Thursday, September 25, 2008

This Week Joan Jett Turned 50

Joan Jett is the coolest person in the world. I say this having seen two Joan Jett and the Blackhearts shows and from my observations about the lack of coolness left in the world (at least in this country). Anyway, she celebrated her 50th birthday on September 22. Most people know her for the 1980's classic song "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," but she has had many really good records beyond that one hit. Also, I'm pretty much totally in love with her. And lucky for you I want to share my love of Joan Jett with everyone!

But, um, where do I start? Let's go back to when there was still some rock 'n' roll, somewhere, on the radio and in this country. Actually, much of it was not on the radio in the seventies. First, a band called the Runaways, which included Joan Jett and Lita Ford, formed in 1975. Then there was a guy named Kim Fowley (who I've seen at a bar and is, well, certainly a unique looking dude) and he wanted to make a whole bunch of money. He decides a band of teenage girls singing rock 'n' roll songs while dressed in leather and lingerie may be a good idea. So he takes the band of pretty hot teenage girls and markets them well. And lucky for everyone involved, punk rock had made rock 'n' roll popular again. Then, following Fowley being an ass and a weirdo (who couldn't see that coming) as well as other growing band tensions, the Runaways broke up in 1979.

Cherry Bomb by The Runaways

Joan Jett still wanted to make music, but nobody would take her seriously, still believing her to be a novelty act due to her previous involvement with the Runaways. Not to be kept down, she and a friend created Blackheart Records in order to release her first solo record. The creation of the label out of necessity made Jett the first woman to actually start a label. And it turned out pretty well because her record became a hit. Then she started to have a bunch of hits and became a star. When that cooled off she started to produce records for various bands, but finally returned to creating her own and released Sinner in 2006.

I Love Rock 'n' Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

Crimson & Clover by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

Like I said, I've seen Joan Jett and the Blackhearts twice. The first time was while I was in St. Louis for a conference. It was the most energy I've ever felt at a show. For one, the St. Louis Cardinals had won the World Series for the first time in 800 years or something while the show was going on and when the band came out for the encore she announced it to the crowd (the game had been going on while Throwrag, the Eagles of Death Metal and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts played). Plus I had a great view of the stage even though the place was packed.

Cherry Bomb by The Runaways
I Love Playin' with Fire by The Runaways
I Love Rock 'n' Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Bad Reputation by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Crimson and Clover by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Doing All Right with the Boys by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Riddles by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Five by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Track of the Week: Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do) by Wilson Pickett

Another of the great Stax creations, Wilson Pickett had a hit with "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" in 1965. Though it shares a title and at least a bit of a similar idea with a gospel song of the same name (though substituting the love of God with that of a woman), Pickett is listed as the songwriter. There are also two pretty decent covers, one an imitation (but in the good way) and the other makes it psychedelic.

Wildon Pickett
The original jumps out of the speakers with a vengeance. Pickett's vocals slice through the minimal, yet foreboding, instrumental introduction which had set up a great groove that sounds as if it is bubbling out of a swampy graveyard similar to Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You." Otherworldly horns punctuate Pickett's soulful shrieks of want as the song continues. "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" is more than a simple soul song, though the lyrics are simple enough. Instead, it really does sound something mean and almost scary. Well, it would be scary if it was not about love or whatever.

Creedence Clearwater Revival
That mood fit Creedence Clearwater Revival perfectly. Their desire to be a garage band from the south led them to cover plenty of soul songs from the south. On their first record CCR busted out the Wilson Pickett and stayed relatively faithful to the original, but added a few more breaks and some solos (one short drum break and an extended guitar solo) which add up to a full minute extra than Pickett's 2:42 version. John Fogerty's voice fits the style perfectly and the production, again by John, is top notch.

Fever Tree
Fever Tree also did a cover. Who is Fever Tree? They were a psychedelic band and one "hit" wonder from Houston in the sixties. On their first album in 1968 they also covered "Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won't Do)" but in a completely different style. Theirs is very rock oriented and almost fully throws aside any soul elements beside the vocals (to an extent). As opposed to the very tight CCR recording, Fever Tree allows the lead guitar to continuously wail throughout the song. It is a very loose recording and extremely freaky psychedelic.

The Tracks
Wilson Pickett
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Fever Tree

Why Did the Kings of Leon Have to Become Another Boring Indie Band?

Ugh...This is the story of a band that had a fun sound and then sold it all for "critical acclaim" becoming an incredibly boring band in the process. First off, I don't hate them for expanding their sound or going in a different direction or whatever you want to call it. I am, however, disappointed in what I saw as a decent and maybe eventually very good rock 'n' roll band succumb to the contemporary music scene and forget to at least have some fun (or at least interesting) songs. Let us begin with their first album from way, way back in 2003. The world was a different place then, simpler, seemingly without a care in the world. Kings of Leon released "Youth & Young Manhood" in the summer and looked like a new, young band with a lot of promise.

I saw a review of the record in Rolling Stone and decided I would pick it up despite having never heard of them. Boy was I pleasantly surprised! The record benefited from catchy tunes in a garage rock style with some southern flavor thrown in. Most of the songs were high energy rave-ups, like a combination of the (not at all angry) Stooges and (eh) Strokes. I had high hopes for the next record. But when that record came out I was a bit disappointed. There were a few good tracks and even with it's more laid back different feel, I enjoyed it.

Then, in what I will call "The Strokes Syndrome," they decided to leave any bit of coolness behind and focus on trying to be the most indie. However, unlike the Strokes, people actually liked it! Sadly, those people were retarded. The third Kings of Leon record was almost universally indie-d out and boring. Sad indeed.

So here we are. A new Kings of Leon record and the cool kids are eating it up. I saw the band on Saturday Night Live last night and was amazed at what they had transformed into. The songs sounded like U2 and Toto and [insert trendy, possibly decent indie band here] had a horrible, skinny-jeans-wearing baby. The first single, "Sex on Fire," HAS NO SOUL.

And to think, they could have been a good band. Well, some people think they are. And they are the ones who write the magazines and buy the records. Maybe I am not the target market. I just think that if you are going to make a boring, pretentious sounding record (and I do not even know what you do in a studio to make a record sound pretentious) then the lyrics better be damn good. But the lyrics on the new record are not anything special. So, to the Kings of Leon, as a band overall, I give two thumbs down out of five stars (for selling out). Have fun in one of the lower circles of hell, maybe (making bad indie records was in Dante's Inferno, right?).

There is a consolation prize for everyone who read this long: some of the songs from the first Kings of Leon record, "Youth & Young Manhood."

Red Morning Light
Happy Alone
Wasted Time
Joe's Head
Molly's Chambers

Actually, as I was writing this and listening to them, I don't think they were ever that great to begin with. Eh.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Track of the Week: Stand By Me by Ben E. King

Not many times does a legendary song have a cover version best it. That is the case with Ben E. King's 1961 hit "Stand By Me" which, despite being the definition of a "classic" song, was outdone by Spyder Turner only five years later. By no means does that diminish King's version, but Turner was able to not only record an original version, he was also able to add onto it and create a sort of amalgamation of styles other great soul singers would use on the song.

Here is the classic Ben E. King version:

You can trace the evolution in soul music between these two version of the same song. While King's version exemplifies the early 60's style soul with strings and doo-wop backup singers, Turner's marks the beginning of what would become the harder-edged funky, horn-driven soul of the late 60's. Turner also immitates how other singers would sing the song. Here is a list of the people Spyder Turner impersonates during his version: Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Eddie Kendricks, Melvin Franklin, David Ruffin, Billy Stewart, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and Chuck Jackson

Oh, but there is another version worth mentioning! John Lennon recorded his own cover for his 1975 Rock 'n' Roll album. His recording is, expectedly, more rock 'n' roll and one of the finer cuts off that album. The version in this video is a little rougher than the one that I put up as a sample at the bottom of the page.

The Tracks
Stand by Me by Ben E. King
Stand by Me by Spyder Turner
Stand by Me by John Lennon

Coming in the next few weeks: Summertime, Evil Hearted You and the Dum Dum Ditty.

Review: Ice Cube "Amerikkka's Most Wanted" [1990]

I promised my friend this record, but I have yet to get it to him, so everyone benefits! Back in the day I listened to hip-hop and when I want to relive those days this is one of my favorite records to put on.

Basically, Ice Cube made a record which merged gritty East Coast beats with hardcore West Coast gangsta rap. Many times the explicit glorification of violence, drugs and misogyny in hip-hop is defended as a window into the ghetto the practitioners of hip-hop come from because mainstream media does not cover it. I see it, especially this record, as a historical documentation of a period in time, much the same way early Bob Dylan records are seen as "protest songs" but are actually more like documents of the time. Not that the records are not respectively part windows or protests, but remain less effective as such.

Nevertheless, "Amerikkka's Most Wanted" plays like a good gangsta movie, say...Boyz in the Hood. Both have violence and can be appreciated by people who only want to see that. However, each has a message, "Boyz n the Hood" more blatantly than Amerikkka's Most Wanted, and that message is, "The way we live is not the way it should be."

Over the course of the record Ice Cube goes after the media, sell-outs (including Soul Train and Arsenio Hall) and the status quo. What sets this record apart from other gangsta rap records is the incredibly crafted songs. It feels this is not necessarily Ice Cube trying to create a gangsta personality the same way it feels like other rappers are trying. Instead it sound like he is telling stories which happen to take place in the ghetto surrounded by gangsta points of view. The best example of this is probably "Once Upon a Time in the Projects."

Of course, Ice Cube did not always take the high road with veiled, higher messages. Sometimes he just got down and dirty and attacked what he did not like. For instance, "The Nigga You Love to Hate" does not play around and gets right to the point without mincing any words.

And many of the songs do dwell in misogyny, but on "It's a Man's World" Ice Cube goes toe-to-toe with a woman, Yo-Yo. The song is very similar to Otis Redding and Carla Thomas' "Tramp" with WAY less polite language. And much like that song, the woman seems to get the upper hand over the man in Ice Cube's song too.

The record I have for preview here also contains the EP "Kill at Will" with the amazing song "Dead Homiez."

Over the course of the record Ice Cube makes the case as the best MC in the game. It is hard to argue listening to his rhyme schemes and the strength of his songs on "Amerikkka's Most Wanted." And the samples, both from songs and news reports, makes the record feel like the situation Cube rhymes about is dire.