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24 Jul

Headline: Titanic Exhibit Sank!

A couple of weekends ago we went to the Henry Ford Museum to see the Titanic exhibition which featured stories and artifacts from the doomed ship. I was quite excited because we have some (very) minor family history with Titanic. The story goes that my grandfather, who was emigrating to America, was offered a ticket on the Titanic. This ship left earlier than the one he was already booked and I believe he was going to do some work on the ship as well. He ended up declining the ticket, yet his friend decided to go ahead and went on the Titanic. Of course, as a 3rd class male passenger, the guy didn’t survive. However, my grandfather made safe passage on Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympia, a few weeks later. It is odd to think about because that one decision is the reason our family exists. Had he gone on the Titanic, we would most likely not be here. Life is strange.

So we got our tickets and stood in line for our time slot. They give you a “boarding pass” that has the name of a Titanic passenger along with some history about the person, which I found interesting. Once we got in, the disappointment started immediately. First thing while you start to file into the first room is they have a bow of a ship by a green screen and you can go up and get your picture taken – people usually do something corny like the Kate/Leonardo pose in the movie “Titanic.” Of course, it costs you money. Nice commercialism on a disaster exhibition. It was kind of downhill from there. It was basically room after room of artifacts from the ship (which were very interesting) and there were some plaques on the wall describing some passengers, or how the ship was built, or about some areas of the ship. Overall, there was very little rhyme or reason to the layout or to any theme. The flow was awful. People were following kind of an imaginary trail, but then there were things in the middle of the room and elsewhere, so a line didn’t make sense. It was chaotic. There were even things that were just plain, well, stupid. Like in the darkened room where you are supposed to “experience” the night of the sinking, there was a big chunk of ice that people could touch. Why? I think we all know what ice is.

I’m not sure what I expected, but I had thought there would be a specific theme and a story along the way where you can see the artifacts and somehow try to experience or put yourself there. I really wanted a moving experience but all I really got was a barely moving line. At the end there is a large wall with all of the crew and passengers names listed by class. Here is where you are to look at the person on your boarding pass and check for their name on the wall to see if they were a survivor or not. The concept of this was quite interesting, but there was no follow through within the exhibit. Some of the best parts of the exhibit were recovered artifacts that specifically belonged to a passenger. Some were really amazing that they survived – even paper items. Shoes and clothes were quite chilling as were personal objects like combs or jewelry. Or even corked bottles of liquor or perfume that still contained the original liquid. Had they set it up where artifacts from the person on your boarding pass were present along with a story about them along the way – even where they might have been on the ship during the voyage with artifacts from those rooms – something to really connect you with the ship, it might have been a terrific experience. Instead, it ended up like most any other museum exhibit where you look at stuff and move on. Highly disappointing.

And to top it off, there were tons of kids there. Why? Most of them have no clue what this was or is and from what I could tell they have never even see the movie. Kids were running around, yelling, making fun of things and being overall pains in the ass. It was disrespectful and made everything worse. For the most part, I don’t blame the kids, I blame the parents. Most parents were not even explaining anything to the kids or interacting with them at all throughout. As far as the kids cared, they were dragged there and were killing time waiting to get out. The worst of the worst is when you go to the final board to see the names of all the passengers. Kids were running around and screaming “mine’s dead! Mine’s dead!” Meanwhile, the parents were doing nothing and discussing what they were going to do for dinner. Lovely. So glad you came.

Overall, it was the worst exhibit of this type I’ve ever been in – and most disappointing because I really wanted such a great experience and to really be respectful and in awe of the people who did and did not survive that awful, historical night. Instead, I got a tossed together, commercialized exhibit attended by a bunch of uninterested and rude people. Oh, I think I forgot to mention there is another pay photo op on the grand staircase replica and a whole gift shop where you can buy everything from a Titanic bottle opener to replica china sets! Ah the commercialism of a disaster. How sad. Can’t wait to get to New York and buy a 9/11 shot glass! Pah-thet-ick.

Afterwards we toured around the Henry Ford. I had not been there since I was a kid and it was far, far more interesting than the Titanic exhibit. The cars were really incredible and I actually learned quite a bit along the way. I’d go back again too – just as long as the Titanic exhibit has moved on to it’s next unfortunate destination.

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13 Mar

One Nation, Under Music

Last week, two of my favorite artists release CDs on the same day. What was strange is that neither of them have much in common, yet they approached similar subject matter in their music – the current economic state and world view of the US. Both artists have covered similar social subjects before, but launching on the same day gave rise to comparison in message and approach.

Bruce Springsteen has done his share of musical commentary on the state of our country and/or explored the state of the human experience. From “Nebraska” to “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “The Rising,” he has covered some territory normally reserved for the Woody Guthries and Bob Dylans (neither of which he is) of the new musical order. His views are rarely pointed and are typically either wrapped up in bombastic anthems or stark guitar meditations. That has all changed with “Wrecking Ball,” a charged-up mass of spit that is probably his biggest and loudest political statement. Just the titles alone can make you either sad or angry – “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “Death to My Hometown,” and “This Depression” to name a few. Each song has a message and Springsteen pushes it down your throat in 8-cylinder “Born to Run” fashion. The thing is, the disc is really great. Sonically charged, driving, fist pumping, etc., it is probably his most vibrant disc in a very long time. And some of the old magic from him and the band hits its apex with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” complete with a banging’ piano riff and one of Clarence Clemon’s last sax solos. It rocks. Still, for me he just kind of says he’s angry with the current state of our world and economy and that the days of “My Hometown” are over and don’t it suck. I guess it is fine, but this coming from a multi-millionaire who probably wears $1000 boots and designer jeans and having it all wrapped up in a high-sheen studio gloss seems a little too much to swallow. As much as he thinks the fat cats and politicians are out of touch with the people, he has to realize he’s not really “one of the people” any longer either. It’s like he hasn’t realized that he has moved into a world where his nickname, “The Boss,” means something different. I think it’s a great record and love hearing it, but the message portion just doesn’t equate for me.

On the other hand, Todd Snider has been making sly commentary on the world around us for a long time now. His self-described “peace hippy” personal has played well and has turning him into a kind of modern folk hero. The new collection, “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables” brings to life some of the same subjects Springsteen covered, but in a more observational and less confrontational way. By comparison, his titles like “New York Banker” and “In Between Jobs” are more subtle and less in-your-face and his approach is more real – as if he walked in a studio and plugged in a guitar and mic and just started a song. It is a more appropriate setting for the subjects and his lyrics make you pay attention and want to hear what he has to say. Some of his lyrics are pointed, but done in a more ironic or humorous approach. When he strums along and sings about “good things happen to bad people,” you kind of just nod your head and say “I hear ya, bro.” And it feel natural. He’s a hard scrabble cat still just trying to make his way in the world and we can relate to him. It’s a terrific disc.

Snider and Springsteen are worlds apart. Which suits your world better?  You can look at it this way: if you love your Miller Lites, are mad as hell and don’t wanna take it any more, and dig raising your fist in the air, you need Bruce. If you like a bit o’ Jack, are wishing everyone would just have some common sense and get along, and like to see the world through a little bit of haze, seek out Todd.

 

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11 Feb

Grammy 2012 (aka Adele’s Awards)

The Grammys are almost here and the expectations are that Adele will sweep everything. You would think that the chance of this happening would make people not watch the show, as it would seem boring. But typically the opposite happens – people watch. They seem more interested in watching someone predictably win than the excitement of not really knowing who will win. I believe the most watch Oscar telecast was when “Titanic” won. Everyone knew it would, but folks loved the movie and tuned in to see it win. I think the same will happen with this year’s Grammys. Everyone will want to see Adele win. I predict the show’s rating will be higher than the past few years because of this. And I will say that I’d be pleased as punch if Adele won all her categories. I think it would be well deserved. Great album, huge hit, smash singles, etc. It has been a long time since the Grammys have had something like this to reward and I’m all for it.

Below are my selections for a few categories this year. Album, Song, and Record of the year I’d vote for Adele, so no need to mention those.

Best New Artist:  The Band Perry, Bon Iver, J. Cole, Nicki Minaj, Skrillex

Gotta go with Nicki Minaj. Bon Iver may be the more “artistic” choice, but I just haven’t connected with his music. Skrillex would be a cool choice as the first DJ to win, but if I were to place money, I’d say that The Band Perry is the safe Grammy voter choice.

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance:  Tony Bennet & Amy Winehouse (Body & Soul), The Black Keys (Dearest), Coldplay (Paradise), Foster the People (Pumped Up Kicks), Maroon 5 & Christina Aguilera (Moves Like Jagger)

Really? That is it? I think this is one of the weakest categories of the night. But if I had to choose, Maroon & Xtina are just a whistle ahead of Foster. But we all know Grammy loves old people and dead people, so prediction will be Tony & Amy will win.

Best Folk Album:  Barton Hollow (The Civil Wars), I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive (Steve Earle), Helplessness Blues (Fleet Foxes), Ukulele Songs (Eddie Vedder), The Harrow & the Harvest (Gillian Welch)

This is one of those categories where you can’t go wrong with any of them. I enjoyed each one but I’d have to stick with Fleet Foxes as my overall pick. I think Grammy will award The Civil Wars.

Best Dance/Electronica Album:  Zonoscope (Cut/Copy), 4×4=12 (Deadmau5), Nothing But the Beat (David Guetta), Body Talk, Pt. 3 (Robyn), Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites (Skrillex)

My girl Robyn is up and that is without a doubt my choice. She is so underrated and should be a huge star here, but the US still has yet to catch on. Too bad. Y’all are missing out. But I’m pretty sure she will lose to David Guetta. I know that Skrillex is up for New Artist and that seems like a lock here, but with all the hits on Guetta’s album, he’s got the recognizable name. But definitely between the two DJs.

Best Alternative Music Album:  Bon Iver (Bon Iver), Codes and Keys (Death Cab for Cutie), Torches (Foster the People), Circuital (My Morning Jacket), The King of Limbs (Radiohead)

The Grammy most likely belongs to Bon Iver, due to his multiple nominations, so this will be the consolation prize. However, for a group I don’t particularly like, I thought Circuital was a really solid album and would be my choice.

I’ll close on a small RANT about the Grammys. To all those Grammy haters that think the awards are just a commercial venture, or think the awards mean nothing because the “right” artists are never nominated, or say stuff like “I don’t need awards” or “music is not a competition, man,” I say a hearty screw you. You need to come down off of your pedestal and touch your feet on the earth. Saying stuff like this make you look like an ungrateful asshole. Yes, Grammy doesn’t always get it right in noms or wins, but that is okay. Everyone has an opinion and NARAS is just sharing theirs; and it is not (or shouldn’t be taken as) the ultimate word in music. It’s interesting, fun, the show usually has some great performances and artists get awards. And who doesn’t like to get an award for what they love to do? If you say “eh, I don’t need any award to tell me I’m good,” you are full of shit. It is always nice for someone to hand you something and say, “well done.” If  you are so high and mighty and think your “art” is above awards and recognition, then don’t participate. Don’t submit your stuff, don’t talk about it, don’t go to the show….just don’t. In fact, don’t even sell your music (you are on iTunes? How commercial…). If it is that “important,” then perhaps you should donate it to a museum as a significant cultural artifact. While you do that, the rest of us will enjoy watching the show, hearing (and sometimes discovering) some great music, see artists get recognized, and then do it all again next year.

Categories: Commentary, Music Tags:
06 Feb

Cover Day

So just a couple of posts ago I was waxing rhapsodic about cover songs and shared a few that I thought hit the mark. Oddly enough, today I was listening to some new releases and it included three full-on cover albums! Here is the rundown:

“Kisses on the Bottom” by Paul McCartney – I guess I wasn’t paying attention to the pre-release news on this one as I had no idea he was covering a set of old standards. I will say that it is impeccably done, but frankly it was a total snooze-fest. As I mentioned in my earlier post, to do a cover (even on standards like these) you have to bring something new to the table to make it interesting. There’s nothing here to hold my attention or shine new light on these moldy oldies. C’mon Macca, I expected more than a basement trio and strings. However, I will give a bonus point or two for covering “The Inch Worm.”

“Let It Be Roberta” by Roberta Flack – Strange that this is coming out on the same day as McCartney’s. She does a whole album of Beatles tunes. This is much more like I was taking about. She has some very interesting takes on these songs and I feel brings something new to the table. The semi-samba pop of “In My Life” is terrific and is followed by a mellow electro-R&B groove version of “We Can Work It Out.” Not all are 100% winners (“I Should Have Known Better” is barely recognizable), but she knocks it out of the park more often than not. Really quite nice.

“Popular Songs” by Richard McGraw – I had never heard of this guy but a description included comparisons to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. Perfect! Well, this album is a doozie. And I’m not sure if that means really awesome or abysmal. I’m not even sure I can describe the work. He has taken an eclectic set of songs and made them while channeling the two previously mentioned artists along with Nick Cave. I read a note about the album and apparently he said this is his “selling out” album. I’m not sure what his intentions were in making this, but it certainly makes for an interesting listen. I think the two that floored me a bit were “Bad Romance,” done almost in a Decemberists-type of arrangement, and….hold on for this….a cover of Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time.” It sounds like a mid-tempo alt-rock jam, echoing Wilco, maybe? It is either freakin’ genius or positively horrific. In either case, you will never hear versions of these songs anywhere like this. Not only these songs, but “Take It On the Run,” “Kiss Me Deadly,” “Baba O’Riley,” “This Old Heart of Mine,” and “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll.”And he tops it all off with a really great original “Leonard Cohen R.I.P. (The Song),” which imagines what will happen after Cohen dies.

Overall, for the masses I recommend Roberta Flack’s Beatles tribute. For those looking to just have some background music for reading, Paul McCartney will do it for you. If you are looking for adventure, I highly recommend Richard McGraw. You can find his album to listen to on Bandcamp.com. And for just this week only (Feb. 6, 2012), you can hear all 3 of these full albums on Spinner.com in their “Listening Party” section. In the meantime, here is Richard McGraw’s original.


 

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11 Jan

Covering the Covers

Lately there have been a lot of artists covering songs and posting them on YouTube or making a full covers album for iTunes consumption. It got me thinking about what should go into making a great cover and what some of my favorites are. Back in the olden days (like pre-1970), multiple vocalists would do “versions” of songs. They were not necessarily covering a song but the same song would go to a couple of artists and be released around the same time. Then it was a battle to see which version radio and record buyers liked best. A song like “Mack the Knife” hit the Top 40 five times in 1956 by five different artists – and that was before Bobby Darrin took it to #1 in 1959! This doesn’t happen anymore. The most recent example I can think of is LeAnn Rimes and Trisha Yearwood battling it out on “How Do I Live” in 1997 (Rimes won on the pop charts, but Yearwood won on the country charts and got the Grammy.)

These days, artists now just cover songs that they like, whenever they like. Usually this was done for live shows but with digital media taking over, these covers are all over the place in videos and downloads. For the most part, these covers are fairly typical and boring and don’t do much for the artist or the song. Fans of the artist may enjoy them, but for fans of the actual song, if there is nothing new or interesting about the cover, it’s a snooze-fest. Plus, unlike the 80’s were cover songs were hitting the charts (” Groovy Kind of Love,” “Mony Mony,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Think We’re Alone Now,” etc.), they are really nowhere to be found now – except if you count those “Glee” songs (which I don’t).

So what make a good cover? For me it is the artist bring something new and fresh to the material. Anyone can take a song and change the tempo or make an “acoustic” version, but it takes some guts, vision, and the love/respect of the material to shine through. When Rick Rubin married Johnny Cash with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” it was moving and magical. It was like hearing the song for the first time and everything behind the song – Cash’s condition, life, experience, etc. – brought new depth and meaning to the lyrics.

One recent makeover I really like is a cover of the hideously wonderful “Afternoon Delight” originally done by the Grammy winning (!) Starland Vocal Band. I used to love this song as a kid (and still have the 45rpm record) and now one of my fave artist, Bleu – who rarely does covers – has created a lazy-day version that fits this song perfectly. Even though the song was about doin’ it in the afternoon, the original song was full of smiles, winks, and long flowery skirts swaying innocently. Bleu made the song much more intimate and really captures the sunny, wonderful feeling of what an afternoon delight should be – and it sounds like something created in the afterglow.

“Afternoon Delight” by Bleu

Here are some other covers where I think the artist got it right:

“Walk Away Renée” by Rickie Lee Jones – The Left Banke’s great pop hit gets transformed into a haunting dream full of emotion. I’ve always thought this was a stunning rendition and one of my favorite covers.

 

“Times Like These” by Glen Campbell – How in the world can you make a Foo Fighters song sound like a long-lost Jimmy Webb tune? Just like this. A perfect homage to Campbell’s past glory with a contemporary rock song.

 

“Thank You” by Tori Amos – She did a couple of other covers for her “Crucify” EP like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Angie,” but it is this Led Zeppelin classic that she takes to a whole other level.

 

“Shine” by Dolly Parton – During her bluegrass resurgence, Parton chose some interesting songs to cover and did them very well. I think the one that sounded most natural was this Collective Soul hit. She emphasizes the spiritual side of the song and got some class-A pickers to back her.

 

More to come…

 

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