November 25, 2007

Hawthorne Heights Guitarist Dead At 26

Casey Calvert, guitarist for the rock band Hawthorne Heights, has died at age 26. According to a press release from the band, Calvert passed away in his sleep sometime Friday night. The cause of death is still to be determined.

The band's statement, in its entirety, reads:

Today is probably the worst day ever. Its with our deepest regrets that we have to write this. Casey Calvert passed away in his sleep last night. We found out this afternoon before sound-check. We've spent the entire day trying to come to grips with this and figure out as much as possible. At this time we're not sure what exactly happened. Just last night he was joking around with everyone before he went to bed. We can say with absolute certainty that he was not doing anything illegal. Please, out of respect to Casey and his family, don't contribute or succumb to any gossip you may hear. We don't want his memory to be tainted in the least. Casey was our best friend. He was quirky and awesome and there will truly be no others like him! His loss is unexplainable. As soon as we know more we will let you know.

Hawthorne Heights

Based out of Dayton, Ohio, Hawthorne Heights debuted in 2004 with the album, The Silence In Black And White. They released their latest effort, If You Were Lonely, in 2006. A recent fixture on the Vans Warped Tour, they are currently in the midst of a concert tour with Escape The Fate, Amber Pacific, The Aka's, and The Secret Handshake, which is scheduled through December 21. There is no word yet on Hawthorne Heights' status or future on this itinerary.

November 23, 2007

Book Review: The Rolling Stone Interviews

Rolling Stone may not represent the voice of the counterculture like it once did, but the publication has invariably wielded privileged access to rock and roll’s elite as well as to other important celebrities and social figures. Coinciding with the fortieth anniversary of the magazine, this new compendium correspondingly presents forty of its most notable and indicative discussions in The Rolling Stone Interviews.

Many of these interviews catch subjects at pivotal points in their careers and lives, often knowingly, sometimes quite the opposite. Two of the most prominent examples come courtesy of John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, respectively. A thorough conversation with Jann Wenner in 1970 shows Lennon unleashing a contemptuous and myth-shattering depiction of life as a Beatle and the band’s recent dissolution. The text contained here comprises but a portion of the expanded transcript ultimately released as the book, Lennon Remembers, yet it succinctly conveys Lennon’s embittered state of mind at that time. In contrast, an interview conducted in early 1994 by David Fricke illustrates Cobain offering ominous and unsettling remarks when one considers his suicide a mere three months later. He speaks of his disillusionment with Nirvana’s artistic direction and mass commercial appeal as well as his frustration in coping with his tentative physical health. Both instances portray creative icons at a crossroads, albeit to divergent extents.

While not as emotionally gripping, other interviews still yield moments of telling insight and perspective. In a 1973 conversation with Ben Fong-Torres, Ray Charles explains how his varied taste in music, from classical artists like Sibelius and Chopin to country artists like Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, influenced his inimitable approach to music. In a 1992 chat with James Henke, Bruce Springsteen opens up about why he felt compelled to move from New Jersey to Los Angeles and what that symbolized for him, not only as the local hero of the Garden State, but also as a newly married man with young children. In a 2002 discussion with David Fricke, Keith Richards lets it bleed (figuratively speaking), candidly answering a myriad of questions about his infamous drug use, his much-debated mortality, and his enduring friendship with Mick Jagger. In distinguishing the Glimmer Twins’ paradoxical natures, Richards says, “[Mick] can’t go to sleep without writing out what he’s going to do when he wakes up. I just hope to wake up.”

Without a doubt, the leeway allowed to the subjects makes these interviews, and cumulatively, this book, a particularly engaging read. Even when the questions aren’t all that probing or inventive, they often yield intriguing responses. Case in point, in a 1968 interview with Jann Wenner, Pete Townshend fields a flippant question about him writing songs in his basement by launching into a description of an as-yet-completed “rock opera” about a deaf, dumb, and blind boy. With the proficiency of a politician, Townshend manhandles the moment to explain his scrupulous labor in creating Tommy, from its major and minor themes to a meticulous character analysis. One can almost picture Wenner with his mouth agape, wondering how his intended softball topic swerved radically off track.

The Rolling Stone Interviews offer comparably enlightening snapshots of various other luminaries as well at specific and, frequently, career or life-defining points in time. The responses by each subject seem genuine for the most part, but, moreover, they impart opinions and personalities straight from the source. And the sources in this book are significant.

November 19, 2007

Review: Alicia Keys - As I Am

Self-confidence, together with talent, cultivates excellence. Such is certainly the case for Alicia Keys, who on her third studio album, As I Am, presents her strongest, most consistent effort yet with songs that defy superficial expression.

Indeed, the woman heard here imparts so much uninhibited conviction that her music often sounds like it was spiritually channeled rather than skillfully composed. Some songs evoke an old-school flavor while others feel entirely of the moment. Whatever the mood or the muse, though, Keys commands each one with a voice that’s matured into one almighty instrument.

While the emotive power of her voice exceeds almost anything she’s done prior, the album wouldn’t fare as well as it does if the songs themselves weren’t this good. “Teenage Love Affair” for instance, draws on a retro vibe and playful lyrics, with Keys as a coy schoolgirl who fools around with her crush before she sneaks back home. In a more grown-up scenario, “Lesson Learned,” which features John Mayer on both backing vocals and guitar, Keys guides a subtle groove with her piano while relating the heartache of a woman scorned yet strengthened by a broken relationship. And, with its Hip/Hop rhythms infused with dominant percussion, she wields “Wreckless Love” into a shameless plea for passion amid a fizzling romance.

It’s on “Sure Looks Good To Me,” the album’s closing track, that Keys exhibits the full breadth of her abilities. A piano begins the song, whereupon Keys sings in a voice achingly raw and soulful. The music evolves in its texture and progression, the sound of drums steadily rising toward a sonic plateau where the singer lets loose and wails, “I’m gonna risk it all/No freedom, no fall.” Organic in its tone, virulent in its intensity, and direct in its delivery, this song summarizes the album’s foremost theme of self-assurance.

As I Am constitutes the most cohesive album that Alicia Keys has created to date. While her preceding albums have illustrated a prodigious artist with formidable talent, this effort demonstrates an improvement and expansion of that talent.

November 16, 2007

Tom Petty Runs Down His Dream

The first time Tom Petty came home with some cash he’d earned from playing in a band, his mother thought he’d stolen it from somewhere.

At the time, the likelihood of a teenager in Gainesville, Florida making money by playing music seemed exceedingly remote and unrealistic. Yet, The Beatles’ iconic performance on the Ed Sullivan Show had galvanized Petty’s adolescent enthusiasm for music into a practical ambition, one that would feed a steadfast pursuit of a career in rock and roll. The story of that pursuit is chronicled in a fantastic new film, Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down A Dream.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, this four-hour documentary traces Petty’s life in full circle, from his youth in Gainesville to his momentous 2006 homecoming concert in commemoration of his thirtieth anniversary in music.

Tom Petty tells his own story here, along with Heartbreakers past and present. Vintage footage, including home movies and rare television show clips, supplements the narration with valuable context and substance. As well, commentary by the likes of Stevie Nicks, Jeff Lynne, Eddie Vedder, and Jackson Browne offer a unique perspective of Petty, from friends and colleagues who admittedly are as much fans as the people who come to his concerts.

Petty’s absolute sense of purpose, a trait evident since childhood, serves as the recurrent theme of this film. The way he explains it, he pursued his rock and roll dream as if there were never any alternatives or potential hindrances. The fact that he persuaded others to go along with his audacious plan seems all the more astonishing. For instance, when he first asked guitarist Mike Campbell to travel with him to Los Angeles in hope of scoring a record deal, Campbell conceded that he’d already planned to enroll at the University of Florida. “You don’t want to do that,” Petty dismissively said. When Campbell then commented that if he didn’t go to college, he’d likely have to join the Army because of the Vietnam draft, Petty sardonically shot back, “Oh, we’ll get around the Army.” That combination of brazen confidence, sheer determination, and naïve optimism underscores nearly every aspect of Petty’s career, which this film illustrates completely.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down A Dream remarkably chronicles a prolific career that’s yielded dozens of instantly recognizable songs and countless good times for all who’ve cared to listen. It’s an indispensable documentary on one of America’s most successful rock and roll bands, whose leader never backed down in aspiring to his ambition.

November 08, 2007

Clapton Lets It Rain in Autobiography

The blues resonated with Eric Clapton at a very young age. In this primal form of music, he viscerally responded to its themes of sorrow and loss, themes that in time would permeate his own music and, as fate would have it, his life.

In Clapton: The Autobiography, Eric Clapton comes clean with a memoir inundated with tragedy, substance abuse, and rampant sexual affairs. Whilst depicting such turmoil, he recounts his multifaceted career, one that even in its early stages saw him hailed as one of rock’s preeminent guitarists.

Forthright and with an unassuming sense of self-awareness, Clapton writes with remarkable clarity in not only narrating his personal evolution, but also describing his relative state of mind throughout that evolution. Exhibiting a wisdom learned the hard way, he comes across as a man consciously putting his complicated past into a coherent context.

In chronicling his career, Clapton offers reflective insight and assessment as opposed to specific analysis of technique or performance. Calling upon his purist conviction for the blues, he writes how that passion consistently guided his maturation as a musician. In an era when British pop groups flourished, he notes how he sought a divergent course altogether, purposely shunning music endeavors that didn’t correspond to his rigid sense of purpose. Even while his virtuosity as a guitarist in rock bands like Cream and Blind Faith garnered him immense acclaim and recognition, he seems to have perceived himself as pursuing an individual objective.

While music comprises his career and defines much of his life, Clapton’s substance addictions form the narrative arc of this autobiography. He openly describes the magnitude and the consequences of his alcoholism, from inciting drunken fights to crashing luxury sports cars. He also portrays his extensive abuse of drugs, heroin in particular, which wreaked havoc on his relationships as well as his mental state. While instances of substance abuse and addiction are not uncommon in the realm of rock and roll, Clapton’s addictions appear to have been sparked by uniquely traumatic origins. A series of shocking crises that occurred in his childhood elicited profound feelings of disillusionment and contempt, yielding an addictive impulse that would manifest in his behavior for decades. So whereas his friends and acquaintances perhaps indulged in drugs for pleasure or creative stimuli, Clapton succumbed to substance abuse, for the most part, as a means for coping with his conflicted emotions. His passages pertaining to his struggles to conquer his addictions and his ultimate rehabilitation are among the most touching accounts in the book.

Now with the benefit of sobriety and hindsight, Clapton acknowledges how his addictive tendencies influenced his often-chaotic relationships with women. Predominantly, he focuses on his romance and marriage with Pattie Boyd, his inspiration for “Layla” and “Wonderful Tonight.” He recounts his initial obsession and unrequited advances toward the woman while she was married to his best friend, George Harrison. Clapton then traces their eventual courtship and marriage, which he now admits was doomed by drug abuse and infidelity.

While Clapton exhibits a capacity for putting his past weaknesses and faults into a constructive perspective, he understandably offers no such rationalization regarding the death of his young son. It’s the only instance in the book where Clapton’s present expression mirrors the anguish he must have felt during the circumstance he’s recalling. Sounding like a haunted man, he methodically retraces the events surrounding the tragedy in gripping and unnerving detail. His enduring grief is palpable and profound.

As harrowing as it is fascinating, Clapton: The Autobiography renders a valiant portrait of an enigmatic music legend. Unsparingly honest and candid, Eric Clapton confides his life story with much the same sincerity that distinguishes his greatest music.

November 04, 2007

Album Review: Barry White - An Evening With Barry White

“I’m here, baby. I’m ready, baby.” 

Indeed, the Maestro of Love has taken the stage, all set to do his thang. Make sure the kids are out of the house, disconnect the telephone, and turn off the lights. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to get busy, courtesy of An Evening With Barry White.

Recorded on 9/9/99 at California’s Arrowhead Pond during what became the late legend’s final concert tour, White delivers his signature brand of soul with the consummate services of the Love Unlimited Orchestra.

Commencing with a sequence of classic jams, White sounds in superb form, his cavernous voice eliciting rapturous cries from the women in attendance. The symphonic seduction of “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” sets the tone for the show. At the song’s conclusion, the sumptuous music drops to a throbbing bass groove for “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next To Me”. A gut-busting drum solo then segues into “I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby,” which White performs to the hilt, effectively turning this concert hall into one giant bedroom.

Steeped in lush string and horn arrangements, a selection of ballads resonates especially well. White lets his voice soar on “Oh What A Night For Dancing” and “Playing Your Game, Baby,” both of which feature swelling crescendos. On his masterful version of “Just The Way You Are,” he croons for over eleven minutes, making it this album’s ultimate slowjam.

While the audience sounds utterly thrilled throughout the performance, it goes ballistic during some of White’s biggest hits. For example, “Practice What You Preach,” his resurgent hit single from the mid ‘90s, sounds even more enticing and than the original rendition. And “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” not only brings the crowd’s enthusiasm to its crest, it also yields White’s most astounding vocal performance.

As the only live album of his career, An Evening With Barry White makes for an appropriate souvenir of the man’s considerable talents. His proficiency as a songwriter, producer, arranger, and vocalist are all evidenced in this performance. What’s most apparent, though, is the mutual appreciation Barry White shared with his audience. Without a doubt, the Maestro of Love will be missed.

November 02, 2007

Album Review: Aretha Franklin - Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul

Quite literally a discovered treasure, a collection of vintage Aretha Franklin songs from her tenure at Atlantic Records had hitherto gone unnoticed for decades. Unearthed from the archives, this wealth of phenomenal music now comprises Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul.

While including demos, alternate mixes, and B-sides, this collection primarily consists of outtakes, which, for reasons inexplicable to anyone with the ability to perceive and appreciate sound, were left off their intended albums and not released on subsequent efforts.

A sweltering Muscle Shoals rhythm fuels many of the tracks, with Franklin’s inimitable voice blending secular themes with a gospel resolve. She digs deep on songs like “Talk To Me, Talk To Me” and “You’re Taking Up Another Man’s Place,” her exalted intonations galvanizing the music. She testifies like a smitten church girl on “I Need A Man (The To-To Song),” while a sly bass adds some sacred funk. And on “Heavenly Father,” this reverend’s daughter pleads for spiritual guidance in matters of the heart.

Erupting into a full-blown spiritual revival, Franklin duets with Ray Charles on “Ain’t But The One,” recorded during a 1973 television special in tribute to Duke Ellington. “It’s soul overload,” Franklin once said of her singing with Charles. “But give me more of where that comes from.” Amen.

One aspect of Franklin’s musicality that’s often overlooked yet fortunately highlighted on this collection is how she insulates a groove with the richness of her piano playing. On ballads like “It Was You” and “I Want To Be With You,” she takes her time while crooning over measured chord structures. Yet, on tracks with more thrust, like “The Happy Blues” and “Mr. Big,” she pounds on the piano like a sledgehammer, which suits her commanding vocal delivery. On “Mr. Big,” particularly, Lady Soul assertively moans, “I’ll rent me a room at school/If you’ll teach me all night.” Children, that’s not arithmetic she’s itching to learn.

While in no way detrimental to the overall quality of this collection, a discernible difference in sonic texture occurs on material not played by the accustomed Atlantic Records musicians. Specifically, eight songs originally recorded for Franklin’s album, Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky), which Quincy Jones produced instead of Atlantic mainstay Jerry Wexler, sound more technically refined than the thicker tones heard on the other tracks. With their blues and jazz overtones, songs such as “Do You Know” and “Tree Of Life” are immediate standouts, illustrating Franklin’s versatility as a vocalist. Again, these songs merely portray a shift in production, not a flaw in performance.

Actually, one would struggle to find genuine fault with just about anything on this collection. Perhaps some of Franklin’s cover versions may not be to one’s liking, but that correlates more to personal preference rather than to the merit of the music. Rare and Unreleased Recordings From the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul offers an abundance of mind-blowing, soul-stirring songs. In short, it doesn’t get much better than this.