Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Sunday, Oct 25, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

Thao Nguyen is awesome. That’s really the best way I can think of to begin this piece. Unlike a lot of the songwriters I often feature here, Nguyen doesn’t have a decades-long body of work behind her, no loud trail of evidence which the majority of music fans have encountered in some form or another. She’s all of 24 years old (or thereabouts), started releasing records in 2005 (her new one, Know Better Learn Faster came out this month) and though she’s been playing guitar for most of her life, she’s basically in the early years of her career. 


Nguyen’s free-spirited and confident stage manner, her deft guitar playing, her cool band (The Get Down Stay Down), and cute-indie-girl look all likely play a part in her growing popularity, but the real secret weapon she wields is her disarmingly unique vocal style—her voice and melodies are some of the freshest things you’re likely to hear this year.


In my opinion, Thao Nguyen has significant cross-generational appeal. Young folks of course are already taking to her music, but I also recommend her stuff to any Boomer or Gen X’er who is interested in finding a Millennial songwriter to really dig into. Seriously—the artist that Thao Nguyen most reminds me of is Laura Nyro. Not so much on the direct musical/lyrical tip, but I do get a Nyro-like vibe from Nguyen in the intangibles—the raw sincerity, confident singularity, and pure physical force of the work.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
It was Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. I love it still, I think it is perfect. We covered it last year, in tribute.


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies—her voice and delivery are so moving—she has incredible warmth and richness and sadness in her tone, and at the same time a subtlety that is just as devastating. 


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?
Grace Paley—my favorite short story write—my college roommate introduced me. My love and admiration for Paley’s work has endlessly guided and motivated me in my lyric writing. She doesn’t do anything unless its necessary. And I named my touring company and a song after her story Goodbye and Good Luck.


Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I view songwriting as the thing I need and take for granted the most.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
The Avett Brothers’ “Will You Return”.


Check out the video below of Thao Nguyen with The Get Down Stay Down’s 2008 song “Bag of Hammers” to get a vibe, and visit thaomusic.com for information on their new album, Know Better Learn Faster, as well as lyrics and more.



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Friday, Oct 23, 2009
He wanted to hold on, but too many fans remembered the time he pushed Donna down the stairs.

Alex was a sensitive poet/songwriter who worked in a grocery store by day and sang lead in a rock and roll band at night. He was in love with Rita, a dispatcher for a beer distributor who played saxophone in the band, and along with the others, he dreamed of finding success as a member of the Heights. The group’s hopes were cruelly crushed, however, when Fox canceled The Heights after just three months due to declining ratings.


Jamie Walters, the actor who brought Alex to life, was also the lead vocalist on the show’s theme song, “How Do You Talk to an Angel”. In a rather cruel twist of fate, the song became a smash hit, spending two weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, just as The Heights’ final episodes were airing. At 23, Walters found himself both an unemployed actor and the official face and voice of a one-hit wonder.


Fortunately, his second chance at fame came a couple years later when he was cast as Ray Pruit, a carpenter and the lead singer of the Peach Pit After Dark house band, on Beverly Hills 90210. Walters quickly became a fan favorite, and in 1995, he released a self-titled album. Although it peaked at #70 and fell off the Billboard 200 album after four months, it did produce a Top 20 hit. “Hold On” spent half a year on the Hot 100, eventually peaking at #16.


Then things went bad.


Tagged as: jamie walters
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Wednesday, Oct 21, 2009
Though it was beloved by a generation, cassettes were quickly dumped by Gen-Xers. But unlike vinyl, this medium is not coming back.

The vinyl revival is one of the more welcome nostalgic movements in popular music. For all the talk about how younger generations do not appreciate the physical medium of music, it’s heartwarming to see kids in their early 20s fishing through the vinyl sections of their rapidly-vanishing local record stores. So what if some are doing it for no other reason than hipster cred? It’s good to see a physical medium for music thrive.


It took a little less than a decade after the decline of vinyl for a nostalgia movement to arise. In the mid-‘90s, some bands would even have the top of their CD design take the form of an album or a 45. Almost 15 years later, we still have vinyl lovers, but we are slowly starting to experience a bit of CD nostalgia as well. Even though CDs are still very much present and available, people have started to stubbornly cling to them just like albums.


Part of the reason for this sort of “pre-death” nostalgia can be attributed to some savvy marketing by record companies. In the past two years, nearly every iconic album from the ‘90s, from Dr. Dre’s The Chronic to Radiohead’s OK Computer, have been re-released in deluxe packaging CDs. They come with a great deal of liner notes, some sweet packaging (check out Pavement’s reissues), and a ton of b-sides. For a Gen-Xer with more disposable income now than they had while they were in college, these offers are hard as hell to turn down. While this accounts for a tiny fraction of CD sales, these reissues prove there is still a need for some people to possess the physical product. A second reason for this “pre-death” nostalgia relates to a grass-roots desire for many people to want to see their local record stores stay in business. Yes, you could buy the new Phoenix album online, but like shopping at the farmer’s market, you just feel better making the trek to a local store and making the purchase.


Image by Andy Hepburn

Image by Andy Hepburn


If the boomers grew up on the album and the Gen-Yers grew up on the CD, Gen-X certainly was weaned on the cassette. And while it’s evident that there is certainly a market for vinyl, and there is a pretty good chance that the CD will experience a similar, if nowhere nearly as intense revival when it eventually goes away, one thing is certain: there is no such nostalgic feeling for cassettes.


Though cassettes were very much part of the music scene in the ‘70s, they took off in the ‘80s, finally outselling albums in 1983 at the height of Michael Jackson mania. But while the album enjoyed a four decade-plus run as being the preferred medium for popular music, cassettes only enjoyed an eight-year run before CDs overtook them in sales in 1991. Though its reign was relatively short, cassettes were the primary listening medium for virtually all of Gen-X. But upon its death in record stores, the mourning period for Gen-X and Gen-Y for this medium was about as fast as a Family Guy flashback. Hell, even the kitsch factor of 8-tracks gave that medium a longer mourning period.


The lack of mourning for the passing of the cassette is curious, but not entirely surprising. As a canvas, the cassette just didn’t have the majesty of records. Somehow the covers of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band just don’t seem as iconic when they’re condensed into a space that’s slightly larger than a pack of smokes. Hauling them around was usually a pain in the ass. And finally, the general sound quality wasn’t the reason why most people opted for cassettes. It was for their portability.


If there is a movement for nostalgia for cassettes, it’s not the medium, but for the concept of freedom it offered listeners. For those who thought junior high and high school were exercises in purgatory, a Walkman finally offered some minor refuge. The medium also offered the masses an exercise in freedom with the ability to create their own playlists from blank tapes.


Nick Hornby and Rob Sheffield have both written moving accounts of creating great mix tapes for loved ones with High Fidelity and Love Is a Mix Tape, respectively. Both authors tell about the arduous process of not only making sure the songs could adequately fill each side of the tape, but of having to listen to the entire tack, then pushing “Pause” just at the right time for the next song to be recorded. Then came the mix-CD, cutting this process down from 90 minutes to a mere five. Now, with playlists, this process can be done in seconds. The gesture is the same, but it’s the equivalent of taking your significant other out to dinner instead of going through the painstaking task of fixing a meal for them at home.


Like DAT’s, some mediums are just meant to die and never experience a revival. Cassettes seem destined to fall into this category. When I was packing for my fifth move in about 7 years, I finally decided to pour all the cassettes that got me through junior high and high school in a plastic sack (save three or four for sentimentality). I chucked them into a dumpster and didn’t feel the slightest bit of longing or loss. As essential as they were to growing up, it seems like cassettes were just the training wheels for what was to come later on.


Tagged as: cassettes, mix tapes
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Tuesday, Oct 20, 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.

It sounds murky; swampy.  It sounds as though the guitars are being played through your next door neighbor’s speakers while you listen to it in your living room.  It sounds as though the vocals are being growled from underwater.  It sounds muffled.  It sounds well worn; lived in.  Above all else though, Exile on Main St. sounds great.


With the release of Exile on Main St., the Rolling Stones capped off perhaps the most impressive streak in rock and roll history.  Over the course of five years they had transformed themselves from another successful British rock band into masters of the form.  The transformation had begun with the simplicity of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, continued with the authenticity of 1969’s Let It Bleed, and eventually grew into the audacious grandeur of 1971’s Sticky Fingers


Sticky Fingers was a landmark album, the band’s best, and it had changed rock and roll forever.  Sticky Fingers made the Rolling Stones a different kind of “big” than the world had ever seen; the kind of “big” that every other successful rock group is still compared to.  After all, Sticky Fingers was so big it bulged from behind the crotch of an overstuffed pair of jeans.  When it came time to record its follow up in 1972, the band did the only thing they could do, the only thing anybody can do once their zipper has been pulled down.  They let it all hang out.


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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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