Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Davy Jones - RIP

I’m sure by now most all of you know of the passing of a true pop icon, Davy Jones of the Monkees, who had a heart attack earlier this morning. Naturally this comes as a shock to very many, as within the past year he participated in a ¾ Monkees reunion tour as well as a 60s retrospective concert on PBS, which we caught a bit of and he seemed as vibrant and happy as ever, and honestly looked better than I’d seen him look in some time. Not that I’ve been keeping tabs, but you know…

Honestly, it’s almost strange that 40+ years after their last record (under the original run at least), we’re just now losing a Monkee, which is a bit of the cynic in me, but also sorta points to the “wholesomeness” that the TV show brought to the public eye, which obviously carried out to a certain degree in their personal lives once the glitter and fame passed them by.

Growing up I always thought of the Monkees as a “lesser” Beatles, even though growing up I was much more of a Monkees fan. There’s just something irresistible about the Monkees at their very best, none of the weighty pretentions and expectancy that comes with a lot of latter day Beatles tunes, and just a sense of whimsy and fun and undeniable melody, even though they had several songs that were both heavy and serious.

Also, growing up, Davy Jones was assumed to be the lead singer since he didn’t really play an instrument, though in truth Mickey Dolenz took lead more often than not, especially on the hits. But in spite of that, Davy was still at the center of all things, the short, cute, charming, pushable, huggable, laughable fall guy amongst a group of guys that were paid to take a fall. He embraced his role with a charisma and an enthusiasm that was more than just teenage kicks, but a genuine desire to entertain, to coax a laugh, to make someone’s day that much brighter.

My parents, especially my mom, absolutely hated the show, thought that one was as silly as the other, and Davy was by far the silliest. But that’s what’s so perfect about the Monkees, that their outer persona was just a crunchy confectionary shell that didn’t require layers of understanding or repeat listens – you played their songs over and over and you watched their shows with delight because they were a joy and a pleasure, even a privilege, because it’s rare to find pop songs that frivolous and that good at the same time.

And again, at the core of all things was Davy’s English accent, his unmistakable vocals, his corny laugh and his boyish innocence – even when playing the “tough guy,” it was with a mirthful twinkle, revealing a harmless mischief just below the surface.

But there was a sincerity as well, a belief in what he was doing, the words he was singing, and even though they weren’t his on paper, he made them his own in heart and soul, infecting us all with his undeniable ability to turn a frown upside down.

To this day, when I hear him sing Daydream Believer, I still get chills, and when he delivers his titular line in Shades of Grey, it still brings a bit of a tear to my eye. He was the genuine article, even amongst the prefabricated glitz of a cash in boy band, and even as the group began to take their career and musical integrity more seriously, his was certainly the light heart, the face everyone recognized and the name everyone could drop whenever the Monkees came into conversation. Amidst punched walls and Head and touring with Hendrix, his presence kept things in perspective, reminding us that at the end of the day, this was just pop music, made to be enjoyed in the moment, but not taken too seriously – just like every hitch that comes along in life.

Even at 9:05 PM, I can’t bring myself to listen to Daydream Believer or Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow) or She Hangs Out or I Wanna Be Free, because it’s still too unreal, too unfathomable that the voice and spirit that made these songs legend is now stilled.

As I mentioned when Whitney Houston died a couple of weeks ago, for me the passing of some rock stars is more the loss of a previous generation, but the passing of Davy Jones covers decades, and is the irrevocable loss of the one smiling face in an era now known more for its belligerence and cynicism than actually bringing real joy and pure love to the world. Davy Jones will be missed not just for the songs he sang, but also for the personification of something better just around the corner.

Look out…here comes tomorrow!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

In Defense of the Second Coming (of the Stone Roses)

To put it simply, in the pantheon of British alternative music, the Stone Roses are somewhat of an anomaly. A bit rock, a bit dance, a bit funky, but certainly pop, they were a mixed bag to be sure, carrying a sharp groove like Happy Mondays, a wash of psychedelic fuzz like the Boo Radleys and a good injection of retro rock along the lines of Oasis (several years earlier, and whom they influenced). Yet they combined all of that into a sound that was very much their own, allowing the elements of each genre to stand brazenly apart (blistering solos - what??), while forging them together into a brand of music that you could both dance and head bang to at the same time. And it didn’t sound strange at all. In fact it was quite inviting, and deadly infectious.

I spent a lot of time shunning and funning these guys, a good portion of which was just to annoy JT. Truth be told, they were a touch too baggy for my tastes at the time, yet once one recognizes the brilliant aforementioned blend of styles, not only can said bagginess be overlooked, it can even be appreciated (even though I’ll always hate Happy Mondays). So then my deal was to hate the Stone Roses but be a fan of their debut, which is silly because they only have two albums and even the biggest fans pretty much pan Second Coming. (That’s not entirely true, Simon Pegg likes it if you believe anything he says in a movie.)

And the Stone Roses had a lot of ups and downs throughout their career, mainly due to label tomfoolery, which we all know can hamper the quality output of anyone’s music. And so it’s really hard to judge them for one (alleged) misstep when they were essentially only a two-step band to begin with (yes, there are a handful of singles and a “lost first album,” but I’m going strictly official here).

The first thing to keep in mind when approaching Second Coming is their 1989 debut. I’m just gonna lay it out there – this album is flawless. Even amongst my all time favorite albums, there are few that I would consider perfect, but this is without a doubt one of them. From the opening noise of I Wanna Be Adored to the close out wah-wah slink of Fools Gold, every note is exactly where it should be, every beat precise, every lyric so sinisterly cool that it drips with righteous venom. This album soars in a way that is so devastatingly hip that it’s impossible to not want to shake your tail raw by the second minute of She Bangs the Drum. Just the playing alone is so chic, so smooth, that it makes these grooves not only sound fresh, but so effortless, so pleasingly simple, that even a child on a ukulele could pull them off to perfection with room left to wiggle. Meanwhile, the lyrics and vocal delivery are so droll, so pompous, so full of self-worth that these words literally exist for themselves alone, but Ian Brown will sing them for you, and you can listen if you want, whatever, it’s cool. Seriously, every single song is essential. I mean do you need the five plus minute backward rant of Don’t Stop? No, but you want it, and we all know that what you want is so much more enjoyable than what you need. Simply put, this album is cocky, self-assured and flat out bad ass. Really, I’m not doing it justice. Just go get it and find out for yourself.

And then the people waited…and waited…and waited…

Coming a full five years and I don’t know how many headaches after the debut, Second Coming is rather aptly titled, and yet the religious tongue in cheek (which also existed on the debut) might be a bit too…well, cheeky. Yes, this was a highly anticipated album, and yes, it coulda, shoulda, woulda been all that, but in point of fact - it sorta isn’t. And what is “isn’t” is the debut. And that in and of itself puts Second Coming at a bit of a disadvantage, because as has already been said, the Stone Roses debut was/is a HIGHLY lauded album…yes, even religiously so. And while it’s impossible to approach this album without the biased of the first, and truly, this album is not the “second coming” the world was hoping for, it’s still not a bad album…not really.

Most of the elements that define the debut are in tact, with the notable exception of the dance vibe that made that first set of tunes ridiculously infectious. But what really seems to be missing is an overall cohesiveness that would make this album the slinky pop that folks just couldn’t get enough of. There are still plenty of solid grooves and smooth moves, but the major focus is more on rock than, well, roll. And while there are tons of solid workouts that flow nicely from the speakers to your ears, there are precious few hooks to catch on and take hold, which makes Second Coming more an album of the instant and not one of later in the day, when you canNOT get Elephant Stone out of your head and you MUST hear it two more times.

Still, there are some great moments here, and the extended intro of Breaking into Heaven (very reminiscent of I Wanna Be Adored), when it (finally!) kicks into the beat, is pretty fantastical, and not a bad song all the way around. And one simply cannot deny the saccharine sweet of Ten Storey Love Song, the most debut-esque, pop centric of the lot, and easily the catchiest four plus minutes on the record. And to be honest, with the first several tracks, those are the highlights, as a lot of the songs are more pleasantly pedestrian filler than “that should be a single!” (Though your Star Will Shine is growing on me with each listen.) However, the second half of Second Coming is where the magic begins to make some mischief, with plenty of standouts like the (Rolling) Stonesy Tightrope or the rollicking rock outs of Good Times, Tears (some flat out amazing acoustic work from John Squire) and ode to wasting away, How Do You Sleep, all of which sorta have debut “counterparts,” but really bring to mind a 70s rock vibe that is absolutely fantastic…if you dig that sort of thing (which I do). The loss overall is relying more on riding a groove, which has its merits, while forgetting to throw in some memorable melodies here and there. Again, it’s hard to follow perfection, and there are enough attempts here to shake up the mixture with something fresh, but a lot of Second Coming just sounds either enjoyably leftover or trying too hard, and while it doesn’t deserve to be panned, it likely won’t break anyone into heaven.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I never miss a chance to celebrate something new from Swedish wunderkind Kristian Matsson, aka The Tallest Man on Earth. He just played a couple of sold out and well-received shows in South Africa, where he debuted a new song, Little Brother.

As is the case with everything this guy puts out, it's topnotch, emotive Americana, with just enough Dylan to reinforce just how powerful the pre-electric 60s were, though Matsson's poetry and musical delivery comes from a vein all his own.

The other songs are worth checking out as well, most notably Love is All, which never fails to devastate me.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Love of All

Compulsion is a crazy thing and it pushes folks to do things both great and small, whether it’s picking up your family and life and moving to another state (more on that some other time) or just opting for another slice of pizza. Most of the time a compulsive move has little to no consequence, and yet sometimes it propels us into situations that change our lives for better or worse - and sometimes ends them all together. It’s certainly compulsion that drives folks who seem to outwardly have it all into the grips of some sort of desperate dependency until they become the husk of the person they once were, or at least appeared to be, until they are suddenly carried away by the winds of fate.

So it’s compulsion that drives me to write a blurb about the passing of Whitney Houston, the ripples of which will most definitely have no impact on anything whatsoever.

I was at a “cupcake party” with friends, a mass of children going bonkers all around us, seriously loud as all get out, and amidst the chaos someone got a text and said, “Whitney Houston just died.” We made him repeat it, and then we all pulled out our smart phones to get the confirmation for ourselves (modern times, kids), and from my own search the news had broken 11 minutes before.

We all sorta laughed a little like you do when something like this happens to someone ultra famous, especially infamous (as Whitney had become), speculated about who the "other two" would be and someone quipped that this was the “Elvis moment” of our generation. This is certainly not true (Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson get to battle it out for that), but undoubtedly we’ll all remember 5, 10 and 25 years from now where we were when we heard that Whitney Houston had passed.

See, we were a mixed bag of music fans collectively, but all being in our 30s, there was no denying that Whitney Houston was a huge part of our lives during some formative years, because even if we weren’t fans (and yes, some of us were), her first two albums and the Bodyguard soundtrack were EVERYWHERE in the mid to late 80s and early 90s. Even after I was in college and beyond, actively tuning out most pop culture, her presence was still well intact, and enough so to at least make me take peripheral notice as I went about my life.

I am not and never have been a fan of Whitney Houston, but I also never disliked her. Listening to her old songs is like flipping through an old photo album; you don’t always like every shot, but they certainly bring back a lot of fond memories that surround those moments - and those songs make me feel good when I hear them today.

I have very vivid and not unpleasant memories of being in middle school and seeing I Wanna Dance with Somebody repeatedly on TBS’s Night Tracks, to the point where when I hear the song in passing, I can almost picture that point in the video. And that was a good time for me as I started discovering the music I loved, figuring out what was what, building the persona that has very much carried me into the present day as my music appreciation expands in ways that surprise me now and would have mortified me 15 years ago.

As a kid and into my 20s, etc, I never took music like Whitney’s very seriously. It was fun, throwaway pop at best, or pointless cash in cheese at worst. And certainly at the time I’d have said “Oh, yeah, I hate that song,” but in truth, I’d have had to admit it was harmless fun, easy to tap your foot to and sing along with, and so not without some sort of worth. I certainly would not have said it’s “fun, throwaway pop” or “pointless cash in cheese,” because I was an idiot, but not a pretentious one.

This morning I came downstairs and my wife had Pandora playing a Whitney station, and she also played a couple of online deals that folks were posting, including a vocals only version of I Wanna Dance with Somebody. It was right then that I realized that Whitney Houston had a voice that wasn’t a talent but a gift, and wasn’t a tool but a weapon. She didn’t tackle melodies like a lot of more contemporary R&B singers, who think it’s about vocal gymnastics and end up sounding like a cat drowning in a bag. With Whitney, the music didn’t erupt or explode, it wasn’t discharged or spewed; it was released, and flowed with a power that was its own force. Whitney simply harnessed it, wielding that power with the ability to make your heart skip a beat, draw tears out of your eyes or just stand you up on your feet to sing along. All you have to do is listen to her version of Dolly's I Will Always Love You to understand the difference between "someone who can sing" and a singer. It's startling in the most majestic way.

And now that I’m older and much less biased about the various kinds of popular music that I once considered stupid (“taboo”), I can say this and appreciate Whitney as an artist, even if I’m still not a fan. In more recent years I’ve spent time in my "love of all" music quest visiting albums from these “taboo” artists (e.g. Abba, the Bee Gees, etc) that are considered timeless classics, not just hits of the day or genre. Part of that, and especially with Whitney Houston, is certainly nostalgia. But also, these are songs and albums that have withstood the test of time for twenty or thirty years, just as the Beatles or the Stones had back when The Greatest Love of All and How Will I Know were burning up the mid 80s charts.

And those songs, truly, are more than just fun pop or “good for what they are,” they’re good songs, period - and yet none of them would have been as much then or anything now without Whitney Houston being the voice, the face and the entire package, singing from heart and soul and making a believer out of millions. I can recognize that even if I’m not necessarily going to go pick up her self-titled debut or the follow up Whitney, both of which have about everything I’d need, and both of which receive great reviews even today (you know, for what they are).

But I guess what really hit me later this afternoon, when 24 hours before she was still living, though obviously not in a good place, is that a small part of me has passed on along with Whitney. And this is more than losing a musical icon or personal idol, there’s something about the innocence of her early music that I relate back to my early and innocent days, and part of that innocence is now irrevocably gone as well. And yes, I realize that especially in more recent years she had her demons, had become reality TV fodder and in some instances had become a laughing stock. Even back in the day I wondered why in the world she was with Bobby Brown, who just seems like a tool, because my own personal if cursory view of Whitney Houston was that she was a really nice lady who sang music I didn’t really care much about.

Twenty-five years later I still can’t say that I “care” much for the music, but I’m happy to admit that especially over the past five to ten years, I’ve enjoyed hearing those super hits, because they’re timeless and nostalgic, because they’re really that good, and because they remind me of a time when dead rock stars were vague names from someone else’s era, while those of the now would live forever.

If only that were true.