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(Above: Chuck D pays tribute to Muhammad Ali.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Legendary hip hop ensemble Public Enemy is $20,000 away from fulfilling its efforts to raise enough money for its upcoming album. But PE front man Chuck D doesn’t want to spend much time talking about that project.

“I’m not spending long on this. That’s a 2011 project,” D said in a recent telephone interview. “I will say that it is a collaborative effort with Tom Morello, Boots (Riley, of the Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club) and Z-Trip.”

D quickly moves on to more immediate projects, like the three-CD, three-DVD retrospective of the band’s post-Def Jam era. Or Chuck’s second solo album. Or the other bands he’s trying to break through on his SlamJamz label.

The “Hits, Vids and Docs” box set is three discs of live cuts, remixes and album tracks covering the band’s history since 1999. Three additional DVDs contain interviews, documentaries, music videos and concert footage.

“This set covers the last 10 years since we left Def Jam,” D said. “Some of the video material has been repeated from other sets, but there is also new content. One thing I’ve learned is that if you are going to try to release anything in retail as an independent you’d better give the customer chock-full of their money’s worth. This certainly does.”

A dozen years after his solo debut, D is preparing to drop his second effort, “Don’t Rhyme for the Sake of Riddlin’.” Unlike the first, proper album, “Riddlin’” is a collection of D’s collaborations and one-off projects. The album will include “Tear Down the Wall,” his response to Arizona’s controversial immigration bill.

“The artists in SlamJamz are another big concern,” D said. “We just put out a song called ‘First Lady’ by a trio of female MCs called Crew Grrl Order. They also did a song called ‘Go Green’ which is a response to the BP disaster. My thing is just to try to encourage people in the genre to take action for themselves. Don’t look to me to do it for you. I will help you, but you have to be the one to do it.”

But while D is loaded with current projects and thinking of the future, Public Enemy has also taken some time this year to look back. D, Flava Flav, Professor Griff, DJ Lord and the SW1s have been celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark release “Fear of a Black Planet” by performing the entire album at special concerts and festivals.

“’Fear’ was the first album where people had expectations of us. We had broken through. It’s fun to think back to that year, because I just kind of put it out of my mind,” D said. “There are several cuts on there we either haven’t done before or haven’t done in a long time. It can be a challenge just to remember the words.”

Even the United States government got caught up in the celebration. The album was added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

“The people in government are different from the government as an organization,” D said, clarifying Public Enemy’s legendary anti-establishment stance. “Washington, D.C. is the large sum of many parts. The day we were honored was a good day to be in D.C.”

Keep reading:

Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy

Review: Gil Scott-Heron

Review: Public Enemy, Rage, the Roots and more at Rock the Bells (2007)

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(Above: Stefani Germanotta goes gaga for John Lennon.)

A few random thoughts for this mid-week blog entry.

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Lilith Fair

I’m looking forward to catching my first-ever Lilith Fair tomorrow night, but must admit I have several reservations. It’s never a good sign when Sarah McLachlan, the tour headliner and organizer, admits that ticket sales have been “soft.” Several dates were cancelled, and a quick glance at the temporarily unavailable TicketMaster instant seat locator showed that many of the remaining dates had vast sections of available seats. I don’t know how to fix the sour ticket industry (eliminating “convenience” fees and lowering prices spring to mind, but I’m sure it’s much more complicated), but I think Lilith hasn’t done itself any favors. Many of these problems could be fixed by paying more attention to the Lilith Fair Website.

Fans should be able to see where each artists performs without having to click on every date. Clicking an artist’s name brings up a highlighted list of her cities, but without dates. This is needlessly complex. Furthermore, the schedules for each city are missing. Eleven artists will play at Sandstone Amphitheater tomorrow night. Performances will start in the mid-afternoon. Approximate schedules should be posted weeks before each stop so fans will be able to make plans and adjust to be in place for their favorite performer. Each of these issues have easy solutions. Judging by the Website, it appears as if everyone threw in the towel long ago. These shows may be a loss, but fans still need to be cared for.

Lady Gaga and John Lennon

My little brother cracks me up. With very little coaching from me, he has become a huge Beatles fan. His Facebook posting the other day reminded me of something I would have written as his age. He was outraged that the “freak” Lady Gaga had covered “Imagine,” “the magnificent song by John Lennon.”

I can’t recall any Beatles covers drawing my ire, but for a brief period I grew very upset when rap producers (I’m looking at you, Diddy) were too reliant on the source material. “I’ll Be Missing You” and “Feel So Good” seemed like glorified karaoke to me. The kicker came when Jimmy Page and Tom Morello, two guitarists (read: “musicians”) I greatly respected helped Diddy rework Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” for “Come With Me.”

I have mellowed over time. Now when I hear Gaga’s cover of “Imagine” I’m glad she has good taste and that someone is keeping Lennon’s music alive, however the performance rates.

Going Deep

In another lifetime, in another era I would have been a great producer at Rhino Records. I love scouring the catalogs of artists, unearthing gems from dismissed albums or periods. Much of this ends up in multi-volume anthologies, but these treasures also work as nice garnishing in a playlist.

The other day I was working with a friend who took great delight in all the solo Pete Townshend material I had sprinkled into a Who playlist (there were Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle solo offerings as well). He thought it was hilarious that I would venture beyond “You Better You Bet,” the band’s final classic single. I think he’s missing out. “Slit Skirts” and “Give Blood” may not be the second coming of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or “Substitute,” but they’re easily as good as anything that came after “Who By Numbers.”

This leads me to Ringo Starr. Obsessive that I am, I created anthologies for all the fallow periods in the solo Beatle catalogs – except Ringo. The Fab drummer’s 70th birthday last week caused me to reconsider this stance. So I dutifully investigated all of his albums. The critics weren’t wrong – there’s more bad than good. That said, there’s always at least one keeper on each album, and if I hadn’t been so dedicated I would have completely missed out on Ringo’s first two fantastic albums.

Ringo’s third solo album, 1973’s “Ringo” soaks up all the love but “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” are just as good, albeit for very different reasons. Both albums came out in 1970, and both clock in around 35 minutes. Both the brevity and timing work in Ringo’s favor. 1970 was both the best and worst year to be a Beatles fan. Sure the band broke up, but on the other hand fans got “Let It Be,” “McCartney,” “All Things Must Pass,” “Plastic Ono Band” and the aforementioned Ringo platters.

Although they hit shelves only six months apart, “Sentimental Journey” and “Beaucoups of Blues” couldn’t be more different. Both albums are genre exercises, but the big-band swing of “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is both geographically and generationally separated from the country twang of “Loser’s Lounge.” Yet Ringo’s enthusiasm and personality shines through both project, making them an infectious and irresistible listen.

Neither album will replace “Abbey Road” or “A Hard Day’s Night,” but they easily trump “Red Rose Speedway,” “Extra Texture” or “Some Time in New York City.” Better yet, they can be found easily and cheaply on vinyl. Do yourself a favor and grab ‘em next time you haunt the bins.

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By Joel Francis

There is probably a good bromance film to be made about the relationship between male songwriters. They dynamics of a songwriting partnership mirror that of a romantic union – giddy joy at meeting a compatible soul, the steady rhythm of fruitful collaboration, independence and wanting to branch out and then either acceptance and adaptation or estrangement.

Some partnerships – like Morrissey and Johnny Marr – burn hot and bright, flaming out quickly. Others, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, settle into marriages of convenience. Jack White is quite promiscuous as a songwriter, flitting from the White Stripes to the Raconteurs, Loretta Lynn and Dead Weather. Some songwriting partnerships turn into real marriages, like Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

Then there are the songwriters who have flown solo: Phil Ochs, Neil Young, But even the most ardent songwriting bachelors have had a subtle and unseen hands guiding their way and providing resistance to make the song better. Rivers Como had Matt Sharp, Jeff Tweedy had Jay Bennett, Stevie Wonder had Syreeta Wright. And Bruce Springsteen had Miami Steven Van Zandt.

Van Zandt made his presence in the E Street Band known immediately. He arranged the horn line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and contributed to the signature guitar line on “Born To Run.” For the next eight years his guitar was the muscle behind Springsteen’s songs, constantly challenging the band and its leader to keep moving and top themselves.

When Van Zandt left the E Street band in 1984, he was replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren had established an outstanding reputation on the basis of his solo work and his stints with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. As a musician he was a more-than-worthy replacement for Van Zandt, but was too easygoing to musically aggravate his new boss the way Van Zandt had.

In 1995 Van Zandt returned the E Street Band and Lofgren remained. The pair has now spent more time in the band together than they did apart. But during that time, Springsteen’s concerts have turned into carnivals rather than escapades. Musicians that used to labor over albums as a unit now record their parts separately. In short, the E Street Band is less a team than an all-star squad of longtime ringers.

Although Springsteen concerts remain incredible experiences and his albums are very good for the most part, Springsteen’s songwriting lacks the urgency, grit and desperation of his early work. Since Springsteen’s early ‘90s retreat from the E Street crew, he hasn’t had a foil, poking, prodding and disturbing him.

When Tom Morello joined the E Street Band onstage in April, 2008, the long absent counterpunch returned. Although his career was considerably shorter, the guitarist had been searching for his own artistic gadfly since the break-up of Rage Against the Machine and the disappointment of Audioslave.

Both performers were familiar with the material. Springsteen wrote “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as the title song for his 1995 solo album and Rage Against the Machine released a covered it two years later. There are several elements in the live collaboration missing on either incarnation. Morello emulates Woody Guthrie in his solo guise as the Nightwatchman, but here and Springsteen add an element of longing and loneliness Guthrie would have liked.

Five guitars are played, but only two of them matter. Springsteen rips off a blistering solo with more intensity than anything he’s recorded in years – he came closest in his appearances on Warren Zevon’s farewell album “The Wind” – and Morello soars with passionate extended solo that combines Public Enemy’s Terminator X and Eddie Van Halen to end the song.

Springsteen originally wrote “Tom Joad” for the E Street 1995 reunion project, but didn’t like the band’s arrangement and set the number aside. That it took an outsider to help the group get the song right 13 years later points the direction Springsteen’s music should head. Too comfortable with the E Streeters, he needs an album-length collaboration with obvious disciples like the Hold Steady or a partnership with more-obscure-but-still-simpatico Black Keys.

Springsteen doesn’t need anyone reverential or deferential. He needs someone like Morello kicking his ass, forcing him to be better. Hopefully these eight tantalizing minutes are the first draft of an upcoming screenplay.

Keep reading:

Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (2008)

Review: Rage Against the Machine at Rock the Bells (2007)

Review: Springsteen’s “Dream” Needs More Work

Springsteen in the Waiting Room: Drop the Needle and Pray

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 1)

Springsteen Rocks the Hall (part 2)

Book Review: “Big Man” by Clarence Clemons

More Bruce Springsteen on The Daily Record

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cover-front-chris-cornell-scream-2009

By Joel Francis

In the two months since Chris Cornell’s latest album, “Scream,” appeared on store shelves it has been mocked by Trent Reznor, bashed by critics and ignored by fans.

There’s only one problem with this: the album isn’t all bad.

This is not to say that “Scream” is a masterpiece that will make fans forget “Superunknown;” it is a flawed album. But the biggest problem lies not with the album, but Cornell’s fans. The hard rockers who grew up with Cornell in Soundgarden and backed by Rage Against the Machine in Audioslave are unwilling to give his collaboration with hip hop producer Timbaland a chance.

Timbaland made his name in the ‘90s working with Missy Elliott and Jay-Z. He cemented his radio-/club-friendly reputation this decade through collaborations with Justin Timberlake, Pussycat Dolls. None of these names are likely to impress Cornell’s hard rockin’ fan base.

The album bubbles, shakes and bounces with a consistency that surpasses Timbaland’s 2007 vanity project “Shock Value” and harkens back to his glory days with Elliott. Thanks to inventive interludes, the songs flow from one to the next, never letting the energy or mood flag.

And for a dance album, Cornell’s songwriting is strong. It’s hard to imagine many club bangers – “Hey Ya” aside – working well stripped to acoustic guitar and vocals, but it’s not difficult to envision Cornell performing “Ground Zero,” “Time” or “Long Gone” unplugged.

If this had been a Madonna album the public couldn’t buy (or download) enough copies. When Lil Wayne straps on a guitar and he’s praised for expanding his sound and showing artistic growth. Why can’t rockers do the same?

“Scream” is far from perfect. Lyrics have never been Cornell’s strong suit and he comes embarrassingly short several times on this album. Next to the rhythm, the chorus is the most important element of a dance song, and Cornell flunks badly on “Part of Me.” “That bitch ain’t a part of me” repeated eight time with multi-tracked and auto-tuned vocals is the most egregious crime, but hardly the only offender. At other times, you can imagine Cornell and Timbaland standing in awe over a track they’ve created only to realize they need to add a melody and lyrics.

The dirty little secret is that Chris Cornell is the Roger Daltrey of his generation. Like Daltrey, he is one of the most powerful, dynamic and expressive voices in rock. Unfortunately, also like Daltrey, he’s only as good as the guitarists backing him. Supported by Kim Thayil in Soundgarden or Tom Morello in Audioslave, Cornell was great. Timbaland is obviously not a full-time replacement for Thayil or Morello, but he was a bold and inventive choice for foil on this project.

Although “Scream” is a pop album, it is not a naked bid for crossover success. Judging by the studied calculation of Cornell’s previous two solo albums, he knew the risks he was taking. Although “Scream” will be too rocky for the clubbers and too clubby for the rockers, it is an interesting leap that deserves a better fate and a second listen.

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