Thursday, August 21, 2008

For the Love of Blue-Eyed Soul

If you are not familiar with the music genre called blue-eyed soul, it is exactly what the name makes you think of. Well, to be precise, it is soul music by Caucasian artists. Some might find the term racist, but I think it works pretty well (at least until we all come to the realization that the color of someone's skin is not as important as the world makes it. We are all human beings, and pigeonholing just doesn't work. Enough editorial on that. ) It's actually a complimentary sort of thing, in my opinion, showing that the love of music transcends racial boundaries. I think it's great that although soul music originated in the African American community, it was embraced by others outside of that community. Since I prefer male blue-eyed soul, lets focus on the male artists in this movement.

Blue-eyed soul is not a new phenomenon. It's actually been around for a while. I would dare to suggest that Elvis was a blue-eyed soul singer. What about the Righteous Brothers? I think yes. Then there was Hall and Oates. No one would argue that George Michael was a very prominent blue-eyed soul artist in the 80s and 90s. Perhaps even some of Elton John's songs evoke the essence of this genre as well. Everybody knows that Boy George had an incredible voice, driving the blue-eyed soul sound of the British 80s pop band Culture Club. Also Tom Jones, although Welsh, definitely has some serious soul vibe going on. British Rick Astley channeled the Motown male crooner sound, and did it excellently in the 90s. So, although when the term crops up, one might start to think of artists like Justin Timberlake as a forerunner, and as much as I love his music, he is not a pioneer in this arena. Probably most people aren't familiar with British musician Paul Weller, a former member of The Jam and The Style Council. This man has a great soul voice, and if The Style Council isn't very R&B/soul-sounding, I don't know what is. The list goes on, including Paul Young, Phil Collins, Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones music, David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Rod Stewart, Michael McDonald, Dan Hartman, Paul Carrack, and others. To me it is clear that R&B and soul music had a huge influence on British popular music, explaining why there are so many British artists with this sound. Boy bands N'Sync, Backstreet Boys (A.J. McLean has a great voice for R&B), and 98 degrees (Nick Lachey is great at the Motown crooner sound) also carved territory in this genre of music.
A special word about Jeff Buckley. When he died, it left a hole in my heart. The term gone too soon definitely applies. His voice was heavenly. He could wail, but he could croon. Songs like "Everybody Here Wants You," "Last Goodbye," "Hallelujah," and "Morning Theft" would be defended by me as blue-eyed soul in a court of law, just on the strength of his vocals, although "Everybody Here Wants You" is the most overtly soulful in its arrangement. I think he would have very successfully recorded a soul album if he had lived longer.

Who are some of my favorites of the newer blue-eyed soul artists? Let's discuss them.

  • Robin Thicke: I would have to say that above and beyond, he is my favorite. I heard the song off his first CD, "When I Get You Alone", I knew there was something going on there. Now some might be a little wary because his father is Alan Thicke, and assume he is just hanging onto his famous father's coattails. Well just listen to him sing, and also listen to R&B and Soul stations and quite a few of the popular songs of several years ago were actually written by him. Now I enjoyed his first CD "Thicke", which was an interesting combination of R&B and hippy-inspired pop music. He even sported a hippy look with the long hair that didn't hide his good looks. I must say I prefer the short hair that he has now. Yes, I am one of the people who bought this CD, although it didn't seem to make much of an impression for the most part. I loved his next CD, "The Evolution of Robin Thicke." I saw the video for "Lost Without U" on VH-1 one morning, and I knew I had to buy that CD. I think it is incredible. Yes he does the more popular and oftimes annoying R&B gimmick of teaming up with a hip-hop artist, but he manages to knock his collaborative song "All Night Long," with 'Lil Wayne, out the park. But he also has some wonderful introspective ballads like "Angel," the aforementioned "Lost Without You," and others. He also has some great mid-tempo songs like "I Wanna Love You Girl," which is a collaboration with one of my favorite producers The Neptunes, and the slower sexy and romantic "I Need Love" and "Teach U a Lesson." 'Can You Believe" is sort of in-between, not really mid-tempo, but not a slow song. But it's a great song, for sure. One of my favorites off this cd is "Complicated." Love the song, and wore it out last fall and into the winter. All the songs off this CD are great. "Cocaine" is a good song, but not a favorite of mine. "Shooter" is a rerelease from his first album, and is very infectiously funky. I'm not surprised that this album went platinum. You go, Robin. His new CD promises to be just as good, if the single "Magic" is representative of it. It has a very old school, Motown feel to it. You can tell I really like this guy, huh. I think it's great that he's happily married to the lovely African-American actress Paula A. Patton.

  • Maroon 5: I can't talk about blue-eyed soul without giving a nod to this group. They have done a great job of combining rock, pop, and soul to develop an infectious signature sound. Adam Levine definitely has the pipes for soul music, and the rich musicianship of the band is representative of the 80s large band sound for R&B music. I heard "Harder to Breathe" and I knew we had a connection. I bought "Songs About Jane" and loved it. Not a bad song on the record, although my favorites are the aforementioned, "This Love," "Sunday Morning," "Shiver," and the "The Sun." They received pretty massive airplay for what seemed like years, and when I was wondering what they were up to, they released their newest album, "It Won't Be Soon Before Long." Definitely refusing to be pigeonholed, this CD is hard to classify. It still has the very prominent blue-eyed soul stylings I love so much, but also has a retro early 80s rock sound like The Tubes and other bands. It is very musical with brass, guitar, bass, drums, and synthesizer, piano, and keyboards. I think that the band decided that they were going to make this album as if it was their last, and the drive and commitment to make a great album shines through. My all-time favorite song off this CD is "If I Ever See Your Face Again," which has pretty naughty lyrics. It's so infectious that you will bounce along to it when it's playing in your car. I'm a little ambivalent about the remake with Rihanna, I must admit. The video is pretty steamy, though. I also love "It Makes Me Wonder," although when I first heard it, I wasn't sure what to think. It has such a different sound, very retro but eclectic. I love it though. The video is great. Adam Levine does know how to bring on the sexy, for sure. I pretty much love all the songs, but "Back at Your Door" stands out because this is straight up an R&B ballad, Motown style. Who couldn't help but take a guy back who shows this kind of passion. This band definitely has made a splash and crossed over into the various genres of rock, pop, and R&B.

  • Justin Timberlake: I won't even get started with him. He's so big that there's no point of going into him. I must say I love love love, "My Love." His continued collaboration with Timbalake has been beyond successful.

  • JC Chasez: For some reason he fell through the cracks, but this guy has a great, incredible soulful voice. He is my favorite N'Sync member, although I also like Justin. I loved his CD Schizophrenic. This album has some of every genre on it, with a serious retro R&B, new wave, and electronic feel (three of my faves). It's also pretty rocky in parts (early80s rock). My alltime favorite off here is "Everything You Want," but "Blowing Me Up With Her Love" is awesome. He does some risky songs like "Some Girls (Dance With Women)," and "All Day Long I Dream About Sex," but I think they pay off. Too bad nobody bought this CD. I hope he hasn't given up on having another CD because I knowthere is a strong fan base who would love to hear more from him.

  • Jamiroquai: This British band channels that late 70s/early 80s funk, big band style of R&B and do it very well. They make you dance in a whole different way from the modern R&B movement. If you want a good taste of their musical offerings, pick up their greatest hits CD. I guarantee you'll like it if you're into that retro funk type of R&B.

  • Remy Shand: He hasn't hit it big that I know of, but if you like your blue-eyed soul very low key and almost jazzy, I think you would like him very much. "Rocky Steady" is the song that recieved a bit of airplay. I think he's a talented guy and hope to hear more from him.

  • Daniel Bedingfield: British musician who is the brother of Natasha Bedingfield. Why she hit it big, but he didn't, I'm not sure. This guy is awesome. He has an incredible voice and great music. He's definitely more into the dance/electronic (and you will want to dance) kind of feel but has some sweet, touching ballads as well.

  • Justin Guarini: I bought his CD based on his musical talents in From Justin, To Kelly (yes I saw it at the movies and I liked it. I wish they had released the soundtrack). This boy can sing. Ok, technically I think he's mixed, but I think he still fits in this category.
Although definitely pop acts, these guys have the blue-eyed soul vibe:
  • John Mayer
  • Teddy Geiger
  • Gavin DeGraw

Let's not forget...

    • Jason Mraz: see an earlier post on this blog. I love him. :)

Ones to watch:

  • Elliot Yamin: he definitely has a great voice. His CD sounds promising.

  • Blake Lewis: the samples I heard of his CD sounded very good. I'll have to pick it up and soon.

  • Ari Gold: haven't heard any of his music, but I'm anxious to hear what he sounds like. I've heard good things about him.

  • One Republic: I got kinda sick of "Apologize" getting played so much on the radio, but the lead singer Ryan Tedder definitely has the voice for R&B/soul music.

  • Taylor Hicks: he has a great old school R&B sound, along the lines of Michael McDonald

To close, I hope you know a little more about blue-eyed soul, and perhaps have decided to dip your feet in the pond, so to speak. I recommend starting with Robin Thicke :)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Upgrade U Leaves a Bad Taste in My Mouth

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a huge fan of Beyonce'. I think she is extremely talented, beautiful, intelligent, and classy. But I do have to say that I am disappointed in the message behind "Upgrade U." It's not so much the materialism evident in the song. But I feel it is reinforcing sexist attitudes when young women and girls need to be affirmed in their right to stand on their own two feet and next to their men, not behind them.

It didn't penetrate the first several times I listened to the song, which I really like on one level. It's got a great beat and Beyonce' sings wondefully as always. But the last few times, I realized that in this song, Beyonce' is embracing standing by her man. That's great in itself. But it comes off that she is saying that it involves standing back and supporting him in his success. But that doesn't mean that a woman should take a backseat to her man. You says something along the lines of "you can take me to dinner and I'll be the perfect accessory for you." That line really bothers me. I feel it is selling a woman short to say that she should just stand by and make him look good by looking beautiful. I firmly believe that saying that was good for the old days," Behind every great man is an equally great woman." Well women had to stand behind men back then because that was the only role they were given. Historical women fought very hard to gain the rights that we should have had as human beings. Clearly this battle is still being fought. I hear and see a lot of women in the media and in my personal encounters who seemed to have forgotten how far this country has come as far as recognizing women for their achievements. We are not second class citizens whose only worth is to look good and support our men. Women are capable of being the stars of their own shows and accomplishing much without the help of men. Does that mean I am saying that women don't need men? Not really. I think that having a man to love and support you is a great thing. It helps a lot of women achieve their personal best. I think that for some women, having a loving man as their partner completes them, and I'm all for that. But some women are so great already that a man is just the icing on their cake. I believe that girls and young women should get this message from the beginning that they are worthwhile, have the inate ability to be successful in life with drive and vision, and can be fulfilled in their own right. The sky is the limit, and life doesn't depend on finding happiness in a man and supporting that man. Yes, a woman should support the man she loves, but she should do it knowing that she is equally capable and successful, even if it is in a different way. Even if she is a homemaker and doesn't work, she is doing an incredible job, keeping a home and raising future adults that can impact the world one day. She is never less than her man, by any stretch.

I am happy that Beyonce' found a great love in her husband Sean Carter, and he helped her to see herself differently, and on one level it's not wrong for her to convey this in her song. After all, it is her song, and it is her personal experiences. But on the other hand, I think she should realize that she is a role model for girls and young women. She has become successful in her own right in part due to her determination, hard work, and her commitment to be successful, and also because her parents, family, and friends supported and continue to believe in her as a capable woman. Now she can embrace love with Jay-Z and continue to be successful. But young girls may not have her advantages, and hearing some of the things that Beyonce' has to say in "Upgrade U" may send a misleading message to these girls. That pains my heart.

I think that I have struggled just as much as many other women and girls struggle with their self-esteem where the media blasts us with images that convey a very one-dimensional and undiverse concept of beauty. Wondering why boys like some girls but not me is something that most woman dealt with at least once in their lives. Why is so much of a woman's self esteem tied into how good they look? They cannot be all they can be if they are not sexy and beautiful. Well every woman is beautiful because she is a unique creation. She doesn't have to fit traditional modes of beauty to be successful.

History has shown that some pretty wonderful women may not have been glamour girls in any sense. I won't mention any names because it's beside the point. They are beautiful to me because of their fortitude, their drive, passion, and ambition. I firmly believe in the sisterhood of women and that we are pretty wonderful creations, much beloved in God's eyes. Hopefully I will be able to have at least one daughter one day. If I could teach my daughter that this is what true beauty is, not how big her breasts are, how pretty her face is, and how many guys want to date her, then I feel that I have been a success at raising my daughter to be a woman of fortitude and accomplishment.

I know that this not the place for political statements. I scrupulously try to avoid doing that. But my heart told me to post this because I want to be at peace with myself. I want to continue to admire Beyonce', and she must not be put up on a pedestal where she is immured to criticism. If she happened to read this blog, I hope that she would come away with the genuine concerns of a genuine fan, and have some food for thought when she writes more songs that will fall across the ears of young, impressionable, and desperate for acceptance young girls. I think that an artist must always have the freedom of expression, yet also embrace how the impressionable, who often view an artist as a role model, will embrace the message inherent in her art.


The Appeal of Interpol

It's funny how things can change. Years ago, when I still lived in San Diego,I had a coworker who had common tastes in music to me (i.e. postpunk and new wave music). We would talk about music and how much it meant to both of us. He as a musician himself, and me as a person who had learned a musical instrument and was an avid fan of music. He made a couple of cds of bands he thought I would like, one of which was Interpol's first CD, Turn on the Bright Lights. I thought it was good and atmospheric, with excellent guitar riffs, but a little repetitive and I didn't listen to it much. At that point, I was underwhelmed.

Years later, after I had moved back to Texas, I was at work, listening to the Flashback Alternatives internet station, and they played a song called "Take You on a Cruise." I recognized Interpol because they just have a very signature sound. I loved the song, and frankly I couldn't get it out of my head. I went to and looked up their CDs, discovering that it was on their second CD "Antics." I then made a note to buy it. Well, one Saturday after doing relief work, I went to Best Buy and bought it for $9.99. I couldn't even wait until I got home to listen to it. I started playing it in the car, skipping to that song that had so captivated me. I was hooked. It was official. I was now a bonafide Interpol fan.

"Antics" has some really good music throughout, but the standout tracks were, of course, "Take You on a Cruise," "Narc," and "C'Mere." Let me tell you, I probably have "Take You on a Cruise" and "Narc" on at least sixteen different mix cds, and on every computer I own, as well as both media players. "Take You on a Cruise" has to be my favorite song ever. If I could get away with playing it at my wedding, I would definitely try. This song broke the barrier between myself and merely seeing Interpol as a good band with great guitar music, and turned me into a life long fan. And I am not alone in my admiration. There is a piano cover and a string quartet cover on You Tube. Both are excellent, by the way.

Let me just say that what they do with guitars is an art. That was one thing that impressed me from the beginning, the way they managed to make the blending of guitars into a symphony. I was always more of a piano, therefore keyboard, and percussion girl (hence my love of New Wave music), until bands like Interpol introduced me to the art of guitars. When I realized that bands that play in this style are part of the postpunk genre, I rapidly became a fan of this musical movement. Although I do like some bands that use the electric guitar in a rocky style, such as Journey and Def Leppard, I have never been the heavy metal, hard rock kind of girl, and I guess I associated guitars with this kind of music. But the guitar is a complex instrument that can be used to various ends. Interpol really seem to understand the art of the guitar.

The next thing that draws me to Interpol is their interesting, complex, introspective songs. For instance, they are lyrically rich, and have a mystique that makes you wonder what they were thinking about when the songs were written.

Lastly, Paul Banks' voice also calls to me. What can I say? I really like the monotone, post-punk, new wave way of singing. I am throwback to the 80s in that sense. Although I am sure his voice probably doesn't appeal to some people (my mother for one), I find his singing very seductive and beautiful, a perfect match for the music. He seems to know the exact right way to sing to accompany the music, and for maximum effect of the lyrics.

"Our Love to Admire," Interpol's newest CD, definitely cemented my love of the band. Although "Antics" will always have a special place in my heart because of the gems of "Take You on a Cruise" and "Narc," I must say that "Our Love to Admire" has more songs that I love, such as "All Fired Up," "The Pace is the Trick," "The Heimlich Maneuver," "No I in Threesome," "The Score," and "Pioneer to the Falls." Each song demonstrates the musical diversity and complexity of the band, without compromising their signature sound. And I must say I definitely love the addition of keyboards to their musical sound (did I mention earlier that the piano is my favorite?) I can definitely say that although some bands definitely have been inspired by Interpol (such as Bloc Party), no band has the unique sound of Interpol. Case in point, I can tell that it's an Interpol song, just a few notes into the song, when I hear a song playing.

I must say that this band has won me over in many ways. Even in their live performances, they have a uniqueness that comes through. I like to watch the bandmembers play, and it's funny how they manage to be pretty mellow and almost stargazing, but also transmit so much personality and frank enjoyment of being musicians and playing for an audience. They are pretty snazzy dressers, typically wearing suits or nice shirts with ties. Very much a nod to their new-wave/postpunk sensibilities. Carlos Dengler, the bass player, is especially interesting to watch because he has such personality. Sometimes he does splits with his legs while he plays, and sometimes he just walks around, casually playing with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Daniel Kessler, who plays the guitar, is so low key, and so gentlemanly, always wearing a suit, and calmly playing his guitar as though he doesn't have a care in the world. And the drummer, Sam Fogarino, doesn't mind being stuck in the back, playing his skins, at all. And Paul Banks, the lead singer and guitarist, well, let's just say I have a major crush on him. :) He is very sexy in the way he sings, with his low-key, mysterious, and almost shy personality, that comes alive when he starts a song. I watched a performance of "The Heimlich Manuever", and it was droolworthy the way he kept the audience waiting anxiously, and then, in a move full of what seemed to me akin to sexual prowess, broke out in the first line: "How are things on the West Coast?"
It is a joy to see that they are fulfilled. That's all you can hope for in anyone who is pursuing a career of interest. In the interviews I have watched, they seem to view their music very seriously. There is no indication that this is just a lark to meet girls and get famous. They look at themselves as artists who are very committed to the creative process. As an artist, I definitely admire this and appreciate this about them.
It's interesting how large their following with so little airplay. Only one of the singles from "Our Love to Admire," "The Heimlich Maneuver," charted on American charts. Yet, their CD sold at least 500,000 copies. Go figure. I think it's word of mouth and the strength of their live performances. To be honest, I'm glad they are a bit off the popular radar. I think it gives them distinction, as long as they are doing well financially and critically.

I find myself hanging out on You Tube, watching their performances over and over again, and kicking myself for missing the opportunity to see them perform live in Austin last year. Next time, I won't miss out on this chance to see a band that has become one of my alltime favorites live. Hopefully I won't embarrass myself when I do get to see them live.