December 31, 2008

Jenny Lewis Serves Up '08 Album of the Year

Whether fronting Rilo Kiley or stepping out on her own, Jenny Lewis seemsat least on the surface—wholesome and enchanting, yet her maiden, girlish charm is but the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. On her sophomore solo effort, Acid Tongue, the indie siren sweetens twisted tales of kink and squalor, serving up one intoxicating tonic and, to this writer's taste, the album of the year.

Having her way with a kaleidoscope of rich melodies, Lewis hardwires these songs with lucid imagery—lyrics conjuring the sinful and soulful, the sacred and profane—further distinguishing herself as an eclectic and versatile songwriter.

From the misty-eyed vibe that pierces through “Black Sand” and “Godspeed” to the rabble-rousing thrust of “See Fernando” and “Carpetbaggers” (spiked with a shot of Elvis Costello), from the salacious bent of “Jack Killed Mom” to the redemption bestowed within the title track, Acid Tongue is sated with mischievous bite. Jenny Lewis, by virtue of her talent and magnetism, just makes it easier to swallow.

December 29, 2008

Dylan's Songs of Revelation

As the music released over the past twelve months is assessed, Bob Dylan’s Tell Tale Signs invariably emerges as one of the best albums of 2008. You won’t get any argument here that it ranks among the finest (if not the overall best) music released this year. Regarding it within the context of an album, though, strikes this writer as a bit precarious in describing this staggering collection.

Primarily comprised of alternate, live, and demo versions of tracks previously issued on proper albums, it isn’t comparable to altogether original recordings issued as isolated creative efforts.

As well, considering the caliber of music in question—that it’s culled from one of the strongest, most fertile eras in Dylan’s storied career—with rare exception, any possible contender inevitably pales in comparison. It’s like critiquing the latest crop of new fiction and then, incidentally, a Faulkner manuscript is unearthed and submitted for analogous scrutiny.

That said, what Tell Tale Signs undoubtedly achieves is in demonstrating how Dylan, rather than being overshadowed by his own back pages—a fate he’d succumbed to with ambivalence for much of the ‘80s—reassessed his creative purpose and recommitted to his craft.

Even in this set’s most embryonic performances, like the piano demo of “Dignity” or the transitory shuffle that drives the first of two included takes of “Mississippi,” the foundation is solid and primed for more refined productions, culminating, in these instances, on Greatest Hits Volume 3 and Time Out of Mind, respectively.

Other alternate cuts, which feature more fleshed-out arrangements, rival and in some cases arguably eclipse the quality of their more familiar counterparts. Such is strikingly the case with “Someday Baby,” as Dylan steels an incessant rhythm and swagger, asserting a far more ominous tone than the honky-tonk rumble on Modern Times. Also, his guttural, unctuous romp through “Can’t Wait” and pensive, unaccompanied take on “Most of the Time” could have just as well made the final cut on their intended albums.

An important facet of Dylan’s artistry underscored here is the way in which his lyrics aren’t inextricably bound to one song, but are of such integrity that they bolster the ones in which they dwell. “Dreamin’ of You” and “Marchin’ to the City,” in particular, hold up as compositions in their own right, yet both would eventually manifest on subsequent tracks, the former surfacing on “Standing in the Doorway” while “’Til I Fell in Love With You” would incorporate phrases of the latter.

Any discussion of this period of Dylan’s career inevitably includes Daniel Lanois, who in his roles as producer and musician undoubtedly contributed to shaping the music’s resultant texture and direction. What’s evident in listening to this set, though, is just how impregnable these tracks sound in more primitive incarnations.

Ultimately, it is in fact that quintessence, that core spark surging through this music — the signal that Bob Dylan had tapped into his genius in ways he hadn’t done in years — which makes Tell Tale Signs more than just a collection of assorted songs from various projects, more than just an album. Indeed, it’s a revelation.

December 12, 2008

DVD Review: Elton John - Tantrums & Tiaras

Unlike a lot of superstars, Elton John recognizes the contradictions between his admittedly insular, extravagant lifestyle and the comparatively average ones most others lead. So when in 1995 he allowed his partner, David Furnish, to record his day-to-day activities for a documentary, he likely knew that such unrestricted access would cast him in a vulnerable — and perhaps unflattering — light. That the depiction would be so compelling, however, he may not have altogether foreseen.

Originally released in 1997 and now officially available on DVD, Tantrums & Tiaras holds up quite well in rendering the conflicting realities of one of music’s enduring legends. In addition to the feature film, this new edition includes several previously deleted clips, up-to-date commentary by Elton John and David Furnish, as well as relative supplemental footage.

Filmed around the time when Elton John released his album, Made In England, the film finds the musician in flurry of promotional appearances, interviews, publicity shoots, and live performances. All of this — barring a few memorable instances, like his tirade on the set of the “Believe” video — he handles with equal amounts composure and confidence.

It’s what occupies his time between these endeavors — more practical concerns, like the tacit obligations of his relationship to Furnish — that invariably cause John some measure of frustration and, by extension, yield the film’s most affecting content. Seeking a balance between one’s career and one’s personal life is no easy task for many individuals and, as he readily acknowledges here, such is a perpetual challenge for Elton John as well.

A particularly telling scene occurs — captured while the couple is on holiday in the South of France — when the contradictions of John’s life unwittingly converge. Furnish suggests some outdoor recreations that he would enjoy sharing with his partner, that the two could enjoy together. With a pained yet unwavering expression, John rejects each one out of hand — either because his celebrity would draw unwanted attention or from sheer disinterest — before ultimately conceding to “consider” taking a walk with Furnish on a remote part of the beach. It becomes evident (to viewers, but heartbreakingly so to Furnish as well) that, at least at this point, Elton John feels far more comfortable in his role as a famous musician than in that of an intimate relationship.

Rather than inflating the DVD with irrelevant filler, the bonus material included here further serves the function and overall quality of the film. Candor humorously extends to camp, as in one clip when John flashes just enough skin during a photo session to make Madonna blush; in another, he preens before a mirror, dressed in drag, all but oblivious to a lasciviously clad Kylie Minogue playfully wiggling her tuckus in the same room.

Among such revelry, though, lay one profoundly bittersweet segment. In a video taped the same year as the documentary, the late Gianni Versace reflects on his close friendship with Elton John. It’s jolting to watch — as the iconic fashion designer, looking vibrant, speaks with eloquent regard toward his pal — against the context of his assassination less than two years later.

Clichéd though it may sound, it doesn’t make it any less accurate: For Elton John, it all does come back to the music and at the heart of Tantrums & Tiaras lay his exceptional talent. The film wisely yields little in the way of sensationalizing his career — his success is sensational on its own — but instead offers a refreshingly unfiltered and intriguing glimpse of the opposing forces that define his life.

December 01, 2008

Ray Davies Works Out The Kinks In Concert

Ray Davies (Photo by Donald Gibson)
Ray Davies may very well be the Kinks’ biggest fan. Who could blame him, really, considering the catalog he gets to choose from in concert. That its songs derive from his pen doesn’t seem to humble the man in the slightest; to the contrary, such only adds to his pride in playing them.

The audience inside the Tampa Theatre on Friday, November 28 was equally as thrilled in witnessing the British music legend perform a generous portion of the Kinks songbook as well as select solo efforts.

Accompanied by guitarist Bill Shanley, Davies worked through the mostly acoustic set while seated, for the most part, at a barstool. What the music lacked in volume, though, it made up for with integrity, the modest approach underscoring the depth and craft of his creations.

Opening with three Kinks rockers — “I Need You,” “Where Have All The Good Times Gone?” and “Till The End Of The Day” — Davies hit his stride straight off, his organic renditions coursing forth with rigor and sway. He often summoned the audience to sing along — he needn’t have asked — as on “Sunny Afternoon” and “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion,” the latter introduced as “an old English folksong.” As well, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” inspired a rousing chorus, ironically one laced with sneering dissidence.

Formalities cast aside — the no-flash camera rule and a subdued audience among them — Davies gamely honored requests for “Alcohol” and “Low Budget,” seemingly as happy to hear them as anyone else.

The casual camaraderie extended to when he offered up a sampling of his solo work, including “The Tourist” — its love/hate sentiment embraced by the native Floridians in attendance — and “Working Man’s Café,” which Davies prefaced with a warm recollection of meeting up with his brother Dave for lunch. After a classic double shot of “Tired Of Waiting For You” and “Set Me Free,” he as well dedicated “All Day And All Of The Night” to his brother to close the main set.

Opening band Locksley provided a fantastic complement to the main performance, unleashing an arsenal of electric guitars and catchy pop melodies. In songs like “Don’t Make Me Wait” and “Why Can’t I Be You,” the Brooklyn-based quartet — fronted, incidentally, by brothers, Jesse and Jordan Laz — demonstrated some serious chops as well as the headliner’s enduring influence.

Such made for a celebratory, rambunctious grand finale when, at the end of the night, Ray Davies and Locksley shared the stage, charging through “You Really Got Me” in a garage-rock maelstrom. Concluding with “Victoria” and “Lola,” the musicians looked overjoyed, none moreso than the well respected man at the center of all this sound and fury.