28 November, 2006

The Innovators

In our computerized world, technology changes rapidly. Ten years ago, everyone used VHS tapes and CDs which have now gone the way of the 8-track, cassette tape, and vinyl record. The internet generation’s MP3s have created controversy in the music business. The industry first struck back by causing the fall of the giant free file-sharing services. “The innovators” who saw the potential for instant music access turned file-sharing into file-downloading, and the legal availability of instant access has recently caused multiple large music chain stores to shut their doors (as well as the small independents that are rarely mentioned.) The other reason these music superstores have fallen is that the freewheeling facade that has been the “face” of the music industry since the mid 20th century was finally destroyed. There is absolutely nothing “freewheeling” about rich men suing kids for stealing music, and many people just don’t feel comfortable buying music from “the man.” Unfortunately, people don’t seem to understand that the music business is a business. When iTunes has a total stranglehold on the market, then we’ll see who’s the new “man.”

Personally, I was an early adopter of legal downloading services and I understand the charm of immediate access and availability. You can log into iTunes and buy an album as soon as it’s available, and there is no possibility of it being sold out. You can also preview all of the tracks on the album, which is a giant step up from deciding to buy a CD based on the cover art. In my opinion though, in gaining immediate musical gratification, you lose some of the art. I still buy actual hardcopy CDs much more often than I download CDs, and the reason for this is that I miss the tangible object when I download. Besides just listening to a CD, I like to read the lyrics and thank yous from the band, and pour over the artwork. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I enjoy having a real case for my CDs, not a piece of computer paper folded into an envelope with poorly drawn hearts on the cover. I also like the idea of buying CDs at artist’s shows, where you can actually talk to the people who get your money. Despite the numerous reasons for buying hardcopy CDs, now that people have embraced the idea of downloading, there’s really no going back. Instant gratification is the catch-phrase of my generation, and iTunes has packaged that in a very attractive and sleek way.

Yet, new innovators are always on the horizon, and the innovators in this case are the artists themselves. Harvey Danger, the band best known for their neurotic hit “Flagpole Sitta” has released their latest album “Little By Little” in stores and online, but not in the usual way. To get their music out in the world, Harvey Danger offers their latest album as a completely free download on their website, but also gives the music-lover a chance to purchase their album through their online store. The “physical version” includes a bonus disk and there are different level packages that include t-shirts, stickers, and buttons. In this way, Harvey Danger is giving their fans immediate access to excellent music and the ability to buy their CD straight from the source. You can read Harvey Danger’s well-written reasons for making their new CD free on the Harvey Danger website: http://www.harveydanger.com/press/why.php

Another extremely talented and innovative band has taken the reigns with its musical freedom, and this band’s name is Lucero. With their new CD “Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers”, Lucero has been advertising a promo-special where you can buy a hard copy of their new CD through their website and receive an instant digital download. The cost of the CD is only slightly more than a download from iTunes, and you receive immediate access to very good music, a CD in the mail, some rad pins, and the good feeling you get when you do something worthwhile.

It’s always worthwhile to support great music, especially when you can cut out the middlemen who make the music less of an art. There is nothing wrong with making money from music if you’re distributing a good product and not taking advantage of people, and Harvey Danger and Lucero have enough faith in their product that they are willing to take chances. This is what innovators do, and, in my opinion, these artists are the next innovators in the flailing music business.

We Got the Beats

We music connoisseurs like to think that we’re always discerning when it comes to our musical choices, but loud music and the need to dance sometimes override our best efforts. We’ve all been in that position where our “closet music” starts playing on the radio and we just have to turn it up. Many of us have also been in a situation where a member of an older generation questions the propriety of a beat or lyric. Yet, despite the belief of much of the population over twenty, not all hip-hop is composed of breakneck beats and bad-ass lyrics (not that those songs aren’t fun too!) Like any musical genre, hip-hop has gone through many transitions and survived the power of many sub-genres. The most popular artists aren’t necessarily the best or the most interesting, but sometimes their music is fun. Like all music, hip-hop has a huge number of artists doing different things, and plenty of hip-hop music is worth listening to for more than just beats. The following artists are definitely worth your time:

Edan from Boston is a master of flow and sound. His music and lyrics are interesting, and they work well together, unlike some hip-hop music where the music and lyrics either battle for superiority or are both less than interesting. Beauty & The Beat showcases Edan’s rhythmic and lyrical prowess.

Lupe Fiasco is the skateboarding rapper of 2006, complete with a punk-rock name. Despite the fact that “Kick, Push”, the first single, talks about being a rebel on a board it showcases smooth horns more reminiscent of late-night jazz than ska. The rest of his album, Food & Liquor, is equally smooth with more R&B and neo-soul influences than hip-hop. Lupe Fiasco remains a rapper throughout the album, but keeps his hard edges smooth with an R&B sound.

Delinquent Habits make Latin rap that sounds very different from Daddy Yankee. The band rarely raps in Spanish for a whole song, yet their sound is very “south of the border.” Their music includes horns, guitars, drums, and the occasional well-crafted beat, and is reminiscent of laid back Ozomatli. Delinquent Habits’ lyrics are usually about partying, and their thick beats are perfect for a party soundtrack.

Psalm One is a female MC who celebrates her femininity. It’s a rare artist who understands that being female just comes down to being yourself, and equally rare are female rappers who feel comfortable dropping a rhyme without putting on a show. Psalm One seems both comfortable with herself and with her rhymes. She throws around tricky lyrics with power, and she throws them over interesting beats.

Atmosphere is the political rapper in this bunch. He can drop heavy lyrics over mad beats, like a hardcore kid can scream over shredded guitars. Besides his amazing flow, Atmosphere writes lyrics that mean something. He discusses hip-hop culture (“Trying to Find a Balance,”) life’s disappointments (“Pour Me Another,”) and just trying to make it (“The Arrival.”) Like every artist listed here, Atmosphere has a distinct sound that separates him from the popular rap crew. Atmosphere has a very even and exceptional sound, easily throwing around difficult lyrics over tight music.

21 November, 2006

...You Say You Want A Revolution

Some of the most powerful and empowering music discusses the idea of being trapped in your own or others' preconceived notions. Sociologically speaking, we live in a society that imposes boundaries and restrictions and some great music speaks of bumping against, and in some cases bursting through those barriers. Revolution can be both internal and external, and is more celebrated in contemporary music than you may realize. When you feel trapped, listen to the music and it will free your mind.

“To Have and Have Not” by Billy Bragg

This song addresses the separation of classes and the disconnect between people that results from this separation. The people who can “...afford to pick and choose...” have a greater advantage in the working world and do not always understand that everyone does not have this advantage. The most touching lyric: “...just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy. Just because you’re going forward, doesn’t mean I’m going backwards.”

“Start Now” by Rancid

A call for unity to end war and violence. The chorus is clear, “I’m not looking for a fight now, and I don’t care who’s wrong or right now, so release the dove into flight now, so we can start right now...” Let’s get past our differing ideologies and work together for the common good.

“Video” by India Arie

Clearly about female body image and the struggles women go through to create a certain outer appearance or to combat that compulsion. India sings the age old question “Am I less of a lady if I don’t wear pantyhose?” and then counters with the thought that so many strong women share; “...my mama said a lady ain’t what she wears, but what she knows.” Beautiful, empowering, and spiritual.

“Waiting On the World to Change” by John Mayer

A song addressing our personal ability to change the world. John Mayer questions the apathetic title that has been placed on his generation, “ Me and all my friends we're all misunderstood. They say we stand for nothing. There's no way we ever could. Now we see everything is going wrong with the world and those who lead it. We just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it.” He’s waiting, but when his time comes he’s ready to change the world.

“Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who

This song speaks of revolution, but takes a different view of the resulting change. The entire song is summed up in the last two lines, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

Filled with teenage angst and sung in the mumbling tones of adolescence, Kurt Cobain uses the internal unease of that “most wonderful time of your life” as a metaphor for the feeling of not quite fitting the mold. This song truly showcases all of Cobain’s genius taking you into that world of boredom, apathy, and uncomfortable physical changes that make teenagers such a misunderstood creature. Cobain heightens this idea of differences by naming four odd things, things that seem very out of place, “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.”

“La Vie Boheme Pts. 1 and 2” by the Cast of RENT

A true celebration of differences and a grocery list of eclectic traits and nonconformist attitudes. “To going against the grain, going insane, going mad...to being an us for once, instead of a them!”

“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” by Gang Starr

Besides having impeccable flow, Gang Starr’s lyrics have a point. Another call for unity, but this time it’s especially directed towards the African American community; “... and just imagine if each one is teachin' one we'll come together so that we become a strong force, then we can stay on course. Find your direction through introspection and for my people out there I got a question, can we be the sole controllers of our fate? Now who's gonna take the weight?”

“Soar” by Christina Aguilera

Christina Aguilera belts a song about self-acceptance, independence, and strength in the face of major conformism. Again, the high school experience is the perfect setting to showcase differences, since changes and differences are always on center stage. The overwhelming moral is to believe in yourself, even if no one else does, because you’re the one that matters.

14 November, 2006

A Few of My Favorite Things, Vol. 2

The hills are alive with the sound of music, and I happen to be a big fan of musicals. I don’t understand what the big deal is anyway, in some ways showtunes are just the anti-hardcore; concise and understandable lyrics to beautiful music. Showtunes’ very structure is what makes them perfect for soundtracks, they’re music that furthers the story and entertains.

“Beauty & the Beast (Soundtrack to the Disney Motion Picture)” Composed by Alan Menken

Besides being just about the best animated Disney movie ever - obviously I’m quite a fan! - the music is also just amazing! In the style of the best Broadway shows, the music enchants while the lyrics entertain and all is made perfectly easy to understand so you can sing along, if you wish. The ensemble tunes are some of the best, while of course, Angela Lansbury outdoes herself with the big love-story number “Beauty & the Beast.” Personally, I enjoy Angela Lansbury’s version of the title-track much more than Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson’s, but at the end of the soundtrack even that unneeded cover is added on for good measure.

“RENT (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)” Composed by Jonathan Larson

I went to see this movie last year around Christmas time, and at first I thought ‘Wow, this is different.” For the next few weeks until Christmas I found myself humming the songs, even breaking into full-out vocals at times. I finally got the soundtrack and couldn’t get it out of my CD player for months, in fact I just started listening to it again after a month-long hiatus and the music is still amazing. The best thing about this musical is that the sentiment of the songs does not become dated, even if the constant references to AIDS get a little over the top. Also, the score is one of those rock scores that holds up. The music is layered and well-played and doesn’t sound like something out of a bad ‘80s movie, and the vocals never fail to bring tears to my eyes. It’s funny how you can fail to notice great music when it’s right under your ears.

“Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” Composed by Howard Shore

The best of the three movies, if only because of its emotionally cathartic ending, “The Return of the King” also has the best score. I’m assuming that it was Peter Jackson’s decision to leave the overlong “battle songs” that plagued Tolkien’s books out of the movies, but I applaud Howard Shore for backing up his decision. These soundtracks could have gone very wrong if we suddenly had Legolas and Gimli breaking into songs about slaying Orcs, but instead we have a very insidious and subtle score. The music really creeps up on you when you listen, sometimes everything sounds peachy and the heroes will save the day, and then slowly that doubt creeps in and you remember Golem and Sauron. Howard Shore had to really understand the feeling of the movie and have the ability to translate that feeling into a coherent score to create this beautiful music, and I think he pulled it off extremely well.

“Fiddler on the Roof” Composed by Jerry Bock with Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick

One of my favorite musicals because of its exceptional use of the emotional bond between parents and their children. Tevye is a truly good man trying to care for his family in a time of extreme change. Out of this story line we get such gems as “Tradition”, “Sunrise, Sunset”, “Anatevka”, and my personal favorite “Far From the Home I Love.” It is an underrated masterpiece with amazing music.

“The Sound of Music” Composed by Rodgers & Hammerstein

Julie Andrews’ voice is amazing and anything she sings is beautiful, but this musical is really perfect for her voice. The story line is most definitely Rodgers & Hammerstein, a fairy tale worthy of Disney, but a musical or movie for that matter does not need an unhappy ending to be worth viewing. Sometimes it’s all right to like something because the music is good and the story is entertaining. I’m not endorsing the new Paris Hilton album, but I do think it’s a shame that more people can’t enjoy a good musical just because it’s fun. The story isn’t all rainbows and waterfalls anyway, I mean the Nazis are involved, and some of the music strikes a deeper chord. This isn’t a shallow musical, but it is a very good fairy tale.

07 November, 2006

...These Are a Few of My Favorite Things Volume 1

In some ways I think of all the music I listen to as a soundtrack; the soundtrack to my life. So, when choosing the music I listen to on a regular basis I can be very picky. If you are a true music-lover you know there is a time and place for every song, and sometimes finding the perfect song for the perfect moment takes a little searching. These following soundtracks are my personal favorites and make up the first volume of my Favorite Soundtracks list. The composer or compiler truly understood what it meant to need that perfect song and went out of his/her way to find music that fit a moment in time and on-screen. Here they are:

“Grosse Pointe Blank” Compiled by Joe Strummer

This, in my opinion, is one of the most finely crafted soundtracks I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Joe Strummer outdid himself with these picks. There is not a bad song on the album! The late, great Mr. Strummer brings you back to the ‘80s for John Cusack’s high school reunion, but magically pulls together a baker’s dozen of authentically ‘80s songs that don’t suck. Actually, in all seriousness this album is excellent and underrated, the music is well-mixed, all of it is good, and the album includes a nice sprinkling of hits to keep you singing along.

“Garden State” Compiled by Zach Braff

I know, this album has received a ton of press backing and it probably doesn’t need my voice added to the collective cheer, but it really is good and I can’t leave a good soundtrack off this list. I was very slow to jump in, given all the hype surrounding the entire “Garden State” project and I wouldn’t touch the soundtrack with a ten-foot pole. I’ve obviously changed my mind about this album somewhere down the line and this is why: The movie made me sad, it really did, and I was afraid of watching it because I knew it was going to be sad, but the thing that really struck me as I watched was how seamlessly the music and the movie went together. It reminded me of a John Cusack movie because the music is always very important in his movies, but somehow the sound never supersedes the story. The story and the music flow.

“Pride and Prejudice” Composed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet

I’ve already written a fairly lengthy endorsement of this soundtrack in this blog, so suffice it to say that Jean-Yves Thibaudet creates music that at once evokes another time and connects to the time the listener inhabits. It’s gorgeous.

“Daredevil” Composed by Graeme Revell and Various Artists

This soundtrack that launched the Evanescence explosion is highly underrated as compared to some of its comic book contemporaries, but is certainly the cream of the crop. This not a smattering of disjointed hits like the Spiderman soundtrack, but a finely crafted hard-hitting rock album that fits the movie well. Even if you’re sick of hearing Amy Lee wail on “Bring Me To Life”, you’ll love her voice in this movie.

“Marie Antoinette” Compiled by Sophia Coppola

It’s funny how sometimes when you least expect it a soundtrack really surprises you. I was almost certain the music in “Marie Antoinette” would be well-crafted music of the period, but these 26 underground gems really flesh out the idea of the pouty princess. New Order, Gang of Four, and The Cure are not names you’d expect to find in Marie Antoinette’s repertoire, but find them you do on this soundtrack that very much evokes modern day royalty with a touch more class (Hilton + Princess Di = Kirsten Dunst.) Sophia Coppola had a vision and you can really tell by how well she compiled this music, it is most certainly a labor of love and a joyful experience for the ears.