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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009

The 2010 nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have been announced. The ballot includes KISS, the Stooges, Genesis, LL Cool J, ABBA, Jimmy Cliff, the Chantels, Darlene Love, Donna Summer, Laura Nyro, the Hollies, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Of these 12, five will be chosen for induction into the Hall early next year. That’s a pretty diverse selection.


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has long suffered from two main flaws when it comes to choosing artists for induction. First, the Hall subscribes to the Rolling Stone definition of rock music: basically, all popular music since the late 1950s that isn’t country. In particular, what is favored is the music the baby bomber generation grew up on and loved. This makes perfect sense as the Hall was co-founded by Rolling Stone creator Jann Wenner, and features several contributors to the magazine on its nomination committee and in its voting pool. More problematic is that there is no hard metric to help decide an artist’s merit for induction. Unlike with sports hall of fames, artists are not measured by figures or performance statistics in order to ascertain their worthiness to join the Rock Hall. The only hard criterion is that an artist is only eligible for induction 25 years after they have released their first recording. Aside from this one rule, the 30-member nomination committee weighs concepts like influence and longevity in choosing artists for the ballot in lieu of more concrete measurements like record sales or number of awards won. Additionally, members of the nomination committee can easily exert their own personal prejudices, leading to the active lobbying of induction for some artists and the active dismissal of others held in low critical regard, regardless of that artist’s impact or influence. These factors combined explain why Percy Sledge, Miles Davis, and Madonna are in the Hall, and why Deep Purple, Genesis, and the Cure aren’t.


The Rock Hall of Fame has made some strides in addressing common criticisms of its induction process. For starters, the number of artists on the nomination ballot has been increased from nine to 12 artists this year. Additionally, the Hall’s Chief Curator Jim Henke has explained that the nominating committee has created three subcommittees to suggest nominations in particular genres (“one on progressive rock and heavy metal, one on hip-hop and one on early rock and rollers and rhythm & blues”), which inspires confidence that the Hall is aiming to reach outside the baby boomer music canon. Those considerations have resulted in a pretty intriguing ballot; while there are still head-scratchers (really, Laura Nyro?), there are a fair number of artists who definitely have earned their places in the history of modern music. Let’s take a look at a few of them.


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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009
Brooklyn workhorses return with new material.

Every few years I wonder “What ever happened to Alice Donut?” The Brooklyn band has been around since 1986, putting out 12 albums and countless singles while it did what all good punk bands did back then—toured its ass off all over the world. Led by vocalist Tomas Antona, the band has spent the majority of its career on Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label, and if any band could personify Biafra’s off-kilter take on music and the world in general, it would be Alice Donut. Just look at some of their album titles: Dork Me Bangladesh, The Untidy Suicides of Your Degenerate Children. Over a decade before emo made the mile-long song title faddish, Alice Donut gave us a little ditty called “The Son of a Disgruntled X-Postal Worker Reflects on His Life While Getting Stoned in the Parking Lot of a Winn Dixie Listening to Metallica”. (Take that, Fall Out Boy!) If Alice Donut didn’t exist, Snakefinger from the Residents would have had to invent them. And they’re back with a new CD, Ten Glorious Animals.


After a long hiatus following their 1996 breakup, the band reformed to release Three Sisters in 2004 and Fuzz in 2006. They occupy that murky grey area of one of those stalwart bands with no real commercial success in over two decades of playing, but sufficient fans dotting the globe to make it worthwhile to persevere. It is a subject that plays out in their lyrics, as Antona and his band mates wryly accept their lot in life on the track “Shiloh”: “Gonna get famous and rich / Got a gig with the Unsane / And 7 Year Bitch.” They know they aren’t going to be the next Green Day, and they’re cool with that. As guitarist Michael Jung said in a 2007 interview, “We weren’t in search of hand jobs or castles. There’s all kinds of popular success. Look at Tom Waits.”


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Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009

Walking into the Silent Comedy show at San Diego’s Casbah on September 11th, you might have felt you’d stumbled onto the craft services table on set of a remake of Paper Moon. Every other guy in attendance looked like a particularly roguish Depression-era hobo or the piano player at a Chaplin film festival. A sampling of the look can be found in the video for the band’s 2007 song “Bones”, except these aren’t costumes—these dudes dress this way 24-7. To take advantage of sartorial similarities with opening acts Mississippi Man, Skyline Union and River City, the gig was christened “Mustache Mayhem”.


In fact, the guys in the Silent Comedy love facial hair so much that they’ve turned it into a way to finance their next CD. You too can be a patron of the arts if you sport a mustache (real or faux) and give a donation on the band’s website. Talk about music industry innovations in the tech age!


The band had reason to celebrate, having won a San Diego Music Award for Best Pop Group the night before. Frontman Joshua Zimmerman (aka J. John) displayed a newfound confidence and swagger that was palpable as the band launched in the song “Poison” with all the fervor of a tent revival meeting. There was no sign of the hellacious hangover that photographer Rich Cook said followed Thursday night’s totally unexpected win—but that might be due to the very liberal hair-of-the-dog flowing throughout the set.


Mississippi Man was the only non-San Diego band on the bill, and their sound, while certainly as sepia-toned as the rest, had the most modern flair, if your idea of modern is the 1960s. Sure, they look just as breadline-ready as their compatriots, but their music is decidedly more Brian Wilson than Al Jolson. And River City, playing in the back bar known as the Atari Lounge during breaks in the main stage sets, might have been the sleeper hit of the night. Their mustache ratio was strong (three out of five), and they rocked a Maid Rite washboard to boot! 


September 11th is a time of somber reflection for most Americans. But the crowd at the Casbah that night got a welcome break from the cares of the day with the help of some great music, and some truly inspired facial hair.



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Monday, Sep 28, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Dreamlover”
Written by Mariah Carey, Dave Hall, and Walter Afanasieff
From Music Box, Sony Records, 1993


An earlier version of this V-C-V first appeared on pcmunoz.com on January 17, 2006


I love Mariah Carey for all kinds of reasons. For starters, she’s a technically amazing vocalist, capable of notes most vocalists can only hope to reach via a healthy dose of “digital assistance”. She’s also a steely, determined artist who wouldn’t let consecutive project failures and public embarrassments defeat her spirit. And of course, I appreciate that she’s a serious, savvy songwriter, who has worked with everyone from Carole King to Kanye West. After a rough patch around the year 2001, Carey spent a few years as the butt of mean-spirited (read: hatin’) jokes and undeserved write-offs. Fans like myself were not surprised at all when she re-emerged on the scene in 2005 with a wildly successful straight-out R&B album, The Emancipation of Mimi, a spectacular platter of choice grooves, killer vocals, and a fun vibe that recalls the ‘90s hit I will discuss here, “Dreamlover”.


“Dreamlover” is pure, frothy pop. It flows along so sweetly and lightly, it’s easy to dismiss the wide-eyed innocence which the lyric imparts. With her talk of rainbows, charm bracelets, music boxes, and butterflies, I’ve always thought Mariah Carey seems to possess a kind of little-girl spirit which most female songwriters don’t dare conjure, for fear of being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, or mocked by “serious” songwriting peers and critics. One might conjecture that Carey’s use of these images is simply a calculated manipulation of her focus-group tested demographic (young females), or, worse, an indication of a kind of stunted emotional growth, but I happen to be of the opinion that she really likes that kinda stuff. Her covers of Journey’s “Open Arms” and Def Leppard’s big-haired suburban classic “Bringin’ on the Heartbreak” support this theory, as far I’m concerned. Carey’s penchant for this imagery of course completely precludes her from ever earning the type of indie-cred heaped upon more appropriately-cool songwriters like PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco, or the early, pre-pop-stardom-grab incarnation of Liz Phair, but it certainly does not warrant automatic dismissal of her work as an artist.


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Friday, Sep 25, 2009
After taking Arrested Development back to Tennessee, Dionne crafted a musical hit that still resonates today.

In the summer of 1992, Arrested Development had the first of three top ten hits with “Tennessee”, a song as powerful and hypnotic today as it was seventeen years ago. A quest for spiritual enlightenment hindered by the anger and pain of growing up in a world that often makes no sense, the song ended with the strong, pleading voice of Dionne Farris echoing the song’s search for home.


Dionne, who was more one of the “extended family” than an actual member of Arrested Development, got noticed after the song became such a major hit, and Chrysalis (Arrested Development’s record company) offered her a solo contract. Looking for more creative control than the company was willing to give, Dionne turned down the offer. Fortunately, Sony Music heard a demo she made with David Harris, and they offered her a contract that was more flexible.


The result was one of the best albums of the year, Wild Seed, Wild Flower.


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