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Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009

I will admit it. One of my guiltiest guilty pleasures is The X Factor. It is essentially the British version of American Idol. It is awful, but I love it.


When it was announced that the 2008 winner would sing a cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah”, I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse.


It just did.


It has been announced that the 2009 winner will sing a cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”.


I could not believe my ears.


When I eventually believed them, I wanted to eat them in a fit of pure, undiluted fury.


“Don’t Stop Believin’” is one of my favorite songs. I am against cover versions in (almost) every shape and form. The original is the best. Unless you can do something imaginative with the original (listen to Taken by Trees’ version of “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, for example), then leave it as it is. There is nothing about The X Factor that could possibly be considered original. Take it from someone who knows.


I could list all the things that are wrong with this choice, but I will start with the most obvious. One: the original version is brilliant and you should never mar brilliance. Two: why not pick an original song for the winner? At least then it can stand as a song in its own right. Can they not afford songwriters in this poor economic climate? Three: one of the contestants, an admittedly talented guy named Joe, already sang this song (and is favored to win, apparently). Does anything scream favoritism louder than that?


I will end this post with a solemn plea. Please buy the original version of “Don’t Stop Believin’” from iTunes during the week before Christmas. In the name of good taste, good music and all that is holy, buy “Don’t Stop Believin’”. Please.


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Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009
Swedish singer-songwriter Anna Ternheim takes a moment to chat with PopMatters.com about her musical output and the current Swedish music scene.

Sweden’s darling Anna Ternheim has been creating music since 2004 and has released four studio albums filled with songs that seem deeply personal and walk the line between folk and pop music.  She possesses an adeptness for song compositions that don’t leave the listener wanting for even a moment.  Though she chooses to back them up with the guitar rather than the piano, her lyrics sometimes recall the soft femininity of fellow Swede Frida Hyvönen.


It seemed effortless to have a conversation with Ternheim about everything from the music community right now in Sweden, to the sensational vampiric novel and film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In).  As one might expect, she comes off both as a strong and intelligent woman.  She ran into a bit of trouble on the way to our interview and her October 10th show at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago, as the van she was sharing with Emil Svanängen of Loney Dear broke down, forcing her to take a special flight just to make the event. But she made it clear she wasn’t going to let the stress get to her or effect her live performance. What follows is a condensed version of our chat about her music, her live shows, and life as a Swedish musician.


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Monday, Nov 30, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“Nobody can be you but you.”
—Steve Arrington


It’s almost inaccurate to call drummer/songwriter/producer Steve Arrington as plain a term as “singer”, as he doesn’t so much sing lyrics as much as he throws his whole being into them, disarming listeners with the pure physicality of swooping acrobatic highs, dramatic growls, and unexpected melodic turns. The former vocalist/frontman for funk legends Slave, as well as his own group, Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame, Steve Arrington, along with fellow Ohio natives Sugarfoot and Roger Troutman, has long been considered by funkateers to be one of the most distinctive funk vocalists of all time.


With all due respect to the aforementioned vocalists, as well as Larry Blackmon and other groundbreaking funk vocalists, I would actually go one step further and say Arrington is the most unique vocalist in funk, ever. While it is fairly common for funk vocalists to function as the lead rhythm instrument within an interlocking hyper-syncopated ensemble, Arrington, in my opinion, was the only one to use his voice in the same way other funk bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s used squealing, gurgling synths: as an undulating, unpredictable, but still pleasing-to-hear futuristic “sound effect” of sorts. Troutman, whose work I love dearly, of course also deftly and skillfully did things in this vein, but he had the help of his talkbox. Arrington’s vocal flights of fancy are organic, and his drumming background gives each of his texturized vocal performances a rhythmic precision that is funky-to-the-core. And to this day, no one sounds like Steve Arrington but Steve Arrington—nobody can be him but him.


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Sunday, Nov 29, 2009

How many times in your life have you have loathed that one guy just because you “knew” he was an utter tool (not like you ever bothered to actually get to know him)?  “Chump” is all about that sort of knee-jerk irrational prejudice. Backed by a distorted ringing guitar that recalls 1980s underground rockers Hüsker Dü (one of Green Day’s biggest acknowledged influences), Billie Joe Armstrong kicks off the third track on Dookie by sneering “I don’t know you but I think I hate you” and going on from there.


In the song, Armstrong takes the perspective of someone who knows he utterly hates another person before he has even met them.  The character’s disdain towards the subject of his woe is the sort of all-consuming preoccupation that tends to inhabit adolescent lives, best evoked by the couplet “You’re the cloud hanging out over my head / Hail comes crashing down welting my face”.  Armstrong’s character is perfectly fine in laying blame for all his misery at the other person’s feet, but notes “It seems strange that you’ve become my biggest enemy / Even though I’ve never even seen your face”.  He’s quick with the insults (“Magic man, egocentric plastic man”) but short of actual reasons.  In fact, all he has is a series of “maybes” that he lists off in the chorus, describing the whole situation as “A circumstance that doesn’t make much sense”, finally conceding “maybe I’m just dumb”.  It’s the song’s final cry of “I’m a chump!” that reveals who’s really the jerk in this story.


“Chump” essentially ends at the 1:25 mark.  At that point, the band segues into a two-chord instrumental jam that lasts about a minute.  It’s rather simple: Armstrong bashes out a few chords over Mike Dirnt’s ambling bassline, progressively shortening the number of rests between beats until the music becomes a flurry of guitar strumming and drum rolls.  Let’s not forget that these guys are punk rockers; they know how to craft an engaging musical section with the barest essentials.  And sometimes just smashing the hell out of instruments in the right fashion is all that’s needed.  After the chaos subsides, a shuffling drumbeat emerges that leads into the next track and the first of Dookie’s many hit singles…


Tagged as: green day
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Thursday, Nov 26, 2009

“Having a Blast” highlights one of the great fascinations that frequently captivates adolescents: the thrill of blowing things up.  Green Day lyricist Billie Joe Armstrong uses this as the basis for a revenge fantasy where a frustrated bomber plans to take everyone else out with him.  When Dookie was released in 1994, the song’s lyrics were mere cathartic fantasy, about as serious an issue as the pyromaniacal antics of the animated stars of Beavis & Butthead (that is, more idiotically dangerous than truly threatening).  In the intervening years, however, school violence involving troubled, alienated teenagers who have no qualms about unleashing retribution on their classmates has become a fixture of the news media.  In the light of tragedies like the murders at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999, “Having a Blast” has since become Dookie’s most uncomfortable track.


It’s important to note that in no way is the narrator of “Having a Blast” admirable; few characters on Dookie are.  The protagonist is extremely self-centered—with “explosives duct-taped to [his] spine”, he insists, “Nothing’s gonna change my mind”.  He says, “I won’t listen to anyone’s last words”, explaining in the chorus:


“Well no one here
Is getting out alive
This time I’ve really lost my mind and I don’t care
So close your eyes
And kiss yourself goodbye
And think about all the times you spent
And what they’ve meant
To me it’s nothing”


While he rationalizes his actions by stating “I’m taking it all out on you / And all the shit you put me through”, the song’s narrator is ultimately very selfish.  He doesn’t care about all the people he’s about to kill, and he won’t listen to anything else they have to say to try and save themselves.  Everything is “nothing” except the “loneliness” and “anger” that consume him.


As Armstrong sings, he utilizes palm-muted strumming during the verses, gradually building up intensity until he switches to regular strumming for a fuller sound.  This evokes the burgeoning tension of the protagonist, who’s literally ready to go off at any moment.  After the second chorus, the song forgoes repeating the verse chord progression a third time in lieu of an extended bridge section featuring several dramatic pauses to underscore Armstrong’s vocals.  Here, Armstrong employs a songwriting trick he will use throughout the album: introducing a twist into his lyrics to change the listener’s perception of the characters.  Armstrong poses a series of pointed questions, culminating in the clincher: “Do you ever build up all the small things in your head / To make one problem that adds up to nothing”, which insinuates that the song’s protagonist is making a big deal out of insignificant slights in life.  The protagonist of the song may want to “mow down any bullshit” that confronts him, but Armstrong concludes the track by questioning whether or not it’s anything actually worth blowing everything to hell over. 


By ending “Having a Blast” with the chorus refrain “To me it’s nothing”, Armstrong argues it isn’t.


Tagged as: green day
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