(Above: “April In Paris” brought spring to many parts of the world whenever it was played. Few did it finer than the Count Basie Orchestra.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Spring arrived on the calendar several weeks ago, but Mother Nature didn’t get the memo until recently. The half dozen songs that follow don’t explicitly mention chirping birds, budding flowers, sun dresses and deck parties, but they certainly conjure the feeling.
“Starting a New Life” – Van Morrison
Van the Man throws off the shackles of winter in the jubilant first verse of this song:
“When I hear that robin sing,
Well I know it’s coming on spring,
Ooo-we, and we’re starting a new life.”
In a little more than two minutes, Morrison and his buoyant country/folk melody captures the romance of the season and the essence of why so many couples get married in the spring.
“Starting a New Life” was one of the first songs Morrison wrote after relocating from Woodstock, N.Y. to just north of San Francisco. Although the move wasn’t his idea, he was clearly relishing his new surroundings.
“Satchel Paige Said” – The Baseball Project
For many fans of the nation’s pastime, spring doesn’t arrive until Opening Day. Wind chill and even snow are mentally eliminated once the boys of summer line up along the base paths.
Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey of the Minus Five and Young Fresh Fellows teamed up in 2008 under the name “The Baseball Project” and cut 13 tributes to their favorite sport.
“Satchel Paige Said” sounds like an outtake from Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever.” McCaughey’s lyrics draw on elements of Paige’s biography and his famous advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
“Radio Head” – Talking Heads
Generation X is littered with great bands that take themselves too seriously. Perhaps the only common element shared by Pearl Jam and the Smashing Pumpkins is that neither band wants to provide its audience with the opportunity to laugh.
But the biggest and most serious of all Gen X bands is Radiohead. Which makes it even more delightful that they titled their first album after a Jerky Boys gag and named themselves after this supremely silly Talking Heads track.
But even if the English quintet had chosen another moniker, “Radio Head” would deserve a footnote in music history. David Byrne’s song about a man who can pick up radio transmissions with his noggin is set to a poppy zydeco rhythm that makes it the perfect song for that first spring car ride with the windows rolled all the way down and the stereo turned all the way up.
“Bowtie” – Outkast
Once the temperature swells, the unshapely layers of winter clothing are shed. And when the flimsy summer apparel is donned, it’s time to strut. Urban radio stations bank on this transition, building their warm-weather playlists around the singles designed maximize swagger.
The funky horns on this cut from Big Boi’s half of “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” will make any stroll seem like a parade. The hip hop equivalent of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man,” this track exudes more than enough confidence to turn a timid Romeo into a pimp daddy for one night.
“April, Come She Will” – Simon and Garfunkel
Ah, the fickle fancy of spring flings. On “April, Come She Will,” Paul Simon uses the changing seasons as a metaphor for a girl’s elusive affection following a brief affair. Thematically, the romantic longing of “April” was echoed on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her.” Both songs hover around the two minute mark. The economy of Simon’s lyrics and arrangements and the power of Art Garfunkel’s vocals make both songs potent vignettes.
Although it was written three years before the film, “April, Come She Will” is used to great effect in “The Graduate” as Benjamin Braddock chases the heart of Elaine Robinson.
“Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers”
You don’t have to be an English major to see the metaphor in the title song from Bialystock and Bloom’s failed musical. As chorus girls parade around in beer stein bustiers, and pretzel tassels, the faux fuhrer solemnly intones: “Springtime for Hitler and Germany/Autumn for Poland and France.” Any remaining sensibilities are purged when storm troopers in a Busby Berkeley-style dance form a swirling swastika.
The coup de tat that saves the song from being an anti-Semitic nightmare comes from the fact that Mel Brooks, a Jew who fought the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, gleefully wrote all the lyrics to this brilliant satire. (That’s his overdubbed voice delivering the line “don’t be stupid, be a smarty/come and join the Nazi party.”)
(Above: Booker T. Jones performs “Time Is Tight” in Dublin earlier this year.)
By Joel Francis
Soul legend Booker T. Jones’ concert Sunday night at Knucklehead’s was the tale of two shows. The first half of Jones’ two-hour set was solid, if unspectacular and marred by sound and equipment issues. After a 20-minute recess to fix the technical problems, the band returned rejuvenated and tore through powerful readings from the MGs catalog.
Jones’ organ playing has always been more powerful than his singing voice, but both his instruments were drowned out by Troy Gonyea’s guitar. The quartet started off fine with the opening trio of songs from this year’s “Potato Hole” album, but it was difficult to hear Jones’ between-song banter and his singing on “Born Under A Bad Sign” was inaudible.
That song earned a few scowls toward the soundboard and a staff member hurriedly setting up a second mic at the organ. Jones took a mulligan on that one and ran it through again with somewhat improved results. The sound problems followed Jones across the stage when he strapped on a black Stratocaster to pay tributes to his friends and fellow Stax legends Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.
Hayes and David Porter’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” was marred by feedback that made “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” unlistenable. After the sound crew proved unable to fix what Jones identified as “440 or 360 frequency” hum, the band took a technical break.
With the sound fixed, the band emerged a new beast. Jones’ organ was crisp and each instrument was more distinct. The band seemed happier, too, and made up for the false start. New song “Native New Yorker” sounded like a lost Allman Brothers track and Drummer Darian Gray updated a couple MGs tracks, including “Hip Hug Her” and “Hang ‘Em High” with freestyle rap vocals. “Melting Pot” built slowly over Gonyea’s chicken-scratch guitar before exploding at the gospel chorus. The 10-minute reading gave the band plenty of time to stretch out and play off each other.
The main set ended with a thunderous “Time is Tight” that opened with organ and bass before the rest of the band kicked down the door. The band scattered after that song, leaving Jones on his organ bench talking to fans and posing for pictures. The musicians reappeared for a spontaneous, powerful roll through Jones’ wonderful, upbeat arrangement of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”
Knucklehead’s was about three-quarters full of appreciative fans who didn’t hesitate to jump to their feet and crowd the dance floor. “Green Onions” drew a big crowd in front of the stage early, and nearly everyone was on their feet for the second half of the show. It had been a long time since Jones last played Kansas City, and everyone in the house – musicians included – were graciously patient and willing to make sure the evening turned out all right. The ultimately spectacular evening was well worth the wait.
Setlist: Pound It Out, She Breaks, Warped Sister, Green Onions, Born Under A Bad Sign, Hold On, I’m Comin’, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, Potato Hole, Hip Hug Her, New York Native, Melting Pot, Hang ‘Em High, Time Is Tight, (encore) Hey Ya
(Above: Neil Young sets the record straight with a live performance of “This Note’s For You” from 1988. Thanks to Viacom, clips for Roca Pads and Redman’s Potty Fresh were unavailable.)
By Joel Francis
Earlier this week, Billboard reported the booklet in the new Mariah Carey CD will contain “lifestyle ads.”
The 34-page “mini-magazine” will be co-produced by Elle magazine and house ads for Elizabeth Arden, Angel Champagne, Carmen Steffens, Le Métier de Beauté and the Bahamas Board of Tourism. The booklet will also contain Carey-centric articles with the enticing titles like “VIP Access to Her Sexy Love Life,” “Amazing Closet,” “Recording Rituals.”
Evidently the music wasn’t enough.
Annoying as the ad campaigns may have been, there have been no Chevy ads in Bob Seeger or John Mellencamp albums. Other artists have been less scrupulous about whoring their album space, but were never this brazen. Master P turned the booklets for all his No Limit artists into mini-catalogs, and Outkast frequently squeezed ads for their pit bulls alongside lyrics and musician credits. At least those performers had a stake in the products in question.
Carey’s move is more egregious on several levels. First, retailers have already found ways to cross-promote. According to the Billboard story, Walmart will display Carey’s album next to her Arden fragrance Forever, which has an ad on the back cover of the CD booklet. Even more disturbingly, Island-Def Jam, Carey’s label, has eyed Rihanna, Bon Jovi and Kanye West to follow suit if the initial venture is a success. Carey has never been a bastion of artistry, but if the major labels can turn a buck from this experiment, expect ads in CD booklets to become the norm.
“The idea was really simple thinking: ‘We sell millions of records, so you should advertise with us,’” Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman, Island Def Jam Music Group, a unit of Universal Music Group, told Billboard.
Fans who buy the album digitally through iTunes or Amazon will also be subjected to the advertising. The ads will also be included in the electronic PDFs accompanying download sales. The only way to circumvent the booklet blights is the easiest and cheapest solution: ignore Carey or steal the music. Until the major labels start respecting the listeners, there is absolutely no reason to respect them.
Above: Norah Jones strolls through Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” at the 2008 BridgeSchool Benefit concert.
By Joel Francis
When Beyonce sang “a diva is a female version of a hustler” she probably wasn’t thinking of Norah Jones.
Jones has made her name with impeccable background music that is tasteful to a fault and straddles the line between folk and jazz. It appears she saves the more interesting facets of her personality for her side projects with the Little Willies, El Madmo, a punk one-off, and her burgeoning side career as hip hop chanteuse. Jones’ appearances with Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Wyclef Jean and Q-Tip prove there may be more than a little hustler in her after all.
“Take Off Your Cool” with Andre 3000 of Outkast, from “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”
Jones was a little more than a year removed from the massive success “Come Away With Me” when this number appeared. Both camps took shots from a surprised public. Andre 3000 was blasted for pandering by working with the reigning adult contemporary queen and Jones was flamed for lowering herself to the low level of hip hop. Of course, the final result proved all naysayers wrong.
Anchored by a finger-picked acoustic guitar, the gentle production wouldn’t out of place on Jones’ own album – that is if Jones’ stuffy supporters could get past Andre 3000’s greasy come-ons.
“Any Other Day” with Wyclef Jean, from “The Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant”
This song, which first appeared on the Hurricane Katrina relief charity album “Come Together Now,” has more in common with the Dave Matthews Band than the Fugees. Wyclef Jean’s acoustic guitar leads the way, but it is essentially Jones’ showcase. She affectingly croons the story of someone trapped by a storm, while Jean drops in a faux-Bob Marley patois.
A quick glance and the writing credit explains Jones’ prominence. The song is a true collaboration, with Jones and her then-boyfriend Lee Alexander sharing authorship with Jean and his producer Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis.
“Soon the New Day” with Talib Kweli, from “Ear Drum”
Even so-called “conscious rappers” aren’t above desires of the flesh. This celebration of one-night stands is draped across producer Madlib’s backdrop of smooth ’70s soul. As Talib Kweli boasts about his conquest, Jones’ voice surfaces like the first rays of dawn gently forcing their way into the bedroom through the closed shade.
Although Jones is essentially limited to one line, she makes the most of it, adding heart and emotion to Kweli’s calculated braggadocio. But don’t mistake Jones as the conscience of the story – there is no remorse from either party. She clearly enjoyed it just as much as he did, just in a different way. Despite their disparate deliveries, the two voices work naturally together – neither performer sounds of his (or her) element.
“Soon the New Day” is a stand-out tune on a great album that should have been a single.
“Life Is Better” with Q-Tip, from “The Renaissance”
This cut is essentially a jam, with Q-Tip and Jones giving props to hip hop pioneers like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Leaders of the New School and, of course, Tip’s close friend J. Dilla. Jones gets the song to herself for the first two minutes and she makes the most of it. It’s fun to hear her away from her natural reference points singing of hip hop songs “banging for you” against a thumping bass line and jazzy sample. Tip’s verse is a roll call of his favorite artists.
Jones’ strong performance in her most urban setting to date makes one wish she’d take similar chances on her own albums. But if she’s not willing to alienate her own audience, it’s nice to see her spreading her wings elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when she shows up on the next Snoop Dogg album.
Two of this year’s most anticipated hip hop releases were also its biggest disappointments.
In August, OutKast released “Idlewild,” the soundtrack to their first film and the follow-up to 2004’s Grammy-winning smash release “Speakerboxx/The Love Below.” Like all OutKast projects “Idlewild” is bursting with a million ideas. Unfortunately, few of them are seen all the way through. Tracks like “The Train” and “Morris Brown” fire on all cylinders and are a delight to the ears, but they are also the exception. At 78 minutes in length, the album is littered with songs like “Chronomentrophobia” that hint at something bigger but end before jelling. The worst offender of all is the aptly titled “Bad Note,” a 9-minute dirge that goes absolutely nowhere. Some judicious editing and persistence could have saved this project. Instead we’re left with an album that’s ripe for cherry picking.
If “Idlewild” fails because it has too many ideas, then the exact opposite problem plagues Jay-Z’s “Kingdom Come.”
Jay-Z announced his retirement from rap three years ago and has spent that time releasing two albums with R. Kelly and guesting on numerous albums. Instead of returning from his so-called sabbatical refreshed, Hova offers us absolutely nothing new. The Jigga-man used to justify his thug, but now he’s justifying his age (37) and rehashing the same tired rhymes about his wealth, his game and his momma.
Unfortunately, Jay-Z’s not the only one phoning it in. His lyrical lethargy is unfortunately compounded by production is even less inspired. Two cuts recycle the samples that gave us MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” and Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rump Shaker” over 15 years ago. Unfortunately, these tracks shine in comparison with the limp and lazy beats provided by the usually-reliable Just Blaze and Dr. Dre. Put it this way: when the best and most original beat on the album is provided by Coldplay’s Chris Martin, you know you’re in trouble.
I don’t want to hear Jigga sleepily tell me how “30’s the new 20” any more than I want to hear OutKast’s Andre 3000 ape Cab Calloway’s schtick. While it’s regrettable that two of the most reliable and original acts in hip hop have misfired so greatly, it’s comforting to know we only have to wait until next summer for redemption.