Friday, August 16, 2019

Shlomo Artzi celebrates 50 years on stage at Live Park Rishon (15/08)

Shlomo Artzi's marathon three hour set was full of missteps.

The first of two shows to celebrate his fifty year career, the dazzling set list included plenty of his decades-spanning hits and a number of highly touted guest spots that didn't disappoint (Natan Goshen, Haim Moshe, Rita, Shalom Hanoch, and David Broza).  But Artzi's frequent improvisations (i.e. mid-song speeches and tempo changes) curtailed the momentum of the set far too often.  With his guests, Artzi resorted to calling out the verse numbers far too many times, directing his duets on the fly as if he was in a rehearsal, rather than in front of 12 000 people in a park.  He and his band are experienced enough to fly by the seat of their pants without letting the entire song go off the rails, but such ramshackle planning doesn't make for the best concertgoing experience.  After playing some of his bigger uptempo hits at the start (e.g. "Nitzmadnu", "Eretz Hadasha"), the set seemed to lose direction, becoming a sort of jam session with his band and his guests, and the various interludes were often charming, but also needlessly stretched out the evening to a nearly 1 AM finish, much to the chagrin of many exhausted audience members.

And yet, none of the above really seemed to matter.  Artzi is a captivating, dynamic performer, one of the best I've ever seen at interacting with a crowd and holding them in the palm of his hand.  He owns the stage even when he breaks the rules, and as he nears age 70, his voice sounds and good as ever and his onstage energy is boundless.  His guests are pros who can craft magic on stage simply with their presence. 

Consider the opening of this concert: quick cuts of Artzi and his family over the years, live shots of the band walking on stage, "Nitzmadnu", a mid-song speech about his lack of nervousness coming on stage and crying when his kids were born (among other things), and a final, powerful coda to the song.  It was a continuous lump-in-throat moment that happens only rarely in concerts, and virtually never in the first ten minutes.   

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Billie Eilish, "WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO"; Emika, "Falling in Love With Sadness"

Lil Nas X has managed to fend off Taylor Swift not once, but twice on the way to his unprecedented 19-week run atop the Billboard 100.  And yet, "Old Town Road"'s biggest challenge has come not from megastar Swift, but from Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy", which has spent a total of nine weeks (and counting) at #2.  That's one week short of the all-time record for weeks at #2 for a song that never reached #1 (assuming it never gets there).

My first thoughts about Eilish's debut album were how simple and underproduced most of it is.  That's not a criticism -- I like stripped down, minimal recordings just fine.  It buzzes with life from its deep bass rumbles, and Eilish's strained whispers add a dose of fragility that isn't often heard in electronic music, let alone pop music in general.  I wasn't taken aback by the sound of the album, but rather, that such a thing could be so popular. 

I checked out some message boards and before the breakthrough success of "Bad Guy", there seemed to be a debate about how popular Eilish really was amonsgst teenagers.  Naturally, there were no teenagers actually frequenting these boards, so the discussion was heavily seeped in hearsay.  One person seemed sure (based on the opinion of a sister of a friend or wife or something to that effect) that her concerts are packed with thousands of kids who go all manners of apeshit for her every move.  So I checked out some clips on youtube and ... this person was absolutely right.  And at that moment, I felt the crushing weight of the generation gap, because I didn't get it at all. 

I think Billie Eilish is talented and I like a lot of her songs.  Her debut single, "Ocean Eyes", is probably better than anything on her debut album.  But since its release two years ago, her music has become darker and more blunted.  More importantly, her lyrics have gone from dewy teenage pop to ... something I can barely describe, because they weren't written for my consumption.  "Bury a Friend" is laced with depression and self-loathing, but it's more than that.  It's about the cadence of the lyrics, the way she sounds like she doesn't care but clearly does.  The lyrics are emo, sort of, but they're meant to be empowering rather than inviting your pity.   There are bits of philosophy sprinkled all over the album (in the title for example"), but I think you need to be a teenager to find them profound.  Her singing style is highly unconventional, but it speaks to the soul of a different generation. 

The best comparison that comes to mind is Nine Inch Nails from thirty years ago.  His music sounded catastrophically unlistenable to baby boomers.  His lyrics were puzzling to anyone born before 1970, but for us, it made perfect sense to hate others as you'd hate yourself ("Something I Can Never Have", "Sin", to name just two).  We got it, most others didn't.  And in concert, this wiry, violent brat was a superhero to us.  Similarly, I see something in Billie Eilish that I'm not capable of understanding, but if I was sixteen then I would probably be crazy for her. 

These days, Reznor is entrenched in the upper echelons of the music establishment.  I never thought the day would come when our people would be the gatekeepers and yet earlier this year, Reznor inducted the Cure into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  It's the circle of life.  Reznor is also the co-writer on the most successful song in Billboard Hot 100 history.  Unbelievable. 

Then you have Emika, i.e. Billie Eilish for grownups.  It's also dark electronic pop, but with a clear "made in Berlin" bent.  It's lounge singer sad, not complicated teenager sad.  It's not groundbreaking either, but I know that I get it.  

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Reviewing every Eurovision Song Contest Winner (1969)

Finally getting back to this project and jumping straight into the chaos of 1969!

Salome, "Vivo cantando" (Spain). 

There are several notable things about this performance, starting with Salome's mile high beehive hairdo and pale blue dress that looks like a cross between scraggly animal fur and exotic beads.  There's the tuxedo-clad barber shop trio that were beamed in from a completely different, much sleepier song.  There's the way she loses herself in the song and resorts to dancing (against Eurovision rules at the time!), distracting herself from the singing she's supposed to be doing but upping the excitement factor of the song times ten.  All these performance aspects add up to more than the sum of their parts -- this is arguably the first all sizzle, no (or very little) steak performance in Eurovision.  The song doesn't amount to much, jumping between Broadway glitz, flamenco rave-up, and touching ballad, trying to cover all bases at once but never establishing an identity.  Nevertheless, "Vivo cantando" helps establish the Eurovision tradition of putting on a wild performance with flashy costumes, dancing, and other bizarre gaga and hoping people won't notice the deficiencies of the song overlaying it.  6/10.   

Lulu, "Boom Bang-a-Bang" (United Kingdom)

Lulu was a fairly big star when she represented the UK and her team clearly expected that to win the day for them in the contest.  And hey, it worked.  Lulu looked like the cuddly pink precursor to Meghan Trainor in the "All About That Bass" video, she won Eurovision, and "Boom Bang-a-Bang" was a massive hit in the UK and all over Europe.  The song, however, is treacly nonsense that I never want to hear again.  3/10. 

Lenny Kour, "De troubadour" (Netherlands)

I wouldn't have guessed that a straight up folk song with a strong protest/political bent actually won Eurovision exactly fifty years ago.  Political songs are, and I assume were against the Eurovision rules except when the rules are arbitrarily ignored (e.g. when a dictator is rumoured to have fixed the contest to show off to the world).  Certainly no other song in Eurovision channeled the spirit of Woodstock '69 more than this one.  The mostly orchestra-free first minute is a welcome break from the usual bombast of the orchestra, and although the song builds to a rousing climax, I can't help but think it would have been stronger with just the two guitars all the way through.  8/10. 

Frida Boccara, "Un jour, un enfant" (France)  

After hearing this tremendous, almost apocalyptic ballad about an innocent child re-imagining the world, I'm beginning to make sense of this unusual four way tie.  Each song is completely different from the others and would appeal to different voting demographics.  Presumably, the older, golden age of classic songwriting fans would have voted for Frida Boccara and Salome, whereas the younger generation would have been drawn to the reactionary street cred of Lenny Kour and the bubblegum pop of Lulu.  There is no right answer, although I would choose "De troubadour" by a hair over Un jour, en enfant".  Boccara's performance is one to remember for sure, boasting the purest, strongest vocal delivery of any Eurovision winner thus far.  And for trivia buffs, I believe that Frida Boccara was the first Jewish winner (performer, not songwriter) of Eurovision.  8/10.   

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Glastonbury 2019

I have been watching clips from the festival all week and what is there to say?  There are dozens of huge festivals all over the world each year, but playing at Glastonbury carries a certain gravitas and historical importance that other festivals can't match.  I think the artists have bought into this too. 

A lot has changed over the years.  Miley Cyrus got into the Glastonbury spirit with a kitchen sink set of her songs, covers, and guest appearances.  Can you imagine Mariah Carey or any of her contemporary female solo stars playing Glastonbury in the 90's?  Or even Alanis Morrissette, to name a 90's artist more similar to Miley?  It was unthinkable.  When it came to festivals, Americans only knew Woodstock, which was a one off.  In the post Woodstock era, festivals were the domain of hippies who liked folksy, countercultural bands that flew under the radar and were never heard on the radio.  Festivals weren't the place for real stars.  Today, Glastonbury is truly a global festival, on everyone's radar.

Glastonbury used to be a platform for underappreciated artists.  Those 90's lineups are littered with bands who were ascending and "deserved" their chance to break through by headlining somewhere.  Pulp's headlining set in 1995 (replacing the Stone Roses who cancelled after guitarist John Squire broke his arm mountain biking) is legendary.  Radiohead's headlining set in 1997 is legendary for different reasons -- they held a huge crowd in a rapture, and made them forget their weekend of misery in horrendously muddy conditions -- and cemented the status they enjoy today.  Skunk Anansie, Ash, and Carter USM all headlined (all three had huge hit albums in the UK but were never quite mainstream). 

This year, that artist in that position was Stormzy.  The Killers were arguably in that position when they headlined ... in 2007.  What changes over twelve years these days?  Didn't that used to be an eternity?  The basis of The Killers' set list hasn't changed a whole lot since 2007, they still sculpt their gigs biggest moments around the hits from their first two albums.  The Killers were classic rock almost upon arrival.  Kylie had to pull out of her headlining spot in 2005 and here she was in 2019, still a legend, and attracting the biggest crowd of the festival and on TV.  When the Stone Roses cancelled in 1995 they lost their chance to regain their spot at the peak of British rock.  That chance was gone forever, the industry changed too quickly in those days, and they were broken up less than two years later. 

Speaking of never changing, take The Cure. This year, everyone was in reverence over how brilliant they still sound after all these years.  NME readers voted them the best headlining set of the weekend.  The last time, they headlined, in 1995, nobody was talking about The Cure, least of all NME readers.  I know because I read the NME nearly weekly in those days and The Cure's headlining set drew about two lines of coverage.  People were giddy about Pulp stealing the festival, and whether Oasis were cracking under the pressure of the spotlight.  The Cure had been inactive for about two years and already felt like antiques from a different era.  They were giants who you had to respect in their spot, but they could no longer define the narrative. 

This year, The Cure are still antiques from a different era, but it scarcely matters.  They can play headlining sets at whatever festivals they want under the earth falls into the sun.  Each time they blow away a festival crowd feels like the first time.  They're as legendary as the Stones, but with a key difference.  "Disintegration" could be released tomorrow, as is, and would still be a huge phenomenon.  The lyrics, music, and production have all stayed current.  Think about that, "Disintegration" is thirty years old (!!).  When it was released in 1989, which 1959 rock god could have had a hit single or album in the then contemporary climate?  Can you even imagine it? 

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Idan Raichel Project at Live Park Rishon (19/06)

On paper, Idan Raichel ticks so many of the right boxes.  His music combines Middle Eastern, funk, klezmer, and a host of other world music elements that I wouldn't even be able to name into a multicultural fusion that few other artists anywhere in the world can compete with.  That approach has made him into one of the few Israel musicians with a legitimate global profile. 

What else?  His "Project" is a true melting pot with a cast of some fifteen people on stage.  His songs are a mix of Hebrew, Arabic, and Amharic. He's a proud Zionist.  He seems genuinely humble and takes his role as a cultural ambassador seriously.  Instead of having an opening band, he plays really long shows, with tonight's gig running about two and a half hours.  He's as comfortable playing solo behind the piano, or accompanying one of his singers on a ballad, as being a cog in a full band churning through steamy grooves. 

And yet, I've never found Raichel's songs to be all that good, save for some of his ballads.  The uptempo stuff shows off a dazzling display of cultural virtuosity without being truly catchy.  Unfortunately, the idea of the Idan Raichel Project is far better than the reality.  I hoped that the spectacle of the live band would breathe more life into the songs -- plenty of bands sound OK on record but slay on stage, and a fifteen piece cross-cultural, cross-generational spectacle seemed like a good bet to fit that bill.  The spectacle is there, but the songs aren't.  It feels like the concert could be best enjoyed via a series of clips, where one can feel the power of the full band without having to press through the entire two hour plus journey. 

Friday, June 14, 2019

The indie/jam band merger

This past week, Chris Richards detailed the slow conversion of indie rock bands into jam bands in an article for the Washington Post.  Certain bands with which he chose to make his point are questionable (The National aren't jammy at all, curating an album of Grateful Dead covers was a side interest and doesn't feed back into their music) but his thesis is sound.  Ten years ago, everyone was talking about "corporate indie", i.e. the commercialization (and/or watering down) of indie as masterminded by major labels looking to capitalize on indie's cultural cachet.  Now?  Indie bands are jam bands.  Liking the Dead is certifiably OK in the indie scene, as noted by Richards, the only problem is that indie (and rock in general) has never mattered less as a cultural force.

The mainstream mostly ignores the jam band scene, except when they rake in obscene amounts of money (see: the 50th anniversary Dead shows), which I guess makes them truly countercultural again after all these years?  At the very least, today's indie jammers can look forward to many more decades of successful concerts if they play their cards right.

I first became attuned to this issue when reading a Yo La Tengo message board probably about fifteen years ago.  Somebody made the point of comparing YLT and the Grateful Dead, and sure enough, they ticked off many of the right boxes -- concerts stretched out to epic lengths, long and improvisational concert jams, different set lists every night, covers, covers and more covers, tolerating and even promoting tape trading of their live shows, etc.  I was slightly horrified, less so because of the Dead comparison, and more because the comparisons were completely on the money.

There wasn't a specific incident that helped the Dead became more "palatable" for indie fans, as noted by Richards, it was a glacial process.  The prior generation of music critics had exhumed and dissected the music of the 60's one too many times, and the Gen Y and millenials were tired of hearing about how nothing would ever be better than the 60's.  They moved onto examining the critically underrated pre-punk 70's, the Dead released their most well known albums during those years, and away we go.  Along those lines, the new Scorcese documentary about Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue (which I am itching to see) couldn't have existed fifteen years ago.  Dylan's "indie phase" ended after his motorcycle accident, and save for "Blood on the Tracks", 70's weirdo troubadour Dylan was too jammy and weird to be taken seriously next to his 1962-1966 output.

Finally, I think Wilco's crossover happened a lot earlier, as I recall them getting a lot of cred with the hippie crowds through their album of Woody Guthrie songs with Billy Bragg.  This may have contributed to their breakthrough with "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" many years later, that is, Wilco had broad, underappreciated appeal beyond the usual indie scenes. Oh, and how did War on Drugs not get mentioned in the article?

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The UMG warehouse fire

I don't have much to add to this story beyond expressing the same feelings of shock and sadness as everyone else.  I do think that this may well be the biggest music-related story ever, with no exaggeration.  At the very least it must be the biggest musical *recording*-related story ever.  Between the astounding, beyond all words loss of precious musical data and incomprehensibility of such a thing being successfully covered up for over ten years (in the internet + social media era no less), I can't imagine anything as significant and far-reaching as this happening again in my lifetime. 

People who think that the music "lives on out there digitally and in people's collections so nothing was really lost" are missing the point.  First of all, loss of the master recordings means no more remastering/remixing of any of these works, ever again.  No self-respecting label would ever remaster from a copy, which is why UMG reissues had dried up to nearly nothing in the past several years (now it makes sense why).  And nobody who buys the remastered recordings would want to pay good money to hear something remastered from inferior copies.  Second, and more importantly, the loss of the originals of any work of art is an irretrievable loss of human culture.  Imagine the Mona Lisa burning up in a fire, and someone claiming that it didn't matter, countless reproductions of it live on in print, in everything from art textbooks to postcards, so it's going to be OK.  Imagine all original copies of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays going up in smoke, and claiming that it's fine because we have the Penguin editions.  Every generational copy picks up omissions and errors that weren't in the originals.  When the originals are gone, a tangible connection to the spirit and intention of the artist goes with it, never to return.         

Friday, May 31, 2019

Brett Anderson, "Coal Black Mornings"

I was somewhat hesitant to buy this book because of its brevity -- 43 thousand words seemed lacking in the value for money department -- and its narrowed scope.  Why tell such a small and incomplete fraction of the overall story?

Fortunately, I was smart enough to take the advice of countless reviewers and online commenters.  "Coal Black Mornings" is the perfect length, it's exactly as long as it needs to be for the story that's being told.  In the preface, Anderson says that he's writing the book for his son so that he'll know who his father used to be.  It's the kind of sentiment that hits you harder when you have a son of your own, as I have recently discovered.  The language is rich and expressive, and I frequently found myself pausing to enjoy particularly flowery lines a little while longer before continuing.  In that sense, "Coal Black Mornings" is far from an easy, quick read.  Wordy snapshots of his childhood home are captured in painstaking detail, everything from his parents small neuroses to what was typically found on their breakfast table.   The minutiae don't bog down his writing at all, on the contrary, they paint everything in a more realistic, relatable light.

In a way, the book is about nothing.  The Andersons were a poor, working class family, there isn't the slightest indication of musical genius at work, no family aptitude for music, no teachers nurturing his talent because he didn't display any.  There are no fortuitous celebrity run-ins, no lucky breaks, no persistent mentors.  It's a book about a perfectly ordinary family.  The language doesn't elevate his early life into something glamorous or extraordinary in the least.  What he does, somehow, is transform the ordinary into something interesting, a type of self-analysis that we can all do, and probably should do.  He frequently notes that even the most mundane things you experience as a child can inform and influence your adult life.  He traces the genesis of specific Suede songs and lyrics back to unexpected sources such as family tragedies and his father's off-colour sense of humour.

Suede were not unjustly ignored until the press and public eventually caught up to their vision, no, Anderson repeatedly emphasizes how bad they were.  But he also stresses the importance of starting bad and finding oneself through the process of becoming good.  I had forgotten that Suede was born from completely unremarkable circumstances.   They were going nowhere until it all suddenly came together, almost materializing from the ether.  Four months before the famous "Best New Band In Britain" cover, they were playing a Xmas show to ten people.

The weakest part of the book for me was the ending, once it stops being a book about a bunch of struggling nobodies and acquires the braggadocio that frontmen of famous bands are known for.  Does this bode well for the follow-up autobiography this fall? 

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Reviewing every Eurovision Song Contest Winner (1967, 1968)

I'm not going to finish this project before the start of this year's Eurovision as I'd hoped, but we'll reach the end eventually!

1967.  Sandie Shaw, "Puppet On a String" (United Kingdom). 

After five runner-up finishes in the contest, the UK finally notched their first win with a song so irresistibly catchy, there's no way it could fail to win.   It's one of those rare songs that not only leads off with the chorus, but due to its incessant rhythm -- a half-cabaret, half oom-pah-pah beat that never lets up -- its structured almost like one long chorus.  The verses and bridge funnel effortlessly back into the chorus which funnels back into the absurdly silly yet alluring lyrics of the verses and so on.  On the precipice of the Summer of Love, Sandie Shaw is performing barefoot and wearing a wide flower child dress cut at the knee, completely forgoing the typical formal dress of the competition.  "Puppet On a String" is easily the most earworm-y Eurovision winner thus far.  Oddly enough, Shaw hated the song but it scarcely mattered -- it became a worldwide smash, was re-recorded (by her) in four other languages and by others in dozens more, and was the most popular Eurovision song ever to that point.  "Puppet On a String" completely dispensed with any pretense of being a highbrow entry in a genteel music competition.  It's designed to be as catchy as humanly possible, defying you to change the channel if you heard it on the radio, no more and no less.  That formula would be copied by countless Eurovision entries, not to mention pop radio hits, over the next few decades and up to the present day.  9/10. 

1968.  Massiel, "La la la" (Spain).

The first ESC TV broadcast in colour!  Predictably enough, there was some fallout from Sandie Shaw's memorable win the year before, coming in the form of a near copycat performance.  They checked off all the boxes: young girl in a cropped dress with three cute background singers, simple and catchy chorus repeated ad infinitum, vaguely hippie-ish rock edge, and so on.  Of course, the copy is rarely as good as the original. The plan makes sense in a devious, playing to the lowest common denominator kind of way.  How dumb and mindless can we make the chorus?  Do we even need to write words for the chorus?  How about nothing but "la la la" repeated 9483 times?  It'll transcend culture and language!  There's literally nothing of worth in this song, and your enjoyment purely depends on how much of a kick you get out of the never ending lalala's.  Did the composers get some inspiration from "Hey Jude", released the same year?  "Hey Jude" had a lot more going for it than the one syllable at the end.

Conspiracy theorists believe that Franco fixed the contest this year to improve Spain's image.  "La la la" beat Cliff Richard's "Congratulations" by a single point, denying the UK the first ever back-to-back win in Eurovision.  Indeed, Cliff Richard's frilly collar and incredible charisma blew Massiel off the stage that year. 5/10.   

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Reviewing every Eurovision Song Contest Winner (1965, 1966)

1965.  France Gall, "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" (Luxembourg).

In which Serge Gainsbourg fulfilled one of his career goals by bringing his music to the masses, winning Eurovision, and giving the contest the kick in the teeth it sorely needed.  "Poupée de cire, poupée de son" can be credited as the first non-ballad to win Eurovision, but as we've seen, some uptempo, pop-lite songs had won in previous years, so that designation depends on your exact definition of ballad. More importantly, it was the first truly contemporary winner, the moment where the modern pop charts crash landed centre stage in Eurovision, the first song that exuded effortless cool and street cred.  The moment when the drums kick in is like a bolt of lightning that shocks the system after years of sleepy ballads.  The overall arrangement is so breathtaking that you can easily forgive France Gall's somewhat nondescript delivery, she's almost a sideshow within her own performance.  But Gainsbourg would make a career out of being the real star behind the scenes while interchanging his singing dolls as he wished.  One could go on for days about how he schooled all the winning composers from previous years and their "I'm too young to be in love" numbers with his continuous roll of puns, innuendos, and double entendres.  10/10.   

1966.  Udo Jürgens, "Merci, Chérie" (Austria).

And now it's a trip back to the dark ages of sentimental ballads about leaving one's lover, thanks for the memories, bittersweet love oh how it stings, and so on.  This song suffers a lot when you have to listen to it immediately following "Poupée de cire, poupée de son".  It's a safe entry, but it's immediate and relatable, something that could be counted on to score votes in the then contemporary climate.  6/10.