Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” is an artistic tailspin from the recent heights of singles like “Bad Romance” and “Telephone”. Pop artifacts that borrow heavily from their forbears must contain some framework of originality; a difference must coincide with the sameness so as not come off as plain stealing. Lady Gaga has not even attempted this with “Alejandro”. She not so much stands as stomps on the shoulders of giants like Madonna, ABBA, and lesser wits like Ace of Base. A long string of cribbed beats and run-together pop references, “Alejandro” is a song truly made up of nothing, not even bothering to revel in its vacuity. Sure, the song is catchy and danceable, but considering the level of work that came before it, a simple pop song is a letdown. A stolen one is a tragedy.
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I sometimes fear that the concept of the live jazz performance is slowly fading. While jazz still maintains a presence in major cities, public support for America’s truly original art form is undoubtedly not at an all-time high. With rising concert costs, it is increasingly more difficult for folks of average economic means to attend gigs. These circumstances are truly unfortunate, for nothing else in the music world rivals the vitality of a live jazz set.
Common wisdom states that a recording can never quite capture the magic that happens in a club or on a concert stage. It is curious, then, that a jazz fan’s induction into the music often comes through records. Where would the jazz world be without such masterpieces as Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, or Maiden Voyage, all albums that originated in a studio? Capturing the energy of a live performance on record is one of today’s major artistic challenges. Given the dire economic and cultural conditions described above, it is good to know that creative and engaging live recordings are still being made. One primary example is an album called Stories and Negotiations, released in April 2010 and recorded live in Chicago’s Millennium Park in August 2008.
Mike Reed, a Chicago drummer and composer, works with an octet—drums, bass, two tenor saxes, alto sax, trumpet, and trombone—called People, Places, and Things. Reed is not only a vibrant musician, but he also presents the music of local artists he admires, as well as dedicates himself to preserving the history of Chicago’s neglected jazz musicians of the past. On his professional website, he lists some of his major musical influences, including artists as diverse as the Impressions, the Beatles, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and Neil Young. After just one spin through People, Places, and Things’ Stories and Negotiations, all of Reed’s influences and interests are prominently displayed.
After the success of the “Another Day” single and the Ram album, it was time for Paul and Linda McCartney to release another single. This time, Paul accepted the American method of releasing album tracks, so “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was issued with fellow album track, “Too Many People”.
Some people are of the opinion that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, because of the line “Hands across the water / Heads across the sky” and because of World War II Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr. While McCartney has stated that the song’s Halsey was inspired by the real-life Admiral Halsey, the chorus’ lyrics were actually inspired by WW2’s American aid programs. The “Uncle Albert” parts were actually based on Paul’s own Uncle Albert, a man who had the strange habit of only quoting Bible verses when he was drunk. Instead of trying to make a cohesive meaning of the track, it is better to think of it as a combination of several songs. All of the background vocals were improvised during the recording by Linda, thus giving her both a songwriting and a producing credit.
There is nothing quite like Super Ape. On first listen, the uninitiated are set up for disappointment—it’s a gateway but also a dead end into the world of dub and psychedelic reggae. There’s a legion of adjectives that fly fast and thick to describe it: dense, lush, and inimitable, it’s a critic’s wet dream. Above all, Super Ape is captivating. It’s one of those rare “masterpieces” that embraces you instead of demanding your concentration. From the irresistible call of the opening drums to the indeterminate farewell of the last, fading chant, the album incarnates a sonic world, a microcosm of rhythm, mix, melody, and toasting that, whatever your personal tastes, stands replete and to itself.
The ape of the title and of the outrageous cover art is meant to represent Lee Perry himself (the original LP was titled Scratch the Super Ape and had a different track order), and though the artist credit goes to the Upsetters. he does loom large over the music of Super Ape. He was never distinguishable from his house band anyway, but here the studio dub thoroughly supersedes the instrumentals. Perry has been praised by many for his skills as an arranger and coach to his session musicians, and this album is manifest proof of his talent for supervising each step of the process with an eye toward the final result. Even when his samples are taken from other completed songs, they feel authentic and utterly natural in dub. The innovative instrumental albums of his past show Perry doing just as much “dubbing” in the studio as he and his peers would eventually do after the fact, working with experimental effects and imbuing his music with an exceptional ambiance. In some ways, Super Ape is the conclusion of that process, a bona fide dub album built from the ground up.
My introduction to Stevie Ray Vaughan came from the nerdiest of sources: an MTV News special about the ‘80s. When the 1989 segment came on, the familiar chaotic images of Tianamen Square were displayed with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s hit “Crossfire” playing in the background. Though the association got me into the library to read all I could about the massacre, I didn’t pick up Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step. Less than a year later, Vaughan would be buried in Dallas, Texas.
Being a sophomore in high school in 1990, Vaughan’s type of music didn’t totally reach me. I, like thousands of other teenagers, was slowly trying to deprogram myself from years of listening to hair metal, and was just discovering bands like Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction. Still, when MTV News announced that Stevie Ray Vaughan was killed in a helicopter crash on August 27, 1990, I can safely say that his death was the first “rock star” death that affected me. “How can someone who wrote a song that good die?”, I kept asking myself naively. Sure, other rock stars have died, but those deaths came years after they had reached their peak.