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Monday, Dec 1, 2008

One of the obvious delights of surveying the Beatles’ catalogue is coming across unheralded gems, like “Baby It’s You”. Written by Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, and Mack David, this cover of the much-covered 1961 Shirelles’ hit shares the same lazy-groove, R&B gait as “Anna (Go to Him)” and, also like that Arthur Alexander tune, showcases the Beatles in precociously assured form. They sound seasoned and not at all burdened by the pressures of a debut album. And coupled with their casual command, they also come off (to no surprise) as naturally joyful performers who recognize that their art can benefit from an influx of good humor.


As the song’s lead singer, John especially radiates this mix of authority and amusement. Over glinting guitars and a sturdy, medium-boil rhythm (both of which are well-proportioned), he issues a vow of devotion that ranges, in tonal quality, from calmly resigned to mocking to battered. It’s a versatile vocal, and John navigates the changes so loosely, so fluidly, almost as if he’s just engaging in regular conversation. The way he lightly massages the word “heart” in the song’s first line, the spring in his voice on the transitional “uh-ohs”, and his aching confession “Don’t want nobody, nobody” are among the highlights.


Elsewhere, John, flanked by the “sha-la-la”-ing Paul and George, sets aside his straight-up, shtick-free manner in favor of showy flourishes and interjections that might seem somewhat audacious coming from the very green Beatles (as opposed to the more established Shirelles who perform the same parts). But the Fab Four bask in these moments and appear to acknowledge their own youth by almost consciously overacting. To memorable effect, John follows the original’s use of repetition on lines like “Many, many, many nights go by” and “They say, they say you never, never, never ever been true”, but he adds more playful emphasis than the Shirelles did. Such confident poses for a mere 22-year-old. However, his smirkingly clipped delivery of “cheat, cheat”, which Paul and George echo, is probably the finest demonstration of the Beatles’ joy of craft on “Baby It’s You”. It’s an infectious spirit that helps to make for an infectious pop treat.


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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2008
Trying to cut "The White Album" down to size is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down: it can’t be done.

 


Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition to the soul.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick (Chapter 42 - The Whiteness of the Whale)


Well, the album’s not not white. It is so appropriate for it to be a blank slate—figuratively speaking—because perhaps more than any other Beatles album, it has served as an ideal canvas upon which fans can project their opinions, insights and arguments. It is, to belabor the Melville metaphor, kind of the white whale of the greatest rock band’s canon, with fans like so many Ahabs, trying to capture it, or understand it, or truncate it, or elevate it, or diminish it. Or all of those things, and more.


It was, after all, the album that signalled the end of The Beatles—every moment after its release a slo-mo implosion, those fractured pieces of ego and ambition the Flotsam and Jetsam that became Let It Be and Abbey Road, and later, the solo albums. Or was it? Was it, perhaps, merely a collection of uneven, ultimately amazing songs from a band at the apex of their superhuman powers? Probably, it’s something right around the middle of those extremes. It was what it was: the album the Beatles released, 40 years ago this fall. And while many folks would concede it’s not their best album, most people acknowledge that it might just be better than Sgt. Pepper’s (let me stand up and be counted here).


In terms of an engaged critical appraisal, arguably the only true way to grapple with this behemoth is to submit to a detailed, song-by-song analysis (something PopMatters writers did quite brilliantly all last week). What holds up? What doesn’t? Which songs, often easy to dismiss, still manage to surprise? (”Piggies”, “Rocky Raccoon”). Which ones have never ceased to astonish, even after a thousand listens? (”Happiness is a Warm Gun”, “I Will”, “Long Long Long”). The tunes themselves: 30 songs that constitute a sum far greater than their parts? (Does that even make sense, though? It’s the songs themselves that add up to the whole, and each song contributes to the overall effect, that ultimate achievement.) Perhaps it is actually the messy superfluity (an embarrassment of riches that is both, at times, embarrassing as well as rich) that somehow squares the circle. While fans have obsessed from day one about how much better it would have been as a single album (of which, more shortly), a compelling case can still be made that the ostensibly expendable songs, taken along with the master strokes, make a dovetail joint out of the assembled bits.


That last, debatable assertion, is worth expanding upon. In the contemporary climate of iPods and songs on sale for a buck apiece (or else snatched online, for free), it is difficult to imagine the suddenly old fashioned world of compact discs. It is harder still to imagine a seemingly black-and-white movie world where people purchased—and listened to—actual LPs for the simple reason that this was their only choice. Without waxing rhapsodic about wax, it’s probably safe to recall with some conviction those pretty-good days when a new album was an experience and it was experienced. Start to finish. (This is not to imply that people don’t eagerly immerse themselves in new releases today but, again, back then there was no other option.) In those days, unless you were going to jump up, run over, and move the stylus yourself (imagine actually getting up to change the channel on the TV…), you were in for the duration once the needle dropped.


All of a sudden seemingly stolid things like flow and symmetry enter the equation. Suddenly the exhaust of the airplane ending “Back in the U.S.S.R.” segueing limpidly into the earthbound chords of “Dear Prudence” gives a subtle extra significance to both moments. The flamenco guitar flourish (actually a canned recording from the then-cutting edge Mellotron) functions as both a perfectly surreal coda to the cacophonous “Wild Honey Pie” but also as a perfect (and perfectly bizarre) introduction to Lennon’s wonderfully acerbic “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”. Ditto for the saloon piano at the end of “Rocky Raccoon”—or is that supposed to be the beginning of “Don’t Pass Me By”?


Is it just habit (or worse, sentimentality) informing the observation that Side 2 would suffer if it began with, say, “Blackbird” instead of “Martha My Dear”? Or that Side 1 has to end with “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? Or, that, of course, Side 3 has to end with “Long Long Long” knowing that the slow, smothered coda will be resucitated with the studio chatter and false start of “Revolution 1″ opening Side 4, the effect like a light switch being flipped on? Could the one-two punch of McCartney’s “I Will” and Lennon’s “Julia” possibly do anything other than close Side 2, a calming comedown after the narcotic maelstrom that preceded it?


I could put together a perfect two-sided version of this white whale. So could you. But I’d be willing to bet that like snowflakes, no two fans would have the same songs in the same running order. More, even though it would arguably sound better to cut some of the fat and flab, would “Cry Baby Cry” sound quite the same not knowing (dreading?) “Revolution 9″ was about to follow? Would “Cry Baby Cry” even make the cut? Speaking for myself, if I had to pare down this beast, I am pretty sure I could safely lose “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, but I can’t imagine a single song that could reliably kick off the proceedings as suitably. Likewise, “Julia” could be an ideal closer on any other album, but not the white album. It is perfectly placed right in the middle, the marrow of this very gnarled and fibrous bone.


Trying to cut this album down to size (something George Martin fought for, and something each member probably advocated at some point, in ‘68 or after) is ultimately like chasing that whale around all the continents and hunting him down; it can’t be done. Impossible, like trying to make sense out of “Revolution 9″ (forwards or backwards, and back in the day, we tried it many times). And that is the point of this album: it really is just an album a band that happened to be growing apart made in between ‘67 and ‘69. Not working together as closely, or productively, as they once had, does the end product suffer? Perhaps. But even with the odds and sods (even with “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” for God’s sake), the bottom line is that The Beatles couldn’t help but be brilliant. They were as close to the sun as they’d ever get at this point in their careers, and this work endures as a sort of field recording that touches on almost all the music made in the modern era, while anticipating (and to a large degree commencing) the post ’60s era (one might even say that by recognizing the ’60s were effectively over, The Beatles effectively ended the ’60s). Could it have been edited to make a more concise, aesthetically satisfactory result? Maybe. But would it be as satisfying? Fortunately, that is the question that cannot, and need not, ever be answered.


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Thursday, Nov 20, 2008
by PopMatters Staff
New dance pop singer Lady GaGa loves the Pietà.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Red, the movie based on the book by Jack Ketchum.


2. The fictional character most like you?
Carrie Bradshaw (from Sex and the City).


3. The greatest album, ever?
Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.


4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars


5. Your ideal brain food?
Chicken and hummus.


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Tuesday, Nov 18, 2008

The Beatles is called ‘the White Album’, of course, because of its cover, which is completely devoid of imagery save for the group’s name blind-embossed on its face slightly off-center and askew, and a few discreet bits of type printed in barely visible light gray on the spine and front and back panels. In the shimmering muteness of its glossy blank surface, The Beatles announces the end of the psychedelic era, the obsolescence of floridity and pretension typified ironically enough by the band’s previous opus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like a Trojan horse virus, the seeming ineffability of The Beatles’ exterior masks the flowers of evil contained in songs that would dissolve the saccharine melodies of the Summer of Love and provide the helter-skelter soundtrack for the Manson murders and Watergate paranoia to come.


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Monday, Nov 17, 2008

Not for nothing was the band called The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Certainly, Hendrix did—and does—go by his own name; he effectively created his own brand the second lighter fluid soaked that Stratocaster at Monterey.


So, while it wouldn’t have made that much difference who he chose to keep time behind him, he was fortunate that his manager, Chas Chandler, found Mitch Mitchell. Hendrix went in so many amazing directions, in order for his vision to be consistently realized, he needed a drummer with the chops and versatility to keep up with (and, at times, complement) him. Enter Mitchell. No rock drummers sounded like this, then. Keith Moon certainly hit the ground running and, throughout the mid-‘60s, showed the signs of a controlled frenzy that would reach its full flowering on Tommy. Ginger Baker kept time with Cream, the first super group, holding his own with Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton. But Mitchell never needed to evolve—he came into the equation fully formed and ready to contribute.


Mitchell named jazz drummer icons Elvin Jones and Max Roach as two of his primary influences. Normally, name dropping like this (certainly from a rock musician) sounds too clever by half, and more than a little presumptuous. Mitchell, however, provided ample evidence that he had absorbed not only the complexity, but the unique approaches that Jones and Roach brought to bear. Roach’s supple dexterity and Jones’s jackhammer pyrotechnics are in abundant display on all of the Jimi Hendrix Experience recordings.


A few obvious examples: songs like “Hey Joe” and “Manic Depression” would be pretty complete regardless of Hendrix’s accompaniment, but there is no question that Mitchell’s passive-aggressive assault renders what is already whole and fully formed something a bit above and beyond. On the indelible “Third Stone from the Sun”, Mitchell is not just keeping time, he’s making time: inventive fills, and propulsive but never busy embellishment. On the other hand, “The Wind Cries Mary” is a clinic in doing more with less.


While Ginger Baker, for instance, could occasionally run the risk of tripping over himself, Mitchell was able to bring the blitzkrieg without exploding, or (worse), encroaching on the considerable space Hendrix needed to clear for himself in order to lift off. Not to pick on Baker (who is usually considered amongst the better and more influential drummers from the ‘60s), but Ginger sometimes sounded like a bricklayer. Occasionally, he seemed too preoccupied with how many balls he had in the air; on Cream’s mellower songs, it almost seems like he had to slip on a coat and tie just to calm himself down. Mitchell, on the other hand, maneuvered effortlessly between the wasp’s nest flurry (“Fire”, “She’s So Fine”) and in-the-pocket precision (“One Rainy Wish”, “Castles Made of Sand”).


Mitchell was fast, he was clever, he was edgy and he was original. He was the perfect engine for Hendrix’s inimitable machine.


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