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Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008

James Taylor: isn’t he supposed to be the antithesis of a songwriter like Elvis Costello? Isn’t that what we were once taught, those of us who grew up seeking alternatives to the hold-overs of AM radio’s “soft rock” rein—Taylor, the sanitized, mother-approved opposite of a dangerous, subversive character like Costello?


I’ve been guilty of thinking this way before, of championing something that skirts outside the mainstream’s straight-and-narrow merely to satisfy my own contrarian agendas. And yet, this isn’t a healthy way to think, nor a healthy way to absorb music (or the possibilities offered by any experience, for that matter). There is room in our lives for both the James Taylors and the Elvis Costellos of this world: this is a truth that should be self-evident, but is not, and so it is a truth that the fourth episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) makes ringingly clear.


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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2008

Elvis becomes the other Elvis for the third episode of his weekly show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), performing covers of “Mystery Train” and “Baby, Let’s Play House”. Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher are the rock-solid rhythm section, while nimble-fingered James Burton (formerly of Presley’s TCB band in the 1970s) handles lead guitar duties. The band shines, especially Burton, whose licks ripple up and down the guitar’s neck; Costello, on the other hand, takes too many liberties with the lyric’s phrasing, eventually throwing Faragher’s harmony vocal for a loop.


Despite its somewhat wobbly course, “Mystery Train” is an apt way to welcome native Arkansan and former President Bill Clinton, who speaks with Costello at length about music, politics, and the ways in which the two subjects often intersect.


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Tuesday, Dec 9, 2008

Since we’re in the thick of the holiday season, I should mention that the instrumental theme song to Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel) is incredibly similar to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”—specifically, the “He knows when you are sleeping” line. Except that last note (“sleeping”) goes pear-shaped on what sounds like an oboe. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-DUUUUH. Subliminal holiday tie-in? Or have the seasonal jingles merely corrupted my sentimental (and susceptible) brain?


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Tuesday, Dec 2, 2008
Spectacle: Elvis Costello With... - 9pm EST/PST - Sundance Channel

As he enters his fourth decade as a professional musician, Elvis Costello has successfully parlayed his experience as a chameleonic rock ‘n’ roller into some sort of self-appointed ambassadorial role. He dabbles in jazz and classical, unpacks his pop-addled brain into articles for Vanity Fair, and caters to both high and low art, all while affecting the genteel air of well-rounded elder statesman of the pop intelligentsia.


This evolution hasn’t gone unnoticed by his audience; even the most forgiving of his devotees, myself included, can’t help but admit that this preoccupation with tastemaking has blunted Costello’s own music, which has moved from innovative to professorial throughout the last decade. And yet, it is for this very reason that the notion to give Costello his own musical talk show at this point in his career makes perfect sense.


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Friday, Nov 7, 2008
Many Moons - Janelle Monae

I admit that most of the happiness I derive from this video is the visceral pleasure of watching Monae perform.  The Annie Lennox gender bending, the classic dance nods to Michael Jackson and James Brown, and the way she opens her arms in wide swim strokes like everybody should step back so her outsized persona can get through.; it’s completely mesmerizing.  She’s strikingly self-possessed. 


But that’s just the most obvious surface.  The song itself is bold for audaciously shedding anything like a standard pop format: sounding like a Curtis Mayfield opera written for the Uptown String Quartet. It’s riveting and full of tangential suites, where dream-sequence acapella breaks into a list-rap of denigrating terms that one presumes Monae has had directed at her.  The song is existentially searching without being pretentious.  When she challenges the listener with “So when you’re growing down/instead of growing up/tell me are you bold enough to reach for love”, it’s really a gorgeous plea asking people if they can manage to be the best of themselves under the worst circumstances.  My answer:  not so much.  But damn, it’s a great lyric.  The rest of the song explores themes rather than hewing to a chorus; it’s a galaxy of a song with a charismatic center.


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