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Friday, Feb 20, 2009
How a post-punk synth band became a poor man's U2.

I first heard Simple Minds the way most people probably did; in The Breakfast Club. John Hughes’ magnum opus of teen angst begins and ends with “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” a song written for the film by Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff. They offered the song to a number of artists, including Billy Idol and Bryan Ferry, but were turned down by everyone until Simple Minds, under pressure from their label, agreed to record it. The song has been both a blessing and a curse to the band. It was their first and only US number one hit and stayed on the UK charts for an incredible two years. The band, however, obviously had mixed feelings about the success of a song they did not write. This became evident when they decided not to include the track on their next album Once Upon A Time, much to the chagrin of their record label. The album was (and remains) their biggest selling record, but Simple Minds surely couldn’t help thinking that most people who bought it had probably never heard of them before The Breakfast Club. These people missed out on the band at the height of their powers. When they were a glorious mess of ideas and influences. When their sound was changing and developing so fast that they themselves could barely keep up. Unfortunately, the greatness of these early years made the disappointment of their later albums that much harder to take. 


Few bands have made such an artistic leap in such a short amount of time. Within one year, Simple Minds released their debut album Life in a Day wearing their influences (Roxy Music, Bowie, Magazine) a little too plainly on their sleeve, to writing, recording, and releasing Reel to Real Cacophony, a record that could not have been the work of anyone else. Angular guitars fight with stabbing synths, creating a kaleidoscope of post-punk pop. Amongst other landmark releases of 1979 from Joy Division (Unknown Pleasures), PiL (Metal Box) and Gang of Four (Entertainment!), it’s easy to forget Reel to Real Cacophony but it’s important not to. It’s an album on par with anything released that year.


Taking their interest in electronic music further, Simple Minds changed gears again with the aptly-named Empires and Dance, released in 1980. Songs like “I Travel” and “Thirty Frames a Second” are cold slices of paranoid disco, dance music for Arctic oil rigs. It’s with this album that singer Jim Kerr began touching upon political issues in his lyrics. At this point they’re effective in their vague evocativeness, and still buried amongst other more abstract imagery, but it was the beginning of a trend that would become detrimental and just plain annoying by the time the ‘90s rolled around.


The band’s label, Artisa, were unimpressed with Empires and Dance and pressed only a minimal amount of copies, making the record difficult for fans to find. Simple Minds jumped ship and signed with Virgin, promptly releasing two albums simultaneously. Sons & Fascination and Sister Feelings Call sees the icy landscapes of their previous album begin to melt and reveal hints of the epic scope their music would soon take.



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Thursday, Feb 19, 2009

2009 is shaping up to be busier than 2008 for Cyndi Lauper. Following her Grammy nomination for the acclaimed Bring Ya to the Brink (2008) album, the tireless LGBT activist has a book, movie, and concert tour in the works, in addition to establishing a foundation named after her chart-topping hit from 1986, “True Colors”. Amidst all her projects, she found a moment to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions.


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
It’s not a new movie – I think it came out in 1999 – but I just loved it. It was called Joe The King.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Huck Finn.


3. The greatest album, ever?
I can’t pick just one.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Trek.


5. Your ideal brain food?
Edamame.


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Wednesday, Feb 18, 2009

It’s about time that Elvis Costello’s wife, pianist and singer Diana Krall, appeared on Spectacle (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel)—after all, the cameras cut to her in the audience on most episodes, just another face in the crowd, a face that just so happens to be wed to the series’ host. So for this penultimate episode of the series, the spotlight’s hers. She appears alongside bassist Christian McBride and drummer Karriem Riggins, who back her up on a few terrific performances, including Nat King Cole’s “Exactly Like You” and the instrumental standard “Night Train”.


In order to provide some critical distance, the show’s executive producer, Elton John, appears as guest host—though very quickly he divulges that the two have been friends for nearly ten years, so I suppose “critical distance” may not be the apt term here. John has never interviewed anyone on television before, he points out at the start, and it’s obvious; still, he shares a pleasant rapport with Krall, makes a number of off-stage asides and witticisms to the crowd, and grooves out unabashedly during the performance pieces while leaning against the piano. The two talk piano and jazz and pop, covering Fats Waller, Bill Evans, Joni Mitchell, and Krall’s favorite, Cole. When they perform John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” together, the results are less than stunning (“lounge-caliber indulgence” is the term that springs to mind), but not as bad as when the two tumble through an awkward, eerily lecherous “Making Whoopee” with Costello at the show’s end.


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Wednesday, Feb 18, 2009
The audience interested in seeing a black drug-dealing, rogue cop trumps any audience interested in seeing an entertaining film with plenty of black characters about the birth of America's most revolutionary and transformative civil conflict of the century, challenging white supremacy. Yet, with Negroes like Nellie neatly assimilated into the hegemonic beat, white racism really does not have to exist for blacks to perceive and profess oppression.

Chris, beat that bitch witta bat! The night of the 2009 Grammy Awards, R&B teen-idol Chris Brown turned himself into criminal authorities for battering his girlfriend, pop princess Rihanna. At the BET Awards last year, Chris stole the stage with label-mate Ciara, while his lady watched and cheered from the crowd. The duo claimed any heir to the Beat Street, break-dance moves of the early ‘80s wedded to Paula Abdul/Janet Jackson collaborations of the late ‘80s and ‘90s, or the pop-lock-and-drop-it of today. And Chris can get real Krump! Audiences this year certainly looked forward to Chris and Rihanna’s scheduled performances this year.


‘Beat that bitch witta bat! Beat that bitch witta bat!’ This was one of the most popular House songs in the black gay club in my city during my high school years. Queens and the dancers amongst them like me from the local school of the arts, could be found grinding against one another in the splits on the floor. The singers presses there faces against the mirror, screaming in high falsetto, as we break it down- literally. The Percolator is still one of the fiercest streaks to come from that scene.


“I’m gonna get me a shotgun, baby, and stash it behind the bedroom door. I may have to blow your brains out, baby. Then you won’t bother me no more.”


Much like the lyrics cited above from Eric Clapton’s 1998 “Sick and Tired”, pop anthems celebrate the physical abuse, rape and coercion of women. Despite whatever undertones The Prodigy may have meant, it is probable that crowds only heard violence with their 1997 “Smack My Bitch Up!” Certainly hip-hop is the most explicit to do so to date, yet the natural inequality of women has always been a quality in American popularized culture. See: NWA’s 1989 “Slam her ass in a ditch”; Notorious B.I.G.’s “Kick in the door wavin’ the four-four / All you heard was poppa don’t hit no more.”


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Tuesday, Feb 17, 2009

Gavin Rossdale is accustomed to success.


After all, he was catapulted to stardom in the mid-‘90s as the lead vocalist and guitarist of Bush, one of the most successful alt-rock bands of the time, enjoying commercial achievement with hits such as “Glycerine” and “The Chemicals Between Us”.  Wanderlust—his first-ever solo outing—proves that despite time away from the music scene, he can hit the ground running and conquer the world once again.


Rossdale who has said in past interviews: “I feel like a racehorse that’s been stuck in the stables a bit too long. The doors are locked and no one can find the key—worse I’m not sure who’s looking for it.”  As such, he’s tried creating a new sound. Rossdale’s approach to songwriting has not drastically changed insomuch that his lyrics are as introspective as ever; but if you are expecting to hear Bush-like bass lines—think again. Wanderlust is much more laissez-faire than his previous days with Bush and Institute.  In order to explore different musical avenues and gain a new perspective, Rossdale employed the skills of producer Bob Rock, the mastermind behind records for Metallica, Aerosmith, and Motley Crue. Rossdale and his band recorded eighteen songs in a mere five days, and the band’s work ethic has paid off, yielding the hit radio smash “Love Remains the Same.”


As one half of the power couple that is Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani—it is nearly impossible for Rossdale to escape the ever-present paparazzi. With the new album and a burgeoning family, it is difficult to maintain a private life.  As Rossdale explains, “It can be annoying and it is nearly impossible to maintain a private life. The Paparazzi are like mosquitoes. There are so many more important things in life to pursue.” While making strides in evading the constant glare from the media and welcoming a new child into the family, Rossdale has created a notable addition to his library of work with Wanderlust.


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