July 31, 2010

Concert Review: A Night Full of Hits with Crowded House

photo: Donald Gibson
Neil Finn (left) and Nick Seymour (right) of Crowded House, 7/28/10 at Ruth Eckerd Hall
The house was anything but crowded on Wednesday night with Ruth Eckerd Hall’s 2,100 seats only half-filled, unfortunately, but Neil Finn and company engaged the faithful with as much sincerity and showmanship as they would a offer a stadium filled to the rafters. For two solid hours, Crowded House—rounded out by bassist Nick Seymour, keyboardist Mark Hart, and drummer Matt Sherrod—culled their back catalog while introducing tracks from their latest album, Intriguer, to deliver a melodic-pop master class and an all-around impeccable performance.

Finn sang with marked consideration, never coming across like revisiting the band
s past hits was an obligatory means just to play the new material. This song may mean a great deal to someone here tonight, he seemed to suggest. And the hits—World Where You Live, Fall At Your Feet, and Something So Strong, among them—were in abundance, much to the delight of everyone, who added their voices at just about every opportunity.

Thank you for singing with us,” Finn said, after “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” visibly touched. A request from a fan in the front rows for Message To My Girl yielded the premier highlight of the night, with Finn on keyboard giving the Split Enz classic a slow, sensuous treatment. 

The new album didn’t command as much of the performance as one may have at first anticipated (yielding a mere four songs), but what ultimately made the setlist fared quite well. “Either Side of the World” proved an early standout, with the melodic nuances of its studio version rendered even more pronounced and soulful on the stage. As well, with its wistful distinction, Twice If Youre Lucky felt instantly familiar, as if the band had been playing it for years.

The encore saw Crowded House, along with openers Lawrence Arabia, paying tribute to the recently deceased musician and producer, Ben Keith, with a cover of
Old Man, one of several Neil Young classics to which hed originally contributed. Poignant renditions of Not the Girl You Think You Are and Better Be Home Soon followed, culminating in a most-fitting farewell.

— photo: Donald Gibson

July 27, 2010

An Interview with Chantal Kreviazuk

Singer/songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk is set to release her fifth and latest studio LP, Plain Jane, next month as a deluxe edition on iTunes. Originally issued in her native Canada last fall, the album received neither a proper release nor much publicity in the States. As Kreviazuk explains, “It’s a lot for me to do a Canadian promotion with my family and then go out and also promote it in the U.S.”

In addition to the music she's written and recorded for her own albums, she's earned a reputation as a much-sought-after composer and collaborator for other artists as well, having worked with the likes of Faith Hill, Mandy Moore, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood on their respective projects. Asked how she approaches songwriting and if when she's composing does she have an intended artist in mind, she says, “Every way you can imagine songs getting written, that’s how I write them. It’s a plethora of reasons and strategies. I’m a song peddler now to a certain degree.”

You’ve had a lot of success in the past with song placement in television and film. Are you optimistic about getting your music heard today and going into the future?

I’m optimistic, but I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t think you do a painting and then stare at it on the wall. You do your thing and you hope for the best. And you hope you have the right team around you that’s going to try to get your music out there to people. Sometimes songs are not discovered until years later. Who knows? I don’t like to think about it all the time.

Music is always changing, too. There’s always been a shadow and someone in the limelight. And there are only one or two spots for that big place. That’s obviously a strike of lightning for whoever’s there. I think it would be naturally negative to be constantly obsessing, really, with whether the music’s getting heard or who’s hearing it or how they’re hearing it. So you try to hire a team around you that is genuinely passionate about what you do and [that] is genuinely trying to seek out ways for your music to be heard. That’s all I can do.

You’ve always seemed to have a pragmatic approach to songwriting. You’re not a celebrity trying to score the latest hit; you’re more of a craftsman.

Yeah, I’m not really trying to hit you over the head and wear a bubble dress and play the piano and make you think that that makes me any more of a human being or insightful or genuine or worth looking at. I think what I’m doing is more therapeutic. It’s meant more to be part of the landscape of life. It’s not meant to be the sun or the star. It’s just not. That’s how I am comfortable as a soul. I also don’t believe that I’m comfortable with the idea, quite generally, that any one human being is more important than another. To be that ambitious and desire having that much spotlight on yourself, you do believe that you have something worth showing that everyone else does not. And that’s just not who I am. My music is coming out of me because the person I am is trying to say to everybody else, “We’re all equal.” That’s not to say people like a Madonna or someone else, that they don’t think that deep down, but they’re projecting that they want to come out of the shadows more than other people.

And I think that in the real world where people really struggle, life is generally a shadow and they’re trying to find a ray of sunshine. Life is hard and it actually, for me, is a little bit of a difficult pill to swallow when I see that others are escaping into someone else’s sunshine. I actually find that dark. Or that they are watching someone, idolizing, thinking, God I wish I could be them up there right now. Because I know a lot of the “thems” and they ’re not any happier than those who are coming out of the shadows. I seek out the shadows. I seek out trying to have insight into people’s suffering. I seek out my own empathy for life and for others. That’s what sort of makes me tick as a human being.

It’s like you would rather write a really good song than try to contrive a hit song.

Yeah, and I even try to bring that humanness into every [recording] session. You can always hear the angst and the dissonance and the yearning in my music. That’s never, ever allowed to go anywhere. I wish we could revolutionize pop music a little bit and have yearning and awareness and mindfulness in our songs again like we did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I miss it… Now we work from a very technological point of view and a lot of it is lost. The deepest things out there in mainstream music are things like Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and Sarah Bareilles’ “King of Anything.” Those are what would now be considered not really über-poppy. [Laughs] And those are poppy songs, man! Come on! It’s a different time.

July 19, 2010

An Interview with Howard Jones

In the ’80s you didn’t have to listen too long before a Howard Jones song would play on the radio. Having scored a Top Ten single in 1983 with his first single, “New Song,” the British musician solidified his debut the following year with the full-length effort, Human’s Lib, which was a worldwide hit upon entering the UK album charts at Number One. A string of hit songs followed—“Everlasting Love,” “Things Can Only Get Better,” and “No One Is To Blame,” among them—with which Jones enjoyed a ubiquitous presence on the charts throughout the decade and beyond.

While classically trained on the piano, Jones has spent the better part of his career experimenting with and composing on synthesizers. However, for his latest album, Ordinary Heroes, he felt a change was in order. “I’d been collecting songs for about five years and I played a lot of acoustic shows during that time,” Jones says. “I would test out the songs and develop them, really, on the road, which I think is the best way to develop a bunch of songs before you record them. So I had them all written and pretty much arranged before I sat down to start the record.”

You had a set of preconceived ideas on how to record this album, right?

I thought the best thing to do in a recording world where you’ve got everything available—you’ve got amazing keyboards and you’ve got amazing software and you can have any sound you want from any country in the world—is to say, “Look, I’m going to give myself a certain set of rules for this record. I’m going to make sure it has a character of its own.” And I thought, right, the best way to do that: one piano part, one guitar part, a string quartet, one backing vocal, drums, and no overdubs of keyboards or big production things going on. Make it all about arrangement. Make it all about straightforward songs so that the lyrics can come through.

The lyrics are quite reassuring, even optimistic.

Good, I’m glad. For me there are two strands to the record. One is of ones like “You Knew Us So Well,” which is about a really good friend who was in my band who took [his] own life. That’s about as personal as it gets, really, that one. And another song, “Soon You’ll Go,” which is about my daughter leaving for college and how that hits you as a parent. So that’s one strand, very personal stuff that's happened. Then there [are] the other things like “Straight Ahead” and “Ordinary Heroes” and “Fight On,” which is about having real courage to take on problems and difficulties that we all have in life and to know that we’ve got the power within us to overcome [them] and to get a positive outcome no matter what is around the corner. Those two strands are running through the whole record.

There's a sense of resilience that you convey in songs like “Fight On” and “Even If You Don’t Say.”

I’ve always benefited from a friend offering a few words of encouragement to me. And I’ve always thanked them greatly for that. I think as an artist that’s something you can offer. Music can be a great inspiration when you’re feeling a bit low and life‘s dealt you a few blows. Music and art can really help to get you over the next little hill.

In the one about your daughter, “Soon You’ll Go,” when you sing, “These things I will hold on to when I can’t hold on to you,” you’re reassuring yourself that you can make it through this change.

Yes, that’s right. Exactly. Exactly.

Was that a difficult song to write, lyrically?

It was, actually. A lot of tears were shed writing that song. It was literally happening to me at the time as I was writing the song. I remember playing it for my daughter for the first time. We both were in floods of tears because that’s what we were saying to each other. I really tried to lock that feeling, that emotion, into the song so that when another person heard it, they would feel the same because they’ve felt the same things in their own life. And I just think that music and songs are so powerful in that way that they can evoke these really powerful feelings and it can catch you by surprise. Music seems to go into your brain through another door, not through the intellect and not through the logical mind. It seems to come in through another passageway and evoke all kinds of feelings.

As a songwriter, it’s as if the deeper you go into yourself the more you can resonate with others.

Yes! That’s right. That’s actually a really good way of putting it. And the more fearless you are to reveal those things the more it can resonate with people.

How have you evolved as a songwriter over the past twenty-five years?

I’ve come to realize that the pop song is actually a very beautiful form. It’s a very simple form, but very, very elegant and beautiful. And the way you can bring some originality to it is by doing some fine, little changes to where the keys go, how the middle eight works, how long the bridges are. I always try and take that very beautiful pop-song structure and just tweak it a bit and change a few things so that it’s got a little twist in it that you don’t expect, but still it feels familiar.

July 16, 2010

An Interview with Nick Seymour of Crowded House

With the release of their latest LP, Intriguer, Crowded House have, in a sense, come full circle. The album, which hit North American retail and online outlets earlier this week—it was issued elsewhere around the world last month—finds the Australian-based quartet drawing on many of the characteristic qualities that distinguished them over two decades ago.

Led by vocalist and principal songwriter/guitarist Neil Finn, Crowded House generated both critical praise and immense popular success beginning with their eponymous 1985 debut, ultimately scoring such hit singles as "Don't Dream It's Over," "Something So Strong," and "Better Be Home Soon," among many others. By the mid-nineties, though, Finn wished to pursue other endeavors and, in so doing, broke up the band. It wasn't until 2006, following the suicide of drummer and founding member Paul Hester the year before, that Crowded House reemerged with Time On Earth, which began as a Neil Finn solo project to which the remaining members later contributed.

Intriguer is more a concerted effort of the band—who along with Finn includes keyboardist/guitarist Mark Hart, drummer Matt Sherrod, and bassist Nick Seymour—and its melody-rich arrangements, coupled with Finn's compelling lyricism, recall quintessential Crowded House.

The new album’s release inadvertently coincided with the start of the band's North American tour, a daunting scenario for any established act not wanting to overwhelm audiences with a lot of unfamiliar material though, at the same time, maintaining a desire to perform their latest work. "Playing live has to be a challenge," Seymour contends, underscoring the point that nothing about a Crowded House concert is particularly set in stone anyway. "The setlist changes most nights. There’s a stable of, say, six songs that we always include in a set, but we can play for two hours—that’s usually the length of a show—and it takes many turns. I think audiences are set to expect that."

How has the dynamic in the band, now with Matt on drums, changed from the days of, say, Temple of Low Men? Has your approached evolved any or is it similar to how it was back then?

The approach to rendering the music, to finding an arrangement, is pretty much the same. We do takes and we try not to make any mistakes and we try to perform the song from start to finish as best we can. And then [we] scrutinize the takes: “Take three was better than take one.” That has stayed the same. We record to tape, still. We shift tempos according to how Neil feels singing the song. Most of those things are fairly traditional. And that hasn’t changed since Temple of Low Men. That’s a mode we can’t really corrupt or change. Because the minute we try to get the drums separate from the vocal the integrity of the way that the song sings is self-conscious. It’s suddenly challenged and it doesn’t sound right.

Matt is a very different kind of drummer from Paul in a lot of ways, but there are so many similar aspects to their upbringing, which is really extraordinary. I was amazed at the hybrid of music that they grew up with that were similar. They’re similar in some respects and then wildly different in others… When we met Matt, we weren’t trying to replace Paul Hester. We hadn’t been together as a band for some time. We were just trying to meet a drummer that we could instinctively go to and chase [an] abstract enjoyment of jamming. He’s not a particularly great brushes player like Paul was, but he’s an incredible polyrhythm-type player. We’re really lucky we met Matt, that’s for sure.

What does Intriguer, as an album title, mean or intend to suggest?

“The Intriguer” was an actual song at one point. It comes from a night when Neil was out having a drink with a very well-known cartoonist/satirist in Australia, Michael Leunig. Neil and he are friends; they’ve worked together on a couple of projects in the past. They were out having a drink. [It was like] when the conversation just sort of stops and you’re looking around in the bar or just watching out the window; you’re not talking very much, but you’re seeing these little random asides taking place in the city. The story is that whenever there was an alarm or a crash or some kind of accident—a moment in the restaurant or whatever that's drawn attention—Neil has observed a guy standing in a window nearby and Michael’s observed the same person. And they ended up having this abstract conversation about there is governance over dysfunction, [that] this intriguing character oversees these random events just to keep humans on their toes. This dark figure became known as The Intriguer. Neil wrote a song about it and, as it turned out, the song didn’t turn out as well as we thought or capture it as well as the idea of the specter of The Intriguer [being] a great umbrella essence of the new record.

There's a minimalist, organic, almost-meditative quality to the new music. It's a consistent vibe. Was that something you set out to achieve?

I wouldn’t say that we ever have a criteria for how we go about capturing the time in the studio, the energy in the studio. But often there will be an atmosphere that falls into place [of which] we tend to recognize its merit and really grasp at happy accidents that occur. The pressure in the studio of all being in the right place at the right time together is such that you’d almost be sabotaging that potential by having a criteria or a manifesto... It’s just a certain magic that will occur at the time and then make sense after the fact. It is very intuitive and very instinctive. If there is some kind of consistent atmosphere going on from one song to the next, it’s really as a result of possibly the season, what we were eating, the sense of camaraderie and bonhomie, the stories that were being told at the time. Often as not, when I try to piece together an illustration that is to be the cover of the CD, I have to consider all of these elements and try to come up with something that is an inherent juxtaposition to how we were feeling in the studio at the time. It’s incredibly hard, but it makes perfect sense once it’s done.

July 14, 2010

Album Review: Derek Trucks Band - Roadsongs

Inspiration is an aphrodisiac in live music. It’s what makes the difference between a rote, paint-by-numbers performance and one that thrives in the moment; in which the musicians on stage feed off the visceral energy from the audience and, in turn, each other. That kind of inspiration runs all through Roadsongs, the new live double album by the Derek Trucks Band.

Brewing up a gumbo of electric blues, funk, and soul, the DTB dig into grooves within grooves to summon new layers of substance and many a potent moment. A wickedly churlish cover of Down In The Flood  is an immediate standout, with 31-year-old Derek Trucks maintaining a feral presence on the slide guitar. His abilities on the ax are breathtaking and here he consistently shines, but just as commendable is how he doesn't overshadow the other individuals on stage. Indeed, the DTB comes across like a band in the most authentic, one-for-all sense, with everyone playing for the benefit of the music rather than for that of any one musician.

Almost half of the setlist is culled from the band’s 2009 studio LP Already Free and the selections from it here (including Down In The Flood") receive such stirring treatments that they arguably surpass their album versions. Vocalist Mike Pattison engages Days Is Almost Done”  and Don't Bother Me,”  in particular, with purpose and impassioned command.

Key to the Highway  and Anyday  find Trucks recalling his stint a few years back in Eric Clapton’s touring band, wherein Slowhand revisited his Derek & The Dominos days in depth for the first time in ages. At the time he was seen by many as the torch bearer for the late Duane Allman—who'd played an indispensable role on the Dominos’ shining moment, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs—but Trucks didn't seem to pay much mind. Instead, he walked on stage each night as one in a band of several, bearing an allegiance to the music at hand above all else.

On Roadsongs, it
’s much the same story. 

July 07, 2010

An Interview with Alan Anton of the Cowboy Junkies

The first thing you notice about the new Cowboy Junkies album, Renmin Park, is how much it doesn’t sound like any other Cowboy Junkies album.

Informed by experiences guitarist Mike Timmons had while on an extended visit to China, the album echoes an Eastern vibe that blends well with the band‘s more familiar folk and Gothic distinctions. Drawing on an archive of raw audio footage that Timmons recorded during his stay—of local conversations, indiscriminate murmurs, and everyday neighborhood noise—the music reflects stark, sonic fragments of the culture.

Renmin Park is but the first of four LPs to be released over the next 18 months in an album cycle called “The Nomad Series,” its title coming from an equal number of paintings entrusted to the band—who along with Mike Timmins includes singer Margo Timmins, drummer Peter Timmins, and bassist Alan Anton—by Cuban-American artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. While the paintings will grace each album’s cover, they haven‘t really inspired any music yet, but Anton says, “It just clicked that that would be a good connection visually with what we’re trying to do with these four records.”

The Junkies are still mapping out the third and fourth installments of the series, but they’ve already made headway on the second, Demons. Comprised entirely of songs written by the late folk artist Vic Chesnutt, the album honors the songwriting of one of the band’s oldest friends who sadly, this past Christmas, committed suicide. “We were talking to Vic just last year about doing a Cowboy Junkies record with him involved in it. Obviously that didn’t come to task,” Anton says. “We felt that we owed him something.”

For now the Junkies are on the road in support of Renmin Park, translating its foreign influence to the concert stage in ways both inherently characteristic and altogether new. “We’re actually using samples for the first time in our lives,” Anton notes, underscoring the breadth of the band’s latest creative leap. As he suggests, though, considering the album was the brainchild of just one of the Junkies, it wasn’t a leap the others were immediately sold on taking together.

Was it difficult to take inspiration from something that three out of four band members didn’t experience? How did you work that out?

That’s what sort of happened. Mike said, “Here’s what I’d like to do.” And we all said, “Hmm, that’s interesting, but why don’t you go make your own record?” [Laughs] But then we talked about it more and it became more of a challenge for the rest of us to try to put expression to songs that were so specific for him and specific of his experience. That became the challenge, how to musically accommodate that expression. We worked it out in different ways and we’re actually pretty happy with the result. But yeah, we were a little trepidacious at first.

How did the songwriting work? Some songs are credited to just one band member; like, you’re cited as having written “Sir Francis Bacon at the Net.”

Mike came back with a bunch of street sounds that he’d recorded in China. And he handed them off to me and my friend, Joby [Baker], who owns a studio near me and who played drums and recorded it with me. We turned them into loops, bass and drums, added keyboard and other things. We sent it back to Mike, who put lyrics to the music. Then Margaret sang on it. And we took it from there. So my input wasn’t lyrical at all, just musical.

Because Renmin Park is such a departure from your band
’s prior works, is it at all jarring to play the new songs live mixed in with older ones?

Not really. You get so used to it during the process that it just becomes another natural thing for the band to do. But when you sit down and listen to it you say, “Well, that is really different than what we’ve done before.” We recognize that. And I think we’re going to go along that track for the next couple of records.

How are you approaching the Vic Chesnutt album [Demons]? How many liberties are you taking with his songs?

Well, the way we normally approach covers is to listen to a song—We’ve done stuff where some of us haven’t listened to the song, [but] obviously one person has to know how it goes.—and we sort of make it up from there. But with Vic, we’ve known him a long time; we know all his songs. We’re consciously trying to not copy them, but at the same time, there are some elements that really have to be in there to make it “Vic.” Our approach to it is to record it very roughly and not try to smooth anything out too much production-wise because that would be kind of “anti-Vic,” I think.

Even with what you’ve already completed, releasing four albums in 18 months still must be challenge.

Yeah, I think that’s sort of why we did it, just to push ourselves and to stay active and just be recording all the time. We’ve been at this 25 years. We just felt it was kind of boring putting out a record every year or two years. Let’s kick it up a bit and see what we can do.