Those who don’t think this is the most exciting time ever in the history of pop music clearly weren’t watching the recent iHeartRadio festival--which in the course of two days offered up many of today’s biggest radio stars in a manner likely to go down in the annals of history as going down in the annals of history!
Between you and me, all I really cared about was seeing Paul McCartney, Phoenix and Miley Cyrus—mainly because you never know what that zany post-teen heartthrob is going to do next!
Sadly, though, she apparently sung—and didn’t offer up the tribute to Robert Stevenson’s 1957 film classic Old Yeller that those of us in the know had anticipated!
Like most of us, I watched, enthused and excited about the current state of popular music, turned my computer off when it was over, and opened up my refrigerator to see what I had to eat! I noticed an unopened package of Al Fresco Sweet Apple Chicken Sausages, thought about Miley for a minute—I’m not sure why!—then sat down and pondered precisely why these are the greatest days in rock!
When I woke up, my head hurt!
Drake: Nothing Was The Same (Cash Money/Republic) Certainly one of the biggest albums of the week is this latest from Canadian rapper Drake, helpfully pictured on his album cover depicting the letter D! Drake is enormously popular, though frankly I don’t know why! Most of his songs feature the dude bragging about how much he “nets” via the checks he regularly finds in his mailbox, why he is loved by everyone, and the sort of thing that, between you and me, sort of borders on the moronic! When he does manage to utter something at least slightly memorable—as in his profound statement “n-ggaz talk more than bitches these days”—he simply moves on to other topics without offering the sort of clever analysis I—and others like me—could really go for! Might I suggest an entire album devoted to the concept? In which, say, on Track 1 he establishes that bitches actually did at one time talk more than n-ggaz? Then maybe, mid-album, he lay down a track about bitches and n-ggaz talking at roughly the same rate? And finally, proving the point in grand style, he climaxes with track in which the n-ggaz finally do talk more than bitches? And maybe document it all with scientific analysis? That would be great! I would pay serious money to hear a rapper record songs like “Does My Butt Look Big In These Pants?,” “Gosh, She’s Cute, Do You Think She’d Go Out With Me?” or “Thanks For Buying My Record, But Are You Certain I Actually Deserve Your Money?” Maybe next year!
Sting: The Last Ship (A&M) It’s kind of easy to make fun of Sting, mainly because he’s enormously wealthy, to the young he seems like last decade’s news—just this afternoon I read someone’s tweet along the lines of “Jeez, Sting—Phil Collins retired, can’t you take a hint?”—and he’s always seemed to take himself so seriously! Dude, consider your stage name! But he’s always been a jazzbo-muso type, which means he’s never less than listenable, and he’s always thrown in enough sophisticated chords to interest even the most jaded, and on this, his first album in 103 years, he’s constructed an entirely listenable, quite nice, appealing and sophisticated soundtrack to a coming Broadway play he’s apparently written! Hey, haven’t we all? There’s at least one track here that made me think of Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Walter Wanderley, which is nice, and there isn’t another that either bored, upset or made me want to illegally download an artist’s entire catalog with the click of a button! I’d call that a total win! Eminently musical, classy, and nowhere near as pompous as today’s collective rockthink would have you believe, Sting—now that his quest for complete and utter pop stardom is over and done—is actually pretty nifty, and a sharp guy to boot! Still, word is it took him about three hours to figure out how to get off of that roof!
Cher: Closer To The Truth (Warner Bros.) In many ways like Van Morrison—she is a mammal, has two legs and two arms and has been making music since the ‘60s—Cher is simply too great to ever cast aspersions on, which I wouldn’t do even if I had any! This new record—her first studio set in over 10 years—is fine, good, excellent pop music that proves 1) She has never lost her innate ability to sing, 2) Nearly anyone at any age can make an upbeat and accessible pop record and 3) When you record songs with titles like “Woman’s World,” “Dressed To Kill” and “Take It Like A Man,” you’re sort of playing to your audience, no? I like it fine, am proud of her for being an upstanding diva-type that remains surprisingly listenable, and—I’m embarrassed to say--never knew that she was a blonde! Like many of her biggest fans, I was always into her music and never knew what she actually looked like!
Elton John: The Diving Board (Capitol) I think I am of exactly the right age to perceive Elton John as what I have long considered him to be from the get-go: an upbeat, professional tunesmith with an occasional ear for a fine pop melody who perhaps reached his peak with, er, 1971’s Madman Across The Water and the occasional shockingly good single like “Daniel,” one heck of a showman, a dude who could afford a staggeringly complete record collection in his prime, and a cultural figure of some repute. And that’s sort of it. I think you could make a case that his 1969-1973 catalog, from Empty Sky to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was very solid, packed with fine songs by the singer and songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, and especially blessed with intelligent and tasteful arrangements and musical accompaniment—and that, since then, he’s just kept on making records, none of them exceptional, none of them terrible, and, with the passage of time, has moved on to sub-iconic status. And, like, good for him. This new album is one of his best in years, thanks to the stripped-down musical format—a trio—and the production by T Bone Burnett, which maybe deliberately recalls the sounds offered up by his 1970 American debut. And that he’s writing songs with Bernie Taupin here also adds to the effect. His playing is fine, his vocal range seems to have decreased—he is 66, after all—but there’s a focus here that he hasn’t offered in many years, and for that he deserves much praise. A good guy, a crank, a celebrity—he’s an interesting fellow, and we should be glad he’s still making records, especially ones that aren’t loaded with tracks blatantly aiming, however misguidedly, to crack the top of Billboard’s Hot 100.
Kings Of Leon: Mechanical Bull (RCA) There was a time, maybe a few albums ago, when I heard the Kings Of Leon and thought of them as the missing link between Can and Van Halen. Since then, of course, they became enormously successful, had a huge hit with “Sex On Fire,” were the objects of adulation by pigeons worldwide after their stunning public collaboration in 2010, and then, following their move to the island kingdom of Leon--near Antigua—now reign as the sovereign rulers they had long ached to be! They’re still pretty good, though, when it comes to making music! Always their own harshest critics, the Followill gang—Caleb, Matthew, Nathn, Jared and Bluto—opted for the new album’s title, insiders say, after rejecting A Preconceived Load Of Swill, Dance Music For Tatooed Dunderheads, and Chicken Soup For The Soulless as being “too rock criticky”! Good for them—there shouldn’t be a “k” in rock criticky! Best of all, when bought in the vinyl format, the album cover can be opened up and used as a tablecloth! There’s a reason why form follows function is a cliché!
Mazzy Star: Seasons Of Your Day (Rhymes Of An Hour) It wouldn’t be a Mazzy Star review if I didn’t mention my personal encounter with the band 20 years ago--in which, after hearing they were an excessively difficult interview, as in they didn’t talk much, I prepared roughly 100 questions in advance, anticipating asking maybe the first 20 at most, and running through all 100 in a half-hour. I love them! But whatever made them sound so attractive all those years ago has not departed: the combination of David Roback’s musical backing and still unique vocalist Hope Sandoval rings true even now, dated not at all, and is here even helped by the unexpected guest appearance of late Brit folk guitarist Bert Jansch on “Spoon.” They are still very good, sort of the stuff of cults, and unlike so many of their contemporaries, shockingly underexposed and not collectively writ into our memories by MTV, etc., which makes them that much better. Can’t believe they’re playing the Super Bowl!
Gov’t Mule: Shout! (Blue Note) One of America’s finest bands that continues to fly under the pop culture radar—must be the hair or something—Gov’t Mule, with guitarist Warren Haynes at the helm, have been playing exceptional rock ‘n’ roll for nearly 20 years, dwelling in that odd nether region between Southern Rock and jambands and yet rarely providing even one excessive note. That they are now signed to Blue Note Records, famous for its jazz tradition, is no small feat—but the same label recently picked up Aaron Neville and is clearly making inroads in documenting American Music in all its forms. Shout! is an ambitious double set, the group’s first studio album in four years, and features on its second disc a host of guest vocalists singing the same songs that are on the first. Among them: Steve Winwood, Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Toots Hibbert, Dave Matthews, Jim James, Ben Harper, and more. It is a nifty idea, in application not the gimmick it might appear to be, and further proof that this workingman’s band is playing at a musical level that might surprise current non-believers. An absolute treat.
Bryan Ferry: Live In Lyon DVD (Eagle Rock) A beautifully packaged, inspired performance by Bryan Ferry in France in 2011—which in its deluxe version features both a hardbound book and accompanying audio CD—Live In Lyon is about as good a career retrospective as we might hope for. Encompassing his work with Roxy Music and the early and later solo material that would follow, every single note is marvelously, spotlessly played—his bands have, as a rule been consistently near-perfect—and Ferry himself, now 67, has lost none of his famously distinctive voice. This career-reaching setlist allows us to hear the consistency in Ferry’s material from Roxy’s pre-Manifesto days through his own recent Olympia set, which was in its way a quiet career landmark. Fans of that album will be happy to watch the bonus Making Of Olympia documentary included here as well; guests include David Gilmour, Nile Rodgers, Dave Stewart, among others, and add an element of humanity to Ferry’s otherwise starkly precise sonic architecture, to which, oddly--as his own song has it--you can dance.
Allen Toussaint: Songbook (Rounder) Though he may be best known to some as a legendary songwriter, producer, arranger and producer, New Orleans giant Allen Toussaint hasn’t always been heard in the environment this new album provides: Just him, his piano and singing, and a repertoire of songs likely to blow any youngish music fan’s mind. An array of classics, including “Lipstick Traces,” “Brickyard Blues,” “With You In Mind,” Get Out My Life, Woman, “ and “Southern Nights,” all warmly and personably performed highlight the set, recorded in New York City back in 2009; the same album’s deluxe version also includes a DVD of Toussaint’s performance and an additional, excellent interview. He’s a legendary figure and records such as this, documenting just the man and his music, are in many ways priceless. Highly recommended.
The Waitresses: Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses (Omnivore) Kudos to the Omnivore label for packaging up this stuff—a collection by a fun, sophisticated Ohio-based band who made a mark in the ‘80s with a pair of albums and tracks like “I Know What Boys Like” and “Christmas Wrapping,” and—as is often the case—then dropped off the record-buying public’s radar. The music still sounds fun, wry but not overly smarmy, and is now for the first time fully available in digital form. And it’s probably better than you remembered.