Thursday, September 29, 2005

Big Star "In Space"

In Space, the first studio album in 30 years from the early-'70's power pop band Big Star, was released this past Tuesday. Big Star have been called the Velvet Underground of power pop. During their initial existence, Big Star's albums only sold a few thousand copies apiece, but they are now regarded as a major influence on countless bands that followed.

The Memphis-based band was led by former Box Tops singer Alex Chilton. The original quartet was rounded out by singer/guitarist Chris Bell (who died in a 1979 car crash), drummer Jody Stephens, and bassist Andy Hummel. The lineup that recorded In Space consists of Chilton, Stephens, and two members of the Seattle power-pop band called the Posies, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. This is the same Big Star lineup that recorded the 1993 album Live At Missouri University, currently available as Extended Versions.

Big Star played Beatles-and-Byrds style pop at a time when it was out of fashion. Their 1972 debut album #1 Record was a polished album that featured vocal turns by all four members. The 1974 follow-up Radio City was recorded after Bell quit the band. Chilton dominated the album, and it had a more quirky sound than its predecessor. Their third album, known as Third/Sister Lovers, was a strange and haunting work that was virtually a Chilton solo album (Stephens was the only other original member left). Chilton threw pop convention to the winds and played music the way he felt it -- and it was clear that he felt pain.

Strangely enough, In Space seems to follow that same trajectory in the space of one 12-song, 39-minute disc. The first four tracks are reminiscent of #1 Record. They are the most accessible, and offer vocal turns by all four members. The opening track "Dony" is sung by Chilton, "Best Chance" is sung by Stephens, "Lady Sweet" and "Turn My Back On The Sun" are sung by the Posies members. All of them are decent examples of the power pop sound that Big Star are noted for. But the rest of the album is dominated by Chilton. The fifth track, "Love Revolution", seems to begin the Radio City part of the album. Not that the strange r&b number resembles the songs on that album, but Radio City was the album on which Big Star turned into a rougher-edged showcase for Chilton's quirkiness, and the same description applies to most of the remaining tracks on In Space. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the next transition takes place -- perhaps it is during the instrumental "Aria, Largo" -- but by the time the album closes with "Makeover", it has taken on the loose spontaneity of Third/Sister Lovers (though it thankfully doesn't take on that album's downbeat tone).

Was this intentional, or did it just work out that way? It's probably the latter. In any case, In Space is a respectable power pop album, but it doesn't live up to the Big Star reputation. Did we have any right to expect it to? Not realistically. Everyone knows that you can't go home again, and anyone who has heard Alex Chilton's unconventional solo albums knows how far he has strayed from the music he made 30-plus years ago. In fact, Chilton does not hold Big Star in the same high regard that many others do. Chilton once told Goldmine magazine interviewer Cub Koda:

"In the case of Big Star, production is the whole thing. All the songs are mediocre".

Fortunately, the two guys from the Posies do have a reverence for Big Star. They and Stephens provide the necessary backing that keeps In Space from resembling one of Chilton's peculiar solo albums. Still, In Space is not the place to start if you haven't yet discovered Big Star. If anything, it's the place to end, at least among the studio albums. For the true Big Star experience, start with #1 Record/Radio City (which contains the complete first two albums on one disc), followed by Third/Sister Lovers, and then try In Space.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Rock Star CD

Yesterday I got the CD Rock Star: A Night At The Mayan Theatre, which contains performances from all 15 of the Rock Star: INXS contestants. (I had trouble finding it in music stores for the first few days, so I ordered it from Amazon). It is not a best-of compilation from the show; it merely contains the 15 performances (in their full length) from the premiere episode that aired in early July. According to the liner notes, it was recorded on May 18th, a month and a half before it aired. The contestants lived in the mansion all that time?

Fortunately, the CD contains two "bonus tracks", namely Jordis' stunning performance of "The Man Who Sold The World" and Mig's standout piano-based rendition of "Baby, I Love Your Way". You won't find "Pretty Vegas" or "Trees" here. If this CD sells well, Burnett/Epic Records intends to release another CD, which would hopefully contain a broader selection of songs from the show's run.

As long as you know what you're getting, the CD is enjoyable enough. When the premiere episode aired, all 15 singers were strangers; now we know them better as performers. When I listen to J.D. Fortune's rendition of "American Woman" (based more on Lenny Kravitz than the Guess Who), I am reminded of what a long shot it seemed that he would be the winner. Also, when I hear Deanna Johnston sing "Piece Of My Heart", I am reminded of why she made the strongest first impression on me.

I also enjoyed listening to the songs from early eliminatees. Wil Seabrook's performance of Bowie's "Heroes" isn't half-bad; I at least like it better than the Wallflowers' version. But he definitely wasn't INXS material. Dana Robbins' strange rendition (as opposed to Jordis') of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" sounds a bit less bizarre when you can't see her, but it's still easy to see why she was the first one to be eliminated. Neal Carlson's performance of the Stones' "Brown Sugar" is faithful to the song's essence, but something about that guy just puts me off, even when you can't see him trying to look like Jagger. Hearing Daphna Dove sing Blondie's "One Way Or Another" reminds me of how promising she seemed before she bombed in the third week. And hearing Tara Slone sing the Pretenders' "Middle Of The Road" reminded me of why I hated to see her go so soon.

All in all, Rock Star: A Night at the Mayan Theatre is not a bad souvenir to remember the show by. If a second CD is forthcoming, let's hope it's more comprehensive.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Rock Star: INXS -- and the winner is...

J.D. Fortune.

What?!? J.D. the troublemaker? J.D. the food-fight instigator? J.D. who was nearly eliminated on the very first episode? J.D. whose performances have been so inconsistent? J.D. who couldn't work with others for a songwriting assignment? J.D. who was unprepared to lay down a vocal track for a new INXS song?

Lo and behold: he is the new lead singer of INXS! When Tim Farriss (after teasing him -- and us -- with a negative-looking expression) revealed that J.D. was right for INXS, my jaw dropped. I realize that troublemakers often do well on reality shows. I figured it was good entertainment having him around until the finale. But I did not think he was going to get the gig!

If I had never seen J.D. before last night, I suppose I wouldn't be surprised. Last night, he seemed to fit right into INXS. When he performed their song "What You Need" with them on stage, he was amazing. He also sounded good performing their new single "Easy Easy" with them at the end of the show. Also, his performance of the Stones classic "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was commanding.

But J.D.'s behavior over the course of the program has got to make people nervous. I hope INXS know what they are doing by taking him on. This band does have a quarter-century of music biz experience behind them. If J.D. can learn from his past mistakes and stay the course, the future can be prosperous for him and INXS. J.D. has gone from being homeless to being the frontman for a world-famous rock band in about three months' time. I hope that he doesn't screw things up for himself or anyone else. The first INXS album with J.D. is now scheduled for a late-November release, and their world tour is set to begin in January. I wish them luck.

As for the other two contestants who performed last night...

I wasn't surprised to see Mig get eliminated first. I had predicted as much before the show began. But his performance of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" truly was a letdown. It was adequate, but I expected much better from someone who had sung the song so many times on stage. Suzie MacNeil's performance during week 8 was more impressive. Still, I've enjoyed watching Mig's performances on the show, and hope to see more of him.

And Marty Casey? The flashbacks we saw of his manic early performances showed how far he has come as a singer and performer. He did well (again) with Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", and he sounded very good singing "Don't Change" with INXS. I thought for sure that the job was his. But I was wrong. Still, he has obviously made good connections on the show. INXS want him to open for them on their world tour, and Dave Navarro offered to play guitar when Marty records an album. Win-win situation? Time will tell.

It was a nice touch bringing all of the eliminated contestants out for a curtain call. I knew it was coming (Jordis hinted about it when she was eliminated two weeks ago), but it was a good thing to see.

And...according to Brooke Burke's sendoff and the official website, this is only the first season of Rock Star. What band is next? Do we hope or do we fear? I hope future seasons (how ever many there are) are as much fun as this one was.

The show's official site:
http://rockstar.msn.com/

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Rock Star: INXS -- week 10

And then there were three. "Sweet" Suzie MacNeil, the last female in the competition to be the next lead singer of INXS, was sent home this week. She was given a decisive test by INXS with the two songs that were given to her for her Tuesday night performance. She passed the first test well enough, doing a respectable rendition of the very masculine Stone Temple Pilots tune "Interstate Love Song". But the 4 Non Blondes hit "What's Up" is a virtual minefield of tricky vocal dynamics, and it exposed Suzie's weaknesses. Her Wednesday performance of "Suicide Blonde" was fine, but someone had to go, and the "Queen Of The Bottom Three" was the logical choice. After six strikes, she was finally out.

Suzie is a singer who has certainly grown over the last ten weeks. She was nearly eliminated on the very first episode, but recovered quickly. She avoided elimination five more times with mostly strong performances of INXS songs. Her self-confidence seems to have taken a quantum leap forward. She said she was ready to take on the world, and she can still do that without INXS. We'll see.

So now we know that one of three contestants will become the new INXS frontman next Tuesday: it's down to Marty, Mig, and JD. Only one of these singers has ever been a personal favorite of mine, and that is Mig Ayesa. But I don't predict a victory for him. It is impressive that he was able to avoid the bottom three until the tenth week, which suggests he has broad appeal. His vocal abilities have never been in doubt; I was able to peg him as a standout during Week 2. But (through no fault of his own) we didn't hear him sing a single INXS song until last night. His performance of "What You Need" was satisfactory, but not earth-shaking. The members of INXS have suggested in recent weeks that he is too theatrical for their band. And the two original compositions we've heard from him haven't been very impressive, nor have they been INXS-like. When you see the accolades that JD and Marty are receiving for their originals, you can see that Mig has failed to impress the band in that department. He will not be the one.

And JD Fortune? He's definitely improved in recent weeks; in fact, he came off best during this crucial week. But he's been too inconsistent and unpredictable. If he had begun to be placed in the bottom three sooner than he was, he probably would have been eliminated some time ago. (In fact, he came close to elimination on the very first episode). The popularity of his song "Pretty Vegas" (which has reportedly been downloaded millions of times from MSN Music) suggests commercial viability. But can he be trusted? He is acting like a sweetheart now, but his erratic behavior over the course of the program has got to make INXS nervous. I don't think they're going to chance it.

The smart money is on Marty Casey. He didn't seem like a contender in the early going, but he has improved, and he has shown willingness to listen to INXS' suggestions. He has also demonstrated what he would bring to the table (JD has dodged that question). He has offered his suggestions for the band's future strategy without seeming pushy, and his original song "Trees" suggests that he would make INXS radio-friendly again in the modern market. I think he's got the job.

So what did I think of this week's other performances? JD was the winner this week. He has now gotten to perform his INXS-like original four times on the show. He also nailed Pink Floyd's "Money" with his showmanlike performance. And his rendition of INXS' "By My Side" was flawless. If the man wasn't so unstable, he'd probably have the job. Mig did fine with Seal's "Kiss From A Rose", but I could have done without his needless arrangement of the Stones classic "Paint It Black". Once he got through the first stanza, it was okay. Marty's song "Trees" continues to sound like a potential hit single, although it sounds better electric than acoustic. His performance of Radiohead's "Creep" had a shaky start, but it emerged a grabber, especially when he hit that "ruuuuuuuuuuuuuunnn!" note. I felt that!

Only five days to go until next Tuesday's grand finale. The show may not be ending a moment too soon; it is less interesting with a handful of performers than it was with more. But I will miss Rock Star: INXS when it's gone. Rock music in general is in something of a slump; some pundits are declaring it dead, like they do at least once a decade. But this show put rock and roll on a major TV network, just after prime time. It was considered a ratings failure, because it only drew about 6 million viewers. But 6 million fans is a dream for most musicians. Time will tell if the show has any long-term impact. But it may have brought a faded '80's band newfound fame, and may have introduced other future recording stars in the process. We got to see up to 15 talented performers sing an eclectic variety of rock and roll classics each week for over two months. I, for one, am looking forward to the Rock Star: A Night at the Mayan Theatre CD that will be released on Tuesday. Whatever happens next, I thank INXS, Mark Burnett, and all others who made this entertaining show possible.

Next Tuesday: need I say more?

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ray Manzarek's second solo album

The second solo album from Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, titled The Whole Thing Started With Rock & Roll Now It's Out of Control, is being released on CD for the first time today. The album was originally released in 1974, and was the follow-up to his 1974 solo debut The Golden Scarab. The reissue label is Lemon Records, who also reissued The Golden Scarab last year.

The Whole Thing Started With Rock & Roll Now It's out of Control is a good title wasted on a mostly dull album. It does have its admirers among Doors connoisseurs, but I am not one of them. On this album, Manzarek avoided most of the quirkiness of The Golden Scarab and reverted to standard singer-songwriterism. Its sound alternates between awkward funk and Elton John-like piano-based rock, and it usually misses the mark on both counts. Manzarek's vocals are stilted at best, and strained at worst. Even the instrumentation is nothing special here. One of the high points is "Bicentennial Blues", which recycles the instrumental from "Light My Fire". One of the low points is "Perfumed Garden", which incorporates the sound of a woman moaning. Don't kid yourself, Ray; there's nothing orgasmic about this album.

A few points of interest for buffs: "I Wake Up Screaming" features a brief moment of poetry reading from a then-unknown Patti Smith. The song "Begin The World Again" was sampled by the rap group Blackalicious for their song "Clockwork"; maybe they thought the song's funk was genuine.

Rarebird's Doors Reviews
http://rarebird9.net/doors.html

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Jordis Unga and Liars Club

Now that Jordis Unga has been eliminated from Rock Star: INXS, her future is wide open, and she has her foot in the music industry door. She is now back with her St. Paul, Minnesota band Liars Club (formerly known as Fighting Tongs). A few rough demos can be heard on their Myspace site:

http://www.myspace.com/liarsclubband

When Jordis did her exit chat on MSN on Thursday, September 8th, one person asked her:

"Your voice and style are truly unique and emotionally moving and I'm seeing you as a solo artist as opposed to a lead singer in a band. What is your ideal dream for your career?"

Jordis replied:

"I'm a band girl, I don't see myself being solo artist. It's weird, people are suprised when I say that, but I like the idea of standing in front of a band and having my boys behind me."

Jordis should be aware that if her band does hit the big time, the industry and the media may not share her sentiments. I can imagine one thing: if Jordis and her band ever perform on, for example, a TV awards show, the camera is going to focus on her, and her band will be treated as backup musicians by the media. Call it Gwen Stefani Syndrome. Magazines that have done stories on No Doubt have often tried to make Stefani the focal point (and their cover girl), and have tried to ignore the other band members. Stefani has always objected to this, especially when reporters have asked her if she intends to leave No Doubt and become a solo artist. She has remained loyal to (as Jordis would say) her boys, but now that Stefani has had a successful solo album, who knows what the future of No Doubt will be?

The same situation could apply to Jordis if she continues to be the frontwoman for Liars Club instead of a solo artist. If those rough demos are anything to go by, Jordis' voice seems to be the key distinguishing factor of her band. And the industry has already seen her shine like a brilliant solo artist on Rock Star. The best advice I could give Jordis is to be true to herself. That may be a cliche, but if she aims for a career in the music industry, it may not be easy to do.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Rock Star: INXS -- week 9

Fare ye well, Jordis. The youngest contestant on Rock Star: INXS was sent home this week (although she told the other contestants she would see them in two weeks; what was that all about?). There's no doubt that we will see more of Jordis in the future. Her week 4 performance of "The Man Who Sold The World" was nothing short of stunning. It truly looked like a star was born that day. Unfortunately, her star faded fast over the next 5 weeks. She was never able to match the brilliance of that performance again, and she stumbled badly when she performed "Dream On" during week 7.

Of the five performers this week, Jordis was the least satisfying. Her performance of Queen's "We Are The Champions" was unspectacular. Her original song "Try Not" was the least impressive of the five (though it was more INXS-like than three of the others). And her Wednesday night performance of INXS' "Need You Tonight" confirmed what I thought last week: her voice is not appropriate for INXS. But at age 23, Jordis still has plenty of room -- and time -- for growth, both personally and musically. If she can regain her passion and work on her consistency, she could become a major star in the near future. We've already seen and heard her sound like one once.

This week turned out to be far more interesting than I thought it would be. Besides doing covers (the results of the unexciting "All-Request Week" poll), the five remaining contestants all wrote and performed original songs. Marty got my vote this week. His song "Trees" sounded like a Killers-style modern-rock hit. Marty never was my personal favorite in this competition. But if INXS is looking for someone who will update their sound for the 21st century, Marty could be their man. Also, it was wise of him to tone down the Foo Fighters' "Everlong" for an acoustic rendition. We've already seen him do the '90's grunge thing too many times.

JD was a close second. If this were the first time I'd seen him, I would think he was great. His song "Pretty Vegas" was the most INXS-like song in the bunch, and it had a personal stamp as well. He certainly did better with Nirvana's "Come As You Are" than Jessica did during week 5. And his Wednesday performance of INXS' "Mystify" was solid. Unfortunately, we've seen too much inconsistency from this man. And his antics continue to be off-putting. On the Sunday reality episode on VH-1, he tore apart his birthday cake and started a food fight, and the five contestants proceeded to party like rock stars in the mansion. (Whoever had the task of cleaning up the mess was hopefully well-paid). This seemed to confirm what I've felt about JD all along. He's too unpredictable. If he tours with INXS, he'll probably be trashing hotel rooms and causing other problems as well. I know that any publicity is considered good publicity in today's show-biz world. But as a long-time fan of INXS, I do not wish to see them get stuck recording and touring with a troublemaker.

I enjoyed Suzie's performance of "I Can't Make You Love Me"; it was certainly better than Deanna's. Her r&b original "Soul Life" wasn't very INXS-like, but that's the only thing that worked against it. However, I was not impressed with her Wednesday performance of "Never Tear Us Apart". I thought she sang the INXS song all wrong. What happened there? Mig did well with "Hard To Handle". But I've got mixed feelings about his original song "Home In Me". It was a good, conventional rock ballad, but (as Tim Farriss pointed out) it was not INXS-like at all. Tim Farriss said that's important at this stage of the competition. No kidding! I suppose Mig should be proud to have never made the bottom three, but that also means that we have yet to hear him perform a single INXS song. And the contest is almost over!

One thing that all of these five contestants can tell their children is that they performed with INXS on television. All five members of INXS took the stage on Wednesday to perform their new song "Us", employing all five contestants to sing. Dave Navarro took part in it as well. They acted as if this was a mostly spontaneous decision, but it sure seemed rehearsed to me. Not that I'm complaining. The ensemble was good.

In case you haven't heard, a CD containing performances from the show is going to be released on September 20th, which will be the day the show concludes. It contains 17 tracks -- one apiece from all 15 of the original contestants, and one more apiece from Jordis and Mig. Yes, that includes Jordis' performance of "The Man Who Sold The World". Sign me up!

http://www.sonymusicstore.com/store/catalog/MerchandiseDetails.jsp?selectionId=97726&sms=extsite-msn_rockstarinxs

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Rock Star: INXS -- week 8

Ty Taylor was eliminated this week. He struck a sour note in his farewell speech by implying that his color played a part in his three showings in the bottom three. If he had been a bottom three regular from the get-go, he may have had reason to feel this way. But he outlasted more than half of his white competitors. The first time he made the bottom three (during week 4, after performing the Foo Fighters' "Everlong"), he admitted that he felt he deserved to be there. I was somewhat surprised when he landed in the bottom three last week. I thought his performance of "Proud Mary" was the most impressive performance that evening. But his Motown extravaganza may not have appealed to a majority of audience tastes. This week, there were only six performers left, so everyone had a fifty-fifty chance of landing in the bottom three this time. There was nothing wrong with Ty's performance of the Stones classic "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on Tuesday night. In fact, it was solid. But it was one of the less impressive performances of the evening, so his showing in the bottom three was not surprising. When he performed INXS' "The One Thing" on Wednesday, his voice did not suit the song well, and he mangled the chorus by singing a wrong lyric. It was appropriate to eliminate him based on that. Ty never seemed like a frontrunner in this contest. I enjoyed watching his performances, and I will miss him. But his final playing of the race card left a bad aftertaste.

As for the rest of the bottom three, it looks like I got my wish from last week. We finally got to see JD and Jordis sing INXS songs. How did they do? JD's performance of "This Time" was in his comfort zone, and wasn't bad. But it didn't prove him to be the lover of INXS songs that he claims to be. We'll need to hear him do another one. And Jordis? Her performance of "Listen Like Thieves" just didn't connect. I'll need to hear her do another one as well. Now Mig is the only one we haven't heard do an INXS song.

Speaking of JD: what was with his disinterested reaction to the new INXS song that the contestants were asked to lay down a vocal track for? This is the man who claims to love INXS more than the other contestants? JD is beginning to look more phony than ever. I can do without the drama that surrounds him, but I guess we should expect it on a reality show. JD's Tuesday night performance of Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" was passable, but is that all we get from a former Elvis impersonator? Don't get me wrong; I'm glad he didn't do a Las Vegas rendition. But I expected better than just an adequate performance from him.

Okay, enough hand-wringing. Suzie got my vote this week. She is the first one to get my vote more than once. She did great with Queen's difficult "Bohemian Rhapsody", and did even better for the Wednesday encore (which made Marty look good, too). It's a shame that the song had to be truncated the way it was, but that was no fault of Suzie's. Marty showed progress with his singing of Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here". His voice failed him at one point, but he recovered. Mig overdid a few notes when he sang Paul McCartney's "Live And Let Die" -- but that last note was amazing! Go, Mig! Jordis was well within her comfort zone doing John Lennon's "Imagine", which she described as "one of the greatest songs ever written". I do not share her high regard for the Marxist piano ballad, but she made it sound pretty enough.

Another note: bravo to INXS for their Red Cross donation to aid the victims of hurricane Katrina, and for encouraging others to do the same. We can help out at http://www.redcross.org .

Next week: All-Request Tuesday. Big deal. We weren't given much to vote for in that poll.