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Posts Tagged ‘Grammys’

(Above: D’Angelo exposes “The Charade” in the opening hours of Black History Month on “Saturday Night Live.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two anthems of the civil rights movement were released within days of each other, in the dying weeks of 2014. John Legend and Common wrote “Glory” for the civil rights film “Selma.” As the third track on D’Angelo’s long-delayed third album, “The Charade” was released with less fanfare but greater anticipation.

More importantly, after being shunted to the underground for more than a decade, protest music has reemerged in the mainstream. Both “Glory” and “The Charade” were performed on national, network television in February.

Glory-From-the-Motion-Picture-_Selma_-SingleOn paper, “Glory” almost looks too obvious. John Legend recorded an entire album of R&B protest songs with The Roots in 2010 (with Common guesting on the lead single). Common’s history of uplifting poetry has earned him invitations to perform at the White House and guest spots from Maya Angelou and the Last Poets on his albums. “Glory” isn’t the first time Common has invoked Martin Luther King for a film. In 2006, he collaborated with Will.I.Am an end-credits anthem for the movie “The Freedom Writers” that sampled King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

It is clear from the opening gospel chords, that “Glory” is a celebration. It doesn’t challenge the listener like Common’s “Song for Asatta” or Legend’s version of “I Can’t Write Left Handed.” It something we can all feel good about while listening. That may sound like an insult, but it’s not. The civil rights movement brought out the worst in our society, and anyone who weathered that storm, or had a loved one who did, deserves a moment to catch their breath, smile and feel proud.

(Above: Common and John Legend show “Glory” at the Grammys.)

While “Glory” namechecks Ferguson, “The Charade” captures the confusion, frustration and anger of the injustice there. “All we wanted was a chance to talk,” D’Angelo pleads in the chorus. “’Stead we only got outlined in chalk.”

Like most of the songs on “Black Messiah,” “The Charade” doesn’t announce its presence as much as slink into being. D’Angelo’s lyrics are tough to decipher on the first listen, demanding repeated listens and close attention. “Glory” has a gospel choir; “The Charade” has multi-tracked vocals.

The difference between the songs is even more stark in performance. On “Saturday Night Live” D’Angelo and his band dressed in all black, with a chalk outline behind the singer on the floor. Backing vocalists wore shirts stating “I Can’t Breath” and “Black Lives Matter.” D’Angelo wore a hoodie, his face hidden in the shadows. The blistering delivery was a gauntlet – ignore this, America. Driving the point home, the ensemble raised fists in the air over the dying notes, summoning images of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics.

Less than two weeks later, Common and Legend were tapped to close the Grammys. Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, everyone wore suits and was clean-shaven. The production dovetailed with Beyonce’s stirring version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” King’s favorite song. The performance was moving, but if “Glory” didn’t feel as powerful as “The Charade” on “SNL,” it might be because it felt more safe.

“Glory” points to how far we’ve come and “The Charade” shows how far we have to go, but both songs end up at the same hopeful place. “Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory,” Common concludes. “With the veil off our eyes, we’ll truly see/and we’ll march on,” D’Angelo affirms. “And it really won’t take too long.”

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John Legend and the Roots – “Wake Up!”

Edwin Starr – “War”

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

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 (Above: A pre-Soy Bomb Grammy performance by Bob Dylan.)

For the past couple years, The Daily Record has celebrated the Grammy Awards with a running diary, documenting every moment with maximum snark. It was a lot of fun, but it won’t be happening tonight.

Making fun of the Grammys is like saying Bud Selig is out-of-touch or pointing out bias on Fox News. There doesn’t need to be any more wood added to this well-fueled fire. In fact, making fun of the Grammys irrelevance may perversely be giving them more relevance. For years, Grammy ratings were steadily sliding downward. Over the past few telecasts, however, viewership has sharply risen. This spike has coincided with the bevy of Tweets, blogs and Facebook posts lampooning the event.

I’m sure there will be some incredible moments on tonight’s broadcast. I’m also sure it won’t be worth more than three hours of my time. Tomorrow dozens of Websites will have links to the evening’s best moments, which I’ll be able to view in their entirety in under 20 minutes.

The Grammys try to be all (mainstream) things to all people. This weakens the telecast, but could be a boon the next day. Since all the performances are professionally recorded and mixed, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to put MP3s of those songs on iTunes the next day. Granted, there isn’t a lot of money left to be shaken from that tree, but I’m confident a substantial profit could be easily turned.

Just a thought. See you in the funny papers.

Keep reading:

2010 Grammys: A Live Diary

2009 Grammys: A Running Diary

 

 

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By Joel Francis

When Elvis Costello picked up an acoustic guitar in the mid-‘80s after two baffling albums full of horns and keyboards, the result was one of the high points in Costello’s already-great discography. Costello teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett for that album, “King of America,” and 23 years later the two are back together for “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.”

Costello has never quite eclipsed that peak, settling into a pattern of churning out reliable genre exercises in country, jazz, classical and rock and collaborating with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint. Burnett, on the other hand, has become the go-to man for Americana/roots recordings, winning a Grammys for his production on Robert Plant and Allisson Krauss’ debut album and the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. The reunion of Costello and Burnett creates an accessible entry point for a public that reaches beyond his usual audience of the core and the curious.

Unfortunately, the magic that sparked “King of America” is absent on “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.” While Burnett has rounded up an all-star cast of bluegrass musicians, the music feels like a stiff genre exercise. It is almost as if Costello is guesting on his own “Pickin’ On” tribute, or starring in “O Brother Where Art Costello.” Costello’s decision to revisit two songs from his back catalog reinforces this notion. “Complicated Shadows” was a great Johnny Cash-inspired slow-burning rock song in its original incarnation back in 1996. Here, it’s half the length and feels like Costello slapped his old lyrics over a generic bluegrass arrangement.

It neither helps nor hurts the listening experience to know that these songs were culled from an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Anderson, previous albums and leftovers from other projects. With little exception, they are all painted with the same brush and do little to distinguish themselves from the gray wash of an album that is neither offensive nor interesting.

The songs that do stand out are the two co-written by Burnett and Costello. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an extended innuendo delivered with a broad poke in the ribs and exaggerated arched eyebrow. It recalls the routines of Dusty and Lefty, the off-color cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Riley in the film “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“The Crooked Line,” however, is a standout in the good way. This next-to-last tune rewards the listener for nearly making it through the album with the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Harris may be the best and most underrated duet singer in music. She consistently works harder on her supporting vocals than most singers invest in their singles. Her voice soars, subtly complimenting the melody, adding a mesmerizing countermelody. Whether on Lyle Lovett’s “Waltz Through the Bottomland” or Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique,” her voice never ceases to inadvertently creep into the spotlight and eventually command full attention.

Drawing on the chemistry she and Costello established in their previous collaboration on his “Delivery Man” album and subsequent tour, Harris doesn’t disappoint on “The Crooked Line.” Like a jazz musician breathing life into a trite pop standard, Harris signing salvages a ho-hum song and arrangement and turns it into something worth repeated listens.

“Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” has been released on Starbuck’s Hear Music label, and it seems a perfect fit for the latte-drinking, NPR-listening caricature scribbled up in political circles. For this audience, Costello’s name means maverick, Burnett’s means quality and the country-folk stylings make it unique, yet comfortable. But fans of Costello, Burnett and bluegrass alike can do much better than this.

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