Marvin Gaye: Calypso Blues
Despite a strong performance by everyone this week, this really is a challenging theme. I had to leave the comfort of my own collection, and go shopping on Amazon to find a song for this post. And how do you do that search? I tried searching for tribute albums, and stopped when I found this one.
Many of the songs this week have been cases of artists trying to broaden their appeal once they were established, or to escape the straightjacket of their fan’s expectations. But sometimes, it takes an artist a while to find their sound, and their off-genre work occurs early in their career. Such was the case with Marvin Gaye. By the early 70s, What’s Going On was out, and Gaye’s success was assured. But, in 1965, he was still finding out who he was. That was when he took time out to pay tribute to one of his inspirations, Nat King Cole. I never knew this until I researched this post. Why would an artist do a tribute album when he hasn’t even established his own career yet? Remember that this was 1965, and artists released three albums a year, not the album every three years that is the norm nowadays. Soon enough, Gaye would be able to return to his own music.
My selection of Calypso Blues is intentionally ironic. This one would have been off genre for Nat King Cole as well. There was a calypso craze in the United states in the 1950s. That was when Harry Belafonte rose to fame. As far as I know, Calypso Blues was the only calypso song Cole ever recorded. And if you really want to go far off genre, try this. Years later, Damien Marley took Cole’s original vocal track and created a brand new instrumental track for it. So Nat King Cole became a reggae singer.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Neil Young: Transformer Man
After a disappointing Crazy Horse album, re*ac*tor, Neil switched labels and signed with Geffen Records for most of the '80s. It didn't take long for the two to butt heads. With it's synths, robotic beats and vocoder-heavy vocals, one can only wonder what Geffen thought when he first heard Trans. Many of the songs stem from Neil's attempts to communicate with his son Ben, who has cerebral palsy. There are some beautiful melodies hidden in the album, like this track, which he would recast in an acoustic setting for his turn at MTV Unplugged eleven years later.
Neil & The Shocking Pinks: Kinda Fonda Wanda
While touring is support of Trans, Neil came up with the Shocking Pinks concept. Talk about a 180-degree turn! After a turn at futuristic electro-rock, Neil set the time machine for the 1950s and gave us a 25-minute album of rockabilly. It could have been interesting, but the '80s production values and the dopey backing vocals really sabotaged the album. But live, the band started to stretch out, and set the seeds for the Bluenotes five years later. But first...
Neil Young: Get Back to the Country
Where to go from there? How about a pure country album? Neil had played country-rock on and off for years, most notably on Harvest, his biggest album. The promise of a return to that sound must have made David Geffen smile, but the more Geffen pushed Neil to make it sound like "Neil", the more country Neil went. Here he pretty much took it to the extreme, with the dopey "boing" of the Jew's harp pushing it over the edge. Live, the band once again started to stretch out and really rock. So naturally...
Neil Young: Weight of the World
...he went all synth-rock on us. Recorded with studio pros Danny Kortchmar on guitar and synths and Steve Jordan on drums and synths. The music can be brutal, with the drums in particular seemingly in your face. It's not an easy listen.
Neil Young & The Bluenotes: Married Man
After that, Neil toured and released an album with his old friends Crazy Horse. But during that tour, he started adding a blues mini-set, and that lead to the Bluenotes. I've written about this before, so I'll just say that this is a very underrated period in Neil's career, and the beginning of Neil getting back on track. (His next album included "Rockin' in the Free World", one of his best songs.)
Jewel: Under the Water
Sometimes off-genre goes terribly wrong, and you want to beg the artist to keep their day job, or in musicians case I suppose I mean stick to what they're good at. Unfortunately, Jewel, the folky Alaskan girl known for her hits "Who Will Save Your Soul?" and "You Were Meant for Me" from her crazily popular debut album "Pieces of You", sometimes doesn't listen to the wisdom of sticking with what you know and likes to stray.
Jewel released a whole album of pseudo-dance music in 2003, complete with her in neon clothing on the cover. In interviews she said it was to step out of the box people had put her in and to also be a bit ironic. Unfortunately for her, and for us, putting out ironic music looks more like a sell-out than anything else. What she is good at is stripped-down, acoustic, heartfelt and simple. Things that let her voice and words shine through.
But she's always had a penchant for such behavior. This little gem (yeah, that's sarcasm) is from the soundtrack to the '90s teen flick The Craft, and was released shortly after her debut album came out. The song features retro synth beats that remind me of late 70's soul, and a lovely interlude where Jewel attempts to rap. Any white girl who grew up on a ranch, can yodel, and is married to a rodeo star really doesn't have any business rapping. Alas, she was young when she did this, at least she hasn't tried it again since. Jewel, we love your simple acoustic stuff, please stick with what you do best.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Faith No More: Easy
Faith No More is one of those hard-to-pigeonhole bands that peaked in the early 90s and had disbanded by 1998 (although they're back together in concert, at least in Europe). I always scratch my head when I try to fill in the "genre" field on one of their songs. Are they experimental rock? Or are they alt metal? Neither? Both? Maybe it depends on who's in the band at the time: Wikipedia claims they've had 7 vocalists (including Courtney Love at one point) and 10 guitarists, making it a band that needs math done in powers of 2 to wrap your mind around it.
Their sound, however, was never smooth R&B. Except this once. Keyboard, strings, horn, background singers? Check.
Their cover of The Commodores' "Easy" was only released in later versions of their 1992 album "Angel Dust." It's become a favorite and best-seller, though. Instead of changing the genre to fit their normal style, they pretty much record it straight like Lionel (well, except for that quirky exclamation just before the guitar solo). Mike Patton, the vocalist du jour, has a nice, rich voice and he carries the song well. Have a listen.
Fairport Convention: The Lady Is a Tramp
In the late '60s, Fairport Convention were a pretty eclectic bunch. Still, it's a bit of a shock to hear the originators of British folk-rock tackling one of Frank Sinatra's signature songs. This track was recorded in 1969 for a BCC Top Gear session (though didn't see official release until 2002), with guitarist Richard Thompson on lead vocals, drummer Dave Mattacks on piano, and rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol on drums.
No, Richard doesn't give Frank a run for his money. But considering how long it took Thompson to "find" his singing voice, he acquits himself rather nicely. And it's just a hint of the musical eclecticism that would lead him to the "1000 Years of Popular Music" project more than thirty years later.
John Hiatt: I‘m Satisfied
Many artists do their thing on their albums, and never go off course. And this is true even for an artist like John Hiatt, whose style is not easy to pin down. Hiatt is known for the amazing wordplay in his lyrics and the clever twists in his storytelling. He’s worth listening to because, for all the cleverness, he never loses sight of the humanity of his characters. And it doesn’t hurt that he is also a fine instrumentalist. But, if you want to hear John Hiatt go off genre, you must leave behind the albums he records in his own name.
Tribute albums are a fine source for material this week. At their best, these albums allow artists to reveal an influence that the listener never suspected. If there is a weakness in the album Avalon Blues, it is that many of the choices of artists are too obvious, The album pays tribute to the music of blues legend Mississippi John Hurt, and the roster contains a mix of artists working in the acoustic blues scene, as well as some artists whose love of the blues is obvious in their work. But there are some ringers, and John Hiatt is one of these. Here he is, with only his own acoustic guitar for accompaniment. I’m Satisfied is a straightforward tale, with no irony involved, and Hiatt’s vocal is low key and radiates warmth. It’s a wonderful performance, and a wonderful surprise from one of my favorite artists. And let me emphasize that the rest of the album is just as good, just not always so surprising.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
Patty Griffin: Wiggley Fingers
Last time I mentioned Patty Griffin's sophomore album Flaming Red here in these pages, it led to an interesting debate between contributors about the value of the album as a touchstone for the singer-songwriter's evolution. And like Nelson's spouse, I agree that there's much to love about the first half of that album, though I find the songs from it more palatable in their live and stripped-down form.
But love it or hate it, there's no denying that late-album track Wiggley Fingers is a full-blown departure for Griffin, even more than the rest of the heavily-produced album in question. If it weren't for that distinctive voice straining to come clear through the sonic haze, and the oddly, dischordantly Catholic-schoolgirl-esque lyrical impressions under all that bombast, it would be easier to imagine this driving, heavily electronic, beat-heavy track in the hands and voice of a blazing country rocker in full-blown light-show prance-around encore mode. Or even in the sexualized, radio-ready hands of a modern poprock diva, like Pink, Madonna, or Ke$ha - wherein it would sound just right, come to think of it. Check it out, yo.
Velvet Underground: Jesus
On the first album they gave us Heroin and Venus in Furs, on the second Sister Ray and White Light White Heat and on the third we got ... Jesus.
Years ago, whenever I queried this track people would tell me Lou Reed was being ironic. I wasn't sure about that then, less so now. It's too affecting to be ironic, nor does it have the desperation necessary for what some think is a junkie's lament. Lyrically it's a straightforward hymn, musically it's not too far removed from the basic keyboard arrangements the early protestants favoured. All in all it stands up today as a straightforward declaration of Christian love, something Pat Boone (see below) would feel perfectly comfortable crooning. Maybe Lou Reed was daring us to ask what was going on here. No journalist I'm aware of ever put the question to him. Maybe they were scared of the answer they'd get.
Guest post by John
Monday, May 10, 2010
Pat Boone: Crazy Train
Pat Boone is best known for turning '50s black R&B into pop music, safe for the white masses. But in 1997, he gave us In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, where he took twelve heavy metal and hard rock classics and gave them a jazzy big-band treatment. The album is an abomination, pure kitsch, but there there is value in finally hearing all the words to "Crazy Train".
Sunday, May 9, 2010
X Japan: White Wind from Mr. Martin (Pata's Nap)
Miyavi: Jikoai, jigajisan, jiishiki kajou
Miyavi: Selfish love - Aishitekure, Aishiterukara
Janne Da Arc: Zero
Here are four short tunes from Japanese rock artists who are best known for playing lead guitar in well-known Visual Kei (VK) bands. VK as a genre, which began in the '80s in Japan, is a blend of glam rock, metal, and punk. In its early days, a VK band's appearance was part and parcel of the genre – think the New York Dolls cranked up to 11. These days, most VK bands have toned down the "visual shock." Maybe these aging stars realized that leather hot pants, Audrey Hepburn pearls, and fishnet stockings are no longer quite so flattering.
I mentioned X Japan in my first guest post. This supergroup defined Visual Kei back in the day and remains the stuff of legends. X Japan's sound can be classified as symphonic metal. What it wasn't was anything like this short piece by one of their two lead guitarists, Pata (we're all on a first-name basis with these guys). To me, this song's a little footnote that says, "Hey, when I'm not churning out power chords, did you know I can sound just like Willie Nelson?"
Next up are two tunes by VK artist Miyavi. I dragged my dear husband to see him on our vacation in London last fall, where I judge we were the oldest fans there by a good two decades. He's kind of the new kid on the VK block, and yes, he used to model fashion as well, can you tell from the pose? Such a cutie. Anyway, when he's not flirting with the camera and cranking out rock, he loves American blues. His two songs are meant to be heard as a set. He's a Muddy Waters fan, who these two songs honor by way of Tokyo. Miyavi's on his first US tour this June, mostly along the coasts, so if you have a chance, I heartily encourage you to check him out. Otherwise, look for these songs on YouTube, where he mimics the Mississippi River by flooding the studio.
Janne Da Arc (pronounced Jannu Daruku) is not named after the heroic Joan of Arc but rather after a manga character. To me, it seems like half the VK bands have chosen French names that are basically unpronounceable in Japanese. You, the lead guitarist (his mom knows him as Yutaka Tsuda), clearly released this tune to confuse Jimmy Page, who's probably still wondering when he recorded this.
Guest post by Geoviki
Russell Morris: The Real Thing
In 1969 Russell Morris was a pop singer, best known in Australia for some listenable if asinine pop songs, aspiring crooner Johnny Young had been the host of teen pop shows 'Club Seventeen' and 'Go', and Ian Meldrum was a journalist with pop magazine 'Go Set'. Pop was their world, and a pretty little world it was too. When Johnny Young wrote 'The Real Thing' he envisioned a pop ballad; an acoustic guitar, some strings and perhaps a girl chorus wrapped up in a sincerely syrupy declaration of pop love. That's what he was thinking when he gave it to Meldrum, who was also Morris's manager/producer. Maybe Meldrum secretly detested the song, or he had a paticularly inspiring weekend. Whatever, he turned loose on it, blasting away its prissiness with phasing, echo, feedback, demented overdubs, manic choirs and laughter and finishing it off the only way he could, with a massive explosion.
Russell gets the credit for this psychedelic masterpiece but it was always Meldrum's moment. In a few years he'd be the host of 'Countdown' the show that ruled Australian music in the 1970s. Johnny Young would host 'Young Talent Time', a breeding ground for kids who aspired to one day mount Countdown's centre stage. Russell Morris wouldn't go away either, though he'd never quite reach the heights of The Real Thing, but who could?
Guest post by John
Joe Jackson: Cha Cha Loco
This week’s theme presents a unique challenge. Often, when an artist steps outside their comfort zone, they fall on their face. So the task is to find the good stuff. That means finding an artist who can stretch out successfully. Joe Jackson is usually one of these. He is known for new wave rock. But Jackson has incorporated reggae into his sound, (Fools in Love), and he recorded an entire album of old jazz songs. Only his sort of new age instrumental album fell flat. Still, Latin jazz?
That’s right. On Cha Cha Loco, Joe Jackson asked his band, normally a great rock group, to go Latin. It didn’t hurt that he was assisted by a great horn section. But any way you look at it, this really worked.
Macy Gray: I Want To Be Your Mother's Son-In-Law
Soulful R&B-slash-funk singer Macy Gray - often compared to Billie Holiday due to her airy voice and intonation - jazzes up one of Holiday's classic tunes, going full-blown New Orleans big-band for T-Bone Burnett's deliciously retro Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood soundtrack, and as befits its anachronistic setting, man, does this song swing. Great sentiment, too.
As this week's segue song, the track takes us from our Mothers theme to a dip in the pool of one-off genre switches. Careful not to judge the coming musicians by what you hear here in the next seven days, folks. It may be a blast, thanks to Burnett's prescient production, but this sure as heck isn't Macy's usual setting.