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Tuesday, Mar 3, 2009

I was 31 before the lyrics to the 1987 chart-topper Pleasure Principle meant anything to me. When the song debuted, I was already a staunch Janet Jackson fan. I was the first in my seventh grade class to be able to do Janet’s famous head-bop from the song’s video- moving her neck left and right, framing her head with her right hand under the chin then the profile. Janet wore plain black pants and a T-shirt, and full kneepads for the shoot. There is even a website dedicated to the cryptic markings on JJ’s tee, and calls this clip “a perfect blend of music and motion designed to ensnare its target in a very specific way.” Alone, she danced on an equally stripped down set to showcase the most baadasssss moves since, well, her brother.  In stark contrast to the highly ornate, narrative big-budget videos that would characterize successive albums and especially the Rhythm Nation 1814 Film, Pleasure Principle- the sixth single off her 1986 album Control- was all about the dance.


Janet’s success followed her elder brother’s chart-dominating, pop precedent-setting albums Off the Wall and Thriller by only few years. Moreover, when her turn came, she took over the scene just as quickly as Michael had done as a solo artist. Stretching decades from 1982’s Thriller, every kid in any dance school around the country learned sequences from Joe and Elizabeth Jackson’s kids. By the end of 1987, even drag queens abandoned dresses for tights and jeans in order to do Janet’s now infamous run, jump, balance and leap, landing from a chair.


Janet was neither the queen nor the princess, and certainly not a dominatrix of pop music (read Madonna’s Erotica, circa 1990). By the mid- to late ‘80s, grounded in Paula Abdul’s choreography, Janet had moved beyond trendsetter to ‘norm establisher’ in popular culture; she was in control. Little Ms. Penny from Goodtimes was more than just a starlet shaking her tits-n-ass for some coins. Nevertheless, she would play that card years later at the Superbowl, absorbing all the oxygen from the short list of other high profile celebrities set to perform that day in the Superdome. As comedienne Sommore says, “does anyone even remember who sang the national anthem that year?” Rather, Ms. Jackson (‘cause I’m nasty) genuinely remains true to her heritage as entertainers- a virtual clan of griots.


The Best things in Life are Free


One of my mother’s best friends took me to see the Rhythm Nation 1814 Tour, and it was all that! Naturally, I had purchased the cassette months earlier, and had memorized every word to every song, including the B-side non-hits, and knew the moves from those classic videos. I could croon every twist and turn of Janet’s Soul ballads like Someday is Tonight, which, upon a close listen, tone for tone approximates the heart wrenching melismatic orgasm of her brother’s Lady in My Life. At that tender pre-pubescent age, my vocal range could match that of any Jackson’s. Rhythm Nation 1814’s rich album notes included lyrics to every song, which is of great importance when confronting head-on topics that the news chooses to ignore like racism, sexism, war, oppression and the legacy we bequeath to our youth. In State of the World, Janet wrote/performed:


To feed the baby before he starts to cry/No rest, no time to play/15, the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat/What is happening to this world we live in/In our home and other lands


Of the myriad of pop artists that talk about sex, few regard the topic from this, frank and not so uncommon perspective. Many artists simply will never go there.


That rock on your finger’s like a tumor


Janet so neatly does Black music, infusing the old with the new into a finely crafted message of active contemplation and hope for the future. I always appreciate when artists come clean about their influences and tastes; as a people we pay so little attention to our history. Michael Jackson regularly thanked James Brown, publicly testifying to copying his moves while watching him as a child entertainer.


As a budding young dancer, I scoured through every available resource to learn about big band leader Cab Calloway and acrobatic dancers The Nicholas Brothers- all truly wicked entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance who made cameo appearances in Janet’s video Alright. The popularized remix of this hit paired Janet with Heavy D, fashioning the R&B/Hip-Hop duo that others still follow. One only need witness LL Cool J and Total, Ja Rule and J-Lo, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Mariah and well, just about every other thug. Control paved the way for New Jack Swing, of which Mary J. Blige would later become its queen.


It was Control that would lay the foundation for all danceable pop music to follow. Beyond just stealing and sampling funk and disco beats, Janet’s lyrics and image covered much, much more than fanatical love and hardcore sex. Janet’s next project, Rhythm Nation 1814, was an action-packed album that not only gives ample treatise to social ills, but also incorporates entertainers that influenced Janet, on top of contemporary dope beats. Most certainly, this left little room to brag about wealth, though I suppose growing up at 2300 Jackson Street, one grows accustomed to such riches.


Like Beyoncé, Janet can pay her own fare, “It’s not the first time I’ve paid the fare,” she says, “Thank you for the ride.” She’s an Independent Woman. Yet, unlike savoring the ability to ‘buy your own’, eschewing, as she says in Pleasure Principle, “part-time bliss” for “happiness,” Janet asserts: “I’m not here to feed your insecurities. I wanted you to love me … My meter’s running I’ve really have to go!” She is interested in more than just goods. Despite the Jackson trail-blazers, so much of today’s pop encourages independent women and girls to leave love aside, opting for a cheap, material upgrades, or be Bossy, turning the tables and becoming somebody’s Suga Mamma. Today’s divas simply wallow in their own insecurities, victims of the perpetual lust for pleasure in material bliss.


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
by PopMatters Staff
Tim McIlrath of Rise Against answers our 20 Questions before heading out on the road with Rancid later this year (tour dates below).

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Turtles Can Fly. That’s a sad fucking movie.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Tyler Durden from Fight Club.


3. The greatest album, ever?
Fugazi’s 13 Songs. Nobody has ever done anything like this record, or like this band.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars, I mean, have you seen Trekkies?


5. Your ideal brain food?
A good book in a small mom and pop cafe sipping on a hot chocolate…


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Monday, Mar 2, 2009
A look at some of the most memorable performances from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test television program.

The Old Grey Whistle Test was a live music show that ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1987. The three DVD collections that have been released of Whistle Test are some of my favorite music DVDs, not just for showcasing amazing live (and the occasional mimed) performances by bands I love, but for introducing me to band’s I had yet to hear or had heard only a song or two from (usually the hits). The discs, for me, have been a treasure trove of musical discovery. Thanks to YouTube more performances from this seminal show have been made available and I’ve decided to start showcasing some of my favorites in a possible ongoing series of blog entries. Keep in mind these are just my own personal favorites and not necessarily the “best” or most important.


In 1972, two days before starting the Ziggy Stardust tour, David Bowie and the Spiders From Mars stopped by the Old Grey Whistle Test to tape what would become a historic performance. When it was broadcast on February 8, 1972, no one had ever seen or heard anything like him. With his androgynous look and lyrics like “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest and a queer threw up at the sight of that”, Bowie really was an alien as far as the British public was concerned. Kids in 1972 though, were starving for something unique and exciting and this legendary performance of “Five Years” is both of those things.


Magazine’s appearance on Whistle Test is nothing short of spectacular. Starting with a drum beat and bass hook that quickly gets enveloped in a mess of synthesizer noise, the song suddenly explodes with soaring guitar and keyboards. It’s somehow both dark and upbeat, angry and happy, pop and avant garde. Music that doesn’t tell you how to feel but rather lets the listeners make their own interpretation. Post-punk at it’s best.


The first thing that struck me when I first saw King Crimson’s 1982 performance of “Frame By Frame” was how much singer Adrian Belew sounded like Chris Cornell. Or rather how much Cornell sounds like Belew. The second thing I noticed was Robert Fripp’s guitar playing blowing my mind. Bassist Tony Levin, looking like Doctor Mindbender, plays an incredible instrument called the Chapmin Stick. Besides Cornell, you can hear where Thom Yorke, Tool, Primus, and countless other bands drew inspiration from.


Perhaps my favorite Whistle Test performance I’ve seen is Orange Juice doing “Rip It Up” in 1982. Edwyn Collins seems so full of nervous energy and youthful exuberance. The band sounds great and this song is a classic, somehow mixing motown, punk, ska and soul with Collins quoting the Buzzcocks and immediately acknowledging “my favorite song’s entitled ‘Boredom’”. Towards the end he’s bouncing around so much his guitar falls off. He simply puts it down and continues dancing.



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Friday, Feb 27, 2009

Economopocalypse got you down?  Banish the gloomies by slurping up a Chipwich® or a Bomb Pop™—American obesity has already pressed on beyond epidemic levels into pure comic Nutty Professor territory, after all, so why hold back in your time of need?  If you’re among the few still watching your girlish figure, however, you can instead dip into Virginia composer Michael Hearst‘s adorable little Songs for Ice Cream Trucks project, which pays homage to the beloved nuggets of dairy delight and the remarkable mobile delivery infrastructure that carries them throughout suburbia with nostalgia-riddled melodic pointillism delivered via wobbly bells and xylophones.  It’s also a remarkable study in self-restraint: these songs had to work with only the technical underpinnings of what is essentially just a giant music box on wheels. And even though ice cream is always awesome, the songs aren’t always upbeat, sometimes opting instead for creepy minor keys that remind you that at least a few of the truck drivers from your childhood were probably borderline pedophiles and Mister Softee kinda looks like a bow-tied turd.  But you can grab these songs for free, so if you ultimately decide that rainbow sprinkles aren’t a suitable substitute for your 401k (imagine that!) and still need a pick-me-up at the other end, you’ll have plenty of money left over for the Jim Beam.


Michael Hearst
“Where Do Ice Cream Trucks Go in the Winter? [MP3]
     


“Chocolate, Vanilla, or Swirl?” [MP3]
     



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Friday, Feb 27, 2009
Nils at the piano.

Nils at the piano.


Neil Young’s seminal 1970 record, After the Goldrush, yielded so many classic compositions, many would be surprised to find out it was panned by critics upon release. Now, the album routinely occupies “top 100” and “best of” lists by fans and critics alike.  It is a record I’ve heard so many times it often goes unnoticed by me when played, sinking into the background like the wallpaper on my grandmother’s kitchen walls; familiar and comforting but long since removed from piquing any real curiosity. Some records are like that, essential but no longer warranting of examination.  Or, so I thought.


Recently, I mindlessly reached into the stack of vinyl I have next to my stereo. Retrieving the worn, frayed, musty scented copy of “Goldrush”—bearing more than a striking resemblance to the patchwork jeans displayed on the back cover—I decided to put it on while I folded the pile of laundry gathered on my couch. T-shirt in hand, out of the speakers the folksy strums of Neil’s acoustic guitar filled the room. He plaintively asked to be “told why” and I reflexively hummed along.


Suddenly, with the opening piano chords of “After the Goldrush” my ears stood up at attention. I must have resembled a dog that hears the word “TREAT” go un-spelled from his owner’s lips, I was struck by how simply the progression was rendered. Having seen Young play this many times before on piano, I assumed he was also on the recording. The back of the album, however, revealed Nils Lofgren was credited with piano.


Lofgren, a guitar player and Chicago area native, was only 17 and had virtually no experience playing piano. He reportedly practiced his parts around the clock during breaks in recording. His rapport with Young would last overtime, appearing next on guitar for the recording of Tonight’s the Night. But it was his turn as piano player on “Goldrush” that would serve as his introduction into rock music’s pantheon.


Nils and Neil live onstage.

Nils and Neil live onstage.


Originally, Young sited inspiration for the songs on the album came after reading a screenplay written by Dean Stockwell and Herb Berman entitled After the Goldrush. The film was never released but the songs generated for the soundtrack were.  “Goldrush” came out just fifteen months after Young’s Everybody Know This Is Nowhere with Crazy Horse and his collaboration with Crosby, Stills, and Nash Déjà Vu. He recruited members of Crazy Horse and tapped relative unknown Lofgren to play piano on the record.


With each track on the album I was drawn to the economy and restraint of Lofgren’s playing. His chordal approach added heft to Young’s vocal delivery while providing foundational support for the songs melodies. It’s the type of playing that suggested nods and eye contact amongst the participants. Langdon Winner, in his original review of the record for Rolling Stone in 1970, described the band’s performance of “Southern Man” this way; “By today’s standards, the ensemble playing is sloppy and disconnected. The piano, bass and drums search for each other like lovers lost in the sand dunes, but although they see each others’ footprints now and then, they never really come together.” This “half-baked” quality-as Winner further characterized it- become the hallmark of Young’s work with Crazy Horse and went on to inform subsequent alt-country playing in further decades. Lofgren was integral to this dynamic.


You need only listen to “Cripple Creek Ferry” to hear its echoes in the work of Wilco, Ryan Adams, Old 97’s and others. The piano comps along just behind the beat, lending the rollicking atmosphere of a honky tonk to the track. “Oh, Lonesome Me” features reticently delivered fills bridging the gaps left by guitar and bass. The playing throughout is earnest and textural, framing some of Young’s best-known melodies, without clogging up the space.


On the more up-tempo track “When You Dance, I Can Really Love”, the staccato plinking of single notes drives the tune forward. He tackles each song more like the guitar player he is better known for being.  It is this sensibility that lends “Goldrush” a vacuole quality. Less self-aware players might have tried to overcompensate for their lack of experience by trying to prove too much.


There is no better evidence of this type of restraint than on “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, one of Young’s best-known vocal melodies. The vocal is simply augmented and nurtured along by Lofgren’s piano line. A more virtuosic and accomplished player could easily have cluttered this song.  Instead, the lullaby at the song’s core is left unmolested. That may be precisely what Young saw in the neophyte.


By album’s end I was filled with the type of excitement I seem to only get from discovering a new band these days.  In a sense I had.  Now, when I listen to After the Goldrush, I hear melodies I had never considered before. Lofgren has of course gone on to achieve fame as both a solo artist and as one of the most heralded sidemen in rock.


Nils with his new \

Nils with his new “Boss”.


Bruce Springsteen, whose E Street Band Lofgren has been a member of since the mid-‘80s, once quipped that the best guitar player in his band was relegated to third-string status.


I’ve since begun to take a different view of albums I’d written off as fully explored. Given the right frame of mind, a mundane, distracting task, and open ears, undiscovered wonders lie buried just beneath the surface of records you’ve heard thousands of times before. It only takes one more listen.



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