Thursday, February 28, 2008

Buddy Miles; Tracing R&B History

Buddy Miles's death was reported today in the NY Times and with him an important part of R&B history is closed for good. To trace Buddy's career is almost like tracing the history of R&B. Like all great R&B performers of the sixties and seventies, Miles had a solid foundation that was steeped in Doo Wop. Miles built his skill backing numerous acts on the chitlin circuit and in the studio, on vocals. Something often overlooked. Miles is mentioned in various biographies as the one who lend his pipes to the likes of the Inkspots and the Delfonics. Sweet harmonizing groups, where the instrumentation was an after thought. In Doo Wop the singers were both bass, drums, percussion and melody. Later in his career Miles would become best known for his drumming of course. But I think his harmonic schooling that laid the foundation for his entire career. While touring with the Wislon Picket revue, Buddy was discovered by Mike Bloomfield, who included him in his Electric Flag. A rather odd outfit playing Big Band Blues with a pinch of Jazz and Fusion. After recording a sound track for a psychedelic film, "The Trip" and one decent album "Long Time Comin'" the band quickly fell apart. Buddy picked up after that by forming the Buddy Miles Express which had its first album produced by one Jimi Hendrix.

Most people will know Buddy best for his work with Jimi Hendrix. The pair had met on the chitlin circuit years before Hendrix started his successful career with the Experience from England. Their best known work together is the stellar live album "Band Of Gypsys" recorded on New Year's eve 1969 at the Filmore. By that time the Experience was falling apart and Hendrix started using Miles on some key tracks for his "First Rays Of The New Rising Sun" project. The inclusion of Miles in the band has been subject to a lot of speculation. From the black community Hendrix was as much criticized as he was influential. Hendrix made his mark on Funk through his influence on Eddie Hazel and Ernie Isley but was often seen as too white because of his association to the Experience and his popularity amongst mostly white audiences. Especially in the quickly radicalizing atmosphere after Martin Luther King's death. Some have seen the inclusion of Buddy Miles in his Band of Gypsys as a move to broaden his audience by showing color. This is however much debatable. Author's on Hendrix often point out that he refused to align himself along racial lines and if he did he was prone to stress his native American heritage. Funnily enough Buddy's studio work with Hendrix wasn't even all that funky. The most notable recordings were the loose rockers, "Room Full Of Mirrors" and "Ezy Rider". Mitch Mitchell was still on drums on the decidedly more funky tracks like "Dolly Dagger".

Though Buddy's work with Hendrix and his own work with the Buddy Miles express was moving away from traditional R&B to something that was closer to Rock or Fusion, there has always been that undeniable Doo Wop influence. Unlike many Fusion artists Miles never lost his sense of harmony, of coherence. Even though his work was marked by a remarkable creative freedom, with alternating success, Miles understood the importance of melody. Where other Fusion drummers would sometimes loose themselves in rhythmic masturbation, Miles always kept his eye on the tune. Buddy pushed and stretched the principles he was taught while performing with the Delfonics but he never really abandoned them. Miles was at the same time a relentless straight forward Funk drummer as he was a free spirit. This might explain his broad appreciation. After his work with Hendrix, Buddy became a much welcomed sparring partner for many musicians ranging from Clapton to Santana, from Umar Bin Hassan (from the Last Poets) to Nils Lofgren. Though Miles was never as prominently visible as Hendrix was he became almost as influential and was an integral part of the history of "black" music, or rather music period. Buddy became 60 years old. He will be missed.

"Room Full Of Mirrors" - Jimi Hendrix
"Them Changes" - Buddy Miles

The Bosscast March; Magic Returns To Hartford

Welcome to the second Bosscast. With the tour starting again today in Hartford we'll celebrate Magic in a themed pod cast dedicated to the roots of Magic. So get your ticket and your suitcase.....

I'd like to ask your attention for one track specifically, "Hobo's Lullaby". The track from the "Give Us Your Poor Album" deserves a further look. It was part of a charity project I feel strongly about. All proceeds from that CD will be going to an organization to help fight poverty in the US. The entire album is worth every dollar you'll spend on it and then some. Check them out at their site and support them how you can.

All live recordings used in this show can be found on the BTX mp3 Index. Thanks again to all the people who made that one possible.

01. Radio Nowhere, Bruce Springsteen from Magic
02. 867-5309 (Jenny), Tommy Tutone from 867-5309/Jenny
03. Rosalita, Bruce Springsteen from 2003-08-31 Giant House Party In Jersey

04. Man On The Moon, Bruce Springsteen & R.E.M. from 2004-10-02 Cleveland Ohio
05. At My Most Beautiful, R.E.M. In Time: The Best of R.E.M. 1988-2003
06. Sloop John B, the Beach Boys from Sounds Of Summer
07. You're Own Worst Enemy, Bruce Springsteen from Magic

08. Hobo's Lullaby, Bruce Springsteen & Pete Seeger from Give US Your Poor
09. Long Walk Home, Bruce Springsteen & The Sessions Band from 2006-11-11 Wembley Session First Night
10. My Home Town, Bruce Springsteen from 2007-09-28 Today Show NBC
11. Promised Land, Bruce Springsteen from 2007-12-17 Paris

12. People Get Ready, The Impressions from The Definitive Impressions
13. 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Ben E King from One Step Up/Two Steps Back

14. Girls In Their Summer Clothes, Bruce Springsteen from 2007-12-17 Paris

Bosscast feed.

The pod cast unfortunately will not be available through Itunes as I hoped. But with the help of this feed you should be able to get the future installments.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

No Country For Old Men; A Return To Form

After a series of disappointing movies the Coen brothers have finally returned to form with "No Country For Old Men". Recent years had "demoted" the Coen brothers back to the art house under the category interesting directors. Problem was of course that you can start your career that way, but once you established your name it is kind of awkward. "The Man Who Wasn't There" was still an amusing film, but "The Lady Killers" was simply embarrassing for men with the talents of the Coen brothers. After that I might have missed a film or two. But the buzz around their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's book I decided to pay the theater a visit to see if the flick was worth all the hype. I've never really seen what the fuss about Cormac's books is. His last novel "The Road" struck me as filled with one dimensional characters, addressing themes that hadn't been urgent since the Cold War. Granted "No Country For Old Men" was a bit better but McCarthy's books are inhibited by characters of who's motivations remain unclear. His novels always seem a bit too close to black and white notions of good and evil to me. I enjoy the sparsity of McCarthy's writing and his ability to set the seen in as little as possible words, but I always found his characters to be lacking a certain amount of depth. McCarthy never was the writer John Fante and Charles Bukowski were, who were able to combine bare bone writing with a strong sense of what moved the characters that inhibited their novels. McCarthy's works are of a different genre than those two of course, but I feel he could pick up a thing or two from those two authors.

But as the Coen brother's recent flick testifies, McCarthy's novels might prove to be excellent movie scripts. Movies work very different from novels. In movies the director has the non-verbal expression he can work with to give the viewer more of a sense of what moves the character. A movie director doesn't need to use words, he can let the images do the talking. Voice overs in films are often very unnecessary things that are best used very sparsely. The Coen brothers do just that. Although the movie opens with a voice over from sheriff Tommy Lee Jones reflecting on the times his father and grand father held office, simpler times when they didn't need to carry guns. Neither does Jones for the major part of the movie, that is until he ventures into the city. Tommy Lee Jones resorting to his gun seems a key moment in the film. The whole movie seems to radiate a world in which innocence and simplicity is lost. Something that seems to be a main theme in McCarthy's book. His view on the world strikes me as very bleak, a sense masterfully translated to the big screen by the Coens. McCarthy's books generally seem to portray the world coming to an end, portray that we've lost our moral, they're apocalyptic even if the scenery isn't. McCarthy seems to rehash this theme every novel, which basically isn't more than a cynical form of nostalgia. The Coen brother use their trademark dark humor to take the edge of that message. Throwing you of balance all the while. There is something very uncomfortable about finding yourself bursting out in laughter during scenes of extreme violence, you almost feel like an accomplice.

For a thriller "No Country" follows a slow and dragging pace in which the outbursts of extreme violence achieve maximum impact. Other than most high action thrillers that Hollywood churns out these days, "No Country" excels in restraint. You won't find fast action car chases or major shoot outs in this movie. Yet the film keeps you on the edge of your seat. "No County" is filled with unexpected twists in plot. Those changes are often so brutal that the film manages to evoke a level of suspense I haven't seen in movies for a long time. The plot seems a cliché at first. A Vietnam veteran (Josh Brolin) finds 2 million dollars in drugs money in the desert and tries to get away with it. Of course the hardened drugs criminals won't let him and chase him, leaving a trail of blood. Nothing new here. Yet where in McCarthy's novels the one dimensionality of his characters seem to work against him, they become the films major strength. Javier Bardem plays the sociopath chasing Brolin. He manages to radiate such an evil and threat that he becomes uneasy to watch, exactly the kind of feeling you want from a thriller. The scene in which Bardem forces a gas station manager to call heads or tails for his life should not have worked, as it seems something from a cheap B movie. But the casting, acting and cinematography work together so well that you find yourself wanting to look away. The looming evil is so thick and present through out the movie that the almost idyllic closing scene comes as the biggest shock of all.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Drive By Truckers: Not A Pretty Sight

The Drive By Truckers were an integral part of Southern music before even releasing their first album. Patterson Hood, one of the Trucker's founding members is the son of base player David Hood from Muscle Shoals fame. As such his father was present on many of Southern Soul's most shining moments recorded at the Fame studios. Patterson continued that family tradition by backing and producing Soul diva Bettye LaVette on her last album, "The Scene Of The Crime". Spooner Oldham, also from Muscle Shoals fame, was asked to play keyboards on that project and a few others sat in. At first glance the whole project seemed a little odd. The Drive By Truckers themselves were better known for their Lynyrd Skynyrd type southern Rock, never really an act quickly associated with Southern Soul. But from an historic perspective the project made perfect sense. Southern Soul like Southern Rock is deeply seeped in Country. Down South Soul and Country would often be bouncing of each other and session players would as easily be found on a Aretha Franklin album as they would be on a Linda Ronstadt recording. Singers would take a song from one genre and record it in the other. All great Southern Soul artists have been known to record Country songs and visa verse. Even though the South was a highly segregated society, ironically the music scene was one of the most integrated their ever was. So of course the Truckers were cut and tailored for the Bettye Sessions.

On their new album "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" Spooner Oldham is present again. Although Spooner Oldham is best known for his work on classic Soul records from Arteha Franklin and Percy Sledge or his writing with Dan Penn on songs as "I'm Your Puppet" and "Sweet Inspiration", he sounds like a fish in the water on this new Truckers album. No big surprise here as well though. After the Southern Soul scene collapsed when Martin Luther King was assassinated and Stax went bankrupt, Oldham was most commonly found backing the likes of J.J. Cale, Bob Dylan or Neil Young. Artists to which the Drive By Truckers are more than a little indebted. "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" is again the kind of album you'd wish Neil Young would still make with his Crazy Horse. Crank up the volume on your stereo and you'd swear that's vintage Gray Horse you hear blasting out of your speakers, especially on "That Man I Shot", a gripping portrait of a soldier in Iraq. Though the Truckers are lacking in originality that is not necessarily a bad thing. They're filling a gap left by the great Southern Rockers like Young and Creedence Clearwater Revival or rather stepping into a long tradition. Though R&R has always had this progressive image, much of it proved to be highly conservative. To me acts that try to built on the foundations of other always sounded better than bands that take great strain and pain to be absolutely original. As such the Truckers not only fall into the tradition of mentioned acts but are proving to be as lasting as Pearl Jam, Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams. All acts who rely heavily on R&R's past and solid songwriting.

Surprisingly that is where this album truly excels. Despite the departure of Trucker tune smith Jason Isbell, the band once again manages to present a collection of vivid portraits. The main theme to the album seems to be the struggles of every day people. Each new lyric transports you to a new life. Its almost like your passing from town to town. The theme the Truckers picked on this album has already led reviewers to compare them to the likes of Bruce Springsteen. No mean feat and I'm prone to agree. The songwriting on "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" has those same cinematic qualities Springsteen's best work possesses. The main difference between Springsteen and the Truckers seems to be that the first cannot help but instill his work with some hope and grandeur. In contrast the songs on this album are bleak confronting tales of people trying to on by a thread or who have already given up. The Truckers seem to have little illusions on what life has to offer for some folks. The song here are filled with alcohol and drugs abuse, gambling addiction, prison and poverty. To the people in these songs the American Dream proved to be an empty promise. "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" is borderline nihilistic at times. Though that will soon make you a critics darling, I doubt that it will bring the Drive By Truckers major commercial success any time soon. For that the Truckers miss the optimism that seemed trademark to Southern Soul. And although their song writing is highly emphatic the Truckers also seem to lack the fragility and tenderness that gave Neil Young and Willie Nelson their careers. The sparks of hope are there. In "Perfect Timing" the protagonist cheerfully exclaims "I used to hate the fool in me, but now I tolerate him all day long". But the albums darkness is mostly balanced out by the occasional wryly comical observations like "Bob" who's got more dogs than friends. Those moments are sparse and few. Good as every individual song may be I must wonder if the album shouldn't have been condensed into 45 minutes to be more effective. As it is now one needs to be able stomach 75 minutes of American drama. The Truckers hold a mirror to America's face and it isn't a very pretty sight.

"That Man I Shot"


The Springsteen comparison doesn't seem all that odd after all. Someone was kind enough to direct me to Patterson covering the Boss on yet another fine blog.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Here My Dear; Divorce Devine

Marvin Gaye's last great album turn 30 this year an Universal celebrates with a two disc expanded edition. The story of "Here My Dear" is probably one of the most fascinating ones in the history of Soul. As is well know Marvin married into the Motown family when he tied the knot with Berry Gordy's sister Anna. When that marriage turned sour and the couple filed for divorce they settled out of court. Instead of Marvin paying Anna the sum of a million dollars he'd pay her the advance for his next album and the royalties that the album would reap. Gaye had little choice, he was broke. He snorted a fortune in coke and the IRS was after him. What Gaye intended to be a trite Pop album became his last masterpiece.

Anna was Gaye's muse though out his career. It was with Anna in mind that Gaye wrote Pop Soul gems as "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow" or "Pride And Joy". When Gaye sang them he simply closed his eyes and thought of Anna to get the feeling across. It was Anna that made his songs come to life, that gave them a heart and soul. Put like that their romance sounds idyllic, a match made in heaven. But nothing in Gaye's life was ever easy. His childhood was troubled to say the least. His father was a cross dressing abusive preacher who scarred Marvin for life. His mother he placed on a pedestal, she was his Madonna. In the excellent David Ritz book "Divided Soul" Marvin basically confessed that he married his mother when he gave Gordy, 17 years his senior, his vows. Marvin was in his twenties at the time, coming to terms with both success and the failures of his youth, looking for a consoling mother figure. Though Marvin masked his uncertainties with his suave Casanova crooner image he suffered from terribly insecurities. Anna was his comfort, his ego boost. Gaye needed her to dominate her as much as he resented that. The relationship was uneven from the get go, destined to fail.

The catalyst for the separation would be the 16 year old Janis Hunter ironically as old as the age difference between the two. Gaye first laid eyes on her while recording "Let's Get It On". He would later claim that it was this sweet sixteen that enabled him to sing the silky balled "If I Should Die Tonight" like he meant it. Janis would become his obsession. Though she may have been the catalyst the seeds for the divorce from Gordy were sown far before that, maybe on the onset of their relationship even. The closing piece on Marvin's second masterpiece was the biting "Just To Keep You Satisfied". Interestingly enough co-written with Anna. It was as if the couple was telling each other their relationship was bound to crash years before it actually did. The songs was filled with vicious indictments, a testimony of a relationship that was suffocating instead of liberating. Theirs was an ambivalent relationship at best. The song was one of Marvin's greatest artistically triumphs. After that his career would gradually slide into a slump. Although often a heralded album "I Want You" was a mere shade of the brilliance that was "Let's Get It On". Though not without its own merits, the near pornographic and coke infested suite never even nearly scratches the divinity of its predecessor.

It was never Gaye's intention to break that slump with "Here My Dear", but Anne proved his muse for better or for worse. As Gaye confessed to Ritz the record became his deep passion, it became an obsession, one of his many. The couple hadn't spared each other in court, their divorce had turned into the mud fight of the ugliest kind. At one point Anna even denied Marvin access to his children. That's how sour their union had turned. Neither could seem to stop that train and resolve things in a civil matter. "I knew I'd explode if I didn't get all that junk out of me" Gaye later confessed to Ritz. Allegedly Gaye went into the studio unprepared and had the engineer simply open up the microphones, the words and melodies simply came oozing out of him, exorcizing all the anger and frustration surrounding the divorce. The result would be an ego document covering two LPs. "Here My Dear" is Marvin Gaye at his most loose and honest. He literally opens his Soul by letting the songs chronicle the divorce. The unstructured nature of the recording sessions allowed "Here My Dear" to be the ultimate Soul confession going beyond the natural emotional exhibitionism that's trademark to the genre.

Given the loose nature of the sessions it is remarkable that the album is as cohesive as it finally became. Over four sides the album takes the listener on a journey through the relationship of Marvin and Gordy and their eventual demise. Marvin makes it clear on the opening track the album is his confession to Anna, giving the record a voyeuristic edge. Smooth as the arrangements may be at times the album gives that uncomfortable feeling you get when you're watching a couple fight at a dinner party. Through out "Here My Dear" Marvin delivers vicious stabs to Anna, accusing her of taking his money and children, while screaming out the next moment to his Anna in desperation, like the scared little boy she married. The album's centerpiece "When Did You Stop Loving, When Did I Stop Loving You" comes back three times, its that tormenting question that Gaye uses to express his anger, frustration, desperation. It's the track by which he tries to remember the good times they must have had and tries to pin point the moment where things started to turn sour. As a listener you're dragged from pure venom to almost absolute devotion and every emotion in between. Anybody who's ever gone through a painful separation will find some common ground on "Here My Dear". Maybe it is the confrontational nature which caused the critics and audience to shun the album, maybe its theme was simply too uncomfortable for a quick embrace, because on its release reviews and sales were disappointing to put it mildly. It nowhere near got Anna the money she had hoped for. Yet over the years this slow burner has reaped recognition slowly but steadily. So much it even wound up on the Rollingstone top 500 albums of all time. The tragedy of Gaye and Gordy would ultimately prove to be one of his greatest artistic triumphs, not to be missed in any record collection.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Fidel Castro; Hasta La Victoria Siempre?

I'm not about to make this blog political in any sense, but when it comes to the news of Fidel Castro resigning I just have to respond. The revolution of Cuba and the subsequent isolation of the island has been much better documented by the papers and the historians over the years. There's nothing that a simple blogger like me could possibly add. Yet Castro is one of those political and historical figures that fascinates me immensely. There's no doubt that Cuba is a dictatorship, that Castro takes human rights and freedom of press lightly. One visit to Amnesty's Internet site tells you enough and one must wonder if the argument that Batista's reign (the dictator Castro toppled) was worse still stands ground. But it is undeniable that Castro has an enormous amount of charisma. So much in fact that the left intellectuals of the West were so much infatuated with him that they failed to see his flaws. And maybe sometimes still do. Not to long ago Michael Moore took Cuba as an example for America's failings. Even though Cuba's health care system is impressive, especially for Caribbean standards, trying to make Cuba as a standard was an odd choice to say the least. Maybe Moore intended it as a means to instill shame in American leaders, I don't know. Maybe Moore just fell for Fidel the Rock star as well. Because if Fidel Castro is one thing its just that.

R&R in a sense is the little man rebelling, the average Joe getting himself heard. Amidst American dominance their was that little island that defied them, led by a staunch cigar smoking militant with an almost character defining beard. Castro is an iconic image paralleled by the likes of those other great images of the sixties such Martin Luther King, Kennedy and Bob Dylan. That is not to say that Castro is cut from quite the same kind of wood, but he is one of those people who's image transcend his person. Castro's image is more than that dictator he is on Cuba. He's that image of David and Goliath in his defiance of the US. Together with Che, Castro's image is the patron saint of any revolutionary. The image of Castro is the promise that a people can stand up to its dictators and overcome. The ideal image of Castro is bigger than life, better than the revolution ever was. In truth Castro is a textbook case of broken promises, yet he radiates the opposite.

I traveled Cuba some five years back and tried to make some effort to get a sense of the people there. Quite easy since I was traveling alone, something that's impossible in Cuba. At every opportunity the locals tried to catch my attention despite the fact that mingling with the tourists is forbidden for the locals. Every body seemed to have something to sell. For a communist country the level of entrepreneurship I encountered was striking. Everything seemed for sale, from coffee to cigars, from guided tours to women. You name it and it is offered on the streets of Cuba. Though every Cuban has a home, there are no shanty towns, food on the table and clothes on their back, it struck me that a society where the main income for women seemed to be prostitution is sick to the core. Everywhere you turned you seemed to see bloated aging Americans with stunningly beautiful young women on their arms, oblivious to the struggles of the country. Yet I must admit that it was hard not to be tempted when at every bar two or three beautiful women were trying to get your attention. Some were just hustling for drinks, others were offering more. I went for the first option since it was a pleasant way to get to know more of that thrilling and exciting country.

What struck me in my conversations with local Cubans was how well loved Castro was with the elderly. They remembered Batista's iron reign and the poverty that came with it. The young people of Cuba were a lot more impatient with the bread, as they would call him in contempt. The younger generation was eager to get their hands on some of those luxuries that trickled in from the Cubans in exile or were available in the dollar stores. Cuba has a very dual economy where tourists pay with dollars and locals in pesos. It seems a national sport for Cubans to hustle as many dollars as they can from tourists in order to get some hip new Adidas shoes from the dollar stores. This doesn't necessarily mean that the young generation is dying to become part of the capitalist world. Their attitude towards the US struck me as very ambivalent. Though they glamored for Mickey D's and designer clothes, they seemed very much aware of the downside. Even the staunched opposer of Castro ventilated their concern about what would happen if he would ever die. A capitalist society didn't seem to be on anyone's wish list. Flawed as the revolution may be in the eyes of the younger generations even they had some admiration for the beard. Castro starting the revolution from that tiny boat the Granma proved to be the kind of legendary imagery that speaks to anyone's imagination.

The landscape of Castro's revolution is scattered with broken down Buicks and Cadillacs, left over from the fifties, still functioning as taxis. The buildings in the cities are collapsing, the bars in desperate need for some fresh paints. Hotel air conditioning is an unheard of luxury. Coffee and sugar out of reach of many of the Cubans. Gas stations all seem to be without gas and farmer markets only offer what's fresh of the land that day. Maybe the revolution and Castro's accomplishments are captured best in a joke I was told by an old man on a bench while we were sipping rum. After a day of fishing a husband returns to his wife, beaming with pride. He just caught a fish big enough to feed the entire family. Much to his surprise his wife looks to him with a sadness in her eyes. "What's wrong my love" he asks, "aren't you glad I caught you this big fish". The woman shakes her head and confesses she'd love to prepare him the fish but she doesn't know how. The hard economic times have left the stove without gas and her without matches to make a wood fire, there's no oil to bake the fish nor means to boil the water to cook it. Frustrated the man sets the fish back into the sea. Before swimming off the fish turns and shouts "Viva La Revolution". Of course that joke cost me a dollar.

Castro's resignation in the NY times and articles from the archives.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The King Of Pop; Surviving On Nostalgia

Let's forget for a moment his nose is falling off, pretend there were never any pedophilia cases, no Never Land, no dangling babies of a balcony. Let's forget all that for one moment. Let's forget I do not even have to mention his name and people will know who I'm talking about just from those examples. Let's forget all that and go back 25 years. Mention "Thriller", "Billy Jean" or "Beat It" to anyone and they're just as likely to know you're talking about the King of Pop. 25 years ago Michael Jackson earned that title with the ground breaking album "Thriller". Strange and shocking as his reported personal live may be, I feel that an artist is best judged by the merit of his music. With the re-release of that land mark album that really is the question at hand. Flip open any paper or magazine recently and you'd think we're back in the time of Jackson mania. A time where "Thriller" sold a hundred million plus records. Figures that still make other super stars from the eighties like Prince, Madonna and George Michael look like dwarfs. Jackson outsold them all with the album that spawned 7 top ten singles. Still "Thriller" proved a mill stone around Jackson's neck. Where the others mentioned went on to have lasting and satisfying careers, the King of Pop could only (and did) go down hill. No Jackson album after that quite satisfied as much while his private life started to overshadow his art increasingly. Google Michael Jackson these days and you'll find nothing but picture intent on ridicule and a seemingly undying fascination with the King falling from his throne.

Question at here is though, was "Thriller" all that good, or was it a product of its hype or rather hysteria. When the album hit the market I was in primary school. Like all my class mates we were in thrall of Jackson. There was a time when almost every kid's room was plastered with posters with his diamond gloved image. "Thriller" is the textbook case of mass media's influence on public taste. Michael wasn't to be escaped. You know what they say, "If you can't beat them, join them". That mechanism seems a large part of his success looking back on the phenomenon now. But tempting as it is to break the album down, to discard it as a piece of Pop fluff doesn't quite cover it. Maybe its nostalgia but listening to "Thriller" now, I'm surprised how much of its freshness it has sustained. The sound of the album is undeniably eighties, but that really isn't much of a sin if you ask me. Even the Beatles sound locked in the sixties listening to them now. That has never stopped people from thinking their shit is chocolate. Even today there are simply moments where you can't deny the album's Pop brilliance. Drop the needle and the album opens with the contagiously funky "Wanna Be Starting Something". Though stripped from any grease and nastiness, you can't have but move to its infectious beat. "Billy Jean" and "Beat It" still achieve similar reactions as well. Tracks like that are simply brilliantly produced Pop, no denying as much as you might want to. Their influence on the current day music scene cannot be underestimated. For good or for bad, it was Jackson that launched the teen star think. Artists like Justin Timberlake owe their careers to the man.

But I am afraid that the brilliance of "Thriller" stops there. Listening to the title track today and I can't help but feel that it's hockey. Worse even is the teeth shattering sugar cane sweetness of "The Girl Is Mine" with Paul McCartney. Those tracks simply haven't outlived the hysteria. With the dust settled down some 25 years on there simply isn't a whole lot there. Though Jackson didn't over emphasize his trade mark "Shamoan!" and "Hi Hi!!" yet and though he hadn't yet locked his voice entirely into kindergarten mode, the emotional subtext is missing to many of the songs and they don't really sound as inventive now as they did then. Simply kind of bland really. Which basically is the problem with the entire album. Go beyond the sugar cane coating, the record falls apart. Jackson writes a good Pop song, sure, but he hardly ever wrote a good song. His material simply lacked the depth of albums that might have sold less in their time but seem to last longer now. If it hadn't been for the 25 years marker, there isn't much in the songs to merit its re-release. Ironically one of the album's "lesser" hits hold up best. "P.Y.T" is still the same infectious and playful Pop song as it ever was. But I'm afraid that at the end of the day "Thriller" survives mostly on our sense of nostalgia.

The original NY Times review

Monday, February 11, 2008

Searching For The Snake

Year ago I owned a cassette which featured a song called "The Snake". It was one of those compilations somebody gave me with all kinds of obscure nuggets. When I moved about 5 years ago I chucked all my cassettes out in an ill conceived cleaning mood. My tape deck had broken down and cassettes were slipping into obscurity. Mp3 downloading and CD burning were taking over. Call me sentimental, but looking back on it now I miss tapes. But even more so I miss taping. There was a time when nothing was better than crawl back into your stereo corner with a 90 minute cassette, a bottle of wine and stacks of singles to create the ultimate compilation tape. Making a tape was hard work. It wasn't the five minute process that creating a CD is. No mouse clicks and dragging to make your work easy. Avoiding sound gaps when working with vinyl is not easy, let me tell you. The sequencing on a tape needed to tell a story as much as the individual songs on the tape. That story varied with whom you intended the tape for. Tapes could be your ultimate sunny day collection, it could be a musical biography to your favorite artist to convince a buddy he had to hear this!!! It could be the necessary lubricant in wooing a special lady as well of course. Tapes were labors of love with sometimes as much work going into the label as the taping as well. Armed with a flash light to see how much space there was left on the tape, cassettes were built brick by brick. At one point I got to be so trained that I could tell by the space left on the tape if it would fit a 2.30 or a 2.40 minute song at the end. The most frustrating moment of course was when the play back revealed that the carefully laid bricks made the house collapse. But just as many times though it would be something you would wear down in your Walkman till it got stuck in the wheels. So what ever prompted me to chuck the tape with "The Snake" is still beyond me.

Today I was in my favorite record store in Amsterdam. Backbeat, one of those thrilling dark and dusty places. Backbeat is run by Dick. The kind of guy who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Soul and played bass with Arthur Conley no less. Here I finally picked up a copy of "The Snake" again. This time I struck the Jack Pot. Two years back I found a CD by Oscar Brown Jr. which also featured "The Snake". One of those finds that make your heart skip a beat. Once home I had to fight a rather silly sense of disappointments when I found out that this wasn't "The Snake" that I had on that tape I had so foolishly thrown out. But here on this fine new Kent release there it was. Not Oscar Brown but Al Wilson was "The Snake" I was looking for. That the rest of the album is simply brilliant as well is just a bonus to boot. Apparently "The Snake" that slithered away from my life came from Al Wilson's album "Searching For The Dolphins". At first listen you'd think its just yet another fine Southern Soul album featuring one of the finest versions of "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" I've ever heard. But step by step, groove by groove, note for note, this albums opens up its secrets to you. Al Wilson's brilliant album (yes truly brilliant) is where Percy Sledge and Frank Sinatra meet. Wilson has a meticulous delivery that nears Frank's perfect sense of timing, his voice has a rare flexibility to adapt itself to the material yet it maintains a certain grit. At times "Searching For The Dolphins" is as reminiscent of the Four Tops as it is of the Byrds. The Sergeant Pepper Beatles, the great country singers and crooners of the fifties all seem to clash here with that Southern Soul sound. Instead of the album falling apart into an incoherent mess it all blends together to something that instantly sounds like it should have been one of the great classic albums. In a better world "Searching For The Dolphins" would have been the kind of album that would reappear in every subsequent Rolling Stone Top 500, somewhere in the highest regions. Yes folks it is that good. But that is all just a bonus to finding "The Snake".

"The Snake"
"Poor Side Of Town"

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Juno; The Way Comedies Should Be Done

"Juno" should be the textbook case on how comedies should be done. The film is nothing like your typical American comedy. Somehow comedies from Hollywood seems to get made in either a ridiculous "Dumb and Dumber" style slapstick mode or turn out to be overly sentimental pieces of drivel like "You've Got Mail". What is it in Hollywood that keeps assaulting the intelligence of their audience by making films about two guys pretending to be gay in order to get a green card or trying to awe us with little pigtailed blond girls who help their single dad trying to figure out which one of his three hot dates he's supposed to marry. Part is of course audiences who'll gladly pay to get their intelligence insulted, but there also seems to be an unwillingness to take risks with less "glamorous" scripts. "Juno" is one of those few rare occasions where one of those risks slips through the cracks. What ordinarily would have been an art house film was rather heavily promoted, at least over here, and wound up in those large multi screen movie theaters in front of pop corn chomping and soda slurping audiences. The main strength of "Juno" is the every day sense of the script. In short the film is about a sixteen year old girl who decides she likes Bleeker, a dorky kid from school she somehow finds very cool. Juno makes love to Bleeker in an old scruffy chair, becomes pregnant and tries to find a way to deal with it by giving it up to adoption. Though a premise like this could have been turned into another pie in the face teen comedy, Juno remains a remarkable sober piece of comedy. Al the more remarkable considering director Jason Reitman is the son of "Twins" and Kindergarten Cop" director Ivan Reitman. After debuting with the sarcastic "Thank You For Not Smoking" Jason manages to steer "Juno" in to movie gem haven.

Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody apparently realize something very important about comedy. Namely that "everyday" tragedies or events can be funny enough. Humor feeds on the power of recognition. It is often our own stupidity that makes us laugh, no matter how tragic the results of those stupidities. Of course "Juno" deals with a very serious subject matter, the problem of teen pregnancies. But because the film doesn't moralize it allows us to gain some sense of understanding of how these pregnancies come about and laugh heartily at its difficult implications. Humor as a way to deal with life's sometimes harsh realities. Ellen Page plays Juno as a normal teenage girl. A bit of the odd ball in the class. You know the kind, pretty but not in an obvious kind of way. The type of girl that has a hamburger phone in her room because its totally cool and is into Iggy Pop and Patti Smith. Bands people twice her age are even to young for to have seen them in their prime, yet Juno can honestly claim that "you've had to be there to understand what I'm talking about". Her boyfriend Bleeker is played in an evenly common way by Michael Cera. According to Juno he is cool and he doesn't even have to try. Like all teenagers they think they are as adult as they ever going get yet totally clueless how to deal with this "thing of me". Juno is as playful and innocent as you'd expect a kid in kindergarten to be, yet has that distinct teen smartness or rather, a coyness over her. Juno is still completely oblivious to others around her.

It is that coyness that keeps the movie light and breezy, that makes you laugh out loud at matters that have serious implications. In a sense "Juno" reminded me of Ghost World" with the veneer of sarcasm and nihilism removed. "Juno" is having a pretty normal happy youth with all the normal pains of growing up and lives in your average loving yet dysfunctional family. The type of surrounding we all grew up in, if we're lucky. Yet normal as it all is the film has enough tension to keep you focussed. Will Juno keep the baby in the end is one of those thoughts that runs through your mind while watching the movie, will she and Bleeker get together again is another. There's no dramatic conclusion to Juno, even though there is resolve. And that's enough. I suspect a comedy like Juno is not easily recreated, but judging from how well it went over to the pop corn chomping crowd, I hope Hollywood will try a little harder on films like "Juno".

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Science Of Sleep; Gondry's Paper-Mâché Reality

Michel Gondry is probably most well known for the videos he directed and his first full movie, "The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind". A film that showed to the world that Jim Carrey could actually act. Something we'd suspected since "Man On The Moon", but couldn't really be sure of because he played the part of Andy Kaufman. A comedian with the same overblown stylistics as Carrey himself. "Eternal Sunshine" and its unsuspected huge success, artistically and at the box office, made Gondry as hot in movies as he was in music videos where he started his career. Through is own band Oui Oui and his subsequent collaboration with Björk on "Human Behaviour" celebrities of all sorts had been flocking to be touched by his eccentric talent. In the days where videos made an artist Gondry seemed to be able to make old washed up rocker like the Stones seem like hot new product and gave Kyle Minoque a new sense of hipness where there should be none. Although Gondry worked with artists who already had a buzz going because of their talent, he managed to get Beck and The White Stripes over to the video consumer, who were sloughed behind their televisions.

Making movies is a whole different deal than making movies. But Gondry seems to be catching on awfully quick. If he needed help on the first, by the time he got to science of sleep he could do it on its "own". For that film Gondry wrote both the script and directed. The movies theme makes it apparent why there was such a chemistry between "Eternal Sunshine" screen writer Charlie Kaufman and himself. "The Science Of Sleep" explores the same questions and themes Kaufman likes to ponder on. "Science" is a wonderfully acted and shot visualization of how dreams work. Just as in Kaufman's scripts and in dreams, you are constantly wondering when the fantasy stops and reality kicks in. Like Kaufman's scripts it is an exploration of how our minds can sometimes trick us, work against us.

At the outset the script seems a classic boy meets girl movie. Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal)moves back in with his mother after his father died, right across the apartment of beautiful yet deceptively plain looking Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). But the movie soon starts to shift. Stephane has difficulty separating dreams from reality. In his dreams he imagines himself a brilliant inventor, a stellar artist and a TV professor on the matter of dreams. In life Stephane is stuck in a boring job and finds himself unable to connect to the people around him, including Stephanie, but in his dreams he creates entire new worlds which he rules like a king. In Gondry's script Stephane'd dreams bleed into the real world, keeping the viewer off balance and constantly wondering what is real or not. His dreams are crowded with gorgeous stop-animations created from cellophane, paper-mâché, card board boxes and cotton. The problem with Stephane is they don't stay there. His dreams follow him into his day time reality, altering it, animating his surroundings. "Science Of Sleep" does a brilliant job of both making dreams tangible and offering an insight in their functions and dysfunctions. At first Stephane's dreams seem to offer him comfort when he is able to talk with his deceased father through them, they seem to lift up his spirits when they threaten to get crushed in his dull nine to five job making equally dull calenders and they give him the sense of self confidence he needs to ask Stephanie out. But a little while further in the film you are wondering if his wild fantasies and his lush dream world aren't the very thing that keeps him in that dull 9 to 5 job and which ultimately make him fail at making any real connection with the world around him. It seems that Stephane either can't escape its subconscious or doesn't want to. Although the imagery is often bizarre, in a dreamlike state the world seems to make more sense to Stephane even when it slips beyond his own control.

With its $4,5 million at the box office "Science" wasn't nearly as much of an success as eternal sunshine was with its $34 million. Part of that seems to be because no big actors were attached to this project. Bernal and Gainsbourg are fine actors who've reaped plenty of critical acclaim but they don't draw audiences like Kate Winslet or Jim Carry do. On top of that the movie is part French, much to European for the larger American audience. But in some part it is also due to the script. The character of Stephane brings a certain amount on unease with him. It is difficult to watch someone so at odds with himself. And where most movies follow a line upward, with the character finding coming to terms with himself in some fashion, Stephane seems to go in the other direction. His world is slowly disintegrating while he slips into his dream world. The end of the movie is so inconclusive that its impossible to spoil it for you even if I wanted to. Its like Gondry want to invite you into Stephane's dreams when you go home from the theater or turn off your television. The problem is, at the end of the film, you're not sure if you want to. So although the script is very challenging indeed and the result is a feast for the eye, it isn't exactly Hollywood material. Sadly movies like these are costly endeavors. If Gondry has the ambition to do more on the big screen one should hope that his next film hits big. You're only as big as your last they say, especially in Hollywood. "Science" could earn Gondry the reputation of a flunk director. So here's hoping he has a bit more sense of reality than Stephane. I for one would love to see more of Gondry on the big screen, something I fear won't happen when this wildly original director gets stuck in his own dreams.

Platters That Matter: Have Love Will Travel

Richard Berry made his fortune with his sole hit record "Louie, Louie". Not the most sophisticated piece of music ever written but somehow it became R&R's anthem, maybe because of its simplicity. I don't think a song was ever covered as much as that three chord monster. Almost to this day playing "Louie, Louie" stands for the exam an aspiring Rock and Roller needs to pass. My favorite Berry song though is "Have Love Will Travel" performed by him and his pharaous. Though it never became as big as "Louie, Louie" the song is another testimony that R&R doesn't always need to be complicated to be effective. R&R doesn't always need to be intelligent, nor does it need to have that many layers. Part of the beauty of R&R is that just about anybody can tap into it.

The great paradox of "Have Love Will Travel" is that despite its seemingly inane content its a delightful piece of musical sophistication. It opens with the bass of the song, a voice simply going "Bow Pop Pop Bow" through out the song, over a dragging shuffle beat. Nothing complex here. But if it hadn't been so perfectly timed it would never have been a song that would have gained such an lasting attraction. Though not nearly as much "Louie, Louie", this gem had the knack of surfacing from time to time over the years. Mostly performed by artists with a strong sense of R&R history or looking for material that matches their limited three chord capacities. "Have Love Will Travel" tends to be recorded by R&R buffs who know that Berry was the uncredited lead singer of "Riot in Cell Block #9" from the Robins or who know that the song was inspired by the Western series "Have Gun Will Travel". Those who know he started out in Doo Wop group the Flairs. Still these are artists and bands of a wide variety from the Sonics to Bruce Springsteen, from Tom Petty ( who reworked the song) to the Black Keys and not forgetting Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd of course who briefly gave the song a second life in their Blues Brothers project. The artists who reworked "Have Love Will Travel" were sometimes overly familiar, other times wildly obscure themselves, does anybody remember the Olympic Sideburns or failed Turkmenistan glam-rockers Crazyhead?

Even though compilations with obscure Berry material will from time to time appear on the market, "Louie, Louie" and "Have Love Will Travel" will always be his only songs that matter. Both have become such a part of the R&R conscious that Berry himself is nearly inconsequential. Although he wrote the songs, he doesn't own them. They are songs that nobody really owns. These two Richard Berry classics are testimonies of R&R's democratic powers. Write a R&R song and you risk it being taken away from you, risk it becoming bigger than you, adopted as anthems or soundtracks to a life. R&R has a universal appeal. "Have Love Will Travel" even crossed the mighty oceans and ended up in Moscow (for now) in the hand of the delirious Cave Stompers. Not bad for something that lasts three minutes and takes as many chords.

"Have Love Will Travel" - Richard Berry
"Have Love Will Travel" - The Sonics

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Bruce Springsteen Bosscast, Februari 2008; R&R Shoes

The Bruce Springsteen Bosscast Februari

Welcome to the first Bosscast brought to you through the Soul Shack. In a series of what I hope to be monthly broadcasts I will be exploring the music of New Jersey's native son. I'm starting this series with an exploration of the Boss and R&R. Every single original track was once played by Bruce Springsteen live or features him in some part.

If there's any song you like to hear on the podcast, or a theme you'd like to see tackled you can contact me through

Live recordings used in this show should all be available through the BTX MP3 Index.

01. Wear My Ring (Around Your Neck), Bruce Springsteen, Hammersmith Odeon 1975-11-24
02. Follow That Dream, Elvis Presley from Elvis Movies
03. Summertimes Blues, Bruce Springsteen, the Agora 1978-08-09
04. Johnny Bye Bye, Chuck Berry from Anthology
05. Bye Bye Johnny, Bruce Springsteen from Tracks (4CD)
06. Follow That Dream, Bruce Springsteen, 1984-09-18 Philadelphia

07. Hang Up My R&R Shoes, Chuck Willis from Stroll On: The Chuck Willis Collection
08. Mountain of Love, Harold Dorman from Mountain of Love
09. Devil With The Blue Dress On, Shorty Long from The Essential Collection

10. Oh Boy, Bruce Springsteen, 1978-04-18 Civic Center Charleston
11. Not Fade Away, Buddy Holly from The Buddy Holly Collection
12. Mona (I Need You Baby), Bo Diddley from The Chess Box
13. Ain't Got You/She's The One, Bruce Springsteen 1988-05-03 Shoreline

14. The Big Payback, Bruce Springsteen from The Essential Bruce Springsteen
15. Open All Night, Bruce Springsteen, 2005-07-06 Milan Forum
16. Stand On It, Bruce Springsteen, 2000-06-15 NY
17. Pink Cadillac, Jerry Lee Lewis (featuring Bruce Springsteen)from Last Man Standing - The Duets

18. Only The Lonely, Roy Orbison & Friends from Roy Orbison: Black & White Night [HD DVD]
19. Be My Baby, The Ronettes from Back to Mono (1958-1969)

20. Walking in the Rain, Bruce Springsteen, 1976-11-04 Streak Of Light Through The Tunnel

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