Staff Picks: Music
When a CD title asks you to “meet” an artist you’ve known for three or four decades (unless it's a reissue or a tribute to Meet the Beatles), you can guess the artist is getting an artistic makeover, upping their “hip" quotient, attracting new listeners and allowing old fans to hear the performer with fresh ears.
In a sense, that’s what’s happening on Meet Glen Campbell, the latest release by the veteran country/pop star and ace guitarist (as a session musician in the early ‘60’s, he was reportedly earning up to 10 grand a week). Scanning the track listing – here’s a Lou Reed Velvets cover, there’s a Foo Fighters hit – one might think the recording is a stripped-down affair, akin to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series, revealing the raw essence of an artist thought to be past their prime.
It’s the songs, though, that get the makeovers. Awash in orchestral arrangements, the new productions recall the Jimmy Webb-penned evergreens (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”) that made Campbell a star in the late '60's. Being mostly ballads, the songs aren’t being stretched beyond recognition (in some cases, as with the cover of U2’s “All I Want is You”, the string settings are familiar), but once you hear Campbell’s voice, unravaged by time, delivering those songs in the florid baroque pop style that held its own against the psychedelic rock revolution (what sounds more dated now?), you may forget the originals exist, or weren’t written with Campbell in mind.
It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Billie Joe Armstrong or Paul Westerberg – if you’ve been a fan of Glen Campbell, this is the return to form you’ve been waiting for (or never expected). If you really don’t know Glen Campbell… well, this is as good a chance to meet him as any.
Meet Glen Campbell
45 years ago, the Beatles hit number 1 on the U.S. singles charts for the first time (and certainly not the last) with “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, an irresistible pop confection that threw young fans into fits of ecstasy, and prepared a nation for rock and roll’s British Invasion (which had its own influences in sounds born in America, from girl group grooves to Motown’s “Sound of Young America”).
The tune wasn’t the first Beatles single released in America – a few of their 1963 UK smashes, rejected by their label’s stateside subsidiary Capitol, had been licensed to smaller labels, which weren’t able to break the tunes in the U.S... that is, until after Capitol decided to bank on the Fab Four with a massive promotional campaign for “Hand” and its parent LP, Meet the Beatles.
The campaign worked, in tandem with the band’s February appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and a whirlwind tour of the east coast. By spring, a nation that had barely heard of the Beatles on New Year’s Day wouldn’t be able to ignore them anytime soon.
In 1961 - the year President Obama was born - Etta James scored a huge crossover hit with “At Last”, a ballad that had been written in the 1940’s for the film Orchestra Wives, and had been covered by numerous crooners before “Peaches” made her version the definitive reading.
James’ hit version was recorded for Chess, the legendary record label headquartered in the city in which Barack Obama would later begin his political career. The Chess story was dramatized (and fictionalized) for the 2008 film Cadillac Records. In one scene, Etta James - played by Beyoncé Knowles - wows the Chess staff with her rendition of the song that would send her star soaring.
During Obama's first inaugural ball, Beyoncé encored her spot-on cover of this romantic classic as our new president and First Lady Michelle danced in celebration. It didn't matter that the musical moment was taking place in Washington, D.C. - it was Chicago casting its spell over all those taking part in the moment.
I apologize for taking so long to post the final four of my Top Ten CDs of 2008. Since my last installment I was thrilled to discover that two of my colleagues blogged about two other fabulous CDs from 2008 that did not crack my list, Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio. Other CDs worth checking out from 2008 include efforts from She & Him, Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, Cut Copy, Girl Talk and The Hold Steady.
4. Blitzen Trapper, Furr – The best “campfire” CD of the year. This Portland, Oregon band spins yarns of men turning into wolves and serial killers with music reminiscent of Neil Young recording with the guys from Elephant Six. This is music that could quite possibly define the sound of the early 21st century. Best Tracks – “Sleepytime in the Western World,” “Gold for Bread,” “Furr,” “Black River Killer,” “War on Machines”
3. Flight of the Conchords, Flight of the Conchords – How could you not love a duo that calls themselves the, "4th most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo" in New Zealand? Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement are not only hilarious but also very talented musicians and songwriters. On their debut CD they pay homage to Marvin Gaye, Pet Shop Boys, Radiohead, and David Bowie without becoming carbon copies. Best Tracks – “Inner City Pressure,” “Think About It,” “Robots,” “The Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room),” “Business Time”
2. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend – Early in 2008, the debut full-length CD from this preppy band from New York City was on the verge of being over-hyped. I jumped on the wagon early and never found a reason to jump off. This CD has the feel of early Police with a flavor of Paul Simon’s Graceland which many of the critics called “Afro-pop.” The lyrics are smart and the tunes are filled with exuberant hooks that will keep you bouncing in your seat for days. A CD destined to become a classic. Best Tracks – “Oxford Comma,” “A-Punk,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” “M79,” “Campus,” “One (Blake’s Got a New Face),” “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance”
1. Los Campesinos! – Hold on Now, Youngster… - My personal favorite CD of 2008 is ironically a CD that I totally missed ordering for the collection (don’t worry it is now on order). The band’s moniker is Spanish for “the farmers” or “the peasants” but they possess a sound that is more fitting for a spastic indie-punk party than a simple, backwoods music circle. It is tough to pinpoint their sound, but I have tried by saying that if you put The New Pornographers, Art Brut, The Decemberists and Architecture in Helsinki in a blender you would get a sound similar to this seven piece band from Wales. It is almost cliché to say that a band is “hyper-literate” but it is a description, along with hilarious, energetic, and talented, that best fits Los Campesinos! Check them out for yourself on February 10th in Grand Rapids. Best Tracks – “Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats,” “Death to Los Campesinos!,” “Don’t Tell Me to Do the Math(s),” “You! Me! Dancing!,” “..And We Exhale and Roll Our Eyes in Unison”
I look forward to the music coming in 2009 and your comments about my list!
Hold on Now, Youngster...
Not surprisingly, in the time I've worked at the library, I've become a much more regular library patron than I used to be, particularly for print materials. Only recently however, have I begun to take more frequent advantage of KPL's growing music collection. My own taste in music has always been somewhat electic and I love being able to check out a CD by an artist I haven't heard before to decide if it's something I would be interested in purchasing. I've also enjoyed reading on this blog about what my colleagues are listening to and I look forward to checking out some of their recommendations. In fact, I was happy to see that one or two of my own favorites have already been the subject of previous posts on this blog. Right now, my own playlist includes: The Weepies, Shelby Lynne, Fall Out Boy, Darius Rucker, Alison Krauss, Fleet Foxes, Jason Mraz, Neil Diamond (it's a blast from my past listening to him again!), Regina Spektor, and an occasional Broadway soundtrack.
Another good way to learn about new music is by subscribing to NPR's Song of the Day.
Say I Am You
The sad news came yesterday that Ron Asheton, founding member of the seminal proto-punk rock band The Stooges and Michigan native, had been found dead in his Ann Arbor home. Asheton, along with his brother Scott and enigmatic singer Iggy Pop, formed The Stooges in the late 1960's as an aggressive reaction to the flowery psychedelic rock that was popular at the time. Their sound was brash and raw and would help pave the way for the entire punk rock movement to happen later in the 1970's. The Stooges would break up in 1973-74 after recording the seminal album Raw Power, but thrilled fans when they reunited in 2003. Sadly, with Asheton's death, that reunion has now come to an end.
I recently received Little Voice by Sara Bareilles as a gift. You've probably heard her peppy "Love Song" on the radio but the album goes far beyond that. Her not-so-little voice has a wide range and the songs vary in mood from shiny and happy to moody and dark. Something for every ear!
Even though I didn’t really get to listen to it until the first day of 2009 and although our taste in music usually aligns pretty well, I have to respectfully disagree with my colleague’s assessment and say that the record that tops my “best of 2008” list is Dear Science, by the amazing TV on the Radio. Dear Science, is catchier and more accessible on first listen but similar to the bands previous Return to Cookie Mountain, in that TVOTR hide their vast array of influences (I hear some Fela Kuti on “Red Dress”, I hear a slight Off The Wall era Michael Jackson influence on “Golden Age”, there is an early Elvis Costello thing happening on yet another track, it goes on and on) under rich textures and an inventiveness that reveals more with each subsequent listen.
TV on the Radio