7/26/2010

New York State of Song

We were baited by an old friend to come up with a list of songs about New York, with the caveat that they could not contain the name of our fair city in the title. However, our list is one of songs about and inspired by NYC—no, this is not some Hollywood bullshit—as well as tunes that evoke what the city is all about.

Off the top of our heads, here are ten, in alphabetical order by artist:

1. Beastie Boys
"So Whatcha Want?"

Check Your Head
[Capitol-1992]
Yeah, they can be insufferable at times—not to mention they are the patron saints of today's hipsters—but we have yet to go or host a party where this song does not make a welcome appearance at some point.

2. Freeloader
"6 Train"

Cantina Claqueur
[JSS-2005]
Scott Sinclair is a charismatic, literate, good ole boy and ladies man; he’s also a talented songwriter/guitarist who wrote this beautiful ode to his adoptive hometown.

3. Joe Jackson
"Right and Wrong"

Big World
[A&M-1986]
A cool tune written during his years as a New Yorker. Bonus point for mentioning NY baseball.

4. Billy Joel
"Big Shot"

52nd St
[Columbia-1979]
Love him, loathe him or ridicule him, Joel’s done for NYC what Springsteen did for Jersey. He's also written a couple of cool tunes about life in the city. This is one of ‘em. It rocks, too.

5. Marcy Playground
"Sex and Candy"

(self-titled album)
[Capitol-1996]
Always reminds us of the Lower East Side during the ‘90s and one of the few rock songs that oozed carnality during the so-called grunge years.

6. Nada Surf
"Blizzard of '77"

Let Go
[Barsuk-2003]
Brooklyn band reminisces about a typical NY winter occurrence and nails it. Sweet.

7. NaS
"Memory Lane (Sittin in Da Park)"

Illmatic
[Columbia-1994]
Queens in da house! Love this one…

8. Lou Reed
"Dirty Blvd."

New York

[Sire-1989]
The man who, in his songs, captured the dark side of the city like no other.

9. Talking Heads
"Mr. Jones"

Naked
[Fly/Sire-1988]
A taste of the city’s Latin vibe courtesy of this quintessential NY band. Also, our unofficial theme song. heh heh.

10. Suzanne Vega
"In the Eye"

Solitude Standing
[A&M-1987]
Before we moved to Brooklyn in the mid ‘90s Manhattan ruled our world. This song has always sounded to us like late ‘80s, downtown Manhattan at night, particularly that air of possibility and of, hopefully, good things to come.

Bonus:
Ryan Adams
"New York, New York"

Gold
[Lost Highway-2001]
Because he was cocky enough to title it after the Sinatra classic; because it’s a sweet song that will always remind us of the immediate post-Sept. 11th days. But above of all because of a refrain which comes across as one of the most poignant declarations of love ever dedicated to this city we’ve ever heard. “I still love you New York.” Yeah…

7/20/2010

Happy Birthday

Is today the most rock and roll of birthdays?

Among those celebrating are: legendary guitarist Carlos Santana (63); Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook (54); former Soundgarden/Audioslave frontman Chris Cornell (46); Pearl Jam founder/guitarist Stone Gossard (44); and hip-hop royalty Kool G Rap (42); all on July 20th.

7/19/2010

Time Capsule: Bellybutton


JELLYFISH
Bellybutton
[Charisma-1990]

Running a mere seconds under the 40-minute mark, Bellybutton, the debut album from San Francisco’s Jellyfish, is a brilliantly crafted record also known for introducing power pop fans to the likes of Jason Falkner and Roger Manning Jr., as well as their frequent collaborator (and these days, noted producer and film composer) Mr. Jon Brion.

Founded by lead-singing, stand-up drummer Andy Sturmer, and keyboardist Manning—both talented songwriters and multi-instrumentalists—the band flirted with mainstream success but disbanded soon after touring behind their sophomore album Spilt Milk [Charisma-1993]. But on their debut, the beloved '90s cult band showed off their ample melodic and instrumental gifts; their high-level songcraft to be discussed and pored over by power pop geeks for years to come.

The folks at the Trouser Press Record Guide are not easily impressed, but that didn't stop them from calling Bellybuttona pleasant—occasionally wonderfulpastiche of pop icons from the Beatles to Squeeze via 10cc, the Beach Boys and Badfinger.”
Sounds about right.

Highlights: “That Is Why”, arguably their finest moment; “The King is Half Undressed”, “She Still Loves Him”, “All I Want Is Everything”, “Baby’s Coming Back”, “Calling Sarah”.





An Open Question: Why So Long Between Albums?

A recurring topic that has once again has raised its pointy little head ‘round these parts is the length of time required for artists to release albums. Or more to the point, why it takes so long for them to do so these days.

It seems that, as the technology that makes it possible to record music and the methods of distribution become more widespread, the span between albums is quite pronounced, especially when compared to artists of the past.

Back in the day, because of how the business was run or whatever, artists released albums at a rapid pace. Just think: all of Jimi Hendrix's output was recorded between 1967-1970. Yup, three years. And in that same length of time—without touring, of course—The Beatles' discography, not counting Yellow Submarine, spans 5 studio albums from Sgt. Pepper's to Let it Be. (One of them a double album, even.) Hell, Cream released 4 studio albums in 15 months! (Yeah, there's some live tracks on there, but still...) In the three years it takes many contemporary artists to put together an album, artists of the past could build their legacies. What was going on? Pardon our ignorance, but we’re asking with all sincerity.

It wasn't just in the '60s and early-to mid '70s, though: The Police made 5 studio albums in the 5 years they were a recording act; Van Halen's "Diamond Dave era" consists of 6 albums in as many years. And while both of these acts toured their asses off, they were still able to release this much music anyway. How come?

Were they super prolific or are more current artists beholden to different circumstances? Is it a different mindset? Big money slowed them down? Has the music by major artists gone the focus group/production by committee route? Why does it take so long? Weezer released "The Green Album" and Maladroit within 364 days of each other and that was a bigger deal than the music itself.

Ideally, established artists need to continually put their work out there, as long as they believe in it. Let the chips fall where they may. If per chance it doesn't really pan out, you can always get back to work and resume where you left off. Artists need to be creating as steadily as possible. Simple as that. Perhaps marketing, or some variation thereof, has taken over a big chunk of the process. Or in certain instances, creatively speaking, the spark isn’t there. However, as much as we may not be thrilled to listen to another lukewarm release by anybody, we certainly don't advocate waiting for inspiration to strike and hoping it gives you your (next) masterpiece. That's just dangerous. What if that phenomenal work you waited to put out there turns out to be not that great AND is poorly received by the public? What does that do to an artist's confidence?

So, again, why does it take so long? Any ideas?

7/10/2010

Does Hetfield Owe Napster a Belated Apology? (theft is theft, after all)

Like Led Zeppelin before them, Metallica are influential hard rockers who ruled their respective eras...and engaged in alleged plagiarism.

The Bay Area quartet has been accused of quite a few unlawful musical approriations including their most famous song, "Enter Sandman", ever since it was released as the lead single from the band's self-titled 1991 album. It turns out another California band, Excel, has a similar sounding track, "Tapping Into the Emotional Void", on their album The Joke's On You [Rotten-1989].

While the likes of Megadeth leader and former Metallica guitarist Dave Mustaine acknowledge that James Hetfield and co. purloined parts of Excel's song for "Enter Sandman", Metallica have never been formally accused of plagiarism in a court of law.

But how 'bout the court of public opinion? That's where you come in...courtesy of the folks at Cracked:



So, what say you?

7/06/2010

Musicians and the Internet Magic Bullet Theory

There is never a shortage of purveyors of scams of the get-rich-quick-and-easy variety out there, preying on the gullible and desperate. And in a bad economy, they multiply like horny rabbits in captivity. Music artists are the focus of a particular variation on this theme, which has now adopted a 21st century fa├žade: forget the record labels, the internet will make you a star and we'll show you how.

The more shameless of this lot of charlatans will sell you a treatise on achieving fame and fortune via the World Wide Web that boils down to such previously unheard of advice: Write good songs; have a nice website; join all the social networking sites, etc. Yes, of course we’re being snarky. But if, say, you bought a book on how to succeed in business and its main guidance and counsel was Work hard; don’t spend more than you make; save money, etc you’d probably report the authors to the local Better Business Bureau—after you smashed the damn thing against the wall—right?

We’re gonna give some of these folks the benefit of the doubt and assume there are those who are either truly ignorant about how things work co-existing with fiends who know better but try to pull the wool over people's eyes for personal gain.

And then you have the likes of David Byrne.

Remember how not too long ago the former Talking Head was raving about how EVERYONE should follow Radiohead's pay-what-you-want model for their In Rainbows album, only to have Thom Yorke himself explain to him that because of the British band's stature they were in a unique position to pull it off. A veteran of the music biz like Byrne should know better and not need Yorke to explain that to him. This is the kinda nonsense that furthers even more the internet single bullet theory: a cure for all obscurity and lack of exposure woes. "Hey, if David Byrne says so..."

Ugh.

So, has the internet truly changed the nature of the music business? Mostly yes, but...

You see, on the one hand, it’s true that today’s artists have a myriad of easily accessible online tools and infrastructure readily available to them. It’s also true these bring potential access to millions of would-be fans via the internet without the need for a record company to siphon off revenue. (Or conversely, fund your project.) And that, is a beautiful, revolutionary thing. But, sadly, one big factor hasn't changed: people still have to find out about you somehow. The internet hasn’t altered that part of the equation in a way that can be distilled into an easily adaptable formula for those who see it as a magical tool that can open up untold doors almost at will. Actually, in certain aspects, it may have made things more difficult for the career-aspiring artist.

In the pre-internet days you had so-called industry “gatekeepers”. And to reach them to get your record reviewed and/or get the necessary exposure was quite difficult. Truthfully, outside of a select few artists, this was nearly impossible to obtain. Now there is a motherlode of websites that write and/or talk about music, which an artist can easily contact and submit to. Who doesn’t like more options? But the public now has more choices as well. (You truly have competition now: there's a whole lot more recording artists than ever before out there vying for the public's attention.) And while it may have been practically a fantasy for an unknown, unsigned artist to get their record reviewed by, say, Rolling Stone, they now have to reach dozens of, if not more, music sites/blogs to garner the exposure they might need.

What if these folks are too busy to review and spread the good word about your lowly mp3s, anyway? You still need internet presence, so how ‘bout taking out some ads? But if you don't have the cash to spend on gaining internet presence—ads ain't free—or happen to go "viral", then what?

Ah, yes…going “viral”. What's the deal with those people that the internet has made, arguably, household names overnight? Well, "I posted my video/mp3 online and in a week I had 20,000 fans" is not that dissimilar to "I bought a $1 lottery ticket at 7-11 and now I'm rich". Yet, this aberration is used, more often than not, as a standard bearer or at least as an example to follow when it comes to online traffic for music artists.

(Interestingly, two scenarios on opposite ends of the artist development spectrum, that were commonplace during the pre-internet days of the music business, still occur on a regular basis: touring acts establishing and expanding their fanbase; and recording artists that have never played a live gig setting up shop and launching careers, regardless. Hmm...)

So if, arguably, chance is as much if not more of an influential factor than ever before in getting your music discovered, what is the true value of the internet? Well, it's undeniably a monster tool for people who already have access to a dedicated fanbase and are being sought out by a significant amount of people. What no one has a concrete, solid answer for is the question of how you get there. (And if one more smart-ass brings up Write good songs; have a nice website; join all the social networking sites, etc. as a sure-fire silver bullet to success, we’re gonna end up doing hard time and writing these blog posts from Sing-Sing.)

Bottom line: having a Facebook/Twitter/MySpace page—and videos on YouTube—is like placing your music in every Tower Records store a decade ago; it don’t mean squat how much internet presence you might have if people don’t know you exist. And how do you create awareness without bundles of cash and/or luck? (If we knew, we'd be rich—and not writing these long-ass rants, for sure.)

Try contacting those who have had any measure of success on their own in this day and age and see if you can pick their brain a bit. Ask friends how they hear about new music and what they are looking for when seeking out new artists and tunes. If you perform live, find out what will tilt club owners/bookers your way when they check out artists online and what, if anything, their patrons tell them about bands they come across on the intertubes. That's a start.

And yeah, by all means, see if you can come across some decent, rational, sensible articles and books that address the issue. But stay away from anyone who believes or tells you that simply uploading your stuff is a magic bullet. Don't let the con men tell you otherwise, let alone charge you while they do it.

7/03/2010

Colon and Blades: Fania's Dynamic Duo


WILLIE COLON presents RUBEN BLADES

Metiendo Mano!
[Fania-1977]


WILLIE COLON and RUBEN BLADES
Siembra
[Fania-1978]

Here’s a trivia question fans of Latin music the world over all know the answer to: what happened when NY-based Fania Records’ Panamanian-born, Harvard-educated, former mailroom clerk (Ruben Blades) teamed up with the label’s resident bad boy prodigy from The Bronx (Willie Colon)? Two of salsa’s all-time classic albums were born, one of which is considered, arguably, the genre’s finest moment.

Preceded by Colon's much lauded
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly [Fania-1975]--featuring Blades and the departing Hector Lavoe--Metiendo Mano! has been eclipsed over the years by both its predecessor and the monster album that followed. But not only is the record a worthy document of salsa's golden era, it establishes Blades' rep as a crooner who could also narrate meditations on the downtrodden and those on the margins of society, as well as such controversial topics as colonialism and racism, both convincingly and with grace. Latin dance music didn't really tackle socio-political subject matter before, but much like born again Christian salseros Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, Blades and Colon made sure the message never got in the way of the groove.

Metiendo Mano! is regarded by many as not only a solid precursor to bigger things to come, but a
salsa classic; one that plays "lean and mean, and thus light on its feet, like a welterweight boxer." How apropos. Some of the highlights include "Segun el Color", "Plantacion Adentro", "La Mora", and our personal fave "Pablo Pueblo", which in the mid '90s became the unofficial theme song to Blades' unsuccessful bid for the presidency of his native Panama.


Metiendo Mano! had its fair share of covers--5 of the 9 tracks to be exact--but Siembra, with one lone exception, was penned entirely by Blades and remains his most impressive batch of tunes. Kicking off with "Plastico", a blunt attack on empty consumerism and racial/class-related prejudice, capped off with a rallying cry for Latin American unity, the album is undoubtedly a reflection of the harsh times in which it was created. However, Siembra is rarely heavy-handed in its approach, as evidenced by the inclusion of a tender love song such as "Dime", with its joyous and infectious swing, one of the album's definitive moments. (Much props to Colon for his killer arrangements throughout.) It also happens to be home to "Pedro Navaja", a re-imagining of "Mack the Knife" as a tragic Lower East Side slice of life; it is Siembra's best known track and one of the great anthems of modern Spanish-language music.

A landmark recording universally beloved in Latin America more than 30 years after its release, Siembra is both the best-selling salsa album of all time--hovering, purportedly, in the 25 million copies range--and considered to be "one of the indisputable masterpieces of 1970s New York salsa". There are those who believe it's the salsa masterpiece. We're not inclined to disagree.