Same Old Tune

unnamedI am a semi-hard-core Pink Floyd fan. I’ve likely spent more hours listening to them than any other musical group, and I think I know the entire Wall album from memory – lyrics and orchestration. So when David Gilmour, who, along with Roger Waters wrote many of their greatest hits, came out with a new album, Rattle that Lock, of course I had to listen to it.

The album, I must admit, left me with mixed feelings. It’s a varied album, with some pieces (The Girl in the Yellow Dress) being almost classical jazz, and others being such classic Floyd in tone you can almost recognize lines from Learning to Fly (Echoes), and riffs straight from The Wall. Parts of it are cranking rock, and other parts are very ethereal and New-Agey in feel – not unlike inventive Floyd tracks from Dark Side of the Moon. There are even two instrumental tracks. It was good, it was fresh, but I’m still not sure if I liked it. I’m not a jazz person, no matter how hard I try, and though I love my Floyd, it’s 2015, not 1979, and I want to say, “Yes, it’s good, but what are you doing now?”

Which got me to thinking: Why is it often so easy to pick out a band/singer on the radio? Because they are often stuck in the same style that made them famous. Their songs are caught in a groove of sound – it’s a good sound, but it doesn’t change. Sometimes they try but the fans turn away, because it’s not “their” sound. Sometimes they do and it works beautifully (how many heavy metal bands have one or two incredible slow ballads, like Kiss’s Beth, or the Scorpions’ Still Loving You?). Listen to The Police’s Every Breath You Take – the first four songs are almost identical in format, all hits, but identical. I love R.E.M., but they get monotonous if you listen to six albums in a row. As George Thorogood said, “I only know four chords on the guitar, so of course all my songs sound alike.”27club-660x300

According to the internet, some of today’s popular bands are guilty of unoriginality and being one-trick ponies. Not even getting into Boy Bands, or Brittney, or other manufactured stars (it’s fair to place The Monkees here, too), too many artists sound – well, too much like themselves. Pete Townshend’s last albums drifted song to song like a dream; you couldn’t tell where one ended and the next began, and he’s a music legend. Ed Sheeran, Oasis, Ke$ha, Flo Rida, and the often-unfairly picked on Nickelback are among the worst offenders, by internet polls. Having a trademark “sound” is good, but a truly talented musician masters versatility.

So who, then, has successfully changed their tunes and embraced versatility over the CyndiLauperBodyAcousticyears? Both Paul McCartney and Billy Joel have attempted branching out into classical music, but classical music doesn’t rake in money on radio ads. One I would consider would be Cindy Lauper – she’s older than you think. Before she was a shock-haired icon of the 80’s, she fronted a rockabilly band called Blue Angel. They put out one album, Blue Angel (duh), which did well in the Netherlands, but you could see the genius. Check it out here: To go from Money Changes Everything to Above the Clouds on her Body Acoustic album – she has an impressive range. What a Broadway career she could have had! Oh wait – she wrote all the music for Kinky Boots, winner of 6 Tony awards, including Best Musical and Best Score!  She’s not as ditzy as she looks.

Robert_Plant_and_Alison_Krauss_-_Raising_SandAnother would be Robert Plant – the former lead singer for hard-rocking Led Zeppelin. Post-Zeppelin he formed the R&B group The Honeydrippers in 1981, and they shot up the charts with their # 3 slow-dance hit Sea of Love. If that wasn’t different enough, he’s recorded several folksy albums with Allison Krauss – my personal favorite being “Trampled Rose” from the album Raising Sand. Truly, no one would guess this soulful folk singer is one of heavy rock’s legends.

A third I would nominate would be David Bowie (yes,ZiggyStardust I’ve chosen all older musicians, because 40-50 year careers are living, breathing entities). Ziggy Stardust is a far cry from his later success with Suffragette City, and another layer removed from 2013’s The Next Day album, let alone his (in)famous duet with Bing Crosby on The Little Drummer Boy – and the soundtrack to Labyrinth.

So now we know David Gilmour can write and play good jazz, even if it feels like the jazz is being played in the dance hall of a Pink Floyd dream. Is it progress or stagnation? You have to decide that for yourself.

Music Review: Scratch My Back/ And I’ll Scratch Yours by Peter Gabriel

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Are you more loyal to a particular song, or to the artist who sings it? Does one artist “own” a song, is it destroyed when someone else sings it? Or can a different interpretation make it better – maybe worse – or just ‘different.’

                That’s the question put forth by Peter Gabriel’s pair of albums, Scratch My Back (which was originally released in 2010) and And I’ll Scratch Yours, the just-released companion. In the first release, Gabriel sings the songs of other artists, putting an often-times melancholy spin on popular songs. In the second release, other artists sing songs Gabriel made popular.

                I must say, while I have several collections of a single song done by many artists (I have at least five different major artists singing the Mama’s & the Papa’s California Dreaming, and I love all of them), I’m of the artist-loyal group. Sometimes an artist can really rock a song (can you really say who sings Proud Mary better – Tina Turner or Creedence Clearwater?), other times they destroy it so painfully you want to cry (Willie Nelson, I love you, but please, for the love of Arlo, don’t – just don’t – sing City of New Orleans ever again). Yet, on the two albums combined, there was only one song I did not care for.

                Do not expect this to be an album you will get up and dance to, unless it’s a slow, hypnotic pas de deux. Gabriel’s songs are backed up by full orchestration, with chirping violins beautiful in tone, making the album slide back and forth between the sounds of symphonic Pink Floyd and soft Dire Straits a la Brothers in Arms. The songs are slow, aching, haunting, jazzy, and gorgeous, as if Gabriel had stopped by, started playing around with your piano, and tapped out some random torch songs from the top of his head, and you caught them on tape. No shocking monkeys here. While I still prefer Springsteen, Philadelphia would seem to have been written for this album, this style, and this singer.

                In the second half, And You Scratch Mine, the songs are a bit more upbeat, but still in that somewhat aching, torch-lounge style, while each artist still twists the songs to fit themselves. Arcade Fire’s Games Without Frontiers remains strong, if not particularly inventive. Randy Newman leaves his mark on Big Time, so much that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. Paul Simon cannot be anything but mellifluous on Biko. The only song I did not care for was Lou Reed singing Solsbury Hill. I’m all for twisting things up, but it’s a light, sweet bouncy melody; Reed seems to unroll the song, pound it flat, and leave it wounded in the gutter. I tried twice, but could not finish listening to the end of it. If you really like Reed’s style, you may love it, but to me it was a bad fit.

                This was planned and released as a concept album pair; it is a type of experiment, and in all experiments, some things will hit the mark and some won’t. Is it the song that propels a singer to fame, or does a singer pull a particular song into the history books? Would we love Stairway to Heaven as much if it were sung by Britney Spears? Would we even remember Love Me Tender if it were sung by anyone but Elvis? What would The Scream look like if it had been painted by Rembrandt? That’s the question to ponder as you explore this fascinating piece of musical concept art.