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Sometimes It Snows In April

It was a while before I was ready for Prince. I was still a kid in the 80’s, when Prince was still dissolving any barriers between popular music genres and the sounds he heard in his head. Michael Jackson made sense to me. There was just enough danger in Thriller to make it exciting while still being as broadly appealing as possible. Bon Jovi I got. Sure, he wore spandex, but it was in a totally heteronormative way. I was growing up in an all white shore town in 1980’s New Jersey. Even in a culture steeped in glam-metal, Prince seemed a bit scary because he wasn’t putting on an act. There was no normal guy underneath the mascara. This was Prince, all the way down.

I was like 6 years old and wanted nothing to do with him. 

It wasn’t until later that it all clicked. By this time, it was the 90’s, and Prince had fallen out of favor. In fact, he wasn’t even Prince at this point. He had long since changed his name to a lazy-joke-fodder symbol. He wasn’t on the radio or MTV any more. Crazy as it sounds today, Prince seemed really uncool. This was, perhaps, the worst possible time to become a fan. 

But Prince was still out there, doing his thing. Even though he had become a punch line to much of pop culture, there were still plenty of people who never lost faith. I would keep hearing musicians I loved and respected talk about how he changed their lives. It didn’t make sense. He was a dude who wore purple, sang about doves crying, and seemed doomed to be stuck in pre-grunge pop music. 

Then one day I picked up a used copy of the Love Symbol Album for three dollars. I still remember putting it in the CD player in my car being blown away by My Name Is Prince, the opening track. I had never heard anything like this. The elements were all familiar, but there was something magical about the exact way he pulled together rock, funk, new jack swing, and golden era hip hop. This was no fluke. The next song was an entirely different mix but just a good. Now he started incorporating jazz. Who did this?

I became obsessed. Despite having only this one CD, I knew that I was now a die hard Prince fan. As a poor college student, I spent entire weekends scouring used CD stores to stock up on Prince’s back catalog. 

In retrospect, it’s amazing that Prince was ever a pop star. He was too pure an artist. He never played it safe. He never dumbed it down. He made adult music, and he didn’t care if you liked it or not. He was a jumble of contradictions. Prince was a shy man who knew he was a fucking rock star. He was a religious man who was deeply sensual. He was a marketing genius who would purposely build barriers in front of his work. 

Prince was the Large Hadron Collider of American popular culture. He would take the same raw materials available to the rest of us but would smash them together with such fantastic energy that he would consistently create something new, often dangerous, always fascinating. 

I wish I could have said thank you, but it’s too late now. All I can do is keep shaking my ass, the way Prince would want it. 

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Through The Past… Darkly

Every once in a while Keith Richards likes to remind the world that he’s more than just a pretty face. Earlier this week he appeared in a video, along a dozen or so other musicians, with a medley of his own “Words Of Wonder” mixed with the Bob Marley/Peter Tosh classic “Get Up, Stand Up”. This was exciting mostly because it’s just fun to see Keith play anything other than the standard Stones set list at this point.

If you’re not familiar with “Words Of Wonder” it’s from Main Offender, Keith’s most recent(to date) solo album. Go ahead and listen to it. I’ll wait.

“Words Of Wonder” is probably the most interesting song any of the Stones have done, separately or together, in over 20 years. The track is builds slowly from a spare, empty beat. At first there is nothing but snare and high hat and a big, open tom. The guitar comes in to provide a bit more life, and then bass as an accent. Keith alternates between whisper and chant. It’s not really a reggae track, it’s more like proto-reggae. It’s primal. There are hints of dub as the instruments slowly build a wall not of sound but of rhythm. At the end it drops any pretense of being a love song. Giving chants and praises. Low friends in high places someone intones.

What’s interesting to me is that you can hear in this song a thread that the Stones nearly picked up. Listening to this one track, you can imagine the later day Rolling Stones sounding very different. Instead of settling down into comfortable blues-rock, the band could have taken the blues back to their foundations.

There were hints of this going at least as far back as Undercover or even, arguably, Beggars Banquet. When the Stones reconvened to make Steel Wheels, they brought in the master musicians of Jajouka for “Continental Drift”. That was light years from the souped up funk of “Shattered”.

After Main Offender, the Stones made Voodoo Lounge, of which Mick said:

It’s very much a kind of time-and-place album. In that way I was quite pleased with the results. But there were a lot of things that we wrote for “Voodoo Lounge” that Don [Was, the record’s producer] steered us away from: groove songs, African influences and things like that. And he steered us very clear of all that. And I think it was a mistake.

I think it was an opportunity missed to go in another direction, which would have been more unusual, a little more radical, although it’s always going to sound like the Rolling Stones.

In the end, I think you could say Keith gave us a feint in that direction with “Thru and Thru”, but mostly Voodoo Lounge was, well, a Stones album.

During the 90’s the Stones toured, and they played “Honkey Tonk Women” more times than you could count. When he had some time off, though, Keith visited Jamacia and produced a group of local Rasta musicians (chanters, really) calling themselves the Wingless Angels. He was clearly fascinated by this sort of primordial, pre-blues music. In 1997, he was quoted as saying “[t]here’s only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.”

The Rolling Stones have been pretty quiet in the 21st century. To date they’ve only released one studio album, 2005’s A Bigger Bang. It mostly plays with the Stones time-tested riff-rock(though in a much more convincing way than most of Voodoo Lounge). Still, there are some hints of what could have been.

To me, the most compelling song on A Bigger Bang was “Laugh, I Nearly Died. The song focuses on mood and atmosphere. When the instruments drop out at the end, the song ends with nothing but voices and foot stomps. Back where it all began.

Categories: Music

The Never-Ending Tour turns 25

Bill Wyman (no, not that Bill Wyman) points out that Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour has turned 25. I can’t think of any other well known artist who tours as obsessively as Bob.

Since 1988, Mr. Dylan has played more shows than Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and U2—each of them a marathon touring act—combined.

I stopped counting how many times I’ve seen Dylan over the last 15 years or so but I’m sure I reached 30 shows some time ago. Seeing Bob perform live so many times has been a formative part of my life. I’ve seen him as far away as Memphis and as close as walking distance from my apartment. I’ve seen shows that were transcendent and I’ve seen him phone it in (fortunately I’ve seen many more of the former than the latter). But I can say that what has always struck me about seeing Bob Dylan and His Band out there, night after night, is the sheer joy of performing.

Bob clearly delights in surprising his audience and confounding expectations. After 25 years of creating set lists on the fly, digging into rarities and obscure covers, I’m constantly surprised that there are folks who go expecting to hear a Greatest Hits set. Some of those audience members will never appreciate the radical re-arrangements and the loose, raucous interplay between band members (notably between Bob and Charlie Sexton, who has occupied center stage the last few times I saw them play). I think what impresses me the most is how Bob has learned to accept that. Instead of second guessing himself, he seems to constantly rededicate himself to putting on the best show he can on his own terms.

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Like Geocaching For Music Nerds

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Sometimes… something just sticks in your craw. An obsessive can stare at a beautiful painting for ah hour, agonizing over a single brush stroke. A reader can find themselves going over and over a particular passage in a novel, looking for it to suddenly reveal a hidden meaning. We are born to see patterns and trained to solve mysteries. I understand these impulses.

So I link to Bob Elgin’s blog, PopSpots, with no small degree of jealousy that he was the first to create a project of finding the original locations of some of rock and roll’s most famous album covers and photographs, and that he did it so damn well. 

Scroll down a little bit. Skip the Billy Joel section. I won’t tell anyone. Then do yourself a favor and click on the individual entries. Bob writes an engaging narrative about each photo, going into exhaustive detail on his effort to track down the exact wall, intersection, or doorframe that appeared in photo taken generations ago. Excellent detective work leading to pieces of history. It’s like a Dan Brown novel that isn’t terrible.

We’ve created such a mythology around this classic era of rock and roll, decades later it all seemed a bit larger than life. I’m glad someone is out there setting these images in concrete. 

As a side note, I am particularly shocked to find that the cover to Highway 61 Revisited was taken outside. I always pictured that to be backstage in some historic theater, or in a hip brownstone. 

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Josh Ritter Live at the Stone Pony

June 28, 2012 3 comments

Josh Ritter knows how to work an audience. He comes on stage beaming. I have never seem a man do happy to be performing in front of an audience. He is constantly in motion, which is unusual for a folk musician. Perhaps that’s why he put together a powerful band of musicians. The full experience does push his songs over the coffeehouse singer-songwriter mark.

Tonight he played before a packed house at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. It was a warm up night for his tour. He told the crowd that the band hadn’t performed in 6 months. For musicians that can be a career.

There were many new songs, and I will admit that some of the old ones were barely familiar to me while some in the crowd sang along to every word. Ritter clearly relished this, often pulling away from the mic to allow the voices from the audience a chance to shine through.

Until you spend a couple if hours with the man and his songs, you might not realize the extent that religious imagery dominates his songwriting. His narratives steal equally from folk tradition and religious tales. What’s striking, however, is how how playful the biblical characters are. There’s no great deference given. They joke and they kid and they come on to King Arthur’s nights, and often represent sexual ecstasy. This is no bloodless born again philosophy. Saints are never too far away from scoundrels.

The highlight of the night was a rambunctious version of “Harrisburg” that segued into “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”. Josh stopped right before the high note. His band fell silent. He unbuttoned his collar. Took a deep breath. This was totally out of his range. Then he fucking nailed that high note. Ghaaaaaa-uh-uh-un.

Then it was back to “Harrisburg”. But the message was clear. Nothing is out of bounds.

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Is This Green Hair Dye Still Good?

 In a way, “Punk Rock Girl” resembles a gleefully brain-damaged version of an R.E.M. song that had been released a few months prior and was still in heavy rotation on Teletunes (and inside my brain) at the time: “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” But where R.E.M. crafted a Pollock-like canvas of pop-culture expressionism, The Dead Milkmen hocked a loogie on it.

Jason Heller of the AV Club reminisces about The Dead Milkmen and makes me want to break out my Doc Martins. “Punk Rock Girl” will always remind me of my youth, but I didn’t discover it it was almost a decade old. Luckily, some things never change. 

Categories: Music

What You Hear

February 22, 2012 1 comment

Interesting, and moderately technical, explanation of the difficulties inherent in making music sound good in the age of compressed audio.

Most of the music we buy and listen to nowadays comes in what is known as lossy formats. Meaning that in order to make the file size more manageable, a lot of information is tossed out of the songs. All major online music stores sell music this way (there are a few web sites with limited selection of hi def audio tracks). The compression algorithm tries to only get rid of frequencies most people won’t miss, but there’s no way around the fact that compressing these recordings is going to change the sound at least a little. Add in the fact that we spend a lot more time listening on terrible, speakers (earbuds, laptop speakers, etc) and this is a major change from how people listened to music 15-20 years ago.

I’m shocked it’s taken the music industry this long to start mastering songs specifically for people who buy their songs on iTunes and listen on their iPhones, never so much as getting near a Bose sound system.

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