Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Are You Too Young To Remember Bob Hope and Al Jolson?

While I have always known that a generation gap existed in pop culture Sunday night's annual Academy Awards show revealed something quite sad to me: the gap is far wider than I ever imagined.

Because this show was Hollywood's 80th annual gala celebrating its own wonderfulness there was a lot of reminiscing using video clips from past Oscar telecasts. Several snippets featured Bob Hope, a man who was an icon to more than one generation. Hope became famous because of his stand up comedy, his long running TV variety series, his many overseas excursions to entertain our troops, his road movies with Bing Crosby, and also because he was the perennial host of the Oscars, but when I asked my 24 year old daughter if she knew his name when his face popped up on our TV screen she didn't have a clue. Her lack of recognition of one of the most famous American entertainers in our history was expected and that is why I asked her the question. Hope has been gone for a few years now so his image is rarely seen on TV today.

Each generation believes their movies, literature, and music is better than the one it followed. Most of us are not only ignorant about the art and entertainment from different eras, we often fail to understand it, and we frequently even loathe it. Young people who appreciate the culture from their parents generation and earlier are definitely in the minority. As a corollary much the same thing can be said about those who are older. We baby boomers often feel alienated from the films, TV shows, and music favored by today's high school and college students.

I possess highly negative feelings toward rap and the entire hip-hop culture. Likewise, I've never been turned on by the 90s grunge movement. However I am glad that I've been exposed to and learned to appreciate many musical artists who have either made their their greatest impact, or recorded their debut, in the new millennium. Since Y2K I've discovered Los Lonely Boys, The Cat Empire, Sea Wolf, Kathleen Edwards, Brandi Carlile, James Hunter, Michael Buble, and Grace Potter and The Nocturnals, just to name a few. At the same time I haven't forgotten the musical heroes of my youth, most notably, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Chicago, many of the Motown groups, and the classic rock bands of the later British Invasion. My mother instilled in me an appreciation for the old big bands of the World War Two era, especially Glenn Miller and Harry James, which in turn led me to seek out and discover Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and others. I'm glad I've made all of these artists from different eras a part of my musical life.

The point of all of this is simple. It's sad that someone who means so much to an entire generation, and has put so much time and energy into their art, has no place in the consciousness of succeeding generations.

I'll end this article with some musical and movie history. Can anyone under the age of 50 (and maybe some of you who are even older) identify the picture and the voice of Al Jolson, who was beyond argument, the most popular singer of the early 20th century? Even if Jolson isn't your cup of tea it would be nice if people were interested enough in our history to learn about him. Today he is mostly known for starring in the first widely released talking movie, The Jazz Singer, that debuted in 1927. Here is a clip of Jolson in action.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Joan Osborne - How Sweet It Is (2002)

I'm a late comer to Joan Osborne. I liked the same songs from her 1995 debut album, Relish, that radio loved, "St. Theresa," "Spider Web," "Pensacola," and her huge hit "One Of Us," but not much else. It took listening to her fabulous cover version of "What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted" from the soundtrack of Standing In the Shadows of Motown for me to fully appreciate her vocal gifts.

How Sweet It Is is a very fine set of cover versions of classic R & B mixed in with some vintage rock songs. The CD opens with two great tracks, The Spinners' "I'll Get Around," and Aretha's "Think." A cover of Stevie Wonder's "Love's In Need Of Love Today" is especially nice and her version of "Smiling Faces Sometimes" with Isaac Hayes, is as good as the original. Dave Mason's "Only You Know And I Know" rocks and surprisingly she tackles Jimi Hendrix's "Axis: Bold As Love" and makes that work too. Her slowed down, more laid back arrangement of Edwin Starr's "War" makes it an entirely different song.

Osborne has one of those great female voices that are powerful without screaming. The very best women singers have always been the ones with full-bodied vocals who have the versatility to stretch their vocal chords around almost any song and this Brooklyn, NY native is one of them. She is neither a diva nor a blues belter. Instead Osborne is an R&B and rock stylist singing songs that are tailor made for her talents. She is a good songwriter but if she chooses to never compose another note a great career would still await her as one of the best blue-eyed soul interpreters in rock.

Monday, February 11, 2008

What Distinguishes A Guilty Pleasure From The "Good Stuff?"


Why is it considered acceptable to love some songs and artists but embarrassing to love others? The correct answer to that question is that there should be no answer at all. Taste in music, as in all of the arts, is totally subjective. Why else do such diverse genres as chamber music and gangsta rap both exist? Do you have better taste in jazz if you prefer Wynton Marsalis to Kenny G? Are you on a higher intellectual plane if you prefer Pavarotti to Bocelli? Are you a really a cooler dude if you prefer Pearl Jam to Bon Jovi?

So what gives one musician credibility while another is thought of as a joke? Sometimes an artist's reputation is born from the words of the musical press who almost to a man fancy themselves to be the arbiters of good taste. Regional preferences often play a role too. If you're from Alabama and you like Toby Keith that's cool, but if your a Keith fan from Greenwich Village your taste in music will definitely be sneered at. If all of your friends are into heavy metal you may be afraid to admit you like Michael Buble.

J. A. Bartlett, proprietor of one of my favorite music blogs, The Hits Just Keep On Comin' described guilty pleasures better than I did. He said, "’s possible to quibble with the very concept. Why should you feel guilty for liking what you like? It only makes sense if you accept that the taste of the tastemakers, whoever they are, is automatically superior to your own. But the concept persists nevertheless...."

Even though I agree with J. A. I still believe there are certain criteria that set the more respected artists apart from those considered guilty pleasures even if we happen to love the latter anyway. Let's discuss some of them now.

Do not become too popular
If there are appearances that a musician is more interested in commercial success rather than making art for art's sake (whether it's true or not) he or she is finished with the critics and those they influence. To many in the press an artist with too many hit records is an automatic sellout and is manufacturing music instead of creating it. It was painfully obvious to me all during the 1970s that magazines such as Rolling Stone would turn their backs on anyone whose early obscure albums they triumphantly praised when that same rocker's latest release finally broke through the wall to go double platinum. There are not many pop artists like The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, U2, and Dave Matthews who have managed to maintain their artistic integrity with the cultural elite while lining their pockets with cash.

Once a band started to sell records it took some anti-establishment and often outrageous or crude public behavior to get back into the critics good graces. The best thing that ever happened to The Doors was The Lizard King's bust in Miami for indecency. Until then The Doors were getting too much AM radio airplay and selling too many records to stay on the counter-culture's good side. Nirvana is another example. Would they and Kurt Cobain be such iconic heros if he hadn't taken his life in true rock 'n roll style at age twenty-seven.

Compose your own music
Beginning in the 1960s with The Beatles and Bob Dylan anyone who made a living covering the works of others was often fodder for ridicule. Both artists greatly changed the way people judged pop music. Ironically, recording your own work is not something that is required of the elite symphony orchestras and other classical musicians. Seldom does an orchestra play a new piece that was written by its conductor or another member of its organization. When it comes to recording original works pop musicians are held to a higher standard than their classical brethren who are often praised for their interpretations of the works of the great masters.

Your lyrics must be cryptic or edgy. If you never write lyrics about anything other than broken hearts or sentiments that you will find on a Hallmark greeting card don't expect good reviews.

Never record with children
In most cases this is the kiss of death for your reputation. If you are going to sing with children you better make sure you are singing for children. If the song is meant for the ears of anyone beyond the third grade you are dead in the water.

Do not imitate Milli Vanilli
Please make your own records. Use studio musicians to supplement your band, not to replace it. Outsiders were often used by The Beatles but only when they needed something they couldn't produce themselves. Capitol/EMI and George Martin never told George Harrison to stay home because there were five studio guitarists waiting in the wings to replace him. When Eric Clapton played lead on The Beatles "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" it was at Harrison's invitation because he wanted a certain sound for the song. Clapton, as we all know, is not some generic hired gun. All of The Beatles were there in the studio playing on the song.

On "Eleanor Rigby" the band used a double string quartet. It's true that none of The Beatles played on the track because they couldn't play those instruments themselves. However, Paul McCartney wrote most of the song with a little help from John Lennon. The string quartet was the band's idea, they had an artistic vision they couldn't create without help so they sought out people who could. Nothing was forced upon them by a producer or a record company. The Beatles were totally in control of their own work.

One of the reasons the Beatles ended was because Phil Spector added strings and a choir to "The Long and Winding Road." When McCartney realized he was losing control over his own music his integrity would not allow his art to be compromised. To him that was the final straw and, when added to all the internal problems the band was having at the time, he quit.

On the other hand the rock band Chicago allowed themselves to be controlled by their record company and producer. Beginning with 1982's Chicago 16 producer David Foster frequently used studio musicians to replace individual Chicago members in the studio. All during this period there were so many guest musicians listed on their albums it is probable, and in many cases proven fact, that many of the band members hardly appeared on their own records. Current Chicago guitarist Keith Howland is listed as a member of the band on their latest album, XXX, released in 2006, but he admitted that he hardly played on it at all.

Today, would the art world think as highly of the Mona Lisa, or Leonardo Da Vinci, if it was discovered that someone else had actually sketched the outline of the famous face, and Da Vinci simply painted in the colors based on the numbers already put there by someone else?

While it's true that the general public has no clue what goes on in a recording studio, nor do most care, the wholesale usage of other musicians replacing the supposed real band in the studio indicates that they are more interested in generating product instead of art.

Meeting the points discussed here does not guarantee an artist a lofty place in history, nor does not meeting them automatically stick you with a reputation as a perennial joke. However there have always been certain aspects of the careers of most musicians that distinguish the ones who generate a lot of respect from those who don't. I know we all have guilty pleasures, whether we admit it or not, and we all have a list of music's most respected acts that we would rather never hear ever again. It all goes back to one simple statement: taste is taste!

Monday, February 04, 2008

My Ultimate Guilty Pleasure: Karen Carpenter's Golden Voice


Last week, in part one, I published nine of my all time top ten guilty pleasures with a statement that my number one choice would be receiving its own separate post. May rock n' roll fans everywhere forgive me.

One of the Twentieth Century’s most beautiful female singing voices belonged to the late, golden-voiced, balladeer Karen Carpenter. She was the more famous half of The Carpenters, the brother and sister duo who had a huge string of hit singles from the late 60s through the mid-70s.

Many of us know the sad story of the devastating eating disorder that took Karen's life in February 1983 but this essay is not about anything the supermarket tabloids consider important. It's only about her music.

Let me start out by saying that I was not a fan of the Carpenters when they hit the big time. I was a teenager when "Close To You" made the siblings stars. The unfortunate timing of their initial stardom subjected them to even more ridicule than artists of their ilk normally received. Syrupy love ballads and kids songs sung by young adults with squeaky clean images were not held in high esteem by teenage boys in 1970 and I made fun of them every chance I could. It was the summer after Woodstock and Karen and Richard were almost the anti-Christ to fans of rock n' roll. Even the All Music Guide, the famous online music review site with a very open mind, wrote the following about their 1973 follow-up album to the previous year's excellent A Song For You, "Whatever the reason, from the moment of the release of Now & Then, anyone under 30 buying a Carpenters album would have good reason to go to a neighborhood where no one knew them to make the purchase, and hide it from their friends."

The Carpenters image grated on their detractors just as much as their music did. Two early and abysmal cover versions of Beatles songs, "Ticket To Ride" and "Help," and their giant hit single "Sing," a song from Sesame Street, cemented their reputation.

Karen was not just a singer. Many people still don't know that she was a highly skilled drummer who played on many of her own records. Modern Drummer magazine even praised her work. However, as her career progressed she played the drums less and less to concentrate on her vocals.

Did Carpenter waste her natural gift? When she sang more intelligent music, much of it from A Song For You, the answer is no. Then she was absolutely sensational. Listen to that album's title cut, and "Masquerade," from Now & Then, and you wonder what she could have accomplished if she had chosen to be a jazz singer. Listen to the duo's more hip songs, most notably "Goodbye To Love" from A Song For You, where elements of rock n' roll actually wandered into the arrangement, and "Superstar," a song from an earlier album about a groupie who falls in love with a rock star, and you know for sure that singing children's songs should be left for people like Raffi and Sharon, Lois, and Bram.

I love Karen Carpenter's voice. I always have, yet music lovers the world over were short-changed because she didn't use it to produce work that would have rewarded her with the respect her natural talent should have demanded.

Finally, here are three other blogs who have recently posted their own favorite guilty pleasures.
Rock Revival
The Review Revue
Layla's Classic Rock Faves

Coming Up Next: Part Three - What criteria make up a guilty pleasure?