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Can D’Angelo Save Contemporary R&B’s Soul?

D’Angelo who?

If you’re a music lover of a certain age, too young to remember when contemporary R&B wasn’t joined at the hips with rap, or didn’t come dressed up in a shimmering electro-pop sheen, we’ll forgive you for asking.

Now let the history lesson begin! Flashback to 1995, back when 21-year-old D’Angelo (born Michael Eugene Archer) was quickly becoming one of the hottest things in music. Released that year, his debut album, Brown Sugar, helped usher in the era of neo soul, and with Voodoo, his long-delayed 2000 sophomore album, for whose “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” video he bared both body and soul (literally!), he became an R&B rarity: a sex symbol capable of seducing both fans and critics with his bulging talent.

The only way was up, it seemed. But instead of ascending, D’Angelo dropped out. In some ways, it wasn’t so surprising. When I met D’Angelo in the mid-‘90s before a taping of MTV Unplugged, I was immediately disarmed by his cheerful but low-key and unassuming manner. He easily could have passed as any guy in the audience who’d wandered into the performer’s circle by mistake—and I mean that as a compliment. Modesty in a hunky package, D’Angelo, unlike the egocentric superstars crowding the charts today, clearly wasn’t in it for the star trip. Whether sitting at the piano or plucking a guitar, he was playing for love of the game, not the “F.A.M.E.” and “Fortune” (to quote the crass titles of the two most recent albums by Chris Brown, D’Angelo’s modern-day antithesis).

After taking five years to release his sophomore effort, D’Angelo spent the next decade well outside of the spotlight, only making occasional scattered appearances on leaked songs and other people’s records (including Mark Ronson’s Record Collection). And like so many musical geniuses before and after, he was plagued by demons, which may or may not have shaken up his turbulent romance with fellow singer Angie Stone, the mother of his teenage son Michael, and which definitely led to several legal scrapes, including a 2005 arrest for drunk driving and drug possession, and another in 2010 for soliciting a female undercover police officer for sex in New York City.  Continue reading ‘Can D’Angelo Save Contemporary R&B’s Soul?’

SoundTrax: Sticky Souls

If there has been one unifying theme between all of our SoundTrax posts, we hope it is that every playlist is put together with careful thought and features music with a little more soul than your average radio hit. We’re firm believers that music should be an extension of your personality; quirky, syncopated and with a couple rough edges, which is what makes this week’s post so special for us. While there is no unifying genre for this playlist, every song is sung with emotion and style. Some feature the aesthetic of vibrant ’20s big bands, others are stuck in the sweaty gumbo swamps of Louisiana, but they all feature one unifying force; soul. Every artist understands just how much emotional power music can have, and they demonstrate their sheer prowess at manipulating these emotions in this week’s playlist.

SoundTrax: Sticky Souls from OurStage on 8tracks.

Fitz & the Tantrums kick us off with an infectious neo soul/indie pop song crossover that would feel just as at home on your mom’s oldies station as it would on your iPod. Next up, Parov Stelar and co. are back with an upbeat, punchy, jazz-pop tune featuring intricate bass lines and playful horn riffs. The late Amy Winehouse slows things down with her sultry tone and impeccable restraint. OurStage newcomer Ernest Rose has a voice that would make any woman buckle as well as the songwriting chops to back it up. The Crystal Method and Martha Reeves revive R&B and the spirit of Detroit in their track with a modern, bass-blistering level of synth work—definitely the heaviest and most funky track on the list. A quick change of pace as Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings fill your ears with Rhodes keys, shuffled jazz rhythms and gospel choirs. Mark Ronson and Erykah Badu team up on a tune soaked in southern whiskey and filled with New Orleans jubilation. And closing out this week, one of my new favorite OurStage acts, Smokey Robotic provide a slow, dubstep-influenced tune that defies classification, so let’s just chalk it up to awesome music.

SoundTrax: Summer Festival Preview

As the summer festival series approaches, and the EDM movement shows no signs of letting up; producers and DJs are in full swing pumping out their biggest tracks of the year in anticipation of the neon-clad, twenty-something crowds that will descend on fields and desert landscapes all across the US during the summer months.  The “rave” scene in America is slowly morphing out of the awkward teenage years of the big beat ’90s and is beginning to solidify itself as a vibrant, respected aspect of the music industry. With this explosion of popularity, the production of these events has skyrocketed, which means no more illegal warehouses or abandoned airplane hangers. Now they’re out in the open for everyone to see. Featuring extensive light shows, interactive art exhibits, go-go dancers and even carnival rides, raves have become a multi-sensory experience like never before. And so, EDM artists have been forced to up their game in order to hold the attention of our instant-gratification-oriented generation.

SoundTrax: Summer Festivals from OurStage on 8tracks.

The rolling loops of Fatboy Slim, sliced with clever recognizable a cappella’s are no longer enough. The music has morphed, along with the culture, into something that can stand on it’s own. No longer are dance tracks just loop-based building blocks for a DJ to create a set out of—these are legitimate songs in their own right. For this week at SoundTrax, I’ve put together a list of tracks that I think are bound to make huge waves at this season’s summer festivals. Porter Robinson and Madeon kick us off with my two personal favorite tracks from the past month. TheFatRat and Lenno infuse some disco sensibilities into the middle portion, while David Guetta proves that you can be the king of pop-house and still make some respectable dance tunes. Finally, U Tern’s remix of Mark Ronson provides you with a jittery, down tempo tune to help release all the tension.

For Amy Winehouse, Love — and Life — Was a Losing Game

When I first heard the news about Amy Winehouse‘s passing (on Twitter, naturally), the comment that stood out most was one by Winehouse herself in an interview that the singer had done a few years ago with my former Entertainment Weekly colleague Chris Willman. In it, Winehouse jokingly made a prediction that, in hindsight, isn’t very funny at all.

Portrait by Lauren Wells

In 10 years, she said, “I’ll be dead in a ditch, on fire.” Sadly, for her many fans who had rode shotgun as she drove down the path of self-destruction, the “dead” part of her premonition was no joking matter. It was a distinct possibility, if not a certain probability, and one that came to pass on July 23, when Winehouse, who had infamously battled drug and alcohol addiction and had been in and out of rehab in recent years, was found dead in her London home.

The first thing I thought, after spending a moment to grieve for her family and loved ones, was that the world would be cheated out of so much great music. With Back to Black, her 2006 breakthrough album, Winehouse did so much more than show great promise. Hers already was a talent in full bloom. Back to Black was destined to go down as one of the all-time masterpieces. I was living in Buenos Aires at the time of its release, and I knew people who didn’t speak a word of English who could recite every line from every song.

It’s better to burn out than fade away. Live fast, die young. Leave a beautiful corpse. We’ve also all heard the one about how dying (especially before one’s time) is the best career move. I don’t know how beautiful Winehouse’s corpse will be, but she is guaranteed a spot in the pantheon of musical greats who left the party too soon.

Chillingly, she’ll be right beside the musical icons that she seemed to want to emulate most: Janis Joplin, a blue-eyed soulful precursor to whom she was often compared; Jimi Hendrix; Jim Morrison; and Kurt Cobain, all of whom died when they were the same age as Winehouse. If ever there were an unlucky number, it would have to be 27.

Unlike the legends who preceded Winehouse to an early grave and left behind so much incredible, indelible music, Winehouse bequeathed us with relatively few musical gifts. There are her two albums, 2003′s Frank and Back to Black, as well as a handful of one-off guest appearances on other people’s songs (Mark Ronson, Quincy Jones, and Tony Bennett, whose Duets II album in September will feature Winehouse). Sadly, her final impression will be a June concert in Belgrade, Serbia in which the apparently bombed singer stumbled and slurred her way through a few songs before being booed off the stage.

She had reportedly been working on new music for years, and at one point, was said to be on the verge of working with Roots drummer ?uestlove and producer/performer Raphael Saadiq on a project that had been delayed because of Winehouse’s trouble securing a U.S. travel visa due to her 2007 drug arrest for marijuana possession in Norway. So from here to eternity, all we’ll have to remember Winehouse by will be masterpieces of melancholy like “Love Is a Losing Game” and “Tears Dry on Their Own.” We’ll sing along, we’ll cry, we’ll look for clues to what was going on inside her troubled mind, to figure out why she was such a lost soul.

For you I was a flame

Love is a losing game

Five story fire as you came

Love is a losing game

From this day forth, Winehouse’s world-weary look of love will make Adele’s 21 sound like feel-good music. Speaking of Adele, Winehouse should have been where the “Rolling in the Deep” singer is now, reaping continued financial and critical benefits after a first rush of success. Now who’s going to fill her f**k me pumps (to quote the title of one of her early songs)?

Surprisingly, for all of her Grammys, accolades and albums sold, Winehouse only had one single resembling a hit in the U.S., “Rehab,” which went to No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. I’ll never again be able to listen to the song in quite the same way, as a statement of bad-ass defiance. Now it will just sound like the words of a sad, desperate woman in denial and on the brink of collapse. If only she’d taken their advice.

Sound And Vision: Disappearing Acts—Music’s M.I.A. Stars

“The waiting is the hardest part,” Tom Petty once sang. And for fans of David Bowie, Kate Bush and Fiona Apple, none of whom have released studio albums of new material for the better part of a decade, that couldn’t be more true. Meanwhile, Red Hot Chili Peppers, once a reasonably prolific alternative-rock outfit, has made nary a sound since 2006′s Stadium Arcadium. Like Apple and Bush, the band supposedly has new music in the works, but I’ll believe it when I hear it. (As for Bush’s Director’s Cut, due May 16, it doesn’t count, as it features reworked songs from 1989′s The Sensual World and 1993′s The Red Shoes and will likely make her fans miss her even more.)
There once was a time when the average music star released a new album every year or so. In the ’80 few things in life were more certain than death, taxes and a new Prince album every calendar year. In the ’90s, Mariah Cary took the prolificacy baton and dashed off with it. Nowadays we can go years without hearing a peep out of her. Overexposure can damage pop careers (proceed with caution, Rihanna, Ke$ha, Justin Bieber, Pitbull and all those other ubiquitous rappers), but underexposure can be just as bad, for AWOL recording artists and for their fans, especially if it means being stuck with the same songs by the same ten artists on repeat all day and all night.
When Justin Timberlake was a member of ‘N Sync, he released four albums between 1997 and 2001. Now it’s been five years since FutureSex/LoveSounds. If I didn’t know better—and I kind of don’t—I’d think he’d abandoned pop for Hollywood. It’s nice to occasionally get him guesting on someone else’s album—Timbaland‘s, Madonna‘s, Sheryl Crow‘s, Ciara‘s, Duran Duran‘s—but right about now, it feels like he could be the one to save us from the auto-tuned mess that modern pop has become.
Or maybe Amy Winehouse could come back and help Adele shoulder the burden of making pop safe again for female singers offering more than a pretty face and manufactured beats. Since breaking through with the five-GRAMMY-winning Back to Black album in 2006, she’s been sort of everywhere—and nowhere at the same time. For a while, she dominated the tabloids and was in and out of court. She did vocal duties on Mark Ronson’s 2007 hit “Valerie,” she formed a still-unrecorded group with ?estlove from the Roots, and she’ll be singing with Tony Bennett on his upcoming duets album (due in September), but there’s still no follow-up to the modern classic that gave us “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good.”
Every time I hear the latter as the theme song to Secret Diary of a Call Girl, it makes me miss her even more. Hopefully, La Roux (second to Winehouse among my favorite British imports of the last few years) won’t drag their feet that way Winehouse has been, and Lily Allen, who has said she’s out of the pop-star business, will have a change of heart.
Absence does indeed make the heart go fonder, but out of sight out of mind? Stay away for too long, and you risk being forgotten and replaced by younger models. It happened last year with Christina Aguilera‘s Bionic, which came four years after her previous studio set Back to Basics, and Avril Lavigne‘s recently released Goodbye Lullabye may have fared better had it come out a year or two ago (first week sales: 87,000, down nearly 200,000 from 2007′s The Best Damn Thing). May Kelly Clarkson—only out of circulation for a couple of years, though it feels like so much longer— make a safe solo return with her new studio album in September (a new release date she recently announced on Facebook).
But if she doesn’t, there still might be a silver lining. Sade returned last year after a decade-long break to massive sales, and the band is now on tour. No doubt hoping to follow Sade’s lead, Shania Twain just announced that she’s working on her first album since 2002′s Up. Maybe she and Faith Hill, also M.I.A. for far too long and reportedly working with rock producer Brendan O’Brien on a 2011 comeback, can team up, go on tour together and show Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert how it’s really done.

Mark Ronson Takes Duran Duran Back to the Future on ‘All You Need Is Now’

The regal reputation of London-born, New York-bred producer/DJ/musician Mark Ronson is based in large part on his track record for producing breakthrough albums by some of Britain’s biggest young pop stars over the last several years, including Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and Adele. With that kind of résumé, Ronson probably wouldn’t have been too many people’s first pick to attempt a revival of Duran Duran’s career by overseeing the 1980s icons’ thirteenth studio album. And yet, his is the name you’ll find credited with just that when All You Need Is Now is unveiled.

The original Duran Duran lineup has been back in business since the 2000 release Pop Trash, but their last effort, 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, didn’t exactly set the world on fire, and in the aftermath of its poor chart and sales performance, the band found themselves outside of major-label land for the first time in their three-decade career. Clearly, the latter album’s follow-up had to be a make-or-break proposition. Enter unlikely savior Ronson, who—as Duran singer Simon LeBon recently revealed on British television, was a fan with a plan. “You need somebody with a vision, and Mark’s a fan,” explained LeBon. “He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with this album. He said he felt that we went wrong after [1982 smash] Rio. We had to do a lot of backtracking,” added LeBon jokingly. “He said ‘I want to make the follow-up album to Rio that should have been made. He was very clear about that, and had a practical way of making it happen.”

According to LeBon, the unabashedly ambitious Ronson facilitated this admittedly tall order in part by bringing the band face to face with what he saw as their audience’s expectations. “Had I suggested singing a line a certain way,” says LeBon, “I might have felt a bit self-conscious about it. I might have felt it was a bit retro, a bit old-school. But Mark said ‘No, that’s what people want to hear from you!’” The results of the collaboration must have lived up to even Ronson’s exacting standards; after his labors were completed, he talked the project up, saying “I’m a huge Duran Duran fan, and it’s one of my favorite Duran Duran records of all time, seriously. And I’m not just saying that because I worked on it.”

In fact, the fanboy tendencies of the superstar producer—who was seven years old when Rio was released—began revealing themselves pretty early on in the process. Ronson, who hosts a weekly online radio show at New York’s EastVillageRadio.com, couldn’t resist sharing his work with the world, and started sneaking snippets of the album’s demos into his radio shows over a year ago, with the air of a naughty schoolboy, remarking at the time “They can’t fire me, I’ve got all the [audio] files at my house. These are the lost tapes that’ll come out after I die, and they’ll surface on whocares.com.” All You Need Is Now is set for a US release today as an iTunes-exclusive digital download, with the physical CD and LP scheduled for February 2011 (probably non-coincidentally, the thirtieth birthday of Duran Duran’s debut album). More recently, Ronson has been giving some of the completed tracks their world premiere on his show, Authentic Sh*t, as well as bringing the band themselves into the studio. And judging from the sneak previews of the uptempo, angular, New Wave-tinged “Blame The Machine,” the funky-but-melodic dance-pop tune “Runway Runaway,” the percolating, undeniably ‘80s-flavored “Being Followed” and the more mid-tempo, anthemic title track, Duran Duran may be ready to revisit the sonic realm of Rio after all.

Track list

  1. All You Need Is Now
  2. Blame the Machines
  3. Being Followed
  4. Leave A Light On
  5. Safe
  6. Girl Panic
  7. The Man Who Stole A Leopard
  8. Runway Runaway
  9. Before the Rain

Bonus tracks [LP/CD]

  1. Mediterranea
  2. Other People’s Lives
  3. King of Nowhere

By Jim Allen

Jim Allen has contributed to a wide range of print and online outlets including RollingStone.com, MOJO, Village Voice, Uncut, VH1.com, iTunes, All Music Guide, CMT.com, The Advocate, Prefix, Blurt and many more.

Jeremy Helligar’s 10 Best Things About This Year in Pop

The year seems to be ending as it began: with Susan Boyle practically interchangeable snoozaks ruling Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. Who would have guessed? Well, I did, but enough dwelling on the bad. Let’s focus on the good stuff that happened in the last 12 months, and dream a dream that next year’s gift is a Boyle-free holiday season. And now (in roughly chronological order), the best of the rest…

1) Journey’s trek to the tops of the pops. Glee still makes my ears bleed, but by helping Journey score its first-ever UK hit—the band’s ’80s classic “Don’t Stop Believin’” piggybacked on the smash Glee cover all the way to No. 6 in early 2010—those kids finally earned a round of applause. (We’ll spare you the Glee link. Instead here’s Sam Tsui covering Glee covering Journey)

2) Alicia Keys’ sleepless nights. Sunshine from rain. Pleasure from pain. “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” was the finest of Keys’ string of great 2010 singles. I’m still up all night myself, tossing and turning, trying to figure out how it never climbed higher than No. 27 on the Hot 100.

3) Pink goes up in the air. When I met Pink in 1999, before the release of her debut album, I was impressed, but I never suspected that a newcomer named after the hue of her hair would be a hitmaker a decade later? Topping off her continued chart success in 2010, the now-blonde, now-mom-to-be took the GRAMMYs over the top (in the very best way) with her highwire-acrobat act while performing “Glitter in the Air.”

4) Leon Russell lives! Susan Boyle isn’t the only one who began and ended 2010 on top. Russell kicked off the year wowing us at the GRAMMYs alongside the Zac Brown Band and finished it wowing us again, on the GRAMMY-nominated The Union alongside Elton John. Old Hank Wilson is back—but then he never really went away.

5) Sade returns, with guns blazing. Out of sight, out of mind, yes, but in the case of Sade, absence made the heart grow fonder indeed. Soldier of Love, the band’s first album in nearly a decade, made one of the splashiest debuts of 2010, and— in a rare, welcome twist—was worth the wait. May the long-MIA-from-the-charts Shania Twain follow suit in 2011.

6) Carrie Underwood hooks Ted Mosby. Britney Spears’s How I Met Your Mother guest spot got more hype in 2008, but Underwood, in her acting debut, was just as good in March’s “Hooked” episode, nailing her stunt casting as a pharmaceutical-selling hottie stringing Ted along. Not even that adorable teacup pig could upstage her. More, please.

7) Robbie Williams hearts Gary Barlow in the “Shame” video. Boy meets boy, boy falls for boy, boy and boy live happily ever after in the newly reunited Take That members’ send up of Brokeback Mountain. If only real life were so simple.

8) Vanity projects that rock. Timbaland’s “If We Ever Meet Again” (featuring Katy Perry, from Shock Value II) and Mark Ronson’s “Bang Bang Bang” (with Q-Tip and MNDR’s Amanda Warner, from Record Collection) were pop rarities in 2010: distinctive producer-as-artist singles that matched the behind-the-scenes best of the guys who created them. David Guetta, king of the sound-alike musical tricks, this is how you do it.

9) The British are coming… again! With Coldplay and Amy Winehouse in a holding pattern, La Roux and Florence + the Machine picked up the UK slack. La Roux became the first UK act in forever to reach the US Top 10 with “Bulletproof,” and Florence + the Machine finally became more than hipster darlings as their debut disc, Lungs, burst into the Top 20, while their “Dog Days Are Over” single became a big enough hit to get the Glee treatment.

10) Girls girls girls! Love or loathe them, it was refreshing to see single ladies like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Gaga and others continue to transform music from a man’s man’s man’s man’s world into an estrogen-fueled empire. What are you waiting for, Shania? Come on, join the party!

By Jeremy Helligar

Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Weezer go World Cup crazy in new video

The song may sound a tad like Rob Thomas “Lonely No More,” but the video for Weezer’s “Represent” is a rousing homage to the U.S. Men’s soccer team. Consisting of mostly action shots from various matches and intense profiles of Landon Donovan, “Represent” will have you singing louder than a vuvuzela.

Eminem and Jay Z tear the roof off Ed Sullivan Theater

Two kingpins of rap united this week on top of the Ed Sullivan Theater for a concert for 100 lucky fans. Jay-Z, who was slated to perform on the same rooftop a week earlier, but whose show was cancelled due to crowd safety concerns, returned for a surprise rescheduled performance. With him this time was Eminem, who has just performed a surprise show of his own at the Bowery Ballroom. The performance will air tonight on the Late Show with David Letterman.

The Bad

Michael Jackson’s estate earns $1 billion in past year

Michael Jackson

Proving he was indeed worth more dead than alive, it was reported this week that Michael Jackson’s estate earned $1 billion in the year since his death. A sizable chunk of the income came from Sony Music, who inked a $250 million recording deal, giving them exclusive rights to the singer’s music. It’s great news for the Jackson clan, but a sad realization that the only way Jackson could relieve himself of the bankruptcy looming over him in his final years would be through his own death.

The Ugly

Seinfeld wonders what’s the deal with “jerk” Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga

One would think that an unruly woman in a studded bra, swilling beer and flipping the bird, would give be a source of unlimited entertainment. Not so for Mets fans, who were turned off by Lady Gaga’s front-row antics during a game last week. And, when the finger-flipping singer was moved to Jerry Seinfeld’s unoccupied private box to avoid the flash of photographers, the comedian was, shall we say, nonplussed. During a WFAN radio interview Seinfeld let loose, calling Lady Gaga a “jerk” and declaring, “I hate her.” “You give people the finger and you get upgraded?” he continued. “Is that the world we’re living in now?” If so, we’re going to be exercising our middle digit a lot more frequently.

Miscellany

SCHOOL TIES

dujeous

You meet a lot of kids in elementary school: the crybaby, the bully, the glue-eater … but six future bandmates? Almost unheard of. Which is why Dujeous is quite the Cinderella story. Friends since early childhood, the sextet grew into a band in 2004, hustling their demo on the streets of New York. Fast-forward to world tours with Kanye West, Mobb Deep and John Legend, and backup gigs behind Mark Ronson, Lily Allen and the Reverend Al Green himself. The band’s success is due entirely to their revelatory brand of organic hip hop, crafted not on the computer, but on instruments that include guitar, trumpet, drums, bass, accordions, mellotrons, Japanese koto, not to mention the vocal thunder of three fierce MCs.

Dujeous’ sophomore effort, Day In Day Out, shows their pitch perfect musicianship at full throttle. A swelling string section and an emotive little melody on the balafon provide the background for the album’s first single, “Break Bread,” both a soulful song of thanksgiving and a blistering cautionary tale. The group recruited GRAMMY winner John Legend to sing the mellowed-out chorus, and he delivers the Dujeous manifesto to perfection: “We’ve got the recipe that sticks to the ribs / No artificial additives, it’s clear / If you really need some satisfaction / Settle down for a home-cooked meal.” Funk-soul queen Sharon Jones, Koto master Masayo Ishigure and DMC champ DJ Staen 1 also make appearances on the record — proving that there’s room for everyone on the Dujeous playground.


Signatures_KateB

 


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