February 24, 2009

Leonard Cohen Takes Manhattan

Leonard Cohen at the Beacon Theatre
Conceit or modesty aside, even the most accomplished and prolific songwriters could seldom attest to having created a genuine masterpiece. Leonard Cohen is of the rare few who can, of course, but last Thursday night at the Beacon Theatre it was abundantly clear that he could lay claim to far more than one.

Taking the stage for his first American concert in fifteen years, Cohen received a reverent welcome by the sold-out audience, its applause overlapping the opening bars of “Dance Me To The End of Love.” Dressed to the nines in a dark suit with bolo tie and fedora, the 74-year-old bard cut a distinguished figure, his sophic disposition tempered by a laconic, often self-mocking sense of humor.

What Cohen imparted most, though, was a selfless commitment to his songs. After a mirthful trip through “The Future”—during which he pirouetted as the ominous “white man dancin’”—and having plead his case on “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” he dropped to his knees at the start of “Bird On The Wire,” turning out a truly stunning rendition that soon saw him singing at full stride. Likewise, he enlivened an avalanche of imagery and delicate melodies on “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” and “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye,” his rich voice at times recalling the lissome timbre of his younger days.

The esteem to which Cohen paid his compositions extended to his superb nine-piece band. Each time a musician soloed—as when guitarist Javier Mas played a gorgeous, flamenco-styled prelude to “Who By Fire?”—or when a background vocalist assumed a leading role, as did long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson on a soulful version of “Boogie Street.” Cohen stood aside in deference, his hat held to his chest, his face betraying an appreciative smile.

The ultimate pleasure and privilege, however, lay in listening to Cohen. With the conviction of one who’d labored more in composing these works than most others could’ve otherwise endured, he stepped into each song—from the understated grandeur of “The Gypsy’s Wife” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” to the synthesized thrust of “First We Take Manhattan”—and rendered each one with rich perception. He recited “A Thousand Kisses Deep” as written in Book of Longing (as opposed to singing the version from Ten New Songs), drawing out evocative lines and phrases in cadenced tones. And at his most transcendent, Cohen surrendered “Suzanne” and “Hallelujah” to those fortunate enough to have attended—to those who knew they’d witnessed something very special. Now, everybody knows.

February 09, 2009

Testifying Against Justin Timberlake & Al Green at the Grammys

Something that’s bothered me in recent years about the Grammy Awards is its “one-time-only” variety of collaborations, which often finds contemporary artists awkwardly paired up with elder (and usually more talented) musicians. Last night’s ceremony supplied an ample amount of such curious scenariosthe Jonas Brothers and Stevie Wonder, Lil Wayne and Allen Toussaintbut one above all struck me as particularly disheartening.

In perhaps the most mismatched pairing of the night, Justin Timberlake sang “Let’s Stay Together” with Al Green, ostensibly in light of their mutual Memphis roots. Despite his respective talents in the pop field in which he thrives, however, Timberlake looked (and sounded) embarrassingly out of his league as he struggled to vocally hold his own in the presence of the reverential soul man.

Incidentally, why was Al Green relegated to doling out one of his classics when his latest album, Lay It Downarguably his strongest effort in two decades and among the best overall of 2008had garnered four nominations, ultimately winning two awards?

Perhaps the point of these one-off collaborative performances is to ingratiate esteemed yet elder artists to a wider, younger demographic through the drawing power of more contemporary acts. What usually happens, thoughand what did happen Sunday night with Timberlake and Greenis that experience trumps popularity to such a degree that the chasm between the two not only seems insurmountable, but laughable as well.

February 06, 2009

Duncan Sheik Imaginative, Haunting on Whisper House

Picture a dark night in the wilderness among friends, all huddled around a campsite fire, roasting marshmallows above the crackle of the flame. Someone suggests telling ghost tales, eliciting reactions of enchanted suspense. Such is the mood imparted on Whisper House, the latest album by singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik.  

Drawing on attributes of musical theatre and linear, narrative storytelling, Sheik is at turns evocative and engaging, precociously rendering ten songs like chapters in a fantasy book.  

Set amid World-War-II-era New England, the storyline centers on the doleful imaginings of a young boy, Christopher, whose father has perished in battle and whose mentally unfit mother has shipped him off to live with his aunt. Christopher soon suspects that his new home — as fate would have it, a lighthouse — is haunted by ghosts. The tracks that comprise Whisper House are the voices of these phantoms, which instill this already crestfallen boy with dread and self-doubt.  

Of course, none of this would make much difference if the songs weren’t any good. Fortunately, the compositions are equally progressive and beguiling — underscoring lyrical themes of mortality and irrational fears — making for a rich, thoroughly rewarding album.  

On the folksy opener, “It’s Better To Be Dead,” Sheik affects a vocal reminiscent of David Bowie circa Hunky Dory, assuming a stately air that sets a suitably ominous tone. He adds whimsical, melodic flourishes to tracks like “The Tale of Solomon Snell” and “Earthbound Starlight,” contrasting such austerity with more illusory, lighthearted orchestrations.  

Complementing Sheik’s foreboding, sullen vibe is vocalist Holly Brook, who renders an ethereal yet intimate presence throughout, gorgeously so on “How It Feels” and “Earthbound Starlight,” as well as on “And Now We Sing,” which finds her singing lead. Like any good story, Whisper House is imaginative and thematically sound. 

In translating those qualities to music, Duncan Sheik renders an inspiring work, one which yields enjoyment above and beyond its underlying premise.