Mother Revolution: Tori Amos’ “The Beekeeper” Turns 10

Outtake from The Beekeeper photo sessions

Outtake from The Beekeeper photo sessions

It was very conscious with Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper that I wanted to embody the Mother Maiden and core essences within the being―because I find a lot of women, especially in this time of the right wing, don’t know how to be spiritual and sexual.

Either they’re puritanical, or their tits are hanging out all the time―that’s been a real bee in my bonnet, the program that [tells women] to be sexual. To counter that, you have to be nasty. I grenade that idea right out of the water! One side of yourself might be that vulgar tart, and I’ll hang out with her. I don’t mind a dirty girl. But what I find tragic is when we, as women, become not the subject of our own story, but someone else’s object.

That, to me, is playing into this role that women have held in Christianity for a long, long time. I refuse to be victimized by Christianity’s misrepresentation of our great mothers. I want to be an integrated woman.

Pulled from a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Amos’ quote summarized a brief, albeit exciting chapter in her discography. Known for making the piano as intense a rock-and-roll instrument as the guitar, Amos’ approach had made her one of the leading talents in popular music. However, Amos was not going to retain her position as a risk-taker confined to the genre grip of alternative music expectationsfrom fans or critics.

The Beekeeper (Epic, 2005)Amos’ eighth recordwas received as a concession, or surrender, for broader pop acceptance. Was Amos, a newly minted wife and mother at this point, unable to maintain the fire that sparked her 1990’s releases?

Mothers and wives can’t be rock-and-rollers; they surely that can’t be sex symbols! Though many female performers, genres aside, had shown this as false, the thought didn’t die. It went to the root of Amos’ argument of how women were (and are) viewed in society, subject to the heavy gaze of male scrutiny.

As ever, Amos readied herself to challenge that thinking with The Beekeeper. The cerebral, sexy sides it offered, like a foreign fruit, met apprehension. Those that indulged tasted Amos at her richest peak of flavor.

The History

Amos had reached her (first) creative apogee with From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998). That combustible mingling of her piano pop and electronica had been a coup. Unfortunately, label politics began suffocating Amos and she wandered through the end of her contractual obligations to Atlantic Records with To Venus and Back (1999) and Strange Little Girls (2001). Released from that career abyss, Amos ventured to greener pastures at Epic Records.

Tori Amos, circa 2005

Tori Amos, circa 2005

Though Epic Records later turned into another trap for Amos, she initiated her tenure there smoothly. Scarlet’s Walk (2002) immediately followed her signing to Epic and ushered in the second Tori Amos renaissance.

Akin to the ambitious sprawl of predecessor Joni Mitchell’s mid-70’s recordings, Scarlet’s Walk was a rebirth. The experimentation with jazz music was unmistakable; songs such as “A Sorta Fairytale,” “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas” and “Your Cloud” bore a light grooviness.

Amos calmly tuned Scarlet’s follow-up out of its autumn chamber pop and into something equatorialand continually rhythmic.

The Record

Theme continued to be the nexus of Amos’ recordings. The Beekeeper tackled the systemic condition of gender role identification of women through the patriarchal eyes of Christianity. It was the religiousand subsequently culturalidea that women were only allowed to inhabit two spaces: “the mother” or “the whore”. In her own words, Amos sought to “marry the Mary’s” that influenced women throughout historyMary, Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.

Additional analysis included Amos grouping the songs in various “gardens” according to lyrics; parallels also fell between that and the relationship of the bee, its hive and their beekeeper.

Despite Amos’ labyrinthine narrative, the songwriting of the LP was acute. Romance, betrayal, mortality and how women experienced these things and were empowered by them took precedence. Amos had crafted another record similar in shape to Scarlet’s Walk that forsook the overly cryptic approach common in her lyrics post-Boys for Pele (Atlantic, 1996).

While Amos was married and mothering her (then) young daughter, she still had much to say. America at the dawn of the 2000’s was just trekking into the Iraq War; the conservatism that held the country in its sway was pervasive too.

"Sweet the Sting" single cover

“Sweet the Sting” single cover

With a quiet, insurrectionary stance, the pianist / vocalist addressed the political climate with “Barons of Surburbia,” “General Joy” and “Mother Revolution”.

The subject matter of the mentioned trio of songs couldn’t obscure their musical sexiness; part of that was owed to the contributions of Matt Chamberlain  (drums) and Jon Evans (bass). Both men had played with Amos on her albums and tours for a few years. The three artists laid down her curviest tunes with “Sweet the Sting,” “Witness” and “Hoochie Woman”all those works had background vocals courtesy of the London Gospel Community Choir.

Amos known for keeping her lyrical eye on others turned it on herself to furnish revealatory material. Whether recalling the passing her of brother (“Toast”), her maternal joy (“Ribbons Undone”) or passing the torch from mother to daughter (“The Beekeeper”), Amos unguarded mesmerized.

Her pen remained sharp even when the topics were soft. Love and trust were eloquently framed on the album opener “Parasol”a career highlight“Jamaica Inn” and “Sleeps With Butterflies”. The latter song could be called a “general love song,” but was artfully arranged with harmonies that gave it a “Tori twist”.

Amos’ sense of humor, often not seen enough in her music, grinned through on songs like “The Power of Orange Knickers” (with Damien Rice) and “Ireland”. They made for a refreshing listening journey.

The album clocked in at 19 tracks; length became sort of a sonic stumbling block for Amos by now. Still, she had leftover material. The Beekeeper would be the second album, after To Venus and Back, to not have b-sides readily available. Three bonus cuts from The Beekeeper sessions did emerge: “Garlands” (on the limited DVD edition of the LP), “Dolphin Song” and “Not David Bowie” (on Piano: A Collection / Rhino, 2006).

Bright in its playful exploration of pop and jazz, The Beekeeper was friendlier than Scarlet’s Walk. As a producer, Tori Amos should have been proud of the record’s amity, even if it would be misconstrued.

The Impact

“Sleeps With Butterflies” was the first selection to introduce Amos’ new album to the public. The song was issued as a “promotional single” and thusly not available to fans physically. “Sleeps With Butterflies” hit American airwaves on 1/10/05; digital availability to fans came on 1/12/05.

The single found favor on the now defunct-U.S. Radios & Records AAA chart (#2); founded in 1973, the station/magazine allowed quirkier pop, alternative and rock music to reach audiences. It met its demise via absorption into VNU Media in 2006, a parent company of Billboard. Otherwise, “Sleeps With Butterflies,” Amos’ most commercially accessible single, created no ripples on any other major American or international chart.

Amos in the gardens of The Beekeeper

Amos in the gardens of The Beekeeper

The Beekeeper released in the global markets on 2/21/05 with the United States following on 2/22/05.

The album debuted strong across the world: U.S. Billboard 200 #5, U.K. #24, Canada #16, Germany #8, Norway, #6, ARIA #8. Released in conjunction with the LP was Piece By Piece; the book was written by Amos and renowned writer / feminist, Ann Powers. In the book, Amos discussed her personal life, and career, leading up to The Beekeeper

In its U.S. run overall, the album moved 295,000 copies; Amos’ sales had entered a slide and some saw The Beekeeper’s figures as impoverished after the chart restoration of Scarlet’s Walk.

The album and book met fair critical reception; Jon Pareles of The New York Times remarked favorably of the long player:

Ms. Amos will never be a conventional songwriter. She established herself in the 1990’s with musically intricate but startlingly blunt songs about a young woman’s desires and traumas, gaining fans who have stayed with her as she moved from confession to character studies, from storytelling to abstraction. She still has a lot on her mind: lust, faith, motherhood, inconstancy, war, restlessness, death. And she has enough ambition to swirl them together in songs that spin dreamlike images and take musical detours at whim.

The Beekeeper is a generous, even overstuffed album, 19 songs and 79 minutes long, with an elaborate scheme involving six “gardens” of songs inspired by the six-sided cells of a honeycomb. (Ms. Amos has no fear of preciousness.) The lyrics are still collages of impressions, though usually with enough clues to piece them together. But The Beekeeper is also her most down-to-earth album in years, because Ms. Amos has decided she doesn’t have to pack every impulse into every song. Sometimes, now, a simple melody and a steady groove are enough.

However, not everyone was convinced of the pop sensitivity surrounding The Beekeeper. Mike Barthel of The Village Voice aligned his allegiance firmly with inaugural trilogy of Amos’ discography:

The Beekeeper is Tori-by-numbers, which isn’t necessarily bad—“Barons of Suburbia” whips the riff from “Precious Things” into the kind of ecstatic coda “Precious” itself builds to in concert. But mainly there’s either promising melodies (the “Crucify”-aping “Parasol”) ruined by cringe-y lyrics, or decent lyrical ideas executed like a Yoplait commercial. (“This is sooo good.” “Pirates good!” Cue bongos.)

If there’s a defining moment, it’s the coda of “Witness.” Backed by a gospel choir (!), you repeat the line “thought I had a witness,” but where it should be accusatory, the straight-from-the-Tori Amos-magnetic-poetry-set word boy dribbles from your mouth like half-chewed crumb cake over the lips of an Alzheimer’s patient. Also, one song has mandolins and bongos. Holy shit.

“Sleeps With Butterflies”

Directed By: Laurent Briet

Amos embarked on the corresponding live show for The Beekeeper, The Original Sinsuality Tour, on 4/1/05 in Clearwater, Florida. The show traveled across the world to return to American shores (Los Angeles) on 9/17/05. While thrilling audiences on the road, two more promotional singles were lifted from The Beekeeper: “Sweet the Sting” and “Cars and Guitars”. The selections made minimal-to-no impact on any charts.

In the decade since its appearance, The Beekeeper stands divisive among fans and critics. The Beekeeper let Amos balance contentment with confrontation, looping back around to refute to the original issue that women couldn’t occupy multiple spaces at once. Mothers and wives could rock, could roll, could love, be sexy and smart. Tori Amos had “married the Mary’s,” and then some.

Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: The Beekeeper is readily in print, digitally and physically. For current information on Tori Amos, visit her official website.-QH]

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Texas: 25 Years of Pop

Texas through 25 years.

Texas through 25 years.

Today,  Texas released their newest singles collection Texas 25 in the United Kingdomthe American release follows tomorrow. The commemorative set will attempt to chart the trajectory of this Scottish band whose name and (initial) sound cues came from the 1984 film ‘Paris, Texas’. The movie was scored by American rocker Ry Cooder.

Texas’ line-ups have shifted through the years, but three mainstays have stood at Texas’ center: guitarists Johnny McElhone and Ally McErlaine; vocalist / guitarist Sharleen Spiteri.

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Texas 25

Over McElhone/McErlaine’s works, Spiteri’s incomparable range called to mind Dusty Springfield or Chrissie Hynde. Spiteri, despite those influences, brought her own unmistakable presence to Texas, helping them to sell over 35 million records globally.

Across 25 years, Texas lived up to the spaciousness likened to their nom de guerre; sadly it seems that Texas 25 falls shorts of encapsulating their musical diversity. Following the same erroneous pattern their first best-of from 2000 began, Texas abbreviates their legacy again. Several key singles are missing throughout the new set and classics accounted for have been retouched. Though the eyebrow raising “deluxe edition” will feature the hits in their original forms.

Longtime fans and newcomers are denied a chance to experience one of the most versatile popular music vehicles as they evolved. An attempt to gauge the creative pulse of Texas’ eight studio albums through this retrospective will remedy the oversight made by the band themselves.

Southside

Southside

Southside (Mercury) / 1989

Singles: “I Don’t Want a Lover,” “Thrill Has Gone,” “Everyday Now,” “Prayer For You”

Synopsis: The debut album that caused a sensation in the United Kingdom upon its release, Southside captured a young Texas, but one far from underdeveloped. It was here that Spiteri’s voice soared over robust guitar and drumming structures that called to mind American rock music. Underneath that ambitious sound arc was a soulful underpinning that bubbled to the surface. Noticeably on “Faith” there was a lush lyrical interpolation of Al Green’s “Tired of Being Alone”. Texas later gave the R&B chestnut a loving cover on the U.S. pressing of their junior effort, Ricks Road (1993).

Even among the cavernous classic rock of “I Don’t Want a Lover,” Texas’ blue-eyed soul twinkled. However, that flower still had a ways to go before it would take root and bloom.

Watch / Listen: “I Don’t Want a Lover

MothersHeaven

Mothers Heaven

Mothers Heaven (Mercury) / 1991

Singles: “Why Believe in You,” “In My Heart,” “Alone With You,” “Mothers Heaven”

Synopsis:  Texas enjoying their roots rock was mistaken as laziness by some; Mothers Heaven was actually more progressive than Southside. A deeper listen demonstrated Texas’ pop instincts present in the more insistent melodies of “Dream Hotel” and the titular piece. The record buying public that embraced their brand two years preceding abandoned this recording inexplicably. As such, Texas has disavowed this recording. Output from this LP had been ignored for both their 2000 and 2015 retrospectives―an exception issued to their live effort, The BBC Sessions (2007) which contained some Mothers Heaven content. Texas’ sophomore project has kept a mysterious air.

If the listener has a preference for Texas during its earlier incarnation, Mothers Heaven is not to be ignored.

Watch / Listen: “Why Believe in You

RicksRoad

Ricks Road

Ricks Road (Mercury) / 1993

Singles: “So Called Friend,” “You Owe It All to Me,” “So In Love With You”

Synopsis: The final installment of the Texas traditional rock trilogy, Ricks Road dialed back on melody in favor of harder band instrumentation. It was an odd decision as Texas was in fantastic form already on their two previous efforts. Clearly the commercial cold of Mothers Heaven had shaken them―the chill only lifted slightly in Britain (their largest market) with Ricks Road. Texas did continue to gain traction on American college radio. Further U.S. exposure was gained when comedienne Ellen DeGeneres used “So Called Friend” as the theme song to her hit sitcom series ‘Ellen’ from its third season onward.

Texas had perfected their rock-and-roll and Ricks Road played like a closing chapter to an era in Texas’ discography. Coming from a place of affection rather than just imitation, Texas had proven their mettle as one of the better bands to emerge at the end of one decade and were ready to redefine their sound in a new one.

Watch / Listen: “So Called Friend

WhiteonBlonde

White on Blonde

White on Blonde (Mercury) / 1997

Singles: “Say What You Want,” “Halo,” “Black Eyed Boy,” “Put Your Arms Around Me,” “Insane”

Synopsis: Here was the album that turned it all around and made Sharleen Spiteri the glamorous face of Texas overnight. Spinning off four U.K. Top 10 hits and moving 3.6 million units in England alone, White on Blonde’s alternative rock and soul put Texas at the axis of contemporary music in the U.K. and Europe. Spiteri’s voice wore a sensually darker guise than before on entries like “Insane” and “Good Advice”―this was far from a bad thing. Dramatic string arrangements zinged, guitars added aural pepper when needed and strong songwriting made it sing out to listeners.

Texas had finally managed to be a commercial, creative and critical darlings simultaneously. White on Blonde also announced that Texas were pop auteurs and their next album made this posh hypothesis fact.

Watch / Listen: “Black Eyed Boy

The Hush

The Hush (Mercury) / 1999

Singles: “In Our Lifetime,” “Summer Son,” “When We Are Together”

Synopsis: One of the finest blue-eyed soul records ever crafted, The Hush pitched itself between sweet and salty aesthetics. This kept fans and critics wondering how Texas pulled off their second sonic makeover? If there was any doubt with White on Blonde, The Hush’s  material was an irrefutable shift from blues-rock to Motown. There was still a little sting present as heard on the bruising “Summer Son,” but Spiteri alternated from ripened falsetto (“Tell Me the Answer”) to expressive tones that showed her voice to be a bottomless well of hues (“Day After Day”).

Texas closed the 1990’s on a high with the triumph of The Hush. Though the group had begun to orbit the trio of McElhone / McErlaine / Spiteri, they retained only the best musicians.

Watch / Listen: “Summer Son

Careful What You Wish For

Careful What You Wish For

Careful What You Wish For (Mercury) / 2003

Singles: “Carnival Girl,” “I’ll See It Through”

Synopsis: Often cited as “that difficult punk-pop record,” Careful What You Wish For sought to keep the polish from Texas’ two past LPs―but with something a little edgier. Those that yearned for the open fields of Texas’ earlier albums need not press play here; they were in firm command of their pop changeability on this LP. The two-pronged opener “Telephone X” and “Broken” eyed an even sexier Texas than before; yet, as the album spun―despite its energy―Careful lacked compelling songs.

It didn’t help that in the interim between The Hush and Careful, the U.K. and European pop scenes had gone through many changes. Only two singles manifested, “Carnival Girl” became the minor hit. As far as transitional records went, Careful What You Wish For was exceptional.

Watch / Listen: “I’ll See It Through

Red Book

Red Book

Red Book (Mercury) / 2005

Singles: “Getaway,” “Can’t Resist,” “Sleep”

Synopsis: If Careful What You Wish For was “too hard,” Red Book stood as a pretty pastel solvent to that record. The band sound had been considerably reduced, though Texas’ collaborative writing as a unit remained. After an odd preface meant to recall White on Blonde’s introduction “0.34,” “Getaway” acted as a paean to synth-pop as pioneered by Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark―think Junk Culture (1984) versus Dazzle Ships (1983). Elsewhere, Texas clumsily acclimatized to dance-pop (“Can’t Resist,” “Get Down Tonight”) with lackluster results.

The album was far from a disaster. If anything Red Book was another stylishly coiffed transitional offering, but the group had exhausted themselves. An eight year break ensued as the band pursued various paths. Spiteri recorded her inevitable solo debut Melody (Mercury, 2008) and its equally pleasing follow-up, The Movie Songbook (Mercury, 2010) in that interval.

Watch / Listen: “Getaway

The Conversation

The Conversation

The Conversation (PIAS) / 2013

Singles: “The Conversation,” “Detroit City,” “Dry Your Eyes”

Synopsis: After almost a decade away, Texas reformed and released their best record to date. The Conversation managed to tie The Hush by recharging their pop while gingerly peering back to the organic feel of their first three records. The album, a succinct package of tunes, did not overstay its welcome on the denim twist of the title song to the country-pop waltz of “If This Isn’t Real”.  The band was present audibly throughout the course of The Conversation; Spiteri delivered the goods, her voice timeless as ever.

Sadly, The Conversation did not return Texas to the summit of the charts, but it did make a fair impact. More importantly, fans and critics resounded with praise for its rejuvenated spirit.

Watch / Listen: “Dry Your Eyes

[Editor’s Note: All of Texas’ albums are in print digitally and physically; availability spans domestic and import releases. Texas 25 available now. For current information on Texas, visit their official website.-QH]

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The QH Blend’s “Q Sounds” Vol. 2

QSoundFebruary

Q Sounds for February 2015

Music is my lifeblood and as a writer about its culture, I need it―all the time. Whether scanning aisles in new or used music shops or spying on Amazon, I’m always buying and listening to new music. This format will allow me to capture what music I’ve bought each month and detail it for you, the readers. The three records highlighted will hopefully catch your attention and you’ll follow the purchase links included. Enjoy.

Made in America

Made in America

Artist: Carpenters

Album: Made in America (1981, A&M)

Personnel: Karen Carpenter (lead / background vocals / percussion); Richard Carpenter (arranger / background vocals / producer)

Production Duties: Richard Carpenter

Vibe: Three years and a bevy of changes―personal and professional―had transpired since the Carpenters last full-length LP, Passage (1977). Made in America combined familiarity and (soft) acknowledgement of new trends present at the dawn of the 1980’s. Synthesizers were tastefully layered throughout parts of the recording, giving a touch of color to “(Want You) Back in My Life Again” and lead single “Touch Me When We’re Dancing”.

Deeper listening revealed a latent funkiness present on these numbers that could be traced backed to the aforementioned Passage album opener “B’wana She No Home”. Further, Karen’s aborted eponymous solo debut from 1980―thankfully released in 1996―informed the cool rhythmic approach the brother / sister duo weaved into Made in America.

Additional exploration of this urban pastel style might have given Made in America the “edge” to validate the Carpenters in critics eyes. Many detractors then felt that the Carpenters were not progressing far enough in their recorded output―even with the stated diminutive modernity present. Regardless, Made in America captured that classic Carpenters pop at its cinematic best. Richard’s score-like arrangements sprawled majestically on “Somebody’s Been Lyin'” and “Because We Are in Love (The Wedding Song)”. Both songs housed Karen’s impeccable tone wonderfully.

The latter song was a “happy ending” piece that called to mind Karen’s girl-to-woman transformation completed through ultimate romantic fulfillment. The eventual fact outweighed the fiction unfortunately, but did not remove the magic apparent on that cut or the remainder of Made in America’s contents.

A sharp spinner full of promise, potential and a sense of nostalgia, the Carpenters brand of sentimental pop never sounded better than it did on Made in America.

Watch / Listen: “Touch Me When We’re Dancing

Purchase here

Seventh Tree

Seventh Tree

Artist: Goldfrapp

Album: Seventh Tree (2008, Mute / EMI)

Personnel: Alison Goldfrapp (lead vocals / background vocals / producer); Will Gregory (producer)

Production Duties: Mark “Flood” Ellis, Goldfrapp

Vibe: Goldfrapp’s Supernature (2005 / 2006), their junior effort, stood as one of the defining records of its decade. Their second (mostly) full-blown uptempo album after Black Cherry (2003) had distilled their sexy dance-pop to perfection. Where else could this pair―Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory―venture to now? For Goldfrapp, they peered back to the beginning; rather than resurrect their blitzkrieg blend of classical and electronic music that gripped Felt Mountain (2000), they dialed back. The folky air that permeated Seventh Tree may have disappointed at first listen.

The patient were rewarded with an album whose amber and gold hues charmed. Whereas the orchestral works of Felt Mountain were often marred by belching “bleeps” and “bloops,” here the strings were totally unobstructed. However, the stark violin work that characterized Black Cherry and Supernature was exchanged on Seventh Tree by a blend of violins and acoustic guitars. This musical marriage birthed atmospheric backdrops for “Clowns” and “A&E”.

Lyrically, Goldfrapp had always leaned on voyeurism versus crafting songs about themselves. That did not change on Seventh Tree, even if the stories behind songs such as “Eat Yourself” and “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” read as obtuse when introduced.

Forbearance was a virtue for previous fans of Goldfrapp’s preceding trio of recordings, but their music never felt more refreshing. Seventh Tree played as a portent for their lauded Tales of Us (2013) album, though its homogeneity placed it second behind the broader brightness of Seventh Tree.

Watch / Listen: “Happiness

Purchase here

Super Critical

Super Critical

Artist: The Ting Tings

Album: Super Critical (2014 / 2015, Finca)

Personnel: Jules De Martino (background vocals / lead guitar / drums / bass guitar / piano); Katie White (lead vocals / bass drums /bass  guitar / guitar)

Production Duties: Jules De Martino, Andy Taylor

Vibe: Immediate darlings upon their arrival with We Started Nothing (2008), The Ting Tings were the hottest alt-pop pairing on the scene. Their flavorful follow-up, Sounds From Nowheresville (2012), did not receive as much affection upon its unveiling. De Martino and White stepped back and decided to retool their approach for their third project. Assisted by temperamental (and former) Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor, Super Critical benefited from a groove oriented focus without relinquishing good hooks.

When their lead single “Wrong Club” impacted, lazy commentators accused The Ting Tings of jumping on the disco revival “spearheaded” by Daft Punk and Pharrell in the last two years―this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Many previous disco resurrections had occurred before 2012, noticeably at the beginning of the last decade.

The Ting Tings dancefloor retrofit mined that unpretentious epoch’s feel with the flashy frippery of the title song and the mentioned cut “Wrong Club”. “Wrong Club,” in spite of its addictive floor filling pace, possessed that acerbic wit that made the pair’s songwriting angle so much fun on prior outings.

As the listener descended further into the LP, the beats stayed plentiful (“Do It Again,” “Communication”). The Ting Tings even saved space for a juicy 1990’s R&B throwback in “Wabi Sabi”. It’s a testament to De Martino and White’s abilities that they stood toe-to-toe with superstar Taylor throughout the LP. Once the album wrapped, at just nine tracks, Super Critical showed The Ting Tings far from ready to be relegated to the hipster band bargain bin.

Watch / Listen: “Wrong Club

Purchase here

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The QH Blend’s “Q Sounds” Vol. 1

Q Sounds for January 2015

Q Sounds for January 2015

Music is my lifeblood and as a writer about its culture, I need it―all the time. Whether scanning aisles in new or used music shops or spying on Amazon, I’m always buying and listening to new music. This format will allow me to capture what music I’ve bought each month and detail it for you, the readers. The three records highlighted will hopefully catch your attention and you’ll follow the purchase links included. Enjoy.

Make It Better

Make It Better

Artist: Dubstar

Album: Make It Better (2000, EMI)

Personnel: Sarah Blackwood (vocals); Steve Hillier (keyboardist); Chris Wilkie (guitars)

Production Duties: Dubstar, Mike “Spike” Drake

Vibe: Rising out of the fertile grounds of mid-1990’s British pop, Dubstar played like fellow Britons Saint Etienne with a touch of Garbage on Disgraceful (1995). When their third―and thus far final―long player Make It Better (2000) appeared, it was the lost link between the aforementioned Garbage’s Version 2.0 (1998) and beautifulgarbage (2001). It is easy to see why as Make It Better blended their elegant ennui with bottom heavy guitar grooves (“Take It,” “Stay,” “I’m Conscious of Myself”).

The edge worked well for Dubstar, but being the poppy trio they were they shone best in that arena―see lead single “I (Friday Night)”. Its country-lite licks worked well within its mock Tamla-Motown frame. Sarah Blackwood’s voice, in fine, siren form, was efficacious in capturing the listener.

Make It Better repackaged that disenchanted, but engaged Dubstar presence for the millennium. The (slight) up-to-date sheen placed on the overall album gave it a tastefully aware sense of a new decade dawning―thankfully it didn’t play like an eager set trying to be contemporary for the sake. Unfortunately, the record fell on disinterested ears and scored a minor hit with the previously discussed “I (Friday Night)”. Dubstar has since reformed and work is (seemingly) underway to follow-up this gem. If Make It Better is to signal the trio’s curtain call, they couldn’t go out on a more stylish note than they do here.

Watch / Listen: “I (Friday Night)

Purchase here

Islands

Islands

Artist: Kajagoogoo

Album: Islands (1984, EMI)

Personnel: Steve Askew (guitar); Nick Beggs (lead vocals / bass / percussion / chapman stick); Stuart Croxford Neale (synthesizer / background vocals); Jez Strode (drums / percussion)

Production Duties: Kajagoogoo, Colin Thurston

Vibe: “Too Shy” was the immortal hit that defined this British New Romantic outfit, but the story was never as simple as that tune. The mentioned hit and its parent LP White Feathers (1983) were co-helmed by Duran Duran founder Nick Rhodes and their producer Colin Thurston. Many attributed the album’s success to Rhodes and Thurston’s involvement, but  Kajagoogoo were very present as a band on that project. By the time Islands appeared in 1984, lead vocalist Limahl had been ousted and went on to record his own solo entry Don’t Suppose (1984).

Islands evinced that the now four-piece Kajagoogoo were more than up to the task of handling their own affairs. Nick Beggs stepped up to lead singer duties; flitting between flash and restraint, his voice (and playing) matched his bandmates renewed passion.

Moving into a sophisti-pop vein, a movement that gained more traction globally during the mid-to-late 1980’s, Islands balanced rock fervor with jazz chops. Whether acidic and groovy on “Big Apple” or imparting hypnotic melancholia on the titular song, Kajagoogoo had found their voice in their post-Limahl tumult. The album culminated with an ambitious instrumental, “The Loop,” that would have fit perfectly on Sade’s Diamond Life (1984).

Islands began strong with the U.K. Top 10 hit “Big Apple”; later singles failed to make wider impact. Their U.S. traction was lost when Islands received no release there. Eager to shed preconceptions, the group (unwisely?) rechristened themselves as “Kaja” and birthed an amended EP for Islands entitled Extra Play (1984). No dice. Their last record, the funkier Crazy People’s Right to Speak (1985), met a similar fate. Despite being written off as one-hit wonders, Kajagoogoo’s Islands is a fantastic snapshot of British pop at an interesting interval with this band at their peak.

Watch / Listen: “Turn Your Back on Me

Purchase here

Atlas

Atlas

Artist: Kinky

Album: Atlas (2003, Nettwerk America / Sonic 360)

Personnel: Giberto Cerezo (vocals / guitars); Carlos Chairez (guitars); Omar Gongora (drums); Ulises Lozano (keyboards / programmer); Cesar Pliego (bass)

Production Duties: Kinky, Thom Russo

Vibe: Kinky (2002), the debut album, was an indie-hit; its mix of electronic pop, rock and Latin music was instantly addictive. Yet the album felt staid, as if the Mexican band was keeping their best tricks in the bag. The following year, their second album Atlas released the Kinky beast that would define all their later recordings. Atlas opened on a frenetic fusion high with “Presidente” before seguing into “The Headphonist”―that off-kilter jam featured co-lead vocals with Cake singer John McCrea.

The remainder of Atlas surfed between a miscellany of percussion―natural and artificial―electronic twitches and (surprisingly) quieter moments (“Not Afraid,” “Semillas de Menta”).  Atlas often gets admonished as Kinky’s most “alternative” outing, but (again) it set-off the chain reaction for the against the grain curve that personified later recordings: Reina (2006), Barracuda (2008) , Sueño de la Maquina (2011).

Kinky seemed to lean heavily on its electronic crutch, but Atlas tossed out the formula and went balls to the wall with its tunes. One of their most satisfying releases, Atlas shouldn’t be pegged erroneously due to its fearlessness to sonically wander.

Watch / Listen: Presidente”

Purchase here

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2014 in review

Readers! See how you made The QH Blend one of the must-read blogs of the year! Here’s to 2015!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 11,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The QH Blend’s Records of 2014

Sample of The QH Blend's 2014 music selections

Sample of The QH Blend’s 2014 music selections

The QH Blend unveils its selections for 2014 via Blogcritics. Please click here to see which albums made the cut and my thoughts on said recordings. See below for individual reviews for albums included in my 2014 list.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Wanderlust / Johnnyswim: Diamonds / Kelis: Food / Kimbra: The Golden Echo / Lenny Kravitz: Strut* / Jennifer Lopez: A.K.A. / Kylie Minogue: Kiss Me Once / Jody Watley: Paradise

[Editor’s Note: *―denotes originally published on Blogcritics.]

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The QH Blend Elsewhere in 2014

OtherAssignments

The QH Blend had a very busy year with its essays being published on both PopMatters and Blogcritics. If you’ve missed the essays, I’ve collected them all here; see below for the specific link to the corresponding artist that you’re interested in.  My selections from 2014 will be appearing soon, so be on the lookout!

Beyoncé / Brandy / Madonna & Kylie Minogue / Alanis Morissette / SealDonna Summer / Kim Wilde

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