Wingless Angles

Anyone that reads this blog knows that I get on trips, write about the same subject a lot for a week or even a month, and then move on.  This blog is a catalog of my obsessions to some degree.  Right now my obsession is Jamaican music.  A record I have long admired is the self titled album by Wingless Angels.  It’s nyabinghi drumming and singing recorded live outside in Jamaica.  The albums producer, none other than Keith Richards, overdubbed instruments, with a few others, after the original tracks were recorded.  It’s beautiful meditative music.  It’s spiritual music in the best sense.  Richards does a great job with producing, adding just the right amount of overdubs to make the songs varied and colorful.  (Although Keith’s bass playing is the one thing that is merely adequate.)  You can hear the crickets chirping in the night giving the record a sense of true mystery, as nature itself plays a roll in the recordings.  I remember at the time of the album’s release Richards saying that the tempos were just below the rate of a human heartbeat, that it is healing music.  Who know’s how much bullshit Keef was talking, but the results certainly seem to support his musings.  Unlike a lot of music to “chill out” to, this album has rough edges, never allowing it to be something that could melt completely unnoticed into the background.  Despite Richard’s important involvement, the singers and drummers, lead by Justin Hinds, are the true heart of the music.  It’s communal singing where every one sounds moved by the spirit.  It is singing that is in the moment and ghostly at the same time.  If you ever find that it is a damp, drizzly November in your soul, this is a record that can calm the waters and transport you.  Although there are a lot of Jamaican records that I like better, this is a unique piece of work that deserves to be heard for the particular mood that it casts.

Rihanna, Kanye West, Paul McCartney, and What I Hope to See More of In Pop

I really like the collaboration between Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna.  It’s nothing more than a pop song, but it is a really good one.  I’ve always liked Paul McCartney, and have long thought Kanye West to be brilliant, especially his Yeezus album.  I haven’t payed much attention to Rihanna, largely because the music she makes seems really generic, although one can see with this song that she can really sing.  I wish pop music would take a hint from this song, that with a great singer and melody you don’t need all of the gimmicks and tricks that reduce artists so often to mere minor characters in their own hits.  I’m not even necessarily talking about big productions vs. the acoustic guitar simplicity of this song.  I love epic productions as much as I love folk songs.  What I mean is that a great pop song should have a strong melody, and that the singer should also be represented in some kind of way where their humanity gets across.  That is so important, that the singer’s voice in a pop song should be allowed to express emotionally what the singer is feeling, and not be covered up in either the production or the mix in a way that makes it seem less human.  I didn’t like the last collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney very much, though I haven’t listened to it a great deal, because the excessive use of autotune bugged me.  I also didn’t think the melody was as strong as this song.  Now I know that West used autotune extensively on his album 808s and Heartbreak, and I actually like that record, but that is because the use of that technique there was specifically to make his singing sound emotionally distant.  I like Daft Punk too, but again what they are doing with autotune is part of their concept and not just part of a trend or to cover up the fact that someone can’t sing.  Autotune is fine if it is used in a way that fits conceptually, but a real human voice, naked in its emotions, will win almost every time.

P.S.  It is a common production trick now to use autotune on a lot of pop songs in a subtle way that is harder to detect to fix flat notes.  I have no idea if this is the case on this song.  I haven’t listened to it on headphones yet, but at least Rhianna’s vocals sound natural. She has great phrasing on this song as well.

Passionless Voices and The Death of Sex in Music

“It’s a miracle that I’ve lived this amount of time without having destroyed a person. But I still have a little bit of time.” – Maurice Sendak

I got a bunch of iTunes gift cards yesterday for Christmas.  I was combing the indie rock websites Louder than War and Pitchfork hoping to discover the great new indie band.  Fucking hell it was frustrating.  It just seemed like style after style with no substance, or great music with an incredibly dodgy singer.  Everything just seemed like an elaborate rouse with an empty center, kind of like most Christopher Nolan movies.  Especially if you compare the indie scene to the great post punk indie scene of the early 80’s, it just seems like children playing with toys.  (And I was too young to enjoy that scene when it was happening so you can’t peg me with nostalgia.)  Too many musicians that figured out how to make cool sounds, without understanding how to organize those sounds for maximum impact.

I kept thinking about this Camille Paglia article about Lady Gaga called:

Lady Gaga and the Death of Sex

Now of course I realize that Gaga isn’t indie.  But these two paragraphs really struck me and also make me feel like you could insert any number of indie bands in place of Gaga’s name:

Gaga is in way over her head with her avant-garde pretensions… She wants to have it both ways – to be hip and avant-garde and yet popular and universal, a practitioner of gung-ho “show biz”. Most of her worshippers seem to have had little or no contact with such powerful performers as Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, with their huge personalities and deep wells of passion. 

Generation Gaga doesn’t identify with powerful vocal styles because their own voices have atrophied: they communicate mutely via a constant stream of atomised, telegraphic text messages. Gaga’s flat affect doesn’t bother them because they’re not attuned to facial expressions.

Although there is a lot of new music that sounds somewhat emotional, it is that fiery passion, that ability to do something visceral to connect, that seems missing.  One of the reasons most of my best albums of 2014 were older artists, some of them my Dad’s age or older, is that those artists have a strong personality that cuts through any musical style that they might be attempting.  They have something to say and aren’t afraid to say it.  Not only that, but their singing voices are the voices of those that aren’t afraid to communicate passionately and directly.

My Dad and I were talking last night about why there is no strong social movements like there was in the 60’s.  He even commented that he felt music was one of, if not THE, leading force in changing peoples’ consciousness so that they got involved at a political level.

Now I think that one reason that strong passionate music is not on the airwaves, whether that be mainstream or indie music, is that radio DJs are now exponentially more constricted than they were in the past.  Unless it is public radio there are very few radio stations that are driven by restrictive playlists.  There are music lovers that like me will sift through music for hours to find something inspiring.  However, a great deal of people are only going to be made aware of something if they hear it in some fashion.

On top of this, again, I think you have too many singers that cannot use their voices to communicate true passion.  Autotune is obviously partially to blame, as it robs singers of their personalities in order to make singing more perfect.  (I do like when Autotune is deliberately used to make something sound like it is emotionally distant as on Kanye West’s 808 and Heartbreak or Laurie Anderson’s Homeland.)  But too many singers now, those that sing with their natural voices, seem to have thin reedy voices that by their very nature do not sound passionate in anyway.  Even the ones seem like they are trying to sing passionately seem more like they are imitating it than actually feeling it.  Music is a highly emotional art form.  If you don’t convey what you want with any real passion, can you really complain when nobody gives a fuck about what you have to say, in a way where they actually might be moved to do something different in their lives?

Anyway, I need to go take a musical shower with some records that don’t make me feel like I’m listening to someone on Xanax…

Why Shouldn’t I Love Cyndi Lauper?

I have listened to more Cyndi Lauper than probably any straight male should admit to.  But alas, I love her so.  She has a voice that could carry through the din of a Biblical storm.  Blessed with a four octave range, she makes you think she can sing anything.

There are certain kinds of songs of hers that I prefer.  I like when she has a great melody and sings either one of her rock/pop confections or one of her stirringly sad ballads.  I have no use for her blues renderings, her take on classical pop tunes, or some of the stranger numbers in her career.  Her recording career is no doubt dodgy and the great is heavily weighted towards her first three records.

That’s not to say that she hasn’t made great music in recent years.  The song Shine off her Shine-Ep is fantastic.  There are several songs that I love off her dance pop album Bring Ya to the Brink.  Although she can sing anything, several albums just feel like marketing attempts, even if the intentions behind their creation probably ring true.  It’s not her voice that brings them down, which is always exceptional, but the production is often too adult contemporary and the song choices uninspired.

She is one of those artists I wish could find a producer for, who would help her find the right material and treatment for her unique and tremendous talents.  But there is absolutely no doubt that she is a tremendous talent.  Listen to her voice at the end of Money Changes Everything.  She is hitting notes that other singers could only dream of.

A great deal of her music is pop music, but it is pop music of the greatest kind.  It is the kind of stuff infused with emotion.  I have a soft spot for female sung pop music dating back to the 60’s girl groups.  Lauper often carries on that tradition.  Her songs of joy make you want to dance around the living room.  Her ballads often can’t help but connect.  No one should cover her classic hits.  Any attempts pail in comparison to the originals.

I once found myself listening to Girls Just Want to Have Fun with the young girl (She is now a teenager and I don’t want to put her name here for fear of embarrassing her!) that I helped raise.  It was like one of those scenes in a chick flick where the characters play guitar with mops and bounce around their home.  That song is just ecstatic joy.  I have always wanted to take the stage to that song to play with an audiences expectations.  The idea always makes me smile.  Maybe someday I will.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures.  There are only things you like and things you don’t.  I have always loved Lauper.  If it ruins my credibility on other matters, then so be it.  Watch the above video of I Drove All Night, a song originally written for Roy Orbison, and pay attention to when she hits the big vocal part while laying down.  If you tell me she can’t sing, I’ll tell you you are fucking crazy!

Recording Ted Hawkins Baby

I’ve been busy playing shows and recording the last few days, so I haven’t been posting a lot.  Today I had simply one of the most amazing musical experiences that I’ve ever had, and probably ever will.  I got to record with Elizabeth Hawkins and Tina Hawkins, the late great Ted Hawkins’s widow and daughter.  I’m not a religious person, but to quote Kurt Vonnegut, a secular humanist, “The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.”  It was that kind of day.

Right now there is a Ted Hawkins tribute record being put together.  The Shinyribs band is the house band for anyone that doesn’t bring their own musicians in.  Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell is one of the producers.

There is something indescribable when family sings together.  Hearing a mother and daughter sing their husband/dad’s song was extraordinary.  These two sang like angels.  It had that kind of purity and heart that you hear on 1960’s girl group records.  I felt, listening back to them, that I temporarily took a trip outside of space and time.  This was timeless music, as it was pure emotion.  Keith, Kev, and I tracked in one room live, with the two women singing live in the other room.  Let me tell you, it was easy to play well while you were hearing those two songbirds in your headphones.  (We recorded the song above.  The video above is a brief live clip of Ted Hawkins.  There is a recorded band version of this song that we based our arrangement on today.  I should also mention that Elizabeth Hawkins sang with Ted Hawkins on his records and also helped to arrange some of the material.)

There is so much more I could say, but the proof will be in the recording when it is finally available.  Often when you record something you have no idea how the final product will turn out.  However, today was one of those days when you just felt lucky to be there.

P.S.  If you haven’t heard Hawkins’s Watch Your Step album, it is a must buy.  I’ve never heard anyone that didn’t like it.  HIs other records are fantastic too, especially Happy Hour, but Watch Your Step is a front to back masterpiece.

Marianne Faithfull New Album and Playlist

Marianne Faithfull’s new album, Give My Love to London, came out yesterday.  Above is the trailer for it.  One thing that the trailer doesn’t make clear, although she collaborated with a wide variety of great artists for this record, this is not a duets record.  Marianne is the center of attention for the entire record, except for a brief moment when Brian Eno takes over.  (Which makes sense when you hear the song.)  Her music has been a constant companion over the last several years.  Her bravery in song choice and subject matter is rare.  Her voice is a mountain, weathered by time.  It can be harrowing, beautiful, and true, all at the same time.  My first impression of her new album, although I definitely need more time to digest it, is that it may be one of the highlights of her career.  (And this album marks 50 years in her career!)

In honor of her new album coming out I wanted to create a playlist.  Although I absolutely treasure the album Broken English in its entirety, in general, I am someone that prefers a certain kind of Marianne Faithfull song.  I love her late period melodic work more than her early stuff, bluesy work, or her work in the vein of Kurt Weill.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate her entire catalogue.  It is just I find myself drawn to certain things above others.  This will mean that the playlist below will work as an album in and of itself, but it will also only provide a partial picture of her legendary career.  She has a certain kind of song that is full of both beauty and tragedy.  She is one of the few artists that can actually bring tears to my eyes.  Each song below is its own world that you can get lost in for days at a time.  (I should mention that everything I have chosen is available online and should be easy to find.  I didn’t want to include anything that was unavailable.)

1.  Trouble In Mind (The Return)A Perfect Stranger
2.  As Tears Go ByA Perfect Stranger
3.  A Perfect StrangerA Perfect Stranger
4.  Conversation On a Barstool A Perfect Stranger
5.  Times SquareA Child’s Adventure
6.  Morning ComeA Child’s Adventure
7.  StationsHorses and High Heels
8.  Why Did We Have to PartHorses and High Heels
9.  The Crane Wife 3 Easy Come Easy Go
10.  That’s How Every Empire FallsHorses and High Heels
11.  The Ballad of Lucy JordanBroken English
12.  The Stars Line UpA Secret Life
13.  Dreamin’ My DreamsDreamin’ My Dreams

The Amazing Ted Hawkins

Tomorrow the Shinyribs band is going into the studio to record a song for an upcoming Ted Hawkins tribute record.  If you don’t know Ted Hawkins he is an absolutely amazing soul singer.  His first album, Watch Your Step, is especially breathtaking.  He had it all:  He had an incredible singing voice that was like Sam Cooke with more grit, he wrote uniquely interesting and personal songs, and he wrote beautiful uplifting melodies.  He could convey complex intense emotions, often with nothing more than his voice and guitar.  I’ve never seen anyone that has heard his records not like them.  He is one of the great largely unknown artists of this country.  Above is one of my favorite songs by him.