Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Debt of Gratitude to This Decade in Music, Part II

Part I of this essay declared my gratitude for music that came out of the early part of the past decade. Before I discuss some of the music that came into my world in the latter part of the decade, I think it is important to mention the change that has occurred over the past 10 years in consumer access to new and exciting music.

Around the time the new millennium rolled around, I discovered something that turned my love for the music of Stevie Nicks into a full-fledged obsession: I found her fan-generated web page. Not only did I learn then that there was a whole community of people who shared love for her music, I could go back and read every article ever published, every interview she ever gave. It was a treasure trove for the musically obsessed mind. It was around this time that Napster was gaining user momentum, and I was thrilled to discover I could obtain rare demos and live recordings from the cyber-community of music fans. In 10 short years, the online music community has exploded into an abundance of social networking sites, on-line magazines, and blogs where music lovers can sample music, watch live performances, and connect with one-another. Needless to say, I would not be the hyper-tuned-in music fan I am today without the technology of MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Last.fm and the countless magazines and blogs I visit weekly.

And let me just say, YouTube is a beautiful thing. To listen to music is one thing, but to view live clips of the music physically coming from a band or a singer can take your appreciation of that music to a much greater level. YouTube gives us up-close views that only the optimal concert experience can yield. Let’s face it – most of us are deprived of our optimal concert experience by geography, finances, or just being born in the wrong decade. Fortunately, YouTube allows us the ability to experience music in a more intimate way. YouTube can be a band’s best friend or its worst enemy; for better or worse, it reveals the authenticity in their playing, stage presence, and charisma. I have never been to an Arcade Fire concert, but I know they are a breathtaking live show; I have seen the video. Although video can never be the same as actually being there, YouTube is free and accessible to the masses, and it conveys the emotion of a performance well.

In addition to all of the changes in how we access music and view performance, the cool thing about the past decade in music is the breakdown and meshing of genres. Bands are pulling textures from all sorts of influences to create fresh sounds. The result is hybrids of rock, electronic, classical, blues, funk, cabaret, and various other genres. This is not the time for music purists. Bands may change their sound significantly from album to album, even from song to song within the same album; the challenge they have is in maintaining cohesiveness.

The Killers have been especially meaningful to me in recent years because the diversity of genres and influences is heavily represented in their songs, and they wear their own music fandom on their (opulently decorated) sleeves. As a band that repeatedly pays homage to the bands that have inspired them, they talk openly about their influences, continuously experiment with different musical styles, embrace the recording of cover songs, and collaborate with incredible artists. Because of the Killers, I have revisited artists and bands from past decades that I had earlier dismissed, for example ELO, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. The way in which the Killers blend styles and genres, for me, acted as a “101 Guide” to older artists, and made them more palatable then they were to me previously. Discovering their music opened my mind to many new sub-genres of rock and roll, and for that, I am grateful.

Muse is another band that completely revived my interest in rock music this decade. Their blend of hard rock, classical symphony, and electronic music was so fresh and new to my ears. Muse is the mad-minded professor of the rock world right now. Every album is crafted like a magnificent opus, and the themes of their songs include conspiracy politics, metaphysics, literature, and philosophy. Each new album they release is both sonically and socially thought provoking. I have not been to a Muse live show and I will not rest until I see the mad professors in action. 2010 will be the year.

The later half of this decade has introduced me to many young bands, and I look forward to following many promising careers into the next decade. Arctic Monkeys, Gaslight Anthem, White Rabbits, and Howling Bells are just a few examples of bands that have impressed me with excellently written albums and legitimate, authentic playing. As this decade comes to a close, music lovers have a lot to be excited about for the immediate future of rock and roll. A strange mix of authenticity and fantasy permeates the musical climate, and rather than existing separate from one another, they are increasingly present within artists’ work. Music by bands like MGMT and Phoenix is genuinely artistically crafted, but there are fanciful, playful elements to their songs.

For too long, rock music has taken itself too seriously. Sub-genres were strictly classified and a divisive snobbery among music fans has divided us in the past. That is not to say that music elitism does not still exist, but it is breaking down. Social networking, and the ability to sample music from new artists, is creating a music environment that is more populist and fan-driven. Bands communicate directly with fans, inform them of live shows and offer access to free or inexpensive downloads. Fans can decide for themselves what they like and what they don’t like. Increased populism in the industry is making the roles of the record executive and the rock critic increasingly obsolete. I believe that an environment where executives and critics have less clout will ultimately foster more creativity, less fear, and greater risk taking on the part of artists.

Bye 2000’s! I will remember you fondly. Bring on the New Year, the new decade!

-AZ

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Classic Clips: Fleetwood Mac, Tusk Tour 1979 “Angel”

Much of what makes bands so fascinating is that they are traveling families, and no matter what dysfunction stems from weeks, months and years on the road, their love of making music together is often the only stabilizing force that keeps the unit from imploding. Further, the chaos and tension among members can often breed fantastic, creative honesty. Fleetwood Mac is my favorite example, and probably the most documented in rock music, of the unifying power of music among a group of people who can no longer stand the sight of one another.

During the time Fleetwood Mac was making the Tusk album, the band was past the initial pain of dissolved relationships, and had moved right on to fury, spite, and jealousy. Tusk is my favorite Fleetwood Mac album because it is so raw; in it, you feel Lindsey’s bitter resentment, Stevie’s misplaced martyrdom, and Christine’s optimistic will to push through to a better place and time. Although I think Tusk has some of the career-best songs by all three songwriters, I always felt Tusk, as a complete album, was disjointed and did not flow well – like each song was constructed in total isolation. To Lindsey’s credit, despite his longstanding anger toward Stevie, he has always been the best producer for her songs – taking the skeletal poems and melodies she crafted and adding rich, layered complexity. As a musical team, they are magic.

Below is the greatest live clip I have ever found of Stevie and Lindsey. It is from a documentary of recording and touring for Tusk. The Tusk tour produced one of the most dysfunctional moments in Fleetwood Mac history (that is publicly known) when, during a show in New Zealand, Lindsey began mocking Stevie on stage as she sang; the incident ended in an all-out physical backstage brawl. But sorry - this is not that clip; this clip is from the same tour, filmed around 1979-80, but shows a lighter side of the band. This is a live performance of “Angel,” and demonstrates palpable joy in making music even through the darkest hours of a band in complete turmoil. Whatever wars were fought once Stevie and Lindsey stepped offstage, the latter half of this clip has them smiling, sharing the microphone, and dancing. It’s truly a classic!

-AZ

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Debt of Gratitude to This Decade in Music, Part I

I am profoundly grateful to many bands that have come out of the past decade. The 2000’s have been an exciting time of musical discovery for me personally, a period in which I embraced my own generation of musicians and, for the first time, fell in love with new music as it was released. I always felt left out of the music scene, intimidated and out of touch because all of the music I connected with was made years before I was born. Why couldn’t I get excited about the music that came out of the 90’s? After all, it was the time when I first fell in love with rock and roll.

I was in high school when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rest of the grunge movement blew up. I bought that music, and liked it, but I can’t really say that it excited me or that I felt connected to it. I would much rather listen to Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Bob Marley and Fleetwood Mac. And so it was that the classic rock staples of the 1970’s saw me through my high school years and into college. So when 2000 rolled around, I was bored and musically uninspired. I anxiously awaited new releases from my trusted favorites, but was frustrated that I was relying on my parents’ generation to provide music that I could relate to.

I can divide my music fandom into two eras: before I discovered the White Stripes and after I discovered the White Stripes. Theirs was the sound the abruptly jerked me into the new millennium and started me on a path of discovery of new and exciting rock and roll. I’ve wondered if I was first introduced to the Strokes, if their sound would have had the same impact. Though I love the Strokes, I think not. I don’t believe any other band besides the Stripes could have provided the bridge between classic and contemporary rock that I needed to open my ears and to open my mind. The White Stripes had the garage sound that new bands, like the Strokes, were producing in the early part of the decade, but their songs had the unmistakable influence of Jimmy Page-style blues-rock that was needed to draw me in.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to my brother, with whom – ironically - I share essentially no musical common ground. Despite his proclivity for hip-hop, he came to visit me one weekend in 2004, armed with what must have been every newly released rock album. I vividly remember hanging out in my living room for the better part of that weekend, playing through his music library and getting excited about music for the first time in years. In that weekend, I was introduced to The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, and many others that ultimately left a lesser impression on me.

The decade in music started bleakly, with a seemingly unending parade of pre-packaged pop tarts and boy bands, heavily focused on image and void of homegrown substance. Fortunately, rock fans didn’t have to wait long for reasons to feel excited about music again. Bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes striped rock down, essentially leveling it and rebuilding the foundation, and put the focus back on what was important: quality songwriting and authentic playing. And while those bands had an element of seriousness in their image and their playing, by mid-decade, bands like the Killers and Franz Ferdinand were following suit but filling an additional void: they were making great rock and roll colorful and fun, danceable, and thoroughly addicting.

Much has changed in music, and the delivery of music, since mid-decade. Rock music has also inspired me and brought a lot to my life in the past five years. Because the latter half of the 2000’s introduced me to more great bands than I can cover in this post (some of which, like Muse and Arcade Fire, I discovered late in the game), I am dividing this essay into two parts. Please check back in a few days to read Part II of My Debt of Gratitude to This Decade in Music!

-AZ

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fallen Down the (White) Rabbit Hole

Lately, I cannot get enough of White Rabbits. I am not accustomed to falling so hard and fast for a band. I usually like to take things slow, get to know a band, and listen casually before things get so serious that I would devote a whole blog entry to them. I am beginning to fear an unhealthy attachment forming. But, as with Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I shall surrender myself to the experience (mind alteration not required).

Although they released their debut album, Fort Nightly, back in 2007, the White Rabbits are brand new to me. I bought both the Fort Nightly album, and their most recent release, It’s Frightening, a couple of months ago after hearing some sample songs on their website. I instantly loved their songs, and although I have racked my brain for comparisons to other bands, I really can’t think of any.

The White Rabbits’ sound is fresh and unique; it is drum and bass driven rock that incorporates piano, guitar and - although I cannot find it credited anywhere - I swear I can hear brass on some songs. Although they mix elements that might be compared to other bands, when it comes together, the result is a sound all their own. The strongly percussive style is very tribal, and that is the foundation of their songs. Most of the percussive sounds are deep, but there is diversity in that they also range from snare drums to shakers, giving their songs a “world beat” flavor. The piano is a prominent instrument, but unlike a band like Coldplay, where the piano drives the melody of a song, the White Rabbits use the piano as a punctuation, to highlight the other instruments. Its role is simplistic, hard-hitting, and used for emphasis.

What I really appreciate about the White Rabbits is that it doesn’t sound like a lot of studio magic went into the production of their albums. It sounds like six guys hammering out authentic jams. The lead vocal has a slightly raspy quality, and the background harmonies are strong. Lyrically, they are OK, but it is really their musicianship that makes the White Rabbits an exciting band. Check out their Letterman performance of “Percussion Gun” below. I look forward to following the path of their career to whatever Wonderland it may lead.

-AZ

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Abroad and Technologically Limited

Hello Fellow Music Fans! Sorry for the delay in a new post. I am traveling abroad right now, but check back next week to read the post I am currently working on! In the meantime, you can visit my Twitter page (see link on left side of this page) to read music-related observations from the journey.

-AZ

Friday, November 20, 2009

Inspiring Life-Long Fans

As a music fan that has developed strong and lasting affinity for my favorite songwriters over the years, I have given a lot of thought to what qualities an artist/band has that promotes deep and meaningful fan connection. And it isn’t just the qualities that the songwriter has - a devoted fan also possesses attributes that enable them to be profoundly moved by music at an elevated level than the more casual listener. Personally speaking, I believe that my fandom is fueled by an analytic and obsessive mind that - once inspired by the music or words - must dig deeper to question the meaning behind the art by revisiting lyrics, reading interviews, and mining for clues. I dream in lyrics, and they often follow me throughout my waking hours. My music obsession is at once a great love and a debilitating foe (particularly when Beyonce released that fucking “Single Ladies” song). But I digress.

Far more interesting are the qualities that some musicians possess that set them apart from other musicians in fan admiration. Every band has fans, but what separates the bands that produce great music that is fun to listen to from the bands that produce life-changing music that has a profound and inspiring effect on their listeners? In evaluating my own fan experience - and also observing the fan culture for artists that I don’t personally connect to strongly, but that seem to evoke very strong emotion in fans - I have drawn the following conclusion. A songwriter’s willingness to reveal vulnerability - lyrically, vocally, and through performance – is a quality that cannot be faked, and I believe it is the single most important component in creating music that resonates deeply with fans.

The ability to authentically reveal vulnerability is the key to greatness for any artist, no matter what artistic form they use. For a singer-songwriter, it is an especially critical quality because, not only are they producing the material (as the writer), they are also channeling the emotion (as the performer). Whether it reveals itself in lyric, in the tremor of a vocal, or in the form of nervous ticks during performance, the ability of a songwriter to uncover his or her own vulnerability offers the audience the human element that is critical to forming a deeper connection to the music.

Whatever you may think of Morrissey (vocally, he’s not one of my favorites), he is a prime example of an artist who bares all his self-doubt, narcissism, and regret within the lines of his songs. He typically writes in the first person narrative, not passing off emotion to other characters, but instead leaving himself completely exposed. His songs are dripping with a self-absorption that I can’t really appreciate, but his fans eat it up and he has one of the most cult-like followings in rock music.

Other songwriters are subtle in their openness by using characters to channel their own personal experiences and emotions. A writer like Springsteen can be perceived as writing more with empathy than vulnerability because the joy and heartbreak of his characters may not translate as his own personal experience. However, that does not make him any less endearing to fans. People connect deeply with the characters in Springsteen’s world because they portray basic human emotions that we all know– restlessness, loneliness, yearning, desire, and disaffection. It doesn’t matter if the vulnerability belongs to Mary, Wendy, Candy, Sam, or any of the other dozens characters Springsteen has created. HE KNOWS how they feel, and he knows how you feel, too. Springsteen is unquestionably worthy of all of the accolades and adoration he has received over the years. He writes about human fragility with the same Old Soul clarity that I attributed to Van Morrison.

One of the newer bands that has developed a fiercely loyal fan base, in addition to landing themselves on most music publications’ top ten lists for the decade, is Arcade Fire. Arcade Fire produced two of the most beautiful, honest, and musically stunning albums in recent years. String instruments, heartfelt lyrics, Win Butler’s ability to vocally convey emotion, layer together to create a humility and rawness that is so attractively genuine to the listener. Arcade Fire is a relatively new band but already fans have formed a deep connection to their music that will sustain the life of their career as a band.

Lastly, I want to mention a couple of my favorite songwriters that perform with such openness and vulnerability, that I didn’t truly fall in love with their music until I saw it physically come out of them. Is it strange writing about Stevie Nicks and Brandon Flowers in the same paragraph? Probably, but they happen to be - as performers - my sentimental favorites. Seeing Stevie perform ‘Rhiannon’ with such fury, or the heartbreaking ‘Has Anyone Ever Written Anything For You,’ was pivotal for me as a fan. She has an amazing ability to connect with live audience and you feel as you are watching her that she is graciously handing over her heart for those few hours. Her fans sense her undying devotion and they are as loyal as any fan community out there.

Performing is not second nature for Brandon Flowers, and I think that he seems outwardly nervous and jittery, endears him to fans. There is a lot of realness to him. He uses bravado on stage, but equally there are moments of sincerity and vulnerability, gesturing and singing with such emotion that you feel he is begging, pleading with you to feel his words the way he feels them. I had bought and regularly listened to the Killers first two albums before I was aware of how they perform. The Killers, like Arcade Fire, are a young band with a hugely devoted fan community. And to witness them live is spectacular, just ask a Victim.

Of course, there are many qualities that attract fans to different musical artists. I like all kinds of music that I may not be sentimentally attached to, but that makes for great listening. Some of the best musicians and bands convey a detached coldness that, although is a quintessential rock and roll attitude, does not cultivate the kind of fan adoration of artists who open themselves up a little more. So many great artists that I didn’t get to! Help me write the next chapter! Who are your sentimental favorites, and why? I would love to hear from you!

-AZ

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Classic Clips: Otis Redding at Monterey Pop Festival 1967

Otis is at the top of my list for musical talent gone from this earth too soon. Every time I hear that voice, I wish for the 40 more years of fantastic material he would undoubtedly have produced, had his plane not crashed that December day in 1967. It is also a shame that there is not more video footage of Otis because, while just listening to him feels like every emotion is coming across in crystal clarity, to watch a performance reveals him as a truly genuine and heartfelt entertainer. This footage from the Monterey Pop Festival of him performing “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” and “Satisfaction” was taken just 6 months before his death. His energy and excitement leap off the screen and show that, although his time was short, he is one of the soulful greats.

-AZ

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts"

Most Bob Dylan fans can point to a favorite Dylan lyric, song, or album, and offer their own assertion: “THIS . . . THIS is why he is THE Rock Poet, THE Master Storyteller.” And the diversity in what any group of fans will tell you is astounding because, of course, he has written many wonderfully crafted tales. My favorite Dylan story is the one he tells of Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts.

Musically, there really isn’t anything special about the song. In fact, it could probably be outright tedious for many listeners. It is an 8 and a half-minute, ragtime style song with 15 verses and no chorus. But as with most Dylan songs, it isn’t the music that makes it special, it is his calculated weaving of the tale. Calculated, because this is a song about deceit and murder in which there are few known conclusions, several perceived outcomes, and a whole world of open interpretation left for the listener. I know that I will never solve the mystery of this story, and yet I listen intently time and time again for any clues I may have missed the first one hundred times I listened.

There is too much to this story for me to detail, so if you are not familiar with the song, read the lyrics or have a listen by clicking the play button below before reading further.





So . . . Dylan’s a tease, huh? What is interesting is that much of the detail in this story is supposed, but not definitively stated, so on a superficial level the listener understands what happened. On first listen, you likely come away from the song thinking: Big Jim’s dead, Rosemary stabbed him, she got the gallows, Jack ran off with the money, and Lily is left without both of her lovers. But that is an outcome based on assumption, because only these absolutes are stated: Big Jim was stabbed, Rosemary is accused of a crime, and the Jack of Hearts is “missing.” The rest is speculative.

And, oh, how fans have speculated on this puzzle that will never be solved. Reading listener interpretations of this song reveals that no two people have the same perceived outcome of what happened, or even of who are the true villains of the story. THIS IS WHAT MAKES DYLAN A MASTER STORYTELLER – the clues he does not give the listener are equally important to building intrigue as the clues he does give! Did Big Jim shoot and kill the Jack of Hearts? Was it really Rosemary who stabbed Big Jim? Was Rosemary executed? Was Lily an outlaw who orchestrated the whole thing? Were Rosemary and Lily mother and daughter? All of these missing pieces can be resolved in our own imagination; Dylan has given us the ability to shape shift the outcome at our will.

In addition to the mysterious outcome, the weaving of Old West themes – a cabaret-style saloon, outlaw gangs, and especially poker and gambling – paint a vivid picture of the scene. Cards and gambling are referenced throughout the song; Big Jim is referred to as “the king” who owns a diamond mine, Rosemary is a “queen without a crown,” and of course, there is the Jack of Hearts. Although we will never know, I believe that Lily was the Ace of Spades – the “death card” - in this game; the character that deceived them all and came out of the story unscathed.

-AZ

Sunday, November 1, 2009

I’m A Bass Whore

I know - I can’t believe I went with that title, either. OK, moving on . . .

Consider me an avid devotee of bass players everywhere. Where I have discerning tastes in vocalists and lyricists, my slutty ears will open wide for just about any sound emitted by a bass guitar. Even when the playing is not great, I still like it; and when the playing IS great, it is usually the primary reason that I am listening to a band in the first place. I am a sucker for all kinds of bass sounds and playing styles: hollow and jazzy, slap percussive, distorted, deep and low, or high and melodic. I will take them all.

I love the versatility in bass sound and playing. It is typically thought of as a rhythmic support instrument that bridges percussion with the more melodic guitar and keyboard sounds. In serving this function, it really is responsible for setting the mood of the song, and often in such an understated way, that many listeners may not even realize it’s role in doing such. Conversely, the bass can have a very heavy-handed impact on the sound and is the cornerstone of genres like funk and reggae. Ron Blair from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is an example of understated, bare bones, rock and roll bass playing. From time to time, his playing is featured more prominently (what would “American Girl” sound like without that bass line?), but for the most part, he serves a support role in a band where guitars and keyboards are the main driver for the overall sound. On the other end of the spectrum is Flea, whose slap-bass style is the trademark of the Chili Peppers overall funk sound, and is, by no stretch of the imagination, “understated.”

My favorite bassists fall between those extremes, and though they are all unique from one another, share the quality of playing guiding roles, or at least very distinguishable roles, in songs they play. Peter Hook stands out for me because he is one rock bassist that - if he were performing solo, just him and his guitar on stage – I would buy a ticket to see him. I think Hook was most responsible for determining the mood of any given Joy Division song. Whether his playing was low and somber like in “Atmosphere” or “Twenty-Four Hours” or high and upbeat like in “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” I think he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for any versatility Joy Division had in conveying mood.

Andy Rourke, along with Hook, is a player that I can put into the “why I listen to that band” category. I did not immediately like the Smiths, mostly because Morrissey’s voice was an acquired taste that took me a while to embrace. What kept me coming back to the Smiths was the guitar work of Johnny Marr and Andy Rourke, and particularly the way they played off one another so well. I wouldn’t say that there is a great deal of versatility in Rourke’s sound, which is generally high and melodic, but it does make slight transitions that cross over into funky (“Rubber Ring”), twangy (“Panic”), and outright pop-y (“This Charming Man”) at times.

That brings me to Mark Stoermer, who is one of the more versatile bass players in rock right now. He and Ronnie Vannucci make up a chameleonic rhythm section, and they are the key to the Killers’ ability to dabble in so many rock and roll styles. Stoermer’s playing has varied from album to album, as has the Killers’ overall sound. I love the basslines that he created for “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine” and "Midnight Show,” from the Hot Fuss album. The songs are lyrically dark, and the basslines prominently stand out and accentuate that mood. For live performances of songs from Sam’s Town - an album with a lot of fast American-style rock songs - Stoermer demonstrated the skill and precision to play quick, repetitive notes that are so tight in supporting Vannucci’s drumming.

Songs from the Day & Age album show Stoermer coming into his own as a groove player; when I listen to that album, I can’t help but wonder which of those songs may have originated with his bassline. “Joyride?” “This Is Your Life?” It seems like his playing may be an increasing driver in the songwriting process for the Killers. Perhaps it always has been, but the bass “personality” is revealing itself a bit more in the Killers’ most recent work.

Lastly, I want to mention Chris Wolstenholme, of Muse. He creates sounds that are so different that I am intimidated to write about it, but I will do my best with my lack of technical vocabulary. In his playing, individual notes become almost undetectable because they blend together to create a continuous, distorted backdrop for a lot of Muse’s songs. It is Wolstenholme that gives Muse songs a digitalized, modern industrial sound and, were it not for his style and equipment, the band would lose a key factor in what distinguishes them from many of their contemporaries. Anyone ever wonder what he would do with a Hofner Beatle Bass in his hands? No? Just me, then.

Well, that was just the tip of the iceberg, a few of my favorite bassists. They never get enough glory for diverse melodic and rhythmic role they play in crafting our favorite songs. There are many bass players that I would have loved to mention, both well and lesser known, but I probably exhausted the readers’ attention span back on paragraph two. As I am continually drawn to and inspired by all types of playing, I’m sure it won’t be long before round two of the bassist love-fest begins.

-AZ

Monday, October 26, 2009

Classic Clips: U2 with Brandon Flowers

This duet is from Las Vegas, 2005. Bono was suffering from vocal problems and asked Brandon Flowers, from “the swankiest rock and roll band on the planet,” to join him in singing “In A Little While.” I have never been particularly inspired by U2, but I don’t deny the power they have in creating moving, emotive music. I will confess that it is Brandon who makes this video for me. His voice is so clear, yet there is a tremor to it that I just love.

This was a big, big moment, indeed, for the still new-to-the-spotlight Flowers. Two years prior he was a bellhop at a local casino, and here he is, sharing the stage with the biggest rock band in the world. I really enjoy the way Brandon runs with this opportunity. His nervousness is palpable in the beginning of the song, but he isn’t shy with his gestures and emotion. He out-sings Bono even on his best day, and is obviously not afraid to match one of his idols in stage presence. Oh, and it is a beautiful song.

-AZ

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Van.

When I was 14 years old, I had a secret admirer. One day I opened my front door to find a single red rose and a Van Morrison cassette tape. It happened in the first weeks of my freshmen year, and I was attending a large school with lots of new people. My admirer, whom I had never met, somehow found out that I was a Van Morrison fan. Although I did not fully appreciate it at the time, that gesture was one of the most innocently romantic things anyone has done for me. It was old school, puppy-love-style romantic. I’m glad he didn’t know that I was also a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan, because the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tape on my front door just would not have conveyed the same sentiment.

Van became my first true musical love a few years before that that cassette found its way to my doorstep. I had heard a Van Morrison song in a movie, asked my parents who it was, and promptly raided their music library for his albums. I instantly fell in love with Van’s words. Some kids doodle through their boring classes – I scribbled his lyrics. I believe his ability to weave phrases that, not only conjure pictures in the mind’s eye, but also convey emotion through imagery, is what makes him a great songwriter. His frequent reference to nature – running water, tree-lined streets, rolling greenery, misty landscapes - give even his up-tempo songs a tranquil quality. Listening to his songs and recounting his words was my teenage escapism. And it‘s my adult escapism.

However, more impressionable to me than his words was the impact of his voice. The effect his sound initially had, and still has, on me can only be compared to a mythological siren call. When I hear that voice, it intensifies whatever emotion I may be feeling. Van has punctuated the fullest and happiest moments in my life - the moments when I am dancing, sharing wine, laughing, and making love. His voice has also carried me through my emptiest, loneliest moments – offering the cathartic release needed to push through the sadness. It amazes me how Van sounds like celebration, grief, joy, isolation, gratitude, and empathy all rolled together. In Van’s music, I don’t hear anger, bitterness, or spite. Perhaps that is why whatever the mood - elated or forlorn - he always offers comfort.

At the risk of sounding like I have any religion whatsoever, I will admit that – particularly when listening to various musical artists – I entertain the plausibility of reincarnation. Of Old Souls and Young Souls. Van feels to me like a soul who has lived many lifetimes. It is my preferred explanation for how - at 23 years old - he wrote Astral Weeks, an album with all of the heartache and pain, hope and compassion, and a depth of understanding of the human experience that 23 years of living could not possibly yield. And not just the lyrics - his delivery of the album, with its vocal ebbs and flows and bizarre repetition of words and lines, suggest an intuition for how the listener needed to experience the album. Van seemed, from very early in his career, to have a fundamental understanding of how we feel music and he crafted delivery that would have the greatest impact. The vocal, the cadence, and the lyrics marry perfectly to define the emotion of a song.

I don’t know much about Van Morrison, the man. I don’t think many people do. He is reclusive, suffers from stage fright, and has been rumored to be temperamental and hard to work with. His songs reveal a fragile soul, lonely and isolated, but they also reveal an understanding that we are all lonely and isolated at times. His songs are equally a celebration of joyous moments and the small, beautiful details that occur in daily life and must be observed and savored.

Well, there you have it. In five paragraphs I managed to cover teenage secret admiration, reincarnation of the soul, and one legendary songwriter. Proof enough that I did none of those topics the justice they deserve. That’s OK, I’ve got time in the future to elaborate - maybe even lifetimes.

-AZ

Friday, October 16, 2009

Classic Clips: The Raconteurs

The Raconteurs could not be more appropriately named to convey their gift of narrative, and “Carolina Drama” must be their crowning achievement in storytelling. Jack White is not just singing a song here, he is telling a story with great craftsmanship, and we should be sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows as we listen.

The song has no chorus, just verses that build in intensity to a final dramatic ending. Both the studio version and the various live versions give me goosebumps every time I listen; great narrative complimented perfectly by the bluesy guitar and haunting vocals. This is one of my all-time favorite story-songs.

-AZ


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Joyful Zach Gill

This past weekend I attended the world premiere of the new Jack Johnson film, and the familiar face took me back to my college days. I am not referring to Jack; although I did attend UC Santa Barbara at the same time he attended, I was not aware of him at the time. No, the friendly, familiar face that took me back was Zach Gill, the multi-instrumentalist with a soulful voice, featured prominently in the film.

The first time I saw Zach play, at a house party in my college town of Isla Vista, was the first time I recall witnessing sheer joy radiating from a live music performer. To this day, I don’t think I have seen another musician project such bliss on stage. It was a small party that his band, Django, played that night - maybe 20 or 30 people - and there are not specific details that I remember, except for an outstanding jam session of “Layla.” However, I do recall the gratitude I felt in that moment for being in the presence of people, whose love and celebration of music was wonderfully infectious. Zach and the other members of Django were different from the many bands in town. These were not Business-Econ majors getting drunk and slinging around the guitar; they were budding career musicians. You could tell that, whether they “made it” or not, they would be in it for the long haul.

Not long after that night, Django became Animal Liberation Orchestra (ALO), relocated to San Francisco, and have spent the past ten+ years making music and touring. I have seen them play live a few times over the past decade, at festivals and small clubs, and each time they projected the same celebratory vibe that I first witnessed in college. Not only do they play music that makes people feel good, the music comes from a place of genuine happiness. You can see it on their grinning faces.

The new Jack Johnson film follows the songwriter through a European tour. But more importantly, the film highlights a group of friends (which includes G. Love, Ben Harper, Matt Costa, and Mason Jennings) that love playing music together. Zach’s stage presence in the film is highly entertaining – playing the piano and accordion with exaggerated movements, and performing the “old man” dance before the cheering masses. He and Jack have a great yin-yang going and Zach is, indeed, an integral part of Jack’s live show.

Since my alma mater has never been a first-class athletic powerhouse, I am filled with Gaucho pride (yes, the Gauchos) that it turned out some fantastic musicians, musicians that still find joy and inspiration in playing together. Below is a clip from the film, featuring some of Zach’s funky stage antics. I dare you not to smile while watching . . .

-AZ

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Classic Clips: Arcade Fire

Because we have not seen or heard much from Arcade Fire lately – and I miss them - here is the quirky and brilliant elevator performance of “Neon Bible."

-AZ


Friday, October 9, 2009

Alex Turner, the Lyricist

At some point I will write about the Arctic Monkeys as a complete unit because every component of the band is outstanding. Each instrument in their playing is highlighted, yet there remains a harmony in the way it all comes together; somehow the guitars, bass, and drums are each prominently featured while retaining an overall sound that is clean, precise, and uncluttered.

I am going to focus on the word play of their songs because I believe that Alex Turner is shaping up to be the best rock lyricist in the game right now. His use of language and poetic sensibilities are not taught or acquired - this is an inherent gift. All he needs to solidify his place amongst songwriting greats are fresh experiences to inspire him, and continued desire to write about those experiences.

The Humbug album has infinitely more personal subject matter than we have seen in previous Arctic Monkey albums. The first two Arctic Monkey albums also had great use of language, but told observational stories about strangers, groups of partygoers, or people about town. Increasing intimacy in Turner’s songwriting revealed itself in the Last Shadow Puppets album and it has continued to evolve for the Humbug album. (NOTE: Miles Kane shares writing credit for the Last Shadow Puppets album. There are two distinct lyrical styles at play on that album, and I would venture to guess that Turner is responsible for the more verbose songs.) For Humbug, Turner reveals an endearingly vulnerable side – and in the process, writes an incredibly sexy album.

What makes this album sexy? It is about a guy that has freely submitted himself to a dominant lover. He willingly surrenders all control of his body and his heart, with the ominous feeling that he will get crushed. This affair will inevitably end badly for him and it seems that his fatalistic feelings about the future contribute to the excitement of the relationship. Evidence of his deferential status in the relationship is everywhere; In Crying Lightning he is “approaching your throne,” in The Jeweller’s Hands he sings, “If you've a lesson to teach me, I'm listening, ready to learn”, in Fire and the Thud he pleads “If it’s true you’re gonna run away, just tell me where, I’ll meet you there.” My favorite lyric of the album is in Dangerous Animals:

You should have racing stripes
The way you keep me in pursuit
Shopping the heal of your boot
And you press it in my chest and you make me wheeze
Then to my knees you do promote me

Turner has come a long way from the confident teenager who wrote Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not. That is not to say he lacks confidence now (you have to have confidence to perform My Propeller). But his writing reflects the humility of someone who has seen the world, gained experience, and perhaps had his heart squeezed a bit. Early on, he demonstrated tremendous maturity in his writing and it will be exciting to follow his career as he continues to hone his craft.

-AZ

Monday, October 5, 2009

Pity the Rock Critic

I am going to go ahead and sabotage any future chance of being asked to guest blog for a music magazine and say what’s on my mind: I think the job of the rock critic is kind of bullshit. Let me explain.

First, I understand that music criticism once served a valuable purpose in helping the consumer decide where to spend their hard earned money. There are a lot of choices out there and guidance is good; album reviews give listeners a quick synopsis of the flavor and emotion of the sound, instruments used, and to liken it to other familiar music.

Let me also say that there are excellent music critics out there, critics who understand that their most valuable role is to articulate what a listener can expect to hear once they purchase music. The problem is that far too many critics overstep this role and feel that it is their responsibility to label an album good or bad, better or worse, a success or a failure. This is where the bullshit part comes in to play - because music, like any art, is largely subjective.

Music can be analyzed to some extent. A trained ear will hear subtleties in the melodies and complexities in arrangements that the lay listener may overlook. An experienced listener may identify whether a sound is original and unique. It is on these qualities that a critic can judge an album. A critical analysis should not be based on a reaction to the artist’s image. Nor should it be based on the perceived intent of the artist in creating the music, and whether the critic believes the artist achieved that intent. Too often, I see those factors dominate an album review.

Albums carry meaning and value to the listener, not because they are immaculately crafted, but because they evoke feeling, provoke thought, and are pleasing to the subjective ear. They are commentary - both social and personal - for a particular time and place, and that is why connection to an album is formed. To over-intellectualize music defeats its purpose and ability to speak to us on an emotional level. When I read a scathing review, I can’t help but wonder if the job of a rock critic drives away any of the original joy one once had in listening. Can you ever appreciate music the same way once you are trained to listen so critically and so cynically?

Perhaps album reviews are valuable to music industry insiders (after all, the commercial fate of an album can rest on its reviews). But reviews are nearly inconsequential to music fans. Today, there are many ways for a fan to sample music before they buy it, and individuals can now judge for themselves what music is worth the investment. It is an increasingly populist music environment – and with that, the rock critic’s opinion is becoming more obsolete. I believe that somewhere, from the great beyond, Lester Bangs is smiling.

-AZ

Friday, October 2, 2009

Stevie’s Rhiannon

Stevie Nicks has written so many wonderful songs, many of which will never see past the demo stage of the songwriting process. Fortunately, for the die-hardest of fans, these songs float about cyberspace and can be easily accessed. Over the years I have collected dozens of obscure, raw piano demos that are poetically beautiful and performed in total simplicity: just an artist, her piano, and her emotive voice. Of all of Stevie’s famous and obscure songs, it is perhaps her most famous song that means the most to me.

“Rhiannon” has been the single most influential song in my life. To me, it has always represented certain ideals: freedom, strength, self-assurance, and independence, wrapped in unapologetic femininity. The song itself, through almost 35 years of live performance, is an organic, living entity. The live “Rhiannon” of the early days is raw and rebellious, performed with a furious energy that, over the years, has been replaced with a more controlled power. “Rhiannon” has always been wise, but there is now calm where there once was fury. As an adolescent, a teenager, an adult, the song continues to evolve with me and take on different meaning throughout the stages of my life.

I’ve always been captivated by Stevie and relate to the fine line she walks between strength and vulnerability. She is a powerful force, but is such without compromising one iota of femininity. She is heartbroken but defiant, lovelorn but optimistic. She is on the loosing end of a love affair gone sour, while seemingly in total control. Her voice will turn from a soft quivering plea to an angry rebellious wail. For me, there is no other woman in rock music that so perfectly embodies the female dichotomy of power and fragility.

Below is a live clip of “Rhiannon” from the Rosebud performance in 1976. Mick Fleetwood once likened Stevie’s performance of “Rhiannon” to an exorcism. The entire clip is breathtaking, but skip to 5:00 to see the transformation to a woman possessed!

Dream on, silly dreamers . . .

-AZ

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bands Paying Homage: The Gaslight Anthem to The Clash

I am inspired when I hear a song or watch an interview in which an artist pays homage to bands and songwriters that have influenced their life and career. It is a reminder that, no matter what success and fame comes a band’s way, they are still able to hear a favorite old song and be humbled by the power that song first had over them.

How many of us recall introduction to a sound that rocked our world unlike anything we had ever heard before? For me, it was Led Zeppelin, and I was 14 years old. For many of my peers at the time, that sound was Nirvana. It’s heartening to know that even Jimmy Page and Kurt Cobain experienced the same rush of falling in love with music. Page was inspired at an early age by the blues music of the American South, and Cobain famously made lists of the music that inspired him, ranging from The Stooges to Leadbelly. Although as individuals we are emotionally affected by different sounds and genres, the power of that emotion is a common ground that connects us; we are all fans.

One of the least veiled tributes is the song “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” by the Gaslight Anthem. It is a punk song that, surprisingly, tugs the heartstrings because it is such a sincere tribute Joe Strummer of the Clash. It also describes a feeling I personally recall so vividly – the complete and utter awe of hearing something profound for the first time. This is Brian Fallon singing about the Clash's influence on his virgin ears:

And then I heard it like a shot through my skull to my brain,
I felt my fingertips tingle, and it started to rain,
When the walls of my bedroom were tremblin' around me,
This ramshackle voice over attack of a bluesbeat,
Tellin' me, he's only looking for fun.
And this was the sound, of the very last gang in town.

As heard by my wild young heart,
Like directions on a cold, dark night,
Sayin', "Let it out, let it out, let it out, you're doing all right."
And I heard it in his chain gang soul.
It wasn't just the same sad song.
Sayin', "Let it out, let it out, let it out, you're doing all right."

Fallon goes on to sing about the comfort the songs bring him as a constant in life through good times and bad. You wouldn’t typically associate the Clash with “comfort” and that’s what’s cool - one man’s chaos can be another man’s comfort! That is what makes the listener experience so personal; songs evoke different feelings in all of us, and that is the reason fans forge deep connections with songwriters. In naming the song “I’da Called You Woody, Joe,” I believe Fallon is expressing the kinship he felt with Joe Strummer, even if he had never met him. If he had met Joe, he would refer to him as a friend would - by his nickname, “Woody.”

Below is the music video for “I’da Called You Woody, Joe,” where you can hear the song in its entirety. I will explore the topic of “Bands Paying Homage” on future posts. There are several examples of songs that reveal band fandom, so feel free to comment or email me your favorites!

-AZ


Friday, September 25, 2009

The (Joy) Division Between Dark and Light

Writing about Joy Division is tricky because they are the most analyzed and revered band of the post-punk movement. However, most articles you read about Joy Division lead the unfamiliar listener to believe that their music is too depressing for an emotionally well-adjusted person to enjoy. Yes, if you focus only on Ian Curtis’ lyrics and vocal, there is quite a bit of weight there (obviously). The brilliance of Joy Division though, is that the weight of the lyrics and vocal are often juxtaposed with upbeat rhythm and melodies.

The Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison comparison is an easy one because of their similar baritone voices and stripped-down lyrical style. But Joy Division certainly shares other similarities with the Doors. The trademark high bass lines of Peter Hook serve to uplift Joy Division songs and shine light on them in the same way Ray Manczarek’s keyboard playing does for the Doors. Hook and Sumner’s playing add levity to the moodiness of Curtis’ singing. Despite their very different sounds, both Joy Division and the Doors have a rare hypnotic quality and frequently cross over from dark to light, or project both simultaneously.

I recently read a quote by Editors frontman, Tom Smith, expressing his frustration for how his band is constantly characterized as “dark.” What he said resonated with me:

“...dark is interesting, dark is exciting, dark can be funny, there’s real life in the dark, real life IS dark. When an album feels like this, the fragments of hope and love that do occasionally shine through shine through ten times brighter than they would normally do so."

YES!!! So true.

It’s hard to come by a clear definition of what “post-punk” and “post-punk revival” mean exactly, but I believe the answer lies somewhere in the interaction between light and dark, joy and pain, and the existence of both within the same song. When I listen to Joy Division, I hear all of the complexity and emotion that is part of the basic human experience. I believe that emotional complexity is a key component to what has made them such a sustainable, meaningful influence on musicians and fans over the past three decades.

-AZ

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Bring Back Midnight Show!

It is impossible to single out a favorite concert clip of the Killers (but I’m going to try to anyway). They are so phenomenal live and they don’t take their audience for granted. They play like they are giving it their all every time they go on stage, and you can’t say that for all bands. I have only seen them in smaller venues but it seems that they shine the brightest on the big festival stages.

Lately, the band is dusting off some old favorites from Hot Fuss – Believe Me Natalie and Change Your Mind. Although I won’t be attending another show on this current tour, I am still lobbying for the return of MIDNIGHT SHOW!!! This is one of my all-time favorite Killers songs and it gets no love! It is fast, dark, and you are hard pressed to find a more poetic description of death by strangulation than in the lines of that song. Lyrically, it’s just brilliant.

I am posting this clip of the Killers playing Midnight Show at Glastonbury 2005. It is faster than the studio version and it highlights how energetic and polished their playing was, even before they had a few years of touring under their belt. Mark and Ronnie are especially blowing my mind here. If you have not seen it in a while, it is worth another watch, and if you’ve NEVER seen it . . . Enjoy!

-AZ

Monday, September 21, 2009

The West Beach Music Festival

As a huge fan of the rock music embraced by UK music fans, it’s fair to say that I am green with envy as I witness, via the internet, the coming and going of the festival season on the other side of the Atlantic. I live vicariously through the numerous UK fans that are lucky enough to have the summer season chalked full of massive festivals that take place within reasonable pilgrimage distance. That’s not to say that we don’t have great of music festivals in the States, it’s just that unless you make it to Coachella or Lollapalooza, you aren’t going to see big international acts play the same stage.

Yesterday, however, I got over my UK-envy and reconnected with my California roots at the West Beach Music Festival in Santa Barbara. California music festivals have a sound and a culture all their own: a sun-soaked mix of cultural diversity, wafting smells from taco stands mixed with burning weed, chicks in bikinis, and the blend of surf-rock, skater-rock, reggae, punk, ska, hip-hop, dance and Latin sounds. West Beach, in its third year and 14,000 fans strong, takes place on the strip of sandy beach between the wharf and the harbor.

This is not a concert review. I did not see the headlining acts, including Ben Harper and G-Love, who I have seen play live before. But thanks to a well-connected friend, I was able to attend the sold out Sunday show featuring Santa Barbara’s own Rebelution, and SoCal favorite, Pepper. I enjoyed Rebelution, think they have a good reggae-rock sound and are very listenable. My attention span faded a bit during Pepper’s set; they sounded like Sublime to me, down to the vocal styling, but with less provocative lyrics. But hey, Brad Nowell died 13 years ago and every new decade of California college students needs their own Sublime-like sound. It’s the perfect backdrop to that beachside kegger.

As California reggae-rock grooved on in the background, I walked around, ate some food, drank some beer, looked at the art, and soaked up some sun. It wasn’t Glasto, but it felt good to embrace my own Left Coast festival culture. It was a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon - the festival-goers were happy, mellow, and everyone seemed to be feelin’ irie.

-AZ

P.S. Chatting up a Spicoli look-alike is pretty much as one-sided a conversation as you might imagine.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Mad Minds of Muse

Ahhh, it is good to be a Muse fan. Every few years we are treated to a jaw-dropping display of ear candy that rushes the bloodstream like a double shot of Jack. As a bonus, we also are reintroduced to that familiar brand of vocabulary that inevitably follows every Muse release – “bombastic,” “epic,” “shamelessly ambitious,” “conspiratorial,” and the new one now popping up, “laughable.” And so with this week’s release of The Resistance, we have another round of critical analysis.

Muse has always proven to be an easy target for criticism because of the grand scale of their sound. The reviews have overall, been pretty positive. Strangely, I think the fans have reason to be proud of the negative reviews; the silver lining - in even the most critical reviews - reveals that, whatever critics think of the new album, they generally feel that:

  • Muse’s talent is indisputable, and there are few bands in the world that can match their skill and creativity;
  • The band pushes boundaries and they continue to evolve with each new album;
  • Their use of genre overlap challenges conventional notions of modern rock and roll;
  • Muse is a one-of-a-kind original in a time where homegrown originality is hard to come by.

I adore Muse, but their albums are not ones I typically love cover to cover, and this one is no exception. If Muse has multiple personalities, I personally prefer the up-tempo, bass-heavy (Uprising) and the spacious, more breathable (Undisclosed Desires) personalities to the operatic personality (EURASIA! – SIA! –SIA! –SIA!). I have a bit of an aversion to Queen, but I have to respect that Muse totally out-Queens Queen on this album. The magnitude of the sound that these three guys produce is phenomenal. I think NME had the best quote about The Resistance when they wrote “when they go unapologetically batshit insane they’re untouchable.” I couldn’t agree more.

Without a doubt, Muse is one of the most compelling bands of our time.

-AZ

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The AZ Axioms

As my first post, I thought I would take the opportunity to reveal some AZ philosophy, just to give you an idea of who I am as a listener, a writer, and a fan. So here goes . . .

  • If singers don’t write and perform their own songs, I’m just not interested. I can’t get behind American Idol. If that makes me a music snob, so be it.
  • I love language. Lyricists are my poets and I am old school when it comes to writing. You’ll find slang and swearing here - but sorry, no text language. NO JGMNT 2 TXTERS ;-)
  • I refer to my favorites by first name. Van (Morrison), Stevie (Nicks), Tom (Petty), and the Bobs (Dylan and Marley) have inspired and comforted me since I was very young and I guess I feel a kinship toward them.
  • When I really connect with the work of a songwriter or band, there are never “good” albums or “bad” albums, only ones for different moods. Naturally, I still do have favorites.
  • I believe in lyrical obscurity. I don’t know what Stevie meant when she sang about “a charmed hour and a haunted song” and I don’t care. It conveys an image, a mood . . . and it just sounds cool.
  • I am a sucker for a kick-ass bass line and I believe that bass players as a group, excluding Paul McCartney, are criminally underrated.
  • I believe the songs that completely turn you off upon first listen, serve the function of stretching your brain and expanding your musical palette. We often don’t like what is new and unfamiliar; a second listen is usually required.
  • I believe there is too much negativity surrounding music forums. People don’t seem to realize that year after year - album after album - artists have the courage to bare their soul to the listening masses. If you don’t like something, move along. No need for the vitriolic rant about how “the new album is shit” and “they haven’t been good since 2004. ”
I write about the music I like and don’t waste time on the music I don’t . . . And with that, Audio Zealot is born. I hope you read my posts and email me your thoughts and new music suggestions.

Be well and listen with an open heart. -AZ