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Thursday, Aug 7, 2008
This is the reggae album for people who do not know, or claim not to like, reggae music.

Go and Seek Your Rights: The Mighty Diamonds’ Right Time


Big misconception about reggae music: it’s all happy, at the beach, drinking music. Biggest misconception about reggae music: it all sounds the same. Even Bob Marley (and it is both respectful and required to at least mention the great man’s name in any consequential discussion or reggae) had markedly different styles he embraced throughout his career, as his sound evolved from straightforward ska and rocksteady in the ‘60s to the full-fledged rastaman vibration everyone has heard on the radio—or at Happy Hour. Indeed, Marley serves as the most obvious case study for the distinctive sounds reggae has produced: anyone unfamiliar with songs not included on Legend, but curious to explore what else is out there, are encouraged to start with the crucial transition albums from the early ‘70s. You cannot go wrong with African Herbsman, the culmination of his brief but bountiful collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry. Or to appreciate the incomparable harmonizing of the original Wailers (Marley along with Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer), Catch A Fire and Burnin’ are indispensable cornerstones of any halfway serious reggae collection. And, above all, if it’s possible to single out one work that encapsulates Marley’s genius, Natty Dread is the alpha and the omega: not only is this his masterpiece, this one holds it own with any album, in any genre.


Okay. Even for those who are not sufficiently intrigued by the notion of a deeper dive into reggae’s abundant waters, there are more than a handful of sure things right on the surface. Enter the Mighty Diamonds and their first—and best—album, Right Time from 1976. Like the Wailers, the Mighty Diamonds are a harmonizing trio (with a killer backing band), and these three men, Donald “Tabby” Shaw, Fitzroy “Bunny” Simpson and Lloyd “Judge” Ferguson, created songs that stand tall alongside the very best reggae. Right Time manages to combine several styles and merge them in a seamless, practically flawless whole. This, to be certain, is roots reggae, yet at times it sounds like the most accessible soul music, closer to Motown than Trenchtown.


The group’s allegiance to Rastafarianism is skillfully articulated in the socially conscious lyrics, but the ten tracks on Right Time tackle romantic turmoil, violent crime, and redemption—sometimes all in one song. The title track, equally an ominous call to arms as well as a rallying cry against the system, sets an immediate tone that predicts chaos while promising resolve, pre-dating Culture’s epochal Two Sevens Clash by a year. The brilliance of the songs that follow must be heard to be believed, and it’s difficult to imagine how singing and song craft this tight, spiritual, and emotionally rich could fail to convince. The next two songs, “Why Me Black Brother Why?” and “Shame and Pride” constitute a one-two punch that manages to invoke Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding: Gaye’s authentic words, Smokey’s silken voice, and Redding’s gut-rending fervor. If the world was right side up, all of these songs would be standards, familiar to anyone who listens to the soul legends mentioned above. The album’s highlight may be the resplendent anthem “I Need a Roof”—-a rather uncomplicated piece of poetry that invokes Marcus Garvey and Jesus Christ with its (obvious) insistence that without shelter there can be no peace, and without justice there can be no love. Listen: even writing about this record, albeit while offering the highest possible praise, inexorably mutes the message. That message is conveyed with voices that must be heard so that the music can make sense. Go seek it out.


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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008
Elbow, MGMT, and Alanis Morissette...

Live from Abbey Road‘s eighth show (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 7th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) begins with a segment on Elbow, the members of which, believe it or not, have been together for nearly two decades now.  The performances in this episode are taken exclusively from 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, the band’s highest charting album so far, and it’s obvious why. The three songs here are all equally strong, striking compositions. “Grounds for Divorce” is just a really good rock song. “The Bones of You” is particularly affecting in my opinion, with its hypnotic rhythms and Guy Garvey’s stirring voice coupled with a gorgeously haunting lyrical refrain. But “One Day Like This”, featuring an anthemic, sing-along chorus of “Throw those curtains wide / One day like this’d see me right”, is the one that will have you buying the record after you’ve watched this.


MGMT, from Brooklyn, also performs songs exclusively from its 2008 album. Although that probably has a lot to do with the fact that Oracular Spectacular is the band’s debut. The interview bits in this segment are focused on boys being boys on the bus, rather than studio talk. It’s fun to see young musicians more interested in goofing around and then just playing music (rather than steeping themselves in the Abbey Road aura), but it does seem a little incongruous with the style of music MGMT favors.


Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser say they each only listen to older stuff and have no real knowledge of current popular culture, and it seems to be working for them. “Electric Feel” has an authentic ‘70s groove, yet it manages to avoid a seeming dated and actually sounds somehow totally new. “Time to Pretend” also has a sense of newness to it, and yet it wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the ‘60s. It’s a musically dreamy, lyrical send-up of the fantastical lives of rock stars, and an amusing and beautiful song. Pay attention to these guys.


Alanis Morissette rounds out this episode, with performances of tracks from a couple of her earlier records. “Hands Clean” from 2002’s Under Rug Swept is a stripped down version of the original, as are all the songs here, reminding us that not only does she possess stunning vocal abilities, but she’s an truly gifted songwriter as well. Morissette speaks of this when she mentions the disillusionment with the idea of fame, saying she now writes music for herself and then shares it so others can make it their own, instead of doing it to be in the public eye.  Then she gives a rendition of “Perfect” that is, for lack of better term, perfect.


The episode ends with an acoustic “Hand in my Pocket” that Morissette seems truly pleased to be singing. If there was some sort of unifying theme to this episode (and perhaps to the series as a whole), that might be it. Everyone is really happy to be doing what it is that they are doing, and that comes through in the music, which is as it should be.


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 9 - August 14
The Kills, Sara Bareilles, The Fratellis


Episode 10 - August 21
The Subways, Gnarls Barkley, Herbie Hancock w/Sonya Kitchell


Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

Perhaps it is misleading that I am writing this under the banner of Pop Past, given that the band in question released their sole album less than one year ago, but it has nevertheless come to be sadly appropriate in the case of Georgie James. Principle members John Davis and Laura Burhenn quietly announced the band’s breakup on their website yesterday:


After three years, Georgie James is calling it a day. We’re proud of the album we made and everything else that we were able to do during our time together. We are both working on our respective solo projects (John’s can be found at www.myspace.com/titletracksdc and Laura’s at www.myspace.com/lauraburhenn) and hope to have albums out early next year. Thanks to everyone that helped our band over these past few years. And thanks to those who’ve listened to the music and come out to the shows. It is greatly appreciated. See you around soon.
—John and Laura/Georgie James


Their album, Places, was, to my ears, one of last year’s very best, a collection of infectious, gimmick-free pop songs that was astonishing, largely, for just how unassuming it was. Indie rock never seems to be at a loss for bands looking to evoke the virtues of classic rock and pop, but most of these acts are quick to reveal one particular musical fetish or another, whether it is for the iconic songwriting of Brian Wilson or Lennon/McCartney, or for the un-self-conscious maximalism of ‘70s glam pop. While recognizing the greatness of such celebrated retro-poppers as Sloan or the New Pornographers, or the playful Smiley Smile-esque innovations of the Elephant 6 collective, there is a level on which their music is as much about it’s very retro-ness as it is about the band’s own explorations of their craft.


Georgie James were instead much closer in spirit to such pop true believers as Aimee Mann and Matthew Sweet, crafting songs that sounded instantly timeless simply by virtue of never feeling the need to sound married to any particular era, past or present (the closest the band may have come to indulging in retro-ness was with their wispy cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”, the b-side to single “Need Your Needs”). It was only when listening to this album the first few times through, trying to mentally contextualize it alongside what I assumed to be it’s contemporaries (Burhenn’s voice is not unlike Jenny Lewis’ and it would be all too easy to mistake Davis’ nasal rasp for A.C. Newman, and Places was released within a month of Rilo Kiley and New Pornographer’s 2007 offerings), that I realized that while I had heard countless albums in recent years that I had wanted to sound like this, I had heard very few that actually did sound like this this. Perhaps it was the casual nature of a project born out the experience of its players—most of whom are veterans of numerous other bands, with Davis having drummed in the spastic post-punk outfit Q and Not U—but Places had an assured ease that was rare for a debut album, fully capturing the spirit of falling in love with great pop music (how many albums contain an ode to the perfect pair of headphones?) while never seeking to be anything more than perfect melodic pop music itself. 


I was looking forward to hearing the next five or ten Georgie James albums, but whether it had any relevance to their dissolution or not, Places had the misfortune of debuting amid one of the more dazzlingly eclectic years for music in recent memory, only to become predictably lost in the shuffle. 2007 was a year in which even the most celebrated guitar-based indie bands—Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, the New Pornographers again—found their latest albums being met with a relatively muted critical response as the music press found sustenance in the rich genre-bending sounds of Justice, M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem, Radiohead’s groundbreaking distribution methods, the Kanye vs. Fiddy hullaballoo and the inescapable gravitational pull of a certain “Umbrella-ella-ella”. If Georgie James were admittedly too unflashy to gain even minor critical attention in such a dynamic year, Places will remain a would-be pop classic ripe for eventual rediscovery. Give it a belated listen today on your own pair of comfortable headphones.


Tagged as: georgie james
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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

Tyler Cowen links to this article from an Australian newspaper that looks at research into what teenagers’ musical tastes reveal about their personalities. The article includes a quote from a psychiatrist urging that “The key to understanding any teenager is to treat them with respect by listening to what they have to say, rather than typecasting them according to the type of music they listen to”, but this doesn’t stop the paper from providing this handy chart:


WHAT STUDIES SAY ABOUT YOUR SOUNDS:


POP: Conformists, overly responsible, role-conscious, struggling with sexuality or peer acceptance.


HEAVY METAL: Higher levels of suicidal ideation, depression, drug use, self-harm, shoplifting, vandalism, unprotected sex.


DANCE: Higher levels of drug use regardless of socio-economic background.


JAZZ/RHYTHM & BLUES: Introverted misfits, loners.


RAP: Higher levels of theft, violence, anger, street gang membership, drug use and misogyny.


How very insightful. We can only hope that psychologists are working on a iTunes plug-in that will spit out a complete personality profile based on the contents of one’s library. Some parents might find that quite useful.


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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2008

Live from Abbey Road show seven (Sundance Channel, Thursday, July 24 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) has an incredibly diverse line-up this week.  Cheers to the show’s staff for presenting Modern American mainstream pop next to what’s been called the new Celtic soul sound and classic British hard rock to create another eclectic episode.


Matchbox Twenty‘s Paul Doucette admits at the outset to being “a dork for the Beatles”, and imagines he’ll have every nook and cranny of Abbey Road’s studio one committed to memory before the band finishes its session! The entire band goes into the details behind the creation of the track “How Far We’ve Come” (off of 2007’s Exile on Mainstream) before launching into an incredible live version of it. It’s the balance between these bits of trivia and the live performances that Live from Abbey Road really gets right.


In addition to rehearsals and performances of “I Can’t Let You Go” and “Bright Lights”, Matchbox Twenty pulls out its Lennon and McCartney cover. “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is something the band “tacked on” to “Bright Lights” because the two songs shared some elements, but add-on or no, it’s a beautiful bit of homage.


The Script is a trio from Dublin that includes former studio musicians, had a single of the week in the UK and toured with last episode darlings the Hoosiers. These interview clips give an interesting, detailed background on the first song too. “We Cry”, it is explained, is a song that came from walking down one of the meanest streets in Ireland and wanting to express to its inhabitants the idea that, “a problem shared is a problem halved”. The song itself, as well as the performance shown here, is brilliant. The Script’s other performance, “Man Who Can’t Be Moved” is a gorgeous love song so perfectly realized that if I wasn’t watching it, I wouldn’t believe it was recorded live.


Joe Eliott starts Def Leppard‘s segment by explaining how the industry has changed so dramatically since the 1980s. When Def Leppard began, bands had five albums in which to prove their staying power, often not breaking through until the third or fourth. In the ‘90s, however, the standard procedure became to cut a band if its second release wasn’t a million-seller. He theorizes that there’d be no Def Leppard if there hadn’t been a third record (which was, by the way, Pyromania!). And that would be a shame, as the band makes quite clear as it fires up “Rocket” from 1987’s Hysteria.


The band members give their all on a cover of “Rock On” and it’s amazing! Then, they play a new one called “C’mon C’mon”, from this year’s Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, and it’s not only good, it’s a prime example of rock and roll in top form. At one point during the interviews, Elliott is saying that they all saw Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Queen growing up, and guitarist Viv Campbell states matter-of-factly “Rock and Roll was a religion back then. It was something that you focused on and it changed your life.”


As the world has become increasingly focused on “product” and “the next next big thing” it’s lamentable to watch those beliefs dying out. No worries, though. Some say the old ways still yet survive, and with musical diversity like what’s shown each week on Live from Abbey Road, I predict a re-awakening!



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