March 31, 2008

Rolling Stones Rule The Killing Floor with Shine A Light Soundtrack

Scoff all you want about their elder status in a young band’s domain. The Rolling Stones still run the Rock & Roll table at will. Issued to coincide with the theatrical release of Martin Scorsese’s film by the same name, the soundtrack to Shine A Light is a brazen, balls-to-the-wall live album.

Recorded over two nights at New York City’s Beacon Theatre in late 2006, the two-disc set comprises twenty-two tracks, four of which are not included in the film. The Stones wisely stick with what works, the most recent track dating back twenty-five years.

Armed with one of popular music’s ultimate catalogs, the band draws out rarities and hits with deliberate intent, brandishing them like select weaponry. Tenacious rockers abound – like “All Down The Line,” “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” “Shattered,” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” – while Charlie Watts keeps time with unassuming command.

Mick Jagger delivers more than a few electrifying performances, seldom sounding complacent, always exuding his roguish charisma. He swaggers through “Some Girls” and “Tumbling Dice” in inimitable cocksure form. He imparts “As Tears Go By” and “Faraway Eyes” with marked sincerity and, in the case of the latter, with a suitable honky-tonk twang. And he metes out an acerbic rendition of “Sympathy For The Devil,” his embodiment of Lucifer not only seeming absolute, but also strikingly appropriate.

Keith Richards, of course, musters up his own highlights at the microphone, as when he digs into “You Got the Silver,” singing out his ancient soul and trading dirty licks with Ronnie Wood. As well, on “Connection,” he shovels through the propulsive obscurity with certifiable cool.

Invited or not, artists who tread onto the Stones’ stage face an inherent risk, namely that they wind up looking foolish while attempting to hold sway with their hosts. Either they play it too safe or they try too hard, both scenarios rendering the same fate. Jack White, for instance, joins in on “Loving Cup,” but what should have inspired an assault of solos and riffs instead dwindles down to what sounds like a wholesome vocal duet. Conversely, all Christina Aguilera has to do is sing “Live With Me” with Jagger, but she exaggerates her voice – which ascends from wailing to howling to squealing – and overwhelms the song.

Leave it to Buddy Guy to get it just right. On the Muddy Waters barnstormer, “Champagne & Reefer,” the bluesman makes his total presence known, his booming voice and crying guitar steamrolling through – if not over – the playing of his loyal protégés. Damn right he’s got the blues and, at least for the duration of this song, Buddy Guy owns the Stones’ stomping ground too.

In the end, though, the Rolling Stones stand alone, getting their rocks off unrivaled and free to do what they want any old time. They’ve long deemed the concert stage as a killing floor. As a live album, Shine A Light exhibits how their enduring dominance still decimates lesser bands to nothing more than charlatans in their shadow, victims in their wake.

March 25, 2008

EP Review: Anna Nalick - Shine

When Anna Nalick debuted in 2005 with Wreck of the Day, she exhibited distinctive talent as a singer/songwriter and maturity beyond her years. On intuitive and penetrating songs like “Breathe (2 A.M.)” and “Catalyst,” she conveyed in her voice a certain sway — a low, sultry tremble — that revealed as much vulnerability as it did emotional insight.

Now in the process of completing her forthcoming full-length album, Nalick meanwhile offers up a respectable, albeit concise, five-song EP entitled Shine.

The title track, which comes in both full-band and acoustic versions, is the obvious standout and clearly the primary reason behind this release. In a manner both direct and empathetic, the song encourages and comforts those who may have lost sight — amidst a world with more negative than positive influences — of who they are at heart. Nalick gets her point across with incisive lines like, “There are times when the poets and pornstars align and/You won’t know who to believe in.” The acoustic take on “Shine,” in particular, strips away all luster to focus even more on the words and their overall message.

Also included is a sparse and piercing cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ track, “Breaking the Girl,” which Nalick strikingly turns on its head. She sticks to Anthony Kiedis’ lyrical point of view, thus enriching the already-beguiling sense of this song.

Acoustic renditions of “Wreck of the Day” and “Breathe (2 A.M.),” both derived from their original forms on her debut, round out the set as valid and expressive performances rather than dispensable filler. All together, Shine further illustrates Anna Nalick’s emergent skill and sophistication as an artist, if only to a relatively brief extent.

March 24, 2008

Book Review: Greetings From Bury Park

Born in Pakistan and raised in England, Sarfraz Manzoor grew up in a state of discontent, invariably torn between the contradictions of his heritage and his personal ambition. When a college friend introduced him to the music of Bruce Springsteen, Manzoor considered it a revelation, one that would serve as self-affirmation and inspiration in an environment that seldom encouraged either.

Given what could have comprised an impressive memoir, though, Greetings From Bury Park suffers from a fragmented narrative and flawed thematic development.

Manzoor renders the chapters more or less thematically rather than chronologically, which accounts for much of the book's inconsistency. Moreover, though, the writer doesn't support his assertion of how Springsteen's music bolstered his desire to define his identity and sense of purpose.

The basics of the account, at any rate, suggest a potentially compelling story with cultural enlightenment. As a toddler, Manzoor emigrated from his native Pakistan to the Luton, England neighborhood of Bury Park along with his mother and siblings. His father, having already moved to England eleven years prior to earn enough income to prepare for and provide an eventual home, awaited their arrival.

In the setting of contemporary British society, Manzoor was indoctrinated by his parents to abide by the tenets of his Pakistani heritage and Muslim faith. He learned that cultural obligations and expectations usurped personal preference, and that honoring one's family trumped all other secular values.

As adolescence set in and the free will of adulthood beckoned, however, Manzoor writes that he began to question his allegiance to the mores of Pakistan—a country in which he neither resided nor felt any direct bond toward—as well as his adhering to principles he didn't altogether comprehend or necessarily espouse. He clashed often with his traditionalist father over matters as significant as marriage and ones as comparably inconsequential as attending a rock concert.

It's within the context of these formative circumstances that Manzoor declares, yet fails to establish the book's purported central theme: how his fervent appreciation for Bruce Springsteen's music influenced the perceptions he harbored of his culture and his very identity. He writes that, after listening to a friend's cassette of Springsteen's songs, he immediately felt connected with and enlivened by the musician's work.

Unfortunately, he doesn't underscore this resonance with sufficient insight, instead supplying facts—such as his collecting of bootlegs and his eventual attending of Springsteen concerts—while making scarce mention of why this music by this artist meant so much to him in the first place. While Sarfraz Manzoor need not reenact some specific epiphany or offer a grand testimonial to substantiate his affinity for Bruce Springsteen's music, not explaining how or why he identified with it inevitably relegates the book's alleged premise to a mere incidental distinction.

Greetings From Bury Park contains the elements of a great story that could have assimilated cultural perspective with the power of rock and roll, but its exposition ultimately lacks continuity and breadth.

March 19, 2008

Album Review: Kate Voegele - Don’t Look Away

There’s just something about a girl who plays guitar. When that girl also sings with passion and writes some quality songs, the impression resonates even more. With her debut album, Don't Look Away, twenty-one year old singer/songwriter Kate Voegele exceeds all such criteria, signaling the arrival of a promising new artist.

With qualified craft and conviction, Voegele imparts an astute pop sensibility while, at the same time, enveloping the energy of rock and roll. Her voice compares to those of contemporaries like Michelle Branch and Anna Nalick, yet Voegele’s overall sound – vocals and music – suggests some veteran and sonically edgier influences. Thus, one can hear traces of Fleetwood Mac and Linda Ronstadt, but also of Pat Benatar and Heart. In her own way and when she’s at her most affecting, Voegele offers what such predecessors delivered in their relative primes: songs as solid in composition as they are in expression.

The tracks that best achieve this balance are ones with well-defined melodies or hooks, as well as strong, compelling vocals. On rockers like “Might Have Been” and “I Get It,” Voegele sings with sass and assertion, her voice matching the intensity of their punchy, guitar-driven grooves. She demonstrates soulful and emotional depth on “I Won’t Disagree” and “Kindly Unspoken,” both songs sobered by a piano’s melancholic tone. And with “Top of the World,” she parlays comparable depth yet with layered harmonies and more rhythmic intimations.

Her creative diversity and versatility pay off the most on “Only Fooling Myself” and “It’s Only Life,” which respectively combine melodic and harmonic elements of pop with the thrust and substance of rock to yield equally stirring and powerful performances.

With Don't Look Away, Kate Voegele has begun to carve out her own niche as a unique singer/songwriter. She exhibits confidence grounded in talent, ambition, and effort. Such attributes make for an impressive debut album and suggest even better music to come.

March 13, 2008

Album Review: Jackson Browne - Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2

If you’ve taken in one of Jackson Browne’s solo acoustic performances, you’re well aware of the distinct pleasure of that experience. A visceral energy fills the concert hall – an altogether different vibe than that of a show with a full band – where the audience is collectively invested and steeped in each song.

In 2005, Browne released Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1, which brilliantly showcased classics like “Fountain of Sorrow,” “Your Bright Baby Blues,” and “For A Dancer” in the context of these unique events. And now, the legendary singer/songwriter delivers an equally spectacular set of hits and album cuts on Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2.

The live and acoustic setting certainly reflects an intimate feel, yet the warm rapport between artist and audience comes across all the more. Browne’s gracious and often-amusing interaction with the crowd is included between some tracks, adding spontaneity and perspective to songs. Further, he doesn’t rely on a setlist, instead playing what he prefers or – more often than not – taking requests. “Oh, you want to hear that?” he asks before settling into “Somebody’s Baby” on the piano. Sometimes a request is more obscure, like one for “Redneck Friend,” but he obliges with a potent performance.

Alternating between piano and several acoustic guitars, Browne offers absorbing and soulful renditions of some of his finest compositions. On “Sky Blue and Black,” he immerses himself in the song’s sweeping melody, his voice rich with compassion. He plays “Alive In the World” and “In the Shape of a Heart” with similar conviction and conscience, painting both songs with fresh perception.

Four of the twelve tracks originated on Browne’s most recent studio release, The Naked Ride Home. Considering the breadth of his back catalog, that’s a large portion to pull from one album – especially one not considered among his seminal works – but the songs hold up surprisingly well. “The Night Inside Me” and “My Stunning Mystery Companion,” in particular, sound as relevant and touching as almost anything else on this collection.

While Solo Acoustic, Vol. 2 serves as the logical complement to its predecessor, it firmly stands on its own as an outstanding live album. Jackson Browne represents a masterful songwriter delivering one great song after another. Few do it this well and with this much integrity.

March 11, 2008

Leonard Cohen Announces World Tour on Heels of Rock Hall Induction

On the evening of his induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Leonard Cohen released details of his first world tour in fifteen years. Confirmed by the Canadian artist’s official website, the much-anticipated tour will commence on June 6 with a two-night stand in Toronto. Three consecutive dates later in the month at the Montreal Jazz Festival mark the only other North American performances on the issued itinerary, but additional dates are expected to surface soon. A series of European dates fill out the schedule, including appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival as well as at England’s mammoth Glastonbury Festival.

On Monday night at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, the music and literary legend received a distinguished welcome as he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Following a sprawling yet heartfelt tribute by Lou Reed, Cohen took to the podium, his hands a bit shaky with age, but his deep voice – as well as his wit – still very much in command. Modifying a famous and prophetic line once written about a young Bruce Springsteen, he deadpanned, “I have seen the future of Rock and Roll, and he is not Leonard Cohen.” Indeed, he appeared a bit bemused by his inclusion in the Rock and Roll pantheon, but his humble appreciation of the honor was nothing short of genuine. He concluded his remarks by reciting the words to “Tower of Song,” punctuating each verse with a cadence equally assertive and insightful. His rendering of the last stanza, in particular, seemed strikingly appropriate:

Now I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back
They’re moving us tomorrow to that tower down the track
But you’ll be hearing from me baby, long after I’m gone
I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the Tower of Song

Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice delivered a sparse and inspired performance of “Hallelujah,” evocative more of the late Jeff Buckley’s somber rendition than Cohen’s original. Regardless, the song’s author certainly received his due.

The confirmed details of Leonard Cohen’s 2008 world tour are as follows:

06-Jun-08 Toronto, Canada Sony Centre For The Performing Arts

(Tickets go on sale Saturday, March 15, 11:00 a.m. EST)

07-Jun-08 Toronto, Canada Sony Centre For The Performing Arts
(Tickets go on sale Saturday, March 15, 11:00 a.m. EST)

14-Jun-08 Dublin, Ireland IMMA

15-Jun-08 Dublin, Ireland IMMA

17-Jun-08 Manchester, UK Opera House

18-Jun-08 Manchester, UK Opera House

19-Jun-08 Manchester, UK Opera House

20-Jun-08 Manchester, UK Opera House

23-Jun-08 Montreal, Canada Montreal Jazz Festival / Place des Arts
(Tickets go on sale Thursday, March 13, 12:00 p.m. EST)

24-Jun-08 Montreal, Canada Montreal Jazz Festival / Place des Arts
(Tickets go on sale Thursday, March 13, 12:00 p.m. EST)

25-Jun-08 Montreal, Canada Montreal Jazz Festival / Place des Arts
(Tickets go on sale Thursday, March 13, 12:00 p.m. EST)

29-Jun-08 Glastonbury, UK Glastonbury Festival
01-Jul-08 Oslo, Norway Aliset Stadium

03-Jul-08 Helsingborg, Sweden Open Air

05-Jul-08 Copenhagen, Denmark Rosenborg Castle

06-Jul-08 Arhuus, Denmark Raadhus Parken

08-Jul-08 Montreux, Switzerland Montreux Jazz Festival

09-Jul-08 Lyon, France Festival

10-Jul-08 Bruges, Belgium Cactus

12-Jul-08 Amsterdam, Holland Westerdam

16-Jul-08 Edinburgh, UK Castle

17-Jul-08 London, UK The 02 Arena

19-Jul-08 Lisbon, Portugal Passeio Maritimo

20-Jul-08 Bennicasim, Spain Festival

22-Jul-08 Nice, France Jazz Festival

25-Jul-08 Lorrach, Germany Stimmen De Welt

27-Jul-08 Lucca, Italy Summer Festival

29-Jul-08 Athens, Greece Lykabettus Theatre

March 07, 2008

DVD Review: Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1957-1965

Given that no other popular music group has garnered as much critical and creative analysis as The Beatles, any new book or film release claiming to add substantive perspective to what’s already been documented should be regarded with relative skepticism. Or, at the minimum, a keen sense of discerning the validity in the presented material. In one of the latest critiques, a DVD entitled Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1957 – 1965, the twentieth century’s most successful songwriting partnership is discussed and examined.

Much like the Under Review series of music documentaries, this film features commentary by journalists (including Anthony DeCurtis, Nigel Williamson, and Robert Christgau) and friends or associates of the subjects (including Barry Miles and Klaus Voorman). As well, archival clips of The Beatles complement the observations, but this is an unauthorized film so the footage is negligible. And though the title suggests that the content addresses matters as far back as 1957, the film only provides cursory (and otherwise well-known) information about the band’s formation, concentrating mostly on the period spanning With The Beatles and Rubber Soul.

In essence, the film summarizes the two principle songwriters’ working dynamic and how the partnership theoretically progressed from Lennon/McCartney to Lennon versus McCartney. The boldest contention made is that, in the band’s early years, the collaborators’ prime objective was to write “Beatles-sounding” music, not necessarily “John” or “Paul” songs. The panelists accordingly agree that on tracks like “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You,” Lennon and McCartney’s voices sound virtually synonymous. That logic only sustains so far, though, if one considers Lennon’s vocal on “This Boy” or McCartney’s singing on “I Saw Her Standing There,” both tracks from the band’s earliest era.

If you know your Beatles history (as only those with serious knowledge of the band will have the fortitude to watch this film), you’ll likely feel compelled to argue with some of the commentators. It’s not because they’re factually wrong or radically off base in their assessments; it’s simply because their opinions can often be refuted or discounted. For instance, hearing Robert Christgau explain why he prefers the Lennon-penned “Hard Days Night” to the McCartney-penned “Can’t Buy Me Love” doesn’t make me like the latter any less.

Overall, Composing The Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1957 – 1965 gives Beatles fans a critical synopsis of information and stories that they probably already know some version of by heart. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of original or enlightening information, but those with sufficient knowledge of the band’s history will find it at least somewhat interesting.

March 06, 2008

Album Review: Dolly Parton - Backwoods Barbie

For all her flamboyance and showbiz kitsch, Dolly Parton is, at heart, an exceptional songwriter. Having written country classics like “Coat of Many Colors” and “Jolene” as well as crossover pop hits like “Here You Come Again” and “9 To 5,” Parton stands as one of music’s most inimitable storytellers. On Backwoods Barbie – marketed as her first mainstream country release in 17 years – she contributes nine original compositions and, in doing so, delivers a rewarding album that plays to her greatest strength as an artist.

Actually, it seems a bit of a slight to pigeonhole this album as strictly country music, as the songs vary in style to include elements of Celtic, pop, and even jazz. The saucy lament, “The Lonesomes,” for instance, sounds like something Norah Jones could sink right into with its piano-bar melancholy. As well, “Only Dreamin’,” in its striking use of a tin whistle and bodhran drum, summons a mystical, almost primeval mood. And though the music never leans drastically toward disparate genres, it doesn’t sound entirely characteristic of the Grand Ole Opry either.

What’s invariable on this album is Dolly Parton’s distinctive ability to tell a story through song. In the poignant ballad, “Cologne,” she assumes the role of the other woman in an extra-marital affair, having to quit wearing perfume so as to not leave a scent on her man when he returns to his wife. Conversely, in “Made Of Stone,” she plays a woman scorned, the one forced to confront her husband’s transparent infidelity. And on “Shinola,” she’s been wronged one too many times as she sings with venom in her voice, “I’m calling you out ‘cause I don’t need this crap/I’m gettin’ myself out of Dodge.” If the latter was inspired by real life events, someone got seriously dissed by Dolly.

Perhaps because she’s a songwriter first and foremost, Parton understands full well how to interpret a song, even ones she hasn’t written. Of the three songs that didn’t originate from her own pen, “Jesus And Gravity” towers above the rest. To call it inspirational would be a vast understatement. The remaining two covers, “Drives Me Crazy” (edited from the Fine Young Cannibals’ original) and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tracks Of My Tears,” have their intrinsic merits, yet they pale in comparison not only to “Jesus And Gravity,” but also to Parton’s original contributions to the album.

So while Dolly Parton’s often-cartoonish image may overshadow it at times, her talent as a musician, but especially as a songwriter, is considerable and evident in this effort. In the self-describing title track, she comes to a similar conclusion, singing, “I’ve always been misunderstood because of how I look/Don’t judge me by the cover ‘cause I’m a real good book.” And Backwoods Barbie is a real good album.

March 03, 2008

Clapton & Winwood Bring Blind Faith and the Blues in Concert

When Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood reunited for a short set at last year’s Crossroads Festival in Chicago, their chemistry sparked in ways that left fans wowed and wanting more. Last week in New York City, they reconvened for their first full-length concerts together since the breakup of Blind Faith in 1969. Closing out a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden on February 28, the two legends thrilled a sold-out audience with plenty of awe-inspiring moments and one colossal setlist.

Indeed, this was no routine greatest-hits concert, but a blues-heavy fusion of Blind Faith mixed with selective songs from their respective careers as well as others from peers and influences. Rounding out the band were bassist Willie Weeks, keyboardist Chris Stanton, and drummer Ian Thomas. Setting the tone straight off, Clapton dug into the leaden riff of “Had To Cry Today” as Winwood’s soaring voice took flight.

Following a brisk cover of J.J. Cale’s “Low Down,” both men ran roughshod through Clapton’s “Forever Man,” the song sounding far ballsier than its original version. Winwood somberly announced the passing of musician Buddy Miles before a raucous rendition of “Them Changes” was played in his honor. And when Clapton commenced with “Presence Of The Lord,” the celestial energy in the air felt electric.

Winwood offered particularly striking performances of Traffic songs, from the rollicking instrumental, “Glad,” which segued into “Well All Right,” to a sparse and mesmerizing rendition of “No Face, No Name, No Number,” drawing a massive ovation from the audience.

In back-to-back solo segments, Clapton played an acoustic guitar on “Kind Hearted Woman Blues” before Winwood took to the Hammond organ, arguably giving his finest vocal performance of the night with “Georgia On My Mind.” Clapton (and others, assuredly) has compared Winwood’s voice – as far back as his days with the Spencer Davis Group – to that of a “white” Ray Charles. On this song, he sounded genuinely like Ray Charles.

With everyone reassembled on stage, Clapton and Winwood began what would amount to a monstrous, nearly twenty-minute homage to Hendrix. With “Little Wing,” they played with skill and reverence. On “Voodoo Chile,” they plowed through an extended and devastating surge of blues and passion, saturated by Clapton’s fiery solos and Winwood’s ascending vocals until the song – and the concert – reached critical mass.

Revisiting their shared past one last time, Clapton and Winwood gave a fantastic performance of “Can’t Find My Way Home,” its ethereal aura brilliant as ever. “Cocaine” then erupted to close out the main set, with Clapton going to work on the wah-wah pedal while the audience danced in the aisles. And in all its psychedelic glory, “Dear Mr. Fantasy” served as the consummate encore, beginning with its trippy groove and climbing toward its frenetic climax and ultimate conclusion. Much like their set at Crossroads, this magnificent concert as well as the entire three-night stand will undoubtedly have fans of Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood clamoring for even more.