Archive: March 2007

Harry Connick, Jr.: She

Much ado was made of Harry Connick, Jr. back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. He was simultaneously hailed and derided for being the next Frank Sinatra, having scored commercial success with albums of jazz standards.

In the mid-’90s, Connick ditched that bread and butter by releasing a pair of rock albums — She in 1994, Star Turtle in 1996. I’m not much an adherent to the great American songbook, but Connick looked like he was committing career suicide at the time, and I wanted to hear what it sounded like.

A "Harry Connick, Jr. rock album" didn’t turn out to be Pat Boone crooning metal hits or Garth Brooks indulging a rock alter ego. Rather, Connick turned to the music of his youth.

She is a showcase for New Orleans music, that mix of rock and funk emblematic of the town’s party atmosphere. "Between Us" pretty much sold me on the album. A smooth song with a nice beat, "Between Us" gave the sense Connick’s cool voice was absolutely at home.

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The Replacements: Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?

The list of bands I should be listening to will always be longer than the list of bands I am listening to, and the older I get, the further back in time I’m reaching on the former list.

The Replacements is a band I should have been listening to when I was growing up. At one point, I owned the final two Mats albums on cassette — Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down (although All Shook Down was pretty much a Paul Westerberg solo album credited to the Replacements.) I liked Don’t Tell a Soul but not enough to turn me into a Replacements fan.

I noticed in the last six months, the opening riff of "Talent Show" became an earworm — I’d hum it or hear it in my mind out of the blue. On a buying spree that netted both R.E.M.’s And I Feel Fine and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ The Very Best, I threw in Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was? with them. It’s both shocking and exciting to discover something on which I missed out.

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Tracy Chapman: Tracy Chapman

My friend Omar mentioned Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album and encouraged folks to "[t]ake it out and pop it in the CD player. It’s still as good as you remember."

What I remember was using the album as a means to get through a summer reading assignment back in high school. The fall semester of my senior year was going to start, and I didn’t know I was supposed to be reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath beforehand. So I sped-read through it with Chapman playing in the background.

Yup. It was the perfect soundtrack.

Chapman was a radio staple in 1988, but I get the impression the Honolulu DJs abiding by the corporate playlists would have preferred to spin something else. My family didn’t really warm up to Chapman’s husky, trembling voice either. I bought the album on vinyl. When CDs finally took over, I opted not to upgrade.

Then Omar had to say the album was as good as I remember, and it made me realize that, in reality, I did like the album. Not as much as 10,000 Maniacs’ In My Tribe or the Sugarcubes’ Life’s Too Good, but I didn’t dislike it either. (Funny how all three of those albums are on Elektra.)

So in January, I bought a used copy of Tracy Chapman, the album, to see if my teenager ears had failed me. It was like listening with brand new ears.

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Patty Griffin: Flaming Red

This review was supposed to be about Patty Griffin’s most recent album, Children Running Through. I’m familiar with Patty Griffin, master of the slow-burning, introspective folk song, but I hadn’t yet heard Patty Griffin, the rocker.

Then I got Children Running Through on eMusic, and I was struck by the more uptempo songs on the album. She sounds really good letting loose. Flaming Red has the reputation of being Griffin’s rock album, so I gave it a shot. I like it better. In fact, it just might be my favorite of hers.

Griffin has a big, powerful voice. Her minimal debut, Living with Ghosts, felt jarring because that voice tended to overwhelm the sparse environs of the music. As spellbinding as her quieter works are, the big rock gestures of Flaming Red make for a more suitable setting.

"I came to find out none of that shit was even true," she spits out on "Change", with a lot of fire behind the expletive. Even more sobering is her dramatic use of the word "faggot" on "Tony", a more literate, less cryptic version of Pearl Jam’s "Jeremy". In Griffin’s hands, these loaded words hammer the point of the story.

"Hey Tony, what’s so good about dying?" she sings. "Think I might do a little dying today/Looked in the mirror saw that little faggot staring back at him/Took out a gun and blew himself away." I choked when heard that line.

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365 Days, 365 Files: Dawn Upshaw – Peter Warlock: Sleep

The only reason I picked up Dawn Upshaw’s 1996 album, White Moon: Songs to Morpheus, is because I had gotten into Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman at the time. Upshaw’s album has nothing to do with Gaiman’s King of Dreams, but I liked the tenuous connection anyway.

While I don’t own much of Upshaw’s own discography, she appears on a number of other albums I own. Her recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 with David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta is essential for any collection. She’s recorded with Kronos Quartet a number of times, and I believe she may have done some backup vocals on Audra McDonald’s How Glory Goes.

The first time I heard of Upshaw back in the late ’80s, she was a rising star in the opera world, but it’s her championing of modern music that set her apart from other singers. In addition to such early music composers as Claudio Monteverdi and John Dowland, White Moon also includes works by George Crumb, Ruth Crawford Seeger and Joseph Schwantner.

Upshaw has a clear, appealing voice, sweet and unmuddied. But don’t take my word for it.

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365 Days, 365 Files: Damien Jurado and Gathered in Song – Dancing

I Break Chairs is the only album by Damien Jurado I own, and I’m unclear exactly what drew me to it. I remember reading an article about how the album was a vast departure for Jurado at the time. I think I was just in a music-buying mood and gave this album a shot because nothing else seemed to appeal to me at the time.

I’ve heard Jurado’s more introspective material since, and I have to say I prefer I Break Chairs. The only parallel I can draw at the moment is Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red. Griffin too is pegged as a "sad folkie" (her words), and she’s actually tried to shake that distinction a few times, much to her ardent fans’ dismay.

As with I Break Chairs, I like Griffin when she’s balls-out rocking, even though she does sound incredibly good with soft-spoken material.

David Bazan, a.k.a. Pedro the Lion, produced I Break Chairs, and around the same time, Bazan released Control, which is not surprisingly the only album of Pedro the Lion’s I own. There’s a pattern in here somewhere, but my allergies are kicking my butt too much to make sense of it.

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365 Days, 365 Files: 駄菓子菓子 – 人外境の部屋 (Dagashi-Kashi – Jingai Kagami no Heya)

Dagashi-Kashi is a band that shouldn’t really work on paper. A screechy vocalist fronting sinister garage rock, plus a wardrobe out of a cheap kabuki knock-off — the word that comes to mind is "novelty".

I saw Dagashi-Kashi perform at SXSW a number of years ago, and I was impressed with their showmanship. I also like a band that claims that listening to them will make you die! (Their emphasis.) Kind of like The Ring, I guess.

"Jingai Kagami no Heya" is the title track from the band’s second album, the only one I own since I bought it at the merchandise table after the band’s showcase. It’s not really my proverbial cup of tea, but I like to keep the album around. It’s entertaining in its own way.

Because of the costumes, Dagashi-Kashi is often lumped into the visual kei category, but the band’s music has no roots in the butt rock most VK bands emulate. In fact, Dagashi-Kashi is pretty punk.

"Jingai Kagami no Heya" has a mean muted riff.

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Damn, I still miss ICE magazine

I was at Fry’s Electronics last week, getting a wireless access point and a wireless card for my desktop, when I passed by the CD section of the store. I saw the original cast recording of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street stashed in the new release portion of the very messy CD shelves.

Huh? Why would a 1979 cast recording be filed as a new release? Unless …

I stopped and looked at the cover. It was the remastered versions promised two years ago. Broadway Masterworks, the cast recording division of Sony BMG, was supposed to release remastered versions of Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George and Merrily We Roll Along to coincide with Stephen Sondheim’s 75th birthday back in 2005.

The release dates kept getting pushed back further and further, until finally they dropped from the schedule entirely. With news of Sony making staff cuts in its Masterworks division, I pretty much thought the project was shelved completely.

I don’t know if ICE magazine would have been on the ball to notify when those release went back on the schedule, but I sure heard no peep of it from Pause & Play. I need a better a new release resource. And don’t point me to the Billboard new release section — that site is a clusterfuck of Flash.

As for the discs themselves, the sound is incredibly crisp, but the new liner notes are terribly written. The libretti are also missing from the packaging, so if you have an original CD pressing of these cast recordings, keep them. They’re supposed to be available online at the Broadway Masterworks web site, but I haven’t found them.

Onitsuka Chihiro returns ‘everyhome’

I’ve actually seen this bit of news elsewhere — notably JPOPSUKI — but now my trusted news source wrote about it (albeit late), so I may as well write about it.

Onitsuka Chihiro is releasing a new single on May 30, titled "everyhome". The single arrives 2 years and 7 months since her last release. The Frozen Call fan site has been keeping track of Onitsuka’s activities and mentions a new album in the pipeline for later in the year.

It also looks like exhaustion was the cause of Onitsuka’s nearly 3-year break. The rapid release schedule of the Japanese music machinery took its toll, and now, she writes at her own pace. The Bounce article says she’s written only 10 songs in that time, compared to the three albums’ worth of material in the same amount of time from 2000-2003.

I find it admirable Onitsuka put the skids on her own career for the sake of her muse. As prolific as the Japanese release schedule is, sometimes I question its frequency with top artists. And honestly, I prefer to hear from some artists, including ones I like, a little less frequently. (Hello, Yaida Hitomi?)