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Monday, Sep 14, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

Eminem - “White America”
Written by Marshall Mathers, Jeff Bass, L. Resto, and Steve King
From The Eminem Show (Aftermath, 2002)


I’ll just say it right out front: I didn’t learn to appreciate Eminem until 2002, a-thousand-in-hip-hop years after his commercial breakthrough. It would be dishonest to state or imply that I “slept” on him at first. The fact is, I actively avoided Eminem’s work from the beginning. I figured that I, a funkafied, culturally-savvy mixed-race Californian musician old enough to have original Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 12-inch singles in the crates, needn’t pay heed to this perceived imposter from the heartland who, as far as I knew, was just party-crashing the most important musical development of the late 20th century. I had also heard horrible things about his rampant homophobia and other questionable philosophical positions. I changed the channel when his videos came on TV,  and closed my ears when folks tried to tell me he possessed skills. Then one day, shortly after the release of The Eminem Show, I heard “White America”, and had to take a closer look.


Songs that deal with race and racism in American pop music can usually be traced to a handful of specific traditions. There’s a protest/socially conscious tradition, which typically laments the current race relations climate, and sets eyes on a future where things will be better for all (e.g.,  Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child”). There’s a more confrontational tradition, which aims for revealing uncomfortable and previously unexpressed truths about race relations, often addressing institutional power (e.g. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”, the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, and Oakland hip-hop artist Paris). There is also a more observational and/or metaphorical tradition, which aims to teach about the perils of racism through a story, observation, or ironic narration (e.g., Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is”, Kid Creole’s “Consequently”. Lastly, there’s a kind of transcendent tradition, which aims to transcend racial (and other societal) barriers by refusing to acknowledge or believe in the barriers in the first place (e.g., Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”, Prince’s “Uptown”, any song with the phrase “black, white, red, yellow, or brown” in it).


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Sunday, Sep 13, 2009

Sitting in a coffee shop the other day, I heard “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken” by Camera Obscura, and while I knew the song, I couldn’t immediately recall if it was from a recent listen or something from high school. The song put me in mind of the female vocalists of my youth, all the Clare Grogans (Altered Images), the Hope Sandovals (Mazzy Star), the Margo Timminses (Cowboy Junkies). And I was suddenly seized with a fever to run home and listen to some Shelleyan Orphan Thankfully we live in the age of the internets, so I can just Google them rather than trudge through the milk-crates of vinyl in my mother’s garage, which have no doubt fallen prey to spiders and mildew and Mom’s random Goodwill donation sprees.


It has been 20 years since the release of no-hit wonder Shelleyan Orphan’s shimmering and beautiful album Century Flower. The Bournemouth, England-based duo of Caroline Crawley and Jemaur Tayle made fanciful and complex pop music in the 1980s and ‘90s, and brushed up against more famous shoulders (the Cure, This Mortal Coil) on their road to eternal obscurity. 


Contemporaries the Sundays have “Here’s Where the Story Ends”, Mazzy Star have their “Fade Into You”, but Shelleyan Orphan can’t even hang their hats on a song that might turn up on a show like Nina Blackwood’s New Wave Nation.  It’s a shame, too, because the music more than holds up against any of the floaty, ethereal dream-pop that girls like me listened to back then.


With vocalists like Camera Obscura’s Traceyanne Campbell and even Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne sounding so much like Caroline Crawley, I don’t think I’m the only one who has Century Flower lurking in their collection.



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Friday, Sep 11, 2009
Almost nine years after racking up nine top ten hits, two members of New Kids on the Block had top ten hits of their own as solo acts.

Both singles from New Kids on the Block’s self-titled debut album, “Be My Girl” and “Stop It Girl”, failed to chart. But on October 8, 1988, their first charting track, “Please Don’t Go Girl” (from their follow-up album, Hangin’ Tough) also became their first top ten hit on Billboard’s Hot 100. In less than two years, they’d have eight more top ten smashes, including three that went all the way to number one (“I’ll Be Loving You (Forever)”, “Hangin’ Tough”, and “Step by Step”).


And then it was over. In the next few years, they’d chart three more singles, but none of them would climb higher than #53. Their time had seemingly come and gone.


Then something unusual happened. More than eight years after New Kids on the Block’s last major hit, Joey McIntyre (one of the members of the group) released a single that, like “Please Don’t Go Girl”, peaked at #10. Five weeks later, “Give It to You” by Jordan Knight (another member of the group) also peaked at #10.


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Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Remembering Joe Maneri and Rashied Ali

You don’t have to be a jazz fan to appreciate that picture. But it helps.


Most people have never heard of Joe Maneri, so not too many folks are mourning the August 24 passing of this great musician. In addition to being a beloved teacher and father of jazz violinist Mat Maneri, he is rightly considered a pioneering figure in music. His inclusion of Turkish and Klezmer music into a more free jazz (think Ornette Coleman playing with one of Sun Ra’s bands covering traditional European music at a Greek orthodox wedding and you begin to get the picture) helped liberate and expand the possibilities of jazz improvisation. Like Coleman and Sun Ra, Maneri was an astute and original composer: his work is not immediately accessible, but patient ears quickly identify a very consistent logic and style.


Anyone who has seen the excellent American Splendor (a film celebrating the life of curmudgeonly comic book artist Harvey Pekar) has heard Maneri: his impossibly cool ”Paniots Nine” accompanies the opening credits. Pekar allegedly insisted that Maneri’s music be used, and this stands to reason as Pekar (himself a jazz critic) championed a largely obscure Maneri back in the ’90s. Indeed, it was John Zorn who helped release Paniots Nine (the title of the first track is also the title of the album), which makes all the sense in the world considering Zorn effectively took up Maneri’s baton in the ’80s and began cleverly integrating traditional Jewish music into his own compositions. It’s fair to say that Maneri, though lamentably overlooked for entirely too long, was the first major composer to actively bring those disparate elements and influences into free (but still swinging) jazz.


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Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Sometimes imitation breeds excellence.

For the longest time, I thought “Oh Sheila” was a Prince song. It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-‘90s that I discovered that it was actually by a group called Ready for the World, an ensemble that consisted of multiple people who emphatically weren’t Mr. Unpronounceable Symbol. Regardless of who actually made it, I always loved the song to death. Even when I forsook R&B and rap in the late ‘90s to delve into the rock genre, I would get unreasonably excited whenever this song aired on the “old school oldies” radio station my mom liked to tune to in the car.


Ready for the World was one of a slew of workmanlike yet indistinguishable mid-level R&B hitmakers that swarmed American radio in the mid-1980s. The six-piece from Flint, Michigan notched several hits on the Billboard R&B Charts, but I dare you to even name a single band member.  There of the band’s singles reached the Billboard Top 40: the aforementioned 1985 number one hit “Oh Sheila”, the oddly Mute Records-esque follow-up single “Digital Display”, and the 1986 slow jam “Love You Down”. But only “Oh Sheila” has the infectious energy and unstoppable hooks to warrant repeated listens. And you can bet like hell I’ve listened to this song constantly ever since finally I bought it on iTunes a few months back.


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