Tag Archives: Music

I don’t believe in heroes

David Bowie performing at the Hammersmith Apollo

It’s unfair to designate someone a hero. Heroes are brave, wise, honorable, honest, and noble exemplars. And if you poke deeply enough into a real person’s life, you’ll likely be disappointed at what you find, what with humans being inclined toward selfishness, spite, and bad decision making. How can we expect someone to live up to the impossible standard of “hero” for one day, much less forever?

Ok, so what is Bowie to me? Beyond all doubt, a musical genius. Most artists stick to the one thing they do well and typically embarrass themselves when they venture outside those cozy confines. Bowie jumped musical genres like a nimble 9-year-old playing hopscotch, effortlessly trying on rock, pop, electronica, techno, folk, glam, R&B, and just about any other kind of popular music style you can name.

Yet, I can’t call him a musical inspiration. His songwriting and lyrical prowess is so far beyond my own that I am unable to channel even a feeble likeness of it. Hunky Dory is the very first album I ever bought, and it’s still my favorite. Every song on it would be the best song most other musicians ever wrote.

Bowie was also avant garde in every aspect of his artistry, be it his clothes, his music, his stage show, or his ever-changing persona. He was a charismatic actor, a playwright, and maybe even an alien. But not my hero. He smoked heavily and became addicted to cocaine and no doubt acted like an arrogant prick at times in the early days of fame. He surely disappointed people throughout his life and may have been rude to a fan or two.

Well, I guess there are two heroic aspects to Bowie, because they inspire admiration in me, and admiration is the main ingredient when you set out to make a hero for yourself. One:  After the Let’s Dance album sold a bajillion copies, Bowie could have spent the next 30 years reaping countless riches doing greatest-hits stadium tours. Space Oddity. Changes. Life on Mars. Ziggy Stardust. Starman. Young Americans. Rebel Rebel. Suffragette City. Ashes to Ashes. Let’s Dance. Modern Love. China Girl. Cat People. Under Pressure. LatherRinseRepeat.

Instead, Bowie continued his experimentation with such commercially inaccessible releases as Earthling, an unmelodic album laden with hard techno grooves that were sure to alienate the “greatest hits” crowd.

Two: Whether releasing albums he knew wouldn’t sell many copies (because he wanted to do something new), or dressing as a woman in public, or performing on Soul Train, or doing whatever otherwise struck his artistic fancy, he didn’t care what you, I, or anyone thought about it. He believed in his vision and followed his muse, and he didn’t need beta listeners or approval from anyone calling himself an expert.

Ok. On that count, I’ll let Bowie be my hero. Just for one day.

 

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I’m finally one of the cool kids

If you want to be popular, you usually have to be good-looking, wealthy, charismatic, famous, athletic, or have some sort of talent in the arts. I arguably possess a bit of the last one, but widespread dissemination of said talent is often needed before you can go clubbing in New York with an entourage that may or may not include current NBA stars, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and at least two former Nickelodeon starlets who are now 25-going-on-50 and totally wacked-out on cocaine.

However, there is a secret side-door for us normies into the world of the cool kids: Resembling a newly famous celebrity. Remember all the girls getting their hair straightened to look like Jennifer Aniston back in the ’90s? Teenage girls are probably dressing and styling themselves after Rihanna and Taylor Swift these days, though I wouldn’t know because I haven’t worked in a shopping mall since VCRs.

I’ve never had the good fortune to resemble a trendy famous person. I look more like Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, than I do Justin Bieber, and I can’t believe this sentence now exists.

Then, two weeks ago, things changed. British actor Peter Capaldi took over the lead role in BBC’s global phenomenon Doctor Who. Whenever a new performer steps into that iconic role, he instantly becomes the most talked about actor in Great Britain.

And what are people discussing about Mr. Capaldi? His acting? No. His eyebrows. Dude’s brows are already legendary.

I was chatting about the latest episode with a friend the other day when she stopped in mid-sentence. “Holy crap, Eric,” she said. “You got Capaldi brows!”

I immediately took to Twitter with this boast and, as if to prove my point about side-door popularity before I even thought of it, BBC picked it up and retweeted it to thousands and thousands of people. Somehow I doubt uncool kids get retweeted like that.

Here’s the photographic evidence:

 

Capaldi vs Baker

Capaldi vs Baker

Note: If you’d like to be in my entourage, please submit an essay explaining why you are cool enough and how many drinks you are willing to buy me. Thank you.

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A bit of sad news this week: Lost amid the chatter about the Jennifer Lawrence photo-hacking scandal was the death of singer Jimi Jamison of the ’70s and ’80s pop-rock band Survivor, whose hits included  Eye of the Tiger (with a different singer), The Search is Over, I Can’t Hold Back, and High on You. Survivor never received critical recognition and, to be real, their music didn’t have much substance. However, they did know how to craft a good pop song. Regardless of their place in music history,  Jimi Jamison had a killer voice. You don’t have to like their music (which I do) to admit the guy owned serious pipes. He could have sung for Journey.

Jamison died this past Sunday at age 63. Rock on, Jimi!


Music Review: I Know U… will dig Chase Bell’s new 5-song mini album!

Artist: Chase Bell & White Licorish (featuring Emma Bell and Darius Campo)

Title: I Know U U Know Me (mini album)

Genre: Adult-oriented pop

Release date: September 1, 2014

Pre-order: Here

Chase Bell CD cover

When I reviewed Chase Bell & White Licorish’s album Skywords last year, I described it as something like “jazz and soul-infused pop.” In other words, pop music for people who want to hear less Auto-Tune and more singing and who value musicianship and composition over computer processing (can you tell I’m old-school?).

Chase Bell

Chase Bell

My minor critique of that album was its tendency to become White Licorish & Chase Bell at times instead of the other way around. Chase’s voice I likened to that of Bruno Mars: Intimate and sensitive, more bobbing and weaving than power punching its way through the music, and I didn’t think it took center stage often enough on that release.

Now back with a new 5-song mini-album entitled I Know U U Know Me, Chase and his bandmates seem to have drawn the same conclusion. This time around, Mr. Bell is given more sonic space to play with. The arrangements are softer, less busy, and more dynamic. Instead of occasionally competing with the vocals, the other instruments pick their spots with greater creativity, supporting and emphasizing the main melody. The keyboard work stands out for its subtlety, and the collective effect is to make the songs catchier and that much more memorable.

The other notable change is the participation of Chase’s talented sister, actress and singer Emma Bell, who duets on four of the five tunes. You may recall Emma from her role as Amy on season one of The Walking Dead or currently watch her play Emma Brown on TNT’s Dallas revival, though, being the horror fan than I am, I know her best from her lead roles in Final Destination 5 and Frozen (the good Frozen from 2010, with man-eating wolves and lots of unmitigated terror, not that bleeping cartoon!).

Emma Bell

Emma Bell

Anyway. Emma Bell can sing. It is the burden of writers, when facing the impossible task of explaining music with words, to compare the artist under discussion with another artist readers already know. Given that, I’ll say Ms. Bell reminds me just a little bit of Emmylou Harris. Suffice to say her vocals mesh well with her brother’s and the harmonies are sweet and pleasing to the ear throughout.

The standout track for me is the dynamic “Cats and Dogs,” which alternates between sparse, introspective verses and big wall-o-sound choruses to great effect. Other songs include the bouncy, lightly funky “Paint the Wind;” the piano-heavy “Like a Taxi,” with a rather Queen-like melody; the folky “Hear You There;” and the haunting ballad “Savior,” featuring the string work of renowned session violinist Darius Campo.

If the goal of a songwriter is to make people want to hear his song again (and it should be), Chase Bell & White Licorish’s I Know U U Know Me is 5 for 5 in that regard.

The EP will be available online from September 1. For more info visit the band’s website.


Interview with Music Journalist and Author Amy Yates Wuelfing

City Gardens bookFresh from her appearance on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, music journalist and author Amy Yates Wuelfing sat down with little old me, of all people, to talk about her new book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. What was she thinking?

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For the unfamiliar, City Gardens was among the country’s most notorious punk rock clubs of the 1980s and ‘90s, and everyone from the Ramones to the Dead Kennedys to Green Day graced (?) its rickety stage. The stories told in this book are quite literally insane, the mayhem on stage frequently surpassed by the lunacy playing out on the dance floor and in the parking lot. It’s a must-read for music lovers, psychology majors, and people dangerously obsessed with fire.

EJB: Why write a book about a punk-rock club in New Jersey?

Amy Yates Wuelfing:  City Gardens was in the middle of nowhere. Not Philly, not New York, but it was still a big club.  That fact that it was so close, and in the middle this dead zone, made the community of people who went there stronger and tighter. It was almost like college, you saw the same people all the time so they became your friends. That was the main thing for me.  And unlike the clubs in Philly or New York, the pretentious element wasn’t really there.  

EJB: People will be shocked by some of the stories recounted in the book. What are some of your favorites?

Amy Yates Wuelfing: I like it best when people have completely different recollections of the same event.  It is left up to the reader to decide who, if anyone, has the story straight.  The one story that people seem to gravitate
to is the riot at an Exploited show.  Some people say that the band’s van was completely ransacked and set on fire, CGardensother people say, no, just a broken window or two.  Which is correct?  You have to decide.  There is a similar story about the one time the Beastie Boys played there. Was it the best show ever – or the worst show ever? That’s why I love oral histories so much; you get every side.

EJB: You talked to members of The Ramones, Green Day, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and other big punk acts as well as plenty of pop, metal, and rock bands from the era. How receptive were these musicians to being interviewed? Did anybody give you a hard time?

Amy Yates Wuelfing:  No one gave us a hard time, but some people just didn’t take part in the project and that’s fine.  In the end, the book turned out exactly like it was supposed to.  Anyone who passed on talking to us isn’t missed.

EJB: You told me a lot of publishers were iffy on your plan to interview “normal” people (as if City Gardens’ patrons could be qualified as normal) along with the bands, believing readers wouldn’t care what they had to say. However, I found that to be the most fascinating aspect of the book. I’m convinced a sociology course on disaffected youth could be built around this thing. What it your plan all along to paint that kind of picture, or did the theme and direction of the book evolve as you compiled and transcribed the interviews?

Amy Yates Wuelfing: The book started out as a project to write the memoirs of City Gardens promoter Randy Now, then it just kept expanding in scope.  Early on, I realized that the club was so important to so many people, that I felt it was essential to include those viewpoints as well.   The normal, not-famous people had great stories. cgardens2And you are not the first person to recognize the sociology angle!  It is a total case study in how misfits found each other before the internet.  As we began interviewing people, it all just came together.  The book became what it was meant to be, not to get too “new age” on you. The book had a force of its own.

EJB: This title is selling out all over the place. Someone stole mine before I could resell it on eBay for a profit!

Amy Yates Wuelfing: Dude, that’s so punk rock.

Where can people get a copy?

Amy Yates Wuelfing:  The first pressing, which was 2000 books, sold out in less than a month.  If anyone had told me this a month ago, I would have laughed and bought them a drink.  We are doing a second pressing right now.  To get a copy of the book, head to infinitemerch.com.  They are the first people we will restock with books when they come in, mainly because they are really close to my house, which is where the books will be delivered.  This whole thing is DIY, just like the old days.  No publisher wanted to touch this, so we have to do the grunt work, but we don’t mind.  The book was a labor of love and to it see it get this much attention makes me so happy.  At every signing we do, people thank [co-author] Steve and I for putting it together. That alone makes it worth the time and effort.

Co-authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico

Co-authors Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico

 


Music vs. Writing

If my grandfather were alive, he would look at this and ask me, "So who took your picture?"

If my grandfather were alive, he would look at this and ask me, “So who took your picture?”

This post is going to degenerate into another “I hate writing rules” rant. I can feel it in me bones!

[Who knew old bones were sensitive to not just to changing weather but also to one’s own bad attitude? Old bones make excellent bludgeons by the way (especially femurs), though I believe I’m drifting off topic.]

I’ve been playing in bands or at least engaged in some kind of music project on and off for almost three decades. I’ve recorded in professional studios and performed on many stages before all kinds of audiences. The only “rules” I remember hearing are: 1.) Practice a lot, and 2.) Listen to different kinds of music, not just the style you play. Granted, I don’t read musician blogs (are there any?), but that seems like a stark contrast to the massive volume of writing advice and rules heaped upon us daily. It’s alarming how many ways I am failing as a writer.

I’m particularly negligent when it comes to “reading in my genre.” Partly because I don’t know what genre I’m in (is Twilight Zonish a genre?), and partly because, beyond my desire to be entertained and moved by good storytelling, I don’t care what other writers are writing. I’m a bad student, I know.

“Listen to all different kinds of music” is fantastic advice… much better than, “Listen to all the bands that play the same style of music you do.” Absorbing the tones, rhythms, and textures of jazz, metal, soul, reggae, classical, disco, punk, and blues music has made me so much better of a rock musician than if I’d been admonished to listen to the other rock bands to see what they‘re doing! Writing songs comes from the heart and soul, not from carefully tracking trends, as should writing prose.

Sure, no one said only read in your genre. But I’d go as far as to say, “Deliberately read outside your genre. Bring something unique when you come back.”

[Before you hurl some “apples and oranges” comment toward the stage (I’m specifically addressing Mr. Frutman in the aisle seat on the left, row 7), I don’t like apples or oranges and am therefore impervious to your cliché. Arguments about illogical thinking, on the other hand, might carry some weight.]

Look at that! I made my point in under 400 words. Who loves you?

hamster band

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I’ve been podcast again! To relive the excitement of my post on cringe-inducing books, this time with a professional voiceover specialist, click here.


Time’s Up for This Cliché

8 years and counting...

8 years and counting…

Andy Warhol made many unique contributions to popular culture. I wish he would have made one fewer.

When the pop-art guru said, in 1968, that everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, I don’t think he intended his words to become the de rigueur insult in response to every single last stinkin’ internet article about a current celebrity.

I happen upon this hackneyed cliché at least a dozen times per week, and it always irritates. But, like Joan Crawford discovering a wire hanger in her daughter’s closet, I finally snapped this Tuesday. The online article that sent my synapses into electric fury appeared on a popular entertainment site discussing an alleged feud between early ‘90s pop singer Sinead O’Connor and current pop singer Miley Cyrus over the usual nonsense from which celebrity feuds are contrived.

The feud is irrelevant. The reader responses, however, made me very grumpy (pointlessly so to the people around me, it turns out. Their reactions were rather less passionate than mine). Not only did at least 412 people write, “Your 15 minutes of fame are up, Miley,” another 275 wrote, “Weren’t Sinead O’Connor’s 15 minutes of fame up 20 years ago?”

Dear people who write things on the internet: Please, for the love of Zeus, stop using “15 minutes of fame” in reference to people who are actually famous. I don’t think that’s what Andy Warhol meant.

You see, Miley Cyrus is actually famous. She’s a multimillionaire, has sold millions of records, has performed before hundreds and thousands of fans and many millions more on TV, and has been a widely recognized public figure since March of 2006 when Hannah Montana debuted to huge ratings.

Lindsay Lohan, Kanye West, Kristen Stewart, Ben Affleck, and other reviled celebs who draw similar comments are actually famous too, and many have been for a long time. Way longer than 15 minutes.

Being a commenter on entertainment web pages who comments that famous people aren’t worth commenting about because they are almost not famous anymore… well, that’s like me, a blogger with a web footprint the size of a post-it note (the small kind) saying no one uses Facebook anymore.

My relative obscurity won’t stop me from offering this bit of advice, though: I implore you, internet commenter, to stop using the expression “15 minutes of fame.” It is a cliché. Clichés equal bad writing. When you use clichés, it means you are unable to express your own thoughts. Or, more likely, that you don’t have your own thoughts. And there’s really no reason to leave a comment about Miley Cyrus on the internet if you have nothing to say, is there?

15 minutes of fame… Your 15 minutes is up.


Album Review: Chase Bell & White Licorish – Skywords

chaseI shall begin, in most appalling fashion, with a tangent: Please excuse and do not misinterpret my use of the word “jazzy” in this review. Many people fear words related to “jazz.” They know jazz is supposed to be cool and hip and that fandom is a sign of musical erudition, but they just don’t like it. It’s weird, what with all that lack of commercial appeal and the odd time signatures.

To clarify, Chase Bell & White Licorish’s U.S. debut album, Skywords, is not jazz. It is a pop/rock record. I simply believe that every musician in this band secretly plays jazz when not recording pop songs as Chase Bell & White Licorish. This music has that spontaneous, textured, lively feel of jazz, and, like great jazz recordings, it brilliantly captures the natural ambient quality of the instruments.

Damn, too many uses of the j-word so far. Pop pop pop. Rock rock rock. How’s that, Google search algorithms?

Lyrically introspective and musically adventurous, Skywords is pop music that defies easy classification in the same way that old Police albums did: They were pop, but even casual listeners could sense that a lot more than three-chord Monte was going on. Like Sting did after he left the Police, Chase Bell & White Licorish expand on the “sophisticated pop” concept by chase 2adding a horn section. That New Jersey-born singer/songwriter and bandleader Chase Bell recruited his musicians from Italy adds further dimension to the sonic landscape.

Bell’s voice resides in the higher-pitched Bruno Mars range, while the melodies and phrasing evoke John Mayer. As a listener drawn to belters with lots of power, I did not find the singing on the album immediately attractive, as Bell tends to use a lot of soft falsetto as he jabs and rolls his way through and around the arrangements. That said, the style suits the jazz-infused (yeah, I went there) musical arrangements perfectly, and the songs draw the listener without resorting to excessive production or digital effects. The best word I can use to describe Chase Bell & White Licorish’s music is “organic.” From an old-school guy like me, that’s a big compliment.

To learn more about this artist and hear sound samples, check out chasebell.com.