Trying To Get To You

Friday, January 19, 2007

Indie Rock With Heart

It’s a busy time in indie rock land. Highly anticipated records from the Shins, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Arcade Fire are about to land, and given those band's intense fan bases and rest of the slump the record business is in, it’s quite possible that all of the above records are going to debut very high in the charts, which may inspire a slew of “the triumph of indie rock amidst the decline of the major labels” articles.

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with indie rock. I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees many of the seminal records and bands of the genre, but with the exception of the first Liz Phair album, I can’t think of any indie rock albums I’ve had real and lasting passion for. (When I picked up the reissue of Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain last year, it had been the first time in years that I had listened to them - the album still sounded good, but I hadn't missed them all that much.) In music, I usually look for heat, and most indie rock I’ve heard has provided me with dispassionate cool. When I’ve wanted communion with music, indie rock to me has felt like clichéd alienation from artists (and an audience) that use irony and braininess as a substitute for talent. And finally, for me, most of it doesn't really rock, and almost none of it has any soul.

I write this because I’ve been listening to an indie rock record a lot the past couple of weeks; the Broken West’s I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On. They’re an L.A. band that record for Merge, the Arcade Fire’s label. But while the Arcade Fire has the glamour, the buzz, the celebrity fan base (Bowie and Byrne) and enough weirdness to be cool, what I hear from the Broken West is a lot of heart. I heard the first track on the album, “On The Bubble,” on another blog a couple of weeks ago, and was really taken in by the song. I've always thought the genre heading "indie pop" was faintly stupid, but this is it – and it sounds really good.

I’ve only spent time with about the first six songs, and at least four of them so far are winners. Check out “On The Bubble;” it’s not music as concept, deliberately obscure, snobbish or incomprehensible – it’s just music that sounds good. I hope this record gets the attention it deserves - given the indie rock press's tendency to look down upon accesibility, I have a feeling it's going to be damned with faint praise. That would be a shame. But a predictable one.

Download: "On The Bubble"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Amy Winehouse At Joe's Pub

There was a real sense of excited anticipation for Amy Winehouse’s American debut last night at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan. On the heels of a number one album in the U.K. and momentum building for her U.S. album release in March, a downtown scenester audience (and Jay-Z, which stamps any NYC event as officially noteworthy) was there to commune with Amy and hopefully bestow their approval upon her.

Behind a nine piece band (2 guitarists, bassist, drummer, keyboardist and four piece horn section) and with two backup singers, Amy slinked onstage, wearing a little black dress and heels with her hair in a style that I can only call “Ronnie Spector meets the Bride of Frankenstein.” Sporting a right arm covered in two tattoos of 40’s style pinup girls and with a drink in her hand, she seemed a little nervous, but in control of herself.

What immediately became apparent is that Miss Winehouse has pipes and talent to burn. Her voice is strong, rich and supple onstage, and she’s charismatic enough to keep command of the crowd. She’s immensely likable; nothing struck me as phony about her. What’s missing right now is any sense of professionalism; in the U.K., she’s as well known for her love of the bottle as she is for her music, and last night she was knocking back Amaretto Sours one after the other, and even taking sips of her drink in between lines of one song. She may want to be a Femme Fatale soul singer, but it seems as though her onstage role model may be Dean Martin at the Sands.

Her band can also use some major work; the drummer played with no real sense of drive and swing, crucial for a great soul show. In general, the band's playing felt very polite, not nearly as powerful as it needed to be. I’m not sure if they were holding back because they have one eye on their playing and one eye on making sure Amy’s holding it together, but the songs felt generally rushed, and the inherent sense of drama in the recorded versions was not apparent at all.

After a fifty-minute set the crowd was very enthusiastic in their applause, but I was left thinking about what the show could have been with a few adjustments. With some slight rearranging, adjustments in pacing and just slowing it all down, Amy Winehouse’s show has the potential to be far more than what she displayed last night. Whether she chooses to take that next step as a performer will determine whether she’ll be an artist of any lasting impact.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What's After Hip-Hop?

Rap album sales were down 20% last year (compared to down 5% for the entire market) and for the first time in years, the biggest selling rap album (T.I.'s King) sold less than two million copies. I don't believe at all that rap is dying, but I do believe that it's a genre that has "matured."

"The black audience's consumerism and restlessness burns out and abandons musical styles, whereas white Americans, in the European tradition of supporting forms and style for the sake of tradition, seem to hold styles dear long after they have ceased to evolve. Blacks create and then move on. Whites document and then recycle. In the history of popular music, these truths are self-evident" - Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm & Blues
I quote these words because rap has been around for over a quarter of a century, and it's been culturally dominant for around twenty. The history of black music is that every major musical style eventually loses it's dominance; jazz, after 30 years ceded the throne to r&b, which went to soul, which went to disco which went to rap. So if the above is true, then what is going to come next? Are there sounds of change in the underground? (If there are, I haven't heard them yet.)

I love hip-hop, but I regret that it decimated the tradition of the black bandleader. I can't think of an artist since Prince (who's pre-rap) that follows the tradition of James Brown, Sly Stone, Sam Moore and others (never mind Ellington, Basie, Gillespie, etc.), who made watching and hearing a band a thrilling experience. Black music never goes backward, it only goes forward, so it's difficult me to imagine the concept of the band making a big comeback in commercial black music - but something, hopefully soon, will emerge from the streets to make rap the old man on the block. I look forward to whatever it is.

No One Does Death Like Rolling Stone

The new issue of Rolling Stone is a tribute issue to both James Brown and Ahmet Ertegun. It’s filled with some great writing; Gerri Hershey’s piece on James is excellent, filled with anecdotes and insight born from a twenty-five year friendship with the Godfather. The Ahmet Ertegun section is lovingly done, featuring recollections by many artists and an interview with Jerry Wexler.

It’s issues like this when Rolling Stone really shines. Their command of the history of rock and soul is unmatched in the mainstream magazine world and as much as anyone, they’re a curator for the music. (Hell, they basically run the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.) I still have their tribute issues to John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. I vividly recall comparing the Cobain tribute issue to Spin Magazine's (a magazine that was much more culturally simpatico with Nirvana than Rolling Stone) tribute, and noticing how much better and insightful the writing was in Rolling Stone. I think it was Greil Marcus who said, “No one does death like Rolling Stone.”

The magazine is an easy target for a lot of people. I think the ratio of scorn to praise for the magazine is about 10:1. I’ve been reading it for twenty-five years and I remember people saying it had become irrelevant even back then. But I’m quick to defend them. Why? Well, who the hell are they supposed to put on the cover? Rolling Stone is a mainstream magazine of a large size. What interesting rock stars/bands are there that can sell covers at that level? Ryan Adams? The Killers? The Fray? The Arcade Fire? Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? If your answer to that, like mine, is no, then you can’t blame Rolling Stone. They only reflect the current state of rock – they don't shape it anymore (if they ever did) and the fact is that most rock has gotten too small to be on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Record Business Question Of The Day

Can anyone name a business besides the record business where the product available illegally is better than the one that is available to the consumer legally?

On the vaunted iTunes (which sells 70% of all legal downloads), I can only buy a copy protected 128AAC file, a file inferior in audio quality to 192mp3 (and higher) files. On illegal BitTorrent music sites, unprotected 192mp3 files are usually the lowest sound quality they offer! Do a majority of music fans care about sound quality? I have my doubts, but certainly the most hard core music fans do, the ones that proselytize about music and would be the first fans of a great legal downloading service, one that provides more, rather than less choice for the consumer.

eMusic is to be commended for offering unprotected files at 192kbps. But even there, there's no choice in the matter. Give me every sound quality option possible, at a price point that reflects the quality of the product I'm buying. I'm willing to pay full album price to download a full audio quality track. But $10 bucks for an album that sounds markedly inferior to what I can get in a store...or get for free in better quality somewhere else. Forget it. If the record business is to survive this period, they're going to have to win the consumer back by offering more choice - not restricting it.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Jerry Wexler At 90

From yesterday's Wall Street Journal, an article about one of my heroes, Jerry Wexler.

A Cultural Conversation
At 90, He Still Has CDs to Burn
By ASHLEY KAHN
January 10, 2007; Page D9

Sarasota, Fla.

In New York City in the '30s, at a time when jazz was simply
called "hot" and wind-up record players revolved 78 times a minute,
they were the record collectors.

A small, cosmopolitan circle of young hipsters -- WASPs, Jews,
Germans, Turks -- would gather. They prized and hunted down rare
recordings of this music; frequented jam sessions at places like
Jimmy Ryan's and the Famous Door; and argued the relative merits of
men like King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Henry "Red" Allen and Louis
Armstrong.


They were self-appointed archivists, proudly aware that few ears
heard the earthy magic that enraptured theirs. "Oh, we were
absolutely a cult. It was 'we happy few,' as the English say," says
Jerry Wexler. "We were groupies without the sexual component. We
used to get together and listen to records. And maybe we'd smoke a
cigarette without any name on it."

Celebrating his 90th birthday today, Mr. Wexler is revered for his
role as producer and former president of Atlantic Records, the label
he co-led for 22 years with Ahmet Ertegun (who died this past Dec.
16). Together, the Jewish pool-hall hustler from the north end of
Manhattan and the erudite son of a Turkish diplomat educated in
Washington built an empire from a small notion of a company. In
doing so, they helped lead the progress of popular music from rhythm-
and-blues (a term Mr. Wexler himself coined while a reporter) to the
rise of rock, producing music by Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner,
Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and the
Rolling Stones.

A Great Fraternity

The two grew from mere collectors to become leaders and legends in
the recording industry, but as Mr. Wexler notes, they weren't the
only ones whose early devotion to jazz paved the way to significant
careers. "That was a great fraternity of music lovers who, very
strangely, became music entrepreneurs and producers and directors
and label owners."

In that coterie there was John Hammond, who brought Benny Goodman,
Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan to Columbia Records, and George
Avakian, who did the same with Miles Davis. Alfred Lion, who started
the Blue Note label, and Bob Thiele, who ran Impulse. Milt Gabler,
whose Commodore Music Shop in midtown Manhattan proved the launching
pad for this group, and who headed Decca, producing Bing Crosby,
Sammy Davis Jr. and Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Nesuhi
Ertegun -- Ahmet's brother -- who became one of the Atlantic troika,
producing John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus.

Try to imagine a parallel in another industry: a group of model
airplane hobbyists later helming Delta, Northwest and
Continental? "This didn't happen, and doesn't happen, anywhere else,
as far as I know: music fans actually becoming principals in the
milieu that they loved and adored," Mr. Wexler says. "Of course, the
contrast to what the business became is enormous. There's nothing
like that anymore."

Tiffany Record Company

Much is not like it was in the business of music. Ask any executive
dealing with the fluctuations and changes of the past five years.
There's irony in Mr. Wexler's complaint, for his triumphs at
Atlantic helped spur general growth in an industry where his owner-
operator role became outdated, and major labels separated along
business and artistic lines. "There are no more producers who run
their own record companies -- not significant companies. There
aren't even staff producers anymore. Because Ahmet and I were in the
studio back in the '50s and '60s, Atlantic had a special aura. We
were regarded as the little Tiffany record company."

Accepting an offer of equity in the company, Mr. Wexler moved to
Atlantic in 1953, having served as a reporter for the trade journal
Billboard and promotion man for a music publisher. The fledgling
label was six years old, an independent fighting for market share
among the major companies of the day.

Mr. Wexler recalls: "I came into Atlantic as the daily op[erations]
man, calling the distributors for payments and raising hell. And
until 1959, I produced with Ahmet. We did everything together. Our
desks were in the same room at 234 W. 56th Street, over Patsy's
restaurant. We started out making R&B -- black music for black
adults. A good way to contrast it is with Motown: They made black
music for American teenagers."

Atlantic operated on a day-to-day basis. "We never had a recording
budget or a sales budget," Mr. Wexler says. "We always made it on
next month's receivables. We had a good roster of repeating artists
and were able to sell enough singles. I remember back in the
early '50s what we had to do was sell 60,000 singles a month. That
paid for our salaries and the operation.

"At a certain point, we had to grow -- a record company can't stay
static. But we never had a grand plan or strategy, only tactics. It
was not a conscious decision to go for the big market and rock 'n'
roll. In the beginning we made sporadic efforts that didn't quite
work out. But eventually we had Cream and Sonny & Cher and the Bee
Gees. Then Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and Led Zeppelin."

In 1967, the same year Mr. Wexler guided Aretha Franklin to an
unbroken string of Top 10 hits, he persuaded his partners -- Ahmet
and Nesuhi -- to sell Atlantic to the Warner media conglomerate
(then called Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which was soon bought by Steve
Ross's Kinney Services). It was a decision Mr. Wexler now regrets as
naïvely premature.

The three continued to head Atlantic, but were accountable to
shareholders; the small Tiffany label that had successfully competed
with the majors became a major itself. "In the long run the deal
didn't work out too bad for Ahmet," says Mr. Wexler, referring to
Ertegun's 40-year reign as the leading record man at the Warner
family of labels. Mr. Wexler did not fare as well.

"The fact that we had sold didn't change the way we worked, because
Steve Ross never interfered. But some of those big brains on the
corporate board would come up with ideas like we should poll the
kids at the malls to see what songs Aretha Franklin should record. I
would explode when they'd bring up that stuff."

Retirement

In 1975, Mr. Wexler left his post at Atlantic and became an in-
demand free-lance producer. The next few years saw him create albums
for Bob Dylan, Etta James, Willie Nelson and Dire Straits, and a
memorable soundtrack for the film "Pretty Baby." In 1985, he married
his third wife, the novelist Jean Arnold, and entered a life of
semiretirement.

Today, the Wexlers reside in a gated community in Sarasota, Fla.
Their house overlooks a placid seawater inlet. In the living room,
Grammy awards and other statuettes stand among photographs of family
and friends: Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, the Muscle Shoals rhythm
section. On the walls are original Magritte lithographs, Félix
Vallotton woodcuts, and a portrait of New Orleans piano maestro
Malcolm Rebennack -- known popularly as Dr. John.

"The two albums I'm proudest of producing are Dr. John's 'Gumbo'
and 'Doug Sahm and Band,'" Mr. Wexler says, naming a pair of titles
that cover the richly varied heritage of, respectively, New Orleans
and Texas. "And they both tanked," he adds almost gleefully. "Two of
Atlantic's worst sellers."

Mr. Wexler does little to hide the fact that he has disengaged
himself from the music business. He scoffs when asked if he still
reads Billboard. "In what way could it possibly engage me? I'm not
involved in it. It seems very alien to me."

In fact, Mr. Wexler hides little at all. Two weeks ago, white-
whiskered and T-shirted, he exhibited much of the legendary drive
that enabled him to produce and promote Atlantic's musicians to the
top of the charts. He moved briskly from room to room, and from task
to task: Overseeing his wife's coming surgery. Creating copies of
music from his personal collection -- "I'm always burning CDs for
people. I used to burn a lot for Ahmet." Fielding calls from a new
circle of music enthusiasts wishing to include his words in a
variety of audio and video projects.

"Everybody seems to be coming to my door: BBC, NPR. Well, there
aren't too many people at the age of 90 that are coherent or even
alive. And not everybody can deliver a paragraph extemporaneously."

Mr. Wexler may remain in the full embrace of music, and of his left-
leaning roots: "I'm a liberal, white-wine-drinking, quiche-eating,
foreign-movie-watching, yellow-dog Democrat," he exclaimed at one
point. But the kind of health concerns that come with advanced age
have him mindful of entering his 10th decade. "I'm not ravished by
the idea I'm going to be 90. Please, no paper hats, no ice cream."

The End of an Era

That Mr. Wexler is one of a few surviving members of the music-
focused fraternity of his youth was brought home by last month's sad
news. "I just wrote a letter to [Ahmet Ertegun's widow] Mica saying
that every day when I wake up I don't think Ahmet's gone, I just
think he's not here. I've been playing Jimmy Yancey over and over
and over."

In "Rhythm and the Blues," Mr. Wexler's 1993 autobiography that
describes a path that began on the sidewalks of Manhattan and
reached the highest musical summits, there are two simple words on
the dedication page: "For Ahmet."

"Well, in a way," Mr. Wexler explains, "he handed me a life."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Book My Flight To London

What’s up with the ladies in the U.K. these days?

In the past two weeks I’ve fallen for two women from the U.K. One is Lily Allen, whose album has I’ve had on repeat continually since the New Year began. Now there’s Amy Winehouse, whose name I've been hearing in the etherea and have finally gotten a chance to hear. The girl is good. She’s a jazz/soul singer with a big voice and a big presence who comes off as a boozy broad with a “T” for trouble tattooed on her forehead and who's probably a little bit too smart for her own good. Hanging her own laundry out to dry in her songs, it becomes obvious that she’s comfortable with making her audience uncomfortable. “Rehab,” the lead single of her new album Back To Black, describes her manager’s attempt to get her into rehab for booze, to no avail (she got rid of her manager instead), and sprinkled throughout the album are references to her own foibles. Mark Ronson handled a much of the production, and he strikes the right balance between finding the 60’s girl group/soul vibe while keeping it rhythmically and sonically modern.

“You Know I’m No Good,” the second single, wins my vote for best song on the album. It finds the perfect balance between retro and modern; its syncopated kick/snare opening is inconceivable without hip-hop, but it never loses the organic retro soul feel it’s obviously going for. Each instrumental fits perfectly with each other – the bass line, melodically hypnotic, drops in perfectly with the (I assume) sampled rhythm guitar that sounds as though it’s from some long lost Jamaican rock steady song. Follow that with a sublimely arranged horn section and you’ve already got nirvana, without even getting to the vocals. It’s a cheating song – but of all the cheating songs I’ve ever heard, I can’t think of one where a woman strays on her boyfriend, but only orgasms with the other guy when she’s thinking about her boyfriend. Ultimately, it’s a song of regret, resignation and disgust ("I cheated myself, like I knew I would/I told you I was trouble, you know I’m no good"), which Amy conveys very soulfully. It's a wonderful song.

Download: "You Know I'm No Good"

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Killers Should Have Stolen THIS From Bruce

I've been listening non-stop to "Protection," a song that Springsteen gave to Donna Summer in 1982. (He originally wrote "Cover Me" for her, but Jon Landau heard that song and told him there was no way he was going to let Bruce give it away, and so Bruce wrote "Protection" around a similar idea.) I've never heard Summer's version, but listening to Springsteen's version that he did with the band during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions, I can't help but wish that he had kept this and given "Cover Me" to the then Queen of Disco instead. The song positively sizzles (as does Bruce's closing solo) - it's one of the many of songs he's left off albums that make you scratch your head and wonder, "How the hell could he have left this off?"

And upon further listening, I realize that it's this Bruce template of simplicity, hooks AND drama that the Killers should have modeled their new record on, instead of the more complex grandiosity of Born To Run. I think they'd actually do a pretty interesting version of it.

Download: "Protection"

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I'm Glad I'm Not The Dude In This Video

I really love the Lily Allen record. But man, this video...every "nice" bone in my body is telling me it's wrong, but I think great.

She's certainly caused a stir in the U.K. Her record comes out in the U.S. at the end of the month - if I had to bet on it, I think she's going to happen.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

James's One Time Heir

I was flying home Saturday on Jet Blue, watching one of those little TVs they have in the seats and I came across live coverage of James Brown's funeral in Augusta, GA. A few minutes into watching it, Michael Jackson appeared and made a short speech. His arrival sparked a roar from the crowd; it was a warm and welcoming welcome. Michael made a brief speech acknowledging his love for James and the inspiration that he found in his music. In the early 80's, Michael acknowledged the influence: "He gets so out of himself. I just love him. I do. I'd be there in the wings when I was like six and seven. I'd sit there and watch for hours and forget where I was."

I mention this because at one time, Michael Jackson was the obvious heir to James Brown; the African-American male performer as everything - singer, songwriter, producer, dancer, idol, icon and entrepreneur. It's been just about twenty years now that Michael as spectacle has overtaken his immense artistry, and the crushing weight of that hit me as I watched him speak at James's funeral. It's a tragedy of Elvis-like proportions. It's been a long time since I've thought of Michael Jackson as an artist in the present tense. Rather, I've come to contemplate him as a living and breathing tragedy, a man of immense gifts laid low, disconnected from reality itself and existing for the world as a freak show.

will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas says that he's working on the next Michael record. I can't imagine the record being any good, because I can't imagine Michael saying anything that will resonate. Does Michael Jackson have anything real to say to his listeners in 2007? Or is this the attempt of a man, soon to be 50, who is trying desperately re-establish a title for himself that he long ago lost? I hope for the former, I expect the likelihood of the latter.

Download: The Jacksons "Walk Right Now"
Download: Chris Rock "Jacksons Gone Wild"

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