Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Review: The Little Willies

(Milking Bull Records, March 2006)

Lee Alexander, Richard Julian, Jim Campilongo form the guitar backbone of The Little Willies (on Milking Bull Records) with Norah Jones on piano and Dan Rieser on drums. This kitchen-table gathering of musicians having a good time together puts out a mix of country standard covers and some original work, capturing the simplicity and down-to-earth humanness of grassroot America. Among the covers, Roly Poly, (supersize anthem, delight of the corn lobby), Best of All Possible Worlds, and Streets of Baltimore stand out. Of the originals, Lou Reed, a song about the VU rocker’s rumored fondness for cow-tipping, a juvenile practice of pushing sleeping standing cows over, is notable for its chatty balladic style, while Roll On and Easy as the Rain are masterly. My favorite on this album (after Roly Poly) is the heartbreak song It’s Not You It’s Me, a slow jiving showcase of vocals and piano work.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Review: Possibilities by Herbie Hancock & Friends

Herbie Hancock is an indexing nightmare. His love for experimentation has seen him tagged under techno, funk, rock, disco, hip hop, electronica, and I almost forgot, jazz, though I have almost all of his work tagged under classics and favorites. It was with some trepidation that the purist in me first listened to Possibilities since I have not yet been able to appreciate why The Definitive Herbie should include Rock-It. However, after several listens, this album stands out as a fine partnership that showcases the real talent of the singer collaborators (and Phish guitarist Tray Anastacio) who are spurred by the subtle and nonintrusive yet demanding backing of Hancock.

The opening track with aspiring bluesboy John Mayer, Stitched Up, sets the tone for the rest of the album, you are going to listen to pop, but of a highly jazzed up sort. Stitched Up is bouncy, minimalist swing, something that tells you to sit back and enjoy, and not to take things too seriously. Santana and Angelique Kidjo team up for Safiatou, a standard Santana riff-held song, one wonders if Hancock is employing restraint or is just not into it. To be taken strictly as a Santana track. Christina Aguilera on Song For You comes and changes that, and you realize how untapped this lady’s singing is. Her Grammy awards night performance of the same song is however a slightly better version though it falters a bit as it climaxes to a close. Sting comes across on Sister Moon like a track missed out on All This Time, brooding and beautifully twisted, and one is reminded of his 1987 Umbria Jazz Fest performance with Gil Evans. When Love Comes to Town with Joss Stone and Johnny Lang is a classic blues rock, complete with growls and yelps, and the duo belt it out with reckless abandon, a pleasure indeed, reminds me strangely of Pam Crain and Nondon Bagchi. The three songs that take time and repeat listens to make their point are Annie Lennox’s Hush, Hush, Hush, Paul Simons I Do It For Your Love, and Raul Midon’s I Just Called To Say I Love You.

Overall, a great album if one approaches it without preconditions. This is not a Hancock showcaser, he is just providing the consistency to the gravy, and good gravy it is. The singers all bring their best to the album, and are allowed to do what they want without being overpowered or jazzed over. A definite good buy.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Review: Chaos & Creation in the Backyard-Paul McCartney (Capitol)

Being born in a month of Prairie Wind and A Bigger Bang, Chaos and Creation definitely risks coming across as pointless and watered down. However, this is vintage Macca, taking his standard wry digs at his own sugary lyricism ("very twee/very me" on English Tea), with a smattering of exotic instruments, almost all played by himself, and an early adapter apology cum standard disclaimer (It's a fine line between recklessness and courage/.../there is a long way between chaos and creation), and of course, a love song ("Got me hooked/Got me hooked" on A Certain Softness) that is, true to himself, silly, all of this held together by some very fine engineering, though on repeated listening, the layering on some tracks does sound a little contrived, but one can live with it. The recurrent themes of loss and grief, requited and unrequited love, being misunderstood, and unbridled, if not corny, optimism (Only love is strong enough to take it on the chin) run through this album. This is no Mensa pop, not a Band on the Run, not even a Tug of War, but it spells craftsmanship and comfort at every turn, and will stay in the beatniks' changers for a while to come.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Throwback

Some of my other writing, articles, poetry, and other rants blogged here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Importance of Being Norah Jones

We live in a world changing faster than we can imagine. My children will not figure out one for sorrow, two for joy in a hurry since my calendar doesn’t let me take them to a zoo to see a bird till late next year. Candy Shop is a love song, and It Wasn’t Me is a song of freedom. The harsh geopolitical and sociocultural realities for a species that is obviously overreaching are clear for all of us to see. We have indiscriminately wiped out natural resources, thoughtlessly added to the fragility of our planet’s ecosystem, trod upon the values of gentleness and civility, taken out patents on gene structures that we have not made, and allowed Mammon to reside at the center of our collective being. Most parents today strive to bring their children up to be a string of alphabets offered at the altar of commerce and justifiably so. Struggling poets, singers, or artists are not the winners of today. For a creative artist to become a winner, he or she again has to follow the dictates of the buyer, and more often than not, the promoter or manager who has his own ideas about creativity that sells.

At every point in time, there are those who choose to place creative form above all other considerations. However, never has it been so striking as it is at present, never has the contrast been louder. If one looks at contemporary popular music, it is dominated by two clear trends. The first is the “popular popular,” gangsta, teeny bop, glamour dolls, boy bands, and latino flesh fests. This segment is characterized by catchy tunes, usually beat driven, and surviving on quick turnover, before you forget the last tune, a new g-string is on. The other category is that of “the thinking person’s pop,” and this has two components again, the elder statesmen and the young Turks. Gone are the days when you could play the latest releases from Dylan, Beach Boys and the Jackson Five back to back and not be dissonant. Today, understanding and appreciating the divide between meaningful, relevant artistic expression and the more commodified assembly line kitsch is all the more important in light of the fact that we as a civilization stand at the crossroads.

A turning point in modern music was the coming together of the civil rights movement and the pacifism movement, when song and social change got inextricably linked. This same link was seen earlier in the holler and the blues, but this time around, in the 60s and 70s, it was of “great social and political import.” Down the line however, the me too generation and the gen next with their own ideas about life chose to forge its own new sound. But many of the rockers of the golden era carry on this task of being socially relevant through their music into today, and often with great commercial success too, since the fans of these elder statesmen are now at an age and economic strata where they drive concert ticket and album sales and drive them well all over the world.

Along with aging rockers who throw in a song for their current love into every release, a new breed of women singers are also breathing a different life into the song. The likes of Alanis Morisette, Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux, Joss Stone, Alicia Keys, Alison Krauss, Norah Jones are snatching airplay from the j.los and the shakiras. Yet if you look at these artists from the more popular side of the fence, they come across as staid and stuffy. Melodious yes, but what good is a song with no shaking booty or jiggling bust? What good is a song that doesn’t help me feel okay about rampant materialism, institutionalized vandalism, and objectification of women into crack house floozies? Well, record sales and peer recognition say it is good. The common threads include the fact that all of these singers have kept the song at the forefront of their performance, and are fiercely defensive of their creative freedom. All are obviously indifferent to, perhaps even uncomfortable with the trappings of public adulation. Perhaps a large chunk of their attractiveness lies in this ordinariness. And lastly, they have largely defied traditional commercial wisdom and yet continued to have good sales. Their audiences are as appreciative in Canada, US, and UK as they are in China, Ghana and Colombo.

After her very successful debut, it would have been only natural for Norah Jones and her club friends to go after a repeat of the genre. But instead, she did an out and out country album in between collaborations with Willie Nelson and Ray Charles, and came out on top again. On the other hand, the stubbornness and commercial and critical acclaim with which Alanis Morisette has been blending wit, angst and her personal new age worldview defies marketing logic; one may have thought that the listening public will have had enough of it, but no, she does it over, and gets better every time. Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux, with their quiet intensity and Alison Krauss with her fiddle toting bluegrass activism keep doing what they are best at and what they believe in. Joss Stone, the white Brit teenage jazz singer (not sure which order that should be in), is the odd one out, doing to the blues what Eminem did to rap, and it is perhaps too early to predict what the labels will do to an obviously and abundantly talented blueswoman. If Peyroux and Krall stand at the more classicist points of the musical scale and Jones and Krauss at the more Romantic, Alicia Keys represent the more urban (since urban is neither classical nor romantic, it is a condemnation entirely of its own) end of this spectrum, with her subtle arrangements emphasizing lyricism, melody and relevance while leaving her rap and hip hop roots intact.

What is noticeable in this trend is also the fact that this segment enjoys high regard within the industry. The industry awards over the last several years (remember Bonnie Rait?) have clearly showed that alongside popular and commercial appeal, there is from the artistic community a growing support for and recognition of efforts at retaining artistic integrity and promoting universal values like love, tolerance for each other, intolerance of militancy, violence, and aggression, concern for the future of humanity, etc. This is important because it tells us that we need to wake up to the fact that the forces that can destroy us are not all powerful and have an antidote. That antidote is an open mind, love and trust, standing up against injustice, sharing and sustaining the sacred and the beautiful. This antidote is being generated worldwide in literature, theater and films, music, and the electronic and cyber media, but perhaps the rate of inoculation is still a little low.

In our times, many have held a gloomy view of the future of our kind, that mankind is on a path that would surely and completely wipe out civility, gentleness, aesthetics and the higher values that many of us believe are what sets us apart from other species. But in light of the “rebel forces” that are standing up against the dehumanizing aspects of commercialization and globalization, it is perhaps time to climb off that perch of pessimism and do our bit to build a society that thrives on respect for the finer and more enduring aspects of human society. We have way too much of history to learn from to be making those mistakes again. And for those of us who are unable to get to the front, let us at least stand behind the Norah Joneses as they strive to bring back all that is beautiful about being human.
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