Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ten female singers of note

Karen Carpenter: The girl-next-door with the milk chocolate voice. The Carpenters were dismissed in their 1970’s hey-day due to their squeaky-clean image and a few questionable song choices, post 1976, and counter to 2010's pop landscape, Karen’s singing was never about bombast or vocal acrobatics; she simply sang the song, and she did so exquisitely. Download this album: A Song For You.

K.D. Lang: Underground interpreter began her career as a tongue-in-cheek country singer and blossomed into a vocalist beyond classification: is she country? Is she pop? It doesn’t matter, because she makes every song she sings her very own. Download this album: Ingénue.

Pat Benatar: I barely paid attention to Pat Benatar in the 1980’s, during her commercial peak, and it was my loss. Classically trained, Benatar applied her opera instruction to rock-and-roll and paved the way for girl-rockers today. She sings way too little these days, as far as I’m concerned. Download this album: Crimes Of Passion.

Denise Williams: You know her fluky hits from the 1970’s and 1980’s, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” with Johnny Mathis, and “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” from the movie, "Footloose," but there’s so much more to this phenomenal and underappreciated talent with a voice like an angel. Download this album: This Is Niecy.

Ann Wilson: When Ann released her first Heart album with her sister, Nancy, everybody thought she was merely a Robert Plant wannabe, a flash-in-the-pan novelty, but over the next decade and with two, major stylistic shifts, Ann Wilson proved she possessed a completely unique gift, and we music fans are all the better for it. Download this album: Dreamboat Annie.

Joni Mitchell: Mitchell’s voice has taken on a different timbre over the years, moving from the high-registered hippie chick from the late 1960’s, to the sultry jazz crooner in the 1970’s, to the sage and sooty, road-worn vocalist that graced her most recent album, the solemn and prayerful, Shine. Download this album: Court and Spark.

Patsy Cline: is timeless, because of her straight-forward approach to tackling songs, taking country foundations and adding a bit of pop and tin pan alley into a highly original sound that still sounds fresh today (and is, indeed, still emulated). The dance floor fills every time they play “Crazy,” as well it should. Download: Few original albums remain in print, but most “hits” packages take you where you need to go.

Tracey Thorn: Smoky, sexy, and mysterious, Thorn’s voice is the lynchpin for the duo, “Everything But The Girl,” and her quiet power sneaks up on you on spine-tinglers, like “Rollercoaster,” “Corcovado," or their best-known song, "Missing." Download this album: Amplified Heart.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"A Christmas Album," by Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand is a polarizing figure, artistically and politically. Everybody seems to have something to say about the renowned singer: Quincy Jones called her a “national treasure” in 1994, George W. Bush begrudgingly honored the living legend in 2008 with a Kennedy Center Honor, in what may have been his most awkward Presidential moment ever. Some even worship her: Richard Simmons, in kind, made a quarter life-sized doll replica of her in the 1990’s, and in 2010, the genre-blending “Duck Sauce,” further immortalized the sixty-something songstress in their techno hit, “Barbra Streisand.” But whatever the inspiration, Streisand stands as the only singer in the history of singers to score a number 1 album in five consecutive decades, including this one. Not too shabby. And in the first decade of that impressive feat, Streisand made the quintessential Christmas album, setting the template for holiday records for decades to come and selling millions of copies along the way.

Up to that point, in 1967, holiday records were fairly rote affairs: a collection of standards, respectfully treated, with a silly photo of the artist covered in fake snow, holding a gift or a holiday ornament, and/or wearing a Santa hat. With A Christmas Album, Streisand created a new holiday album prototype: building a foundation with a few secular songs (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “White Christmas”), adding a few sacred hymns (“Sleep In Heavenly Peace,” “Ave Maria,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”), and throwing-in a few left turns along the way (like the then-new song about her newborn son, “The Best Gift,” the meloncholified iteration of “My Favorite Things,” from the most cheerful movie about Nazi occupation ever made, “The Sound of Music,” or the silly, revved-up rendition of “Jingle Bells?” that opens the record and, no doubt, inspired the clownishly sublime version of the same song, decades later by Canadian rockers, The Barenaked Ladies).

A Christmas Album, in fact, was the only holiday album by a female artist, up to that point, to be the best-seller of the year, and it revolutionized the genre, even today, influencing artists like Shawn Colvin and Shelby Lynn, who took Streisand’s lead in invigorating the oft-lifeless, holiday album genre with fresh arrangements and unusual song selections. Even Susan Boyle, the “Oops, I’m selling a billion albums,” insta-TV celebrity, added a few surprising, innovative song selections to her 2010 holiday outing, which included covers of Crowded House’s exquisite, #2 hit from 1987, “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and Lou Reed’s equal parts depressing and beautiful, “Perfect Day,” from his 1972 album, Transformer.

Interestingly, Streisand indicates that she is hesitant to perform live these days, because of all the ballyhoo about her “perfect voice.” She feels too much pressure to live up to the hype. This album, recorded while the singer was enduring a seasonal cold, is a big part of the reason for said hype. A Christmas Album is, in a word, stunning, and a must-have for every holiday collection. On a personal note, Streisand’s first Christmas album provided the soundtrack for some of my best holiday memories, growing up: time with family and friends, decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, the tantalizing holiday smells from the kitchen, and of course, Christmas songs. Streisand’s Christmas album is a perennial favorite at my house during the holidays. Its old-fashioned loveliness is like a cherished friend on cold, December days, especially in years when I can’t make it back to the farm for Christmas.

Friday, October 1, 2010

"2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe'," by Barry Manilow

I like Barry Manilow. Well, I like his music, anyway; I’ve never met the legendary entertainer, who stepped onto the pop music landscape in 1973, wearing platform boots and a sequined, blue jumpsuit and hasn’t been out of the spotlight since. Now, mind you, I’m not a “Manilooney,” one of the superfans who follow Manilow around the country, show to show, like the “Deadheads” to The Grateful Dead, but I would consider myself at least a rank-and-file fan of “the old songs.” Don’t laugh. You know you stop on “Copacabana” when you’re by yourself in the car. Admit it. And, besides, there’s no shame in appreciating songs adored by ba-jillions. I mean, legions of “Fanilows” can’t be wrong, right?

Still a skeptic? Humph! Then don’t take my word for it, let the evidence speak for itself: from 1974 to 1983, Manilow placed 25 songs into Billboard’s Top 40 charts, with three number ones and millions of albums sold in a career that’s lasted almost 40 years. I'll grant that album sales, alone, do not, necessarily, place an artist on a "Must Hear" list, but consider that in the early 70’s, Frank Sinatra reportedly said of Manilow, “He’s next.” Not a bad endorsement. Even Axl Rose, 1980's icon and metal head, purports to have been inspired by Manilow’s first hit, “Mandy.” True story. Look it up. And today, Manilow is undeniably woven into the fabric of popular culture, being lampooned and heralded simultaneously over the years in television shows, like “Night Court,” in the 1980’s and more recently, “Ally McBeal,” “The Simpsons,” and even having his own “theme night” on “American Idol.” Not convinced yet? Sigh…whatever. Bob Dylan agrees with me (Again, true story. Look it up).

But while his best-known songs and albums from the 1970’s get most of the attention, in 1984, Manilow quietly recorded what many consider to be his very best album: the smoky, jazzy, barroom-in-the-middle-of-the-night, sleeper, 2:00 A.M. Paradise Café. The album was a change of pace for the adult contemporary superstar, who had spent the previous decade ubiquitous on the radio, but by the early 1980’s, Manilow had sputtered into a rough patch, artistically. While each, new release was hitting the coveted, million sales mark, he was in a holding pattern, creatively, and suddenly, he found his polished pop records playing awkward kid brother in a “Top 40” playground filled with future classics, like The Clash’s “Rock The Casbah,” John “Cougar” Mellencamp’s, “Jack and Diane,” The Human League's, “Don’t You Want Me?” and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock & Roll.” Not likely to compete in the new-wave and rock-dominated radio landscape, Manilow seemed to purposely remove himself from the contest, and the resulting album was one of the most memorable of his career.

The concept of Paradise Café started by accident, when Ginger Mercer, the wife of the legendary songwriter, Johnny Mercer, sent Manilow a cache of Mercer’s lyrics, inviting him to compose music to any of the verses that piqued his interest. Manilow obliged, writing the music for the astounding, nostalgia-tinged poem, “When October Goes.” Stemming from that piano masterpiece, Manilow conceived the idea of an entire album of original, jazz-styled songs hovering around the motif of a nightclub at 2 o’clock in the morning, whose customers should have called it a night, but who, for that moment, the skuzzy little bar seems to offer more than whatever is, or whatever isn’t waiting at home.

What I also love about this album is the “samey” feeling the melodies have, each riffing off the title track, but also holding their own as individual songs. Manilow recruited legendary jazz musicians to assist on the record, including Gerry Mulligan, Bill Mays, Mundell Lowe, Mel Torme’, and Sarah Vaughan, the latter two sharing vocals on two songs, “Big City Blues,” and “Blue,” respectively. The duets are standouts on the album, and Manilow’s exchanging lines with Torme’ and Vaughan reveals, not a vocal peer, but a fan, enraptured by this once-in-a-lifetime chance to share his songs with the very artists, who inspired him to become a musician in the first place.

I posit that Manilow’s contribution to the pop pantheon ended after Paradise Café, and while many thought the album, departure that it was, to be only a brief detour, for the next 35 years and up to present day, he’s never really returned to his pop roots, rarely even recording any of his own compositions. In fact, after Paradise, the musician’s modus operandi was to turn-in album after album of gimmicky, concept records, from swing music to show tunes to big band music, to three Christmas albums, to the horrifyingly contrived series that followed: the “Best Songs Of The 50’s,” “Best Songs Of The 60’s,” “Best Songs Of The 70’s,” “Best Songs Of The 80’s,” Sigh…was their a 90’s iteration? Who knows? Who cares? The albums were an awful dénouement in the oeuvre of a gifted entertainer. but Manilow is in the studio as I write this, working on his next album, which is rumored to harken back to his glory days of the 1970’s. If you’re reading this, Barry, we're all tryin’ to get the feelin’ again. Don’t let us down.

Post Script: I argue that the gist of Paradise Cafe', like much of Manilow's career, is more about the love of music than forging "new ground" or pandering to the "hip" rock scene, and over the years, Manilow often showed this hand by singing songs about songs (to wit: “I Write The Songs,” “This One’s For You,” “Beautiful Music,” “The Old Songs,” and I Made It Through The Rain, a #10 hit in 1980, that’s original lyrics lovingly describe the craft of song writing), maybe it was inevitable that Manilow relegate himself to an oldies act, or maybe the music and passion just went out of fashion for him. I guess we have to wait and see…

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Ancient Heart," by Tanita Tikiram

In 1988, two generations of talent united, one from the 1960’s / 1970's, and one from the 1980’s: Rod Argent, keyboardist and songwriter in the legendary 60’s band, The Zombies (see previous entry), who went on to become leader of the 70’s prog-rock band, Argent, scoring a 1972, #5 hit, “Hold Your Head Up,” paired up with Tanita Tikiram, an unknown, British ingénue with a chaffed, world-weary voice. The result was the magnificent and enigmatic album, Ancient Heart.

While a hit, internationally, and faring not-too-badly in the United States (reaching #59 in “Billboard” magazine, a respectable showing for the album not containing a hit single), Ancient Heart was, essentially, ignored by North American pop radio, marginalized by the blips, bleeps, hiccups, and squeals that comprised the landscape of the U.S. music market in 1988-89, which was at the time dominated by the likes of flavor-of-the-moment, girl-acts, like, Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, and Paula Abdul, one of whom I actually saw in concert. Twice: in 1988 and in 1989. And I bought t-shirts. Both shows. Sigh… Why am I telling you this? Ok, so I while I won’t disclose which one of these three, pop-tarts my sister paid good money for us to go see (thanks, Sis!), I will share that the two concerts, truly, electrified my youth. Whatever. I’m not ashamed.

Well, anyway, it was my senior year in high school, 1989, and I bought Tikiram’s debut cassette, never having heard one note of music, just on the strength of magazine marketing. It’s true, silly as it sounds. The advertisement featured the oh-so-artsy album cover and described the songs as “hauntingly beautiful,” which was spot-on, as it turns out. But what the ad didn’t say was that Tikiram’s debut was also joyful, mysterious, sweet, wistful, melancholy, sometimes sexy, at all times melodic and as catchy as hell.

The album opener, “Good Tradition,” a rumination on family life, not, topically, unlike Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town,” dazzles with it’s brimming-with-joy drum rhythms and playful violin and horns. Sparkling, spry, and rejoicing, the song is an anomaly for this introspective, little album. It’s one of those tunes I find myself singing under my breath when I’m doing dishes, walking to work, or jogging with my wife, matching my gait to the beat of the music in my head. “Your mother smiles, the children play, and all the bad things happen miles away…” It’s stayed with me ever since I first heard it in the summer of 1989, and after over 20 years, it’s become like an old friend.

The sultry mood that carries the majority of the album is of a piece: quiet, studied, while thematically vague and peculiar. Songs like, “Cathedral Song,” and the startlingly intimate, “I Love You," and “Valentine Heart,” offer calm, muted tones, while "For All These Years" and the minor, MTV video hit (and perhaps her best-known song), “Twist In My Sobriety,” cast an eerie and beguiling shadow over the remainder of the album, which includes the haunting “He Likes The Sun” and the sorrowful, album closer, “Preyed Upon.”

Tikiram’s subsequent, early 1990’s releases were less impactful, artistically, save for a few songs from each collection (to wit, her second album, The Sweet Keeper, was overall, well…sweet, and the next album, Everybody’s Angel, is worth a listen, if nothing else for the beautiful, “Only The Ones We Love,” with ethereal backing vocals by Jennifer Warnes and for her remarkable evocation of Van Morrison, laced throughout the album), but each, successive album was met with less and less fanfare and notoriety. All but erased from the music scene by the mid-to-late 90’s, Tikiram released a “best of” collection at the turn of the century and is rumored to have started work this summer on a comeback album, to be released in the spring of 2011.

I’m listening to Ancient Heart as I write this, and the music sounds, to me, like no specific time period in popular music, especially not the late-1980’s when it was written and recorded. What also transcends time is that voice: sultry, savory, and smoky-flavored. Emanating from a then, 19 year-old; her voice belied her age, sounding like something from a finely-seasoned chanteuse, well beyond her teenage experiences. Lyrically, the songs on Ancient Heart are rhythmic and catchy, but nebulous and thick: trying to understanding their meaning is like running in a pool of water, exhausting and fruitless. Was it pop music? Was it world music? Was it Jazz? Yes, yes, and yes. Put simply, the sounds on Ancient Heart defy classification and feel timeless, as if recorded yesterday, or maybe a hundred years ago.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, by George Michael

Does “pop music” have a place on “must hear” album lists? As my gentle readers know, I often argue that it does, and George Michael’s work is a big part of the reason why rock critics today take pop music seriously, and his 1991 album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, is "Exhibit A." While still teens in the UK, Michael and his musical partner, Andrew Ridgeley, formed the duo, “Wham!,” which helped set the template for early-80’s pop music, complete with the squeaky-clean, camera-ready smiles and neon-colored clothing that exuberantly exclaimed, “Choose Life!” Laugh-out-loud hilarious, it was, if unintentionally so, and nobody who wasn’t a teenage girl even admitted to liking these two dorks. I mean, seriously.

But, in fact, more than just teenaged girls picked up cassette copies of Wham!’s 1984, #1 album, Make It Big, which sold truck loads and contained now-classic pop nuggets like, “Everything She Wants,” (#1) “Careless Whisper,” (#1) “Freedom,” (# 3) and the #1 song that gave birth to the boy-bands that ruled radio in the late-80’s and 90’s, “Wake Me Up, Before You Go-Go.” What was unexpected about these supposedly light, “disposable,” pop songs, however, was the deft, skillful songwriting and the sheer weight of the sinister subject matter: it was cheating girlfriends, cheating boyfriends, divorcing couples, lies, and lying-liars who held court in Michael’s jaundiced, musical world. Kinda sordid for a pop musician who appealed to millions of screaming teens, idn’t it?

In fact, Michael has made a career of writing pop hits about lurid, kinky subject matter, to wit, look up the lyrics to any of the following, bubbly Wham/Michael songs: “Credit Card Baby,” “The Edge Of Heaven,” “I Want Your Sex,” “Monkey,” “Father Figure,” “Fastlove,” and “Freek!” to name but a few. But the synthesized, pop sheen of Michael’s songs always obscured the vile, underworld he so often described, going completely unnoticed by the public, the fans, and the critics alike, ensuring that Wham! and George Michael were categorized as merely trifle, routinely pummeled in critical circles at the time, with one Rolling Stone critic dismissing Michael’s R&B-style vocals as, “prissy.” And the young musician was taking notes. Michael decided that being the alpha pop male of the moment wasn’t quite enough for him; he wanted all that AND to be taken seriously as an artiste. What he didn’t realize is, critics would have eventually come around to his brand of snap, crackle, and pop ear candy. The proof is in the pudding, as Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, and Kanye West reap the benefit of Michael’s party-pop, path finding. Note: yes, I said, Kanye West, who is much more of a piece with Michael than, say, Lil’ Wayne – admit it; you agree.

So, fast-forward to three years later; it’s 1987, and Michael, relinquishing all Wham-like, poster-friendly posing, grows a scruffy beard, puts on a leather jacket, buys a motor cycle (does he even drive it?), and releases the album that catapults him to 80’s, pop-god status, sharing rare air with the likes of Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson with the 20 million-selling album, Faith. With that album, Michael created the male, pop star blueprint still in place today (you’re welcome, Justins Timberlake and Beiber). And for most, Faith was Michael’s career zenith, but I disagree. While Faith was melodic, creative, oftentimes creepy, and overall, great fun, and while it certainly displayed an artist discovering the full potential of his voice and feet, his next album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, finds him at the height of his powers, seamlessly blending musical ideas, styles, and motifs, while at times just showing off, and deservedly so.

The album opens with the first single, the plodding, over-wrought, pretty good, but worst-song-on-the-album, “Praying For Time.” The mundane video featured the song’s lyrics in bulky, white letters over a black screen. Oooh, he’s so solemn, singing about politics and stuff…ho-hum. While the single went to #1, largely due to fan excitement for a new George Michael song, album sales stalled, overall, selling a comparatively paltry 8 million, and Michael started to bicker with his record label, due to his refusing the proven advertising strategy of actually appearing in his videos.

A compromise was reached with the promotion clip for the second single from the album, the funky, feisty, “Freedom 90,” which featured a series of supermodels in steam-filled rooms, mouthing the words to Michael’s song, while paraphernalia from his poster boy-era burned in the background. While the video was a welcome relief from its abysmal predecessor and the single fared well (#8), it proved to be the only other single that made a significant dent on the pop charts: the only other that hit the upper half of the charts, “Waiting For That Day,” featured an inspired blending of the Rolling Stone’s classic, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” but barely reached the top 30 (#27).

And that’s too bad for pop fans, who, by skipping, Listen, Vol. 1, missed out on what stands as some of Michaels best musical moments, ever. “Something To Save,” one of the failed singles from the album, holds as one of Michael very best songs. Rare for a George Michael song, the themes of “Something To Save” revolve around open, honest communication and reciprocal love and compassion. Similarly, “Heal The Pain,” written in an up-tempo, slide-and-shuffle style, reminiscent of Paul McCarntney (and later re-recorded as a duet with him in 2008), imbues kindness and optimism into a three-minute pop song, again, unusual "light" for his dark genius. The slow-burning waltz, “Cowboys And Angels,” finds Michael back in familiar, sinister lyrical territory, and exquisitely so, while the should-have-been single, “Soul Free,” innovates with use of R&B, drum loop samples over a can’t-get-out-of-your-head chorus and some of Michael’s finest R&B crooning.

After Listen, Vol. 1 quietly and undeservedly faded into the sunset, an extended legal battle ensued between Michael and his record label, Sony/Epic, with the artist blaming the company for less-than-expected sales, claiming they failed to properly promote the album, and the company countering that poor sales were due to Michael’s own resistance to appear in his videos. The battle eventually killed the possibility of Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2, which was rumored to be more dance-oriented, un-socially conscious pop, and to have included his 1992 hit, “Too Funky,” (#10) as well as three other songs, which eventually appeared in conjunction with the AIDS benefit album, Red, Hot, & Dance, that same year, “Do You Really Want To Know,” “Happy,” and “Crazyman Dance,” the B-side to the aforementioned single.

And then six years of silence followed, a time period extended, no doubt, by the death of his longtime companion. Michael’s next studio album, the funereal, Older, was released in 1996 to a pop environment steeped in his brand of R&B-pop (i.e., Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby,” R. Kelly’s, “Down Low,” etc.), priming the album to be the biggest seller of the year, but instead, it quietly tip-toed onto the scene in the spring of that year, reaching a disappointing #6 on the U.S. album charts and boasting only two top-ten hits, “Jesus To A Child,” (#7) and “Fastlove,” (#8). The only other subsequent studio album to date, the aptly-titled, Patience, came eight years later, and while it offered glimmers of his immense gifts with the single, “Amazing,” it proved to be, overall, a disappointing affair.

And speaking of “affairs,” after the disappointing performance of Listen, Vol. 1, Michael’s hit-streak primarily included a series of very public, very embarrassing incidents involving sex, drugs, binge drinking, etc. In fact, it seemed as if he embodied the lyrics to many of his depraved, disco hits from two decades before. Worst of all, his immense talent and expertly-crafted pop music, which he so aptly sang, “…is the one good thing that I’ve got,” took a back seat to these bad-boy antics, leaving himself and his fans confounded or having moved-on in the wake of his clichéd, celebrity excesses. But as demonstrated by another wayward pop genius, Brian Wilson, who released his masterful, long-awaited, magnum-opus album, Smile, in 2004, over 30 years after it was shelved, sometimes the end result can be well-worth the wait. And I’m guessing I’m not alone in thinking George Michael’s got another great album in him. Call it “blind,” but I’m still holding out faith (ugh, sorry) for another extraordinary George Michael album.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

“New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh),” by Erykah Badu

I normally write about older albums for this blog. The concept for the blog, and my personal bias, is that an album needs to earn the status of a “must hear” kind of experience. It needs to gestate through time, news, history, afternoons in the hammock, and long drives home. And I have a theory about music and people: we’re interdependent. We need each other. Music, good and bad, provides the soundtrack for our lives, and in kind, our thoughts, our conversations, and our experiences provide music with deeper context, depth, and emotional substance. Ultimately, music couldn’t exist without us, and we couldn’t survive without music. It’s as important, I posit, as our need for water, calories, and human connection. Music is present at all important events in our lives, as well it should be; its power transcends time, circumstances, and ideas.

That said, Erykah Badu’s new album, New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh), has been providing the soundtrack to my life, non-stop, for the past few weeks since its release. I heard about the new album, because of the controversy surrounding the video to it’s lead single, the rapturous, “Window Seat,” which finds the artist moving through a Dallas sidewalk leading to Dealey Plaza, removing clothing, until she is finally naked and then gunned-down by an invisible assassin. The video was inspired by a similar concept from indie artists, “Matt and Kim,” and eventually led to Badu’s citation and $500.00 fine by the Dallas Police Department. Controversy for the accompanying video clip aside, I was so taken by “Window Seat,” I downloaded the album on the strength of that lead single.

The album shimmers with subdued energy, and on first listen, I was immediately enthralled. The album reminds me of the 70’s, especially the first half of that melodic, rockin’ decade and my favorite era in pop music. I think that’s why I instantly took to New Amerykah. Many grooves from this album, are reminiscent of songs that might have floated into AM radio airwaves during that glorious, faded denim era, and this album feels and sounds like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Sly & The Family Stone, at the same time, but not just a retread of these familiar and well-worn styles, but injected with something unexpected and fresh.

Sidebar: the 70’s provided us with the pop template that still serves as the foundation of what’s on the radio today: singer/songwriter (70's \ today), soul (70's \ today), power pop (70's \ today), rap (70's \ today), dance (70's \ today), and even pop theatrics (70's \ today). It all started in the 70’s, and we’ve yet to find anything “new,” just more variations on those wonderful themes.

New Amerykah’s mellow, savory textures explore love in its many configurations, leaving no emotion unturned: giddy, infatuation (“Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long”), recklessness (“You Loving Me”), and even love-for-profit, with the silly and rollicking, “Turn Me Away (Get Munny).” In “Window Seat,” the aforementioned lead single, Badu longs for escape and independence, but also for security and connectedness: her cake and a humongous fork. She perfectly describes the moments in life when one yearns for the next thing, yet genuinely feels indebted to what she has: with the same feeling and momentum on both fronts. And while the album offers varied moods and tempos throughout, New Amerykah delivers an overall chilled-out groove, and serves up the perfect flavor for the coming sunny, warm days ahead. It’s currently the only thing I’m listening to, and I don’t see an end to that anytime soon. It feels like summer has finally begun.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Rickie Lee Jones, by Rickie Lee Jones

In the words of the inimitable John Lennon, “the 70’s were a drag, man.” The decade began with the ongoing debacle that was the Vietnam War, student shootings at Kent State, the escalating “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and “Watergate,” the first televised U.S. Presidential transgression (not counting this one). And the decade clumsily fumbled forward, not ending any better than it had begun, with a major U.S. economic recession, panicky lines at gas stations, a U.S. hostage situation in Iran, and, as a strategic move in the aforementioned “Cold War,” the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan.

In fact, much North American popular culture of the day reflected the overarching malaise that accompanied the close of that turbulent decade, from the maudlin theme music of popular television shows, like this one, to the bummed-out storylines for top films of the era. Even top 40 radio got up on the wrong side of the bed in the latter part of the decade with downer themes, like “Heart of Glass,” “I Will Survive,” and the deliciously-depressing, “Dust In The Wind.”

But suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, Rickie Lee Jones sauntered through the side door with a cool and inspired sorta jazz when she walked onto the Saturday Night Live music stage in the spring of 1979 and won America’s heart, singing her #4 pop hit, “Chuck E’s In Love.” That surprisingly spry, little hit record, nestled next to bleak pop songs and nervously edgy disco sounds that dominated the radio then, playfully hinted at a spirit of hope that inevitably accompanies the dawn of a new decade (Again, said John Lennon: “It can’t get no worse”).

And Rickie Lee Jones self-titled debut was the quintessential album for that moment in U.S. History, perfectly describing the sadness of the nation, mingled with childlike excitement for the new decade ahead. When music fans hit the stores to pick up the LP that spring and summer, they discovered an album that accurately reflected their frustration and disappointment, but that also gave them permission to smile again. Featuring an all-star cast of musicians, including Dr. John, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman, and Tom Scott, who provided the stupendous horns, vis-a’-vis Joni Mitchell’s sublime, Court and Spark five years earlier. Rickie Lee Jones debut is a jazzy, pop savvy, funky, little joint.

Jones seasoned her debut with sassy, swinging sucker-licks, like “Young Blood,” “Danny’s All-Star Joint,” and “Weasel and The White Boys Cool,” which provide perfect moments of levity, while, “Night Train,” the might-have-been hit single, paints an impressionist portrait of bohemian life, where eight balls, dark alleys, and riding the city train fills the days and nights of young turks, carving out recognizable niches for themselves in unfamiliar territory. The album, itself, is of a piece, perfectly describing the coming-of-age process in the big city, where the sidewalk ahead holds more doubts than opportunities, and the only thing to which the young musician can cling is to her memories and to her burgeoning talent.

While having its share of cheerful moments, the album remains, overall, a morose affair. The melancholy, “On Saturday Afternoons In 1963,” finds the twenty-something Jones waxing nostalgic about childhood spent laughing the afternoons away and reflecting on the treasure of old friends. The album closes with two somber songs: the aching melancholy of “Company,” a devastating breakup song, and the achingly lonely “After Hours (Twelve Bars Past Midnight),” where the singer sits alone at the piano, literally closing down the lonely bar, tiredly flipping down the light switch as she says “goodnight” to the ravaged decade and hails a cab home.