Monthly Archives: January 2013

New Music: “All For a Reason” – Nick Stefanacci

 

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Tackling Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” takes a lot of balls.  Competing against Quincy Jones is no easy task. New Jersey saxophonist Nick Stefanacci is smart enough not to let the song’s legend get in the way and produce a tepid “faithful” version.  Instead, Stefanacci opts for a funky jazz version, and only keeps the song’s famous chorus.  It’s still the same song, but a completely different take.

I have to admit, before I listened to the album I was expecting a sound similar to much of Kenny G’s catalogue and an album full of instrumentals. Luckily, that’s not the case.  The vocals on the album are provided by music veteran Kenny Simmons (of Commodores Fame) who gives “All For a Reason” and “Fly Away” some soul and funk.  There’s also some nice slap bass as well.  As such, much of All For a Reason contains many rhythms found in late 70’s disco and funk.  But like the version of “Smooth Criminal” it’s not tied to those genres, but instead uses them a springboard.  Stefanacci’s trade-mark saxophone solos are certainly the star of the show here, but he never lets it get in the way of the rest of the song.  The way Stefanacci plays, perhaps in years to come he could be like Simmons – a veteran lending a hand to a new name.

For more on Nick, visit his web-site.

 

New Music: “ReActivated” – Watch the Duck

 

The video for Watch the Duck’s “ReActivated” is pretty trippy and includes some surrealistic mimes dancing around a junkyard.  “ReActivated” is part of Watch the Duck’s new mix-tape “Black Music on Molly” which was released in December.

For more information on Watch the Duck click here.

Song of the Week: “No Diggity” – Blackstreet

 

In the 2012 movie, Pitch Perfect Anna Kendrick’s character Beca raps an impromptu a-cappella version of “No Diggity” in the middle of a “riff off” competition.  Up until that point in the movie, Kendrick’s character was seen as something of a liability to her singing group. Kendrick does a flawless and spirited version of the song, and both her team-mates and opposing teams take notice.

While Kendrick certainly does a great version of the song, there’s something about “No Diggity” that makes people respond to it.  I’ve seen it happen at numerous bars.  As soon as the song comes on the stereo (or jukebox) everyone looks at each other and nod in approval.  Several people might shout-out, “Yeaaah!” Others will start rapping along with Dr. Dre. Almost everyone will start singing the song’s famous “I like the way you work it” hook.  For kids who grew up in the 1990’s, “No Diggity” is a calling card. It’s the type of song that everyone knows and loves in the same vein as Outkast’ “Hey Ya!” which would come out about a decade later.  I know several people who don’t particularly like hip-hop or contemporary R&B but absolutely love this song and know every single word.

Like many cross-over hits, “No Diggity” isn’t tied to one specific genre. It’s a mix of hip-hop, soul, and 90’s style R&B. It’s got several infectious hooks (the “hey yo, hey yo” coda, the memorable chorus, and the aforementioned “I like the way you work it” lyric.)  It’s sexy, dirty and yet it sounds so smooth in its approach.

I first heard the song a high-school dance (either my freshmen year or sophomore year).  At the time, I didn’t really appreciate R&B or hip-hop.  Like most high-schoold dances, there was a general awkwardness in the air. There were the kids who loved to dance to anything that was played, others who just sat on the gym bleachers bored out of their mind, and the remaining kids who wondered why the hell they were there in the first place.  (I was part of that last group.)  But when the DJ played “No Diggity”, almost everyone got up and danced.  For those few moments, everyone seemed to come together and agree on something.

Almost 20 years after its release, “No Diggity” still has that power to connect.  A few weeks ago, I was at Arlene’s Grocery in New York City. Like many bars in the Lower East Side, Arlene’s is full of hipsters. And yet. as soon as “No Diggity” blasted from the stereo, even the hipsters got up and sang like it was the coolest song in the world.  There was no scuffing or rolling of eyes, just people enjoying a pretty bad-ass song.

 

Album of the Week: “Brothers” – The Black Keys

 

I don’t really purchase CDs on a whim anymore. There’s way too many great albums I’m missing in my collection, so I almost always feel the need to buy one of those before I take a chance on something completely unknown.  For whatever reason, I felt compelled to purchase the Black Keys’ Brothers in the summer of 2010.

This was before “Tighten Up” became a hit, and the album was probably only a week old at that point. I had heard of the Black Keys for a while, through various online forums but never really gave them much thought.  There’s the old cliche about not judging a book/album by its cover. But I took one look at the simple cover and could tell that the album was going to be bad-ass: “This an album by the Black Keys.  The name of this album is Brothers.”  

Like The Clash’s London Calling, the cover for Brothers is a homage.  In The Black Keys’ case, it references Howlin’ Wolf’s 1969 album, The Howlin’ Wolf which read in black lettering over a white background: “This is Howlin’ Wolf’s new album. He doesn’t like it. He didn’t like the electric guitar first either.”  Howlin’ Wolf has long been one of my favorite Blues artists. I knew that the Black Keys played retro-blues, but this simple reference solidified my thought that they would surely be for real.

And sure enough, I was right.  Brothers captures the feeling of the Delta and 1950’s Chicago.  It’s a swampy mess with the menace of the streets. You can smell the rail whiskey from Auebach’s twisted riffs.  They sound like a band who have played in bars where bottles could easily be thrown at them, or would sell their souls to the Devil at the cross-roads.

A lot of comparisons have been made over the years between the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Most stem from the fact that both are a two-piece band with a color in their name, and play the Blues like Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Clapton never existed.  “The Black Keys are what the White Stripes want to sound like!” A friend of mine said recently.    To me, it’s an easy and lazy comparison. I happen to like both bands, but one thing that the Black Key have that the White Stripes never did, is a sense of groove.

And groove is all over Brothers whether it’s the slow-burn of “Next Girl” or the neo-soul of “Everlasting Light” and “The Only One”.  When was the last time you heard a popular single that has an ending in half-time?  A lot of songs speed up as they draw to a close, but “Tighten Up” ends in a slow-crawl fuzz.  It’s like Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney thought to themselves: “You think you know what we’re going to do here, but we’re not doing that.”

That attitude is also central to Brothers’ success. Yes, the Black Keys are a blues-rock band, but they’re not bound to it. They use it as a tool, and bring a much needed breathe of fresh air to the genre.  There might be other retro-Blues acts that are technically better than the Black Keys, but those acts also seem intent on playing the blues like it never evolved past 1968.  (I’m looking at you Johnny Lang, John Mayer and Mike McCready.)  The Keys are smart enough to incorporate hip-hop and soul beats into their version of the Blues. So while the album has plenty of references to the old guys, it also sounds extremely modern.

The Keys, of course would follow-up Brothers with the even more taught and focused El Camino.  Brothers might not be a land-mark album, but it’s about as close you’re going to get a near-perfect rock record in the 21st century.

New Music: “Doll Drums” – The Goodnight Darlings

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“Whatever happened to July?” The Goodnight Darlings ask on their new EP, Doll Drums. As the cold months of winter creep upon us, the Goodnight Darlings provide an answer to their own question throughout this party-tailored set.  Unlike a lot of other indie-pop acts who seem content in creating melancoly atmospherics, The Goodnight Darlings revel in party jams. Lead single “Red Hot” is infectious and spunky complete with a shout-out chorus.  When singer Kat Auster declares, “Our team is red hot!” it’s almost impossible not to get caught up with her.  With one simple shout, Auster makes you want to be part of her team, whatever it may be.

The Darling’s sound as “Karen O and Robert Smith falling in love with a Timbaland beat.”     Certainly, Auster commands the EP in the tradition of great front-women.  The beats and post-punk buzzy guitars are a perfect vehicle for her imagination  and vocals to run wild.  Sometimes she sounds like a Banshee flying out of hell, other times she coos softly as if singing a lullaby as evident on “Doll Drums”.  Credit must also go to Auster’s band-mate Wilson Jaramillo who provides just enough bombast with synths and beats, but never overshadows Auster.

Their team is red hot indeed.

Check out “Red Hot” here.

 

Song of the Week: “The Whole of the Moon” – The Waterboys

 

No matter how many times I’ve heard “The Whole of the Moon”, it always reminds me of my childhood. It was one of the many songs that my sister put on a mix-tape for me as a kid. Like many of the other songs on that tape – “The Queen is Dead”, “London Calling”, “Once in a Lifetime” – the song’s lyrics went over my head. But it hardly mattered. I loved the track’s bouncy rhythm (the tape was even called “Songs to Bounce on the Bed To”) and over-the-top trumpet break.

It’s interesting how hearing a piece of music can bring flashes of memories forgotten much like distinctive smells.  “The Whole of the Moon” brings me back to Friday evenings when my mom would be making pizza in the kitchen – the smell of olive oil and onions permeating the air. Other times, I’m reminded of going to the library after schools to do research for my 6th grade term paper on the Northern Lights.

As for the song itself, many of its lyrics seem perfect for a 6 year-old to latch onto.  The chorus – “you saw the whole of the moon” – could be the lyric from a Sesame Street song. Elsewhere there are mentions of “fairy-boats”, “comets”, “wide-ocean full of tears”.  Easy stuff for a kid to grasp, right?

It wasn’t until much later (probably in high school) that I realized how fucked up Mike Scott’s narrator is in the song.  The “you” in question in the song is most likely a friend of Scott’s. At one point, they were probably close but each has led a different life. Each time Scott offers something he has done or experienced he contrasts it with what the other person has or hasn’t done.

Sometimes there is rage-  “I had flashes/but you saw the plan” other times there is disgust –   “I saw the rain dirty valleys/You saw Brigadoon.”  Other times there is empathy for his friend: “you know how it feels to reach too height/too far, too soon.”  But whatever sympathy Scott does have, the crux of the song remains Scott’s jealously at the heights the other has reached.  “You came like a comet, blazing your trail,” Scott declares at near the end of the song.  It seems to suggest that Scott feels he can only pick up the pieces and remain forever in the shadow.  If Scott had written the song 20 years earlier, it could seem like a response to Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street.”

Various rumors have floated as to who (or what) the song is about, with one even claiming that it was about Prince. The Waterboys used to cover “Purple Rain” in concert, so that is probably unlikely. But then again, Prince did fly in like a comet during his 80’s height, so who knows.

New Music: “Renegade” – Elephant 12

 

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Elephant 12’s “Renegade” recalls the rap-rock mix of mid-1990’s Rage Against the Machine – although it contains a more “classic” guitar solo instead of Tom Morello’s trade-mark DJ-style guitar scratches.  Lead singer Jerome Cooke spits his out his lyrics with a fast and furious delivery. “I’m a renegade, don’t tell me Johnny B. Good,” He shouts as the band throws itself into the chorus.  “I’m just misunderstood,” Cooke declares.  However, it’s hard to believe him, since he sings it with such conviction.

Check out “Renegade” here.

New Music: “On and Running” – Stereo Telescope

 

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On and Running sounds plays like the soundtrack to a lovely dream.  Nikki Dessingue’s vocals hang in the air. Her voice is soft, soothing and sometimes haunting perfectly accenting Stereo Telescope’s atmospheric synth-pop.  Like many of their synth-pop contemporaries, Stereo Telescope were clearly influenced by 80’s new-wave bands.  These are kids who grew up without being hinged to the idea that popular music meant “real” instruments.

Stereo Telescope revel in that world. There are sounds like they came out of the original 8-bit Nintendo.  Synthesizers carry the weight of most of the songs – they’re the parts that get stuck in your head. Everything else – including the vocals and simple beats – seem to be built around those parts. Most of the songs would be interesting without the vocals.  The band seems to think that as well –  the melancholy “Summer” is an instrumental that evokes a late summer’s night when the air begins to feel like autumn is just around the corner. First single “Fires” is the set’s most engaging song.  It’s dreamy atmosphere, yet cold and distant vocals make for an intriguing listen.

At times the band recalls Mates of State (also another male/female synth-pop duo), but Stereo Telescope seem intent on forging their own version of indie-pop.

Check out the video for “Fires” below.

 

Album of the Week: “Live at Leeds” – The Who

 

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(This post refers to the re-mastered 1995 edition.) 

It  was the thump of John Entwistle’s bass guitar that caught my attention.  The band hadn’t even begun playing yet, and the crowd was roaring in approval.  BOMP, BOMP, BOOOOMP went Entwistle’s fat bass.  His plucks couldn’t have prepared me for what came next, but knew that I was about to hear something unlike anything I’d ever heard before.

And just as I was able to catch my breathe from the excitement, off The Who went like a train about to fly off the rails. Keith Moon’s drums rolls and cymbals washes crashed wildly in my shitty headphones. There was no straight beat, and Moon played around it in every single possible way he could. Pete Townshend’s power chords sliced through the air with a vengeance. Entwistle’s somehow managed to hold the chaos together with his melodic yet aggressive bass-lines.

It was the night of my 15th birthday. My sister had given me the re-issed Live at Leeds as a birthday present.  “Behind Blue Eyes”, “Baba O’Riley” and “Who Are You” were the only songs by The Who I knew.  Before I put the CD in my disc-man in the back seat of my parents car on the ride home, I looked at the track-listing.  I was shocked to discover that none one of those songs was on the album.

I was only four minutes in and my musical world was suddenly shaken to the core.  It seems appropriate that the first song would be titled “Heaven and Hell”.  Most of the bands I had listened to previously like the Waterboys, R.E.M., U2 and the Smiths seemed like angels compared to this. Just four minutes in, without ever reading much about them (other than the liner notes) I could tell The Who were trouble-makers and loved every single second of it.

On the hour-long ride home, I was treated to aggressive takes on Who classics: “I Can’t Explain”, “Substitute”, “I’m a Boy”, “Happy Jack” and the 15 minute ear-splitting jam on “My Generation”.  Every single second I heard in my head-phones was sonic anarchy.  By the time I got home, I knew that The Who were going to be my band.

My birthday is in early December, so its arrival almost always signals the beginning of the Christmas season. About a week later, my parents set up the Christmas tree in the living room. Putting up the tree is never an easy task in my family – something disastrous is almost always bound to happen. My dad probably spent about 2 hours fiddling with the tree-stand to make sure it would not fall over. We had put lights on but no decorations – that was for the next day.

Around 6 o’clock, my parents told me that they were going out for the night to a Christmas party. As soon as they left, I ran over to the stereo in the living room and cranked it up.  Within seconds, it sounded like The Who were performing in the house. Like many teenagers I’m sure, time alone with a stereo means air-guitar. As the opening riff of “Young Man Blues” erupted behind me, I tested out a few windmills.  My right-arm never felt so alive.  I have no doubt that if Pete Townshend saw me, he would have corrected me on the proper way to do it, but nonetheless I felt like a rock-star.

Half-way through the song, I decided to be bold. There were several pictures in the liner of Pete Townshend in mid-flight. Without even thinking, I leapt into the air at the précise  moment (a Townshend-style jump must always be executed at the right moment).  As soon as I hit the ground, I heard a loud crash.

My eyes widened in fear as soon as I realized what had happened. My jump had caused the Christmas tree to fall. Shit, this is not good. I knew my parents were going to be pissed when they came back and found the tree on the floor. I tried to get it back up, but being a scrawny 16-year old, I wasn’t strong enough.  In a panic, I called all of my older siblings. Though I knew I would leave out the exact cause of the accident.

“Well what do you want me to do about it?” My eldest brother said over the phone.  “I’m 8 hours away.”

Shaken up by what had just occurred and without any help out of the situation, I thought back to “Heaven Hell” and John Entwistle’s dour warning: “and down in the ground there’s a place where you go if you’ve been a bad boy.” When my parents got home, I explained to them that I was in the room and that the tree had just fallen on its own. To my surprise, they not only believed me but assured me that everything was okay. I helped my dad put the tree back up, and that was that. And then Pete Townshend’s voice at the end of “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” popped into my head: “you are forgiven”.  So maybe I wasn’t forgiven (because I had lied), but I figured no one was none the wiser.

In the years since, my love of Live at Leeds has not diminished. It’s not only the perfect document of The Who live in their prime, but rock and roll unhinged. Other live albums try to capture the experience of a live show (and the the best do a spectacular job of that), but Live at Leeds is transcendent.  Each time I listen to it, I’m in awe of how a band could sound that fucking good live.

The aggression and sheer loudness is a huge part of its appeal, but recently I’ve been attracted to its subtleties.  On “My Generation” the band goes into several tightly controlled (yet chaotic) jams by a single cue from Pete Townshend’s chords. Roger Daltrey may not have the prettiest voice, but it takes a powerful lung to be heard over the rest of the band.  On Live at Leeds, The Who churned out several 60’s power-pop gems, but then could stretch out on “Magic Bus” and “My Generation”.  Critics of Keith Moon love to suggest that he couldn’t keep time, but listen closely to “Tattoo” from Live at Leeds and you’ll realize that his drum fills follow Roger Daltrey vocals, perfectly accenting the lead singer’s tough-guy delivery.

There are many albums I adore and love, but Live at Leeds is one of the few that changed my life.

 

Song of the Week: “Rebel Rebel” – David Bowie

I was introduced to David Bowie through my older brother. He picked me up from my karate class one night and popped in ChangesBowie in car tape player.  I never liked karate, and I was always depressed when I came out. As a twelve year old kid being punched at is never a good thing, even if you’re being taught to block it.

As the music came through the speakers, I was immediately transfixed by “Rebel Rebel”.  Its signature riff cut through the speakers like a shooting star flying down from space. And then there’s the lyrics about the mom not sure “if she’s a boy or a girl.” Who comes up with this stuff? Much has been said about Bowie being from outer-space, but it’s completely true.  The first time you hear him, your mind is blown.  He’s like nobody else. There are weird artists, and then there’s David Bowie.

“Rebel Rebel” is probably of Bowie’s most accessible tracks.  It’s got a classic riff and a straight-forward back beat. Still, its delivery is pure Bowie.  The way he sings, “Hot tramp, I love you so” is so sleazy yet, so bold.  Only Bowie would tell someone to put on a dress, and then follow it up with the declaration that “your face is a mess!”

As I listened to “Rebel Rebel” that night, the depression that had consumed me slowly went away. I had always felt a little out of place (especially in my karate class) but somehow Bowie made me feel it was ok to feel out of the ordinary.

And he still does.