Category: Evelyn McDonnell

Album review: Patti Smith's 'Banga'

Patti-smith2

After her National Book Award-winning memoir "Just Kids" greatly expanded her audience, Patti Smith could have done the usual aging-rock-legend safety move: record an album of standards and covers. Except she had just done that with 2007’s "Twelve." Instead, on her first album of original material in eight years, Smith goes back to her notebook and pulls out everything that’s been great about her for four decades -- an encyclopedia’s worth of literary, mythic, historical, religious and musical references; doo-wop ballads; epic guitars and guitar epics; quivering poems in headstand pose -- and some things that are not.

"Banga" (named after a dog in Bulgakov’s "The Master and Margarita" -- reference No. 1) opens with the first of two songs about Europeans’ discovery of the New World. Piano and strings drive the rhapsodic, epistolary "Amerigo." On this and other tracks, Smith sings with more depth, timbre and richness than perhaps she ever has. "April Fool," an invitation to writerly romance, may be the most buoyant pop song she’s recorded. Success has been good to Smith.

Writing and art-making are recurrent themes on "Banga." On "Constantine’s Dream," the second track about voyages to America, Smith tackles the very nature of art -- and the art of nature. Halfway through the 10-minute opus, painter Piero della Francesca shouts this "Horses"-worthy Patti war cry: "Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure/ With a brush and an eye full of light." But the song buckles under historical weight, never quite delivering on its "Land"-like promise. One of the great things about "Just Kids" and Smith in person is her mischievous sense of humor. "Banga" could stand some Puckish cameos.

This is what happens to artists who take risks; not every effort works. But by reaching back to her literary roots, Smith has reinfused her music. Produced by Smith with her longtime bandmates, including original Patti Smith Group members Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, "Banga" is both a return to form and her best album in many years.

Patti Smith
"Banga"
(Columbia)
Three and a half stars (Out of four)

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-- Evelyn McDonnell

Amanda Palmer's Kickstarter campaign hits $1-million-plus jackpot

Boston-based burlesque-punk artist Amanda Palmer's new Kickstarter campaign has brought in over $1 million, the crowd-sourcing website's first music project to do so
Amanda Palmer makes no bones about the scope of her intentions for her recent Kickstarter campaign. "This is the future of music," declares the Boston burlesque-punk artist via cue card (shades of Bob Dylan's famous "Subterranean Homesick Blues") in the campaign's promotional video.

Laugh if you will: AFP, as she is known (guess what the F stands for), earned $1,192,173 in the fundraiser that ended May 31. Although other enterprises at the crowd-sourcing website have passed the $1-million mark, hers is the first musical project to do so.

In the bad old days, artists had to make a pact with a major label to get that kind of money. Now they can go straight to the people.

"You may pull other people in with the buzz around your project, but your goal on Kickstarter isn't to pitch to total strangers," Palmer told The Times in an email interview. "It's to gather capital from your community, your pre-existing fans, with the hope that their enthusiasm might attract people to hop over the fence and take a look at what you're doing. You need to treat your existing fans like GOLD, even if you only have 200 of them. ... They are your megaphone, and they are powerful message-spreaders."

In return for their cash, contributors get everything from a deluxe-edition CD (the most popular option at $25, funded by 9,333 backers) to dinner and a portrait-sitting with Palmer for $10,000 (two backers).

As if becoming a millionaire over 30 nights wasn't enviable enough (though, of course, Palmer has to pay lots of expenses, employees and management, not to mention Uncle Sam), here's the kicker to this Kickstarter kick-down: Palmer has already recorded the album, "Theater Is Evil." The money won't be going to studio time or producer John Congleton, the usual beneficiaries of a record advance. So how will Palmer spend her windfall?

“HOOKERS !!!!!!!!!!!! BLOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!,” she emailed. "Just kidding. We're going to put a lot of the money into the packaging of the CDs and LPs and art book themselves ... and the rest will go towards the videos and the touring production, which looks like it may be an unprecedented feat of rock theater."

Palmer, who split with her last label, Roadrunner, has made marketing and promotion an intrinsic part of her creative package, right alongside the business side of her trans-media empire. They used to call such a me-centric endeavor a "vanity project." But AFP's efforts are scarcely in vain. She's well aware, as a female artist, of how entrepreneurialism such as hers is changing the usual dynamics of show business. And she has a sense of humor about it all: “Of course if any money is left over I'll get that tummy tuck and [breast augmentation] I've always dreamed about. Finally."

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-- Evelyn McDonnell

Photo: Amanda Palmer, center, and entourage at the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Indio on April 18, 2009. Credit: Spencer Weiner and Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Sports Arena

Bruce Springsteen in Los Angeles
Halfway through Thursday night’s miraculous revival meeting cum concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, Bruce Springsteen stopped to recall his beginnings in the '60s and early '70s playing with a bar band. There was one type of music that was guaranteed to move a Jersey Shore crowd.

“You always had to have a little soul in your pocket,” said the 62-year-old artist with the vigor of a 30-year-old. Then Springsteen led the E Street Band — at 16 pieces, it’s officially a big band, not a rock band, now — through a medley of vintage Temptations and Wilson Pickett tunes.

Testifying from a platform in the middle of the audience (the concert was sold out, as is Friday night’s), Springsteen stopped to guzzle a beer. He tossed the empty plastic cup, then fell backward on the outreached hands of fans, who passed their (tipsy) messiah up to the stage.

Springsteen has always been a killer showman, someone who’s closely studied the great acts of R&B (the Rev. Al Green and James Brown) and learned how to preach a story, milk a call-and-response affirmation, and play dead then get on up. But increasingly, the gospel roots of this soul man have made themselves manifest. It seems like this Catholic son has been spending time in black churches.

By the point — two jaw-dropping, career-spanning hours into the 26-song night — that Bruce and the band boarded the train to the “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” he had some 40,000, mostly white, hands up in the air, vibrating with the spirit of the Holy Ghost.

Another ghost was very much present in the arena, acting as the night’s guiding spirit, so to speak. Springsteen lost his musical soul mate last year when Clarence Clemons, the band’s saxophonist and the bandleader’s right-hand man, passed away. Judging by his repeated direct and indirect references to missing persons — culminating in a powerful screen tribute during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — Springsteen feels the loss keenly.

Clemons’ nephew Jake has stepped in to ably fill the Big Man’s shoes on sax. But it was a gifted guest who drew out of Springsteen the kind of emotive, inspired interplay that made the old Boss and Big Man chemistry so joyous to watch. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the Nightwatchman joined the band for several songs, adding his bent-metal cries to their already stellar guitar lineup. (All hail Nils Lofgren and Little Steven Van Zandt. Springsteen ain’t no slouch at the ax either.)

On the haunting 1995 protest ballad “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello proclaimed the lyrics inspired by "The Grapes of Wrath": “Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/ Or decent job or a helpin' hand / Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free / Look in their eyes, Mom, you'll see me.”

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Language, music and art: Santigold, Heems tackle urban experience

Santigold
If Manhattan’s reputedly crumbling subway system really did collapse into the ground underneath New York University this weekend, the world would face a frightening loss of future discourses on situationist spectacle in Nicki Minaj and treatises on the lost wax poetics of early recorded cylinder music.

The 11th annual  Experience Music Project Pop Conference takes place this weekend in downtown Manhattan, drawing some 340 scholars, journalists, artists and activists to pontificate and more than 2,000 dedicated ears. It’s the event’s first time on the East Coast, and by far its biggest conference yet. Numbers for advance registrants were more than triple the previous high.

Three days of panels and punditry commenced a bit wanly Thursday night as an impressive quartet of musicians -- Angelique Kidjo, Esperanza Spalding, Santigold, and Heems from Das Racist --politely answered questions about their experiences as urban dwellers and listeners, posed by former Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers. Pop Con’s theme this year is "Sounds of the City."

“I speak eight different languages,” the Benin-born Kidjo said, sparking the discussion with her great laugh. “I learned them all through music.”

Continue reading »

Pop music review: KCRW's 'Are Friends Eclectic?'

The FM station’s annual holiday show indeed featured a wide range of entertaining acts, but there were a few stylistic gaps.

Zee-awi-at-kcrw-benefit
Are friends eclectic?

Yes. The answer to the question posed in the title of KCRW’s holiday show is a definite, though qualified, affirmative. The 10 artists crammed into five hours at the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday night included a young Malaysian folksinger (Zee Avi), a historic reggae crooner (Jimmy Cliff) and a flamenco-blues guitar heroine (Anna Calvi).

You’d expect to find a few bad apples in such a mixed bag. But even those acts relegated to playing short acoustic sets in front of the curtain while full bands plugged in behind played as if their careers hinged on it. After all, as several musicians acknowledged onstage, KCRW-FM (89.9) has a history of breaking new acts.

"It feels like ‘The Gong Show,’" singer-guitarist Barbara Gruska joked as she and her four bandmates in the Belle Brigade lined up before the scrim. The awkward setting did not stop the young L.A.-based country-rock group from singing and playing their hearts out. Gruska’s strong tones anchored her brother Ethan’s sweet strains as they toasted the virtues of being uncool in a rendition of "Losers" that seemed like the night’s breakout, take-away moment. Until there came another, and another, and another.

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Album review: Grace Jones' 'Hurricane'

Grace
 
It’s been 18 years since the inimitable Grace Jones released an album stateside, but the legendary new-wave, nightclubbing diva was always light years ahead of her time; in a Gaga world, she sounds more relevant than ever. Downright prescient, in fact: How could the Jamaican-born fashion and music icon have known that an album called "Hurricane" would be stunningly apropos right now? (Especially since it was released in Europe a couple of years ago.)

Please let me be one whit as cool as Jones when I’m well into my fifth decade. No one intones like the stentorian Warhol muse -- and then she breaks into vibrato-driven song, throbbing and strong. She’s fierce on the declarative "This Is," lacerating on the YouTube favorite "Corporate Cannibal," sinister and sexy on "Love You to Life" ("attracted to immorality / a magnet to immortality"), mournful and moving on "I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears)."

In Jones’ hands, with the help of island legends Sly and Robbie, reggae pulses with menace and bristles with intrigue. Brian Eno helps deliver the illbeint atmosphere with keyboards and "treatments" that lurk, poke and crash, and Tricky spits his thing on the title track. But mostly it’s Jones, along with co-producer Ivor Guest, who delivers this unquiet storm of a comeback.

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-- Evelyn McDonnell

Grace Jones

"Hurricane"

(PIAS America)

Four stars (out of four)

Album Review: Barbra Streisand's 'What Matters Most: Barbra Streisand Sings the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman'

   Streisand

 For her thirty-something-th album, Barbra Streisand returns to old married friends for 10 songs of bleeding-heart inspiration. Since the then-18-year-old club singer first met lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, she’s recorded 51 of their compositions (she says in the liner notes for “What Matters Most”), including songs from her 1983 film “Yentl.” The most successful living female recording artist (judging by record sales and awards) knows a good thing when she’s got it. “What Matters Most” is a lovefest: romantic songs drenched in strings and a booklet crammed with photos of Streisand nestled up to the Bergmans, the prodigal daughter and her musical parents.

But Streisand’s somber production and emotional vocals evoke melancholy more than joy — a fitting mood for these theatrical but not sentimental songs. This career couple returns to themes of the struggle of commitment, the torment of passion, the loneliness of love (“Solitary Moon” and “Alone in the World”). Streisand, who has made her mark in part by dragging out the drama of ballads and pop tunes, sets the tone by singing the first few verses of the psychological thriller “The Windmills of Your Mind” a cappella. She precisely cups the mouthful of metaphors — “Like a clock whose hands are sweeping/ Past the minutes of its face’’ — in her sure, lovely tones, unshaken by age. She sings the Ol’ Blue Eyes toe-tapper “Nice ‘n’ Easy” nice and slow.

Continue reading »

Album Review: Various artists' 'Take It or Leave It: A Tribute to the Queens of Noise: The Runaways'

Various--Take-It-Or-Leave-It 1

In the brief but vivid history of the Runaways, sex and drugs provided such sensational subplots that the primary narrative of rock ’n’ roll tends to get overlooked. People remember Cherie Currie’s corsets and Joan Jett’s Hollywood party spot, but “Take It or Leave It” and “School Days” remain sadly missing from oldies radio playlists. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame continues to scandalously overlook the band and Jett. Even Floria Sigismondi’s teen-star-driven Runaways biopic tanked at the box office (though it has had a second life on TV and DVD).

Aficionados of the seminal, L.A.-based all-girl teenage band might be surprised that a tribute album could find enough admiring acts and enduring songs to fill a two-disc, 55-track (!) compilation. Admittedly, 18 of the cuts are interview snippets, radio spots and other historical ephemera. But with acts including the Dandy Warhols, Miss Guy and the Toilet Boys, Richard Barone and Care Bears on Fire tearing up the Runaways catalog, “Take It or Leave It” makes clear that the Runaways weren’t just an almost-one-hit (“Cherry Bomb”) wonder.

With a troop of songwriters including Jett, Currie, guitarist Lita Ford and lyricist Kari Krome, led by charismatic but creepy drill sergeant Kim Fowley, the Runaways played anthemic garage rockers about teenage lust, late nights, absentee parents and misunderstood misfits. In other words, classic rock. “It’s too late to be a kid in love, we’re the kids in hate,” the Serpenteens snarl on a heavy-metal remake of “Little Sister.” The Runaways were post-hippie and pre-punk — too glam to live, too rock to die.

The songs prove amazingly versatile and adaptable. Nailing “Blackmail,” David Johansen demonstrates the continuum from the New York Dolls to the Runaways. Laura Warshauer finds a plaintive ballad in “Little Lost Girls.” Peaches and Kathleen Hanna turn the camp epic “Dead End Justice” into an anarcho-techno knockout.

Jett and Currie announced they were suing to prevent the release of this tribute, part of whose proceeds will be donated to the American Institute for Cancer Research, according to label Main Man. Fortunately, that litigation seems to have been merely a threat. The Runaways need this kind of musical recognition, not more drama and trauma. “Take It or Leave It” honors the music behind the mayhem and misogyny.

Various artists

“Take It or Leave It: A Tribute to the Queens of Noise: The Runaways”

Main Man

Four stars (Out of four)

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Live review: Alicia Keys at the Pantages Theatre

Aliciakeys

Alicia Keys entered the pop consciousness 10 years ago with “Songs in A Minor.” In a pre-9/11 world of choreographed teen pop and materialistic hip-hop, the debut album’s mix of classical piano and urban beats provided a fresh breath of genuine instrumental and compositional talent. Here was an assured, intelligent 20-year-old who had spent her Manhattan youth practicing piano and playing her mom’s soul records, not dancing as a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. Songs such as “Fallin’” and “Never Felt This Way” were instant classics, by the new Aretha/Stevie.

And yet for all that disc’s multiplatinum achievements, celebrating the anniversary of a work that’s just a decade old seems a bit presumptuous and premature. Keys is promoting the Tuesday release of a collector’s edition of “A Minor” with a select number of solo recitals, including her Friday “Piano & I” concert at the Pantages.

The shows are in line with a recent trend in which artists perform and sometimes re-release landmark albums. Recognizing the importance of a groundbreaking disc decades later can be more than an exercise in self-aggrandizement. But reliving your glory days can also easily turn into nostalgic narcissism. For all her talent, beauty and hits, Keys too often fell into that mirrored pit at the Pantages.

Continue reading »

Album review: Aretha Franklin's 'A Woman Falling Out of Love'

Aretha-Franklin_A-Woman-Falling-Out-of-Love It’s a relief just to hear Aretha Franklin’s divine voice again, considering that several months ago, rumors swirled as she lay in a Detroit hospital, recovering from surgery (its nature still unconfirmed). On her 38th studio album, available only at WalMart, the queen of soul sounds voluminous with life and optimism -- soaring, scatting, growling and belting through a gospel number, a blues song about adolescent desire and a movie theme about summer places.

Aretha (really, no last name needed) executive-produced “A Woman Falling Out of Love” and produced most of the tracks herself. Never one for restraint, she piles on the strings and keyboards, matching her multi-octave melismas with lavish instrumentation. “A Woman Falling Out of Love” is like a gourmet Sunday brunch buffet, overflowing with opulent deliciousness -- indulgent, fattening, sugary, and just in time for Mother’s Day.

Franklin pours it all on the opening track “How Long I’ve Waited”: strings over synths over operatic overstatement. But she gets gritty by the next track’s ode to B.B. King, her Big Mama Thornton howl echoed by swinging horns. She scats like Ella on “U Can’t See Me” and praises the Lord with all the magnificence of Mahalia on “Faithful” (a duet with Karen Clark-Sheard). Aretha is truly, as Rolling Stone recently named her, the greatest singer of all time.

Her taste, well, as we all know from that inauguration hat, that’s another matter. (“A Woman Falling” includes her presidential rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”) Aretha has long added a second title to her name: the queen of smooth. Tracks like the über-schmaltzy cover of “The Way We Were,” with Ron Isley, will play well on soft jazz stations. Her chatty, inspirational, girl-talk liner notes -- signed “Ree Ree” -- cater to Oprah’s crowd. Forgive her her bourgeois affectations; I’ll welcome a “New Day” with Aretha any time.

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Aretha Franklin
"Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love"
Aretha’s Records
Two and a half stars

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