Category: Ann Powers

Coachella 2011: Safe and sound [Updated]

Kh0y3znc The Internet's instant responders sighed with contentment but did not experience hysteria when the Los Angeles Times revealed the lineup for this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival late Tuesday. The announcement silenced the din of whispers that builds excitement for the April event -- a rumor mill that this year featured talk of the Rolling Stones headlining, Daft Punk returning and Lady Gaga luring her fan army of "little monsters" to the Polo Grounds.

These tantalizing possibilities were left unfilfilled in the wake of worthy but more predictable headliners, many of whom have made big impressions at the festival before. The Arcade Fire is finally claiming the Saturday night anchor position that's been its destiny since the band's thrilling sunset set in 2005, and the Kings of Leon move up from the side stage the band burned down in 2007. New York's Strokes, finally reunited, can wow the kids too young to have seen them in 2002. Kanye West, who played Coachella in 2006, adds another notch to a designer belt already marked by performances at outdoor festivals Sasquatch (2005; he slayed) and Bonnaroo (2008; he flopped).

A grumbler could go on. Duran Duran will surely entertain in the big legacy-act slot, but the New Romantic royals have been back for a while, no news there. PJ Harvey's decision to grace the festival after a rumored multi-year courtship will surely result in fireworks -- the band's February release, "Let England Shake," is a killer of an album -- but it's hard to imagine Polly Harvey cutting a more stunning figure than she did in her Victorian finery during her 2007 White Chalk tour. And the overwrought "whoas" issuing forth from certain indie palaces about the reunion of the Toronto-based synth-punk duo Death From Above 1979 seem to be overplaying a marginal event in the absence of more significant ones. 

What this year's Coachella line-up really does is thoroughly smack down the argument that a major music fest should stake its fortune on once-in-a-lifetime moments. Below the headliners, the weekend's bill unfolds impressively, containing a huge percentage of the artists earning accolades and buzz on the capricious cutting edge of pop.

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Album review: Cage the Elephant's 'Thank You Happy Birthday' [Updated]

Cage_240_ “Sell yourself, don’t be a fool!” gurgles Matt Shultz, the wiggly frontman for Cage the Elephant, midway through the young Kentucky-bred band’s second album. He’s yelling at the hipsters and fakes whose convolutions confuse and upset him, but he’s surely also offering himself a warning.

Having gained notoriety a couple of years back for intense live shows and memorable singles like 2008’s slouchy, sexy “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” Shultz and his pals, including brother Brad on guitar and secret weapon Daniel Tichenor on bass, stand at a crucial juncture. Can Cage the Elephant survive the scrutiny of jaded aficionados who call its drum kit-toppling yet sweet-toothed approach to guitar bashery nothing but a rehash of flannel rock? This set of ripping rave-ups and effortlessly tasty singalongs answers YES, in all caps.

The band’s influences are obvious. Songs like “Aberdeen,” a nod to Kurt Cobain’s hometown, and the shameless Pixies rewrite “Around My Head” trash and lovingly refashion those sources the way kids take apart their toys during the winter holidays. It helps that these pilferers have great taste. They run like rabbits from the stultifying bottom end of grunge, instead honoring what was hot and sweet about ‘90s rock: the raucousness of its hooks and the accessibility of its noise.

The twang in Shultz’s voice and in Lincoln Parish’s lead guitar betrays the band’s Southern influence. Like the Kings of Leon, Cage the Elephant gains benefits from being rooted in a region where plain old rock still has wide appeal. There’s no pretentiousness to this band, and no tricks in the clean production by versatile Nashville vet Jay Joyce. And though Shultz’s lyrics betray much self-doubt, his wildfire yelp overcomes it. When he sings about a girl who holds “her dirty hands over the flame,” yeah, he’s singing about a lost love, but he’s also singing to himself. The flame is rock and roll, unquenchable.

—Ann Powers

Cage the Elephant
“Thank You Happy Birthday”
Jive/RED Records
Three stars (Out of four)

[Updated: In the original version of this review, Matt Shultz's name was misspelled and Daniel Tichenor was misidentified as Brad Tichenor. Also, the song "Around My Head" was mistakenly titled as "Paper Cut (Walk Around My Head)."]

Hitmakers RedOne, Alex Da Kid and Ari Levine to discuss their work at Times Music Producers Roundtable on Saturday


If one were to list the breakout hits of the last two years, a few songs would rise to the top: the massive chart killers of Lady Gaga ("Alejandro," "Bad Romance," "Poker Face"), Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie," Cee Lo Green's "Forget You" and B.o.B.'s "Nothin' on You" and "Airplanes," among others.

Those songs have one thing in common -- well, at least one we're interested in right now: Three of the hitmakers responsible for them will take part in the first Los Angeles Times Music Producers Roundtable on Saturday at the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live. Just in time for the Grammys, producers Alex Da Kid (Eminem, B.o.B.), Ari Levine of the Smeezingtons (Cee Lo Green, Bruno Mars) and RedOne (Lady Gaga)  -- all of whose songs have been nominated this year -- will sit down with Los Angeles Times pop music critic Ann Powers for an hour-long conversation about their work, today's trends in music and the business of hitmaking.

Although producers are by definition the silent partners in the creative process, their role in guiding the landscape of popular music is crucial, and while the artists get their kudos onstage during performances, the producers remain in their windowless recording studios creating the magic. The Los Angeles Times Music Producers Roundtable will offer a rare opportunity for these artists to chime in on the art of the hit song in 2011.

The event is free to the public, but reservations are required. To learn more about getting a ticket, check out the announcement at the Awards Tracker blog.

-- Randall Roberts

Photo: Alex Da Kid. Credit: Natty Photo.


'Tender Mercies' to 'Nashville': best country-themed movies

Country-strong-gwyneth paltrow

Country music was born of hard-luck lives and heartbreak, with its singers as raw and roughed up as the songs. Its early singers were the stuff of legends — unashamed of humble beginnings, dogged by tragedy, uneasy with fame, often in search of redemption. The stories captured the imagination of Hollywood, with filmmakers turning them into classics — and clunkers (“Rhinestone,” anyone?). It is the wail of the American heartland that appeals, and the plain-spoken lyrics make for easy plot points — “Help me make it through the night,” “She's actin' single, I'm drinkin' doubles,” “Take this job and shove it,” “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”

Best-country-movies The best scripts that emerged cut across social and economic lines, and the music was always there when the words failed. “Country Strong” is the latest to join that rich tradition, with Gwyneth Paltrow starring as a broken singer-songwriter in search of a little saving grace. The film is expanding into theaters around the country this week, so Times pop music critic Ann Powers and Times film critic Betsy Sharkey were asked to pick their four favorites from the past for a gallery available at left.

It was mostly a peaceable process, except when it came to “Coal Miner's Daughter.” Whether it was graciousness or grit that won the day, we'll never tell.

— Ann Powers and Betsy Sharkey

Top photo: Gwyneth Paltrow in "Country Strong." Credit: Scott Garfield /Sony-Screen Gems.

Bottom photo: Ronee Blakley and Henry Gibson in Robert Altman's "Nashville." Credit: Paramount Pictures.


Justin Timberlake's 'new song' is actually a Danish knock-off

Lctfmmnc The dawn of 2011 held special promise, it seemed, for fans of Justin Timberlake's music. Though the nearly thirtysomething star recently told Times reporter Chris Lee that he's taking a break from music to pursue the presumably more serious goal of Oscar-nabbing, a shiny new sign to the contrary popped up late last week, in the form of a leaked new song, the frenetically finger-poppin' "Take You Down."

JT devotees greeted the song, supposedly produced by JT's old pals the Neptunes, with cautious excitement. Some bloggers noted that the vocals didn't really live up to the high standards of the falsetto-wielding future action hero, and most sources threw around the word "demo" to describe the song, which has a rump-shaking beat and some cute vocal effects, but doesn't exactly vault into the stratosphere.

Still, some of us were fooled. Such is the hunger for new material from the guy who's played a crucial role in helping 21st-century teen pop grow up.

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Locals the Belle Brigade among 'The Times' Faces to Watch' in 2011

In The Times' Sunday Calendar this week (Jan. 2), editors and writers have canvassed the pop-culture landscape and singled out a few artists as ones to watch in 2011. It wasn't easy, as plenty easily deserved the crown. Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss in the coming days for other acts to watch for in the months ahead. For now, here's a look at one that will be featured in Sunday's paper. 


Who:The Belle Brigade

L.A. clubgoers might be used to seeing only half of Barbara Gruska, the rest of her obscured behind the drum kit she's so ably pummeled working with artists such as Jenny Lewis, the Watson Twins and Inara George. But now she’s ready to share every bit of her talent. And it's major. The Belle Brigade, her band with kid brother Ethan, shows off her big, memorable voice and considerable charisma within songs that gleam with hooks and pour over with earnest emotion. Matthew Wilder, the producer who helped No Doubt figure out how to go national, is working with the Gruskas on the band’s Warner Bros. debut, slated for an April release. A January Spaceland residency should expand the fan base captured by the band's exhilarating live sets; by summer, its misfits anthem “Losers” could be a top 10 hit.

A complete look at all of The Times' music picks for 2011, which include those in jazz and classical, can be found here. 

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Warner Bros. 

In the month of January, the Belle Brigade will be staging a free Monday night residency at Club Spaceland, 1717 Silverlake Blvd., Los Angeles. 

The ones that got away: Music critics reveal what they left off their year-end lists

It happens to every critic, every year. After agonizing over your annual best list and turning it in, a realization arrives that a selection left behind really, really should be included. Careless omission or ill-considered compromise has created a glaring hole in the last assessment of the year, and regret sets in. Sometimes it lingers until the next list comes along.

The Times asked a select group of music writers to identify the one release of 2010 (or two, some couldn’t resist) that they felt bad about omitting from their top 10 lists. What follows are second-chance tips on the albums you should hear that didn’t get as much attention as Arcade Fire or Kanye West did; and for the musical authorities whose love can’t stay within the limits of an even number.

—Ann Powers

1_Bit_Music Alex Ross, New Yorker magazine music critic and author of the recent “Listen to This”: Tristan Perich’s “1-Bit Symphony” — an electronic composition coded into a homemade electronic circuit — certainly should have made my list. It’s a striking piece of technology and a no less striking piece of music — a harsh landscape of minimalist sound that on successive listenings might bliss you out or drive you mad.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune music critic and cohost of the radio show “Sound Opinions”: Sam Phillips is an absolute treasure, one of the best songwriters and singers of the last 20 years, and certainly one who doesn’t get nearly the recognition she deserves. She released a series of five EPs in 2010 collectively titled “Long Play” that are wonderful — little gems of carefully observed wordplay and haunting melody. Every word and note counts; Phillips has a knack for saying exactly what needs to be said in the most concise way possible. She’d make a helluva of an editor. I’ve finally caught up with most of these EPs and they rank with her best work. But because they weren’t collected in a tidy little album, I waited too long to really dig into them and give them proper consideration for my year-end, best-of list. I urge everyone not to make the same mistake.

Rob Harvilla, Village Voice music editor: Katy Perry somehow got left off all my lists this year, though “Teenage Dream” and “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” are as deadly an album-opening tag-team as my heart could possibly stand 2010 producing. I apologize to Katy for not liking her quite enough, and to feminists everywhere for liking her at all.

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Deeper cuts: Ann Powers picks 25 songs you might not have heard in 2010

I have always been vocal in my opposition to year-end Best lists, but lately I find myself becoming somewhat addicted to them. My change in attitude, I think, is related to the realization that my list really doesn’t matter -– it’s just a blood drop, spreading out until it’s imperceptible within the busy, empty space of the hive mind. 

I’ve presented the world with my pop Top Ten, and I’m not worrying about it anymore. What follows is not a “best” list, but a scrapbook of sonic memories from a seemingly bottomless musical year. It features efforts that made an impression on me, though most never came anywhere close to the mainstream.  These songs are available on those old things called “albums” as well as via the newfangled “Internet download.” Seek them out.

Sharon van Etten, “A Crime,” from "Epic": A fearless woman bares what matters -– her soul -– in this confessional lament.

Chocolate Genius Inc., “Lump,” from "Swan Songs": Many hits used profanity this year. This song by Marc Anthony Thompson, seasoned examiner of viscera, meant it.

Ryan Bingham, “Depression,” from "Junky Star": That word has a few meanings; this young Academy Award-winning country outlaw gets to all of them.

Champagne Champagne and Thee Satisfaction, “Magnetic Blackness,” from the split single with “Bird Lives!”:  Seattle, formerly ruled by messy-haired hard rock boys, has found its hip hop soul in super-fresh crews like these.

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Critic's Notebook: Rock Hall's dark horses


The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions are all about musical history, but the producers of March's fete at the Waldorf Astoria might want to consider playing a current hit to greet the latest batch of inductees. “Raise your glass if you are wrong in all the right ways — all my underdogs,” Pink sings in the titular chorus of her No.1 song.

The rabble-rousing diva had no way of knowing that her trash anthem would apply so perfectly to those being honored by the Cleveland-based canonizing institution. But the strongest quality shared by 2011's chosen ones is that they're five dark horses, forming a winners' circle that looks different than any the Rock Hall has ever had.

That's not to say that Neil Diamond isn't a towering figure in genre-spanning postwar pop or that Darlene Love doesn't possess one of the signature voices of the girl-group era or that Tom Waits hasn't produced one of the most enduring recorded legacies of the rock era. I would never underestimate Alice Cooper's influence on several generations of theatrical rockers or marginalize New Orleans piano man Dr. John, who has turned on millions to the magic of the Crescent City under that name and as “Mac” Rebennack.

Add to this group one more significant performer, Leon Russell, whose reception of the Musical Excellence Award completes the comeback he's made with the graceful assistance of Elton John, and you have a selection that will mostly please pop aficionados but may also puzzle many. (Two worthy inductees in the nonperformer category were also announced: Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and Specialty Records head honcho Art Rupe.)

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Album review: Duffy's 'Endlessly'

DUFFY_ENDLESSLY_240_ The young Welsh song belter who calls herself Duffy is certainly bored with being compared to her damaged stylistic older sister, Amy Winehouse, and her spitting-image spiritual mom, Dusty Springfield. So here’s a new one: Johnny Mathis. Like romantic pop’s velvet balladeer, Duffy has a vocal tone like meringue, delicious to some and cloying to others. And like Mathis, she’s an individualist hiding within a musical subgenre that favors convention.

On “Endlessly,” her follow-up to her worldwide hit debut “Rockferry,” Duffy tries several different ways to celebrate her unique talents without abandoning the vintage settings that won her such acclaim. She parted with her retro-soul guru, the 40-year-old post-punk Bernard Butler, to collaborate with the 66-year-old veteran producer Albert Hammond, who had most of his hits (huge ones, like the Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe”) in the 1970s.

True to that era’s freewheeling attitude, Hammond gives Duffy room to experiment, and the results are, not surprisingly, mixed. The lead single, “Well Well Well,” is a reggae-tinged rocker with the Roots laying down the groove; it could easily fit on Neneh Cherry’s 1989 classic “Raw Like Sushi.” Other tracks invoke Kylie Minogue — the Aussie goddess might be tempted to cover the dance-pop show tune “Lovestruck.” Duffy also returns to "Rockferry’s" Northern soul on the epic tearjerker “Too Hurt Tto Dance,” which joins the honor roll of songs about how listening to music can make things worse.

Despite these high points, though, “Endlessly” has some problems. Duffy has said she wrote the songs in a mere three weeks, and it shows. There’s nothing wrong with a well-deployed cliché, but on some songs here Duffy either just doesn’t do much with the language (her lover’s taking her breath away, neat!) or bungles it (“You hit me like lightning through the eyes”? Ouch!). And though it must have been fun to rewrite Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” it hardly fulfilled a burning cultural need.

These pitfalls, along with some of the more artistically successful risks Duffy and Hammond take, mean that “Endlessly” will likely not achieve the massive success of “Rockferry.” That’s OK — to summon a cliché Duffy could use as the basis for a winning song, it’s a growing process. She did her obvious predecessors proud on “Rockferry”; now she’s working toward doing the same for herself.

— Ann Powers

Mercury Records
Three stars (out of four) 


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