June 27, 2008

Motown, That's What I Want

“The Sound of Young America” was the slogan that Berry Gordy ascribed to the music coming out of his recording studios in Detroit, but Motown Records also proved a phenomenon. The caliber of songwriters, producers, musicians, and performers that assembled under Motown’s banner in the late ‘50s and throughout the ‘60s and early ‘70s rank among the most successful and creatively sophisticated of the twentieth century.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Motown’s inception and the label’s enduring legacy, Time Life Music has now released a substantial box set—comprised of 10 CDs and a DVD—entitled The Motown Collection.

As one would expect from a compilation of this nature and scope, the majority of its 150 songs are well-known hits from the label’s most-prominent artists, including Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Jackson 5, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Four Tops. Any serious music collection should already account for such artists (and, in many cases, with albums rather than assorted singles), yet this set would certainly fill the most conspicuous voids.

Worth mentioning is the inclusion here of lesser-known cuts or tracks by artists who didn’t yield the volume of material generated by their higher-profile labelmates. Songs like “He Was Really Sayin’ Something” by the Velvelettes (later covered by Bananarama), “First I Look At The Purse” by the Contours, and “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game” by the Marvelettes fill out the set in generous measure.

Because it concentrates on Motown’s classic era and songs recorded by its classic artists in later years, the set suffers only in the few instances when it includes material that meets neither criteria. Songs like Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” and Boyz II Men’s “It’s So Hard To Say Good bye To Yesterday,” for instance, not only seem inferior among such gems, but also inconsistent with the quintessential Motown sound.

The accompanying DVD, Ed Sullivan’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Classics: Motortown Review, features 12 performances (from five acts) originally aired on Sullivan’s weekly variety show. Essentially a cursory companion to the music discs, it wouldn’t hold up as a standalone video, but it contains a few highlights nonetheless. In particular, the 1969 debut appearance by the Jackson 5—with this thriller of a kid singing lead vocals—includes a sensational version of “I Want You Back.” As well, Stevie Wonder’s 1968 appearance, during which he played “You Met Your Match” and “For Once In My Life,” offers a telling glimpse of where his talent would take him in just a few short years, beginning with Music of My Mind.

Of course, The Motown Collection is all about the music and, in that regard, its flaws are few and far between. Moreover, considering the breadth of this compilation, it more than lives up to its purpose in celebrating the quality and the legacy of Motown.

June 24, 2008

Album Review: Jessie Baylin - Firesight

If you heard her playing in some downtown music club, you’d have a hard time believing that Jessie Baylin is only 24. Her honey-soaked voice and melancholic inflections impart maturity beyond her years, underscoring why her new album, Firesight, resonates with such warmth. On this, the New Jersey native’s major-label debut, the music yields a mélange of styles to include elements of folk, soul, and, at its best, jazz.

Baylin fares particularly well on “I’ll Cry For The Both Of Us,” “Leave Your Mark,” and the piano-laden strains of “Lonely Heaven,” all of which accentuate her vocal versatility to poignant effect. Firesight is an eclectic, ambitious effort that should not only serve as a foundation for this promising young artist but also as encouragement for her to further explore her creativeness.

June 23, 2008

George Carlin, Dead At 71

George Carlin, legendary comedian, author, actor, and counterculture icon, died Sunday of heart failure, age 71, at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He is survived by his second wife, Sally Wade, and daughter Kelly Carlin McCall. His first wife, Brenda, predeceased him in 1997 after 36 years of marriage.

Considered one of the most significant and influential of his craft, Carlin laced comic scenarios with intelligence and social criticisms, presaging the comedic styles of Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart, among many others.

Born May 12, 1937, Carlin grew up in New York City with his mother, Mary, and older brother, Patrick. His father, whom he never knew, died in 1945. After dropping out of school in 1953, Carlin joined the Air Force, an ill-fated choice considering his contempt for authority. Following a series of infractions, he received a general discharge under honorable conditions in 1957.

A string of radio jobs and comedy nightclub gigs, mostly with sideman Jack Burns, acquainted Carlin with the entertainment industry. The duo made their television debut on an October 10, 1960 taping of The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, but split to pursue individual ambitions soon thereafter.

Carlin released his first stand-up album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons, in 1967, yet it was with 1972’s Class Clown – which introduced the infamous “7 Words You Can Never Say On TV” – that he not only galvanized his subversive image, but also prompted a landmark United States Supreme Court case. In F.C.C. vs. Pacifica Foundation, the Court ultimately ruled that Carlin’s act, while not deemed obscene, was considered “indecent,” thus relegating it to broadcast regulations. Such restrictions, as well as personal controversies (including arrests and substance abuse), further fueled his dissident reputation and following.

The first host of Saturday Night Live, Carlin employed his talents on television as well as in motion pictures, yielding 14 HBO specials as well as roles in such films as Car Wash, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Prince of Tides, Dogma, and Jersey Girl.

His professional accolades include 4 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Comedy Awards in 2001, the Free Speech Award from the First Amendment Center in 2002, and, in 2004, Comedy Central ranked him second (only to Richard Pryor) among the “100 Greatest Comedians of All Time.”

As well, the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts announced last week that Carlin would receive this year’s Mark Twain Humor Prize, a lifetime achievement recognition. In a statement released at the time, Kennedy Center chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman said, "In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer and actor, George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think. His influence on the next generation of comics has been far-reaching.” Carlin then issued his own statement, sardonically saying, “Thank you Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people.”

“My feeling is that as long as you’re going to die, you should go out with a bang,” Carlin wrote in his best-selling book, Napalm and Silly Putty. “I say go out big, folks; it’s your last chance to make a statement. Before you go, give ‘em a show; entertain those you leave behind.” Indeed, George Carlin made indelible statements and entertained at will for over a half-century.

June 21, 2008

When The Mooney Suzuki Rocked CBGB's

The Mooney Suzuki scored a radio hit (and, curiously, an endorsement deal with Suzuki automobiles) in 2004 with “Alive & Amplified,” a song that – in its title and irreverent disposition – pretty much describes their sound. This New York City garage-rock band had already carved out its niche a few years before, though, as evidenced on CBGB OMFUG Masters: Live June 29, 2001, The Bowery Collection.

Given the hallowed (albeit grimy and dilapidated) ground of the now-defunct Lower East Side haunt, it’s refreshing (and appropriate) to hear this concert in the context of its setting rather than some overdubbed or polished version thereof. What’s documented here captures the unadulterated spirit of a club gig, rife with late-night chatter, indiscriminate racket, and rambunctious rock and roll.

Led by singer/guitarist Sammy Jones, Jr., the band bashes out swift blasts of raw guitars, bass, and drums. Thick riffs with a backbeat abound, as songs like “Everything’s Gone Wrong,” “Half of My Heart,” and “Make My Way” rumble forth like locomotives running off the rails.

Almost half of the songs come from Electric Sweat, their second (and hitherto unreleased) full-length studio album. Of those, “A Little Bit of Love” and “Oh Sweet Susanna” translate particularly well, the climbing guitars of the former and the melodic lift of the latter distinguishing them among the straight-ahead rock that characterizes much of the other material.

One can hear Sammy Jones, Jr. working the room, energizing and engaging the audience as his bandmates take a much-needed breather between songs. “It wasn’t too long ago…we couldn’t even get a show at CBGB’s,” he says before “I Woke Up This Mornin’” brings the concert to a rousing and cacophonous end. On this edition of CBGB OMFUG Masters, the Mooney Suzuki not only make the most out of playing the landmark music club. On this night, they rock the joint, sounding unabashedly alive and, yes, amplified.

June 19, 2008

Teddy Thompson's Peculiar Delight

“I’m feeling pretty blank,” singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson admits on the title track of his fourth and latest album, A Piece Of What You Need, and if considered solely on his vocal performance, you’d likely come to the same conclusion. Yet his wry, solemn voice and witty lyrics create an intriguing paradox when set against some lively, often-jubilant music.

Standout tracks include “One of These Days,” “In My Arms,” and “Can’t Sing Straight,” which hop, skip, and jump with quirky enthusiasm (and handclaps! and horns!). Thompson’s style here evokes those of Lyle Lovett and Chris Isaak, wherein rather pointed sentiments contradict such animated expressions, but that’s what makes this album a peculiar delight.

June 18, 2008

A Grievous Angel In Her Glory: Emmylou Harris Resplendent On New LP

As I stood outside the stage door of the Tampa Theatre, I hoped to get an autograph, but my chances seemed unlikely given the number of other likeminded fans wanting the same thing. The concert that had preceded this street assembly, on the night of May 27, 2005, marked the first time Emmylou Harris had come to town in years.

My aspiration dwindled ever more as the crowd grew in size and restless enthusiasm until Harris walked outside, not with any grand entourage or escorts, but with her dog, a rescue pet that’d slept onstage during the performance. Putting on no airs whatsoever, she corralled us all around her tour bus, where she’d invite everyone on board one at a time.

Upon meeting her, I was anxiously aware that I was speaking with the woman who’d cut her teeth with Gram Parsons and whose inimitable voice graced Bob Dylan’s Desire as well as yielding so many of her own classics. Not wanting to appear completely bowled over, I complimented her vocals on Elvis Costello’s most recent album, The Delivery Man, which got her talking about how much she admired Costello’s songwriting.

At last, I timidly asked if she’d autograph one of my album covers as I shuffled through a small stack, struggling to pick a favorite. In sensing my difficulty, Harris kindly grabbed and signed them all (Roses In The Snow, Cowgirl’s Prayer, Wrecking Ball, and Stumble Into Grace). She could not have been more gracious, personable, or down to earth and, because of that, she put this utterly starstruck guy at ease.

I mention this fleeting encounter not as a means for self-indulgence, but to offer a first-hand impression of Emmylou Harris’ genuineness. She’s the real deal as much in person as on record and her latest album, All I Intended To Be, is certainly no exception.

Harris works once again with Brian Ahern, who – in addition to being her second husband – produced her first eleven albums. In doing so, she summons the homespun grandeur of those works while sounding ever the wiser and insightful. She interprets Patty Griffin’s “Moon Song” and Merle Haggard’s “Kern River” with her signature aesthetic, inflecting each lyric like a sage storyteller. And on the Billy Joe Shaver chestnut, “Old Five And Dimers Like Me,” she sings with bluegrass artist John Starling, their duet sounding tailor-made for some honky-tonk jukebox.

Harris doesn’t write as many songs as perhaps she should, but the ones she penned here further (and superbly) illustrate her forthright, narrative affection. Two songs in particular stand out, the first being “Take That Ride,” on which she renders a strikingly ominous fate. She sings, “One of these days I’m going to take that ride/There may be nothing on the other side/I’m too old for changing, my true blues have all been tried.” Her phrasing is incisive and grounded, Dylanesque in a sense.

Similarly, on “Gold,” she acknowledges how it feels to fall short in another’s eyes, singing, “I finally gave up counting the ways you said I let you down” before conceding, “No matter how bright I glitter, I could never be gold.” Her lyrics resonate much like her vocals – emotive, straightforward, and sincere – thus enriching the depth and integrity of the album overall.

Authenticity, by definition, cannot be contrived or manipulated and, on All I Intended To Be, Emmylou Harris illustrates how it can harvest resplendent, poignant music. To put it plain, she’s delivered one of her finest albums to date simply by being herself.

June 15, 2008

The Irresistible Enchantment of Priscilla Ahn

Sometimes you’ll hear a melody that’ll make you smile or a voice so gorgeous it’ll melt your heart. In the case of Priscilla Ahn, both scenarios apply and often at the same time. This formidable singer/songwriter renders an enchanting realm of folk-pop fare on her full-length debut on Blue Note Records, A Good Day.

Before signing to Blue Note, Ahn honed her craft at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles, in time hitting the road with fellow resident artist, Joshua Radin. In 2006, she released a promising self-titled EP, which—besides spawning early versions of two tracks featured on the current LP (“I Don’t Think So” and “Dream”)—served as a template from which she would further cultivate her talent.

The songs on A Good Day are like glittering trinkets, unique in their individual character yet reflective of an overall allure and aura. Ahn snuggles in the solace of “Leave The Light On,” for instance, while an acoustic guitar bends and creaks in accompaniment. On “Wallflower,” she wraps deceptively simple, whimsical music around a melancholy lyric. And, on the aforementioned track, “Dream,” she blends childlike reflections with an existential theme amid a bed of elegiac harmonies and strings.

Whether the tunes are meditative (“Masters of China”), adorably kooky (“Astronaut”), or romantically confessional (“Find My Way Back Home”), Ahn’s greatest attribute—the essential source of allure and aura—is her singing. In a voice strikingly pure and beguiling, she affects emotions with unassuming finesse, sounding like a timid ingénue one moment and full of feminine wiles the next.

Proving herself an artist of endearing distinction, Priscilla Ahn capitalizes on her earlier potential in ways equally remarkable and charming. Such is never more apparent than when the title track—the final track—echoes and fades toward a sweet abyss only to stop abrupt, jolting the listener back to a world that pales to the one created here. A Good Day, in short, is a great album.

June 10, 2008

Kick Off Your High Heel Sneakers, It's Party Time: Steely Dan Comes To Town

“This is a special night,” Walter Becker announced after introducing the 10-piece band. “It’s Donald Fagen’s birthday.” As cheers and well wishes abounded, Fagen hunched over his keyboard in embarrassment, reticently raising his arm in gratitude. Moments later, Becker recanted, saying that, actually, his partner’s birthday is “sometime in January. Who knew?”

Shaking his head in mock-astonishment, Fagen retorted dryly, “He sure knows how to work a crowd.”

Truth be told, the sold-out audience inside Clearwater, Florida’s Ruth Eckerd Hall on June 9 didn’t mind being duped into unwarranted applause given that Steely Dan ultimately earned genuine approbation by playing a vibrant two-hour set.

Incidentally, the album most represented on the setlist was The Royal Scam, yielding four songs including the title track, which began the show.

On this, the second stop on their “Think Fast, Steely Dan” summer tour, Becker and Fagen drew on a diverse range of material, forgoing a number of their more familiar works – including “Deacon Blues,” “My Old School,” “Bodhisattva,” “Don’t Take Me Alive,” and “Aja” – in favor of lesser-played fare. While this may not have satisfied some, most responded well to hearing album cuts like “I Got The News,” “Everything You Did,” and “Glamour Profession” played with gusto and fresh perspective. Also dusted off was “New Frontiers,” from Fagen’s first solo work, The Nightfly.

Consistent with Steely Dan tours of late, Fagen ceded his lead vocal duties for a couple tracks, as on a storming run-through of “Parker’s Band” – courtesy of backup vocalists Cindy Mizelle and Tawatha Agee – and a competent (albeit comparatively less exciting) take on “What A Shame About Me,” sung by keyboardist/vocalist Jeff Young.

Much like they exhibited in playing rarities, the Dan delivered the night’s most recognizable songs with invigorative panache. They jazzed up “Show Biz Kids” with vehement percussion while, on “Babylon Sisters,” they leveled a hard line of bass and brass. Becker served up some particularly heated guitar solos on “Hey Nineteen” and “Josie” while Fagen – ever the image of hip in dark shades and black leather coat – worked his mojo on “Black Friday” and “Kid Charlemagne,” swaying and twitching in time. “FM” then escalated into a rollicking jam to close the set, the band vamping just long enough for Becker and Fagen to saunter off stage.

Another Side Of Jakob Dylan

Jakob Dylan has garnered comparisons to his father since the Wallflowers released their debut album in 1992. Belonging to a group, though, afforded him some measure of autonomy and, in a certain sense, anonymity. With his first solo effort, Seeing Things, he now lays his individual identity as a musician out on the line. It’s a bold move, considering that this album will sit alongside the likes of Blonde On Blonde and Blood On the Tracks in music bins across the land, all filed under one surname: Dylan.

With stark, windswept songs and Rick Rubin’s unvarnished production, Jakob Dylan doesn’t disappoint. His solemn singing voice is front and center, lending a sense of immediacy to the lyrics. Minimalist bass and guitar — acoustic, for the most part — serve as a lattice beneath the vocal, creating an expansive, ominous tone. It’s a compelling album overall and there’s something to be said for a man who steps outside his comfort zone to test the scope of his potential. Jakob Dylan likely hasn’t reached the limits of his creativity with this work, but his journey thus far sounds worthwhile.

June 03, 2008

Artists, Industry Salute Bo Diddley

In honor of Bo Diddley, who died yesterday at age 79, an array of tributes have come from throughout the music world:

“Bo Diddley was a music pioneer and a legend with a unique style. We always had a good time when we played together, but his legacy will live on forever."
– B.B. King, Los Angeles Times

"He was a wonderful, original musician who was an enormous force in music and was a big influence on The Rolling Stones. He was very generous to us in our early years and we learned a lot from him. We will never see his like again."
– Mick Jagger, NME

"Bo Diddley was a monumental figure in early rock 'n' roll, a huge influence on everyone. He was a wonderful man, a true original musician and beloved the world over. He will be sorely missed."
– Bonnie Raitt, USA Today

"A Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, Bo Diddley was one of rock 'n' roll's true pioneers. He inspired legions of musicians with his trademark rhythm and signature custom-built guitar, and his song "Bo Diddley" earned a rightful place in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. He leaves an indelible mark on American music and culture, and our deepest sympathies go out to his family, friends and fans. The 'Bo Diddley beat' surely will continue on.”
– Neil Portnow, President/CEO, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences

“[His] voice and relentless, glorious anthems echo down through my years. This royal shape shifter continues to influence four generations of musicians on a daily basis,"
– Robert Plant, Sound Generator

"He's a huge hero of mine and the fact that he knew who I was was a huge compliment. Bo Diddley created a myth that was uniquely his own. An entire rhythm is owed to just one guy and that's pretty rare."

– Slash, NME

"[He was] one of the true pioneers of rock and roll, and an underrated songwriter. His influence can still be heard everywhere."
– Billy Corgan, NME

"Bo's one of the guys who invented rock 'n' roll. He took two cultures that existed in separate forms -- country and western and the kind of blues that used to be known as 'race music' -- and put them together.”

– Eric Burdon, Los Angeles Times

"Bo Diddley is one of the seminal American guitarists and an architect of the rock and roll sound. His unique guitar work, indelible rhythms, inventive songwriting and larger-than- life personality make him an immortal author of the American Songbook."

– Terry Stewart, President/CEO, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

"Listening to Bo Diddley, you could convince yourself that the only thing you need to create great rock 'n' roll is a tremolo guitar, a killer beat and one and a half chords. Many tried and some have failed, but nobody did it like Diddley."

– Elvis Costello, USA Today

June 02, 2008

Universal Music VP: Archived Music Not Lost in Universal Studios Fire

Judy Garland
In the aftermath of the fire that destroyed millions of dollars worth of archived motion pictures, iconic memorabilia, stage props, and tourist exhibits yesterday at Universal Studios in California, news began circulating that thousands of masters housed in the same facility by Universal Music had been lost as well.

Initially running on the blog, Nikki Fink’s Deadline Hollywood Daily, and subsequently carried by the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone, reports claimed that these original masters — unlike the ruined films that have backup copies stored elsewhere — had no duplicates and thus could not be salvaged or replicated. Allegedly stored in a vault on the Universal lot, the recordings were said to have included some of the twentieth century’s most heralded artists, including Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, and the Carpenters on Decca, ABC, and MCA labels. Per the report, Universal Studios could not confirm or expound on the full scope of the contents in question, but the notion that whatever lay in this vault would be gone forever seemed a particularly sad fate.

However, according to Peter Lofrumento, Universal Music Group’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications, none of the company’s archived music was permanently lost to the blaze. While the fire indeed destroyed some recordings in storage on the Universal lot, everything has been accounted for. In a statement issued today to this writer, Lofrumento said:
“We moved most of what was formerly stored there earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there…it had already been digitized…We also had physical back up copies of what was still left at that location. So we were covered.”
Of course, given the circumstances of the Universal Studios fire and the collateral damage it wrought, issues of more secure and efficient archival methods for music as well as motion pictures will likely be addressed with added perspective. For now though, Lofrumento’s reassurance regarding these landmark recordings should certainly delight music enthusiasts and historians. “The music will still be around for many years,” he said and, considering the alternative, such is good news indeed.

June 01, 2008

Al Green Gets Back To His Roots with Lay It Down

Ever since Al Green returned to secular music in the mid-‘90s, he never quite regained his footing as his recordings lacked the visceral grit of his ‘70s classics. However, with the right elements in place on his latest effort, Lay It Down, he delivers his most fluid, funky, from-the-gut-soulful album since the halcyon days of Call Me, I’m Still In Love With You, and Al Green Explores Your Mind.

With production and percussion duties manned by Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots, the album achieves an old-school, down-home vibe, yielding songs that come off as satisfyingly unrushed, natural, and — dare one think it — dirty. Green thrives in such conditions and his doing so underscores the essence of this album’s success: For the first time in a long time, Al Green sounds thoroughly at ease in the role of a seductive soul man.

Full of swagger and self-assurance, he comes on strong through an effusion of thick, throbbing rhythms and horns. His voice is still an intoxicating instrument, suggesting more than it says, aching in ways that blur the distinction between deliberate and carnal expression. He summons something intense on cuts like “I’m Wild About You” and “All I Need,” grumbling low and moaning in falsetto as the grooves inspire. He enlivens “Wanna Say” and “No One Like You” with gospel euphoria. And, driven by a different power altogether, he gets hot and heavy with Corrine Bailey Rae on “Take Your Time,” the album’s smokiest, most erotic performance.

John Legend and Anthony Hamilton also contribute their talents, yet their involvement thankfully doesn’t seem like a means to acclimatize Green to a broader (perhaps younger) audience. To the contrary, these artists have come to Al Green, not the other way around.

Such is what makes for a sensational album by one of the last great soul men. A synergistic coming together of talent — from production to performance — has not only encouraged Al Green to create his finest album in decades, but one of this year’s best as well.