4/20/2014

Milestones: Desorden Publico












DESORDEN PUBLICO 
Canto Popular de la Vida y Muerte 
[Sony US Latin-1994] 

With 2 acclaimed albums already under their belt, Venezuela’s Kings of Latin Ska would begin the solidification of their reign with their third album and first to be released in the US. Helmed by Brazilian producer Carlos Savalla (Paralamas do Suceso), Canto Popular is not only a cohesive effort but one chock full of great tunes, which ultimately opened more doors for the band across Latin America, Europe and the US. (Not to mention it went Gold in the band's homeland.) 20 years on, the songs still shine while the production leaves a bit to be desired. But would you rather have a killer-sounding album full of duds, instead? Didn’t think so. 

Highlights: Too many to mention. Seriously.

3/12/2014

Milestones: Legendary Argentine Rockers' Debut Turns 30

SODA STEREO
self-titled
[Sony Argentina-1984]

Coinciding with their homeland’s recent emergence from war and a punishing military dictatorship into a democratic society, the debut album by guitarist/vocalist Gustavo Cerati, bassist Zeta Bosio and drummer Charly Alberti is a hearty stab at escapism and very much a record of its time (new wave, ska, the Cure, the Police, XTC and other early ‘80s signifiers are all referenced). But that spirited approach is what keeps the album from becoming hopelessly dated. Of course, top-notch songwriting never hurts your cause and the album isn’t lacking in that department: “Sobredosis de TV”, “Te Hacen Faltas Vitaminas”, “Un Misil en Mi Placard”, “El Tiempo es Dinero” and “Afrodisíacos”, all helped the album become a smash hit and a critical favorite.

Those more familiar with Soda’s latter, more refined international releases—their third album, Signos [Sony US Latin-1987], was the first to be released in the US—might ask if the debut platter bears the seeds of the influential, ground-breaking band they were to become. Well, it’s quite a stretch from typical, albeit talented, ‘80s new wave-influenced combo to panoramic, sonic-exploring, 21st century rockers slightly ahead of the curve. But let’s just say a sophomore slump would’ve been a surprise. And that 30 years later, this one still holds up.

Highlights: see above.

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3/04/2014

It's Only Rock and Roll (but he likes it)

Of course he’s known as the acclaimed, award-winning director of such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino, as well as for the music that populates his feature films, but Martin Scorsese’s love of music goes past well-chosen cues and directing Michael Jackson videos (“Bad”).

Starting with his Assistant Director gig on Woodstock [1970] Scorsese’s musical exploits on the big screen have been overlooked, for the most part, in comparison to his feature film bread and butter. Aside from The Last Waltz [1978], which uncharacteristically captures an artist—in this case, The Band—not at the beginning of their career or, more commonly, at their apex but, as the name implies, during their send-off, Scorsese has been almost as busy directing musical endeavors in the 21s century as he's been making features during the same time frame: he was one of the directors involved in The Concert for New York City [2001]; directed the Delta blues-dedicated segment "Feel Like Going Home" for the PBS miniseries The Blues [2003]; helmed the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home [2005]; shot Shine A Light [2008], The Rolling Stones’ 2006 performance at NYC’s Beacon Theatre (which Mick Jagger jokingly refers to as “the only Scorsese film that "Gimme Shelter" isn’t played in."); and directed George Harrison: Living in the Material World [2011] a doc based on the life of the late Beatle.

It would be nice if Mr. S tackled a more contemporary subject the next time he’s bitten by the music bug—Beck, RadioheadJack White, maybe?—but the above additions to his staggering resumé are quite impressive just the same.

3/02/2014

Truth Hits Everybody

CIRCA ZERO
[429/SLG]

In a few weeks—March 25th, to be exact former Police guitarist Andy Summers will release his first foray into straight up pop/rock outside of the trio that made him famous, the first since his lackluster 1987 album XYZ [MCA]. Inspired by The Police’s reunion tour of ‘07-‘08, Summers decided to put aside his jazz and new age endeavors and get back to the rock. And with his new band, Circa Zero, the masterful six-stringer returns to the trio format where he made his fame and reputation. 

Unfortunately, the bland pseudo U2 with a hint of the Police and a sprinkle of a lethargic, less interesting version of The Fixx on the band’s debut Circus Hero would be a tad easier to digest if, in an interview with Ultimate Classic Rock, Summers hadn’t prefaced its release with a declaration/mission statement that drips of arrogance, hypocrisy and fogeyism.

[W]e said: ‘Let’s make a rock record,’ And when say I rock record, that’s what we meant. We didn’t mean a sort of weird, alternative indie record by people who can’t really write songs. We aren’t really into that."

Summers somehow seems to be under the impression that there’s an actual audience for music made "by people who can’t really write songs". (Wow, not even our cynical asses are that jaded.) Now, let’s put aside how this makes him sound every bit the cranky 71 year old man he is and concentrate on the two more salient points it brings to light: 


1- Because The Police came out of what was then rock's alternative/indie scene—even if the actual nomenclature was yet to be applied at the time—his dis was hypocritical and uncalled for.

2- His previous pop/rock record, the aforementioned XYZ, was drowning in subpar songwriting, and seeing as how Summers never contributed anything solid in that particular department to The Police's catalog—“Omegaman” being the lone exception—it's pretty rich for him to talk about "people who can’t really write songs".

All of this would be moot if Circus Hero actually delivered the goods. Sorry, Charlie. Truth be told, it's not so much a dud as an undercooked misfire. Let's put it this way: You know someone dropped the ball somewhere along the line when the acoustic renditions of three of the albums tunes—included as bonus tracks—outshine the entire rest of the record. Yup.

And the less said about that name...


Highlights: "Underground", "Gamma Ray", "Underwater", "Light the Fuse and Run", the acoustic bonus tracks. 

2/25/2014

Mellow Gold

BECK
Morning Phase
[Fonograf / Capitol - 2014]

As befits the first actual release in half a decade from a major artist, there's been quite the buzz surrounding Beck's latest. Unfortunately, a good chunk of the commentary has been a series of reductive, template-based reviews that focus on comparing it to Sea Change [DGC-2002] ad nauseum with a tad of snark and back handed compliments thrown in for good measure. Morning Phase deserves much, much better. 

Yes, Beck revisits the milieu of a previous artistic triumph with another acoustic-based, and at times lushly orchestrated record. However, Morning Phase, despite a similar musical setting—and truth be told, a cover reminiscent of that previous late-night classic—is not a rehashing but its own entity, one to be judged on its own terms. 

It might seem both disingenuous and pointless to recommend staying away from preconceived notions about an album when your intent is to encourage fellow listeners to dive right in, but Morning Phase's allure is immediate, its initial magnetism hard to resist and the rewards it brings continuous.

It's only late February but the Album of the Year competition just got mighty stiff.

Highlights: "Morning", "Heart is a Drum", "Wave", "Waking Light".

Filters, Floodgates and Pedigrees

Musician, songwriter, producer, record executive and industry veteran Jack Ponti on the current state of A&R and the need for accurate filters/gatekeepers to separate the musical wheat from the chaff in order to benefit both music fans and talented, undiscovered artists.

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There’s a vast misconception concerning the way new music and talent is discovered in the new paradigm of the Internet.

While it’s true that anyone can now simply create a web page, populate every social media site there is, and virtually self-promote and distribute music, the reality is that 99.99% of that music will only be heard by family and friends.
 

If the rallying cry of “we can do it ourselves” were true, then why are there not thousands of success stories? Because the ability to market and promote inside a clogged bandwidth is virtually impossible. You can’t build critical mass. This also creates a big problem for the industry. There is no filter.

Now, one may say the lack of a filter, gate keeper, standard, etc. has allowed music that would have never been heard a chance to be heard. But by who? Surely not the masses. It’s most likely to be heard by only a few. Sure, now anyone with a song can go full-bore Internet crazy and do all the wonderful things that people claim will help build their career, but it’s just not true. Again, where are all the success stories?
Pre-Internet, the music industry had a filter. Perhaps it didn’t work all of the time and I am certain some great music was lost along the way due to that filter. The filter involved the artist knowing someone with genuine access who could get their music to someone who could actually do something about it. The filter also involved a policy of “no unsolicited material”. Meaning it would not be listened to unless someone vouched for it.

There was a dual role in the no unsolicited material policy.

One, was it avoided deep pocketed and pointless lawsuits. If unsolicited submissions were allowed, someone could randomly send in a demo and then months later find some ambulance chasing attorney to file suit claiming infringement, hoping the label/artist would settle. But the primary reason for the policy was that if you allowed unsolicited material you opened the door to everyone on Earth who believes they have talent. And most don’t. The mountain of material that would have been sent in would have taken thousands of people to sift through. So yes, we more than likely lost some genius talent due to the restriction of that filter but we also found plenty as well.

The industry believed that if a known manager, lawyer, publisher, producer, etc. was presenting music, it must be somewhat good. Now granted, it sometimes wasn’t. But for the most part, it met a standard and certain level of professionalism. It also spoke of the artist, writer, producers, own ability to hustle and get to someone with genuine access. It worked well, as evidenced by decades of music.

But I have always said, the next Beatles were in a basement somewhere and will never be discovered due to lack of industry access. I’m sure we missed out on plenty.

In my 35 plus years in this business, wearing every possible hat that you can, 99.99% of my success was directly due to a filter. I was hammered by one of my clients to listen to India Arie. My manager introduced me to Jon Bon Jovi. A&R men brought me countless projects in development. Lawyers made introductions. The list is endless.

So here we are in the Internet age. No filter, no gate keeper, it’s a free for all!

But what do you do to genuinely find exceptional talent? Google search “good music”? Good luck with that. YouTube? If you have a decade of time on your hands. Reverbnation, Facebook, Soundcloud, Twitter, sure there are a multitude of possible places, but none of this has been filtered.

Unfortunately without a filter, you have to sift through hours of horrendous music to find even a remote possibility. Why? Because just like in pre-Internet days, anyone who can play any instrument or remotely sing is now convinced they “have what it takes” and they just clog the bandwidth with music.
Even from a psychological point of view, pre-Internet, people somewhat filtered themselves, thinking (or knowing) they were just OK, and why bother. But with the proliferation of TV shows like American Idol, we are now in the “yes I can” stage. Though that is wonderful, it can also be painfully unrealistic. Then with the advent of sites like CD Baby, people assume stardom is around the corner. For some it is. For many it’s not. But the illusion is real and by having a web site and distribution, suddenly you are there, or so you think.

I am not condemning that nor making fun of it. It’s wonderful to share your music with people and even if that means sharing it with only one other person that is a success and should be applauded.
However the heartbeat of the music business is new talent and there is a tremendous amount of undiscovered new and brilliant talent lurking out there caught in the miasma of a clogged Internet. Like I said, we missed some great talent along the way and truth be told, we are missing way more now.

A true and accurate filter will bring that talent to the forefront in rapid time. I salute and respect those who chose to go it alone, DIY, indie, whatever you chose to call it. But this business needs new talent and for those who want to be within that framework, they need to be discovered. Be it an artist, writer, producer; they need to have access and we, as an industry, need to access them or we’re all in trouble.

There has been a method of A&R research in place for over a decade now. It works very well, however it relies on spotting blips on the radar screen of something already in motion, something that has traction. Be it local or regional sales or radio airplay, it is already moving.

The same can be said for the recently announced deals with Twitter and Shazam moving into the label space. That is not discovery of talent, rather that is identifying moving targets after they start moving. The very essence of how Shazam works is you have to be searching for something you have already been exposed to. 

The same can be said for the concept of using Twitter as an identifier. Both are post, not pre.

There has been no genuine, and accurate, A&R filter in the entire industry to sift through the clogged space that we are currently subjected to. In order to do that properly you need to create the proper mechanism that is human based and software synergistic.

2/15/2014

Inconvenient Truths

SUN KIL MOON
Benji
[Caldo Verde-2014]

Although it’s Paul McCartney he mentions in the breathtaking “Micheline”, Mark Kozelek has finally has made his Plastic Ono Band record: nakedly autobiographical—albeit with names changed in certain cases—Benji features true stories of death in his family; the sad, tragic outcomes of friends and neighbors; his musical and sexual awakening; reflections on growing up during the ‘70s and ‘80s; and a respective tribute to each of his parents, all told point blank with little adornment or artifice. 

In fact, arguably, the best way to describe Benji is to equate it to a diary set to music. But where this could’ve easily turned into an embarrassing example of an hour’s worth of navel gazing, Kozelek’s tales feel as familiar as a shared experience. And the stripped down, mostly acoustic instrumentation and stark, yet vivid production manage to evoke a panoramic backdrop to his most honest record yet. 

Highlights: “Carissa”, “I Can’t Live Without My Mother’s Love”, “Pray for Newton”, and the aforementioned “Micheline”.

1/27/2014

5 Thoughts on the 2014 Grammys

Actually, the above title is a bit of a misnomer...





It was a nice night for a stroll. Popped into a fast food joint for a quick bite and while ordering and consuming a light meal, caught a bit of the Grammys telecast. Nothing before or after. Some thoughts: 






- What was the point of Metallica’s performance of “One”? (Which was a tad sloppy and out of tune, btw.) Kirk Hammet’s Lou Reed t-shirt was a nice touch, tho. Speaking of which… 

- The “In Memoriam” section had all the gravitas and sensitivity of a used car auction. 

- That Moonies-style mass wedding was hokey and pointless, and seemed like something cooked up by a kind-hearted but clueless teenager. 

- Always wonderful to see fellow performers, from Steven Tyler to Pharrell Williams, give the great Smokey Robinson the love he deserves. 

- The Oscars can be pretentious and boring but they’re not a joke. Last night’s Grammys made clear who the clowns are in the family of established entertainment.

1/07/2014

They Don't Have the Touch

VARIOUS ARTISTS
And I’ll Scratch Yours
[Real World-2013]

Scratch My Back [Real World-2010] was an album of covers recorded by Peter Gabriel and evenly divided among his peers and younger artists. The idea was that those covered would return the favor, hence the respective titles. However, not everyone did: David Bowie, Neil Young and Radiohead are missing here—Brian Eno, Joseph Arthur and Feist, appear in their stead—but the project went forward regardless. Plus, a three year wait for Gabriel-related material is a blessing, so we won’t complain about the turnaround. As for the final product…             

Interestingly, both of Gabriel’s white compadres in the ‘80s African music sweepstakes are both present. What is surprising is that the more dilettante of the two offers up the only vital reinterpretation here: Paul Simon’s “Biko” would still be a breath of fresh air even if it were not preceded by a slew of predictable covers and bad ideas. In the latter camp, the album starts off with fellow African music disciple David Byrne’s disco-fied “I Don’t Remember”, which in his usually capable hands could’ve been a highlight. ‘Fraid not. The likes of Stephen Merritt, Joseph Arthur, Randy Newman and the late Lou Reed follow suit while the rest, for the most part, are held back by their generally reverential approach to the originals, coming across more as alternate versions than reconfigurations. (Elbow’s “Mercy Street” actually sounds like an outtake from So [Geffen-1987]; Guy Garvey’s delivery eerily close to Gabriel's himself.) 

Has there ever been a similar congregation of talent all in one place and with so little to say?

12/22/2013

2013: The Year in Review (sort of)

As has been the case over the last few years, we've been quite underwhelmed by the world of pop culture in general, so once again this wrap up is an abridged and personalized version of what we would normally put together at this point of the year. Basically, just a bunch of faves from the past 12 months. So, with that in mind, dig in and enjoy!


FAVORITE ALBUM
Minor Alps Get There [Barsuk]

Released on the last week of October, it showed up late but surely made up for it: the debut album from Minor Alps (aka soft-singing superduo Juliana Hatfield and Nada Surf's Matthew Caws) is a textbook singer/songwriter album for the 21st century: rooted in classic songwriting but imbued with the breezy irreverence of a new era. More please.



Runner up:

David Bowie The Next Day [Columbia]

Took him for granted, eh? The Next Day reminded us all why we should never do such a thing. Quite possibly the best thing to come out all year. (Hated the album cover, tho. Ugh.)


BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT
My Bloody Valentine mbv [self-released]

Definitely not worth a 22 year wait, but probably not worth a 2 year wait, either.

Runner up:
Todd Rundgren State [Esoteric]

In what can only be described as an effort to further destroy his recording career by seemingly rescuing the remnants of a discarded electronica record circa 1989, Rundgren confirms he has lost the plot. And the bitter irony of a legendary producer making records that sound like cheesy demos is almost too much to bear.


FAVORITE SINGLE
Nataly Dawn "How I Met Her" [Nonesuch]

Unfortunately, for the most part, Dawn's engaging voice, well-crafted songs, and wistful Americana lack the necessary pull to drag themselves up from their frequent preciousness and occasional forced quirkiness, which is her solo debut album's biggest hindrance.

Oh, but that title track is nothing short of wonderful and arguably, the best constructed piece of pop music released in 2013. Stellar.



FAVORITE NEW MUSIC (from new artists)

Bipolar Sunshine "Fire" from the Aesthetics EP [Polydor]
Chance the Rapper "Juice" from the album Acid Rap [self-released]
Coasts "Oceans" from the Paradise EP [Tidal]
Lapland -self-titled- [Hundred Pockets]
Wolf Alice "Fluffy" [Dirty Hit]


LEAST FAVORITE OBJECT OF HYPE
Haim

Three 20-something L.A. sisters grow up playing playing street fairs in a band with Mom and Dad. As teenagers 2 of the 3 are in an all-girl band that signs with a major label. When that runs its course, they incorporate their youngest sibling, established/famous people see them play (Julian Casablancas, Jenny Lewis), sign with Jay-Z, potty mouth/filter-lacking older sister makes for good copy ("Bass face"), and...voilá.

That "origin story" is a whole lot more interesting than Haim's music, which resembles somewhat plastic late '80s/early 90s radio-friendly R&B, but has been repeatedly compared to Fleetwood Mac (!!!) by a plethora of so-called music journalists. (Who, btw, are the people Frank Zappa was referring to in his legendary quote: "Most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read." Amen.)

Haim : Music :: Girls (HBO show) : TV



FAVORITE REISSUE
In Utero: 20th Anniversay Edition [DGC]



The main criteria from the fan P.O.V. remains the same for In Utero as any other reissue: Do you love this album enough to repurchase it, along with the extras included in an expanded version? Nirvana’s studio epitaph probably doesn't need an invitation to your collection, one way or another, but the 2013 Albini mixes alone could be reason enough to re-evaluate the album, or at least judge it in a slightly different light.


FAVORITE CONCERT MOVIE
Jane's Addiction Live in NYC [UMe]



The album version of Live in NYC [Universal] can reasonably hold the listener's attention on its own, but the DVD of the proceedings is as close to a rock and roll circus as we've seen in ages. Or at least, one big awesome party.


STRANGEST BULLSHIT MUSIC BUSINESS DOUBLE STANDARD
Nataly Dawn dissed for not staying on the cheeseball route

Dawn is best known as half of YouTube sensation Pomplamoose--along with fellow multi-instrumentalist Jack Conte--whose claim to fame is funny, classic pop covers of Top 40 hits. Yet her solo debut, How I Met Her [Nonesuch] is a lush collection of singer/songwriter Americana which earned mixed reviews and a Spin magazine "Worst New Music" designation, despite fitting the profile of the type of album that passes for a critical favorite these days. Of course, critical faves tend to be measured by the music and/or the artist's relationship with a certain degree of authenticity and Dawn's viral past hinders that authenticity in the eyes and ears of quite a few reviewers. The same flip-flopping folks who deem it "rockist" to evaluate popular music artists by this standard, mind you.

Something was definitely fishy here. Why asked ourselves why the folks at Spin and other like-minded critics weren't eating up Dawn's record? We thought about for a minute and shortly thereafter arrived at a 'Eureka!' moment.

It seems as if fellow critics' main beef with Dawn and her album is that instead of following her band's cute Lady GaGa and Beyonce covers and going the Carmin route--gimmicky covers on YouTube leading to a trashy Black Eyed Peas/Top 40-type career--Dawn decided to cash in her viral chips as an earnest singer/songwrit­er instead of the abominable cheesy musical theatre geeks fascinated with lowest common denominator hip hop and auto tuned bullshit that is Carmin.

Truth is, if this album had been made by someone plucked out of obscurity and without the stigma of internet inauthenticity, Spin and Pitchfork would be all over it. But they want their viral sensations to stay in their place and continue being their pet monkeys; never attempt to rise above anything Bieber-esque. It's like a perverse variation on the indie rock elitism of not liking an artist as soon as they become popular. And it stinks.


UNFORTUNATE MUSIC BUSINESS TREND
Digital sales are down 2.4% and sales at both chain stores and independents have suffered a 17% drop, as well.


FAVORITE DEVELOPMENT TO LOOK FORWARD TO IN 2014
Jack White announced the release of a new Raconteurs album.


GOODBYE
The Divinyls' Christina Amphlett; Soft Machine’s Kevin Ayers; original Yes guitarist Peter Banks; singer Bobby “Blue” Bland; Trevor Bolder, bassist for Uriah Heep, Wishbone Ash and David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars; former Iron Maiden drummer Clive BurrBenjamin Curtis, original guitarist for The Secret Machines; jazz great Donald Byrd; singer/songwriter JJ Cale; Chi Cheng, Deftones bassist; Joey Covington, drummer for Jefferson Airplane; jazz keyboardist and Frank Zappa sideman George Duke; Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman; singer/songwriter Richie Havens; original Let's Active bassist Faye Hunter; producer/engineer Andy Johns; country legend George Jones; Blue Oyster Cult founding guitarist/keyboardist Allen Lanier; Ten Years After’s Alvin Lee; producer and Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek; Devo drummer Alan Myers; The Troggs’ vocalist Reg Presley; producer Phil Ramone; the one and only Lou Reed; Tonight Show drummer Ed Shaughnessy; singer/guitarist Tony Sheridan, who gave The Beatles their start as his backing band; Stan Tracey, “godfather of British jazz”.