Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mavis Hits Lofty Heights

A few weeks ago I picked up a new CD that, somewhat to my surprise, will likely end up being one of my favorite albums of 2010. It’s Mavis Staples’ You Are Not Alone.

I’ve long been familiar with Staples’ status as a major part of the legendary Staple Singers family ensemble that brought the spirit of southern gospel to the Civil Rights Movement, and with it her soulful vocal prowess. But I can’t claim to know anything about her career since those halcyon days. And, while I’ve always appreciated good gospel music, I’m not a dedicated or knowledgeable fan of the genre.

I do relish the soulfulness, rich choral funkiness and bluesy tinge of the best gospel – and, to a degree, even some of the righteous devotion and, conversely, unintentional humor. The deep rhythm and ecstatically powerful vocal expulsions of artists like Aretha Franklin and a few others is, undeniably, music to be reckoned with. Yet, too much of the genre – that is, mediocre gospel – leaves me unimpressed musically and put off by the heavy-handed, overly-pious sanctimoniousness of the subject matter.

That said, this new Mavis Staples album is pure gospel soul; highly listenable and, often, truly inspirational. In short, it’s brilliant.

I admit I was motivated to buy this CD, not because of a compelling interest in Staples, but rather because of Jeff Tweedy’s involvement as producer, composer, arranger and musical accompanist (I’m a long-time Wilco fan). While Tweedy’s fingerprints are evident on You Are Not Alone, this is no au courant star-turn charity gig for a past-prime legend. Far from it. For the most part, Tweedy lays back and lets Mavis’ soulful sensibilities light the way.

Besides an obvious respect for the artist’s skill and an appreciation of the power of gospel at its best, what Tweedy brings to the affair is an astute sense of song-craft and a hint of Americana. The result is a distinctive suggestion of some of The Band’s best recordings – overtly on a few tracks and subtly on the album as a whole. It’s deep gospel, but with a pronounced dash of blues, soulful R & B and alt-country twang. So, regardless of how you feel about the pronounced Christian gospel vibe, the grooves, hooks and vocals are irresistible on this simple, yet richly nuanced CD.

A brief interview and stripped-down rehearsal duet with Mavis and Tweedy.

The opening track is an upbeat gospel take on Pops Staples’ tune “Don’t Knock.” The strong backing vocals elicit comparisons with Aretha’s 1960s’ soul hits, while also suggesting a female version of The Jordanaires.

The Band references emerge in full force on the Tweedy-penned title track, which really sounds like Levon & Co. doing gospel (they did dabble, you may recall, on songs like “I Shall Be Released,” and, lest we forget, The Staple Singers were among the legion of legends invited to celebrate The Last Waltz).

If there are any Wilco references embedded in this record, “In Christ There Is No East or West” – musically at least – is the most obvious. The pairing of the tinkling keyboards (celeste and mellotron courtesy of Wilco’s Pat Sansone) and picked acoustic guitar lines (by Tweedy) are, not surprisingly, strongly reminiscent of the Wilco sound. The lyrical message of devotion, racial-harmony and forgiveness are well-meaning, if a bit contrived sounding, though they’re delivered with catchy choruses and some of the album’s most potent melodies.

There are three tracks on You Are Not Alone on which the band ramps up the blues-rock grit. The upbeat bluesy gospel of “Creep Along Moses” is driven by some nasty electric guitar and slinky slide riffs that creep right along with old Mo’ as he’s nudged along by Mavis and some great background vocals. Then there’s Allen Toussaint’s “Last Train,” which features some deft electric guitar melodies during the verses, accompanied by some delightfully-humorous, soulful “choo-choo’s” from the female chorus. Finally, there’s “Only the Lord Knows,” with its solid, funky R & B groove and catchy vocal that is part devotional and part put-you-in-your-place kiss off. “Only the Lord knows, and he ain’t you,” indeed!

One of the few departures from the various gospel themes is the slow blues lament of “Losing You,” a sorrowful, heartfelt ode Mavis sings about the loss of a loved one: “The sun stopped shining, it rained all the time. It did set me back some; oh, but I made it through. But I'll never get over losing you.”

In contrast, the pace picks up again with an upbeat rendition of the Rev. Gary Davis’ “I Belong to the Band.” It’s a rockin’, clapping-driven, country-folk gospel of the ilk dabbled in by Bruce Springsteen with his Seeger sessions CDs, The Blasters on “Samson and Delilah” or Delaney & Bonnie on “Poor Elijah.” It’s one of this strong album’s best tunes.

The Band influence comes to the fore again on another of the album’s standout tracks: “Wrote a Song for Everyone.” Mavis shines with a vocal that recalls “The Weight” in an emotive performance supported by majestically interwoven instrumentation. Everything from the lyrics and vocal phrasing to the melodic lead guitar lines and the overall style, tone and arrangement recall the (mostly) Canadian road warriors in their prime.

Later in the CD, an added dimension emerges as male vocalist Donny Gerrard joins Mavis for a couple of duets. The first, “We’re Gonna Make It,” is an optimistic R & B tune that, to my ear at least, ever-so-subtly recalls The Temptation’s “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” There’s some snazzy staccato rhythm guitar licks, shuffling drums and a powerfully sustained organ that propels the tune along.

Despite all the songs having a definite gospel, soul or R & B feel, the album offers many tangents within the framework, not the least of which is the perfectly executed a cappella treatment of “Wonderful Savior,” in which Mavis determinably leads the glory-inspired chorus: “I am his, and he is mine!”

The album closes with the slow blues of “Too Close / On My Way to Heaven,” the first part of which starts with a lengthy blues vocal by Gerrard leading into a chorus-backed duet with Staples and resonant blues guitar accompaniment before segueing into a reverential nod to Pops Staples’ inspirational gospel.

Aretha should make an album like this, if the “Queen of Soul” still has it in her and can find as sympathetic a collaborator. You Are Not Alone makes it obvious that Mavis still does, as well as showing what savvy, supportive and skilled helping hands (and ears) can do for an accomplished but dormant talent.

This record is not only great Sunday morning listening, as a any decent gospel recording should be, it’s great any time listening.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fire Up the Video

The new Arcade Fire video for “We Used to Wait” off of their recent noteworthy CD, The Suburbs, has been getting some acclaim as a step forward in video technology and audience engagement. The reason being that it taps into media trends and hyper-consciousness about consumer-empowerment in the all-important realms of information and entertainment (I refuse to write “infotainment”). Heck, this single track, web-based video even has its own title (“The Wilderness Downtown”) and production credits.

The reason for the buzz is that this new video incorporates Google Earth images to “personalize” the narrative with depictions of the neighborhoods of our youthful years. Take a look. Enter your address and see what it reveals. What do you think? Was it what you expected? An accurate representation, conjuring up memories of yore?

Personally, I was more intrigued with the idea, than impressed with the execution – which, while amazing in some ways when you really think about it, was also ridiculously rudimentary. I was disappointed because (no fault of the band, Google or the producers) what was rendered was not a time machine-empowered representation of my youthful environs some 30-40 years ago (Google Earth was merely a sparkle in some scientists’ eye back then), but instead a modern-day overgrown, barely distinguishable clump of trees and vaguely familiar strips of woodchips lining the roadway. Suffice to say, we lived in the woods ... and it’s still woodsy today!

Nevertheless, it was, in fact, “The Suburbs,” albeit borderline rural ones, and much of the Arcade Fire’s new thematic work resonates with the experiences of my young neighbors and I growing up in the ’70s. The CD is worth checking out, especially if you like thoughtful, theatrical, somewhat orchestrated modern pop with some undeniably catchy hooks.

There’s no doubt, the video is trendsetting (generally, if not specifically). And, beyond the satellite and Internet-enabled techno-gimmickry, its multi-screen segmentation is creatively – if not a bit schizophrenically – implemented.

The whole concept reminds me of the music biz’s first forays into consumer-empowerment about 10 or 15 years ago when Peter Gabriel released some music that somehow enabled listeners to create their own mixes. (I never acquired any of those, so I can’t provide informed comment on them.) There was also Robert Plant and The Strange Sensation’s “Shine It All Around” single in 2005, which enabled proactive listeners to create their own rudimentary remixes via a “U-MYX Format.” This was a simplistic program included on the CD that allowed you to drop out selected instrument tracks (lead vocals, baking vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) from the mix for part or all of the song. Thus, at your own discretion, you could hear the a capella version, the instrumental version or the pseudo dub-rhythm version of the song.

... All small steps on the continuum of personal empowerment that pervades media today. It’s only a matter of time, I suspect, before we’ll be holographically projecting ourselves (in real time, no less) into our video entertainment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

“A Secret Life” ... Unearthed!

I just stumbled across this wonderful, nostalgia-inducing video clip of The Raindogs at the beloved old Bunratty’s club in Allston, Mass. (OK, it was pretty much a dive, but a fondly remembered one, nonetheless, in that I saw plenty of great music there back in the day). The date was May 19, 1989, and I was there, enjoying this performance by one of my favorite local Boston bands, with my future wife and one of my best friends.

I saw The Raindogs play around town dozens and dozens of times between 1988 and when they broke up in 1993 or so, and this show was one of my favorites. I know because I recorded a bunch of them, and I’ve listened to this live tape more than any of the others over the years. (In fact, I recognized this clip right away from the familiar to me, but otherwise unique, introduction that singer/songwriter/guitarist Mark Cutler bestowed upon the song that night.) I gave Cutler a copy of my audio recording a few years ago, but I never suspected any video of this night existed.

I remember this Bunratty’s gig as being a raucously energetic show. The crowd was really into it, especially at the end, and the band delivered a polished, yet inspired, performance.

This song, “A Secret Life,” came about midway through the 17 song set. It was one of the evening’s slower, more low-key moments. But it nicely exemplifies Cutler’s poignant songcraft and provides a fleeting remembrance of late Scottish fiddle master Johnny Cunningham’s seemingly effortless and always spot-on playing, not to mention guitarist Emerson Torrey’s essential and all-too-easily-taken-f0r-granted backing vocals.

A couple of songs after this one, the band cranked things up and let loose with abandon during the set’s finale. A momentous, increasingly unleashed trio of tunes started with “Dirty Town” and segued into “Carry Your Cross” and, finally, “Time Stand Still,” during which Cutler screamed his throat raw while the rest of the band fueled the frenzy behind him.

So this video hit me as a pleasant blast from the past that, despite being a bit dated around the edges, still resounds nicely today … as good songs, well-performed always do.

And now, I can’t help but wonder: Is there video for the rest of this performance?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Blinded by the Light

Besides apparently wreaking havoc on migratory birds’ flight patterns, the increasing “light pollution” associated with the expansive suburbanization of America (as starkly depicted in the NASA photo above) has also compromised our appreciation of the heavens. Nighttime stargazing just isn’t what it used to be – a diminishment noticeable just in my lifetime. And though I live in a suburb 40 miles from the closest big city, being on the Eastern Seaboard, it doesn’t really matter, there is never the black velvety darkness through which celestial gems glisten in the night.

Where I live, despite having the darkness of the ocean nearby to the east, the night sky ranks only about a 4.5 as measured on the graphic above. That’s why it’s such a joy to get up to the remote environs of Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine, once in a while. There one can enjoy an unadulterated view of the nighttime sky ... No. 1, indeed!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Still the Hero

John Lennon has been getting a lot of attention this week in acknowledgment that today would’ve been his 70th birthday. I don’t have much to add to the many eloquent tributes and reflections coursing through the media mainstream. It’s hard to disagree with Boston Globe music writer Sarah Rodman’s sentiment that in a kinder world, John Lennon would still be here today. We can only imagine what he would be doing. (That said, I don’t think one person’s mental illness-induced violent act is necessarily attributable to the meanness of the world – even if that is the case ... but I digress.)

Like all of us, Lennon was a flawed character, but what endeared him to so many was that he readily admitted that, balancing humility and pride while debunking his fame and celebrity. He’s remembered for that, and his passion, creativity, honesty and sincerity as an artist – in short, for his humanity.

On more than a handful of occasions he danced a blessed dance with the muse. And there’s no denying that many of The Beatles’ best songs were mostly Lennon compositions. But I never bought into the Paul-dismissive notion that it was Lennon’s band and John wrote all of the insightful, artistic tunes, while McCartney cranked out the pop pablum and music-hall schlock. After The Beatles, both composers had their share of hits and misses, only John’s came over a much shorter period of time, marked by an extended hiatus.

John’s solo work during the dissolution of The Beatles and the ensuing decade was infused with heartfelt, personal messages. There was some great music; though, I have to admit that not all of it resonated with me. Of course, there’s no denying that “Imagine,” “Instant Karma,” “Working Class Hero,” “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” “Give Peace a Chance,” “Cold Turkey,” “Gimme Some Truth” and “Mind Games” are songs that would be shining lights in anyone’s catalog. Despite these highlights, there’s one thing John’s post-Beatles life made very clear: There are more important things in life than fame, work or even art, and he lived that recognition, day in and day out, for the last half-decade of his life.

Among John Lennon’s better post-Beatles’ recordings, this is my personal favorite and, perhaps, the most characteristically “Lennon-esque” song of his solo output. We could all use a little more immediacy to our karma these days, I think.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rock the Critics

A few month’s ago I blogged about Electronic Musician magazine’s new columnist, Steven Wilson, the knowledgeable, articulate and well-respected (if not wildly popular) founder of the British band Porcupine Tree and an emerging solo artist in his own right. Wilson had just begun writing the magazine’s monthly “In the Mix” column.

Now, only a few months later, Wilson has again caught my attention with something worthy of further comment and sharing. In his October column, he tackles the topic of rock criticism, i.e., writing about rock music, in another interesting and provocative column: “Everyone’s a Critic.”

In dissecting the state of music writing today, Wilson differentiates between real, informed, critical review and the endless noise afforded by our technology-endowed, anybody-and-everybody’s-a-publisher world. The singer/songwriter/producer recalls the history of rock writing and some of its high water marks, noting that “great music journalism is an art in its own right.”

Some of the most notable realizations of that art over the years can be found in the gonzo flare of Lester Bangs; the studied expertise of Robert Palmer, Robert Hilburn and Peter Guralnick; the literary allusions and aspirations of Nick Toshes and Greil Marcus; the insightful musicology of David Fricke, Timothy White, Bill Flanagan and Charles R. Cross; and the revelatory, along-for-the-party, rollercoaster rides of Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray ... to name just a few.

Who are today’s equivalents? Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, who jointly do the nationally syndicated “Sound Opinions” weekly radio program and podcast through Chicago’s Public Radio station, and Alan Light are a few who come to mind. But I’m hard-pressed to readily come up with many others. That’s not to say that they aren’t out there; undoubtedly they are. But, like music itself today, finding the glorious among the god-awful is no small feat.

Now, as then, Frank Zappa’s famous quote all-too-often still rings true. It’s something to the effect that rock journalism is “people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” Ever the sardonic wit, that Mr. Z.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Neil Makes Emotionally Raw ‘Noise’

If you’re a fan of Neil Young’s electric music of the last 20 years or so, you’ll probably like his new release, Le Noise. If you’re not a Neil fan, then chances are this album will remind you why.

Personally, I like it … a lot! I admire the experimentalism and rawness of the album, which is basically just Neil’s voice and his guitars (mostly electric) sonically treated with producer Daniel Lanois’ studio effects and sonic embellishments. While I’m a long-time admirer of Lanois’ work as an artist in his own right and as a producer of outstanding works by the likes of Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris and others, there are few times on this CD when the recording effects are taken just a little too far – detracting from the essence of songs rather than enhancing them. That said, most of the time it works, and there’s no denying that Lanois’ soundscapes are a fundamental part of the album.

Raw and unfinished sounding at points, there’s a loose jam feel to the recording (though it’s Neil jamming with himself and Lanois’ recording console). Knob-twiddling aside, the focus of Le Noise is on the songs at their core – the chord progressions, the arrangements and the heartfelt and often very personal lyrics.

Neil Young’s recorded catalog has never been a happy-go-lucky affair. (On stage a number of years ago he joked, “I may sound really down in my songs, but don’t worry about me, I’m doing just fine.”) There’s a definite sense of melancholy running through Le Noise. At 64, the artist seems to be reflective, if not wistful; regretful and disappointed, particularly that the idealism of his hippie youth remains largely unfulfilled. There’s a tangible sense of loss, seemingly fueled by the passing of close friends.

Tonally, this is a serious sounding record. It’s resolute and passionate, but not quite dour, there’s too much energy in it for that. Neil’s brittle voice weaves in and out of his diminished chords, distorted sustain and delicate arpeggios with purpose, familiarity, comfort and (at times) hope.

I must admit, that my perspective on Le Noise is somewhat colored by the fact that, prior to its release, I heard Neil perform all but two of the songs during his “Twisted Road” solo tour last spring. That was an amazingly impressive concert (see my review). Even in Neil’s live rendering of these new tunes, there were a lot of the effects used to flesh out and color the spartan sound of just the man and his guitar. But on Le Noise, those effects are markedly more prominent.

Respected producer Daniel Lanois discusses the making of Le Noise. An interesting and insightful, if at times hyperbolic, view of how it all happened.

The album kicks off with the sonic assault of “Walk with Me,” a scene-setting artistic statement replete with distorted, sledgehammer, electric guitars and multi vocal effects that eventually lead to a bridge conjuring up Tommy-era Who before fading out with some low-key synthesizer blurbs. The layered effects work wonderfully on this song.

Less effective, though certainly not a total loss, is “Angry World,” one of only two Le Noise songs not performed during Neil’s spring/summer “Twisted Road” tour. It starts with a repetitive vocal effect, giving it an arty feel, before Neil’s typical electric guitar chording and riffing intercedes in support of thoughtfully catchy verse vocals. Unfortunately, the momentum is then fumbled by a chorus that is quite lame vocally and lyrically. (Even the repeatedly echoed “V-8” refrain can’t quite save it.) Thankfully, it’s the only such instance on the CD.

The remaining six tracks on Le Noise are all worthy additions to the Young canon. Among the stand outs are “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You,” the other non-“Twisted Road” tour song on the CD (though it would’ve fit that set nicely). It has undercurrents of vintage Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in the rhythm guitar and classic high-pitched Neil vocals with gurgling sonics percolating just beneath the song’s surface.

The confessional travelogue/drug diary that is “Hitchhker,” a long-unreleased gem from 20+ years ago, was universally hailed as one of the highlights on “Twisted Road” and it’s rendered powerfully here. On Le Noise it’s more restrained, with a less dynamic guitar attack and less urgent vocal delivery. But even if it doesn’t quite match the live versions from earlier this year, it’s still a highlight of the album. It’s an entertaining and, ultimately, thought-provoking song. Raw and literal as it is, it alone is almost enough to make me really love this album.

Despite the distinct approach and consistent construction, Le Noise is no one-trick pony. Amid all the heavy sonic enhancements on the electric tunes, the album’s two acoustic songs stand out all the more potently in contrast.

The somber resignation of the Spanish cum country & western instrumentation of “Love and War” is reminiscent of Neil’s early ’90s Unplugged sessions – with its ringing reverbed acoustic guitar and a brief, slow hint of the riff in “My My, Hey Hey.” The refrain of “Daddy won’t ever come home again” is nothing short of heart-wrenching. Powerful stuff.

Meanwhile, a resonant acoustic riff gives a characteristic poignancy to “Peaceful Valley Boulevard.” Unlike the previous comparisons, this song is better on Le Noise than it was in concerts earlier this year. It’s yet another quintessentially Youngian tale connecting 19th-century western imperialism at the expense of Native Americans (“Change hit the country like a thunderstorm”) to current the ecological plight. (“Who’ll be the beacon in the night?” indeed.) It's dangerously close to preachy at points, but no doubt heartfelt and largely on the mark, in my view.

As a whole, the songs on Le Noise are raw shots of emotion rooted in nerves never far from the surface. But, because Neil Young is such a masterful craftsman and performer, they make for remarkably refined and highly rewarding listening. Le Noise is yet another example of the artist’s uncompromising vision and course. What he does next will undoubtedly be something completely different. That’s OK, too ... but there will always be Le Noise.

This is labeled “Le Noise: The Film” and it really is ... weighing in as a video companion to the entire CD. The video effects and distortions mimic the sonic embellishments of the CD and, overall, it represents an impassioned performance by Neil. And while the sound is excellent by YouTube standards, it still doesn’t do justice to the sonic depth of the CD release, on which the studio sorcery comes through more pronouncedly. On top of that, listening to the music while watching video accompaniment creates a very different overall experience than say, listening to the CD while driving in your car on a rainy night. Nevertheless, this is worthwhile viewing ... when you have 40 minutes to spare. (I’m guessing this will be released on DVD soon ... just before Christmas, perhaps?)

Postscript: I wonder why “You Never Call,” one of the poignant new songs featured on the “Twisted Road Tour” didn’t make the cut for inclusion on Le Noise. Maybe Neil thought it would’ve skewed the balance of the record further toward acoustic than he wanted this time around, or perhaps it was just too personal, dealing directly with the death of a long-time close friend and name checking his own son.

Monday, October 4, 2010

With Insight Like This ...

It’s both laughable and pathetic that the head of any newspaper in the world today would deem it necessary to utter the following words: “Newspaper companies that survive will not consider themselves newspaper companies.”

Yet, that was a highlight from Dallas Morning News Publisher James Moroney’s (I’ll refrain from the obvious jokes about the aptly named publisher) recent letter to his staff marking the publication’s 125th anniversary. This might have been a reasonable statement 15 years ago (even 10 years ago ... maybe), but in 2010?!

If you work at a newspaper and you’re so cement-headed that you need to be told that the game now is about the dissemination of relevant information through any and all means your various constituents desire, then you and your organization are surely doomed ... and deservedly so! However, my guess is that the people in the trenches are well aware of where things stand, it’s the newspaper’s execs who are just coming to this realization (or finally able to utter it out loud). Hate to tell ya, fellas, not only are the horses no longer in the barn, they’ve been grazing over yonder for nigh on a while!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Flexible, Paper-Thin Screens

I’ve been following the development of various e-reader devices and digital edition technology for the past several years. And, despite the significant progress from the relatively simple and limited Kindle (still the best pure book-like reading experience, I’ve seen, with its partially reflective surface) through Apple’s game-changing iPad (with its multifunctional, brilliantly colorful, glowing backlit display), which clearly excels in many other functions, we’re still just in the infancy of e-reader device development.

In only a few more years, the devices and the digital reading experience is likely to be something more like this, I believe. And while it will offer high resolution, brilliant color, unlike today’s computer screens, I think, it will be largely (or wholly) reflective, rather than back-lit, requiring much less battery power and creating an easier experience on the eyes. We’ll see, and most likely sooner rather than later.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

More Mark Cutler

I enjoyed reading a great article on Mark Cutler this week in the East Bay Newspapers (see it here). It was written by my buddy Jim McGaw. Jim and I have seen a lot of Cutler shows together over the years.

His profile gives an informative overview of Mark’s illustrious history in the New England music scene – as well as his brushes with national (and international!) fame – right up through all the things he’s doing today, including his most recent release, Red (see my previous review here). Ever the vibrant and energetic artist, the singer/songwriter/guitarist’s story is an interesting one, and it’s well-told in Jim’s piece, enhanced with some insightful comments by Cutler’s long-time musical compadre Emerson Torrey. There’s also a video accompanying it that features a snippet of Mark doing an acoustic version of the old Schemer’s hit “Remember.” Check it out!