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Sound and Vision: Do Today's Pop Music Producers Have Too Much Power?

Something interesting recently went down atop the U.K. singles and album charts. Elton John reigned on the list of best-selling albums with a collection of 40-year-old songs, while Florence + the Machine was No. 1 on the singles chart for the first time ever. The band’s vehicle? A song that was originally produced by Paul Epworth, a regular Adele collaborator (Rolling in the Deep and He Won’t Go, the best song on 21) who had never managed to go that high in the U.K. working with the world’s biggest female pop star.

Alas, he wasn’t exactly scaling that height with Florence either”at least not alone. And therein lies the twist in this chart saga: a good beat. Those Elton John classics had been updated with a danceable 2012 electro sheen by Australian production duo Pnau on the chart-topping Good Morning to the Night, an album featuring dozens of John songs from between 1970 and 1977 crammed into eight tracks and credited to Elton John Vs Pnau, while Florence’s Epworth-produced Ceremonials track “Spectrum” was the leading single via the re-titled and remixed-by-DJ/producer Calvin Harris (for optimal under-the-strobelight consumption) “Spectrum (Say My Name) (Calvin Harris Mix).”

When Bryan Ferry sang, “Don’t stop the dance,” was this what he had in mind? Beat-driven pop where singers share star billing with the producers who boost them to the top? More than ever, the recording arts have become a producer’s medium, in much the same way that film is a director’s medium, with the behind-the-scenes talent dominating both the sound and the vision. (The stage, in singing“when it’s actually live“as in acting, remains the domain of the performer.) With a smaller pool of star producers creating a bigger bulk of the hits, pop music has become as homogenized as Hollywood blockbusters.

According to Ron Fair, a veteran music executive and producer who has worked with Christina Aguilera, Fergie and Lady Gaga, it’s a logical progression from how records are now made. A producer today is a hybrid role of producer, songwriter, and beat maker, he says. What we used to call arranging is now called making beats, so generally, the producer is the guy who walks in with the song. Back in [Beatles producer] George Martin’s and [Linda Ronstadt/James Taylor producer] Peter Asher’s day, they weren’t responsible for making songs.

Dance music, however, has always been more of a producer’s forum than middle-of-the-road pop. But with disco in the ’70s, it didn’t always show. When one remembers Donna Summer’s greatest hits, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” or Amii Stewart’s “Knock on Wood,” the spectacular vocals probably come to mind first, then the beat.  (more…)

Austin City Limits Announces Lineup, Keeps Things Weird

The venerable Austin City Limits Music Festival announced their lineup yesterday. The festival, scheduled for the weekend of October 12th to the 15th, is happening a bit later than usual this year – no doubt to take advantage of the positive effects of global warming. Every year, the people who put on ACL make an effort to offer something for everyone and it looks like 2012 will be no different in that regard. Headliners at the festival, including Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and The Black Keys all promise a hard rockin’ grand old time. The lineup is rounded out with hipster favorites including Florence + The Machine and Oberhofer, hip-hoppers such as Childish Gambino and Big K.R.I.T., ACL regulars like Andrew Bird and Old 97s as well as a plethora of other bands that would just take too long to list here.

There are a few differences between this year’s lineup compared to years past. 2012 marks ACL’s most prominent acknowledgement yet of the electronic music scene, with AVICII, BASSNECTAR, and M83 all taking high-profile spots in their respective lineups. The 2012 installment of the festival also marks the 11th consecutive appearance from country group Asleep at the Wheel.

The full Austin City Limits Music Festival lineup can be seen here. Check out footage from last year’s outing below.

Superlatones: Most Likely to Succeed

Good music comes from different sources. But when two artists come together in a collaboration, what takes precedence? Who writes the melodies, and who keeps the lyrics fresh? Nowadays, it may seem that mainstream music has grown increasingly diverse, and yet more and more we are hearing from new and unexpected partnerships between genres spanning from funk to opera and beyond. This is why, through Superlatones, we are creating our very own directory”a musical wish-list, if you will”of artists who have yet to join the collaborative bandwagon.

The Dynamic Duo
Florence + The Machine
and
Calvin Harris

 

 

 

 

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Strobelight Vs. Florence and the Machine

It didn’t take too long for Florence and the Machine to achieve superstar status. While the band is comprised of many members, the star of the show is lead singer Florence Welch, who captivated audiences across the world with her soulful and powerful voice. The band’s 2009 debut, Lungs, was an instant hit in the band’s home country of the UK, debuting at Number 2 on the UK Albums Chart and remaining in the Top 40 for sixty-five consecutive weeks. The certified-Gold album also sold well in the US, having sold over 700,000 copies to date. The band recently released their follow up album Ceremonials, which continued their commercial success by debuting at Number 1 in the UK and Number 6 here in the states. The secret to Florence and the Machine’s success is their unique sound”a blend of indie pop, soul and orchestral music”as well as their use of a wider variety of instruments. This makes the band hard to pin down to one genre. OurStage’s own Strobelight is a similarly hard to classify band that share some sonic similarities with Florence and the Machine.

OurStage's Strobelight

Florence and the Machine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like Florence and the Machine, Strobelight have a penchant for crafting slow building indie pop songs that sound truly epic. For a comparison, take a listen to Strobelight’s song “Safe (Piano Killer)” and Florence and the Machine’s song “Howl”. Both songs begin with softly with just piano and some light drum patterns. As both songs progress, more instruments are added to create new textures, and the songs both have huge endings that feature a number of different instruments. Strobelight’s lead singer Rebecca has a voice that is similar in style to Florence’s, but her lack of a British accent gives her voice a distinct timbre and sound. “So Perfect” is another song that shares some similarities with Florence and the Machine, and it really shows Rebecca’s strength as a vocalist. The song is a ballad that is based around an acoustic guitar melody. This melody is backed by piano chords for harmony, as well as drums played with brushes to create a more delicate sound. The vocals on this song are extremely impressive; high notes are hit with ease and the singing always stays in tune without sounding over produced. While most of the song is soft and subdued, the ending of the song takes a drastic change with an abrupt bass riff that leads into a dramatic, upbeat finish.

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Sound And Vision: Can Florence + the Machine End 2011 Where Adele Started It (on Top)?

Florence Welch must be in a state of extreme suspense right about now. And if she is, no one would understand how she feels better than Adele. At the dawn of 2011, Adele was in the very same position in which the lead singer of Florence + the Machine now finds herself, coming off a GRAMMY-nominated (and in Adele’s case, GRAMMY-winning) US debut album with extremely high expectations from people who are music fans, music writers and both (like yours truly). Would album No. 2 be career boom or bust?

For Adele, the rest is recent music history. Her sophomore album, 21, is the biggest seller of 2011 so far in the US, where it has launched two number one singles, song of the summer “Rolling in the Deep” and the big-boned ballad “Someone Like You.”

Florence, in a sense, is someone like Adele. Both British acts broke big in the States on TV (Adele on Saturday Night Live in 2008, Florence at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards); both were nominated for the Best New Artist GRAMMY (Adele won, Florence lost); both have worked extensively with producer Paul Epworth; both were cited by Beyoncé for influencing her during the making of 4; and both played major roles in making the pop charts safe once again for British blue-eyed soul.

But is this where the similarities end? Does Florence’s upcoming second album, still untitled as of mid-September, have the same potential as 21? The power to move continents of fans with its fiery emotion, bringing them to their knees and sending them crawling en masse to iTunes?

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Discourse & Dischord


The Good

OK Go team up with Muppets on Muppets Theme Song

This week the Muppet’s The Green Album was released, along with this video to the theme song featuring OK Go. Feast your eyes on a bounty of Technicolor existentialism, wherein the Muppets send the band back to their treadmills and their Rube Goldberg machines and treat them like the puppets they are. It’s not like a kind of torture to have to watch this show.

West Memphis 3 released from prison

In 1994, three teenagers were convicted of the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, largely due to the fact that they listened to heavy metal. And even though DNA evidence emerged in 2007 that linked one of the victim’s stepfather and his friend to the crime, the trio”known as the West Memphis 3”remained imprisoned. The case attracted the attention of many celebrities, most notably Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, who have both campaigned for the release of the WM3. With news that the trio were finally set free this week after eighteen years in prison, band members from Pearl Jam, Anthrax, and Dixie Chicks took to Twitter to celebrate. You can read all about it here.

The Bad

Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford pass away

Two legendary songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford, passed away this week. Leiber, who wrote perennial hits like Hound Dog Yakety Yak, and Stand By Me with songwriting partner Mike Stroller, passed away at the age of seventy-eight in Los Angeles. Ashford penned some of the greatest songs of the Motown era with his songwriting partner and wife, Valerie Simpson, including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing Baby. He passed away at the age of seventy in New York. R.I.P.

Pit Bull sued by Lindsay Lohan

Pit Bull probably felt like he was just stating a fact when he said I got it locked up like Lindsay Lohan on his song Give Me Everything. Lohan didn’t think it was too funny, and slapped a lawsuit on the rapper, claiming the lyric does irreparable harm to her reputation. We would say this is another one of her megalomaniacal schemes to stay relevant and make some money while remaining unemployed by Hollywood, but we don’t want to get sued. So we will just think it quietly to ourselves.

The Ugly

Mexican teens auction off virginity for Justin Bieber

After some Mexican teens failed to secure tickets to an upcoming Justin Bieber concert, they took a sharp left into Disturbia and offered to trade their virginity for a ticket on Facebook. We once paid money for a ticket to see Vanilla Ice and it has haunted us for years. This seems like slightly more regrettable action.

Miley Cyrus tops Rolling Stone‘s worst covers list

The artist formerly known as Hannah Montana singing Smells Like Teen Spirit sent icy shivers up the spine of Rolling Stone‘s editorial staff, who named Miley Cyrus’ cover the absolute worst in the whole history of the universe, ever, ever. She probably feels pretty stupid (and contagious).

Miscellany

Are Major Labels Finally "Getting It"?

The “Big Four” Music Labels”Warner Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and EMI”have been notorious for being behind the curve when it comes to innovation in today’s ever-changing music industry. While fans have been demanding that the old ways of getting music change, the major labels have been digging in their heels, hoping for a return to the past industry roadmap. At least until recently.

Major labels seem to have finally accepted that the old model is no more.  Times have already changed and, in order to stay afloat, they must adjust. Lack of development led Warner into close to $2 million of debt, forcing a buyout by Access Industries, a privately-owned industrial group. There has been speculation that EMI will be next, but the company recently stated that they are looking into “strategic alternatives,” and will be restructuring in January.

Shortly after the Warner buyout was finalized, the company (which had been the final major-label holdout) reached an agreement with Spotify ” a music steaming service that gives users access to a huge catalog of music for free. This allowed the program to finally launch in the United States. Spotify’s popularity in Europe made its US release highly anticipated, especially since today people are much less willing to pay for their music. Warner’s new management seems to understand that things must change in order to move forward.

Universal has been just as active. It is investing in new opportunities for the company and experimenting with new projects. Universal just signed a deal with a company called Talenthouse, which pairs unknown talent with big-name stars, through competitions on the site. So far, projects that Talenthouse has worked on successfully include deals like a dress design for Florence and the Machine and a T-shirt for Queen. Universal hopes that through use of this site, their artists’ fan bases will increase and fans will be more loyal and willing to pay for their product.

Major labels are finally trying to adapt to the new music industry, but have they woken up in time? Artists have already become more independent and labels are now less necessary. In order for labels to be relevant, they need to be willing to experiment and take risks. They need to offer new services that are not available to just anyone.

Monday, May 23, 2011

10 Things In Pop Music To Look Forward To In 2011

What’s the best thing that can happen in 2011? I’m praying for chart comebacks by Shania Twain, Amy Winehouse and Cher; an ABBA and/or Smiths reunion; and the disappearance of Ke$ha, Susan Boyle and Auto-Tune. But this isn’t a New Year’s wish list, or my beautiful dark twisted fantasy. Reality bites most of the time, but the pop forecast calls for some exciting stuff that actually will happen.
Kelly Clarkson’s new album. Our lives would suck without her! It’s been too long since Clarkson’s last chart sighting, and if the recent preview of “You Still Won’t Know What It’s Like” at the “A Night for Hope” event in Nashville is a harbinger of what to expect when she releases her fifth album (in early 2011, according to her October 4 tweet), it’s already hovering near the top of my to-download list.
Best New Artist at the 2011 GRAMMYs: Florence + the Machine? The eligibility requirements in this category have been muddy for years: Four of the five nominees released music before the 2010 eligibility period. And last year offered such an embarrassment of riches that, for better or worse (mostly better), new hitmakers like Ke$ha, Jason Derülo, Bruno Mars, B.0.B, Le Roux, Mike Posner, Nicki Minaj, Adam Lambert and Susan Boyle didn’t make the cut. Fellow Canucks Justin Bieber and Drake will have the commercial edge on February 13, but a vote for the UK’s Florence + the Machine would be a vote for quality over quantity of sales.
A Glee-free Matthew Morrison. I first met Morrison about 10 years ago when he was in a boy band called LMNT (as in “Element”” and, yes, dreadful name). I always thought he had star quality, but I don’t think Glee, on which he’s saddled with the straight-man role, properly spotlights his musical gifts. May his optimistically titled February album, Bringing It to the Masses, show the world that there’s much more to Mr. Schuester than a can-do attitude and a sweet, crooked smile.
The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame welcomes (drum roll)… Neil Diamond. I’ve had my issues with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees over the years, but they wouldn’t include Diamond, who’s finally being recognized after years of not even being nominated. For those who gripe that he’s not really rock & roll, the Hall has never been about the genre as strictly defined by snobby purists. Otherwise, legends like Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash and Madonna wouldn’t be in it. Neither would any of Motown’s classic ’60s and ’70s stars (including Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and, yes, Michael Jackson), Steely Dan, or Paul Simon. So on March 14, raise a glass of red red wine to Diamond. He rocks.
Britney Spears gets grimier. Rumors of her career’s demise a few years ago were greatly exaggerated”and premature. Producer Dr. Luke has promised that Spears’s seventh album, due in March, will be “harder in some ways, and maybe a little more deep into electronica”and grimier.” If that means we can expect it to be more Blackout than Circus, I’m totally in.
The Cars get on the road again. Even with all the reunions of ’80s bands in recent years, I didn’t see this one coming. Free, the Cars’ first studio album in 13 years (featuring all the original members, minus Benjamin Orr who died in 2000), will be out in the spring, and the band is revving up for a tour. They’ve posted three previews on their Facebook page, and like the best teasers, they leave you wanting more.
Justin Timberlake brings sexy back”again. Timberlake’s The Social Network turn as Napster founder/inaugural Facebook president Sean Parker was odd but intriguing, as he played him as equal parts swishy playboy, smooth operator, party monster and raging opportunist. But my favorite of his scenes was his first, when he wakes up in bed with a total stranger. I’m looking forward to more clever post-coital banter when Friends with Benefits, his romantic comedy with Mila Kunis, opens on July 22.
Simon Cowell’s The X Factor. Where Simon goes, I suspect American Idol fans will follow. But if he’s really signing on Cheryl Cole”who’s huge in the UK but a nobody in the US”as a judge for the new US version of the talent search, which launches in September, he’d better reach for the superstars for the third one.
Jennifer Hudson proves that her Oscar win wasn’t a fluke”or not. After three more-or-less filler films following her Academy Award for Dreamgirls, ex-Idol contestant Hudson’s first leading role in Winnie (a biopic of Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife) will be the real test of her Hollywood potential. But to pull off this tough assignment, she’ll have to offer more emotional depth than the slightly vacant look she wears throughout the trailer.
No more Mariah Carey pregnancy rumors. This media obsession with baby bumps and celebrity procreating has got to stop. Who cares? Frankly, I’ve got more interesting trivial pursuits with which to fill my spare time. But thank God, unless Carey gets knocked up again immediately after delivering twins next year, we can all get over her belly and move on to more important things, like Katy Perry’s.

Jeremy Helligar's 10 Best Things About This Year in Pop

The year seems to be ending as it began: with Susan Boyle practically interchangeable snoozaks ruling Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. Who would have guessed? Well, I did, but enough dwelling on the bad. Let’s focus on the good stuff that happened in the last 12 months, and dream a dream that next year’s gift is a Boyle-free holiday season. And now (in roughly chronological order), the best of the rest…

1) Journey’s trek to the tops of the pops. Glee still makes my ears bleed, but by helping Journey score its first-ever UK hit”the band’s ’80s classic “Don’t Stop Believin'” piggybacked on the smash Glee cover all the way to No. 6 in early 2010”those kids finally earned a round of applause. (We’ll spare you the Glee link. Instead here’s Sam Tsui covering Glee covering Journey)

2) Alicia Keys’ sleepless nights. Sunshine from rain. Pleasure from pain. “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” was the finest of Keys’ string of great 2010 singles. I’m still up all night myself, tossing and turning, trying to figure out how it never climbed higher than No. 27 on the Hot 100.

3) Pink goes up in the air. When I met Pink in 1999, before the release of her debut album, I was impressed, but I never suspected that a newcomer named after the hue of her hair would be a hitmaker a decade later? Topping off her continued chart success in 2010, the now-blonde, now-mom-to-be took the GRAMMYs over the top (in the very best way) with her highwire-acrobat act while performing “Glitter in the Air.”

4) Leon Russell lives! Susan Boyle isn’t the only one who began and ended 2010 on top. Russell kicked off the year wowing us at the GRAMMYs alongside the Zac Brown Band and finished it wowing us again, on the GRAMMY-nominated The Union alongside Elton John. Old Hank Wilson is back”but then he never really went away.

5) Sade returns, with guns blazing. Out of sight, out of mind, yes, but in the case of Sade, absence made the heart grow fonder indeed. Soldier of Love, the band’s first album in nearly a decade, made one of the splashiest debuts of 2010, and” in a rare, welcome twist”was worth the wait. May the long-MIA-from-the-charts Shania Twain follow suit in 2011.

6) Carrie Underwood hooks Ted Mosby. Britney Spears’s How I Met Your Mother guest spot got more hype in 2008, but Underwood, in her acting debut, was just as good in March’s “Hooked” episode, nailing her stunt casting as a pharmaceutical-selling hottie stringing Ted along. Not even that adorable teacup pig could upstage her. More, please.

7) Robbie Williams hearts Gary Barlow in the “Shame” video. Boy meets boy, boy falls for boy, boy and boy live happily ever after in the newly reunited Take That members’ send up of Brokeback Mountain. If only real life were so simple.

8) Vanity projects that rock. Timbaland’s “If We Ever Meet Again” (featuring Katy Perry, from Shock Value II) and Mark Ronson’s “Bang Bang Bang” (with Q-Tip and MNDR’s Amanda Warner, from Record Collection) were pop rarities in 2010: distinctive producer-as-artist singles that matched the behind-the-scenes best of the guys who created them. David Guetta, king of the sound-alike musical tricks, this is how you do it.

9) The British are coming… again! With Coldplay and Amy Winehouse in a holding pattern, La Roux and Florence + the Machine picked up the UK slack. La Roux became the first UK act in forever to reach the US Top 10 with “Bulletproof,” and Florence + the Machine finally became more than hipster darlings as their debut disc, Lungs, burst into the Top 20, while their “Dog Days Are Over” single became a big enough hit to get the Glee treatment.

10) Girls girls girls! Love or loathe them, it was refreshing to see single ladies like Katy Perry, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Ke$ha, Gaga and others continue to transform music from a man’s man’s man’s man’s world into an estrogen-fueled empire. What are you waiting for, Shania? Come on, join the party!

By Jeremy Helligar

Jeremy Helligar is a former staff writer for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly, who now writes about celebrities and pop culture from his couch in Buenos Aires.