Saturday, September 21, 2013

Electrifying Lady

The album begins with a brief overture, inspired (according to the inscrutable liner notes) "by the idea of Ennio Morricone playing cards with Duke Ellington."  OK, whatever.  A more accurate description would have included John Barry, the great film composer responsible for, among many other accomplishments, the scores for the first couple of decades of James Bond films.  But that matters little because the bottom line is that, on first listen, you couldn't fault someone for thinking, a la Greil Marcus about Dylan in 1970, "what is this sh*t?"

And then, 90 seconds later, comes the sound of one of the nastiest beats and guitar licks you've heard in quite some time, followed by Janelle Monae's strong, confident voice:

I am sharper than a razor
Eyes made of lasers

At that point you stop wondering what it all means; all you know is that you're going to believe anything coming from this young woman's voice.  And after the first chorus, when you think the stakes couldn't possibly be raised any higher, you hear the Purple One himself, contributing both vocal and "background acrobatics" (I think that means guitar solo).  But this isn't the Prince of "Purple Rain," this is a throwback all the way to the Prince of "Dirty Mind," when there was but one thing on that young man's mind, that one thing prompting Robert Christgau to comment, "Mick Jagger might as well fold up his penis and go home."  No doubt about it - you don't need to understand the lyrics to understand that this is a dirty song, both in music and words.  It's called "Givin Em What They Love," and you can almost imagine Monae saying to herself, "Yeah, Robin Thicke, I got your blurred lines right here, buddy."

It's also the best song on the album, and the most exciting, but what makes "The Electric Lady" one of the best albums of the year is that there are quite a few other songs that almost match it in quality and tone.  And if you've seen the clip of Monae performing "Dance Apocalyptic" on Letterman, you know that she's also a performer cut in the James Brown mold, leaving absolutely nothing on the stage.

Throughout the course of the album's 14 songs, Monae manages to evoke memories of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Anita Baker, and of course Prince, all the while sounding as if she made all this stuff up herself.  Not every song matches the quality (or the sheer vibrance) of the best songs (the aforementioned two, plus "Q.U.E.E.N.," the title track, "Can't Live Without Your Love," "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes"), but they are never less than interesting, and the "interludes" (which contain the album's narrative, which frankly makes no sense to me) are entertaining if completely nonsensical.

"The Electric Lady" is not a perfect album, and there are times when it seems as if Monae hasn't yet figured out exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are.  It's probably a little long, which hardly makes it unique in this era of hour-plus records.  But these are all minor quibbles, because this also most definitely sounds like a great artist trying to find herself, not unlike Prince back in the late 70s and early 80s.  And if it all comes together someday and she releases her "Purple Rain," well watch out - because that will be truly scary.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Well, that went fast...

After seven years of writing this blog, you'd think that I would have learned to avoid making any promises associated with things that are "coming soon."  But that would be too easy, right?

This time, it was the end of the legislative session that conspired to prevent me from focusing on extra-curricular (but essential, I would argue) activities such as this.  I'd forgotten exactly how difficult, frustrating and time-consuming the final weeks and days of the session can be, and in that regard 2013 went a solid three-for-three.  Bills rising from the dead, new bills resulting from the infamous practice of "gut-and-amend," and bills generally sucking up a lot more time than any reasonable person might expect.  But hey, it's the job.

So the plan to spend a few days offering tributes to Warren Zevon and Johnny Cash went by the wayside, and given where we find ourselves on the calendar, the 95 More Songs of Summer project seems to have run its course.  Luckily the next couple of months will be a little more manageable (he said confidently), and I'm hoping to throw some things up here that people might find of interest.

For those few who have stuck around and check in, I thank you!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Zevon Tribute #1

We're coming up on the 10th anniversary of the passing of two great American artists, Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon.  So I'm going to do what I can in the next 10 days or so to pay tribute to each of them.  Wish they were both still here.

A few years back, I made a list of my favorite Zevon songs, and I'm pretty sure this ended up as #1.  I love this version, both for the way Warren looks, and the way he just nails it with the acoustic guitar.  This was on the first Zevon album I bought (was a senior in high school), so it also holds some sentimental value.

"Lawyers, Guns and Money," Warren Zevon, originally from the album "Excitable Boy," released in 1978.

To Be There, Or Not To Be There

New York Jets coach Rex Ryan once again finds himself in the headlines, this time over having chose to attend his son's college football game rather than be with the Jets staff on the day when they were making final decisions on who and who wasn't going to make the team this year.  Some have defended Ryan, others have excoriated him.

It's a tough call.  I understand that football is a billion dollar business, but the amount of time and energy that coaches put into the game (and the business) in the modern era is fairly ridiculous.  There's no way to be certain of this, but it feels sometimes as if coaches are working longer hours than the President of the United States.  Something about that equation feels a little off.  And I'm a strong proponent of carving out family time out of the work schedule, even if I haven't always done the best job of that myself. 

In the end, I think I side more with those who are criticizing Ryan - when decisions surrounding one's livelihood are part of your job description, I think you have a responsibility to look those people in the eye and be the one to let them know that, hard as they may have tried, that they're not part of the organization's future.  But having said that, the issue isn't one that will keep me up late at night.  Ryan has a bit (maybe more than a bit) of the buffoon in him, and there will no doubt be other transgressions this season that far exceed this one.

Play on...nothing to see here, folks.

Monday, September 02, 2013

95 More Songs of Summer - Everybody Disco!

As summer wound down in 1976, the disco phenomenon was beginning to pick up steam.  Some of the songs were great, and some were ridiculous.  But on that Labor Day weekend, the genre dominated the top of the charts, as it would for the next few years.

"Shake Shake Shake (Your Booty)," KC and the Sunshine Band

"Play That Funky Music," Wild Cherry

"You Should Be Dancing," Bee Gees

"Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel," Tavares

"Lowdown," Boz Scaggs.  I suppose you could argue that this one wasn't really disco, but it was certainly disco-influenced. Whatever you call it, "Silk Degrees" was a great album.

The Kings of Disco, from the summer of 1976.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Jerry and Sammy

It wouldn't be Labor Day weekend without at least one clip from the Jerry Lewis telethon for muscular dystrophy.

For someone in the neighborhood of my age, the telethon was one of those things that was a part of growing up - something that you thought would never go away.  It signified the end of summer, and reminded you that yes - on Tuesday morning, you were going to have to drag yourself out of bed at an ungodly hour.

In the past I've posted the famous clip of Jerry's reunion with Dean Martin, so this year we'll use one with another Rat Pack legend - Sammy Davis, Jr.