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Sound And Vision: How Mainstream And Cutting-Edge Learned To Co-Exist In Pop Harmony

A few weeks ago, Melbourne hosted the TV WEEK Logie Awards, which is like Australia’s Emmys, only with more reality TV, more cooking shows and music. Katy Perry and Maroon 5 represented American pop, and then there was rising UK star Jessie J, representing… well, I’m still not 100 percent sure. As she stalked the stage, decked out in glam-Goth basic black, performing her No. 1 UK hit “Price Tag,” my friend peeled his eyes away from the television, turned to me and announced, “Her look is cool and alternative, but her music is so lame and poppy. They don’t match at all!”

It’s a discordancy that’s starting to take over. Pop and rock and hip hop used to hang out on different sides of the playground, barely acknowledging each other, with the rare, revolutionary exception (think Run-D.M.C.‘s 1985 smash cover of Aerosmith‘s “Walk this Way,” featuring the vintage rock band on vocals and in the song’s video). If your music was too mainstream, strictly middle-of-the-road (a condition that afflicted neither Run-D.M.C.’s nor Aerosmith’s tunes at the time, which perhaps is why the hit sounded so effortless), there was no changing lanes. You could dress as wild as ’80s fashion would let you, but you would always be a pop star. Chart-toppers had little chance of drumming up street cred or working with artists whose tunes dangled from the cutting edge. Why do you think Duran Duran, one of the most influential bands of the Reagan era, still hasn’t been nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and is only now, more than two decades past its prime, publicly earning the respect of well-respected men like David Lynch, who directed the band’s recent American Express online concert?

Suddenly its cool to be alternative and pop. We’ve got Katy Perry mingling with Snoop Dogg and Kanye West on record and with bad-boy British comic Russell Brand in holy matrimony, and Ke$ha singing some of the poppiest songs on the charts and casting James van der Beek, one of Hollywood’s most white-bread actors, in her video but tarting it up just enough to come across as one of the coolest girls in school. (Ever the trendsetter, in the ’80s, Madonna had the good sense to tousle her image by marrying bad boy Sean Penn.) Meanwhile, Rihanna—a pop princess if ever there was one—holds court with Eminem and sings about how she’s “Hard” (as Young Jeezy raps in her defense).

Lady Gaga dresses like a freak and breaks every sartorial rule while singing what is basically the rave music of every ’90s teenage dream. Her former video costar Beyoncé alternates between straight-up pop (“Halo,” “Sweet Dreams”) and darker hip hop (“Diva” and current single “Run the World [Girls]“), while A Rocket to the Moon and Wilco singer Jeff Tweedy are among those who have covered “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Try This (her 2003 flop that, in my opinion, is her best album) aside, Pink‘s ultra-commercial music has never mirrored her rock-chick attitude. Even Coldplay, one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, second perhaps only to U2, collaborated with, of all people, Kylie Minogue on the 2008 World AID’s Day charity single “Lhuna.”

As with so many recent musical trends, the current shift toward the mainstream and the cutting edge making strange bedfellows began with hip hop. If a roguish rapper like Eminem could rhyme alongside pop singers (first Dido on “Stan,” then Elton John at the 2001 GRAMMYs, and most recently, Pink and Rihanna on Recovery), couldn’t all musicians, regardless of genre, get along? Sure they can, but the commercial results have been mixed. There’ve been huge hits—the Katy Perry singles “California Gurls” and “E.T.” returned her rapper costars, Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, respectively, to No. 1 for the first time in eons—but when Alicia Keys met Jack White for “Another Way to Die,” the theme for the last James Bond flick, 2008′s Quantum of Solace, it was a one-week wonder on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 81.

Perhaps Keys’ R&B and pop fans and White’s alternative ones didn’t know what to do with the meeting of their musical minds, which was nonethess one of the best singles of 2008. Of course, there are artists who resist, too. Remember when Ryan Adams used to go off on fans who requested Bryan Adams‘ “Summer of ’69″ because he was fed up with being compared to the ’80s and ’90s pop superstar with the almost-identical name? (He once had a fan tossed out of a Nashville concert for daring to do the unthinkable!)

Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards probably was as much about the cutting edge (hip hop) vs. the mainstream (country-pop) as it was about the visual supremacy of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” video. In February, I read a Billboard.com interview where empress of ’80s cool Chrissie Hynde talked about her upcoming Super Bowl weekend performance on CMT Crossroads with country diva Faith Hill, and she said she was unfamiliar with Hill’s music and admitted, “I don’t know much about country music, period.” Then there’s Kings of Leon, best known in the US for the Top 5 hit “Use Somebody”. Although the band would hardly be considered alternative in its recent hit-making incarnation, the guys  nonetheless refused to allow Glee to use “Somebody.” (I bet South Park or Dexter or Weeds would have gotten their blessing.)

But if Jay-Z can let the Glee kids turn “Empire State of Mind” into a show tune, if Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler can sit beside Jennifer Lopez at the American Idol judges table, if “F–k You” singer Cee Lo Green can go from collaborating with Danger Mouse (in Gnarls Barkley) to being one of Christina Aguilera‘s fellow judges on The Voice, then we might yet live to hear an Eminem track featuring Britney Spears.

 

Judge In The Ernie Ball Alternative Country Channel!

Do you find yourself rocking out to Wilco on a daily basis? Does Ryan Adams frequent your iTunes top-played list more than you’d like to admit? Well OurStage may just have a channel that’s right up your alley. This month, artists in the Alternative Country Channel are competing for a year’s supply of free strings and accessories from Ernie Ball. In case you were wondering, a prize like that is a huge benefit to any up-and-coming musician, especially those who aspire to hold rank with artists the likes of Neil Young, My Morning Jacket and Son Volt. Your musical expertise is needed to help filter the best artists to the top of the channel, and in return you can discover some truly awesome new music along the way. So what are you waiting for? You can take part in discovering the next big thing in alternative country music. Head to the channel now and let your voice be heard. But hurry, judging closes February 26th!

Righteous Brother

Richard Parsons

Richard Parsons’ bio is short and sweet: Likes dry reds and Jack Daniels, sweet harmonies, righteous chords and vinyl. With these clues, you might be able to extrapolate an idea of what his music sounds like—a little rustic, a little brooding, a little vintage. The Decatur, Georgia-based singer-songwriter comes across like a mix of John Lennon, Jeff Tweedy and Chris Cornell. Listen to “You Curse” and you’ll get a whiff of the Beatles’ airborne choruses flanked by dusty acoustic guitars and tambourine shimmers. Parsons’ music ambles along at an unhurried pace, taking its time to unfold. “Fall Back” is darker and sleepier than “You Curse,” but just as mellifluous. But the singer-songwriter knows how to get his rocks off as well, particularly with the awesome, alt-country psychedelia of “Light A Fire.” Parson’s love of righteous chords is apparent. If you love ‘em too, you’ll dig this.

Punk On The Rocks: The Dog Days Of Summer

Here at OurStage HQ, the summer has hit us hard. It’s too hot to move, but also too hot to sit still. What could be a better soundtrack for the stifling heat, humidity and restless energy of the dog days of summer than that classic Stooges track “I Wanna Be Your Dog”? A timeless testament to anger and alienation, “I Wanna Be Your Dog” still resonates with fans and musicians even 40 years after its release. I’ve rounded up some of my favorite versions below:

Sonic Youth – 1983′s Confusion Is Sex saw the band combining their noise-tastic original “Freezer Burn” with “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” There is only one word to describe Sonic Youth’s take: Vicious.The distortion and fuzz of “Freezer Burn” leads into the familiar riff and all hell breaks loose. Kim Gordon’s vocals are simultaneously intense, raw, sexy and terrifying. Sonic Youth definitely hold their own against The Stooges, which is no small feat. For the noise averse, I’ve included a “Freezer Burn” – less version in the video below:

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts – From Tommy James and The Shondelles to Gary Glitter, Jett & company really know how to make a cover song their own. While it’s more polished than the original or the Sonic Youth version, Jett’s trademark vocals provide the necessary grit. Fun fact: The Stooges’ version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is the soundtrack to the infamous Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett / Dakota Fanning as Cherie Curry kissing scene in the 2010 movie The Runaways.

Ida Maria – This Norwegian indie import is no stranger to The Stooges — Iggy Pop himself duet-ed with the singer on a re-release of “Oh My God,” from her 2008 album Fortress Round My Heart — so it’s no surprise that Maria chose to cover “I Wanna Be Your Dog” as part of her 2009 Lollapalooza set. Fierce footage of Ida Maria stalking the stage below:

Uncle Tupelo – This alternative country supergroup featured future members of both Son Volt and Wilco. While it didn’t see a proper release until the band’s post-breakup 2002 release 89/93: An Anthology, this twangy take on the proto-punk classic is not to be missed.
Which cover is your favorite, or is the original far superior? Let us know in the comments!

Folkin’ Around: Lelia Broussard

The polished and organic sound of Lelia Broussard caught my attention with her simplistic “piano and voice” re-realization of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark“. Her recognition that a great melody can stand on its own is mirrored in her latest single, “Scared to Feel“. Beginning with simple guitar strumming and personal lyrics, Broussard unfolds the song into an array of beautiful folk/rock instrumentation and a hint of angst. The fact still remains, though, that the message lies in the melody which easily floats above the accompaniment.

Broussard began her career early, moving to New York City when she was just 17. Her relentless songwriting and touring throughout the US landed her a publishing deal with Ronder Universal Music Group. She moved to Los Angeles, CA and began writing for her debut release On the 9, which was produced by Dave Trumifo (Wilco and My Morning Jacket).

Check out her song “The Grass is Greener” and listen to some more music on her OurStage profile.

Backtracking Forward: Record Store Day

Jesus has Christmas and Easter. The Great Pumpkin has Halloween. Even pancakes have their own dedicated day of celebration—so why not record stores? A group of like-minded vinyl enthusiasts felt the same way so they organized National Record Store Day to recognize the importance of the independent music retail shop. Every third Saturday of April, musicians, store proprietors and the customers who keep the brick and mortar shops alive, come together for a day of live music and limited vinyl releases. This year, artists like Bruce Springsteen, Citizen Cope, Tom Waits, Sharon Jones and hundreds more have contributed rare and exclusive recordings, pressed on wax, to be sold only on Record Store Day at participating retailers. So fire up the turntable, break out the rainy day vinyl fund and support your favorite record shop on April 17th!

Continue Reading About National Record Store Day

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

Erykah Badu in "Window Seat"

Erykah Badu bares all for “Window Seat” video

Nudity and social commentary are familiar bedfellows — just ask John and Yoko. So what’s surprising about Erykah Badu’s video for “Window Seat” isn’t the fact that she slowly disrobes till she’s stark naked; it’s the fact that she does it while walking around the grassy knoll in downtown Dallas where JFK was assassinated. The video ends with a shot ringing out and Badu collapsing on the ground. It’s supposed to be a statement about “character assassination,” but you don’t care about that. We had you at “naked.” Check out the video here.

The Bad

Hayley Williams covers Gaga

Gaga has birthday, covers ensue

Happy 24th birthday, Lady Gaga. Here’s your present: Two covers of “Bad Romance,” one from Paramore singer Hayley Williams (on piano to boot!) and the other from Jared Leto. Earnest, emo, melancholy, Catalano-esque … listen to both versions to figure out which is which.

The Ugly

MGMT in "Flash Delirium"

MGMT’s “Flash Delirium” video is weird

First there’s this mansion full of old people. Then there’s dancing … and puppets. And THEN, there’s a talking neck wound, an eel, an iron lung and an earthquake. In that order. Check out the video on the band’s Web site. Oh yeah … spoiler alert.

Discourse & Dischord

The Good

David Byrne

David Byrne uses Philippine dictator as inspiration for new album
Rarely have the words “Imelda Marcos” and “good” been used in a sentence together, but we’re going to take a shot at it. David Byrne’s new concept album, Here Lies Love, is inspired by shoe fetishist/dictator Imelda Marcos, and it sounds GOOD. Byrne co-wrote the album with Fatboy Slim, and recruited a different female vocalist for each track. Among them are Santigold, Roisin Murphy, Sharon Jones, Alice Russell and Tori Amos. The album drops in early April. Read more about it here.

The Bad

Better than Nickelback?

Nickelback’s sour response to Facebook pickle group
If you spend any time on Facebook, you’ve probably seen news feeds for the group “Can this pickle get more fans than Nickelback?” The answer is yes. As of Wednesday, the pickle had 1,488,589 fans whereas the band had a mere 1,422,807. Well, singer Chad Kroeger didn’t like that one bit, and left a tart comment that read, “You’re page will be closing in 2 weeks.” Coral Anne, the creator of the pickle group, replied, “I still whooped your ass, Chad!” Yeah, no one likes a pickle puss, CHAD.

Whitney Houston

The Ugly

Whitney Houston angers Aussies with Brisbane performance
A “croaky” and “disoriented” Whitney Houston received dismal reviews for her performance at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre on Monday. According to multiple critics and fans, the 46-year-old singer appeared out of breath throughout the concert, coughing through some numbers and turning the epic high point of “I Will Always Love You” into a breathless coo. Houston has a handful of dates left in Australia before she heads over to Europe for more boos shows.

Miscellany

Wheel In The Sky

And The There Were Three: Half of Boston's Ferris Wheel

And The There Were Three: Half of Boston's Ferris Wheel

Not everything that goes on behind dorm room doors has to be shady. Sometimes it’s as simple and as serendipitous as a guy playing his cello. Such is the case with Boston’s Ferris Wheel, who recruited their cellist after overhearing him practicing his instrument at Tufts University. Little by little, through acquaintances and classmates, the three-piece project became a real band, seven members strong and spanning three universities.

But the real allure of Ferris Wheel isn’t their genesis, it’s their songcraft. Fans of the National, Grizzly Bear and Wilco will find much to like. On “The Wrigley Field Faithful” singer Josh Bolduc channels his inner Paul Simon, telling his story unhurriedly and unadorned. The elegiac tale of a cross-country pilgrimage is first painted in muted colors (acoustic picking and the woeful whinny of a trumpet) and then in bold dashes (the kick-start of drums, jubilant piano and an epic sing-along chorus). On the almost gospel “Lay Down,” singer Justine Bowe’s crystalline voice coats the song like treacle, while mercurial arrangements take listeners from dusty strumming to a grandiose chorus of soaring voices, stomping feet, clapping hands and shimmering tambourines. Theirs is a revival you’ll want to attend.

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FROM THE CMJ RELAY ARCHIVES: OURSTAGE PICKS VOL. 7

cmjdotcom_webWelcome to our seventh installment featuring CMJ’s OurStage Staff Picks from the CMJ Relay Blog. CMJ is well known for their industry leading New Music Report magazine, which contains music reviews, artist news and interviews with the best artists being played on college radio.

Marnée

“Down In The Valley”
Solo Performance Channel
Singer/songwriter Marnee sings very mature lyrics belying her 11 years of age with sweet whispering, yet full and rich vocals.
RIYL: Jewel, Sarah McLachlan, Joan Baez
WEB: http://www.myspace.com/marneeaugust

Don DiLego

“Falling Into Space”
Indie Rock Channel
Playful alternative rock that unapologetically obeys straightforward chord progressions and pop mantras.
RIYL: Spoon, Beach Boys, Wilco
WEB: http://www.myspace.com/dondilego

Check in the Dark

“Complicated Lullaby”
Acoustic Channel
This acoustic jam’s older influences accompany clanging bells, drums and high-stringed guitar picking.
RIYL: James Taylor, John Mayer, Jack Johnson
WEB: http://www.myspace.com/checkinthedarkmusic

 


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