Thursday, September 30, 2010

Clapton's New Album: "Clapton"

Eric Clapton and I go way back, at least for me- he was already twenty years into his career when I discovered him. I remember being in a friend’s car back in the mid 80’s and one of her older brothers had left Clapton’s “Slowhand” tape in the cassette player. For some reason I was captivated and immediately purchased my very own “Slowhand” tape, which I proceeded to listen to through the end of high school and into college to the point that I actually wore it out and had to buy another. I can only imagine how pleased my parents must have been that their Catholic high school daughter was obsessed with an album whose biggest hit was the song “Cocaine” (no worries, I just liked the song).

At some point in the late 80’s or early 90’s, Eric and I had a falling out. I think he started to be less concerned with what type of music I wanted to hear from him and focused more on the type of music he wanted to play. I just wasn’t as enamored with his songs anymore, nor was I too happy with his increased attention to The Blues. I like blues to be preceded by “rhythm &”. In the event it’s a stand-alone blues song, I prefer it “lite” with cream and sugar, so I don’t really know it’s the blues. Eric, however, serves the blues black, so to speak, and hardcore. It just wasn’t working out for us anymore, so we parted ways with no hard feelings. However, when I noticed recently that he was putting out a new album, cleverly entitled “Clapton” (his 41st album and a mere 45 years after beginning his musical career), I was happy to give him a try again.

Much to my surprise, I discovered after I bought the album that the songs on it were new for him, but they were not actually new songs at all, and I started to regret that I didn’t go with Lil Wayne this week. The last three albums I have reviewed have all been remakes or covers, and in only one of those three instances did I know that going in. On this album, Clapton pays tribute to the songs he enjoyed listening to as a boy at his grandparents’ house in jolly old Surrey, England. Some background on this is in order.

Clapton’s mother had him when she was just 16 and before you could get a t.v. gig being a Teen Mom. He was therefore raised by his grandparents, believing they were his parents and his mother was his sister (do I hear a Lifetime movie in the works?). Imagine young Eric in his grandparents’/parents’ house listening to their music. Now imagine that his grandparents had absolutely no preference as to what musical genre they listened to and you will have a glimpse of the music on this album. On his website, Eric expresses how excited he is about how this album turned out, but I’m worried that not everyone will share his enthusiasm. My assessment is that the album is having a severe identity crisis, although that also means there might be something for everyone.

There are 15 songs on “Clapton”, including the bonus track on the digital version. Five of those songs can pretty easily be classified as heavy blues, so right off the bat I wasn’t crazy about those: “Travellin’ Alone”, “Judgment Day”, “Can’t Hold Out Much Longer”, “Run Back to Your Side” (only new song) and “I Was Fooled” (bonus track). Who knew the blues were so popular in England in the 50’s?

After that, I had more trouble with the genres. There are a couple that sound sort of “big band”, although I honestly think they sound like circus music and are kind of silly (“My Very Good Friend the Milkman” and “When Somebody Thinks You’re Wonderful”). There are a couple more songs that sound like “swing” music but still have a somewhat contemporary sound to them, and those are okay (“That’s No Way to Get Along” and “Everything Will Be Alright”).

My favorite songs on the album are the ones that I can only describe as “sweet” and have a timeless feel to them- a couple of them I never would have guessed are old if I wasn’t paying close attention to the lyrics, and even then it’s not easy to tell. They remind me of a really simple old fashioned time. The ones I liked best are “River Runs Deep”, “How Deep is the Ocean” and “Autumn Leaves” (not sure why two are about water depth). That leaves a couple songs that I had a hard time putting in any type of bucket. “Rockin’ Chair” is charming but has an “older” feel to it, and “Diamonds From the Rain” is slow and kind of sad.

Normally I wouldn’t talk about each song, but this is such a weird mix that I couldn’t at all generalize. If you are an Eric Clapton fan, just be warned that this isn’t an ordinary album from him. If you like his more bluesy side, you’ll probably like those five songs. If you like his more mainstream songs, you’ll probably like the ones that I think would be most appealing to the “adult contemporary” set, which are the ones I liked.

Phew- I think it would have been easier to write about Lil Wayne after all. Of course, he also has a story to tell since his album is coming out as he’s still incarcerated, but that’s a story for another day.

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Songs to Inspire

I am taking things in a little different direction for this post, and it’s thanks to my friend Brandon Flowers from The Killers. In my post about Brandon’s new solo album “Flowers” a couple weeks back, I revealed that he is a Mormon (surprise!), albeit the occasional smoking and drinking kind apparently. Nonetheless, he put one “gospel” type song on his new album, and it brought to mind a couple other faith-related songs by otherwise mainstream artists. I went through my iPod and found some songs that pondered God or faith in the lyrics. Mind you, I only came up with a handful of such songs; I think possibly a lot of artists assume that songs dealing with faith won’t be appealing to their listeners. Perhaps Kanye said it best (but then doesn’t he always?) when he said, “If I talk about God then my record won’t get played” in “Jesus Walks”. After listening to these songs collectively for a couple days, I think I have somewhat gleaned what message each was aiming for. I like it when music makes you think, and these songs did. I’ve included the genre for each because there is quite an array.

• “On the Floor” – Brandon Flowers (alternative). Brandon described this song as “gospel”, which gospel singers might take exception to, but it does have the organ music you often associate with that genre. Brandon finds himself “on my knees begging please” and finding himself “waiting to believe.” He’s taking stock of his life and what he’s done; you’ll see that theme in other songs here, as well.

• “Dear God 2.0” – The Roots (hip hop/rap). The lyrics in this song are expressing doubt in God because of the suffering seen all around, ticked off in rap fashion. One thing I like about The Roots in general is that they combine rap with really pretty vocals, and this song is no exception. Sample rap lyrics: “Why is the world ugly if you made it in your image and why is living life such a fight to the finish?” Sample “regular” lyrics: “Dear God, I’m trying hard to reach you…Dear God, I see your face in all I do.” Heavy stuff from The Roots, but the song itself has a cool sound to it.

• “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” – Johnny Cash (country, of course). If you’ve seen one of my favorite movies of all time, “Walk the Line,” you know that Johnny Cash got his start with church hymns. This song has kind of a “chain gang” sound to it and is a little more fire and brimstone than the others. Basically, if you do bad things, God will hold you accountable. Now you know.

• “Dive” – Steven Curtis Chapman (inspirational). This is the only song in the group that is actually of the “spiritual” genre, and I honestly have no idea how it ended up on my iPod. Apparently I have never really listened to the lyrics because I did not realize it had religious undertones. Actually, they’re not undertones- it’s pretty overt: “Sink or swim, I’ve diving in.” Good song with more of a rock/pop sound.

• “Jesus Walks” – Kanye West (hip hop/rap). This song has kind of a “marching” sound to it as the background to Kanye’s rapping about asking God to show him the way because the Devil is trying to “break me down.” He’s nervous that he’s done too many bad things and been away from God too long to talk to him anymore. One could make the argument that Kanye should revisit these lyrics as his tantrums don’t always seem to reflect that he’s following a super spiritual path. Warning: even though this song is heavy on the Jesus talk, there is plenty of decidedly unholy language within.

• “Show Me What I’m Looking For” – Carolina Liar (pop). You’ll recognize this song because it was fairly popular last summer. “Save me, I’m lost. Oh Lord, I’ve been waiting for you.” Wow, I’m starting to feel bad for these artists- they seem to really be struggling.

• “One of Us” – Joan Osboarne (folk-rock). You might also remember this song. Joan ponders what God looks like and what she (or we) might say if we happened to be sitting next to him on the bus, and most interestingly, what you might ask him if you were allowed just one question. I don’t think he was disguised as the man next to me on my train ride home while I’ve been writing this; there was an unpleasant odor and I actually tried to be inspired to not think bad thoughts about him since I was writing about tolerance and goodness (I was not very successful). Special shout-out to my very favorite song from Joan Osboarne, “Cathedrals”- beautiful.

• “Heaven Help Us All” – Ray Charles and Gladys Knight (blues). Now this sounds like a gospel song. Gladys can belt it out like nobody’s business! Basically, Heaven help everyone, good and bad. I think Ray and Gladys have a full choir supporting them in this song and you may be tempted to don a robe and put your hands skyward.

• “Dear Lord” – Joseph Arthur (rock). This song has a bit of a twang to it. This is an honest song in which the singer believes when he needed God, He wasn’t there for him. Since he lost faith, he’s now looking for Him and is remorseful for not keeping his faith. It’s hard not to have felt this way at some point.

I think there are quite a few country songs that have religious messages, but my collection of songs is pretty light on country. I found it interesting to listen to the lyrics of these songs by artists who do not usually sing about such topics. A bit much en masse for a simple walk to the train? Perhaps, but my brain isn’t really doing much else at such times anyway, so it was a nice diversion.

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

John Legend & The Roots: Wake Up!

I have to say that the new album by John Legend and the Roots, “Wake Up!” took me in a different direction than I was expecting, and in part I have Oprah to thank for it. Back up: if John Legend had put out a new album on which he was singing nursery rhymes, I would still be reviewing it today. I absolutely love him and was thrilled that we were able to catch him at Ravinia last summer. Without knowing anything about this album, I was a bit curious as to why he teamed up with The Roots; I like them but am not a diehard fan. What luck that the online version of the album comes with a 25 minute interview. Research done!

John Legend was pretty involved in the Obama campaign. During the summer of 2008 as the excitement about potential change captivated our country, he approached The Roots about making an album that captured that hopeful feeling of change. What they settled on was covering some of the music from the sixties and seventies that were of the “social activist” genre (if there is such a genre) that had kind of the funky sound that suited them. They chose songs that may be recognizable to people who remember the music from those time periods first-hand, but none of the songs were familiar to me. I do not believe they were coming through my beloved transistor radio on WLS AM89 back then. The songs have a great sound to them and a lot of the issues they sing about are unfortunately still quite relevant today, such as healthcare and race. If you don’t know anything about The Roots, they’re considered hip-hop/rap. I’m not sure “funky” is John Legend’s most natural sound; some of the songs seem like he’s kind of forcing the funk, but his voice with The Roots is a nice mix, and they kept the music pretty “pure” without crazy synthesizers or special effects. My favorites on this album are the title track (“Wake Up”), which is a really pretty song with Common (rapper) and someone named Melanie Fiona, who is from a group I’ve never heard of, and “Hard Times”. Sit tight, I’m getting to the Oprah connection.

There is one exception to the cover songs on this album. The song “Shine” was written for the upcoming movie called “Waiting For ‘Superman’”, which I obviously assumed was some sort of superhero movie I would never see. I did love the song, however, particularly the version (there are two) that is actually for the movie because it is just John and the piano- so pretty. The other version sounds more radio-ready, but still a great song. The lyrics follow the theme of the rest of the album in believing in our young people (“let ‘em shine”). When I was talking to my sister the other night, she mentioned that John Legend had been on Oprah earlier in the week, which was exciting, to talk about educational reform, which was very disappointing. Nonetheless, I watched the episode since my oldest daughter is devoted to Oprah and has a season pass on the DVR for her show. It was then that I learned that “Waiting for ‘Superman’” is actually a documentary about the state of our country’s education system, and the clips I saw were quite compelling. I have therefore changed my tune, so to speak, and do plan to see the movie. It’s due to be released in Chicago sometime in October and is directed by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed “An Inconvenient Truth.” There, I’m stepping off my soapbox, which I never intended to be on when I started listening to this album a few days ago.

To recap, this isn’t your typical John Legend album, but if you like the R&B vibe and if you happened to have been a social activist in the sixties and seventies, you will like this album. To try: “Hard Times”, “Wake Up Everybody”, and “Shine” (either version). Enjoy the groovy video for "Wake Up Everybody" below.

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Sound of Starbucks

It is with some embarrassment that I can admit to being an expert on pretty much all aspects of Starbucks. Not only do I start each day with my Grand Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte (diva!), but I often supplement that with a piece of coffee cake, and lately I’ve been picking up lunch there at the same time. How exciting that I can sustain myself with food almost exclusively from Starbucks. I also have not one but two Christmas ornaments of little Starbucks cups- they’re adorable! Good behavior in church is rewarded with a stop by Starbucks for a donut (when do the kids outgrow the need for bribery and/or rewards for good behavior in church, by the way? I have three kids in high school!). Failure to make the cut for any sort of tryout is immediate grounds for a Frappuccino; same with new braces. What’s not to love, except possibly the prices? It is truly a store for every occasion! Never mind that it might be eclipsing McDonalds as the cause of obesity.

The two Starbucks that I frequent could not be more different from each other. The one closest to my house is large with comfortable, oversized chairs, ample tables, and a full selection of shopping opportunities from mugs to candy to actual cappuccino makers. There is outdoor seating and on any given morning, particularly on the weekends, there is a good crowd that appears ready to spend the entire day camped out there (which you could do because of the nice restroom and, as I mentioned, an array of food). Most of those people also come with their dogs, who also seems to know each other, and cute, sporty dog water bowls. It’s suburban Starbucks at its finest. Contrast that to my downtown work Starbucks. Not only is there no outdoor seating, but there is also no room for any indoor seating or merchandise for sale. Often, unfortunately, there is also not enough space for the line of patrons, which often extends out the door in the morning- unpleasant during the winter.

There is a marked difference in the workers at both locations, as well. Suburban Starbucks has a gentle, polite staff who never fails to ask me if I need any ground coffee for my coffeemaker at home, despite the fact that they know I drink latte. Also, why would I want to make coffee at home when I can spend almost $5 for a cup at their store? Those workers are so professional they may have received their college degrees in barista-ing. They listen carefully to my drink order, repeat it clearly for the person calmly making all the drinks and then that person repeats the order back to ensure complete accuracy. The workers at my downtown Starbucks? Country Mouse and City Mouse looks like clones compared to the workers at home vs. work Starbucks. They call me “Honey” and “Girlfriend” downtown. They do not care about my coffee situation at home. They know my order before I place it and my drink is often ready by the time I’ve paid.

What is the biggest reason I love my downtown Starbucks? The music, of course. Last Saturday, I was in suburban Starbucks with my youngest daughter and I commented to her with horror that there was no music playing whatsoever. Mind you, there was a pleasant hum of book groups chatting, families sharing hot chocolate and high schoolers studying…but no music? Not only is downtown Starbucks borderline claustrophobic, but it is also LOUD. The music is blaring and the gals are belting out the words to whatever is playing. Lately I’ve noticed that they’ve been playing the latest Sheryl Crow album- and here I thought that album was mostly good for a nap on the porch (no disrespect as I love naps on the porch). Seriously, it is almost impossible for your mood not to be bumped up a notch or two just from getting your coffee. They don’t take themselves seriously and they are enjoying and sharing good music. What better way to start your day?

I always pick up those little free music cards when they have a new one out. Again, they are displayed with great punctuality at home; when they get around to putting them out downtown they tend to be cards I picked up a month earlier in the ‘burbs. As a tribute to Starbucks and its music, here are some of the recent songs from those cards that I am most partial to. It plays right into one of my career goals of quitting my job in middle management and becoming the person who hopefully gets paid a lot of money to choose what music is displayed at the Starbucks counters and what songs to put on those little cards. Wish me luck!

By Some Miracle (Philip Selway)
Better Days (Eddie Vedder)
Loving You is Easy (Sarah McLachlan)
Southern Pacifica (Josh Ritter)
Little Fire (Patty Griffin, feat. Emmylou Harris)
Everybody’s Hurting (Jakob Dylan)
The High Road (Broken Bells)
Modern Man (The Watson Twins)
Everybody Needs Love (Findlay Brown)
Mystery Zone (Spoon)

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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Brandon Flowers - Crossfire

Your first question, as mine was, might be “Who is Brandon Flowers?” The answer is that he is the lead singer for The Killers, most famously known for Mr. Brightside and probably most embarrassingly for the lyrics “are we human or are we dancers” (cringe). Since I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of thinking I need to listen to something new every week. There wasn’t much that intrigued me this week, so I took a chance on Brandon and his new album, Flamingo, and was pleasantly surprised.

I was curious as to why Brandon decided to do a solo album, assuming he figured he didn’t need his fellow Killers anymore. What I read, however, is that he actually wanted to make this another Killers album, while his three band mates were ready for a rest, so solo he went. He maintains that this album doesn’t sound like The Killers, but I always think that unless you’re a diehard fan (and I would consider myself more of a casual fan) you’re not really going to notice the difference if the lead singer is the same and the sound isn’t TOO different from the original band. Brandon is kind of an interesting guy. He grew up around Las Vegas and is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), a bit unusual for a rocker, especially one in a band called The Killers. He’s a little glitzy, although perhaps with his Vegas roots it can’t be helped. He’s also married with two kids and another on the way. Almost a normal guy!

I think this album has a lot of diversity, and after listening to it a couple times through I was singing along (to myself only, of course) and the lyrics stuck with me even when I wasn’t listening. It opens with a song about “Fabulous Las Vegas,” which is sure to be used in the city’s next marketing campaign. There are several songs about love lost, a song that Brandon describes as “Gospel”, and a bonus track that sounds country to me, including the sad ending. There is also a great duet with someone named Jenny Lewis, someone from a band I’m not familiar with.

I read a few reviews of the album that were pretty critical of Brandon’s solo effort, including the fact that he doesn’t come close to reaching the height of one of his main idols, Bruce Springsteen. I think those critics are snobs, or maybe my standards aren’t that high. I liked this album and most of the songs on it. Tracks to try: Hard Enough (Jenny Lewis duet) and Crossfire (getting radio play).  Watch the video for Crossfire, featuring Charlize Theron, below.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cross Country Classics

I will preach to anyone who will listen about how great the girls’ cross country program at my kids’ school is, and I like to think I’ve influenced a couple people to have their daughters join the program, as well. My older daughters are in their junior and senior year, and the program has had a huge impact on their high school experience. Ironically, this is the third year for my junior and only the second year for my senior. Prior to my junior daughter’s freshman year, I enrolled her in the summer running program through the high school, which is generally the precursor to the actual cross country program. She struggled that summer, not really enjoying much of it; friends who had daughters already in the program encouraged me to tell her to hang in there. Thank goodness she did; I can honestly say it has transformed her high school experience. Last summer, my then junior-to-be (now a senior) got in on the action, so now for better or worse (depending on the day), they are both in the program- I say better.

A neighbor told me recently that she required each of her four children, all of whom have gone on to play on college sports teams and/or state championship high school sports teams, to run cross country in middle school so that they understood the definition of “hard work.” She’s not kidding. The middle school program gave us a taste of what being on the cross country team involved, but high school took it to a whole new level. Those girls work hard. If they’re not going to Blackwell Forest Preserve to run up and down the hills, they’re doing weight training, long runs, speed work or other equally unappealing sounding activities. And yet, I can honestly say I have never heard either of my daughters complain about going to practice, maybe because they’re amongst their friends, or they see their hard work pay off at their meets. When I trained for the marathon last summer, people used to comment about how that must have been inspirational to my daughters. The truth is actually the opposite.

I have to say that the girls know how to make running or being part of a team or whatever they do FUN! They do secret spirit gifts before each meet, writing letters and getting small gifts for a teammate, keeping their identity secret. They have a campout before their first meet, complete with costumes and a scavenger hunt. They host pasta dinners before some of the meets. They design t-shirts for the summer running program and the regular season. The wondrous thing about it all is that they do it themselves! After years of leading Brownie troops and school activities, I was startled to realize that they no longer needed their mommies to help them. The activity that really stands out for me is their annual “Bagel Run”. Two years ago, when my now junior (then freshman) did the Bagel Run, I remember driving her a great distance west to a remote spot on the Prairie Path early one Saturday morning. I can’t remember her distance, but there were three such groups (this year at distances of 7 miles, 8 ½ and 9 ½ miles), all of which ran toward Wheaton on the Prairie Path, concluding with their cheering parents greeting them at the finish. I remember feeling strangely emotional as the girls finished, many having just completed the longest runs of their lives. After everyone finished, they all celebrated with a big breakfast at a nearby teammate’s house. On that Saturday morning, the Prairie Path was crowded with our girls, as well as marathon training groups and people just out for a run on a Saturday morning. The thing that struck me is that pretty much anyone who isn’t physically disabled can get out there and run- it’s just that some people do it and some don’t. These girls finished those distances as a result of hard work. It literally inspired me to start running, ultimately signing up for the marathon last year.

One of the many traditions the girls’ cross country team has is that each year the juniors make a playlist, burned onto a cd and distributed to each girl on the team. Being girls and naturally inclined toward craftiness, the cds are also decorated and bedazzled. Some of the songs are related to running while others are more generally inspirational or just fun. I love getting my hands on the cd because it’s fun to hear what they’ve chosen during a given year. Last year’s cd is especially close to my heart as the songs immediately put me on the lakefront doing my mid-week runs after work as part of my marathon training. I decided to take the best of the last three years’ cds and share them because I think it’s yet another GREAT tradition that the team keeps alive from year to year. As testament to the strength of the program, I was amused and touched to see many parents of last year’s seniors at our first invitational this year, even though their own daughters are now off at college. It’s hard to let go!

Without crying on my laptop and making a scene on the train, I’ll get to the business of my favorite songs from the last couple years. If there is a duplicate here and there from a previous list, the original inspiration was from these cds. Best of luck to anyone who is motivated and inspired to get out there and run!

• Animal (Neon Trees)
• Ants Marching (Dave Matthews Band)
• Dynamite (Taio Cruz)
• Go The Distance (Roger Bart/Disney)
• Magic (B.o.B.)
• Not Afraid (Eminem)
• One Tribe (Black Eyed Peas)
• I Run For Life (Melissa Etheridge)
• Heart of a Champion (Nelly)
• I Run to You (Lady Antebellum)
• Don’t Stop the Beat (Junior Senior)
• Jai Ho! (A.R. Rahman & the Pussycat Dolls)
• Beautiful Day (U2)
• All These Things That I’ve Done (The Killers)
• Superstar (Lupe Fiasco)
• Mama Mia (ABBA)
• Lose Yourself (Eminem)
• I Gotta Feeling (Black Eyed Peas)

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

My VMA Predictions

Well, it’s that time of year that everyone has been waiting for: not the Oscars or the Emmys, it’s the MTV Video Music Awards! It’s a bit surprising that MTV continues to host this ceremony since to my knowledge they have not aired an actual video in at least a decade. I’m pretty sure the schedule is full up with Teen Mom, Cribs, Teen Cribs, etc. Back in the old days when I was a kid, we used to watch music videos on t.v.- crazy! Looking back, it’s somewhat surprising that my family actually had cable and that my mom allowed us to watch videos. Maybe she was more progressive than she seemed at the time. Anyway, I was pleased to be able to sit at my computer and watch each of the nominated videos online (what an exciting Saturday night it has been!).

I am quite certain that most of the MTV artists who are making videos do not have the suburban music mom demographic in mind during their video planning sessions, and I have not publicized the fact that I am evaluating the 2010 nominees to the many teens who live in my house as I am sure they would be mortified because I am so old and should be doing more “mom” type activities, like gardening or walking the dogs. I justify the fact that I am weighing in on the videos by noting that the VMA host this year is Chelsea Handler, who is just a few years younger than me (okay, 7 years, but that’s not much). Also, Madonna kissed Britney Spears on the VMAs when she was the exact same age I am now, so it turns out I could be doing something much more mortifying than just watching the videos and quietly writing about which ones I like best.

I normally don’t watch videos because they have the potential to kind of change my impression of the songs. Sometimes they are so wacky that they make me not even like the corresponding songs, or I just picture the videos when I hear the songs. Nonetheless, the VMAs are upon us and as they are at least loosely related to music I thought it would be irresponsible for me not to provide you with some thoughts. I am only evaluating four categories because honestly it ends up being the same 15 or so videos nominated for everything, so the whole thing gets redundant. Here we go:

Video of the Year:

Bad Romance (Lady Gaga) – I wouldn’t say this video has a heavy plot to it, but it’s always entertaining to see the many costumes that Gaga pulls out of her closet. You just can’t find those dresses at Ann Taylor.
Telephone (Lady Gaga, feat. Beyoncé) – This video is kind of like a little mini movie, almost 9 minutes long. The premise is Lady Gaga in prison, and while I have never been in prison, I think they may have taken some creative license with this one. Anyway, once released, her friend Beyoncé picks her up and the two of them end up doing kind of a large-scale Thelma and Louise deal. Although I thought this video was pretty weird, I think it will win because it is quite creative.
Not Afraid (Eminem) – Not a ton of action in this video. Eminem stands on top of a building and ponders his fears as he proclaims that he is…not afraid. I still like the message in this song, but I didn’t find the video very memorable.
Airplanes (B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams) – This video was cute enough, but I’m surprised that it was thought to be good enough to be nominated for video of the year.
Kings and Queens (30 Seconds to Mars) – This was the only song of the ones nominated in this category that I didn’t know beforehand, and it ended up being my favorite video. I’m not exactly sure how it relates to the song, but the video is a bunch of people riding their bikes around a city at night, which doesn’t sound very exciting, but it had a nice feel to it.
Dog Days Are Over (Florence + the Machine) – It turns out Florence is about one notch less crazy looking than Lady Gaga, but I didn’t think her video had much about it that was overly interesting and (this part is important) she’s not Lady Gaga.

Overall, my favorite was Kings and Queens, but I think Telephone will win.

Best Collaboration:

Video Phone (Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga) – I know it’s confusing that both Beyoncé and Lady Gaga recorded songs about phones and guest starred each other in those songs- and videos. This one isn’t nearly as interesting as Telephone, in my opinion.
Telephone (Lady Gaga feat. Beyoncé) – see previous section
Airplanes (B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams) – ditto
My First Kiss (3OH!3 feat. Ke$ha) – I think this song is fun and the video is pretty fun, too. Basically it’s a bunch of random people kissing and 3OH!3 singing. I don’t think we’d be looking for much more from a video for this song.
Empire State of Mind (Jay-Z and Alicia Keys) – This was my favorite video of the ones in this category. I love the song, and the video is pretty true to what the song is about: lots of pictures being flashed of New York. Of course, as with anything that has a Jay-Z association, there is also plenty of Jay-Z being flashed around, including him apparently trying to make us believe he still hangs out in the crummy ‘hood he grew up in when we all know that he is really a record exec in a glass office and has what I’m sure is a very nice house with Beyoncé. I’m getting sidetracked; I did like the song and am probably just bitter that we don’t have a song and video nominated that makes Chicago look so cool.

I’m picking Empire State of Mind for this category.

Best Female Video:

Bad Romance (Lady Gaga)
Video Phone (Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga)
Fifteen (Taylor Swift) – I didn’t want to have to bring this up, but remember how last year Kanye West threw his tantrum onstage when Taylor Swift was trying to accept her award? I don’t think we have to worry about that this year and not just because Kanye is all peace and love for the past year since that incident (supposedly). This video isn’t good enough to win.
Tik Tok (Ke$ha) – Our girl Ke$ha doesn’t really pretend to be anything more than a fun party girl, and this video keeps that image alive nicely.
California Gurls (Katy Perry feat. Snoop Dogg) – Even though I have heard this song a minimum of 2,000 times this summer, I have never seen the video. I guess it would have been too boring to just have the expected beach scenes or convertibles. Therefore, this video is like a weird, demented Candy Land scene with Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg in it. Too weird for me.

I would vote for Tik Tok in this category.

Best Male Video:

Not Afraid (Eminem)
OMG (Usher feat. Will.I.Am) – Kind of a boring video, in my opinion.
Airplanes (B.o.B. feat. Hayley Williams) – Seriously, I might have to watch this video again because I must have missed why it was good enough to keep getting nominated. It was fine but not great.
Find Your Love (Drake) – At first I thought this video might be going in the direction of a sweet summer romance, but I had a hard time maintaining that impression with the drugs, violence and cheating mixed in. Not really a “mom” video.
In My Head (Jason Derulo) – No joke, this video takes place in the parking lot of a convenient store where Jason tries to get a girl to leave with him. At the end, we find out that it was actually all in his head (get it?) when the girl really comes out of the store. As a side note, it drives me crazy when artists announce their names in their songs, basically clobbering us with their branding. We know you’re Jason Derulo!

I guess I’ll go with Eminem’s Not Afraid for this category.

Let’s be honest, no one really cares who wins these awards, first of all. Also, Lady Gaga will probably win everything anyway. She might even figure out how to win Best Male Video, knowing her. Hopefully Chelsea Handler will keep things lively. Enjoy, and if you have time maybe check out a few of these online before the show!

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Marc Cohn: Listening Booth: 1970

In 1970, I was just a tot, but Marc Cohn was old enough to realize how much he loved and appreciated good music; he was 10 or 11 years old at the time and it was the year he decided that he wanted to be a musician. It’s also the year the Beatles broke up, it was a new decade, and some truly iconic albums were released (Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sweet Baby James and Moondance, to name a few). Now, 40 years later, Marc has chosen 13 songs to cover from that pivotal year on his new album, Listening Booth: 1970. Cool concept! You will find covers of songs by Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Van Morrison, Bread, Cat Stevens and more on this album. This project was not for the faint of heart!

Recording covers can be a tricky business. If the artist doesn’t change the song much from the original, then really what’s the point of redoing it? On the other hand, when someone takes a song that was popular and successful initially and changes it up too much, it might not be very well received. Hmm, what to do? How to make an old song with a new twist? I see the contestants on American Idol struggle with this all the time, and they usually settle for something in the middle. Marc Cohn, however, took things to the extreme; these songs do NOT sound like the originals. I was curious to learn how he chose the songs he used on this album, and he said he basically had two criteria when sorting through songs from 1970: the song actually had to lend itself to being changed up a bit, and it couldn’t have been covered by any other artist very recently to ensure that each song really was a fresh take on the original.

Now, the important question is whether I liked this album. My answer would be: mostly. There were some songs he chose that I didn’t necessarily love in the first place and Marc’s versions didn’t really do anything for me. There were others, however, that really surprised me for almost the same reason; I didn’t love them the first time but was surprised by them in their new versions. Two examples would be Maybe I’m Amazed (Paul McCartney) and Look At Me (John Lennon)- I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but I these two songs were really beautiful (I know, strike me dead that I don’t love the Beatles). My other fave was Make It With You (Bread); Marc teamed up with India.Arie for that one. I love Bread, India.Arie and Marc Cohn, so this song worked out very nicely for me.

Overall, I love this concept and the fact that Marc made these songs “his”, as Paula would counsel the youngsters on AI (past tense). If you’re old enough to remember the songs from when they were first popular, you might enjoy hearing a new version. If you’re not old enough to remember them, I think you’ll like them because they’re good, solid songs sung by a talented artist. Finally, a couple fun facts about Marc Cohn: he is married to ABC news correspondent Elizabeth Vargas, to whom he was introduced by Andre Agassi at the US Open, and five years ago he was shot in Denver during an attempted carjacking (okay, that second one wasn’t necessarily a “fun” fact, although he wasn’t seriously hurt).

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Sunday, September 5, 2010

Walking Playlist

As you may know, I have written several pieces featuring running playlists, and I often reference running when talking about music in general. This has largely been because I am signed up for the 2010 Chicago Marathon and used music to help me along during my training. Well, I’m sorry to report that rather than training I will now be attending physical therapy to resolve a running injury that has sidelined me for the past several weeks. Although I’m obviously disappointed, I’m trying to also look at the positives. For instance, I won’t have to plan my weekends around my long runs, and when I get home from work I can enjoy a drink on our screened-in porch rather than quickly changing into my running clothes. Still, it’s kind of a bummer. I would probably be much more disappointed had I not completed the marathon last year. Perhaps I should just be satisfied with that accomplishment and not punish my body further.

When I ran the marathon last year, I ran for a charity, as many runners do. I’m a little embarrassed to say that this was done partly because when I decided to run the marathon all of the regular spots were sold out (five months in advance!) and the only spots left were through charities, so my motives weren’t completely altruistic. I chose PAWS, a humane society, as my charity and raised almost $1,300 for the cause, which felt great. Running through a charity also motivated me to stick with the training because so many people had donated in my name. We have two “used” dogs, as I like to say, one more gently used than the other. We got our Lab when he was about 18 months old from a family who couldn’t keep him anymore. We got our Great Dane mix when she was 10 months old through a rescue organization and I’m sorry to say that even in those first 10 months a lot of damage was done- she was a mess when we got her, both medically and behaviorally. We’ve made a lot of progress with her, but she has a chronic lung condition that will ultimately probably cut her life short and precludes us from walking her. Luckily for us, she’s mostly a couch potato (except when people come to the door- it’s a perpetual state of training).

Unfortunately for the Lab (Dunkin), his sister’s lung condition has resulted in us being lazy about walking either dog, even though Dunkin is seemingly going to live forever and exhibits no health problems whatsoever except for an overabundance of energy. Upon realizing that my running career is at least temporarily suspended, I decided that this could be a good thing for Dunkin. I also realized this morning that in dog years, Dunkin and I are actually the same age and we could both probably stand to lose a couple pounds. Since I don’t want to be the crazy lady talking to her dog in the park, I decided to make a really great walking playlist amuse me on our outings.

At times when I’m walking to or from the train downtown, a song will come on my iPod that will be exactly in sync with my walking, and those are exactly the kinds of songs I was looking for with this playlist. I want you to know that I have road tested these songs and they will keep your feet moving and your mood elevated. If there’s a song you haven’t heard before, test it on iTunes and try it out. Use your brisk walk as an opportunity to experiment with new music- I wouldn’t steer you wrong, so choose all or a few and take your fat Lab out for a walk!

Song No. 6 – Ane Brun and Ron Sexsmith
American Boy – Estelle, feat. Kanye West
Wind it Up – Gwen Stafani
Suicide Blonde – INXS
Don’t Stop the Beat – Junior Senior
Set Me Free (Rosa Lee) – Los Lobos
Yes I Will – Michael Franti & Spearhead
Grace Kelly – Mika
Crash Years – The New Pornographers
Love and Memories – O.A.R.
Fine Line – Paul McCartney
Heavy Things – Phish
I Hate This Part – Pussycat Dolls
Dancing On My Own – Robyn
Send Me on My Way – Rusted Root
Everyday People – Sly & The Family Stone
Mystery Zone – Spoon
And She Was – Talking Heads
Walkin’ on the Moon – The-Dream & Kanye West
Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs: God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

I think most people are familiar with Ray LaMontagne’s most popular song to date, Trouble. I have even seen it performed by contestants on American Idol, which gives you an idea of its widespread popularity but isn’t necessarily representative of Ray’s usual audience. I was a little surprised to see his newest album, God Willin’ & the Creek Don’t Rise, at the top of the iTunes chart last week, only because I didn’t think he would attract so much interest so quickly after its release. I also wondered who these Pariah Dogs are who are paired up with him on the album since he’s formerly been a solo artist. Their name doesn’t sound too friendly- why not Ray LaMontagne and the Sociable Kittens? It turns out the Pariah Dogs are simply a group of musicians who Ray assembled to record this album, so I don’t know if they’re here to stay or not. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search on “What is a pariah dog?” and found out from Wikipedia that they are feral dogs, often found in India, usually yellow with pointed ears. Very helpfully, the description was accompanied by a photo of a pariah dog, which looked suspiciously similar to your garden variety yellow lab, one of whom resides in my house. Hmmm…

Normally I would not be inclined to recommend a rather bluesy, somewhat melancholy album, but Ray is so emotional that you will find yourself moved by many of the songs. My two favorites are probably the saddest ones on the album, which wouldn’t usually be songs I’d be attracted to. You can probably guess what the subject matter is in Are We Really Through and This Love is Over. I am sure I read years ago around the time of the release of one of Ray’s previous albums that he was going through a divorce at the time or immediately afterwards. If that was the case, he should probably think about finding a support group if these songs are any indication of how he’s doing now. If you are going through a breakup and feel like you haven’t cried quite enough, you might want to listen to one of these songs. Even so, I think they are both beautiful songs, partly because of the feeling he puts into them.

Aside from the sad songs I mentioned, I also liked Beg, Steal or Borrow, which talks about whether a “young man” will follow the same small town pattern put in place by his father or whether he’ll break free and make a mark of his own. All of the songs on the album have interesting, thoughtful lyrics. Although the overall sound of Ray LaMontagne is never necessarily going to be perky and upbeat, this album doesn’t have a “downer” feel to it; it’s more contemplative, and many of the songs pick up the twangy, folk sound that I think he’s known for. There is something about the music on this album that is comforting and reminiscent of music my parents used to listen to in the Seventies, possibly that folk sound coming through. Supposedly Ray was inspired to start singing after listening to a Steven Stills album.

Although Ray grew up on the west coast, he lives in Maine and looks like a quintessential mountain man. He apparently doesn’t like making videos because he doesn’t consider himself attractive enough for that, but would he really have much street cred as a folk singer if he looked like Zac Efron? This is a nice album- you won’t have to work hard to appreciate it, but I predict it will suck you in emotionally, which I believe is Ray LaMontagne’s gift.

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