May 30, 2009

Tori Amos Satisfies With Abnormally Sinful New Album

On her latest album, Abnormally Attracted To Sin, Tori Amos envisions a cycle of picturesque, often-woeful songs marked by seediness or some underlying element of shame. Through scenarios depicting characters either flawed or anguished, Amos lifts the veil just enough to reveal impressionistic glimpses of their supposed immorality and squalor. 

Among the dark thoughts and deviance portrayed are risqué trysts, pubescent fixations, abusive relationships, existential suspicions and consensual submissions. In other words, they’re the kinds of subjects and themes that have populated Amos’ albums for the better part of the last two decades. It’s what she does with them musically on this new work that makes it especially intriguing and her strongest, most satisfying effort in years. 

Drums and assorted percussion play an integral role throughout, from supplying the brisk, galloping pace of “500 Miles” to injecting the propulsive thrust of “Not Dying Today.” A grungy guitar erratically interrupts a trash-can-stomp groove on “Police Me” while, on “Give,” a boorish backbeat prefaces (and recurrently competes with) Amos on piano and vocals. 

Indeed, it’s on her signature instrument that some of the more poignant songs focus and flourish. “Maybe California” and “Ophelia,” in particular, tell of women caught in conflicted conditions, their respective distress mirrored in the music’s eloquent yet plaintive arrangements. And in depicting an altogether different type of distress, a nebulous piano motif underscores an awkward conversation between a mother and her son in “Mary Jane” (which may or may not be about what the title suggests, but either way it’s awkward). 

Other songs specifically “Strong Black Vine” and the noirish album closer, “Lady in Blue” benefit generously from vigorous synths and strings, instigating edgy rock rhythms with orchestral force. 

All is not so enthralling, however.

"Fire To Your Plain” and “Fast Horse,” to cite two examples, slog along without making much of an impression, sounding more like languid segues in between the more interesting songs they precede and follow. Truth be told, Amos is at her best when at her most artistically eccentric and mercurial. She is not nor has she ever been, thank God and/or Lucifer a middle-of-the-road artist. So it’s disheartening when a couple of songs here sound like they could have been performed by anyone else and yielded the same results. 

And so, at seventeen tracks, the album could have done away with its rather lackluster material to yield a more cohesive work. Nevertheless, its preponderance of ingenuity and overall creative, engaging music makes Abnormally Attracted to Sin Amos’ all-around best effort since From The Choirgirl Hotel.

May 27, 2009

Album Review: Mandy Moore - Amanda Leigh

Nearly two years since the release of Wild Hope, an inspired and impressive album that signaled a new beginning in her music career, Mandy Moore continues to progress as an artist, summoning a thoroughly engaging and precocious pop record with Amanda Leigh.

Impressionable melodies and layered harmonies abound, complementing an eclectic assortment of songs. Standouts include the lush serenity of “Merrimack River,” the offbeat whimsicality of “Pocket Philosopher,” and the utter irresistibility of “I Could Break Your Heart Any Day of the Week.”

Whereas Wild Hope represented Moore having found her own creative voice, Amanda Leigh
reveals her far more secure in expressing that voice. By enlivening compelling, often-quirky songs while exploring imaginative sounds and melodies, she has delivered her best album to date.

May 19, 2009

An Interview with Meiko

Right about now, Meiko is on the road—literally—en route from a gig last night at the Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin to the one she’s playing tomorrow night at the Walnut Room in Denver, Colorado. It’s quite a haul, but she doesn’t seem to mind. “The tour is going awesome,” she says without any trace of artifice or fatigue. “A couple of long drives, but it’s cool.” It’s her first as a headliner, but if the gains she’s made in support of self-titled debut are a portent of what lay ahead, it certainly won’t be her last.

Meiko—who was raised in the small town of Roberta, Georgia and currently lives in Los Angeles—has been ambitiously on the rise for the past two years, having independently released her enchanting batch of folk-pop confections in 2007. She subsequently signed with the Myspace/Interscope label, re-issuing Meiko in 2008 with one additional song, “Boys With Girlfriends,” which soon topped the iTunes Singer/Songwriter chart.

All the while, Meiko paid her dues, opening for the likes of Mat Kearney and Joshua Radin as well as partaking in the ever-popular Hotel Café tour with such artists as Rachael Yamagata, Erin McCarley, and Priscilla Ahn. Most recently, she collaborated with the Crystal Method on “Falling Hard,” the closing track of their latest album, Divided By Night.

“It’s been really, really good,” Meiko replies when asked how audiences are responding to her current live shows, but the same could also be said for how her career is progressing. In a conversation with music critic Donald Gibson, she discusses her ongoing evolution as an artist, including where (and from who) she finds inspiration to write as well as what she has planned for the future.

When you moved to Los Angeles, was it with the intention of having this career?

Not at all. I was in Georgia; I went to college for one semester and I was trying to figure out what I really wanted to do. And I decided to take a break and go hang out in Miami for a little bit with my sister. Then once I got there, she wanted to move to L.A. and I followed her.

Do you think living in Georgia, having come from such a small town, affected your songwriting or has an effect on your songwriting?

Probably [in] the simplicity of my lyrics. There’s a way I like to write, [of] things that people can relate to and things that I can relate to, usually. So yeah, I would say that probably has something to do with me coming up from a simple town, simple upbringing.

I’ve read where you’ve said your songs are autobiographical. When you’re performing them, do you have to revisit the circumstances in which you wrote them? Or can you sing them with conviction regardless?

I usually do think about how I felt when I was writing the song. That kind of helps it be not so contrived. But yeah, I do go back there. And I’m not bummed out or anything when I sing them. I’m just remembering how it felt when I was there.

One song that really strikes me is “Hiding.” From what I gather in the lyrics, it seems like you’re writing about compensating your own sense of worth, your own sense of who you are, to be with someone else. Is that an accurate description?

Not really. I actually wrote that song about my mom. I’d had kind of a strange relationship with her where I really didn’t know how to get in touch with her at a certain point. Originally the lyrics were, “Oh, now, Mama, you…” and I was like, “Well that sounds weird.” So I changed it to “baby.” I’ve actually never told anybody that before.

“Under My Bed” seems to be about, after a breakup, all you’re left with are tangible souvenirs.

That’s exactly what it was. When I moved to L.A., I moved with my sister, but my boyfriend that I had in Georgia eventually moved to L.A. with us. I ended up breaking up with him, of course, because everybody does that. You go to L.A. with somebody and try to make it work and then break up. And I just remember moving all my stuff out and going through all these things that had kind of morphed into each other, mine and his. I just remember thinking, “Should I take this? Do I want these pictures of me and him?” Of course I took them. And I moved into [my] new place and didn’t really know what to do with them. I put them in a box, stuck them under my bed. Eventually I acquired a few more boxes from a few more relationships. And I haven’t gone through them since. I probably should throw them away at some point.

On “Piano Song,” where you sing, “I try so hard not to show this side of me,” are you saying you don’t want to reveal any vulnerability to someone who you may be attracted to?

It’s [about] not wanting to reveal to someone how much I miss [him]. I wrote that song when I was waiting for somebody to come back home and I didn’t know when… That’s where the “counting down the hours and counting up the days” [came from]. I didn’t have an exact date…and I didn’t want [him] to know how absolutely dorky I was about [him]. It was a new relationship where I was trying to be the cool one, but totally obsessing behind closed doors. And I wrote that song on piano. I was house sitting for friend[s] and they didn’t have any guitars. I was really inspired to write and I just sat at the piano. That was the first and last piano song that I ever wrote.

You haven’t written one since on a piano?

No, no. [Laughs] I don’t play piano at all, obviously, with those simple clanking of the keys.

But that’s what makes it so endearing. You don’t come off as Rachmaninoff; that’s what makes it appealing to people. Are you working on anything for a subsequent album?

I’ve been writing a lot lately. And when I’m not touring, I go back home and kind of get in my studio and record with my friend. We have about six or seven songs recorded. I hope that, by the end of this year, to get in for a good month or so and maybe try to finish up something, either an EP or a record. I’ve been playing a few new songs in my live shows and I’m excited to get them recorded. I think a lot of the true-blue fans are kind of ready for me to hurry up and put something out.

How do you measure your progress as a songwriter?

I look at the different topics that I write about. It’s not like I try to write about different things, but when I do write a song that’s not just about being pissed off at some guy or some guy’s girlfriend, I know that I’m kind of moving on to a different level.

And I also look at the way I play guitar. Because there’s a hole you can get stuck in, playing the same kind of rhythm or playing the same kind of chords. Expanding my knowledge and trying to learn—and trying to learn other ways of playing guitar—is another part of it.

When I was little, when I’d just started playing guitar, I would learn a couple of chords and I would just write. I would instantly write a song. And then I’d learn a new chord and I’d write with all those chords. And then I got to the point where I knew, pretty much, all the guitar chords that I felt like I needed to play. Now I try to learn something else because usually that inspires me to write something new.

So you’re still trying to expand your knowledge.

Oh, yeah. Even getting a new guitar will [inspire] me. I went to Spain for New Year’s and I got a Flamenco guitar. So then I started playing a lot, picking a lot, finding different picking styles.

How did the track you have on the new Crystal Method album come about?

It was really random. I was playing a show and the guys from the Crystal Method were just in the audience. They approached me afterward and asked if I’d be interested in writing a song with them and I was like, “Sure.”

You wrote the lyrics?

Yeah, they gave me a couple of songs without words or anything and I really liked that one; it was the slowest one.

You mentioned on your blog once that, while you were waiting in line at a store, a girl’s cell phone rang with your song, “Boys With Girlfriends,” as its ringtone. That had to have been surreal.

It was. A lot of weird emotions were happening. I was really excited and I wanted to be like, “That’s my song!” but then I was also totally embarrassed at the same time. I just kind of…giggled about it.

That’s a lot better than hearing your music in an elevator.

Yeah, totally. [Laughs] Or an Applebee’s.

For more information, including upcoming tour dates, visit Meiko's Myspace page.

Album Review: Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood - Live From Madison Square Garden

It was deemed historic before it even happened. An evening with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood – both men legends in their own right, each man a veritable encyclopedia of rock history and influence – marked their first full-length concerts together in nearly forty years, harkening back to their fleeting brush of Blind Faith.

Chronicling their three-night stand in February 2008, Live at Madison Square Garden recalls Clapton and Winwood consummately rising to the occasion, delivering a heavy, blues-powered set of unqualified classics. From expected performances (“Can’t Find My Way Home,” “Presence of the Lord,” “Had To Cry Today”) to those less expected (Clapton with “Forever Man,” Winwood with Traffic’s “No Face, No Name, No Number”) to the ones that make your jaw drop (“Voodoo Chile,” “Them Changes,” “Little Wing”), it’s a revelatory live document. 

Consider it essential from one who was there.

May 14, 2009

Sharon Robinson's Debut Album Leaves Lasting Impression

Having established herself as a versatile songwriter, vocalist, and producer with a roster of artistsmost notably Leonard Cohen, with whom she’s collaborated for three decades and is currently on tourSharon Robinson could have just as well maintained a successful music career behind the scenes. Thankfully, she had other ideas.

On her debut album, Everybody Knows, Robinson draws on the eclectic dimensions of her craft as well as on the breadth of her talent, summoning fractions of jazz and soul into a sound that is bound by neither. Through seven originals and three cuts previously co-written with Cohen (including the title track), she is at turns transportive and sensuously prescient, her smoky voice recalling shades of Sade while achieving an aura all her own. 

Amid ethereal soundscapes and muted, electronica-based arrangements, Robinson strikes an ambient tone that is well suited to the contemplative themes she explores. From the empathetic resonance of “Party For The Lonely”its ironic refrain, “I think we should go,” reverberating in rhythmto the soulful complexions of “Invisible Tattoo” and “The High Road,” she sings with equal conviction and wisdom. On certain songs, as on “Forever In A Kiss” and “Secondhand,” she creates a contrasted dynamic of live and synthesized instrumentslike a piano progression set atop a subtle drum loopfurther underscoring the album’s sophisticated allure. 

Lest anyone question whether Robinson is capitalizing on Leonard Cohen’s stature and present renaissance of sorts, consider that her musicality and production skills have informed some of his most celebrated works. And in the realm of lyricswhich she delves into quite deeply hereany semblance to Cohen’s pensive expressions isn’t one of imitation, but rather of a mutual ethic for rendering penetrating, visceral insights. 

Even on the songs co-written with Cohenparticularly “Alexandra Leaving,” on which she affects a more intimate vibe than the originalRobinson steers them into her own style, which in turn inspire altogether separate appreciation. 

In fact, inspiring distinctive appreciation is what Sharon Robinson so exceptionally achieves with Everybody Knows, the result of having harnessed her creative energy and sensibilities to yield her own voice.