June 27, 2010

Rolling Stones Revisit Days of Exile in New Documentary

To coincide with the recent reissue of the Rolling Stones’ seminal work, Exile On Main Street, filmmaker Stephen Kijak collected a considerable amount of archival footage to present Stones In Exile, which summarizes the making of the album, its reception by critics and fans upon release in 1972, and its enduring legacy today.
Through cinematography that often blends still photography from the time and present-day, voice-over narration by the band and other principal figures, the film uniquely invites viewers back to Keith Richards’ 19th century mansion, Villa NellcĂ´te, where much of the album was conceived.

It was also where much decadence and depravity ensued and, over time, overwhelmed just about everyone involved. This is an authorized film, though—Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Charlie Watts serve as executive producers—so while some salacious behavior is acknowledged (drug use, mainly), details of the more incriminating, hedonistic kind are selectively overlooked. Nevertheless, the film does well in rendering an impressionistic portrait of the circumstances and chaos that saw the Stones at their most turbulent and, arguably, their most artistically profound.

Of the supplementary material that accompanies the main feature, the best is “Extended Interviews,” in which select band members (Richards especially, but also former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and retired bassist Bill Wyman) offer up recollections that either didn't make it into the film proper or were cut short. Also, the “Exile Fans” segment injects a bit of welcome perspective and context—the most insightful coming from director Martin Scorsese and record producer Don Was—from outside the immediate Stones circle.

All together, while the film is more entertaining than revelatory, one does come away from it wondering (if you didn't already) how the band managed to make any music at all, especially under such trying circumstances, never mind the caliber of which graces Exile On Main Street.

June 24, 2010

An Interview with Jonny Lang

Johnny Lang (photo: Donald Gibson)

On Saturday, Jonny Lang will play the Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, joining the likes of Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Steve Winwood, and Buddy Guy, among dozens of others. Sharing the stage with musicians of such stature is nothing new to Lang. And in fact this will be his second Crossroads appearance — he performed at the inaugural event in 2004 — but this time he’d like to meet one legend to whom he’s been compared but whose path hes yet to cross: Eric Clapton. I’ve never met him, Lang says, sounding anxious at the opportunity. I hope I get to.

The day-long festival comes during an especially productive time for Lang. In addition to working on his own forthcoming studio album, he's contributed to Carlos Santana’s next all-star release as well as to jazzman Lee Ritenour’s 6 String Theory and Cyndi Lauper’s Memphis Blues. “She’s awesome,” Lang says in praise of Lauper, adding that she “understands that style of music so much more deeply than I had assumed. She’s really something else.”

Lang is also well into his Live By Request tour, in which he plays a few selections voted for by fans on his website. More often than not, he says, the top picks are ones from Lie To Me and Wander This World, his major-label debut and its follow-up, respectively. However, he concedes,
I find it a little bit tough to relate to the first couple albums, although that doesnt deter him when it comes time to perform. When you’re playing live you get caught up in the moment, he says, and the moment is enough inspiration in and of itself to make a good performance out of it.

Lang’s more recent efforts have underscored his emergence as a lyricist, so that he most identifies with those isn’t all that alarming. However, listeners who expected him to recycle the same blues-based motifs he made his name on were indeed surprised to discover he'd taken his music in a new direction.

Your songwriting, in particular, has evolved over recent years to reflect more spiritual themes. Has that been liberating for you?

It really is. The first few records I couldn’t really relate to what I was singing [about]. It’s been fun to try to get better at putting my feelings into words and having it work. It’s very therapeutic being able to put your experiences into your art, especially if you can do it in a way that helps other people, where people can relate to it and feel like they’re invested in it as well.

Were you reluctant at first to be that honest in your music, to say, “The are my values. This is what I believe?”

I didn’t really have reservations about it, but I tried to be as careful as I could not to say things that came over heavy-handed or preachy. I wanted it to be from the standpoint of, “This is something great that happened to me,” and at the same time make it vague enough to where [others] could find the joy in it too with the experience they’ve had in their lives… I’ve never been the type of person who enjoys any type of content in any art that is just there to please people. I’ve always appreciated when somebody is direct and honest. That’s where all the good stuff is for me; that’s what I enjoy. I want to be that way too. I want to have my identity.

Was it ever difficult to reconcile playing the kind of music you do with your faith? Several musicians in the past — Little Richard, Al Green; it’s a pretty big list — have left, if only for a while, saying they couldn’t play this and believe that.

I feel like the boundaries that are made by religion — especially in our country, as far as what kind of music you can and can’t play — are purely cultural. There’s a boundary somewhere. I’m not saying there’s not, but I certainly can’t claim to know what that boundary is definitely. I don’t know if anybody can. As far as what I do, I feel good about it.

And on some level you must believe you were gifted with your musical abilities. Not everyone can just pick up a guitar and play like you do.

Sure, we’ve all got our niche that God has put us in. And hopefully we can be good stewards of what He’s given us.

Will spiritual themes continue to be a part of your music going forward?

My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life. So just because of that it’ll be inherently part of me and a part of whatever I do. At this stage it’s more about trying to be honest about the things that I struggle with in my life and more of the difficulties that I’ve been facing the last few years. That’s kind of where I’m at now so it might not come off as happy-happy-joy-joy time on the next one.

Is it challenging for you as a touring musician to keep your values and faith in check?

Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a constant challenge and sometimes a battle, but God has become even more real to me through even all that. I had a period of time where I didn’t really think about some of the pressures of the peripheral things that go on on the road. As life goes on [though] you get things melded into different pressures, getting married and having kids, more responsibilities. You find out where you’re weak and where you’re strong. I’ve definitely had my battles, but it’s all been good and it always seems to work out… I found that I just really have to stay focused. Because it’s a pretty narrow path especially when you’re away from home and away from your support system. You really have to stay focused and remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. Once you get momentum, though, it’s okay.

Is it difficult to maintain your faith?

Fundamentally, who I believe in — believing in Jesus Christ and that He is my God — that I don’t have any problem with or waver on. Then there’s the side of your actions, trying to just be a blessing to people and trying to make everything in your personal life line up with who you are to people as well and not live a double life. I don’t think anybody’s perfect. I certainly am not or would never even try to think that I could be, but I really want to do my best and try to have some level of credibility.

June 21, 2010

Album Review: Miley Cyrus - Can't Be Tamed

If Miley Cyrus wants her music to be more important to people than what's depicted of her in tabloids and paparazzi photos, she needs to distinguish herself from the countless other pop stars who already do what she does, only better. On her new album, Can’t Be Tamed, the seventeen-year-old starlet not only lacks any hint of individuality but substance as well, sounding as if she's grasping at straws with each track to find one groove, one hook, one something that works. And not much does.

These are just, in the most generic sense possible, tracks to fill the space of an album. And from the monotonous opener, “Liberty Walk,” it slogs through one formulaic, overbearing dance beat after another. Added to that is Cyrus’ singing, which when left alone would likely reveal some potential with its deep tone, yet here too often dissolves into processed, robotic distortion. That there is actually a track called “Robot” doesn’t make such production tricks any more reasonable. Other moments, like the she’s-too-young-to-get-it cover of Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and the stale plea of “Stay” — featuring such trite lyrics as, “I love you more/Than I did before” — follow the same uninspired pattern.

While she's no doubt earned an impressive and sizable following through her lead role in Disney’s Hannah Montana franchise, as a recording artist in her own right, Miley Cyrus has yet to find her own voice, let alone one that can speak to (or for) others. And though the album isn't completely without merit — the last track, “My Heart Beats For Love,” is a refreshing, catchy tune — she’s not doing anything on Can’t Be Tamed that any other teenager with modest talent and comparable resources couldn’t just as well pull off.

June 17, 2010

Filmmakers Damani Baker & Alex Vlack on Bill Withers Documentary

When in the late ’90s filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack first conceived of directing a documentary about music legend Bill Withers, they had a hard time finding even the most basic information on the man.

They also had a hard time finding Bill Withers.

The composer and voice behind some of popular music’s most enduring, instantly recognizable songs—“Lean On Me,” “Ain't No Sunshine,” and “Lovely Day” to name but a few—Withers had retreated from the spotlight some twenty years before. And the relative anonymity he’d achieved since then suited him just fine.

“Most people think that fame is always the ultimate goal for any performer and he obviously achieved that,” Baker notes, “but he was also very comfortable with not being stopped on the street and not being some kind of famous, touring icon into his seventies.” Withers also wasn’t crazy about two ambitious movie directors tracking him down, even if they were genuine fans (which they are) with an idea for a film.

Once they had an opportunity to meet with Withers, though, Baker and Vlask were able to not only receive his blessing, but in time they also earned his trust. “At some point [he realized] we weren't making something about Bill Withers being famous,” Baker says. “It was more about Bill Withers, the very wise and brilliant person who also happens to be a father and a husband and all these other things that we thought, in the end, were far more interesting.”

The completed production, named after Withers’ 1972 sophomore album, is Still Bill.

What prompted you to examine him in the way that you did? It’s not a biography or an in-depth chronology of his career, but rather a profile of the man, now.

Alex Vlack: We spent some time with Bill and the more we got to know him—it didn’t take us too long to figure this out—we realized that it would be a shame if this film was essentially an historical piece about him. That what it needed to do was feel like, if you watched this movie, you’d walk away feeling like you’d hung out with him for an hour and a half. Being around him is to experience his humor and his wisdom and his eloquence. Those things are just so important and amazing. At the same time we wanted the film a little bit to mirror his own aesthetic. He’s a very simple songwriter. He’s a very simple lyricist. We didn’t want to crowd the film with an onslaught of biographical information. We wanted it to have its own simple, clear, kind-of-poetic message just the way that he does.

Among the most compelling moments in the film is when he’s recalling how the industry tried to sway him into doing all sorts of self-promotion—which he wasn’t too hip on, to say the least—like covering Elvis Presley
s In The Ghetto.

Damani Baker: He started late [in the music business]. By that time, [he’d] been in the Navy, grown up in a coal mining town, was very close to his grandmother, and had other pieces of a foundation that were solid. At the same time, in his lyrics [he wrote] not about being a simple person, but about the simplicity of his experience and his experience of being a human being who relates to his friends and his community and his family. I can only imagine what it would be like to be told, “You need to perform in a certain way.” Like, “Wait a minute, I know how build a house.”

“I wrote this song. You didn’t.”

Damani Baker: [Laughs] Yeah. “I wrote this song. You didn’t. And even if I hadn’t written this song and I wasn’t famous, I’d still be okay. I have skills.” He still jokes about how one of his favorite things to do now is to go to Home Depot for two hours and just pick up things. That’s who he is. I think that’s who he was when he started in the business too. It did blindside him a little bit. And he said, “Hey, I can also walk away from it and still be okay.”

Alex Vlack: The other part of it is that he’s essentially a completely untrained musician who is not very calculated in the way that he writes music. He’s a pretty pure artist. He jokes that if you look at most of his songs, they’re basically all the same fingering, like you just sort of slide the same fingering up and down the neck. He’s not very virtuosic. When we first met him he kept saying, “You know, I really don’t know how to play guitar and I really don’t know how to play piano.” And we just sort of laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s a joke. You’re Bill Withers. Of course you do.” [Laughs] So you put someone like that who’s a total natural talent—he’s not writing “Ain’t No Sunshine” because he’s trying to craft the perfect two-and-a-half-minute song so that it’ll become a huge number-one hit. He’s just writing it because it came out of him.—in the music industry and they’re making suggestions like he should do “In The Ghetto” or that he should have a horn section on this song or that he should go out there and dance to try to sell his music. It’s ridiculous to him. He’s not doing it for any of that.

There’s an underlying theme in the film, which you may not have anticipated becoming as prevalent as it did, of mortality. There’s that poignant moment when Cornell West asks Withers what he’d like his legacy to be.

Damani Baker: From that scene [with] Cornell West to [the one with] impromptu piano playing with his daughter, a lot of the answers to that question of ‘what do you want your legacy to be?’ or ‘where are you now in your life?’ you see it in these little, beautiful moments. So in a way, he’s kind of answering, “This is where I am,” without telling us that’s what he was doing. Our job was just to be quiet and watch.

Do you think Withers recognizes how indelible his contributions are to popular music? Do you think he gets it?

Alex Vlack: I think he gets it. He’s pretty humble, [but] he’s been honored by the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he’s got Grammys. He tells one story about a woman who was rescued from a burning building and that as she was being carried out of the building someone was singing “Lean On Me” to her. She wrote him a letter saying how much it meant to her. I think that means more to Bill than anything. He’s happy when he hears that his songs mean something to people. I don’t think he thinks too much about his legacy or his place in American music.

Damani Baker: I don’t even think he really even looks back at his career. It was like this thing that he did. He appreciates what he’s done.

Did you ever get the sense that he wants some form of a comeback? If not the fame and celebrity element, did you get the sense that he misses what he used to do in some way?

Alex Vlack: Yeah, I think so. He does. It takes a lot of guts to be honest about your emotions and that’s what he’s always been really good at with his lyrics. He’s basically great at it in his life too. He’s very open about the fact that coming back out into the world puts him under all kinds of scrutiny that he’s been out of for a while. And he doesn’t necessarily feel like being a part of that. But there’s an undeniable love of music and making music — and Bill is always making music. He’s got piles and piles of unreleased tracks all the way from the ‘70s up until yesterday, as far as I know.

June 13, 2010

Album Review: Anna Rose - Nomad

After previewing some of its songs last year on an auspicious EP, 25-year-old singer/songwriter Anna Rose has returned with her full-length debut, Nomad. Engaging progressive rock's sprawling sonic realms along with folk's gentler sensibilities, she delivers performances on it that reveal more depth with each listen.

It’s the work of an earnest and promising artist who clearly invests her songwriting with a great deal of consideration. And while it's not rare for artists to be shaped to some extent by those closest or in some way significant to them, Anna Rose brings a unique perspective to her craft. Her father is Oscar-winning musician Alan Menken, who has composed for such Disney films as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Her executive producer is Bruce Botnick, a family friend whose extensive studio credits include such perennial rock classics as The Doors' L.A. Woman and Love’s Forever Changes. While she's made Nomad more in tune with Botnick's classic-rock credentials than of her father's more-mainstream aesthetic, Anna Rose reflects an undeniable influence from having grown up in and around such a fertile musical environment. 

Her voice is lucid and stirring—sounding almost like a cross between Maria McKee and Alanis Morissette without the angst—as she holds her own amid guitar-anchored tracks like "In The Morning View" and "Picture" in ways that suggest she's got a reserve of raw power if she ever feels the need to wail. She refrains for the most part here, though, but it suits the music's spacious, often contemplative dimensions.

"Overtone" is riveting, its spectral progression underscoring a gorgeous vocal that finds this young woman at her most tender and emotionally timid. "And you look the way I always pictured," she sings, "And I can't move from where I stand." With its persistent, shifty groove, "Whispers" draws on a similar premise though remains ever so discreet.

As suggested by its title, Nomad is lyrically informed by themes of impermanence and, in some cases, doubt—certain moments, like the self-scrutiny relayed in "Gillian" and the brassy, tongue-in-cheek blues of "I'll Be Gone," speak more transparently than others—with Anna Rose betraying a restless spirit and an open, compassionate heart. These are the sorts of replenishing topics and thoughts that are sure to sustain and inspire her songwriting down the road and, with Nomad, she begins her journey on solid ground.

June 07, 2010

An Interview with Allison Moorer

Allison Moorer

Allison Moorer isn’t big on artifice, particularly when it comes to songwriting. “Certainly Top 40 radio isn’t exploring deep, dark emotions,” Moorer says of today's musical landscape. “And if they are—sometimes the rare thing breaks through and they do explore something like that—it’s so shrouded that who would know?”

It’s been twelve years since the release of her debut album, Alabama Song, which included the Oscar® nominated track, “A Soft Place To Fall,” from the Robert Redford film, The Horse Whisperer. Yet while her songwriting craftsmanship, unaffected lyricism and classic-country integrity garnered no shortage of critical praise, at a time when country music was most equated with the crossover, polished hits of Shania Twain, Moorer sounded about as modern (and, arguably, relevant) as an Alan Lomax field recording.

Despite the prevailing values of a record business that too often prizes fleeting style over enduring substance, however, Moorer has produced a superlative body of work. “I spent quite a bit of time writing these,” she says of the songs on her most recent LP, Crows, issued in February. A companion EP, Crows Acoustic, was released digitally last month, featuring six solo Crows performances (most of them played on piano), the consideration and craft with which they were composed evident throughout.

Also apparent throughout are moments of nostalgic reflection and, sadly, profound loss—when she was 14, Moorer (as well as older sister, Shelby Lynne) lost both parents when her father shot and killed her mother before turning the gun on himself—that resonate with unflinching honesty and grace.

You mentioned that you spent a while working on the songs for Crows. Does it usually take you long to write?

I just took my time. When I started writing the songs for this record I didn’t even have a label. So I was just writing because that’s what I do. I knew that I would make a record at some point or another. I probably wrote it over a year, year and a half, something like that. It’s easier for me than it used to be. I used to have to hammer at it more. I think as you grow as an artist, you learn your craft and you get better. At least that’s what I hope to do.

Do you ever surprise yourself with what you write?

Yeah, I surprised myself on this record. I had never written this much on piano before and I was really happy to get back to it. It’s my first instrument. I took a lot of years of lessons when I was little, but I always played by music. I never really played by ear. [Then] I didn’t play for a long time. And when I had access to a piano again, I started playing by ear. It opened a whole new world for me and it really, really opened up my songwriting. There are just things you can do on piano that you can’t do on guitar. Sometimes your hand won’t make a funny enough shape to get the chord that you want, but on piano you’ve got every note within an octave. So you don’t have to torture yourself.

It also creates a whole new sensibility for the listener.

A song like “Easy In The Summertime” would sound totally different on guitar. So I was really happy to explore that more than I ever have. I surprised myself a few times, for instance, on “Crows,” because it’s so weird and sort of wacky. It reminds of songs I used to make up as a kid, which I find absolutely joyous and I’m so glad I can still tap into that.

The EP version of “Should I Be Concerned," in particular, hits hard. It feels like a case study of depression.

It’s also got its tongue planted firmly in its cheek and I’m not sure if anyone gets that. It comes from a very real place, but it comes from that place where you just get so exhausted with yourself for wallowing in your own self-congratulatory depression that you sometimes just have to laugh and go, “God, could you please get over yourself?”

But that’s the kind of perspective you have when you’re in that state.

It’s that feeling you have when you wake up one morning, you’re having whatever thoughts you’re having and you go, “God, that’s not okay that I’m thinking that. Maybe I ought to talk to somebody.” A lot of people have been there. I certainly have. Plus, musically that’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.

These songs are so visceral and lyrically powerful. Is it daunting to be that honest as a songwriter?

Sometimes it feels like getting naked in front of people you don’t know, but you have to have a bit of an exhibitionist in you to do this for a living, or to do it at all. There has to be some joy that comes from the thrill or rush of being that exposed in front of people. I am quite private so I guess it’s where I get my stuff out. It’s a strange relationship you have with yourself. I certainly don’t want to write songs that don’t have anything to do with who I am. So what are you going to do? If you’re going to write, you've got to write something. And if you want to be honest, you’ve got to be honest. I don’t want to write things that aren’t true to who I am. I may not actually enjoy doing it, but I do it. Sometimes it’s a bloodletting.

Is there a payoff for you, though, at some point?

Oh sure. If it’s a good song, who cares?

So even if it was a harrowing experience to have written, if a good song comes from it—

It’s worth it. Absolutely. “Goodbye to the Ground” was one that I remember specifically writing the second verse and, not to be a wuss or anything, but bursting into tears because I had a realization about my own shortcomings. It shook me. You’ve got to examine yourself to make art. You have to. It’s sometimes not pretty. And the art that I like isn’t always pretty.

June 03, 2010

An Interview with Alex Kemp

When Alex Kemp set out on his latest solo project, the former vocalist/bassist for the indie-pop band Small Factory envisioned a song cycle about a character not unlike himself. “There’s this younger guy who’s down on his luck,” Kemp says of the narrative, “who’s away from people who know him and who’s trying to figure it out. I’ve felt like that guy my whole life. I still feel like that guy.”

That sense of isolation is heightened as Kemp places his character in Paris during the age of the Lost Generation, when literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller riled up the Left Bank with voracious abandon. For what will ultimately take shape as a four-part series of EPs, Kemp has released the first installment, Rat D’Hotel – Part I – Rat Walks Into A Bar.

“What I’m not doing is becoming a character,” he clarifies faster than you can say "Ziggy Stardust." “I’m not doing that. What I’m trying to do amongst other things with the music is get a little bit outside of myself—or maybe deeper inside myself, I don’t know—by focusing on some images that have been popping into my head.”

So, Rat Walks Into A Bar is the first release in a four-part series set in 1920s’ Paris…

I hate for it to sound too purposeful or like it’s a rock opera or something. I wanted to explore the idea of this character or this imaginary version of me that never really existed, but should have. It has a lot to do with aspirations. You ever have dreams where you have to beat somebody up, but you’re weak and you can’t? It’s like that. In a way I’m trying to imagine this really great life I could have led, but even in imagining it, somehow something dark happens.

Reality creeps into the dream?

Or darkness is there even when you’re being hopeful.

What sparked the narrative?

I’ve just always been fascinated by that particular era, the expat artist scene in Paris between the wars. There was something so animalistic about the art at that time, drinking and fucking… What I like about it is the feeling that they were detached from their roots because they were somewhere so far away. And in being detached from their roots they were freed to be a little bit more animalistic or hedonistic or sensual. It’s made a lot of sense to me that as you get detached from family or from people who knew you when you were a kid, you can kind of stretch your wings.

And then there’s the music.

The thing that I’m about is what happens when a person listens to a song a couple times and gets inside it and something starts to mean something to them. That’s what I’m all about. That slightly more private moment is everything to me. [On] a lot of the stuff that I’ve written, but specifically these songs, I’ll do certain tricks where it makes it a little bit more satisfying to listen to the second or third time around. Like, I won’t do things the same length each section… Things will be slightly different lengths so it’s a little bit less predictable the first time you listen to it. By the second or third time, once you’ve kind of internalized that, you really start to feel like you’re on the road with the song. You’re driving in the same car. You’re not just driving next to it.

You also allow the listener to discover new elements that weren’t as obvious the first one or two times.

Hopefully so. It’s not extremely complicated music. There’s no orchestra involved. I like to keep it kind of stripped-back or at least a little bit on the unadorned side. Hopefully it’s a hot girl in a T-shirt and jeans rather than the whole make-up and earrings and everything.

About the musicians...

The back-up band that I’m playing with is all contemporary gospel musicians. Part of what I was trying to do was [in] wanting the grooves to feel good from the first downbeat. And something that you look to for that kind of music is certain kinds of R&B; and the R&B and gospel community, there’s a lot of crossover there. The guys I’m working with, I’m really inspired by them and what they do. I’m not Christian even a little bit.

You don’t have to be to appreciate that kind of music, though.

Exactly. The idea that [in] working together we’ve all dragged each other out of our comfort zone is, I think, the thing that’s relevant. We come from really different backgrounds. We have really different beliefs. And we forced each other to learn how to play together very differently than we play anything else.

And you find common ground in the music.

You can learn a lot about yourself by stepping out of yourself.

For more information on Alex Kemp, please visit the artist's official website.