July 29, 2009

New Lionel Richie Bio Stuck On The Basics, Lacking Depth & Soul

In what often carries the tone of a flattering press release rather than what’s ostensibly an all-around biography, British music journalist Sharon Davis chronicles the career of Lionel Richie, drawing together a surplus of source material and firsthand encounters with the R&B singer/songwriter in Lionel Richie: Hello.

The author doesn’t hide her admiration toward her subject—“Well, for god’s sake, it was the Lionel Richie!” she gushes in the preface, recalling her first meeting with the man—which would be fine if it didn’t distract from the narrative. However, she increasingly undermines it each time (of which there are many) she concludes otherwise direct statements with frivolous exclamation marks.

That being said, though, Davis does a decent job in rendering a thorough account of Lionel Richie’s career to date—from his formative years in the Commodores to his most successful years as a solo artist—making for an informative read for popular music buffs.

Writing about the Commodores forming as a funk/soul hybrid with slick joints like “Machine Gun” and “Brick House,” the author traces how the group ascended from their lucrative slot as the opening act for the Jackson 5 to arena headliners. Yet when Richie began turning out smash-hit ballads—beginning with “Three Times A Lady” and including “Sail On” and “Still”—not only did the public’s perception of the group shift, but the dynamic within the group itself changed as well.

As the author relates, the question looming within the Commodores—at least for everyone except Lionel Richie—was how do you handle your dissatisfaction with your band’s musical direction when that direction is yielding your greatest success?

Of course, Richie soon launched a thriving solo career and the Commodores then struggled to remain relevant in the wake of his departure. Curiously, though, the author continues to track the musical evolution of the Commodores, creating a disproportionate (and comparatively sad) parallel between the group and their infinitely more successful former lead singer.

In keeping with the deferential tone she maintains throughout, the author divulges little in the way of any scandalous or unauthorized information about Richie that hasn’t already been circulated in the press. Actually, there’s not much in the way of personal anecdotes—scandalous or not—to be found here anyway. So while she does reflect upon on select gossip—namely the turbulence surrounding Richie’s first divorce and the pricey cost of his second—she steers clear of recriminations.

All things considered, Lionel Richie: Hello is a by-the-numbers career retrospective of the musician far more than it is a comprehensive biography of the man. Such is not a detriment in and of itself, but longtime fans will be left wanting to know more than just the facts.

July 11, 2009

Say Hello to Haroula Rose

With music that’s as heartening as a lullaby, yet informed by perceptions both redolent and inherently mature, singer/songwriter Haroula Rose introduces herself as a remarkable talentand a remarkably promising one at thaton her debut release, a five-track EP entitled Someday.

Nurturing an organic, windswept sound borne of folk and alt.country influences, Rose—whose soft, unaffected voice recalls Alison Krauss and perhaps Mindy Smith—is generously supported by delicate melodies and arrangements.

She draws on themes of doubt and self-assurance—both the presence and the lack thereof—endearing herself as empathetic and emotionally receptive. In “The Leaving Song,” for instance, she sings with a wistful premonition of how her insecurities will cause the loss of a love, likely her first of real significance. “Oh babe it’s all so new to me,” she laments amidst a gentle rustle of strings and piano.

In turn, “Love Will Follow” finds her conciliatory and strong, assuring her special someone that in spite of his apparent disillusionment—“You get further away/ Every day/ What do you look for?”—she will always be with him. A stark and steady guitar progression underscores this promise and, while its sentiment may be simple, the compassion with which Rose imparts it makes for a gripping song.

Rose turns especially pensive, though, on “If I Could Pray,” during which she questions the essence of her faith and howif such were more secureit would sustain her in moments of great uncertainty. Ironically, she does so against a playful rhythm of hand claps and assorted strings, making what could’ve been a brooding meditation into something more hopeful and resilient.

Of course, it would be presumptuous to conclude—even though she’s written everything on this EP in the first person (and despite references here of her as a subject)—that Haroula Rose is relating firsthand experiences or exact personal feelings. What believing in such an assumption does speak to, however, is her authenticity as a songwriter as well as an interpreter of her own works.

In just over twenty minutes, Rose makes a notable impression with Someday, delivering one of the finer debuts of the year thus far.

July 01, 2009

Neil Young Unearths the Goldrush with Archives, Vol. 1

In a career as uncompromising as any in popular music, Neil Young has seldom sought the creative path of least resistance, instead yielding to the mystifying influence of his own muse. With unwavering conviction—believing that the best, most inspired works flow through, rather than from, one’s consciousness—Young is a rare figure in rock, one who is inextricably attuned to his art while, at times, shamelessly expressive of his most visceral and vulnerable emotions.

Long running on his own wavelength—and not just in the realm of music, incidentally—Young has produced a canon so prolific and singular that chronicling it has posed a host of problems, not least of them being its eventual scope and format. After years of false starts and thwarted expectations, though, the first installment of what promises to be a monumental undertaking has ultimately come to fruition.

Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972), comprises ten discs total. Nine of these feature music culled from Young's stints in Sixties bands from the Squires to the Buffalo Springfield, and continuing through sessions with Crazy Horse and on solo LPs like Harvest and After the Gold Rush (including assorted extras like a career timeline and memorabilia). The last disc features Young’s surreal 1973 film, Journey Through the Past. As a whole, the complete collection yields a genuinely compelling perspective of the rock legend.

Perhaps the most important factor to consider, at least in terms of its contents, is that this collection does not boast dozens of previously unreleased songs. There are no lost classics that have been unearthed for this project. Rather, it contains previously unreleased versions of songs (many of which are classics) culled from their respective era.

That said, among the music discs are formerly unreleased mixes (either mono, stereo, or promotional edits), live performances, or various pressings. Point blank, this is not a substitute, what-could-have-been view of Young’s career (a la Springsteen’s Tracks box), but rather an everything-goes exhibition of one particular creative period.

Given that most of the material is well-known—at least to Young’s fans, which are who this set is geared toward—what’s worth noting is not so much which songs work and which do not (as most fans have surely inferred as much by now), but instead what distinguishes the music of this era from later ones of his career.

For the most part—with the radio edit of “Ohio” being the strongest exception—the version of Young heard here is not the angry or irascible one who more frequently populated later albums like Tonight’s The Night, Freedom, and Ragged Glory. The artist heard here lay more in the singer/songwriter vein, brimming with feral self-awareness and rich perceptions. Even on familiar material, hearing alternate versions of songs like “I’ve Loved Her For So Long” (previously unreleased, live), “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (first pressing), or an accelerated take on “Sugar Mountain” (previously unreleased demo), Young’s genius is palpable and promising.

Considering that Young’s career has never been much of a linear one—his sidetrack projects have often been more interesting than his original plans—the timeline feature on each DVD reflects those excursions and his overall efforts especially well. Plus, certain stops along the way yield further music performances (including a live montage taken from the Buffalo Springfield’s final performance) as well as photos, images of news clippings and other relative souvenirs.

Also not linear in any chronological (or even much of a logical) sense, Journey Through The Past finds Young around the time of the making and promotion of his 1972 album, Harvest. If not for a few select performances of its songs (including “Alabama” and “Are You Ready For The Country?”) and an in-studio interview with DJ Scott Shannon, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was simply a slapdash home video that Young once spliced together in his garage. The film does underscore Young’s eccentricities and humor quite well—and hardcore fans will undoubtedly enjoy his oddball antics—but it doesn’t do much to underscore the quality of his music.

Regardless, overall Archives, Vol. 1 overwhelmingly succeeds in exhibiting the breadth as well as the context of roughly the first quarter of Neil Young’s extensive career. While not for the casual fan, it yields a mind-bending and magnificent portrait of the artist as a young man.