Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Shelby Lynne: Soul for Real

One of the easiest ways to get my attention musically is to sing it like you mean it. Now one might say that all artists mean what they sing. That's possible, but there are a few things to consider:

1. Often they aren't singing about anything.
2. Some may think they mean it, but don't really understand what they're saying.
3. Some are just plain faking it.
4. A number of today's artists haven't really had enough life experiences to inform their singing, so they approximate emotions, rather than feel what they're singing.

Then there are those artists whose life burns through every lyric of every song they sing, whether they wrote the song or not. To me, if you've lived life, have a bit of insight and talent, then mean it when you sing it, you've got soul. There are a lot of available arguments over 'ownership' of soul, but I've seen and heard enough to know that race doesn't provide any group ownership of that volatile yet critical ingredient.

I was first turned onto Amy Winehouse 3-4 years ago, when she released a rough debut called 'Frank'. Production so ragged that some songs sounded like demos, it was obvious from the smart, individualistic lyrics and that voice, that Amy Winehouse had a lot on her mind, even if she wasn't sure how to get it out. Now with the success of her second album, 'Back to Black', Winehouse is literally falling apart before our eyes, caught up in a drug induced freefall that I hope she'll survive. If she does, it will undoubtedly result in a searing, painful listening experience that won't be soon forgotten.

A better, healthier (but still pretty wild) example of a life lived that results in memorable music can be found with country/pop music's Shelby Lynne, on her new album 'Just A Little Lovin', a tribute to Dusty Springfield.

I saw Lynne tonight doing a free concert at Amoeba Records. She played most of the songs from the album to a packed store. Small in stature, Blond and sexy in a kind of scary way, Shelby Lynne sung even the happiest songs (I Only Want to Be With You) like she was just left at the altar. It was an interesting experience watching her perform live, because she seemed to fighting herself the entire time. She'd smile over dark lyrics and frown over happy ones. It seemed like she had to remind herself to smile, because her face seemed to settle into a suspicious, almost despondent look more often than not.

Backed by a nice 4 piece band, Lynne soared on songs like 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', 'How Can I Be Sure' and 'Breakfast in Bed'. She discouraged photos, claiming 'I ain't got my face on'. She was an utterly captivating performer, seemingly still working out what the songs meant to her while she sung them.

Shelby Lynne has been around a long time, born in Virginia, raised in Alabama, so she comes by her deep drawl naturally. Tragedy at a young age informed both her singing and world view. When she was a teenager, Lynne watched her father shoot her mother dead and then kill himself. So the shell that she wears is understandably second nature by now. It made her tough, determined and able to raise hell when the mood strikes her. She knocked around the country scene for years before winning the Best New Artist Grammy for the album 'I Am Shelby Lynne'. She's since segued over to more of a country pop sound with varying degrees of commercial success, but always musically interesting.

'Just A Little Lovin' is a collection of 9 Springfield songs and one written by Lynne that fits the album like a glove. Interestingly, Springfield tended to sing with a sultry, sexy baritone that was warm and very inviting. Lynne, by contrast, infuses the same songs with longing, hurt and disappointment. With spare musical accompaniment, Lynne elegantly and soulfully sets a table, but doesn't expect anyone to show up.

I think Rob Hoerburger of the New York Times sums up Shelby Lynne best: 'Even when she ends up in the bedroom, she takes a rougher road'.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

U2 3D: Go Now!

"Irish people are essentially Latin people who don't know how to dance"- Bono

The quote above was part of the Irish superstar's explanation for choosing South America as the locale to shoot U2's first 3D concert.

Over the years I've always had an appreciation for U2, more as a monster band with singles that I enjoy. In the last few years I've become really impressed with the commitment lead singer Bono has made as international activist, which has caused me to check his band out a bit closer. I've never seen them in concert, but I understand it's almost like going to church, if you believe.

I don't know about church, but after seeing U2 3D at the Imax, I definitely believe. Filmed in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro during their Vertigo tour, U2 3D is the best example of 3D that I've ever seen, by far. The movie was virtually like having the best seat in the house at a concert, but being able to roam around without stepping in anyone's beer.

The film is 85 minutes, featuring 14 hymns, um, songs on an incredible stage in front of what looks like 200,000 screaming South Americans. There seems to be dozens of cameras all over the place, but the one that really pops is placed ground level in the middle of the audience.

One of the things that has made U2 one of the world's biggest bands with a devoted following that's second to none, is that they connect with their audience via the music and their actions. The perfect illustration of that connection is the placement of the stage in relation to the audience. Attached to a traditional stage are a couple of ramps that flow out into the middle of the crowd. The band spent half of the show immersed in the middle of that sea of humanity.

The musicianship is top notch, Bono's in good voice and full of the drama that one would come to expect, while guitarist The Edge, anchors the show in cool. Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullins jr. on drums keep the rhythm section on point.

Now if you're not a fan of U2, I don't know if this movie will bring you around, but it's worth your time to give it a shot, if for no other reason than to check out the 3D effect. The only criticism I have isn't the movie or the band's fault. That falls on the theater, the dreaded multiplex at Universal City.

It wasn't loud enough!

Friday, January 25, 2008

RAMBO... Really?

I can't imagine that there will be many times when you'll see 'subtle' near Sylvester Stallone's name. He's always been an outsized personality, who did things in a big, often heavy handed way. To be fair, occassionally he leads with a very big heart. If you consider 2006's "Rocky Balboa", Stallone did the almost unimaginable: He made you care once again about the Italian Stallion, in a small character driven drama that contained so much heart and compassion, that it really didn't matter if Rocky fought in the movie or not. The scene when Rocky just breaks down in front of Paulie (Bert Young) over the death of his wife, is probably the best acting I've ever seen Stallone do.

When I found out that 'Rambo' was a reality, I thought that all of the good will that Stallone had just generated would go right out the window. However, I went to see it this evening at the Arclight and sat in a full house with the most vocal Arclight audience I've ever been privy to.

The story concentrates on the 60 year civil war that's been going on in Burma and the missionaries who are captured and tortured trying to help native villagers. The reluctant Rambo leads a team of mercenaries on a mission of recovery, revenge and wholesale slaughter.

This is one of the goriest films I've seen in awhile. Thanks to the magic of CGI, Stallone was able to indulge every violent idea that he could think of in 'Rambo'. I wouldn't begin to try to guess the number of mutilated, machine-gunned, machete'd, blown up, wild boar eaten, arrow through the head, throat ripped out bodies populate this film. When people are shot they literally disintegrate.

Stallone does a service by bringing the ongoing horrors of Burma to the minds of moviegoers. I guess for some film fans, just seeing Rambo back in action is cause for celebration. It's a tough but watchable picture that ultimately doesn't have the depth that Stallone was looking for, but as writer/director/producer, for better or worse, he'll always be able to say 'I did it my way'.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Handicapping the Oscars

Nominations were announced today for the 80th annual Academy Awards. Here's a list of the nominees for the major categories. Names in bold are my picks, along with possible upsets. We're a month away and things can change, so check back before placing your bets.

Best Motion Picture
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men In spite of the controversial ending, the Coen Brothers have perfectly adapted Cormac McCarthy's best selling novel into an American classic. In spite of the strong field, the Coen's time has come. John Ford would be proud.
There Will Be Blood

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
George Clooney (Michael Clayton) While I'm sure this is Daniel Day Lewis' year, I have to give dark horse honors to George Clooney. Hollywood loves him, 'Michael Clayton' is one of the best reviewed films of the year, and Clooney delivered an Oscar caliber performance.
Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood) While he only makes movies every eclipse, Daniel Day Lewis continues to captivate us with the power and nuance of his performances. In 'There Will Be Blood' he deftly illustrates the totality with which power can corrupt, leaving a barren husk of a man that you can't take your eyes away from.
Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Fleet Street)
Tommy Lee Jones (In the Valley of Elah)
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth: The Golden Age)
Julie Christie (Away From Her) Christie, an Oscar winner over 40 years ago (Darling) has swept almost every award since the season started. No reason to stop now.
Marion Cotillard (La Mome) Cotillard has won her share of awards this year portraying French superstar Edith Piaf. However, the film's lack of box office and foreign subject matter will result in her watching Julie Christie take the stage.
Laura Linney (The Savages)
Ellen Page (Juno)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) If any category has a flat out lock, it's this one. Bardem has one everything and created the most terrifying villain since Hannibal Lecter.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson's War)
Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild)
Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There) Blanchett will probably cancel herself out with two nods in two categories, but this is the one she should have won for
Ruby Dee (American Gangster)
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)
Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) See my comments for supporting actor, but drop the second sentence.
Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)

Best Achievement in Directing
Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen (No Country for Old Men) A flawess execution of a cinematic vision
Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton)
Jason Reitman (Juno)
Julian Schnabel (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)

Best Writing, Screenplay written directly for the Screen
Diablo Cody (Juno) Currently everybody's favorite, the former stripper turned screenwriter should take home the gold
Nancy Oliver (Lars and the Real Girl)
Tony Gilroy (Michael Cooper)
Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava, Jim Capobianco (Ratatouille)
Tamara Jenkins (The Savages)

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
Christopher Hampton (Atonement) This is the kind of adaptation that Hollywood tends to respond to, but No Country could well pull an upset here
Sarah Polley (Away From Her)
Ronald Harwood (Le Scaphandre et le papillon)
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men)
Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)

There are many other categories, cinematography, editing, make up, costume design etc. I'll get to those and others in a future post.

CLOVERFIELD: Godzilla for the New Millenium

Back in 1998, I remember going to the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, when the surrounding parking lot had not yet been turned into Los Angeles' best movie complex, The Arclight, to see the summer's most anticipated movie, 'Godzilla'. Directed and produced by the creators of 'Independence Day', it seemed like a sure fire hit.

I remember sitting in the theater and the crowd was fired up, watching trailers for films like 'The Mask of Zorro' and other upcoming action adventure movies. Then the lights went down for the main feature. The crowd roared when it saw the word 'Godzilla' on the screen. It was downhill from there. Not only did the creature look wrong, it was running through Manhattan like a scared salamander who lost its way out of the pond. It wasn't scary, the cgi work was disappointing and Matthew Broderick was the hero?

Flash forward 10 years later, and the new film 'Cloverfield' has figured out how to do 'Monster takes Manhattan' right. From the feverish mind of creator JJ Abrams (Alias, Lost, Mission Impossible III) and director Matt Reeves, comes a tale for the You Tube generation.

A group of 20 somethings are at a going away party in lower Manhattan for a friend moving to Japan, when they're rocked by what they think is an earthquake. It turns out to be a giant, pissed off monster that is destroying Manhattan. One of the friends is trapped uptown in her apartment that has been ravaged by the beast, so a small squadron of friends set off to rescue her.

One of the friends was assigned to record 'good luck' testamonials at the party on camera, so he takes the camera with him to chronicle their adventure. This lends the film the shaky camera style that we've all become accustomed to over the last view years, giving it a bit more feel of authenticity. However, the usher at the theater said that some people have watched the film and have suffered from motion sickness, and offered a refund within the first 30 minutes of the feature if anyone came down with that illness while watching.

'Cloverfield' is a fast paced, short (84 minutes including 10 minutes of credits) thriller that clearly succeeds where Godzilla didn't, on a much smaller budget, 25 million versus 80 million. The monster isn't scared, it's upset, and clearly committed to making Manhattan America's largest parking lot. The cast is a group of unknowns who do the best they can with the sketchily written roles, but they do a nice job of involving you in their personal story before the monster attacks.

Special Effects are impressive, it takes awhile before you get a good look at the monster, which is a good thing, because the quick glances as it darts around buildings makes the anticipation that much more intense. While I'd be hard pressed to call 'Cloverfield' scary, it is a well done, somewhat innovative thriller.

It's said that movies tend to reflect the tenor of the times. For example, in the Reagan era, we had the agressive symbolism of Stallone as 'Rambo' and Arnold in 'Commando'. Now in these uncertain, anxious times, due in no small part to the events of 9/11, we have the unsettling experience of yet another foreign invader to our shores, only this time it's one we can see, even if we can't stop it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Indestructible Songs: 'My Funny Valentine'

This is the first of a semi regular feature on the blog, that takes a look at songs that are so well constructed, that they can stand up to virtually any interpretation (although Rod Stewart's take on any of the Great American Songbooks strains this concept!). It seems that songwriting is given short shrift these days ("You Remind Me of My Jeep", anyone?), I thought it would be interesting to look at songs that are sometimes romantic, sexy or sad, but always durable. I have a short list and would love to get your suggestions to flesh this feature out.

I'm going to start with one of Rodgers and Hart's most famous recordings, 'My Funny Valentine'. Originally recorded in 1936 for the musical 'Babes in Arms', the song is on over 1300 albums and has been recorded by over 600 artists, ranging from Frank Sinatra to a sample on Kanye West's album 'Late Registration'. It also appears in at least 16 movies, including Sinatra's "Pal Joey", "Waiting to Exhale" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley".

To give you an example of how 'Indestructible' this song is, I first heard it sung by an actress not known for her vocal ability, Michelle Pfeiffer. Over the closing credits of one of the best films about the life of musicians that I've ever seen, 'The Fabulous Baker Boys', I heard this haunting, melancholy piano by Dave Grusin accompanied by a sad soft vocal that forced me to sit through the credits, which I rarely do. Not a great singer, Ms. Pfeiffer is respectable and her performance feels heartfelt, complimented by a sympathetic string session.

Shortly thereafter, I saw vocalist-percussionist Vinx do a live version with a single drum as his accompanyment. The drum gave the song a feel of urgency and his vocal was pleading, almost in desperation to be heard. I realized that this was a special song if it could stand up to two radically different interpretations and each version be equally effective.

I'm going to give you a brief list of my favorite versions. Most are available for download on iTunes.

Chet Baker: 1952. One of the best known versions, Baker plays trumpet and sings. You can hear his broken heart.
Ella Fitzgerald: 1956. Ella includes the opening stanza that Baker and most other vocalists leave off. The arrangement and presentation sounds like it was flown in on gossamer wings.
Miles Davis: 1965. The 'Prince of Darkness' recorded a live 15 minute version.
Etta James: 1995. This is the version Kanye West sampled.
Anita Baker: 1994. If ever a song was made for Anita, this is it.
James Ingram: 1999. I like this one because it's just crazy! Incredibly speedy tempo, with hi-tech production, you have to love the way Ingram starts soft and just attacks the song. And the song is still standing when he's finished.
Johnny Mathis: 1956. This is my favorite version. The arrangement is simple, a tasty and guitar and Mathis singing so delicately it feels like it all might break at any time.

Here's a tip. For the last couple of years I've made a cd compilation of 16 versions of the song and given it away during Valentine's Day. It's always well received.

Friday, January 18, 2008

The Spirit: Alive and Kicking!

In the world of comic books, Will Eisner is commonly regarded as one of the few pioneers of the industry. Credited with creating one of the first graphic novels, effectively utilizing film noir techniques in 8 page comic stories, a unique sense of design and a host of other firsts, Eisner is best known for the classic Sunday comic strip 'The Spirit'. Originally a story about a police detective who dons a mask to fight crime in fictional Central City, it evolved into comics' first blue collar super hero.

The Spirit had no super powers, just a blue suit, blue hat, gloves and mask. He had a square jaw, a goofy sense of humor and a blind spot when it came to the ladies. As time went on, The Spirit evolved into a compelling look at the human condition: love, hate, betrayal, hope, laughs and faith. In many instances, supporting characters carried the story, with The Spirit only appearing in a panel or two.

The Spirit is currently being made into a big budget movie, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johannsen, Eva Mendes and Gabriel Macht as the masked crime-fighter. Interestingly, renowned comic book creator Frank Miller (300, Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns) is at the helm, following his co-directing debut with Robert Rodriguez on 'Sin City'. Miller is known for hard boiled, take no prisoner storytelling, which is at the opposite end of The Spirit's world. Fingers crossed that the hopefulness, humanity and humor that made the original comic strip so memorable isn't lost in Miller's version, due out in early 2009.

Over the years, several publishers have tried to re-introduce The Spirit in new adventures, all landing with a big thud, until Darwyn Cooke came along.

A Canadian neighbor, Darwyn cut his teeth in advertising and animation before he committed his talents to the comic book industry. His impact was felt almost immediately. 'Batman: Ego', an examination of the inner life and conflict of the Dark Knight, was written and drawn by Cooke. His illustration style is at once retro and futuristic. There are clear signs of his animation background in his work, as well as an appreciation of the spirit (no pun intended), design and feel of America in the 50s and 60s.

Darwyn did a number of other notable projects, like the graphic crime novel, 'Catwoman: Selina's Big Score', but the damn truly burst when he created the maxi series, 'The New Frontier', an look at the creation of what would become the Justice League of America, set in the late 50s-early 60s. A mammoth 400+ page read, Darwyn's writing and illustrations are among the strongest in the history of the medium. 'New Frontier' was a huge success, earning Cooke endless accolades and awards, culminating next month with the DVD release of an animated version of the maxi series.

All of this led to Darwyn's next project, reviving The Spirit, yet again. Darwyn took a different tack from his predecessors: he placed The Spirit firmly in the present day and wasn't scared to do updates where necessary. For example, in the original series, Ebony White, The Spirit's cab driver, was visually a stereotypical Black caricature, with big eyes and lips, and problems speaking the King's english. Although the character was respected by other characters in the strip and did have a sense of dignity, it was a less than desirable presentation. In Cooke's update, Ebony is a young, good looking savvy Black kid who may be the smartest charater in the book.

For twelve issues, Darwyn, along with his talented inker J.Bone, editor Ben Abernathy, letterer Jared K. Fletcher and colorist Dave Stewart, produced the best comic book of 2007. Unfortunately, Darwyn's run on the book ends with the current issue, #12. Due to personnel changes beyond his control, Darwyn opted to leave with his team intact, on a high note. Ironically, this last issue may be the best of all.

Based on Will Eisner's original story, 'Sand' concerns the true love of The Spirit's life, Sand Sareef. It's a sad story about love lost, that taps into the best of Darwyn's strengths: character, mood, motivation and beautiful artwork. If you've ever considered giving a comic book a try, The Spirit #12 is a great place to start. However, it should be made clear that this is a creator operating at a very high level and most books don't come close to it.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

R&B: The Heart's Still Beating

As I mentioned in a previous post, I tend to spend my listening time in the car with my iPod instead of the radio or CDs. Largely because I rarely hear anything on the radio that requires repeated listening, whether it's on local Los Angeles radio stations or XM Satellite radio.

I had a career in radio for twelve years as a disc jockey and a program director. My last stop was launching L.A.'s first R&B station that covered the entire county,from Los Angeles down to San Diego, 92.3 The Beat. That was 1990. Luther Vandross and Anita Baker were certified superstars, Bobby Brown, Brian McKnight and Mary J. Blige were coming into their own, while Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were on a seesaw with LA and Babyface as the dominant producers of the day. Hip Hop was on the cusp of exploding on the West Coast via NWA, which spawned the greater success of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre, which begat Snoop Dogg and many more.

At that time, most successful R&B acts were on major record labels, while hip hop was scattered on indie labels across the country, getting airplay on mix shows, in clubs and occasionally prime time radio. Years later, the script is flipped. Hip Hop acts dominate radio and traditional R&B acts are on independent labels, getting airplay on Quiet Storm programs and internet radio shows, occasionally getting prime time radio exposure, but ultimately looking for new avenues to have their music sampled.

When I talk with folk who came up on R&B, the generally feeling is that there's no real R&B for adults anymore. I understand the frustration, because radio for that audience is still the main vehicle to hear new music. The reality is that life intrudes. While your love of music probably never dies, responsibilities step in and the free time you once had to stay up on your favorite artists is replaced by working, raising a family and figuring out what to do with the small amount of time that you have to yourself. Then add how regimented and restricted radio has become with deregulation resulting in cookie cutter radio stations that have no regional identity or personality. Finally, mix in national program directors, consultants,tighter playlists and research almost totally replacing instinct and taste, and you're left with a very small selection of music to choose from, via traditional means.

In the interest of feeling your pain, I'd like to offer for your consideration that the heart of R&B is still beating, by suggesting a few albums to check from artists who are keeping the music alive, making it fresh and keeping it vital.

1. Eric Roberson: (ericrobersonmusic.com). Roberson, or 'Erro' as he's known to his fans, is of the new breed of R&B artists who has set up his career from heavy touring (check him out at the Temple Bar) and an active internet presence. Eric has written for Jill Scott, Carl Thomas, Musiq Soulchild and others. He's a great lyricist with catchy melodies, but his live show is one of the most engaging you'll ever see for a guy who hasn't had a major radio hit. He's released several albums, all available on his website, but for an introduction, I'd recommend 'The Collection' from iTunes, which gives you a solid career retrospective of this groundbreaking artist. If asked, he'll describe his vibe as 'Honest Music'. The man speaks the truth.

2. Raheem deVaughn (myspace.com/devaughnenterprises): Just dropped his second album this week, 'Love Behind the Melody'. His first album, 'The Love Experience', was a solid debut that was exciting in it's willingness to experiment with spare tracks, multi-layered harmonies and a deeply expressive falsetto. The latest album continues that direction with tighter tracks and lyrics that are reveal a more vulnerable and exposed singer trying to live through love. The first single, 'Woman', sets the right tone for the entire set.

3. Luther Vandross: 'Love Luther'. I mentioned this collection several posts ago, but it's worth bringing up again. Epic/Legacy has compiled an excellent 4 disc retrospective that gives this superstar and his fans their due. All the hits, plus jingles, demos and unreleased live versions of classic Vandross gold.

4. Ledisi (myspace.com/ledisi): 'Lost and Found'. This Bay Area powerhouse has been around for years, destroying audience after audience with original compositions that belong on the radio. She released a couple of great indie cds a few years ago that fetch a pretty penny on Ebay, but she deserved a better stage to be heard from. Verve obviously agreed, signed her and released 'Lost and Found' last year. This is what the core of R&B is: heartfelt lyrics delivered by a passionate singer. Ledisi is at home with ballads and jazz, but don't think she can't get her groove on, because she'll hurt your feelings. If you get a chance to see her in concert, you'll wonder why it took so long for someone to find her.

5. Raul Midon (raulmidon.com) : 'Love Somebody'. Not totally R&B, let's call it 'kinda alternative' R&B. Midon, a blind, singer-songwriter, guitarist from New Mexico was the last artist that legendary producer Arif Mardin produced before he passed away. Also on Blue Note, Midon will remind you of Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and Jose Feliciano. A blistering acoustic guitarist, Midon is particularly strong with melody. His lyrics sometimes tend to be simplistic, but part of that comes from his natural optimism. He's released two albums, but so far he hasn't been able to transfer the fire of his live show to cd yet, but I'm sure it's coming. He's another one who's not to be believed in concert. He has a limited edition live cd floating around, which I'd recommend as the best introduction. But if you can't find it, either of the two studio albums are worth getting into.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Live From Daryl's House

If you've known me for a long time, you'll know that one of my favorite recording artists is Daryl Hall, of Hall & Oates fame. So get your horrific hair and shoulder pads jokes out of the way, as well as the awful music videos. I realize it's hard to think of H&O without thinking of all of the excess and bad taste that reigned in the 80s. However, once you get past that, Hall & Oates have delivered a large volume of quality music from the 70s to arguably, right now.

Daryl Hall possesses one of the most soulful voices in pop music, one that has gained more texture and character as he gets older. While he can't hit the high notes as easily as he did in the 80s on songs like 'One on One', Hall's range and interpretative skills make listening a more personal and lasting experience.

Late last year, Hall embarked on an interesting new journey, recording and posting a live concert recorded in his home with friends, every month. 'Live from Daryl's House' features almost an hour of in home jamming with Hall, long time bass player T-Bone Wolk ( who played on Kurtis Blow's "The Breaks") and various members of his touring band. As a H&O fan, it's a great time for me, hearing different arrangements of some of my favorite songs. If you're not especially down with Hall & Oates, it's still worth sampling a new way of checking out music on the web. The format is structured, but still feels loose and Hall is obviously having a great time just playing with his friends.

Personally, I relish the opportunity to hear real musicians play for the sake of the love of music, with no props or lip synching. The web address is: . The latest edition was posted today and features the original reggae arrangement of 'Maneater'. It's an even cooler version.

Sunday, January 13, 2008


Today I saw a reissue of a 1988 documentary by noted photographer Bruce Weber about what turned out to be the last six months of the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker first came to fame in the fifties as one of the cornerstone artists of what came to be known as West Coast 'cool' jazz.

In addition to being a talented horn blower, Baker also had an unusually affecting singing voice. Melancholy in tone, almost off-key, but not quite, Baker's voice was a perfect compliment to his subdued horn playing.

Also adding to his legend, Baker had the good fortune to be iconically photographed by then young cameraman, William Claxton. Struck by Baker's looks and what he saw as charisma, Claxton shot portraits of Claxton that are among the most revered in jazz photography.

Unfortunately, Baker fell prey to hard drugs and was never able to shake them. Weber's film, shot in crisp black and white, travels with Baker in California and Europe, spending time with him in the studio, onstage, with friends, lovers and family members, almost all of who bear varying degrees of hurt and pain from being involved with Baker.

Six months after the film was finished, Baker fell from a window in a hotel in Amsterdam. Officially ruled a suicide, there's still some question about the possibility of foul play.

This is one of the saddest films you'll ever see, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. It's playing in limited release in Los Angeles and New York, but should be on DVD in the next few months. Incredibly moving, but it's not the film to watch if you're feeling a bit down.

'THE COOL' really is

I'm not what you'd call a hip-hop head. There's usually a song or two that I like, and every once in awhile an artist will arrive who more or less crosses boundaries, and catches my attention. I joined the Kanye West party late, but I'm a big fan, always interested to see what he's going to do next. I saw his concert at the Universal (now Gibson) Amphitheater a couple of winters ago, and it was the best concert I had seen in several years. His presentation was on a par with any other popular artist in any genre'. All you really need to know about that show is that no one sat down for two hours.

Kanye's latest album 'Graduation', is a continuation of his progressive braggadocio/confessionals, mixed with unlikely but accessible beats, that keep him constantly intriguing. He doesn't break much new ground here, but it's another solid cd.

Groundbreaking comes in the form of Kanye's Chicago homeboy, Lupe Fiasco. Lupe debuted on Kanye's 'Touch the Sky' and then made an impressive debut last year, with 'Food and Liquor', which netted him a Grammy nomination.

Lupe returns with the best hip-hop album I've heard since Kanye's 'Late Registration'. Described as a concept album, Lupe keeps the beats fresh and the topics relevant, ranging from songs about rape, 'Intruder Alert', growing up without a father, 'He Say, She Say' and refusing to lower the bar for his listeners with 'Dumb Down'.

Clearly a 'conscious' rapper, Lupe Fiasco operates in stealth mode. The hooks are so catchy and the tracks are so funky (and rocky at times), that the lyrics may creep up on you. While's it's definitely too early to name an album of the year, I can't imagine many upcoming releases knocking this cd out of heavy rotation on my iPod. To be clear, I don't believe you have to be hard core hip hop to know 'The Cool' when you hear it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

FIRST SUNDAY: Church Is In Session

This post is a blatant plug for the release of a movie that opens nationwide on Friday. "First Sunday" is the first feature by writer-director David E. Talbert. Up to this point, David has been known principally as a successful playwright/producer/director. Now he turns his attention to the big screen and has delivered what looks to be a crowd pleaser.

"First Sunday" stars Ice Cube and Tracy Morgan as two hapless Baltimore 'miscreants' who are so down on their luck that they believe robbing a church is the only choice they have to make a better life for themselves. Once inside the church, they find out they're not alone and hilarity ensues.

Also starring Kat Williams, Loretta Devine, Chi McBride and Malinda Williams, "First Sunday" moves at a fast clip and while it delivers laughs, it also supports the idea of community, belonging and family, especially the relationship between a boy and his father.

In the interest of full disclosure, David E. Talbert (and his lovely wife Lyn) are very good friends of mine and my pride in seeing their latest success knows no bounds. Here's to a long and happy stay at the top of the box office, my peoples!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

oBAMa! The First step

By no means will this be a 'political' blog. There are many more people, better equipped than me to have a discourse on the state of the nation. However, I am an Obama man and a supporter of the idea that change and growth come from smart, reasoned people trying new approaches, with minds that are open to new possibilities.

I'm not naive enough to think that if elected, Barack will do the majority of what he promises. But that's not the point. He's a smart, young, energetic and thoughtful fellow, who understands that 1. the world is shrinking, and 2. the old ways of doing business politically don't help the country or the world. So the idea that he'll approach issues from a new perspective offsets (for me) the various stumbles he'll make along the way. As a republican friend of mine said recently, "we don't need any more Bushes or Clintons in the White House" (then he gave props to Mitt Romney!), it's time for a change.

If you didn't get a chance to see Barack's victory speech last night, here's a link:


We now return you to your regularly scheduled nonsense at the Yakuza House.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

T.H.E. Best TV Show You've Never Seen

In 1966 the spy craze was at a fever pitch. The godfather of them all, James Bond, was in between the previous year's release of 'Thunderball', with 'You Only Live Twice' waiting in the wings. 'Our Man Flint' proved to be a popular competitor, while on the small screen, viewers could enjoy the campy 'Man from U.N.C.L.E.' or frontier secret service in the 'Wild Wild West'.

I was six years old in 1966. Not old enough to go to the movies, but old enough to watch tv and have a few shows logged in my impressionable mind. While I always had a fondness for 'Wild Wild West' and enjoyed the first season of 'Man From U.N.C.L.E. (where they played it straight), the show that continues to rank as one of the best adventure shows I've ever watched, only aired one season on NBC, but enjoys a small but devoted cult following, is T.H.E. Cat, starring Robert Loggia.

Loggia stars as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, a reformed cat burglar who makes a living as a professional bodyguard. Based in San Francisco, Cat drives a Black Corvette, generally wears all black and operates out of a jazz club called El Gato (The Cat), run by his gypsy friend, Pepe.

Created by Harry Julian Fink, who also created Clint Eastwood's laconic 'Dirty' Harry Callahan, T.H.E. Cat quickly carved out it's own unique style. While only 30 minutes per episode, and in color, the show had a unique film noir feel, with dark shadows and peculiar angles framing the action. And the action! Loggia did all of his own stunts and quite a bit of martial arts were on display in surprisingly brutal fashion for prime time television.

The music was another memorable asset of the show. Famed composer Lalo Schifrin (theme to Mission:Impossible) crafted the jazzy, mysterious theme and accompanying score. Interestingly, watching various episodes of T.H.E. Cat, I found several music cues that Schifrin repurposed throughout his score for Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon".

Never released on VHS or DVD, bootlegs, generally in black and white are around online and at comic book shows. You can see the intro to the show on YouTube. Recently there's been talk of NBC bringing the show back with Billy Zane (Titantic, The Phantom) in the lead. If that comes to pass, perhaps the original will receive a proper dvd release. In the meantime, if you run across the original, it will be a well spent 30 minutes of your time, especially if you find the episode featuring Robert Duvall as a competitive adventurer known as 'Scorpio'!

Best in Show 2007: Music

It was a bit of a struggle to come up with 10 albums that moved me this year. However, I found that when I expanded the list to include reissues and a title that wasn't formally released in 2007, the job became more manageable.

I spend most of my commute (45 minutes each way) committed to my iPod. I have XM satellite radio in the car too, but the iPod is usually the order of the day. I've got a bit over 9,000 songs on it, so between the music, audiobooks and podcasts, I'm pretty well covered.

For new music to make it into rotation, there's a lot to cut through. Here are the 10 cds I played the most if I wasn't listening to The Treatment on NPR or one of my homemade playlists.

10. Anthony David- Red Clay Chronicles: A real soul man from Atlanta, David is a singer/songwriter who plays a wicked guitar. More hook inflected than his debut album, 3 Chords and the Truth,'Chronicles' offers a refreshing slice of Georgia soul not bound by Crunk. Check out his cover of Level 42's "Something About You".
9. Natalie Gardiner- California: Smooth soul from a young woman based in Stockholm, Switzerland. She'll remind you of Sade and maybe Amel Larrieux, but in between the influences, she's clearly developing her own style. Put an ear to "Summer Rain".
8. Once- Original Soundtrack: A low budget drama set in Ireland caught a lot of people off guard, me included. A story of a struggling musician who finds his musical soulmate, 'Once' has more heart than almost any other film this year and the original songs stick to your ribs. Check out "When Your Mind's Made Up".
7. James Taylor- One Man Band: JT did a solo tour this year, just him, a pianist and a bunch of slides. This cd captures the show (and also includes a DVD concert). If you're a fan, here's a rare opportunity to hear some classic Taylor stripped bare. I'm especially fond of "The Frozen Man".
6. Eldridge Holmes-Deep Fried Soul: A buddy of mine turned me on to this incredible collection. From the mid 60s to the early 70s, Holmes was turning out exceptional recordings that primarily got regional play in his native New Orleans. Unlike most Crescent City R&B acts, Holmes had a unique sound, like Motown meets Memphis, with a dash of gumbo. Check out the entire cd.
5. Darondo-Let My People Go: Another regional star, this time from the Bay Area, Darondo was a progressive R&B artist who clearly favored Al Green, but also found inspiration in James Brown. This cd is a collection of singles and b-sides he recorded in the early 70s. He's got some public access videos up on YouTube. He's quite a character. Listen to "Legs". You'll think it's Prince, but 5 years before the Purple One hit the scene.
4.Kanye West- Graduation: Not groundbreaking like his previous 2 cds, but still inspired and inspiring. He's smarter than you think, not quite as smart as he thinks he is, which makes for a greater musical combination. I quite like "I Wonder".
3. Chaka Khan-Funk This: She's truly one of the 8 wonders. This is the best solo album she's done since "Whatcha Gonna Do For Me". Produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, they observed the Rufus potion and served it up right. The entire album is hot, but "Will You Love Me" and her duet with Michael McDonald on "You Belong to Me" should get your attention.
2. Lynden David Hall-In Between Jobs: A talented British R&B singer who passed away of Lymphoma in 2005, Hall never got his due in the States, but this is an album worthy of your time. Think Al Green contemporary or D'Angelo with real songs. An exquisite recording. Recorded while in and out of the hospital, "Eventually" is Hall's observation of his own condition, refusing to bow down to his illness. If you can track this one down, you won't be sorry.
1. Luther Vandross-Love Luther: I still can't believe he's gone. Fortunately Epic/Legal produced a 4 disc collection that is worthy of one the best vocalists of any genre' of the 20th century. In addition to all of the hits, there are demos, live recordings, and even some of his commercial jingles. There's a 68 page book and songs from the disco era when he was the voice for acts like Change and Charme'. If you only own one by Luther, this is the one to get.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

50 Memoirs From a Hip Ole' Black Man

When I was trying to think of a title for this post, nothing fit better than the name of this behemoth of a collection from Vinx, one of my favorite vocalist/percussionists.

Coming out in early 2008, Vinx is releasing a collection of 50 songs that he's written, produced and performed over the last 20 years, celebrating his 50th birthday. He was in town last night at Genghis Cohen for a hot New Year's Eve concert. I went to see him and he gave me an advance set of the 3 disc box. I've been listening to it all day while trying to stretch out the last day before returning to work.

Vinx is a multi-talented guy, who was a track star in his native state of Kansas, was on the Olympic team that Jimmy Carter wouldn't let participate in the competition due to some foreign conflict, has been a personal trainer and is now living deep in Georgia on the estate of one the former heads of the Klan! Dubbed 'Stankfish Studios', I doubt that the old boy would recognize the place.

I met him 17 years ago at a club in Santa Monica, then called At My Place, now called the Temple Bar. He was by himself onstage with a drum, and a crystal clear baritone voice that was fully formed. His set list was short, comprised of a few catchy originals and an elevated version of 'My Funny Valentine' that had the drama and poignancy of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine". I introduced myself after his set and we became fast friends ever since.

Vinx recorded 3 albums for Sting's boutique label at IRS records, but they had no idea how to market a guy playing a drum, with a deep voice, a fast wit and catchy pop/jazz/rock songs. However, live audiences got it and continue to get it to this day.

If you check out his website: vinx.com, you can get a broader introduction to what he's about. Snoop around You Tube and you'll find a variety of performance clips to check out. There's more to today's music than just Fergie and Chris Brown.