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Tuesday, Feb 24, 2009
In Grant park on the night of America’s victory in November 2008, Barack opened with: "It's been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America." It is my sincere hope that readers don’t miss that. Barack has a deep and personal understanding of this unique and complex American history. A cool, smooth, blues man has come to lead the nation.

Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, the O’Jays, the more contemporary Maxwell and Eric Benet, or even Michael Jackson—the black one, not the white one, you know, the little Black boy from the Gary ghetto. Or, imagine President Barack Obama as Bill Withers, alone on a broad stage, or leading a carefully orchestrated band, slapping a guitar, crooning about “Grandma’s hands”. This kind of leadership rarely leads to crusades. Can you see Keith Sweat begging on bended knees, his falsetto prostrating himself, drowned in his willingness to show his vulnerability and therefore his strength?


By sharing his iPod playlists, by breaking it down on Ellen the way he did, grooving but holding back to match the host and let her shine, all makes clear to those sensitized, that he is the (first) blues president. If Bill Clinton, with his jazz sax on late night talk shows was the jazz president, then Clinton was Kenny G or Herb Alpert—awesome, but something wholly different than the blues. So What, one might ask? The difference is that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, even Duke Ellington and especially Louis Armstrong, all had the blues. They refused defeat that taints the souls of the assimilated into believing the hype. They perceived a world ridden with conflict and injustice, filthy with the greed, anger and stupidity of riot, war and hunger. Yet, they were fierce enough to look and create beauty.


Can’t you imagine one or both of the Obamas in the shower singing “People don’t let money / Don’t let money change you—almighty dollar” into a loufah in the shower? Or Barack with foam on face and razor in had in front of the bathroom mirror shouting along with Nina: “They keep on sayin’ ‘Too SLOW!’ But that’s just the trouble, too slow!” Or Barack doing the shackles-on-my-feet dance, sliding back and forth across the floor, bending his arms next to his waist, snapping his fingers, raising his shoulders with his lips puckered out, “I don’t care about your past, I just our love to last!” With the way the first couple kisses and embraces, you know that Barry White and Luther Vandross are not far away in spirit.


The blues, describes Cornel West, is “a philosophical disposition towards the world… a tragic comic hope, a way of looking unflinchingly at despair and still enduring!” I cannot speak for masses of whites. However, without fail, African-Americans I have spoken to see Obama’s swagger when he walks into the room. That brother is as smooth as Guinness stout under the sweet Southern delta sun. Smooth, we add, is wholly different from slick. George Bush was as slick as Elvis Presley’s imitative lyrics and beats. Naturally, Elvis has left the building.


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Thursday, Feb 12, 2009

Recently, new age music got a major dose of street cred courtesy of an unlikely source. Though it wasn’t televised or even publicized all that much, legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette snagged the 2009 Grammy for—get this—best new age album.


You may remember DeJohnette as the man holding down the beat for several little known musicians like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, and some guy called Miles Davis. Over the years, DeJohnette has tackled and mastered nearly every type of jazz and pop form, from free jazz and fusion to rock and R&B. Now, we can add new age to that list.


I must admit that new age music has never been at the top of my list. Embarrassingly for a music critic, I’ve always viewed it the way people look at abstract art: It’s pretty, but what’s so special about something my four-year-old nephew could do. If music were a collection of animals, new age would surely be the snail. Slow and methodical, it seems to rarely change its pace and direction. If jazz is the epitome of spontaneous, exciting, and emotional music, new age always seemed like the opposite—stagnant, boring, and devoid of genuine feeling. A not-so-scientific look at the past Grammy winners for best new age album reveals names like Paul Winter, Enya, and the Clannad. Accomplished musicians in their own right, but not exactly the artists that speak for a generation. Jack DeJohnette is another story.


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Monday, Feb 9, 2009
Relaxing before the big game.

Relaxing before the big game.


This is shaping up to be a very busy year for Los Angeles based the Soft Pack (formerly the Muslims). They recently signed to Kemado Records, are about to embark on their first European tour—where they were invited to play England’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, being curated by the Breeders (whom the band toured with this past year)—are recording their debut record for their new label, and will be touring the US extensively opening for Friendly Fires and White Lies.


This is all the more remarkable considering they have only been in existence for two full years. The buzz is deserved, after witnessing them open for the Ravonettes recently at Bimbo’s in San Francisco, I saw plenty of converts by set’s end. The set was blistering; showcasing the wit, intelligence, and musical economy, that make them a band to keep your eyes on in the coming years.


I ran into the founders of the Soft Pack, singer/guitarist Matt Lamkin and guitarist Matty McLoughlin, at a bar up the street. They were relaxed, focused, and truly genuine. After bonding with McLoughlin over our fanatical devotion to the Replacements, he agreed to an interview with me.


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Thursday, Jan 29, 2009

Willie Nelson is teaming up with one of my favorite bands, Asleep at the Wheel, for an album of western swing tunes, Willie and the Wheel, due out next Tuesday on Bismeaux Records. Western swing typically gets tagged as a form of country music, but it really stands on its own, more like a “hillbilly jazz” or “country swing jazz”. Asleep at the Wheel has been at the forefront of keeping this genre—essentially pioneered by the late, great Bob Wills—alive and vital since the 1970s. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Willie Nelson’s deep, eclectic catalogue will find this pairing to be nearly ideal. I’ve always said that Willie Nelson is as fine a jazz singer as he is a country singer, in the way he plays and improvises melody and frequently sings off the beat, bringing unexpected rhythms and textures into his tunes. Here’s the first song off Willie and the Wheel, “Hesitation Blues” and a video with Nelson and Ray Benson discussing the project.


Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel
Hesitation Blues [MP3]
     


Buy at Amazon MP3 Store


TOUR DATES
Feb 11 - TV: Good Morning America
Feb 11 - Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank NJ
Feb 12 - FM Kirby Center, Wilkes Barre PA
Feb 13 - American Music Theatre, Lancaster PA
Feb 14 - Stanley Performing Arts Center, Utica NY
Feb 15 - Palace Theatre, Albany NY
Feb 16 - TV: Late Night w/David Letterman
Feb 17 - Civic Center, Roanoake VA
Feb 18 - Bob Martin Agricultural, Williamston NC
Feb 19 - Holmes Center, Boone NC
Feb 20 - Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham NC
Feb 21 - Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro NC


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Friday, Jan 16, 2009
After a split 7" with Fucked Up and a featured spot on Chemistry of Common Life as well as a performance lined up for SXSW 2009, it's about time people started to notice Katie Stelmanis.

My first prediction of 2009: Katie Stelmanis is going to blow up. She’s been ignored for too long and after her performance at SXSW this year, it’s going to be “Stelmania” (I stole that phrase from her MySpace).


Join Us

Join Us


Katie Stelmanis was already starting to pick up steam in 2008. Almost a year since her nearly unnoticed debut album, Join Us dropped on Blocks Recording Club (a record co-op based in Toronto), Stelmanis was featured on Fucked Up’s Chemistry of Common Life, and split a Matador released 7” with them in late 2008. In 2009, people are bound to pick up on the ethereal and eerie leanings of this powerful vocalist and songwriter. 


The album shares some similarities with the darker side of Kate Bush, but for the most part it’s hard to find an apt comparison to Stelmanis’s slightly operatic, dark, synth-based debut. Rufus Wainwright shares a couple of her characteristics on his more gothic sounding numbers and one could compare certain songs to that spooky Christmas song “Carol of Bells”(I mean this in the best way possible), but there’s nothing completely comparable. The album is well-paced and there is patience and artistry in each composition and they usually swell to commanding and satisfying multi-voiced choruses.


Album opener, “In My Favour”, and the three following tracks are throbbing slow-builds while “You’ll Fall” and “I’m Sick” are classically tinged balladry. In addition to the originals, a highlight is her penchant for atypical cover songs. The album ends with an amazing interpretation of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman” and on her MySpace page is an equally excellent cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”. 
Add this to her already impressive oeuvre and you’ve got a success-prone arsenal set to explode in the coming year.


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