This is one of those matched pairs of numbers written for the same slot in the same show, and because Jekyll & Hyde is one of those shows with a huge body of semi-apocryphal songs rather than a stable tunestack, each production essentially gets to choose which of them it prefers to use for this scene. This had led to endless debate about which of these numbers is superior, and to be honest they both have certain claims. “Bring On the Men” does admittedly sound far more like something you might actually hear at a seedy cabaret that doubles as a brothel in any remotely realistic setting. On the other hand, “Good’n’Evil” actually contributes to the show’s central theme of moral duality and hypocrisy, whereas “Bring on the Men” is, from a dramatic perspective, essentially a waste of time. And while “Bring on the Men” has a much livelier tune, “Good’n’Evil” has vastly more interesting lyrics (with such juicy lines as ‘Good may be thankable/evil is bankable!’). And frankly, like most of the Jekyll & Hyde score, both are such fine and exceptionally enjoyable songs that it seems like a shame that it isn’t a feasible option for any production to just use both. In any case, both are perfectly valid options for this moment in the show, and both are well worth hearing on the show’s many recordings, where you fortunately can hear and enjoy both without having to choose between them.
Archives for November 2016
There is a widespread piece of common wisdom among music fans that any band named after a state, city, country or continent is automatically going to be terrible. I’m not so sure I agree with this (I can think of a fair number of exceptions), but America is certainly the most convincing piece of evidence for that point of view. This has become one of those all-time memetic legends of the bad song canon, and there’s ample reason for that. The intensely annoying earworm melody and irritating vocals would be bad enough, but the real defining problem with this song is the pretentious and utterly ridiculous lyrics, which contain some of the most quotably idiotic lines in all of Psychedelic Rock (which is, let’s face it, no mean feat). On top of that, it’s blatantly derivative…the band pretty much admitted that they were openly trying to rip off Neil Young. Well, they have certainly Young’s pretentious qualities down, and the lead singer does a pretty convincing impression of Young’s squeaky vocals. Unfortunately, this song has none of the intelligence, introspection and honesty that makes Young’s work worthwhile despite these things, so basically imagine all of Neil Young’s faults with none of his strengths, and you have this band.
This was Avril Lavigne’s second hit, and it was the first sign of what would happen to her in the declining days of her career. Granted, this song does have the one defining virtue that marked all of Lavigne’s early work…it’s extremely distinctive, with a unique Punk-influenced style that stood out among the generic Pop princesses that dominated the genre at the time. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most annoying songs of the early 2000s, with its grating melody, irritatingly cutesy rhyme scheme, and insufferable lines like ‘He was a boy/she was a girl/can I make it any more obvious?’. But perhaps even more intolerable is the almost unbearably smug attitude that permeates the song, a problem that would follow Lavigne into her declining later work in such songs as “Girlfriend” and “What the Hell”. Lavigne’s first album was on the whole actually quite good…the other two singles, “Complicated” and “I’m With You”, were much better, and there were many album tracks that sounded little different from Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” (which, let’s recall, was originally an outtake from this album). Sadly, “Sk8er Boy” has given the album as a whole a negative reputation that it’s never been quite able to shake, which is a real injustice, given that it was, on the whole, one of the great Pop albums of 2002, standing with Pink’s Missundaztood, Christina Aguilera’s Stripped, and Justin Timberlake’s Justified in their attempt to make Pop music interesting again.
I’ll say this for Justin Timberlake…he knows enough to not wear out his welcome. This was his first full album in seven years, and we haven’t gotten another one since. In between, he’s busied himself with other pursuits like his acting career. As a result of this, every time he returns to the music scene it’s greeted like the second coming, so he may be onto something. And at least this last time he was generous enough to give us two albums in one to compensate for the wait.
The first of these two installments made all kinds of ‘Best Albums of the Year/Decade’ lists, and there’s a reason for that. This disc features some of the smoothest and lushest retro-R&B of the year, and remember that 2013 was the definitive year of the decade in terms of retro-R&B. Imagine if Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson was backed by Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra…that’s seriously what this album sounds like.
From irresistibly dynamic Funk like “Don’t Hold the Wall” and “Let the Groove Get In” to flawlessly seductive love jams like “Suit and Tie” and “Pusher Love Girl” and exquisitely sensual ballads like “Mirrors”, this is some of the best R&B music of the decade. The final track, “Blue Ocean Floor”, is almost Ambient in its atmospheric richness of sound. The third single, “Tunnel Vision”, may not have been the best choice for a single (there were plenty of better songs that didn’t get released), but if it’s the weakest thing on the album, then the album’s doing pretty good, because it’s still a pretty solid song.
Unfortunately, the second disc (billed as The 20/20 Experience—2 of 2) is a far more uneven collection of songs. This is partly because, while both discs are heavily inspired by Michael Jackson, the first installment drew largely on Jackson’s early period, whereas this disc is based more on his post-Thriller work, which is a much less felicitous fit for Timberlake’s style.
There are two gems on the second disc…the silky-smooth ballad “Not a Bad Thing” and “Drink You Away”, which is easily the greatest Country drinking song of 2013 even if it came from a Pop-R&B artist. And a few of the other songs, such as the lead single “Take Back the Night” or “Cabaret” (which features an atypically rapid-fire guest verse from Drake), are at least decent, if nowhere near the level of the songs on the first disc. But items like the obnoxious second single “TKO”, the oversexualized “Give Me What I Don’t Know (I Want)”, or the decisively horrible “Only When I Walk Away” are just flat-out unpleasant.
And even the first disc, for all its glories, suffers from one rather large flaw. Do you know the song “Doctor Jimmy” from the Who’s Quadrophenia album…the one that starts out as a highlight, but then spends over four minutes rambling and repeating itself after it’s essentially finished? Well, imagine a whole album of that. The songs are all wonderful for the first three or four minutes, but the majority of them are seven or eight minutes long, and therein lies the problem.
There’s nothing wrong with writing eight-minute songs if you can actually sustain them, but these songs are essentially over by the three- or four-minute mark, and just stretch themselves out to a long running time by using endless repetition or pointless filler phrases. This problem is even more pronounced on the second disc, where most of the songs aren’t very good to begin with, and become almost unbearable by the time they actually end.
As a result, in spite of the sublime quality of the songs, even making it all the way through the first part of this set requires a considerable amount of patience. I’d argue that the first disc is still worth hearing, but be prepared for flashes of sublime excellence separated by a fair amount of dead air, because that’s what you’re going to get. And I can’t really in good conscience recommend the second disc…the two best songs on it were released as singles anyway, so if you’ve heard them, you’ve heard all you need to hear of that album.
I get why the first part of this collection was so acclaimed at the time, and I’m not trying to dismiss it…it still definitely qualifies as a masterpiece. But it would have been an even greater masterpiece if Timberlake and his longtime producer Timbaland had put a little more effort into being concise and focused instead of artificially stretching out the songs in some attempt to emulate the extended dance jams of classic Funk and Disco. Those songs were lengthy for a reason that no longer applies in the digital era…the desire to keep people dancing for as long as possible without having to interrupt them by changing the record. There’s really no reason for music of this kind to be this long-winded in the modern era, and Timberlake and Timbaland, for all their obvious talent, clearly aren’t capable of maintaining the audience’s interest for that long anyway, so they would have been wiser not to try.
Now, there are plenty of people who hate Meghan Trainor. The amateur critics tend to hate her because she defied the politically correct politics popular among that demographic in ways that are ultimately trivial but were blown out of proportion by angry internet ranters. The professional critics’ disdain for her is harder to explain. I suspect it’s because, like Taylor Swift, she’s too overtly commercial for the snobs that dominate that field, and too legitimate an artist for them to simply dismiss her condescendingly the way they do acts like Katy Perry and Rihanna. But unlike Taylor Swift, she hasn’t achieved such an obvious level of success that dismissing her outright seems ridiculous on its face, so they presumably see her as an easier target.
That said, Trainor’s second album, Thank You, was greeted as something of a disappointment even by her fans, and this is probably because it didn’t live up to the extremely high standard set by her first. Granted, that can’t entirely explain Thank You‘s negative reception, since many of its detractors didn’t like this album either. But I’m going to come right out and say that anyone who thinks Title is a bad album is presumably operating under some sort of bias.
The superior quality of this album compared to her sophomore effort is partly because the Fifties Doo-Wop sound she drew on here is simply a richer vein of music than the Nineties Pop pastiche she attempted on Thank You, but it goes beyond that. The songwriting on Thank You, while it featured several excellent moments like “I Love Me” and “Champagne Problems”, was much more uneven and generally less consistent than the superb writing on display here. It makes sense, if you think about it…Trainor had presumably been working on these songs for years, whereas her next album had to be squeezed out in a hurry around the edges of her touring schedule. That’s certainly the usual reason for the Sophomore Slump phenomenon, and I imagine it applies here too.
This album is bookended by two killer singles. The showstopping “All About That Bass” was the first sign Pop music was improving toward the end of 2014, and the deliciously sassy “Lips Are Movin” was one of the crop of songs that confirmed it. But the album has plenty of glories beyond its two smash hits. The high point is unquestionably the sublimely beautiful ballad “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”, but the inspiring “Close Your Eyes” and the tender “What If I” almost equal it in loveliness.
The only real dud on the whole album is the obnoxious “Bang Them Sticks”. Many people will be downright offended by that statement, specifically because of the implication that I don’t consider “Dear Future Husband” to be a ‘dud’. And I’ll admit that this song has an oddly dated view of gender relations that makes for slightly uncomfortable listening if you take it at face value, even if it’s far less sexist than many songs of the actual era it’s pastiching and may have been designed specifically as a tribute to that era. But its problems have been so vastly blown out of proportion by the internet political correctness claque that I’m inclined to defend it at this point. Besides, the fact remains that the music itself is absolutely sensational, and you could make a strong case that’s all that should matter.
The title track (no pun intended) has come under fire by the same groups, but for the life of me I can’t imagine why. I admit I’m not a woman and perhaps am therefore not entirely qualified to judge, but I honestly can’t understand how a girl essentially saying “I don’t want to be ‘friends with benefits’, acknowledge me as your girlfriend or I won’t sleep with you” is somehow degrading to women. Personally, I’d argue the sentiment is rather empowering if anything, and once again the music is so good that it really shouldn’t matter. Also, people in general seem to miss that much of this album is fairly tongue-in-cheek, as the winningly self-deprecating “Walkashame” and the ruefully funny “3AM” demonstrate. The latter sounds rather like if Darius Rucker’s “Drinkin’ and Dialin'” and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” had a baby that was then adopted and raised as a Doo-Wop song.
People were particularly incensed when Trainor won the Best New Artist Grammy for this album, but I’d argue she deserved it as much as any of the nominees, and more than most. For those who don’t know, while they apparently changed the rules later this year, Best New Artist awards used to be directly tied to specific albums. And Title didn’t face a great deal of competition from, say, Sam Hunt’s Montevallo, an ambitious and daring experiment that nonetheless ended in disaster, or Tori Kelly’s painfully generic Unbreakable Smile, or James Bay’s terminally turgid Chaos and the Calm.
It did have one valid competitor in Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and I don’t envy the Grammy committee for having to choose between them. Not only are they both outstanding works in totally different fields (mainstream Pop and Lo-Fi Indie Rock), but they have totally different strengths and emphases. Trainor is above all a wonderful tunesmith, while Barnett is known mostly as a brilliant lyricist, setting her complex lyrical explorations to tunes that are little more than functional.
But ultimately, Barnett’s album is not the type that typically wins Grammys anyway…the Grammys do love them some Indie Rock, but they generally prefer their Indie Rock a bit more accessible than Barnett’s work. So even though Sometimes I Sit and Think was at the opposite extreme from this album in terms of critical praise, I don’t think it was either a surprise or an injustice that Trainor was awarded the prize. This may not be the kind of ‘serious’, ambitious project that its only real competitor was, but it is every bit as excellent an example of its field, and the critics, both amateur and professional, that argued otherwise are simply wrong.
Of all the young, photogenic teenybopper R&B singers to step in during the time when Chris Brown seemed to have permanently vacated his niche, Iyaz was by far and away the most talented. Granted, given that his competition was the embarrassing Trey Songz, the laughably untalented Jason Derulo, the sickeningly sleazy Jeremih, the ridiculous Taio Cruz, and Jay Sean, A.K.A. the living embodiment of the law of diminishing returns, that may not seem like saying much. But even so, Iyaz was something truly special for the extremely dark period for mainstream R&B out of which he emerged. In addition to the above-mentioned artists, I’ve seen him compared to Sean Kingston (who was responsible for ‘discovering’ him) and Akon, but he is much more capable than the former and vastly more palatable than the latter.
This album’s good qualities may seem easy to take for granted today, but two things make this album very special compared to its peers at the time. The first is sheer melody. For those of you who have heard the album’s title track, the runaway hit song “Replay”, yes, just about the entire album sounds like that. These songs don’t just have catchy hooks surrounded by functional staccato noise…every note from the intro verses to the pre-choruses to the hooks themselves is good enough to carry a song on its own. Even now we only occasionally get mainstream R&B this melodious, and it was practically unheard of at the time.
The other thing that made this album stand out at the time of its release is its tone. Do you remember all the complaints about the not-very-convincing pose Shawn Mendes tried to strike on his second album Illuminate…that of the sweet, sincere hopeless romantic who only wants to make his girl happy? Well, six years earlier, Iyaz had captured that same persona so effortlessly and convincingly that it’s pretty hard to believe it was a pose at all. Remember, Iyaz came on the scene about a year before Bruno Mars showed up to put the romance back in R&B, so he was definitely an anomaly at the time. In a world where R&B had become overtly sexualized and very (for lack of a better word) thuggish, Iyaz was totally unashamed to write what were basically boy-band ballads, and he wrote them with a sincerity no boy-band ever approached. In that sense, you might call him the Buddy Holly of late-2000s R&B (don’t laugh—the comparison is more apt than you might think).
I will be the first to admit that this album is corny, dopey and sappy in the extreme…the tremulous love song “Heartbeat” even uses a refrain of “Rum-pa-pum-pum”. But that’s just part of its charm…like the early Owl City albums, you don’t have to be able to take it seriously to find its ingenuous innocence irresistible. The album isn’t perfect…there is one blatant false note, the murder ballad “Stacy”, which is severely out-of-place next to the rest of the album and isn’t a good fit for Iyaz’s style to begin with. But songs like “Solo”, “There You Are”, “Friend”, and “Goodbye” comprise some of the sweetest and most melodious R&B we had heard on a mainstream Pop album in years at that point, and as dated and cheesy as they sound compared to the sophisticated Retro-R&B and Indie R&B sounds heard on the radio today, they still are almost impossible not to like.
Bob Dylan has now won a Nobel Prize for his work as a Folk poet, and as I have stated, I see that as a well-deserved acknowledgment of the validity of the medium and the sublime quality of his poetry. But if there is any Folk poet-songwriter who could challenge Dylan as a lyricist, it would be the recently deceased and bitterly missed artistic genius Leonard Cohen. And in memory of this remarkable man, I thought I would pay my respects by reviewing one of his albums.
In the actual Sixties heyday of the folk movement, while most of Cohen’s peers were tilting at political windmills and writing protest songs and social commentaries, he very meticulously focused solely on his own personal story. His songs were introspective and meaningful to the extreme, but they were about his own state of mind and emotional journey, and almost never dealt with the so-called ‘larger’ issues.
It was only in his later career, particularly after his late-Eighties ‘comeback’, than he began to get political in his songwriting. That is why, in reflection of current events, I have decided to review one of Cohen’s later masterpieces rather than any of the justly legendary works from his initial heyday in the Sixties.
In addition to taking on more political themes, Cohen’s voice had changed a great deal since his early years, dropping from a nasal tenor to an extremely deep Basso Profundo, slightly gravelly but still smooth enough to sound pretty. His actual ability to sing in tune was shaky, and for much of this album he doesn’t even try, whispering and intoning his lyrics rather than truly singing. But like Richard Burton in Camelot, his natural speaking voice was so exquisitely musical to begin with that he didn’t really have to sing to create the effect of singing.
This is a concept album dealing with Cohen’s extremely cynical reactions to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent rejoicing. Of course, in reality, all of Cohen’s album are concept albums…people just often don’t notice this because their concepts are generally too abstract to be expressed as linear stories.
There are really only six original Cohen vocal songs on this album, but they represent some of the finest work of his career; indeed, every single one of them tends to be ranked among his all-time classics by fans, making this one of his most consistently outstanding musical efforts.
The title track is the finest look into the motivations of a villainous figure since The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes”. “Waiting For the Miracle” is one of Cohen’s most poetic creations, quietly threatening yet at the same time exquisitely lyrical.
“Closing Time” is a kind of disturbing hoedown, with some of the most cynical lyrics ever written. “Light As a Breeze” is one of the most erotic songs of all time, even if, like “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”, it’s ultimately about far more than just sex.
“Democracy”, the album’s most overtly political song, would sound like a patriotic anthem from the music alone, but the brutally honest lyric is half bittersweet love letter and half scathing deconstruction.
But the most pertinent track in today’s world may be “Anthem”, a breathtakingly beautiful piece that acknowledges the ills and injustices of the world but ultimately comes away with a truly inspiring message of optimism, declaring “There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in”. Cohen’s songs are very rarely this positive, and indeed, I don’t think he ever wrote anything else as uplifting as this, and it serves to keep the album’s cynicism from sinking into despair the way some of Cohen’s albums do (e.g. Songs of Love and Hate).
The rest of the album consists of two covers (of an obscure R&B tune from the Seventies called “Be For Real” and Irving Berlin’s classic standard “Always”) and a closing instrumental. The covers are both superb, with Cohen’s reading of “Always” being particularly nuanced and fascinating.
As for “Tacoma Trailer”, the first purely instrumental track to appear on any Cohen album, while it loses something by not featuring Cohen’s two most interesting qualities (his lyrics and his voice), it is still a lovely and haunting piece that makes for a satisfying album closer. I don’t know which of this album’s session musicians was playing the keyboard here, but I hope he went on to a long and fruitful solo career, because he definitely deserves it.
Three of the songs from this album made it onto the soundtrack of the movie Natural Born Killers, which helped give the album well-deserved exposure. Still, the songs definitely work best when heard together as a group; as stated, despite not expressing itself as a clear linear narrative, this really is a unified concept album.
Cohen has released a myriad of other masterpiece-level recordings in his career, but I must admit this one was always particularly dear to my heart, particularly “Anthem”, which has gotten me through a number of rough times in my life. And given the state of current events in America today, I think this album, and especially “Anthem”, is more relevant today than it has ever been. And given the loss that the world has experienced with Cohen’s passing, this seems as good a time as any to encourage people to seek out or revisit this glorious masterpiece from a man who was assuredly one of the greatest musical and poetic artists of the last hundred years.
In the wake of the great Tammy Grimes’ passing, I thought I would review one of her lesser-known, but unjustly overlooked vehicles, the 1964 Broadway cult flop High Spirits. This show, with a score by the great Hugh Martin (of Meet Me In St. Louis fame), was an adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic play Blithe Spirit. While Coward did not adapt the play himself, he liked the adaptation so much that he volunteered to direct the original production.
Indeed, he show had a great deal going for it. The book is quite faithful to Coward’s play, the only major differences being the building-up of comic medium Madame Arcati into a star part and a new ending that, to be honest, is a much funnier punchline to the play than the original ending (Coward’s reaction to the new ending, in fact, was essentially “Now, why didn’t I think of that?”).
The score is almost uniformly outstanding, with the irritating first-act finale “Faster Than Sound” being the only real dud. Hugh Martin was mostly known for the jazzy sounds he brought to shows like Best Foot Forward, but Meet Me In St. Louis showed that he could work equally well in more old-fashioned idioms, and he contributed a silky, sophisticated and very English-sounding score that sounded a great deal like Coward’s own musical compositions, while Timothy Grey’s lyrics are witty enough to match the cleverness of the dialogue.
The only problem with this is that, while the book and score are individually both extremely good, they don’t really fit together very successfully. A few of songs match the play’s tone beautifully, such as the cynically affectionate “I Know Your Heart” or the bickering waltz trio “What In the World Did You Want?”. But songs like the rhapsodic “Forever and a Day” for Charles and Elvira and the ravishing madrigal “If I Gave You” for Charles and Ruth seem wildly out of character not only for the characters singing them, but also for the play itself. Blithe Spirit, after all, for all its sparkle, is a biting, acidic play with no sentimentality or lyricism whatsoever. Trying to write love songs for these essentially loveless relationships just isn’t convincing, no matter how beautiful the songs in question are. This, combined with the uninspired staging by Coward’s co-director, Gower Champion, probably accounts for the show’s commercial failure.
Edward Woodward and Louise Troy as Charles and Ruth gave classy and subtly nuanced performances, but the real stars of the show were Tammy Grimes as Elvira and Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati. Grimes gave one of her most alluring performances as the coolly seductive, mercurial ghost, wrapping her smoky, purring mezzo around such juicy items as the irresistibly coquettish “You Better Love Me”, the tender, sensual “Something Tells Me”, and the sparklingly witty list song in the Cole Porter tradition “Home Sweet Heaven”.
And Beatrice Lillie utterly stole the show as the daffy psychic who is responsible for the whole mix-up. Expanding Madame Arcati’s part until it became the starring role may have unwise for certain reasons, since, while she generally steals the show is Coward’s play, too, the play’s story is not really supposed to be about her. But when you had the immortal Beatrice Lillie on hand to play her, I understand why one would make that decision. Lillie was perhaps the most genuinely over-the-top and gloriously insane performer in Broadway history…she made Carol Channing look like Nelson Eddie by comparison…and her songs here are all perfect for her. “The Bicycle Song”, a mundane idea that turned out utterly bizarre in execution, is the direct predecessor to Queen’s “Bicycle Race”, and “Go Into Your Trance”, “Talking To You” (a surreal love song to her Ouiji board), and “Something Is Coming to Tea” are all marvelous showcases for Lillie’s sublimely freakish performing style, even if none of them have much to do with the actual story.
The show wasn’t an outright bomb…it lost money, but the Broadway production ran a respectable 375 performances…but I classify it as a flop because it has pretty much disappeared since. Apart from a London production that same year, which flat-out bombed (partly due to having a much less effective cast, with Cicely Courtneidge as Madame Arcati being particularly weak), the show hasn’t been done in a major venue in over fifty years. Moreover, the play it was based on has essentially gone on without it, remaining extraordinarily popular even as its musical version vanished, which is rarely a sign of success for a musical adaptation.
Nonetheless, the cast album is one of the finest cult flop recordings of the Sixties, and is highly recommended both for the music itself and for how well it preserves Grimes and Lillie’s star turns. Grimes had more high-profiles vehicles than this one (The Unsinkable Molly Brown, 42nd Street), but I can’t think of any of them that suited her talents better than this role, and it remains one of her greatest performances.