Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Queen is (Not McEntirely) Dead. Long Live The Queen!

Kelly Clarkson: Why Haven't I Heard From You? 

For as long as folks have been warbling on the Earth there has been a method for raising up the young in such a way as to make the old accept them and teach them the Secret Ways which will allow them to survive and thrive, as opposed to view them as a threat and simply crush and eat them. Such a system provides a pecking order for young and old alike with rules to follow. The novice pays homage to the professional and attempts to affect humility while seeking to impress; the professional takes note and sees that one has to adapt in order not to be eclipsed before one’s time. There ensues a period of mutual appreciation until the master’s skills fail or he/she simply croaks. The apprentice steps smoothly into place and thus begins a new cycle, with some fresh whippersnapper biting at the new master’s heels.

A perfect example of this symbiotic relationship is the one that has developed between between Reba McEntire and Kelly Clarkson. Wha? you say? Let me show you.

When I say Kelly Clarkson, you’re thinking she’s that girl who won the first season of American Idol, had a few hits, and then got fat and dropped off the planet.

Not quite. Did you know, for instance, that Billboard ranked the Grammy-winner  the #14 artist of the decade? And that according to Nielsen SoundScan, she has sold around 36 million singles and 23 million albums worldwide? I know! WTF!! 

So back when Kelly was a baby popstar, she claimed Reba was her idol, and sure enough, they were soon hooked up. It was while Kelly was doing all these guest-appearance-at-a-TV-show things that she started doing after Idol, that she (or the folks who managed her) figured something out: she may not be big enough a star to command huge audiences on her own, but she sure can kick the ass of anyone whose stage she walks out onto. In short: she makes a shit-hot Guest Star. Here she is wiping the floor with everyone and upstaging her gracious accompanist Jeff Beck by using the occasion of a zillion billion American Idol viewers to showcase Patty Griffin’s “Up To The Mountain” instead of one of her own hits, which was a really classy move. 

Cleverly, the one time you really want to blow the roof off a place is when you have all of your peers in the record industry sitting under it, so awards and tribute shows are a great place to strut your stuff. To wit: “Why Haven’t I Heard From You” at the Reba Tribute (I completely and deliberately ignored Kelly Clarkson until I happened to see this).

One of the folks whose eye she caught is one Narvel Blackstock (awesome name!) who happens to be Reba’s husband. He’s now her manager. Which helps explain how come you see these two gals together so very much. When Reba’s performing, Kelly invariably shows up. They did a CMT Crossroads show together, which spun off into a double-header tour.

Here she is, a few years down the road, showing Reba how it’s done. Check out Reba's face, y'all. "Up To The Mountain." 

I saw Reba doing her massively gaudy and slick thing on tour this Fall when she shared the bill with George Strait and LeeAnn Womack, which is one hell of a triple play. When Kelly walked out unannounced to join her in their duet “Because Of You” the house nearly, I kid you not, fell down. There was such rapturous ovation you could hardly hear them sing. But sing they did, each lass playing off the other to up the artistic and vocal ante considerably. They did a whole mini-set. Here's "Walk Away." Reba, of course, is the consummate showgirl, squeezed into tight pants and sequined tank-top, red hair fixed just so, all gestures and looks and Drama with a capital D. Kelly, on the other hand, was barefoot, and looked like she just got off the sofa, in a hideously unflattering short flowery dress and what looked (from the stands) like no make-up. But what she lacked in stylistic Drama, she made up for with her chops. This girl long ago realized that she didn’t need to give a shit about looking the part if she could sound LIKE THAT

The truth about Kelly Clarkson is that she sings other people's songs better than her own. "Why." Kelly's better when she's singing with Reba. Consider this very odd thing: two videos for the same song,  "Because of You"; recorded two years apart, one as a solo act, and one as a duet. (And doesn't Kelly look odd in her solo video? Thin! Blonde!) (And doesn't Reba look odd in the duet? Hmmm....)

All of this Reba business has meant that Kelly Clarkson, the Pop Diva, has fallen into the clutches of Country Music, where all singers with God-given talent end up. Her much-touted duet with hottie Jason Aldean “Don’t You Wanna Stay” debuted in the form of a stage spectacular at this year's CMAs that became the song’s video. Sure, she’s glammed it up for the occasion, but we’ll forgive her that velvet monstrosity for the sake of seeing the next mighty pair of lungs bask in the spotlight where she belongs. 

Reba and Kelly gabbing.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Justin Moore: He Can Kick Your Ass

Why I like Justin Moore
(American-born simple man with a Southern drawl)

At first you might think dude’s just a big redneck with swagger with an Arkansas accent so thick you could drive a truck across it who sings about all the usual topics as if he’s checking them off some “How To Be A Hick” list. I love my small town? Check. I own guns? Check. I fuck my girl in my pickup truck? Check. I could kick your ass? Check.

He looks the part, too: handsome, strong-jawed face set off by his cream colored hat; lean, broad shoulders whose muscles teach a shirt what a shirt should be (usually open to the third snap); slim hips accentuated by a big belt buckle whose purpose appears not to be to hold his jeans up but to draw your eye to his crotch; boots.

But it’s what he does with all this that makes Justin Moore compelling. He can move in such a way as to ooze masculinity onstage, and knows, unlike a lot of his country contemporaries, to open out his arms when he sings (calling the audience in and giving his ribcage room to deliver the big notes). 

It’s the kind of stage prowl that has traditionally made women wet their panties since the dawn of rock ‘n roll, and it looks like he comes by it naturally. It’s not something you can see in his videos, where he’s usually standing in one spot singing to camera – but you can see it in abundance when he’s in some small smoky club or treading an amphitheater’s boards in YouTube clips. I saw him do his thing on a giant stage from a hillside this summer, and though he was as small as an ant, every nuance of his movement came across loud and clear.

I know I started off with what a sex god he is, but the real reason I like Justin Moore is that he can sing the living shit out a song, and he writes them too. They are packed full of gusto and melody, and it seems that the set he’s got lined up for his second album push the strengths of his first batch in exciting ways. Take “Outlaws Like Me,” for instance: it’s a ballad backed only with piano, yet you don’t really realize that’s all it is until the end because the sound is so rich. Any guy who can deliver that strong a vocal performance against a few tinkling keys has some skill and the balls to back it up.

I like seeing the small-club sets you can find scattered all over YouTube, because that feels like his natural comfort spot, close to the crowd — but check out his radio performances too, where he’s just popping out his songs on cue while strumming an acoustic guitar. Look at how he delivers "I Could Kick Your Ass" when he's doing it in an office to promote his record HERE, and then again to a crowd once he's made a hit out of it HERE. That's the performer I'm talking about. Again: anyone who can pull off this sort of on the spot, unaccompanied, unaffected singing (always in time; always on key) is a winner in my book. He covers the classics the way you want them covered: true to a fault. Check out “Bad Company.”

I slowly fell in love with his first big hit, “Small Town USA” not because it was yet another paean to God-fearing regionalism that defines so many of the small-town songs, but because despite the clichĂ© of the lyric, I found myself signing along to it loud and hearty every time it came on my radio. I am a girl who looks ridiculous signing and gesticulating to “I Could Kick Your Ass,” but it’s glorious to sing. Same thing with his less blustery song, “Grandpa.” His homage to good old boy romance, “Like There’s No Tomorrow” is about as sexy as it gets. “Get in a rhythm / Nobody’s near and listening” my ass. We're listening. (Especially to that last note -- wow.)

He’s signed to an imprint of Big Machine records (The Valory Music Co.), the label who hit the jackpot with Taylor Swift. They seem to be an outfit that encourages big-hook songs of the kind that Moore excels in delivering.

His debut, self-titled record, Justin Moore, does not have a weak song on it, and was the album that got the most play in my house this year. His next album (The Boot?) is the one I most anticipate arriving in 2011. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Get In The Spirit! (Just not IN The Spirits….)

Do you ever get the feeling, that, like certain mechanical devices (VCRs, Fax machines, typewriters, rotary phones, the Abacus, Paula Abdul), there are some traditions that have long ago been rendered obsolete, yet can still be found hanging around? They evoke a kind of horror when you come across them, perhaps even embarrassment that you once thought they were cool. Still, they prove hard to throw away (could they be necessary in case of an apocalyptic event? How am I ever going to play that video of my wedding? Where do I insert a floppy disc?).

Similarly, I love that YouTube can make readily available episodes and clips from epically kitsch television shows of my childhood, the ones in which technology had not yet caught up with the unavoidable truth that TV is a visual medium, and that the viewers at home can actually see the bad hair and makeup. But I love that they are on YouTube and not on my actual Tube: I don’t want to have to pay to see crap. I want to enjoy it for free.

This brings me to the CMA Christmas Special aired last night on ABC. I will not pretend that this will be a review of the show, because I only made it through three songs before having to turn it off. Here’s why.

Jennifer Nettles. Now, I love this gal: I think she is one of the most reliably gifted singers we have. This has become so obvious to so many in the last few years since Sugarland hit it big, that she has become a go-to girl for all sorts of things that don’t involve singing. Her speaking has become infused with her stage persona to such an extent that everything she says appears scripted and polished with a big dose of country phony. That’s the stuff that allows girls in 5-inch heels and designer duds to pretend they just came off the farm. There is a fine line between performance and showmanship, and it runs through the Las Vegas Strip. The opening number, “Winter Wonderland,” reeked of Branson, Missouri so bad I could spell the formaldehyde. It was like the song had been put through an app that turns everything into a wildly exaggerated parody of itself. Then she told an anecdote to camera that had no point whatsoever about the one year Santa came to the Nettles’ house early. Whatev.

I thought, well, this is to be expected. But now that’s out of the way, we’ll get to see good singers deliver some fine seasonal songs. I was wrong.

LeAnn Rimes looked great! for a former child star recently embroiled in a nasty divorce publicity fiasco. Really, she looks great! And she sings great! But what the fuck was with the gang of jazz-hands sailors who “enhanced” her set with much leaping and swirling? Is she being marketed to queens now? Seriously? At least when Cher did it she gave us a gratuitous shot of her bare ass. 

Feeling slightly nauseous by this time, I waited through the commercial break because I was curious to see how Rascal Flatts were handled by this treatment. I needn’t have worried: those boys hammed it up all by themselves without any help. It’s what they do. But please, someone: Joe Don needs a hair product intervention. The first step in overcoming addiction is admitting you have a problem. Joe Don: put the hair spray down. Now

Rascal Flatts are best when they sing acapella, which thankfully they did for their second song. Sure, Gary Le Vox has a great voice, but you know, whenever he finds himself in iffy waters, range-wise, he throws to his trademark warble and that gets him out of trouble.

By this point I had had enough. I was clearly a fool for thinking that anything with “Christmas” in the title produced by a major network could be anything but sheer schmaltz (and by that I do mean rendered chicken fat.).

So instead of any of that rubbish, I shall leave you with some genuinely great seasonal (non auto)tunes and bid y’all a Very Merry Christmas. 

Sugarland "Gold and Green"

Carrie Underwood "Do You Hear What I Hear"

Martina McBride "O Holy Night"

Jeffrey Foucault "Ghost Repeater"

Mike Oldfield "In Dulci Jubilo"

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Can They Duet?

Joey and Rory

Men, a question for y’all: why do you wear overalls? 

Is it that the lack of a waistband allows you to develop your beer gut in secret? Or that the bagginess can accommodate enormous boxer shorts? Does the bib serve to protect your shirt from BBQ sauce or hide embarrassing manboobs? Is it because you work on a farm and there ain’t nobody going to see you all day long except hogs? Is it the extra space for pockets? Are you in investor in denim manufacturing? Do you have a fetish for hooks, clasps and rivets? Were you born in 1876? Are you Uncle Jesse?

Let’s face it: unless you are six years old, or lean, tanned and naked underneath, overalls are a fashion faux pas. In country music, you can generally get away with a kind of wardrobe that works in context: the cowboy hat; the cowboy shirt; Wranglers; dusters; even a Nudie suit on occasion. But overalls is sort of rubbing it in. Wearing overalls on stage seems like a gimmick — “look at me! I just came from the farm!” — that is amusing until you hit it big, at which point you (or your label) springs for a personal stylist and some new duds. If you insist on wearing your overalls at every public appearance you ever make, including actual awards shows at which the women wear gowns — then you are the one who is a dud.

Which obviously means I have to draw attention to Joey Feek, he of Joey and Rory fame, the duo who placed third in the short-lived CMT audition-reality show Can You Duet? in 2008. All of those other contestants, including the winners, were never heard from again, but Joey and Rory, the husband and wife team, have hit it big by dint of their actual talent. This has given Joey a chance to show us that he can adapt to the spotlight by switching it up a little in the trouser department, but no; the man truly does not own anything other than overalls (in every shade, including black for the occasional black-tie event). He also wears a short-back-and-sides with slight quiff straight out of the 1940s, which gives him an anachronistic look at odds with his very hot wife. Sadly for her, she usually doesn’t get to don a pretty frock like the rest of the girls for the party, because she has to match her hubby by turning out in  equestrienne gear: shirt, boots, belt, boots. And when she does look purdy ... Dude. Come on.

Honestly, I thought Joey and Rory were a joke when I first saw them. I figured he was in costume. I was wrong.

If you check out their “audition” tape, you’ll get a good idea of their schtick. In one of the two videos they currently have playing (“That’s Important To Me,” and their Christmas song), we see Joey dutifully baking bread in her kitchen. I thought this was a bit of poetic license too (oh purleese….) but guess what? She is (was?) an actual baker in her own actual restaurant. It’s all a bit sweet and syrupy, but I do like listening to good songwriting and people who can sing effortlessly, and these two do make a pleasant sound. As Naomi Judd said (in her role as judge on Can You Duet?), “I believe everything about you.” And this, coming from a woman who bears more of a resemblance to a shop mannequin than a human being! If you can get past Rory’s unfortunate choice of pants, you’ll find gems like “Cheater, Cheater,” sporting the catchy refrain “you no good white-trash whore,” which is worth the listen alone. 

Do we need more aw-shucks cute-as-a-button duos? Probably not. But country music has a rich tradition of husband and wife teams, and though they are no George and Tammy, no Tim and Faith, no Garth and Trisha, no Blake and Miranda, and certainly no Johnny and June, it's good to have fresh blood in the stable. Personally, I'm kind of happy to see Rory look a bit like deer in headlights up on the big stage, or adopting the demeanor of a table-side mariachi player, guitar held high up on his chest. It distracts me from wondering if perhaps there's some sort of strange abdominal problem responsible for his sartorial oddity. 

Rory is in fact a well-practiced songwriter whose compositions have been big hits for other acts. His "Some Beach" was a number one for Blake Shelton. It's funny.

Overall? It ain’t about the clothes, it’s about the music, and these guys remind you of that every time you see them and go “WTF?” Close your eyes. Open your ears. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Roll Away The Stone

Rolling Stone magazine has ranked The Elton John / Leon Russell non-duet The Union number 3 in their Albums of the Year list. Here’s what they say:

“Two rock giants, one largely forgotten, re-kindle a friendship and make music that ranks with their best. Producer T Bone Burnett delivers his most spectacular production in memory, filled with shining steel guitars, chortling brass and gospel-time choirs. Ultimately, its Russell’s voice that shines brightest, drawing on the entire history of American popular music in its canny, vulnerable, knowing croon.”

To which I say: what drugs are you on, and can I have some? Because I want life to look like that too: an impossibly dreamy rose-tinted place where cherubs tickle me with dodo feathers and George Clooney pours champagne down my throat 24/7. To Whom It May Concern at Rolling Stone: wake the fuck up and employ human beings with ears and balls. Let’s face it, the best and most honest writing you have is about fucking FOOTBALL (Matt Taibbi, natch). What happened to you, formerly esteemed music magazine? Did you switch your leather jeans for a nice pair of Wallyworld softpants? It’s blurb-reviews like this which totally devalue your take on the industry you purport to represent.

Let’s look at that paean to the print blow-job above, shall we?

-- Please, someone, convince me that any, ANY of the tracks on this album are worthy of wiping the sweaty brow of either Elton or Leon’s “best” tracks. Then give me a ketamine hotshot for my own good.

-- While it is true that T Bone does deliver “his most spectacular production in memory” on this record, it is only true if the world and everything in it was invented yesterday. O Brother, Where Art Thy Cajones? T Bone dropped not one but two balls on this clunker, and you know it, you just can’t bring yourself to admit it. Lest lightening strike you down.

-- Ultimately, it’s ELTON JOHN’S voice that shines loudest on this record, which should be obvious to anyone who has actually listened to it, as opposed to tapping out a plausible-sounding paragraph on his Blackberry and emailing it in to the office while enjoying a Four Loko lunch with his buds. (Or her.) And while we’re at it, the phrase “drawing on the entire history of American popular music” sounds like something one of my students writes when he/she is gunning for an A in dazzling bullshite.

-- Leon Russell does not “croon.” Please. Leon Russell makes a downhome plaintive growl that uses your peritoneum as a tambourine. 

On a positive note, they did include Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song and the King’s of Leon’s Come Around Sundown on their list. But that was EASY. Listen: it’s OK to tell it like it is. What’s Elton going to do to you? Yeah, it might feel a little uncomfortable at first, but use lube. 

What, you’re all out already? 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Grammy Nominations 2010

Swept Away!

The Grammy Nominations were announced today, and I am delighted to tell you that this year, everyone — me, you, all of us — will be awarded grammies. This is because there are enough categories, each with their multiple nominees, to include every person that ever lived. Except the year’s biggest moneymaker, Taylor Swift, of course, but that’s because she’s going to win them all next year. Sadly, despite the 109 category listings, there were no nominees this year for Best Regional Mexican Album, because there weren’t enough of them to be competitive. Wow, that sucks if your particular oeuvre is Oaxacan Jazz.

This is not why I am writing, of course. The big news is that America’s favorite white rapper, Eminem (he of Oscar fame) scored huge.

Actually, scratch that, that’s not news. That’s predictable. What is also wrist-slashingly predictable is that the vending machines I mean, voting members of NARAS, also chose to heap a million zillion nominations on Lady Antebellum’s album Need You Now, and the title song from it. This is because it is the most mainstream pop record Nashville has produced this year. I have long since stopped trying to fathom how or why NARAS makes its selections (or even devises its categories or determines eligibility in them, for that matter), but this appears clear evidence that they simply look at what everyone else is cheering for and go with that, as long as it’s wholesome. Every now and then, this produces a reflexive backlash, which one can see this year with Cee-Lo’s naughty little ditty, “Fuck You.”

Lady Antebellum’s record isn’t actually all that bad. I almost didn’t get it because the song “Need You Now” was so overplayed and is such godawful pap. The video has the three band members pretending to be broken-hearted and lonely slumped in hotel corridors and staring with dour melancholy into the camera. Wot shite.

Lady Antebellum only has two modes: upper and downer; this clearly falls into the latter category, as does their current single, “Hello World” which features a child nearly dying in a car wreck. “Our Kind of Love” is of the former variety, and provides you a good example of the slight creepiness that seems to have gripped this band’s videos: the playing up on film of some kind of sexual relationship between the two main singers, Charles and Hillary (who are not a couple in real life), and the awkward third-wheel inclusion of the other dude in the band. He’s the one with the floppy haircut who can’t dance. Young Charlie can’t dance either, but this doesn’t stop him from waving his arms about and posing in theatrical stances every chance he can get. He’s the one with too much hair product. Hillary Scott wears awesome shoes (Louboutins!), but watching her strut about on stage this summer it was clear she is not a natural with the 5” heels (hello Kellie Pickler and Lee Ann Womack). She’s the one using the camera as a mirror and doing that goofy arms-over-the-head shimmy most girls never debut outside the privacy of their bedrooms.

What should win Song of the Year instead of that is Miranda Lambert’s gem, “The House That Built Me,” from her already rewarded album, Revolution. She’s a real country gal and this is a beautifully understated and well-written song. This is her singing it live a couple of weeks ago. 

While we’re at it, what should win in another of the categories “Need You Now” is nominated in, Best Country Performance, is the Zac Brown Band’s wonderful paean to Liberty, Justice and the American Way, “Free.” Why? Because it is a country song, dammit. Zac Brown could walk away with Best Country Album too, but I’m plumming for that being taken by Jamey Johnson’s The Guitar Song, which has received a shitload of critical acclaim and is, shocker, a country album, dammit! And let’s add that Best Male Country Vocal should go to Mr. Johnson for the sublime “Macon” for which he is rightly nominated.

A fantastic song that features both Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson (and Dierks Bentley) is “Bad Angel,” up for Best Country Collaboration, but I suspect this will be eclipsed by the popular supernova of sexiness, (and Miranda’s fiancĂ©, Blake Shelton, who was admitted into the Opry this year) for his duet with Trace Adkins, “Hillbilly Bone,” which is, appropriately, a country song. Well, it does feature the word “hillbilly” so that must count. And it is a song all about an erection. Which is awesome. 

Speaking of real country babes, Gretchen Wilson is laughing her denim-clad bum off because she had a song nominated that wasn’t even released as a single. WTF. The country press was quick to point out this year's notable omissions, which include Jason AldeanKenny ChesneyReba McEntireTim McGrawBrad PaisleyDarius RuckerSugarland and Taylor Swift. I second that. Please, someone explain to me how any of these folks could possibly have been overlooked? It can't just be about money, because according to Billboard, these guys sell the most actual CDs and rake in enormous revenues touring, which does not appear to be the case in other genres. Brad Paisley won Entertainer of the Year and played for the President. He's as American and wholesome as they get. What gives? 

Finally, I would just like to make a suggestion to all the lucky winners: when you get up to thank the academy, God, your endless list of industry flunkies, your parents, etc., etc., etc., please do NOT thank the “fans,” as the hapless Justin Bieber did today, upon finding out he was nominated for Best New Artist. The fans ain’t got nothing to do with this one, boyo. Unlike NARAS, you should give credit where credit is due: thank your sponsors, and leave before the band strikes up to sweep your ass from the stage.