“sinnerman” – nina simone (1965)

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For the last few months, I’ve been going to a Meetup group focused on discussing classic albums.  There, the participants meet for an hour to discuss whatever album was selected that week; their thoughts on the music, artist, personal anecdotes, or whatever else they feel they want to contribute.  Think of it as like a book club but for music.

The structure for the group is simple.  We meet for an hour every other week or so at a coffee shop where we have a conference room reserved.  Usually, about half a dozen people show up.  Selections for the album discussion from a compendium entitled 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, or something to that effect.  In this book, 1001 different albums noted for their critical or cultural value are featured chronologically from 1956 through 2009.  Each album, depending on the inherent value of the album, has a write-up about the significance as well as a track break down with recommending signature songs and pertinent release information.  Most of the records have a half page write-up, while the more popular albums have a full page and perhaps even a picture of the artist.

With 1001 different albums to choose from, there is the potential that choosing a record can be an arduous process.  However, it is not.  In preparation, it was agreed that the first album would be from the 1950s which is the first decade listed in book.  An album would be picked, people would go listen to it during their own free time, and then come to the meeting to discuss.  After discussing the selected 1950s album, the meeting would adjourn by picking an album from the next decade.  Repeat the process again and the end of the meeting to discuss the 1960s album would result in an album from the 1970s being picked.  Then the 1980s, the 1990s, and finally the 2000s before circling back around to the 1950s.  Not only does this process make the meetings a little more structured and the selection process easier, it also encourages diverse listening and getting out of one’s own comfort zone.  Without that structure, the selections would be homogenized with little opportunities to listen to something new; previous selections have included afro-Cuban jazz as an example.  The album selection for the next meeting is made by having everyone write their choice from that decade onto a sheet of paper, and then an album is randomly pulled from a hat.

A few weeks ago, the pick during the meeting designated for an album from the 1960s was Nina Simone’s 1966 classic Wild Is the Wind.  The album is significant and features “Four Women,” one of Simone’s most signature tracks that focuses on racial issues and stereotypes; issues Simone is known for in her career.  The album is great and worthy of listening to, but it is flawed.  Wild Is the Wind feels like a compilation as opposed to a cohesive listening experience.  That was pretty much the consensus during that discussion.

Thumbing through our reference book, I found Wild Is the Wind was the only Simone album featured in the book.  Many artists have multiple albums featured, but Simone didn’t.  And that’s a shame because Wild Is the Wind, while great, is not Simone’s best work.

Unjustifiably missing from the book is Simone’s 1965 album Pastel BluesPastel Blues is an innovative album that references a variety of different musical styles and arrangements.  Simone sings blues, jazz, and soul on this record with such intensity and passion that listening almost becomes a spiritual experience.  The record features complex arrangements including a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that almost overshadows Billie Holiday’s version.  However, the final track of the album is what truly defines Pastel Blues as a complex work of art and serves as being one of Simone’s finest recordings.

“Sinnerman,” closing out the record, is an African American spiritual song that chronicles the struggle of a sinner seeking refuge from Judgment Day.  The sinner runs to the rock to hide, but is turned away.  The sinner runs to the Lord for help, but the Lord sends him to the Devil.  The Devil is there waiting for the sinner takes him in.  Simone’s arrangement of the classic folk song is a 10 minute tour de force of jazz, soul, and gospel rhythms.  An urgent sounding piano opens of the track followed by some percussion shortly afterwards.  Simone’s signature deep voice comes in to the tell story.  As we follow the sinner on his journey, Simone’s voice becomes louder and more intense until it erupts in chanting “power” and “bring down” along with band behind her shouting in unison.  After a few minutes in, the backing band dies down and the track segues into syncopated clapping with the piano underneath driving the rhythm.  During the course of the song, the progression changes and features moments of raw fire vocalization and a culmination of music that I only describe as a jazz explosion.  It is a powerful and briskly paced track that is complex and offers a challenging listening experience.

I first heard this song in college, but it has always stuck with me.  In the discussion group, Nina Simone was a new discovery for some of the listeners.  I’m enjoying the group and have already learned so much from exciting records I had never heard before.  There is a lot of great stuff out there if you take the time to look.  I am eager to find the next big thing that will make an impact on me.  Always growing.  Always learning.  Always listening.

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“boy problems” – carly rae jepsen (2015)

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I have a lot of friends who are really into music.  Many who go to shows every week, some who play an instrument, and a few who even perform live shows.  Our tastes and experiences differ from eachother, but we’re connected by our simple love for music.

I love music.  I know a lot about music.  I listen to it frequently and read about it a lot.  I volunteer for two non-profit organizations that are exclusively centered on music.  I also started taking guitar classes last year to better understand how music is made.  It is a part of my life and something I cherish deeply.  However, unlike my other friends who music just as much as me (if not more), the only aspect of music culture I don’t really gravitate towards is the music festival.

For me, there are a lot of things that are off-putting about music festivals.  First and foremost is the heavy influence corporations have on music festivals.  The money that pours in and out of these things is a lot.  Granted, it means bigger acts and bigger sponsors and bigger vendors and bigger everything, but bigger is not always better.  Second, the weather can really change my mood and how I relate to the music.  I had friends who went to Bonnaroo multiple years while in college.  The idea of being stuck under the sun in 100 degree heat somewhere in rural Tennessee and not able to leave until the festival was over just doesn’t sit well with me.  Call me a city slicker, but I like proper toilets, running water, and being able to sleep in my own bed.

Beyond the corporate and climatic elements surrounding a festival, I also have an issue with the musical elements of a festival.  Festivals are big and expensive.  As each year goes by, I recognize bands less and less.  Sure, I could take the time to investigate every act on the bill, formulate an opinion, and draft an educated itinerary of which bands I want to see and where they are playing, but that’s a lot of work.  Oftentimes, there are only a few I want to see.  Even then, I cannot justify the cost of spending a few hundred dollars just to see half a dozen bands.  For many of the smaller acts, I know I can always catch them at Schuba’s or the Metro, and for the larger acts, some arena.

However, despite my complaints about music festivals that makes me sound like an ol’ fuddy duddy, there is one I rather enjoy.  The Pitchfork Music Festival was held this past weekend and is always a treat.  While I’ll never avoid the issue of not knowing many of the bands, there are other things I like about this festival.  First, Union Park in Chicago is not a very big park.  And while the crowds do get bigger the night progresses, it is very manageable unlike crowds I have experienced at other Chicago festivals like Riot Fest.  Secondly, I know a lot of people at Pitchfork.  This is because one of the organizations I volunteer with coordinates a record fair where labels and stores can sell their products alongside other vendors specializing in handcrafted jewelry and other fun items.  If volunteers put in enough time, they can get free access to the festival for either one or three days as long as they volunteer for a few hours.  As volunteers, we all chip in to sell records, mingle, and enjoy the festival together.  Talking with friends and colleagues makes a festival a lot more fun instead of wandering aimlessly alone amidst the festival smell, noise, and general chaos.

While the one act I wanted to see was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys performing the 1966 classic album Pet Sounds in its entirety (it was extremely sand and disappoint, by the way), the act that surprised me the most was Carly Rae Jepsen.  When the line-up for Pitchfork was announced a few months ago, that was a surprising addition to what is typically a rather hipster roster.  Though release din 2011, her single “Call Me Maybe” was inescapable during the summer of 2012.  It was a smash single that played everywhere.  While a fun song, it was pop bubblegum.  But, it was the kind that got stuck on the bottom of your shoe and you felt its stickiness everywhere you went.

I admit I was a bit cynical about her being added to the roster.  I hadn’t heard any other song from her.  Knowing that she did put out a follow-up album, Jepsen didn’t seem like the type of pop artist that would rise to commercial ranks of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.  She very much seemed like a one and done type of artist.  As Pitchfork was getting closer, I said I would go see her under the rationale that if she is playing Pitchfork, then she must be a little cool.  Joining a friend for the performance, I approached the show with an open mind.  After a few songs, I was caught up with the energy of the crowd and Jepsen’s performance.  I was surprised and blown away.

I noticed that Jepsen looked a little different than when I watched the video for “Call Me Maybe” a few years earlier.  Rocking a mullet and a colorful romper, she launched into the first song of the set.  She had amazing energy and a great rapport with her band backup singers.  It was impossible to not dance and get lost in the pop rhythms.  It made me realize why Jepsen never became the type of pop star that defined Britney Spears or Katy Perry.  This was more of a fringe pop start; still accessible but with a sound and style that didn’t quite sound like modern commercial pop radio.  Jepsen’s music had s retro vibe that was reminiscent of early Borderline Madonna.

The set was fantastic.  Many of the songs were catchy and upbeat, and others were more ballad in nature.  While not every song was an absolute winner, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch.  The only song I was familiar with was “Call Me Maybe,” so every song was new to me.  One that stuck out with me was “Boy Problems.”  Appearing on her 2015 album E•MO•TION, but not officially released as a single, “Boy Problems” is a fun yet realistic song about getting over people in your life.  While many songs about single life and independence such as Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” are anthems filled with confidence and empowerment, “Boy Problems” is a little more down to earth in its message.  In the song, Jepsen is on the phone with a friend.  Her friend is tired of hearing about her boy problems and her advice to Jepsen is to just move on because he’ll never change.  Jepsen realizes her friend is right and that she doesn’t need to ruin her own day by dwelling on the past and some stupid boy.  The message was very real and relatable, and that was a refreshing take on the subject of breaking up.  While Beyoncé’s classic track is great for getting the blood pumped up, it is infused with a false sense of bravado.  Jepsen’s “Boy Problems” is a song about relationship problems that we all face.

Jepsen’s performance was incredibly fun and was a highlight of the festival for me.  For someone who isn’t a big fan of music festivals, I always manage to have a lot of fun and make great memories at Pitchfork.  Even if their lineups may contain a few surprises and disappointments, I know that the overall is going to be a blast.

“merry christmas mr. lawrence” – ryuichi sakamoto (1983)

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A few weeks ago, I revisited by favorite film featuring David Bowie.  1983’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is an underrated gem of British and Japanese cinema.  Unfortunately, it isn’t a film that is often mentioned when I hear people talk about David Bowie’s work in film.  While people’s nostalgia factor always leads the discussion towards Labyrinth, even his lesser known films such as The Hunger and The Man Who Fell to Earth, I find, get more attention.  Never really a great actor, Bowie has managed to carve his own niche into each role and elevated the film in some way.  You’re drawn to him.  There is a power and magnetism there that makes you connect with his character’s story.  Where he lacks acting ability, his presence make sup in pure charisma.  And Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is the best example of this.

In the film, Bowie plays Major Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers.  Recently captured by the Japanese military during World War II, he is subjected to a Japanese tribunal and sentenced to be imprisoned in a POW camp.  Celliers becomes ill in the camp and is tormented by dark secrets from his childhood.  As he recovers and is cared for by other prisoners, Celliers becomes a point of fascination for Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) who oversees much of the camp’s operations.  Yonoi develops a homoerotic fascination with Celliers which include visits with Celliers at night, extra care when Celliers is sick, and asking many questions about Celliers to his superior officers at the camp.  As Celliers becomes more rebellious and challenges Yonoi’s authority through demonstrations and possessing wireless equipment, Yonoi asserts his authority in increasingly brutal and punitive ways.

I feel the film is beautiful on all levels, but it has some inherent flaws.  The acting at times is stiff and the performances by some of the actors aren’t executed well.  While much of the film is beautifully shot, many of the scenes appear dull and muted colors.  The story, with it’s themes on homosexuality and brotherhood, is intriguing but often times deviates from the narrative.  None of these aspects of the film are exceptional by any means but when they come together, the product is stunning, raw, and emotional.

Despite many of the flaws with the film, it does have one flawless element; the music.  In addition to playing Captain Yonoi, Ryuichi Sakamoto also composed the score for the film.  Sakamoto relies on his Japanese heritage’s penchant for minimalism and crafts a beautiful score featuring a fusion of electronic and experimental music.  The signature piece from the film’s score is opening piece from the film.  Simply entitled “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” this track serves as the main theme for the film and features a hypnotizing melody that is rearranged in various pieces throughout the rest of the soundtrack.  The repetition in the track is key.  Embracing those few bars and repeating them, Sakamoto seamlessly blends minimalism in music with contemporary sounds and production.  Subtle changes occur throughout and the listening experience is dreamy and captivating.

The score to Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, and it’s main theme, is truly the best part of the film and almost serves as a character in of itself.  Despite it’s flaws, everything comes together well to tell a story that is filled with nuance, subtlety, and passion.  It’s a film that addresses tough moral questions with a theme ahead of it’s time.  The soundtrack also stands alone.  I find that some soundtracks are not as good without the context of the film.  However, with this score, that is not case.  The experience of listening to Sakamoto’s complex yet accessible score is remarkable.  While this film doesn’t get much attention for being one of Bowie’s best films, the score deserves to be recognized as one of the best ever.

“trapped in the body of a white girl” – julie brown (1987)

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I have a particular soft spot for well-made novelty albums.  Albums with songs that are clever, well-written, and capture (and sometimes challenge) the zeitgeist at that particular moment.  There are a lot of great comedic albums out there, but there is a ton more filler as well.  For me, it sometimes isn’t enough to just be silly for the sake of being silly.  I appreciate a level of silliness that has character, charm, and isn’t afraid to challenge people or authority.  Those reasons are why I absolutely adore Miss Julie Brown.

Julie Brown, for me, is my favorite out of all the MTV icons.  Smart, funny, and gorgeous, she was a comedic hurricane of satire and parody. Brown’s career in entertainment started in 1980 doing a bit part during an episode of Happy Days and the Clint Eastwood film Any Which Way You Can. Since then, she has maintained a consistent career in television and film playing cameo and supporting roles.  At times, she also wrote and produced programs including the cult comedy television series Strip Mall that aired way too briefly on Comedy Central.

Brown’s best and most iconic work were during her days on MTV.  During the late 80s and early 90s, Brown starred in a comedy show called Just Say Julie that featured music videos with intermittent sketch comedy bits.  In this role, Brown played a narcissistic, spoiled Valley Girl type character who was obsessed with Madonna and lampooned popular recording artists of the day. During that time, MTV still played a lot of music videos.  Since its launch in 1981, MTV new and interesting ways to keep music videos in heavy rotation were being developed.  Programming like Just Say Julie were clever vehicles to keep showing music videos but also diversify the appeal of MTV.  We all know what MTV eventually turned in to, but there was a time when it could do no wrong.

The character Brown played on her show did not originate there.  For years, Brown worked as a comedienne and developed her act as a ditzy, shallow girl obsessed with money, celebrities and cute boys.  Prior to the MTV show, Brown was a recording artist performing songs in that character while lampooning Valley Girls and southern California culture.  In 1984, she released an EP entitled Goddess in Progress which featured signature tracks like “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun,” a fun doo-wop inspired song about a murderous rampage at a homecoming dance; “I Like ‘Em Big and Stupid,” an ode to dumb, good-looking men; and “’Cause I’m a Blonde,” a comedic anthem about stupid blonde women and how little they have to do in life.  Goddess in Progress was the launching point of Brown’s music career.  She went out on her best foot with a solid collection of witty satire.

In 1987, Brown released her first full-length stupid album. Trapped in the Body of a White Girl is one of the finest comedic records ever produced and where Brown truly shines a strong comedienne.  The titular track is my personal favorite.  “Trapped in the Body of a White Girl” is a funky synth-pop jam about breaking free from monotony.  The song is cleverly written and showcases Brown’s talent at identifying humor in social constructs and hierarchy.  Despite playing a ditzy character throughout the 1980s, Brown is an incredibly smart women and quite skilled at her craft.

Unfortunately, Brown’s musical career was short.  Since the release of Trapped in the Body of a White Girl, she had a few sparse singles released included parodies of Kesha’s “Tik Tok” (“Another Drunk Chick”) and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (“Big Clown Pants”).  However, what little she has put out is solid gold.  Brown was the perfect MTV personality; funny, sardonic, and not afraid to challenge authority.  With her great outfits and eye-catching red hair, Brown deserves more credit as a cultural 80s icon.