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Sunday, Oct 18, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

The stellar 2003 Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman, features a fine batch of rock and country flavored arrangements of Dolly Parton songs performed by Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and Melissa Etheridge, amongst others. It’s a great, highly listenable set, but as flavorful as it is, nothing in it quite prepares the listener for Meshell Ndegeocello’s penultimate track—an elastic-funk re-imagination of Parton’s party-ready hit “Two Doors Down”. Beat-centric, atmospheric, and half-rapped, Ndegeocello’s re-working of the Parton classic is not only sly and musically imaginative, it’s also an apt embodiment of Ndegeocello’s overall approach: bold, adventurous, defiantly singular, and funky as hell.


I’m convinced that if Meshell Ndegeocello’s work and persona weren’t so thoroughly infused with a hip-hop spirit, it would be much easier for music-heads to locate her as part of the same continuum as Bob Dylan, Prince, Neil Young, and other quirky pop maverick-geniuses known for bravely and consistently paving their own path in the industry. As an (often) bald, (always) black bi-sexual female bassist who raps as much as she sings, writes deeply and confrontationally about race and sex (amongst other things), and mashes-up genres with every project, Ndegeocello’s mere presence on the scene (let alone the gestalt of her work) presents a taxonomical problem to solve for a large segment of music lovers, and an even trickier problem for those specifically on the lookout for singer-songwriters who may be the rightful heirs to the rock royalty named above. Part of the difficulty for some of these folks, of course, is the fact that killer grooves and textured rhythm parts (which are treasured elements in funk and hip-hop, while sometimes mere arrangement considerations in other genres), no matter how intricately conceived and executed, are still often not considered components of “great songwriting”, although they are, perhaps hypocritically, definitely understood as potential building blocks of “great records”. Hence, someone like Jeff Tweedy, who I like and respect quite a bit, is generally considered to be one of the handful of Gen X songwriters who deserves a place in the pantheon of great, adventurous artists, while Ndegeocello, who has traversed much more diverse ground, including a fairly straightforward guitar-based singer-songwriter album (1999’s gorgeous Bitter), is often in danger of being considered a high-profile cult artist.


I recommend the aforementioned Bitter as a starting point for folks who want to get familiar with Ndegeocello’s music. Soulful, affecting, and beautifully produced by the abundantly gifted Craig Street, it’s a warm introduction to Ndegocello’s music, and a wonderful way to first encounter her enticing and intimate vocal style.  It also includes one of her patented unique covers, Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”. From there, you can have lots of fun jumping around to prior or subsequent releases, each one an adventure.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
“Soft and Wet” by Prince. It just sounded angelic, the way his vocals were layered, and it made me want to dance. It’s still the song and the album that made me say, “That’s what I’m gonna do.”


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Doyle Bramhall II. When he sings a song, his heart is just on the stage. He transports me. He’s an incredible songwriter and a ridiculous guitarist. He’s also just a nice person.


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Probably most. Film for sure. I love Fassbinder. I have a lyric on the new record that goes “fear eats the soul”, which is from a title of one of his films.


Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
Other. It’s a transmission.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
“Love Dog” by TV on the Radio. They give me hope.


On Meshell Ndegocello’s newest release, Devil’s Halo, she continues her tradition of curve-ball covers, this time with an undulating, super-sexy version of “Love You Down”, the ‘80s R&B hit originally performed by Ready for the World. Because the songs she covers can sometimes be nearly unrecognizable in her renderings, it’s tempting to call her arrangements “complete deconstructions”, but I think a more accurate term would be “creative distillations”: she gets to the heart of each piece and retains what’s needed (whether it’s a musical component or not), and proceeds from there to build a new version. In her hands, “Love You Down” is completely transformed.


Ndegeocello was definitely my adopted spiritual patron saint when I was working on my version of Pixies’ “I Bleed” (which featured Oakland’s mighty funk-soul queen, FEMI) for American Laundromat Records’ Pixies tribute album, Dig for Fire. That record featured tracks by the Rosebuds, They Might Be Giants, and other indie-rock stalwarts. Knowing that I would be the only non-indie-rocker on the project, and hearing stories about the ferocity of Pixies fans regarding covers of the group’s material, was a little daunting at first, but I took inspiration in the implicit attitude of Ndegeocello’s Parton cover—- the message I took from it was to wear my stylistic difference loud and proud.


In addition to the “Love You Down” cover, there’s also a bunch of cool new original material on Devil’s Halo. Visit meshell.com for information on the new album, discography, tour dates and more.


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Friday, Oct 16, 2009
"Please don't go crazy if I tell you the truth..."

A few years ago, I made a mix CD of some of my favorite songs and gave copies to my friends. One of the songs on the CD, Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up”, is currently being used to advertise the Where the Wild Things Are movie, and most of the other songs I shared hold up equally well, including Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life” (one of the best love songs I’ve ever heard), Doves’ “Black and White Town”, Jill Sobule’s “Cinnamon Park”, The Thrills’ “Big Sur”, Stereophonics’ “Dakota”, Keane’s “This Is the Last Time”, Interpol’s “Evil” (which has an awesome video, btw), Deena Carter’s “In a Heartbeat”, and Easyworld’s “How Did It Ever Come to This”. Of course, I also added Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”, but in my defense, this was before the song got chosen for American Idol and started getting played 14 times every hour on the radio.


I ended the CD with one of my all-time favorite songs, “How to Be Dead” by Snow Patrol.


When I first ran across the video for “Chocolate”, a Snow Patrol single that spent two weeks on the Modern Rock chart, but otherwise didn’t make a major impression in the United States, I was intrigued. The video portrayed hundreds of people reacting to the world ending, from people running frantically and a couple having sex for the last time to a woman holding her crying child, while the band members calmly played their song. Towards the end, the sand in the hourglass runs out, and everywhere, people fall to the ground and shield themselves from the inevitable horror. Except… nothing happens. As they’re beginning to comprehend that fact, Gary Lightbody, the lead singer of Snow Patrol, walks over to the hourglass and turns it over, and the panic begins anew.


Although the song wasn’t bad, I was actually more impressed by the video, so I searched for more. Fortunately, I came across “Run”, a song that peaked at #15 on the Modern Rock chart in America, but was actually a Top 5 hit in the UK. The song was provocative and unforgettable. The last time I’d heard a song that instantly created a mood and a mystique like that was almost 20 years earlier, when “Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)” by Mike + the Mechanics played on the radio. I bought Snow Patrol’s Final Straw CD the next day.


And that’s when I heard “How to Be Dead”. I’m not completely sure what the song is about—it sounds like an argument between a drug addict and the woman who is tired of being hurt by him—but when she says, “You’ve not heard a single word I have said. Oh my god,” there’s something so heartbreaking about the way Gary sings the line (even though everyone’s probably heard and/or said something like that a thousand times in their lives). A clichéd complaint suddenly becomes far more serious than it should be, although it doesn’t hurt that earlier, she asks him, “Why can’t you shoulder the blame? / ‘Cause both my shoulders are heavy from the weight of us both”.


Tagged as: snow patrol
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Thursday, Oct 15, 2009

The ravages of time eventually claim everyone, but it’s a sad fact that some talents go before others.  In light of the recent release of The Fountain, the eleventh album by the long-lived British post-punk group Echo and the Bunnymen, now is an appropriate occasion to ruminate on the premature loss of a great voice in rock music.  While still very much alive, head Bunnyman Ian McCulloch’s vocal talents have unfortunately diminished in recent years.  McCulloch long possessed a wondrous, powerful voice that rivaled that of U2’s Bono, but smoking, drinking, and age have clearly diminished what used to be an epic sound.


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Wednesday, Oct 14, 2009
Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.

One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.


When the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar’s Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.


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Tuesday, Oct 13, 2009
On its release, Pulp's This Is Hardcore was derided as a commercial and artistic disappointment. Not so ten years later. Was the music ahead of its time, or did critics just have to reach their 30s to appreciate it?

Rock journalists have a habit of bending a band’s history into a Behind the Music-style template. Said band struggles through a few years of obscurity. Said band releases an album that catapults them into superstardom. Huge tours, massive amounts of drugs and internal arguments, combined with the inability to cope with newfound fame begin to corrode said band. And if the lead singer of said band band is famously standoffish to the press, and the follow-up album either contains no discernible hits or challenges listener expectations, the album is written off as a “career suicide” album.


Pulp’s This Is Hardcore quickly joined Faith No More’s Angel Dust and Nirvana’s In Utero as a perceived career suicide album upon its release. It certainly fit the career suicide mold: The album didn’t contain any instantaneously appealing songs like their previous album Different Class, the band was going through some heavy internal conflict and lead singer Jarvis Cocker opted to jet to New York to decompress over the holidays. Alone. Around this time, longtime Pulp guitarist/violinist Russell Senior left the band.


Down a longtime bandmember and in full isolation mode, Cocker could have easily written an album about what an utter bitch fame was. But just as he was able to strike a universal chord with the class warfare call to arms classics “Miss Shapes” and “Common People”, Jarvis tackled something even scarier than fame backlash: the inevitable acceleration of middle age.


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