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Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson Steps Out

Scottish indie-pop icons Belle and Sebastian have never exactly been publicity hounds. They’ve continually avoided putting their photos on their album covers and even routinely leave their names out of their album credits. But their anonymity doesn’t originate from a desire to generate mystery, it has more to do with a dedication to collectivism and seemingly, a genuine humility. Between the band’s anti-star aesthetic and frontman Stuart Murdoch‘s dominance of the lead vocal and songwriting duties, it’s frequently assumed that Murdoch is the brains behind Belle and Sebastian, but that’s an untruth. In fact, other members of the band have long been contributing on both of those fronts, and none more so than guitarist Stevie Jackson, who has penned and sung such B&S staples as “Seymour Stein” and “The Wrong Girl” among many others, and seems to be something of a right-hand man to Murdoch. So it was probably inevitable that Jackson would eventually step out on his own, which he’s now done with his first solo album, the cleverly titled (I Can’t Get No) Stevie Jackson. Continue reading ‘Belle and Sebastian’s Stevie Jackson Steps Out’

Sound and Vision: Can Taylor Swift Do Joni Mitchell Justice?

Taylor Swift has yet to top Billboard’s Hot 100, but who needs a No. 1 pop single when you’ve sold more than 20 million albums (as of March of 2011), been named Entertainer of the Year twice in a row by the Academy of Country Music (in 2011 and 2012), been awarded the 2010 Hal David Starlight Award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame (an honor previously bestowed upon John Mayer and Alicia Keys) and won an Album of the Year GRAMMY (in 2010, for Fearless, her second album)? She makes every princess of pop this side of Adele seem like an underachiever.

At the age of twenty-two, Swift has accomplished what it takes some icons entire careers and then some to achieve. (Neither Bruce Springsteen, nor the Rolling Stones, nor Aretha Franklin, nor Madonna, nor Eminem, has yet to win an Album of the Year GRAMMY.) But it’s Swift’s latest honor, being the frontrunner for the role of Joni Mitchell in the upcoming film Girls Like Us, a biopic based on Sheila Weller’s book about the lives of Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King in the late ’60s, that has her detractors—and some fans even—protesting “Too soon!” and wondering “Who? Her?“  Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Can Taylor Swift Do Joni Mitchell Justice?’

Sound and Vision: Why Recording Artists Should Look on the Bright Side of Piracy

“I’m a music fan that didn’t have a lot of pocket money as a kid. I bought what I could afford and taped the rest off radio or made a tape from my friend’s copy of the album.”

That’s what John Taylor of Duran Duran recently told Time Out Melbourne on the subject of illegal downloading. When I read Taylor’s comments, I applauded as if his band had just completed a rousing encore of “Skin Trade.” Finally, a pop star who understands what it’s like to be low on cash but high on music.

Back in the old pre-Internet days, before iTunes, Amazon and having access to the latest hits 24/7 on YouTube, if you couldn’t afford to pay to listen to the music you loved anytime you wanted to, you had to improvise. For me, and, apparently, for Taylor, that meant pushing a tape recorder up the speakers of the radio, waiting for your favorite song to come on, pressing play when it did, and praying for no outside noise to interfere with the sweet music coming from the speakers.

Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Why Recording Artists Should Look on the Bright Side of Piracy’

Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Deconstructing Elvis Costello’s Spinning Wheel

You might recall that towards the end of 2011 Elvis Costello made news by issuing a statement on his Web site discouraging fans from purchasing the deluxe box set version of his live recording The Return of the Spectacular Singing Songbook. It turns out Elvis had tried unsuccessfully to get the label to lower the price for the limited-edition set, which was going for well over $200 (and is currently selling for more than $300). Sure, it included all sorts of schmancy extras, like a vinyl EP, hardcover book, etc., but Costello nevertheless opined that “the price appears to be either a misprint or a satire,” and encouraged people to buy a Louis Armstrong box instead for less money. At the time, he also informed fans that before too long, all the elements of the box would be available individually for a less usurious fee. That day of retail redemption for Elvis and his admirers comes on April 3 with the release of Spinning Songbook in its proletariat-friendly format—the live CD and DVD are available individually or together, and even the two-disc package goes for about 10 percent (at most) of the box set’s cost.

Costello did his first Spinning Wheel tour back in 1986, bringing a big, roulette-style wheel onstage, emblazoned with the names of numerous songs from his back catalog. Audience members where invited up to give the wheel a turn, and Costello was obliged to perform whichever song the arrow landed on. Needless to say, the gimmick was a big fan favorite, and he revived the idea in 2011, capturing a couple of shows for posterity in May at The Wiltern in Los Angeles for the live release in question. Seeing as how it’s finally time for the common man to sidle up to the Spinning Songbook album, it seems like the right moment to deconstruct the track list, examining the origins of each one of the sixteen songs from The Wiltern sets that ended up on the album.

Continue reading ‘Riffs, Rants and Rumors: Deconstructing Elvis Costello’s Spinning Wheel’

“The Voice”: Battling Boredom

It’s no secret that this season of The Voice is full of amazing talent. We’ve been blown away time and time again by the likes of Jesse Campbell, Juliet Simms, Katrina Parker and Jamar Rodgers, just to name a few. However, Monday night’s episode was a Voice rarity: a show so dull, it barely got us to look up from our computers.

From pitchiness to bad song choices to generally lackluster performances, Monday’s episode may go down as the worst in The Voice‘s short history. It seemed as even the coaches were stunned with how their teams performed, with words like “generic,” “let down,” “missed notes” and “pitch things” being thrown around right and left.

There was one battle that stood out from the rest, though, because of the odd match-up and energetic performances. Country duo The LiNE and Moses Stone, the show’s first-ever MC, were both out of their element on the Rolling Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Though The LiNE may have out-sung Moses—who admitted that he isn’t the strongest vocalist—the rapper put on an entertaining and versatile performance that led coach Christina Aguilera to crown him the winner. By the way, we loved her little speech on what it means to be “the voice.” Check it out after the battle in the player below, and tune in next Monday for the first round of live shows!

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: David Klein Rocks By Numbers in ‘If 6 Was 9′

Now more than ever, the field of rock & roll literature is a crowded one. With each new tome that tumbles into the world, there’s an ever-increasing sense that you’re being told a story you’ve heard before about the music you love. But amid this densely-occupied literary landscape of tropes and truisms, David Klein has defied the odds and come up with a fresh perspective from which to write about pop music. For the New York-bred, North Carolina-based writer, music is a numbers game—at least, numbers provide the unifying principle for the dizzyingly eclectic array of songs, styles and artists he covers in If 6 Was 9 and Other Assorted Number Songs.

“The impetus was a conversation that occurred over a beer,” says Klein of his new book, describing what’s been the genesis of countless author’s most intriguing works over the years. “When we were singing the praises of [avant-pop singer/songwriter] Anna Domino’s ’88,’ and I made the possibly rash statement that it had to be the greatest 88 song of all time. Of course I wasn’t considering [Jackie Brenston's '50s rock & roll classic] ‘Rocket 88,’ or [The Nails' New Wave hit] ’88 Lines About 44 Women,’ which got me thinking, ‘What would be the ultimate 33 song? What would be the ultimate 12 song?’ We started making a list, and pretty soon the thing just sprouted legs…and that was 5 years ago. I started posting on a blog and it evolved over a couple of years.”

Klein’s book is anything but a dry list of song titles, though; for this initial volume—two more are in the offing—there are essays for the numbers 1 through 33, each one digging into not only into the details of the relevant songs, but the history of the artists, and most fascinating of all, the crazy connections that can be made between them, all with a minimum of academicism and a maximum of humor and pure, unadulterated music-geek passion. “Part of what excited me about it was finding new connections in this subject, pop  music, that has been so studied,” says Klein. “It was like finding a little buried treasure, to find an avenue to look at these things that possessed these wild collisions, these strange juxtapositions. Like, Beyoncé and ['80s punk-jazz band] Tupelo Chain Sex both have records called 4, I found that kind of funny. [John Lennon's] ‘# 9 Dream’ leads to John Lennon’s ‘lost weekend,’ leads to [Lennon drinking buddy] Harry Nilsson, leads to Harry Nilsson’s firstborn son, whose middle name was Nine. That was the last thing before I closed the book.”

Of course, finding the proper way to make all these disparate elements flow together between the covers of a book is no simple task. “It’s like climbing Everest,” says Klein. “The numbers we can count on our hands are the most essential, you find hundreds of 7 songs and 3 songs. They don’t have as many inherent associations the higher you go. Once you get into even the mid 30s or the mid 40s, what does 46 mean to most people? You’ve got to search a lot harder.” But one of Klein’s most daunting tasks ended up being what to leave out. “The more songs I turned up, the more the pieces were in danger of being lists,” he recalls, “and I had to kill a lot of my darlings…just for the sake of concision. I didn’t want songs that were so obscure that only six people would hear them. You’ve gotta deal with the elephants in the room—you can’t write about 45 without writing about ‘Stars on 45.’ I love ‘Seven Seas’ by Echo & The Bunnymen, and then I just thought ‘It’s gotta be Love’s “7 & 7 Is”’—there’s just so many.”

According to Klein, things will get even more interesting in Volume Two. “38 and 45 and 40 all have the distinction of being nouns,” he explains. “You can drink a 40 and shoot a .45, so there’s a whole subgenre. 44 is really the big gun one, it goes all the way back to ‘Stagger Lee.’ You can connect the dots between Woody Guthrie’s sheriff chasing him with a .44 [in "Billy the Kid"], and The Stones’ ‘Heartbreaker’ with your .44. These connections exist and haven’t been uncovered.” So, does thinking this way about music ever seem strange to Klein? “It’s sort of like insanity,” he assesses. “An insane person never thinks they’re insane, and a geek never thinks he’s a geek, he thinks he’s writing about something really important and pretty freaking cool. I’ll wear it proudly,” he says of the geek mantle.

Naturally, this is the kind of compendium that seems to beg for Monday morning quarterbacking from opinionated readers, but in fact, that’s exactly what Klein is counting on. “I’m hoping that enough people see it that I can get all kinds of flak for things I’ve forgotten,” he confesses, “that’s my ideal. I’m starting the conversation. There’s been a million list books, but nobody’s ever written this book before, nobody’s ever looked at it this way before. This is my take, and these are the ones that are important to me. I really think there could be a book like this written just for the blues, or just for hip hop. This was my very Catholic collection of observances on the subject.” In fact, some musicians have already begun to pick up on If 6 Was 9 and make their own opinions clear to Klein. “[Americana songsmith] James Jackson Toth, who goes by Wooden Wand, wrote me a really nice letter of feedback,” Klein reveals, “and said, ‘Sorry man, “23 Minutes in Brussels” [by Luna] beats Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter #23,” it’s the perfect song.’ That’s the fun of it, it’s subjective. I come right out and say, ‘Obviously The House of Love couldn’t hold a candle to Robert Johnson, but I’m gonna pick them for my 32 song anyway.’”

So what is it about numbers that fascinates us, especially in the context of as ostensibly non-linear a subject as pop music? “They are more definitive than words,” reckons Klein, “and they are locked into an order. What they define is only one thing. There’s something iconic about them. I’m not a math guy, so it’s funny that I should end up pursuing this. They have a legitimacy, they’re like the beginning of the phone book before the letters start. I feel like I’ve found the rock phone book, and the first section’s all blank, so I’m filling it in. As Robert Pollard said [in Guided By Voices' "Motor Away,"] ‘The time will come when you add up the numbers.’ And I feel like that time has arrived.”

You can find If 6 Was 9 at Amazon, iTunes, and Lulu.

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: Mitch Ryder Keeps His Promise

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.”

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Bon Iver Madonna
The Black Keys Franz Ferdinand
  • Indie artists feuding the only way they know how: on Twitter.
  • Confirmed to not be allowed at the Super Bowl: hydrangeas.
  • Spain, we hope you got your hair done, because Franz Ferdinand is taking you out all over again.
  • If only they could have gotten Steve Buscemi to do the “Lonely Boy” shuffle.
  • Oh, so that’s why Charlie Watts is the best looking Rolling Stone.
  • Johnny Marr won’t be driving in your car. At least for the next 56 days.
  • Even T.I himself had the same reaction we did to his collaboration with Taylor Swift: (pleasantly) surprised and confused.
  • We can already see this turning into a really depressing musician biopic.

Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows

On November 9, Nashville celebrated itself (again!) with the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. For the fourth consecutive year, the event was hosted by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, but the masters of ceremonies weren’t the only thing that gave me that old deja vu feeling. Hadn’t these accolades already been handed out just a few months ago?

Wait, those were the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards in June. And before that, there were the Academy of Country Music Awards. And, just in case that’s not enough Music City honors for you, there are the 2nd annual American Country Awards coming up on December 5.

Pop and R&B are just as self-congratulatory, offering the MTV Video Music Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the American Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards.

Then, of course, there are the GRAMMYs, which following so many other back-slapping fests, have been losing their lustre for years now—though that’s hardly the only reason. Winning one used to be the musical equivalent of snagging an Oscar, but now its just more clutter for the awards shelf.

In a few weeks (November 30, to be exact), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2012 GRAMMY Awards (to be held on February 12). Doesn’t it already feel like we’ve been there and done that over and over and over already this year? Am I the only one who doesn’t doubt that we’re in for another repeat of The Adele Show, with a very special appearance by Lady Gaga. Good as it is, like Christmas, I only need to sit through it once a year.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows’


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