Thursday, September 29, 2011

An Empress on the Dance Floor – Gladys Knight Returns

This week saw the release of a new single by the Empress of Soul herself, Miss Gladys Knight.


Longtime fans like me might have mistaken it as a mere remix at first glance, as the song – the Leiber/Stoller classic “I (Who Have Nothing)” - had previously been recorded by Gladys on her second solo album in 1979, while she and the Pips could not record together for contractual reasons. She returned to the song in 1999 with a show stopping performance as part of her guest stint on the Leiber/Stoller tribute Broadway show, Smokey Joe's Café.

However, this is all new stuff with a brand new vocal and most likely the first release from her new album promised for this year.

Unlike the 1979 version, which lived off the vocal and suffered from the unfortunate choice of Michael Zager as producer, this is a very contemporary sound and the Beyoncés and Rihannas of this world would not turn down the arrangement and instrumentation. As the single is only available as a digital download for now, and as one of my pet peeves once again comes into play, we have very little information about who was involved in the making of this record other than our Gladys. But from the faulty composer credit, we can deduct that the producer of this song is one Leon Sylvers IV, no doubt the son of famed SOLAR records producer Leon Sylvers III, who not only was heavily involved with Gladys & the Pips' 1983 and '84 releases “Visions” and “Life”, but who also provides the most fun remix on this 4-track EP.

So, what do we get for our 3 bucks and change?

The “original mix” is quite radio friendly and, as stated above, entirely contemporary. This does not go without saying, as Gladys in the past has sometimes been paired with producers who were not exactly “happenin'.” I'm looking at you, Attala Zane Giles!

Gladys' vocal is impeccable. She shows off much of her range, and thankfully nobody got the silly idea to somehow filter or distort her vocals in any way. She is sometimes sultry, sometimes playful and always all diva.

There are strings, but there is no schmaltz, as they are delivered with an urgent, sometimes almost frantic staccato and paired with an electronic arrangement of beeps and breaks. It's a juxtaposition that works surprisingly well and never drowns out Gladys' powerful and versatile vocal. There is a somewhat generic male backing vocalist who gets to rap/sing some newly added lyrics, too.

Track two is the supposed “DJ Lil Cee Radio Edit.” While it's the shortest track at just over 3 minutes, the mix is hardly as radio friendly: It's a sound more at home in the gay clubs of South Beach and West Hollywood than the airwaves. One would assume there is a longer version of this sent out as promo 12” singles to DJs. The problem I have with this is that this kind of Thunderpuss or Hex Hector style mix may never have left the club scene, but there is also nothing new or exciting about it, and it's a bit too soon to consider it “retro.”

Next up is the “Monikkr Remix.” New York DJ Anthony Fonseca very narrowly missed the opportunity to make this the stand-out version of the song. If he'd played up the dramatic pauses to the max and extended the track to at least 7 minutes, this could have been an epic electro-soul opera comparable to Now Voyager's Mix of Candy Staton's “You Got the Love.” As it is, he gets credit for giving an extra edge to the song, even if the added synth storm sometimes does its best to drown out Gladys' voice. Sacrilege! Still this is “get her into anger management” Gladys, getting mad instead of getting weepy, the way she did all the way back with “I heard it through the Grapevine.” And that is always a good thing.

Wrapping up the set is the Leon Sylvers III Remix, and for my taste, father does know best. It's a shame that this fun, breezy version is a few months too late to be a summer hit. Sylvers adds punchy piano riffs, amps up the drama of the strings and actually manages to grant the previously generic backing vocals a Pips-like feel by giving them more of a chance to have a back-and-forth with Gladys. This is the version I have played the most so far.

Record companies have long had the belief that the best way to reintroduce a singer to the public after a few years away is to go with danceable tracks. And Cher's “Believe” proved that a contemporary, electronic arrangement can provide singers over 50 with a brand new fan base.

Hopefully, we'll see Gladys Knight on the dance floor charts with this release. And hopefully, she is now sufficiently in control of her career to avoid the type casting she suffered at CBS when the suits there saw her as only successful in the funk/electro/r&b field and decided against releasing her original recording of “Wind Beneath my Wings” as a single and letting other artists collect the sales and awards for their cover versions of the song a year later.

If we get a new album with a range of material appealing to both dance floors and radio stations, we might even see Gladys appear on late night talk shows. And then we might get to see Gladys back on the Billboard charts where she belongs.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saving the Album Format: More Than the Sum of its Parts

Note: This is part of a series of blog posts. Read the first one here.

At the age of 40, I own well over 2000 albums on vinyl and CD.

I downloaded 4.

What you get most of the time when you download an album is, frankly, pathetic. You get the songs of the album and – if you're lucky – a small image file that displays on your MP3-Player or iPod. You might be able to figure out the composers of the song by going into the „information“ menu on iTunes. It's possible that the „song lyrics“ feature is used to some extend, it is not on any of the 4 albums I downloaded from iTunes.

The production value of the average downloaded album is the equivalent of those discount “Music for Pleasure” vinyl albums that repackaged previously issued music with cheap cover artwork and plain white inner sleeves.

And a lot of current CDs aren't much better. I still have excellent eyesight according to a recent exam, but when I try to read the information in many CD booklets lately, I have to walk up to a window and squint really hard to read the tiny font, that is sometimes printed with ink on paper choices that cause very unfortunate color contrasts.

I know not ever music fan cares about who played the congas, sang backing vocals and arranged the string section as much as I do. But a lot of music fans always have, and it's been getting harder and harder to get that information.

So why doesn't every downloaded album and CD come with a code that allows you access to a section on the artist's or record company's web site with exclusive content for buyers of the album? Song lyrics, production notes, video clips of interviews, behind-the-scenes looks at recording sessions, live performances, etc? Or even games, contests (win a date with Meatloaf! - OK, maybe not).

We'll never get back to the age of beautiful large album covers that allow for gimmicks like Velvet Underground's banana peel or the zipper on the cover of the Rolling Stones: “Sticky Fingers” - but with the Internet, we have so many new options that cardboard never gave us.

To survive, the album needs to be more than the sum of its songs. The Internet could provide for countless possibilities to make it so.

Meanwhile, to show that not everything was great during the vinyl album age, either, here is the very funny Ellen Degeneres looking at some not-so-great album covers.

I own that Millie Jackson album, too!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Marcus Bachmann: Protesting Way Too Much

We interrupt our regular scheduled series about saving the album format in music for this announcement:

Completely straight curer of the gay and wannabe first husband, Marcus Bachmann, once again went to extreme lengths to prove his heterosexuality:

He gay-bashed CNN's Don Lemon.

Stay classy, Marcus.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Can the Album Format be Saved?

A few days ago, the movie title Jason's Lyric was trending on Twitter. It made me realize two things:
A. I had never watched the movie and should look for the DVD.
B. The picture's soundtrack CD had hardly ever left my CD player in 1994 and we don't really get albums like that anymore.

That soundtrack was epic. Composed of all new recordings, it featured an incredible range of talented African-American musicians from several generations. From blues veteran Buddy Guy to gospel songstress Oleta Adams, from the cream of 90s r&b and New Jack Swing like Tony! Toni! Toné! and K-Ci Hayley to talented Hip Hop artists like LL Cool J and Warren G. And the cherry on the top was an all-star, all male choir labeled "Black Men United" that combined more vocal firepower than a military platoon of opera singers. Listen to it and "u will know" what I mean.

Jason's Lyric was not the only movie with a soundtrack like that in the 90s. Films like White Men Can't Jump, Boyz n the Hood, Love Jones and Set it Off all combined Hip Hop, soul and gospel in ways that made the soundtrack albums must-haves for several generations of fans: The kids would buy them to get their hands on that new Ice-T track and ended up being impressed by immensely talented music legends over 40, while older fans could not miss out on the new Aretha Franklin ballad you could not get anyplace else - and in turn realized that Queen Latifah was a force to be reckoned with.

Alas, the days of those soundtrack albums, all albums, actually, seem to have come to an end. Downloads, both illegal and legal, are the way most people listen to music these days, and that means a focus on individual tracks, not albums.

The music industry is trying to adapt to survive. A hit song is more likely to make a profit if it makes a good ring-tone. Concert tickets now cost a small fortune, as artists went from touring to promote their new recordings to recording new music to promote their tours.

The album, it seems, is considered expendable.

Concept albums, a format that once rode high on the charts thanks to artists like Marvin Gaye and Pink Floyd, are now a niche phenomenon for the Björks and Kate Bushs of this world. I will never forget the intensity of experiencing "What's Going On" on my old Walkman for the first time, in the dark, on a night train to Vienna. It was a life-transforming experience you just don't get from a ring-tone you downloaded for your new smartphone.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards got to know each other because one of them noticed the stack of vinyl albums the other one was carrying, and the result was one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time. Is leaning over somebody to see what is playing on their iPod too stalkerish?

Also, no more cross-pollination between different generations of fans via soundtracks and compilations as I described above. Nor first exposure for new artists that way.

This is what we are losing. This is what the future will be missing. It's hurting the culture of music, and it is hurting the bottom line of the music industry in the long run.

Well, I will not let the album go down without a fight. I'm rolling up my sleeves. I'm taking off my rings (get me some vaseline!)

Over the next few blog posts, I will make suggestions on how to make people excited about albums again. And nobody will care. But at least I can say I tried.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Patti Austin & James Ingram: Reunited

Patti Austin is only today releasing her wonderful new soul album "Sound Advice" in the US and UK, about one week after its release in continental Europe, yet at tonight's awe inspiring jazz concert at the Ruhr Klavierfestival in Essen she had some big news about her next album:

In about three weeks time, she will hit the studio with none other than her old buddy James Ingram to record an entire album of duets. They will cover some classic duet songs as well as create a few brand new ones.

This seems a smart move from a business stand point, as both artists had their biggest hits when teaming up with each other, on the classic ballads "Baby Come To Me" and "How Do You Keep The Music Playing." A reunion should definitely garner more media attention than either artist's recent solo releases.

So... let the speculation begin which duets they'll cover. I know I would like to hear:

If This World Were Mine and You're All I Need to Get By by Marvin and Tammy
Where is the Love and Back Together Again by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
Tonight, I Celebrate My Love by Roberta and Peabo Bryson
Endless Love by Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie
How Many Times Can We Say Good-Bye by Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross
Private Number by William Bell and Judy Clay
Don't Give Up by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush

If you have your own suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section!

Meanwhile, here is a pre-weight loss Patti Austin and a pre-hair loss James Ingram with the song that started it all - a track that made music history by being the slowest climber to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 ever!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Steven Tyler's Wonderfully Obscure Nat King Cole Reference

In case you've been wondering what rocker-come-singing-competition-host Steven Tyler seemed to be babbling about after Casey's performance of Nature Boy - no, he was not having acid flashbacks. The lines

Ke-mo, ki-mo spare-o-spare
Ma-hi, ma-ho, ma-rump-sticka-pumpernickle
Soup-bang, nip-cat, polly-mitcha-cameo
I love you.
Are actually from a children's song that Natalie's father recorded in the early 50s:

I'm beginning to see why Liv is such a well adjusted young lady.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

I Got Nothin', Babe

So evidently Sonny Bono's widow, now the honorable (?) congresswoman from California, Mary Bono Mack, is raising funds by letting donors lick her breasts. Bonus points for the licker in question being female.
In unrelated news, Ms Mack voted against the repeal of Dont't Ask, Don't Tell in May of 2010.

In honor (?) of representative Bono Mack, here is small time criminal, Mark Morrison, with Return of the Mack. Oh my gawd!