Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Grading the Grammy Performances

I'll be skipping over the majority of the approximately 2543 performances from the show and will write about only the most interesting ones, namely, the very best and worst of the night.  You can assume that anything that isn't listed here grades around a C or low B.

Lorde, "Royals".  D.  Anyone under the age of 20 has no business performing on the Grammys wearing the kind of clothes my mom would wear on a night out in the late 1980's.  On a night that's usually dominated by bombastic performances, unlikely collaborations, and outrageous costumes, some people might claim that Lorde's no frills rendition of "Royals" was a breath of fresh air.  The problem is that watching the kitchen sink get thrown into every onstage segment is about 90% of the reason to watch the Grammys.  

Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons, "m.A.A.d City/Radioactive".  A-.  Like Jay-Z getting inexplicably saddled with Linkin Park at the Grammys several years ago, this collaboration was surprisingly, shockingly great.   Lamar was on an absolute mission to impress people and steal the show.

Ringo Starr, "Photograph".  B+. There is no conceivable reason for Ringo Starr to give a solo performance on a major awards show in 2014  (or 2004, or 1994 ...), but I couldn't stop smiling while watching this.  The Beatles scrapbook photos were nostalgic in the best way and everyone on stage looked like they were having a blast.

Robin Thicke and Chicago, "Chicago Medley/Blurred Lines". F. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall during the conversation between Robin Thicke and the Grammy organizers ... "we know that having Pharrell on stage to perform your megahit would be the best thing for your career, but he's booked elsewhere.  Hey don't worry though, we got you the next best thing ... Chicago!"

Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers, Stevie Wonder, "Get Lucky".  A+. I can't think of anything else I could possibly want in an awards show performance -- a dream collaboration that actually makes perfect sense, a cool mashup(s), and everybody from Jay-Z to Keith Urban to Yoko Ono dancing along with it.  If you found something to dislike about this (yes, even Pharrell's ranger hat) then we can't be friends.

Metallica and Lang Lang, "One". D-. The lighting and visuals deserve an A, but the two musical halves meshed together like oil and water.  There was nothing collaborative about this at all -- barring the brief piano solo interlude, each act performed as if the other wasn't even there.

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, with Miranda Lambert, Madonna, and Queen Latifah, "Same Love".  C-.  They pulled out all the stops to make this into an EVENT and judging by the tears from some of the audience members, it worked.  But look beyond all the (church) bells and whistles, and the performance was lacking in substance because the performers are simply not that good.  Even the usually reliable Madonna sounded off her game.  Elton John and Eminem made a much more significant breakthrough a decade ago because both are awesome, the air was full of tension, and nobody expected the lions to lie down with the lambs, but somehow they did and sounded great together.  Macklemore's performance was about everybody slapping each other's backs and feeling good about themselves for being so progressive, even CBS, who got to present themselves as open minded and caring despite somehow avoiding showing any same sex couples kissing.

Nine Inch Nails, QOTSA, Dave Grohl, Lindsay Buckingham, "Whatever this 'jam' session was supposed to be".  F.  Trent Reznor was pissed about CBS cutting them off (and you can't blame him ... the ceremony lasts a million years, so what's another two minutes of airtime to let your closing act finish up?) but they actually did him a favour, because this performance was a train wreck from start to aborted finish.  Buckingham's picking sounded hokey over Reznor's industrial thrash.  At the close of a never ending awards show, once the pressure is finally off and the winners are revealed, people want to stretch their legs, smile, and dance a bit.  This performance was the polar opposite of that.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Shlomi Shabat @ Heychal HaTarbut (23/01/2014)

About two thirds of the way into his nearly two hour set, Shlomi Shabat started receding into the background, in danger of becoming a mere guest at the party he was supposed to be hosting. He's an impassioned singer who wouldn't be confused with a flamboyant performer. He sings with his heart on his sleeve but without any excess hollering or stage acrobatics. So with a nine piece backing band cranking out a powerful hybrid of Spanish/Turkish party music, he was in danger of being outshone by the noise and hoopla going on around him. On the other hand, you can't exactly ignore that none of the three thousand people in the hall that night would have been dancing in the aisles and in their seats without Shlomi Shabat as the figurehead at the helm of the songs.

His beautifully structured set was neatly divided into "quiet" and "loud" halves. The first half(the crooner part) featured one hit ballad after another, interspersed with a few lighthearted stories . Having gotten the emotional stuff (including all of my favourite songs by him) out of the way, the dance party went full speed ahead in the second half. The audience could finally let loose and this seemed to be what most of them were waiting for -- they'll tolerate the radio-friendly sheen of "Ani Shar" to get to the full-on danceable songs.  You can't fault the strategy though, beginning with the mellower hits to get people settled into their seats, then raising the tempo and building toward the big finish.

I'm not sure I've ever seen a two hour concert that flew by so quickly. And my cynicism about Shlomi Shabat as an arena-sized performer were dispelled by the end of the night. When the concert was over, I no longer doubted that he could pull off the Park HaYarkon concert that he's planning for the upcoming summer.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Diary of Musical Thoughts Podcast Episode 17

"The Outer Space Science mix with cooing French Lyrics"  -- 114 minutes

It had been a while since I'd done a mix like this one -- a completely free-flowing set of music with absolutely no preconceived idea of what I wanted to do.  I didn't look at a watch or clock throughout and didn't even have a concept of how long the mix was until it was finished.  What is presented here is the one and only take, with no editing other than the occasional smoothing of transitions between non-beatmatched songs.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Pazz and Jop 2013

So it was yet another dominating win for Kanye West, tying him with Bob Dylan for the most number one albums in the history of the poll.  What's even more amazing is that he's done this over the space of just six albums and less than ten years, and the two albums that didn't top the poll still finished at #6 (Graduation) and #10 (808's and Heartbreak).  Six album, six top ten finishes.  Yet another reason why the monoculture's death has been somewhat exaggerated ...

This was the first year I voted using the (admittedly lazy) 15-14-13-12-11-9-8-7-6-5 points scheme.  My enthusiasm for my top albums was muted this year compared to most previous years, so I couldn't, in good conscience, give anything the 20+ points that a truly great album deserves.  I've always tried to quantify my attitude toward my favourite albums as accurately as possible, i.e. if two or three albums stood head and shoulders above everything else I heard that year (which is the case in most years) then the points totals should reflect that.

This year's top ten featured an album released by surprise over the internet only four days before the deadline for submitting ballots, a mixtape that wasn't released on an official label, and a self-released album by a band that had been in hibernation for nearly 20 years (and hadn't received much mainstream rockcrit love when they were in their prime).  Plenty of people claimed that the indie-heavy 2009 poll meant that a sea change was underway, where Pitchfork-approved rock and pop of the younger generation of critics would dominate from then on, and that never came to pass.  But I think the surprises at the top of this year's ballot do represent something meaningful about the changing perception of what makes for a critical smash.

David Bowie, Arcade Fire, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds all finished in the top thirty, in part due to merit, but mostly due to their reputations.  The albums didn't blow many people away but they will always draw reflexive support from the many people who simply enjoy voting for them.  If you think I'm exaggerating, consider that "The Next Day", at #15, finished higher this year than "Let's Dance" (#19), "Scary Monsters" (#19), "Lodger" (#31), and even "Heroes" (#21) in their respective years.  That's partly because American critics weren't as into Bowie compared to European critics, but otherwise there's no way to say with a straight face that "The Next Day" is better than all those albums.  People were glad to see his return to music (as was I), there were some solid tracks on the album, it sounded very much like classic Bowie with none of the odd experiments he busied himself with from 1995-2005, but otherwise this was people voting for Bowie the event, not Bowie the artist making some of his best work.

In a way you could say the same about MIA's "Matangi" (#28), Yo La Tengo's "Fade" (#48), and Low's "The Invisible Way" (#71).  None of them were close to representing their respective best work, but they'll always draw a base level of critical support whenever they release something new.  In fact, I think you could say the same about another 15-20 albums in the top 100 of the poll. Voters didn't pick them because they're great albums, they picked them because they've always voted for them in the past, their new album wasn't all that bad, so why not?  (says the guy who voted for Depeche Mode this year ... game and match?  Perhaps.)

As always, Glenn McDonald's P&J stats are the best thing about the poll, bar none, so you may want to stop reading this and go directly to his site.  I could get lost scrolling through numbers on his site for hours.  Now that he's been tabulating the poll for a few years, he's begun building a database of historical metrics on top of the ones specific to this year.  In 2013 I was ranked #277 out of 453 in centricity (39th percentile), almost exactly in line with my accumulated centricity from 2008-13 (40th percentile).  In 2009, I was strictly hit-or-miss as far as the mainstream of the poll was concerned -- I voted for two albums that received a huge number of other votes, a bunch of other stuff that got almost no mentions, and finished with my highest ever centricity score:

Other votes for Animal Collective + YYY's: 266
Other votes for the other eight albums in my top ten: 23

This year the distribution between the have and have-nots was even more extreme:

Other votes for MBV, Daft Punk, and The National: 164
Other votes for the other seven albums in my top ten: 4 (includes four albums with zero other votes)

And that's how end up with a centricity score in the middle of the pack: two top ten albums, another that almost cracked the top twenty, and a whole bunch of nothing.  The commonalities between me and the people in my list of similar voters are mainly from my songs list.

Finally, I have to say that I'm proud of finishing near the top of the breadth list (#79 out of 1120 critics), which means I tend to vote for completely different artists every year.  I really try to keep challenging myself with new music and now I have the stats to "prove" it!

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

X-Factor Israel is fixed

I suppose it's obvious that I enjoy watching music-themed reality TV shows.  I play armchair judge, criticize song choices, and theorize about who is marketable and who isn't.  I like having music on my TV in general.  And I know that no reality show is 100% unscripted.  There are always producers trying to manipulate people behind the scenes, or inventing rules and tasks that are intended to favour certain competitors or create controversy all in the name of ratings.  But there's a "realness" to the outcomes of these shows that is almost never crossed.  If someone on American idol has a bad week, the producers might schedule him or her to close the show the following week and stick out more strongly in the eyes (and ears) of the voters, rather than getting lost in the shuffle of a 1-2 hour show.  They might even instruct the judges to go a little easy on them, to ensure they won't be in danger of getting voted off the show.  In other words, the voters at home decide what happens, while the judges and producers are complicit in manipulating the voters to give them the outcomes they want.  It's straight up politics -- the methods are sometimes dirty, but the outcome is "fair".

X-Factor Israel right now is a promotional vehicle to push the judges' pet projects.  Its connection to "reality" gets more and more tenuous with each episode.  It's a shame because it has all the elements to be a long term hit show -- compelling storylines, a wide variety of different performers, smart and insightful judges, the most elaborate staging and musical arrangements I've seen on a music reality show, and Bar Rafaeli. 

Based on the voting results thus far (what little we know anyway) and the well established opinions of the judges, there is no conceivable way that Fusion should still be on the show.  Last week, where Moshe Peretz inexplicably declared Avishachar Jackson (who he adored) "ready to perform on stage outside of the show" and chose to save Fusion (who he never liked from the beginning), was a travesty the likes of which I've never seen on so-called "reality" TV.  The conveniently timed commercial break right before his final decision -- to give the producers and judges time to scramble around, put together a solution, and coach the judges on what they should say -- was so transparent in its intent that they should have just hung a billboard over the stage.  After the Karakukli Sisters' unexpected dismissal by the home viewers the previous week, they were not about to allow another group to leave the show and didn't care to what lengths they had to break the rules in order to achieve that result. 

In this week's show, Fusion were handed every possible bell and whistle to get over with the audience -- the opening slot of the show, the most elaborately staged performance of the season with personalized concert videos, professional actresses, specially designed props -- and it still didn't take.   The judges gushed over their performance, doing a complete about face from the harsh criticism of the previous week, and did everything short of rushing the stage to carry them off on their shoulder and yet Fusion STILL had to be rescued from going home thanks to a last minute judges' decision.  Sure, it's technically within the rules of the show and is supposed to be a lifeboat to prevent deserving contestants from going home (like the judges' save on "American Idol", but used every episode).  But the obvious horsetrading that is going on, with judges repeatedly acting out of character whenever there's an important decision to be made, is ruining any sense that we're watching an actual talent competition.  The results of the vote are supposed to decide the plot of the show, but the producers of X-Factor are treating them as a nuisance and hurriedly rescripting their show to deal with the nuisance during the commercial breaks.

That said, Fusion are awesome and for the life of me I can't figure out why they're not connecting with Israeli voters.  They have a unique backstory, they can sing their asses off, their performances are on a different level than the rest when it comes to professionalism, and they absolutely have what it takes to make waves on the international scene.  Instead, we've had to suffer the bland and colourless performances of Eden Ben Zaken and Tamar Friedman (who probably would have lasted at least another episode if the judges hadn't sacrificed her to save Fusion this week), and the Taylor Hicks of the competition, Rose Fostantes, who is a hell of a singer and a great story who makes for great TV but doesn't have a hope in hell of having a successful career (certainly not in Israel) with her poor woman's Shirley Bassey act.  Inbal Bibi has a unique look, at least in the sense that nobody has ripped off Tiffany quite to this extent in a long time, but isn't much of a singer.  Ori Shakiv is incredible and would be a deserving winner.  But still ... LAHAKAT FUSION, PEOPLE!  They're great.  Listen to Ivri Lieder when he speaks to you.