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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 I Miss the ’90s

Every decade lives twice. Each one seems to get a second shot about twenty years after the fact. The ’50s were hot again in the ’70s (which might be why Happy Days was one of TV’s biggest hits). The ’60s resurfaced in the ’80s (as did tie-dye t-shirts and the British invasion), and Saturday night fever flared up one more time in the ’90s (though that didn’t stop the film 54 from flopping).

We’ve been stuck in the ’80s for a while now, but the ’90s are coming around again. I recently attended a ’90s party at a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, and the dance floor was packed with the retro-obsessed. The beats were technotronic indeed, but thanks to the varied playlist, I remembered that there was so much more to the decade in music than grunge and Europop. (Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Do Me” and Elastica‘s “Connection” provided particularly pleasing trips down memory lane.) Here are five reasons why the ’90s rocked even harder than you might recall.

1. Sisters with voices ruled. And I’m not just talking about Sisters with Voices (otherwise known as SWV). TLC was arguably the most unique multi-platinum girl group ever, while En Vogue was the most glamorous one since the Supremes. Solo stars like Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan joined the hit parade, and Whitney Houston could still raise the roof—and she did with the soundtrack for The Bodyguard. Aside from Adele and Beyoncé (when she’s not huffing, puffing and trying way too hard to bring the house down), none of today’s female hitmakers can match the fierce ruling divas of the ’90s for sheer vocal power.

2. Rock & roll was king. Grunge may have been a relatively short-lived turning point, but for a moment there, the music was actually more important than the marketing. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Radiohead (all of whose platinum success seemed more accidental than calculated), Britpop (Blur vs. Oasis was so much better than Kings of Leon vs. Glee or the lead singers of Coldplay and Muse being married to Hollywood), and the grrrl power of female and female-driven acts like Björk, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Belly, the Breeders and L7, rock and alternative music was both popular and interesting.

3. Stars were born, not manufactured on television and YouTube. This year, Rebecca Black went viral on YouTube and became a “star” without ever actually having a hit. (“Friday” topped out on Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 58, 24 notches lower than the Glee remake.) And nothing against American Idol it’s given us some bona fide, hit-making talents (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, among them)—but it’s also gave us William Hung! When music stars are created instantly (in Hung’s case, due to an extreme lack of talent) or groomed in front of our very eyes, pop stardom starts to lose its mystique. Clarkson’s fame will never seem as hard-won as Celine Dion‘s; Carrie Underwood will never be as good a story as Shania Twain; and I’d trade soulful, one-hit wonders like Dionne Farris and Des’ree for Fantasia every day of the week. At least we never had to watch them almost self-destruct in public. Which brings us to…

4. Less was more. Before Twitter, YouTube and tabloid media overload, pop stars always left us wanting more. Now they reveal every thought and all of the minutiae of their lives via endless Twitter updates. (Sean Kingston recently tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by medical equipment while recovering from a jet-ski accident in Miami that nearly cost him his life. Too much?) The tabloids give us 24/7 access, showing them doing just about everything except going to the bathroom (including having sex!). And we can catch them whenever we want to on YouTube (and make them seem more popular than they actually are by continuously pressing play in order to increase their “views”) and watch them falling and bombing onstage, tangling with the paparazzi, and getting prickly with TV interviewers before doffing their shirts and hitting the streets of New York City.

Lauryn Hill was one of the biggest stars of the late ’90s yet she always managed to sidestep overexposure. Where is she now? God only knows (though it recently was revealed that she’s pregnant with her sixth child). If only Amy Winehouse, her critically acclaimed late-’00s equivalent, had been able to fall apart in the privacy of her own home.

5. Courtney Love was far more daring than Lady Gaga. I’ll admit it: I miss Courtney Love. Whatever you thought about her music, the lead singer of Hole was never boring. Take away Lady Gaga’s freaky-creepy visuals, though, and all you’re left with is a talented but over-earnest, politically correct pop star. She’s says all the right things, but listen closely—none of it is even slightly provocative. Her carefully considered soundbites are intended to be up with underdogs and offensive to no one. Even her pro-gay agenda is as respectful as possible to the political right. Just once, I’d like to see Gaga get naked and sexy (for someone who wears so little clothing, she’s remarkably, and safely, asexual), or totally lose it, throwing good intentions out the window and engaging in a public bitchfest. Isn’t the moral majority asking for it?

20 Essential ’90s Albums

Annie LennoxDiva

BabyfaceFor the Cool in You

BellyStar

BjörkPost

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo

Dolly PartonThe Grass Is Blue

Elvis Costello and Burt BacharachPainted from Memory

Faith No More - Angel Dust

John AndersonSeminole Wind

Kate BushThe Red Shoes

k.d. lange - Ingenue

Mary J. BligeMy Life

Morrissey - Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)

Neil YoungHarvest Moon

Neneh CherryHomebrew

Portishead - Dummy

Radiohead - The Bends

R.E.M.Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)

Sarah McLachlanFumbling Towards Ecstasy

SuedeComing Up

Sound And Vision: Reunited Bands Try To Make Lightning Strike Twice

For the love of money.
According to Sting, when I interviewed him in 1996, there’s no other reason to bring a band back from the dead. Yet one must assume that Sting—who’s had a gold and platinum solo career for more than three times the seven years he was a member of The Police—had more than money on the brain when he reunited the band in 2007, after more than two decades of inactivity, for a thirtieth anniversary world tour.
Think about it: If Diana Ross can try to regroup with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (though she ended up with two ’70s Supremes with whom she’d never actually performed and possibly never even met until minutes before the ill-fated 2000 “reunion” was announced), why can’t all other former bandmates get along—or at least get back together. Are you listening, ABBA? Though a musical reunion of Sweden’s fab four, or the UK one from the ’80s (that would be The Smiths), remains as unlikely as a resurgent Rubik’s cube or Carter Country, in recent years, we’ve seen a number of bands—from the Pixies to Yaz to the “classic” original line-up of Duran Duran—come together again.
Some did it for the love of money, some because of fading solo careers and some because as we get older those nostalgic impulses become harder to ignore. One imagines the latter must have been a big part of the reason why rich solo superstar Robbie Williams mended fences last year with Take That—who’d already reformed in 2005, nine years after breaking up—and participated in Progress, their first album together in fifteen years. This month, the original Take That will hit the road with Pet Shop Boys.
On May 10, The Cars, who haven’t released a new studio album since Ronald Reagan was in office, will drive their act into this millennium with Move Like This and a ten-date reunion tour that begins in Seattle on the day of the album’s release. They won’t be the only ’80s throwbacks on the road in the coming months. Bobby Brown recently said that the off-and-on-and-off-and-on-again New Edition has a new album and tour in the works. Perhaps they should join New Kids on the Block (who’ll be performing live this summer with Backstreet Boys) and soon-to-be summer tour mates Tiffany and Debbie Gibson for a Monsters of ’80s Pop package.
Then there’s Soundgarden, the band who along with Nirvana and Pearl Jam created grunge’s holy triumvirate in the early ’90s. They split in 1997, and although Chris Cornell had success as a member of Audioslave, his solo career never quite caught on. Can grunge thrive in 2011? We’ll find out when the Seattle band, set to tour in July, releases its work in progress later this year, but the odds might be stacked against them.
With a few exceptions—the Eagles, Steely Dan and Take That, whose Progress has enjoyed massive UK sales—reunited bands generally have had more success with comeback tours than with new music. Roxy Music, the Pixies and Psychedelic Furs have been back together for years, but neither band has released new albums. And Blondie, whose Panic of Girls is due on July 4, had middling US success with 1999′s No Exit and 2003′s The Curse of Blondie (though the former did produce the No. 1 UK single “Maria”).
In 2008, New Kids on the Block, whose reunion tour year featured Lady Gaga as an opening act, got off to a good start with The Block (first-week sales: 100,000), but the album failed to go gold in the US. The Cars’ new single, “Sad Song,” hasn’t gone higher than No. 37 on Billboard’s Rock Songs chart since its March 1 release, which doesn’t bode too well for the buzz-free Move Like This. Meanwhile, Duran Duran’s nostalgia value makes the group a huge touring attraction, but the new albums featuring the original line up (minus guitarist Andy Taylor) have sold only modestly.
But with album sales continuing to free fall anyway, it might not even matter. Releasing new music keeps the bands from being strictly oldies acts, and if the love of money is their bottom line, most of them are getting exactly what they’re after on the road.
[Ed. Note: Rockers and pop stars aren't the only ones taking a trip down memory lane. Check out more comebacks and reunions in hip hop.]

Tour De Force: The Winter Sounds

One look at The Winter Sounds’ MySpace page and there’s no question of why they would be chosen as this week’s “Tour De Force.” Their “Upcoming Shows” section is completely filled with dates all over the US from February through May. According to their bio, The Winter Sounds played 217 shows in 2007 and, “seem to have an insatiable enthusiasm for touring, sleeping on floors, eating ramen noodles, and getting their music heard.” For members of the band, the road is their home. They are the perfect example of the DIY work ethic,” taking an inventory of life and then deciding to believe in yourself enough to mortgage your future for your dream.”

Their voracious touring schedule has resulted in a revolving cast of characters, but founder and frontman Patrick Keenan is constantly at work,  surrounding himself with some of the best musicians the Athens, GA area has to offer. Whether it be booking shows, raising funds for recording and touring, writing songs, finding places for the band to sleep, or spending nights in rest areas, there’s no doubt that his work ethic and focus is paying off.
Continue reading ‘Tour De Force: The Winter Sounds’

 


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