August 30, 2008

New KCRW Compilation is a Mix Tape of Imagination

A good mix tape is more than a collection of music; it’s a mood unto itself. Whether you want a pick-me-up or a down-and-out vibe, the right batch of songs can take you there. Nowadays, MP3 playlists have taken the place of audio cassettes, but the spirit of a mix tape remains much the same. That spirit runs through KCRW Sounds Eclectic: The Next One, a new various-artist compilation released by the eminent California-based radio station.

Twelve performances
all recorded live during Morning Becomes Eclectic, hosted by Nic Harcourtamount to a smorgasbord of imaginative, at times truly magnetic music. Given the live setting, the artists demonstrate how well their songs hold up without the production enhancements afforded by a studio album.

The most notable cuts result when an artist or group explores and fleshes out a song’s potential. Such is the case on “What’s A Girl To Do,” as Bat For Lashes shudders amid a tribal beat and an otherworldly aura; and on “Fruit Machine,” which find the Ting Tangs lobbing a devilish whiplash of punkish pop; and on Oliver Future’s aching “Stranger Than Stranger,” with its plastic soul swagger introduced by the devastating opening couplet, “It’s impossible to cope/When you’re starting to choke.”

Some songs aren’t as aesthetically brazen or progressive but still resonate with creative depth. Orange Lights impart a catharsis of climbing chords and empathetic lyrics with “Life Is Still Beautiful” while Swell Season summon a poignant rendition of “Falling Slowly,” which garnered the duo (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) this year’s Academy Award for Best Original Song for the film, Once. As well, Seawolf cruise through “You’re A Wolf” to an eerie guitar riff nuanced by deft tempo changes and vocalist Alex Brown Church’s low and steady delivery.

All in all, KCRW Sounds Eclectic: The Next One makes for an impressive compilation, essentially a mix tape for listeners who appreciate ingenuity and aesthetic in music.

August 24, 2008

Album Review: Various Artists - In The Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2

2008 is serving as an optimum time for reassessing the music of U2. With the theatrical concert presentation of U23D, reissues of its first three studio LPs (Boy, October, and War) as well as the upcoming re-releases of that era’s companion live album and film (Under A Blood Red Sky and Live At Red Rocks, respectively), the Irish rock band has reintroduced (and remastered) its roots.

One of the most intriguing assessments of U2’s music this year hasn’t even come from the band itself, but rather from In The Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2, a covers album featuring some of the continent’s most preeminent talents.

Infused with indigenous rhythms and native dialects, the performances at times depart so boldly from the original versions that they merit intrinsic appreciation as opposed to comparative scrutiny. As such, the artists herein don’t deliver mere facsimiles of familiar songs; they render familiar songs into singularly inspired interpretations.

Of particular note, Angelique Kidjo injects “Mysterious Ways” with wise blood as her tenacious vocal runs against a joyous choir. On “Bullet the Blue Sky,” Vieux Farka Touré overlays stark percussion atop coarse harmonica riffs and a low lyrical cadence. And on the album’s most literal musical translation, Vusi Mahlasela turns “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” into something far greater than the sum of its parts, elevating the refrain, “you don’t have to go it alone,” into a mantra for his homeland’s extensive plight.

In fact, the facility of these artists to affect innovative and eclectic perceptions of well-known material is much of what makes this collection such a unique delight. The Soweto Gospel Choir perhaps best accentuates this on “Pride (In the Name of Love),” as they endow a song ostensibly about tragedy with transcendent energy and affirmation. In the Name of Love: Africa Celebrates U2 not only salutes U2’s music, but it symbolizes the resilience of a ravaged continent as well.

August 15, 2008

An Interview with Priscilla Ahn

Priscilla Ahn is pleasantly surprised by how many people turn out for her performances, which not only speaks to her down-to-earth yet sunny disposition, but also to how much a burgeoning audience appreciates her music. 

It’s of little wonder, though, that her music appeals to people as it does. With her splendid debut album, A Good Day, the singer/songwriter imparts her serene folk/pop songs with a voice undeniably striking in its purity and allure. 

Presently on her first headlining tour, she’ll subsequently join an all-female lineup—along with such artists as Rachel Yamagata, Meiko, and Jenny Owens Young—for this fall’s installment of the Hotel Café tour

Graciously taking time to engage in an email interview, Ahn discusses topics including how she perceives success, how living in Los Angeles has fostered her songwriting, and what classic songs she wishes she’d written. 

You recently started your first headlining tour. How is it going so far? 

So far so good! I’m actually surprised at the turnout at the shows. I expected maybe 30 people to know me in each city, but around 100 – 200 people have been showing up, which is a really good feeling and a really nice surprise! 

A Good Day has such a serene vibe, reminiscent of records that came out of Laurel Canyon in the '70s. How has living in California affected your songwriting? 

Well, the reason I moved out to L.A. was because of its vibe. It’s a little mellower to me than living in New York City, and the weather is always pretty calm and nice. I've always sort of written mostly mellow songs. But I have done a lot of growing up since I’ve lived in L.A. and that definitely gives me a different point of view when I start writing a song. I have more confidence; I know what kind of music I really like, and how I like to sing it. 

The album's first single, Dream, seems quite an existential lyric for anyone to write, let alone someone so young. Was there anything in particular that inspired that song? 

I think [that’s] just me recalling childhood memories, thinking of myself back then, and then growing up and how I can look back on my life some time from now, hopefully. I like to daydream about my past and my present and future. 

What are a few of your favorite novels and/or books of poetry? 

I love e.e. cummings. Jack Kerouac was a huge inspiration; one of my favorites of his is The Town and The City. And I love reading David Sedaris. He always makes me smile, while keeping it real, even touching. 

Before you begin recording and mixing, how do you know when a song you're writing is complete? Do you run it by anyone before you consider it fully realized? 

I know when a song is complete when I stop adding things to it or feeling the need to change anything in it. I know when I keep singing it the same way over and over again [that] I like it. I’ll usually run it by my boyfriend. He’s a good listener because he gets my writing and offers kind support. 

On the album, you cover Willie Nelsons Opportunity To Cry. Do you play any covers in your live show? 

Yes, [I play] that one, and “Masters In China,” which is a Benji Hughes song. 

A lot of songwriters wish they had written a song that someone else has written. Is there a song that, in a perfect world, you wish youd written? 

Yes, [I wish I’d written] “Sugar Mountain” by Neil Young and "Look At Me" by John Lennon. 

You've mentioned in other interviews that Neil Young is one of your favorite musicians. If he could play any five songs for you in a command performance, which ones would you request? 

I’d request] “Rockin’ In The Free World,” “Harvest Moon,” “Ohio,” “The Needle And The Damage Done,” and “Sugar Mountain.” 

Are you always in search of your next song—jotting down words and phrases or playing melodies—or is songwriting something for which you set aside a certain allotment of time? 

Allotting writing time never really works out for me. It doesn’t feel very natural when I set aside time for it; it feels more like homework. So when something strikes me, I pick up the guitar and a pen and paper as fast as I can and see how far I can go with it. 

How do you measure your own success? 

Success for me is simply being able to make a happy living doing what I love to do, which right now is writing and performing. If I can do that—and be able to afford rent, food, and car payments—I’ll be pretty happy! 

Don’t miss Priscilla Ahn as part of the Hotel Café fall tour, which begins on October 8 in Los Angeles. A full itinerary will be posted at the tour’s official site on August 18 along with information regarding a ticket presale commencing the following day. 

In the meantime, catch Priscilla Ahn headlining the following dates and venues: 

August 15: Folks Festival – Lyons, COAugust 16: Twist & Shout (in-store appearance) – Denver, COAugust 16: Gothic Theatre – Englewood, COAugust 17: Belly Up – Aspen, COAugust 25: The Media Club – Vancouver, BCAugust 26: Triple Door – Seattle, WAAugust 27: Lola's – Portland, ORAugust 30: The Independent – San Francisco, CASeptember 1: Napa Valley Opera House – Napa, CASeptember 4: Mountain Winery – Saratoga, CASeptember 6: Santa Barbara Bowl – Santa Barbara, CA

August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes, “Soul Man” In Memoriam

Isaac Hayes symbolized pride in the consummate sense. A self-respecting man with a commanding presence, his distinctive baritone endeared him to connoisseurs of sophisticated soul while his achievements and influence made him a cultural icon. Dead at age 65, Isaac Hayes leaves behind a legacy of monumental significance.

As an integral contributor to Stax Records, Hayes earned his stripes in the mid-sixties as a session musician for artists like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. He soon teamed with lyricist David Porter to write and produce hits for the likes of Carla Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and Mable John. The partnership found its greatest success, though, with Sam and Dave, who turned songs like “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and “Soul Man” into anthems that resonated beyond the radio and into the mores of the Civil Rights era.

He set course on his own career in 1967 and broke artistic ground in 1969 with
Hot Buttered Soul, on which he introduced sprawling, monologue-laden rhapsodies that challenged listeners as much as it seduced them. Subsequent albums like Black Moses and Joy would further distinguish his talents. Yet it was with his “Theme From Shaft” that Hayes would make history, in 1972 becoming the first African American composer to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

In the years since, Hayes turned out such classic slowjams as “Come Live With Me,” “I Stand Accused,” and “Moonlight Lovin’ (Menage a Trois),” as well as the disco joint, “Don’t Let Go.” He also continued composing for other artists, most notably Dionne Warwick (“Déjà Vu,” “We Never Said Goodbye”).

His experience in scoring films led him to pursue acting opportunities (he auditioned for the lead in
Shaft, in fact, but was overlooked in favor of Richard Roundtree), securing roles in films like Escape From New York and Reindeer Games, among dozens of others. However, he landed his most visible role — at least in terms of popularity — when he signed on to provide the voice of "Chef" on South Park.

Isaac Hayes was inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2002 and into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (with David Porter) in 2005, both accolades indicative not only of his artistic triumphs, but also of the reverence and stature he’d earned. Integrity, he had a truckload.

August 09, 2008

Randy Newman, Master of Satirical Ceremonies

When you think about it (if you think about it), Randy Newman must have it rough. Not an awful lot of people appreciate satire; even fewer appreciate it in modern popular music.

Yet in literature, writers from Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain to Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon have employed satire in their works to enlightening, often humorous effect. The same applies to the visual realm, wherein a film like Dogma or a television show like The Colbert Report utilizes the method to underscore (and ridicule) society’s ills, quirks, and absurdities.

Music doesn’t allow for much ironic inflection or witty nuance of a lyric, though, especially when the songs aren’t transparently and deliberately comedic. People who discern only the literal words rather than ascertaining their inference—especially people who empathize with the source of scrutiny—invariably take exception.

So Newman singing “Short People” is still bound to offend a few midgets; a cluster of second cousins in Alabama will inevitably take “Rednecks” the wrong way; and gullible constituents will perceive “Political Science” as a foreign policy endorsement to annihilate every nation but America (and Australia).

Righteousness be damned as well on Harps and Angels, which finds Newman waxing sardonic (and, at times, solemn) in songs about mortality, impropriety, and the aches and pains of love. In his curmudgeonly inimitable way, he sings, mutters, stutters and hollers, sounding like a late-night lounge act one moment and a Dixieland bandleader the next.

Ever the astute social commentator, Newman offers solutions for America’s inferior education system (“Korean Parents”) and immigration reform (“Laugh And Be Happy”) as well as a rationalization for government ineptitude (“A Few Words In Defense Of Our Country”). “Now the leaders we have/While they’re the worst ones we’ve had,” he remarks in the latter, “Are hardly the worst/This poor world has seen.” Point taken.

His astuteness also extends to matters closer to home as he ponders such obscurities as the afterlife on the title track (“You never know”) and his unconditional love of women on “Potholes” (“Apparently I don’t care how I’m treated”).

And with a heavy heart on his sleeve, he sings “Losing You” and “Feels Like Home”—the latter a studio version, not the live cut from The Best of Randy Newman—as unflinchingly heartfelt as any love song in his canon. In fact, it’s during songs like these that skeptics could question his motives on the other ones.

If you can’t distinguish between sincerity and satire, though, chances are you won’t comprehend much on Harps and Angels either. Those who can, however, will appreciate this album as—to cop a Newman song title—“something special” indeed.

August 04, 2008

Concert Review: George Michael Still A Showman, Despite Unsatisfying Song Choice

George Michael last performed in Tampa in 1988, when Faith ruled the radio and its videos aired like a loop on MTV. While the twenty years since haven’t yielded as much Stateside success for the British superstar, over 11,000 euphoric fans welcomed him back with open arms (and shrieks and screams) on Saturday night at the St. Pete Times Forum.

A class act and a gracious host, Michael conceded at the outset that he was battling a cold but would carry on regardless. And as far as his showmanship is concerned — to say that the man commands a stage is an understatement — he certainly didn’t disappoint.

What proved frustrating, though, was his song selection. Ostensibly touring in support of a career-spanning compilation, TwentyFive, he curiously chose songs more familiar to European audiences — where he has sustained a relatively consistent run of hits. As a result, instead of being more accommodating to his American fanbase, his omissions seemed more prevalent than what made the cut.

The performance split into two parts, Michael offered the bulk of the highlights in the hour-long first half. After singing “Waiting (The Reprise)” behind the stage — an elaborate yet elegant design of cascading LED screens — he formally commenced with “Fastlove Pt. 1.” He then mixed Wham! favorites like “I’m Your Man” and “Everything She Wants” with solo smashes including “Father Figure” and a gospel version of “One More Try,” the latter gorgeously fortified by a choir of six background singers.

The frustration set in when Michael sang a charming but unnecessary cover of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which, despite its inclusion on TwentyFive, isn’t exactly an essential (or even representative) song choice. In fact, much of what comprised the second (and considerably shorter) set didn’t reflect either his greatest hits or what best distinguished his music on this side of the Atlantic. With the exception of “Faith,” nothing he sang in this segment — from “Spinning the Wheel” to “Flawless (Go To the City)” — equaled or came anywhere close to the familiarity of what he could have alternately done.

Such was evident in the encore, during which Michael barely had to ask the audience to sing “Careless Whisper” with him. “Come on, Tampa,” he teased. “You know you want to.” The sing-a-long continued with “Freedom ’90,” which ended the evening.

Finding fault with the setlist, however, doesn’t diminish how well Michael performed, how appreciative he was of his audience, and how well the audience responded. Actually, the crowd at times seemed so enthralled simply by his presence, the man probably could have balanced his checkbook on stage and garnered a similar reaction.

“Not all of you will know it, but I’ll forgive you if you dance,” he said before singing “An Easier Affair” early on, the sentiment ultimately summing up the concert as a whole. An artist shouldn’t necessarily have to oblige his most casual fans, but given his two-decade absence from the American concert scene, George Michael could have offered a set more reflective of his success here.