Just in case you thought that James Franco’s string of shoddily–recorded pop music ad-libs earlier this year was a joke, the actor has decided to make a real foray into the music world. And this time, it’s without cornrows and Rihanna sing-alongs. Under the name Daddy, Franco will be releasing the MotorCity EP, a collaboration between the actor and his friend, composer Tim O’Keefe. Supposedly, the inspiration for MotorCity came during Franco’s time spent in Detroit while he was filming Oz: The Great and Powerful, the upcoming prequel to The Wizard of Oz. While some Motown influence is definitely discernable in the first single “Love In The Old Days,” the track sounds more like a generic indie pastiche than any soulful Berry Gordy Jr. production. Plus, the accompanying video tacks on the Instagrammed nostalgia of a Lana Del Rey video just for good measure (and hipster bonus points).
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In a scene where bands can easily cling too tightly to restrictive genre conventions, Massachusetts pop punks A Loss For Words stand out as a group who aren’t afraid to take chances. Known for delivering tuneful, aggressive pop punk, they have also taken detours into acoustic EPs and even released an album of Motown cover songs in 2010. Upon the release of AL4W’s most recent acoustic EP, Returning To Webster Lake, singer Matty Arsenault sat down with us to talk collaborations, covers, and the status of his R&B side project.
OS: There’s a video floating around of a guy proposing to his girlfriend during one of your Warped Tour sets. How did that whole thing come about?
MA: Our drummer, Christian, met the kid when he was in a band called I Call Fives. He stayed in touch, was a fan of our band, and wanted to do something special. He talked to Chris and we OK’d [it]. It’s pretty hard to say no to something like that…. Continue reading ‘Exclusive Q and A: A Loss For Words Talk R&B, ‘Returning To Webster Lake’’
Every day, somebody once told me, deserves its own soundtrack. So, according to Hollywood, does nearly every film. But unlike the old days when the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack became as popular as the movie, and films like Dirty Dancing and The Big Chill had soundtracks so successful that they spawned sequels, movie music rarely scales blockbuster heights anymore.
On the Billboard 200 album chart for the week ending January 21, Hollywood only had two albums in the Top 40—the soundtracks for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1 and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. So did Florence and the Machine!
Unless the music is linked to the TV series Glee, chart traction is no longer guaranteed, not even for songs from the biggest blockbusters. Bruno Mars scored one of the few big movie hits of recent years with his Twilight Saga track “It Will Rain” (No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100), which, astonishingly, was the first chart hit launched by the massively successful vampire franchise.
Nowadays, the studios and indie houses seem to use all of the best music in the movie trailers anyway. Better to hear a familiar pop song (say, Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over”) selling a Julia Roberts rom-com (say, Eat Pray Love) than to have to sit through the millionth comic-relief/release oldie sing-along just as the main characters are triumphing over plot-driven (and driving) conflict.
Maybe I just don’t see as many mainstream films as I used to back when Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton had their I-will-survive moment in The First Wives Club while singing “You Don’t Own Me,” but thankfully, the number of soundtrack sing-alongs have been waning in recent years.
Still, despite the dearth of hit soundtracks and Motown karaoke moments, music is alive and well in the movies. Here’s how it’s being best put to use these days.
1. To Wake Up Moviegoers: The Constellations‘ “Perfect Day” in Horrible Bosses. Not that anyone needed to be roused from slumber during what was a surprisingly smart and spry comedy, but for those who did doze off and missed the sight of Jennifer Aniston wearing next to nothing, this 2010 track (watch the video here) was the perfect wake-up bomb.
2. To Illuminate the Action”: Desire’s “Under Your Spell” in Drive. Just in case you didn’t get that Ryan Gosling was digging Carey Mulligan in Drive (and the film didn’t exactly, um, drive that point home before deciding that he would die for her), this song’s opening lyric—”I don’t eat/I don’t sleep/I do nothing but think of you“— told the entire love story in under twenty words. More than any film in my recent memory, Drive merges sound and vision so brilliantly that I don’t think the movie would have been nearly as effective without its perfectly placed music.
3. To Reflect the Action: Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Melancholia. Who better than the man who wrote an entire opera cycle, Gotterdammerung, devoted to the twilight of the Norse Gods, to provide the backing track for a movie about the end of the world? I’ve always imagined that something by the nineteenth-century German composer would be playing in the background, via some invisible loudspeaker in the sky, when the end of days rolled around.
4. To bring on the waterworks: The National’s “About Today” in Warrior. If you weren’t moved, at least nearly driven to tears, by the family drama or the opening strains of the National’s 2004 track, cued right after the brothers played by Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton re-bonded in the mixed-martial-arts ring, then check the space where your heart should be. There might be something missing.
5. To score an award—or at the very least, a Top 40 hit: Madonna’s “Masterpiece” in W.E. Its Top 40 prospects are grim, but the song Madonna wrote and sung for her second directorial effort is already a Golden Globe Best Original Song winner. Unfortunately, this is the end of its road to the Oscars. To be eligible for a Best Original Song Oscar nod, a tune must be composed specifically for the movie and appear in its body or be the first song that plays when the credits roll. “Masterpiece,” alas, was the second credits tune. By saving the best for last, Madonna killed her Oscar chances. Better luck next film song!
What we think of today as “classic rock” would probably still have existed in a world without Mitch Ryder, but it most likely would have sounded quite different. Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels ruled the radio and monopolized the singles charts between 1965 and ’67, taking the R&B sounds emanating from their native Motor City and elsewhere and amping them up into a sweaty, ecstatic explosion of rock ‘n’ soul abandon. Query any major American rock act to emerge between the late ’60s and the late ’70s—odds are the influences they’ll cite include plenty of classic Motown and Stax artists, but their adaptation of those soulful sounds into their own music will be most immediately informed by the mid-’60s Mitch Ryder hit parade. “I think it’s true when they say that we crossed that bridge from Motown into white-boy rock & roll,” says Ryder. “We had enough R&B influence in our music, but we also had that teenage angst and energy and drive that comes with being a rock & roller, and we somehow magically stumbled onto a hybrid mixture of those two. And that created not only our sound, but it allowed for young rock & rollers to cross over [into R&B].”
In fact, the first half of “Devil With a Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly,” the 1966 medley that became Ryder’s biggest hit, came straight from Berry Gordy‘s R&B empire. The original version was cut by soul man Shorty Long for Motown two years earlier, at about half the speed of Ryder’s fervid reinvention. “We doubled it, maybe tripled it,” Ryder says of the original song’s tempo. “If the average band was playing 100 beats a minute, we were playing 160 beats a minute, it’s just adrenaline.” That adrenaline helped to make stars of Ryder and his Motor City mates in an era dominated by British groups whose own interpretation of American R&B was watered-down by comparison. Listen, for instance, to the Rolling Stones‘ early attempts at blues and soul back to back with Ryder’s contemporaneous output for verification. In fact, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were guests at the recording session for Ryder’s momentous ’65 single “Jenny Take a Ride,” and the latter artist’s intensity was not lost on them. “There was a little bit of arrogance,” Ryder recalls of the Stones’ demeanor on the date in question, “but there was a genuine interest because of what they were listening to. And they had the ability to acknowledge the fact that the music was exciting, and made predictions that it was going to be a hit. I had mingled with them on and off and seen them in London,” remembers Ryder. “Keith and I actually would go out and party together a little bit in New York.”
Unfortunately, Ryder’s commercial success was nowhere near as long-lasting as that of his British drinking buddy. The Wheels didn’t survive past the ’60s, and Ryder’s last real moment in the spotlight in America came in the early ’70s with his short-lived band Detroit. Though he has maintained an active recording career in Europe from the ’70s to the present, Ryder spent decades as an unknown soldier in the US. His last domestic release was 1983′s John Mellencamp-produced Never Kick a Sleeping Dog, and his next dozen or so albums never came near American ears. That trend is about to undergo a long-overdue reversal with the American release of The Promise. Produced by Don Was, Ryder’s first American album in almost thirty years dovetails nicely with the publication of his new autobiography, Devils & Blue Dresses.
In the book, Ryder chronicles his rise and fall with a candor that spares neither himself nor those who screwed him over in the music biz. Producer Bob Crewe, for example, helped make Ryder’s early hits possible, but also hastened the downward slide of the Detroit dynamo’s fortunes. Asked about Crewe’s current whereabouts, Ryder references the producer’s work with The Four Seasons, mordantly remarking, “The latest quote I heard from him is when [Four Seasons musical] Jersey Boys came out, and he said, ‘That’s like hitting the lottery twice.’ Had I been eating chicken, I’d probably be choking on the bones.’” Ryder nevertheless remains evenhanded in his estimation of Crewe. “He had no lack of confidence, and no morals or ethics either, for that matter. But I give him his proper credit in the book, and state quite clearly that those songs, no matter how talented our band was, couldn’t have become as powerful as they were had he not been present to cause that excitement in the minds and hearts of the young teenagers [Ryder and The Wheels] he was surrounded with.”
Ryder’s book is a fascinating rock & roll memoir along the lines of Tommy James‘s cautionary tale, Me, The Mob & The Music, even featuring some of the same mendacious moguls. Ryder states simply, “If you’re gonna write an autobiography, why glitz it up and try to hide things? Most of my life I’ve lived in Detroit, and Detroit’s a funny place—we can live with omissions but we will not tolerate a lie. So I decided when I started writing that it was gonna be as truthful as it could possibly be. It was so truthful that the [publisher's] legal department pulled many, many pages from the book. They were afraid of lawsuits. All I did was lay out the facts and told the truth.” Ryder doesn’t let himself off the hook for anything either, casting an unblinking eye on his own personal and professional missteps throughout, but the sixty-six-year-old singer remains philosophical about it all. “If it happened, it happened,” he says, “Why take on any bad feelings about it? We all make mistakes. Why regret something, why torture yourself so late in life with things you can’t change? For me it’s just a documentation of what the trip was about.”
Ryder’s accounts also include intriguing close encounters with legends like Bob Dylan. A twenty-year-old Ryder was a fly on the wall for one of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited sessions. “That was thrilling,” remembers Ryder. “I was focused like a hawk on a mouse on Dylan, and he was so active in the studio, he would stop a song and take out a notebook and write something down…suddenly they’d be playing a song and he’d stop and go over to the piano and play something…it was a long process for him. There was a lot of guesswork on the part of the musicians…he would do maybe sixteen bars here and the next verse would be ten, and that was all just at his discretion. I remember [Dylan guitarist Mike] Bloomfield just looked at me once with these weird eyes, like ‘This is crazy.’ His music made you think, whereas the music that we had been turning into hits was pretty much party music.”
Nevertheless, the ’70s found Ryder beginning the long process of establishing himself as an incisive songwriter as well as a powerful performer. At least as far as America goes, most of this artistic evolution has taken place under the radar, so many might be surprised at the intensity of the artist’s own compositions on The Promise. “I’m an oldies act here,” he says, “People have no reference point, for all they know I’ve just been real lazy, and just trying to milk that cow until it runs dry, when the fact of the matter is that I’ve been working my ass off and I haven’t stopped.”
With the help of Don Was and a core team of crack players, The Promise melds hard-hitting R&B and rock & roll grooves with uncompromising lyrics that mine the personal and the political with equal aplomb. “Don and I know each other from quite a few years back,” explains Ryder. “I simply called him one day and said ‘Don, what would it take for us to make an album together?’ Because my career in America was really taking a tailspin, and I had to do something to at least let people in America know I was alive so I could work. When I go to Europe it essentially pays my bills for maybe four or five months, the rest of the year depends on the work I get in America. So to survive I had to do something to get myself back into the public eye, and the album was one piece of it. The book became a second piece.”
All these years later, Ryder is still living in the Detroit area, and even as he returns to remind the public of his status as a true rock & roll original, he remains a cheerleader for the Motor City sound. Asked how he looks at the Detroit rock legacy he helped create, as carried through the decades by everyone from The MC5 to the White Stripes, he enthuses, “I’m very happy with it. We just keep trendsetting, and we keep sticking it out there. It still comes out of the city and it’s still being recognized. We have people coming out of here all the time, and it’s been that way since I can remember, so it’s a good breeding ground for artistic abilities. We’re probably more highly educated than the rest of the country would like to think.”
So sang then-ex-Eagle Don Henley in 1985. Ironically, “All She Wants to Do Is Dance,” Henley’s third great solo Top 10 hit, was neither particularly danceable nor was it actually about about a woman who lived to shake her groove thing underneath the strobelight (no matter what the video says). The careless, carefree dancing queen was a metaphor for a United States that was more concerned with buying thrills than curing societal and political ills.
More than twenty-five years later, in the world of pop music, it’s all about movement—and not as an ambitious political metaphor. With the possible exception of Bruno Mars (who’s really going to have to toughen up and speed up the tempo if he’s ever going to get my love), all everyone—male and female, from Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Foster the People—wants to do is dance (and make romance). Red Hot Chili Peppers even closes its latest album, I’m With You, with a song titled, fittingly, “Dance Dance Dance.”
When Henley offered his biting political commentary with a beat, “disco” was still a dirty word. That’s probably why he was able to use it as a stand in for hedonism and get away with it. The truth, though, is that disco never really left the building: In the ’80s, a number of artists—from Michael Jackson to Madonna to Prince to Janet Jackson—were incorporating it into their pop.
Whoever invented the movie preview must be some kind of genius. Because of them, half the fun of seeing a movie on the big screen is getting there—to the main attraction, that is. It always takes a few good trailers to put me in the mood. But sometimes, if the words don’t get in the way (damn, bad screenplays!), the music does. Too often terrible songs ruin perfectly good trailers—or make bad ones worse.
That said, movie-trailer music has come a long way. For a brief period in the early ’90s, nearly every other one seemed to feature the soothing new-age sounds of Enya floating by in the background. Nowadays we get a larger assortment of musical backdrops (pop, classical, rock, hip hop, techno and, of course, vintage Motown), some of which can actually turn must-avoid into must-see — at least until the coming attraction is over and sensible thinking once again prevails.
Variety, however, hasn’t done away with predictability, and recently, while screening trailers for some upcoming autumn releases, I noticed a few rules at play.
1. No self-respecting Oscar contender stoops to the tops of the pops. David Fincher may have gotten Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails to score The Social Network last year, but he knew better than to use Radiohead’s 1992 hit “Creep” in the trailer. Instead, he used a haunting cover by Belgium’s Scala & Kolacny Brothers. This year, for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (December 21), he punctuates the sneak-peek action not with Led Zeppelin’s classic version of “Immigrant Song” but with a near-equally exhilariting remake by Reznor and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.