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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…)

Sound And Vision: Foster the People's Chart Challenge — Is There Life After "Pumped Up Kicks"?

Foster the People just might be the pop anomaly of 2011.

The trio of Los Angeles-based twentysomethings led by founder and namesake Mark Foster looks like a boy band (only cuter), plays instruments like rockers and produces music with beats that thump as hard as any backing up those fierce divas currently ruling every dance floor in clubland. And then there’s FTP’s breakthrough single, an insanely catchy song called “Pumped Up Kicks” about cool shoes and a youth with homicidal tendencies.

I mean, really?

Even more surprising than the song’s smash status despite its decidedly un-poppy protagonist”that troubled kid contemplating a shooting spree”is the fact that it’s created barely a ripple of controversy throughout its lengthy chart run. Did the clever lyrics fly over the heads of the country’s guardians of morality and decency in songwriting? Were we all just too lost in the beat to notice the finger on the trigger?

Or perhaps for the first time since the second British invasion of the 1980s brought such alternative pop acts as Duran Duran,
Depeche Mode and indie-pop pioneers the Smiths into and around the mainstream, both the masses and the pop-music establishment (radio and retail) are ready to support music that touches on more complex subject matters than “dance music sex romance””to quote a track on pop iconoclast supreme Prince’s 1982 album, 1999, one of the records that launched the censorship wars of the early ’80s that would hardly raise an eyebrow today.)

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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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Sound And Vision: Will Adele Beat the GRAMMYs Best New Artist Curse?

Adele should have been a contender, but who knew she’d end up being arguably the UK’s female act most likely to still be succeeding in 10 years?
When she arrived on the pop scene in 2008 with her debut album 19, she was sandwiched between” and overshadowed by”fellow Brit-soul divas Amy Winehouse and Duffy. Then something unexpected happened at the 2009 GRAMMY Awards, where Adele was nominated in four categories, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “Chasing Pavements,” her second single. Against all conceivable odds, she pushed Jonas Brothers, Lady Antebellum and Duffy aside to take Best New Artist, the prize Winehouse had claimed one year earlier.
Though the careers of GRAMMY’s Best New Artists have gone in many different directions (good luck, Esperanza Spalding), the high failure rate has spawned the urban legend known as the Best New Artist GRAMMY curse. Yes, some (Bette Midler, Sade and Mariah Carey, among them) have gone on to major careers and/or iconic status, but just as often (Starland Vocal Band, Debby Boone, Paula Cole, etc.), they haven’t. And at least one (Milli Vanilli) had the award rescinded for not bothering to sing a note on the album for which they won it.
Her freshman-year GRAMMY haul aside (she also took home Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Chasing Pavements”), Adele has had a slow build by contemporary pop-star standards. Her first album arrived under the radar in January of 2008 and stayed there for most of the year. But by autumn, Adele was in the right place at the right time: performing on an episode of Saturday Night Live, which”thanks to an appearance by then-US Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin”became the program’s highest-rated episode in fourteen years. (Does that mean she owes her US success to Sarah Palin?)
The chart action that ensued may have been a no-brainer, but there’s nothing predictable about Adele. It’s not just that she sounds far more seasoned than you might expect twenty-two-year-old to be. On her 19 version of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”” recently still hovering high on the UK singles chart more than two years after its release”she did what Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and even Dylan himself had failed to do: She gave the song soul.
And that special brand of blue-eyed soulfulness is the foundation of her sophomore album, 21, its power and its glory. God knows where Winehouse is at the moment, what she’s doing and when/if she’ll ever resurface again. And Duffy inched farther into the pop realm on her second album, Endlessly, and the result has been poor sales in both the US and the UK. In contrast, the critical and commercial reception to 21, which was released on January 24th in the UK and will be out on February 22nd in the US, has been promising. A week into its life span, it was already platinum and No. 1 in Adele’s homeland.
Paul Epworth’s production on “Rolling in the Deep,” the opening track and first single, is as big as Adele’s voice (which I’d place closer to the husky domain of Alison Moyet or even Florence Welch than to Winehouse or Duffy), creating a huge wall of sound that’s like nothing else on the radio right now. It entered the UK singles chart at No. 2 a few weeks ago, immediately matching the peak of “Chasing Pavements,” and it’s cracked Billboard’s Hot 100. The album would have been more streamlined and focused with fewer producers (Epworth, Rick Rubin, Ryan Tedder and Adele herself are among the seven credited), but it’s more about Adele’s voice anyway, and at least she doesn’t sound like she’s moved on from chasing pavements to chasing hits.
It’s hard to imagine 21‘s best tracks” which include left-of-the-pop-mainstream songs like “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go”” posing any major threat to the leading ladies on the Hot 100, but Adele’s against-the-grain musical mentality works in her favor. Despite those early comparisons to Winehouse and Duffy, Adele stands on her own musical ground. Because she’s not easily categorized, she’s not quickly forgotten.
As Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and other iconoclastic legends have proven in the past, long, sturdy music careers need not be built on hit singles or pre-packaged sex appeal. When the dust settles and most of today’s pop starlets have fallen far out of flavor, Adele just might be the last woman standing.