Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More love for the female singer-songwriters

A friend of mine is nominated for an Indpendent Film Channel award for a 68-second movie he made about the power of imagination. (Check out the film and vote for it to win here.)

The film features a song by Nashville singer-songwriter Garrison Starr, who I had never heard of before, but after seeing the film and checking out her MySpace page, I am now ready to endorse her fully.

She's got a nice, rootsy vibe that reminds me of my college days in halcyon Ohio, all golden wheat fields and Amish buggies. Her voice reminds me of Shawn Colvin's or Shelby Lynne's, earthy and real.

What can I say? It's a good week for female singer-songwriters.

Monday, January 29, 2007

New Patty Griffin

In my opinion, Patty Griffin's debut album was the most powerful folk album to come out in the modern folk era. It's an album composed almost entirely of simple chords on a lone guitar and Patty's unparallaled voice. Even though it's a concept that should have run its course by 1970, it sounds downright revolutionary.

So I was really excited to hear a track from her upcoming release this morning on Acoustic Sunrise. Judging by the song I heard, the new album (called Children Running Through, available Feb. 6) is less spare but no less powerful. Listen to the new track, "Heavenly Day," at Griffin's MySpace page.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Stripped - No, not like Xtina

Radio station Cities 97 out of Minneapolis, thanks to media conglomerate Clear Channel, has a great feature on its Web site called Stripped, and it's a series of live, acoustic performances by artists like John Mayer, Melissa Etheridge, Rob Thomas and Gavin Degraw.

Right now I'm listening to John Legend, and if it's possible, I think I like it more with every listen. He plays an amazingly funky, grooved-out version of my favorite song from his debut album, "Number 1," and covers Stevie Wonder's "Visions," among the half-dozen songs in this performance.

Check it out.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bring on the hearts and arrows

I finally got hit with the Valentine's Day stick yesterday, which means that I am officially ready to dig out my meager collection of 1960s French pop and modern novelty jazz.

I know it's not very hipster to admit it, but I actually love Valentine's Day. Every year around this time, I go through a little Francophile moment, watching Amelie and reading Simone de Beauvoir's Letters to Nelson Algren (they are so wonderful!). I also have a little arsenal of music I love to listen to while dreaming of a Parisian rendezvous. In the coming posts, I'll share some of my favorites.

First up? Paris Combo. I love their sophomore release Living Room, which combines "cabaret music, gypsy jazz, and avant-garde surrealism," to quote the All Music Guide. Lead singer Belle de Berry's voice is clear and strong and beyond appealing. Listen to two Living Room tracks on the band's MySpace page.

The genre is somewhat unimportant - the sound is pure Valentine's Day, Simone de Beauvoir and all.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Another exciting album release approaches

Once again, my motto for the year ("I heart 2007") is holding true.

Two weeks from tomorrow, the Apples in Stereo will release their new album, New Magnetic Wonder. Three tracks from the album are posted on their MySpace page and I'm pretty sure "Energy" is my favorite thing so far this week. Granted, it's only Monday, so we'll see, but... it's gonna be hard to top.

They're heading out on tour starting Feb. 6 in North Carolina - if they come to a city near you, make sure you check them out. SO great.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

In defense of my love of John Mayer

I know people think he's too mainstream, he's too teeny-bopper friendly, he's too overexposed, whatever.

But I love the blues, and I'll tell you this: John Mayer is the real deal. You don't have to take my word for it, however. Check him out messing around with a new amp. (It's the January 12 entry.) That riff is from my favorite song on the new album, "Slow Dancing in a Burning Room."

Talent is talent. And that's the last time I'm gonna defend my love of all things JM.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Nodding in agreement

Remember a few posts back when I mentioned re-discovering some of the more "deep-cut" Beatles' songs?

Well, Bob Lefsetz agrees with me! Who is Bob Lefsetz, you ask? Apparently, he is a Santa-Monica based music industry legend.

Here he describes the moment when he and an acquaintance discover a mutual love of the lesser-known Beatles' songs:

"Then I’m singing 'I’ll Follow The Sun'. And then replicating every note of the intro of "I Feel Fine". It’s Beatlemania all over again!

We both know every lick, every word. It’s been forty years, but there’s been no act like this since. Oh, there have been good songs, but that’s all they were, songs. The Beatle numbers were exquisite jewels, they weren’t throwaways, they had harmonies, changes, they were works of genius...

I focus in on 'Help'. With all its overlooked tracks. Like 'I Need You' and The Night Before'. And, of course, 'You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away'."

Ben over at Amazon uses this story to make a good point about the beauty of whole albums that's worth checking out.

Bob Dylan: Still awesome after all these years

Well, count me in the field with those who think Bob Dylan's Modern Times was one of the best albums to come out in 2006.

This is kind of surprising to me on a couple of levels. First, I have always appreciated Bob Dylan as a poet and American icon, but I never really got the cult adoration that led people to trade bootlegs and devour every recorded moment of the man's voice. That's a fancy way of saying I understood it logically, but I didn't really feel it. Second, I was a little skeptical that a 65-year-old icon of the admittedly-old-fashioned genre of folk music could still be relevant in today's music market. And thirdly, I thought Dylan's voice was shot - I mistakenly wondered who would want to listen to a former legend croaking through ten tracks on a new album?

I could not have been more wrong. From the moment Modern Times came through the headphones, I realized Dylan is not only relevant, he is trailblazing. This album should be the I Ching for any band that incorporates folk, blues or roots music in their repertoire. Thom Jurek at the All Music Guide said it best:

"Dylan is a folk musician; he uses American folk forms such as blues, rock, gospel, and R&B as well as lyrics, licks, and/or whatever else he can to get a song across. This tradition of borrowing and retelling goes back to the beginning of song and story. Even the title of Modern Times is a wink-eye reference to a film by Charlie Chaplin. It doesn't make Dylan less; it makes him more, because he contains all of these songs within himself. By his use of them, he adds to their secret histories and labyrinthine legends."

But more than that, it's just beautiful to listen to. The tone of the whole album is soft and sweet, reminding me of my other favorite Bob Dylan album, Blood on the Tracks. The timbre of the album is warm like honey, Dylan's voice sounds astonishingly good and the lyrics are personal rather than political - he's showing a surprisingly vulnerable side of himself.

Track highlights for me include the bouncy opening track "Thunder on the Mountain," (which surprisingly references a slight obsession with Alicia Keys), the revised folk ballad "Nettie Moore" and the tiki-tinged love song "Spirit on the Water," which features my favorite lyrics on the album: "When you're near, it's just as plain as it can be/ I'm wild about you, babe/ You ought to be a fool about me."

I used to just pretend to understand, but I really get it now: this man is a genius.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Happy, happy news

Two weeks in, and I am still loving 2007! The latest happy news?

Fountains of Wayne has a new album scheduled to be released April 3. (Ignore the incorrect release date in the article.) It's called Traffic and Weather, and since I know that Fountains of Wayne can do no wrong, I can already tell you it's awesome, even though I haven't heard it yet.

Let the countdown to April 3 begin.

To bide your time while you wait, pick up a copy of Out of State Plates, a double-disc collections of B-sides, imports and novelty songs. Highlights include the rollicking "Maureen," the surprisingly sweet "I Know You Well" and the cover of Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Your Brain on Music

Remember a few weeks ago when I mentioned that I was reading a fascinating book called This Is Your Brain on Music? Well, I'm finished now and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Former band member and then record producer Daniel Levitin got curious about the physical and psychological processes underlying our appreciation of music. To answer his many questions, he got a Ph.D. in cognitive psych with an emphasis on auditory and music processing, then distilled everything he learned into a mostly readable full-length book that goes deep into the research and yet remains accessible to the layman.

Now a recent Amazon.com podcast and collaboration interviews Levitin about the book and gets some book and cd recommendations from him. Definitely worth checking out.

A few of the interesting facts you'll learn from Levitin's book include:
* Americans spend more money on music than on sex and prescription drugs. - page 7
* The Catholic Church once banned music that contained polyphony (more than one musical part playing at a time), fearing that it would cause people to doubt the unity of God. - page 13
* A lot of what we think of as “the Eighties sound” in popular music owes its distinctiveness to the particular sound of FM synthesis (introduced in 1983.) - page 48
* In [the Beatles'] “Yesterday”, the main melodic phrase is seven measures long; the Beatles again surprise us by violating one of the most basic assumption of popular music, the four- or eight-measure phrase unit. - page 110

The book is full of these interesting tidbits. And more than any other book, this one screams for a soundtrack of its own. Levitin mentions several songs more than once to illustrate several points, and while I was reading, I definitely wished I had made a mix of these songs. So for your benefit, I have made a list of almost all of the songs Levitin mentions - with *s noting songs that are mentioned frequently. Do yourself a favor: make the mix before you read. You'll get a lot more out of the book.

"For No One" by the Beatles *
"Honky Tonk Women" by the Rolling Stones
"Maria" from West Side Story
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
"Light My Fire" by the Doors
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony *
"Chinese Dance" from the Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky
"Straight Up" by Paula Abdul *
"Every Breath You Take" by the Police
"Back in Black" by AC/DC *
"Hotel California" by the Eagles
"Walk This Way" by Aerosmith
"Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley
"That'll Be the Day" by Buddy Holly
"We Will Rock You" by Queen
"Stars and Stripes Forever" by J.P. Sousa
"My Favorite Things" from the Sound of Music
The theme from Mission:Impossible by Lalo Schifrin
"Take 5" by Dave Brubeck
"Solsbury Hill" by Peter Gabriel
The Surprise Symphony by Haydn *
"One of These Nights" by the Eagles
Fantasy Impromptu, op. 66 by Chopin
"Yesterday" by the Beatles *
"I Want You (She's So Heavy)" by the Beatles
"Lookin' Out My Back Door" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Spirits in the Material World" by the Police
"Ode to Joy" by Beethoven
"U Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer
"New Year's Day" by U2
"Time and Tide" by Basia
"Opposites Attract" by Paula Abdul
"Like a Virgin" by Madonna
"New York State of Mind" by Billy Joel
"Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen
"Be Bop-a-Lula" by Gene Vincent
"Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley
"Instant Karma" by John Lennon
"Wake Up Little Susie" by the Everly Brothers
"Twist and Shout" by the Isley Brothers
"Here, There, and Everywhere" by the Beatles
"Don't Fear the Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult
"Something Stupid" by Frank and Nancy Sinatra
"Cheek to Cheek" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"Hello Trouble (Come On In)" by Buck Owens
"Can't You Hear Me Callin'" by Ricky Scaggs
"YMCA" by the Village People
"I Love the Nightlife" by Alician Bridges
"The Hustle" by Van McCoy
"Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix
"Golden Lady" by Stevie Wonder
"Hypnotized" by Fleetwood Mac
"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" by Mozart
"Stayin' Alive" by the Beegees
"Shout" by the Isley Brothers
"Super Freak" by Rick James
"Sledgehammer" by Peter Gabriel
"I'm on Fire" by Bruce Springsteen
"Superstition" by Stevie Wonder *
"Ohio" by the Pretenders
"Billie Jean" by Michael Jackson
"Straight Up" by Paula Abdul
Frank Sinatra, anything from Songs for Swingin' Lovers
"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin *
"Chelsea Morning" by Joni Mitchell
"Refuge of the Roads" by Joni Mitchell
"Sweet Bird" by Joni Mitchell
"The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin
"One After 909" by the Beatles
The Pathetique Sonata by Beethoven
Mahler's Fifth Symphony *
"Blue Moon" by Frank Sinatra
"Back in Your Arms" by Bruce Springsteen
"Lilies of the Valley" by David Byrne
Ravel's Bolero *
"Koko" by Charlie Parker
"Crossroads" by Cream *
"Sweet Sixteen" by B.B. King
"I Hear You Knockin'" by Screamin' Jay Edwards
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
"Rock and Roll Music" by Chuck Berry
"Kansas City" by Wilbert Marrison
"Rock and Roll" by Led Zeppelin
"Jet Airliner" by the Steve Miller Band
"Get Back" by the Beatles
"I've Got Rhythm" by Gershwin
"Sister Golden Hair" by America
"The Thrill Is Gone" by B.B. King

Bonus: You'll notice if you click on Levitin's cd recs above that one of his top 10 cds is Aimee Mann's Whatever, an album whose virtues I have sung recently on this blog.

Update: An e-mail to Levitin elicited a thoughtful response in which he mentioned that the book's Web site features clips of many of the songs mentioned. (Click on "Interactive Features" and then "Listen to music samples.") While there, also check out the "Media Archive" section for lots more interviews with Levitin.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Travelin' back to Motown

I borrowed my dad's latest Netflix choice, Standing In the Shadows of Motown, about the amazing but underappreciated studio musicians that played on almost every Motown hit over the 14-year course of the label. All told, they played on more number one hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys combined. But who's ever heard of James Jameson or Joe Hunter? This 2002 documentary aims to rectify that oversight.

The amazing and amusing stories told by these guys are punctuated by live performances of the old Motown classics with new voices on lead vocals. Guest stars include Gerald Levert, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Meshell N'degocello and the surprisingly impressive Joan Osborne.

To be honest, I've never thought much of Joan Osborne before this, but her vocals on these songs are powerful, honest, intuitive and at times inspired. By contrast, Ben Harper looks uncomfortable covering these iconic songs, rushing the tempo and relying too heavily on vocal affectation rather than raw emotion. Which is not a knock on Ben Harper - it's just to illustrate that this is harder than it looks. And Joan Osborne makes it look effortless. It just goes to show that sometimes you have dig deeper than an artist's studio albums to find their true talent.

Update: The soundrack to the documentary is available as well.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

SO excited about this

I am lucky to have lots of friends who have great taste in music. One of them who is probably the most influential in opening my eyes to great music, both old and new, once told me a story about her best friend, who was a huge fan of the band America in high school. She was such a big fan that she wrote them a fan letter, and they were so past their prime and happy to have a high-school-age fan that they actually wrote back!

I'd like to think that experience had some influence on their decision to make an album with some of the hottest young musical talent out there right now. The album, called Here and Now, will be released Jan. 16 (one week from today!) and is produced by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy, who is, in my opinion, one of the greatest pop songwriters/producers alive today. Guest stars on the double-disc set include Ryan Adams and Ben Kweller and the track listing includes some interesting covers, including songs by (another fave of mine) My Morning Jacket and Nada Surf.

Stereogum has posted one of the tracks already, and I love it!

I'm so glad to see a talented band expanding musically and reaching a new audience -
I cannot wait for this release!

Update: To see some behind-the-scenes video of the making of the album, visit the official Web site. How cool to hear that Gerry Beckley is an equally big Adam Schlesinger fan!

Double update: Listen to three tracks from the new album at America's MySpace page!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Relive New Year's Eve with great music

I have loved Scissor Sisters since I first heard "Take Your Mama" on a radio show highlighting new and independent music in 2003. I love them even more now with "I Don't Feel Like Dancing." (Thank goodness for MySpace music.)

Now, thanks to MSN, you can watch video of several songs from their live New Year's Eve performance in Berlin here.

Happy 2007! I'm lovin' it so far.