Thursday, May 17, 2012

Donna Summer, 1948-2012

Another icon of a better recent past has passed.
     Before ProTools, drum machines, and other dangerous technology supplanted human skill and wherewithal, Donna Summer brought a direct, human, musical quality to radio, records, and the Billboard charts.  (Elsewhere, I have remarked--or tried to--on the perils, in culture and beyond, of futuristic technology in an age in which the technology of the soul is at its nadir.  In the 1970's, even disco records--which she pioneered--had real instruments, if for no other reason than the fact that there was nothing else to use back then.)  She also represented an age when at least some pop divas were expected to contribute to their own songwriting.  (In another lifetime, when I was a musician, my high school jazz band was asked to learn "Rock Around the Clock" and Donna's "She Works Hard for the Money" for a popular school event.  Our band director remarked that the latter, which Donna co-wrote, was a "better" song--he meant more musical and complex.)  She apparently succumbed to cancer earlier today at the age of 63.
     Her powerful voice could draw appropriate comparisons to the recently departed Whitney Houston (who did not have her creative prowess), and it was a welcome respite from much of the banal pabulum that polluted pop radio and shopping mall speakers over the last few decades.  (Long after her disco heyday, "This Time I Know It's For Real" was one of the few "pop" songs that captured the interest of this young rock fan.)  Her extended, fifteen-minute-plus hit single "Love to Love You Baby" (which she also co-wrote) reflected a time when Americans' attention spans had not yet been destroyed by progressive education, Children's Television Workshop, and eMpTyV to the extent that they could not enjoy a "long song" (her concerts and live albums included lengthy suites--not medleys--incorporating her own songs and covers, such as Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park").  [For an amusing recounting of that single's serendipitous origin, and much more on Donna, I recommend And Party Every Day: The Inside Story of Casablanca Records (Backbeat Books, 2009), written by Casablanca Vice President Larry Harris with my collaborators Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs.  The book has been optioned for a major motion picture.  I was sure to include extensive Donna Summer scenes, including the infamous origin of "Love to Love You Baby," in my aborted spec script, and I hope the project's screenwriter does the same.]  Bruce Springsteen originally wrote his hit single "Cover Me" for her, and it is intriguing to think of what she would have done with it before his manager exhorted him to record it himself.  (He subsequently wrote another song, "Protection," for her.  They recorded as a duet, but it remains unreleased.)
     Her influence is significant, and there are some signs that, coincident with the collapse of the record industry, mainstream "pop" music is steering back into the her territory of inventive, melodic, organic, and sometimes epic "dance"/R&B tracks with heavy songwriting and production input from the singer.  U.S. pop culture could use that kind of "retrenchment," but, regardless, Donna Summer will be missed.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Band Brad: Elusive Warmth from Seattle

Have you ever heard of the band Brad?
     Circa 1992, inchoate rock superstar Stone Gossard, busy with another band's nascent superstardom, put together another band with old cronies and other veterans of the music scene of his hometown, Seattle: viz., Shawn Smith, Regan Hagar, and Jeremy Toback.  The band signed with Epic/Sony Music, the label of Gossard's other band, and wrote (in the studio) and recorded their first album, Shame, in October 1992.  According to legend, the foursome wanted to call the band Shame as well, but a musician whose first name is Brad heard that news and threatened to sue.  (Wikipedia says his name is Brad Wilson, so "it's gotta be true.")  The band (facetiously?) changed its name to Brad and titled the album Shame (which was released on Epic Associated the following year).  Their litigious interlocutor couldn't (legally) object to any of that.
     The band are no longer signed to Sony Music, and Toback has been replaced (first by Michael Berg, then by current bassist Keith Lowe), but Brad is still active, evidently with a renewed sense of commitment to each other (despite each member's commitments to other groups): their new album is called United We Stand (Razor & Tie).  The band has made it clear in interviews that the album title is not the usual empty, collectivist platitude: it's about band, not country.
     While the band has tenuous connections to "grunge," Shawn Smith's warm voice and lyrics belie them.  And the band's songwriting has grown immeasurably in two decades while retaining its improvisational, in-the-moment extemporaneous quality.  Stone Gossard has a knack for pairing with vocalists who sound like benevolent uncles, but this benevolent uncle has none of the other's sometimes caustic, sometimes irascible mood swings: Smith is all beneficence and comity.  (Gossard has remarked that he is the least cynical person he knows.)  His lyrics and delivery--on United We Stand and elsewhere--are crucial palliatives in these dark, cynical times, and they sound especially warm and organic on Razor & Tie's vinyl edition of the new album.  (Don't let the title "Tea Bag" mislead you--like all of Smith's direct and concrete--and often improvised in the studio--lyrics, there is not a whiff of politics to be detected.  And this warmth must be infectious, because Gossard's lyrics for Brad are some of his most sanguine, fraternal, and optimistic.)
     For those averse to the alleged Ludditeism (which should be a word) of organic and analog sound, an iTunes Deluxe Edition is as good a value as you'll find today: it includes a bonus track ("Thomas Jefferson's Son"--a subject I will address on my other weblog soon enough) with several videos of the band performing the bonus track and other songs not on the album proper (including Neil Young's "Don't Cry"), none of which can be found on the free digital download included with the record.  This band takes full advantage of media convergence and the nostalgia market: a Record Store Day exclusive seven-inch single contained at least one new song, "Waters Deep," that is not to be found on any edition of United We Stand that I've seen (though it is part of the band's live repertoire).  (I write "at least one" because I haven't seen it; it sold out by the time I got to the front of the line at Amoeba Music on Record Store Day.)
     The band appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live on the Bud Light Stage of the El Capitan Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard on Wednesday; I attended the taping for a foretaste of their headline appearance at "Doug Weston's World Famous Troubadour" in West Hollywood last night.  (Note Kimmel brandishing the prominent vinyl cover instead of the now-even-more-obsolete compact disc case.)  The two-song set of "Diamond Blues" and "Don't Cry" (I believe that only the former aired) was an instructive if short refresher of the band's power as a live act (I saw them at West Hollywood's Roxy in 2002).  Lowe's aversion to shoes and socks is puzzling (he wears none in any of the iTunes videos and wore none at either Los Angeles County appearance), but he is a versatile electric bassist (effectively incorporating slap and funk to a few songs at the Troubadour) that locks in well with Hagar's tight, skillful drumming (especially tight and skillful by Seattle standards).  (Smith is versatile himself and occasionally plays drums in the studio along with guitar and keyboards.)  Gossard's extended solo reminded this viewer that Brad is a vehicle for his soloing that his other band could never be; he demonstrates an emotive, expressive quality that makes up for his limited chops.  Auxiliary musician Happy Chichester (the eccentric opening act at the Roxy in 2002 who lives up to his name) played guitar and sang along with themduring the show (as he did extensively during the United We Stand sessions).
     The television appearance was a microcosm of the full set at the sold-out Troubadour the following night.  The audience was treated to listenable opening sets by the low-key Nine 50 Nine (which reportedly included original Pearl Jam drummer Dave Krusen) and the more audacious Everest (who performed their forthcoming album in its entirety).  It was apropos that Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" (likely unrecognizable to most of the Eloi hipster audience) was piped over the public address system as intro music, as a few tracks from 2010's Best Friends? (Monkeywrench), whether intentionally or otherwise, have the distinctive flavor of electric Miles ("Low" and "Oh My Goodness" sound like they could sit beside "Red China Blues" on Get Up With It).  With Chichester, the reinvigorated Brad opened a ninety-five minute, twenty-song set with "Waters Deep" and played a positive, satisfying show of enthusiastic, focused ensemble playing.  Four of their five albums were represented, and highlights included four of the best songs from 1997's Interiors (Epic), with Chichester taking Gossard's recorded solo on "Sweet Al George" (though the catchy, galvanizing riffing still has Gossard's name all over it).  Chichester participated in all but one song (Shame's leadoff single "Buttercup"), playing Smith's keyboard on several songs.  They opened their too-brief tour in their hometown a few nights earlier, and the setlist was similar last night if a bit shorter and lighter on new material.  I could quibble with the selections and stage time, but I won't (though I will point out that "The Day Brings," one of the most empowering songs you've likely never heard, is anticlimactic in the show-closing position).  For those interested, the full setlist is reproduced below.  (As I type this, the band is about to go onstage in San Francisco, the third of six scheduled dates.  Readers and friends on the east coast can see them at the end of May at venues listed here.  Their unique approach to setlists seems to include adding and dropping a song or two each night while shuffling the order significantly, so that the order changes much more than the content.)  During a poignant brief solo piano set at the head of the encore, Smith briefly forgot the words to "Purple Rain" but confidently regained his footing, following it with a rendition of Mother Love Bone's "Crown of Thorns" while its co-writer relaxed backstage.
     Those with a penchant for modern, multifaceted rock music (forget the fatuous, outdated term "alternative") with counter-intuitively peaceful, positive words and a warm voice should seek out Brad's music, whether or not they are fans of Stone Gossard's other work.


Bud Light Stage @ El Capitan Theatre
Hollywood, California
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
Jimmy Kimmel Live

Diamond Blues
Don't Cry

Doug Weston's Troubadour
West Hollywood, California
Thursday, May 3, 2012
United We Stand Tour
Support: Everest, Nine 50 Nine

Waters Deep
Last Bastion
Sweet Al George
The Only Way
Price of Love
A Reason to Be In My Skin
Make the Pain Go Away
Wrapped Around My Memories
20th Century
Every Whisper
Diamond Blues
Secret Girl

Purple Rain
Crown of Thorns
Don't Cry
The Day Brings