July 30, 2008

New Edition of Phil Spector Biography Adds Insight into Criminal Case

If the final chapter on Phil Spector concluded before February 3, 2003, his life story would most likely have been one of a seminal music icon peppered with infamous tales of eccentric behavior, drunken mayhem, and random acts of violence. Given the events of that fateful night, though — as well as the criminal trial that followed and the one yet to come — a comprehensive biography is neigh on impossible to read without interpreting it through the context of actress Lana Clarkson’s death.

To his credit, author Mick Brown provides an equitable (and extensive) depiction in Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, recently published in paperback with a new afterword.

For much of the book, in fact, Brown paints a near-sympathetic portrait of the man behind the Wall of Sound. He writes of Spector’s childhood as one marred by trauma and chaos, during which he contended with issues of suicide, incest, and mental illness. Consequently, his inner anguish produced profound feelings of loneliness, resentment, and self-loathing.

Such feelings would serve as catalysts in his career, according to the author, insomuch as they not only inspired Spector to succeed, but to also avenge (as he perceived) any and all adversaries. Whenever he felt spited, ridiculed, or rejected — whether by a lover, confidante, colleague, or even the music industry — he would make a concerted effort to even the score.

Enlightening and meticulously examined accounts of Spector’s most prosperous era — during which he worked with the Righteous Brothers, the Ronettes, John Lennon, George Harrison, and (much to Paul McCartney’s chagrin) the Beatles — will surely interest music enthusiasts.

Yet it’s the harrowing descriptions of his demons — the enduring torment of his troubled childhood, adult anxieties and grief, as well as a predilection for alcohol and guns — that readers will find most engrossing. It was Spector’s demons and not a lack of talent, the author illustrates, that ultimately overtook him, turning a once-vital figure into a reclusive relic of a bygone era. 

Tearing Down The Wall of Sound was originally published in June 2007, three months before Spector’s first criminal case ended in a mistrial; as such, the author summarizes its details in this edition’s afterword. His synopsis gives the reader a concise yet informative depiction of the court proceedings, including its crucial evidence, key witnesses, and forensic details.

Unfortunately, Brown’s straightforward summary soon evolves into an editorial of sorts, which undercuts the unbiased approach he assumed within the book proper. While he writes about his experience in interviewing Spector within the biography — including his cursory impressions of the man, his disposition and mannerisms — Brown wisely abstains from rendering judgment on his subject.

In the afterword, though, he relents. In referencing the defense’s contention that Lana Clarkson had killed herself, Brown asserts, “I found it impossible to believe that she would have committed suicide.” However he interpreted the evidence or viewed the tragic circumstances, given the absence of Spector’s conviction at the time of publication, the author should have remained neutral to allow the reader to form an independent conclusion.

Such notwithstanding, Mick Brown offers an evenhanded, exhaustively researched, and well-written biography with Tearing Down The Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector. In doing so, he allows the reader to vividly grasp one of music’s most enigmatic figures while, at the same time, confronting the dark side of genius and the madness of a wounded soul.

July 26, 2008

Album Review: Buddy Guy - Skin Deep

It’s a classic case of a teacher showing up his students. In Shine A Light, Mick Jagger invites Buddy Guy to “help us out” on the Muddy Waters cut, “Champagne And Reefer.” As he waits for his cue, Guy leers at the band with this mischievous grinthis knowing lookas if to say, ”Let me demonstrate how it’s done, boys” before he steps up and thoroughly schools the Rolling Stones with a master class of Chicago Blues.

Guy assumes a similarly fervent and commanding approach on Skin Deep, an album of twelve originals (seven of which he wrote or co-wrote) that holds up as well as anything this side of Damn Right, I’ve Got The Blues. At 71, his brilliance as a guitarist remains undiminished as he elicits tones so ferocious they sound like he’s manhandling six industrial power lines rather than playing a portable instrument. 

And like he enlightened the Stones, he takes a few more students under his wing, giving them room to groove without forsaking his own domain. Robert Randolph lays down a dirty steel guitar on the swamp stomp, “Out In The Woods,” and pedal steel (as Guy levels some “nighttime funky love”) on “That’s My Home.” Eric Clapton joins in on “Every Time I Sing The Blues,” a smoldering brew that finds them trading verses and licks for nearly eight minutes.

Yet it’s Derek Trucks who proves most versatile as he deftly complements the title track, which forgoes raucousness and heavy riffs for a countrified gut-check story about tolerance and dignity. “Underneath, we’re all the same,” Guy sings with poignant insight. Trucks also lends a modest slide guitar to “Too Many Tears” while his wife, Susan Tedeschi, holds her own against Guy’s mighty voice in this you-did-me-wrong duet.

The best lessons come from leading by example, though, and that’s where Buddy Guy especially thrives. He goes roadhouse on “Show Me The Money” and “Best Damn Fool,” tearing into them with merciless, combustible fury. And sustaining the potency but not the barnstorming pace, he simmers though primal tracks like “Smell The Funk” and “Lyin’ Like A Dog.” It’s on these slow burners, in particular, that Buddy Guy digs deepest, stretches out, and summons his most searing, inspired performances. In other words, he’s just demonstrating how it’s done.

July 19, 2008

David Bowie Revisits Ziggy Stardust With '72 Bootleg

In June 1972, David Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, the album that launched his most provocative, mercurial persona into the zeitgeist. When he landed in America later that year for a concert tour — his first-ever in the country — he not only introduced an intriguing realm of showmanship and spectacle, but also a shrewd display of public deception.

While he’d earned critical acclaim and relative success in England, Bowie had yet to break the crucial (and lucrative) American market. Rather than building a fanbase from the ground up, though, he carried on as if he’d already assumed the status of a superstar. Acting out a ploy devised by his then-manager, Tony Defries, Bowie (along with an ever-growing entourage) traveled the States in style, reserving the finest hotel suites, riding in swanky automobiles, and essentially behaving like the crème de la crème.

If he seemed a superstar, so the theory went, the public would thus perceive him as one.

The scheme worked in places like the Northeast (especially New York) where his music and enigma had preceded him, but other regions, namely the South and Midwest, didn’t welcome this strange fascination with the same liberality. Concerts were canceled due to poor ticket sales while, on many an occasion, Bowie played before a few hundred fans rather than anticipated thousands.

And so, when he reached California’s Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for two sold-out concerts on October 20 and 21, Bowie’s generous reception didn’t quite mirror those of the outing overall. Still, the first night’s performance — broadcasted live on Los Angeles radio station KMET with bootlegs circulating for years thereafter — stands as a representative and arguably the best document of the Ziggy Stardust tour.

Officially issued by Virgin/EMI on July 22 in limited edition CD, 180 gram LP, and digital formats, Live Santa Monica ’72 remains an onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll abandon. Backed by the Spiders — Mick Ronson (guitar, vocals), Trevor Bolder (bass), Mick "Woody" Woodmansey (drums), and Mike Garson (piano) — Bowie (as Ziggy) commandeers a staggering set with savage ambition and swagger.

Listening with retrospective insight reveals Bowie not just playing, but working songs — “Hang Onto Yourself,” “Suffragette City,” and “Moonage Daydream” foremost among them — and not out of some obligatory (or, as would happen over time, nostalgic) fulfillment, but because they subsumed his creative desire at that time.

Even on non-Ziggy works, Bowie’s conviction pierces through, instigated in no small measure by Mick Ronson’s ingenious counterpart. The guitarist enriches songs like “Life On Mars?” and “The Supermen” with deft flourishes and footing. As Bowie delivers a cryptic vocal on the Jacques Brel song, “My Death,” Ronson intertwines an acoustic arrangement with feral ebb and flow. And on a ten-minute version of “Width of A Circle,” he suitably hijacks the song with seething distortion and electric fury.

In the end, though, the stage belongs to Bowie has he careens through “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” with his last shreds of temerity and composure, his voice trembling as if on the verge of collapse.

As it is a bootleg, the recording has certain sonic flaws — the volume fluctuates and the mix is often muddled — yet the integrity of the performance is preserved and revelatory. Live Santa Monica ’72 captures David Bowie going for the jugular with singular vision and drive, signaling his arrival as an emergent, innovative artist and, yes, a superstar.

July 15, 2008

Springsteen Releases Tour EP To Benefit Cancer Fund

Bruce Springsteen has released an EP through all digital outlets, its proceeds benefiting the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund. Magic Tour Highlights comprises four songs as well as corresponding videos, all recorded live during the American leg of his latest tour and featuring special appearances by Alejandro Escovedo, Tom Morello, Roger McGuinn, and the E Street Band’s own Danny Federici, who succumbed to the virulent form of skin cancer less than a month after the included performance.

According to Springsteen’s official website:
On sales of these downloads, the artists, songwriters, and music publishers are waiving all of their royalties, and Columbia Records is donating all of its net profits, to the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund. The iTunes Store is donating their first year's net profits as well.
The tracklisting for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Magic Tour Highlights is as follows:

1. "Always A Friend" (performed with Alejandro Escovedo)
Recording Date: 04/14/2008 (Houston, Texas)

2. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (performed with Tom Morello)
Recording Date: 04/07/2008 (Anaheim, California)

3. "Turn Turn Turn" (performed with Roger McGuinn)
Recording Date: 04/23/2008 (Orlando, Florida)

4. "4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" (Danny Federici's final performance with the E Street Band)
Recording Date: 03/20/2008 (Indianapolis, Indiana)

Buy the album, support the charity, and enjoy the rock ‘n’ roll.

July 12, 2008

Live Double Album Finds Mayer In A Positive Light

Lately the man garners more press for his private life than for his professional one, but John Mayer would be the first to concede that music remains his greatest passion. On his latest release, Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles, which comes in both CD and DVD formats, he delivers a solid performance that works far better as an album than it does as a film.

Recorded at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on December 8, 2007, the 22-song concert is divided into three segments: an acoustic set, followed by a John Mayer Trio performance, and culminating with Mayer playing alongside his regular touring band.

He melds this assortment of sounds, songs, and styles into an inspired, cohesive show overall. In the acoustic portion, his six-string dexterity emanates through on “Neon,” “Daughter,” and the rarely played “In Your Atmosphere.” As well, he offers a peaceful, easygoing take on Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” that's hard not to like.

When Mayer suits up—literally and figuratively—with his Trio (rounded out by drummer Steve Jordan and bassist Pino Palladino), he summons the show’s most spirited, ambitious moments. Laying down a heavy dose of electric blues, he leads the band through originals like “Good Love Is On The Way” and “Who Did You Think I Was” while a selection of covers, including B.B. King’s “Every Day I Have The Blues” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Wait Until Tomorrow,” are played with palpable reverence toward the form.

Though not as musically invigorating as his time with the Trio, Mayer nevertheless shines—especially on the guitar—when his touring band joins him for the concert’s final set. He plays in fine form on “Waiting On The World To Change,” “Why Georgia,” and a nine-minute, slow-burning version of “Gravity” that just about makes your jaw drop.

Mayer’s performance is laudable by and large, but it doesn’t translate well in the way it's rendered on film. The presentation has a made-for-TV feel to it, coming off as excessively produced and bereft of the spontaneity that a live music document should convey. Adding to the visual artifice, the camera focuses more on Mayer’s lyric teleprompter and of other cameras around the stage rather than on the audience. Quite simply, it doesn’t capture the spirit of a genuine concert.

Between the three concert segments, Mayer provides commentary whilst driving around town (presumably Los Angeles). Given the fragmented nature of the performances, the footage serves as viable (and often humorous) transitions, but unfortunately it breaks the continuity within some of the sets as well.

In the most conspicuous and unnecessary instance, as the Trio wrap up “Vultures” and prepare to lay into “Bold As Love,” the scene cuts to Mayer, back behind the wheel, talking to someone off camera about a paparazzi photographer who is snapping his photo from a nearby car. Ostensibly a thematic intercut, the film switches back to show Mayer relating to the audience how such incidents “muddle” the “message” that he wants to express with his music. (Note to Mayer: You know what else muddles your message? Acknowledging such ridiculousness in the middle of your gig and then including said acknowledgement in your concert film.)

So while the DVD doesn’t offer much intrinsic merit (even ardent fans won’t feel compelled to watch more than once), the CD version of Where The Light Is: Live In Los Angeles is where John Mayer best demonstrates the breadth of his musicianship.

July 10, 2008

Sexsmith Explores The Soul On Poignant LP 'Exit Strategy of the Soul'

Like well-kept secrets, some of the most affecting and proficient artists are only enjoyed by a core group of admirers. One such artist, Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, has released a steady stream of solid albums for nearly twenty years, yet his audience has remained of relatively modest size. Such is certainly no slight to his abilities, though, as his music accentuates the quality and sensibilities of a gifted tunesmith.

If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he melds the lyrical phrasing of folk with structural elements of pop; his voice sounds solemn and soulful, uncannily reminiscent of Boz Scaggs circa Slow Dancer and Silk Degrees.

On his latest album, Exit Strategy of the Soul, Sexsmith offers an endearing batch of songs that underscore a wellspring of emotional depth and craft. He demonstrates a compelling knack for melody as well as melancholy, singing of isolation (“Traveling Alone”), fading idealism (“Impossible World”) and forthright despair (“Hard Time”) with unashamed vulnerability and a heavy heart. Rather than coming off as maudlin or wallowing, though, the songs are compassionate, poignant, and even uplifting.

New to his sonic repertoire is the inflection here of Cuban horns, which gorgeously embellish tracks like “This Is How I Know” and “Brighter Still” without distracting from the overall productions. And steeped in brass and lush backing vocals, he summons a standout performance on “Brandy Alexander,” co-written with and first recorded by Feist on her 2007 album, The Reminder. Whereas Feist delivered it in a stark and snappy style, Sexsmith insulates the song with a thicker, more-rhythmic mood.

Two instrumentals bookend the album, beginning with “Spiritude,” a brief fugue of delicate instrumentation and impressionistic vocal shadowing. “Dawn Anna” ultimately draws the album’s tone and sentiments together in a mournful, evocative coda.

On Exit Strategy of the Soul, Ron Sexsmith renders aspects and perceptions of human fragility with empathy and sophistication. And while he may not draw the mass audience his talent deserves, his songs — certainly on this album — are well worth appreciating.

July 03, 2008

Tom Waits Brings The Fire And The Fury To Jacksonville

Gothic and poignant, grotesque and sublime, Tom Waits envisages characters and stories through song like a seasoned author does in literature. Before an audience nearing 3,000 on Tuesday night at the Moran Theatre in Jacksonville, Florida—his first-ever appearance in the city—the iconic artist rendered his distinctive creations with a masterful, 27-song performance.

His 5-piece band discreetly arced around him, Waits took to a riser at center stage, stomping plumes of dust in the air as he began with “Lucinda,” which segued into “Ain’t Going Down To The Well.” Following a rambunctious “Way Down In The Hole” (propelled by his oldest son, Casey, on drums), he delved into “Falling Down,” his cavernous voice booming at full force.

He tinkers with the setlist from night to night, yet Waits isn’t one to take requests from the crowd, despite persistent (and vociferous) calls to do so. “We’ll play all your favorites,” he quipped like a vaudevillian master of ceremonies in a futile attempt to calm the maelstrom.

In fact, part of the kick of seeing Waits in concert is experiencing his humor and wit first-hand. He halted “Chocolate Jesus” after the first verse, saying, “If you’re going to clap, please elect an official.” Before continuing the song (which he sang through a red megaphone), he remarked in mock admonishment, “Keep the tempo.”

The inclusion of Omar Torrez on guitars and Vincent Henry on woodwinds instilled the music with jazz and Latin inflections, giving songs like “Hoist That Rag” (with Waits shaking a pair of maracas), “16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought Six,” and “Get Behind The Mule” a loose, buoyant feel. And on a particularly swinging version of “Black Market Baby,” if you let your focus drift a bit, you almost expected to hear, “Hello, Dolly. Dis is Louis, Dolly.”

Accompanied by Seth Ford Young on upright bass, Waits sat at his baby grand for a triad of ‘70s gems, beginning with the back-to-back tour debuts of “On The Nickel” and “I Can’t Wait To Get Off Work.” Much to the crowd’s amusement, he also took the opportunity to dig into his voluminous supply of indiscriminate facts. “There are more insects in one square mile of earth than there are people on the entire earth,” he said. “Imagine if they could vote.”

He also traded barbs with good-natured hecklers. “I want to have your baby!” one man shouted from the back of the hall. “Nowadays that’s possible!” Waits retorted in a snap. “Talk to my manager…But my sperm, it’s expensive. I’m like a fuckin’ racehorse.” Returning to playing “actual songs,” he then capped off the segment with a strikingly earnest rendition of “Invitation To The Blues.”

For a man notorious for his gruff voice and peculiar, scrapyard-sound arrangements, Waits delivered an assortment of ballads that ultimately proved among the finest performances of the night. On songs like “Anywhere I Lay My Head,” “Cold Cold Ground” (featuring keyboardist Patrick Warren on accordion), and “House Where Nobody Lives” (with his youngest son, Sullivan, on “assistant clarinet”), Waits exhibited cinematic breadth and magnificence. In doing so, he captivated the audience not just with the brilliant idiosyncrasies of his music, but also with the craft with which he invests it.