March 29, 2013

Fleetwood Mac's Rumours Still Strong After 35 Years

Of course they’ve scored plenty of hits over the years, but the prime catalyst of Fleetwood Mac’s legend, why they still generate a buzz and draw arena-sized audiences whenever they re-team for a tour — the band begins a new one next Thursday night in Columbus, Ohio — is Rumours.

For as much as been said and written about the 1977 album’s often-tumultuous creation, of infamous tales of band members feuding and fucking and shoveling through insane quantities of cocaine, its songs collectively remain the band's crowning achievement. Recently released by Warner Music, Rumours (35th Anniversary Expanded Edition) illustrates over three discs just how driven these musicians were to have something to show for the soap opera their personal lives had become.

Only the second album to include Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks in the fray — the lineup was rounded out by Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, and John McVie — the Mac were at this point a pop/rock band, with mainstream hits like “Rhiannon” and “Say You Love Me” having moved them beyond the British-blues roots espoused by departed member Peter Green. And yet listening to some tracks on this set’s third disc, More From The Recording Sessions, reveals an unmistakable blues influence. The included demo of “The Chain,” most notably, finds Nicks summoning a feral, sobering vocal accompanied only by Buckingham’s stark, acoustic guitar. Comparably, Ms. McVie leads the band through a brooding take of "Oh Daddy," her slinky keyboard riffs against a thick-and-sultry rhythm giving the song a heavier vibe than the light-string-embellished version on the finished album.

In fact the third disc is what makes this entire set essential — the first disc comprises the album proper (which, if you're interested in this collection, you likely already own) while the second disc is a solid but nevertheless straightforward live performance from the Rumours tour — because it offers perspectives of songs that are, at times, drastically different than the ones to which we’ve been accustomed. Sometimes, as with early, scaled-down takes of "Dreams" and the B-side "Silver Springs," they're as good and, arguably, better than their most familiar versions.

(First published at Blogcritics.)

March 23, 2013

Interview: Touré Discusses New Book on Prince

In his new book, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became An Icon, journalist and author Touré suggests and explains certain fundamental reasons why the legendary musician has transcended the context of his craft to ultimately achieve a far more profound cultural distinction.

“It’s one thing to be a star or a superstar, and quite another to be an icon,” Touré maintains. “To become an icon you’ve got to have something more than talent. It’s not just talent that will propel you to that higher level. It’s a deeper connection with the generation that is really buying the music at that point.”

In the book you write about how Prince has explored both spiritual and sexual themes in his music. For a while now, though, I'd say since Emancipation was released [in 1996], he’s seemed to have trouble reconciling the two. What’s your take on that?

That’s a classic sort-of Black music trope. You see a lot of artists playing with the spiritual and the profane either in a career or in a song or in an album: Ray Charles, Al Green, R. Kelly, Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, on and on and on. Prince wrestled with that — trying to do both, trying to combine both — within a life, within an album, within a song a lot of the time. 

The period you’re talking about, if memory serves, he had become a Jehovah’s Witness at that point and bringing a very overt spirituality back into his life made it a little trickier to reconcile his past wildness. There has always been a push and pull and a desire to have both. And there’s a sort-of pre-Christian understanding that you can worship God through sex. It doesn’t have to be two separate things, like you have to hide your bedroom from God or something like that. It can be all wrapped in one, and he was really pushing for that.

You write about how Generation X — Prince’s core audience — has certain shared references and shared musical icons that it admires, and yet it was the generation that was introduced to consolidated radio and genre-specific radio stations and playlists.

Every generation has those shared touchstones, but I’d push back against your assertion only because MTV was the biggest radio station in the world as we were growing up. And MTV was not segregated in the way that radio is and it was entirely integrated once they started playing black music. You would get a rock song, then a rap song, then an R&B song, then another rock song. They had Yo! MTV Raps and Headbangers Ball but their playlists were incredibly integrated.

Theres a lot in the book about how Prince transcended gender and racial and ethnic boundaries and stereotypes, but whats intriguing is that he did those things in an era — predominantly in the ‘80s — that saw the rise of Reagan and neo-conservatism, the PMRC and Focus on the Family. There were so many resistant forces that were against him and other artists who were considered on the edge.

That was definitely there, but I think whenever you see a major movement — a major cultural or sociocultural movement — there’s going to be a corresponding counter movement. There are going to be people who will push back against that. I mean, if you look at the history of today 20 or 30 years from now, you could say, “Well, there’s 31 state legislatures that have laws against gay marriage, so at that time they were against gay marriage.” No, that’s the counter-movement. The movement toward gay marriage, toward marriage equality, is very strong and only gaining strength. We have a president who’s in favor, we have a strong majority of Americans who are in favor, and the tide is moving quickly toward marriage equality.

So it’s important not to just look at the counter movement; look at both. There was definitely a movement toward opening society, being more open to people who had been oppressed, who had not been part of any sort of power previously. When you see the multiculturalism movement and the PC movement, it’s trying to open America up to other than white men. Now, the movements you’re talking about are very real but that’s a counter movement, trying to put the genie back in the bottle, which of course is impossible.

March 09, 2013

An Interview with Rod Argent of The Zombies

It’s the time of the season for the annual SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas, and the Zombies will be among the scores of musicians in attendance. The legendary British band, fronted by original members Rod Argent (keyboards/vocals) and Colin Blunstone (lead vocals), are slated to play songs from their current studio album, Breathe Out, Breathe In, alongside some of their most familiar (“She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No”) and fabled (1968’s Odessey and Oracle LP) material.

“It’s just a question of getting it all in, really,” says Argent, who at sixty-seven is very much at the top of his game. In fact, he modestly scoffs at the age-old adage “that one of the essential ingredients of being able to play rock ‘n’ roll was that you were under thirty.”

Truth be told the Zombies are in demand now more than ever, consistently selling out venues around the world — a new live album, Extended Versions, featuring performances recorded last year on tour, was just released — and making vibrant, uniquely soulful music.

Considering you and Mr. Blunstone are the only original members of the band in the present lineup, was there any effort to make Breathe Out, Breathe In reflect the music the band made in the ‘60s, so listeners could draw some parallel in recognizing the music as that of the Zombies?

In the sense that we deliberately tried to record very much using some of the same criteria that we always naturally used in the early days… We tried to use a lot of those same criteria not because we wanted to try and recapture something that was gone. That came out of the fact that in 2008 we did the only live performance we’d ever done of Odessey and Oracle from start to finish. We got the original surviving members of the Zombies — Colin, myself, [bassist] Chris White, and Hugh Grundy on drums — along with the guys that always work with us now, because if we were going to do it we wanted to reproduce every single note that was on the original album. And [it was] the only way of doing that, because there were some overdubs; it was the first time we were using seven or eight tracks instead of the four that we’d had before. And we made a live album from that. That experience, it just felt so nice doing it that when we made this new studio album we put some of those parameters in place.

Coming out of performing that whole album after many years I said to Colin, “Let’s really explore the harmony side of things like we always used to.” It felt so nice going back to that. So we really tried to be adventurous and explore the harmony arrangements in the songs. And I guess that was what we did naturally in the old days anyway. So those factors were in place.

I deliberately, apart from one track, didn’t overdub anything so we could do everything on stage live that we did on the Breathe Out, Breathe In album. We can reproduce all that because there aren’t overdubs, basically, apart from one track, “Shine on Sunshine.” Those factors were common to the way we used to record, but that’s the only thing. We didn’t at any time try to say, “How did we used to record this? Let’s try to recapture it. Let’s try and go back and recreate something.” That was never on the cards. It was always trying to take a musical idea and then just making it work for us.

So there was never a moment in the sessions where you asked someone, for instance, to play like Chris White.

No. Never. I’ll tell you something that a lot of people don’t know, and that is that a lot of those bass parts on early Zombies records… When I wrote “She’s Not There,” for instance, and when I wrote “Care of Cell 44,” those bass parts were absolutely written as part of the song. It wasn’t something invented by Chris or improvised on the session. They were parts written by me.

And on this album we actually did some of that again. I would write a bass part, not to say that Jim [Rodford] wouldn’t take that and personalize it a bit, but basically it was written very much as part of the song. That was a factor that we had in common with the early records, too.

When you’re writing a song for the Zombies and you know Mr. Blunstone is going to sing it, do you tailor it toward his voice? Or does he adapt to suit the song?

There’s a bit of both, actually. I’m sure Colin would agree with me. First of all, when I write a song — and I did this right from the early days, too, because I learned to write songs with Colin singing them, really — I always have Colin’s voice in mind. It’s not something I think of consciously every second, but as I’m writing a song for the Zombies I imagine him singing it. Now, it doesn’t always work out perfectly because sometimes the things that you’d imagine would be absolutely ideal for Colin he would find very difficult, or another time something I’d find tricky he’d find easy. It’s not something you can absolutely quantify, but at the same time that is in my head, in my imagination, all the time. Without even thinking about it, it’s there.

When you wrote “Time of the Season” — particularly the line, “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” — did you catch any flak for it sounding subversive?

No, not at all. In fact, the very first thing we did as the Zombies in a semi-professional way was “Summertime.” We played that right from the beginning. There’s a couplet in “Summertime,” which is “Your daddy’s rich, and your mama’s good-looking.” And that [line] — “What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?” — was a little affectionate nod in the direction of that couplet in “Summertime.” That was the first thing. The second thing was the word “rich” was not necessarily in terms of money; it was like the old-timer people looking at materialistic things, in the same way the Beatles used “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”

All modesty aside to what do you attribute the enduring popularity of the Zombies?

I think there are a couple of factors. The first factor is that when we first started working and recording we were genuinely enthusiastic about it and excited about it. We never did it just to try to sell… Obviously we did want to sell records. We wanted to sell as many records as we could. But we didn’t just say, “We’ll do anything that makes a record sell.” We always took a musical idea that excited us and just tried to make it work in the best way that it sounded to us. So, sometimes in the short term I think we did ourselves a disservice from a purely commercial point of view because rather than try and write absolutely in the fashion of whatever was going on….

In the short term that made our records a bit unusual, made it hard to get them played sometimes, and maybe they didn’t sell as many as some other people who were more overtly commercial. In the long term I think it actually worked for us because even though those records sound of their period I think many people feel that they still stand up today and don’t date in such a way that people don’t want to hear anymore because they just sound like something from the ‘60s and nothing else.

And similarly I think we’re approaching things in exactly the same way now. We’re doing it from a point of view of complete enthusiasm…. I think the thing is we’re just honest and we’re doing it for the right reasons. Coupled with that, we do want to give as good an account of ourselves as possible both on every live show and on every single that we do. We do work at it. As you get older I think you can even improve your chops, but you have to work at it. When you’re eighteen years old there are some things you can do and it feels very easy. When you get older you can let that go and it’s very difficult to recover it. But if you’re prepared to continue to work at it you can keep very strong chops.

The Zombies, currently: Jim Rodford (bass), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals),Rod Argent (keyboards, vocals),  Steve Rodford (drums), Tom Toomey (lead guitar)

(First published at Blogcritics.)

March 06, 2013

Iggy and the Stooges 'Burn' on Brand New Single

In gearing up for a much-hyped performance next week at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Iggy and the Stooges have revealed “Burn,” the high-voltage first single from their forthcoming new album, Ready To Die, slated for release on April 30th on Fat Possum Records.

Powered by a collisional barrage of guitarist James Williamson’s characteristically frenetic finger work and belligerent drumming from Scott Asheton, the song serves as a fitting preview for what is being billed as the follow-up—40 years later—of Raw Power

Related Reading:
An Interview with James Williamson

March 05, 2013

An Interview with Lisa Loeb

It turns out that reality doesn’t bite after all. At least it doesn’t for Lisa Loeb, who on her latest album, No Fairy Tale (429 Records), maintains that everyday blessings are ultimately more fulfilling than any fanciful illusions. Such optimism is bolstered by a slick, power-pop production courtesy of New Found Glory’s Chad Gilbert, who encouraged Loeb toward an edgier sound throughout the making of the album. "It was nice working with somebody who knew exactly what they wanted to hear," says Loeb. "He came in with lots of ideas, a lot of already formed ideas, which was really cool."

It’s her first pop album since becoming a mother—Loeb and her husband, Conan Music Production Supervisor Roey Hershkovitz, welcomed a daughter in 2009 and son in 2012—and it's seemingly this distinction which has most inspired her to engage her artistry from a fresh perspective. 

Has having children changed the way you write songs?

I think I feel more freedom to just write whatever I want. The kind of advice I would give my kids if they wanted to write music or be creative, I’d really encourage them to write whatever they want, not worry about what everybody else thinks. It’s more important to make things and express yourself, between being able to continue to embrace my independence—the fact that I’m an independent artist; that I can make the different kind of records that I want; that there’s not people expecting anything in particular—and also just realizing that’s what music is for: to express yourself and say whatever you want. I think having kids just makes me keep even more of an eye on that, [to] make sure that I do things from my own point of view, from my own way. I’m always striving to be a better writer and to continue to explore different topics, but also I think it’s important to embrace what I already have and what I already do. And I think that comes from having kids.

So you have a different perspective.

Yeah, and it’s also so important as a writer—whether you’re a seasoned writer or somebody who’s just starting out—to let yourself take the time to explore and to write a lot to get to where you need to be. It doesn’t come out perfect the first time. It’s really important to have that, to understand that, and to accept and embrace that as a part of a creative process. I think that’s something that I would tell somebody who says, “Hey, I want to learn how to write a song.” I would tell them the same thing. I would say, “You need to just start writing. And you need to know that the perfect song is probably not going to come out right at the beginning of the process."

I was going to ask if you can perceive any evolution in your songwriting over the years, but that’s probably it, right?

It’s more the process than the actual content, the ability to live in that space where I’m continually pushing myself, but at the same time trying to accept what I’m doing also.

So, then, you’re not a stream-of-consciousness writer, or one who’ll live with the first thing—

No. I won’t live with the first thing, although often when you capture that first thing there’s something magical about it. Again, being able to learn about that process and know that’s part of the process, to be able to live with that but not settle with that, just to walk away with it and come back to it. 

The frustrating thing is when you find out six, seven months later that what you'd written originally was what you wanted all along.

Exactly. You just have to stay on it and try to get it together. It’s hard sometimes.

No Fairy Tale is available now on 429 Records. For more information on Lisa Loeb, please visit the artist's official website.

(First published at Blogcritics.)