The Return of ABBA! (Sort Of.)

Posted in Music, Music Video with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2012 by greedycherry

The Members of ABBA

If – some day in the future – I find myself standing in the corner of a smoky room at 2am in the morning, music blaring from a not-too-distant corner and drink in hand, and someone from the group of very passionately conversational party goers I was surrounded by ventured to ask, “Okay… who do you think is the greatest pop music group of all time?”, I would, without hesitation, argue that no band in the history of pop music was as good at pop music as those four sparkly jumpsuit-wearing Swedes from the 1970s known as ABBA.

You might argue back, but I wouldn’t be listening. After all, that music’s really loud….and it gets harder to hear you the further away I walk from whatever you’re saying about NSync.

Sure, I realize that in some circles expressing an appreciation for ABBA can pretty much kill any street cred or cool points you might have built up over time, plunging you quicky from the in-crowd to the down-and-out, but I just can’t fathom saying that any other group in history has been more important to furthering the cause of well-crafted pop songs. Everyone always trips all over themselves touting the songwriting prowess of the Fab Four from Liverpool, but what about the Fab Four from Stockholm?

Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Agnetha Faltskog, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad represent, to me, one of the rarest of all musical things: that perfect moment in time of synergy where the right people come together at the right time with the right blend of talents and create something unimaginably special and perfect. Take even one away, and the whole thing falls apart like a poorly-played game of Jenga.

Or…..does it?

I would never have thought it possible, but recently I discovered something that made me rethink this long-held position. While, upon much reflection, I still feel ABBA was a once-in-a-lifetime melding of four unique musicians which provided for some of the finest pop music this side of Jonkoping, I now have some very compelling evidence that perhaps the songs might still have been as strong with a vocalist or two changed out.

Ladies and gentlemen…..exhibit A: a brand new ABBA song from 2009!

Okay, okay, so you caught me in a lie….it’s not really new ABBA. But seriously, how could anyone tell??? It’s ALL there: the beautiful melody, the soaring vocals (provided courtesy of a lovely and talented singer named Helen Sjöholm), the lush harmonies, the majestic piano accents, the amazing arrangement, the clever little bits of counterpoint sneaking in and out.

The first time I heard this song, “Story Of A Heart” from Benny Andersson’s 2009 solo release of the same name, I was flabbergasted. How could this be, I wondered? Were the other three members of ABBA that inconsequential? This would fit perfectly on any of ABBA’s eight official releases, but here it is twenty years later and Agnetha and Anni-Frid are nowhere in sight.

Bjorn, on the other hand….

Okay, so apparently pop songcraft of this magnitude takes two: Bjorn wrote the English language lyrics to the song. Actually, now that I’m going down this path, it seems like it’s always taken two, doesn’t it? Page and Plant, Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, Rogers and Hammerstein, John and Taupin, Jam and Lewis, Gershwin and Gershwin…songwriting duos have long been a fixture in the music industry, and it’s never really been a set formula as to how that whole thing works. Sometimes one writes the lyrics and the other the melody. Sometimes both write both together. Sometimes one writes everything but needs the other to elevate the final product to a new level. You can’t really pin down the magic of the best songwriting pairs, but what you do know is that the result of that collaboration will be fabulous.

So it is with Andersson and Ulvaeus. The songwriting team behind the slick pop stylings of ABBA, they kept going as a team after the group broke up in 1982, jumping right back into the game and writing the score to the smash stage musical “Chess” (which itself managed one nice little top 40 hit back in 1984, “One Night In Bangkok” by Murray Head…..and how often do Broadway songs hit the top 40, I ask you?). More songwriting projects followed, none of which really garnering much attention here in the United States, but keeping the two friends busy nonetheless. One of my favorites is this clever little pop tune from 1993’s “Shapes” by Josefin Nilsson, a Swedish singer and actress. All songs on her debut album? Written by Benny and Bjorn.

(Quick sidebar and interesting fact: did you know that ABBA has, to this day, never officially broken up? Just like North and South Korea are technically still at war because of lack of an official signed peace treaty, ABBA never officially announced their dissolution, and actually mentioned in separate interviews throughout 1983 and 1984 that they planned on eventually coming back together for another album. Of course, as we all know, that never happened….)

Still, as good as their output has remained over the years, nothing I’ve heard can quite match “Story Of A Heart” for its sheer……umm…..ABBA-ness? I’m truly amazed how effortless Benny and Bjorn make writing a great pop song seem every time I listen to it, and it makes me wonder if things would somehow be just as magical as they were back in the 70s if there ever were a reunion.

Of course, let’s keep in mind that all four members were offered a billion dollars (yes, you read that right….”billion” with a “b”) to reunite for a limited tour about ten years ago and they refused, so…..I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

Saying “Crap” In Five Different Languages

Posted in Music, Pontification with tags , , , on October 2, 2012 by greedycherry

Sometimes I think about it and find it a little nuts that I spend all my time on my own blog talking about other people’s music and never promoting my own. This could, of course, be due to the fact that I actually get to make music very infrequently (various and sundry personal and financial issues are currently bouncers at that particular club), but, even so, I should still be talking about Greedy Cherry sometimes, right? Isn’t that what most musicians do when they have a blog for their band….talk about their actual band?

Well, dear readers, you’re in luck…..I’m actually going to talk about The Cherry today.

However, as new music has not sprung forth from me in at least a year or two (although that may change soon), we’re going to take a short trip back in time in order to do so. Let’s travel back to March of this year, when a copy of my first CD “EP” (which you can kindly purchase here now and forevermore) which I had sent out for potential review actually got picked up and reviewed. What a surprise that was.

Anyway, I’ve only gotten a few dedicated reviews of my music since I released my little disc back in 2010, so each one has been pretty neat to see, and each one holds a special little place in my heart. Let’s see if you can guess which part of my heart this particular review is kept in after reading it …. reprinted here in its entirety from the March 17th issue of Boston’s “The Noise” music magazine:

“Five songs, five different genres. Still, I’m not impressed. Their music, no matter what style this band seems to choose, is entirely unoriginal and unforgivably middle-of-the-road. In short: It’s crap. Shite, mierda, merde, scheiße. There, that’s crap in five different languages. Impressed? I didn’t think so. Listening to this is like watching some mediocre comedian do mediocre impressions. In one fell swoop, this EP manages to desecrate Herbie Hancock, lobotomize Antonio Carlos Jobim, piss on the grave of Bob Marley, neuter the Beatles, and cheapen the centuries-old English ballad tradition. (Alright, I’ll admit that is kinda impressive, but that’s beside the point.) Greedy Cherry, please, in the name of all that is holy and musical, stop the madness. I can’t take anymore. (Will Berry)”

So that’s whose grave I pissed on. To be fair, I was awful drunk, and stumbling around a cemetery in a strange city trying to find my way back to the hotel, and…..well, anyway……

To be honest, the first reaction you have when you read a review like this of a personal project near and dear to your heart (besides “Herbie Hancock?? Where the hell did he get Herbie Hancock from anyway?”, of course….) is akin to that of being struck in the face with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. (And yes, I did that specifically for all you Douglas Adams fans out there.) You put your time and effort, your blood, sweat, and tears (if I may pound a cliche into the ground), into something you love, taking a great deal of care and painstaking effort to produce something you’re proud of – something that, for me, was the culmination of years of planning, writing, and playing – and ….. in one short paragraph, you’re eviscerated. Emotionally mugged, stabbed, and left for dead in a dark alley. Not even a hint of one kind word to say. It’s a hard punch in the gut to be sure.

Then comes the anger.

“Yo …. SCREW that guy! What the hell does he know anyway? Some dumb-ass head banger who wouldn’t know quality music if it walked up to him and kicked him in the marbles. F*cking bastard…..”

But after that quick flash of blind rage came something else entirely, something I didn’t count on: I was surprised by how fast the whole thing became funny to me. It stung for a moment, yes, because as a musician you want people to like and enjoy your music. And, from a purely psychological standpoint, we as humans just want to be liked anyway … and insofar as one’s art is an extension of themselves, you put your creation out there to be liked and appreciated.

Eventually, however, it just settled over me that people are people, and not everyone likes the same things. Fact is, even if I had made a CD that Will Berry LOVED, that just means that some other reviewer out there would hate it. Any artist who does anything will find those who love and hate it, those who support and criticize their efforts. It’s just part of life.

And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about life during my time living it, most certainly it is this: you need to develop a thick skin or stay home. Most people are kind and encouraging, yes …. but there are many more who are just plain vicious and mean. I do believe that you have to be open to criticism to a degree, because sometimes the truest things are the ones that are the hardest to hear. But you also don’t have to be a dumpster for everyone else’s personal trash. Learn to let that stuff roll right off your back. Take love and kind words where you can get them, and ignore the rest. Pursue your path. Be true to your heart. Do what you can with what you have, however you are able, and love your own creations. And if you do those things, no matter what anyone else says, that is surely good enough.

So thank you, Will Berry. Thank you for spending some time listening to my little CD, even if you didn’t much like it. Just know that there’s really no chance that I’ll “stop the madness.” I love to make music, just like you love to write reviews (or perhaps even write your own music, which you like much, much more than most of the music you have to review every month), and I’m sure that we’ll both continue doing what we love as best we can until the day we die. It’s what we do. It’s who we are. And if you’re not true to who you are, then who are you, really?

A word of caution, however, good sir: when you finally pass from this Earth, if it is before I am deceased, watch where you’re buried. I tend to get drunk in graveyards a lot, especially when I have a full bladder, and I’m most certain I will recognize your name should I see it on a headstone somewhere….

Get Back

Posted in Music, Music Video with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2012 by greedycherry

The Beatles On The Rooftop

Well then.

It seems that I have inadvertently taken the summer off from posting to my own blog. I’d apologize for this, of course, except that I think I’ve taken way too much space in previous posts apologizing for my lapses in discipline. Therefore, we’ll just assume that I’m taking a whole paragraph to acknowledge my absence of over three months and beg your forgiveness simultaneously….and we’ll just get back to it.

Today I’d like to talk about The Beatles….which, in my estimation, is a fabulous topic to discuss no matter who you happen to be in the company of. Hell, even if you’re all by yourself, it’s still a pretty damn good topic.

I have been listening to a whole lot of Pandora Radio lately, and, before I go any further, I will now briefly and quickly cover what Pandora is in case there are some among you who have never heard of it.

Pandora is an internet-based radio station where you go, create an account for yourself, and then pick an artist you like to create a station that is tailored just for you. For example, let’s say I choose Steely Dan (which, I will confess, is one of my personal stations). So I pick Steely Dan, and Pandora immediately starts off by playing me a Steely Dan song. Cool, right? It gets cooler.

So Pandora has thousands and thousands of songs in its database, and each one has been classified and tagged with different keywords like “fast” or “jazz” or “sad” or “icantbelieveyoureactuallylisteningtojustinbieber.” (Actually, I made that last one up. Sorry.) They classify things like tempo, melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics….it’s all part of what they call the “Music Genome Project.” Once they have each song analyzed six different ways from Sunday (what the heck does that phrase even mean, anyway?), then they throw it in the musical hopper for public consumption.

So let’s say I’m listening to my Steely Dan track, and it’s a mid-tempo song that features piano prominently and contains lyrics about love. So Pandora looks for other songs that are mid-tempo, feature piano, and have lyrics about love, and then starts feeding me those tunes. Every so often they’ll circle back to a Steely Dan track, or maybe play me a Donald Fagen solo track. Regardless, I now have my own “Steely Dan” radio station that plays me not only Steely Dan songs, but also songs that are in a similar vein. This lets you hear a lot of music you already like, but also introduces you to other songs that you may never have heard of before that are stylistically close to the songs you love. This, undoubtedly, is a gross oversimplification of how Pandora works, but I think you get the idea….

Anyway, back to the story. So I’ve been listening to a lot of Pandora lately, and The Beatles come into the rotation now and again. When they do, what’s nice is that I don’t necessarily get the usual top 10 hits kind of stuff…..I’ll get a few songs from the “Love” soundtrack that was put together for Cirque du Soleil Moon Frye (sorry, couldn’t resist), an older track or two from the early days (including a song I really had never heard before, “That Means A Lot,” which was written for the “Help” soundtrack but was left off), and some stuff from the “Anthology” series that was put out in the mid-1990s. It’s this latter category I’d like to focus on, as it contains the point of my whole entry today.

The “Anthology” series was great (if you’re a Beatles fan) because it gave the public a bunch of previously unreleased tracks (for the most part, anyway); lots of demos, studio chatter, and stuff that had only been available on bootleg recordings to this point. But the huge payoff for a lot of people were the NEW Beatles tracks. The remaining members of The Beatles had wanted to contribute some new music to the “Anthology” project, and had thought they might just record some incidental music as a trio. However, they soon decided that they would like to do something on a bit of a grander scale.

Therefore, Paul McCartney reached out to Yoko Ono and asked for any unfinished John Lennon compositions that the remaining three might add their voices and instruments to in order to make finished “Beatles” songs. Yoko gave Paul a cassette tape with four songs that John had left uncompleted, and the group got to work. (Apparently McCartney told Yoko and her son Sean Lennon that if they didn’t like what the remaining Beatles came up with, that they could veto the tracks. George and Ringo’s rumored reaction: “What? What if we love it??”)

The resulting tracks from this Beatles “reunion” were the two songs “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”. These songs come up on my Pandora rotation quite often, and I was struck the other day as I listened by just how….how BEATLES they are. I mean, really….they sound like they could have been composed and recorded while the group was still together in the 1970s. The quality is solid, the songwriting is solid, the playing is solid, the harmonies are solid…’s just…..SOLID. It’s quite amazing.

Some groups reunite and probably shouldn’t….some when they don’t even have half their original members left! (Don’t get me started on the Motown “reunions” that are nothing but a farce….how many original Temptations are left? What, ONE out of FIVE? Then THERE ARE NO MORE TEMPTATIONS TO REUNITE!!!! Ahem.) They need the money, or want to relive the glory days. Some of them end up putting out inferior material and ultimately tarnish the catalog that made them so popular and famous in the first place by adding God-awful tripe to their canon.

But a few groups? A few groups get it right. They are reluctant to reunite, to do anything that might damage the flowers that they have planted in the garden of history. But if they finally do come together (no pun intended), they make sure that they give it their all…..that the quality is first rate. The Beatles reunion of the mid-1990s is such a moment in time: a crack in the universe through which three lads from Liverpool stepped backwards two and a half decades to embrace a lost friend and recreate that old, familiar magic one last time.

And I am surely not the only one who is grateful.

As a side note before I go, I would like to quickly say a word about an upcoming project all Beatles lovers should check out. (I spend so much time talking about music history, I should really highlight some stuff happening in this current decade, huh?) There is a very talented artist who goes by the name “AG” who I just recently became aware of. As the story on her website goes, her publishing company ended up somehow with the rights to the only six Beatles songs not owned by Sony. Therefore, AG found herself in the unique position to record these tunes, and, from what I’ve heard so far, has quite ably and wonderfully turned them a bit sideways. Covers, yes….but even more like reverent reimaginings. She has redone Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” in a drastically different way than you’re used to hearing it….but it’s AMAZING. (And I’m not just saying that because I’m a sucker for awesome harmonies….although that certainly doesn’t hurt. Sidebar: if you’d like to hear The Beatles version just to compare, here’s that link. I’d listen to the original first and then AG’s version to fully understand the depth of creativity involved in the cover version.) I’d recommend at least one listen if I were you (which, by the way, I’m totally not).

“The Beatles” by AG will be released on John Lennon’s birthday, October 9th. Check it out, and I’ll see you next week! (Hopefully….;))

Seems Like A Dream

Posted in Current Events, Music, Music Video with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2012 by greedycherry

I don’t get it.  I really don’t.  Is it just me, or are an inordinate amount of musicians dying lately?  Every single time I turn around, someone else is passing away, and I’m really, REALLY trying to swear off making my blog, as one of my friends so aptly joked, the “Greedy Cherry Obituary.”

Therefore, I’ll try to keep this short.

It’s hard not to honor the life of a talented musican, especially being a musician myself (for which the “talented” part, of course, is up for debate). But the death of Bob Welch today (a suicide, unfortunately) likely only strikes me so strongly because I have just recently come to appreciate his songs.  Or, to be honest, one song in particular.

“Hypnotized” was a song Welch wrote and performed when he was the lead guitarist and vocalist for Fleetwood Mac back in the 1970s. “But wait a minute,” you say. “Wasn’t Lindsey Buckingham the lead guitarist and vocalist for Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s?”

“Sure,” I reply. “He was certainly one of them.”

Many people don’t realize the lineup shifts and changes that went on in the ranks of the Mac back in the day, and that they only rose to global superstardom once the boyfriend/girlfriend duo of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined up in 1975. But Fleetwood Mac had been around since 1967, originally formed as a three-piece consisting of drummer Mick Fleetwood, bassist John McVie, and popular blues guitarist Peter Green. All of them met while performing as part of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and eventually struck out on their own, adding slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and releasing their first album “Fleetwood Mac” in February of 1968. In fact, Fleetwood Mac was mainly a blues band for the first few years of their existence, and only started to segue into playing with the rock and pop styles as the 1970s dawned. Other guitarists who were members of the Mac that helped them stretch out into those styles in the early part of that decade were Danny Kirwan and Bob Weston (who, oddly enough, also died this year, back in January).

I promised to make this short, didn’t I?

Anyway, long story short: main guitarist Peter Green went a little bonkers and left the band, and they hired Christine Perfect (now known much better as Christine McVie) on to help fill out the lineup.  Shortly thereafter, Jeremy Spencer went out for a magazine and never came back (they found soon after he had joined a religious group called “The Children of God”), so the Mac was in the market for another guitarist.

Enter Bob Welch.

Welch was with the band from 1971 through 1974, and I frankly had never heard anything from that era until just a few months ago, when, on my Pandora station I listen to at work, the song “Hypnotized” came up on rotation. From the very first seconds, as the recognizable drum rhythm loops over and over without any other instrumentation, pounding its way into my subconscious, I took notice. I made a point to listen. The song didn’t disappoint.

It’s got a very relaxing, almost mystical vibe to it despite the drum prelude, and when the reverb-laden guitar hits its first lick, it’s almost the perfect antidote to the driving, unyielding rhythm Mick Fleetwood lays down. Further ambience is established by the swelling harmony vocals on the chorus. After my first listen, I wanted to hear it again. After my second, I rated it with the little orange “thumbs up” so that I would be sure to hear it (and other songs like it) again in my rotation.

After the tenth listen, I went to my local record shop and bought the CD, 1973’s “Mystery To Me”.

Anyway, Bob Welch would end up achieving greater success after leaving Fleetwood Mac. In 1977, as the Mac were ruling the world with the release of “Rumours”, Welch put out his first solo effort entitled “French Kiss”.  It contained two hits, the track “Sentimental Lady” (which was originally written and released during his time with Fleetwood Mac, but didn’t become a hit until this solo version….which, funny enough, features Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, and Lindey Buckingham as session players) and “Ebony Eyes”.  I’m sure, just as you likely didn’t know who the hell Bob Welch was in the first place, you probably wouldn’t recognize those songs by their names, but take a listen….chances are you do know them (at least “Sentimental Lady”).

(Don’t you love those moments where someone mentions a song, and you go, “What? No, I don’t know that song.” And then they play a bit of it, or hum it to you, and you go, “Oh YEAH….I know that.”  Sometimes I find it amazing how much we know that we don’t know until someone digs it out of a buried corner of our brain….)

So, in conclusion, after my one single blog entry where I didn’t mention dead musicans, I must now cave and say these words: rest in peace, Bob Welch. And thanks for the music.

Call It Done

Posted in Current Events, Music with tags , , , , , , on May 27, 2012 by greedycherry

Brooke ParrottA former classmate of mine from the Berklee College of Music, a talented young lady named Brooke Parrott, completed work on her sophomore CD entitled “Buried” not that long ago, and now is getting ready for the official release on June 1st.  Having supported the recording via a donation to her campaign on PledgeMusic (I like to support all the former classmates I can who are making great music whenever I am able), I feel a little word or two on my blog about her new EP is warranted. Word of mouth is so very important when it comes to getting one’s music out to the masses and heard (and hopefully purchased), so I want to do my part to spread the word. If you have a few moments after reading this (or maybe even while reading this), take a listen and support Brooke with a little cash-eesh if you like what you hear. Cool? Let’s get started….

The first time I heard this EP was a couple months back when I received the tracks via download because of my participation in her PledgeMusic campaign. I took a quick spin through the tracks, and one immediately jumped out at me…..the up-tempo and memorably melodic “Call It Done.” Kicking off with a little bit of rhythmic electric guitar, Brooke’s voice jumps in with a smooth delivery that doesn’t seem to move much in note choice for a line or two, belying the deft plunge into melody which is on the way. By the time the chorus kicks in and the bass joins the fun, there’s a hummable ditty that especially turns nicely on the phrase  “Let’s just quit while ahead, no one’s winning this one.”  And then when the hand claps kick in, fuhgeddaboutit. I’m a sucker for hand claps.

“Call It Done” never seems to lose momentum, and this could be due to the four-on-the-floor bass drum that’s present throughout the majority of the song, but I think that the trick’s in the arrangement. Follow the progression here: the song begins sparsely and the bass doesn’t kick in until the first chorus; a heavier drum sound is added at the beginning of the second verse; hand claps hit on the second chorus and stay throughout the sparser-feeling bridge and the third verse; and things build ever so slightly as she launches into the last chorus, where her voice is doubled in a more obvious way than on previous choruses, thickening the sound until a unison chorus of other voices kick in behind her on a second go-round. I’m a big fan of good arranging, and I think this is a pretty good example of fabulous execution. Take a listen to the song on her website and see if you don’t become hooked on this tasty little tune!

"Buried" by Brooke ParrottOf course, that’s not to say that the rest of the songs on the EP are bad….nowhere near it. It’s just that on any record I’ve ever listened to (and I’m sure it’s the same for all of you), there’s always one song that leaps out at you….one that’s your favorite. And with the “Buried” EP, “Call It Done” is that song for me.

Having said that, I received my advance hard copy of the CD this past week and decided to take another listen while looking over the whole package. Actually, if you’d be so kind, allow me a diversion here: no matter how many downloads anyone ever offers me, there’s nothing I appreciate more than holding a tangible item in my hand, a finished product that speaks to a total artistic experience and the realization of a vision. I mean, it’s bad enough we have mostly lost the lovely canvas that was the 12″ vinyl album….do we have to lose our CD booklets too? Or maybe I’m just the only person left in the world who likes reading the credits of an album and seeing who played on it and where it was recorded, etc…..

Sigh. Anyway, regardless of that little off-the-cuff rant, here’s a quick word about the rest of the songs, all of which are quite good:

  • “Head Over Heart” – An atmospheric opening number that brought to mind the ambient music of Tennessee-based group Hammock. The vibe suits Brooke’s voice like a glove.
  • “Wanting” – A lovely ballad where Brooke’s piano becomes a bit more prominent, but the heartfelt vocal performance outshines everything. If you’re a Tift Merritt fan, especially of her early work, you may find the track reminiscent of “Sunday”.
  • “If You Don’t Know” – One of my favorite sounds, the hammond organ, augments this song, which contains a unique drum rhythm on the verses, a half-time bridge, and a bouncy chorus.
  • “Waterproof” – Loping and dirge-like for a good part of the song (which is in a waltz-like 3/4), this track caught my attention due to the drums as well, with somber drum rolls marching each verse toward the gallows and a solid crack on the “&” of 1 and the 3 of each measure of the chorus.
  • “Buried” – I found it odd that the title track was the last song, but, upon listening, it certainly feels right to make this the closer. An intimate piece featuring Brooke’s voice and piano, this is best listened to in a quiet room…..the ending needs the space and silence to hang in the air, and you’ll be inclined to keep your eyes closed and just sit for a few moments after it’s over. Great ending to a CD.

Anyway, the EP will be available for purchase on Friday, so if you liked the preview you heard on her website, I would encourage you to return at that time to make a purchase and support a great songwriter. And if you really like what you hear, I would also suggest heading over to Brooke’s CDBaby page and snagging a copy of her debut full-length CD, “Another City”. I can’t see how you’d possibly regret it.

See? I told you my next blog entry wouldn’t be an obituary!  🙂

Dim All The Lights

Posted in Current Events, Music, Music Video with tags , , , on May 18, 2012 by greedycherry

Donna Summer

I believe that when fans think of Donna Summer, who passed away Thursday morning at the age of 63, they’re probably in one of two camps.

The first camp is people who were around in the 1970s and think of her as the unchallenged queen of disco. In four short years, she seemed to put out more four-on-the-floor disco tunes than anyone around; from the extended recorded orgy that was 1975’s “Love To Love You Baby” to 1979’s prostitution-themed “Bad Girls”, Donna Summer ruled dance floors all around the country. Hit after hit rose up the charts, and she seemed unstoppable.

Then the 1980s hit, and the inevitable backslide began (remember, kids….no one ever stays at the top forever). Sure, she was still popular, but she now expressed an interest in wanting to move away from disco and try some other styles. Her record label Casablanca, sensing that a cash cow might be slipping through their fingers, of course tried to discourage this. No compromise could be reached, and, as a result, Donna Summer left Casablanca in 1980 and signed with brand new label Geffen Records.  (Brand new…..HA.  Now I feel old….)

And thus began the second period that most of the fans in the other camp know her best for: 80s pop. Infusing her new songs with a bit of rock and New Wave, Summer managed to crank out another hit, called “The Wanderer”, right away, and followed that with a can’t-miss partnership that produced my favorite song of hers. Geffen recruited Quincy Jones to work with Donna on her second album for the label, and six months later, “Donna Summer” was released, generating the top ten hit “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)”. I was in middle school when it came out, but it made quite an impression….I heard it on the radio and just fell in love with it. As an adult, I can speak to the wonderful arrangement, the tight horn section, the great use of synthesizers….but back then I just thought it was COOL. Especially the robot voices.

(Side note and great piece of trivia: the very next album Quincy Jones produced after “Donna Summer”? “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. As a matter of fact, he was already working on it when Donna’s album was released.)

In a last hurrah of success, she released another album one year later to fulfill an obligation on her previous contract to Casablanca. Too bad for Geffen Records…..the album, titled “She Works Hard For The Money”, generated another top ten hit and a Grammy nomination for Donna. Unfortunately, she had now reached the end of her successful period.

Although she continued to make music – even charting one last top ten hit in 1989 with “This Time I Know It’s For Real” (awesome I could find a clear version of the video here, but, being an extended dance mix, you might want to skip ahead to about 1:40 to get to the actual song….unless you enjoy seeing idiots try to dance) – Donna Summer never again reached the dizzying heights of success that she had experienced in those eight years. Eleven albums, thirteen top ten hits, three consecutive double albums to reach number one (the first artist – and only one I know of – to ever do that), and a top forty hit in the Billboard Top 100 every single year from 1976 to 1984.

Now that’s impressive.

LaDonna Adrian Gaines, known to music lovers and club goers the world over as Donna Summer…… in peace.

(P.S. – I swear my next blog entry won’t be another obituary. I swear. Really I do.)

Can’t Stand It

Posted in Current Events, Music, Music Video with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2012 by greedycherry

The Beastie Boys

The year was 1986. I was a few months into my sophomore year in high school when three idiotic frat boys from New York released an album that would change rap forever. They called it “Licensed To Ill”. I called it stupid and annoying.

Looking back on it now, I still consider the record immature and a bit on the ridiculous side. (The best description I’ve read of it that seems to fit the tight niche it has occupied in my mind for so long is “frat hip hop.”) Maybe the album was just a victim of the “radio has played this WAY too many times” syndrome, but I found that every time I heard “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)” or “Brass Monkey”, all I wanted to do was flee the room. “Fight” to me was just three white guys yelling nonsensical rhymes over a distorted guitar riff, which itself wasn’t even that amazing or appealing. It was a very raw sound, but, were I able to say that I now appreciated it much more as an adult, I could be inclined to chalk my dislike at the time up to an uneducated ear.

But, honestly, I still don’t care for it much.

This being said, my opinion of the Beastie Boys did a quick 180 three years later, literally the second I heard the first note of “Hey Ladies” from “Paul’s Boutique”…..which is still a landmark and game-changing effort in rap to this very day. (Rolling Stone in 2003 put it at 156 in its list of the top 500 albums of all time.) I don’t believe I had ever heard sampling before, or, if I had, I never knew what it was or what it was called. But “Paul’s Boutique” had plenty of it…..105 songs were sampled in the making of the album, and you could be a complete music novice and still know it. I had never heard texture in music like that before; clips and beats pulled from other songs, pieces of music that I recognized molded to fit a particular passage, spoken word bits injected into breaks.

It is said the MTV created the short-attention-span generation. The Beastie Boys gave my ears ADD.

It was addictive, all those various bits and sounds, ground up and spread around each song like they were mix-ins at Cold Stone Creamery. With my first listen to “Hey Ladies,” I understood I was listening to something new and different…..and I LIKED it. To be honest, I could hardly believe this was the same rough, unpolished group that had screamed endlessly a few years before for me to fight for my rights, now, with much synthesized backing, imploring me to shake my rump-ahhhh.

Of course, it wasn’t all the Beastie’s doing. They had experience a ton of success with “Licensed To Ill,” but had come out of the process derided by many, seen as “one-hit wonders,” as a gimmick that couldn’t be repeated. Their relationship with original producer Rick Rubin and his label Def Jam fell apart, and so Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, and Adam Yauch retreated to Los Angeles to lay low and work on their next effort. Signing with Capitol/EMI and working on material for their next album, they fortuitously got introduced to the producers known as The Dust Brothers through a mutual friend named Matt Dike. The Dust Brothers had a bunch of instrumental tracks filled with samples that they had been working on to release as an album of their own, but Adam Yauch heard some of it and asked them to create the musical landscape for their sophomore album.

In an interview with Clash magazine, Yauch tells the story this way: “The Dust Brothers had a bunch of music together, before we arrived to work with them. As a result, a lot of the tracks come from songs they’d planned to release to clubs as instrumentals – “Shake Your Rump,” for example. They’d put together some beats, basslines and guitar lines, all these loops together, and they were quite surprised when we said we wanted to rhyme on it, because they thought it was too dense. They offered to strip it down to just beats, but we wanted all of that stuff on there. I think half of the tracks were written when we got there, and the other half we wrote together.”

Too dense????  Au contraire. I can’t imagine “Paul’s Boutique” any other way than just the way it is. It was something new and amazing and perfect in a world that needed to be shaken from its complacency and slapped upside the head with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

On May 4th, just ten short days ago, the world lost Adam “MCA” Yauch to cancer, and, even if the other two members continue to make music in some manner, the Beastie Boys as we know them are now through. It’s a sad moment, to be sure….after all, the raspy-voiced Yauch was probably my favorite Beastie. But it’s also a perfect moment… to reflect on that instant in 1989 when the Beastie Boys were musically reborn, somewhere between my left and right ears.

Rethink Music … Or Else

Posted in Current Events, Music with tags , , , on April 30, 2012 by greedycherry

Rethink Music Conference by Mathew Tucciarone(Before I begin, let me credit the above picture to my talented photographer friend Mathew Tucciarone. You can find all his photos from the Rethink Music Conference on his photo blog, which you should totally check out here. And, if you like his stuff and are feeling generous, drop him a comment or the ubiquitous “Like”, won’t you? Gracias.)

So this past week, Boston was once again host to the annual Rethink Music Conference. For all of us who are musicians, or are otherwise deeply involved in the music industry, it’s a time and place to gather together with other musicians or music business people and try to figure out exactly how to move forward into the future with our desired profession. I mean, let’s be honest….it’s not like the industry is currently anything like what it used to be. Music labels are dying, the industry structure is collapsing, and the conventional “we discover you, we pay you money up front, you make albums and tour, we collect our money back from your profits and then maybe you get a little more cash” system is just not feasible anymore. More and more artists are finding that their future is increasingly in their own hands….and while that opens many doors and offers up a good number of possibilities to all of us that have never existed before, it’s not always a plus.

Marketing is hard. Promoting is hard. Managing your own band and your own tour is hard. And don’t even get me started on the money you need to have to make some of these things happen (which, by the way, definitely doesn’t flow freely from the low-paying jobs that any recent grad of an arts school might find after they receive their diploma). But the hardest part, I’ve found, is the time.

Time, to me, is more valuable than anything in the world. It’s the most important commodity there is. You can always make more money, but good luck making more time. You’ve got what you’ve got, and every second that goes by, you’re that much closer to death. (No pressure.) The situation that I have found myself (as well as many of my musician friends) in is akin to a circle of hell, or some sort of evil, complex riddle that keeps on folding back into itself. And it goes, with subtle variations here and there, a little something like this:

You go to school for music. You pay a lot of money to do so (at least at a good music school like Berklee you do). You graduate. You try to find a job in music, but those jobs are often few and far between. So, failing that, you suck it up and decide to become a good, honest member of the workforce while working on your music in your off hours, building on your dreams slowly over time and hopefully reaching a tipping point where you’re able to leave your regular job and do your music full time! Good plan, right?

But wait…..there’s a problem: your degree is in MUSIC. Silly you! You tried to major in something that inspired you and made you happy, instead of one the few careers that actually could pay you a decent salary upon leaving college. Well, crap…..didn’t think that out too well, did you?

So, unfortunately, here comes low-paying job number one….which is all you can get at the moment, but you need to pay your rent, so you do what you need to get by. And you don’t mind going to work every day and putting in 110%, but you sure would like to be paid a living wage for it! This, however, is not to be. Retail and entry-level jobs of most kinds for music degree holders often aren’t great cash generators, but you’re staying ahead of things, paying your bills like an honest citizen, still trying to spend some time focusing on your music, still hoping, still dreaming, and then…..

Your six month grace period is up, and here come the loan payments. And now you understand JUST how much you don’t make. “Wow,” you think, “if I only could make the American median income of $35-$40,ooo/year, everything would be sort of okay!” But you don’t. You work retail or some other low-paying job. You’re barely making $25,000, if even $20,000.

And so here comes low-paying job number two. You know, the one that gets you some “extra cash” and some “breathing room.”

But there’s never enough breathing room, and now you have another problem you hadn’t anticipated. Now there’s not enough time. Not to do music; not to write, not to play, not to spend creating. You begin to collapse psychologically. You want to do some music every day, but you’re just worn out, and coming home, shoving some food in your face, and falling asleep is often the best you can do. And even if you do find a couple hours free one day, you have errands you’ve been putting off that you have to get done. And even if that isn’t the case….you’re just not inspired. All great art that satisfies the soul comes from being inspired, from being given the time and space and atmosphere to create, and, well, you just can’t do it. It’s like putting a gun to Michelangelo’s head and telling him, “You’re got two hours! Create a masterpiece!” Sorry…..not gonna happen, folks.

Now a feeling of dread starts creeping up on you….the realization of your circumstances and how far behind the eight ball you truly are. You look around, but there seems like no escape. Day after day of working hour upon hour for less than you know you’re worth, but no time to breathe, to relax, to create. The joy and openness and endless possibilities of your time in school seem like a distant memory, fading into your past, leaving you with your current financial reality.

Now you’re depressed. Now you’re slowly dying inside, your creativity and inspiration things you reflect upon using past-tense verbs. You see no way out. You look through tons of different jobs, thinking of anything and everything you could qualify to do that pays more. You apply. You get rejected or, even worse, hear nothing (or, even worse than that, get called in for an interview, and then hear nothing). You have good days, you have bad days…..but no days in which it seems like you’re getting ahead of things. In your mind, future plans go from, “Hey, maybe I can put out a CD in a few months” to “Hey, maybe I can put out a CD in thirty years when my loans are paid off and I have some extra cash.” You want to be able to pay your fellow artists fairly, just like you want to be paid for your talents….but where does the money come from? How do you compensate musicians, engineers, designers…..especially when you know you probably wouldn’t be getting paid for the end product anyway because most people are just used to getting their music for free nowadays? It’s almost like you have to have a huge following just to get any money at all… does that help artists that are just starting out?  What about songwriters who don’t have a band or tour?

So many questions…..and it all just seems so hopeless sometimes.

Now don’t get me wrong…..I’m not complaining. (Well, okay….I sort of am, but in a more detached, matter-of-fact kind of way.) Life is what it is, and, even though I quite enjoy doing so, there’s really no point in complaining about it. Yelling into the wind often accomplishes nothing….it’s better to just keep your head down and keep going forward. That’s usually the most you can do. (Not really all that inspirational of a thought, I’ll admit….but this isn’t the Hallmark blog, you know.) What I’m saying here, simply, is that I have experienced most of these things myself, and many people who graduate with degrees in the arts experience them too. In fact, a good number of my friends have told similar tales, in whole or at least in part.

And in a related note, did you see this little list from NBC? It’s been floating around the internet recently, and while there is much outrage on the part of artists in response, I can’t help but think it’s true in a way. More and more in society, it seems that art and culture and relaxation are taking a back seat to business and profit and 60-80-hour work weeks. It’s getting so that people who work salaried jobs are afraid to leave their offices at 5pm after a hard day’s work (unless you’re the COO of Facebook, apparently. Good for her!)….I know my dad was required to put in mandatory overtime in the years before his retirement. Whatever happened to an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and going home when the job is done to be with your family?

I remember reading a book once where real articles from old publications which made predictions about the future were reprinted. One magazine from 1935 predicted that by the year 1995, due to innovations in manufacturing and technology, American society would be working only six or seven hours a day, four days a week…..that we’d therefore have more leisure time to spend with our families and on our hobbies and travel, on enjoying this life and the things we loved in it. Isn’t that just amazing? I know I can’t quite believe it. It seems like the people in 1935 didn’t fully take into account what a powerful force greed is….

So, in conclusion, what does all of this say about our world? Our society? About what importance we place on providing fair opportunities and decent-paying jobs for our citizens? About what value we place on the mental health of our population, on relaxation, on providing all people enough time to experience the lives and the world they’ve been given? About our personal attitudes and judgments in regards to the things our friends and neighbors care about and find important in their lives which we may not care about at all?

And, most importantly for the purposes of this blog, what does this say about what value we place on music and the arts?

Rethink THAT, yo.

Keith Jarrett Is A Wise Man

Posted in Music, Technology with tags , on April 23, 2012 by greedycherry

I feel like an alcoholic.

When you’re addicted to alcohol (or any substance, be it cigarettes or chocolate) and you want to stop that addiction, it takes willpower.  Oodles and oodles and giant dump truck-size buckets of willpower.  You have to constantly be vigilant, putting yourself in positions that are least likely to tempt you, eating and drinking other things just to keep a nice glass of whiskey out of your mouth, relying on others and meetings to keep you on the straight and narrow.  But, most of all, it simply requires inner fortitude.  After all, only YOU control what you put in your mouth, what your hands choose to hold at any given moment in time….a banana or a shot glass.  You always have a choice, but sometimes you don’t feel that you do…..humans are great at justifying things to themselves, and it’s certainly the path of least resistance to just say, “This is the easy way.  This requires no effort.  That’s what I’ll do.”

And, thusly, I compare not posting to my blog to being an alcoholic.  (Too much of a stretch??)

It’s certainly been the path of least resistance over the past month to not sit down at the computer and begin typing a new blog entry.  There have been lots of things happening in my life over the past couple of months that have made it hard to find the spare time to sit down for an hour or two and write about my favorite topic of all time – music – let alone find time to breathe.  Even so, I felt I was doing pretty good through February and into March…..once a week like clockwork, every Monday another blog post.  I thought I was getting into a good rhythm with it, actually.  But then it all went to hell.  Bleh.

I don’t know why every time I “fall off the wagon,” so to speak, I feel the need to apologize. I suppose I’m mostly apologizing to myself, as writing about music is something I quite love to do, and I feel less about myself and my life when I don’t make time to do the things I love.  But I guess that it’s also nice to think that some people out there are reading what I write, and maybe even getting something out of the experience as well…..and I would so hate to lose an audience.

Regardless, I feel that today is a good day to pen a quick entry, as a unique request was made of me no more than an hour or two ago. A talented musician and good friend of mine named Jenna wrote this on my Facebook wall around 8pm:

“I’ve got a blog idea you might like-ahem…people who spend a whole rock concert taking video and photos with their fancy gizmos instead of actually taking the time to experience the rock concert-in person-while it is happening. Ready, set, go.”

Okay….challenge accepted. This is actually a topic with which I could spend a few paragraphs (or hours) going over the various and sundries of the ways in which “gizmos” can compromise the near-spiritual bond between an audience and a performer; how technology, while a useful tool, can sometimes just simply get in the way of a good experience….like someone at a family reunion trying so hard to get the perfect picture of everyone in attendance that they miss out on actually spending time with their own relatives. (I may or may not have a little experience with this topic myself.  Just sayin’.)

But when Jenna issued that challenge to me, the first thing I thought of was this article about musician Keith Jarrett, written by blogger Jeffery To. It’s such a completely well-written, thoughtful, and comprehensive article on the subject that I said to myself, “Wow.  I can post a blog entry in record time tonight, and won’t even have to write much at all to get it done.”

Lazy, I know……but at this point, sadly, I’m just looking for enablers.  After all, did I mention I was an alcoholic?

A Few Odds And Ends

Posted in Current Events, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2012 by greedycherry

So I’ve been trying, for the past month, to get back into a regular blog-writing schedule, and decided that having fresh content ready for every Monday morning sounded like a good idea consistency-wise. Therefore, I’ve been writing up my new posts every Sunday night so that everyone had something new to read (if they so chose) for the start of their work week the following day. This week, unfortunately, I missed by a few days, and therefore can only provide you fresh, new content for the end of your work week. I hope you will forgive me.

Even if you won’t, I will push on with a few odds and ends I thought might be of interest to you…..things you can check out while you’re killing time before the five o’clock bell and the start of your weekend. Because, let’s be honest….isn’t that just what you’re doing?

The Fleet FoxesThe first item of note combines a pastoral-sounding musical group with a pop diva who recently passed. Is everyone familiar with the Fleet Foxes? If not, I totally recommend you check them out. Their sound is a bit hard to describe….sort of like a stripped-down rock band with thick harmonies that were recorded in a church cathedral. There’s something reverent about their sound, yet contemporary….it’s very odd, but very addictive. If you haven’t been introduced, allow me to provide a link to their first big hit, and how I was introduced to them: White Winter Hymnal. Such a lovely little song…..but can you imagine this type of sound used on a Whitney Houston song?

Imagine no longer.

In August of last year, this version of Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody Who Loves Me” popped up on social media site Tumblr, and everyone thought that the Fleet Foxes were just insanely talented at transferring their distinct sound to literally any song they wanted to take on. The L Magazine even put up an article on the release of the song which was titled, “Fleet Foxes Cover Whitney Houston, Prove They Can Turn Anything into a Campfire Singalong.” But, as it turned out, this wasn’t really the Fleet Foxes at all, despite the Tumblr account name “Fleetfoxessing”.

Instead, this song was discovered to have been released by a VERY talented tribute group named Fleet Foxes Sing. And, to be truthful, it’s not even really a group….just one guy who wishes to remain anonymous, lest the press attention and fan mail become overwhelming. (You can, if you are so inclined, read an interview with him here, which talks about his inspiration for the project, how he started it, and how he arranges and records these brilliant covers.) It’s quite amazing how many covers this guy has taken on, from artists as diverse as Al Green, Katy Perry, Robyn, Phil Collins, Feist, Stevie Wonder, Bon Iver, Ginuwine, and Pat Benetar, to name a few. At least the Fleet Foxes themselves aren’t mad about this guy stealing their sound; as Fleet Foxes Sing started to become viral, they tweeted from their official account: “We didn’t do that Whitney Houston cover. Funny though!”

The second thing I’d like to share on this lovely Friday is a link to an article in The Economist magazine, not ordinarily, I suppose, the kind of reading material that would make fodder for a music blog.  However, one of the columnists for the publication recently wrote an article on one of the most famous drum beats in the history of sampled music, and I thought you might enjoy reading (and listening to, which is the even better bonus) the history of the appropriately-titled “Amen Break”. Taken from the 1969 funk song “Amen, Brother” by a group called The Winstons, it was added to an 1980s sampling library called “Ultimate Breaks and Beats”….and from there, its popularity exploded as it became a rhythmic backbone for some of the biggest groups in music, from rappers NWA, to Brit-rockers Oasis….even to the theme song for the animated series “Futurama”! Click on that link above, and have some fun listening to how an obscure drummer from the 60s can live on forever via sampling. It’s sort of like playing “Where’s Waldo” with audio……

Della MaeLastly, before I get on out of here, I’d like to give a quick plug to an up-and-coming Boston-based bluegrass group I recently discovered called Della Mae. If you like bluegrass music (and I loves me some bluegrass), I think you’ll really love what you hear from these ladies. And yes, I said ladies. Five of them, to be precise, all super-talented with some great harmonies between them. As a matter of fact, the woman on fiddle, Kimber Ludiker, is actually a two-time National Fiddle Champion, and you can certainly hear the evidence on their new album “I Built This Heart” (which I would also recommend at the very least listening to, if not buying). They’ll be playing a lot of bluegrass festivals this coming summer, including the world-famous Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, so there’s plenty of chances to catch them live too, if you prefer a great show to a great CD.

Well, that’s all for now! Hopefully I’ll have some new stuff to read on Monday, when you’re sitting back at that same desk you’re at right now, after an all-too-short weekend. Sigh……sometimes life’s just not fair, is it?