21 February 2007

Begin the Beguine all over again

Happy Ash Wednesday

No really, as an inveterate celebrator of Mardi Gras / Carnivale, and now an ex-drinker, this is my third Ash Wednesday in a row without a hangover. And in bouncing around the net this morning I discovered a great bit of music I'd like to share with you.

I'm not going to spoil the surprise by describing the virtuosic version of Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine, by "planetalk", posted on YouTube. See, and hear, Begin the Beguine II, and
So, don't let them begin the beguine,
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember . . .
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember,
When they begin the beguine!

14 February 2007

The 2007 Grammy Awards: Reflections

Every year I make it a habit to do two things: first, watch the live Grammy broadcast to pick up on new talent. Then, next morning, I check the complete winners list to see who the Academy honors and who they miss. It's a good way for an old man (who just turned off a Derek and the Dominoes recording to write this) to try and keep up with what's happening now in popular music. Here are a few thoughts.

First, the advertising promoting the show made a big fuss about bringing The Police together to play on the broadcast. I'm a big Police fan so I said to myself "great, can't miss that." Well, I wish I had. This is the second time Sting, Stuart, and Andy have pulled this trick and I for one am tired of it. The first time was justifiable: they were being inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. But this time: play "Roxanne", pick up a most certainly huge check, and hit the road -- it is simply unacceptable. These three men are too talented for such antics. Shame on all three of you. If The Police are truly "back", let's here some new music from them.

Two more complaints and I'll get to the nice things I have to say. A three song tribute to The Eagles? The Eagles are not an important band. They are a footnote that for reasons I cannot fathom are apparently still popular. Me, I'm with "The Dude" in the Coen Brothers' film The Big Lebowski: I'll risk getting thrown out of a cab to get the driver to turn off this lame excuse for a country rock band. Dear Academy: you wanna do a country rock tribute, do one to The Flying Burrito Brothers -- Gram Parsons in particular.

Last complaint: Maria Callas was given a well deserved lifetime achievement award. But then Ms. Callas was immediately compared to the next performer, Mary J. Blige. I have nothing to say about Ms. Blige other than she's no Maria Callas.

And now my positive remarks. The staying power of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, their humility in accepting the Grammy for Rock Album of the Year, and their suprisingly understated performance were proof that hard rock is alive and well.

Other random highlights: the tribute to the late James Brown brought tears to my eyes; though Smokey Robinson is an old man now, his live performance of Tracks of My Tears was close to perfect; Ludacris turned in a fine live performance; John Mayer, winner of the Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album, played the the best guitar of the evening and is the singer/songwriter to watch in coming years; also, keep an eye on Corrine Bailey Rae, she gave a mesmerizing live performance.

Now, to three things I really want to highlight about this year's Grammys. Rick Rubin is the man, the producer to have in your corner. If he continues on the path he's on, he will be the Tom Dowd of this era. He received this year's Grammy for Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, no doubt in part because he produced the Red Hot Chili Peppers' and Dixie Chicks' albums that stole the evening.

And that brings me to exactly were I want to be: singing the praises of the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, Emily Robinson & Co. took home 5 Grammys this year, including the three big ones, Album of the Year (producer / artist award), Record of the Year (artist award), and Song of the Year (songwriter / artist award), for their album Taking the Long Way and the potent single Not Ready to Make Nice. As Alanna Nash wrote for Amazon:
Nothing changes folks like babies and war, and since the release of their last album, 2002's Home, the Dixie Chicks have been forever altered by both. If that album showcased the trio as precocious young adults, Taking the Long Way finds them sobered and matured, and in a grown-up state of mind. Produced by the celebrated Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers), who saw the Chicks as "a great rock act making a country album, not a country act making a rock album," their new record impresses both as beautiful sonic tapestry (peppered with myriad Beatlesque hallmarks) and forthright yet vulnerable portrait of three women shaken by the personal and political events of the past few years. As they make clear in the defiant "Not Ready to Make Nice," they still smart over the backlash from their 2003 Bushwhacking. But as they assert on the equally autobiographical "The Long Way Around," they could never "kiss all the asses that they told me to" and just follow others aimlessly--and silently--through life. This means that the Chicks are simultaneously prideful and scornful of celebrity ("Everybody Knows"), and that as new mothers they increasingly treasure the refuge they find in life with their families, out of the spotlight ("Easy Silence," "Lullaby," "Baby Hold On"). The push and pull of both passions drive this record. .... The trio crafted all 14 cuts with the help of such writers as Sheryl Crow, Gary Louris, Mike Campbell, and Keb' Mo', laying out their lives as honestly and intimately as they might in their diaries. .... By the last cut, the R&B/gospel offering "I Hope," the Chicks have chronicled their journey with as much spirituality as spunk, their pain deeply ingrained in their protests.
Whatever side of the political spectrum you espouse, you've got to admire a girl group power trio featuring soaring three part harmony vocals, violin, and banjo that stands their ground in the face of death threats for political commentary.

Finally, let me tip my hat to Academy president Neil Portnoy's three minutes at the microphone. Instead of the usual whining about record industry loss of control over its profits, Mr. Portnoy gave an impassioned plea for art education in our schools. In a time where more and more pressure is placed on school authorities to teach to evaluation tests, his defense of the importance of arts education is both timely and also a profound use of his air time.

In sum, this year's Grammy Awards did it's job for me; I feel much better informed about today's pop music scene now than I did before I watched the show. And I won't be surprised if the phrase "I'm not ready to make nice" becomes part of North America's idiomatic lexicon.

08 February 2007

Introduction to the Early Stones

.... I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled.
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right thru my head.
But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash,
It's a Gas! Gas! Gas! ...

(From Jumpin' Jack Flash, 1969, written by Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, and an uncredited Bill Wyman, (c) 1969 Abkco Music, Inc., N.Y., NY; photo: back (octagonal) cover of the vinyl LP Through the Past, Darkly, (c) 1968, 2001 by Ethan Russell

* * * * *

What I'm calling the "early Stones" ends in 1970 with the spectacular live album Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and the film of that tour, Albert and David MayslesGimme Shelter.

Through the Past, Darkly has taken a critical back seat to Hot Rocks 1964-1971 as the basic compilation album to learn about the early Rolling Stones. Rubbish; here's why.

Hot Rocks tracks the following songs back to back (on side 3 of the original vinyl album):
Jumpin' Jack Flash
Street Fightin' Man
Sympathy for the Devil
Honky Tonk Women
Gimme Shelter
These songs listened to in that order are just too much voltage. It blows your circuit board. These songs need to be spread out -- as they are on their original albums -- and intermixed with acoustic music.

Check out, on the other hand, the track list for Through the Past, Darkly:
1. Paint It, Black
2. Ruby Tuesday
3. She's a Rainbow
4. Jumpin' Jack Flash
5. Mother's Little Helper
6. Let's Spend the Night Together
7. Honky Tonk Woman
8. Dandelion
9. 2000 Light Years from Home
10. Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow?
11. Street Fighting Man
First and foremost, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Women -- songs that are still on the Stones' current concert set list as definitional works -- never appeared on a regular LP. Why? Two reasons: neither fit on Beggars' Banquet or Let it Bleed; and leaving these gems off the contemporaneous albums mimics an older record track-list rule (i.e. don't put your singles on your albums, your fans already bought the single).

On Through the Past, Darkly, Jumpin' Jack Flash is preceded by She's A Rainbow, a smooth psychedelic groove, rather than starting an earthquake as it does on Hot Rocks. Then after the Flash, you head straight down the barrel of Mother's Little Helper. Mother's Little Helper is perfect 60's Stones. Hot, treble-heavy guitar work by Keef, great (ironic) message song from Mick-- this baby has it all.

Also, we have here the essential Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing in the Shadow? Raw, fast Keef slashing at his guitar and leaving you breathless.

Of course, the proper way to learn about the early Stones is to get copies of
Aftermath and Beggars' Banquet, but that's a good thing to do just to improve your quality of life.