Instead of Artist of the Week, this post should be titled, Artist You Are Hearing All Over Commercial Pop Radio. Unfortunately, making that latter a reality is not directly within our powers. It’s also a little wordy, and so we announce that our Artist of the Week is the incomparable Brittany Campbell.
Campbell is a singer, songwriter, and producer from New York. Sure, that describes a hundred thousand people. Campbell is better than them. Her music is the perfect storm of pop, soul, R&B, and rock. She cites Amy Winehouse, Blondie, Joni Mitchell, and Jimi Hendrix as influences. Do you really not want to get on that train? Is that how you want to live your life? Get it together, do the right thing, and listen to these songs.
One of the best releases of 2012 to date is Boys Don’t Cry, an album of covers recorded by Anglo-Pakistani singer-songwriter Rumer (nee Sarah Joyce). As a vocalist, Rumer is soothing and smooth, strictly middle-of-the-road enough to earn her an invitation from U.S. President Barack Obama to perform at the White House in May, the month her album came out ” but that’s not to say she doesn’t have a slightly subversive streak.
After all, who chooses to release a collection of remakes for their second full-length studio album. (Rumer’s 2010 debut, Seasons of My Soul, earned her widespread acclaim, two Brit Award nominations, and a platinum certification in the U.K.)
Then there is the theme of Boys Don’t Cry (whose title was not inspired by The Cure song, which is not among the album tracks): Everything on it was written and performed by male artists in the ’70s. Somehow Rumer makes quintessentially guy songs like Ronnie Lane‘s “Just for a Moment” (about an instant of clarity in a drunken haze) and Neil Young‘s “A Man Needs a Maid” (title: self-explanatory) sound strong enough for a man but made for a woman.
Taylor Swift has yet to top Billboard’s Hot 100, but who needs a No. 1 pop single when you’ve sold more than 20 million albums (as of March of 2011), been named Entertainer of the Year twice in a row by the Academy of Country Music (in 2011 and 2012), been awarded the 2010 Hal David Starlight Award by the Songwriters Hall of Fame (an honor previously bestowed upon John Mayer and Alicia Keys) and won an Album of the Year GRAMMY (in 2010, for Fearless, her second album)? She makes every princess of pop this side of Adele seem like an underachiever.
At the age of twenty-two, Swift has accomplished what it takes some icons entire careers and then some to achieve. (Neither Bruce Springsteen, nor the Rolling Stones, nor Aretha Franklin, nor Madonna, nor Eminem, has yet to win an Album of the Year GRAMMY.) But it’s Swift’s latest honor, being the frontrunner for the role of Joni Mitchell in the upcoming film Girls Like Us, a biopic based on Sheila Weller’s book about the lives of Mitchell, Carly Simon and Carole King in the late ’60s, that has her detractors”and some fans even”protesting “Too soon!” and wondering “Who? Her?” (more…)
That’s just how I felt when I heard the music of Sweet Wednesday. You’ll forgive the gushing when you hear the alt-country, folk, roots sound of the Boston-based duo known individually as Dave Falk and Lisa Housman. I didn’t think musicians made music this addictive anymore. Not since Joan Baez, Glen Campbell (courtesy of Jimmy Webb songs) and Joni Mitchell, anyway.
What I love is the story telling in folk, said Housman. I’m a lyrics person and when the lyrics get me, then that is the song that I am going to love. That is one of the things that got me about folk was the beautiful harmonies.
Still it was something of a surprise for Housman when she met Falk about twelve years ago and soon found herself collaborating with him. For one thing, Falk was a rock and blues guy and Housman was a folk fan. Perhaps that’s why the songs the two perform as an acoustic duo have so many influences, though it’s often Housman’s clear, emotive vocals that steers the music”and steals the show.
With touches of everything from psychedelia to folk-rock to prog, singer/songwriter Jonathan Wilson‘s new album, Gentle Spirit, is something of a beard rocker’s”or more accurately, beard balladeer’s”wet dream, the kind of recording that sounds like it was meant for spinning seductively around a turntable while the listener sits cross-legged on the floor absorbing the credits and cover art like they’re part of a sacred text. And the seventy-eight-minute opus, lovingly recorded on analog gear, has indeed been made available as a double-vinyl LP.
But if you end up discovering Wilson’s work digitally, don’t despair”the experience isn’t analog-exclusive. The magic is still there, Wilson says, looking at a digital scan of a painting you love still conveys the intent, maybe not the detail and resolution, but the intent is still there. Besides, it’s not like Gentle Spirit was a live-in-the-studio recording; Wilson played the majority of the parts himself, diligently overdubbing each instrument as part of a long, laborious process. The one-man-band approachcomes very naturally, he says, I’ve always recorded that way. Gentle Spirit was the first record of mine that had guests helping me musically. I enjoy both sides, live tracking with others and also being completely alone, working it all out. While it’s not a concept album, Gentle Spirit nevertheless has the feel of a slowly unfolding song cycle that makes a long elegant arc. It’s not the kind of thing you just throw together. I had a vision for the basis of the record, Wilson affirms, the bulk of the songs and the record’s meaning, but many things unfolded along the way, the record took many, many months to finish, it was an extended process.
Kevin Devine, singer-songwriter from Brooklyn, has a pretty extensive musical background. From his early days playing with New York bands like Delusion and Miracle of ’86 , to his current solo work and collaboration with The Goddamn Band, Devine has proved himself to a wide variety of music fans. The remarkable thing about Devine is that he is so multi-dimensional. Since beginning his solo project, he’s been proving that he has not only the drive and talent to create a lasting music career, but also has a socially significant voice in a sea of meaningless songs.
We recently caught up with Kevin to learn more about his musical experience and hear about his newest album, Between the Concrete & Clouds, which was released September 13th.
OS: When did you begin singing, and when did you know that music was something you were going to devote your life to?
KD: I always remember singing around the house, singing along with my mother’s records, with the radio, with Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell’s “Michael From Mountains”, things like that. I was in chorus at school all through grade school, junior high. I don’t know if there was a moment of conscious choosing, I just don’t ever remember seriously wanting to do anything else. I was a good student all the way through graduating college, have worked many jobs, but this was always at the center.
OS: Now that you’ve been performing for some time, what would you say you have learned about your voice, and how have you used this knowledge to grow as a performer?
KD: I think I’ve embraced my limitations as a singer and tried to re-frame them as strengths. I have an expressive voice and a basic grasp of dynamics, and I have become a stronger and better singer over the course of my career, but am still not anyone’s picture of technical excellence. I’ve learned to sing more and shout less, and to sing straighter, less wobbly. I used to shake around my voice more to mask my insecurity about hitting the notes. I feel more confident now.
I’ll never forget the day Basia lied to me. Twice. I was interviewing the Polish singer (best known for her 1988 hit “Time and Tide”) shortly before the release of her 1994 album, The Sweetest Illusion, which was coming five years after her previous album, London Warsaw New York. That day, she promised me two things: First, she would never again make me wait so long for new music. Second, she’d never release a run-of-the-mill greatest hits album featuring, well, her greatest hits. She felt that at the very least, artists owed it to their fans to reprise their hits as brand-new tunes, not just repackage the same old songs.
Her next studio album, It’s That Girl Again, wouldn’t arrive until 2009, nine years after she had released Clear Horizon”The Best of Basia, one of those run-of-the-mill greatest hits albums featuring, well, her greatest hits.
The morals of this story: 1) You can’t rush inspiration. 2) The first cut isn’t only the deepest”sometimes it’s the best, too. That’s a lesson Mariah Carey may have learned last year when she scrapped plans to release Angels Advocate, a remixed version of her Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel album, after a new version of “Up Out My Face” (Memoirs‘ best song) featuring Nicki Minaj limped onto Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 100 and refused to go any further.
But apparently, Lady Gaga, the reigning queen of remix albums and EPs, still hasn’t received the memo. When she released Born This Way back in May, she put out a special edition that included a separate disc with remixes of five of the album’s songs. (Bryan Ferry did a similar thing with last year’s Olympia.) Divine inspiration or clever marketing ploy? Perhaps a little of both, but “Born This Way”-with-a-twang never would have spent six weeks at No. 1. The “Country Road Version” makes for an interesting one-time listen, but I never need to hear it again.
Even if you have only a passing knowledge of ˜80s new wave, it’s likely that Thomas Dolby has a place in your heart for lending some class”not to mention the occasional touch of funk”to the burgeoning synth-pop movement with such hits as Hyperactive, Europa and the Pirate Twins, and of course, the ultimate ode to love in a lab coat, She Blinded Me With Science. But if your knowledge of Dolby’s career drops off after the ˜80s, it’s not because you’re uninformed. In fact, Dolby spent much of the ˜90s and ˜00s outside of the music biz, pursuing other electronic interests that we’ll get to presently. But now, he’s set to release his first album of new material, and we talked with him about that record, A Map of the Floating City, as well as his early output, and got the straight story on Dolby’s missing years too.
Back in the ˜70s, the electro-pop pioneer was actually a teenage prog fan, worshipping at the altar of arty epics and tricky time signatures. I think many punks were teenage prog rockers, says Dolby. I still remember the outrage that prog rockers felt when punk first came on the scene. When I was fifteen I was into Genesis and Yes and Little Feat and Steely Dan. [Pogues frontman] Shane McGowan, who I was at school with, came in one day and said ‘Well, I think The Beatles and the Stones is all shit,’ and I remember my sense of outrage. I said, ‘Well, Shane, what should we be listening to?’ And he said ‘Johnny Thunders, MC5, Iggy Pop.’ And we’d never heard of any of these people. Of course within a few months we’d all spiked our hair and torn our trousers, and were all down at the 100 club listening to Siouxsie & The Banshees or The Clash.”
Even after trading his bellbottoms for leather pants, though, Dolby still gravitated naturally towards the brainier end of the British new wave, idolizing XTC to an obsessive degree. I used to follow them around in the early punk days, he admits. XTC came along and they had the energy of punk, but they had a musical intelligence to go along with it, so obviously that was a revelation to me. I knew their songs inside out, and I remember being in front of the stage, in front of Barry Andrews, their keyboard player, hoping that he would get hit by a tram or something, and they’d have to go ˜Is there anyone in the house that knows our keyboard parts?’ and I could leap up on stage.
Before that opportunity arose, though, Dolby began making his own way in the music world, working with other artists at first, from Bruce Wooley & The Camera Club to Lene Lovich. He released his first single in 1981, and his 1982 debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless, made him a success straight out of the gate. The sophistication of Dolby’s songwriting put him at the forefront of artists working with the new musical toolkit the ˜80s brought along, and even today he’s often associated exclusively with an era when he recalls providing an alternative to a lot of hair bands and a lot of AOR, noting The irony of it is that if you listen to my first album¦a lot of the songs are a three-piece band with additional keyboards. I was a big fan of early Talking Heads, and a couple of songs have that kind of vibe to them.
Nevertheless, he still embraces his early recordings. I do feel very strongly connected to them. There’s very little that I would choose to redo or delete. I guess, like anyone else in the ˜80s, I fell prey to some trends and sounds of the moment. Some were of my own making, some were just the flavor du jour, but overall I think my early stuff still stands up fairly well because of the substance behind the songwriting. There are some artists that transcend the era that they’re from; I think of anyone from Steely Dan to Kraftwerk to Van Morrison or Joni Mitchell, all of whom have influenced me very strongly. You wouldn’t catch any of them going out on a ˜70s revival tour¦the contribution they made spanned a wider spectrum than that.
However, Dolby found himself sufficiently dissatisfied with the music industry in the ˜90s to pursue a different course. I thought, ˜I’ll take a little sabbatical and go to Silicon Valley and explore my interest in technology,’ he recalls. Eventually, he started his own company and created a revolutionary ringtone technology that made a huge splash in the cell phone world, and he created soundtrack music for video games. Dolby found himself a success once more, but in an entirely new context. He could never resist the pull of songwriting for long, though, and the seeds of his upcoming album, A Map Of The Floating City, began to bear fruit. I had some songs that I’d been unable to escape from, he remembers. I needed to get those done, and once I started, I wrote brand new songs. Much of the recording process took place in Dolby’s home studio, built inside a lifeboat from the 1930s, which he says looks out over the North Sea and is powered by the wind and the sun.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the songs he recorded in this idyllic setting turned out to be much more acoustic-oriented and balladic than the tunes Dolby is most famous for. The songs from the new album are very organic, he agrees, adding, I’m very influenced by my environment. The inclusion of Dire Straits axeman Mark Knopfler on the track 17 Hills helps lend a rootsy touch as well. I just felt that his style would be a very good complement for the song, explains Dolby. He’s a student of American roots music¦I love his lyrical guitar style.
So, with all this earthiness going on, does Dolby still have a soft spot in his heart for the technology of old? Quite frankly, he confesses, a $1.99 iPhone app with a picture of a Mellotron, that sounds pretty close to the real thing, is to me a huge improvement on something that goes out of tune and takes three guys to carry it. But I know purists would probably be outraged to hear me say that. Nevertheless, he can envision a future where even today’s cutting-edge digital gear is fetishized as vintage equipment. I think fetishism for the past will always exist, he speculates, but maybe the future will be [about] jacking into the matrix and imagining ourselves in front of our 64k Mac, playing with those old tools. Things go full circle, so it’s hard to know where we’ll end up.