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Monday, Oct 26, 2009

Some people think artists shouldn’t cover a song unless they put an entirely unique spin on it.  The late Jeffrey Lee Pierce of Los Angeles swamp-punk legends the Gun Club was one of those people.  Miami (1982), the Gun Club’s second album, features two covers:  Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle” and the traditional folk song “John Hardy”.  The latter sounds nothing like any of the myriad arrangements it has been given over the last century by artists from Leadbelly to Uncle Tupelo.  And the former takes such pains to distinguish itself that it scarcely shares any lyrical content with the original. 


Pierce’s take on “Run Through the Jungle” starts off in a fairly straightforward way, with the familiar riff created by John Fogerty and Co. (Remember when Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing “Run Through the Jungle”—that is, plagiarizing himself—with his 1985 solo tune “The Old Man Down the Road”?)  But don’t start singing along yet, because Pierce has other ideas, as was usually the case for this misunderstood visionary.  The chorus is the only thing that ties the song lyrically to the original, although instead of “Better run through the jungle / Oh and don’t look back”, Pierce sings “I will run through the jungle / And I won’t look back”.


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Sunday, Oct 25, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

Thao Nguyen is awesome. That’s really the best way I can think of to begin this piece. Unlike a lot of the songwriters I often feature here, Nguyen doesn’t have a decades-long body of work behind her, no loud trail of evidence which the majority of music fans have encountered in some form or another. She’s all of 24 years old (or thereabouts), started releasing records in 2005 (her new one, Know Better Learn Faster came out this month) and though she’s been playing guitar for most of her life, she’s basically in the early years of her career. 


Nguyen’s free-spirited and confident stage manner, her deft guitar playing, her cool band (The Get Down Stay Down), and cute-indie-girl look all likely play a part in her growing popularity, but the real secret weapon she wields is her disarmingly unique vocal style—her voice and melodies are some of the freshest things you’re likely to hear this year.


In my opinion, Thao Nguyen has significant cross-generational appeal. Young folks of course are already taking to her music, but I also recommend her stuff to any Boomer or Gen X’er who is interested in finding a Millennial songwriter to really dig into. Seriously—the artist that Thao Nguyen most reminds me of is Laura Nyro. Not so much on the direct musical/lyrical tip, but I do get a Nyro-like vibe from Nguyen in the intangibles—the raw sincerity, confident singularity, and pure physical force of the work.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
It was Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got a Hold on Me”. I love it still, I think it is perfect. We covered it last year, in tribute.


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies—her voice and delivery are so moving—she has incredible warmth and richness and sadness in her tone, and at the same time a subtlety that is just as devastating. 


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Grace Paley—my favorite short story write—my college roommate introduced me. My love and admiration for Paley’s work has endlessly guided and motivated me in my lyric writing. She doesn’t do anything unless its necessary. And I named my touring company and a song after her story Goodbye and Good Luck.


Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I view songwriting as the thing I need and take for granted the most.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
The Avett Brothers’ “Will You Return”.


Check out the video below of Thao Nguyen with The Get Down Stay Down’s 2008 song “Bag of Hammers” to get a vibe, and visit thaomusic.com for information on their new album, Know Better Learn Faster, as well as lyrics and more.



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Sunday, Oct 18, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

The stellar 2003 Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman, features a fine batch of rock and country flavored arrangements of Dolly Parton songs performed by Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and Melissa Etheridge, amongst others. It’s a great, highly listenable set, but as flavorful as it is, nothing in it quite prepares the listener for Meshell Ndegeocello’s penultimate track—an elastic-funk re-imagination of Parton’s party-ready hit “Two Doors Down”. Beat-centric, atmospheric, and half-rapped, Ndegeocello’s re-working of the Parton classic is not only sly and musically imaginative, it’s also an apt embodiment of Ndegeocello’s overall approach: bold, adventurous, defiantly singular, and funky as hell.


I’m convinced that if Meshell Ndegeocello’s work and persona weren’t so thoroughly infused with a hip-hop spirit, it would be much easier for music-heads to locate her as part of the same continuum as Bob Dylan, Prince, Neil Young, and other quirky pop maverick-geniuses known for bravely and consistently paving their own path in the industry. As an (often) bald, (always) black bi-sexual female bassist who raps as much as she sings, writes deeply and confrontationally about race and sex (amongst other things), and mashes-up genres with every project, Ndegeocello’s mere presence on the scene (let alone the gestalt of her work) presents a taxonomical problem to solve for a large segment of music lovers, and an even trickier problem for those specifically on the lookout for singer-songwriters who may be the rightful heirs to the rock royalty named above. Part of the difficulty for some of these folks, of course, is the fact that killer grooves and textured rhythm parts (which are treasured elements in funk and hip-hop, while sometimes mere arrangement considerations in other genres), no matter how intricately conceived and executed, are still often not considered components of “great songwriting”, although they are, perhaps hypocritically, definitely understood as potential building blocks of “great records”. Hence, someone like Jeff Tweedy, who I like and respect quite a bit, is generally considered to be one of the handful of Gen X songwriters who deserves a place in the pantheon of great, adventurous artists, while Ndegeocello, who has traversed much more diverse ground, including a fairly straightforward guitar-based singer-songwriter album (1999’s gorgeous Bitter), is often in danger of being considered a high-profile cult artist.


I recommend the aforementioned Bitter as a starting point for folks who want to get familiar with Ndegeocello’s music. Soulful, affecting, and beautifully produced by the abundantly gifted Craig Street, it’s a warm introduction to Ndegocello’s music, and a wonderful way to first encounter her enticing and intimate vocal style.  It also includes one of her patented unique covers, Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love”. From there, you can have lots of fun jumping around to prior or subsequent releases, each one an adventure.


What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
“Soft and Wet” by Prince. It just sounded angelic, the way his vocals were layered, and it made me want to dance. It’s still the song and the album that made me say, “That’s what I’m gonna do.”


Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
Doyle Bramhall II. When he sings a song, his heart is just on the stage. He transports me. He’s an incredible songwriter and a ridiculous guitarist. He’s also just a nice person.


Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
Probably most. Film for sure. I love Fassbinder. I have a lyric on the new record that goes “fear eats the soul”, which is from a title of one of his films.


Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
Other. It’s a transmission.


Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
“Love Dog” by TV on the Radio. They give me hope.


On Meshell Ndegocello’s newest release, Devil’s Halo, she continues her tradition of curve-ball covers, this time with an undulating, super-sexy version of “Love You Down”, the ‘80s R&B hit originally performed by Ready for the World. Because the songs she covers can sometimes be nearly unrecognizable in her renderings, it’s tempting to call her arrangements “complete deconstructions”, but I think a more accurate term would be “creative distillations”: she gets to the heart of each piece and retains what’s needed (whether it’s a musical component or not), and proceeds from there to build a new version. In her hands, “Love You Down” is completely transformed.


Ndegeocello was definitely my adopted spiritual patron saint when I was working on my version of Pixies’ “I Bleed” (which featured Oakland’s mighty funk-soul queen, FEMI) for American Laundromat Records’ Pixies tribute album, Dig for Fire. That record featured tracks by the Rosebuds, They Might Be Giants, and other indie-rock stalwarts. Knowing that I would be the only non-indie-rocker on the project, and hearing stories about the ferocity of Pixies fans regarding covers of the group’s material, was a little daunting at first, but I took inspiration in the implicit attitude of Ndegeocello’s Parton cover—- the message I took from it was to wear my stylistic difference loud and proud.


In addition to the “Love You Down” cover, there’s also a bunch of cool new original material on Devil’s Halo. Visit meshell.com for information on the new album, discography, tour dates and more.


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Monday, Oct 12, 2009
Artist/Producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats, five questions at a time.

I’ve always believed that the best songwriters have a bit of a shaman in them. They journey into dangerous emotional and spiritual terrain, engage with the darkest aspects of the human condition, and return with hard truths, insight, wisdom, and of course, sometimes more questions. True masters of the power of song are able to negotiate their shamanic gifts and write songs which resonate with listeners at the deepest, most personal level.


Rosanne Cash fits that description well; she is a deeply soulful and gracefully powerful artist. In her life’s journey, she has encountered the kinds of struggles that everyday folks deal with (divorce, substance abuse, unforeseeable medical issues), as well as struggles unique to being the child of Johnny Cash, a veritable legend. The work she has crafted out of these experiences is thoughtful, heartbreaking, fierce, and truthful.


In my opinion, Cash’s sonically inviting and emotionally cathartic 2006 release Black Cadillac is a good place to start for newcomers to her work. From there, it’s easy to navigate back to previous albums and find lots of other great work.


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Monday, Oct 5, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Where Did You Sleep Last Night” - Nirvana
Attributed to Huddie Ledbetter
From MTV Unplugged in New York (Geffen, 1994)


This V-C-V originally ran on August 23, 2005 on pcmunoz.com


I have a picture of Kurt Cobain on my desk. It’s a pretty well-known shot: a sort of sad close-up, with Cobain sporting a scruffy beard and looking directly into the camera, a few blonde locks falling over his face. At the bottom it says KURT COBAIN, 1967-1994. It serves to remind me that we never know from where our great artists will come, or when they will leave us.


I thought Kurt Cobain was an astonishingly expressive vocalist. I’d put his screaming up there with Prince, his emotional voice-breaks up there with Hank Williams, and his commanding way with a melody in there with any of the great pop singers. I liked his original songs quite a bit, especially “Come as You Are”, “All Apologies”, “Heart Shaped Box”, “In Bloom”, and the more recently released “You Know You’re Right, which has a great, unique vocal.


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