By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Lady Gaga isn't known for subtlety or subdued performances, and when she headlines the first night of Lollapalooza 2010 next weekend, she'll no doubt deliver an earful and an eyeful.
Lollapalooza founder Perry Farrell already has admitted to spending up to $150,000 for the production of this single, two-hour performance. Lady Gaga's current Monster Ball tour features 15 over-the-top costume changes, plus a giant gyrosphere, a flaming piano, a neon car, a series of skits and an enormous squid attacking her onstage.
It's a long way from a clunky synthesizer and a disco-ball bra.
Lady Gaga performed three years ago on a side stage at Lollapalooza, long before she conquered the pop-culture world. She wasn't even blond yet.
It was Aug. 4, 2007, day two of the festival in Chicago's Grant Park. A small crowd of about 500 gathered to watch a brunette Lady Gaga, then 20, take the BMI Stage with her partner, DJ Lady Starlight, in the middle of the afternoon. During a 45-minute set, the Ladies played synth-driven dance-pop, including the songs "Boys Boys Boys," "Dirty Ice Cream" and "Disco Heaven."
Lady Gaga strutted across the small stage, singing, dancing, occasionally jabbing at a synthesizer, which she had set up just low enough so she'd have to lean over — flashing her cleavage — to operate it. She wore a black bikini, the top of which was adorned with chains (which she made herself), with high black stockings and heels. Her one costume change consisted of swapping the black bikini top for a mirrored one that turned her breasts into disco balls.
"I wouldn't say she was terrible," says Jake Malooley, now an editor at Time Out Chicago, who wrote a short review of Lady Gaga's appearance for the magazine's blog. (Critics from the Sun-Times and other local papers did not mention the performance.) "It just didn't seem like a Lollapalooza-worthy performance. She was doing this dance-pop sort of thing where she had a DJ, and she would poke a keyboard every now and then. ... It didn't seem very well put together, more about the spectacle than the music itself — dancing and being silly. She didn't seem to know how to play her synthesizer. She had to stop a song and get the engineer to show her how to program a certain sound."
His review that weekend concluded: "But no one's going to accuse Gaga of being a musician, and I think she's aware of that. 'In my day job, I'm a go-go dancer,' she said jokingly. Well, at least I thought it was a joke until midway through the next song she shimmied over to stage left, wrapped her legs around the scaffolding and began twirling while giving the metal pole a few aggressive pelvic thrusts. Very ladylike, indeed."
The revealing clothes even earned Lady Gaga some hassle by The Man. While later strolling the park offstage, wearing very short shorts, Lady Gaga was cited by a Chicago police officer for indecent exposure.
"I was wearing very short hot pants and a police officer told me to put my ass up against the fence because I was not appropriately attired to be seen by children," she told the New York Post last year. "I told him I was an artist, but he didn't care. Where I come from, they were just normal hot pants, but in Chicago they were indecent."
The outfit got Farrell's attention, though.
"I remember ... she's got dark-brown hair, she's in a bikini and she's wearing thigh-highs, and she's sweating because she was on at around 3 o'clock," he told MTV in June. "Her music was cool, her show was kind of cool."
The Lady in waiting
From that Lollapalooza to this one — from a few hundred bucks for a stage show to $150,000 — Lady Gaga's career trajectory has defined "meteoric rise."
Before she began turning heads in 2007, she was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, daughter of two technology executives and a student at an Upper West Side private Catholic school, with classmates Paris and Nicky Hilton. (In classic, Bowie-esque coyness, she now refuses to acknowledge her real name. "She's not here anymore," she said of her birth name in an interview a week after Lollapalooza 2007. "She's covered in sequins.") Her stage name was derived, she claims, from the Queen hit in 1984, years before she was born.
She grew up playing piano and began writing songs as a teenager, even sneaking out at night to perform at coffeehouses — more Fiona Apple or Tori Amos than the flashy vixen she is now — but 2007 was the year folks began to take notice.
Performing as Lady Gaga and the Starlight Revue, with DJ Lady Starlight (aka Gaga pal and makeup artist Colleen Martin), the duo attracted the attention of producer Rob Fusari, a music-biz svengali who has worked with Destiny's Child and Whitney Houston. He had some advice. "I had read an article about women in rock," Fusari told the New York Post in January, "and how it was getting very difficult for women to break through in the rock genre, how Nelly Furtado had moved into more of a dance thing." The Starlight Revue, he said, wasn't "going in the right direction. It wasn't something kids could relate to." (Earlier this year, Fusari filed a $30.5 million lawsuit against Lady Gaga, claiming she shut him out of proper compensation for crafting her persona and music.)
So Lady Gaga and Lady Starlight began weaving dance beats and Europop into their songs. The gambit worked, sort of. Lady Gaga landed a recording contract with hip-hop label Def Jam. But nothing happened. A debut album was scheduled for May 2007, but the label dropped her after three months.
Enter up-and-coming R&B darling Akon, who took Lady Gaga under his wing and signed her to his own Kon Live imprint at Interscope Records. "I was like, 'Yo, I want to sign that right there. She needs to be under my umbrella,'" Akon told the Huffington Post earlier this year. "She just blossomed into a super megastar, man." And made Akon very rich, he admits. "She's pretty much retired me."
Initially, Lady Gaga worked for Interscope as an in-house songwriter. She crafted songs for the Pussycat Dolls and New Kids on the Block (with whom she toured). Two months ago, a recording made the gossip rounds on the Internet — allegedly of Britney Spears' singing a demo of Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which Spears declined to record for her "Circus" album. Lady Gaga recorded it herself, teamed with Beyonce, and made it a No. 1 hit this spring.
Fame comes quickly
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga was creating her own music and trying it out on any audience she could find. Her first major single, "Just Dance," was released in April 2008. By June, she returned to Chicago, not yet at the arena level; she performed at the finals of the Windy City Gay Idol talent contest at Circuit on North Halsted.
This was also the time when she began experimenting with outlandish stage antics to get a wavering audience's attention. "I remember one show I played where nobody was paying attention to me," she told the New York Post in April 2009. "It was really late, so I took my clothes off. I started playing in my underwear at the piano and I remember everyone was all of a sudden like 'Whoa!' And I said, 'Yeah, you're looking at me now, huh?'"
The natural brunette also bleached her hair blond, allegedly because she was weary of being mistaken for Amy Winehouse.
One of her best friends wrote a piece about Lady Gaga for the May 2010 edition of Esquire. He recalled: "Back in the summer of 2007, there was a night when she popped out of a cake and sang 'Happy Birthday, Mr. President' for my then boss, the owner of Beauty Bar in Manhattan. It was fitting, somehow — the Marilyn reference. I'll quote something she said to me one day around that time as directly as I can: 'No one in the world knows who I am, but they are going to want to know who I am. My first time ever on TV I want to be on a huge show where I play one song. I'm going to come out onstage in my underwear and show the world that here I am and I don't give a f--- what anyone thinks of me."
That same month, Time magazine listed Lady Gaga in its annual run-down of the world's 100 most influential people.
"The Fame," her debut album, finally appeared in the fall of 2008. Over the course of the next year and a half, Lady Gaga would score six consecutive No. 1 singles and sell 8 million records — 35 million singles worldwide.
"Just Dance" was a big hit in the clubs, and it reached No. 1 in January 2009. The next single, "Poker Face," was even bigger, topping charts around the world. "The Fame" earned six Grammy nominations, and won for best electronic/dance album and best dance recording. A pattern was set. The follow-up album wasn't even supposed to be an album. "The Fame Monster" was supposed to be a bonus disc for the debut, but a few extra tracks made it a full-fledged new album last November, just to feed the hungry masses.
The center of attention
Lady Gaga is such a spectacle now, not only is she one of two headliners this Friday (the Strokes are scheduled on the opposite stage at 8:30 p.m.), Farrell says she's the evening's "centerpiece." He just hopes the elaborate theatrics don't overshadow her songs.
"Her presentation is so overwhelming that some may overlook the music," Farrell told MTV Radio two weeks ago. "But the truth is, her music to me is right where music should be. It's on the cutting edge, but it's [also] in the crosshairs of where every musician is aiming these days. She's this hybrid of Yoko Ono, sort of the Plastic Ono Band meets Madonna meets Elton John. She's this beautiful crossing of those things every musician is looking to find. Everyone's looking for that sound, and I think she really hits it.
"The production of her music, the people she's surrounded herself with, the development of her stage show — it's something that, when I think about Lollapalooza, in that gorgeous setting of Grant Park, with the amazing buildings all around us, lit up, I see her and her show as being a centerpiece to the evening."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Which band in this year’s Lollapalooza lineup has accomplished all of the following?
— Sold out a 55,000-seat arena — 18 times.
— Created and popularized its own form of glam.
— Sold 30 million albums.
— Recorded a classical album with Beatles producer George Martin.
It ain’t Lady Gaga.
The band is X Japan, the biggest rock band in Japanese history. The quintet came together in 1982 (originally called just X, but John Doe had something to say about it), disbanded in 1997 and re-formed in 2007. They started as a speed metal band with delusions of grandeur and evolved into a power-ballad powerhouse. Their shows are equal parts Anthrax and Celine Dion.
In their homeland, their presence still creates Beatlesque hysteria, with screaming fans and impenetrable throngs. When the founding guitarist, Hideto “Hide” Matsumoto, died in 1998, nearly 50,000 weeping mourners crowded the funeral; last May almost twice that number mobbed a memorial service marking the 12th anniversary of his death.
But thus far, only Asian fans have had these opportunities to go wild for X Japan — because the 4 p.m. Aug. 8 performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park will be X Japan’s U.S. debut.
“Yes, we’re a huge band in Japan, but that doesn’t mean anything here,” says Yoshiki Hayashi, usually known only by his first name. Yoshiki is the band’s drummer, songwriter and core idea man. He’s also a classically trained pianist. “We feel like a new band again, trying to make it. It’s a very pure feeling. It feels like it did when we started, which is good.”
Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but America has given plenty of second chances to foreign acts. Yoshiki — who now lives in Los Angeles, where he’s wrapping up X Japan’s first new studio album in 14 years, due this fall — hopes X Japan will live and thrive again on these shores. When he speaks, he struggles with his English, but his ambition is clear.
So is his realism. After Lollapalooza, X Japan will launch its first U.S. tour, hitting 10-15 cities. They won’t be selling out or even playing arenas like they do at home.
And that’s OK with Yoshiki.
“We’d like to play clubs or small venues. We cannot do that in Japan anymore,” he says, noticeably excited by the prospect, and maybe a little relieved. He misses the old days, pre-mobs, pre-stadiums. “When we were an indie band, right after we graduated high school, we were performing for 50 people, maybe 200. That was a great moment. By the time we were signed to Sony [in 1988], we were already performing for 10,000 people or bigger. … We weren’t supposed to make it big, you know? We were — how do I say? — the black sheep of the family. The Japanese scene was very poppy. We were playing speed metal. Nobody thought we could be mainstream. Then it got very, very big.”
Back to basics
The American shows will be stripped down. X Japan fills arenas like the Tokyo Dome with massive productions — lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, enormous stages with catwalks, lots of running around and dramatic performance. Yoshiki has played several times on a drum riser that not only rises above the stage, it takes off and flies around the arena, trailing smoke and neon lights.
And, oh, the costumes. X Japan pioneered a style of presentation now known as “visual kei,” meaning flamboyant outfits and hairstyles, many of which resembled Kool-Aid fountains. In other words: glam rock, hair metal.
For the U.S. jaunt, Yoshiki says X Japan will be “back to basics.”
“The bigger we got, the bigger our personalities,” he says. “We just want to go back and focus on the rock. Either way, you know, you don’t see good rock shows anymore. Rock doesn’t sound mainstream these days. We’d like to contribute something to help bring rock back. Rock doesn’t have enough drama now. Rap, R&B, dance music has taken that. Our band wants to be a part of bringing that back to rock.” He laughs. “But our band has enough drama.”
Yoshiki and X Japan’s singer, Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama, have known each other since kindergarten. When Toshi left the band in 1997, it wasn’t amicably. Yoshiki says the two didn’t speak for up to eight years. When Hide committed suicide, Yoshiki thought X Japan was dead, too.
But in that time, the Internet flourished. X Japan’s music — and especially its videos — went viral. The band that’s still only performed two concerts outside of Japan (last year in Hong Kong and Taipei) now has fans from China to France.
Meanwhile, Yoshiki pursued solo interests. He recorded a best-selling classical album in Japan, the double-CD “Eternal Melody” in 1993, co-produced and arranged by George Martin. The next year, he contributed a symphonic version of “Black Diamond” to a classical Kiss tribute record. He composed and performed a piano concerto for Japan’s emperor. And he cashed in. There’s a Yoshiki line of jewelry, a Yoshiki wine, a Yoshiki racing team, even a Yoshikitty — the only time Hello Kitty has combined another name with its famous toy brand.
Still, he missed his childhood friend.
“It’s weird, when you have that vocalist next to you all the time for many years, you take for granted how great he was,” Yoshiki says of Toshi, who spent the intervening years performing spiritually minded acoustic concerts of what he called “eco rock.” “When we started talking again, he said the same thing about me. We discovered these fans around the world, and they were demanding a return from us. It made me — I still feel like I’m dreaming. I never thought we would reunite this band. And we can’t completely.”
Coming to America
At the first X Japan reunion shows in 2008, the band performed its 29-minute opus “Art of Life” — during which Yoshiki collapsed from the exertion — and featured a floating hologram of the late Hide playing his guitar parts. (There you go, William Gibson fans: Rei Toei lives!)
“That was too much for me,” Yoshiki says, assuring the band will not continue the stunt. “That was so real. It brought me to tears.”
But are there fans in the United States? Lollapalooza may be the band’s first ticketed performance, but on Jan. 9 X Japan filmed four new videos on the roof of Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre. Thousands crammed the streets to get a glimpse, fans who’d driven from Texas and Chicago for the occasion.
“Their music is a cross link of my generation,” says Chicago photographer and fan Nobuyoshi Fuzikawa, 38. “That’s why I’m so excited they’re still playing for a major audience after all these years. It’s inspiring, and makes me want to try new challenges. … Lollapalooza is [a] well-known concert around the world, so I will be happy to see a Japanese performer have a presence there.”
Takeshi Tsukawaki, 24, will be driving to Chicago from New York just for the Lollapalooza show. He’s a younger fan who discovered the band during its hiatus.
“I have two older brothers. They were always listening to X Japan,” he said. “I didn’t know they were such a big band in Asia. I just listen to them again and again. … I have no idea what a show will be like. Maybe they can’t play very well like before, or maybe they’re better and more powerful. I never expected to be able to see them, so I’m coming. There are lots of people coming.”
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
"Shout It Out"
OK, Hanson wins. They beat all the people (myself included) who ever knocked their sweet hooks, ruddy faces and boy-band hype. The latest from Oklahoma's undaunted trio is a joyous, jubilant cache of near-perfect pop singles. The whole set is one big 1970s AM-radio anachronism, really. Effervescent and ebullient. Download: "Thinkin' 'Bout Somethin'" would make Ray Charles smile wide, and not just because they copied his "Blues Brothers" scene for the video.
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
Pitchfork Music Festival opens ... sounding pretty folkie
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 4:40 PM
Bright sun, water bottles, brooding singer-songwriters — this must be the sixth Pitchfork Music Festival. The annual hootenanny is now under way in Chicago's Union Park ... and it sounds like a hootenanny. The fest opened Friday afternoon with two fine strummers that made the venue sound more like a folk festival than the go-to shopping mall of indie rock.
Sharon Van Etten had the daunting job of not just kicking off the afternoon's music but doing so by squinting and singing directly into the July sun. Van Etten warbled her shy solo tunes. The crowd gathered. A warm-up indeed.
But it was the Tallest Man on Earth, aka Kristian Matsson, who brought the first real musical heat. Skinny, scruffy, charging boldly around the stage with his small-body acoustic guitar, Matsson played some fine folk songs. Opening with the title track to his new CD "The Wild Hunt" and strumming hard through to "King of Spain," Matsson growled and howled through a set of easy chords and pastoral lyrics in the tradition of America's best traditional music. Which is all the more impressive since he's here from Sweden. Small wonder he was so enthusiastically received at the Sasquatch Music Festival earlier.
This weekend each year I'm often instead at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. Both Van Etten and Matsson could swing hard on the folk fest circuit. The fact that they are welcomed so warmly in the heart of indie rock — Matsson numerous times thanked the crowd "for being so lovely" — hopefully is a pleasing portent for the "genre."
Pitchfork Music Festival: Believing in the Liars
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 6:06 PM
Ain't no folkie fest no more.
Angus Andrews, singer for the Liars, is prowling the Pitchfork main stage, shrieking over the band's fractured, stop-start rhythms. The cacophony he's raising is terrible and terrifying. His vocals — a series of owl cries and electronically distorted yowls — rise and fall over guitar lines played carefully just a half tone off where they should be, and the bass lurks and dodges in the lengthening shadows. This doesn't sound like a 10-year-old band. The Liars are still throwing in everything and the kitchen sink, like an underpracticed, angry Supergrass, though they've definitely ramped up the intensity of their caterwaul since the release of this year's "Sisterworld." "The devil's in Chicago at motherf—-in' Pitchfork!" Andrews shouts. Then, in his lovely British accent, he politely and demurely says, "Thanks so much for having us" and preaches for a second about not throwing water bottles. I knew it was all an act.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Stay cool with cheaper water
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 9:28 PM
Friday's late-afternoon start to the Pitchfork Music Festival was certainly hot in Chicago's Union Park. But it's been hotter, and staff reported no unusual increase in heat-related medical care. Just to be on the safe side, however, the festival decided Friday to cut the cost of water in half. Bottled water is now available for $1, and will remain so throughout the weekend.
"Out of concern for the heat, we're trying to be proactive," said Pitchfork staffer Anders Smith Lindall. This came shortly after an announcement from the main stage that water would be handed to concertgoers pressed against the front barricades, where some fans had already been pulled and treated for heat exhaustion.
Music starts earlier in the day Saturday and Sunday, meaning more time for fans to be under the sun. A high of 90 is forecast each day.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Rockin' Robyn!
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 10:46 PM
Who knew the best performer of the day would be a blonde bombshell spinning Euro-disco? Robyn — another Swede on Friday's bill and a former child star who's fought hard to regain her own artistic control — came out fighting, throwing punches in the air when she wasn't doing that elbows-high, shoulder-leaning dance all '80s female singers used to do.
Feisty, sexy, spunky Robyn opened with the virtues of being a "Fembot," assured us that love hurts "With Every Heartbeat" and sang flawlessly through new single "Dancing on My Own" in front of a band dressed in all white, twiddling knobs and pounding synth-pad drums. The latter really exploded at the end of "Cobrastyle," with Robyn showing some kick-box dancing. Her Pink-ish feistiness reached its zenith in "Don't F—-ing Tell Me What to Do," during which she led some kind of aerobics class (sporting a totally Pat Benatar green beret, too).
And she was the crowd favorite.
Go figure. I had grown to assume this was a fairly rockist crowd, and I was originally surprised by the booking of this talented but very dance-pop artist on the venerable Pitchfork bill. But she embodies the spirit of whatever "indie" started out to mean. She debuted at 16 as an R&B starlet, and she's faced consistent and constant stumbling blocks in her business dealings which have kept her from the States. Even back in 2003, she was collaborating with experimental synth-pop outfit the Knife while her label was releasing a sugary best-of over here. She bought herself out of her record contract and started making the kind of music she wanted, and suddenly she won Grammys (in Sweden). Now she's doing her thing, releasing three "Body Talk" EPs — the second one's due Sept. 7 and might include a collaboration with Snoop Dogg! — and finally making an impact in the United States. Just last night she was singing at the Arvika Festival in Sweden, and after Pitchfork comes a North American tour, co-headlining with Kelis.
Judging by the diversity of the people dancing determinedly to her songs tonight, it should be a great tour.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Broken Social Scene, Modest Mouse
By Thomas Conner on July 16, 2010 11:18 PM
Sundown slowed down with Broken Social Scene, a sprawling Toronto collective with a few Chicago roots. This band makes a lovely sound, even if the songs don't always gel behind the chiming guitars and palpitating drums.
Thirty-one musicians appear on the band's latest CD, "Forgiveness Rock Record," recorded in Chicago under the guidance of John McEntire from Tortoise and the Sea & Cake. McEntire himself played a second drum set on stage Friday night, adding needed extra heft to gauzy arrangements that tend to sag if not tended carefully.
This loosey-goosey ensemble, which tends to trade instruments among each other, was most engaging when they got the pulse going, rollicking through "Texico Bitches" and the rumbling furnace of "Cause = Time," which featured five guitars. The set ended in a see-sawing riff with strings that evoked the most intense Poi Dog Pondering drones.
Alas, the evening wrapped with Modest Mouse, a rodent of a band whose major-label indie rock (work that phrase out for a while) deserves the restraint implied by its name.
Now that the trinket of ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is being worn by another indie-rock sweetheart (the Cribs) — though new guitarist Jim Fairchild did a helluva job filling those shoes, particularly during "Satellite Skin" — Modest Mouse is just a tuneless junkyard of discarded song parts. Frontman and the band's sole constant Isaac Brock is one of the most difficult singers to enjoy in rock and roll, and when he picks up that banjo for "The Devil's Workday" and sings about hanging himself for treason, well, hey, we got some rope. The God-awful funk beats of "Education," the stand-up bass — they're just a dissonant Dave Matthews Band, and the neo-hippies in the crowd were twirling in their calico prints to prove it.
Pitchfork Music Festival: In a Delorean, plus Dam-Funk
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:40 PM
Delorean in the summer heat is a weird and wonderful experience. Hitting the stage switched on, they build layer upon layer, loop upon loop — dreamy synth sounds that build and build and then ease off, one tune blending into another. That has the effect of inducing a dreamy state, which coupled with the blaring sun on your neck could induce a crazy euphoria. Or, like the guy behind me, you could just complain, "They've been playing this same song for half an hour." But listen closely, behind bassist Ekhi Lopetegi's thin vocals, and there are intricate patterns in the sampled piano and the vox humana. Despite the scraggly page-boys and beards, this band is not grounded in rock but draws more from the Balearic house music of their native Barcelona, Spain. Lopetegi's bass, though, and Guillermo Astrain's guitar bring enough vibration to a rock crowd to keep it on its feet. Primal Scream, we hardly knew ye.
California's Dâm-Funk (DJ Damon Riddick) got a late start on the shady balance stage, but in no time he laid down some fat beats and was advising us, "You gotta keep your hood pass intact, y'all." Dâm-Funk (it's pronounced "dame") mostly just turned on sounds and rhythms, then stalked the stage singing like a lost DeBarge. Then he pulled out the keytar and started into his trademark, slow, mostly instrumental jams. Joined by a live drummer and an extra synth player, Dâm-Funk updated '70s and '80s urban soul, and he stayed classy even when the shouts from Wu-Tang's Raekwon intruded from across the park. Since he was late starting, he even cut his set short. "We gotta respect the other bands, y'all," he said, removing the keytar. "We got four more songs, but f—- it. Peace!" Such consideration! Only at Pitchfork.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Titus Andronicus is no tragedy
By Thomas Conner on July 17, 2010 6:47 PM
Best band of Saturday afternoon: Titus Andronicus, a blazing band from Glen Rock, N.J., a location that has allowed them to absorb the best of bombast from Springsteen, the fire of post-punk from New York and possibly even a little Philly soul. "I'm sweating like a pregnant nun talking to the pope," said frontman Patrick Stickles after lurching out of another of the band's nihilistic songs, "No Future, Part 3." But their outlook isn't completely bleak. The song hammers a refrain, "You'll always be a loser!" over and over before concluding: "But that's OK." The quintet was augmented by a few support players, piano and strings and horns; the extra players weren't necessary, but Titus Andronicus songs are multi-level, architectural creations with a capacity for a lot of extra decor. This is band that can write as well as it rocks, and God does it rock. At one moment Stickles is picking a spidery melody on his guitar, next the kinetic Amy Klein is crunching into the tune, and — as in the sprawling "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ" — it all builds to a triumphant bashing. Near the end the guitars screeched in harmony and hit a northern highlands rhythm like they were Big Country. Then they turn around with the panache and the chops to introduce the band via a jump-bluesy tune, "And Ever." Brutal and friendly, vicious and tender, Titus Andronicus has it all.
Pitchfork Music Festival: The rain doesn't really help
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 2:00 PM
Day 3 of the sixth annual Pitchfork Music Festival, which began in 2005 as Intonation, is under way in the sultry summer heat. A noontime thunder shower moved through quickly, cooling things off for a matter of moments before the sun returned and added the evaporated rain to the day's humidity totals.
Water remains at half price, a dollar a bottle. Still, the line for the free water is longer than that for the bottled variety. Pitchfork staffer (and occasional Sun-Times contributor) Anders Smith Lindall says festival workers are handing out water bottles to distressed concertgoers when the line gets excruciatingly long.
Those who don't mind earning their reward — and helping to keep the park clear of debris — can earn one beverage ticket (worth a buck, for one bottle of water) for every 10 discarded plastic cups collected and returned to the recycling booth.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Best Coast is the best
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 3:30 PM
Sunday's music at the Pitchfork Music Festival began with dessert. Between the dull, thudding chords of Cass McCombs and the first laconic and then tortured feedback of the Girls, a fresh, sunny new pop band called Best Coast held down the Balance stage — the "small" stage, under the trees — with a workmanlike attitude and a handful of cheery love ditties. Ultimately unpretentious, Best Coast (Bethany Cosentino and two pals) ran through songs from the debut "Crazy for You" CD, filled with bright major chords and lyrics like "I'll try to make you mine" and "that's just not your deal." The crowd got a big chuckle when she sang, "I lost my job / I miss my mom / I wish my cat could talk." She closed with the trendy single "When I'm With You," the repeated refrain of which is, "When I'm with you, I have fun." So true.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Local Natives are fleet and foxy
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 5:19 PM
Seattle's Fleet Foxes brought beautiful harmonies back to modern music, rescuing three-part tenor singing from the vaults of Crosby, Stills & Nash. But as beautiful as "White Winter Hymnal" can be, the band hasn't yet jumped up and shown any oomph.
Orange County's Local Natives have seized that opportunity, and Sunday afternoon at the Pitchfork Music Festival they delivered a set of exciting, rhythmic music laced with the energy of post-punk as well as those sweet, core harmonies. Much of their music is built around what their voices can achieve, and the fact that they achieved it the brutal July Chicago heat is impressive. But these harmonies have teeth. Kelcey Ayer took charge of most of the proceedings, hitting beautiful high notes while bashing the bejesus out of his small stand-up drum kit. The beats he added to the regular drummer's rhythm — sometimes Ayer would play keyboard with his left hand and drum with his right — made songs like "Airplanes" blast like a jet engine. "Camera Talk," the evolving "Shape Shifter," the cover of the Talking Heads' "Warning Signs" — it was all fleet and (dig guitarist-singer Taylor Rice's stache!) very foxy.
Earlier, clouds provided sweet relief from the heat just as Beach House began its Sunday afternoon set. Mother Nature knows how to set the mood. Despite the summery name, Beach House makes cool — no, chill — music. With piercing vocals and a hushed, daydreamy tone to the hypnotic sounds, Beach House is made for a little less light.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Major Lazer, Big Boi
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 10:41 PM
Saturday evening began with the digital dub attack of Major Lazer, a computerized dancehall project of Diplo — marking a return to Pitchfork — and Switch. For an hour they assaulted the adoring crowd with very little music, mostly just bleats and blasts that sound like various industrial park alarms. The noises dodged and moved — a frenetic mess for the ADHD set — and Diplo spent most of his stage time shouting the name Major Lazer (at least four dozen times) and begging the crowd for hands in the air.
Big Boi doesn't have to beg.
Strutting on stage with one of his Atlanta MCs, the other half of hip-hop's acclaimed Outkast starting flinging syllables, eventually firing fastfastfast through "Ghetto Musick" over a machine-gun beat. A relentless hourlong set featured several Outkast hits (a snappy run through "Ms. Jackson") and a few guests, ranging from guest singer Neil Garrard for the tuneful "Follow Us" to a trash-talking youngster. The set dragged on and the beats became monotonous, but when he launched into "ATLiens" and hollered, "Put your hands in the air!" it was superfluous. They'd been up for a while.
Pitchfork Music Festival: Pavement resurfaces
By Thomas Conner on July 18, 2010 11:45 PM
Pavement has worn all three tags hung on this music. Here's a band that was serviced to college radio, came to define a certain smoky corner of alt-rock and now is lionized as indie heroes with a worldwide reunion tour and headlining slot at the Pitchfork fest. The band's much-anticipated set couldn't have begun more appropriately — first with a long, meandering introductory rant by Drag City's Ryan Murphy about the contrasts between this festival and Lollapalooza, among other topics, and then a false start to the opener, "Cut Your Hair." The band that worked hard but looked like slackers is still in perfect non-form.
Band leader Stephen Malkmus played facing stage left, and other band members frequently played with their backs to the crowd. Malkmus kept throwing sidelong glances at his old mates as if he wasn't sure what came next. As he maintained a carefree composure — all casual smirks, air drumming and lazy twirls — multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich jumped around most of the time like a devilish imp, hollering through "Debris Slide" and rapping, if you call it that, through "Unfair," which built to such caterwauling mayhem that guitarist Scott Kannberg even tried a scissor kick.
One minute it was amazing the whole thing was still on the rails, like they should be following the Smith Westerns on the B stage, the next — such synchronized beauty and cacophony. The end result being, hey, Pavement has a serious legacy, after all. The echoes we've been hearing at this festival, this weekend and years past, they all came together in one joyfully sloppy master class of indie rock.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The members of Hanson are good Christian lads, but this week they officially began a mission from God.
On Thursday, the fraternal trio debuted a video for its new single, "Thinking 'Bout Somethin'," that pays loving tribute to the Ray Charles scene in one of Chicago's landmark movies, "The Blues Brothers."
The video — which re-creates the interior of Ray's Music Exchange and features more than 300 people dancing in the street — was shot not on location in Chicago but in Hanson's hometown of Tulsa, Okla.
And, eldest brother Isaac Hanson is eager to impart, this is not tongue-in-cheek.
"We want people to know that we're not making fun of this movie," he said. "This is not a parody. This is not us using some iconic film as a way to make us look hip. You've gotta understand, we love this movie. This comes from the fact that this movie made us want to dance."
The idea for the video came almost on a whim early this year as guitarist Isaac, singer-pianist Taylor and drummer Zac tried to wrap production on its new album, "Shout It Out," due for release on June 8.
"Taylor came in and dialed up the 'Blues Brothers' scene on YouTube," Isaac said. In the film, Charles performs the jumpy tune "Shake Your Tail Feather" while Jake and Elwood (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) dance. "He presses play on our song, then plays the video clip on mute. Everyone's jaws dropped. It synced up almost perfectly. It totally worked. We looked at each other and said, 'We have to do this.' "
Kelly Kerr, the director of photography for the video, was one of those left with his jaw hanging. "The beats-per-minute were almost identical. And I thought, 'We're gonna replicate this.' ... We got real close to the movie but also took some liberties with it, as well."
The crew called in set designers to re-create the interior of Ray's Music Exchange inside the Hanson rehearsal space in Tulsa. Then they determined that Tulsa's Greenwood Avenue looked roughly like the similarly historic Chicago streets used in the film. They choreographed and filmed a dance sequence there on March 6.
The video for "Thinking 'Bout Somethin' " is now making the rounds online. The single itself becomes available April 27 via iTunes.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's the one good thing that I've got.
— George Michael, "Freedom 90"
I don't know about the whole show, ABC's new "Eli Stone" — it looked a wee bit hokey, like "Touched by an Angel" for couples who conceived their kids after episodes of "Ally McBeal" — but the George Michael clips give great YouTube.
Check out his debut in the series premiere. Eli's having sex and becomes ... distracted by ... music. He stops, investigates — and finds George Michael in his living room singing "Faith." George Michael interrupting someone's sex life for a moment of religious clarity! And still they claim that irony is dead.
Throughout this first season of the show, there was George Michael continuing to repurpose his songs as a guardian angel in Eli's dream sequences. The stuffy law firm winds up singing and dancing to "Freedom 90." The firm defends a teenage girl for playing "I Want Your Sex" over the PA during an abstinence-education rally. In the season finale, George Michael brings Eli out of a coma by singing of "a new dawn, a new day" in the standard "Feeling Good." But first Eli asks him, "Are you God?" George Michael smirks and replies, "Well, some men have said so ..."
It's wholesome! It's lurid! It's both!
George Michael — and for the purposes of this article he shall be referred to by his full name, a la his namesake on another of the pop star's rather inadvertent TV touchstones, "Arrested Development" — isn't God. He ain't even saintly, God knows. But as he comes ashore this summer for his first American tour in 15 years (with a stop Wednesday at Chicago's United Center) thank heavens we can finally re-examine the man for what brings him here — and what really matters in our lives as pop music fans.
Because when we're done chuckling about his latest arrest for public sex (Larry Craig was such a copycat) or drugs (as he lit a joint during an interview on Britain's "South Bank Show" in 2006, he explained, "This stuff keeps me sane and happy") or drug-related traffic stops (green means go, red apparently means nap) — entertaining as those are in pop culture's hippodrome of hypocrisy — the scandals have nothing to do with why we still listen to the music.
And we do still listen to the music. Turn on a radio, real or online. He's still in the playlists. He's a favorite quick, universal pop cultural reference in movies as well as TV. ("The Rules of Attraction," for instance — dreadful little adaptation, but the hotel-bed dance scene scored by "Faith" redeemed every penny of admission.)
Perhaps this is a good reminder as we recover from the R. Kelly child pornography trial — look at all those fans still eating up his output (OK, bad choice of words) — and as we brace for another comeback by the self-proclaimed and similarly acquitted King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Wacko Jacko, certainly, deserves the nickname, but who out there is so self-righteous that they could suddenly deny the basic bliss of "Off the Wall" just because its creator wound up in court? Likely the same gnarled gnomes who pick apart a politican's every gaffe in a frustrated attempt to canonize a saint instead of hire a public servant.
Some young trick even claimed recently that Boy George chained him up as a slave in the pop star's basement. Now the bloke is barred from entering the United States (Homeland Security finally pays off!). And you wanna diss George Michael for smoking the occasional spliff and not averting his gaze when a hot cop makes eyes?
So we welcome back George Michael — the beleaguered pothead, the lonely john, the misguided angel with the angelic voice — and with his new tour arriving here this week and his new greatest-hits CD ("Twenty-Five," out now), let us remind the masses of the most important part of his rollicking, ever-evolving Wikipedia biography:
Dude can sing.
Give him five songs
Without getting too old-man, everything-was-better-when-Roberta-Flack-was-on-FM on you, the robots are taking over popular song. If it's not a young woman showing off her vocal gymnastics by cramming 18 notes into each syllable (thank you, Mariah), it's a young mallpunk whose mediocre voice has been so "doctored" by ProTools software that he sounds like the second cousin of Matthew Broderick's computer in "War Games." Those who hunger for real singing — who relish the experience of being lifted up by a single powerful voice carefully evoking the words of a well-crafted lyric — are reduced to making pop stars out of young opera tenors. Mamma mia!
Pull out your old George Michael records. You didn't sell them all, despite what you claim at parties. Log on, catch up with the last few albums you probably didn't buy. Listen again. The familiarity of his hits can obscure his formidable talent. There's gold in them thar skills.
I'm not even that big a fan. I only own two full albums, "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" and "Songs From the 20th Century," plus a few of the hits. I just never thought he was worth the butt of the joke. (OK, the butt of Dana Carvey's "SNL" butt jokes, funny stuff.) Here we are in another election year; let's take this opportunity to train ourselves to keep perspective amid petty character assassinations. Suck it up and listen to at least these five songs — five songs from the solo George Michael catalog that showcase the man's incomparable pipes and will make all the gags irrelevant:
— "A Different Corner" — After proving that Andrew Ridgeley's contribution to the Wham! equation was virtually nil (as everyone with ears suspected) by scoring a massive solo hit with "Careless Whisper," George Michael released this second single in 1986, and was it ever solo — the first record to top the British charts that was written, performed, arranged and produced by a single person. The song sways ever so gently in a somnambulant cradle of bass, piano and patient synthesizers, over which George Michael's voice coos, aches and, when the words demand it, wails. The only special effect you hear on this recording is the perfect echo of the room.
— "Faith" -- Wondering what all the fuss was about a few weeks ago when Bo Diddley died? Wasn't he just some academic hero of bluesmen? The simple, chukka-chukka-chug acoustic guitar riff that props up this easy, urgent hit is a prime example of how far Diddley's influence spread. When an artist like George Michael — berated by then as a bubblegum trifle — needs to lean on some credibility, he brings out the shave, the haircut, and both bits. (Heck, this riff was so simple even Ridgeley could've played it.) But its freshness — dig the way he shifts gears between the breathless and the bombast — is evidenced by its near ubiquity in pop culture, even eclipsing the song everyone wouldn't shut up about in 1987, "I Want Your Sex" (which is — huh? — not on his new greatest hits double disc!).
— "My Baby Just Cares for Me" -- Did anyone buy this collection, "Songs From the 20th Century"? Released in 1999 — when doing a covers album was past de rigueur and had become de manded — George Michael tossed out his take on a bunch of his favorite tunes, spanning the century in question, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" to the Police's "Roxanne." His reading of this old, jazzy standard brims with effervescent, almost mischievous joy ("even Ricky Martin's smile ..."), and his vocal delivery over all those runs is smooth as buttah.
— "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" -- Recorded in 1985 at Live Aid but not released until 1991, this exciting concert moment ("Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Elton John!") shows how strongly he delivers outside the studio. His reading of this classic rock ballad is so fluid and lovely, almost soulful, that Elton's entrance is frankly an unwelcome interruption.
— "They Won't Go When I Go" -- George Michael's most awesome performance. On the acclaimed but less successful 1990 "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" album, George Michael set out to prove himself an artist and adult, which he could have accomplished simply by choosing to attempt this Stevie Wonder album track. But his transcendent recording, afloat on a tidal gospel arrangement, bests Wonder's original and sets us all up for the notion that — yeah, Eli — maybe he is an angel.
It's not all golden, of course. He's tossed off his share of stinkers — try to stay awake during "Jesus to a Child," I dare you — and all we can say for the Wham! years is, hey, it was what it was (and sometimes, c'mon, it was fun). But compare him to his contemporaries, and he indeed begins looking pretty saintly.
Boy George? A crap solo career and the aforementioned legal troubles. Rick Astley? He's about to release a greatest-hits set with more than one song on it, go figure. Pet Shop Boys? Undoubtedly iconic, but they didn't exactly rise above the dance-club rut. Paul Young? (Crickets chirping.) Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Spandau Ballet, Dead or Alive and all the other 1980s chart toppers now playing the state-fair circuit? Shudder.
George Michael stands with the icons of that particular age (and their peccadillos), with Madonna (spiritual slut) and Bono (spiritual hack) and Michael Jackson (arrogant oddball). And these days his voice — granted, it's been well-rested of late — sounds better than any one of them.
So, children, come back. Forget the jeers of rock critics, and ignore the sanctimonious temperance leagues. Put down the gossip rags. Give some thought to what the experience of listening to music means and the power a strong voice can transmit through your bones. Come see a happy, fulfilled singer at possibly another peak of his performing career.
It may be your last chance, after all. He once again recently mulled over the possibility of retiring, with a maturity to his perspective that made us love him all the more: "Mainly the reason is because I'm 45 and I think pop music should be about youth culture. ... It shouldn't be an endurance test."
I won't let you down
So please don't give me up
Because I would really, really love to stick around ...
- - -
GEORGE MICHAEL THROUGH THE YEARS
You'd be perfectly within your rights to have forgotten that George Michael has a shred of talent. In the last 10 years, he's had plenty of media coverage, hardly any of it about him singing. To his credit, you'd be hard-pressed to find a worldwide celebrity who has taken his public embarrassments in such easy stride. He copped to the whole bathroom arrest by joking with Oprah in 2004: "They don't send Columbo in there, you know. They send someone nice-looking."
Here's a look at the high notes and low notes of George Michael's nearly 30 years in the public eye. And consider this: Can you think of a single moment in all these years when he's been clean-shaven?
November 1979: Forms his first band, a ska group called The Executive, with pal Andrew Ridgeley.
April 1982: Ridgeley and George Michael, now teamed as a duo called Wham! (named, so the record company said at the time, for the sound these two made when they came together ... now stop laughing ...), release their first single, "Wham! Rap," in which George Michael (gulp) raps lines such as, "Hey, jerk! You work! This boy's got better things to do."
July 1983: The debut Wham! LP, "Fantastic," enters the British albums chart at No. 1.
June 1984: Now on a bigger label, Epic, the single "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" hits No. 1.
August 1984: Even though the song appeared on the second Wham! album, "Make It Big," the single "Careless Whisper" is billed as solo George Michael. It's an instant No. 1 and is Epic's first million-seller.
December 1984: A Wham! world tour begins as George Michael is featured on the charity Band Aid hit "Do They Know It's Christmas?"
April 1985: Wham!'s tour of China, the first visit to that country by a Western pop act, generates enormous worldwide media coverage, much of it centered on George Michael.
July 1985: George Michael duets with Elton John on the latter's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium. The recording won't be released until December 1991, and it hits No. 1 two months later.
June 1986: Taking a stand against the band's manager selling out part of his interest to a South African company (or at least seizing on a fantastic excuse), Wham! decides to split up and plays its farewell concert for 72,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.
April 1987: "Faith" is released, the George Michael solo debut. It'll sell 6 million copies in a year. Today, it's minted at least 15 million copies.
June 1987: The "I Want Your Sex'" single hits the streets, but not many airwaves. Some American radio stations ban it, and British DJs are allowed to discuss it only by referring to it as "I Want."
March 1988: Wins a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)," his duet with Aretha Franklin.
February 1989: Wins another Grammy for Album of the Year, for "Faith." (Yes, it was released in '87. The Grammys, to put it mildly, are slow on the uptake.)
September 1990: "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1" is released. It sells "only" 4 million copies.
1991-95: Begins a long legal fight to escape his contract with the Sony corporation. A casualty in this battle is "Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 2," which dies in preproduction. (Three songs from the project are eventually donated to the AIDS charity disc "Red Hot + Dance," and the song "Crazyman Dance" turned up on the B-side of 1992's "Too Funky," his final recording for Sony.) He's silent for the next three years during the court fight.
July 1995: Settles with Sony, signs with Virgin Records.
May 1996: "Older" is released, becomes the fastest-selling album in the history of Virgin Records.
June 1996: Meets his current partner, art dealer (and former cheerleading coach) Kenny Goss.
April 7, 1998: Arrested for "engaging in a lewd act" in a public bathroom at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills, Calif. Anyone who didn't know he was gay gets the memo. He's charged and released on $500 bail.
April 10, 1998: Finally comes out of the closet in an interview on CNN, saying, "This is a good of a time as any. ... I want to say that I have no problem with people knowing that I'm in a relationship with a man right now. I have not been in a relationship with a woman for almost 10 years." Not a single gasp is heard.
May 1998: Pleads "no contest" to the charges, is fined $810, ordered to perform 80 hours of community service and seek counseling — and was banned from the park.
November 1998: The video for "Outside," from "Ladies & Gentlemen — The Best Of George Michael," parodies the restroom incident.
December 1999: Releases "Songs From the Last Century," an album of covers, from "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" to the Police's "Roxanne."
April 2000: Joins Melissa Etheridge, Garth Brooks, Queen Latifah, the Pet Shop Boys, and k.d. lang to perform in Washington, D.C., as part of Equality Rocks, a benefit concert in support of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian organization.
May 26, 2004: Appears on "Oprah" — his first U.S. television appearance in more than 10 years — to promote a new album, "Patience," and discuss his arrest.
Early 2005: Goss and George Michael open the Goss Gallery in Dallas.
Feb. 26, 2006: Arrested for drug possession after he's found slumped over the steering wheel of his Mercedes near Hyde Park Corner in London. He later describes the incident as his "own stupid fault, as usual."
May 2006: While driving his Range Rover in London, hits three parked cars. Later is found by a passer-by again slumped over the steering wheel at a traffic light.
September 2006: Scandal again, but one we can support — he's chastised for a tour prop, a giant figure of George Bush in a ... compromising position.
Oct. 1, 2006: Found unconscious again at the wheel of his Mercedes in the middle of traffic. He pleaded guilty and was banned from driving for two years, plus more community service.
December 2007: Plays himself in a public park looking for action in the series finale of HBO's "Extras."
Jan. 16, 2008: Signs a fat book contract with HarperCollins for a memoir which he is to write "entirely himself."
April 1, 2008: Releases the double-disc greatest-hits CD "Twenty-Five," featuring 29 songs, including a new version of "Heal the Pain" recorded as a duet with Sir Paul McCartney.
June 17, 2008: Opens his first U.S. tour in 15 years in San Diego. Tells the California crowd, "I was watching TV yesterday and saw two women get married!" He then launched into the song "Amazing," which he dedicated to Goss.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Early in Tom Robbins' acclaimed novel, Still Life With Woodpecker, the narrator frets that mere words won't be enough to tell his story. His clacking typewriter's inky letters on parchment won't convey the real essence of his narrative. He pines instead for a "carved typewriter ... its keys living mushrooms, its ribbon the long iridescent tongue of a lizard. An animal typewriter, silent until touched, then filling the page with growls and squeals and squawks, yowls and bleats and snorts, brayings and chatterings and dry rattlings from the underbrush; a typewriter that could type real kisses, ooze semen and sweat."
These are Frank Orrall's same fears and desires. In 20 years of making music, Orrall has struggled to translate the sticky, wet, messy experience of life into living pop music. The earthy songs of his Chicago-based band, Poi Dog Pondering, rock and groove but also hum and throb and breathe and laugh. The tunes have celebrated the human body almost as nakedly as Orrall's lyrics. World beat or Chicago house music rhythms demand dancing, while Orrall — c'mon, a singing poet named Orrall! — sings about everything else you can do with your skin and eyes and hands and fluids. "You're a cup that I hold by the cheekbones / I pull you close and I drink you up." "Muscle and sweat and blood and bones / feel good, feel strong!" "Vim and vigor, full of piss and vinegar / wrapping around, surround and bound by ligaments and skin." "Living With the Dreaming Body," "I've Got My Body," "Ta Bouche Est Tabou," "Collarbone."
That peaty poetry continues on "7," the seventh and latest Poi Dog Pondering record — out Tuesday, and celebrated last Thursday with a sold-out show at the Vic Theatre — with Orrall confessing to a ravenous sexual appetite in "Candy," demanding that someone "spread your love all over me" in "Super Tarana (little golden deer)," which is definitely in the same spirit of "Sticky," and, in perhaps his most conservative lyric yet, pondering the thought of making a "Baby Together."
"There's so much about the life of our bodies, and the life in our bodies, that we ignore or repress. I just sometimes try to sing that unsung stuff," says Orrall during a recent conversation at a South Loop tea house. "But music's about the body and the spirit."
That would be the "rock and soul" dichotomy he insists on applying to "7," the first Poi Dog disc since 2003 and the first in many years to eschew samplers and sequencers and get back to making music with instruments made of wood. They even tracked the whole album using analog tape.
"A lot of that [electronic] stuff was hard to convey live," Orrall says. "A major thing that led to this record was me being out on tour with Thievery Corporation. We were sitting around, and one of the guys said, 'Play me one of your new songs.' And I realized I couldn't play him anything on the guitar. I needed all this gear just to convey my ideas. So I thought, I want to be at a dinner party and be able to play all our new songs with just one acoustic guitar." He smiles. "I gotta say, it feels nice. This record is very ... portable."
Susan Voelz, the band's longtime violin player, agrees. "Frank said he wanted to make some music he could play on the bus, you know, without having to set up backing tracks," Voelz said during a separate interview by phone. "And now we've really got some songs under our fingers. I love it. Every incarnation of Poi Dog is a trip."
Make no mistake, the tunes on "7" are still frequently rhythmic and easily danceable. The only real difference is that the grooves are laid down by congas and body slaps and real drums.
Poi Dog shows are usually writhing affairs, with the audience in near-constant motion. Orrall dances, too. He started as a drummer in his native Hawaii, and he confesses to some songs ("Natural Thing," even the languid "Catacombs") being born not out of lyrical or purely musical ideas but from ways he wanted to move his body on stage. He says he likes going out dancing and never misses "Brazilian night" at Chicago's Sonotheque nightclub.
Part of what attracted Orrall and his band (then based in Austin, Texas) to settle in Chicago early in the '90s was that love of dance and dance music. Arriving in 1992 on the swell of Chicago's most creative house music years, Orrall says the local DJs he encountered furthered his love of "movement music."
'The ego of words'
The core of Poi Dog followed Orrall to Chicago, but Orrall's music had changed. The lyrics almost fell away completely. The "Volo Volo" album originally was completed as an all-instrumental record, which the band's major label at the time politely declined to release; much of that music became the debut of Orrall's first of many side projects, the Palm Fabric Orchestra. Poi Dog released another fairly traditional acoustic-based record, "Pomegranate," in 1995, but Orrall showed his new hand by immediately following it with "Electrique Plummagram," a collection of "Pomegranate" remixes and other electronically derived songs, including some Chicago house music covers.
"I liked the vibe of the electronic stuff a lot," Voelz says, adding that her role as a wooden instrument player was not diminished. "I love trip-hop. I've played with a trip-hop DJ for a while. Instrumentally, the rules changed and the music was different. It wasn't all eight-bar phrases. The melodies took over sometimes as opposed to the lyrics. ... I was at South by Southwest [the annual music festival in Austin, Tex.] last week, and I didn't see Lou Reed, but I read about him saying that emotional music with intelligent lyrics is what you're going for. The emotion of the music has to be there. It melds with the lyrics, but the music can communicate by itself if it has to. Or if it wants to."
This is the direction Orrall says he took his music during the last several years here in Chicago. He stopped writing lyrics. He and Poi Dog dabbled in arranging for orchestra, presenting two acclaimed concerts with the Chicago Sinfonietta, each of which included an electronically buttressed "remix" of first Dvorak's New World Symphony and then "Carmen." He toyed with ambient video creations in relation to music. He collected a lot of plug-in gear.
"I was experimenting with long instrumental passages, feeling that there's so much you can say with music — why clutter it with the ego of words?" he says, hunching up his arms. "Plus, I was getting into this pattern of trying to write songs as opposed to perfunctorily going about writing them. They felt too ego-driven. I basically lost the point for a while. Then, more recently, I just started writing, without expectations, without trying to cram what came to me into four lines, then a chorus, then four more lines. I found I really liked writing long prosaic things rather than in meter. That's when I started getting the material I wanted to get."
Next week, the large ensemble — Orrall has to think for a moment about how many players make up the current incarnation of the revolving-door band (it's 10) — hits the road for a rare cross-country tour. When that's done, they return to play at Ravinia, a venue they haven't graced in a decade.
"We had a record crowd there last time we played," Orrall says. (The show in August 1997 may have been a record for the band, but it wasn't for Ravinia.) "And there wound up being problems with Ravinia's neighbors. It was really a peak time for us, and huge crowds came, and then there were town meetings about it. So we just kind of stayed away." He thinks another moment, sips his tea. "But it felt like time to go back. I guess a lot of this record is about going back."
Poi Dog: Unplugged but charged up
Poi Dog Pondering
The music of Poi Dog Pondering can grow on you, like a mold or a fungus. And if you're really the type of person to embrace an earthy, organic band like Poi Dog, you don't instinctively see that comparison as negative. Molds and fungi are the most basic, strong and pervasive forms of life, and you think that's worth celebrating. Hell, you think it's worth singing about.
The essence of Poi Dog is stated in the refrain of "Outta Yer Head," a song deep into the Chicago ensemble's latest (and seventh) album, "7." Lead singer-songwriter Frank Orrall sings, "C'mon, c'mon, out of your head now / and into your heart." Orall's lyrics and musical sensibility have always come directly from the heart, as both a symbol of romance and nonintellectual motivation as well as an organ of the body pumping its most valuable fluid. Because this record finds the Chicago-based band getting back to basics, performing 14 soulful and neatly arranged pop songs on real instruments as opposed to the samplers and sequencers embraced in previous live and studio outings. And Orrall's got the body and its fluids on his brain more than ever. He wants to spread those fluids around in the not-so-veiled sexual references of "Sticky" ("I'm gonna stick to you, baby / gonna have to pry me loose now"), "Candy" ("I'm gonna eat you from the inside out") and "Super Tarana" ("Spread your love all over me").
The latter two songs are extraordinary — and strangely buried near the end of the disc. "Candy" should be this album's "Complicated," a rousing, escalating rocker that starts out with a simple "mood for something good" and builds to a climax of ferocious physical hunger. "Super Tarana" must have a dozen guitars tracked on the same melody (and in a surprisingly rocking 7/4 time signature), and they sound like a thousand "Wood Guitars." There's some rather dull, by-the-book soul ("Lemon Drop Man," "Baby Together," the almost ambitiously composed "Rusted Weather"), but there are a few moments that conjure the charm of the first record, soft, seeping songs like "Butterflies," which floats on whispers and plucked acoustic guitar and winds up stinging like a bee, and the similarly acoustic-driven (ah, those haunting, beautiful plucks and slides from Susan Voelz's metaphysical violin) "Palm Leaf Effigy," as delicate and beautiful a track as they've recorded in a decade.
With 10 members in this incarnation of the ever-evolving lineup, you could call them the Fleetwood Mac of my generation. But the Mac's songs are usually founded on romantic bitterness and betrayal, and Poi Dog is the warm, polar opposite. Twenty years into their musical career, this album actually limbers them up after their frequently stiff and static electronic experiments of recent years. Here's to the electricity of the unplugged.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Ten years ago, the album wasn't even out yet but the single already had MMMbopped onto the Billboard charts in the Top 20, and Walker Hanson, father of the three boys who would take his surname into the pop cultural stratosphere, stood offstage in the family's hometown of Tulsa, Okla., plugged his ears against the squealing audience, shook his head and sighed, "I never dreamed it would lead to this."
Today, Taylor Hanson — the Hanson trio's still-hunky lead singer — is 24 and has three kids of his own. He can't believe it led to this, either, he says. In fact, a decade after Taylor and his brothers, older Isaac and younger Zac, inflated bubblegum pop to new heights with the megahit single "MMMBop," Taylor was sitting backstage before a show last week in Westbury, N.Y., talking about growth and change and life lessons learned and all the old days gone by.
Rewind: He's 24.
"A lot of fans have been there with us from the beginning, but they're not the same people," Taylor says. "Everybody's really changed. ... Time is weird that way. Some things seem like yesterday, some seem like a lifetime ago. Fans are saying to us now, 'Hey, 10 years.' And everybody's got a different story. 'I was doing this when I first heard you,' that kinda thing. But it's 10 years — and they're still fans."
Why is that, and how has this band of brothers survived? They still sell records — 2004's "Underneath" wasn't their best effort but it still sold more than 350,000 copies, and the new single, "The Great Divide," was the most-requested song at Chicago's Q101 early this month — and this weekend's two-night stand at the House of Blues, supporting July's new release, "The Walk," sold out right quick. They were lumped in with their late-'90s classmates, called a "boy band" just like 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. But those confectionary concoctions have melted away (in many cases, imploded), and the hook of "MMMBop" is still alarmingly easy to recall and hum. There have been no tortured Hanson solo albums, and no rehab.
Taylor says today's Hanson fans are mostly the same group that fell in love with him and his brothers in '97, young women (and, yes, some guys) now roughly his age. But he adds, "There's also, like, a younger generation, younger siblings. Maybe their twentysomething friend or sister turned them on to us. Or, for that matter, a parent." And he kind of snorts when he says the word "parent."
Rewind: He and wife Natalie, 23, have three kids.
Thing is, what the fans are paying for is largely what they've always gotten from Hanson: reliable, groove-driven, nearly soulful rock and pop. The band's riffs still can beat down Maroon 5, and Taylor's punched-in-the-gut vocals can still out-soul poseurs like the Fray.
"Not to pat ourselves on the back," Taylor says, "but we've never really done anything that reflects very directly what's going on. We've always been our own beast, drawing influences from places that are not the same as our peers. The thing that's in [the national debut disc, 'Middle of Nowhere'] is the core of our influences, that soul music, that freshness that came from young guys who loved that classic soul music and interpreted it with the energy of young teenagers."
And do they still have that energy, now that they're absolutely ancient in their 20s?
"It's a little different now, but we can still move it," Taylor says. Then he chuckles. "We're sustainable energy. We're moving beyond fossil fuels."
Free of its record company — the subject of much rejoicing in the Hanson camp, as well as analysis in the documentary film "Strong Enough to Break" — Hanson returned home to Tulsa to record "The Walk."
"The last album ['Underneath'] was very disjointed," Taylor says. "We wanted to do something that was the opposite of that, something rooted and familiar. Instead of battling record-company turmoil or going in the aimless direction of some A&R guy, we wanted to settle into a place where we felt comfortable and make a great record."
Then he starts talking like a lame-duck president, musing over his band's legacy. (Rewind: just 10 years in pop music.)
"It's really interesting the way history looks at Hanson now," Taylor says. "The evolving perception is that our first record was a garage band with a couple of really talented R&B beat-oriented producers that kind of shared our love of soul music. And we want that to endure."
8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
A decade of Hanson
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It seems like only yesterday we were loving, then hating, that furiously catchy "MMMBop" single. But it was 10 whole years ago. A look back at the boys' boppin' ride:
Before the "Middle of Nowhere" album is released in May, Hanson's inaugural single, "MMMBop," debuts in Billboard's Top 20. By the end of the summer, the song — with a nonsensical chorus that requires no real translation — has hit No. 1 or at least the Top 10 in every country that keeps pop charts. At Christmas, there's even a fresh Hanson holiday album on shelves, "Snowed In."
The trio tours and tours and tours. To have something else to hawk at each stadium the world over, they reissue songs from their previous two regional releases as a collection called "Three Car Garage," then a live album called "Live From Albertane."
The Music Industry Massacre of 1999 finds Hanson's label, Mercury, folded into the Island Def Jam conglomerate. Relations deteriorate.
The sophomore effort shows up: "This Time Around," a remarkably muscled and rockin' collection featuring guest spots from fellow young phenom Jonny Lang and Blues Traveler's John Popper.
Hanson struggles to escape its contract with Island Def Jam. The brothers tour, but new music is not forthcoming. Meanwhile, Taylor gets married and has his first child.
The whirlwind touring continues, but at least this one's an acoustic affair. In fact, the Hansons record and film their Chicago stop to release later as the DVD "Underneath Acoustic Live."
On its own indie label, 3CG Records, the band releases "Underneath," another strong set featuring collaborations with Matthew Sweet. The album enters Billboard's Independent Chart at No. 1.
Hey, let's tour some more! This time, Hanson stopped at colleges along the way to screen its documentary, "Strong Enough to Break," about its break from Island Def Jam and the road to becoming indie rockers.
The trio travels to South Africa and Mozambique, recording a children's choir to be used on future songs. Both Isaac and Zac get married.
In the weeks leading up to the July release of "The Walk," Hanson's fourth full-length album, the band posts half a dozen video podcasts online about the making of the record.
Fans, band 'walk' together
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Hanson isn't just talking the talk these days, they're walking "The Walk." Literally.
As part of the tour, the band is staging a one-mile walk in each city, inviting fans to join the Hanson brothers to just ... walk.
"It's amazing to see what happens when you grab a few hundred kids and walk down the middle of the road," Taylor Hanson says. "There's an impact on the people walking — talking, getting together — and the people observing."
These events are an outgrowth of Hanson's newly emerged social conscience, itself the result of the band's recent travels in Africa.
"The Walk" album opens with a children's choir in Soweto, South Africa, singing a message of hope. The Hansons found these kids when they joined some friends from a Tulsa, Okla.-based medical technology company, Docvia, on a trip last year delivering goods to a hospital in South Africa. There they encountered the continent's HIV/AIDS crisis firsthand.
"These kids, orphaned in the epidemic, started chanting, 'I have hope.' We just thought that was so powerful," Taylor says. "What we came back with was a sense that the issue of AIDS really relates to middle America and our generation, because we're the ones who can attack it and do something about it. And we thought, one way or another, we need to capture this in our music."
The choir appears in the Hanson song "Great Divide," which was released on iTunes as a charity single, with proceeds going to a Soweto hospital.
The exact location of each day's walk will be announced at hanson.net three hours in advance. They'll be encouraging you to buy some shoes there, too — TOMS shoes has offered to donate a pair of shoes to needy kids for every pair purchased. And even if you're not feeling charitable: Fans who participate in the walks will get into the concert each night ahead of the line.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
It's a big family. You've got Loudon Wainwright III, once declared a "new Bob Dylan," who's been singing and recording personal folk songs for coming on four decades now. His ex-wife is Kate McGarrigle, of Canada's beloved McGarrigle Sisters. Their children are singer-songwriter Martha and the grandiose pop star Rufus Wainwright. One of the Roches and her daughter lurk in this family tree, too. Everyone has their own career, and sometimes they even sing together.
But, as Yoda once said, there is another.
Sloan Wainwright — Loudon's sister, Rufus and Martha's aunt — is the undiscovered treasure of this musical dynasty. Writing and singing since her youth (she's not quite 50), she's been recording only for the last decade. But already her six CDs have set her apart from her brother's witty, documentarian and occasionally caustic songs.
"My songwriting is very different from Loudon's," says Sloan during a phone conversation from her home in Katonah, N.Y. "We're such different people, and we come from a very different place as far as expressing ourselves."
Loudon's songs frequently dwell on undisguised family issues. His divorces are well-chronicled in his catalog, as are various escapades and bouts with the kids ("Rufus Is a Tit Man," "Father/ Daughter Dialogue," "Five Years Old"). Rufus and Martha have returned the favor on their own albums, and even Sloan has mentioned the relatives in her own music.
But in "The Baby and the Bathwater," from her most recent album, "Life Grows Back," she sings the woe of all such biographical songwriters: "Why must we have an audience / To applaud our every confession?"
"That song itself is a family song," she says. "It's kind of an auntie giving some auntie-ish advice about being grateful for the good stuff that comes in life, and that line, that's really kind of asking the question about the predicament many of my friends and family are in, this situation where we do work ourselves out in front of an audience. And maybe it's not always such a great idea."
Sloan's recording career came late because she was sidetracked for 23 years as co-owner of the Bakers Cafe in Katonah. Throughout that experience, though, she continued singing and performing, developing her stage chops and her unique, contralto voice before learning to apply it in the studio.
"The way I see it, there's the art of writing songs, the art of working with your instrument, then there's the art of creating a record, which is entirely separate, and then there's the art of performance," Sloan says. "To me, they're all kind of separate. ... One thing with my songs and my voice that I've learned to do over the years is to kind of use my voice — not my writing voice but the sonic part of my instrument — to rearrange what people are thinking in a performance. ... It's not so much about what I'm saying as how I'm saying it, the way words go together and the way I make them sound."
Chicagoans can experience such rearrangement when Sloan Wainwright makes a rare appearance here — on radio, at least. She and her trusted guitarist, Stephen Murphy, will perform live on "Folkstage" at 6 p.m. Saturday on WFMT-FM (98.7). (Only members of the WFMT Fine Arts Circle can attend the broadcast as the studio audience.) She'll be playing songs from "Life Grows Back."
She also will appear with Dorothy Scott and Maura O'Connell at a benefit show, "A Women's Night Out: The Art of Music," at 8 p.m. Sept. 15, at the Door County Auditorium in Fish Creek, Wis.
Loudon also has a Chicago date ahead: Sept. 22 with Lucy Roche (his daughter by Suzzy Roche) at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
His music keeps getting more ambitious, more grandiose, more opulently operatic — and his fans keep lapping it up. Rufus Wainwright, the young darling of a profound musical legacy (the Wainwright-McGarrigle clan), re-created Judy Garland's old act at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, to rave reviews (the CD and DVD of the show are out this fall), and he just released his latest disc, "Release the Stars," to still more acclaim.
So he's back on tour, and back at Ravinia — but this time without lil' Ben Folds in tow — at 7:30 p.m. Saturday ($45 pavilion, $20 lawn; call (847) 266-5100 or visit ravinia.org).
Q. What's new in the show?
A. A lot compared to shows I've done recently in Chicago. I haven't done a big show there in a while. The Ravinia shows have been pared down; this one's got a big, heavy band, with the full breadth of my material — my songs, French songs, Judy Garland songs.
Q. And did I hear correctly you're doing costume changes?
A. Well, you know, I always love taking my clothes off. Without giving too much away, it's very, uh, ethnic and Hollywood.
Q. How was Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant as a producer on "Release the Stars"?
A. He was helpful in reminding me that there's an audience out there, that my lofty goals are great but it's important to get on radio and make a couple of bucks, too. Like the song "Tiergarten" started out a bit dirgey. He said I needed some snappy tunes, and I followed his lead. Now it's almost a reggae song.
Q. When you get off the road, you're writing an opera?
A. Yes, it's called "Prima Donna," and it has nothing to do with Madonna. It's about an opera singer, because I love the genre. I love those characters — Maria Callas or Joan Sutherland — those opera divas. They need their own opera.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Margo Timmins is blessed with one of Those Voices — an utterly unique and instantly identifiable sound that sharply defines her music and her band, the Cowboy Junkies.
On the Junkies' new disc, "At the End of Paths Taken," that voice pushes typically sublime melodies while the band further relaxes the loose, spooky alt-country sound it's honed for two decades and writhes through some crazy noises, eerie voices and unexpected sounds. The disc has received adoration from critics and fans since its April release — the kind of rapturous reception given to the band's second album, "The Trinity Session," which broke them to a mainstream audience and which celebrates its 20th anniversary later this year with a special edition.
Timmins discussed all this and more when we caught up with her before a show in New York ... somewhere. "We're playing tomorrow night," she cooed over the phone, "but I couldn't tell you where. It doesn't matter. As long as we show up and there's an audience, we have no expectations."
Q. Were the great reviews for the new disc a surprise, or did you feel this one was something special?
A. After so many years, we have no expectations of how an album will be received. When we listened to it after recording it, we were more surprised at how well it turned out. It was an album in which we really had no idea what we were doing. We went through tons of changes. Our only plan was this: totally experiment and play with the songs. We came at it almost backwards from the way we've been doing every other album for 20 years.
Q. How'd that approach come about?
A. It started with Michael writing songs and handing them to me without music, just the words. So I got familiar with the poetry first, on paper. And come to find, he'd written the music in weird guitar keys he's never used before. Some went smoothly. Others were like, "Is this good?" But by the time we got to the end and listened to the whole thing in order, we just laughed and thought, "It worked!" I mean, we can always make it work, but it was good.
Q. What made you think it was good?
A. Well, I played it for my parents. And my aunt and uncle were there, too, for some weird reason. They're of a totally different generation, I thought they wouldn't get it. I thought my aunt and uncle wouldn't even try. But by the end of the album I could tell they'd gotten sucked in. I think that's what this album does. If you give it time, it'll suck you into what I think is a really comfortable place.
Q. On the surface, the record doesn't sound that different, given that the band has such a consistent sound. But it hits you differently, harder. What's happening here that hasn't before?
A. It's certainly a Junkies record. My voice is always the thing people identify as a Junkies record. ... We do have a signature sound, even now after 20 years. I don't fully know what that sound is, I don't know what makes it, but it only happens when the four of us are playing together. When I've sung with other bands, it's not there. ... But the music behind me this time is strange — so many layers and weird sounds. Oddly enough, the only real melody in any of the songs is my vocal. And this otherworldly music just twists and writhes around me.
Q. And that is the result of the experimentation?
A. Oh yeah. In "Mountain" [a truly odd pastiche of spoken-word, tortured music and Margo singing a brief chorus], you can hear me laughing. I'm always laughing in rehearsal — there's a lot of my laughter on tape — and when Mike was mixing the song he dropped some of my laughter in there. It's not as a joke; he uses it as an instrument. It's very subtle. But it's very much part of the "OK, let's throw this in and see if it works" spirit of making this record.
Q. What about the Cowboy Junkies is distinctly Canadian?
A. Hmm. I think we're very Canadian, but what that is I just don't know. [Pause] It's a ... part of it is ... it's being humble. That's a positive thing almost, but there's a negative side to it. We spoke of having no expectations — that's a good way to live, but it's also not good because you don't make demands and you don't get as far as you could have, or should have. You won't be disappointed, but the other side is you don't make things happen. I think that's very Canadian. Pretty much just going with the flow, wherever it might take you — I think Canada as a whole is very much like that. Like, "All right, we'll get into this war if you want to." [Laughs]
Q. What was it about "The Trinity Session" that made such a breakthrough for you back in 1988?
A. That record happened at a time where that kind of sound was just not happening. These big rock bands were all at the top of the charts. Then this quietness emerged from the din — I think that's what got people's attention. ... At the time, there just wasn't anything like it. We had no idea it would catch on like it did. We knew it was special, no doubt. The next morning, we listened to the tapes. Oddly enough, my mom was there, because Mike had run the tapes over to my house around the block. We knew right away it was good and different, but we figured it would be an underground thing, not something that would attract major labels and attention. But my mom turned to me and said, "Your life will never be the same."
Q. Is your mom always present for these first listens?
A. [Laughs] I know, it's crazy, isn't it? I'm 46 and Mom's always around. But I thought she was crazy when she said that, but I remember for years waiting for my life to go back to normal. She knew. I should ask her — I don't know if that statement of hers was a happy thought for her or not.
Q. And did I hear there's a 20th anniversary edition of "Trinity" in the works?
A. Yes, [coming out] this fall. We wanted to do something special to mark the 20th, but we didn't want to take away from "Trinity." We went back to the church [Toronto's Holy Trinity, where the album was recorded], which was scary. I didn't want to muck it up. And we just covered the whole album — the same songs, just 20 years later, and with some guests: Natalie Merchant [doing "To Love Is to Bury"], Vic Chesnutt ["Postcard Blues"] and Ryan Adams ["200 More Miles"]. We filmed it all, of course, because in the era of DVD everything must be documented. We were really nervous, but it came out great. We realized that the reason the record sounded so well is because we picked the right building. The sound is so beautiful in there, and because it's so beautiful it's inspiring. You get in there and hear yourself, and you're like, "OK, I can sing!" The sound floats and comes down and wraps you up. I'd forgotten the feeling of it.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
The way critics have gone on about the Brazilian influences in this band's music, you'd be forgiven if you arrived to their concerts expecting a bar full of tropical beverages and a singer on stage wielding a goatskin pandeiro.
"I was kind of sick of hearing that," says Sam Prekop, singer for Chicago indie-rock stalwarts The Sea & Cake, of the band's alleged South American influences. "I blocked it out. ... You could hold a gun to my head and I could not play a single Brazilian song."
Prekop calls his band's relationship to Brazilian records a "kinship." The Sea & Cake's acclaimed guitarist, Archer Prewitt, explains further: "A lot of what we respond to in Brazilian music is the musicality of it, the choice of chords. I've always been partial to the jazzier chords."
The Sea & Cake is certainly jazzier, in general. In indie-rock, the band stands out as a consistently light — but musically quite dense — and breezy quartet, often bouncing along on grooves both loose and locked, and supporting Prekop's thin, airy vocals and impressionistic words. More than most bands, The Sea & Cake strives for beauty.
"A lot of the Brazilian stuff attempts genuinely to get at the service of beauty," Prekop says. "It's sunny and melancholy at the same time, and that quality — that mixture — is always something to strive for."
On the band's latest CD, "Everybody" — available Tuesday from local label Thrill Jockey — The Sea & Cake gets down to basics as they rarely have before. Gone are whatever distractions have been written off in the past as foreign influence. Few extra sounds and instruments intrude on this batch of songs. What we have is a compact guitar-bass-drums-vocals band, playing tighter pop-song forms than they have in years.
"These are almost chiseled little pop numbers," Prekop says, seemingly surprised to admit it aloud. "Sometimes people forget: We are a pop band."
The change is arresting and vital, a radical departure. But it's also subtle, ephemeral, difficult to detect. Such is the paradox of The Sea & Cake (it's suitably cryptic name a result of Prekop misunderstanding the title of a Gastr del Sol song, "The C in Cake"). Noticing it likely depends on how long you've been unraveling their music.
The renewed focus — let's not call it "stripped down" — is largely the result of location, location, location. Instead of recording in or near Chicago with drummer John McEntire producing, as the band has done for every record except its first, The Sea & Cake traveled around Lake Michigan's tip to Key Club Studio in Benton Harbor, Mich. There they holed up with producer Brian Paulson for sessions Prekop said had "a more immediate performance quality."
Not surprising since they'd arrived at the studio this time with songs intact. There was not as much to make up as the sessions proceeded, and few effects and overdubs were added afterward, as has been the norm.
That approach made not just recording easier; it's made rehearsing simpler, too. Fewer extras mean fewer surprises when the band hits the road this week to tour "Everybody" (returning for a hometown show May 31 at the Empty Bottle).
"We made this one more documentarian than before," Prewitt says. "In the past, the insular Sea & Cake has remained in the studio doing a lot of post-production work on the songs. But we had things pretty much together ahead of time on this one. This was similar to 'The Biz' [in 1995]. We recorded it straight, no tinkering."
The kids are alright
But in the rural setting of the studio, free time was still indulged in listening to influential music. Just not much Brazilian stuff.
"At night, with beers flowing, we'd listen to inspirational music, courtesy of the battling DJs, John [McEntire] and Brian [Paulson]," Prewitt says. "We'd listen to some old French tune, and next to This Heat, which sounded like Tortoise to me." (McEntire once split his time between Tortoise and The Sea & Cake.) "We even watched The Who's 'The Kids Are Alright.' "
"That was a mistake," Prekop sighs.
"Well," Prewitt says, "you watch The Who completely annihilate, and then you go back in and listen to your tinkly little guitar — you start asking, 'What am I doing here?' "
But the rock was what they were leaning toward at Key Club. And though "Everybody" still sounds perfectly Sea-worthy, a few songs broke through to that ideal more than others.
"I tell people I think we made a rock album," Prekop says, "but they say, 'Sam, you don't know what a rock album is.' "
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
LOVE IS A MIX TAPE: LIFE AND LOSS, ONE SONG AT A TIME
By Rob Sheffield
Crown, 224 pages, $22.95
The shoeboxes used to be chin-high in my closet — every one of them packed with scuffed cassette boxes and a few loose, unwound tapes. Mixes, made by me and given to me: "This & That," the heavy magnetic tape from Sondra with all the U2; "Savage Indictment of Bourgeois Society," the not-so-savage tape from Chris; Liz made "Tom's Diner," of course, with that awful song by some screechy act called Shelleyan Orphan that, truth be told, was the beginning of our end.
These were not just crafty trinkets, they were solemn discourse — letters cobbled together using someone else's words. Because we were young, without enough words of our own yet, we simply passed on the songs that spoke for us, saying in effect, "Here, listen to Morrissey, but know it's really me saying that."
Rob Sheffield, in his moving memoir Love Is a Mix Tape, seems to understand this undercurrent of Generation X as well as any author since Nick Hornby — and possibly better, or at least more intensely, than Hornby did in his mix-tape magnum opus, the novel (and later Chicago-made movie) High Fidelity. Whereas Hornby got to the root of a music geek's angst — discovering in the end that it's possible, and probably preferable, to love someone whose music tastes are different from yours — Sheffield digs up that root, skins it, cleans it, cooks it and serves it up, all with a tremendous poignancy and, thank Elvis, not an ounce of self-pity.
Music, when appropriated and directed at someone for a particular purpose, does "the same thing music always does," Sheffield writes in this romantic memoir, "which is allow emotionally warped people to communicate by bombarding each other with pitiful cultural artifacts that in a saner world would be forgotten before they even happened."
Sheffield circles his central point carefully, discovering that the reason bookish guys like him made all these mixes for girls like Renee, his star-crossed love interest here, is to prove through some kind of aesthetic science that opposites can come together in harmony. That fact is a cliche, of course, but who among us hasn't found themselves attracted to a person diametrically opposed to our Top 10 Attractive Qualities List and not still marveled at it anew?
The variety of music on each of my own mix tapes, for instance, is maddening and magical. Chris coupled the serrated edge of the sample-crazed band Negativland with the soothing coo of Harry Nilsson. Liz followed Sade with the Sundays — British soul for British soul. On one I made for (OK, about) Sondra, the Stones' "Street Fighting Man" follows Verdi's "Summer" from "The Four Seasons."
In Love Is a Mixed Tape, Rob, a good, shy Irish Catholic boy, struggles to make sense of a similar culture clash: his desire for Renee, a brazen, confident Southern Baptist wild child. Renee is the kind of girl who throws a Billie Joe party, as in the song "Ode to Billie Joe." "I had it on the third of June," she says. "You know, the day the song takes place. I served all the food they eat in the song: black-eyed peas, biscuits, apple pie." Their formula doesn't work on paper, but the real-life harmony between them can't be denied.
Early on, Sheffield deduces this about mix-making: "I guess that's why we trade mix tapes. We music fans love our classic albums, our seamless masterpieces, our 'Blonde on Blondes' and 'Talking Books.' But we love to pluck songs off those albums and mix them up with other songs, plunging them back into the rest of the manic slipstream of rock and roll. I'd rather hear the Beatles' 'Getting Better' on a mix tape than 'Sgt. Pepper' any day. I'd rather hear a Frank Sinatra song between Run-DMC and Bananarama than between two other Frank Sinatra songs. When you stick a song on a tape, you set it free."
One is never quite sure where the songs end and Sheffield begins in this narrative, which only adds to its alluring cadence and rhythm. Sheffield's prose is tight, lean and full of all the details about young love you wish you'd had the brains to write down when it was still beguiling. He throws in musical and cultural references liberally but without alienating us too much (though it helps to have heard Big Star's "Thirteen" to understand how adorable it is that Rob and Renee danced to it at their wedding), putting him in league with Hornby and another crafty name-dropping novelist, Bret Easton Ellis.
Sheffield's euolgy — he reveals early on that Renee died suddenly five years into their marriage — comes equipped with a gimmick: Each chapter starts with a picture of the cassette cover of a particular mix tape. It's supposed to set the scene for each episode, though often the Side A/Side B track listings have little or nothing to do with the action that follows. It's the kind of cutesy gimmick that might ward off curious readers; don't let it — it's harmless.
Love Is a Mix Tape celebrates love and music, and what happens when the line between them is crossed, either way. After their first night together at Renee's place, Sheffield writes, "We eventually stopped getting up to flip the tape, and just listened to dead air." The music may have gotten them together, but ultimately they had to fill the silence themselves. Fortunately, despite all the musical reference and reverence, that's the heart of Sheffield's story — and what makes it so sincere and rewarding.
By Thomas Conner
© The Chicago Sun-Times
The fastidiousness of Donald Fagen is well-documented among his band's considerable contributions to rock 'n' roll. In the studio for Steely Dan records, six-hour sessions were common just to polish 12 bars of rhythm guitar. Noted session musicians would be brought in at great expense to play jazzlike guitar and sax solos — solos Fagen already had written and carefully notated for them. This control freakishness gave Steely Dan's hits and album tracks their celebrated (and sometimes derided) slickness and meticulous swing.
Saturday night at the Chicago Theatre, however, Fagen — at 58 and on his first ever solo tour — showed signs of mellowing with age, of letting go of the little stuff. At least he made it look that way.
Midway through his less-than-two-hour set, he paused and slumped at his center-stage electric piano. "What do we do now?" he asked. It was a rhetorical question, but the lively audience was quick to answer by shouting requests. "Oh, right there, I heard it!" he said, then turned to his band and seemed to call the next tune ("Third World Man"). Donald Fagen appeared to — gasp! — take a request.
It may have been an act (though given the varied set lists I've seen from the tour thus far, probably not), but it was indicative of Fagen's feistiness while free of his longtime Steely Dan cohort Walter Becker. By himself, Fagen clearly wants to get his groove on. His solo albums (one per decade since 1982) have been driven by backbeats more prominent than on most Dan albums before the turn-of-the-century reunion.
This was clear Saturday night whenever the set veered from solo work — powered by metronomic drummer Keith Carlock's sparse kit and Freddie Washington's gurgling bass — to a handful of Dan album tracks, each of which opened up the full range of Fagen's nine-piece band. The Dan tunes breathed a bit more, the sound was fuller, richer, broader, and the ensemble sounded like an ensemble. That was the goal of Steely Dan, after all — to combine '50s R&B with the careful arrangement of Ellington's big bands. Fagen on his own, though, tends to shrug off the Ellingtonia and get down to basics.
That's not a criticism of his solo work, just a distinction — hopefully a helpful one, given that so many critics write about Fagen's solo outings as indistinguishable echoes of Steely Dan. Every time I've seen Steely Dan live, Fagen has slunk onto the stage, a sheepish member of a large band. Saturday night, though, he strutted onto the stage, plopped down at his keyboard and, raising a single finger high into the air, jabbed down the first notes of "Green Flower Street" like a call to order, or arms. The tight interplay of the rhythm section on that song set the tone for the evening. This was a groove-centric rock 'n' soul revue.
Most of Fagen's song selections were delightful surprises — "Teahouse on the Tracks," "Home at Last," "Goodbye Look," "FM," even a left-field cover of "Mis'ry and the Blues" from 1930s Oklahoma City-Chicago musician Charlie LaVere. The new CD, "Morph the Cat," was represented but not dwelled upon (just "Brite Nitegown," "Mary Shut the Garden Door" and "What I Do," featuring Chicago harmonica player Howard Levy). His encore was just one song — again, Fagen slumped and seemed unsure what to play. "I feel like just playing something fast," he said and launched the band into Chuck Berry's "Viva Viva Rock 'n' Roll" with a scorching solo from guitarist Jon Herington.
Therein, too, lies another sign of Fagen's relaxed grip. Of the two guitarists onstage Saturday night, Herington and Wayne Krantz, only the former seemed up to Fagen's previous finicky standards. Krantz's solos often went too far afield of the melody, even the countermelody, and filled the theater with a dizzying number of notes. His delivery seemed clumsy, too, as if his left fingers were bandaged. Herington, though he didn't get as many solos, was superb — clean, crisp, remarkably fluid and with a more rockin' tone that suited the somewhat restless spirit of the set. His playing was sharp enough to inspire hopes he'd romp into "Reelin' in the Years." Alas, no.
The show was so groove-tastic, though, that two attendees remarked after the show that they wished the tour was playing smaller venues — so they could have danced. Here's to Fagen's return next time in Uptown — the Aragon? the Green Mill?
at Chicago Theatre
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Taylor Hanson is the last person we expected to discuss the bean-counting intricacies of the music industry. Or smoke a pipe.
But the ever-androgynous author of "MMMBop" does both in his band Hanson's new film, "Strong Enough to Break," a documentary about the hit trio's major-label nightmare. After signing with Mercury in 1997 and scoring a huge hit with its debut disc, "Middle of Nowhere," Hanson (including brothers Zac and Isaac) wound up a victim of the music industry massacre of years later, when Mercury was folded into the Island Def Jam conglomerate. Its supporters were fired or bailed, and Hanson was battling just to get a record made.
"Strong Enough to Break," which shares the title of one of brothers' recent singles, chronicles the now grown-up Hansons' decision to form their own indie label, 3CG Records, and manage their own affairs. It follows the tale right up to the release of this season's new disc "The Best of Hanson: Live and Electric" and the current tour, which comes here for a two-night stand at 7 tonight and Thursday night at the House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn. Tickets are $28; call (312) 559-1212.
Q. You're taking the documentary around to college campuses. Any particular reason why you're targeting that audience?
A. Students can play a role in what is happening out there. We're activating them, getting them involved in music. It's a crucial time in the business, and this documentary illustrates some of the issues. ... Media has been a one-way street. TV, radio, newspapers, publications — you couldn't interact. And now so many media companies have consolidated to a level where they've removed choice from the roster. There aren't as many songs on radio and TV anymore. The pipeline has narrowed, and the fans have been disenfranchised. We're saying there are new ways around that; ... [students] can change the way music will be heard tomorrow.
Q. What can students do, and to effect what changes?
A. They can actively express what they want to hear on radio and TV. Get involved in saying, "I want my request to be heard." And they have to actively pursue the places filling the gaps — the indie labels, seeing more local gigs, indie Web sites, streaming radio stations, etc. Look for the models that allow you to interact.
Q. You were home-schooled. Where did you learn how to run your own business?
A. Before we started our label, we were already running a business. We already had employees creating videos and Web sites and merchandising and touring. That's part of why we're such believers in actively communicating directly with the fans — we always have. But nothing can educate you for the realities of running a business other than just running a business.
Q. Will you ever be able to write another "MMMBop"?
A. We have the freedom now to write whatever we want. That's the point.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When his music became popular again during the 1990s lounge-music revival, Juan Garcia Esquivel — known singularly and more exclamatory as Esquivel! — was fond of telling a favorite Chicago story.
"There was a very influential columnist named Sig Sakowicz," Esquivel said. "He wrote an entertainment column, where he would critique everyone playing in town. Before we opened, he wrote in his column, 'Esquivel! ... Why?' He came to the show, and I showed him why. He came almost every night. The next week in his column, he wrote, 'Esquivel is so good, he deserves two exclamation points.'"
In 1974, several years after Sakowicz had moved on, Esquivel landed a gig back here in Chicago — six months performing nightly at the La Margarita Mexican restaurant in Morton Grove. The age of the great bandleaders had long passed, and Esquivel's group was down to a combo of four musicians, two singers and himself on piano. The music, however, still had the zing! and the pow! and the wow! that earned him those exclamation points. While they were in Chi-town, the restaurant manager suggested they record a live album to help promote the gig.
They did, and Bar/None Records recently reissued the session as a disc titled "The Sights and Sounds of Esquivel." (The original title was as windy as the city: "An Evening at La Margarita With Esquivel! and His Sounds.") The music wasn't captured live at La Magarita, though. Esquivel being a bit of a control freak — for good and ill — the songs were cut "live" in a studio in December of that year.
"I've had this tape for years and years," said Yvonne DeBourbon-Rodriguez, Esquivel's widow (he died in 2002 after years of ill health after a fall) and one of the two vocalists in the band at La Margarita, in a recent interview. "This was done exactly as we would do the show, on one track with no overdubs. The only thing added was the applause. Juan was very, very particular when it came to recordings. I don't think he would have wanted to record in a nightclub. He never made any actual live recordings. This is it."
Esquivel's meticulous detail in making his "space-age bachelor pad" music is one of the reasons his albums were lurking in hipsters' collections long before the '90s lounge-music fad and will remain there long after. Esquivel was a Latin bandleader in an era when "Latin bandleader" meant Ricky Ricardo. He was one of the first arrangers to make use of stereo recording, leading his slide guitarist or his drummer to pop in and out of the left or right speaker for lively, unpredictable effects. His music was aimed at the easy-listening market, but it wasn't always the easiest listening.
His resurgence in the '90s was often heralded as "unlikely," but given the electronic music experiments taking place at the time around the world, it wasn't all that surprising. DeBourbon-Rodriguez saw the connection.
"People still feel connected to this music. It's like Trekkies. It doesn't matter how old 'Star Trek' is, people will always be fascinated with it," she said. "You know, when his music became popular again in the '90s, he was absolutely delighted. He loved arranging — that was his forte. He played incredible piano, but he wasn't as interested in composing as he was in arranging. It was fascinating for him to see how he could make an old song dance to a new tune, or the challenge of bringing something alive that was in a dusty vault somewhere. All these young people and their remixing today — it's the same thing. That's why they love him."
Esquivel loved performing his arrangements as well, which is why even into the '70s, he was accepting the gigs offered him — like playing dinner music in the Chicago 'burbs. But whether performing at the Hollywood Bowl or the early equivalents of Planet Hollywood, Esquivel was always as entertaining and unpredictable as his tunes.
"He was a consummate performer," said DeBourbon-Rodriguez. "He looooved having an audience. He had a glow about him when he was onstage, and he loved having little jokes with the audience, double entendres.
"We were performing in Puerto Rico one time. I'd had surgery and couldn't perform the dance routines. The crowd was calling out, 'La colora!' He couldn't figure out what that meant, though he spoke fluent Spanish. Finally, someone said, 'The redhead!' They wanted me to dance. He tried to explain why I couldn't, saying I'd had surgery. 'Want to know where she had it?' he asked the crowd. 'In Las Vegas!'"
You can almost hear the rim shot.
Things in Chicago remained pretty hot. Literally.
"I think we experienced one of the mildest winters Chicago had ever had," she said. "I love snow. I live in California, where normally we don't have snow, but that year in Chicago, it was beautiful. I enjoyed the smell of it and walking in it. I'd been in Chicago in January, downtown with winds off the lake, and oh my God, my ears felt like they were burning off, but for some reason that winter was very mild, and we made such lovely friends with the musicians and their families."
Several years ago, during the revival of his music, a movie about Esquivel's life was reported in the works. DeBourbon-Rodriguez said it's still "in the works" to her knowledge, with Alexander Payne ("Election," "Sideways") contracted to direct and John Leguizamo starring.
In the meantime, DeBourbon-Rodriguez is still involved with music, working with husband and Latin jazz musician Bobby Rodriguez. The two recently finished a book, The ABC's of Latin Jazz.
"We discuss Juan in the book," she said, "because of his contribution to arranging and because of the music he used. You know, he's not often thought of as a Latin music figure other than the fact that he was from Mexico. But he helped pioneer clave, that kind of rhythm. He was one of many musicians who were using native music styles at the time, but it wasn't identified as such then. It's just one of many ways he was a pioneer."
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Rufus Wainwright is a good son. He was shopping leisurely in New York's West Village, chatting with the Sun-Times about his second summer tour with fellow piano man Ben Folds, and trying to find something nice for his mom in advance of their upcoming trip to Venice, Italy.
"You know, a tiara, or a nice set of diamonds," Wainwright said. "I'm being a beautiful gay son and dressing my mother like the queen of England."
He's gay and he's recovering from drug addiction, but Wainwright knows something about family values. Consider his family: dad Loudon Wainwright III, a patron saint of intelligent, personal folk music among the NPR crowd; mother Kate McGarrigle, mother superior of traditional folk singing in Canada (the couple divorced), and sister Martha Wainwright, a constant companion and backup singer to Rufus through most of his career thus far, who recently launched her own career with a song about Loudon (lovingly titled "Bloody Mother F——— A———").
While Martha explained to the Sun-Times earlier this year how daunting it was to step forward from this family with her own musical expression, Rufus has never had such hesitation.
"I definitely was always expected and encouraged to be a songwriter from a very young age," said Rufus, who grew up with McGarrigle in Montreal. "But really it's because, as a child, I thought I was Judy Garland. And when I started out, I was a little nuts. I thought I was a classic, legendary superstar when only 10 people knew who I was. I feel in some ways that my confidence is misinterpreted as arrogance, which is understandable. But I've also always thought that false modesty is evil."
Celebrity, however, is always in the mind of the beholder. For instance, Rufus remembers when, as a young boy, he realized for the first time that his dad was "someone."
"[Loudon] is really good friends with [filmmaker] Christopher Guest," he said. "It really struck me when we went to his house once in London — and suddenly Jamie Lee Curtis opened the door. I'd just seen 'Trading Places,' and I was amazed at, well, just how big her breasts were in person. And that's when I thought: Hey, Dad's got it going on."
The Wainwright family often backs one another up on recordings and concerts. Martha's been with Rufus since his 1998 self-titled debut, and both of them grew up singing with their mother and aunt (Anna McGarrigle); Rufus has covered his dad ("One Man Guy" on "Poses," and others in concert), and Martha dueted with him ("Father-Daughter Dialogue" on 1995's "Grown Man"). Loudon, though, has made a career of writing intensely personal — but still accessible and inviting — folk songs about his failed marriage ("Your Mother and I"), raising the kids ("Five Years Old," "Rufus Is a Tit Man," etc.) and his parents (his father was longtime Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright II, and Loudon's last disc, 2001's "The Last Man on Earth," was about the death of his mother).
"Everything's been fair game in our family," Rufus says.
He adds that, given his own penchant for speaking naked truths in song, this is what makes the tour with Ben Folds work so well: "[Ben and I] are not afraid to open our hearts and reveal the inner workings of a man. It can dangerous but intensely rewarding — I hope on both ends."
Folds, in a separate interview earlier this summer, acknowledged the same risk in baring one's soul. His new album, "Songs for Silverman," includes a delicate song about his daughter, "Gracie."
"Everything I write is personal, really," Folds said. "Even when I'm sarcastic, it's quite personal. And on this record, from the production to the singing to the performances, I got it really honest. To the modern ear, it seems soft. When you hear it against other things, it seems vulnerable. Lyrically and musically, though, this is more subtle. And, yes, it's asking a lot of someone who's used to being hit over the head with bright neon to listen to this."
Folds learned many lessons about getting personal without self-flagellating by working with, of all people, William Shatner. Last year, Folds produced and co-wrote several songs for Shatner's "Has Been" CD, a collection of intimate spoken-word narratives, commentaries and contemplations by the "Star Trek" star. The experience was unexpectedly liberating.
"I found in the process that as I would push him to follow his first instincts about what to say and what to express that I would sometimes wonder, 'Would I go that far?' But the results we got were inspiring.
"It's hard to explain," he says. "Sometimes I would be watching this classic guy performing and realizing that there's not a damn thing he can do about being William Shatner. You turn on the tape, and you get William Shatner. And you could've approached that as if it were something to get over, but that wouldn't have been honest. I wanted him to be exactly who he is, and I eventually realized I had to go for that same honesty and feeling in my own album."
Wainwright hopes to take a similar stripped-down approach to his next recording. After this summer's tour, he'll return to Europe for more touring, and he's planning to start the followup to his last two discs, "Want One" (2003) and "Want Two" (2004).
"It will be very, very different from the usual Rufus — not my usual voluptuous and grandiose view of the world," he said. "I want to get more streamlined. I feel like [Alfred] Hitchcock after making 'Vertigo' and 'To Catch a Thief,' his big Hollywood films. All of a sudden he made 'Psycho,' And then we knew where he really was coming from, you know?"
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT AND BEN FOLDS
with Ben Lee
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay roads, Highland Park
Tickets: Sold out
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III has made a career of family albums. For nearly four decades, the singer-songwriter has churned out sometimes bitter, sometimes brutal, often hilarious folk songs about his marriage to Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle and their two children: Gen-X piano man Rufus Wainwright and emerging talent Martha Wainwright.
Everyone has had his or her moment, willingly or not, in Loudon's spotlight — songs about his and Kate's divorce, songs about explaining it to the kids, songs about family vacations, songs about his own parents, even "Rufus Is a Tit Man," a song about watching young Rufus breastfeed (and only slightly ironic, given that his son, now an acclaimed composer, turned out to be gay). Loudon and Martha even sang a duet, "Father/Daughter Dialogue," on one of Loudon's '90s discs, in which they addressed the irresistible peril of making dirty laundry tuneful and rhymed.
But turnabout, as they say, is fair play. So thought Martha, anyway, when she wrote and recorded her first single, "BMFA." It's not actually called by that acronym; we couldn't print the full title in a wholesome, family newspaper. The first two words are "Bloody Mother," and the other two are the popular "Deadwood" f-word adjective and an anatomical noun.
And it's directed at her dad.
"My father's made a career out of singing about family members — some kind, some not so kind. So we Wainwrights have carte blanche to return the favor," Martha said recently from a tour stop in Bristol, England. "I think he understands. He's never said anything about it outright. It's not designed to hurt his feelings. It's just a funny thing to say about somebody. I didn't intend to say those four words when I was writing it. They just came out, and I thought it was hilarious, quite frankly. Mostly young women seem to identify with it, not necessarily about their dads — but everyone has that person they want to say that about in their lives."
That title, and her insistent repetition of it toward the end of her acoustic-driven wail, earned her self-titled debut disc a parental-advisory sticker, a rare badge for a folk singer, when it was released last month. "We live in such conservative times," she said with a sigh.
Martha, 28, has been active in the Wainwright family way since childhood — singing with her mother from an early age and backing up Rufus since his successful debut in the late '90s — but for years, she resisted the temptations and requests to record her own debut. "In a way, I wasn't champing at the bit to make a record," she said. "There was so much pressure to make a good first record in a family like mine. So there was definitely a conscious delay."
Plus, about the time she started thinking seriously about her own music, Rufus' career took off. As his performance schedule thickened, he brought Martha along to sing backup. Their duets, often on French chansons, were the highlight of many concerts. But while the steady work helped spread her name around, it also hampered Martha's own ambitions, ambivalent though they sometimes were.
"I got to live vicariously through my brother, the experiences he had as an up-and-coming artist. I wouldn't say that it satisfied my want of those experiences, but I got exposed to it. It taught me the amount of work required if you want to succeed," she said. "It taught me to sing better, too. Rufus wrote parts for me that were very unnatural and different."
This is when Martha began discussing her voice, both literally and figuratively, as the major cause for her late bloom. The Wainwright family is crowded with distinctive physical and lyrical voices — Kate's measured control and traditional dignity, Loudon's tongue-in-cheek wit and naked admissions, Rufus' warm murmuring and allusions of grandeur — so Martha had intense competition before she even left the house. Before stepping out with the family name on her product, she wanted to make sure listeners would hear the Martha more than the Wainwright.
"I've always had a very defined singing voice," she said in a sandy speaking tone, just faintly hoarse. "The cigarettes don't help. Or maybe they do. You can usually pick me out of a chorus. ... So I always had this voice, and the interest in the songs I was writing. I've written basically the same way since I was 18. In the last six years, living a full life in New York City and on the road with Rufus, I think I've gotten better. The way I do it didn't change much at heart, it just got better. And I realized this might really be what I want to do, where maybe before I wasn't sure. I always felt this was handed to me as the youngest, and I think once I felt secure in my voice, I made the time to let it be heard."
There were moments when she wasn't sure about this career choice, certainly. She studied French theater in school and thought that perhaps the best way to distance herself from the Wainwright musical legacy was to pursue something other than music. But in the end, she said, music felt the most natural, and she caved in to the destiny of her DNA.
"I mean, there was a time when that was how I was going to rebel — by not being a musician," she said. "That would have hurt the family most, I think. When people ask about 'BMFA,' they say, 'How could you write such a thing?' But in our family, the real way to hurt someone would be to not write the song about it. That's the particular Wainwright dynamic, I guess."
Given that song's particular invective, does she get along with Dad?
"That's a good question, actually," she said. "We've always had a lot of similarities. We both see that, I think. We recognize each other in each other. And, really, that's a good feeling. It causes problems sometimes, but there are not many people on the planet you have that with. We like to spend time together, taking long walks or out on the sailboat. We're able to take our mind off the music and just sort of live."
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Phone: (312) 559-1212
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
When New Order finished playing "Transmission" — a quirky song by New Order's doomed, post-punk predecessor, Joy Division — singer Bernard Sumner hissed and said, "Enough of that rock s---! We want you to start dancing!" And, true to the band's hits-heavy set, they launched into "True Faith" as if it were a brand-new nightclub sensation.
Like most of the set Tuesday night at the Aragon Ballroom, these were songs they seemed obliged to play. God forbid a New Order concert should pass without "True Faith," "Bizarre Love Triangle" and the requisite Joy Division chestnut.
But during "Transmission," something happened that makes New Order shows still worth seeing after (gulp) a quarter of a century. This band — a British outfit we sometimes know more from dance floors and John Hughes movie soundtracks — actually rocked. Sumner matched the songs' quaint but deceptively foreboding mood with uncharacteristic growling and gurgling (it's a bit low for his range), while bassist Peter Hook barked and shrieked randomly. And for a few minutes, the New Order experience was about pogoing and pumping fists rather than twirling and dancing. Post-punk, indeed.
Tuesday's energetic show was spiced with such moments. Given that the band's live incarnation is a genuine guitar-bass-drums-vocals quartet, the occasional use of pre-recorded synthesizers and beats seemed surprisingly intrusive. The best songs were those that allowed guitarist Phil Cunningham to cut loose ("Regret," "Crystal") and let Hook show off his chiming namesake hooks in soloing poses at the edge of the stage (nearly every song, but especially the new "Hey Now What You Doing" and the opener, "Love Vigilantes").
Hook was manic, and once again he proved to be an invaluable asset in the band's attack — something not said about many bass players. Looking like a bedraggled Alan Rickman, Hook prowled the spotlight all night, plucking out the alarmingly simple bass melodies that make New Order, like so many of the British bands from that early '80s era, sound as good in concert and on the dance floor as it does in the car or on an iPod. Sometimes he's providing the groove, sometimes he's taking the melody, often he's doing both.
Again, this magic peaked during a Joy Division song, the classic "Love Will Tear Us Apart." It had its typically lumbering moments, but when Hook stopped bellowing indecipherably, dropped the melody and started grinding into his black bass next to drummer Stephen Morris' explosive kit, the two sparked some crackling fire, which Hook tamed to the end with an absurd but wildly cheered one-note solo back at stage's edge.
Sumner introduced all the songs — no suspense, no pretensions — cracked jokes and thanked Chicago for waiting 12 years since the band's last local show. And, really, it's that down-to-earth attitude that makes New Order still so engaging at this late date. The band didn't break new ground, by any means, but it rocked — no extended remix required.
at the Aragon Ballroom
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
They've grown up, those Hanson brothers, but they still wiggle and fidget like toddlers.
Stationed in a booth at Brookside's En Fuego restaurant on a July afternoon, the three Hansons talked about their new songs, their upcoming independent albums, their new tour — all while gesturing wildly, rocking back and forth, practically climbing the brick wall behind them.
Taylor, 20, doesn't really sit. He crouches. Like a big cat in a tree, he sits on his heels or keeps one leg bent in front — coiled, cocked, ready to pounce.
Zac — grown now, 17, with short hair — sits on his hands on the edge of the bench, shifting from side to side. Only Isaac, the elder at age 22, occasionally leans back. Two subjects, however, bring him forward with almost spittle-flying intensity: Little Richard and his new iPod portable MP3 player.
And if you understand nothing else about the meteoric musical machine that is Hanson, you must understand that. They're still listening to Little Richard — as crystalline, digitally compressed MP3s.
" 'Rip It Up' by Little Richard still just blows my mind," Isaac says, snapping his head back in an unconscious demonstration of his mind being blown. "The passion ... it's just incredible. And it makes me ask myself: 'Is my record anything like that?' "
Keep that word in mind: passion. The boys uttered it at least two dozen times during a one-hour interview, describing both their own music and that of their 1950s and '60s influences. They're so charged with passion that they can't sit still, and they're so driven to make music that they hardly seem to notice they've lost their label, their manager and numerous producers in the agonizing four-year process that led to their latest recordings.
Of course, you'd be perfectly within your rights to have lost a little — if not all — of your passion for Hanson's music.
In this out-of-sight/out-of-mind culture, the years since "This Time Around" was released in 2000 are like an eternity, particularly when many of the band's younger fans have gone from girls to graduates in that amount of time. Keeping a fresh face before the public hasn't been easy.
Then again, the delays in recording Hanson's new songs haven't caused that much attrition in the fan base. On Saturday, the trio launched a 13-city tour — intimate, acoustic performances in theaters and clubs this time around — and the entire run sold out weeks ago. Ninety percent of each venue was offered in advance exclusively to Hanson fan club members. (The tour does not include a Tulsa date.)
"Our fans are still out there, and they're sticking with us," Taylor says.
The tour is an assurance for those fans that, yes, Hanson is still around and, yes, a new album is on the way. Two, in fact.
"Underneath," Hanson's third proper studio record, is due next spring on the band's own record label, 3CG Records.
Available now, however, is "Underneath Acoustic," a collection of seven unplugged versions of songs from the forthcoming "Underneath," plus one bonus track. This disc is available through the band's Web site (www.hanson.net) and at this month's acoustic shows.
But what took so long to get this music before the fans?
"Patience," Isaac answers.
Not to mention a lot of music industry red tape and stalling.
"When we started this album, we wanted to knock it out really fast. We were excited about the momentum we had, and we were passionate about turning over the new songs," Taylor says.
"We'd just gotten off a successful tour, and we were ready to get it done."
"But anyone who knows anything about the music industry knows it's not only about the music," Isaac adds.
"Things got convoluted."
Hanson originally was signed to Mercury Records in 1997, which released the band's "Middle of Nowhere" album, its hit "MMMBop" single, plus some extracurricular show-me-the-money fare (the "Three Car Garage" retrospective of Hanson's early Tulsa recordings, the "Snowed In" Christmas record).
The sophomore outing was released on Island Def Jam, the conglomerate that gobbled up Mercury in '99, leaving Hanson without the support of the handlers who took them on in the beginning.
The group also lost its longtime manager last year.
"Suddenly everyone we knew at the label was gone, and we had gone from a rich label founded on R&B and Hank Williams to a company that markets rap," Taylor says.
"There wasn't quite an understanding. It was an accident waiting to happen. They didn't know what to do with our music," Isaac says.
"But we did."
So after numerous scrapped recording sessions with several producers, including an aborted coupling with Ric Ocasek, the trio cut its losses in April and negotiated out of its contract with Island Def Jam.
"Underneath" was finished with producer Danny Kortchmar (James Taylor, Neil Young, Don Henley).
"This is the way to do this, right now, by ourselves," Taylor said of his band's new indie venture.
"Artists have the ability to be their own record executive now. There's so much possibility on the Internet. We have the ability to make things happen. Now it's about more direct access to the fans and getting the music out in a more intimate way."
Oldies reborn — with a passion
All of this, though, is business, which the young Hanson brothers discuss with remarkable ease.
It's also the past, which is a place in which these boys do not dwell.
These are young guys living in the moment, spouting all manner of dreamy carpe diem philosophies in their conversation (Taylor: "We're all gonna be gone in a second," "You've got to make it count in this moment," "It's about what's happening now, you know?") and in the new songs.
"Underneath," it seems, is largely about cars and girls.
Which brings us back to those '50s and '60s songs lurking on Isaac's iPod.
Hanson may not dwell in the past, but these guys certainly dig its music.
"I have so much emotion, right here," he says, patting not his heart but his credit-card sized MP3 player from Apple.
"There's enough passion in this little machine right now to blow up this building."
It's from these oldies that Hanson has learned how to write songs. They didn't learn from sensitive singer-songwriters, socially conscious punks or anyone who graced modern rock radio in the '90s.
They learned from the inventors of rock 'n' roll. People with passion.
"We want to be like other people who make you believe it, whatever it is," Zac chimes in.
"When music doesn't feel genuine, it's not enjoyable. Others, when you listen to them, there's this sense of passion to it."
"Look at Norah Jones," Isaac says. "She didn't write that single, but she made you believe it. Aretha Franklin didn't write 'Respect,' but you know she made you believe that."
"She's a goddess," Taylor adds, as if it's an automatic response whenever her name is mentioned.
Isaac's comment is intriguing, too, considering this is a band that spent years making sure we knew they wrote their own material — that they were not a manufactured boy band.
In the last three years, have they decided that it's better to feel good than to look good?
Taylor returns to wrap up the subject more succinctly: "Life is just so f—-in' short, you know? You don't have time to pretend to like stuff that's stupid."
As an example, Taylor cites Hanson's new single, "Penny and Me."
He describes it as a song "about experiencing life in that moment."
It's a song that betrays the band's '50s influences more than most, because it's all about the aforementioned cars — with girls. The chorus:
'Cause Penny and me like to roll the windows down
Turn the radio up, push the pedal to the ground
And Penny and me like to gaze at starry skies
Close our eyes, pretend to fly
It's always Penny and me tonight
Other new songs are equally celebratory and centered in the present.
"Get Up and Go" is an exhortation to "take a walk on the wild side" with "a guy like me."
"Beautiful Eyes" is about gazing into a pair.
"Next Train" opens with the narrator explaining Hanson's basic space-time continuum: "Well, I finally found tomorrow/'Cause I just now found today/And I'm left with all the sorrow/lingering from yesterday."
Even the occasional references to negative forces are nebulous, nondescript; we never hear exactly what is wrong and making it "hard to breathe" in "Underneath," and only "End of the Line" features a character whose future is remotely bleak, who plans to finish her cigarette and "drown this town in kerosene" — for some unexplained reason.
Taylor likes to talk about "Rock and Roll Razorblade," a song that describes the life of a songwriter as nothing short of an addiction.
It's his way of explaining his own passion for this music.
"We've felt that, all of us," he says.
"We've been cut by it. We've been bitten by the bug of rock 'n' roll."
It's a positive outlook and, yes, a passion reminiscent of the boys' oldie idols.
Isaac, in particular, has been revisiting those idols lately. When Hanson broke in '97, many stories in the media mentioned the musical set the boys listened to habitually while growing up: a Time-Life collection of hits from the '50s and '60s.
Then, it was just a biographical anecdote.
Now, it's clear that those tracks were the Hanson fountainhead.
"That whole year, '89 to '90, I spent listening to those records," Isaac recalls.
"They were so familiar to me that I knew the exact amount of space between the songs. I was fascinated by people who could get so wrapped up in their music like that. I bought that old set on CD recently. I just had to hear it again."
The iPod is back in his shirt pocket, forgotten. "One of the things I want to do as an artist," he continues, "is to connect generations.
"People my age don't always know where their music comes from. I want to instill a passion to hear stuff like this, or at least get that passion into my own music.
"It's all about the passion, isn't it?"
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
A couple of months ago, there was another disc like this that turned my head: the Thorns — a supergroup (well, to indie pop fans) comprised of Shawn Mullins, Matthew Sweet and Pete Droge. They got together by happenstance and made a record of acoustic-driven songs loaded with three-part vocalizing. It's a whimsical love letter to the harmony groups that inspired them growing up — America, CSN, the Beach Boys. It's summery, carefree, easy.
The same could be said of the latest Hanson disc, an eight-song acoustic preview of the eagerly awaited third studio outing ("Underneath," due next spring) from the hit Tulsa trio. As much as these brothers are influenced by the spirit of '50s rock 'n' roll, their songwriting on this effort is closer to early '70s soft-rock, especially in this unplugged presentation, recorded live early this summer with a small audience at Tulsa's historic Church Studio. Several of the songs have the same lilt and sensitivity of England Dan & John Ford Coley or, more prominently, Bread (led by another famous Tulsan, David Gates). "Deeper," a powerful and passionate song sung by Isaac, is an example, and the title track, "Underneath," is a remarkably layered and carefully constructed ballad that would prick up Jimmy Webb's ears.
The flip side of this pleasantness is that, even though two-thirds of Hanson is now of legal age, these songwriters are still very, very young. These new songs are not trite, but they are quite light. That is, they breeze on about indistinct emotions and vague promises and lots of seizing the summertime moment. Not a bad thing, by any means — just a warning to the curious that Hanson hasn't exactly started mining much substance.
For instance, this disc sounds like the Indigo Girls' debut not only for its multiple acoustic guitars but because occasionally they throw a lyric at us straight out of a junior-high notebook. Example, from "Love Somebody to Know": "Bubbalicious is what she likes to chew / and Andy Warhol gave her her point of view." Then again, that could be an absolutely ingenious examination of the various definitions of pop. Maybe there are seeds of substance here, after all, but for now, as Taylor sings in "Penny and Me," it's all just a nice ride with the radio up and the windows down.
"Underneath Acoustic" is available only through the band's Web site (cf,fgc www.hanson.netcf,hell ) and at the concerts during this month's acoustic Hanson tour, which begins Saturday. (Alas, the closest the tour gets to Tulsa is Denver on Aug. 24.)
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Negativland is a band of self-described "culture jammers"
whose musical collage art has landed them in hot water
during the last decade.
The band's music is a process of cutting up, splicing
together and warping various sounds and recordings, netting
the flotsam and jetsam of our media culture and fusing it
back together in striking, poignant and sometimes grotesque
new shapes — and often, new statements. It's just like those
art-school collages, only in aural, not visual, art.
It's a less-traveled road which has made all the
difference for Negativland.
Two decades and countless lawsuits into its career,
Negativland is touring for the first time in seven years.
The True/False Tour brings the band's culture blending into
a live and ultimately more bracing setting. The multi-media
show incorporates musical instruments and countless sound
devices, as well as eight film projectors and three slide
"It took us two years to develop this show because we
wanted to be able to do it right and to create something
that very few people have experienced before," said Mark
Hosler, a charter Negativland member. "About 85 percent of
the show, too, is all original material that nobody has
heard before. We actually even collage our own material
from our own records."
Indeed, by 1986 — when a group showed up named Pop Will
Eat Itself — Negativland already had established the recipe
for that meal. Raiding the sonic junkyards of suburban
culture — television, telephones, other people's records --
and juicing up the sounds with occasional keyboards and
percussion, Negativland began in 1980 making records that
were disjointed aural sculptures.
The core members of Negativland met at an after-school
job: conducting telephone surveys about people's favorite
TV shows. Discovering a shared fascination for tinkering
with noises, they followed a friend's advice and assembled
their first collages into a self-titled album.
"The covers were all hand-made, not because that's what
we wanted to do but because we didn't know how you got
things printed, how you turned a piece of artwork into
printed pieces of cardboard," Hosler said. "So I spent my
senior semester of art class making the covers by hand,
using old wallpaper books and such. The covers, basically,
were collages, too."
In the visual arts, this appropriation rarely raises any
concerns, but in music — particularly since the advent of
hip-hop and sampling — the word "appropriation" attracts
lawyers like blood attracts sharks. Negativland has
received more than its share of mail with "Attorneys at Law"
in the return address, starting with 1989's "Helter Stupid"
album, the cover of which featured a photo of convicted
Minnesota mass murderer David Broom. The album was a
disturbing masterpiece on media manipulation.
The most famous run-in with the law, though, occurred a
couple of years later when Negativland picked on someone
much bigger. The band released a single called "U2," which
made fun of Bono's band by picking out the melody of "I
Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on kazoos and
included tapes of a profanity-laced studio tantrum by
swell-guy radio star Casey Kasem. The resulting legal
battle with U2 galvanized the band as crusaders for
redefining the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. The
battle and the band's resulting theories are chronicled in
a book, "Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral
2," and the group's web site is now a clearinghouse for
discussion of the limits of sampling and collage uses of
other musicians' work — the difference between piracy and
"the transformative re-use of material from multiple sources
to create new, original works . . . Collage is not theft."
"In the visual arts, collage is making one-of-a-kind
pieces, and it's under the label of fine art. Music,
though, is mass produced. It's pop culture. The monied
interests are more involved and they make it into a whole
new ball game," Hosler said. "Nobody cared when we were doing
this back in the '80s. Only with hip-hop becoming a bigger
part of music did things change.
"The mentality has changed. We saw it happen with the
`U2' single, and now it's happening with computers and the
Internet. Napster is a front-page story on USA Today, and
it's all about the issues we started dealing with in '90
and '91. Once it becomes digital, the concept of theft and
property is turned on its head. The original and the copy
are the same. And the way the music industry makes money is
by having tight control over the distribution, so once that
becomes endangered, they freak out. These threats against
Napster are the terrified screams of a dying industry that
wants to stop the future from happening."
Hosler, in fact, sees virtually all art as collage art.
In other words, every new idea is simply the recombination
of other, old ideas into a new form.
"That's the natural creative impulse — it's
transformational more than purely creative, as in starting
from nothing," he said. "We take chunks of actual things and
recombine them. It's not outright counterfeit when you
create something new. But now these businesses want to stop
that, stop people from being creative. Time-Warner and all
that — they want total control of everything and they want
us to sit back and be passive consumers. If you follow that
logic all the way through, it's the death of culture. It's
mean-spirited, and it's just dumb."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Side, 6906 S. Lewis Ave.
Tickets: $15 at the door
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
"This Time Around"
(Island Def Jam)
Anyone here heard Mitch Ryder?
OK, let me rephrase: has anyone under 40 heard Mitch
He and his quintet, the Detroit Wheels, did for soul
music in the '60s what Elvis did for rock 'n' roll in the
'50s: introduced it to a white audience. Ryder, the Spencer
Davis Group, the Animals — these groups comprised the bridge
from the underlying groove of Temptations and Four Tops
hits to the soul influences that showed up at the turn of
the '70s in groups ranging from Joe Cocker, Traffic
(featuring Steve Winwood, the engine in the Spencer Davis
Group), all the way to Springsteen.
Ryder, in particular, was an indispensable shaman. With
his frayed, dizzying wail, Ryder led the Wheels'
piston-pumping backbeat through a string of tightly wound
hits in '66 and '67 — "Jenny Take a Ride," "Sock It to Me,
Baby," "Devil With the Blue Dress On/Good Golly Miss Molly" --
all of which evoked the pioneers of soul before him while
laying down his own tread on the music. Without Ryder's
shot of energy, it's questionable whether fellow Detroit
rockers like Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, the MC5 and even the
Stooges would have had enough gunpowder to explode out of
The Hanson brothers know a lot about Ryder.
They covered a few of his hits in concert and on the
resulting live album largely because they were raised on
that music. Living abroad and being home-schooled here in
Tulsa throughout their youth (which ain't over yet), they
enjoyed a unique isolation with those old rock and soul
collections and fed on that same high energy — so much so
that when they themselves finally emerged into the musical
world, their own unique gifts transmitted the same power.
On the trio's eagerly anticipated follow-up to its
multi-platinum debut, they finally seize that opportunity,
like Ryder, to divine the hidden glories of American soul
music to a new generation — a new, white, affluent
generation — as well as to define their own sights,
synergies and sound.
In summary, it RRRocks.
"This Time Around" could have been a wreck. Early reports
were not good — initial sessions with former Cars frontman
and producer extraordinaire Ric Ocasek had been scrapped
for murky reasons (translation: the record label didn't
hear another "MMMBop"), and Hanson had been shoved back into
the studio with Stephen Lironi, the producer of Hanson's
smash debut, "Middle of Nowhere." The debut was certainly a
good record, but had Hanson merely retreaded it for the
follow-up, they'd be destroyed. Too many eyes were on them,
too many ears — too many expectations for a great leap
What a leap they've made. Lironi's presence on "This Time
Around" can be heard in the pitiful scratching sounds that
dumb down otherwise solid tracks like "If Only," but the new
record is clearly a committed assertion by three willful
youngsters determined to avoid being written off amid the
boy-band craze they helped to create. There's still not
another "MMMBop" here. One wonders how much they had to fight
the corporate money-changers to take the steps evident here
— the unabashed soul, the high-octane rock 'n' roll — and
whether the marketing department at Island Def Jam is
stymied as to how they'll push the record.
They certainly can't be worried about the record's
potential. "This Time Around" could play on virtually any
radio station — that is, within any confining format. Send
"Dying to Be Alive" to a classic R&B station. Drop "Save Me"
among the silly modern rock balladry of Kid Rock and Third
Eye Blind, or at least send it to adult contemporary. Make
sure to twist the arm of mainstream rock moguls so they
play "This Time Around." Heck, they don't even have to
back-announce it — run it up against a Black Crowes song and
your average KMOD listener probably wouldn't even blink.
The worry is whether or not those other radio stations will
deign to give Hanson a chance this time around. After all,
Hanson's a kiddie band, right? They're like the Backstreet
Boys, they don't belong at the table with the adults.
That attitude is pretty prevalent (especially among the
audience this record could hit the hardest — people my age,
on either side of 30), and "This Time Around" likely will be
a slow burn compared to "Middle of Nowhere." There's plenty
of fuel for the fire, though. The tunefulness and the hooks
they mastered the first time around are still here, but the
tunes are more complex, the hooks more skillfully cast. The
title-track single tip-toes out of the gate with a soft
piano introduction, but by the chorus it's chugging with a
300-horsepower riff and see-sawing between the contrary
powers of Journey and Stevie Wonder. "Dying to Be Alive"
draws heavily on the boys' soul influences and features a
small gospel choir led by Rose Stone (of Sly and the Family
Stone). On "In the City," Hanson dances on the edge of
accessibility, bleeding off the sunshine from the
arrangement and singing a pretty desperate plea to an
adulterous partner. "You Never Know" opens the record as if
the boys have gone to War, brightening a heavy groove and
singing, perhaps portentously, "You never know, baby / You
never know, baby / You judge the song by a lie that was
Or he could be singing "soul." As with all great soul
singers, it's hard to discern the words accurately. Taylor,
the middle Hanson boy and its forthright lead vocalist, is
certainly a great soul singer, possibly one day to be
hailed among the best of Generation Y (though Macy Gray is
going to give him one hell of a fight for that title). His
voice is immensely powerful and dynamic — if that come-back
line "Do you know why I died?" at the end of the title track
doesn't stop your heart, double-check that you're still
actually alive — and when, as he grows older, it becomes a
partner to his passions, he might rewrite the story of
Jericho. It's a SOULFUL voice, too, full of chewy
inflections and gritty, guttural wails. It seems to come
from an unspoken inner drive, a burgeoning catharsis, more
than a heady desire to convey a literate message.
Granted, soul music is virtually dead today — replaced by
slick, machine-driven R&B, which has nothing whatsoever to
do with the rhythm and blues that created the acronym in
the first place — but Taylor's pipes and his brothers'
developing rhythmic chops on this CD could be cracking open
the coffin. (And to the credit of Isaac's and Zac's
instrumental talents, this album's guest players like Jonny
Lang and Blues Traveler's John Popper wholeheartedly fail
to steal the show.) Ryder & Co. translated the music across
lines of color; Hanson could transfer the music across
lines of age and experience. Either way, "This Time Around"
is one teeth-rattling, high-energy rock fest.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
OK, yes, Hanson is comprised of three boys. This does
not, however, make them a boy band.
At least not in the strict sense of that new
colloquialism. The Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, 98 Degrees --
these are "boy bands." They're pretty, preened and packaged
for ready sale. They hire European professionals to write
their songs, and they sweat through vigorous choreography
The Hanson brothers might be young and fresh-faced, but
they have no time for synchronized dancing because they're
actually playing instruments. They also write their own
songs and even co-produced their new album. They are boys,
for now, but they are definitely a band.
"From the very beginning, we tried hard to do our own
thing, to write our own songs and to be as involved in the
whole thing as any other real musician would be," said Isaac
Hanson, the eldest member of the brotherly trio.
In two weeks, the world will see what happens when three
brothers — Isaac, Taylor and Zac — stop being polite and
start getting real. "This Time Around," the Tulsa band's
follow-up album to the '97 multi-platinum hit debut "Middle
of Nowhere," hits record store shelves on May 9. The new
record pumps up the volume a bit, leaning more heavily
toward guitar-driven rock and featuring some high-profile
In person, the differences between Hanson old and new
would be quite apparent. Isaac's braces are gone, and he's
now the middle child height-wise; Taylor tops him by an
inch. On record, the contrast is almost as clear. Where the
hit single "MMMBop" hearkened back to the sweet grooves of
the Jackson 5, the new single — the title track — is a
piano-driven shot of Southern soul that could land Hanson a
slot on a new H.O.R.D.E. tour.
"When you're the one evolving, of course, you don't
notice it much. To us, it feels like a natural change,"
Taylor said during this week's conversation from the band's
promotional duties in Tokyo. "Those changes you do hear
right away are, OK, the voices are lower, so there's a
slightly different sound to accommodate that, and in that
sense it has more of an edge to it."
The increased soul quotient is no surprise, really.
Before the Hanson family — now seven children strong --
settled in Tulsa, they followed father Walker Hanson's work
transfers around South America. In their home-schooled
foreign isolation, the Hanson brothers soaked up Mom and
Dad's collections of '60s soul music. "When you hear
Aretha Franklin sing 'Respect,' that's like an undeniable
sense of musicality that can't help strike you, no matter
who you are or what you want to do," Taylor said.
This time around, Hanson hooked up with one of those
early soul icons. One track on the new album, called "Dying
to Be Alive," features a gospel choir led by Rose Stone of
Sly and the Family Stone. Working with her was a humbling
experience for the Hansons, Isaac said. "She does that
scatting thing on the end, and she was very sheepish about
doing it. The 10 people in there said, `Rose, what are you
talking about? You should do it.' So she wailed. She's this
little lady, too, and this huge sound came out. It was just
amazing. We were standing in the studio, looking at her in
the tracking room, and she belted it. All of us looked at
each other like, `Wow!' We thought, `We're just going to
retire right now.' All that singing we thought we were
doing — we realized how far we have to go," he said.
Blues guitarist Jonny Lang — who's Isaac's age — plays
three solos on "This Time Around," and Blues Traveler
frontman John Popper does some wailing of his own on
The resulting sound is indeed miles distant from the
boy-band clique, which often flies under the banner of R&B
(an acronym whose antecedents have been somewhat forgotten --
it's rhythm and blues.
"The early R&B had a big influence on us," Isaac said.
"Aretha Franklin is R&B. But Lauryn Hill is great, and she's
R&B. The Backstreet stuff is closer to what I call rhythm
pop. It's just pop, really. We're pop, too, in a sense, but
this is more rock 'n' roll in its essence."
"The (new R&B) is more drastically different," Taylor
said. "Now you're layering loops and it's a completely
different style of music. It's not even the same thing
anymore. The only thing (today) that touches on original
soul is someone like Lauryn Hill, who is still vocally in
that real R&B sense. She's one of those people who really
The key to "This Time Around," if you haven't yet noticed,
is that it's an album that might finally be discussed for
its musical offerings rather than generating mere useless
gossip about three cute pinups and their dating prospects.
The fans of the first album are older now, a little less
prone to hysterics and probably listening to music more
than simply reacting to it.
That doesn't mean the gossip mongers have lost any work.
The boys are still amazed at how quickly the minutiae of
their daily lives is reported on someone's Hanson web
"Sometimes you wonder who's telling people all this
stuff," Zac said. "We got a dog at one point. I mean, we'd
just gotten it. We hadn't told anyone, and the next day
what kind it was and how old it was was out there (on the
web). There's not much you can do about it." Some
personal information is sought after just to check the
status of the band, though. Two waves of rumors about Isaac
quitting the band to go to college palpitated the hearts of
local fans last year. A home-schooled student like all of
his siblings, he is technically finished with high school
now and is auditing a few college courses (physics and, go
figure, music theory). He said college plans are on the
table for the future, and he has looked at some schools.
What that would mean for Hanson's future remains
unclear. Isaac himself said probably very little, because
the music is the driving force for the family.
"I think we all want to continue this as long as we can,"
he said. "I saw Les Paul two months ago in a little jazz
club in New York City. He's 83 now and still playing
guitar. He invented the solid-body guitar and multi-track
recording, and he's still playing, still doing it. I hope
we can do that."
Hanson brothers ready for another busy year
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
Children seem distracted? Are they having trouble
focusing on schoolwork? Newly shellacked nails already
bitten to the nub?
Relax, it's probably nothing to worry about. They're
just anxious for the new Hanson album, "This Time Around,"
which is due in record stores May 9.
The three Tulsa-native Hanson brothers — Isaac, Taylor
and Zac — took time out from promotional duties in Tokyo
this week to phone home and chat with the Tulsa World about
the new record and its amplified rock 'n' roll chops.
The boys are ready for another busy year of circling the
globe to promote the record.
"I hope it's a crazy year," Zac said. "That's a good thing.
That means somebody likes it."
"This Time Around," on the reorganized Island Def Jam
record label, is the trio's fourth album, but it's the real
follow-up to 1997's multimillion-selling "Middle of Nowhere"
disc, which featured the hit single "MMMBop." After the debut
record came a Christmas album ("Snowed In") and a live set
("Live From Albertane"), but "This Time Around" is the first
full-length recording of all-new material since Hanson
opened the Top 40 floodgates for bright teen pop.
It's a bit overdue. The new record was scheduled for
release last fall, but original recording sessions with
noted producer and former Cars singer Ric Ocasek were
scrapped for still-murky reasons. The boys rehired "Middle
of Nowhere" producer Stephen Lironi and tried again.
"We actually did take longer than we thought to make this
record, and that's just the way the dice fell," Isaac said.
"We felt confident about it, though."
Most of the songs were written and demoed in the
Hansons' home studio in Tulsa, and three more were created
in the California recording studio.
No touring plans have yet been set to support the new
album. Hanson leaves Japan on Sunday for more promotional
events in South America, and they said they look forward to
coming home again — whenever that might be.
By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Nearly 15 years ago, I took a date to a great date show. Brave Combo was playing on the lawn at an art museum in Oklahoma City. We took a picnic, we languished through the warm evening on the cool grass, and later, as I laid back on our blanket, the band started playing "The Bunny Hop." Lead singer-accordionist Carl Finch stepped into the crowd and picked up a long line of children behind him. They meandered around the grounds doing "The Bunny Hop," and Finch led the entire processional stepping right over my head.
So it was really no surprise when we caught up with Finch this week as he and the band are working on their next record — a children's album.
"It's definitely a natural step for us," Finch said from his Denton, Texas studio. "People have told us for years how much their kids liked our music, and these were all albums not (solely) intended for kids."
The children's album will be a typically quick follow-up to Brave Combo's current CD, "The Process," which was just released and is itself a significant departure from the band's norm. Brave Combo, you see, is a polka band.
Polka is their musical base, anyway. In the last two decades — for they just celebrated a 20th anniversary — Brave Combo has served as a freewheeling crash course in world dance music, creating new songs based on old forms and turning rock 'n' roll classics into something you could dance to cheek-to-cheek — those being literal cheeks or the, um, other body part. Their early polka remake of the Doors' "People Are Strange" definitely raised their profile, and "The Process" turns Foreigner's "Double Vision" into a smoky, seductive mambo.
Brave Combo, however, is not a novelty act. Twenty years later, Finch is still having to defend himself and his band — though not as much as he used to — and this week he talked about that, about the overlooked genius of polka music and about winning his first Grammy award.
Thomas: If someone had promised you, back in 1980, that you'd still be making records and even winning Grammys in 20 years, how would you have reacted?
Carl: With great disbelief. I knew I dug the music, but I had no idea how large the polka world really was. I thought I was kind of onto something, but I realized a lot of other people were thinking along these same lines. For me, it's been a process of figuring out that I fit into a picture already, not that I have to paint my own ... So I've been able to get swept up in it. I like the power of polka, the tension and release. I like how polka musicians are aware of the power of this formula, how this happens technically within the polka and how they work to maximize that impact of the tension and release. A lot of music does that but not to the degree polka does it, and so many cultures have latched onto that power — Tejano, Slovenian, Czech, Polish, German.
Thomas: Some people out there are laughing at this by now — polka music. Why does polka get that derision?
Carl: Well, it's changing. The youngest generation with any listening and buying power now don't have as many preconceived ideas, and a lot of younger musicians don't have the old connections with squareness. It's a dying concept leftover from square TV and perceptions of polka as this bland, Lawrence Welk thing — though even he, when he was younger, was hopping on buses and going from town to town. There was mission behind what he did ... People who think polka is square are the most square and uninformed people around. The hippest people know it.
Thomas: Just a month ago, you won the Grammy for Best Polka Album for your record that came out last year, "Polkasonic." Has that helped your own mission to nationalize modern polka?
Carl: Actually, our challenge now that we won that Grammy is to not be considered ungrateful outsiders within the polka world. We have to make sure that those in the trenches know we're serious and committed.
Thomas: Being somewhat irreverent and pop-oriented, it's probably harder to play for a polka-loving crowd than a rock club.
Carl: Some of the polka fans get livid about us, saying we shouldn't even exist. They don't think we're serious. They also usually come from the belief that polka should be played only one way: their way — in a certain style like Slovenian or Czech, etc. We're a weird mixture of all the styles, and we've been around doing this for 20 years, so our (musical) vocabulary is pretty good.
Thomas: About five years ago, Brave Combo issued a collaboration album with the late Tiny Tim — certainly a mixture of new attitudes and old. Your band is pretty well-armed with irony, while Tiny took his music very seriously. The album is fantastic, but how did that pairing work?
Carl: There's a lot more irony there than you would imagine from him, and we in turn were a lot more serious. The record took a long time to do, but we were conscious throughout that we didn't want this to throw us further into the novelty bin people always channel us into. We didn't want this to be a cheap knock-off for him, either. That's why we had him go into his big songbook to get stuff from the turn of the century and the 19th century, in addition to, you know, the Beatles songs we did.
Thomas: Like "Sly Cigarette," which is such a great old song.
Carl: Exactly, it's my favorite of that batch. "Sly Cigarette" — how politically incorrect can you get? That's why we chose it. And we still play it.
Thomas: The Grammy for "Polkasonic" was awarded in February, then your new record, "The Process," came out in March. Wasting no time, I see.
Carl: "Polkasonic" was on another label, and we certainly didn't plan on the Grammy. But it was released by a label, Cleveland International, that got behind it and pushed it really hard. It made serious headway into the polka world, and it actually won the Grammy, beating some pretty heavy-duty guys. "The Process" came out the next month, which is both great and unfortunate at the same time. A little confusing.
Thomas: "The Process" is your most accessible, pop-oriented album yet. Was this the plan or just the next evolutionary step?
Carl: The total effort behind this record is to find more airplay. We were working on the songs and writing a group that fit us but reached out in different directions. We wanted to make a record that might confuse critics and our fans but open some new doors into radio.
Thomas: Was it difficult to fit the polka elements into the pop songs?
Carl: It's different than usual, different than putting the dance style first. For me, part of it was a catharsis, using music to help deal with some internal struggles. I made those the reason and meaning this time out. It's about a process not just of writing and expressing but of living and being human. The song "Golden Opportunity" sums it up: even the (bad) things are supposed to happen.
Thomas: And you've finally written a song called "Denton, Texas," your home base. Why did it take you 20 years to do that?
Carl: Just kind of time, I guess. We've been treated so well here. They've named it Brave Combo week here, and we've become sort of ambassadors for Denton. We're working on becoming the kings of Denton. We're very recognizable here.
Thomas: How did Denton, Texas, come to be so supportive of a polka band?
Carl: When we got together this was a big jazz and prog-rock town. So when we came around doing polkas, they kind of understood the sophistication of it.
Thomas: Tell me about the children's record.
Carl: We're doing it with a couple of kid album veterans, Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink. We were doing a festival in southern California, and they were there. They saw our show and were staying at the same hotel. We hung out, and they said they'd like to do a record with us ... I'd never thought about it seriously until this. To be honest, the songs and content may be more for kids, but the songs sound like Brave Combo songs. Musically, it's just as sophisticated and adult, but the themes are for kids. We're doing an old Harry Belafonte song, "Real Simple Thing." It's concepts kids can relate to — mountains, water, valleys — but adults will be able to put their own meaning to it, as well. One song is about not wanting to clean up your room, and we've put it to a sinister cha-cha beat. Whatever it means, you know, it doesn't matter. It's just a song.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.