January 29, 2008

Album Review: Willie Nelson - Moment Of Forever

Willie Nelson doesn’t mince words to make a point.

So when he sings “Louisiana,” the Randy Newman classic inspired by a 1927 flood that struck an eerily evocative chord in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Nelson modifies Newman’s sardonic lyrics to underscore the federal government’s incompetence in addressing this modern-day catastrophe. His voice warbling and weathered but unsparing in tone, he delivers an unembellished version of events:

President came down in his big airplane
With his little fat man with a notepad in his hand

President say, “Little fat man, oh, isn’t it a shame

What the river has done to this poor farmer’s land.”

In much the same way, whether on behalf of his country or his heart, Willie Nelson cuts to the bone, sounding authentic as ever on his latest album, Moment Of Forever.

The American music legend, who turns 75 this year, sounds like he still has something to prove and, with this effort, he succeeds. While interpreting ten tracks written by others, Nelson also contributes three original songs. Produced by Kenny Chesney and Buddy Cannon, the album works so well because the music accommodates Nelson’s vocal rather than distracting from it.

For instance, the title track and “Keep Me From Blowing Away,” both complemented by gentle acoustic guitars and piano, are among the most touching songs Nelson has offered in recent memory. Likewise, his performances on “Over You Again” and “Always Now” embrace a certain emotional vulnerability that makes him seem ironically resilient.

In addition to the aforementioned rendition of “Louisiana,” two other conspicuous covers stand out: Dave Matthews’ “Gravedigger” and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.” On the former, Nelson sounds as ominous as the shadowy music seething and swirling around him. On the latter, which runs nearly ten minutes long, he commands the pointed lyrics with such authority that this may indeed be the song’s definitive version.

Not to be eclipsed by darkness and dogma, Nelson displays his ubiquitous sense of humor on “You Don’t Think I’m Funny Anymore,” a self-penned tune on which he asks, “Did you hear the one about the dirty whore?” Of course, you probably won’t hear this one on your local country radio station.

All kidding aside, Moment Of Forever finds Willie Nelson in his element, singing quality material with absolute conviction. His distinctive ability to interpret a song that, in turn, gives voice to others, remains his greatest contribution to music.

January 24, 2008

IMAX Film Review: U23D

If you’ve ever experienced U2 in concert, you’re well aware that Bono can seem larger than life even when he’s physically in front of you. Beholding a three-dimensional projection of him on a massive IMAX screen quite literally solidifies that illusion. In a mind-boggling spectacle of sound and vision, U2 elevates the art of the concert film with U23D.

Recorded during the South American leg of the band’s Vertigo world tour, this film encapsulates much of the raw power of a U2 performance while pushing the boundaries of how a rock concert can be presented and ultimately appreciated. The visual tangibility generated by the 3D production draws the viewer not so much toward the screen as it does within the atmosphere of a packed stadium, amid the euphoria of transcendent rock and roll. Cameras zoom in and out from surreptitious angles and locations, yielding brilliant perspectives and fluid footage. Horizontal shots from the ground capture the sensation of being among the standing-room-only portion of the audience, watching the band while outstretched arms wave in front of your eyes. The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr. take their turns in the proverbial spotlight, their images and instruments gigantic and ostensibly within reach. Bono sings for you, to you, at you. He gets in your face when he wants some attention and you’ve no choice but to let the precocious frontman have his way.

While U23D doesn’t comprise a complete performance, at 80 minutes it does adequately represent the essential material and prevailing mood of the Vertigo tour. U2’s fundamental messages of advocating spiritual tolerance and defending human rights are certainly not lost or blurred in this elaborate and enthralling translation of technology. Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of this film is that the technology doesn’t distract from the actual performance. To the contrary, the integration of 3D and IMAX production facilitates a progressive way of perceiving and enjoying a thrilling rock concert.

At the top of their game on the most giant of screens, U2 can now quite earnestly lay claim as being the biggest band on the planet.

January 21, 2008

Waiting For the Miracle: Leonard Cohen To Tour

Leonard Cohen will embark on his first concert tour in fifteen years, according to a statement posted today on his official website. “Leonard will be touring with his band in Canada and US in May and in Europe in the summer,” it says before adding, “More details will be announced in February.”

While he has sparingly appeared at selective concerts and book signings, the legendary musician and author has not launched a full-scale concert tour since 1993 in support of his album, The Future. His most recent effort, Dear Heather, was released in 2004.

In a prolific career spanning five decades, Leonard Cohen has produced fourteen albums as well as ten books of poetry and two novels. Though he has maintained varying levels of success, his works and stature have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in recent years. In 2003, the Montreal native received his homeland’s highest civilian honor, Companion of the Order of Canada. In 2005, the documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, premiered in film festivals and movie theatres around the world.

2006 saw the publications of Book of Longing, Cohen’s first collection of original poetry in twenty-two years, as well as a 50th anniversary edition of his inaugural book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies. The same year, singer/songwriter (and Cohen paramour) Anjani released Blue Alert, an album produced from Cohen’s extensive surplus of lyrics.

Most recently, Cohen contributed a recitative version of “The Jungle Line” to Herbie Hancock’s all-star album, River: The Joni Letters, which is nominated for Album of the Year at this year’s Grammy Awards. And lastly, on March 10, Cohen will join Madonna, John Mellencamp, the Dave Clark Five, and the Ventures as an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

January 20, 2008

Johnathan Rice: No Ordinary Singer/Songwriter

For such a young guy, Johnathan Rice sure seems disillusioned — if not downright apathetic — on his latest album, Further North. Not that disillusionment and apathy are bad things to sing about; in fact, the 24-year old singer/songwriter does a real fine job of turning such sentiments into uniquely charismatic music.

Rice debuted in 2005 with Trouble Is Real, which not only showcased his deep and somber voice, but also his talent as a songwriter. The music leaned toward a rich sound, often with strings and a full band. This time around on his sophomore release, Rice has scaled the music down to evoke more of a primitive mood, replete with drums that wallop and thud amidst unadorned guitars.

He wrote six of Further North’s eleven tracks with his indie-rocker girlfriend, Jenny Lewis, who complements the album with much the same quirky aesthetic that she exhibits with Rilo Kiley. On “The End of the Affair,” a delicious little ditty that sounds too cute to cut so deep, they trade vicious barbs about saying goodbye. On the acerbic track, “We’re All Stuck Out In The Desert,” Rice sardonically asserts, “She calls the shots/That’s how we get along,” which sort of makes one wonder if he’s referring to his real-life sweetheart.

Two of the album’s most striking tracks feature driving rhythms with an expansive sound. “The Ballad Of King Coyote” rages like a backwoods bonfire, its music stark and rumbling while Rice’s voice booms through with an ominous air. And “THC” spills forth with a transcendental vibe, shrouded in wanton imagery and sonic derangement.

Throughout the album, Rice exhibits a curious vacancy in his voice that belies the brunt of some rather pointed lyrics, thus painting an odd paradox between the words and their expression. At one point during “It Couldn’t Be Me,” as the music sways at a pleasant pace, he sings, “She spoke with the prettiest mouth and she scorned me/She sharpened her teeth and flashed them to warn me.” And amid the vitriolic grunge of the title track, Rice insouciantly sings a litany of self-defeating prophecies, capping each verse with the refrain, “It’s all a waste of time.” Far from being worthless, Further North offers an intriguing set of distinctive songs. With his eccentricities and deadpan delivery, Johnathan Rice doesn’t come off as a conventional singer/songwriter, but that's not a bad thing and neither is this album.

January 14, 2008

CD Review: Olivia Newton-John - Olivia's Live Hits

Natural charisma is a hard thing to resist, especially when it accompanies a voice as lovely as that of Olivia Newton-John. Backed by the Sydney Symphony at the majestic Sydney Opera House, the Australian songstress sounds in superb form on a new concert compilation, Olivia’s Live Hits.

The most redeeming quality of this album isn’t so much that Newton-John sounds exquisite (although she does) or that the songs achieve a certain splendor by virtue of being performed by a symphony (yet they do). Rather, it’s the sincerity with which Newton-John imparts these familiar songs, all the while enlivening them with fresh enthusiasm.

She delivers a striking rendition of “Physical,” its once-peppy melody now rearranged all sultry and slow. She offers breathtaking versions of “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “I Honestly Love You,” two songs that benefit especially well from the musical minutiae afforded by a symphony. And, as if summoning her role as Sandy in Grease, she sings “You’re The One That I Want” with the same coyness and moxie that made John Travolta’s character take notice once and for all.

Three tracks from Xanadu offer some of the most spirited performances on this collection. Ms. Newton-John breathes fresh life into the buoyant title song as well as “Magic” and the stirring duet, “Suddenly,” which features a qualified backup singer assuming Cliff Richard’s original vocal.

The only discernible flaw of this album is its brevity. Clocking in at less than 38 minutes, it should have been expanded to comprise more songs, if not the complete concert (as does the corresponding DVD of this event, which boasts twenty-seven tracks). That being said, Olivia’s Live Hits certainly doesn’t lack for quality. There’s nothing disingenuous or obligatory in Olivia Newton-John’s performance. Her talent, positive energy, and ageless charm shine through luminously, all of which make for a delightful, albeit condensed, live album.

January 09, 2008

Book Review: The Lyrics of Tom Waits - The Early Years

A troubadour tanked on hard liquor, hunched over an upright piano in a smoky bar, laments over some romantic long shot or the one that got away. He sings short stories, setting dingy late-night scenes littered with misfits and streetwise women to music. These tales of the downtrodden, written not with contempt but with genuine empathy, are the work of Tom Waits.

Published by Ecco Press, a new anthology culls the expression and poetry from roughly the first decade of this maverick artist’s career in The Lyrics of Tom Waits – The Early Years. Specifically, the material collected here covers the period between Waits’ 1973 debut, Closing Time, through 1980’s Heartattack And Vine. Also included are his lyrics from the 1982 soundtrack of One From The Heart as well as those from both volumes of The Early Years, albums that comprise songs written before his proper debut.

On their respective albums, these songs represent a symbiosis of words and music, yet, on the page, the lyrics exhibit intrinsic qualities that merit singular analysis and appreciation. Much like his literary influences—particularly Kerouac, Burroughs, and Bukowski—Waits demonstrates a fluid cadence in his verse, especially in this era of his writing. Lyrics to “Step Right Up” and “Small Change (Got Rained On With His Own .38),” for instance, read like Beat vernacular, their meter manifested through free-flowing lines and cumulative stanzas.

Waits’ literary sensibilities not only extend to his poetic phrasing, but also to the narrative arrangement of his lyrics. The stories told in songs like “Tom Traubert’s Blues” and “Ruby’s Arms” contain as much character and thematic development as a work of short fiction. Depictions of third-shift slaves, drug pushers, sex peddlers, innocent victims, and derelicts who dream unfold as well on the page as they do in song.

The Lyrics of Tom Waits – The Early Years brilliantly draws attention to an aspect of this iconoclast’s craft that deserves recognition. During this seminal era of his career, Waits blurred the line between life and art to an indistinguishable extent. In many ways, Waits personified his characters, which not only added to his distinctive music’s appeal, but also forged his legend
one that endures to this day. The lyrics collected within this anthology are the integral manuscripts of that music.

January 03, 2008

Music Review: The Wreckers - Way Back Home: Live From New York City

The Wreckers more than proved themselves in the realm of country music with their 2006 album, Stand Still, Look Pretty, a well-crafted effort with as much kick and conviction as anything coming out of Nashville at the time. The duo of Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp harmonize so impeccably on record that, at times, their voices almost sound as one. Translating that chemistry to the concert stage would further confirm their validity as country artists and with the release of Way Back Home: Live From New York City, they demonstrate how well they’ve succeeded.

This live album includes DVD and CD versions of the Wreckers’ performance at the Bowery Ballroom in July 2007, each disc boasting the same thirteen tracks. While the DVD makes for enjoyable viewing, its most redeeming quality isn’t the visual production but rather the vocal performance. For that reason, the audio disc offers the more rewarding document of this event.

Branch and Harp sound like seasoned vocalists, their harmonies blending seamlessly regardless of tempo or style. Sparks fly on roadhouse rockers like “My, Oh My” and “Damn That Radio,” the latter written by Gretchen Wilson and Jason Deere. On slower songs such as “Crazy People” and the Wreckers’ biggest hit, “Leave The Pieces,” they deliver plenty of twang and honky-tonk despair.

Because of her success as a pop artist, Michelle Branch likely has more name recognition than her fellow Wrecker. Yet, it’s Jessica Harp who shines especially bright throughout this show. Two songs in particular, “Cigarettes” and the aching ballad, “Tennessee,” were written solely by Harp and she sings them with unguarded sincerity. She exhibits remarkable depth and insight in her songwriting, attributes that will no doubt enhance and influence her forthcoming solo album.

Still, by bringing their respective talents together, Michelle Branch and Jessica Harp achieve a unique symmetry in their sound. Way Back Home: Live From New York City suitably captures how the Wreckers create that sound in concert.