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Saturday, Sep 6, 2008

To be honest, I still have doubts about Metallica’s upcoming Death Magnetic. Yes, I’m waiting patiently to pull the wrapper off and reveal my middle school years within the grooves of a beautiful piece of wax. I want so badly, as I’m sure the remains of the fans that stuck with Metallica do as well (those that are still wrapped up in Napster need not comment), to make this record the soundtrack to everything mundane in my existence. Didn’t we all pull out Kill Em’ All and Ride the Lightning and pretended we ruled the world for an hour of mayhem?


If not, you never understood Metallica and the nostalgia and power their significant recordings (which is debatable, I’ll let you pick) meant to people. But, as we can see, from the likes of “The Day That Never Comes”, we are prepared for a revival. But in order for this revival to take place, one must have faith in Metallica. Frankly, I’ve heard countless examples across the Net of people doing nothing but “expecting the worst”. Well, chances are you’ve moved on and this record isn’t for you. When I had the honor of seeing the band for the first time this summer—I realized this was no joke. Not to any of those fans, or not to me. There were songs I hadn’t heard in years but still remembered every word and every feeling that went along with them. That’s a band with staying power.


After first listen of the new single, “The Day That Never Comes”—the doubt crept in… until the clock struck 2:50 when Lars and Kirk provided a transition into which the next six minutes built into classic Metallica mayhem. But this isn’t exactly old Metallica. This is a new Metallica playing with a youthful revivalism that struck their aging bones. The epic solos, the guitar trade-offs, the driving beat, it’s all there. It’s all fresh. It’s all Metallica.


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Thursday, Sep 4, 2008

The twelfth, and final, episode of Season Two of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, September 4, at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is what all 11 of the previous amazing lineups were preparing viewers for: Brian Wilson, Martha Wainwright and Teddy Thompson. All three performers are living, writing, singing proof that talent is often a family affair.


Brian Wilson opens the show discussing how Rubber Soul impressed him so greatly that he went on to write “God Only Knows” because of it. Brian Wilson’s band is made up of members of the Wondermints, among several other musicians. It’s clear from the between song banter that this group of people, Brian included, is very comfortable together, and it’s even clearer once the performances begin, that this is the rare, perfect musical combination. So it’s only fitting the band should have some of the most perfect compositions to perform. “Sloop John B” is up first, and after a false start for a piano problem, it swells until the various voices mingling threaten to carry the viewer away on a wave of goodwill. Yeah, it’s not supposed to be an uplifting tune, but Wilson’s arrangement—and his obvious pleasure at hearing it fill that room—can’t help but buoy you.


“Southern California”, comes from this year’s That Lucky Old Sun, and is an ode to Wilson’s home and his past. It’s a truly touching and beautiful song, and has that uniquely timeless quality of the very best Brian Wilson songs, in that it could’ve been released 40 years ago or 40 years from now, and it would still be just as gorgeous. The vocal harmonies, of course, are stunning. And that brings us to “God Only Knows”, which is Wilson’s favorite song for its “pretty melody and meaningful lyrics”. It has a lingering transcendence in this performance, which actually seems to add to the ambience of Abbey Road studios, rather than drawing from it. It’s a hauntingly beautiful effect.


Martha Wainwright steps up next with “Bleeding All Over You”, “Cheating Me” and “Coming Tonight” from her most recent release, I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too. “Bleeding All Over You”, from which the album takes its name, is a song about unrequited love and the way it can still haunt you even after you’ve moved on. Despite its subject matter, it’s a hummable, strummable tune made all the more catchy by Wainwright’s infectious vocal delivery.


“Cheating Me” is a harder, darker, but no less contagious in its chorus. “Coming Tonight” has a false start as well, but once the song gets going again, it begins to appear that this episode isn’t so much about the stars, the performances or this particular lineup’s genetics, but about the sheer songwriting prowess.


Teddy Thompson begins his segment by referring to his parentage (“My mom is Linda Thompson… she’s like the British Museum, my dad’s more like the vault down below where they keep all the stuff they don’t show you!”). Thompson gives us “In My Arms” and “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” from his latest album, A Piece of What You Need. “In My Arms” is a song which Thompson claims is the first of his that has ever made him want to move to it, but dancing isn’t his inclination. However, if it’s yours, you’re going to love this song. It’s got that mid-‘60s girl-group rhythm, a great bit of organ and some fabulous “oooohs” from Thompson. It will make you believe, as Thompson sort of intended, that A Piece of What You Need is a happy record. “Don’t Know What I Was Thinking” is another of the performances in this episode that point to these artist being grouped together for their enviable abilities to write songs just like this one. And Thompson’s voice on this is particularly strong.


The brilliant second season of Live from Abbey Road comes to a close with Thompson dueting with Wainwright. They are friends from way back, so the rehearsal and pre-performance banter come off as completely natural. When they begin their stripped down, almost sad, and, yes, haunting cover version of “We Can Work it Out”, it’s mesmerizing. It’s also quite an impressive way to end a very impressive season. Let’s hope season three of Live from Abbey Road has even more world class artists and wonderful lineups to come.


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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008

In the eleventh episode of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 28th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific), Bryan Adams talks about his love for studios—he rescued and renovated a gold-rush-era building in Vancouver, BC for his own state of the art studio—and how much the sound of a room can influence the sounds of songs. He performs songs from the very beginning of his career, as well as one from his 2008 release 11 in a set that, at one point, he refers to as “Busking at Abbey Road”. First up is a beautiful acoustic version of “Heaven”, with gorgeous violin accompaniment. Next, “She’s Got a Way”, a product of the instantaneous chemistry that can often come into play with creative partnerships and another lovely love song made more so by the violin. Lastly, Adams goes solo for his first big hit, “Cuts Like a Knife”.


Ben Harper, of course, is accompanied by the Innocent Criminals. His musical influences include not just genres, but every sound and conversation he has ever had. He also believes that the live music experience is of great importance and the performances in this segment support that belief, especially “Better Way” from 2006. That song’s performance expresses all the freedom and energy you might find at an outdoor festival, and is one song that he considers “an accomplishment, musically”. Harper describes his impression of studio two in Abbey Road as, “Sonically, it gives right back to you in the clearest, most honest way.” Harper and the room are kindred, then. As his closer, Harper treats viewers to his own sexy, wicked version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me”, and the note he holds near the end of the song will convince you that you can feel the room giving back to him.


Justin Currie, perhaps best known as lead singer/songwriter for Del Amitri, only performs one song during his Abbey Road session, which is a bit unusual for this program, but it’s a great song. Currie lets us in on why you must be superstitious about writing songs, or any writing really: “Because no matter how hard you work on it, it doesn’t make it any better… and the songs that you consider to be good, just come along—in a highly mysterious fashion.” His performance of “Still in Love” from 2007’s What Is Love For is a deep and haunting. It’s a ballad for piano and strings, which showcases not only Currie’s ability to write a stunner, but his talent for elevating a great song even further on the strength of his voice. You can just imagine what the room gave back to him.


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


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Wednesday, Aug 27, 2008
With art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.

Eighteen years ago today.


First day of classes, junior year. Standing in the bathroom with too much shaving cream and not enough whiskers, getting geared up for another semester of partying too much and studying too little. No e-mails to check, no cell phone messages to return, just listening to the clock radio on the counter, because that’s how we rolled. Not that we had much choice in the matter.


Roommate walks into the bathroom with a look on his face like someone told him that Milwaukee’s Best raised the price of six packs.


“Dude, Eric Clapton is dead.”
God is dead? I thought, reflexively.
“His helicopter crashed.”


Not that again. You get used to the overdoses, no matter how pointless or accidental or idiotic. It doesn’t make them easier to accept, or justify, but there is some semblance of accountability. But these random acts of mechanical destruction? Intolerable. Unacceptable on any level.


Of course, as we shortly found out, it was Stevie Ray Vaughan who had actually died (part of the confusion came from the fact that he was on tour with Clapton, and had just played on the same stage the night before). Same principle applies: shocking, inexplicable, unacceptable.


And even worse, in a way. To put it in as respectful and delicate fashion as possible, this one hit home a lot harder. Eric Clapton was another, earlier generation’s Genius. Stevie Ray Vaughan was my generation’s guitar god, the one whose albums coincided with those crucial high school years, the formative times in your life when each album is a revelation. And, with an artist like Vaughan, a living chain connecting the past to present. This is the dude who, not to put too fine a point on it, had the audacity to cover Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” and take it places even the best guitar player who ever strapped on a Stratocaster didn’t go.


Plus, I knew Stevie. Not personally, of course. But the summer before, I worked at the local record store just as Stevie’s new album In Step dropped. We used to spin that baby a few times per day, and it wasn’t even personal, it was strictly business. The album sold well, as it should have. The back-story elevated its import: after years of struggle with drugs and drink, Vaughan had cleaned up and was enjoying sobriety (indeed, the album’s title refers directly to his recovery process, which he was understandably proud of). The album remains top notch, but—as last albums from artists taken entirely too soon tend to do—it has an almost eerily elegiac feel that is difficult to deny. That the last song on the last album released in his lifetime is the sublime “Riviera Paradise” seems, at once fitting and devastating. It teases and cajoles with its promises of what should have been—all the great music this man undoubtedly would make. It also, being a near perfect song to end any album (much less a final album), feels entirely fitting. That is not nearly enough in terms of consolation for our loss, but it helps. And, as always, with art, it helps that we will always have the gifts the artist left behind. It’s never enough; it’s more than enough.


God is dead, again.
I can’t say for sure that I thought this, but maybe I did.
And speaking of God:
The 20 year old kid couldn’t help but wonder: “What kind of God would take a man like this from us?”
The 38 year old kid thinks: “The same one who gave him to us?”
That, of course, is not good enough. It’s never enough.
But it will have to do.


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Thursday, Aug 21, 2008
After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, Israel Vibration's vision -- and sound -- was fully formed when they entered the studio.

Walking the Streets of Glory: Israel Vibration’s The Same Song


The cardinal rule for any serious appraisal of art involves a necessity to separate all discussion of the artist from the artifact. Mostly this is essential because so many unsavory characters have managed to create amazing art despite—or because of—their self absorption and nastiness. Monomania is sometimes obligatory, as we have seen from masters ranging from Tolstoy to Miles Davis. In short, it seldom sheds meaningful insight on a famous (or infamous) work to stand either on a pedestal or in the trenches, attempting to offer up easy (or difficult) analysis.


The list of artists known as assholes—or worse—to their friends or enemies is not short, but it’s a mistaken assumption that only difficult people create works that last. On the other hand, the list of genuinely decent human beings who have managed to make meaningful art is short but sweet: John Coltrane, Curtis Mayfield and Eric Dolphy come immediately to mind. However, hagiography rarely augments an individual’s oeuvre; in fact, it usually besmirches it. The only thing excessive praise and inappropriate criticism share is that they almost always say more about the commentator than the art being commented upon. The proponents of either extreme usually betray religious leanings that render their insights instantly dated and ultimately irrelevant (postmodern literary criticism and political correctness have been the more popular—and culpable—cults of the critical arena in recent decades).


Israel Vibration

Israel Vibration


And yet. All of that being said, sometimes it is impossible to ignore the life and the way(s) it influenced an artist’s development. With one group in particular, it is not only impossible, but negligent to make no mention of their exceptional trajectory from obscure and impoverished kids to adored legends of reggae music. Make no mistake, Israel Vibration’s debut, The Same Song is an indispensable classic, and would be loved—and discussed—if no biographical information on the artists was available. Nevertheless, the blissful sense of wonderment these songs provide accrue additional layers of meaning, and import, when the lives and circumstances of the young men who created them are considered. Long story shortened: Jamaica endured a polio epidemic in the latter years of the 1950s. Three of the boys disabled by the disease, Lascelle Bulgin, Albert Craig and Cecil Spence, met at a rehabilitation facility in Kingston. They bonded over the love of music and a dedication to Rastafarianism (legend has it that once they grew out their dreadlocks they were summarily evicted from the Mona Heights Centre).


Eventually they formed a vocal trio and, calling themselves Israel Vibration, began singing for change on various street corners throughout the city of Kingston. They were rescued from performing (and living) on the streets by the Twelve Tribes of Israel, who helped fund the recording of their first album. After more than five years of struggling, sharing and singing, their vision, and sound, was fully formed when they entered the studio. The results, quite simply, are staggering. The title track is, like the Mighty Diamonds’ “Right Time”, an opening salvo that also serves as a powerful—and empowering—statement of purpose: young men who had faced little other than hardship and discrimination, wise beyond their years, crafting an open letter of acceptance, unity and inevitability.


They tackle similar issues as the other landmark albums already discussed (this being roots reggae, the themes and sounds are not dissimilar), but where the Mighty Diamonds and Culture confront injustice and preach peace with, respectively, heavy doses of soul-influence and celebratory abandon, Israel Vibration balance the two styles with their own unique groove. On the more upbeat songs, like “Why Worry” and especially the ebullient “Walk the Streets of Glory”, the voices are appropriately buoyant; on the more topical, defiant songs, like “Weep & Mourn” and “Ball of Fire”, the pace—and the voices—are languid, even solemn. This manages to be powerfully elegant (or elegantly powerful) music, and it’s in part due to the unforced, easily-invoked vulnerability in these voices, but mostly it involves the very notion of underdogs speaking out for the underdog—without pity and with the gentle perseverance of faith. These last two songs describe the plights of the have-nots and the pitiful apathy of the powerful on par with the best efforts of Bob Marley and Burning Spear. And yet, even when the subject matter is deadly serious, there is a ceaseless air of celebration and joy that makes all the sense in the world: the people making this music are, when all was said and done, happily aware of how lucky they were simply to be alive.


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