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Buy the new album!

#4 - Adele, The Comedian

The case can be made that the most entertaining segment on network TV is Carpool Karaoke. It appears, of course, on the Late Late Show with James Corden behind the wheel. There's lots of expert vocalizing, rapping, laughter, and raucous conversations with some of the gaudiest stars in popular music. he and his guests sing along to the car's sound system. The delightful mayhem in the from seat leads one to pray that Mr. Corden is driving a prop; otherwise, you might witness some bloody epic face plants through the windshield.

Among the burgeoning list of passengers that have gone for the ride are venerable stars like Elton john, Stevie Wonder, and Rod Stewart. The current pop scene is also well-represented with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Sia, Demi Lovato, and Nick Jonas; and yes, even Justin Bieber. Occasionally, an actor or two will hop in the backseat like George Clooney and Julia Roberts. The whole array can be viewed on Youtube. No surprise there, since every nanosecond of our lives seems to show up on Youtube, bathroom breaks included, I fear.

What immediately stands out when viewing these episodes is that James coredn is one hell of a singer himself. he revels in harmonizing with this guests, usually taking the higher part even when it's a female riding shotgun. His pitch is impeccable, his volume glass-shattering, and the sheer joy he exudes while singing is infectious. The famous folks sharing the jaunt with hima re on notice that they have to step up their game to match his chops and enthusiasm. This is one karaoke that is a joke and no joke at the same time. It should be noted that a quick bit of research will reveal the fact that James Corden has a resume that includes roles in film musicals etc. In other words, he's no amateur. What seals the deal for his job as host is his ingratiating, politely snarky pr

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#3 - The Curl of the Burl (Metallica to Mastodon)

Under a perfect pale blue sky, the long shadows of a late afternoon in April starting to seep across the field like spilled paint, Kirk Hammet and James Hetfield of Metallica played the national anthem for a packed house at a Giants' game in San Francisco. Heavy metal and America's pastime jamming together! I pictured the gathered throngs headbanging while doing 'the wave' and thrusting their arms in the air, their hands formed with the index and pinkie fingers poking up to signify the devil's horns. The two metal icons assumed an aggressive stance in front of a pair of hulking amp stacks. Both musicians wore Giants' jerseys and their guitars were emblazoned with the team's bright orange logo. They proceeded to rip through a well-conceived rendition of the anthem with Hetfield providing harmony lines to Kirk's lead as well as some counterpoint power chord chunking that made all kinds of sense. To their credit, they didn't try to rehash the Hendrix version. Later, I guess Lars, Metallica's drummer, got the nod to threw out the ceremonial first pitch before the game.

Now, unless you're insistent on being a downer, or you're like the person who posted a comment on YouTube pointing out a supposed mistake Hammet made during the anthem with the exact second it occurred, this event was inspired and just plain fun. I'm a Dodgers' fan, so it kills me to give the Giants' organization its due, but a hearty 'hell yeah', I say. Metallica should be especially applauded. They obviously took their preparation and performance seriously while not taking themselves or the event too seriously. You can sense this aura of good-natured humor about the whole thing. Plus, I got to thinking, can you imagine the heavyweight funds those two Giants' signature guitars would bring at some charity auction?

Metallica has taken a lot of grief over the past twenty years. I vividly remember the outrage when the band took on Napster at the outset of the whole file-sharing craze. But, well before that episode, there was considerable fan rebellion upon the release of 'Load' and 'Reload, and pretty much every record since then, especially 'St. Anger' with the pots and pans drum sounds. Even the black album would be dismissed by the band's fanboy headbangers as a sell-out. Well, it certainly sold out, going multi, multi-platinum for years as Metallica achieved stratospheric superstardom, so that now, I've heard, each member can go on tour in their own 737 with their families in tow. The great achievement of the black album was to take the endless riffage of their previous work and distill the tracks into tighter, leaner songs. The shining example was 'Enter Sandman'. Here was the grandeur of heavy metal in the guise of a powerful hit single. When the opening guitar lick of the song is played to a stadium crowd of eighty thousand, you can bet the scene will be instantly transformed into a vast mosh pit.

Although there's always the pioneers who came before, blazed the trail, Metallica pushed the envelope of hard rock and transformed it into heavy metal. It was toward the end of the hair band era with songs about panties and partying, alcohol and hedonism. Metallica sang about doom and gloom; their guitars pumped out miles thick distortion; Hetfield's vocals growled full of hate. This was serious business. It was the next plateau; it was heavy freakin' metal! Pantera and Slayer were right there as well.

All well and good, but what is the state of the metal now? First of all, there's a ton of sub-genres. You have speed and thrash metal, death metal, and grindcore! which sounds particularly foreboding. There are a number of others for sure. And it's customary that all the guitars tune way below standard these days, then drop the sixth string another whole step. The result is a blitzkrieg of bottom end that strays beyond the limits of human hearing.

Then, there's the snorting, incomprehensible wild boar in heat vocal style that has dominated for awhile now. It has a barking quality like pit bulls about to attack the mailman, or the sound of bad plumbing. I once attended a Meshuggah concert whose vocalist was belching and snorting with ease, and miraculously, the crowd was mouthing all the words. I nudged the guy next to me and asked if someone handed out lyric sheets. I know each generation has to up the ante and be more obnoxious than the last, but this vocal affectation is really tedious and moronic.

For me, the one band that transcends all this is Mastodon. Their music has been referred to as thinking man's metal. Their lyrics strive for something different than the 'purple skeletons dying in the streets' type stuff of most metal. In fact, the words on their album, 'Leviathan' were inspired by 'Moby Dick'. The lead vocalist actually sings, and when he bellows, it's still musical. You still hear pitch and crafted melody with plenty of angry power in the tank. Here and there, there's even a few background vocals.

The band's instrumental tracks are full of swirling double guitar lines. I'm reminded of the expansive breadth of a symphonic movie score on much of their stuff, particularly the music on 'Crack the Skye'. One song from that album begins with a banjo riff of all things.

Recently, Mastodon was nominated for a Grammy for their song, 'The Curl of the Burl', and here's where we come full circle from 'Enter Sandman'. Mastodon's record, 'The Hunter' is like Metallica's black album in that it is also an effort to pare things down, to be more economical with the arrangements, to tighten things up. It's more song-oriented and the crown jewel of the collection is 'The Curl of the Burl'. If Top Forty radio was still a democratic institution, the tune would be a smash hit. It sounds like Ozzie if he had evolved his music over the decades instead of becoming a kind of inebriated presence on reality TV.

I've made a determined effort to decipher the lyrics for 'The Curl of the Burl', and my best guess is that it's a slim portrait of a murderous lumberjack?! The dark lords of metal must be smiling down there in hell.

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#2 - Black Keys and 21st Century Blues

At least ten years ago, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I decided to check out a big Indie festival at the Wiltern theatre in L.A. Some of the big names in the genre were appearing. Conor Oberst trotted out a large group he called 'Bright Eyes' that included two cello players. There was an Irish rap band which seemed odd because I wasn't aware of such a thing as Indie rap. Also, Cat Power did a stripped down set. At one point, she performed an ancient James Brown ballad 'Try Me' while wandering out into the audience, eventually settling on to some guy's lap, crooning to him with her arm around his shoulder. Wow, I thought, if this is the world of Indie music, where do I sign?

Anyway, after that, I started to leave even though a few more acts were scheduled. It was late and I had an early morning ahead. But, as I made my way down the aisle, these two nerdy goofs hit the stage. I could see a set of drums and a Fender combo amp propped on a folding chair. That's it! I was thinking they must be truly Indie. Then they began banging out these fuzzed out, sludgy, blues influenced tunes. The guitarist wrestled with his Telecaster, slurred his vocals like he was somewhat liquored up; while the drummer, a tall gawky dude sporting Buddy Holly-type oversized eyeglasses, galumphed around the beat. I sat back down and thoroughly enjoyed my first exposure to the Black Keys. The music was raw, lurching, a bit like knocking over trash cans, and somehow fresh in its approach to the blues. I was totally surprised because, in my experience, the young disciples of the Indie world, and the current pop scene in general, react to the blues as if it's a dreaded foreign language that only old farts can understand let alone appreciate. The Black Keys changed that dynamic. Their appearance suggests they might play in a band like Modest Mouse, but they sound like they're channeling Howlin' Wolf.

Fast forward to the present, and The Black Keys have become big business. They've garnered multiple Grammys; in fact, Dan Auerbach, the Keys main man, just received one for being at the helm of a Dr. John record for Chrissake. A top producer like Danger Mouse has worked with them. They have the audience to merit headlining a venue such as the Staples Center where megastars Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga are the usual sort of attraction. On YouTube, you can catch them performing their latest hit 'Little Black Submarine' before a huge crowd. It's essentially Dan quietly fingerpicking his electric as the gathered throng sings right along with him. You can envision a thousand cellphone lighters held aloft.

How did this happen?

The Autotuned veneer of today's Top 40 music has a stranglehold on the airwaves. Rappers have been sucked into its vortex. Even 'Swiftees' are being served doses of dance-pop from their hero; in fact, she and Carrie Underwood have abandoned any real effort to sound country. Occasionally, a band like Train with 'Hey Soul Sister' or Foster the People's 'Pumped Up Kicks' slip through, plus anything Coldplay will release; but these are skilled pop excursions. Rock n' roll, on the other hand, has seemingly been banished from competing for hit single status, as if the star-making machinery has put a curse on it by decree.

The Black Keys, though, have managed to crash the party. They are a rogue organism that has infiltrated the music scene like a computer virus. Their raw, worn around the edges, distorted, lo-fi artillery blast of garage blues rock has struck a nerve, and the kids like it as much as their elders. The Keys' songs and riffs are direct, ready to sing in the shower, and always recorded utilizing astute sonic decisions that make the tracks sound very contemporary. My only complaint is the constant slap-back echo on the vocals.

The duo was given its first opportunity by Fat Possum records, a label known for releasing albums by senior citizen bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimborough. The result was called 'trance blues'. The tracks sounded menacing, drawn switchblades in the alley type stuff paired with DJ scratching and dropped in samples. You can hear the language of the Mississippi Delta being hauled into the 21st century. The venerable Buddy Guy cut an album at Fat Possum called 'Sweet Tea' that is the epitome of what I'm describing. The second song starts out with a crashing snare drum pattern that bashes out a marching cadence followed by the most ominous rumbling bass. Then Buddy's guitar splits the night with piercing stabs and moaning bends. The Fat Possum aesthetic strikes the listener as both primitive and cutting edge at the same time.

Are there others out there like the Black Keys who are stomping out the blues in new ways? Well, Gary Clark Jr. wowed Coachella last year and got a major label deal, but a group called Rival Sons, that I had discovered wandering the halls of ITunes, is a killer. Try their album 'Head Down'. The first track destroys everything in its path.

Yes, I'm happy to report that a new generation of blues musicians is poised to kick the can down forty miles of bad road into the new millennium. Have mercy!

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#1 - Jessie Ware vs. Death Grips

The music megafest at Coachella has been and gone again for another year. It seems like a favorite holiday has passed, leaving one drained and deflated, longing for the next one which feels impossibly far-off. Actually, now that the gathering in the desert is spread over six days and two week-ends, Coachella feels more like a lumbering ocean liner that has cruised into the night, the deck lights twinkling in the distance to cruelly beckon those melancholy folks left behind. I watched some of the proceedings via the Internet as I took advantage of the live streaming offered online. This made me feel a kinship with the earbud, mobile device, file-sharing generations camped out at Coachella. A majority of the bands I watched fell into the indie/alternative genre and were very earnest. I saw a lot of boring stage attire, spastic gyrations that passed for dance moves as well as plenty of shoe-gazing, and vocals with questionable pitch. I did like the lead guitar slinger for Father John Misty. I also enjoyed the Sermon on the Mount meeting of R Kelly and the group Phoenix, although I was disappointed that he didn't appear as a hologram like Tupac last year.

Then, of course, I had to sample the EDM portion of the festival where morphing visuals overwhelmed the performers and the music. A case in point would be Trent Reznor's How to Destroy Angels project. The visuals were a godsend, even though the band members looked trapped inside those virtual curtains, because the music was so dismal. I'm sure it's fun to be at an EDM event, a mesmerizing, pounding environment. As a pure listening experience, I still feel like I'm intruding on the soul of a machine, although I do own an Autechre album that i bust out when I'm feeling angular. EDM definitely has a place at Coachella or any other rock festival for that matter. It's enormously popular and ready for the gossip columns; after all, Skrillex has reportedly hooked up with Ellie Goulding, the pop/folk star. Maybe he'll be EDM's John Mayer and start bouncing from one celeb after another, breaking hearts along the way.

So, the live streaming helped me sample the music and performances, but it was the print media that provided clues as to which performers were creating some buzz. London's Jessie Ware was one I chose to investigate. She is poised to join a group of excellent British female vocalists that has emerged over the last decade including Adele, of course, Joss Stone, Jessie J., Amy Winehouse, and Alice Russell to name a few.

Ms. Ware took command of the stage at Coachella, roamed around in front of the band (two musicians manipulating all sorts of software, key-boards, laptops, and percussion), appeared very comfortable in her own skin, arm gestures fluid and integrated, all the things you want to see in a lead singer. Her vocal chops are impressive; she can purr and shout with the best of them. Unfortunately, the electronic juggernaut accompanying her dominated the set like it was a competition; and this is where some issues start for me.

Her new album, entitled 'Devotion', is a case in point. The backing tracks are a sort of post-dubstep melange of synths and samples. Nothing wrong with that, but this production borders on obtrusive. Her vocals, which are heavily processed and thickened, struggle to be more than an afterthought as opposed to being the star of the show. The songs themselves are dreamy tone poems hovering around the same tempo, and a stiff one at that. An egregious example is 'Small Talk', a track plagued by the most plodding and non-swinging shuffle one could imagine. The 'techno' concept for this record is potentially a good one, and the reason I was intrigued by the album in the first place. The production crew just forgot what was most important which is Jessie Ware's voice.

And this brings me to a brief discussion of a buzz act from last year's extravaganza at the Indio Polo Grounds.

Death Grips is a rap group but that hardly describes them. Here the rhymes are supported by enough electronic mayhem to make dubstep sound like lounge music; you might imagine the controlled chaos to have originally been inspired by the mechanical blips and bleeps found blaring from a battered, old school video arcade game parked in a dusty corner of the neighborhood laundromat. The rapper's flow roars like a mad Viking with weird cadences, odd dynamics, stops and starts. The words spill out in gruff tones of frantic defiance as if the anarchic voices of the Occupy Movement had been ramped up on steroids; and unlike Jessie Ware's fate, the rapper (Stephan Burnett) is up front and driving the engine. It's all innovative stuff and sure beats listening to Tyler the Creator rhapsodize about his penis. Sadly, after a perusal of my local search engine, and who could doubt the information found there, Death Grips has feuded with their record company, cancelled a tour, had their website shut down, the kind of stuff I hope doesn't signal a self-destructive path.

Death Grips and Jessie Ware, two very different music makers; it will be interesting to see and hear how they move forward.

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