September 28, 2011

Album Review: Sheila E & Family's Missed Opportunity

On paper it looks promising: a family of venerable and versatile artists, coming together to celebrate their shared heritage and musical chops. However, The E Family—father Pete Escovedo along with his children, siblings Juan Escovedo, Peter Michael Escovedo, and the family’s most mainstream-famous member, Sheila E—seldom live up to their collective potential on Now and Forever (Fontana/Universal), eschewing what could have been a masterclass of dynamic musicianship to instead favor a mostly homogeneous mix of R&B and Latin jazz.

The album’s very last track, “Live Percussion Jam,” is also its strongest, most-satisfying moment. Joyful and irresistibly infectious, it offers the finest indication of what this project could have achieved overall.

Of particular concern is the conspicuous absence of Sheila E on lead vocals. Granted her strong suit is playing the drums, but the lady is by no means a slouch when it comes to singing—crank up “Love Bizarre” and “The Glamorous Life” for rump-shaking evidence—and that aspect of her artistry could have added some much-needed spice and sexiness here.

Instead, those attributes come courtesy of Joss Stone, who injects an extra shot of oomph into “The Other Half of Me” to make this otherwise average R&B groove a soulful success and the album's only other highlight.

Additional guests, including Earth, Wind & Fire, Gloria Estefan, and Raphael Saadiq, don’t contribute anything nearly as impressive or convincing. It’s just as well, as the Escovedo clan didn’t exactly give them much to work with anyway. Consider this one a missed opportunity.

September 21, 2011

Singer/Songwriter Sharon Robinson Schedules Rare West Coast Tour

Of late Sharon Robinson has served as an accompanying vocalist for Leonard Cohen on his immensely successful world tour. Beginning in October, she will step onto the concert stage on her own behalf, embarking on her first headlining tour to date with a string of West Coast engagements.

Long distinguished in the music industry as a GRAMMY®-winning songwriter and producer—and this is supplement to nearly three decades of collaborative work with Cohen, their creative partnership peaking with 2001’s masterful Ten New Songs—Robinson established herself as a recording artist in her own right in 2008 with her debut album, Everybody Knows.

Striking an eclectic balance of jazz-inflected soul, eloquent songcraft and Robinson’s suave and sophisticated vocals, the album earned both critical and popular acclaim. It was released in the early phase of what would amount to a nearly-three-year tour with Cohen, however, and thus benefited from only minimal publicity and promotional appearances. Nevertheless, the album ultimately fulfilled the promise of Sharon Robinson's rich, multidimensional talent. “I was looking for a sound that was mine,” she said to this writer of Everybody Knows. “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.” Now the opportunity is hers to do so in person.

Details on Sharon Robinson’s upcoming West Coast tour is available at the artist’s official website. Dates and locations are as follows:

October 8 // Zoey’s Cafe // Ventura, CA
October 15 // Spaghettini // Seal Beach, CA
October 29 // Hotel Café // Los Angeles, CA
November 3 // Café Du Nord // San Francisco, CA
November 5 // Barkley Theatre // Fallon, NV

September 13, 2011

An Interview with Neil Finn

Neil Finn knew he was onto something when, in listening back to some homemade grooves he’d made with his wife, the couple was soon dancing together as if in primal response. He’d not composed like this before, not in Crowded House or, before that, Split Enz, nor in any of his various side and solo projects over the past three decades. Yet these spare and spontaneous jams, which consisted of Neil and Sharon Finn on drums and bass, respectively — instruments neither had any experience with whatsoever — showed promise. 

And thus the idea for Pajama Club was born.

“It was very fresh as an approach, as a way to start a song from drums and bass. Work from there up,” Finn explains. A bit of cut-and-paste editing refined the raw jams, which he then embellished further while on tour last year with Crowded House. “Late at night in my hotel room I worked on some of them,” he recalls, “added a few chords here, a few riffs here, a couple little vocal ideas, and realized they took it really well. They suggested quite good things.”

Rounded out by indie keyboardist Sean Donnelly — former Grates drummer Alana Skyring has been recruited for live gigs — Pajama Club delivers its eponymous debut this week to the States. And with its experimental edge underscored by Neil Finn's melodic-pop songcraft, the album is musical escapism at its finest and most fun. “There’s enough in life that occupies the rational part of the brain,” reasons Finn. “It’s good to stimulate the other side with a song.”  

Why did you and Sharon form a rhythm section rather than picking up instruments more familiar to each of you?   

I don’t think we would’ve jammed at all in any other capacity. It wasn’t something we planned to do, but we’re really evenly matched on bass and drums in the sense that both of us are absolute beginners. And so therefore having a jam was a very appealing thing anyway just for the sheer hell of it. I tape everything I ever do, and there was something about the sound of it that was also quite fresh and kind of inspiring for me. It just seemed to be suggestive of some new angles, which are always a joy to discover after a lot of years of being a songwriter. 

And it could’ve easily, in theory, gone the other way. As neither of you were accustomed to your instruments, it could have just resulted in a clash of noise. 

Yeah, to some extent we weren’t expecting much. [Laughs] But some of the greatest things happen there. I think Sharon’s always had a very good sense of rhythm because she’s a great dancer. And her approach to bass is not to play that many notes at all, but just to find a groove that feels good and stick to it. That’s a very free place to be. There’s something about bass when it’s reduced to its purely rhythmic elements as long as the feel is really good. And with my drumming I think it was the same; I was just attempting to keep a feel going. I wasn’t flash enough to put many fills in. So I just keep it really simple, and somehow the two of us formed a sound. Before there were even songs we felt there was something quite strong there. 

On songs like “Daylight” and “Tell Me What You Want,” in particular, yours and Sharon’s voice create a unique dynamic. Was it something you had to keep in mind as you wrote, who would sing lead or who would sing which parts? 

We kind of had to make it up as we went along. It was a very nice feeling to not know what Pajama Club sounded like and to be able to follow our nose and our instincts. I knew that I wanted to get Sharon singing, but we didn’t know what bits would suit her, and we discovered that through trial and error. Some things just seemed to really fit with her voice. I also tried to use my voice in ways that I don’t normally use it, so there’s some unusual tones and characteristics in there. Like you rightly point out, I think there’s a really nice sound that’s made when Sharon and I sing together. That was quite a nice discovery. It’s got a really good blend, even singing unison. 

Did you write all the lyrics?  

I wrote most of the lyrics. She was there casting an ear on everything and coming up with the odd line — just the good ones, as she says. She deferred to my experience in that regard, I suppose, but I was definitely influenced by trying to give her things that she would enjoy singing. There are a few angles on there that are quite unusual for what I would write in normal circumstances. 

Can you perceive any evolution in your songwriting over the course of your career? 

It would be very hard to be objective about, but I’m aware that my music has changed over the years. Certain new things have been added. It’s always mysterious. If I take pleasure and, say, pride in a song from the past often it is I can’t really remember how it came. And I don’t really know that I couldn’t do it again. You do sometimes battle with the idea that, on a day when you can’t write, you go, “Well maybe my best work is behind me.” And then you have a real breakthrough one day and go, “I think this one could be the best thing I’ve ever done.” So it’s a continual process of picking yourself up from feeling worthless and then stopping yourself from getting too big a head. 

Is songwriting something you enjoy? 

That’s a tough question because like anything that’s worthwhile there’s always going to be struggle. But I’m compelled by it. I love it, and I find it totally fascinating. You might as well just ask somebody who’s in a long-term relationship whether they enjoy being in a long-term relationship. There are so many aspects to it that are not necessarily straightforward or always harmonious. Songwriting can be the most desperate feeling on earth if you’re not getting anything done. But the moment of breakthrough, you have a little revelation… Inspiration only comes to those that work anyway, I think. If you just sit around and wait for all the good bits to happen; I think it’d be a rare person that’s got that much a gift. 

Do you find that songs you’ve written resonate in different ways with you over time when you perform them? 

Oh, absolutely. In the right circumstances — an intimate setting perhaps — some of the more obscure songs that never really had a lot of attention at the time rise to the top of the show. There’s a song from the first Finn record, which is quite an obscure record actually, called “Only Talking Sense,” which we never got to play much but I’ve been playing it quite a bit lately solo. For some reason it just seems to have a tremendous power and seems to really get people excited, whether or not they know it.

A lot of your best work doesn’t necessarily get noticed at the time. There are circumstances that create… Maybe the stars line up, people take notice. They’re all paying attention. Certain songs rise in those times, and they become your hits. But I think in a parallel universe there are a whole lot of other songs that you write that are potentially equal songs, but don’t come at a time when people are paying attention. But they resonate over a long period of time, and I think they sometimes have their day a lot longer. It’s a good thing to remember and put some faith in. 

In reviewing a Crowded House show last year in Florida on the Intriguer tour, I noted that you never once came across as if playing the hits — and you must have played “Don’t Dream It’s Over” hundreds of times by now — was an obligatory gesture just to perform the new material. 

I have long believed that every time you play music you have to put the same level of commitment and intensity into it or it won’t be good music. Which is not to say that you try too hard, but you focus as much as you can. And I would say the same thing to the band when we’re in rehearsal. I just don’t accept than you can go through the motions of something, just to learn it and that’s okay. Every time you perform you should perform like you really mean it. 

You also seemed to appreciate that so many people have taken your songs to mean something very personal to them. 

That’s a nice, beautiful mystery about it as well. My lyrics, I suppose, are fairly open-ended and some might say obscure — 

But that obscurity allows for those kinds of connections. 

I think it does, because it leaves doors open for people [so] they can wander through them and make of them what they will. I think back to when I was listening to music as a teenager and I never really fully embraced the entire meaning of a song. For a long time I would listen to it, and I would love it without wanting to know what all the lyrics were about. Certain lines would pique my imagination and send me somewhere. 

Ultimately, of course, you don’t know what the songs you've written are going to mean to people. 

That’s right. You can’t choose who your children are going to sleep with.

September 05, 2011

An Interview with Bill Frisell

Once guitarist and composer Bill Frisell began working on an album in tribute to John Lennon, memories and emotions he'd long associated with the late legend’s music, both with The Beatles and as a solo artist, caught up to him. Thinking about almost fifty years ago hearing some of those things for the first time, he says, it ended up being kind of a heavy thing to do.

In collaborating with a few friends — guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and bassist Tony Scherr — the experience was made all the more poignant. “It really did bring us together in this way I’d never felt before,” Frisell reflects. “
It was almost like this healing, warm cloud came over us that the music put there. 

Throughout such classics as “In My Life,” “Beautiful Boy,” and “Across The Universe,” All We Are Saying..., which will be released on September 27 by Savoy Jazz/429 Records, honors Lennon’s artistry with considerate, inspired performances.

I didn’t prepare for it, says Frisell of the effort overall, but then it was like I’d been preparing for it my whole life. 

In making the album did you learn anything about John Lennon’s songs that you perhaps weren’t as aware of before?

It reminded me of how deceptively simple they are sometimes. Some of them maybe just have two chords or three chords. If you analyze it in a conservatory kind of way, it’s like, “Well there’s this, and there’s that.” It doesn’t seem that complicated, but then what happens with it is so extraordinary. You listen for five seconds and then the song just latches onto you. You can’t shake it off. And it’s not because of some big corporate, commercial machinery that’s rammed it down our throats. It’s genuinely because of the music, I think. There really is something transcendent about it; it transcends all. So much of it is so personal to him, but it’s also so universal at the same time. We all know what he’s talking about.

An improvisational spirit runs through much of your work in general. On this one in particular, how did you channel that into songs which are already so ingrained in the culture?

I didn’t want to re-harmonize them or deconstruct them. For me they’re just these perfect gems of music. The only thing we had to do was play it. The luxury I had there was that the band I was with, we have such a long history together and a way of playing together. Fifteen years ago I started playing with most of them in one way or another. So there’s just a way of communicating with each other when we play that we don’t really have to figure things out or talk about them. We just start going. It’s improvising, but it’s also sort of—


Yeah. I mean, nothing on this album was really worked out or figured out beforehand. We just started playing whatever song it was. And there’s kind of a way we have a way of playing... One person will start a melody and another person will finish it. There were no arrangements. We had charts, but the charts were just representations of whatever the original version of the song was. Then we just went for it. For me that’s the most inspiring way of playing anyways. Whatever the music is, I want it to feel like everyone at every moment there’s not one person that’s less important than another.

How do you maintain your enthusiasm for making music, whether you’re interpreting someone else’s music or writing your own? What keeps you curious and what keeps you motivated? 

I guess I take it for granted, but that’s the least of my… It’s more fighting to have the time to stay in the world of music all the time. There’s never any lack of… You never have to worry about what’s coming next. If you’re in the music there’s something always there right in front of you, like, “Wow, look at that,” or, “I want to try this.” That’s what it’s been my whole life. I never have to think of what to do next because it’s like this overwhelming amount of possibilities always right in front of me. So I try to get to as much as I can.

So the well never runs dry?

No. I mean… Music is crazy. You wake up every day and there’s as much in front of you that you haven’t done as there ever has been. You never think it’s the end of it. To me it feels good being in it. I never get tired of it, that’s for sure.

Does the guitar challenge you still?

Oh yeah, totally. Every day, I swear, it doesn’t feel that much different than the very first time I ever picked it up. I mean, I’ve been playing it for 50 years or something. And then today I’ll grab it and it’s like, “Oh my God, how am I gonna play this thing?” It still feels like that. You’re just at the beginning all the time. That’s something I’ve had to get comfortable with. It can be discouraging. It can bum you out, like, “Man, I’m never gonna get it.” But then part of the thing with music is you have to be comfortable with the idea that you’re never gonna get it right. You just have to get as close as you can. Everything I play is just an approximation of what I wish I could really play.

September 02, 2011

Feelin’ Like I Don’t Belong: Bio Tells Sad, Tragic Tale of Karen Carpenter (Book Review)

Karen Carpenter
If the disease that led to her untimely death at 32 was exacerbated by anything, as a new-in-paperback biography suggests, Karen Carpenter suffered from deep-seated feelings of inferiority and loneliness.

In Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter, author Randy L. Schmidt chronicles the often-troubled and ultimately tragic life of one of popular music’s most gifted voices.

In one particularly telling passage, the author notes that when Carpenter started making records and touring with her older brother, Richard, she considered herself foremost a drummer, then a vocalist. At the time she was, if anything, a bit overweight. Yet by all accounts Carpenter seemed either content with her curves or indifferent to them altogether. However, as the duo’s success necessitated that she step into the spotlight—literally, as concert audiences had difficulty discerning the five-foot, four-inch singer behind her drums and cymbals—her self-esteem and health began to deteriorate.

The author gives much consideration to Carpenter’s personal (mostly familial) relationships. While her father is rendered as being genial and supportive, her mother comes across as overbearing at best and, at worst, dictatorial. Richard Carpenter seems to fall somewhere between these two extremes, appearing as a musical perfectionist yet also a protective if, at times, condescending older brother. And yet even accounts of some rather heated arguments between the two can’t diminish the overriding impression that Richard loved his sister to no end.

In depictions of the behavior and various tactics she resorted to in maintaining and masking her illness—and over time she acknowledged she was indeed contending with something more than low self-esteem and poor eating habits—Karen Carpenter never comes across as willfully self-destructive. Her actions were, it seems, a means to cope with circumstances in which she felt helpless or inadequate. Anorexia nervosa instilled in Carpenter a false sense of security, providing her a means of control, the only kind she believed she had.

Though the author wrote Little Girl Blue without the Carpenter family’s participation or blessing, the narrative is nevertheless well-substantiated, insightful, and riveting to read. Karen Carpenter’s story, of course, remains heartbreakingly sad.