Saturday, December 22, 2012

"For The Roses," by Joni Mitchell

Not that I needed any encouragement, but my 2012 summer jam, John Mayer’s Born and Raised, has plunged me even more deeply into an ongoing preoccupation with all things “early 1970’s rock-and-roll” and all things Laurel Canyon. And one can’t discuss the Laurel Canyon rock-and-roll period without significant homage to the “Queen of California,” herself, Joni Mitchell. In fact, Mitchell’s early legacy is synonymous with that legendary zip code. Joni Mitchell has evolved through myriad musical phases in her remarkable career, taking fans along for the staggering ride: starting with her hippie-chick, Joan Baez/Judy Collins-influenced singer-songwriter phase during the late 1960’s (singer-songwriter: a job that Mitchell, arguably, invented) into the early 1970’s pop-jazz chanteuse, into the later part of that decade’s jazz experimentalist, the 1980’s prog-pop innovator (the Thomas Dolby produced album, Dog Eat Dog was sorely under-heard and under-appreciated - oh, and the inventive video was produced by Jim Blashfield, who created Tears For Fears' "Sowing The Seeds Of Love" clip), and into the 1990’s adult contemporary smooth-jazz (muzac?) and current elder stateswoman of rock and roll. Mitchell is no less revered in her current incarnation as the smoky-voiced, pop interpreter of recent years, and there’s even talk in 2013 of a David Geffen-induced career “comeback.” As if she ever left.

And everybody talks about either Blue or Court and Spark when they discuss Mitchell’s best work, and deservedly so, but I posit that the album Mitchell produced between those two classics, For The Roses, is a forgotten masterpiece. Blue was exquisite, to be sure, with it’s spare arrangements, cringe-inducing, horrifyingly-personal lyrics, and stupefying, heartbreaking themes (indeed, it may be the quintessential break-up album) and Court And Spark, which covered similar themes but did so while immersing itself in smooth jazz (before it became it’s own, Velveeta-flavored genre) remains my favorite Mitchell album, but For The Roses serves as the perfect transition album between Mitchell’s folky musings and her superb, genre-expanding jazz phase. While it contained one of Mitchell’s precious few top 40 hits (“You Turn Me On, I’m A Radio,” #25 in 1973), in 2007, For The Roses was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry (it is Mitchell's first and, so far, only album to make that list).

The themes of the songs on For The Roses are classic, early-Joni Mitchell: cutting open her love-life arteries for all to see. While Mitchell leveraged the same approach for Blue, the songs on For The Roses were less universal and more specific to Mitchell’s own narrative. Interestingly, I recently had opportunity to attend a recording of a Taylor Swift concert for Vh1: Storytellers, promoting her latest album, Red (Red, huh? Kinda like another album title, Blue, no? Nah, it couldn’t be that calculating...). Not being familiar with Swift’s music before the show, I found myself struggling with her shtick, and then I found myself struggling with my own skepticism. Why was I so disbelieving towards Swift’s “art,” when, essentially, she holds many parallels with Mitchell, who herself started as a young, pretty, long haired blond, playing guitar and dulcimer (Swift’s other instrument is the banjo), whose first few albums were, essentially, full of songs about breaking-up with boyfriends? As I watched the peppy, sparkly, staged spectacle, it dawned on me that, besides the silly lyrics (to wit, “Cause I love the gap between your teeth; And I love the riddles that you speak; And any snide remarks from my father about your tattoos will be ignored; Cause my heart is yours” – sorry ‘bout that, gentle readers, but now you understand...), it was the crass commercialism surrounding the spectacle: the concert was sponsored by a pizza company giving out boxes painted with Swift’s face as well as Swift-inspired greeting cards and Swift-inspired “make-overs” and the giggly, “I’ve-sold-millions-of-albums-and-am-still-insecure-oh-my!” palms to her cheeks banter between her songs. Miss Swift is a product line; Joni Mitchell is a musician.

But I digress; back to For The Roses. So I hate the album cover, which features Mitchell, squatting in the woods on her Canadian property, wearing moccasin boots and a green velvet “hippie” shirt, which would fit perfectly at modern-day, “Renaissance Fairs.” The album’s inside cover featured Mitchell in the nude, staring into the ocean (Which, I guess, stands to reason, as her lyrics left nothing to the imagination; so why not just put everything out there?). If you’re not already Joni’s, this album may be a great place to begin. Stylistically, For The Roses is leaps and bounds beyond Blue, blending her folk-rock musings to her jazz influences and beautifully so.

The lead-off song, “Banquet,” predates Obama’s notion of “spreading the wealth” by almost 40 years, pointing out the inequality of Capitalism, "Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire" describes harrowing heroin addiction, growing in prevalence in the L.A. scene in the early 1970’s, which is part of the reason Mitchell took refuge in her native Canada as she wrote this magnificent follow-up to Blue. "Barangrill," about the charms of a Canadian roadside truck stop, is my favorite track, because it takes me back to the sound of the early 70’s, singer-songwriter, “Schoolhouse Rock” vibe. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, everything sounded like a “Schoolhouse Rock” jingle, back then. Blossom Dearie is greatly missed... The rest of the album continues the early 1970’s groove, vacillating from love song to social observation and exquisitely so, hinting to listeners what lie ahead in her next few releases.

Recently, Joni Mitchell has expressed frustration that all her fans ever want to hear from her is more songs about her love life, and I’ll grant her that complaint, but in our defense, I posit that her best writing is about that very topic. In fact, I find her best work connected to times of personal turmoil, and some of her most tepid work was produced when she was happily in love...go figure. So, yeah, I suspect I speak for most Mitchell fans when I say that we’re still holding out for Blue, Too.” That said, Mitchell’s most recent release, 2007’s Shine, might just be THAT record. Critics were all over the map, but I thought the album was sublime, proving that Mitchell, after all these years, has still got it. Please record again, Joni Mitchell; we’re still turned on.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"The Seeds Of Love," by Tears For Fears

A few years ago I read an interview with a “hot” young musician, who subsequently faded away (forgive my feeble memory; I don’t remember his name; it’s on the tip of my tongue…), who was backhandedly complimenting Tears for Fears during their commercial heyday, citing their classic pop hits, like “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” “Shout,” and “Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” as “wonderful, but dated, forever stuck in 1980’s synthesizers.” I have to disagree. I liken describing Tears for Fears’ music as “stuck in the 1980’s,” to saying David Bowie’s music is stuck in the 1970’s. Is it a product of its cultural and musical timeframe? Certainly, but isn’t that precisely from where it derives its artistic power and musical strength? Isn’t that the job of pop music, to reflect the mores and zeitgeist of the moment in 3-minute verse-chorus-verse format?

But hype is fascinating like that. Don’t believe me? Watch your facebook newsfeed evolve after a national event; it serpentines, with facebook friends jumping on the bandwagon of the thought-o-the-moment with cattle stampede-like trajectories of opinion. And so it goes with the music industry that hypes “the next big thing,” only to turn 180 degrees months, weeks, days later when it appears the trend is going in a different direction. Popular music is riddled with artists who should have been the “second coming,” only to fall short when trends shift. To wit, in the 1970’s, insiders speculated that The Knack was, secretly, the re-formed Beatles (sigh…if only), in the 1980’s, Terence Trent D’Arby was supposed to be the second coming of James Brown (sadly, not), and in the 1990’s, Sophie B. Hawkins was supposed to alter the direction of popular music (that said, I still enjoy her eccentric, sadly underappreciated music). And after their 15 minutes of fame were spent, these artists faded into their respective obscurities.

Such was the case with Tears for Fears much touted third release, The Seeds Of Love. Buoyed by the accumulated success of their previous two albums, the critically acclaimed, but slow-burning (in the U.S.) debut, The Hurting, and the world-wide, multi-platinum smash of Songs From The Big Chair, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith were poised for musical world domination with their highly and long-anticipated follow-up, The Seeds Of Love. Indeed, arriving four years after its predecessor, The Seeds Of Love was to be the next big thing. How could it not be that? The first single, “Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” with it’s Beatles-influenced backdrop and inventive, accompanying video, rocketed to #2 on the Billboard chart and worked the awaiting, record-buying public into a frenzied froth (as a good lead-off single should). So much so, that in its November 1989 album review, the trend-conscious Rolling Stone magazine gave the album an almost perfect review: four out of five stars, reviewer Michael Azerrad stated, “…it's exciting that such thought-provoking music will undoubtedly be so widely heard. If with the title track Tears for Fears beg comparison to the Beatles, it's in the unspoken assertion that popular music can also be outstanding music. That's something this remarkable record proves over and over again.” 

Well said, Mr. Azerrad, well said. But just one year later in its year-end issue, the same publication trashed the album, calling the songs meandering and “overlong.” So which is it, Rolling Stone? What changed about the album in 10 months? Was it good or not? Apparently not, or maybe something else was afoot. After all, the subsequent singles from the album faired far less than the leadoff single (hard to imagine a feminist anthem competing strongly against the featherweight pop of Wilson Phillips, Michael Bolton, and Milli Vanilli). MTV, pop radio, and the record-buying public couldn’t be wrong about this one…right?

Whichever way you look at it, I’m inclined to agree with Azerrad’s original opine: The Seeds Of Love is a remarkable piece of work, likely the duo’s best effort, and worthy of another listen (or two or three…). Featuring only eight songs, side one became the “singles” side, featuring three of the most well-known singles from the album, the grandiose, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink #2 smash, “Sowing The Seeds Of Love,” the sensitive-man-as-feminist duet with (the stunning) Oletta Adams, “Woman In Chains,” and the playful, sunshine pop confection, “Advice For The Young At Heart,” with the borrowed John Lennon line, “Love is a promise, love is a souvenir; once given, never forgotten, never let it disappear…” The final song on the album, “Famous Last Words,” while one of my favorite tracks, was released as the album’s last single but disappeared without a trace as the album, by that time, had been widely forgotten by all parties concerned.

While references to The Beatles are undeniable (even down to the Sgt Pepper’s-like collage of an album cover), I liken The Seeds Of Love less to any, one Beatles album than I would compare it to Pink Floyd’s perennial classic, Dark Side of The Moon, with its swirling jazz riffs, melancholy atmospherics, sweeping soundscapes, and soulful, tortured vocals by Oletta Adams, who went on to a highly successful career as a soul singer after being launched by this album. Indeed, the tracks on Seeds Of Love, like the tracks on Dark Side Of The Moon, are longer than the standard pop song, clocking-in at an average of over 6 minutes, but Orzabal seemed to be going more for Alan Parsons style epics than catchy 3 minute pop petit fours. Viewing his entire catalogue, I’ve come to believe that Roland Orzabal can’t not write a song without a tangible melody, and Seeds Of Love is no exception. That said, the album is scarce on pop hooks, per se, but the album seems crafted to build a significantly more satisfying musical experience over time, with repeated listens, much like Dark Side Of The Moon’s epic journey, except instead of a musical case study in madness, Seeds Of Love examines a road map of the human heart. We seem to still need that...

Sunday, December 2, 2012

“So Beautiful or So What,” by Paul Simon

Few pop music fans seem to realize that Paul Simon’s 2011 album, So Beautiful or So What, might very well be his best album ever. That’s right. I said it: best album ever. Seriously. Ever. But unfortunately, because it didn’t come out in 1977, and because its singles were up against the high school crap of LMFAO and Katy Perry that dominated the airwaves last year, the album went largely without notice (save for the ENTIRETY of the music critic community, who unanimously listed the album in their top ten album lists for that year). Hosting themes that reflect a man finding life “terribly strange” at seventy, So Beautiful asks questions for the angels about love, mortality, and God. And from listening to the brief album (under 40 minutes of music), one answer to these questions tap at the listener’s ear: love. Seriously, Mr. Simon? “Love?” Huh.

Simple, conventional, and persistent, Simon’s message is singular; he’s a real love-monger on this stunning album. In the tune, “Dazzling Blue,” he pays tender tribute to his marriage to (the remarkable!) Edie Brickell, and in the song, “Rewrite,” he paints a portrait of an American war veteran, who “hasn’t got a brain cell left since Vietnam,” pleading with God for a “rewrite” of his life since the war, “…Help me, help me, help me, help me – THANK YOU! I had no idea that you were there.” In the beleaguered veteran’s rewrite, love makes an appearance and ultimately redeems his life. The veteran outlines his do-over:

I'll eliminate the pages where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family, but he really meant no harm.
Gonna substitute a car chase and a race across the rooftops
When the father saves the children, and he holds them in his arms…

The word “love” permeates the album, prominent in the songs titles or mentioned within the verses (or at least alluded to) on every song. On So Beautiful or So What, it’s all love, all the time. In the world Simon describes on So Beautiful, love is the mortar holding the bricks together, love is the foundation providing strength to the walls, love is the cement filling the empty holes as the musician reminds us to carefully consider our frame of reference: “Life is what you make of it,” he sings, it’s “so beautiful or so what?” I’ll take “beautiful,” thank you...

Death and growing older is another central theme on this exceptional album, and the topic is not a new one for Simon. In his mid 20’s, he reverently wrote about the prospect of growing older. In fact, Simon loosely dedicated an entire side of vinyl (side one) of the classic 1968 Simon and Garfunkel album, Bookends, to the cycle of life, most notably in the sweetly morose, “Old Friends,” in which his vocal muse and “frenemy,” Art Garfunkel sang, “Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench, quietly? How terribly strange to be seventy…” and on the side one closer, “Bookends Theme,”

Time it was, and what a time it was;
A time of innocence, a time of confidences;
Long ago, it must be…I have a photograph;
Preserve your memories;
They're all that's left you…

Musings from a young and gifted musician, romanticizing the inevitability of growing older (and exquisitely so). Are such solemn romanticisms fleeting naivety? Are they the privilege of youth? I’m starting to suspect so, as more recently, seventy year-old Simon writes of mutability from a much more dispassionate and droll, albeit musical perspective, sometimes chuckling about the prospect of passing from this mortal coil, and sometimes taking on the voice of God, Himself, pontificating on the state of humanity, on ugly politics and talk-show hosts, on the sad state of popular music, and on the origin of life, itself. Simon sings “as God,”

Big Bang. That’s a joke that I made up once
When I had eons to kill,
You know, most folks, they don’t get when I’m joking;
Maybe someday they will…

And then, of course, there’s Music. Perhaps the world’s biggest music fan, Simon has said that he picked up a guitar for the first time, because he wanted to be Elvis. And following suit, Simon almost always includes musical imagery in his more recent deliberations on nostalgia, death and the afterlife (to wit, in the early 1980’s, Simon referenced everyone from John Lennon to the “Late-Great Johnny Ace,” as well as his evocation of the treasured do-wop groups of his youth, and he also recalled Buddy Holly in the early 2000’s, and on this album, he echoed early rock-and-roll nonsense lyrics on “The Afterlife”). Simon has contemplated mutability throughout his career, but since his 40s, Simon has replaced the sentimental heartache of his youthful ruminations with humor, irony, and derision.

I suspect there’s much to be learned from this philosophical approach, and I’ve been listening to Simon’s So Beautiful or So What almost non-stop for the past few weeks. I find it wholly comforting and relevant, especially as I've recently learned a beloved family member is facing his last months, and by all accounts, he’s addressing the prospect with characteristic humor, grace, and boldness – similar to Simon’s most recent reflections. It’s humbling, his courage. I wish I had it. Maybe it comes with one’s built-in character or personality; maybe some are just born heroic, or maybe it comes from years of hard-won wisdom. Either way, at 41, I don’t have it yet. I wonder if I ever will…

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Christmas Portrait," by Carpenters

First off, a few pieces of housekeeping: Carpenters released their first Christmas album in 1978, it was titled, Christmas Portrait and is the album I’m discussing in this entry. Being big fans of the holiday genre and putting together songs for their 1977 and 1978 Christmas television specials, the siblings recorded far too many holiday songs to fit onto one album, so the additional tracks were shelved, later to surface in the posthumous 1984 Carpenters album, An Old Fashioned Christmas. The second holiday album should have been released as an eight song EP, as it contained only seven songs with Karen’s miraculous lead (“Home For The Holidays,” “Little Alter Boy,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” "He Came Here For Me,” “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” and the 1974 winter single, released almost simultaneously with their #1 hit “Please Mr. Postman,” “Santa Clause Is Coming To Town”). Other than the Karen leads (and the softhearted title track, sung by Richard), An Old Fashioned Christmas is largely forgettable and not recommended. Also in 1984, A&M Records released a “special edition” CD version of Christmas Portrait, which mishandles the entire enterprise altogether, including far too many orchestrations from An Old Fashioned Christmas and completely botching the sequencing of the original Christmas Portrait songs. I highly recommend you avoid the “special edition,” CD/iTunes album and opt, instead, for the 1996 Christmas Collection, which includes both holiday albums, including the original (albeit remixed) Christmas Portrait. You’ve been warned. Now on with the review:

Richard and Karen Carpenter were born to make a Christmas album (and had been interested in doing so since they exploded onto the music scene in 1970), because the Christmas album genre plays so succinctly to their musical strengths: strong vocals, inventive, melodic arrangements, and old-fashioned loveliness. Based loosely on Spike Jones’ 1956 holiday album, It’s A Spike Jones Christmas, to which the siblings grew up listening (and is now available for download on iTunes, as Let’s Sing A Song Of Christmas and is well-worth adding to your holiday collection – note: longtime fans of Christmas Portrait will be surprised at just how much the siblings actually lifted from the Jones’ album), Christmas Portrait includes many of the tunes featured on that album as well as a few sacred songs of the season (i.e., “Silent Night,” “Ave Maria,” and Richard’s lead on the sublime album opener, “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,” which is followed by a remarkable instrumental overture, building anticipation to Karen’s stunning introductory lead in “The Christmas Waltz”) and a re-recorded version of their 1970 single and Carpenter-penned holiday standard, “Merry Christmas Darling.” Note: while the 1978 recording is far superior, the lovely original version can be found on the boxed set, From The Top, and the repackaged boxed set, The Essential Collection).

Most of the songs from Christmas Portrait were originally introduced to the public via the sibling’s horrendous (and top-rated) 1977 televised Christmas special, The Carpenters At Christmas, which did nothing to endear the duo to rock critics (and that didn’t matter, anyway, as the duo’s non-holiday music career spiraled further and further into Captain And Tennille-chasing, Air Supply-inspiring, adult-contemporary irrelevance/Hell). Replete with cornball skits and tacky, over-the-top dance numbers, the special regularly makes an appearance on YouTube around the holidays and is recommended for completests and Carpenter-philes only (among the ranks of which, of course, I count myself). The music therein, however, is marvelous. The remainder of the songs that made up the eventual Christmas album (strangely, released almost a year later, in October of 1978) was featured on the duo’s 1978 Christmas Special, the aptly titled, Christmas Portrait, which was just as horrific as the first (the television special, that is, where Karen opens with the privileged, oblivious line, "Merry Christmas, EVERYONE!"). But as stated earlier, the music was sublime, including two of my favorite Karen Carpenter vocals, specifically, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and “Ave Maria,” which, with it’s crazy, high register-to-low register, is almost impossible to sing, yet, Karen Carpenter makes it sound effortless (she reportedly nailed the vocal in one take). Simply exquisite.

But mostly, Richard’s and Karen’s classic Christmas album takes me back to the farm. It takes me back to decorating the Christmas tree on Thanksgiving day with Sis, Jeff, Heather, and Harlan; it takes me back to watching the glow of the tree lights at night and dreaming of what I might find underneath on December 25th (that seemed to take FOREVER to arrive). Christmas Portrait takes me back to Christmas Eve services at church, it takes me back to staying up all night on the 24th with Jeff and Harlan (we were too excited to sleep!), and to rising before dawn, watching with my brothers the torturous, taunting clock creep forward until everyone else eventually arose in the morning. Christmas Portrait takes me back to my father’s handsome, red velvet smoking jacket, to my beautiful mother, who meticulously orchestrated the scrumptious holiday meals, it takes me back to visits from older siblings (from far away and from close by). Christmas Portrait takes me back to waiting my turn to open a present, and to gorging myself on turkey and stuffing, and to eventually passing out from exhaustion by 8pm Christmas night. Christmas Portrait annually reignites those memories and keeps them alive for me. I presume it always will.