Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hiatus Aside, I Believe In The Killers

The Killers’ fans are a little nervous lately. The band recently confirmed that they would be taking a well-deserved hiatus following six years of non-stop recording and touring. Naturally, the rumor mill is working overtime with unsubstantiated speculation of solo projects or band break-up. While solo projects are a plausible option for a band that may desire different things from a period of hiatus, any talk of a break-up by journalists, bloggers, fans, or otherwise cannot be supported by any messages given by individual band members or people close to them.

If you have read my essays before, you know that I am a big fan of the Killers. But not only do I enjoy their music, in observing the choices they have made in the past several years, I have a lot of respect for them as a unit. I think they make smart decisions and I have confidence in the band’s future; here are a few reasons why you should too:

The Killers have taken the hometown mantra to heart – “What happens between us, stays between us.” Chalk it up to loyalty, maturity, strict band policy, or just old-fashioned class – they keep it all in the family. When you fight in privacy you can say things that cannot be taken back, but when you make even the slightest disparaging comment publically, not only can you not take it back, you can also be assured that journalist after journalist will raise the issue again. A public feud will elevate band resentment and cause irreparable damage to internal relationships. Even when Flowers made the comment that Sam’s Town was one of the best albums in 20 years, causing a shit-storm of backlash against the album, none of the other members dwelled on that mistake or publically assigned blame for making the comment.

I get the feeling that a Killers hiatus will be measured in months, not years. This band has been extremely prolific since their debut, and they often credit their working class background with their drive to push themselves harder. Whether together in the studio or working on side projects, I believe that - creatively, at least - they won’t be on hiatus. Further, it was reported that the band members worked alone in the early stages of the Day & Age album and then electronically shared ideas for the other members to work off of. They have already developed a system to make music together while they are apart. Not to mention, they own their own recording studio in Las Vegas.

This is a band that seems to have a collectively open mind about sound exploration. Each album the Killers release has been uniquely different and has demonstrated a willingness to branch out in a different direction. If Dave Keuning said to the rest of the band “Hey guys, I’m trading in my Strat for a Dobro”– well, it is not hard to imagine that we would be treated to one hell of a Killers blues album. Like any relationship, the key to longevity is to grow together and to foster individual interests. If the Killers are, in fact, as open-minded in the studio as their resulting products seem to suggest, then band members have a judgment-free environment to pursue various creative outlets. Further, because their sound changes, they can’t really be pigeonholed as “electro-pop,” “Americana rock,” or any other label. I think this serves them well as they continue to evolve.

Ask Lou Reed or Elton John to join us in the studio? Sure! See if Tim Burton wants to direct our video? Why not? The Killers make things happen because, from the very beginning, the word “can’t” is not in their vocabulary. Not only do they aim high, they are not afraid to do things that may seem uncool to the indier-than-thou crowd. But no matter how high their ambition is, the Killers are grounded by their authenticity. This is a band where everything – the music, the videos, clothing, stage design – is creatively homegrown.

Compared to past decades, it is so hard now for bands to retain the mystique that is critical to keep fans interested. Overexposure may get you well-known fast, but it isn’t the key to longevity. The Killers are selective about TV appearances and interviews and generally don’t seek out publicity that does not involve stage performance. They have a Twitter account and keep fans informed and interested without sharing too much. Further, the discretion and loyalty of the band’s touring musicians and crew is admirable; many also have Twitter accounts and they give fans a taste of the touring life without revealing anything about the inner-circle.

The ability to make music that connects deeply with people is a powerful gift and the Killers have revealed a true humility and realization of this fact. I am not a member of any fan communities, yet I find myself envious of members of the Killers fan community, the Victims. Even as an outsider, I have witnessed the unbelievable bond that fans have formed with one another over their common love for the music. When you wade through the public declarations of love for Brandon Flowers, you see fans connecting over the issues we all face: career dissatisfaction, family obligations, and the day-to-day grind. I recently watched a video tribute that the Victims made in honor of the death of a fellow Victim. It’s quite remarkable.

There are probably several bands that demonstrate some of the qualities mentioned, the Killers just happen to be my favorite example. Who knows how close to the mark I am with these observations; no one knows what goes on within a band’s inner circle until someone comes out with a tell-all exclusive. I sincerely hope that never happens. What I do hope is that the Killers enjoy their time off the road with friends and family, find fresh inspiration during their hiatus, and surprise us all with a fantastic new album before too long. Hey, at the very least - come December - we can always count on a new Killers Christmas tune!


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“Insider” 1985: The Live Recording I Can’t Do Without

Growing up, I think I had a negative view of duets. Not that I gave them much thought, but something about them harkened visions of Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, the Carpenters, or other saccharine-sweet musical duos. Duets were something that variety show acts did, maybe country singers (Kenny and Dolly), but not rock and rollers. Then I heard the live recording of “Insider” from Tom Petty’s Pack Up the Plantation album, featuring Stevie Nicks; it not only changed my view of how two voices can come together and compliment one another so perfectly, it became one of my all-time favorite live recordings.

Stevie has often said in interviews that one of her great joys in making music is singing with other people and trying to replicate Everly Brothers-type harmonies. Outside of her work with Fleetwood Mac, she has collaborated with many artists in duets or singing background harmonies. Have you ever heard John Stewart’s “Gold” or Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel”? Both have awesome Stevie background vocals. Tom Petty does not share the microphone as often, but he also is capable of singing a tight harmony vocal. Among the superpowers that made up the Traveling Wilburys, his voice is often most prominent in many of the choruses of Wilburys song. Of all the people Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks have sung with separately, they most frequently have collaborated with one another. It is interesting that two unusual, unconventional voices can come together so beautifully.

I have listened to this live recording of “Insider” hundreds of times over the years. The opening notes of the song evoke the same involuntary reaction in me every time – my eyes close and I inhale deeply - as if I am preparing myself for the flood of emotion the song will bring. Then come the goosebumps when, several seconds into the song, you can hear a surge of applause from the audience as Stevie joins Tom on stage.

Tom originally wrote “Insider” for Stevie to record for a solo album, but then decided he did not want to give it up to her. It is the most beautifully bitter song he’s written; it’s about heartache, about being left behind by someone because you didn’t measure up. The kind of insecurity and inadequacy one feels from being on the losing end of a breakup is so evident in Tom and Stevie’s voices here. Stevie’s vocal is especially heartbreaking. This live version reaches a level of emotion that was not captured in the studio recording of the song. What I would give to have video of this performance . . . but for now, the audio will have to do. Click the play button below.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Classic Clips: Peter Tosh Performs "Johnny B. Goode," 1983

I have mixed feelings about reggae music. It was one of the first styles of music that I fell in love with as a kid, and I associate it with sunny, carefree days. However, reggae has a fairly simplistic formula and, if not complemented with decent lyrics, great vocals, and blending with other genres, it can be extremely stale. In Southern California particularly, there is an over-proliferation of uninspired reggae acts. It has been a long time since I have heard a new act that did not sound like a carbon copy of every other reggae band. Is it possible that reggae is a genre of music that had a short-lived creative pinnacle? Will anyone ever do it as well, or better, than Bob Marley or Peter Tosh?

My appreciation of Peter Tosh had a rocky beginning. Many a night I would awake from peaceful sleep to hear his music blaring through the living room wall, to which I would curse his name. That said, the joys of cohabitation are a topic for a different essay, by a different writer. Despite the residual negativity I still feel when I hear the opening notes to his “Captured Live” DVD, I think Peter Tosh was an intriguing and dynamic performer.

Tosh, in many ways, was the anti-Marley: militant, provocative, and divisive. He did not inspire warm fuzzy feelings of “one love” and “give thanks and praise.” He had his own messages to promote, but they were not of unity. In comparing Tosh and Marley’s stage presence, it is clear that Peter Tosh had a king-sized ego. The “Captured Live” concert has him prowling the stage in his finest sultan garb and preaching Tosh-wisdom between songs. Fortunately, he can back that ego up with a rich, baritone voice that I happen to love. If any voice is going to wake me in the dead if night, I suppose his will do just fine.

Here is Tosh performing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” from the 1983 “Captured Live” concert.