RIP Prince

April 21, 2016

Man, 2016 has been a rough year for musical legends from rock (Bowie), hip hop (Phife Dawg), country (Merle Haggard) and now pop and funk with Prince’s death today. As I’m writing this, I’m watching Purple Rain on MTV, who decided to scrap its regular (and terrible) programming and run videos and movies from one of MTV’s early stars.  The videos and songs from albums like Purple Rain, Around the World in a Day, Parade, and Sign O’ The Times were part of the soundtrack of my life as a youngster where radio and MTV still were the main ways to consume music for a kid.

I still listen to those classic albums and I’ve picked up a few more of his albums over the years, but I couldn’t keep up with his prolific output.  In 38 years, he put out 39 albums!  Part of that was a rush of albums in the mid-90s to get out of his contractual obligations to Warner Brothers. He also penned songs that became famous for other artists, like I Feel For You by Chaka Khan and Nothing Compares to U by Sinead O’Connor.  Like David Bowie, he also was involved in film, acting in and directing several movies, most famously the aforementioned Purple Rain.

A few other numbers.  1 Academy Award.  7 Grammys (same as Madonna).  4 MTV Music Awards (when that meant something).  5 number 1 singles.  1 of only a handful of Super Bowl halftime performances that people remember. Gaudy numbers for sure that would make most musicians not named MJ jealous.

The man matched his stamina in recording songs with mammoth sets in live shows.  He was at the top of my list of “must-sees” live and I thought I’d have several more times as he’d been touring extensively over the past few years.  From the remembrances of people today who saw him live, the words “special”, “memorable” and “amazing” were common.    He could pull off doing a cover of Radiohead’s Creep like it was nothing (thanks for sharing that Bryan!):

The last thing I’d like to mention is that because he’s so associated with pop music and R&B that it sometimes gets lost that the man was a wizard with the guitar.  Another video that’s been going around today is the 2004 Rock n Roll Hall Fame performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, featuring some other dudes and Prince.

I’d like to think that guitar disappeared to wherever Prince ended up today, waiting for him to pick it up and keep doing his thing.

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You Call That A Shuffle?

April 18, 2016

220px-TearsRollDown 220px-St_Elsewhere_Cover_Art-2 220px-TheEssentialClash-2

 

Straight to the shuffle:

Tears for Fears, Sowing The Seeds of Love, from Tears Roll Down (Greatest Hits 82-92). Four stars.  This is the full version of the song, which more than the radio edit, shows how this is a full-on tribute to Sgt. Pepper’s era-Beatles.  The middle section of the song has orchestral swells and layered horns that is totally reminiscent of parts of several Sgt. Pepper songs.  A so-obvious tribute (Lennon would have been proud of the number of times the word “love” is uttered) could have backfired, but it works and stands on its own as a catchy pop song.

Gnarls Barkley, The Boogie Monster, from St. Elsewhere.  Three stars.  Yes, I have the entire album that has the Crazy song on it.  It’s actually a decent album, but there’s some misses and this is one of them.  There’s a decent organ line running through the song, but it’s just kinda of a flat song that doesn’t go anywhere and has ho-hum lyrics.  Given the title and lyrics, they were obviously going for a “scary” vibe, but it’s about as scary as The Wicker Man reboot (not scary).  And it throws in a dumb fellatio joke at the last second that has no discernible connection to the rest of the song.

The Clash, Police on My Back, from The Essential Clash (Disc 2). Four stars.  This song was originally written by Guyanese artist Eddy Grant and appeared on the sprawling and ambitious Clash album Sandinista!  The opening guitar riff sounds like a whirring police siren and propels the song forward throughout.  For the international influence of a lot of songs on this album and the origins of this song in particular, the Clash’s version come across as pretty straight-forward rock.  Bonus points for the train whistle sound effect to go with the lyrics about “running down the railway tracks.”

Quick Hit or Miss – Mayer Hawthorne, Man About Town

April 12, 2016

81Ht6uzTd6L._SY355_I didn’t even know Mayer had a new album coming out until my wife sent a text to me and our friends who used to live in the “valley” here in LA with a new song she’d heard called aptly, The Valley.  This song is one of the highlights of the new record, so makes sense it would get some radio airplay.

After a brief opening track that oddly reminded me of the beginning of Bohemian Rhapsody, this album settles into R&B with an pinch of 80s pop.  A few moments reminded me of Hall and Oates, particularly Book of Broken Hearts.  There’s a few slow jams (Breakfast in Bed and Get You Back) thrown in too.

The Valley has a catchy “oh oh oh” chorus and hand claps that provide a sunny backdrop to a song about a woman trying to escape the “valley” to make it in LA.  My favorite song on the album is the song that comes right before it, Fancy Clothes.  It’s a reggae-tinged song with more horns and guitar than most of the rest of the album.  I think the reason I liked it the most was it stood out as different than the rest of the tracks.

I think that’s my main problem with the album.  It’s good and consistent music with all the songs clocking in between 3:30 and 4 minutes long.  But that consistency can make it a little monotonous on repeated listens.  I’d give it a hit for throwing on in the backyard this summer or cherry-picking a few songs for a summer playlist, but I don’t think this one will keep me coming back.

Here’s Fancy Clothes, one of those songs I’d throw in a playlist:

RIP Phife Dawg

March 27, 2016

It’s been a busy week, but wanted to put down a few words in memory of Malik Taylor, better known to fans of A Tribe Called Quest as Phife Dawg.  Or the Five Foot Assassin. Or spitter of rhymes like “i never half step, cuz I’m not a half stepper/drink a lotta soda so they call me Dr. Pepper” and “Hey yo Bo know this and Bo knows that / But Bo don’t know Jack / cause Bo can’t rap.”

ATCQ, probably more than any other hip hop group, drew me full bore into hip hop as a teenager.  As a “rock n roll” kid, my exposure to hip hop was quite limited and I was drawn to the more rock beats of Beastie Boys and some Run DMC.  The debut from De La Soul was too foreign for me at the time.  I missed ATCQ’s debut in 1990, but for reasons I can’t remember now I bought their second album The Low End Theory.  CDs were new to me as my family had only recently gotten a CD player, and I had only a handful.  So, by default the discs I had got a lot of airplay.

But this disc got the most airplay (even more than Nirvana’s Nevermind).  The beats, influenced by jazz, were amazing.  But, more than anything, it was the rhymes.  There was a youthful exuberance, wit, and humor (even when tackling serious subjects) that just speaks to a young person.  And Phife Dawg’s verses were all of those things.  For a nice list of some of his verses, look at this piece.  And a lot of those I can just hear him rapping them as soon as I saw them on the written page.

The wave of pieces and tributes that have come out in the past week is testament to Phife’s place in the canon of hip hop greats.  And for me personally, the fact that he, as an integral part of ATCQ, made me, and no doubt many others, love hip hop is a great legacy for any artist.  RIP.

Quick Hit or Miss – Thao & The Get Down Stay Down, A Man Alive

March 11, 2016

homepage_large.78ae8af7I listened to this album the other day and then immediately listened to it again.  The reason I did that was because I had to figure out whether this album seemed as good as I thought it was.  I’ve listened to it several more times and that feeling I had the first spin is still there.  This is a really good album.

Thao Nguyen takes on the personal subject of her father abandoning her family when she was young and its affect on her through her life. While this subject matter would lend itself to a dour album, I found this album to be vibrant and uplifting. There are certainly some dark spots, and the dichotomy between that dark and light is part of the album’s appeal.

A big part of that vibrancy is the involvement of Merrill Garbus, who produces here.  You might know her better as the artist Tuneyards.  Her mark on the album is distinct.  The first time through one of the thoughts I had was wow, Thao must really have dug the last Tuneyards album.  The rhythm section in the band is fantastic on this album, in a lot of songs guitar is secondary to the bass and drums.  One other comparison I’d make on the overall album is Beck’s Mellow Gold, with the kitchen sink/collage approach to instrumentation. Keyboards, xylophones, hand claps, tom toms, and various basses are sprinkled throughout the album.

The sequencing of the album is really good as well.  There’s a nice ebb and flow between those upbeat songs and the more downtempo ones.  Stand out tracks for me are Slash/Burn, Fool Forever, Give Me Peace, and closer Endless Love.  Lyrically, that last song really hits home on the duality I mentioned above as Thao starts by proclaiming that she has “an endless love no one can starve” but a little further into the song reveals that she “don’t want it, carve it out of me.”

This is a definite hit for me, I think there’s something here for a wide swath of music fans.  Here’s a link to the video for the leadoff song on the album, Astonished Man.

 

 

Quick Hit or Miss – David Bowie, Blackstar

February 29, 2016

Blackstar_(Front_Cover)I mentioned in my short post after his death that I would make sure to listen to his last album and post about my thoughts.  I’ve gone through the entire album a handful of times and what I’m most struck by is how “unrock” it is.  There’s a good bit of jazz elements, especially prominent placement of saxophone on the first three songs.  I learned researching this album that sax was the first instrument Bowie learned to play; I have to think this was a deliberate choice by Bowie to lean so heavily on that instrument in his final album.  The title track, which leads off the album, is a three part suite that has a good dose of that sax and singing that verges on Gregorian chanting at times.  The first and third parts of the song have a glitchy, post-OK Computer Radiohead vibe.

The sax stays in the fore in both the second and third songs.  Lazarus, the third track, is the best song on the album.  It’s got a great atmosphere with that sax and guitar stabs punctuating his pointed lyrics that definitely seem to be rooted in the knowledge of his impending death.  The fourth track, Sue, has a little drum n bass breakdown at the beginning and morphs into an uptempo and instrumental freak out at the end.  The energy slows down a bit on the next track, which to me has a dub sound.  Dollar Days is the track with the most prominent guitar and because of that it has a heavier sound than a lot of the other tracks.

It’s a testament to his innovative spirit that Bowie continued to stretch and look for new inspirations even at this point in his career, much less his life.  He could have easily put out a guitar-driven album that rehashed some of his “classic” works.  I would definitely put this in the Hit category; Lazarus is a bona fide entry into his best songs canon and the album as a whole has new things to discover on repeat listens.

Here’s the video for Lazarus:

You Call That A Shuffle?

February 8, 2016

Quick thought on last weekend’s Super Bowl halftime show before getting to the Shuffle.  They should have just skipped Coldplay and gone straight to Beyonce and Bruno Mars.  Chris Martin seemed like he was genuinely trying but Coldplay’s music doesn’t have the oomph or charisma needed for this particular event.  My favorite part of the whole thing was the montage of acts that have played previous Super Bowls.  My second favorite was when Bruno Mars was singing  “Got Chucks on” in Uptown Funk just as he and his dancers did a choreographed spin that highlighted their Nike sneakers.  Oops, missed opportunity for Converse.

New Order, World in Motion from (The Best Of) New Order.  Three Stars. Oh boy this is not New Order’s finest hour. This song was written for England’s 1990 World Cup campaign. They ended up in fourth place so I guess the song worked?  This song veers into cheesy territory immediately and then dives headfirst like an Argentenian striker into full-on bad taste with a rap by English national teamer John Barnes. Fun fact: Barnes beat out several other teammates to get the honor of “rapping” his verse. I would love to hear those audition tapes. Second fun fact: this is the only New Order song to hit number 1 on the UK singles chart. Blue Monday is in my top 10 favorite songs of all time and this treacly mess is their only number 1. We live in an unfair world. I should probably reclassify this as a two star song; it really doesn’t have much redeeming qualities.

Pixies, U-Mass from Death To The Pixies (Disc 1).  Five Stars. I’d argue this song is in some ways just as dumb as the New Order song above.  About half the song is Black Francis shouting “it’s educational” and the lyrical content is more literal than some of his other songs (my take is he’s smirking at the twin pillars of college life, idealism and hedonism).  But unlike the by the numbers approach of the song above, this track actually builds to something other than a terribly corny rap. It has a great guitar riff, some sneaky fun bass work (check around the 1 minute mark), the usual shrieks and surly emotion of Black Francis singing, and a frenetic guitar breakdown that’s over before you know it to end the song.

Leroy Hutson, All Because of You from All Because of You 7″.  Four Stars.  I also have the full 7 minute version from his Hutson album, so not entirely sure how I came across this version.  Hutson was lead singer of the great Impressions (post Curtis Mayfield).  This song is a good representation of 70s soul/R&B.  An appropriately funky drum break introduces the song, then a piano jumps on top, and you’re soon in the middle of a jam.  Hutson’s voice is made for this type of song and the strings in the middle work well as an extension of his vocals.  Put this in your Valentine’s mix this Sunday.  You’ll thank me later.

You Call That A Shuffle?

January 18, 2016

GorillazAlbum 220px-Bjork_Greatest_Hits-2 220px-Imnewhere-2I’m back to give this another go!  See this post for the ground rules.  Here’s what came up this week:

  1. Gorillaz, Slow Country from Gorillaz.  Three stars.  What struck me in hearing this song now, after not really listening to the Gorillaz debut for quite awhile, was how much this particular song’s melancholy, piano, and horns seems an obvious seed for songs that would be all over Damon Albarn’s own solo album 13 years later.  I think this song just doesn’t fit into the flow of the Gorillaz album and is part of a final third of the album that doesn’t quite live up to the first 10 songs.
  2. Bjork, Isobel, from Greatest Hits. Three stars. Originally appearing on her third album, Post, this song has an interesting, almost galloping beat and Bjork’s voice is always a thing of beauty.  What I sometimes don’t like with her music is the orchestral flourishes of some of her songs; it just distracts from the other elements of her music that I personally like better.  Probably why I only gave this three stars. Interestingly, this song is part of a trio of songs about the character Isobel and one of those other songs is Human Behavior, which is one of my favorite Bjork songs.
  3. Gil Scott Heron, Running, from I’m New Here.  Three stars.  From the blues/jazz/soul singer’s last album, this song is definitely a spoken word piece accompanied by a spare bass beat hearkening 90s trip hop.  Heron’s voice is gruff, weighted down by his years and his lyrics deftly playing with various meanings of “running”.  A quick song at just over 2 minutes, this just doesn’t have the staying power of some of his other songs on this album.

Quick Hit or Miss – Hinds, Leave Me Alone

January 13, 2016

homepage_large.21b15074Garage rock is a crowded genre and has been for at least a decade. Standing out in this sloppy, energetic and guitar-heavy field is hard.  Hinds has a leg up in that respect because the band is all-female in a male-dominated genre. And, they are Spanish, which sets them apart from the glut of American bands doing the garage rock thing, though there are and always have been foreign purveyors of this brand of rock.

There’s an obvious debt to early Black Lips, who they’ve toured with, via often caterwauling vocals and choruses that often seem to be a contest to sing over one another. Which isn’t a knock, but it’s treading on ground much covered.

I preferred the uptempo tracks and the pacing is a little off with an instrumental in the middle that just feels thrown in for no good reason and then several slower songs in the second half. My favorite track was Bamboo, though it seems like it would have fit better on the first half of the album. Closer Walking Home builds up nicely to a rousing end.

Metacritic has this rated at a 75 and its gotten some pretty glowing reviews. For a debut, it’s got its moments and I’m hoping they can stick around because I think they have the potential to do even better. If you’re a fan of the genre it’s worth your time, but overall I’d say it’s a near-hit.

Here’s the video for Bamboo:

RIP David Bowie

January 11, 2016

The passing of David Bowie has been all over the news today.  Not just music sites, but major media outlets, which is a testament to the global star that he was.  You can find plenty of good summaries today of his varied and multi-faceted career in music (both as a musician and producer), film and fashion.  I’ll just add a couple of thoughts I’ve had today.

His death today hasn’t hit me in quite the same way that Adam Yauch’s did because I haven’t spent as much time with Bowie’s music and so there’s not all the personal memories I have associated with his music.  Part of what I’ve felt today is regret for not having done so, which I know is a little bit weird given his music is and will still be available.  I don’t really know why I never did; growing up there was never a song of his I heard on the radio that I didn’t like and I still remember young me enjoying my cassette of Let’s Dance.  A few other of his albums have made their way into my library over the years; I think I just have taken for granted how good he was.  Probably for similar reasons, I never got to see him play live which is another regret.

I’ve also been feeling admiration for the man.  The fact that Bowie didn’t allow his illness to stop him from recording another album, Backstar, which was just released, as well as an off-Broadway musical. With over 20 albums to his credit and his illness, he certainly could have decided that he was done making music.  But, I have a feeling that thought never seriously crossed his mind.  I certainly plan to listen to Blackstar soon, which will now be listened to in a new context.

I’ve been enjoying seeing everyone listing their favorite songs and the breadth of the favorites is a microcosm of the variety of musical styles he dabbled in over the years.  My favorite song is from 1971’s Hunky Dory, Queen Bitch.  I wrote briefly about it five year ago here.  Often cited as a tribute to the Velvet Underground, I think he made a song that out-Velveted Lou Reed.  The guitar riff is an all-timer that still gives me chills and I love the conversational way Bowie sings this song (a nod to Lou Reed’s style for sure).  The ability to take a song that on its face seems so simple and generate such a powerful energy with it is an amazing thing.  While his body is gone, that energy will live on.