Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Quality time with A Tribe Called Quest, R.I.P. Phife

I listen to music constantly - anything and everything I can get my ears on. I'm an unabashed music glutton probably in need of some kind of therapy. It's safe to say because of this insatiable, uncontrollable urge - let's call it a disease - no artist is on heavy rotation in any device that injects this art form into my soul. Not Johnny Cash, not Brian Wilson, not The Cure, not Morrissey - my favorites. This is all the more reason I just had a WTF moment when I learned that the great Phife Dawg passed away at 45.

Phife, Q-Tip and their hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, spent a better part of the last few months unmercifully bruising my ear drums with their sick beats and indomitable lyrics. After a one-off reunion performance on The Tonight Show to celebrate the 25th anniversary and reissue of their masterpiece debut LP "People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm," I couldn't get enough of them.

Part nostalgia-part getting to know an old friend better, I have been binging on all-things-Tribe since that November performance. I had a few Tribe and Q-Tip solo songs here and there, and, of course, the Tribe's "The Low End Theory," which was the hip-hop soundtrack of my high school days, but there was plenty I had not heard. I bought all of their albums and went through their entire catalogue. I watched their award-winning documentary. And I even ordered myself A Tribe Called Quest T-shirt, which I just so happened to throw on this morning, before I learned of Phife's passing. If there were Tribe action figures and lunch boxes, who knows, I may have bought 'em also. Feels like I just got to know a long-lost uncle really well, and he gets hit by a bus. WTF, indeed.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, let me be a hypocrite and ask you to do something I wouldn't do myself: put the Tribe on heavy rotation. With Phife, they delivered the best three-punch combo in the history of rap: "People's Instinctive Travels...," "The Low End Theory," and "Midnight Marauders." Phife and Q-Tip's lyrical barrage over Ali Shaheed Muhammad's jazzy beats and genius samples (few can get away with sampling Lou Reed AND French national anthem, "La Marseillaise") will be well worth the price of (my) admission.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Celebrating George Harrison's 73rd Birthday

Musicians of all flavors and eras, including Brian Wilson, Perry Farrell, The Flaming Lips, "Weird" Al Yankovic, and Norah Jones, gathered at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles one - otherwise unceremonious - evening in September 2014 to perform the music of George Harrison. Music and video from that evening, dubbed "George Fest: A Night to Celebrate the Music of George Harrison," will be released February 26, 2016, the day after what would have been his 73rd birthday.

Harrison, the so-called quiet Beatle, was anything but, when it came to artistic expression. Even in the shadow of the towering Lennon-McCartney songwriting monoduolith, Harrison gave us some of The Beatles' most gorgeous songs, including "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," with a little help from Eric Clapton and released in 1968's "White Album." And the very next year, Harrison gave us "Something" off "Abbey Road."

But arguably, the full spectrum of Harrison's glimmering songwriting and guitar chops didn't come into focus until The Beatles' break up in April 1970. As if to say, I'm done being the quite one, he dropped the critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and very ambitious triple album "All Things Must Pass" on November 27, 1970 - just eight months after the break up. It included songs The Beatles had previously passed on, including the title track. It also included his masterpiece, "My Sweet Lord." If this doesn't give you chills, check your pulse.

His solo music career continued to thrive for many years, but not before Harrison the Activist reached another career pinnacle in 1971, when he spearheaded the Concert for Bangladesh to raise international awareness and funds for refugees from Bangladesh, then East Pakistan. It became the model for future massive, social-awareness, benefit concerts, including Live Aid and Farm Aid.

In 1988, Harrison formed one of the most remarkable A-list supergroups ever. Along with Jeff Lynne, the group consisted of music giants Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty.

Given his place in the pantheon of music, revisiting his catalogue through the interpretation of some of his greatest fans, who also happen to be great musicians, seems appropriate. Harrison wrote The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," also off "Abbey Road." In the Fab Four's incomparable repertoire, which includes some of the greatest rock 'n' roll pop songs ever recorded, "Here Comes the Sun" might just be among their finest and most revered songs. This is one of the many covers that will be available in the upcoming "George Fest" release. This rendition features Farrell on vocals, the Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne on guitar, Norah Jones on back vocals, with several other musicians, including George's boy Dhani, playing and singing along.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Brian Wilson flattered (and elated)

By Brian Wilson's admission, he essentially worshipped Phil Spector and his famed wall of sound - complex, layered arrangements of music that left no dead air within songs. Wilson particularly loved The Ronettes' "Be My Baby." Though a little far-fetched, some music insiders even speculated Wilson's masterpiece "Pet Sounds" had the same initials as Spector as a nod to him.

But by most accounts, Spector was never very gracious to Brian's adulation. And when Brian wrote the gorgeous doo-wop, Motown-sounding ballad "Don't Worry Baby" with the intention of the Ronettes recording it, Spector was dismissive - he passed on it. The Beach Boys ended up recording a fine version.

I was surprised to learn that in 1999 Ronnie Spector, ex-wife of Phil Spector, and lead vocalist of the Ronettes finally recorded Brian's "Don't Worry Baby." Brian's reaction - when KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer tells him this on the air - is pure gold.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Eagles of Death Metal share their story of Paris attack

Powerful. The Eagles of Death Metal tell their unbelievable story to Vice. About halfway through their Nov. 13 show at the Bataclan in Paris, two gunmen came in and shot indiscriminately into the crowd. The band members themselves barely made it out. Their merchandise guy Nick Alexander, didn't make it. Short of seeing footage of the massacre, this is the most vivid account I have read or heard. If you're not familiar with the Eagles of Death Metal, don't let their name scare you off. They're not as hard as their name might suggest. Their debut album "Peace, Love and Death Metal" is as good as lo-fi, garage rock gets - that's saying a lot. Peace, love and death metal, indeed.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A good review of Adele's '25'

Love or hate Adele, this is a great review of her latest album "25" by The Post's pop music critic Chris Richards​. In my mind, a good music critic provides the reader with the context surrounding the music and identifies its elusive narrative, its universal connective tissue - the deeper meaning the artist may be explicitly or implicitly trying to convey. A good music critic gives enough of this goodness so the reader is able to arrive at their own conclusion. A good music critic doesn't impose his or her interpretation of something subjective. In this regard, Chris nails it. Too many critics try to be irreverent for irreverence sake at the expense of someone else's art, seemingly unaware of how deep the pen can sometimes cut. This is a read of fresh air.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Act of Contrition: Share '70s Turkish Psychedelic Funk with everyone

Raised Catholic, I know a thing or two about guilt. It's our spiritual specialty. So you can imagine my guilt, shame and embarrassment when I visited Barcelona and Salvador Rey of The Pinker Tones, very casually, over lunch, said, "You know, Turkey has some pretty great '70s funk. There's a guy named Mustafa Ozkent or Okzent. Have you heard of him?"

"Um, no," I mumbled back nearly inaudibly, hoping he didn't hear me.

With my Turkish American wife Deniz sitting next to me and my passport containing about a half-dozen Turkish stamps, I recoiled. Not only had I not heard of Mustafa Özkent (I had to look him up), somehow the entire movement - this exquisite and inexhaustible musical thread, in a country that's become a second home - had slithered between my fingers for 15 years. And I never bothered to pull. Flabby, puckish bass lines, kaleidoscopic moog synthesizers, and metal-on-metal electric guitar scratch combined with traditional squeaky zurna clarinets and plump, davul bass drums, swirl together through hypnotic Middle Eastern makam scales - an auditory hallucinogen.

Unknowingly, I must have experienced a second-hand high at some point, as it turns out aspects of this music have intersected my life at various turns. My kids, for example, love to sing along to one of the movement's linchpins Barış Manço, but I was mostly aware of his children's songs. I knew of Cem Karaca, another important figure, but only through Deniz's disdain for his '70s caricature look: big shades, butterfly collar shirt, bell bottoms. In hindsight, this should have been reason enough to pique my interest. And then my brother-in-law Yavuz has passed on a healthy dosage of songs from this era, but they were lost in the thousands of MP3s he's given me over the years.

For years, Deniz half-jokingly ribbed me for never craving Turkish music despite my insatiable, omnivorous appetite for music. We don't have that problem anymore. Not only is this music rich in artistic merit, there's enough out there to keep me nourished for years. But I deserve to take my medicine. As an act of contrition, I've made it a point to share this instantly gratifying music with everyone. Hopefully, my penance is your gain.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Morrissey Finds Joie de Vivre After Almost Dying

Kissing death does something to you. This much was evident during Morrissey’s performance at D.C.’s Echostage June 17.

Following four life-threatening maladies, the 56-year-old British pop icon with his graying, thinning coif and a penchant for melodrama left it all on stage: moxy, voice, activism, and everything in between.

Between 2013 and 2014, he cancelled many shows, including those scheduled in D.C., due to a bleeding ulcer, double pneumonia, a cancer scare, and food poisoning, in which he “officially died for nine minutes,” as he recently told Alternative Nation.

So when he marched on stage in designer jeans and in a white dress shirt with an iridescent lamé “V” zipped down mid-chest, looking healthy and slim, he received a Beatlemania-like reception: part euphoria, part disbelief, part relief.

He launched into “Suedehead,” his first single off his 1988 solo debut album “Viva Hate.” Before finishing the song’s first line: “Why do you come here?” and despite fans screaming along, it was immediately evident that his pipes were in top form. By song’s end, any concerns regarding the range and strength of his idiosyncratic baritone were gone.

He hit and held notes effortlessly, as he vocally pirouetted from song to song in a 30-plus-year, career-spanning set. He pulled from 2015’s solo album “World Peace is None of Your Business” and went as far back as 1985, when he fronted The Smiths – the short-lived, but highly influential Manchester quartet.

But deep cuts like “Will Never Marry” proved to be his high points, as well as fresh takes on fan faves like “Speedway.” Three-quarters into the song, the band members switched places and even Morrissey retreated into the shadows with a tambourine, allowing multi-instrumentalist, Colombian-Ecuadorian-American Gustavo Manzur to take center stage and sing the final verse. En Español.

Uncharacteristic for a lead singer, especially one with a revolving, unnamed band, Morrissey relinquished the spotlight to Manzur two more times: during the Spanish-guitar solo finale of “Staircase at the University” and during the chorus of “World Peace Is None of Your Business,” which Manzur turned into “Paz Mundial, El Asunto Que No Te Concierne.”

Morrissey’s frugal but humorous stage banter was also in fine form. Here’s his sardonic apology for having cancelled his previous D.C. shows: “Our band has a very high suicide rate.” And before singing “The World Is Full of Crashing Bores,” he asked the crowd not to take the next song too personally.

But beyond his carpe diem performance, there was something else that suggested Morrissey was raging “against the dying of the light,” as poet Dylan Thomas wrote. Rather than squander his platform with the kind of snarky, petulant diatribes that have made him infamous – he’s ripped on the British throne, “McDonna,” and “Kentucky Fried shit” – the world-class provocateur found his most compelling activist voice. Yes, the boy-man with a thorn in his crotch seemed far more interested with his faithful taking action than simply lending him a cynical ear. And ironically, he didn’t need to say much. Two visceral montages projected behind the band did most of his proselytizing.

The first showed disturbing footage of police gone wild. Though there were plenty of violent takedowns and nightstick beat downs, the far more incriminating scenes showed officers seemingly enjoying the ugly part of their work. They smiled and high-fived each following brutal confrontations and gratuitously pepper-sprayed apprehended, handcuffed demonstrators at point-blank range.

These scenes rolled as Morrissey growled, “The police are grinding me into the ground… They say, 'To protect and to serve,' but what they really mean to say is get back to the ghetto” from the B-side “Ganglord” – an otherwise innocuous song, if not for the recent high-profile police homicides, including Freddie Gray’s 40 minutes north of the venue. The 25-year-old African American young man’s mysterious death, while in police custody following his arrest for allegedly possessing an illegal switchblade, drove Baltimore into weeks of rioting.

The second montage came near the set’s end when he sang The Smiths-era vegetarian anthem and title track of their second album, “Meat is Murder.” A staunch animal rights activist and almost militant vegetarian, Morrissey doesn’t mince words when it comes to causes he champions. But on this day, he wants action to be everyone’s middle name. The graphic videos spliced together are gruesome and nearly impossible to watch all the way through. The revelation here was not that animals get killed for our consumption. It was the how.

The methods seemed cruel and inhumane. Sheep’s necks sliced open, as their futile struggle to break free only soaked their white wool coats in red. Their convulsing bodies slowed down to a lifeless, limp stop. The look of terror in a cow’s eyes was undeniable as a vice-like contraption crushed its head and a butcher decapitated it.

Morrissey sang the haunting lyrics with noticeable anger and disgust, adding an f-bomb for alliteration and effect: “The flesh you so fancifully fry… The meat in your fat fucken mouth, as you savor the flavor of murder!”

At the end of montage, a banner read: “What’s your excuse now?” Throughout the venue, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were handing literature and talking to anyone who cared to convert.

Oscar Wilde, one of Morrissey’s literary heroes, wrote that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Long before Morrissey came face to face with death, he’ has always written about the bleak, miseries of life – a case of art imitating life. Ironic then that when death paid a visit, rather than succumb to paralyzing depression, it has given him a newfound joie de vivre. Lyrics notwithstanding, perhaps his is a case of life imitating art.

Staircase at the University
World Peace Is None of Your Business
Kiss Me A Lot
Will Never Marry
One Of Our Own
The Bullfighter Dies
Now My Heart Is Full
The World Is Full of Crashing Bores
I Will See You In Far-Off Places
I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris
Everyday Is Like Sunday
Neal Cassady Drops Dead
Meat Is Murder
What She Said

First of the Gang to Die