September 29, 2008

Nothing New Under A Blood Red Sky - Classic U2 Reviewed

In reissuing a classic album—especially one still in print—the intent is to present the work in a fresh perspective. Usually that entails including previously unreleased material, like demos or outtakes or live cuts, which puts the album proper into sharper context. If the reissue is nothing but a duplicate of the original version, then what’s the point?

Earlier this year, U2 reissued their first three studio albums, all of which included bonus discs of rarities and remixes. This week sees the re-release of Under A Blood Red Skythe live audio document of the band’s 1983 War Tourwhich, regrettably, contains no additional cuts whatsoever.

The album’s sole attribute is that the audio has been remastered. Audiophiles can analyze the intricate merits and sonic distinctions that it may afford, but in all honesty this new version doesn’t sound dramatically different or enhanced from previous ones. Sure, it sounds quite good, but it sounded quite good in 1983, too.

And so this reissue’s glaring fault lay in what it doesn’t provide. The album’s tracklisting comes from three separate concerts on the aforementioned War Tour. Surely U2’s archives hold further live footage from that era which could have expanded this latest version beyond its core eight cuts.

The DVD release of Live At Red Rocks (also out this week) features five previously unreleased songs. Given that the DVD and CD both derive from the same tour, it’s unfortunate that the audio document could not have similarly included added performances.

And especially considering the absence of extra content, critiquing the album on its intrinsic merittwenty-five years after its initial releasewould only be futile and superfluous. Suffice it to say, Under A Blood Red Sky captures U2 on the ascent, playing like a legendary band before they’d reached legendary stature.

The bottom line, though, is that with no substantive incentives, this reissue doesn’t enrich or expand the existing perception of this quintessential live album.

September 27, 2008

An Interview with Sonya Kitchell

Only when the topic turns to guys and their heartbreaking ways does Sonya Kitchell sound like any other nineteen-year-old girl. In all other respects, the Massachusetts-native singer/songwriter conveys a sense of purpose and self-awareness that belies her youth.

She evoked aspects of that sophistication on her eloquent 2006 debut, Words Came Back To Me. Yet, as illustrated on her current sophomore effort, This Storm, Kitchell has broadened her creative canvas to explore a wellspring of sound and substance. “I wanted to make a record that felt more expansive,” she says, “and more interesting musically and [one which] had a little more depth politically.”

Her versatile talent and fortitude resonated early on with Herbie Hancock, in whom she found an invaluable source of insight and assurance. “He’s been a really big mentor and person in my life in the last year or so,” Kitchell says. She’s toured at length with the jazz legend as well as having worked with him on River: The Joni Letters, his 2008 Grammy-winning Album of the Year.

Presently headlining her own tour, Kitchell discussed This Storm, expounding on the craft and conviction with which she invested the work.

This being your second album, how do you measure your progress as a songwriter?

A lot has changed. And one of the more obvious changes is that when I wrote my first record, a lot of the songs I hadn’t yet experienced. There were life things that I was writing about—from and about the people around me or things I projected or things I imagined or things I’d seen—[but] hadn’t lived myself. As two or three years went by, I started to live all of those songs and understand them more deeply. And then on this record, it was more from personal experience.

Also, it’s very important for me that songs make people feel and that there’s a political element in records, because I feel there is a lot that needs to be touched upon right now and a lot that’s going on that needs attention. That’s always been a desire of mine to focus on. And I think on this record, moreso than on the last one, that’s present. Hopefully, on the next record, it’ll be even more present. But as a writer I’ve been able to incorporate that a little more this time.

You recruited Malcolm Burn (Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp) to produce the album. What did he bring to help facilitate your creativity?

He brought a huge amount to the table. He has a way—I wouldn’t say he has no patience for things—but, [more like he believes] you just do it. Whether it was getting a take or anything, it was all about the raw emotion rather than the perfection. We didn’t fuss around with things forever. The vocal take, I was singing it the same time that the band was playing. And it was fun working with someone who’s just such a mad scientist, who pushes you in a great way.

There seems to be an underlying theme of impermanence, fleeting love as well as the shortness of life. Was that a theme you consciously wanted to write about or is that something that just came out?

That just came out. I did not consciously mean to do that, and you’re absolutely right that that’s something I tend to focus on. But no, I didn’t mean to do that.

In songs in which the lyrics don’t explicitly convey a sadness or melancholy, your vocal often does.

That’s unintentional, too. Yeah, that’s just there.

Even on songs like “Here To There,” songs that aren’t necessarily sad…

Well, even that song is sad, actually [Laughs]. It’s about a lover who’s far away and it’s like, you’re here and I’m there or I’m here and you’re there. Who knows what’s gonna happen and how it’s gonna work out?

“Robin in the Snow,” with its imagery and the sentiment—“Who will miss you when you’re gone?”—is quite evocative.

I was sitting in the kitchen, looking outside. It was February, I think, and it was snowing, freezing cold. I saw this bright red robin and it was really beautiful. Then I realized it was going to die… because it was February and cold. How could it possibly survive? So that was the trigger for the song, the idea [of] who will miss you and who will miss me? It’s definitely a question we ask.

How has working with Herbie Hancock affected you?

He always encouraged freedom and freedom of expression. He would say to me, “That’s what I love the most about your singing is that you’re not afraid to experiment and you’re not afraid to fall on your ass, even though you don’t.” That’s the way he plays and that’s what he really loves in other people’s playing: that abandon and trying and not being afraid. To have someone like him tell you that you can do that and you’re good at it is huge and very liberating.

It’s got to be encouraging.

Very encouraging. He gave me a lot of confidence. When I started working with Herbie was when I went into the studio [for This Storm]. And even though I made a rock ‘n’ roll record, I was getting from the jazz end of things that if it was good music and you’re true to it and you’re passionate about it and you’re honest with yourself and not afraid, then [the album] will be good. That was really huge for me.

What’s the sentiment behind “Soldier’s Lament?” It’s certainly sympathetic to the soldier.

It’s about the idea that we don’t want to see something that we believe to be glorious fail. We only want to think about the accolades and wonder that goes with winning battles and fighting wars. When someone falls, we look the other way because it’s a reality we don’t want to accept.

In “Borderline,” you seem to be dissuading against apathy. Is that a fair analysis?

Sure, yeah.

Do you think that that mood is changing—in the context of the election?

I hope it’s changing; it’s hard to say. Elsewhere in the world, I think people are almost more excited for Obama to be president than they are here. I hope that’s not true, but you do get the feeling.

Is there a particular story behind “Fire?”

I was on a really terrible tour and I was really mad. [Laughs]

It comes across.

It’s about a few people rolled up into one, really. I wrote that song about those kinds of guy musicians who go around breaking hearts. And I always like to warn my friends who aren’t musicians and don’t know them and don’t know what they’re in for: Watch out!

Dates and venues for Sonya Kitchell’s current tour can be found at the artist’s official website. This Storm is available at all retail and online outlets.

September 20, 2008

Once Again, Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen

Between 1978 and 2006, Leonard Cohen produced a body of music that rivals among the finest in his entire canon. Also in this era, he saw his popularity grow exponentially as his albums resonated with critics and audiences on a major scale. No longer a fringe artist with a cult following, Cohen evolved into a full-fledged (if not most-unlikely) pop star.

Leonard Cohen Under Review 1978 2006 examines this era of the legend’s music, paying particular attention to the context within which it was created and why much of it remains so highly regarded. Like other documentaries in the Under Review series, assorted music journalists (like Robert Christgau and Anthony DeCurtis) as well as other subject-relative specialists (like Cohen’s official biographer, Ira Nadel) lend their perceptions and insights. If any songwriter invites such meticulous assessment, it’s Cohen, but thankfully these commentators don’t succumb to tedious, condescending analysis.

While it highlights each studio album from Recent Songs to Dear Heather, the film uses Death of a Ladies Man, Cohen’s ill-fated 1977 collaboration with Phil Spector, as its thematic spark. Described as nothing short of a “debacle,” the project is evidenced to show that Cohen could only be at his best when he didn’t compromise his creative intent or accommodate anything but his own muse. 

The documentary’s most astute contention, though, is that Cohen’s latter day ascent in popularity could, in part, be attributed to the recognition afforded him by a series of tribute albums featuring more mainstream performers covering his works. In particular, the 1987 Jennifer Warnes LP, Famous Blue Raincoat, as well as the various artist compilations, I’m Your Fan and Tower of Song: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, exposed Cohen’s songwriting prowess to a mass audience. And after appreciating these interpretive versions from an arguably more palatable perspective, much of that mass audience then sought out their source. 

That visibility, so goes the assertion, thus enabled Cohen, upon the 1988 release of I’m Your Man, to reach and ultimately appeal to an unprecedented number of listeners. Unanimously acknowledged in the documentary as a masterpiece, the album catalyzed Cohen’s music career while subsequent effortsmost notably, The Future, with its prophesied, apocalyptic motifsubstantiated his newfound distinction. As well, his voice having taken on a deep and sobering tone around this time, Cohen invested gravitas into his songs that rendered him an affecting vocalist in his own right.

A clear and convincing case is made in Leonard Cohen Under Review 1978 2006 as to how and why the music Cohen produced in this era so crucially factors into his overall renown. There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why, at age 74, Leonard Cohen still draws sell-out audiences in venues the world over. Nevertheless, this documentary addresses a few of them quite well.

September 17, 2008

An Interview with Rachael Yamagata

On October 7, Rachael Yamagata will release her sophomore effort, Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, a song cycle that explores emotions and instincts contemplated amid and following a personal relationship. As musically progressive and mature as its contextual premise, this double album finds the singer/songwriter expanding upon themes she introduced on her 2004 debut, Happenstance, infusing it with piano-laden grandeur in turn with brazen rock ‘n’ roll.

She conceives an evocative, melancholic aura on Elephants, its lyric imagery and introspection mirrored in music that echoes with an ethereal weight. On Teeth Sinking Into Heart, she solidifies that aura into an emboldened sonic assault of brash and scathing guitars. Taken as a whole, the album makes for a harrowing depiction of the perils and ravages of relationships.

A 4-song EP, currently available for download at most online retailers, affords a compelling preview of the album.

Yamagata is set to headline a tour in support of Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, beginning September 20 in Asbury Park, New Jersey before joining the Hotel Café tour on October 28 in Washington DC.

Before hitting the road, though, Rachael Yamagata spoke with music writer Donald Gibson about her thoughts on the album’s thematic and musical development as well as her perception of the work overall.

This being your first album in four years, how has your songwriting changed in comparison to Happenstance?

The lyrics, especially on Elephants, have become a bit more poetic. I’ve never used metaphors or imagery the way that I am on this record. And certainly the guitar-driven rock side is new territory for me in terms of recording. We touched on it a little bit in Happenstance, but this one kind of takes it to the next level, especially the production side, [which] is very gritty and raw and gutsy in a way that’s new for me. I’m touching on a lot of similar themes but with a bit more poetic wisdom.

You’ve started playing the guitar more prominently on this album. Is that electric guitar as well as acoustic?

On this record it’s acoustic yet in live performances I’ve just started picking up the electric.

How are you doing on that?

Well, it’s slow [Laughs]. It’s almost like my passion for it is tripping my feet up a little bit. I love the guitar. I’ve always written on guitar. I’ve just never really recorded very much on guitar. So for this record we really kind of went there with particular songs, but I just like the gutsiness and the range. I was introduced to so many great bands way late. It was right around a couple years ago when I first heard Led Zeppelin and I got so intoxicated by the guitar solos and work like that.

They have a habit of doing that to people.

I know [Laughs]! Like, where have I been? There’s something cool about weaving that into heartbreak songs because they are really powerful and I don’t want to pussyfoot around it. I want to dig in like that. I loved doing that for this record.

A song like “Faster,” with the drums being such a strident part of that song, it’s almost like a White Stripes kind of jolt…

Totally. [I] really wanted to go full throttle, especially if I were even going to approach rock in this way. I didn’t want it to be a clean, shiny attempt at it; I wanted it to really hit you in a full-on way. Like, for “Faster,” we took a Dobro guitar and ran it through a harmonica mic to get that extra edge.

On “What If I Leave,” you have this soft vocal running against a tribal drum sound. That dichotomy creates a tension in the song that’s very interesting.

That song, we put it on its head. [On] some of the breaks where it’s just instrumental, there were actually lyrics that went along with it. It was a very live recording. We went in and I just started playing the guitar lick and the rhythm section, Jay Bellerose (drums) and Jim Conte (bass), had this vibe and this mood. We just played it so it was almost a trance. And there is something lulling and trance-like when you go to a tribal, rhythmic section. So it was very much in-the-studio live, everybody on the same vibe. The strings were played as we were playing. Everything was in the moment. So I think that’s part of why it works so well. I always loved the paradox of having something like a lullaby effect but with not an easy lyrical message. And that one came together like that in a really effective way.

It grabs you. It lures you in.

I love things that are kind of haunting. It seems like that one worked really well.

On the title track of Elephants, the parallel you strike, lyrically, is fascinating, comparing the instincts of wild animals to the instincts of humans in relationships.

I have to pat myself on the back for that because that was one of the ones where I really felt I had nothing to do with it. That was like the universe saying, “You gotta have a little push here, so we’re gonna give this to you”…That was a magical experience coming up with it. I was just running down a mountain in Woodstock and I was conflicted in that I was going through this emotional, tumultuous, whatever it was. So my insides were a bit wrecked. Yet I [was] in this beautiful nature setting of just woods and animals. And the lyrics just started coming. They just kept coming. Every time I’d get a line, I’d sing it over and I’d have this melody and I’d repeat it. By the time I’d gotten to the bottom of the mountain, the whole thing was done. And I just ran back up repeating every single line, singing it over and over again. [Then] I flew into my house and sang it into a tape recorder. It took me six months to come up with the music that would accompany it. I just had the melody and the lyrics. It wasn’t until I went back and really looked at the lyrics did I understand myself that they had all these layers to them, poetry that on my best day I couldn’t have come up with…


Yeah, consciously. I never sit around looking at animals and relating them to humans [Laughs]. It just worked.

How did working with Ray LaMontagne on “Duet” come about?

Well, we’ve known each other for quite a few years. And I always felt like our voices would complement each other’s so well because it’s such a dark and intimate vibe to the song. He was a very natural choice for me. I also loved the idea of, lyrically, portraying these two characters, two people in their careers — especially life on the road — who have no ill intentions; it’s just reality. You always meet musicians on the road whose personal life has just gone to Hell. And I’ve never heard a song that specifically referenced that, how you can love your art and how it can destroy everything else. But you keep hoping. 

There’s a music ebb and flow to the album. Do you see any thematic or narrative arc to it?

I do. I feel like “Elephants,” in particular, that song, sets up the record from the point of view of somebody who’s a bit more weathered and educated than [on] the last record, in terms of entering relationships, and yet still willing to go there. [That person has] obviously been hurt in some respects. And just like animals can have such instinctual reactions to any action taken to them, there’s that danger of reacting like that on a human level.

And then you go through all of the different challenges of relationships where you question what if I leave or why are we even here? What are we going to take from these relationships when they crush us? Are we going to remember that they were worth something or are we just going to feel devastated?

A song like “Duet” is almost, like, the false promises we make to each other, the hopefulness we have that something will work. And yet the objective, outsider view is that it’s headed for disaster. You go through this record going through the heartache of something and then by “Horizon,” it’s almost like an acknowledgment that you were flattened by this relationship. You were thrown off balance, you’ve lost your horizon, but you’re still looking for it. You’re looking to make sense of it all. I feel like that closes out that side of the record.

Teeth…Sinking Into Heart is really more about once you’ve regained your footing a little bit and you start to translate this experience into reclaiming your backbone. And you showcase that defiance, but you’re still sassy and a bit tongue-in-cheek with some of the songs, like “Don’t.” It’s a transition that you go through. I like ending it with “Don’t” because it’s not blaming the heartache on the relationship and you hate somebody. It’s not cynical.

The track, “Sidedish Friend,” is that tongue-in-cheek?

It is tongue-in-cheek. It’s fun. It’s definitely a situation that I think a lot of people have been in before. You can either see it as the main character as the one inviting someone to be [his or her] sidedish friend. I really meant it as having been invited and thinking, I don’t think that’s for me, but thanks for the invitation. It’s definitely got a lot of tongue-in-cheek in there.

You’re going on tour on your own for a couple weeks and then you’re hooking up with the Hotel Café tour at the end of October. How are your shows going to be different?

With the Hotel Café tour, we share a backing band. So I’d imagine we’d still have a couple full-on band members as well as the more intimate solo performances. The good thing about the Hotel Café tour is that you can kind of do either/or and it’s a short enough set where you can mix it up a little bit more. On the tour that I’m doing by myself, I’m bringing out a full band, which includes a cello player. And for the NY and L.A. shows, we’ll have a string quartet joining us.

Information regarding Rachael Yamagata’s tour dates and the October 7 release of Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart is available at the artist’s official website.

September 14, 2008

Joe Cocker DVD Captures End of Mad Dog Era

A Joe Cocker performance is a primal experience, not only because of how the legendary British vocalist sheds his soul (and shreds his vocal cords), but also because of how his audiences behave in response. In fact, the first time I saw him in concert, some people were so enthralled by Cocker’s fury that they climbed over the theatre’s balcony, suspended (and rocking) from its rafters.

Joe Cocker: Cry Me A River affords an indicative, albeit modest glimpse of this visceral artist on the stage. Originally recorded on October 31, 1980 and aired live on the German-based television program, Rockpalast, the concert shows Cocker a decade removed from his iconic Woodstock set, but just prior to his most commercially successful era.

Inside two years, he would reach the top of the charts with “Up Where We Belong,” his Grammy and Academy Award winning duet with Jennifer Warnes. And with his career revitalized, he would score a succession of hit singles, including “When the Night Comes,” “Unchain My Heart,” and “Shelter Me,” in the years to follow.

Thus, this hour-long performance captures Cocker at a crossroads.

Shaggy-haired with a homicidal glare in his eyes, he cuts quite the disheveled figure, but his voice is classic. On tracks like “High Time We Went” and “Hitchcock Railway,” he puts his raspy pipes through the ringer. He invests enough vitality into staples such as “Delta Lady” and “Feelin’ Alright” to satisfy longtime fans. And yet, he receives the warmest audience reception with his inimitable covers of “You Are So Beautiful” and “With A Little Help From My Friends,” the latter delivering the concert’s climax.

He also turns out impressive covers of “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And though the inclusion of these tracks, in particular, may seem a bit curious (as Cocker hadn’t yielded popular versions of them), it makes better sense upon considering that they appeared on his most recent album at that time, 1979’s Luxury You Can Afford.

All in all, Joe Cocker: Cry Me A River offers a representative snapshot of this feral performer at the tail end of his mad dog days. It’s not essential viewing, but Cocker’s fans will surely find it worthwhile.

September 11, 2008

Sonya Kitchell Follows Her Muse Through This Storm

Every once in a while, an album comes along that resists and transcends conventional categorizations. Such is the case with Sonya Kitchell’s sophomore effort, This Storm, as it reflects a uniquely exceptional talent operating within a realm entirely of her own making.

Only 16 when she released her debut album, Words Came Back To Me, Kitchell earned recognition as an ingénue with an old soul, her original compositions and thick, silken voice conveying sophistication beyond her years.

Now 19, she exhibits even more refined confidence as a songwriter as well as a resourceful musician. And her voice warmly enriched by experience and maturation is nothing short of gorgeous.

Guided more by her own muse rather than any perfunctory approach, Kitchell explores a collage of sounds and styles on This Storm, rendering folk and jazz dynamics with deft flourishes of rock ‘n’ roll.

As such, she attunes and phrases her rich vocals to suit each sonic direction. On tracks like “Effortless” and “For Every Drop,” she croons above a cavalcade of brisk percussion and strings. She descends amid the raw tension and lift of “Borderline” and “Fire,” her voice heaving all feisty and proud. And on “Here To There,” she serenades to a boisterous, rustling arrangement with the spirit of a Cajun jamboree.

Kitchell bears out perhaps the most impressive aspect of her versatility, though, on the album’s ballads. Her womanly yet delicate inflections, the ways in which she draws out certain breaths and syllables to envisage the melancholy mood of such songs are impeccable. She accentuates the contemplative lyrics of “Running” with a poignant tremble; she imparts “So Lonely” in wistful, aching sighs; and on “Robin In The Snow,” she affects a lilting tone that beautifully echoes and bends to the music’s plaintive sway.

With this album, Sonya Kitchell firmly establishes herself as an artist of rare distinction, whose promise is tempered solely by the scope of her creative vision.

September 07, 2008

Lewis Black Bursts Your Bubble While He Busts Your Gut

Remember vinyl? Remember how, if you wanted to play one particular song on a 33 1/3 RPM record, you had to pinpoint the exact groove in which to drop the needle? The attentiveness and precision required for this feat were enough to drive the most docile person into an apoplectic fit.

As Lewis Black recalls, though, fidgeting in vain to find “Lay Lady Lay” on Nashville Skyline was also enough to squander “the mood” of losing his virginity. This and other anticlimaxes inform the context and the comedy of Black’s latest stand-up album, Anticipation.

In other bits
about golfers, the holiday season, and why his concert routines tend to depress the hell out of audiences (even when they laugh ‘til they choke) Black contends that nothing ever lives up to people’s expectations. Elation, he suggests, comes in looking forward to a certain moment or experience; disillusionment arrives the instant that moment occurs. Once one reaches the top of that proverbial hill, the only direction to go is down.

Sure, it’s a rather dour line of reasoning, yet Black translates it into perceptive, intelligent, and substantive comedy.

What’s more, it takes a particularly qualified comedian to not only make people laugh but to make them laugh at their own ridiculous rituals and behavior. “When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was the day that the family gathered together,” he says in wistful reminiscence. It was not, he indignantly retorts, a mere respite before an onslaught of indulgent, pretentious Christmas shopping. “When did the American economy become tied to Santa’s ass?” Good question.

With the holiday season fast approaching, perhaps consumers will consider what Lewis Black has to say on the matter. Maybe, though, they’ll simply want to laugh while he ponders and ridicules absurdities that they too find amusing. They’ve heard that Anticipation is a terrific and hysterical album, but they’ve also read somewhere that nothing ever lives up to people’s expectations.

As such, deciding whether or not to purchase it creates quite the theoretical conundrum. Still, for what’s worth, unlike sex, golf, and shopping for that special someone, at least buying this album won’t leave you questioning your own performance.

September 04, 2008

Rachael Yamagata Whets Expectation with EP

On October 7, singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata will release Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart, a double album that, based on the preview afforded by her current EP, stands to be an ambitious, compelling work. 

Comprised of four tracks, the EP reveals Yamagata as a daring artist who, rather than sticking solely to the piano-based sound that resonated so well on her 2004 debut, Happenstance, instead challenges and expands its scope. She amps up the guitars and drums, giving songs like “Accident” and “Sidedish Friend” an urgent edge. She sprawls out a 9-minute soundscape on “Sunday Afternoon” to surrealistic, almost Floydian effect. And on “Elephants,” perhaps the most striking song in this set, she discreetly plays piano as she enunciates each wordlike she’s singing through tearswhile the music ascends toward an enthralling orchestral arrangement. 

The qualities with which Rachael Yamagata distinguished herself on Happenstance are still present her sultry and visceral vocal style, her lyrics both esoteric and intimately literal, as well as her skills as a composer but as the music on this EP suggests, she’s by no means complacent with her talent. Elephants…Teeth Sinking Into Heart may very well earn her even greater distinction.

September 02, 2008

Album Review: Rodney Crowell - Sex and Gasoline

An assiduous songwriter, Rodney Crowell is one of that diminishing breed of artists who pay allegiance more to their craft than to any particular genre or style. Artists ranging from Keith Urban (“Making Memories of Us”), Emmylou Harris (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”), and Bob Seger (“Shame On the Moon”) have covered his works, underscoring his versatile skill.

On his latest album,
Sex and Gasoline, Crowell adeptly threads themes of intimacy, mortality, politics, religion, and women into a cohesive, mature narrative. Blustery acoustics and sparse arrangements suit his pensive vocals, rendering this seasoned troubadour as if delivering a soliloquy while ominous music swirls in the shadows.