Saturday, November 28, 2009

I believe in fate, I believe in good things coming to those who wait

My love for Jason Mraz is like a tide—it ebbs and flows. The lows are, for the most part, never that low. The highs have been some of the best times of my life—like the summer of 2006 when my sister graduated college. I bought my weekend ticket to Sun Fest with the intention of also seeing Fiona Apple, scheduled to play the day before Jason, but brotherly duties prevailed and I proudly sat in on my sister’s commencement.

The following day, me and two of my friends embarked on the first leg of our journey: a 300-mile drive to West Palm Beach. We endured the scorching sun and stood arm to arm to keep our place in the crowd of sun drunk youngsters. It was a great concert eventually eclipsed by the stellar Jacksonville show we drove to the following day (crazy, I know). Regardless, it was the perfect way to jump-start a summer vacation.

But the absolute highlight of the summer, and perhaps of all my concert experiences so far, was the solo acoustic show in NYC at Irving Plaza. The intimate Songs for Friends Tour was Jason’s way of thanking the devoted fans who have stood by him since his humble beginnings at Java Joes.

Playing to a packed house on July 21, Jason stood under a single spotlight with a vase of white roses and a bottle of water behind him. He performed one gem after another, sailing through one of his strongest collection of songs, The E Minor EP in F, in the first 20 minutes. It was an unbelievable experience and I don’t think any future concert I catch of Jason’s will ever match it.

Alas, the closest I can get to that experience is playing the mind-numbingly beautiful Internet album Homemade—a collection of garage-recorded tracks compiled by Jason sometime in the late ‘90s. Long before the record-breaking reggae shuffle of “I’m Yours,” the bombastic “Wordplay,” and the monster-sized chorus of “The Remedy,” Jason was a bustling acoustic performer in San Diego’s music scene. Much of his early sets contained selections from this 14-track collection. One even made it onto his major label debut in 2002. For the most part, these songs are a snapshot of simpler times for Jason’s career and it’s absolutely thrilling to look back on. It’s Jason at his best—effortless, angelic harmonies and brilliant songwriting. I couldn’t possibly sum up my feelings on each track in a few paragraphs, so I’ll let them do the talking.

Download this album—even if you aren’t a fan of Jason Mraz as you currently know him. The joyful serenity of “One Find,” “Strange” and Khalil Gibran adapted “God Moves Through You” is something you just can’t beat.

Jason Mraz Homemade

Best Seat in the House
Burning Bridges
Run Boy, Run
One Find
Wear Your Sign
Falling All Over the World
Eyes Open (Remember My Name)
Take Me Away
God Moves Through You
The Boy's Gone
Stranger in the Sky

(note: you'll notice fuzz on a few tracks, especially "Stranger in the Sky", but that's just the way the album was released)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

All Things Patty: Part Two

Not many artists can survive a fall out with a disagreeing label—whether because of exhaustion, depression or debt. Even fewer manage to emerge from two dysfunctional label relationships and garner the adoration of critics and fans like Patty Griffin has.

Her career began in the late 1980s with gigs in Boston bars and pubs booked by a guitar teacher from the Cambridge Music Center, John Curtis. It was a slow start for Patty- at one point she held jobs as a telephone operator and waitress at Pizza Uno to support herself. The dissolution of a marriage and the collapse of an artist development deal on "Like A Virgin" producer Nile Rodgers’ label sent Patty into a deep depression. Out of this tumultuous period sprang the songs that would eventually comprise her phenomenal 1996 A & M Records debut, Living With Ghosts.

Patty’s 1998 follow up, the Jay Joyce-produced Flaming Red, was a pulsating rock ‘n’ roller with loud guitars, biting lyrics and soaring vocals. Two weeks into its release, Universal Music took control of A & M and Patty was displaced to Interscope Records. Misfortune would yet again plague her young career when Universal Music was acquired by Vivendi in the spring of 2000. After recording her third album, Silver Bell, in New Orleans with producers Joyce, Craig Ross and Malcolm Burn, Patty’s new label sat on the finished product for a year.

They wanted singles, and Patty was told exactly that—record 10 radio friendly songs, and her work would see the light of day. The label handed her a copy of U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind for inspiration. She went back into the studio, but soon found the "hit" songs weren’t there. Patty asked her manager to cut her a deal out of the contract. The label conceded on the condition that she was only entitled to re-record five of the album’s tracks for future releases. Any more than that and Patty would have to pay for each additional song. Eager to get the nearly two-year ordeal behind her, she agreed.

Ironically, it was her performance of selected songs from Silver Bell on the television program Austin City Limits that caught Dave Matthews’ attention. Shortly thereafter, Patty was signed to his label and made her ATO Records debut in 2002 with 1000 Kisses.

Silver Bell is one of many albums to never see a commercial release. It did, however, find its way to the Internet to the delight of Patty fans around the world. The 14-track collection is a testament to her range and talent—emotive, well-crafted and achingly beautiful songs.

Little God
Perfect White Girls
Truth #2
What You Are
Silver Bell
Sooner Or Later
Top Of the World [alternate version featured on Impossible Dream [2004]
Sorry And Sad
Making Pies [alternate version featured on 1000 Kisses[2002]
Mother Of God [alternate version featured on Impossible Dream [2004]
One More Girl
Standing [original recording used on Impossible Dream [2004]

For the entire album, including a bonus cover of "Kiss Them For Me" by Siouxsie & The Banshees, head over to Omnipop.

(Not so) Little Voice

I just realized I bought Sara Bareilles' debut on Epic Records two years ago today. I had only heard one song from the San Diego songstress, but it was enough for me to pick up her album on the way home from work. Her voice hit me immediately--the way she swoops and soars with such mellifluous ease is truly captivating.

It's somewhat appropriate that I update this on Thanksgiving because I see Little Voice as a pop record cooked in a sultry oven for five hours and basted with soul. It's got a fair amount of gloss to it, but the songs are able to survive the heavy handedness that comes with overproduction. "Come Round Soon" was an immediate favorite--as was the beautifully written"Between the Lines." But it wasn't until the stunning closer, "Gravity," that the breadth of Sara's talent peaked its head from behind the wall of sound.

And that's what I'm ending this with for tonight. A low-key performance that I remember watching repeatedly upon finding it. This will have to hold me over until her next album, due in early 2010.

Monday, November 23, 2009

While I'm procrastinating...

I could blabber on about this performance, the song, Queen of Soul, etc., etc...but the word that best encompasses my impressions when I watch this clip is: perfection. What better way to kick off your week? A box of these doesn't hurt.

Friday, November 20, 2009

He's a millionaire...

Before Jason Mraz brought Anya Marina on tour as an opening act in 2008, they were buddies on the San Diego music scene. This performance from 2001 is one of my favorite Jason tunes for obvious reasons. Silly, but satisfying all the same. What better way to start the weekend?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Imogen Heap: Ellipse

I like to take my time before I analyze an album. It may not be the timeliest decision, but it’s the only way for me. And it’s a good thing I waited. Had I reviewed Imogen Heap’s Ellipse after I bought it in September I wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate the sonic beauty of this album.

Lead single “First Train Home” was an instant favorite for its gradual build to a frenetic wave of synths and drum beats. It shines in the smallest moments and enthralls in the biggest, which is nothing new for her—more like a gentle refinement.

Imogen could’ve fared just as well to continue the beat heavy tracks of Speak for Yourself. Fortunately, Ellipse knows its strengths. There’s warmth and richness to the melody of “Little Bird” that echoes a few of her older tunes, most notably “The Moment I Said It,” but takes them to new heights. The dizzying ethereal harmonies and instrumentation blend so effortlessly that on first listen I didn’t pay much attention. With repeated listens I’ve become completely elated for this understated, four minute and seven second track that has the bones of a folk song and the flesh of Feist’s “Honey Honey.”

She flies her Frou Frou flag proud with the swelling “Tidal,” another prime example of her masterful pop sensibilities. At times the music overpowers Imogen’s lighter-than-air vocals, and even she might be aware of this. A deluxe edition of the album was released with instrumentals of the album’s 13 tracks. Perhaps it was merely to please the segment of her fan base eager to cut and paste an honorary Heap mix.

Regardless, there’s something to be said for believing that your music can stand on its own without help from a voice.

Imogen not only shows she’s well adept at production, but also at recognizing how imperative placement is. The pacing of this album is impeccable—ample time to get cozy with the lush, orchestration of ballads (“2-1”) and sing into your rear-view mirror (“Bad Body Double”). And when the final chords of the subtly rhythmic, reflective and gorgeous “Half Life” rang out I felt comfortably whelmed—neither under nor over, just full. It just needed a bit to digest.

LISTEN: Little Bird, Aha!, Half Life.
(But it should really be taken as a whole.)

Jamie Lidell moves my feet

For me, there is nothing better than driving with the windows rolled down, and blaring the blue-eyed soul of Berlin-by-way-of-England musician Jamie Lidell. You've heard his songs--even if you don't know it yet.

Jamie attracted the ear of Grey's Anatomy music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas in 2006. His song "Multiply" was not only featured on the show, but earned a coveted spot on the show's official soundtrack for season two.

What I love about Jamie is his willingness to try new things. He started as a producer of electronic music. His 2005 Warp Records debut was a truly sublime marriage of soul tracks and the music he made his name with. But 2008's "Jim" stripped away much of the electronic and got right down to Prince and Stevie Wonder-esque soul. It's a completely joyous listen from start to finish that's carried by Jamie's velvety chords and spot-on songwriting. The melodies this man comes up with are inescapable. I think I've sang this song to myself a hundred times this year.

I had the chance to see Jamie at the Austin City Limits festival last year...but I missed him. I don't want to talk about it. But I will say that while standing on a line to meet my musical hero, Patty Griffin, after her stellar performance my friend decided to catch Jamie as he was leaving the signing tent. An acquaintance of his played in Jamie's band and he wanted to see him. So, Jamie told him to hop on his golf cart. In a move that will plague me for the rest of my life, my friend comes running back, urging me to come with him. Jamie was waiting on the cart. I decided to stay in the line. How often do you get to meet Patty Griffin? Off he went, sitting on the back of Jamie Lidell's golf cart kicking up dirt into the air and zipping through the crowds of sweaty people.

Jamie's saying "Goodbye" to Jim, and that means new music is on the horizon. Fingers crossed he'll grace the Sunshine State with a show. But in the meantime, I think I'll drown my sorrows in this delightful tune. See you next time, Jamie.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

All Things Patty: Part One

It was almost four years ago when I first heard of Patty Griffin. My sister dragged me to a late showing of Cameron Crowe’s “Elizabethtown”. Clearly, I was not interested when I entered the theater. As the film unfolded, though, I found the music irresistibly good. I had my keys in hand the minute the credits rolled, ready to buy that soundtrack. I did, and immediately tore open the plastic wrapping, slid it into my car stereo and gripped the wheel. It was everything I needed at that moment—musically and personally. I listened to that soundtrack every day, and eventually decided I should seek out a few of the artists on their own turf.

I found Patty’s “Impossible Dream” at a Best Buy inside Gulf View Mall. It was the only copy left and I remember holding it in my hands, flipping it over to read the track listing and being completely enamored with the artwork.

And then it sat on my CD shelf for months. It wasn’t until I bought the 2003 live album-- “A Kiss in Time”--for $6 at a Sam Goody closing sale and fell completely in love with this woman’s charming presence that I revisited my first Patty purchase.

“Impossible Dream” is, quite possibly, my favorite album by any artist. It’s definitely my favorite of Patty’s and has stood up to repeated listens time and time and time again. The stories never tire, the melodies never wane and that voice never ceases to completely rip me to pieces.

It begins with the moody bayou gospel of “Love Throws a Line”. Patty said this song was inspired by her love of gospel—which she considers to be some of the most inspirational music written. I may not be adept in gospel, but if this is Patty’s attempt at coping with sadness, it succeeds. Those hand claps just work for me—not to mention the sublime choir of voices that harmonize on the chorus.

She follows it superbly with the stark “Cold as It Gets.” There is nothing happy about this song. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is harsh, sparse and incredibly effective. The thoughts of a Holocaust survivor are interpreted through the stunning, yet focused vocal. The song is so deliberately restrained that I can only imagine a person singing these words who has held on to this grudge for decades, waiting for the day they can avenge the dead.

I'd hate to single out a particular track as a favorite because I rarely listen to them individually, but "Top of the World" is one of Patty's most recognizable songs for a reason. Lifted from 2002's unreleased album --"Silver Bell"--and stripped down to the bones, the lyrics immediately grab your attention.

I wished I was smarter, wished I was stronger;
wished I loved Jesus the way my wife does;
I wished it had been easier instead of any longer;
I wished I could've stood the way you would've been proud,
but that won't happen now, that won't happen now...

Regret is a hard thing to capture in music, but Patty brings this sentiment to life so vividly that it never ceases to send chills up my spine.

I could go on about these songs for days. The placement and pacing of each track is exquisite and extremely emotionally charged. For me, this is an album that never peaks. It continues to build on a foundation of incredible songwriting ("Useless Desires", “Florida”), visceral production (“Mother of God”) and delivery (“When It Don’t Come Easy”) that leaves you utterly baffled by the final strums of the gorgeous closing ballad “Icicles.”

Basically, if you picked up no other artist from this blog than Patty Griffin, I'd be content.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Kelly Clarkson is a big baby.

What could possibly elevate a good show to legendary status? The artist performing in their Halloween costume? Most definitely. This video has kept me giggling all day. Enjoy, folks. I don't think you'll see Kelly Clarkson dancing to Peanut Butter Jelly Time as Stewie (from Family Guy, of course) on American Idol next season.

If that wasn't enough, Kelly and her costumed band deliver an absolutely blazing version of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army".