March 31, 2009

Album Review: Pearl Jam Reissue Not A Ten

In a certain idealistic context, once a band releases an album, that music belongs to its listeners, its songs invariably taking root in people’s lives and affixing a soundtrack to their memories. And so it’s a dicey endeavor whenever a work is tinkered with, especially when done so beyond applying conventional sonic enhancements.

One of the most seminal albums of the Nineties, Pearl Jam’s Ten has now been reissued in an array of formats, its Deluxe Edition (which is reviewed here) comprising two versions of the album as well as six previously unreleased bonus tracks and a DVD of the band’s 1992 appearance on MTV Unplugged.
First and most essential, though, is the album proper, which has been deftly remastered to not only amplify the music’s more pronounced elements, but also to clarify its subtler ones. Peripheral flourishes — like the wah-wah distortions swirling through “Why Go” and “Evenflow” — have been augmented, resulting in a much fuller resonance. 

A sufficient (and at times, striking) visual counterpart to Ten remastered is the Unplugged performance, which does a fine job in exhibiting how a lack of electricity doesn’t preclude an insidious rhythm section. Less remarkable, yet still constructive in underscoring this early era of the band are the previously unreleased tracks, of which the improvised “2,000 Mile Blues” trounces the rest of the batch, smoldering all headlong and heavy.

While the remastering job serves the album and its legacy well, the “redux” version 
— which covers markedly different sonic ground — strikes this writer as blatantly revisionist. The backstory, in a nutshell, is that the band has, for some time, felt dissatisfied with the reverb-laden sound heard on Ten — which Rick Parashar produced — instead preferring the more organic, abrasive tones of their sophomore effort, Vs., which Brendan O’Brien produced. Incidentally, O’Brien has been at the helm of four subsequent Pearl Jam records to date.

With nearly twenty years of hindsight and ever-changing resources, just about any qualified rock ‘n’ roll band could freshen up or tweak some of their past perceived missteps to sound exactly like the music in their minds. With rare exceptions, though, most bands don’t give into that temptation. Whatever technical glitches or audible faults may plague an original production, once the album hits stores and airwaves, then it becomes something more than an exchangeable product. And, along the same idealistic lines of music belonging to its listeners, remixing Ten 
— to the extent it has on the redux disc — isn’t just modifying some music; it’s infringing on all of the memories and perceptions to which it’s long since been associated and appreciated.

March 24, 2009

An Interview with Sharon Robinson

Eight days from now—on April 1 in Austin, Texas—Leonard Cohen will begin the North American leg of his ongoing world tour, heralding his first run of U.S. dates in over fifteen years. At his side, singing backup as she’s done throughout this itinerary, will be Sharon Robinson.

In fact, she’s been a recurring figure in Cohen’s music for the last three decades, whether serving as a vocalist (on stage and in the studio) or co-writer (as on “Waiting For The Miracle” and “The Letters”). Robinson broadened her creative palette on Cohen’s 2001 album, Ten New Songs, which she produced as well as having co-written, arranged, and sang on each of its tracks.

The sessions for Ten New Songs ultimately served as a template, of sorts, that Robinson later referred to while crafting her debut album, Everybody Knows. “I’ve definitely been very fortunate,” she says, “to be working with Leonard, and to be able to benefit from observing his process and his integrity as a writer.”

On this initial release, Robinson deftly interprets three songs previously co-written with Cohen—“Summertime,” “Alexandra Leaving,” and the title track—having solely composed seven originals that further distinguish her talent.

Before heading back out on the road, Robinson discussed her new album with Donald Gibson, reflecting not only on the music, but also on what insight she gleaned from her mentor as she sought to find a voice to call her own.

Was there a primary impetus—because you’ve had a career for many years—something that inspired you to go out on your own this time?

Making Ten New Songs with Leonard was the main impetus. Because not only did Leonard encourage me to make my own record after we did that one, [but] I kind of had a method established for doing so. At least initially, I embarked on my record in the way that we made Ten New Songs, in terms of the recording and the arrangements.

But also, and probably more importantly, I learned a lot about working with that artist’s voice and being true to a certain voice. Leonard knows himself very well as an artist, as a poet, as a writer; and it’s very informative to watch his process up close like that and to understand how he gets to the stuff that he deems relevant for him as an artist.

Was there tentativeness on your part—as producer, making Ten New Songs—not to infringe on whatever vibe he had going?

Of course, I brought in my aesthetic musically, but as a producer my job was really to facilitate his expression. And I tried to keep my eye on the ball with that all the time… It was not up to me to push any concept of mine on him, but to open things up and offer ideas for him to choose from.

So it wasn’t a Phil Spector rerun.

No! [Laughs]

Leonard is known for spending eons writing his works; for you, is songwriting an effort?

Yes, it often is quite a bit of an effort. You never know, when you write a song, how it’s going to go. Some of them… I’m sure you’ve heard people say, ‘They write themselves.’ Others definitely don’t [Laughs]. And there are songs where, parts of it, you really feel good about and believe in and then other parts you don’t. You may spend years trying to fix a song.

Of the songs that you wrote alone on Everybody Knows, did you know at the start of the endeavor that these songs were meant for you to sing?

Some I wrote years ago when I was writing for other people, but most of them I wrote for myself. It took me a little while to find that voice, to figure out what it [was] that I wanted to say. It was difficult, but extremely worthwhile. I feel good enough to have found an identity for myself as an artist.

There’s an ethereal vibe in the music and your vocals even reflect that on some songs as well with slight echo effects and embellishments. Yet the songs are weighed down by an intimate, almost meditative quality. Was that something you wanted to achieve, that contrasted dynamic?

I was looking for a sound that was mine. And I had to dig deep to find it, but at the same time it felt very natural. It feels like the kind of music that I like, what I want to put out there. The ethereal quality that you talk about, it’s just part of the way I find the emotion.

The ways certain things intertwine—how you’ll have a live piano over electronica flourishes—come off really well.

I’ve never been one to be very genre-specific. And that’s one of the things I like about this record is that it just crosses over genres and it’s being noticed by people from a lot of different genres. That’s always been my approach to music. And my enjoyment of music always crosses genres. That’s part of the character of this record.

As you co-wrote everything on Ten New Songs, why did you choose “Alexandra Leaving,” in particular, over anything else from that album?

I felt that “Alexandra Leaving” fit well with the other songs and that, melodically, it was something I wanted to do in that I could do something different from what’s on Ten New Songs.

Is there a specific or prevailing way that Leonard has inspired you as a songwriter, in the way you approach the craft?

He’s shown me how to write from the point of view of one’s heart and not from the point of view of trying to get a hit record. When I was a staff songwriter in the past, that was more the point of view. Now, it’s changed. As an artist, I’m always reaching for that same kind of integrity.

I imagine that takes a lot of digging.

Yes. And unless you can get yourself into a certain kind of head space, you can’t even begin to do that kind of digging. It’s so worth it [though], because the deeper you can go, the deeper you go into humanity, the more people you’re reaching. We have so much in common, in terms of being here on this earth.

After this tour with Leonard, are you planning any shows of your own?

I am planning to do some shows when the opportunity presents itself… I’m sure I will be doing that before too long.

March 17, 2009

Rust Never Sleeps — Gets Good Mileage, Actually

Neil Young is gearing up for the April 7th release of Fork In The Road — a concept album about cars — and he’s previewing one of its tracks, “Johnny Magic,” in a self-made video that finds him, suitably, behind the wheel of a classic automobile.

In particular, Young is shown cruising in a ‘59 Lincoln Continental, which he recently converted to hybrid technology. And while this lean, mean, eco-friendly machine looks to be one viable way of the future, the rest of this ride — at least by the dilapidated condition of its interior — appears (endearingly) on the verge of collapse.

As for the song, it’s a guitar-heavy rumble — a la “Piece of Crap” or “Dirty Old Man” — that chomps on riffs like crumbs. And the refrain here reaches back to “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)” with its tongue-in-cheek chimes of “Johnny Magic! Johnny Magic!”

All in all, it makes for a fun little film, not least because of Young’s dog, Carl, who chills in the spacious backseat while his cantankerous master rocks out up front. Keep watch for the two-minute mark, when Young busts out an air guitar solo that’s impressive not only for his inimitable fingering style, but also for his ability to keep the car on the road.

March 10, 2009

Stevie Wonder is Live At Last

Every avid music fan keeps in mind a list of artists that he or she would drop everything — but has never had the chance — to see in concert. I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill productions that roll into the same towns each year, but rather those rare, special events — whether a stop on a once-in-a-lifetime tour or a one-night-only affair — that inspire us on road trips or cross-country flights. For nearly three decades, literally for as long as I could remember — until September 14, 2007 at the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta — Stevie Wonder topped my list.

Recorded over two nights last year at London’s O2 Arena, Live At Last — an apt title if ever there was one — now makes its way onto DVD and Blue-ray, marking the Motown legend’s first-ever official concert film. Chock full of classics that are at turns romantic (“My Cherie Amour,” “You Are The Sunshine of My Life”), idealistic (“Visions,” “As”), and anthemic (“Living For The City,” “Higher Ground”), the performance covers Wonder’s illustrious career. And for me, it underscores why I’d always longed to witness Stevie Wonder in concert…for once in my life.

March 03, 2009

Van Morrison Ventures Back Into the Slipstream of Astral Weeks

Of all the music that Van Morrison has produced since he had it with Them and got down to blowin’ your mind, Astral Weeks remains his most enigmatic to date. The 1968 album only Morrison’s second as a solo artist fused elements of Celtic folk, psychedelic rock, and free-form jazz while its verses yielded an automatic writing style that suited its serendipitous air.

Forty years later, Van Morrison revisited this seminal work in full for the first time recorded last November and recently released as Astral Weeks: Live at the Hollywood Bowl his performance electrifying both in its own right as well as in complement to its mystic precedent.

Sounding like he’s channeling an altogether new spirit rather than replicating old magic, Morrison invests these classic songs with a jolting dose of soul and sentience. His voice deepened and richer with age, he asserts his Irish mettle amid the music’s ethereal minutiae, whether bellowing above a blanket of strings and harpsichord on “Cyprus Avenue” or crooning in and around the broken-time percussion/brass wallop that tempts “The Way Young Lovers Do.” As mighty as Morrison comes across, though, he mercifully doesn’t overpower the nuanced dynamics afforded by his band.

In fact, he often sings (and wails and growls) with marked restraint, summoning the melodic fragility of songs like “Beside You” and “Sweet Thing” to the fore. Morrison works off these ephemeral flourishes like the crying violin winding through “Slim Slow Slider” or the muted, mournful flute serenading “Madame George” inflecting his voice in intuitive, at times guttural response.

Morrison concludes by playing two non-Astral tracks “Listen To the Lion,” culled from Saint Dominic’s Preview, and “Common One” the former fitting in gorgeously here. If anything detracts from the pleasures of this performance, though, it’s his rendition of the latter. While underscored with rich gospel flavor, Morrison affects a domineering call-and-response routine with a background vocalist, spouting lyrics like mantras in a grating, almost indiscernible flurry.

Such is but a slight criticism, however, when considering how well Van Morrison has translated Astral Weeks to the concert stage, illustrating that not only has the album lost none of its resonance, but, so too, neither has its creator.