May 24, 2008

Donna Summer Still Hot Stuff On New Album

Too often with pop music, especially with dance-oriented music, slick production techniques supersede the expectation of an artist possessing actual singing ability. Clever hooks and beats compensate for any vocal deficiencies, rendering the artist all but incidental to the overall creation. Such was certainly the case in the age of disco, yet Donna Summer stood out specifically because, in addition to delivering some of the ‘70s’ most exquisitely sophisticated and sensual songs, she could sing the hell out of them.

On her first album of new material in seventeen years, Crayons, Summer is invigorated and sensational, demonstrating to all aspiring divas and dynamos that nothing takes the place of genuine talent.

In ways that embrace her classic sound while exploring diverse and contemporary sonic textures, Summer thrives here with songs simmering with discothèque thrust and body-rocking bravado. Throbbing, swirling beats surge through irresistible joints like “Fame (The Game)” and “Mr. Music” while tracks like “Science Of Love” and “Stamp Your Feet” boast more straightforward (though no less danceable) rhythms. Elements of world music accentuate songs such as the Latin-tinged “Drivin’ Down Brazil” and the reggae-fortified title track, the latter a sizzling collaboration with Ziggy Marley.

Ever the eminent and seasoned songstress, Summer employs her voice with just the right amount of sensuality and might. When a song calls for subtlety, as on the joyful love ballad, “Sand On My Feet,” she sings in delicate, almost girlish tones. When the mood and tempo intensify, as on the seven-minute jam, “I’m A Fire,” she throws down like nobody’s business.

Donna Summer’s most obvious allusion to her ‘70s zenith comes on “The Queen Is Back,” in which she name checks “On The Radio” and “Love To Love You Baby” almost to suggest that she can do now what she did back when…and then some. In listening to Crayons, it’s clear that the lady does indeed live up to her legend and still can sing, with consummate and authentic skill, until the last dance.

May 19, 2008

Scarlett Johansson Covers Tom Waits, Gets Lost In Translation

A certain irony exists in criticizing the quality of someone’s voice when that person is singing songs of Tom Waits, whose gruff howls make one imagine Cookie Monster suffering from chronic emphysema. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson sounds downright abysmal on her debut album – a set of ten Waits compositions and one original – entitled, Anywhere I Lay My Head.

Whirring in a low, invariable drone, Johansson conveys a detachment that renders her timid at best and, at worst, lifeless. As well, her voice is processed with so much reverb that, instead of seeming exotic or ethereal, it just sounds awkwardly robotic. Even on her own creation, “Song For Jo,” she resonates to such an unremarkable extent that the track wafts into obscurity.

Not to heap criticism solely on Johansson’s vocals, the music warrants its own derision as well. Swathed in synthesizers and drum machines, each song sounds like the indulgent consequence of a shopping spree at Radio Shack. “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” comes off like a Depeche Mode outtake, its techno-throb diminishing this rambunctious rant to a disposable remix. The title track is underscored by what sounds like a toy keyboard running on a loop while a faux music box muddles a rudimentary version of “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” as if submerged in an echo chamber. “Falling Down” as well as “Fannin’ Street” both feature David Bowie on background vocals, but even he can’t save them from their soulless doom.

However, this album could have taken a different, ultimately more rewarding course. In 2006, Johansson contributed a coquettishly sultry performance of “Summertime” to a benefit album, Unexpected Dreams: Songs From the Stars. The production – voice and music – was unaffected, unpretentious, and uncomplicated or, in short, beautiful.

Had Scarlett Johansson approached Anywhere I Lay My Head in a similar way – perhaps by interpreting material with more naturalness and subtlety – she likely would have fared far better than she does. Also, in considering the songs she covers here, which favor more obscurities than classics, Johansson clearly admires the breadth of Tom Waits’ music. Unfortunately, her appreciation doesn’t translate to her yielding a satisfying album.

May 18, 2008

Classic Albums: John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band

John Lennon sure knew how make a statement. The Beatles had—mere months prior—officially and acrimoniously disbanded as the public held his wife, Yoko Ono, most responsible for their fate. His vociferous political views and social activism garnered as much derision as they did praise. And as his public image suffered, so too did his psyche. In late 1970, during a time of intense self-discovery, Lennon exorcised his pent-up anguish, rage, and frustration on his first proper solo LP, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.

The album’s predominant theme and, moreover, its message, lay in one cryptic line: “The dream is over.”

Existential and unnervingly introspective, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band reflected a harrowing catharsis for Lennon both as a musician as well as a man. The context and creation of this landmark recording is deftly examined and discussed on the latest installment of Eagle Rock Entertainment’s video series, Classic Albums.

Discerning commentary from Yoko Ono as well as by the album’s principal musicians, drummer Ringo Starr and bassist Klaus Voormann, complements archival footage of Lennon discussing the work. Especially perceptive and pertinent insight also comes from therapist Dr. Arthur Janov and Rolling Stone editor-in-chief Jann Wenner, both men who then served—in different yet significant roles—as agents for Lennon’s expression.

As told in the film, Lennon was confronting some deep-seated emotional demons and struggling through an identity crisis after (though not entirely due to) the breakup of the Beatles. He explored primal therapy, a psychoanalysis treatment proffered by Dr. Janov, in which one revisits early traumas in order to better appreciate and cope with one’s present existence. Janov recollects, with modesty and compassion, how Lennon subscribed to his method and how it influenced his music. Gripping songs like “Mother” and “God”—the latter opening with the bold conviction, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”—not only reflected Lennon’s involvement in primal therapy, but also the depth of his despair and of his struggles to understand it.

Also, Jann Wenner offers an indicative viewpoint, shrewdly depicting Lennon’s state of mind (as he interpreted it) during this period. His infamous 1970 interview with Lennon not only shocked readers for its frankness, but also for how it dispelled the idealism that the Beatles espoused. Based on that encounter as well as on their social (and often adversarial) relationship, Wenner reflects on how Lennon was beginning to realize his purpose and potential as a solo artist. In assessing the album in question, Wenner says, “The power, the strength, when an artist of that quality, and that imagination, that creativity, reaches such truths about himself, [it’s] overwhelming.”

For all of the turmoil that inspired its creation, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band does not—then and now—invite casual listening. In fact, it provokes an emotional response, if not a visceral jolt. In retrospect, perhaps the notion of an introspective album (and certainly one by John Lennon) doesn’t seem unusual, but in 1970, this one set a precedent. Classic Albums does a fine job in explaining why such was the case.

May 12, 2008

Norah Jones Rocks. Seriously.

If by chance you work for a mass retail conglomerate that contains an obligatory music department, please refrain from shooting customers dumbfounded stares when they ask where you’ve stashed the eponymous debut album by El Madmo.

By the time the album hits stores on May 20, those in the know will already understand that El Madmo – “El” on bass and vocals, “Maddie” on electric guitar and vocals, and “Mo” on drums and vocals – is a wacky-punk-rock band that includes, most notably, Norah Jones.

Under the guise of Maddie, Jones sheds her chanteuse aura to slip into something more uninhibited, rough-edged, and refreshingly (and often comically) raunchy. “In my fantasy, you and me, we screw like bunnies,” she coos in “Fantasy Guy,” one girl’s tale of pining for a man whose wife poses an annoying impediment. On “GGW” – the acronym for Girls Gone Wild – she’s endured enough pick-up lines for one night, warning her drunken suitor, “Don’t you puke on my dress!”

El Madmo sets such frank sentiments to music that is at times shamelessly basic, rhythmically heavy, and downright absurd. What the album lacks in cohesion, though, it makes up for with beguiling songs crammed with their own idiosyncrasies and acerbic charms. From the simmering blues stomp of “Head In A Vise” to the feisty kick of “Carlo!” – “I stare at his ass/He smokes the good grass” – to the naughty innuendo pulsing through “I Like It Low,” the songs are like characters in an adorably deranged and bawdy ensemble stage show.

While the Norah Jones association will no doubt attract curiosity (and perhaps bewilderment), it’s El Madmo’s music that will ultimately assure continued listening. Once you get past the inevitable, initial reaction – “Did she just say that?” – you’ll accept and enjoy this album for what it is: a bizarre little batch of rock and roll that’ll have you grinning and grooving from start to finish.

May 05, 2008

Step Right Up: Tom Waits Announces Tour

Tom Waits will hit the road this summer on what he’s billing as the Glitter and Doom Tour. In a “press conference” – which turned out to be Waits fielding questions (“What? I dated your mother?”) in an empty room with a scratchy record playing press conference chatter – he revealed the thirteen-date itinerary.

Beginning on June 17 in Phoenix, the tour will wind its way through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri before heading to Ohio and, ultimately, the Southeast. Waits explained that the seemingly random route, when observed on a map, arcs to the shape of the constellation, Hydra. He didn’t explain why that is important to him, but whatever gets him out of the house is good-enough reason for his fans.

On the Orphans tour in 2006 – his last excursion, which comprised nine shows across the American South and Midwest – Waits dug deep into his catalog, dusting off such songs as “On The Nickel,” “Shore Leave,” and “Invitation To the Blues.” Tickets for that tour sold out within minutes and such will certainly be the case this time around as well.

Waits (or any associated media release) has yet to disclose details regarding on-sale dates and ticket prices. And while he confirmed that European dates would follow the American tour, specifics were unavailable at “press” time.

Dates and venues for Tom Waits’ Glitter and Doom Tour:

Phoenix, Arizona - Orpheum
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Phoenix, Arizona - Orpheum
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

El Paso, Texas - Plaza Theatre
Friday, June 20, 2008

Houston, Texas - Jones Hall
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dallas, Texas - Palladium
Monday, June 23, 2008

Tulsa, Oklahoma - Brady Theatre
Wednesday, June 25, 2008

St. Louis, Missouri - Fox Theatre
Thursday, June 26, 2008

Columbus, Ohio - Ohio Theatre
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Knoxville, Tennessee - Civic Theatre
Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jacksonville, Florida - Moran Theatre
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mobile, Alabama - Saenger Theatre
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Birmingham, Alabama- Alabama Theatre
Thursday, July 3, 2008

Atlanta, Georgia - Fox Theatre
Saturday, July 5, 2008

May 04, 2008

Clapton Inspired on Tour's Opening Night

Considering the diversity and scope of his career, Eric Clapton could – with minimal effort – deliver a concert chock-full of radio hits and popular album cuts from his catalog. There’s certainly an abundance of such material to mine, yet ostensibly (and repetitively) trying to please the most casual of fans often comes at the expense of the artist’s own passion.

To his credit and to the benefit of his audience, Clapton treated over 15,000 at Tampa’s Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday night to music that most resonates with him – namely the blues, in its various shades and expressions – which translated into a stirring, and at times invigorating, two-hour performance.

In just the first three songs – “Tell The Truth,” “Key To The Highway,” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” – Slowhand suggested that a blues-rich evening lay in store. With back-to-back shots of “Little Wing” and “Double Trouble” to follow, he obliterated all remaining speculation.

He capitalized on an aggressive new rhythm section – consisting of bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Ian Thomas – which suited the thick and gritty tones of songs like “Outside Woman Blues” and “Before You Accuse Me.” Such a solid foundation underscored Clapton’s intense guitar work, as on “Motherless Children” and on a potent cover of the Wilson Pickett gem, “Don’t Knock My Love,” which resounded especially strong. Guitarist Doyle Bramhall II provided ample complement to Clapton’s chords and riffs while keyboardist Chris Stainton seamlessly filled out the sound.

During a sit-down segment, Clapton alternated between electric and acoustic guitars, offering inspired renditions of songs that included “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out,” “Motherless Child” and “Running On Faith,” the latter yielding a most-appreciative ovation.

Far from seeming compulsory or halfhearted, Clapton ultimately rewarded the audience with some of his most familiar works, as “Wonderful Tonight” preceded “Layla” to close the main set. He returned to the stage to deliver a raucous version of “Cocaine” before barnstorming through “Crossroads,” which featured opener Robert Randolph on pedal steel.

While not one of music’s most predictable live acts, Eric Clapton is among its most sincere, which justifies – even when he plays rather obscure material – the deference afforded him by his audience. On this night, he summoned a thrilling performance by focusing on what he felt rather than what he felt obligated to play.