December 30, 2007

Review: Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full [Deluxe Edition]

As the initial artist signed to the Starbucks music label, Hear Music, Paul McCartney released Memory Almost Full this past June. Debuting at number three on the US album charts, it has since garnered three Grammy nominations. Now, reissued with a new DVD of recent concert footage and promotional videos, you can watch and listen to what the man says on the deluxe version of Memory Almost Full.

On his previous album, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard, McCartney exhibited a renewed concentration on his craft, the result of a disciplined approach to songwriting, performance, and production. On Memory Almost Full, he preserves much the same focus, yet his performances yield a bit more spontaneity and spunk. Tracks like “Only Mama Knows” and “Nod Your Head” rock and rumble with a youthful exuberance. “Dance Tonight” jangles to a catchy mandolin riff and foot-stomping beat. “That Was Me” bustles along to a playful melody. These are but a few examples why this effort not only stands as a solid McCartney album, but also as one of the year’s best.

The DVD included in this deluxe version does have its merits, but most of the material will appeal primarily to McCartney completists. Five performances, taped live at London’s Electric Ballroom in 2007 and which comprise four album cuts as well as “Drive My Car,” come off as superfluous. As good as it sounds, the visual presentation of selective songs lacks continuity and ultimately doesn’t translate well to video. A far superior concert recording of tracks from this album (as well as two classic Wings songs) can be found on the digital EP, iTunes Festival: London – Paul McCartney.

Rounding out the DVD are two promotional videos, for “Dance Tonight” and “Ever Present Past.” The surrealistic video for “Dance Tonight” features the ever-charming Natalie Portman, making this short film a delight to watch. The video for “Ever Present Past” shows McCartney clumsily dancing in a choreographed sequence among a troupe of female clones. He looks a bit silly and out of step, but perhaps that’s the point. He’s obviously not trying to emulate Baryshnikov with this routine.

For McCartney completists, this deluxe version of Memory Almost Full should complement your overflowing collection. However, for casual or curious fans, the bonus DVD doesn’t add much to what, on its own, is a splendid album.

December 27, 2007

Rock & Roll Alchemy: Magic is the Album of the Year

A good storyteller knows how to craft a convincing narrative, one in which specific circumstances and characters express a universal sentiment or ideal. Rock and roll allows a story to be told to the beat of a drum, the chords of an electric guitar, the rhythm and melody of music. In 2007, Bruce Springsteen blended his literary songwriting skill with the energy and resourcefulness of the E Street Band to create Magic, the best album of the year.

Springsteen’s distinguished ability to lyrically personalize abstract issues is apparent throughout this album. As well, his deftness in delivering a dark message with often-incongruous music is remarkable. “Gypsy Biker,” for instance, is ostensibly a eulogy to a war-fallen friend, with eloquent lyrics imparting condolence. Yet an onslaught of raw guitar symbolizes anger toward the powers that allow such senseless death to happen in the first place. Such dichotomy of words and music, the conflation of two divergent elements to tell one story, manifests throughout Magic.

Indeed, this effort illustrates much of what makes Bruce Springsteen such a significant artist. He’s Steinbeck with a Stratocaster and this is his Winter Of Discontent.

December 21, 2007

Do It Again: Top Cover Songs of 2007

Something intriguing occurs when an artist or band takes on someone else’s song. The interpreter may cover that song by adhering to hallmarks of the original version, but hopefully enough distinctiveness shines through to make it a worthwhile performance and not merely a facsimile. Here are ten of the best cover songs from this past year.

10) “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” – Velvet Revolver

One of ELO’s sweetest brews gets spiked with something a bit more virulent. Velvet Revolver plays in hard-rock mode yet preserves the original track’s melodic sensibilities. Slash stirs in a beguiling guitar performance, and the song sounds intoxicating in a whole new light.

9) “Paper Moon” – Erin McKeown
Sing You Sinners

Ms. McKeown plays it cute and sassy, turning this swingin’ old song into a bouncy little ditty that would’ve made Sinatra blush.

8) “Goin’ Out West” – Queens of the Stone Age
Sick, Sick, Sick [EP]

One of Tom Waits’ most fuel-injected tracks shifts into high-octane overdrive with QOTST behind the wheel. One can almost picture Waits and QOTST racing cross-country, barreling toward the same squalid destination.

7) “Stuck Inside Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again”: Cat Power
I’m Not There OST

At times it seems like she’s trying to inject Bob Dylan’s inflections on this, but Cat Power can’t escape the viscous essence of her own voice. For a woman known for delivering remarkable covers, this one ranks as one her finest.

6) “Court And Spark” – Herbie Hancock featuring Norah Jones
River: The Joni Letters

Norah Jones slips into this song with sophisticated ease, her sultry voice wafting above Hancock’s sparse and measured arrangement. Joni Mitchell’s songs pose a certain amount of complexity for any interpreter, but Norah Jones consummately succeeds.

5) “Longer” – Babyface

Babyface’s tender rendition of this timeless love song would have made this list by its own merit anyway, but now it holds added poignancy in light of Dan Fogelberg’s untimely passing.

4) “You Sexy Thing” – Stereophonics
Radio 1 Established 1967 [UK import]

To start, Kelley Jones wails his raspy voice over a crude guitar and it almost feels like we’re in for a slow, folksy rendition of this Hot Chocolate gem. Then, at the 25-second mark, Stereophonics lay down the proverbial funk and proceed to get their ever-loving groove on.

3) “I Am The Walrus” – Bono & Secret Machines
Across The Universe OST

Chaotic music and trippy effects swirl and scrape as Bono brings an unbridled ferocity to one of The Beatles most psychedelic compositions. Goo goo g’joob.

2) “Gimme Shelter” – Patti Smith

The Rolling Stones made an ominous apocalypse sound erotic and eerie. Patti Smith, with her unembellished yet poetic gravitas, makes such a prospect seem unnervingly imminent.

1) "(Just Like) Starting Over" – The Flaming Lips
Instant Karma! The Amnesty International Campaign To Save Darfur

By distilling John Lennon’s original to its quintessence, the Flaming Lips impart this song with ethereal tenderness. Wayne Coyne sings it almost with a lump in his throat. His vulnerable sincerity will surely put a lump in yours.

December 18, 2007

Love Falls by Esther Freud Is Exceptional (Book Review)

Like many a teenage girl, Lara Riley contends with awkward insecurities. At 17, she’s yet to feel comfortable in her own skin, the effects of adolescence having enhanced her lanky childhood frame into a nubile feminine body. Her timid disposition leads her to perceive people, especially those of the opposite sex, with caginess and naïve curiosity.

When Lara accepts her father’s unexpected invitation to spend the summer at an ailing friend’s lavish villa in Italy, she soon befriends an affluent family who, in different yet considerable ways, test her sense of identity and purpose as a young woman. In what becomes an exploration of self-discovery and sexual awakening amid precarious circumstances, Lara Riley comes of age in an exceptional new novel by Ester Freud, entitled Love Falls.

Set primarily within the Tuscan town of Siena, the novel illustrates its opulent culture and architecture, landmarks like the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo, with intricate and vibrant detail. Depictions of Il Palio, the renowned annual horse race, as well as its peripheral festivities, convey the keen hysteria among aficionados of the event.

Having been raised by her mother, Lara has grown up with a sporadic and somewhat cursory relationship with her father, a reserved British historian named Lambert Gold. Given their level of unfamiliarity, Lara regards her father with mild trepidation, albeit with customary parental deference. The prospect of spending a summer with him for the first time in her life, though, seems daunting at the outset. As she self-consciously deals with defining her burgeoning sense of self, Lara also ponders her uncertain role as Lambert’s daughter.

Once in Siena, Lara meets the Willoughbys, a wealthy family with a zest for extravagance and pleasure. As she gets acquainted with them, she nervously observes their interactions with each other, how they flirt with one another’s spouse or companion, how the men act audacious, how the women respond with playful complacency. With a sense of wonder, Lara beholds their body language, their unashamed openness, their mischievous group dynamic. In a foreign country where everyone except her father is a stranger, Lara is beguiled by this family’s gregarious and peculiar charisma.

One of the Willoughbys entices her unlike anyone else. When Lara meets Kip, the youngest member of the family, she feels an ambush of all her teenage insecurities and reticence. Her senses more heightened than usual, she’s self-conscious of her body’s sinuous curves and slopes. She’s wary of any superfluous attention her appearance receives. She knows boys find her attractive, but she doesn’t quite appreciate how or why. Yet when she’s with Kip, despite all her anxieties and quirks, Lara feels a visceral rush.

Flooded with unfamiliar emotions toward Kip, Lara soon discerns an undercurrent of curious tension not only among her acquaintances, but also with her father. If her sense of security proves false or fractures, everything she’s accepted on faith or as fact will come into question. Lara’s doubts turn into taut suspicion as her world -- her perception of love, family, and her very identity -- threatens to unravel. Questions need answers, but Lara fears the unalterable consequences of learning the truth.

Esther Freud brilliantly captures the discomfited spirit of adolescence, all the while telling a meticulous and enthralling story. With keen precision, she laces incidents with implications and actions with unforeseen effects. At times a narrative of passion and youthful indulgence, other times one of betrayal and dismay, Love Falls depicts a young woman’s urgent quest to realize the validity of her existence.

December 16, 2007

Anita Baker Brings Sweet Love In Concert

“Bring on the love songs!” an ebullient Anita Baker proclaimed as the first notes of “Sweet Love” cascaded into soulful bliss. Marking her first-ever appearance at Clearwater, Florida’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on December 14, the incomparable songstress put on a commanding performance for a welcoming, sold-out audience.

As far as Baker's concerned, performing involves as much physical expression as it does vocal. A diminutive dynamo in stiletto heels, Baker sashayed and twirled across the stage to the rhythm of her 10-piece band, all the while singing with inspiration and might. And her voice, with its thick and sensual tone, sounded nothing short of exquisite.

Connoisseurs of Baker’s inimitable blend of jazz and soul recognize her 1986 breakthrough effort, Rapture, as a seminal achievement, one that undeniably facilitated her future success. Perhaps for that reason, Baker invariably referenced it throughout the night, ultimately performing the album in its entirety. Pop hits like “No One In The World” and “Same Ole Love (365 Days A Year)” sounded vibrant and fresh, the former drawing on a delectable groove, the latter packing an insatiable punch. Album cuts reserved for late-night quiet storms, such as “Mystery” and “You Bring Me Joy,” embodied sophisticated seduction.

Sadly, given the concentration on Rapture, only a few songs from Baker’s other albums found their way into the set. A breathtaking rendition of “Giving You The Best That I’ve Got,” which showcased Baker’s finesse with phrasing and inflection, was arguably the evening’s consummate highlight. And the encore featured the early hit, “Angel,” as well as a feisty take on “Fairy Tales.” Yet, a host of gems, songs like “Just Because,” “Body And Soul,” “Good Love,” “I Apologize,” and “Soul Inspiration,” never made the cut. Curiously, her most recent album, My Everything, didn’t yield any performances at all.

That being said, the songs Anita Baker did perform sounded spectacular. Her range, power, and versatility as a vocalist are astonishing and such was evident on this night. Thus, while the song selection could have favored more diversity, the oversight of some material only makes her fans eager to welcome her return.

December 07, 2007

Tony Bennett Delivers Flawless Performance

Tony Bennett personifies excellence and class. On December 5, before a sold-out audience at Clearwater, Florida’s Ruth Eckerd Hall, the music legend delivered a flawless ninety-minute performance of time-honored hits and standards.

Taking the stage to a standing ovation, Bennett, dressed in a dark-blue suit with silver tie, commenced with “Watch What Happens.” Backed by a four-piece ensemble, he sauntered across the stage to the swing of the music, looking far spryer than his age of 81 would otherwise suggest.

More impressive than his vitality, of course, is Bennett’s extraordinary voice. Deepened and enriched by decades of experience, it seemingly has lost none of its resonant power. On animated versions of “Sing You Sinners” as well as “The Best Is Yet To Come,” the latter featuring former Count Basie drummer Harold Jones, Bennett sang with astonishing range and resilience.

Songs like “The Way You Look Tonight” and a measured version of “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” allowed Bennett to accentuate the subtleties of his sound, conveying each inflection’s importance, every note’s absolute necessity. He treated “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” with utmost consideration, singing his signature song like he’d just discovered its charm. And he concluded an impassioned rendition of “For Once In My Life” with a soaring crescendo, eliciting yet another enthusiastic ovation.

“Turn the sound off,” Bennett directed the audio engineer as he lay his microphone down. To the accompaniment of his now-acoustic ensemble, he performed “Fly Me To The Moon” with supreme command and passion, his unamplified voice booming toward the back rows of the concert hall. In a night of magnificent moments, this one topped them all.

Bennett then brought the evening to a close with “How Do You Keep The Music Playing,” summoning as much emotion as the poignant song requires.

At one point in the show, Tony Bennett reflected on his sixty-year career, saying that he wished he could sing for another sixty years. Much to the man’s delight, his audience whole-heartedly agreed.