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.


Thursday, October 22, 2009


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.


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.


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 . . .


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."


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.


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.


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 . . .