Monday, December 13, 2010

Duran Duran: All You Need is Now

Originally published by PopMatters on December 20, 2010

For over a year, Duran Duran and producer Mark Ronson have compared the recording of the music that is about to hit iTunes as All You Need Is Now to the band’s early ‘80s output. Whether they’ve done the job really depends upon how you interpret all that pre-game prattle. But more on that in a moment, because when a band’s been around for more than 30 years, a little perspective can go a very long way.

The members of Duran Duran have so much tonsorial-based ozone depletion in their collective histories, it may seem odd to compare their career trajectory to that of a gritty, woozy prize fighter. But the truth is, Duran Duran have had their asses handed to them time and again by critics and an often disinterested public when it comes to their recorded works since the first few albums. Every now and again an “Ordinary World” pops up and makes everyone take notice, but for the most part Duran Duran has fought the battle for contemporary relevancy to exponentially smaller crowds.

It’s to their great credit that Duran Duran haven’t just taken their lumps and simply allowed themselves to become a greatest hits touring act, with maybe a stretch run in Vegas or Reno or some other place where “Hungry Like the Wolf” could be used to cross-market a casino buffet. They’ve certainly got the back catalogue to support the notion, and their concerts often reflect the struggle between knowing the greatest hits is what got them to where they are and new songs half the crowd doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of.

Now, Duran Duran have returned looking way better than they’ve got any right to, and they’re still as stubborn as ever, still refusing to sit down and shut up and stop making new music. And they’ve still got a nasty left hook, apparently, and a dancer’s gait a young Muhammad Ali would have been proud of. But first, the single, which arrives nearly two weeks before the album which bears its name on December 8: “All You Need Is Now” is an odd choice for an introductory, or at least it seems that way during the plodding verse, which comes on like a pair of mid-period Duran singles that sunk like a stone, “Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over)” and “Out of My Mind”. But the chorus, for the first time in a thousand albums, really does feel like that Duran Duran from days of yore, hints of “New Moon on Monday” buried deep within its DNA.

“Blame the Machines” does recall the ‘80s, but not Duran Duran’s ‘80s. It’s 21st century electro-pop, but with little debt to the band’s own history. It’s a forgivable misstep, primarily because it’s such good fun. And perhaps that’s where Ronson’s really earned his pay (or points or whatever.) Though it certainly can’t have hurt that he’s gotten Messrs. Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor and Taylor to dig their old timey instruments from the backs of their impossibly deep closets, but the real magic the producer and self-avowed superfan has wrought is not the sound of the old Duran Duran, but rather the spirit.

For the first time in a very long time, Duran Duran sounds like they’re having fun, like they remember what it means to actually be Duran Duran. It certainly wasn’t this apparent onAstronaut, the 2004 “reunion” album recorded with Fab Five guitarist Andy Taylor temporarily returning to the fold alongside John (bass) and Roger (drums) Taylor, who if you’ve misplaced your copies of Star Hits aren’t actually related. It wasn’t there in 2007, when the quartet teamed up with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on the underrated but ultimately misguided Red Carpet Massacre. But it’s here, and maybe all you really do need is now.

Make no mistake, the gentlemen involved in the making of All You Need Is Now do their level best to remind you of Duran Duran’s earliest works: “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”, a grandiose and stunning number which features guest vocals by a reserved, milkshake-free Kelis evokes elements of “The Chauffeur”, “Tel Aviv” and the original single version of “My Own Way”, while “Leave a Light On” recalls “Save a Prayer” if for no other reason than it’s the first time in three decades the band has put together a ballad nearly as good. “Runway Runaway” feels a bit like “Last Chance on the Stairway” by way of an early Charlatans album cut, and if you’ve no idea what any of these references mean, the months of often repetitive hyperbole from Ronson and the members of Duran Duran probably didn’t mean anything to you anyway.

Kelis isn’t the only guest star pitching in; Ana Matronic (Scissor Sisters) comes on all Debbie Harry with a downtown white girl rap on the disco-funk of “Safe”, and Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) throws some indie cred into the mix with string arrangements. But even with all the party inclusive bells and whistles, and even with Ronson (and possibly keyboardist Nick Rhodes) getting cute with with samples and special whiz-bang effects, none of it sounds forced or out of place. It’s also a relief to find that most of the tracks here—especially throbbing dance numbers like “Girl Panic!”—are… err… Taylor-made for the stage. They’ll fit comfortably alongside those golden oldies and probably won’t lead to too many exasperated bathroom breaks from the peripheral fans who only came to hear “The Reflex” or “that one that goes doo-doo-doo-doo.”

All You Need Is Now isn’t Son of Rio, but it’s the best album Duran Duran has released since then, a collection that manages what their best material always has, blending art with grand gestures and popcraft. It’s nine songs full of the promise and thrill of 1981-83. But even more than Ronson and Duran Duran have let on, it’s also an album clearly in debt to the future, a sleek and sexy future where a guy in his early 50’s “driving up the Autobahn” is still the same superhero who wrestled hot chicks in a Sri Lankan swamp all those years ago. This is the sound of time stood still, of a feeling of reckless and sophisticated abandon launched decades forward without skipping a beat.

9 out of 10

The Bees: Every Step's a Yes

Originally published by PopMatters on December 9, 2010

For American fans, the Bees are something of a cruel enigma. First of all, there was already a Bees, so the Bees over here are called a Band of Bees, which is apparently confounding to iTunes but easily fixed on iPods. The Bees have never played live in America, so while fans in the UK have had ample opportunities to hear the Isle of Wight band’s skewed melting pot melodies up close and personal, the best we’ve gotten are a handful of sorta cruddy videos which might as well be that old Sasquatch footage for all it purports to reveal. Compounding the issue is the fact that we seem to get the new Bees albums—which already only come around once every couple of years—several months at least after fans in other parts of the world get them. I’m talking “official” releases rather than “grey area” downloads, which I suppose are sort of egalitarian in that we can all steal it at the same time no matter where we happen to lay our heads.

Don’t do that with Every Step’s a Yes, though. Because no matter how long you have to wait to hear it, if you pay actual money for the Bees’ fourth album, maybe they’ll think it’s worth packing all their crazy instruments into a hundred steamer trunks and playing some shows on this side of the Atlantic for a change. Plus, the album is a total joy, and unlike so much of the flotsam and jetsam calling itself rock and/or roll these days,Every Step’s a Yes is worth your hard earned dough, even at impatient import prices.

The first gentle toe in the water was “Silver Line”, a delicate and plucky number with haunting organs and haunting background vocals and a tingly feeling like sitting in a bathtub filled with warm honey. Then came the single, “I Really Need Love”, which also opens the album. And I don’t know if you have love or want love, but this really is how it might feel, what with the acoustic strumming and the little bridges with their soaring harmonies and desperate pauses.

What you loved about the Bees from albums past is also there, too. Witness “Winter Rose”, a psychedelicarribean link that draws a line all the way back to their debut, Sunshine Hit Me, right down to the tin-can guitar, cavernous organ, and bubble-pops. They’re not a tenth as aggro, but the Bees share a wide-eyed approach to various musical genres with the Clash. They’re also every bit as good at incorporating those sounds into their own mix without it sounding forced or phony. Even without their splendid mixtape release, The Bees Present: The Sound Selection, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine these guys having wildly diverse record collections. Any band that can pull off a Simon & Garfunkel-meets-the Monkees song like “Silver Line”, come over all Pink Floyd on “Island Lover Letter”, and close out an album with a dub Sesame Street song like “Gaia” is worth at least a happy listen.

Fans of any band have their favorite albums, and it’s too early to tell where Every Step’s a Yes will fall when compared to Sunshine Hit MeFree the Bees, or Octopus. But it’s to the Bees’ credit that they consistently release albums so strong that there’s no clear way of answering that question.Every Step’s a Yes is more than just a worthy chapter in the Bees’ astonishing collected works. It’s also a single achievement I’d put up against just about anything else released by anyone this year. And sooner or later people in America will have the (legal) opportunity to discover that for themselves.

9 out of 10

The 70 Best albums of 2010 - PopMatters

Originally published by PopMatters on December 13, 2010

#22 - Gorillaz: Plastic Beach

When Damon Albarn puts together a mixtape, he really goes the extra mile. Three albums in to his Gorillaz career, the Blur frontman isn’t treating his cartoon cavalcade like a side project anymore. While its predecessor, Demon Days certainly sharpened the concept, Plastic Beach perfected it, bringing on a host of all-star associates to create one of the year’s best albums. The percentage of albums featuring cameos from Snoop Dogg over the past decade must be as staggeringly high as Snoop by his own admission often is, but his choice as the host of Plastic Beach is as inspired as the segue into the hip-hop/Arabic mash-up of “White Flag”. And therein lies the beauty of Plastic Beach, an album made by many hands, yet with enough of a common thread to not only keep the whole together, but also allow it to work fully in a live setting with a band that boasts half of the Clash among its ranks.

Reading more like an idle flip through the record collection of someone you wouldn’t mind taking a road trip with, Plastic Beach features collaborations with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, Lou Reed, Mos Def, De La Soul, Mark E. Smith, Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals, Little Dragon and Bobby Womack. The latter sounds a million miles away from his halcyon days in the soulful ‘70s, but his voice has matured into something both rougher and more beautiful. Indeed, Womack’s work on the album’s first single, “Stylo”, and on its emotional denouement, “Cloud of Unknowing”, are possibly the best performances on an album hardly lacking in them.

It’s possible Albarn sleeps maybe two hours a night, as he’s apparently recorded a Gorillaz follow-up on an iPad while on the road with the band, has plans early in the year for new Blur material and is nearly finished with an Afrobeat album with Flea and Tony Allen. In the meantime, there’s Plastic Beach, a journey that still sounds as fresh and vibrant as the moment it dropped.

The 60 Best Singles of 2010 - PopMatters

Originally published by PopMatters on December 6, 2010

#20 - Blur: "Fools Day"

It came quietly, the sounds of “Parklife” shouted by tens of thousands in London’s Hyde Park still sending shivers up and down our spines. Blur’s reunion for a handful of shows in 2009 engendered enough good vibes among the Britpop quartet that their “love of all sweet music” apparently left them wanting more. 

Lyrically, “Fool’s Day” reads like a mundane day-in-the-life tale like the Beach Boys’ “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” or “Blue Jay Way” by the Beatles, but with a considerably more satisfying emotional payoff. And ultimately, that’s what “Fool’s Day” is meant to be, a celebration of routine, and of knowing when something is good enough to not let go.

“Fool’s Day” was released in conjunction with Record Store Day in April, a single track in limited vinyl units followed by a free download. “We just can’t let go,” sings Damon Albarn, and it’s hard to argue as the music hovers, shifting back into another verse before the return of Graham Coxon’s gorgeous guitar reminds everyone why Blur’s final album, Think Tank, wasn’t quite what we hoped for.

“Fool’s Day” is four friends finding one another down the road, comfortable in themselves and where they are, in their own legacy and in the pure pleasure of playing music together. There’s more on the horizon for Blur, at least according to Albarn. If it’s half as warm a return as “Fool’s Day,” it’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

How Close is Too Close? One Music Writer Considers Where to Draw the Line

Originally published by PopMatters on November 18, 2010

There’s not a lot of money to be made in music criticism these days. I don’t know that there ever really was, because I’ve seen where Lester Bangs’ last known residence was and it wasn’t exactly palatial. And these days, gosh knows, there just isn’t a ton of dough being thrown around the music industry, and what is ain’t exactly trickling down to us hacks.

So what compels us to slave over a hot keyboard, our spines twisting into cartoon question marks, our fingers bent and gnarled and cracked from contemplative overuse?

Is it the perks? I won’t lie, I do enjoy sometimes not having to pay for CDs, though I’m not sure anyone pays for CDs anymore, so what the fuck am I so happy about? And though I don’t take nearly enough advantage of it, tickets to shows aren’t that tough to come by. And I suppose I could—gasp!—meet the band, though Twitter has probably robbed the romance from the mystery and majesty of the rock star. Nothing is sacred or secret when you discover that the only difference between us lowlifes and those who trod the boards in the name of the holy rock and/or roll is access to better drugs.
So why do we write here on PopMatters, or in the Rolling Stone or in a million blogs covering a million different opinions that all come off sounding more like three? It’s because we’re narcissists.

Seriously, it’s true. I mean, I love to write. I love every irritating little thing about writing, the edits and re-edits, and the crushing insecurity and dissatisfaction that comes with knowing two minutes after something I’ve come up with has been published, I’ll see loads of shit I wish I’d said differently. I think it’s why some rock stars don’t go back and listen to their old music. It’s not because they’re so locked into the future they don’t want to get stuck in the past. Sure, that sounds all cool in a press release, but it’s probably more likely they just don’t want to hear every fucking mistake they made in music their fans think is a staggering work of absolute genius. Because, yeah—musicians are narcissists too.

But in addition to the shallow admission that we’re sniveling little self-loathers who equate any attention with L-O-V-E, there’s also something pure in what we do. I know, you don’t buy it because I’m the one saying it, but it’s scout’s honor true. We love writing about music because we love music so goddamn much.

Years ago, I burned a friend a copy of My Bloody Valentine’s seminal mindfuck Loveless. She had only a passing familiarity with shoegaze music, and I felt it was my civic duty to lay one of the touchstones on her. As I recall the conversation now, I’m a little embarrassed by the corniness of what I said, but I swear I believed every corny word: “I’m jealous you’re gonna be hearing this for the first time.”

Not everyone is as bowled over by music as I am. Some folks simply do not give a solitary shit about which version of Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is more emotionally gut-wrenching (it’s the one on Capitol, FYI), or why the Ramones practically duplicated the cover of their first album on the cover of their third (fuck if I know, but they both look cool). It’s not even true that people have different obsessions, because maybe someone loves collecting Hummel figurines more than anything in this world, but maybe they don’t feel the driving compulsion to tell the world why.

There are jaded critics, no doubt, who’ve grown weary of the whole thing, yet who carry on because they don’t know any other way. Maybe they don’t even love music anymore, and they look at their ceiling high shelves of promo shit and wonder where their lives got away from them. They may not remember it, but there was a time when it all mattered, mattered like nothing else in the world. Mattered more than breathing sometimes, especially when you think about some of the cruddy dives full of piss-fumes and acrid hand-rolled cigarette smoke curling from the rotten teeth and fingers of denizens of the witching hour for whom a shower is but a fading memory we’ve all suffered just to hear a single note performed by some asshole who’ll have slipped below the surface by year’s end.

I love music. I love jamming my iPod full of stuff I’ll probably never get around to listening to. I love spending two hours putting together 45-minute playlists for chores like doing the dishes, which ordinarily takes maybe 15 minutes tops. I love music. LOVE it.

“Musicians are assholes.”

I remember the conversation well. It took place years ago when I was getting into my first music writing gig that wasn’t a college newspaper. I can’t remember which albums I reviewed, or why we were even on this line of chit-chat, but a legendary music editor said it to me and I’ve never forgotten.

“Musicians are assholes”, he said. “You don’t want to hang out with them.”

I did though. I was young and foolish and in absolute awe of anyone who was willing to pay me money to write about something I loved. And, yeah, he was right. Not about the asshole thing, although I’ve certainly found that not to necessarily be across-the-board true, but I do have some stories I try not to tell when I have a little too much to drink.

He was right in sensing that I wanted to hang around musicians. Merely an amateur drummer myself with naught but garage and college bands under my belt, there was probably a part of me that wanted to see in them what I’d never have myself, a taste of success that extended beyond a few extra drink tickets once in a blue moon.

But the primary reason I wanted to hang around musicians is the same reason I wanted to hang around other writers or kids who worked in indie record stores or actually had something relevant to say on message boards. We all loved music in some sick, stupid way. It’s gratifying to find that, to argue with friends over something as utterly meaningless as whether the Style Council or the Jam were a better use of Paul Weller’s talents.

I’ve got friends who are musicians, some of whom you’ve heard of and maybe some you haven’t. And because I’m a blabbermouth music writer, I sometimes wish I could talk their shit up a bit more. Believe it or not, I take what I do pretty seriously. It’s why I’ve struggled with whether or not to write album reviews of people I count among my actual friends. Everyone thinks music critics are already full of shit, so I know I can’t submit a review of an album by a friend and feel like I’ve got any credibility at all.

Here’s an example. Last night, I joined a packed house at the Living Room on the Lower East Side for a performance by Amy Bezunartea. Her album—Restaurants & Bars—just dropped, and it’s really fucking good. I mean, if you dig singer-songwriters who make you want to cry your eyes out one second and grin like a loon the next, and have your heart swelling up inside your chest and a thousand other clichés throughout, this is right up your alley. But Amy is also a friend of mine, as is her partner and label boss Jennifer O’Connor, and she’s a seriously awesome musician, too. Plus, my girlfriend Eve sings on the record. So when I say something like “Mostly I’m Just Scared” reminds me of Moe Tucker when she was still with the Velvet Underground, would anyone take me seriously knowing all that?

Here’s another example. I’m really good friends with Carlos Halston, one half Boston’s—jeez, I don’t even know how to describe them—Halston. If was putting together a playlist, let’s say, I’d very easily slip Halston’s newest groove, “The Beats (of How You Feel)” between the Buzzcocks’ “Autonomy” and “The Party’s Crashing Us” by Of Montreal. But if I also told you I once drunkenly stumbled out of a Beantown bar into the dark night leaving Carlos to deal with a triple-digit bar tab, would any of what I had to say about his band’s music matter to you? What if I added that I paid him back the next day when I sobered up, figured out where I was, and braved a sun that was far too bright and a cab that was far too full of meaty aromas to make it happen?

How close is too close? It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself more times than I’d care to admit, and not even in my own professional life. My collection is loaded with creaky home recordings by friends of mine, and when I’ve really found myself liking it, I’ve wondered whether it’s at least partly because I’m thinking with my heart. And conversely, I’ve also found myself pondering if I think something kinda sucks just because I’m overcompensating. Narcissistic and neurotic.

Why do we write about music? Why do we try to surround ourselves with people who either share that love or are at the very least part of the reason we feel the way we do? And why, if we sincerely love when those lines cross, can’t we do something about it? I’m sure I’m not alone in this phenomenon among my peers, because while that editor’s advice wasn’t without merit all those years ago, I’m not sure anyone he ever gave it to took it terribly seriously.

Maybe Lester Bangs got the mix exactly right when he was flown over to the UK to follow the Clash on tour for the NME. Bangs certainly wasn’t friends with the Clash before then, and I’m sure not what Paul Simonon lighting his trouser leg on fire did to move that relationship in either direction. But in spite of his hanging with the band and realizing they were the genuine article, Bangs’ praise for the power of the music never seemed inauthentic.

I guess the key is to figure shit out for yourself, and that’s how it’s been all along. I could tell you I love the music of Amy Bezunartea or Halston, and even if you think I’m full of shit because they’re pals of mine, you’ve still got to judge it for yourself. The same is true of what any critic has to say, whether they know the artist personally or not. The only critic who can really speak to whether you’re gonna like anything is you.

John Lennon: Some Time in New York City

Originally published by PopMatters on November 18, 2010 as part of a special section - We All Shine On: A Tribute to John Lennon

If there’s an argument to be made in favor of environment playing a significant role in the whole nature-nurture debate, consider John Lennon in the early 1970s. In the aftermath of the dissolution of the Beatles, he released arguably one of the first Emo albums (John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) after a round of primal therapy, then followed it with the pastoral hippie naïveté of Imagine. During this period, Lennon was still living in relative isolation in his palatial Tittenhurst estate, working out his personal issues and looking at world peace through a decidedly pie-eyed lens.

But in late 1971, Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to New York City, immersed themselves in political activism and released the weirdest album in the former Beatle’s post-Fab career.

Lennon had dipped his toe in the waters of musical political activism before, including musical entries with the “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People” singles.

But unlike his two previous anthems, there’s nothing on Some Time in New York City tailor made for repeated chanting in the streets or town squares. But with its overblown Phil Spector production and a musical grandiosity that often belies the subject matter, Some Time in New York City comes off as either the world’s most expensive underground newspaper or an unfocused attempt to come up with a sequel to Hair. The album wasn’t received well critically, and was also a relative commercial flop, peaking at #48 on the Billboard 200 chart less than a year after Imagine hit the toppermost of the poppermost around the globe.

Listening to Some Time in New York City nearly 40 years on, it’s not difficult to see why it failed to connect. Upon release, the album featured a second disc of all-star live performances recorded in London (Lyceum Ballroom, 15, December 1969) and New York (Fillmore East,  6, June 1971), thereby making the entire package more expensive than the album proper would have been. It’s also possible a great deal of the Lennon-buying general public who got on board with the lush sounds of Imagine just didn’t want to hear him share vocals with Ono on songs about controversial people with controversial opinions.

Though it’s difficult to remember these days when no one even knows what the music industry is, but there was once a time where a catchy radio hit could pull listeners in to the album. “Woman is the Nigger of the World” was the lead single for Some Time in New York City, its high mark at #57 that made even the stark Janovian confessional of “Mother” seem like a relative smash when it charted at #43 in 1970.

“Woman is the Nigger of the World” opens Some Time in New York City as an appropriately misguided attempt to speak to women’s rights. Whether by design or by allowing Spector to run roughshod as he often did in the ‘70s, Lennon’s vocals sound lower in the mix than even the song’s garden variety sax solo. While calling attention to the relative plight to the world’s women is certainly a noble concept, the presentation is hesitant and awkward. “Sisters, O Sisters,” the Ono-fronted b-side to the single and the album’s second track, was supposedly meant to have a reggae feel, but it comes off like sock hop music.

“Attica State” follows next, and it’s another song with its heart in the right place, but which is ultimately another undercooked effort by Lennon overcooked by Spector’s production.

While Ono’s musical strengths have been widely celebrated over the decades since a bunch of ignoramuses blamed her for the breakup of the Beatles, she’s still given more short shrift than she’s earned. That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of being shrill and overbearing, as on some of the live tracks which make up the second disc of the album. But the first song to make any impact at all is “Born in a Prison,” a curiously beautiful melody over a rhythm like a heartbeat at rest.

Like a sequel to “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” “New York City” is effectively a play-by-play account of Lennon and Ono’s life set to rock & roll.

“Sunday Bloody Sunday,” like the U2 song of the same name which followed a decade later, is about ethno-political conflict in Northern Ireland, as is “The Luck of the Irish,” with the two appearing back-to-back on the album. Musically, they’re among the album’s best Lennon-fronted numbers, with the first an aggro-rocker, and the latter an acoustic lament.

“John Sinclair” puts the story of the “10-for-2” incarceration of activist and manager of the MC5 who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for giving two joints to an undercover narcotics officer.

Angela Davis, who was also the subject of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Black Angel,” was the inspiration for Some Time in New York City‘s lost gem, “Angela.” A duet between Lennon and Ono, the song ebbs and flows like the tide, rising and falling with more emotion than the rest of the album combined, and may have at least been partially responsible for the grand aesthetic of contemporary groups like the Flaming Lips and the Polyphonic Spree.

“We’re All Water” closes the album proper with Ono using the title’s concept to explain that people like Richard Nixon and Mao Tse Tung (who, adding to the controversial nature of the entire release, were seen dancing naked together in a doctored photo on the cover) aren’t all that different. “We’re all water from different rivers,” Ono sings, before the song devolves into a reasonably enjoyable shriek-filled jam where one might imagine credits rolling down a screen.

Though the live disc serves as a decent quality artifact of Lennon’s brief forays into solo performance, the second side of that particular piece of vinyl was also controversial in its own way. Recorded at the Fillmore East with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the four songs included a cover of “Well (Baby Please Don’t Go)” by Walter Ward, along with songs credited differently when remixed and re-released by Zappa on Playground Psychotics in 1992. As presented on Some Time in New York City, the live tracks with Zappa and those recorded in 1969 with such luminaries as Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Moon and Billy Preston are certainly worth a listen, but aren’t exactly essential, either. There’s far too much aimless jamming between far too many musicians for much of anything to stand out above the mud, and if the notion of Ono’s artistic caterwauling in that context isn’t your thing, you’d be best advised to steer clear altogether.

Some Time in New York City didn’t destroy Lennon’s career, but the album and its surrounding activism did cause the FBI to open a file on him, resulting in a widely publicized deportation effort by the United States government. Those events were covered in the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

Lennon’s next album, 1973’s Mind Games toned down some of the political rhetoric that Some Time in New York City was soaked in, and as a result climbed to #9 in the U.S. Some Time in New York City isn’t Lennon’s best album, not by a long shot. It’s not even terribly successful in its design, though it at the very least condenses some of what activists were interested in into one mostly listenable album. What the album mostly represents is where Lennon and Ono were in their lives at a time when everything was changing for them. It’s an often forgotten or neglected chapter in Lennon’s canon, an uncomfortable period when even he didn’t seem entirely certain of what he was trying to say.

But in that sense, it works in tandem with earlier solo experiments in soul searching, though in this case Lennon himself was too focused on trying to convey a message of activism to know that he was still revealing his own flaws and foibles. When the album is at its best, though, is when none of that internal criticism matters, and it’s why Ono’s efforts are often the album’s best. Between the two, she was surer of herself at this point, and it shows.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Elliott Smith: An Introduction to...

Originally published by PopMatters on November 4, 2010

Historically, “hits” packages like An Introduction to Elliott Smith are enough to make the fans go apoplectic. “What possible purpose could this serve?” the devotee might derisively ask. Well, face it, pal: There was a time when you didn’t know who Elliott Smith was either.

Another fellow troubled troubadour, Nick Drake, had his previous work compiled numerous times posthumously, with the greatest critical and commercial success 1994’s Way to Blue. The compilation deftly managed to weave songs together to form not only a true representation of the expanse of Drake’s work, but also a cohesive album that served as more than just a simple collection of randomly selected songs. An Introduction to… attempts to do for the music of Elliott Smith what Way to Blue did for Nick Drake, though it inevitably comes up short by comparison.

For a start, Smith’s back catalogue is far more expansive than Drake’s. Smith released five albums before his sad death in 2003, with two more following, including 2007’s New Moon, a two-disc set. An Introduction to… draws from each of these, though some receive far more attention than others. Smith’s two albums for DreamWorks Records—XO and Figure 8—are represented by just one song apiece, as is Roman Candle, his first solo release. Conversely, nearly half of Either/Or is here with five tracks, and Elliott SmithFrom a Basement on the Hill, and New Moon are each represented with a pair of entries.

It’s difficult to know whether the tracklisting was purely a judgment call or if legal snags kept the DreamWorks material from making more of an appearance. And what’s the rationale for the inclusion of an early version of “Miss Misery” rather than the Oscar-nominated take from the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting?

Herein lies the peril faced by any compiler of a beloved artist with an extensive canon: What belongs and what doesn’t? Are you trying to tell a story, give an impression of the artistic avenues that artist traveled, or just move units? Will the fans be bummed out by the lack of obscure numbers, and will those maybe coming to an artist a little late in the game find the selection accessible enough to lead to further exploration? If you can’t please everyone, who are you going to focus on?

If, as the press release indicates, An Introduction to… is meant to serve as a teaser for the music of Elliott Smith, it doesn’t really get the job done. There’s no denying the delicate, damaged brilliance of the songs chosen, but the same could be said of so much that was left on the cutting room floor. By largely overlooking certain periods and giving comparatively heavy attention to others, Kill Rock Stars haven’t provided the listener with enough of a balanced overview for a successful introductory compilation.

That’s certainly not to say the release isn’t valid. There will undoubtedly be listeners coming to the album unfamiliar with Smith and finding the stark intimacy of “Between the Bars”, “Alameda”, or “Needle in the Hay” very much to their liking. “Ballad of Big Nothing” is a pretty terrific album opener (it came third on Either/Or in 1997), and “Waltz #2 (XO)” is a splendid follow-up. And that’s where An Introduction to… is tripped up. Smith’s debt to glorious Beatle-esque pop music was as much a part of his DNA as solemn emotional forays into the depths of the soul, but they’re underrepresented here.

An Introduction to… may well lead new listeners to Smith’s back catalogue, but hopefully they won’t stop where the compilation does. Smith’s entire recorded works are worth exploring, even those not technically independent releases.

6 out of 10

Kings of Leon: Come Around Sundown

Originally published by PopMatters on October 18, 2010

Less than 30 seconds in to “The End”, the first song on their new full-length, I had an uncomfortable flash. The lyrics, those that are decipherable through Caleb Followill’s marble-mouthed delivery anyway, reminded me of the same kind of small town, big dreams, fist pumping, mock-Springsteen anthems which became popular radio fodder in the late ‘80s. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t go away: Kings of Leon, with their tight trousers, pointy shoes, sleeveless tops and earnest lyrics are one can of Aqua Net away from turning into a Bon Jovi tribute band.

Resisting a backlash is healthy, so when the world of the cool cognoscenti uniformly turned its back on Kings of Leon after they got insanely popular two years ago with their fourth album, Only By the Night, it only made me love them more. Well, “love” is a bit strong, because Kings of Leon don’t come off like they want love anyway. For all their fabulous bluster, they’ve always been more of an awkward-fumbling-in-the-backseat-then-not-returning-phone-calls kind of a band. That worked for them, and it became absurdly clear they knew it in 2008 when they released the hilariously titled “Sex on Fire” and the presciently titled “Use Somebody”.

If making the transition from hirsute indie rockers to stadium filler shortlisted for Glee theme episodes was the plan all along, it’s paid off brilliantly.

But perhaps within the KOL cookie cutter tunes on Come Around Sundown are a few clues to what the future might have in store for the band, as well. Consider the likes of Darius Rucker, Jewel and Kid Rock, three middle-of-the road acts who turned dwindling commercial results into pure gold by “going country”. There are more blatant nods to their rural lineage than ever before (“The Face”, “Pickup Truck” and especially the pseudo-party stomp “Back Down South”), so perhaps a straight out contemporary country album isn’t far behind.

While much of the music here comes on like it’s been cut from the same drab cloth, the album is even less convincing when it goes astray: “Mary” is astonishingly bad, a ‘50s pastiche on which Caleb eventually gives up on lyrics entirely and bellows like a hyena trapped in a cage.

Come Around Sundown will undoubtedly give the fans who didn’t realize Only By the Night wasn’t really the first Kings of Leon album something to cheer about, but anyone hoping for a return to the relative insanity of “Holy Roller Novocaine” and “Trani”, the honest inferiority complex of “Soft” or the initial thrill of hearing Jared’s bass treated like a lead guitar isn’t likely to find much to sink their teeth into this time around.

Kings of Leon arrived like a hillbilly Ramones with a modicum of darkness and depth, but there’s nothing below the surface anymore. They’re making shitloads of money in an era when few existing bands can manage the same, so it’s a little hard to blame them for trying to continue the thread that got them to where they are in the first place. But that doesn’t mean it’s all that fun to listen to.

Come Around Sundown isn’t a total disaster. “Radioactive” is a terrifically energetic romp, and “The End”, “Pyro” and “Pickup Truck” are not dissimilar to some of the band’s past successes, and it’s not difficult to imagine some of the whole echoing off the back walls of massive stadiums. But the muddy guitars, falling-down-stairs beats, trebly bass and lupine yelps all blend together after a while like a reheated stew that was far more tasty the first time around. It’s an album that feels more about hanging on to the sudden influx of fans than about moving the message (whatever that is) forward. Whether that’s good or bad really depends upon your point of view.

5 out of 10

An Original Mad Man Reflects on the Real 'Mad Men' and the Show

Originally published by PopMatters on October 15, 2010

Maybe this says more about who I spend my time with than anything else, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t watch Mad Men. There are times I have to step away, like when my Facebook news feed is filled with post-viewing chatter by friends who’ve changed their profile pictures to cartoon versions of themselves as characters from the show. When the hype becomes too much, or when I realize I don’t want to know what kind of trouble a little girl is getting into in the world of episodic television when I’ve got an actual little girl of my own in the actual world. I’ll tune it all out and let a few days go by, but such is the allure of Mad Men that I’m back in front of the television again, feeling like no matter how much I groom myself I’m still comparatively slovenly. Everyone I know watches Mad Men. Well, not everyone. Not my father.

My father and I get along incredibly well. Sure, it hasn’t always been that way. I was a gigantic pain in the ass when I was a teenager, and we’ve had the odd disagreement here and there in the intervening years. For the most part we really get along, but when it comes to television, well…. Last Thanksgiving, during a visit to the home he shares with my stepmother in Palm Springs, my father made it through about five minutes of the pilot of Arrested Development, a show I’d tried in vain to convince him was a comedic work of art. The ensuing conversation didn’t go well, and it wasn’t the first time that sort of thing has happened, either.

And so after nearly four full seasons of not even mentioning Mad Men to my father, I finally had to ask. It’s not because I’m a fan of the show, or at least that’s not the only reason. I wanted to get the opinion of my father, not as the opinionated curmudgeon who’d burned me up over Arrested Development, but as an expert. My father was a Mad Man.

Gary Kott was a writer and Supervising Producer on The Cosby Show from the second-through-sixth seasons, the ones where the show was #1 in the ratings. I was a high school kid at the time, and it held a certain cache with some of the girls in my class to be able to say that some stupid thing I’d done had become some stupid thing Theo Huxtable did on television, even when that was mostly untrue.

My father wrote scripts for Remington SteeleFameThe White Shadow and Hotel. He’s won a Peabody Award, a Writer’s Guild of America Award, a People’s Choice Award, an NAACP Image Award and was once nominated for an Emmy and twice for the Humanitas Prize. But even today, he still feels like some of his best work was done on Madison Avenue.

In some ways, my father’s story in advertising is not unlike Don Draper’s, beginning by writing catalog copy for department stores and ending in offices high above the grit and grime of midtown Manhattan. My father became Vice President and Creative Director at the legendary Ogilvy & Mather, worked on huge campaigns for Young & Rubicam (on whose carpeted floor a much younger version of myself threw up) and had a hand in doing in real life the kinds of things Don Draper and his creative team try to do on television. My father was there in the ‘70s, so while some of these guys were still around, the world outside was very different. And with his long hair, leather jackets and blue jeans, my father made sure it looked a lot different inside the offices as well. Even so, I thought I’d ask.

He hadn’t seen the show, of course. He’d heard about it—how could he not?—but hadn’t actually watched any episodes. So, with my father in his home in Palm Springs and me in mine in Brooklyn, we set up Skype and watched the pilot together. Every few minutes, we’d pause the episode and chat, and nearly two and a half hours later we were through.

Set in 1960, the Mad Men pilot—“When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—brings us back to a world that almost seems quaint by comparison, where everyone smokes and drinks and cavorts with sexism and sexuality in equal measures. Much has been made of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner’s attention to detail, and it was after seeing Draper sorting through an ad pitch on a bar napkin while ordering another drink that my father first paused the episode.

“That’s what we used to do, write campaigns on napkins,” said Dad. “I worked on so many campaigns, I’d come up with them on the subway on the way in to the meeting so many times. One of the skills good advertising people have is amazing quickness. Just the quickest, brightest human beings on the planet, and they all know how to pull stuff out of their hat. And good stuff.”

The bar itself had a certain familiarity to it as well.

“Across the street from Ogilvy & Mather was a bar called Ratazzi’s, and it’s where all the advertising people hung out. They served these huge martinis and it was packed every night. They finally closed it and there’s a plaque, a permanent plaque there, I think it’s on 48th between 5th and Madison, and it’s actually an historical site now.”

As the action followed Draper to the crash pad apartment of his beatnik fling Midge, my father wondered about whether the show was going to turn into a soap opera, a question I’ve often found myself asking.

“So, now they’re making the show like Desperate Housewives goes to Madison Avenue, all affairs and flings,” he said. “If you worked for a big ad agency, you weren’t worried about who you were schtupping. No one cared, no one gave a shit.”

As Don and Midge discussed the government’s crackdown on cigarette advertising—a storyline that runs through the entire episode—my father recalled the first time he came in contact with the product as a copywriter.

“The only advertising campaign that I ever turned down is when I was at Young & Rubicam,” he said. “They were pitching Liggett Meyer, and they asked me. I went, ‘Well, okay. I’ll give it a try.’ This was probably sometime in the early ‘70s. And they handed me a report, a top secret report from the government: The Health Findings of Cigarettes. I read it, and I smoked at the time. And not only did I quit smoking, but it was the only time in my life when I went in and said, ‘I cannot work on this product.’ I was so horrified by that report.”

Restrictions were nothing new to the advertising world by the time my father became part of the scene, but there were always ways around them.

“The Food and Drug Administration had already started to clamp down, so we had a lot of restrictions we had to work around,” he said. “But there were guys at the agency that had worked during the days of no restrictions, and it was really quite amazing what they got away with. The stories were unbelievable. They’d show you the historical reel, and what they used to do with toys, kids walking in, they’d get a plastic submachine gun and they’d show them sneaking into the room while their parents were sleeping and they’d machine gun their parents to death. These commercials went on and on.”

Later, when Joan Holloway shows new secretary Peggy Olson the ropes, my father stopped the show again.

“I started in ’69 and was at Ogilvy in ’72,” he said. “These days were already long gone. These secretaries were thinking, ‘I’m gonna be creative director.’ That attitude had changed. They weren’t coaching each other on how to screw their way to an apartment in New York.”

When I explained that Olson actually did work her way up the chauvinistic ladder to become a copywriter, my father said that it seemed realistic.

“Ogilvy was very strange back then,” he said. “There was a no nepotism rule. You couldn’t be a relative of anybody, and you certainly couldn’t be a wife of somebody, or you couldn’t be the girlfriend. They were really on the lookout for that. If you were a copywriter, you really had to earn your way in. There were a couple of secretaries that got promoted to advertising, but we all saw the process that they had to go through, and it wasn’t easy. They had to do spec portfolios like we all did and present them. And it was actually better for them once they got their first copywriting jobs to leave the agency so they didn’t have that hanging over them.”

With a pitch to Menken’s Department Store looming, firm partner Roger Sterling asks Draper, “Have we ever hired any Jews?” My father, a Jew, had already asked if the topic would come up during the show.

“There were no Jews in ad agencies,” said Dad. “Ogilvy & Mather was very British, very Harvard, very preppy. I don’t know if there was ever a Jewish guy in the creative department, and then one that looked like me.”

Later, when Sterling introduces David Cohen – who he found in the mailroom – to Rachel Menken as a member of the art department, my father laughed.

“That’s very funny,” he said. “That just happens to be good TV. It was an exaggeration, but it’s good writing. That’s good TV. Their whole handling of the Jewish situation was good. It’s funny that I brought it up, and it was a subplot of the first episode. It really was rare.”

The topic led him on a tangent about other firms, including one that produced some work that not only showed up in later episodes of Mad Men, but which convinced my father that advertising was where he saw himself.

“Advertising was pretty bland through the ‘50s,” he said. “It was all things to all people, big, luxury convenience, girls in crinolines, jingles, taglines. There were two giants of advertising thought, and I worked for one of them, David Ogilvy. And then there was this new agency called Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach. That’s probably who they were talking about as catering to the Jews. David Ogilvy landed the Rolls-Royce account and wrote these stunning ads, they were poetry. Later, they got the Mercedes account. But Doyle was a small agency, and they got this account called Volkswagen. You’ve got to remember in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the idea was big luxury American cars. And here was this frickin’ car from Germany, of all places, called a Beetle that looked like something you’d put in your pocket. And on top of it, it was the dream child of Adolf Hitler. How can you sell that in America after the war? Giant luxury cars, beautiful women driving down the street, handsome men, ‘See the USA,’ Dinah Shore, blah, blah, blah. Doyle, Dane and Bernbach said, ‘Let’s go the opposite.’ And they came out with an ad, and the headline said: Think Small. Think Small to Americans, and this little teeny picture of this little Bug, and that one ad revolutionized advertising. When I saw ads like that, I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ That started the new school of advertising, this minimalist, sharp, clever thoughtful campaign.”

Other campaigns by the firm were just as revolutionary.

“The idea was to boast that you were number one. So Doyle, Dane, Bernbach gets Avis. Hertz was the number one car rental of all time, and if you were not number one, you sure didn’t want to advertise it. So, Doyle comes out with this headline that says: Avis – We’re Number Two, But We Try Harder. So bizarre, and Americans loved that.

“And then they got the Alka Seltzer account, and how do you do anything with such a cruddy product. And they started this campaign: Plop Plop, Fizz Fizz, Oh What a Relief it Is. And that led to commercials like, ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’

“When I saw ads like that, I thought forget about the old school of advertising, that’s what I want to do. So here, not only was I with the long hair, the leather jacket, but I wanted to do advertising that these agencies had never done before. And they sort of let me do it. They fought me all the way, though.”

The show wasn’t a total hit with my father, especially when it came to the quality of the advertising.

“This is the problem, probably, with the show so far,” he said. “The idea is great, but the advertising sucks. If this guy is a creative genius and that’s the kind of advertising he’s approving, this guy would be out by 1973. If this is the best he could do, and these are his advertising instincts in 1960, my guess is he’d own a bed & breakfast in Vermont by 1973. I saw a lot of these guys go down quick. To me, it’s like saying, you’ve set up a show about the greatest football player that ever lived, and then you see him throw the ball and he can’t even grip it.”

The episode featured art director Sal Romano showing a print sketch of a man in a hammock with the word ‘Relax’ as the headline, and later Draper enthralling the board of Lucky Strike by pulling “It’s toasted” out of thin air. Neither of these impressed my father.

“When you think of, ‘It’s toasted’ saving the day, compare that to ‘Just Do It’ for Nike,” he said. “Enough said. That’s saving the day. It’s the weak part of the show, the actual advertising, because it’s hard.”

He acknowledged that because if his professional experience, that sort of thing might bother him more than the average viewer.

“I wrote a doctor show (The Cosby Show), and I just threw in some medical jargon,” he said. “I’m sure some doctors watching were like, ‘Hey, the patient’s gonna frickin’ die!’ Cliff Huxtable was a doctor, and Clair was a lawyer, and I’m sure lawyers were going, ‘What the hell are they talking about?’ But that is a really bad ad agency. And I’m sure America doesn’t care, just as if I was watching a show about Nascar, whatever they tell me is fine, I’m not going to know the difference. But right now, that ad agency is going to have to get better because I’d have a hard time watching it. A show about advertising, you would hope that they got sharper, because none of these people would survive so far. It’s the worst ad agency I’ve ever seen, and they’ve got to get to work.”

That last point was also something of an issue for my father, a man who worked absurdly long hours in advertising, and then continued the practice while writing and producing television. As the younger staff members of Sterling Cooper begin to file out just after 5:00 in the afternoon, my father was stunned.

“Time to go at 5:15? You saw the way I worked. 5:15, you’d say half day,” he said. “At Y&R, we all worked weekends. The saying was ‘If you don’t show up Saturday, don’t bother to show up Sunday.’ We’d be there hour after hour after hour hammering out ideas locked in our offices. So years later, Ogilvy takes me back, and they were going to make me a Vice President and Creative Director out in L.A. So the first day they introduced me to my group, the art directors and the copywriters. And at about ten after five, a couple of them knocked on my door, stuck their heads in and said, ‘We’re really glad you’re here, can’t wait to work for you, see you tomorrow.’ And they got on the elevator. And I started laughing and laughing. Someone came in and said, ‘What’s so funny?’ I said, ‘These guys have such a great sense of humor,’ and I kept looking at the elevator doors waiting for them to open. And they never opened up. Five minutes later, three more people from the group walked in and said, ‘Gotta go, I’ve got a volleyball game today.’ And the whole group was gone by twenty after five. I sat there stunned. It was at that moment where I knew it wasn’t going to work out for me. Going home at five o’clock at night? I’d never heard of that. Five o’clock was when it got quiet and you could do good work. That’s the way it was, and I said, ‘I’m going to get out of here. I can’t work with people like this.’”

As a television show, my father found Mad Men more hit than miss, though the repetition began to wear on him a bit.

“The writing is so inconsistent,” he said. “They just keep hitting the same beat and the same beat and the same beat. This guy is good, I’m not knocking him. It’s really impressive that a guy would tackle an era he had nothing to do with. But I’m 30 minutes into the show, and they’ve articulated the same problems five times. In 30 minutes, you’ve covered cigarettes five times and talked about this girl’s legs seven times.”

While Account Services Executive Pete Campbell is presented as a threat to Draper, my father didn’t buy it, especially after the former’s disastrous “death wish” pitch to Lucky Strike.

“The evil character, the Darth Vader kid would just get blown out of the water,” he said. “The great thing about Steven Spielberg, when he did Jaws, he didn’t say, ‘Oh my god, there’s a shark and it’s eating all the people.’ He showed the fucking shark. And he just showed it for about 30 seconds, and it just fucked everybody up for the rest of their lives. You can’t say in a corporate office that there’s guy nipping at my heels, you’ve got to show they’re formidable. You can’t have a guy get up and give a speech saying we’re all going to die anyway. You’ve got to have this guy coming in with amazing shit, because that’s the fear. Advertising is like baseball. You’re having a bad season, and they bring in a rookie, and he starts hitting line drives off the fucking wall, your job is really in jeopardy. So you’d better start taking steroids. This guy has no competition yet in that agency. In the ad agencies, the competition is grand. There’s always people nipping at your heels, and I’d be nipping at his heels. And he’d feel it. I nipped at all these guys. I always had guys coming after my jobs constantly. And I’d say, ‘Okay, try to get it. You’re better than me, you deserve it.’ And you know what, they couldn’t find that person.”

My father said he understood that if the show was four seasons into its lifespan, the characters probably developed much further than the “stick figures” he saw in the pilot, and the advertising might even have improved. But after 45-plus minutes, it was all about Don Draper.

“What makes a TV show ultimately is the characters, and so far it’s just the pilot, but you’ve got one good character, Don Draper,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s very one-dimensional and repetitive.”

But that was only part of the picture, and my father said that when the writing was good, it was very good. He liked the premise, how careful Weiner and the producers were with conveying a period in time and with setting it in what was effectively the Wild West in the Big Apple.

“It’s very clever what this guy has done in setting it back in the early ‘60s when there were no rules to life. I mean, everybody smoked. They smoked in the office, they smoked on airplanes. And they drank.”

Though he said the drinking wasn’t nearly as over the top as it might have been in 1960, my father remembered the offices as being a bit more lenient in his era than they might be today. He remembered a fellow copywriter from his early days at Ogilvy & Mather.

“She got hired two weeks after me, and she would come in still drunk from the night before,” he said. “She would slam her door shut and say, ‘No calls!’ She’d black out on the couch, wake up at about 11 and I had to take her down for coffee. She was very funny.”

My father also enjoyed the show because it gave him an opportunity to talk about his past, both in advertising and in the eventual move to writing for television.

“These people all wanted to be vice presidents, but that was a sad day for me,” he said. “I was 30 years old, Vice President, and it depressed me. But what it also did was it gave me permission to leave the business. I was way younger than any of the other creative directors. I didn’t really want to supervise other people, and I didn’t care about corporate pie charts. I was not motivated to have the corner office, and there were guys in there who wanted that dream.”

Instead, his relocation to Los Angeles with Ogilvy & Mather gave him the opportunity to break into Hollywood.

“It was The White Shadow and Bruce Paltrow” he said. “Hollywood did not care about advertising people, and Marc Rubin had gotten the head writer job through Paltrow. They had a pickup for five shows, and Paltrow wrote one, Rubin wrote one, I think Paltrow wrote another and Paltrow’s friend Steven Bochco came in and wrote number four. They only had one script assignment left, and Paltrow said, ‘Who do you want to write it?’ And Mark said, ‘Gary Kott?’ Paltrow said, ‘Who’s Gary Kott?’ ‘He works in an ad agency,’ and Bruce Paltrow hits the roof. ‘I have my choice of any writer in Hollywood? What do I care about an ad guy?’”

We continued to talk about my father’s career long after “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” fell into the credits, digging through my own hazy memories of visits to ad agency offices and commercial shoots along the way. We also covered some of what happened over the next few seasons ofMad Men, with my father guessing more often than not how certain events in and out of the world of advertising might have been handled on the show. It made me wonder how other people in advertising both past and present see Mad Men, or how doctors see shows like ER or Grey’s Anatomy or even The Cosby Show. And then I got back into Mad Men itself, watching the season’s penultimate episode like pretty much everyone else I know. Everyone else but my father.