On tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), Costello brings together Rosanne Cash, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and John Mellencamp for an old-fashioned songwriters’ circle, the kind that Rosanne’s father, Johnny, used to host back in the day. (Indeed, at one of those Cash-helmed circles, Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee” for the first time, as he remembers at one point during the episode.) This format is slightly different than the first seven episodes in the series, as it focuses more on performance than discussion—a total of ten songs are performed over the course of the hour, by far the most songs featured on an episode of Spectacle yet.
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Lou Reed - Berlin
Lester Bangs dedicated a large portion of his writing career to Lou Reed. Bangs’ loved Lou Reed, but he also hated his guts. Genius and creativity mixed with egotism and jackass-ery. I love Lou Reed. Quite simply, he’s probably my secret crush that I don’t talk to many people about for fear of having to defend this love against a wall of the opposite point of view.
Can I be honest? I have all sorts of difficulty with Lou Reed. There are moments I feel he receives absolutely no credit for the evolution of rock and roll. I mean, come on! No Velvet Underground? No R.E.M. No Sonic Youth. Absolutely no major influence for the underground music scene of the ‘80s and no Nirvana and the list goes on and on. Don’t give me the Ramones or the much over-hyped Sex Pistols. Velvet Underground. More distinctly, Lou Reed holds the key to everything.
And then I stop myself. Usually mid sentence and remind myself whom I am talking about—Lou Reed: The masochist of rock and roll. The man that not even Lester Bangs could quite pin down (which has to be a reason why so much of Bangs’ career is dedicated to writing about Lou Reed). In the end, Lester concluded, “Lou Reed is my own hero principally because he stands for all the most fucked up things that I could ever possible conceive of. Which probably only shows the limits of my imagination.” Lou fought with the demons created by David Bowie and tried to match full bore that type of excitement; almost pissed he hadn’t thought of glam first. Thus, Lou returned to his VU roots and turned out Berlin.
Berlin caught hipster renewal the past year because of director Julian Schnabel’s filmed concert of Lou Reed performing the entire Berlin album. Shockingly panned by critics and fans upon initial release, Lou spent the majority of his career avoiding the music from Berlin. The album is Reed’s rock opera about a disturbing relationship between a couple based upon drugs and not much else. A maniacal album with full session horns mixed with music snippets from Lou’s days with the Velvet Underground; the most affirming this point are within the song “Caroline Says”, a direct rip from the VU’s “Stephanie Says”.
Berlin is an arresting album and not one for an introduction to Lou Reed’s musical legacy. However, the album dedicates itself to pull its listener to the depths of post ‘60s, urban decay. Truly a song like “The Bed” where Lou whispers of the death of his character Caroline; “And this is the room where she took the razor/And cut her wrists that strange and fateful night/And I said, oh, what a feeling” summarizes the pain and death of the West in a post Vietnam/Summer of Love era that is largely built upon fluff and excess. True, Lou loves the characters he addresses, but Lou also understands that by addressing these issues he stirs up the bowl of stew and no one likes all the ingredients in this stew.
Whatever the case, Lou Reed’s Berlin is probably a nice way to microcosm Lou’s career. He probably gets too much blame for making the album and for making it a disturbingly story that feels disjointed with the glam he was producing at the time. At the same time, Lou probably doesn’t get enough credit for making an album that harkens back to Velvet Underground while giving us a glimpse into what will be Lou’s most engaging and critically acclaimed work of his career in New York and Magic and Loss where Lou shows the focus that is somewhat lacking throughout Berlin
Regardless, Lou Reed’s Berlin is a necessary album for a Lou Reed fan. I am happy to see it receiving some new critical acclaim and was happier to see it in the stacks of “New Vinyl” at Dave’s Records. It shows that rock and roll can resuscitate without traveling down the pathway to corporate sponsorship and excess. Rock and roll can be what it’s supposed to be: urgent and unrepentant. Both are true of Berlin.
Lil’ Wayne’s success has reached such a phenomenal peak that at one point, as I was about to turn the radio to a hip-hop station coming out of Boston, my friend could say “How about some Lil’ Wayne?” and be absolutely right. I can’t remember if the station was playing one of his songs or if it was a guest spot, and it doesn’t matter. Between guesting for everyone who makes anything even related to hip-hop or R&B and making a huge score with Tha Carter III, Wayne’s voice is everywhere, and it’s so distinctively hoarse that it seizes for itself—and also flattens—whatever sound is behind it.
That flattening effect is part of the reason Wayne has so completely overshadowed every other rapper around him. He doesn’t sing on top of beats. He eats them, makes them irrelevant. On Tha Carter II, his previous non-mixtape album, the production by T-Mix was focused on distorted soul samples. T-Mix gave soul choruses the rough, dissonant sound of music played too loud on cheap speakers. Wayne took it too easy on the vocals, particularly during the verses, but he still sounded great. On this new album, the soul samples are mostly gone in favor of crunked-up electro, but when they do make an appearance (like on the Jay-Z duet “Mr. Carter”), the switch is barely noticeable.
Wayne demolishes these beats by singing so hoarsely that the noise of his voice, like a blue shirt on a blue-eyed person, pushes forward whatever noise is latent in the music, making it sound dirty and messy. Then he sings all around the beats, basically ignoring where the stresses ought to go, in such a random way that the song’s meter melts down. Sympathetic producers on Tha Carter III build this into the very structure of the songs, so that when Wayne suddenly announces “Bitch I’m the bomb like tick…tick” on “Got Money,” Play-n-Skillz stops the music. Wayne is singing in his own post-detonation vacuum. The point here is that Wayne doesn’t care what he sings over, because he’s just plain hungry to rap. In his and our world, a radio station like Power 105.9 in Los Angeles will reduce everything to equivalent “hip-hop” anyway.
Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?
Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.
Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.
My first prediction of 2009: Katie Stelmanis is going to blow up. She’s been ignored for too long and after her performance at SXSW this year, it’s going to be “Stelmania” (I stole that phrase from her MySpace).
Katie Stelmanis was already starting to pick up steam in 2008. Almost a year since her nearly unnoticed debut album, Join Us dropped on Blocks Recording Club (a record co-op based in Toronto), Stelmanis was featured on Fucked Up’s Chemistry of Common Life, and split a Matador released 7” with them in late 2008. In 2009, people are bound to pick up on the ethereal and eerie leanings of this powerful vocalist and songwriter.
The album shares some similarities with the darker side of Kate Bush, but for the most part it’s hard to find an apt comparison to Stelmanis’s slightly operatic, dark, synth-based debut. Rufus Wainwright shares a couple of her characteristics on his more gothic sounding numbers and one could compare certain songs to that spooky Christmas song “Carol of Bells”(I mean this in the best way possible), but there’s nothing completely comparable. The album is well-paced and there is patience and artistry in each composition and they usually swell to commanding and satisfying multi-voiced choruses.
Album opener, “In My Favour”, and the three following tracks are throbbing slow-builds while “You’ll Fall” and “I’m Sick” are classically tinged balladry. In addition to the originals, a highlight is her penchant for atypical cover songs. The album ends with an amazing interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and on her MySpace page is an equally excellent cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”.
Add this to her already impressive oeuvre and you’ve got a success-prone arsenal set to explode in the coming year.