? From what I understand, he wasn’t directly involved with the making of the album.

As far as his influence on the record, in terms of it being the sound that perhaps came, I think I learned some specifics from him as well as a few others.

Which others?

Kate Bush was one. And Bjork was one. Not in terms of the sounds that they created, but in the way that they created a sound that was specific to them. I think that’s what the biggest influence is…If you were to turn on a song, how can you know who you’re listening to immediately? Not that I’ve necessarily found that at this point, but I have found a few things in the process of making the first record.

October 08, 2007

Picture Postcard Charms: Herbie Hancock - River: The Joni Letters

One could trace Joni Mitchell’s jazz sensibilities perhaps as far back as Court and Spark, certainly by the time of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. In the mid-to-late 1970s, many of Mitchell’s compositions utilized jazz musicians due, in large part, to the instrumental dexterity required to play them. One such musician, Herbie Hancock, now leads a brilliant tribute to Mitchell on his latest release, River: The Joni Letters.

The album features an impressive guest list, including Leonard Cohen, Luciana Souza, Norah Jones, and Corinne Bailey Rae. Also involved is saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who, in addition to having played with Hancock as far back as in the Miles Davis Quintet, has also lent his talents to some of Mitchell’s recordings. Mitchell herself even makes an appearance, reinterpreting one her past works, “The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Lay Down Your Arms).”

Rather than presenting literal translations, Hancock takes liberties in spacing out the sound of each song, giving the musicians license to improvise or perhaps to allow a vocalist to slip into a groove. A prime example of this occurs on “Court and Spark,” during which Norah Jones sings in a sparing yet sultry manner while the music sprawls on for nearly eight minutes.

Another facet of this album is how the music, even in its more liberal variations, arcs to the sonic contours of Mitchell’s lyrics. On “Amelia,” for instance, Luciana Souza’s voice, which sounds eerily like Mitchell’s on the original track, serves as a through line for Shorter, particularly, to play around. As well, Tina Turner’s refined performance on “Edith and the Kingpin” is the centerpiece of the song, while the musicians deftly compliment its sophisticated phrasings.

No one song on this album signifies Mitchell’s command with language better than “The Jungle Line.” Lyrics once buried by Burundi drums now resonate in lucid and striking fashion, as Hancock’s lone piano accompanies Leonard Cohen’s cadenced recitation.

Lyrical in their own right by way of their musical structure and sound, four instrumentals fill out the album. Although not written by Mitchell, two of those compositions, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” and Miles Davis’ “Nefertiti,” were included because they influenced her as an artist. Incidentally, Hancock and Shorter played on the Miles Davis original, from the album of the same name.

On each song, Herbie Hancock conducts a compelling rendering of Joni Mitchell’s music and muse. River: The Joni Letters not only represents an exceptional album, but also an appropriate tribute to the most influential female singer/songwriter of the 20th century, the quintessential Lady of the Canyon.

October 05, 2007

Album Review: Barry Manilow - The Greatest Songs of the Seventies

After putting out two collections featuring music from the fifties and sixties, respectively, Barry Manilow now interprets songs from the decade that coincides with the peak of his own success on The Greatest Songs of the Seventies.

This compilation should appeal to his loyal fanbase regardless but, despite that, the album works because Manilow decided to cover songs that assimilate stylistically well with the music he produced during the same era. Logically, those who enjoy the sounds of the Carpenters, Christopher Cross, and Bread from the 1970s most likely enjoy the music of Barry Manilow as well. It’s not as if he’s covering Black Sabbath, AC/DC, or Led Zeppelin here.

Moreover, the hallmarks of Manilow’s music, with its sophisticated production, pristine vocals, and affective flair for melodrama, all work their way onto this album. For instance, “If” features a more sweeping string arrangement than the already-lush original version without losing any of the song’s idealistic charm. As well, “The Long And Winding Road” resembles the Phil Spector production on Let It Be, which might make Paul McCartney cringe, but those who appreciate Barry Manilow’s gift for turning schmaltzy music into an emotional wellspring will love it.

By and large, the songs on this album stay quite close to their original arrangements, yet Manilow capably offers moving vocal performances, making a good number of them worthy interpretations. “My Eyes Adored You” and “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” exemplify this point.

The track that benefits most from Manilow’s near-faithful renditions, though, is “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” which suggests Burt Bacharach’s precise instrumentation while evoking the optimism of Karen Carpenter’s seminal vocal performance.

However, where Manilow excels in the intricacies of the previous song, he falls short with the same approach on “Sailing”. In its first incarnation, Christopher Cross sang the lyrics in near imperceptible tones, wispy like the music, ultimately creating the very atmosphere the song described. In Manilow’s rendition, each syllable is enunciated and prominent in the mix, which kills the mood that this song could so pleasantly capture.

Another misstep comes on “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which is one of those classics that, unless an artist approaches it with a sensibility that’s divergent from the original version (like Aretha Franklin’s gospel rendition, for example), it’s best not to tackle it at all. Manilow certainly does an acceptable job, but it’s not extraordinary. It should be, though, because this is an extraordinary song.

Following the album proper, six acoustic performances comprising some of Manilow’s most recognizable seventies songs convey the merit and the emotional impact of his songwriting during that decade. While “Copacabana” fails to thrive in this context, the five piano ballads that round out this portion, especially “Weekend In New England” and “Looks Like We Made It,” sound exquisite.

Overall, The Greatest Songs of the Seventies is of sufficient quality to make the album worthwhile. Barry Manilow neither strays far from the original versions of these songs nor from the type of music his fans have come to expect and appreciate, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

October 04, 2007

Feels Good To Be Free: Rilo Kiley, Live In Orlando

Snowball digs Jenny Lewis.

Lead guitarist, Blake Sennett, introduced his blond-haired brother from out of town, who he curiously called Snowball, adding that the band would perform his favorite Rilo Kiley song in honor of his attendance. "Try to hear this through Snowball's ears," Sennett added before the band launched into "Rise Up With Fists!!!" which, technically, isn't even a Rilo Kiley song. It's a Jenny Lewis song, from her solo side project last year.

Despite the discrepancy, this was neither the first nor the last time that Jenny Lewis would become the focus of Rilo Kiley's concert on Tuesday night 
(10/2) at the House of Blues. In an 80-minute set, the coquettish front woman entertained an enthusiastic crowd with flirtation and finesse, performing songs about promiscuity, adultery, and pornography, among other sordid versions of love.

Dressed in matching black hot pants and bustier, all five feet of Lewis looked ever so diminutive with an electric guitar slung on her shoulder for "Close Call." "Funny thing about money for sex," Lewis snarled, "You might get rich, but you die by it."

On "Breakin' Up," she abandoned the axe to strut the stage, spiritedly banging on a cowbell, drawing howls and screams every time she postured or pouted. "The Moneymaker," a strip-club anthem if ever there was one, turned the packed concert hall into a hotbed, for those so inclined, to slip into a sweltering groove.

If these songs lacked substance or if this band fell short on talent, such a performance would seem gratuitous. Fortunately, though, these are some well-written pop songs and this is one seriously proficient group of musicians.

On top of the polished pop songs, country-styled tracks like "I Never," which notably featured Lewis on keyboards, and "A Man/Me/Then Jim," further illustrated the breadth of influence and ability among the band members. The rhythm section of bassist Pierre de Reeder and drummer Jason Boesel laid the perfect foundation for tracks especially like these to flourish.

All eyes and attention fell back upon Lewis, nonetheless, as she girlishly ambled back to the keyboard to begin the encore. After a subtle swig of beer, she and the rest of Rilo Kiley played "Give A Little Love," which preceded a thrilling rendition of "Does He Love You?" that sent the already excited crowd into increased and deafening cries of joy. Near the stage, one young man leaped in the air, trying to reach Lewis as she sang the song's final words and waved goodbye.

Clearly, Snowball is not alone in digging Jenny Lewis.

October 01, 2007

Music DVD Review: - Dreams To Remember: The Legacy Of Otis Redding

Music this gut wrenching and gritty should come with a warning label on the package. As long as you’ve got a pulse and an ounce of compassion in your body, you’re bound to have your deepest emotions put through the ringer when listening to the late Otis Redding sing. Released on September 18, a documentary entitled, Dreams To Remember: The Legacy Of Otis Redding, captures eighteen stage and television performances of the soul legend, along with brand new commentary by some who knew him best.

Between each performance, insight and recollections are offered by Stax Records founder James Stewart, Booker T & The MG’s guitarist Steve Cropper, who co-wrote and played many songs with Redding, and the Memphis Horns’ trumpeter Wayne Jackson, who played on every Redding recording. As well, Redding’s widow, Zelma Redding, offers her own reminiscences, adding a personal dimension to the man she called her husband and the father of their three children.

The performances, especially the ones recorded live, could bring tears to your eyes or strike lightning in your veins, depending on the song. Redding moans like a desperate man in pain on his classic, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” during a 1967 show before a rapt London audience, which notably includes a student of rhythm and blues named Mick Jagger. By contrast, Redding turns the Monterey Pop Festival on its head with an explosive version of “Shake.” Watching thousands of hippies, many of whom hadn’t yet familiarized themselves with Redding’s music, sitting utterly entranced by his seminal performance is quite a sight to behold. It was “the highlight of his life,” Zelma Redding remembers with pride.

While the performances comprise the meat of this film, it’s the commentary between the tracks that add valuable perspective. In one instance, Steve Cropper remembers when a then-unknown Otis Redding first performed at Stax Records in Memphis. Redding had approached Cropper with an idea for a song and so Cropper suggested that Redding play it on the piano. While he could play the guitar, Redding said that he didn’t play piano, instead directing an available musician to the keys. “Give me them church chords!” Cropper remembers an inspired Redding shouting before he laid into what would become his first single, “These Arms Of Mine.”

Wayne Jackson fondly recalls how Redding would instruct and utilize the Memphis Horns like they were background singers (as there were no background vocals on his songs). Such is evident on performances of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song),” among many others not even featured in this film.

“If I had to pick the best record that Stax ever made," James Stewart asserts, “It would be ‘Try A Little Tenderness’.” The live performance of that song featured in this film, sadly, was taped one day prior to Redding’s untimely death in a plane crash.

Indeed, the most touching portion of this film concerns Redding’s demise at age 26 on December 10, 1967. Wayne Jackson, visibly distressed nearly forty years later, measures the tragedy within the context of Stax Records, saying, “When Otis died, the driving force was gone. And then when Martin Luther King got killed [four months later], the friendliness went out of Memphis.”

Hitting much closer to home, Zelma Redding says in reflection, “Here I am at 24 years old, with 3 kids, and I don’t know what to do with my life.”

As soon as he learned of the tragedy, Steve Cropper assumed the emotionally difficult task of mixing a track that Redding had only recently written and recorded. With its country styling and laid-back sound, it resembled none of his previous songs. However, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” would ultimately yield more popular success and recognition than anything Redding had released during his short life. The video for this song that’s included in the film was specifically created for this project.

Dreams To Remember: The Legacy Of Otis Redding represents a fitting tribute to the spirit and enduring appreciation of Otis Redding’s life and music. In doing so, this film also makes a solid case that the Big O was and forever will remain the quintessential Soul Man.