Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Norah Jones - The Fall

Is Norah Jones boring? I didn't used to think so, now I'm not so sure. She recently released her fourth studio album The Fall. Whose title could be referring to the fall of man, or the autumnal season -- either way it just seems like we've heard it all before. Don't get me wrong the music isn't awful, and the quality of song-writing is still superior to most sultry bluesmen, but it just sounds too familiar. It's like eating a turkey sandwich every day for lunch; when you first have it it's awesome and then it just starts becoming habit and eventually you can predict exactly how it's going to taste no matter how you mix and match the condiments. It's still that 'ol familiar turkey sandwich. Yes, I'm saying Norah Jones is a turkey sandwich. She exploded onto the music landscape with Come Away With Me (2002) that sold millions of copies and made her a mountain of cash, and now seven years later she's still going strong. No controversy...no pop culture stories to really distract from her career...she's dabbled in acting...she's "branched out", etc.

All of this leads us back to The Fall. This is Ms. Jones mixing it up and ordering that same turkey sandwich with everything. She totally changed bands (adding an exceptional list of musicians to back her up: Jacquire King (producer for Kings of Leon, Modest Mouse, and Tom Waits) drummers Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) and James Gadson (Bill Withers), keyboardist James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Al Green), and guitarists Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello), Smokey Hormel (Johnny Cash, Joe Strummer), Lyle Workman, (Bourgois Tagg), and Peter Aanasoff (Rickie Lee Jones, Tito and Tarantula). Ms. Jones even tried to rock the boat with the cover art, which features a portrait by photographer Autumn de Wilde. All of these changes only makes Norah Jones sound slightly revamped, not entirely new and different. Her powerfully restrained voice is still at the forefront of every song. There are a few more up-tempo songs than people are used to, which is refreshing, but only because it's not heard as often on past albums. Now, she'll most likely go on to make numerous more albums that will all be quite good, but I'd really enjoy her stepping out of her comfort zone even more to at least try and do something really daring and exciting. Even if she fell flat, and was critically panned, at least it wouldn't be boring like eating the same turkey sandwich every day.

The Swell Season - Strict Joy

After winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song (Falling Slowly), Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová practically became household names. In addition to their popularity rising exponentially, their personal romance was speculated and then confirmed as being genuine. It seemed to be a match made for a TV movie. If the songs that were written and performed in the film Once were about them falling in love and finding the spark in each other, then their newest album can only be seen as its antithesis. They are no longer an item (in the romantic sense), but remain artistic partners. I don't think there are as many sure-fire hits on their new album as there was on the Once soundtrack, but there are a few that feel like they will grow on me and age well upon repeated listens.

The thing I find most remarkable is how this album could have even been made. Two people that seemed to fall in love on screen and off someone stayed together in a professional manner to write, sing, and record songs about each other and the emotional stress that they were going through. Even the album title gives the sense of strain and feels like an oxymoron: Strict Joy. Sounds like someone is forcing the other to be happy when they just aren't. Sounds about write when you're singing break-up songs with the person you've broken up with, right? These songs are just as emotional and heartfelt as any of their previous work but also sound more polished from a production standpoint. I still need a few more spins with the entire album, but the first few times through it sounds like The Swell Season are still hitting all the expected emotional and musical chords.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

K'naan - Troubadour

K'naan was "born in Mogadishu, Somalia, just as the civil unrest that rocked the country was beginning, he spent the early years of his life trying to avoid death and listening to the hip-hop records sent to him from America by his father, who had left Somalia earlier. When K'naan was 13, he, his mother, and his two siblings were able to leave their homeland and join relatives in Harlem, where they stayed briefly before moving to Rexdale, Ontario, Canada."(AllMusic Guide). With this as background, it's been an amazing journey for K'naan to rise to prominence in the hip-hop community. Personally, I heard him first on a track off Wale's newest album Attention Deficit titled "TV in the Radio." And then found this feature on NPR with one of their "Desktop Concerts" that is pretty awesome. Pretty much all of his lyrics on his major-label debut Troubadour are influenced by his heritage, upbringing, world view, and remarkable experiences in his home country. It's an amazingly eclectic album that sports some A-list collaborations such as: Damian Marley, Adam Levine (of Maroon 5), Mos Def, Chali 2na, and Kirk Hammett (of Metallica).

The strongest and catchiest songs on the album are: "T.I.A.", "ABC", "Dreamer", "I Come Prepared", "Bang Bang", "Wavin' Flag", "America", "Fatima", and "Take A Minute". You'll noticed I just basically named half the album. This isn't an accident. It's quite a strong album from a relative newcomer. You can basically play a game of trying to hear/name the various musical influences throughout the album. Personally, I don't know a whole lot about many African music stylings or melodic predilections, I just know they are mix and match to form a harmonious and interesting mix. And if you've brushed up on your Somali you'll have a better chance of understanding a few verses on the track "America." But out of all of the songs I think the catchiest and most poignant song is "Take A Minute" with lyrics like, "Any man who knows a thing knows / He knows not a damn, damn thing at all"

Them Crooked Vultures

What happens when you form a band with three certifiable Rock Stars? The short answer is the band Them Crooked Vultures. They are comprised of foot-stomping drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters and Nirvana), guitarist and vocalist Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal), and the one and only bassist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin...yes, the Led Zeppelin). That sounds like a band whose shitty songs would make most artists' "great" songs pale in comparison, right? Right. This was a project/band that had been in the works for a number of years according to Mr. Grohl who said in a 2005 interview with Mojo magazine that, "the next project I'm trying to initiate involves me on drums, Josh Homme on guitar, and John Paul Jones playing bass. That's the next album. That wouldn't suck." Yeah, you can say that again. One of the many things I like about this album is that it's got a lot of meat on the bone, per se. It's 13 songs and 66 minutes in length. That's a solid amount of music. It also rocks from beginning to end. The songs range in duration from 3+ all the way to almost 8 minutes.

If had to say what the music sounds most like, it would probably be QOTSA just because of Homme's vocals. But what's incredible is how the album sounds like a band that has been playing together for a while. Who knows how much time these guys spent rehearsing songs before recording, but clearly they clicked when the engineer hit record. Pretty much every song has an interesting or great guitar riff, and Grohl's drums are solid and powerful throughout. The wild card is John Paul Jones, who at the age of 63 still knows how to lay down a bass line that grooves and pushes the music to a different level. Album starts off with the somewhat meandering "No One Loves You & Neither Do I" but is a statement for what you're about to experience. And it concludes with "Spinning in Daffodils" that starts off rather tranquil with a piano solo but is quickly subverted by crunching guitars and thumping drums and bass. This album/band is probably amazing to hear live and will hopefully have more US dates when they return from Europe.

John Mayer - Battle Studies

By this point in time John Mayer is most certainly ubiquitous on the pop music landscape. His rise to fame, fortune and tabloid celebrity is well-documented. Most recently, his music hasn't been the most interesting thing about him. He returned to the studio with his blues trio bandmates (Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan) to record his newest album Battle Studies, which was released on 11/17. Firstly, you'll notice the hideous cover art. I hope and pray this picture is tongue-in-cheek, because it's truly awful. The title of the album would lead you to believe this is a concept album about death, war, and bloodshed as told from the perspective of a veteran on his deathbed (wait a second, that is almost an awesome idea for an album....), but it's not.

His "battles" are in the arena of love and loss, and clearly he's been studying them like there's going to be a final exam at the end of the semester. Mr. Mayer is clearly intimately familiar with said battles, when he's not banging everything that walks past him that's a size 6 and under. By all accounts Mr. Mayer is a shrewd guy and knows the position in which his success has placed him. He also has undeniable talent when it comes to songwriting, melody, and bluesy guitar noodling. In my mind, there are three standout tracks on this pretty good album. They are: "Half of My Heart" (with Taylor Swift providing minor backing vocals), "Who Says" (the song that basically says 'fuck you' to critics and the establishment in a pretty flippant way), and "Assassin" (which has a pretty cool kalimba intro, that talks about stealing a girl's heart only to find out the girl had the same agenda). These songs are all well and good, but I'm a blues fan. The fact that Mr. Mayer has put two blues covers on his last two studio albums is interesting.

On Continuum he ripped through "Bold As Love" (made famous by Jimi Hendrix) and on Battle Studies he tries his hand at one of the most famous blues songs ever. "Cross Road Blues" was originally recorded by the great Robert Jonhson in 1937 and made famous when Cream (with Eric Clapton) recorded it as "Crossroads" in 1969. I don't know what Mr Mayer's goal is with recording these blues tunes, but I imagine he's trying to have it both ways. He's trying to maintain the aura of singer-songwriter with the ladies so that his music will still practically makes their clothes fall off, while keeping a toe in the waters of Cooldom with his limited male audience. So that not all guys will say, "my girlfriend likes him, but he's a douchebag," but instead they'll say, "my girlfriend likes him, and I only like him when he's in Blues-Rock mode." It's basically his way of keeping some of his masculinity, which is made further ironic for the fact he's a white guy from Connecticut playing a song written by an African-American from Mississippi. The hammond organ is a nice touch to update the song in a way, and I'm sure if he ever plays it live could easily go on for 10+ minutes.