Saturday, February 28, 2009

Auto-matic for the people

For years, there's one "instrument" in popular music that will make me change the channel on the radio -- if I don't crash the car first, that is -- namely, the auto-tune. Popularized by Cher in her song "Believe," this voice warbling software has since been heartily adopted by the likes of Akon, Kanye West, and Britney Spears. The EPA oughta define auto-tune songs as "air pollution."

And those are just examples obvious manipulation of vocal tracks since the software is reputedly the savior of just about any manufactured pop star you care to mention. Frankly, Katy Perry's performances at The Grammys -- if you weren't distracted by her cleavage and Carmen Miranda outfit -- makes one wonder whether her voice hasn't benefitted from auto-tune in the studio.

But, of late, my hatred of auto-tune has softened thanks to its ingenious use in two songs. The final track of Bon Iver's "Blood Bank" EP, named "Woods," uses the software to manipulate Justin Vernon's multi-tracked harmonies. The result, it must be admitted, is stunning. Similarly, School of Seven Bells -- a trio consisting of twin girls and former Secret Machines guitarist Ben Curtis -- use auto-tune to tweak the chorus of a track called "Chain" to make it naggingly catchy.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Depeche Mode can do no "Wrong"

Depeche Mode unveiled their new single, "Wrong," at Germany's Echo Awards. (Other performers included U2, who you can view here, and Amy MacDonald, who you can watch here.) I've watched this performance several times (plug headphones into your computer to hear it at its best) and this is easily DM's best single since "It's No Good." Great attitude, great dynamics, great hook.

Depeche Mode hasn't fared well the past decade. "Playing the Angel" led off with a great single in "Precious," but its muscular sound was bereft of Martin Gore's usual melodic touch. The previous album, "Exciter," failed to live up to its title. Only "Dream On," "Shine," and "Freelove" are keepers. But keyboardist Andrew Fletcher tells Billboard that, "We think this album has got quality." If "Wrong" is anything to go by, "Sounds of the Universe" will be DM's best record since 1997's "Ultra."

The band's US tour dates have just been posted and Dave Gahan promises a heady stage show courtesy of the band's longtime photographer Anton Corbijn. Let's just hope that doesn't mean everything will be in black and white.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Coldplay's plot to rule the planet

It's not uncommon for bands to have self-imposed rules. Mostly, though, band protocols revolve around groupies sharing bunk beds on the tour bus, and that sort of thing.

Coldplay, on the other hand, has a veritable Constitution according to a recent episode of "60 Minutes." During a feature on the band, the camera panned to a list of rules on their studio wall. I've transcribed it below. I'll refrain from commentary other than to note that rule number 6 explains why I could never get any followup interviews with the band after my first one.

1. Albums be no longer than 42 minutes, 9 tracks.
2. Production must be amazing, but with space, not overlayered, less tracks, more quality, groove and swing. Drums/rhythm are the most crucial thing to concentrate on; diff. between bittersweet and science of silence.
3. Computers are instruments, not recording aids.
4. Imagery must be classic, colourful and different. Come back in glorious technicolor.
5. Make sure videos and pictures are great before setting release date. And highly original.
6. Always keep mystery. Not many interviews.
7. Groove and swing. Rhythms and sounds must always be as original as possible. Once jon has melody twist it and weird it sonical.
8. Promo/review copies to be on VINYL. Stops copying problem, sounds and looks better.
9. Jacqueline sabriado, ns p c c, face forward.
10. Think about what you do with charity account. Set up something small but really enabling and constructive. Ref j oliver fifteen

Friday, February 13, 2009

U2's bottom "Line"

In marshaling an epic campaign for "No Line on the Horizon," including a 5 night residency on David Letterman in addition to performances on The Grammys and The Brits, one thing is readily apparent: U2 still wants to sell lots of albums. How quaint.

It's understandable that U2 should want as many people as possible to hear its imminent record. Recent interviews suggest that the Irish foursome became all-too-aware they were in an artistic holding pattern and that they wanted to reclaim the musical exploration of their 90s work. The band seems genuinely excited about "No Line on the Horizon." Unfortunately, the band and manager Paul McGuinness are still committed to a 20th-century music model that emphasizes music sales as a top priority. Now, U2 may well match Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" by shifting 2 million copies of its album stateside, which is considered a sizable figure these days. But U2 most certainly won't match the sales of albums such as "Achtung Baby" and "The Joshua Tree" in this era of declining album sales.

Fortunately, the band is ideally positioned to make boatloads of cash on the concert circuit, which is where all the revenue is these days. The band's recent deal with Live Nation is worth an estimated $100 million. They can command that sort of deal because, in a fractured pop culture where the overlap between what we all watch, read, and listen to steadily erodes, U2 is one of the last remaining mega bands.

Which brings me back to album sales. Given that U2 will make far more money on the tour circuit that it will through retail sales, why doesn't the band consider just giving its new album away for free, the way Radiohead did? It’s not as if they aren’t going to make a fortune on the road anyway. Given how proud U2 is of the record, they would reach far more ears by giving the album away (like Radiohead, the Irishmen could still release a physical version of the album later on and it would still do well among those who still like to collect CDs ). U2’s concert tickets aren’t cheap and so the band runs the risk of limiting their (sizable) audience to those age 30 and up who can afford to go see them. If the band truly wants to expand its generational reach and ultimate longevity, they’d give away the album to the file-sharing generation and, in the process, attract a much younger group of listeners. (See this new survey about the 14-to-24 generation's attitude about paying for music.)

Even Coldplay gave away “Violet Hill” as a free download. (They accrued hundreds of thousands of email address in the process, possibly setting themselves up to go it alone, Radiohead or Marillion style, once their deal with EMI expires.) U2, on the other hand, is charging 99 cents for “Get On Your Boots” downloads, trying to wring every last penny from music sales. (
Here's the video for "Get on Your Boots," which resembles a Maurice Binder title sequence for a James Bond movie, complete with "highly decorated" woman at the 1 minute mark.)

The single isn’t even in the current iTunes top 100 songs. U2 is clearly stuck in a moment it can’t get out of.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Phoenix no longer rising

After watching Joaquin Phoenix's obstinate appearance on David Letterman last night -- a career implosion that's diverted attention away from Christian Bale's tantrum -- I thought back to my interview experience with Phoenix several years back.

It happened during my one and only movie junket in New York City. My assignment was to write an in-depth interview profile of M. Night Shyamalan, at that time riding the crest of his hubris just prior to the release of "The Village." Before I sat down for a one-on-one interview with Night -- a charmer who was as curious about me as I was about him -- in his Mandarin Oriental suite, I spent much of the day with veteran junketeers doing roundtable interviews with various Villagers.

As I quickly discovered, the junketeers simply shuttle from one movie promotion to another, staying in hotels paid for by the studio and hoarding as many promotion freebies as possible. (Per newspaper policy, I paid a press rate for my hotel room and politely declined goodies proffered by the platoon of Disney publicists on hand.) Given that the interviews were being held in the Mandarin Oriental hotel overlooking Central Park with no expense spared on catering, I was surprised to hear one junketeer sniff that this junket was nowhere nearly as good as the one Warner had done the previous week.

Given that these journalists -- I use the term loosely, because they're really blurbmeisters -- derive a living from nosing the troughs of Hollywood largesse, the roundtable sessions were full of polite questions. Most of them utterly inane or aimed at eliciting gossipy tidbits. Sigourney Weaver, veteran that she is, was utterly gracious about the whole horse and pony show. Ditto Ron Howard's daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard, in what was touted as a breakout role for her. William Hurt started his roundtable interview by asking each person at the table which publication we were affiliated. When I said, "The Christian Science Monitor," Hurt gave a nod of respect. The actor gave an involuntary snort of derision when the girl next to me said that she was with one of the tabloid magazines ("People," I seem to recall). That must have been uncomfortable for her, but Hurt was nonetheless courteous and engaged and just a little full of himself.

But when it was Joaquin Phoenix's turn, the experienced junketeers were noticeably on edge, a few of them recalling what an awful interview he was. Indeed, Phoenix was surly and clearly uncomfortable doing publicity. (That said, the film's lead actor, Adrien Brody was even less responsive and more awkward.) Given the type of questions Phoenix fielded from the junketeers, I sympathized. How many actors actually enjoy doing several days of tabloidy press for each project? (One full day for the "Entertainment Tonight" type shows and local TV news stations and then one full day for print and Web outlets.) Heath Ledger found movie promotion a particularly tormenting ordeal, as detailed in Entertainment Weekly's recent cover story.

That said, actors should either fully abstain from interviews or proffer a modicum of professionalism about the process. That multimillion paycheck isn't just compensation for the work on set, it's also for the promotion afterward. Studios rely on actors to sell a movie and that entails leveraging one's star power to draw attention to a project. If George Clooney -- a long-time foe of tabloid journalism -- can turn his chagrin into a shit-eating grin come press junkets, anyone can. They can pretend to be enthused, they're actors, dammit.

Which brings us back to Joaquin's appearance on Letterman, the latest in a series of bizarre public appearances. Phoenix is ostensibly promoting his final film role in "Two Lovers." The publicity rounds may be a contractual requirement. But Phoenix didn't even cursorily fulfill those promotional obligations, stonewalling Letterman at every opportunity despite Dave's prompts about costars Gwyneth Paltrow and Isabella Rossellini. If anything, the incident has overshadowed the film itself, a small budget film that needs all the help it can get to break out beyond the art-house cognescenti. Phoenix's behavior is a slap in the face of director and writer James Gray -- who previously directed the actor in "We Own the Night" -- let alone the costars and crew.

Is Phoenix trying to perpetuate a Borat-like joke on the public with all this, as some speculate? Some sort of performance piece that's a commentary on our celeb-obsessed culture? A joke is only funny when the audience is laughing at the punchline.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Clive Owen's license to thrill

A few years ago, Clive Owen was touted as the perfect fit for James Bond's vacant tuxedo. Now he's gone and made the movie that "Quantum of Solace" should have been.

I went to see a screening of "The International" tonight and was struck by some of the parallels between the two films. In each instance, the hero finds himself up against shadowy corporations who have untold influence over international affairs -- and even law-enforcement agencies. True to its title, "The International" is a fast-paced travelogue in the Bond tradition as the story moves from Berlin to Milan to New York to Luxembourg to Istanbul. And, in each instance, the villains have exquisite taste in architecture as they plot against the rest of us from inside their boardroom lairs.

In “The International,” Owen plays Louis Salinger, a former Scotland Yard detective who now works for Interpol. The core weakness of the film is that we don’t know jot about Salinger other than that he has seemingly never used a comb, a razor, or a dry cleaner. The rumpled investigator’s sole characteristic is that he has an Ahab-like obsession with bringing down the sinister Bank of Commerce and Credit International, a corporation that has an assassin on retainer and probably has a red phone hotline to Henry Paulson. Salinger has been after the BCCI for so long that he no longer has the capacity to smile. Not even when he meets up with Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) to work the case. (Theirs is a strictly professional relationship -- the film at least has the sense to eschew the cliché of the leads falling for each other.) Whitman is a workaholic who, we learn in one scene, cares more about her work than her husband or child. That’s all we ever learn about her. If only first-time screenwriter Eric Singer had made Whitman and Salinger as interesting as their names. Naomi Watts is squandered in a rote role.

The Bond bot of “Quantum of Solace” was similarly one-dimensional, undermining all the character work that made “Casino Royale” great. Moreover, the 007 franchise was so eager to appear cutting edge that its action sequences were edited to the beat of a hummingbird’s wing: No single shot lasted longer than a nano-second. The result was like watching a film on fast forward, rendering the frenetic sequences utterly incoherent.

By contrast, Tom Twyker elevates “The International” through sheer style and old-fashioned restraint. The first real action sequence arrives fairly late in “The International,” but Twyker delivers a classic. When a team of assassins targets Salinger inside the Guggenheim museum, Twyker makes full use of the vertiginous orange-peel spirals of the architecture as hunters and prey circle each other, bullets strafing the walls with the visceral impact of two rhinos colliding at full tilt. It’s truly Hitchcockian in its eloquent choreography. Elsewhere, Twyker, the director of the classic “Run Lola, Run,” sets up a panoramic composition for a stunning rifle-assassination sequence in a public square.

Unlike “Quantum of Solace,” “The International” opts for suspense and tension rather than regularly intervals of action sequences. The thriller isn’t as transcendent as its centerpiece action sequence, but it should easily persuade EON producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson to sign up Twyker to direct Bond 23.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Why aren't there more girl guitarists?

At Sunday's Grammys, the only sight more unusual than a pregnant M.I.A. in a Minnie Mouse outfit was the attractive blonde guitarist in Carrie Underwood's band. Her fingers were performing such fantastic fretboard gymnastics that I had to double check that Joe Satriani hadn't married Jennifer Batten and spawned a daughter. According to Entertainment Weekly, the musician in question is Orianthi, a 24-year-old Australian who has been praised by the likes of Carlos Santana and Steve Vai.

The performance got me wondering just why it is that there aren't more prominent female shredders? Sure, there are many female songwriters who can play guitar, from PJ Harvey to Joni Mitchell to Suzanne Vega to Chrissie Hynde to Sheryl Crow to Bonnie Raitt to Nancy Wilson. Even Madonna can play a mean power chord on her black Les Paul. But there aren't many classic lead guitarists among the girls, bar the occasional Lita Ford or the aforementioned Ms. Batten. Look at any of those "100 greatest guitarist" lists that pop up in magazines all the time and they seldom, if ever, include women alongside Van Halen, Vaughan, or Vai. Even the term "axeman" suggests that this is provincially viewed as male territory.

In wondering why that is, I came across a lengthy 2004 article in the Washington Post about this very topic. Though the story suggests several reasons why there aren't more guitar heroines, one observation in particular stood out: "We live in a culture where the electric guitar, at least when it's played at full and distorted blaze, is considered unladylike. The logic of this is just as circular as the role model problem -- girls don't see women play the guitar, which stigmatizes the instrument a bit, further discouraging girls from taking up guitar, and so on. But it's not just unladylike because girls, as they grow up, get the hint. It's unladylike because the electric guitar is traditionally an almost cartoonishly macho instrument. The paradigmatic rock pose belongs to Chuck Berry: legs apart, the instrument pointed straight at the crowd, turned upward a little."

Just as fellow Australian Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck's band) is proving that girls can play bass as well as Geddy Lee, I hope that the sight of Orianthi at the Grammys inspires a few girls to head down to their local guitar center and level the guitar playing field.

What can I say about Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's Grammy haul? Longtime readers of this blog will know that Plant is my all-time favorite artist, so I was pleased to see "Raising Sand" get the recognition it deserves as a classic Americana record. Its success has been taken for granted, too. Even after the success of the T Bone Burnett-curated "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, few would have predicted that an Americana record with bluegrass influences would sell over a million copies -- a rarity in today's music business. I mean, Alison Krauss may be the winningest women in Grammy history but, until now, she's hardly sold truckloads of records. Plant's career has been one of leftfield instinct that favors musical satisfaction over commercial impact.

Even so, I still abhore the idea of the Grammys. Music shouldn't be a sport. Who can say that "Raising Sand" is a superior album to "In Rainbows"? They're both great records. And very different.

Plant has a similar perspective on awards and, prior to the Grammys, announced, "I’m looking forward to being in Los Angeles, but musically - and spiritually - I expect we’ll be somewhere halfway between the Mississippi Delta and the Clinch Mountains.”