Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The day the music critic died

I'm registering myself for protection under the Endangered Species Act. That's my response to reading this insightful article in Slate about the demise of the music critic. It seems that my days are numbered.

The Slate essay, by Joseph Weiner, expands upon a similar piece I wrote a year ago by adding greater context about the struggles of publications such as Rolling Stone, Paste, Spin, Vibe, and Blender. After reading Weiner's story, half of me wonders why I'm spending part of this week reviewing albums by Sunny Day Real Estate, Porcupine Tree, and Florence + The Machine for the next issue of FILTER magazine. (The current issue -- see left -- includes reviews of new albums by Imogen Heap and Son Volt by yours truly.)

Truth is that I review albums because I love the challenge. It's difficult. One has to describe something that is essentially ethereal -- and, if possible, doing so without using insider-y jargon (you won't hear me describing a band as "Nu-Balearic"), cliches (phrases such as "sun-dappled guitars" should be summarily banned by all music editors), and lazy comparisons ("it sounds like Radiohead meets Sigue Sigue Sputnik with Sun Ra on vocals"). So, what I love about writing reviews is the challenge of getting creative with the writing. But, of course, it takes time and effort and, most of all, a passion for music.

The best music writing makes me want to run out to a record store immediately. I highly recommend Alexis Petridis of The Guardian, who has an incredible wit and a pair of honest ears that are seemingly immune to hype or trendiness (too many reviewers, alas, don't have the courage of conviction). UNCUT and WORD magazine excel at reliable recommendations and thoughtful critiques.

Enjoy them while you still can....

Filter magazine reviews: Summer issue

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Elbow triumphs in LA

There wasn't much Elbow room at the Wiltern Theater last night. Taking a night off from their regular slot as Coldplay's opening act, Elbow filled the cavernous Art Deco venue for their own headlining show. One of the greatest bands to emerge this decade, Elbow toiled away in rock's minor leagues until they unexpectedly became the UK's biggest band. Credit a carpe diem set at the televised Glastonbury festival followed by the prestigious Mercury Prize for best album of 2008. It's an unlikely feat for these five middle-aged Mancunians, a few of them portly in stature, who I once interviewed as "the best band you've never heard."

They're hardly well-known here in the US but, like their good friends Doves, who played a sterling show here in May, they're slowly getting better known stateside. The band's singer, Giy Garvey, has one of the most emotionally honest and beautiful voices in rock. As I noted during my review of the band's debut, "Asleep in the Back," Elbow's arrangements explore the space between notes and their understanding of light-and-shade dynamics add up to an intimate grandeur.
The evening started with Elbow's Guy Garvey coming on stage to introduce opener Jesca Hoop, who released my favorite album of 2007. Since Hoop's only accompaniment was acoustic guitar and a girl friend on backing vocals, Garvey appealed to the audience to give her due attention. Jesca was stunning. Just one old song -- "Seeds of Wonder" -- and then a set of avant-garde pop from her imminent record, "Hunting My Dress." One of those songs "Murder of Birds," which appears on Hoop's recent acoustic EP, features Garvey and he came came on stage to duet with her. (Hear it here.)
Good thing Jesca had a backing vocalist -- well, more of a co-vocalist, really. On record, her songs are all about vocal harmonies and counterpoints and the other girl did a great job of helping create a rich vocal tapestry. I went to see Jesca perform at a small venue -- the Hotel Cafe -- tonight, during which she did an expanded set (including some songs off her debut, "Kismet"). Now I have two of her new songs looping repeatedly in my head, which bodes well for her new record.This was my third time seeing Elbow since 2002 and their set list featured many of my favorite songs, including "The Bones of You," and "Loneliness of the Crane Driver," and "Mirrorball" (Garvey said that song is about the morning after falling in love). Alas, they didn't play "Fugitive Motel" and "Great Expectations," which the band played this morning during a performance on KCRW radio -- watch or listen to their performance here. (Incidentally, Garvey hosts a brilliant 2-hour show -- Guy Garvey's Finest Hour -- on BBC Radio 6 every Sunday night. It's a weekly listen for me, since my music tastes are pretty synchronous with his.) Guy Garvey was in great voice throughout the night and a warm and talkative presence on stage. During one song, he walked down the entire length of the stage shaking hands with each member of the front row. For "One Day Like This," he brought two random audience members on stage to sing along.

Elbow has two girl violinists, who also do backing vocals, on this tour and they certainly add lovely textures to the material. Biggest surprise was the reworked version of "Weather to Fly." They broke the song in two. For the first part, the whole hand huddled around the keyboard and did a stripped down version with just percussion and Guy's vocals. Gorgeous. Then they did the electric version.
"Grounds for Divorce" was a highlight of the evening with the crowd enthusiastically singing the "whoa-oh-oh-oh" parts. It sounded immense! There was also a stellar selection of a few older songs, including personal favorites such as "Station Approach" and "Newborn." The liquid lead guitar lines in "Newborn" were indescribably beautiful and the rock-out coda had me punching the air. They also played "The Stops," "Leaders of the Free World," "Switching Off" (which Guy said is about one's final thought before death, about a loved one), and "Mexican Standoff." Most songs were even better live and Pete Turner's heavy bass riffing worked a treat on tracks like "Leaders of the Free World." Final song of the night was a very soulful "Scattered Black and Whites."My wife loved the show as Elbow is a favorite band of hers. And, corny as it sounds, we made out during the "we kissed like we invented it" line in "Mirrorball."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The wreath of Khan

Today, Bat for Lashes (aka Natasha Khan) was nominated on the short list for Britain's prestigious Mercury Music Prize for her rightfully acclaimed "Two Suns" album. (Khan's debut, "Fur and Gold" was a 2007 nominee.) So far, pundits are talking her up as the front runner in a field that includes Kasabian, The Horrors, La Roux, and Florence and the Machine (the nominee to seek out is The Invisible, a band that has frequently been compared to TV On the Radio, but their eponymous debut should transcend comparisons to "The Return to Cookie Mountain" and "Dear Science"). Bat for Lashes is prediction to win the prize.

Here's my review of her recent gig in Los Angeles, which ran in Pop Matters. And, if you've not heard her exquisite voice, check out her performance on Letterman below.

Here's the music video for the first single off the previous Bat for Lashes album -- one of the cleverest videos I've ever seen (watch and see what happens in this one-take video):

Meet Otis Taylor, banjo bluesman

I apologize for light posting of late during these hazy days of summer. But I have been busy behind the scenes writing various features. In today's Pop Matters, I have the lead story: an interview with bluesman Otis Taylor.

He's not your typical blues musician. Refreshingly, Taylor shies away from 12-bar shuffles about men sitting on the bayou, crying about cheatin' women who done them wrong. For starters, Taylor's favorite instrument is the banjo. And he's more likely to write a song about a migrant ranch hand forced to return to Mexico, or a short-lived love affair between an 8-year-old black boy and a white girl from school.

The latter song, titled "I'm Not Mysterious," appears on Taylor's new album, "Pentatonic Wars and Love Song." He told me it's based on his own formative experience.

"When I was a little kid, a little girl told me she was going to send me a love note. I was 3rd or 4th grade. She was a white girl. I followed her home to see where she lived. ‘Whoah, let me find out about this, buddy. It’s pretty exciting, you know?' Then, when I met her at the door two days later, she took me home. I never saw her again. That was the early '50s, so that wasn’t going to happen."

That sort of true-story lyric, married with a wide range of musical influences, makes Taylor unique in a genre where conventions have become cliches. Take a listen below...

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Reporting from the Michael Jackson funeral

My alma mater, The Christian Science Monitor, asked me to help out with its coverage of the Michael Jackson memorial service. I haven't written on deadline for a while, but I managed to hunker down in a nearby Starbucks and sweat out a story about the mood of the event and a followup piece about whether Jackson is the last true superstar.

There were extraordinary scenes at the Staples Center yesterday, from the airplane that spelled "MJ" with its vapor trail to the flood of opportunists selling everything from T-shirts to bootleg CDs to posters to copies of the June 26 LA Times ($5 each).

Outside, crowds gathered long into the evening to take photographs and video of the long memorial wall that thousands of attendees have signed with their personal eulogies. The jumbotrons on the outside of the arena displayed photos of a pop star who underwent more facial transformations than Dr. Who -- from the moppet in the cow boy suit who wowed Ed Sullivan to the star's final incarnation as glitter-suited Geisha. In the photo montage, Jackson resembled the ultimate pop culture Zelig, appearing next to the likes of president Reagan, Sinatra, Pavarotti, Sammy Davis Jr., James Brown, Marcel Marceau, Nelson Mandela, Stevie Wonder, and Britney Spears. It underscored just how much of an icon he was.

The service itself was often remarkably moving and, regardless of what you may have felt about Michael Jackson, it was hard not to feel a sudden instinctive rush in the tearducts when Jackson's 11-year-old daughter, Paris, sobbed, "I love you, Daddy." Many of the personal anecdotes shared by his friends and family gave one a glimpse into Michael, the person. It was a rare peak behind the face mask and sun glasses that became his public facade.