January 31, 2013

ZZ Ward Makes A Dynamic First Impression

Singer/songwriter ZZ Ward makes a dynamic first impression with her debut LP, ‘Til the Casket Drops (Boardwalk/Hollywood Records), deftly imbuing elements of blues, hip/hop, and pop with juke-joint earthiness and some serious pipes. “I’ve always had a big voice,” says Ward, who grew up in rural stretches of Roseburg, Oregon—“Where I lived was in the middle of a 23-acre farm,” she says. “There was nothing around.”—before moving to Los Angeles where the music scene was more conducive to her ambitions.

“Being around other creative people is very inspiring,” Ward notes. “I did a lot of co-writing when I first moved to L.A. and I learned a lot from that.”

Among the collaborations on the album are with Fitz and the Tantrums frontman Michael Fitzpatrick, who co-wrote the retro-soul-inspired “Save My Life,” and emerging rapper Kendrick Lamar, who spices up the ribald, rhythmic “Cryin’ Wolf” with a few illicit lines.

For the most part, though, Ward says she considers songwriting a solitary, introspective pursuit. “I tend to lock the doors and the windows and not go out for a really long time,” she explains. “It’s just me and my piano, or just me and my guitar. It doesn’t really matter what’s around me. I just go into my own thing.

“I’m an introvert,” she continues. “I’m very personal. I don’t like to tell people a lot of things about my life, but through music I feel very comfortable expressing those things.”

Bringing her songs to life in the recording studio was probably the greatest challenge, actually, though Ward credits her manager, Evan “Kidd” Bogart, a venerable songwriter in his own right for such artists as BeyoncĂ© and Rihanna, with encouraging her each step of the way. “He knew that I loved blues and that I loved hip/hop,” says Ward. “And he heard these songs that I was writing, and he was, like, ‘Don’t think about what would work and what wouldn’t work. Just make a record that you like, that you would want to listen to, that feels right to you.’”

She succeeded.

'Til the Casket Drops brims with visceral conviction, its most potent moments—from propulsive jolts like "Move Like U Stole It" and "Put the Gun Down" to the wrenching ballad, "Last Love Song"—underscoring the arrival of a gifted and invigorating talent.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

January 29, 2013

Madeleine Peyroux Previews 'The Blue Room' with Buddy Holly Song, Video

Songstress Madeleine Peyroux is set to release her sixth solo LP, The Blue Room, on March 5 on Decca Records. The album is produced by Larry Klein, who in addition to having collaborated with Peyroux on past efforts like Careless Love and Half the Perfect World has also amassed extensive credentials with such artists as Herbie Hancock and Joni Mitchell, among others. 

According to a press release, The Blue Room will feature Peyroux interpreting selections from Ray Charles' seminal masterpiece, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, along with various other songs by the likes of Warren Zevon, Randy Newman, and Buddy Holly. 

The album's debut single, in fact, is of Holly's song, "Changing All Those Changes," on which Peyroux translates the rockabilly romp into a zippy shot of jazz:

An Interview with Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues

In the early days of the Moody Blues, lead vocalist and guitarist Justin Hayward remembers, “the other guys would often look to me to start an album, because we were contracted to make a certain number of albums in a certain amount of time.” Beginning with 1967’s Days of Future Passed, most notably featuring the rapturous “Nights in White Satin,” Hayward would ultimately pen many of the legendary British band's most defining classics.

“That was a bit of pressure,” Hayward adds, “but only in a nice way. It certainly got things done.”

He hasn’t produced his solo works with the same urgency or consistency — his last one was 1996’s The View From the Hill — but he certainly hasn’t suffered for inspiration.

“I just started to realize, I suppose four or five years ago,” he says, “that really I had a lot of material that just wasn’t being recorded and I was worried that this stuff was never going to see the light of day.”

If anything his latest LP, Spirits of the Western Sky, is among Hayward’s most inspired and personal to date.

Set for release on February 26 on Eagle Rock Records, the album strikes a reflective, often melancholic tone with such standouts as “Lazy Afternoon” and “Broken Dream,” while other songs embrace pop, orchestral, and, on three tracks, even country distinctions.

“We recorded more than I needed,” says Hayward, “and I left some things off. I don’t know what’ll happen to them, but… We’ll see. I’m very pleased with the way it all came together.”

When you’re writing a song — or when you’ve written a song — is there something that defines it for you that tells you to keep it for yourself instead of doing it with the group?

I think there is. I often write things and then I think it’s too personal for the Moodies. It’s not something that I could share with other guys to say. It’s a very personal album — songs about relationships — and that’s probably why it wasn’t [given to the group]. But, I have to say, when I write a song everything starts off the same. I don’t think, “Who would record this?” It’s just me as I’ve always done since I was a kid writing a song. It’s as simple as that. I feel a kind of duty to do it, because I can do it. I think that’s probably the motivation behind any writer.

Does songwriting come easy to you now? Or after all these years does it still require a great amount of effort?

It’s maybe five or ten percent inspiration, which comes early on [when] you have that wonderful moment or that wonderful night where the light shines on you, but inspiration has to find you working. I’ve never been one for sitting in a car or somewhere over dinner and thinking, “That’s a great song,” or something. It has to find me working. So it is that five-or-ten-percent inspiration and then, after that, it’s just pure graft and putting some days in where you’re really despondent, where you feel you’re actually going backwards. You’re not contributing to that inspiration. You’re detracting from it by just trying too hard. But slowly it comes together. If you put the work in it comes together.

How did you get into writing country songs?

Several years ago I was asked by a songwriter’s association to go to Nashville — I think it involved some kind of award — and be part of the showcase. It was myself and Stevie Winwood and Michael McDonald and then some country people that I didn’t know. The whole community was just so welcoming to me. I met Jimmy Webb that same night; he was on the show. Can you imagine that? They’re all my heroes. I was standing in the wings just in awe of these people. They were so welcoming to me.

That led to an album, a tribute album that was called Moody Bluegrass where they did Moody Blues songs in the bluegrass style. Then, after that record was out, getting to know those guys and the guys that played on that record, I realized that actually this was almost like when I’d started playing as a kid. I’m not quite sure of the country rules, but I know the bluegrass rules which are no electric guitar, no drums, and no electric bass. You’ve got to be able to play it acoustically and do it in one performance. That really appealed to me.

You know this as well as I do, but the most valuable commodity in the music business is probably youth. But in Nashville it’s the other way around…. So, doing those three songs was just an absolute joy. Two of the songs I did in one afternoon. They’re very much not like the rest of the album where I was piecing it together with different parts that I wanted to do myself.

Who or what attracted you to songwriting, in particular, as a young man?

I was very lucky. I had a few fortunate things happen to me in life. One was when Mike Pinder from the Moodies called me — after Denny Laine had left; the band had only been together like a year or something — completely out of the blue because of my songs; not because I could sing rhythm and blues, which was what they were doing. They knew they weren’t very good; the guys that were left after Denny and Clint [Warwick] went weren’t true to their own hearts by doing rhythm and blues. Denny took that with him.

The fortunate event before that was when I left school I got a job playing guitar for a rock ‘n’ roll singer called Marty Wilde, and he was writing his own songs. He told me then — I worship him to this day, I suppose — that to survive in the business you’ve got to create your own style and the best way to do that is to write songs, not do cover versions. I took that to heart.... It opened a world of imagination for me, and a life I never could’ve dreamed of — just by songwriting.

How do songs you wrote as a young man — songs like “Nights in White Satin,” “Question,” “Tuesday Afternoon” — resonate with you today?

They’re the most beautiful gifts that I’ve been given that we in the band can share, being in a place and singing those songs and feeling the love from the audience. There’s no point in messing around; it is love that comes from the audience when you do those songs. They’re watching the people that did the songs and that’s a wonderful thing to be able to share every night. You never get tired of that. I don’t care if people say, “I’m not doing my old stuff. I’m just doing the new record because I don’t like that stuff anymore.” I never get tired of that, and I think I’ll always want to do it. It’s a real privilege.

But “Nights…” in particular I kind of lost. I was only nineteen when I wrote the song, and it meant a lot to me then. I was in the end of one love affair and the beginning of another. But over the years I’d gotten into the mechanics of doing it and how it worked every night on stage and every nuance of it to make it smoother and better. Then, last year somebody sent me a version of it — there’s bloody loads of cover versions of “Nights…” mostly by Romantic Strings Play Romantic Favorites in the Night, that sort of stuff — by a woman called Bettye LaVette. I opened it up on my email and was expecting it to be another kind of slightly dodgy cover version. And I sat there and cried like a baby. I saw the song almost for the first time. I’d kind of forgotten over the years what I’d put into it. My wife came in. I was still in bed looking at my computer and listening to it. And she said, “What on earth is the matter?” I said, “Just listen to this!” It was astounding, how somebody could take it and make it their own and reveal it to me. It was wonderful. I’d love to meet her one day. She’s got it. Whatever it is, she’s got it.

In your more immodest moments, are you ever struck by or even amazed by songs you wrote as a young man and how they still resonate with people?

Yes, very much. Particularly things like “Tuesday Afternoon.” When it was written I was a bit stoned. I went and sat in a field and it took all of like twenty minutes to do. The fact that other people could share that moment so graphically as well, and what it meant to other people, is fantastic. The biggest effect I had of that, I think, was with a song called “In Your Wildest Dreams” and another one called “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” which followed it up — recordings we’d made with [producer] Tony Visconti. I thought we were making a light, little record about something that was just a bit frivolous. I realized afterwards when people started to like it [that] it was a shared experience. And the fact that that record was a big hit was a sensational time for the band. We were given another go ‘round at being pop stars.

For more information on Justin Hayward, please visit the artist's official website. Information on the Moody Blues can be found at MoodyBluesToday.com.

Spirits of the Western Sky will be released on February 26 by Eagle Rock Records.

January 19, 2013

An Interview with Colin Blunstone of The Zombies

Nearly half a century ago Colin Blunstone emerged as one of England’s most singular, evocative vocalists. As the lead singer of the Zombies, whose classic hits like “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season” helped define the British Invasion, Blunstone imparted sophistication and grace that were rare for the era. Although the group called it quits upon the release of their 1968 LP, Odessey and Oracle, Blunstone eventually found his footing as a solo artist beginning with 1971’s One Year, with such gems as “Caroline Goodbye and “Though You Are Far Away” earning him even further distinction.

While his post-Zombies endeavors haven't enjoyed the same success in the States as they have in his native country, Blunstone has continued to explore and expound upon his talent, whether recording under his own name or in collaboration with other artists, most notably Alan Parsons and fellow Zombies alumnus Rod Argent. For a little over the past decade, in fact, Blunstone and Argent have (with an otherwise revamped lineup) brought the Zombies back to life in the recording studio as well as on the concert stage. “It reminds people of what we did years ago,”
 says Blunstone, and I hope it enhances it.”

The same could be said for his eleventh and latest solo effort, On The Air Tonight, which reflects the hallmark sublimity of Blunstone’s classic works in timeless, touching ways.

The Zombies had a very distinct sound. Did you guys consciously strive to have a unique sound or did that unique sound come about because of the makeup of the band, particularly with Rod Argent on keyboards?

It was just the way the band sounded naturally. I think to some extent that sound evolved over a period of years. What I would say is that we consciously didn’t try to copy. That’s the one thing I would say. We didn’t try to copy people. And of course we had two quite prolific and sophisticated writers in the band. I think that that was one of the great strengths of the band that we had these two writers, Rod Argent and Chris White. Rod had always written good songs, and Chris had [too] but he really progressed in the three years we’d been on the road that by the time we got to Odessey and Oracle they were both writing really, really fine songs. In some ways that’s one of the main things that sets us apart from other bands. I know that there were some that were writing, but they had their own sound too. But there were other bands that were just copying, but we certainly weren’t.

And of course our band was very much a keyboard-based band. It was musically based on Rod’s keyboard abilities, and he’s a world-class keyboard player. And I think that gave us a very distinctive sound as well whereas most bands of that time — in the mid ‘60s — were very much guitar-based bands. There were very few that were keyboard-based bands. So that did make us sound very different and possibly unique.

Another thing is that your voice, unlike those of a lot of English bands of that era, sounded British. Many British singers seemed to affect an American accent perhaps to appeal to a wider audience, but you — along with Syd Barrett and David Bowie, for instance — had a distinctly British character to your singing.

There’s a lot of rock ‘n’ roll tunes that [are] very tempting to sing with an American accent. Sometimes, I think, you possibly have to sing in an American accent. But certainly in the ‘60s I did try to maintain my English accent. It wasn’t something that I laid awake at night worrying about. It just seemed more natural to me. I found that if ever I started singing with a bit of an American accent I think I found it a little bit embarrassing, really, and a little bit unreal. So it was more natural for me to sing in my English accent, and to some degree I still do. I try to make my singing as natural as possible. I do think about singing a lot. Every phrase has been discussed and thought about and maybe even argued about — every phrase in every song that we record.

The new album, On the Air Tonight, includes a version of “Though You Are Far Away,” which you first recorded in 1971. Was there a particular reason you wanted to revisit that song?

There was. There’s a very famous Belgian singer, Jasper Steverlinck, who recorded this song. He used the string arrangement from my first album and interpreted that on piano. Of course that’s how it was written in the first place. The arranger for this song is called Chris Gunning. When he first played this arrangement to me he played it on piano, and later on we used a string quintet to interpret his piano arrangement. Then Jasper went back to the piano. I just thought that it was really striking when I heard it. I thought, “I’d like to try it on stage,” which is what we did. We put it into our stage act and we got such a good response from when we were playing it live that I thought, “I’d like to re-record it.” So that’s what I did.

Do you have to pay any special attention to your voice today—perhaps in ways that you didn’t 40 years ago—in order to preserve it?

Well, 40 years ago I didn’t pay any attention to it at all. It was just the natural sound that came out. But as you get older your voice does change. Both Rod [Argent] and myself went to a singing coach about 10 or 15 years ago. I only studied with him for a few weeks, but he taught me a little bit about singing technique and he also gave me some exercises that I can practice. I found them a great help. Especially as you get older, you need to exercise your voice and to strengthen your voice. It taught me to keep my voice strong, and I think it’s made me a little bit more accurate with regard to intonation.

The way your voice works within the structures of these songs on the solo album, particularly slower ones like "For You" and "The Best is Yet to Come," inspires a lot of unpredictable moments, little deviations in the melody — kind of like a Burt Bacharach composition, where you don’t really know where he’s going with it.

It’s funny, my touring band will sometimes say that. We play half of the album when we play live. Nearly all the songs we play live, you’re never quite sure what’s going on next. So you have to really put some work in before you start the tour so that you know these songs inside out. Some of them seem quite simple, and when you start to think about them you think, “It’s not as straightforward as you think.” I like songs like that, especially if they sound quite simple on the surface. And then when you start to really dig deep you realize that there’s a lot more to the song than you first thought....

I get really excited about chord progressions. A lot of the chord progressions [on the new album], they’re not what you think they are and they’re not like a lot of contemporary music, which is a lot more predictable. These chord progressions are very unusual. And they very often have different bass notes than what you would expect, which also, I think, enhances it. It’s an area that I really like.

Do you encounter songs that you appreciate but don’t necessarily feel you could do them justice or, for lack of a better phrase, make them your own? Do you have those moments?

I do. I can’t think of any instances off the top of my head, but it does happen. Especially if someone’s put a really wonderful vocal performance onto a great song, I think you realize it’s just best to leave it as it is because everything that could be said about that song has been said in that performance. Yeah, it does happen. The other thing is, generally but not always, I try to do a song in a different way. I try not to copy. There have been occasions when they have been pretty close, but usually I would do them in a totally different way. But certainly, yeah, there have been lovely songs that I thought, “Well, that’s just been done so well, I think it’s best to move on now and try something else.”

And it doesn’t even have to be a case where someone has recorded a definitive version of a song and you just don’t want to infringe on that, but rather an instance where you say, “That’s a great song, but the way I sing — my technique, my sound — wouldn’t complement it as well as I’d like.” It just doesn’t go with your aesthetic, really.

I have felt like that over the years, yeah. More than that, I’ve started singing a song — not often — and I might’ve given up on it and said, “Listen, this song’s not for me.” It would usually be some kind of phrasing issue; I just felt I wasn’t getting my head around the phrasing of a song. That would usually be the main problem, I think. But there are many songs out there, so you have to find something that you really like and that you feel you can sing well. It takes time. I don’t think people realize how much time and effort goes into making an album. When you’re looking for other people’s songs it can be very, very hard to find them.

And I do try to write more and more. It’s so much more natural to sing your own songs. You don’t even have to think about it, usually. I find it very exciting to take a song from that initial spark of inspiration through to recording it and then eventually take it out onto the stage and play it live in front of an audience. I think that’s one of the most exciting things about being in the music business — if you can do that. I’ve never been a particularly prolific writer; it’s very hard for me to write songs. But when I’m fortunate enough to do it, I think it’s a very thrilling situation.

When you write, is that a process you enjoy? I’ve heard songwriters say that they like having written a song, but they hate trying to write lyrics and coming up with a chord structure — everything that it takes to get from that initial spark of inspiration to the finished song.

Me, personally, I’m trying to write songs all the time. And I think I must drive people around me crazy because when you’re writing songs it doesn’t always sound very attractive. You’re just trying things all the time and often it doesn’t work. And so I just sit here doodling with my guitar, and I think it must be a bit trying for people that are around me. But I’m almost doing it subconsciously now. It can be a real struggle. Once in a while I’ve written a song really quickly, but they’re real exceptions. Usually it takes months from that first little chord progression or maybe just a little bit of lyric and then you just have to build on it bit by bit.

Despite not being prolific, then, you do appreciate the process.

I do, to be honest. It quite intrigues me although it can be very frustrating. I’m not really an accomplished guitarist. When the Zombies first started I was a rhythm guitarist. So I’ve always played guitar, but I’m not an accomplished player. I couldn’t make a living being a professional guitarist. So it means I’m a bit limited musically when I compare to other writers, and that can make it frustrating. I’ll find that my hands will fall onto the same chord progressions if I’m not careful. I’m just playing the same thing over and over, and I have to really work on expanding my knowledge of chords and music to try to write fresh songs.

Because you fall back on what you know.

Well you do. It’s a subconscious thing, really. You sit down, you relax, pick up your guitar, and you find you’re playing a progression that you’ve played a million times before. You just have to force yourself to move into new areas.

January 07, 2013

Song Review: Bon Jovi - “Because We Can”

Over the past 30 years whenever you’ve heard a new Bon Jovi song for the first time—from “Runaway” to “You Give Love a Bad Name” to “It’s My Life” to “Who Says You Can’t Go Home”— you knew who it was. Their best songs have always had defining distinctions—a riff, a gimmick, a hook, something that makes them unique and ultimately memorable. 

“Because We Can,” the just-released first single from the New Jersey band’s forthcoming album, What About Now, doesn’t have any of that. It’s not that it’s especially bad, per se. It’s just an unremarkable pop/rock song, no different than any other average pop/rock song on the radio right now. Essentially an inflated, sort-of “Summertime Blues” beat opens the track before it fizzles further into being mediocre filler. Point blank, Bon Jovi are better than this. Hopefully they’ll redeem themselves with the balance of the new album—because they can. 

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