Monthly Archives: August 2011

Random Song of the Day: “Land of 1,000 Dances” – Wilson Pickett

If there’s ever a song that will automatically put me in a good mood, it’s Wilson Pickett’s version of “Land of 1,000 Dances”.  The song is bursting with energy that practically blows from the speakers. Paul McCartney might have the most famous count-off in rock history at the beginning of “I Saw Her Standing There”, but Pickett’s count-off comes in at a close second in my book. The sexual urgency in his voice as he calls out, “One two, three” not once, but twice is only hints at things to come.

Pickett’s band takes off in full flight. There’s a slight hint of chaos, but they’re so tight. The refrain of Charlie Chalmers and Andrew Love’s tenor saxophone playing can barely keep up with Pickett as he shouts out the differences dances. Then of course there’s the famous “na na na na na”  refrain (which wasn’t in the original version by Chris Kenner).  If there was ever a song that demanded audience participation, it’s Pickett’s version.

I first came across the song in The Great Outdoors (that ludicrous movie starring John Candy and Dan Aykroyd).  Come to think of it, Dan Aykroyd is probably responsible for exposing me to soul music in general with the Blues Brothers.  For years I always referred to it as “that song from The Great Doors‘.  Luckily, I don’t have that problem now.

As if the song couldn’t be any cooler, Patti Smith also includes several lines from the song in her song “Land” of her debut Horses.

 

Did Garden State & The OC Cause The Indie Rock Explosion?

A while back, I wrote about Death Cab For Cutie and how they helped usher in the indie-rock explosion of the mid-to-late 200os. By the early 2000s indie rock was moving towards a more sincere and emotional viewpoint than the cynicism and irony of 90s indie icons such as Pavement. Death Cab was a prime example of this, even if Ben Gibbard’s sweet melodies sugarcoated his bitterness and melancholy outlook on life. The Shins were another group who eschewed irony and the noise of their indie forefathers, instead of opting for a soft rock-pop sound reminiscent of The Beach Boys.

For a good few years, this change in style went largely un-noticed. With their arena-ready anthems, Coldplay seemed to be the only band with a more sensitive outlook to be played on the radio. Mainstream interest seemed to focus on the last remnants of nu-metal, post-grunge and the garage rock revival.

The indie-rock explosion of the 2000s wasn’t ushered in by a defining album the way that Nirvana’s Nevermind had for 90s rock. Instead, it was through film and television most notably the soundtrack for Garden State and guest appearances by indie bands on The O.C.  In Garden State, Natalie Portman’s Sam declares that The Shins will “change your life”.  In retrospect (and even back then) her statement seemed a bit like hyperbole. The Shins weren’t wholly original to be life changing, but their inward gaze combined with their sincere sensibility perfectly fit Zach Braff’s tale of confused 20-somethings in the 2000s.

With the exception of Coldplay and the Simon & Garfunkel inclusion (a nod to The Graduate) all of the artists on the soundtrack had a limited audience. Even 70s singer-songwriter Nick Drake (who went largely unnoticed during his short lifetime) was given wider exposure as a result of being included on the album. The album’s most memorable track is probably Iron & Wine’s cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” which was also included in a famous M&M’s commercial that came out around the same time.

Whether audiences truly related to the music on its own or solely based by Braff’s brilliant use of it throughout Garden State can be debated. But there’s no denying that either way a chord had been struck with audiences, or the album has since gone gold. Braff would receive a Grammy for the soundtrack in 2005, making him probably the first person to ever receive a Grammy for making what was essentially a mix-tape.

The OC probably had a wider effect on indie rock. I know several people who claimed that they only watched the show to see (or hear) what new music would be on the show from week to week. Death Cab For Cutie, The Killers, Bloc Party, Feist, Franz Ferdinand, Rooney, The New Pornographers, and Phoenix and countless others were all featured on the show – some multiple times. Since the show was a huge hit for Fox, these artists achieved recognition that would otherwise not have been available to them.

2005 was probably the year that indie-rock truly explored. The Killers weren’t exactly indie-rock, but they had an indie sound and with the help of “Mr. Brightside” they seemed to be everywhere that year. The labels noticing a trend that could be marketable, signed Death Cab For Cutie and the band released their major-label debut Plans that fall which peaked at number 4 on the Billboard charts. The band was also nominated for a Grammy in 2006 for “Best Alternative Album”.  While it was certainly “alternative” to what was taking place on the radio, indie rock was beginning to prove itself to the masses.

Naturally, there was a cultural shift. In spite of (or perhaps as a result) this exposure, “indie” styled bands would soon find their albums being sold at places such as Starbucks which previously only seemed to sell albums by non-threatening classic rock artists and compilations. You know something has changed when 30-something mothers ask you at Starbucks if you’re selling the new Shins album. (True story.)

So what does all this mean? A few weeks back, I argued that the world would never see a world wide life-altering album like Nirvana’s Nevermind. I still stand by that point. Single albums don’t seem to capture the world’s attention like they used, but if nothing else the Garden State soundtrack and the OC prove that if great music is given its due, people will pay attention.

Martin Scorcese’s Use of Music In Film

My first introduction to The Crystals “Then He Kissed Me” was in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. As Henry Hill takes his then-girlfriend Karen through the back of a restaurant (avoiding the lines outside) the entire song plays in the background. It’s a single-shot and the camera follows them as they wind their way through the kitchens before finally coming to their table. Karen is naturally impressed, just like Darlene Love’s surprise that her man kissed her.

It’s an oddly sweet moment in a movie which otherwise violent and profane. Unlike many other film-makers Scorcese knows how to use music in movies effectively. The songs simply aren’t put in to take over a scene. Sometimes they are just in the background to extra tension. The swampy sounds of The Rolling Stone’s “Let It Loose” in The Departed heighten the drama between Billy Costigan’s cop turned mole (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Fran Costello’s (Jack Nicholson) mob boss. What starts out as a simple conversation, leads Costigan to believe Costello knows his true identity. The song plays in the background throughout the entire scene, but the song slowly builds to its conclusion as the tension between the two grows. The opening credits of Mean Streets use The Ronettes “Be My Baby” as grainy footage of Robert DeNiro, Harvey Kitel and others are shown. There’s no romance involved. Yet, somehow the images and the song work together creating one of the most iconic opening sequences in movie history.

Then there are his musical documentaries. If there was any question that Scorcese was a fan of rock and roll, you only need to look at The Last Waltz. Hailed as one of the best rock documentaries, The Last Waltz shows The Band playing their final show and performing songs with their closest friends and admirers.  But it’s not just a concert movie. The movie plays a historical version of The Band’s career and influences. Muddy Waters and Dr. John are given just as much time in the movie as The Band’s contemporaries such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.  While The Band was always seen as one of rock’s most impressive bands during their hey-day, there’s little doubt that The Last Waltz helped secure their legacy.

In 2008, Scorcese directed Shine A Light, which showcase the Rolling Stones perform an intimate performance at the Beacon Theater, New York on 2006. While not as transcendent as The Last Waltz, Shine a Light proved that The Rolling Stones could still pack a punch at 60. The performances weren’t overblown.  Instead the ban tore through classics like “Jumpin Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction”. And like The Last Waltz, there a guest-stars whose appearance represents how vast the Stones arm reaches. There’s Buddy Guy who represents the Stones’ blues roots, and Jack White the blues revival wonder. Christina Aguilera’s appearance is slightly questionable, but her rebellious spirit (at the time) seemed to fit with the band.

Scorcese’s latest project is an upcoming documentary on the life of George Harrison dubbed George Harrison: Living in the Material World. If Scorcese’s Bob Dylan project No Direction Home is any indication, rock fans are in for a treat. I just saw the trailer for the documentary and the focus seems to be Harrison’s struggle between spirituality and the life of a famous rock star. While I’m naturally excited the subject material, in Scorcese’s hands, the documentary will no doubt be a worthy tribute to a true genius.

The Hundred Days Recall 80s Dance Rock. Exclusive Interview

San Francisco band The Hundred Days has just released their debut album, Really? August 16th, 2011.  Really? recalls The Killers Hot Fuss-era, Franz Ferdinand, as well as British post-punk bands Echo and The Bunnymen, and The Cure and Joy Division.

 Really? was produced by Michael Patterson (Beck, Ladytron, She Wants Revenge) and Nic Jodoin (Great Northern).  Lead single “Sex U” has generated some a lot of buzz, with NME recently calling it “one of the 10 Best Free MP3s”. 

 Here’s an exclusive interview with the band. 

 You guys locked yourself in a house until you found “the perfect formula”. What’s the story behind this? How did you meet and decide on this dance-rock hybrid?

 We met each other at a party and just got talking about music and found that we had a lot in common.  Not too much, where we would just pat each other on the back all night, but enough where we wanted to play together.  When we got together, there were immediate sparks.  A lot of what makes a good band or a girlfriend or whatever is luck – the right person at the right time.

Jimmy Chen, you’ve described the band as a clash of ideas and that the tension drives the band. Do you guys all collaborate on songs, or does one person bring one idea to the table and go from there?

Yes, a lot of what we write comes from just jamming early in the rehearsal, when our ears are fresh. We record everything and just glean for gems afterwards. When we don’t know what we are playing yet, we really listen to each other very hard. If someone makes a small rhythm change in their part, we all immediately react. The smallest rhythm change in the phrasing can make the difference between cool and corny.

You guys are from San Francisco. Yet there definitely seems to be a huge British post-punk influence throughout, Really? What British bands inspire you?  There seems to be a moody influence like Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen.

We definitely have a love of English bands in common – old and new.  Its part of what drew us together. We have a moody side to us and we also love to just have a good time – like everyone else.

Dance-rock seems to have exploded in the past few years. Do you see it is as a reaction to the negative events in the world, or a musical reaction to the angst of grunge?

It’s definitely a reaction to both, but you can never predict how people will react – whether it’s to reflect what is going on or to drive you the opposite way.

Really? Seems to work really well as album – rather than a mere collection

of songs. It seems like a complete thought. All of the songs could be singles. What was your mindset going into making Really?

Thanks!  Yes, we wanted every song to be able to stand on its own.  We grew up with albums but now with singles downloads, we definitely kept that in mind as well.

What was your reaction to having NME name “Sex U” as one of the 10 Best Free MP3s”? They have a long legacy.

We are obviously very flattered.  Thank you NME!

You guys are touring The West Coast now and are planning an East Coast Tour. What are your plans after that? What do you hope to achieve with Really? Any thoughts for the next album, or are you taking it one step at a time?

I hear them talking about going back to the UK afterwards but haven’t heard any firm details yet. Our goals are just to keep making music that we love and bring it to as many people as possible.  Anything above that is just the cherry on top.  We have just been trying to get this album out but we have already started kicking around some ideas.

http://www.thehundreddays.com/

A Tribute to Keith Moon On What Would Have Been His 65th Birthday

If he were still alive, Keith Moon would have turned 65 today. It’s hard to imagine him as an old man, considering how he lived his life. Even as the youngest member of The Who, Moon barely looked older than 15 when their debut album The Who Sings My Generation was released in 1965.

Much of Moon’s reputation rests on his antics. There’s the infamous Holiday Inn birthday party where he crashed a car into the pool. Then there’s the story of Moon getting the band kicked out of the Gorham in New York for throwing cherry bombs out the window. And who can forget when he loaded his drum-set with dynamite, blowing it up on live TV during The Who’s performance on The Smothers Brothers?

While these stories are somewhat amusing, they also tarnish his legacy as a musician. Simply put, Moon is not only’s rock most chaotic drummer but also its most inventive, original and best. Unlike other drummers, Moon attacked the drums in a way that forced Pete Townshend and John Entwistle to completely change the normal stylings of guitar and bass. Townshend had to play louder and adopt his signature power chords in order to behind Moon’s thunderous drumming.  Entwistle’s “lead” bass was developed as a way of anchoring the band.

Moon didn’t follow the “traditional” rules of drumming – he rarely kept a steady beat in fact – which has generated some criticism. This is probably why you are more likely to see John Bonham at the top of best drummer lists. But that’s not to see that he couldn’t keep time. His drumming on the instrumental “Sparks” from Tommy is so intricate and commanding, it simply couldn’t be done if he didn’t know his place in the song.  According to Tony Fletcher’s biography Moon, producer Shel Talmly listened to out-takes from The Who Sings My Generation sessions commenting, “Keith did it the same way each time.”

Talmy’s comment is interesting considering that many consider Moon to be innovative, but slightly sloppy. Certainly if you watch performances of him, his hands fly in every direction at the speed of light. Listen closely and you’ll realize that he listens exactly to what the other members of the band are doing and his loud cymbal crashes accent and revolve Roger Daltrey’s powerful vocals. The wild drum rolls during the chorus on “Tattoo” off of Live at Leeds perfectly coexist with Daltrey and Townshend’s harmonies.

The definitive Moon performance is the highly under-rated 1967 Who single “I Can See For Miles”. Completely ignoring the traditional beat, Moon delivers rapid fire rolls and cymbal crashes that extra drama to Townshend’s tale of a scorned lover. On the chorus especially, Moon reigns his grip in even further pummeling his way through the song with a mix of brute force and sheer musicianship.  No other drumming performance in rock has sounded like it. It’s not only Moon’s best performance, but the “Voodoo Child” of rock drumming. No one has yet to catch up with Moon’s inventive and wild drumming that he displayed on this track.

 

Band of Brothers?

The infamous Gallagher brothers from Oasis are at war, once again. This time, Liam is suing his older brother for libel regarding comments about the break-up of the band. Noel claims that Liam was too hung-over to play the V Festival in 2009, which the band eventually pulled out of. Liam wants everybody to know this is a lie.

Even between these two brothers, a lawsuit seems a bit extreme. Over the fifteen years since Oasis first burst onto the Brit-Pop Scene, both Liam and Noel have engaged in so much verbal warfare it’s nauseating to comprehend. Both of them are probably guilty of libel and slander towards each other at various points in their career, but they’ve always managed to put their feelings aside for the band. Indeed, if Noel can still work with Liam after their disastrous Unplugged performance – why not let bygones be bygones?

Note that Liam’s lawsuit was filed within mere weeks after Noel announced plans for a new solo album. In recent weeks, Noel has had massive interviews with numerous British Magazines including Q, and Mojo as well as Rolling Stone. The actual incident in question happened over two years ago.

Getting into a band with your siblings can be a messy affair, especially if one sibling is the creative genius in the group, like Noel Gallagher.  Just ask the Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson was the driving force behind their biggest hits, and the seminal Pet Sounds album. Brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson were entangled in many legal battles with disputes over Brian’s psychological issues, and publishing rights. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Tom and John Fogerty constantly battled over which direction the band would take, even though John wrote nearly all of the band’s music. The rift was so wide after the group broke up that the brothers didn’t speak to each other for nearly twenty years. Similarly, The Black Crowes Chris and Rich Robinson have always seemed to be at odds with each other since the beginning (and have gone on record as stating that they don’t talk to each other outside of the band) but have recently made-up enough to make new music before going on hiatus last fall.

Kings of Leon seem to be going down a similar path of sibling self-destruction. The three brothers and cousin are known just as much for their rivalry as they are their music. A clip for their new documentary Talihina Sky shows drummer Nathan screaming at lead singer Caleb, calling him “a piece of shit”. A few weeks ago, when the band was forced to cancel a gig mid-set due to Caleb’s “voice issues”, younger brother and bass player Jared came on stage to a crowd of boos informing the audience not to hate them, but Caleb.

Whatever issues remain within a band always seem to be exaggerated whenever siblings are involved. Sibling rivalry can certainly be intense, but it seems when it comes to music, some siblings have no problem throwing each other under the bus in exchange for saving face.

 

Why The Early Beatles Albums Are Under-Rated

Chances are, if you ask anyone to name their favorite Beatles album they will probably reply with almost any album from 1965 on. Every single album after Help! was drastically different in its approach and sound. Rubber Soul and Revolver showed a “grown-up” version of the band ready to move beyond songs about love. Sergeant Pepper re-wrote the rules about what an album could be, and for better or worse made rock and form into a viable form of art. The White Album was a stark contrast to the Pepper’s excess as The Beatles embracing every genre under the sun. Abbey Road was a culmination of their entire career – it was an adult album, but the entire second half was a nod to their early pop days.

Since these albums changed popular music and the world, it seems as if their early albums tend to get lost in the shuffle. When was the last time you heard someone say their favorite Beatles album was Beatles For Sale, With The Beatles, or Please Please Me? It might be a bit simplistic, but unless you’re like to complete an artist’s catalog or grew up with the band, their early days seem to be reduced to images of appearing on Ed Sullivan or the singles collected on 1.

The general consensus seems to be that The Beatles really didn’t really make “albums” until Rubber Soul. Rock critics love to hammer this into the ground, as do fellow musicians. When Rolling Stone recruited various musicians, critics and other rock dignitaries to compile the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, Sergeant Pepper, The White Album, Rubber Soul and Revolver were all included in the Top 10. Abbey Road came in at 14 and it wasn’t until number 39 that Please Please Me was listed. The American re-hashing and reinterpretation of With The Beatles dubbed Meet the Beatles was included at 59, but after that the early Beatles albums disappear until Help! appears at 332, while A Hard Day’s Night comes in at 388. I could gripe for paragraphs about this list, but is The Neil Diamond Collection really better than Help! or A Hard Day’s Night?  

I suppose this shouldn’t really come as a shock since even The Beatles themselves have gone on record in preference of their later albums. Lennon in particular dismissed their early songs, wanting instead to create music that actually meant something and deal with more worldly problems than simple love songs.

It’s certainly easy to cut their career in two parts – the early “Beatle-mania” years, and the “studio” years. But to overlook their early records undercuts Lennon and McCartney’s early brilliance and enthusiasm for rock and roll.

Please Please Me, With the Beatles, Beatles For Sale, and A Hard Day’s Night all fly by with an irresistible and joyful energy that has rarely been equaled. They may not be as groundbreaking as Revolver or The White Album, but Paul and John’s ability to churn out song after song each one with an impeccable melody is no less than staggering. Even revered pop songwriters should be jealous of Lennon and McCartney’s consistency across these albums.

Now, to the actual albums.

Please Please Me starts with one of the best opening songs ever – the infectious “I Saw Her Standing There”.  There’s no way to not get caught up in McCartney’s yelps and whoops. Harrison also gives one of his best solos from the early period here as well. “Boys” is more rocking fun complete with Doo-Wop backing vocals. While some of the material has dated slightly – “Chains” in particular, the most impressive aspect of Please Please Me is how their original songs stand up to the R&B classic “Twist and Shout”.  Apparently, The Beatles recorded the entire album in a 24-hour period, which makes the performances even more impressive.

With The Beatles follow the same template as Please Please Me, but there are subtle differences.  The rockers are tighter and sharper especially “It Won’t Be Long” and “Little Child” which contains a pretty impressive Harmonica solo. With The Beatles might be the first Beatles album where they really proved that they could tackle various styles of music, while still maintaining their own identity. There’s R&B (the superb cover of “You Really Got a Hold On Me”), beautiful ballads (“Till There Was You”) straight up pop (“All My Loving”). Like Please Please Me, the originals on With The Beatles easily stand alongside the covers, which is no easy feat when you decide to play Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”.

A Hard Day’s Night (which is actually my favorite Beatles album) is the first album composed entirely of Lennon/McCartney originals.  The title track is one of the best songs the Beatles ever recorded, and a great showcase for the vocal interplay between the two lead singers. On “I Should Have Known Better” there’s a slight bittersweet quality, which would become of Lennon’s trademark qualities as the years went on. Paul displays a great leap in his songwriting with the immortal “Things We Said Today”.  Ultimately, A Hard Day’s Night retains the best elements of their early rocking years while also incorporating a more reflective side further explored on subsequent albums.

Beatles For Sale might be the weakest of their early albums, as the quality slips slightly. There’s still plenty of fun and joy throughout, but Lennon’s songwriter seems to take a slightly darker undertone on such songs, as “I’m a Loser”. Up until this album, The Beatles cover versions had been just as good (if not better in some cases) than the originals, but “Mr. Moonlight” is slightly embarrassing and goes nowhere. The best song on the album is “Eight Days A Week” which remains under-rated as far as I’m concerned, even if it is the most well known song on the album.

Help! is probably the album where The Beatles really tried to escape Beatle-mania for the first time. On the title track, for the first time Lennon shows his genius for combining a serious topic with a sweet melody, a gift that he would take to creative and artistic heights on “Imagine”.  “The Night Before” is one of Paul’s bounciest songs which I’ve always thought of as a sweeter and distant cousin to Bob Dylan’s “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met”). Speaking of Dylan, his influence is all over this record particularly the acoustic based “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.  I haven’t mentioned Ringo yet, but on Help! his personality really begins to shine through. Those who dismiss him a crap drummer should listen again to his inventive drumming on the verses of “Ticket to Ride”. Plus he gets his first chance on lead vocals on the hilarious “Act Naturally” which acts as a counter-weight to the heavier songs like “Yesterday”.

After Help! The Beatles would shed new skin and completely come into their own and continue a string of creativity that has never been rivaled in popular music. But if they had stopped recording after Help! there’s no doubt in my mind that they still would be considered the greatest band to ever exist.

Will The Red Hot Chili Peppers Return to Former Glory?

I recently heard the new Red Hot Chili Peppers single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” and while the song plays to the Chili Pepper’s strengths, overall it was a bit underwhelming. Flea is in full flight with a memorable bass line and new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer offers some tasteful yet intricate guitar lines. Yet, the end result seems more like a Californication-era B-side than a full fledged come-back single. It’s not bad per se, but as a Chili Peppers song it seems lifeless.

I’m not surprised that the song barely stays afloat. Former guitarist John Frusciante who formally announced his departure in 2009 (it’s been reported that he actually left a year earlier) was the creative force behind the band’s most celebrated and loved and albums. Frusciante is a musician’s guitar-hero. He can shred when he wants to – half of Stadium Arcadium is a showcase for him to let loose – but most of the time he is focused on sonic textures and bringing the song to life. His playing on “Scar Tissue” was intricate without being overbearing and bloated. You can hear traces of Jimi Hendrix in his playing just as much as Lou Reed and Johnny Marr.

On Blood Sugar Sex Magik he mixed funky riffs with metallic force on “Give it Away” and “Suck My Kiss”.  His “Little Wing” style playing on “Under the Bridge” perfectly matched Anthony Kiedis’ tale of overcoming drug addiction.  For Californication his solos were more stylized and controlled while the songs were a perfect hybrid of melodic pop and funk. 2002’s By The Way found Frusciante taking over the controls (to Flea’s chagrin) resulting in one of the best straight-up records of the 2000s. Stadium Arcadium was a mix of every style that Chili Peppers have ever played, but with the exception of a few songs like most double albums, it was too much.

Frusciante’s incarnation of the band reminds of The Who. Both were bands that received a fair amount of critical praise while also being extremely popular with the masses. Both bands had also had an extremely talented group of musicians with a rare chemistry to tackle many different styles.

It was this combination of melodies mixed with a funky energy that made The Chili Peppers one of the most enduring bands of the last few decades. As their peers disappeared from radio or broke up, The Chili Peppers have always managed to have radio hits even as the rock scene was changing around them. As rap-rock exploded in the late 90s, Californication was one of the biggest selling records of 1999-2000.  As “post-post grunge” (as I like to refer to it) came into popularity around 2002-2003 as bands like Nickelback, Creed, and Breaking Benjamin took over radio The Chili Peppers still found fans. Frat-boys could jam and lift weights to songs like “Can’t Stop” and “Around the World” as music-snobs embraced the bands’s ability to try something new like the Beach Boy-esque “Tear” from By the Way.

Despite my criticism of “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie”, I still hope their upcoming I’m With You album is a success both critically and commercially. Anthony Kiedies and Flea have endured so many different line-ups of the band they started, that it’s hard not to root for them as they enter the era of Chili Peppers 3.0. “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie” might be a luke-warm Chili Peppers song, but it’s probably still better than most songs on “active rock” radio.

Why I’m Skeptical About “Watch the Throne”

Popular music doesn’t lend itself well to the concept of collaboration albums in the same way that say, jazz does. Ella and Basie, Duke Ellington & John Coltrane are definitive records from the Jazz era. With the exception of The Basement Tapes by Bob Dylan & The Band, I can’t think of a popular music full album collaboration that is truly essential.

Collaborations are best when they are usually kept to a single song. David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” is a high point for both artists, and to this day remains a classic rock staple. It’s mostly known for its now famous bass line but the song is so focused in its attack that neither artist takes over the spotlight. Mercury is at his eccentric best and is counter-balanced by Bowie’s restraint.  Aerosmith and Run DMC’s mash-up of “Walk This Way” was groundbreaking when it came out for bringing hip-hop and rock together.

But collaborations can be hard to pull off for an entire album. The same forces that can create a single great collaboration make for a bloated and messy affair when sprawled across 45 minutes. Too often, one artist’s vision takes over the album, and the concept of a “true collaboration” is lost. U2’s side-project with Brian Eno dubbed Passengers, sounds more like a Brian Eno record than a U2 one, with its ambient sounds and loose song structures.  Neil Young’s 1995 effort, Mirrorball with Pearl Jam is a Crazy Horse record, only with Pearl Jam as the backing band.

The best collaborative albums are ones that have a specific theme or thread running throughout. Elvis Costello’s The River in Reverse with Allen Toussaint is a direct response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The damage of the Hurricane is felt throughout the album as well as the musical heritage of New Orleans. When Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up to provide music for some Woody Guthrie poems, they honored Guthrie’s legacy while also updating it.  The Roots joint album with John Legend gave a whole new spin on classic Soul and R&B protest songs.

So, despite my love for both Kanye West and Jay-Z, I’m a bit skeptical about their collaborative effort, Watch the Throne. Usually the two rappers bring out the best in each other. West brought creative new ground with his now patented soul samples to Jay-Z’s Blueprint back in 2001. Jay-Z, in return offered up some of his best verses in years, on West’s latest effort My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Prior to this, any song that the two artists did together was credited (at least commercially) to one or the other. As such, the song is tailored accordingly. Kanye’s songs are usually emotive with a large collage of sounds, which sometimes push the standard structure of a hip-hop song, while Jay-Z’s songs tend to be more direct with his lyrics at the forefront.

Because Kanye and Jay-Z are among the most ambitious and creative men in hip-hop (and perhaps even music in general), neither might be willing to let their own ideas go to waste. Upon first listen, “Otis” sounded brilliant with its sample of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”, but on subsequent listens it seemed to lose its power. It seems more like a collage of two half-baked ideas. If it’s Kanye decided he had a great idea for a beat, but before he could actually create a real song out of it, Jay-Z decided they should just throw some rhymes.

While I’m writing this, I just read that Watch the Throne broke the ITunes record for most downloads. I’m certainly not surprised since ITunes is the only carrier for Watch the Throne at the moment. While Watch the Throne might be an exciting moment right now, it could end up the way of Jay-Z’s effort with R. Kelly Best of Both Worlds – a small blip on an otherwise stellar career.

 

 

Late 90s Nostalgia….?


Nostalgia seems to be a buzz word these days. With the upcoming 20th Anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, early 90s nostalgia is about to reach its apex. Even more indie-oriented bands such as the Pixies and Pavement have taken to the road in recent years. If the Rolling Stones decide to tour again, aging baby boomers will once again be taken down Nostalgia Row.

Much of the music I listen to was recorded years (and sometimes decades) before I was even born. To me, “Ruby Tuesday” and “Like a Rolling Stone” have always existed. I can’t look back and fondly remember “Behind Blue Eyes” playing in the background as I made out with my first girlfriend.

I was too young for Nirvana and Pearl Jam, though I remember them playing in the background as a kid. As a teenager, the artist that should have defined my generation took a completely different route. Perhaps to counter the anger of grunge, artists such as No Doubt, Reel Big Fish, and Blink 182 took a more juvenile and laid-back vibe. Even rap, in the wake of Tupac and Biggie’s deaths became flashy. There was little substance to hang onto – at least in the mainstream music world.

By the late 90s, even the bands that had once stood for something, got caught in a downward spiral. R.E.M. lost their drummer and decided to make elevator music. U2 took excess to a whole new level with the Popmart Tour. Even the “newer” bands like Weezer and Green Day who came to prominence in the mid 90s, seemed bloated and bored by the end of the decade. Who knew that those two bands would see a resurgence in the early part of the 2000s?

So it’s hard to be nostalgic about the late 90s, because even then I knew a lot of the music was a let down. Even the bands (and artists) that “defined” that time seem stuck in that era. Beck’s Odelay as great as it is, is a product of the late 90s and it doesn’t make much sense now. Radiohead’s OK Computer  in retrospect seems more like a stop-gap between their guitar heavy early days and the ambience of Kid A.

So now as Blink 182, Limp Bizkit, and No Doubt gear up for new tours and albums, I can’t help but feel a little cheated. No, not because I want to see them. But every other generation has had seminal bands that folded and re-unite. These days, Generation X has Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots. The Boomer Generation has The Stones.  Bands that actually meant something to the youth at the moment.

I’m not necessarily that these bands re-uniting for a quick cash tour are always good. I’m not necessarily sure I would go.  Instead I’m just left with “feel good bands” from the late 90s, whose party-vibes seem even more out of place as the stock markets continue to crash.