Tag Archives: Motown

Why “Back to Black” Is One of the Best Albums of the 2000s

Ever since I was little I’ve always wanted to discover artists who end up becoming huge before anyone else does. I was always jealous of 40 years old guys telling me that they saw U2 or REM in a small little club. I’ve only had that luck with two artists: Kings of Leon and Amy Winehouse.

I first heard about her in a British Music Magazine sometime in early 2007. There were mentions of old school soul with an updated sound. From the pictures, she was equally fascinating with her signature bee-hive and Cleopatra eye-lashes. Little did I realize at the time,  that the tattoos that adorned her as she wore girl groups outfits were symbolic of her music – updating a classic. Christina Aguilera had desperately tried a retro sound and style the year before, but as always with her it seemed like posturing. Winehouse seemed legitimate, even if I had yet to hear a single song from her.

As it turned out, Back to Back had yet to be released in the US. I kind of forgot about it for a while until I saw the album randomly at a record store. Remembering what I had read, I quickly snatched it up. Needless to say, I sort of became obsessed with it really quick. This was unusual for me, since I don’t usually listen to albums that could potentially be considered “Top 40”.

But there was something about Back to Black that pulled me in. Obviously, a huge part of the appeal was the sound. Winehouse looked like she wanted to be in the Ronettes or the Shangri-Las but on Back to Black, she played the part. The melodies were reminiscent of classic Motown singles without sounding like a knock-off.  It also didn’t hurt that many of the songs on the album were backed by the Dap-Kings – a soul revival band most famous for their work with Sharon Jones.

Of course the sound itself wouldn’t matter as much if the songs weren’t good. On Back to Black, Winehouse is hilarious, self-deprecating, vulgar and most of all heart-breaking. Her voice is warm and affecting, while also devastating. “Rehab” may be the album’s most famous song – but that’s only skimming the surface. “You shrug and its the worst, to truly stick the knife in first” Winehouse admits in “You Know I’m No Good”. Amazingly she also manages to make the word “fuckery” sound like a real word and full of soul on “Me & Mr. Jones”. If anyone else had uttered that in a song, I would have laughed.

The absolute best song on the album, is the title track. It’s a titan of a song, and a legendary performance. If anyone doubts that Winehouse wasn’t talented, all they need to do this is listen to this song. Over a dark and pouring piano, Winehouse generates a sympathy for scorned lover that is very rare in pop music – “We only said goodbye with words, I died a a hundred times, you go back to her and I go back to black.”  During the bridge, Winehouse repeats the word “black” several times. There’s no doubt that she had to come from a dark place to sing like that.

On an episode of Glee, Will Schuster informs his students that the best songs come from pain. And that’s the case with Back to Black. It’s an album that only certain people can make. For us, we got great music. It’s too bad Winehouse never realized her talents.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 1. The White Stripes

In 1973 the critically hated band Grand Funk Railroad claimed themselves to be “An American Band”.  But few bands are as strictly American as The White Stripes.  The ghosts of Son House, Robert Johnson, and Blind Willie McTell  live in Jack White’s basement.  Using old blues records and folk songs as a template, The White Stripes created some of the most authentic and engaging music to come out in decades.  Add to that they came from Detroit, perhaps popular music’s most important city.  It’s a city known for its blues artists in the 50s and 60s, and helped popularize Black Music with Motown in the 1960s, and conceived punk-rock with The Stooges and The MC5.  The White Stripes have almost exclusively ignored musical trends since the end of the 1960s, an era when Detroit seemed to fall out of favor with the music public.

Even as they’ve dug up the past, The White Stripes live in a world that very few artists have.  It’s a world that isn’t defined by time.  While Elephant and White Blood Cells they could easily  exist in the 50s just as they do in our age.  Just like The Basement Tapes, The White Stripes looked to Americana for inspiration, but in the process created their own version.

Crucial to their own version of Americana, is The White Stripes’ own myth-making.  It may seem silly in the age of information for Jack and Meg to insist on being siblings when in fact they were really married at one point.  But like their heroes, they created personas of themselves directly linking themselves to the past, even going so far as to change their names.  Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play guitar. In In the early stages of his career Bob Dylan (another of White’s heroes) created the illusion that he was actually a ho-bo to make himself seem more authentic in the burgeoning folk-scene.  In “Ball and Biscuit”, White refers himself to “the 7th son” – a folklore concept in which the 7th son is given special powers due to his birth order.  It’s no coincidence that White makes this declaration in a seven minute showcase for his fiery guitar freak-outs.  By making such claims, The White Stripes are securing their place in American culture, right alongside other legendary artists.

But it’s really the music where The Stripes establish their credibility.  It’s a primitive and primal crunch, that has to be made two people.  Adding another instrument of person would take away from the rawness that harkens back to the blues records.  There’s a reason why they only recorded with vintage guitars and equipment.  It’s not just because they prefer that particular sound.  Anything else, would make them just another blues band, instead of blues purists.

That sound, while if not wholly original, must have been a shock to casual radio fans who weren’t familiar with the likes of Son House and others.  In era where everything on rock radio seemed homogenized, “Fell in Love With a Girl” was a blast of fresh air.  Not since “Blitzkrieg Bop” have two minutes sounded so exciting and fresh.  “Fell In Love With a Girl” helped established The White Stripes as a new voice in rock and roll to the mainstream (even though they had been receiving critical attention for a while), but it was really “Seven Nation Army” and Elephant that saw them conquer the world.

With that famous “bass riff”, Seven Nation Army”, has got to be one of the weirdest songs to grace radio in years.  The whole song is built around a variation of the same chord, and there’s no chorus. While some detractors have claimed that Meg White as a terrible drummer, no other drummer would have sounded right for this song.  White has claimed the title came from a childhood mispronunciation of “salvation army”, but the magic number 7 pops up again.

The White Stripes’ popularity suddenly make it possible for younger bands to realize that they didn’t have to be pigeon-holed by a particular sound.  Over the last decade, there has been a surplus in bands that just contains two members, or omit a bass player – The Black Keys and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, being the most prominent.  Numerous unsigned and local bands have also taking the cue as well.  But trying to be authentic, The White Stripes have helped create a rock revolution not seen since the punk-era or grunge.

As significant as their influence on younger bands is, The White Stripes remain legendary because they’ve established themselves as part of American culture in a way that few artists have.  The White Stripes could never keep going, because Jack White is always on the move – always between two places, never staying in the same place once.  Since their break-up they’ve truly managed to become what they’ve always wanted – artists that existed for a time, but never part of a particular time.

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Bowie Collaborations: “Dancing in the Street”

Yesterday, I wrote about “Under Pressure”.  Today’s close-up is going to be David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s version of Martha & The Vandella’s “Dancing in the Street”.

The original version of “Dancing in the Street” is one of the defining songs of Motown.  And it’s also listed as #40 on Rolling Stones’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  While it originated as a party song and dance-single, it later took on greater meaning when many protesters cited the song as an anthem for civil rights.

What probably started off as a good idea, David Bowie and Mick Jagger decided to record a version of the song as a charity single for Live-Aid in 1985.  Two of the greatest singers getting together for a charity single, and covering one of Motown’s greatest songs?  What could possibly go wrong?

What could have been a great one -off single, turned into something completely different.  (I’ll mention the infamous video later, don’t worry.) Even before the song actually begins, you know it’s going to be the musical equivalent of something like Denny’s Fried Cheese sandwich as Mick Jagger shouts, “Ok!” (followed by something incomprehensible) and Bowie adding, “South America!”  Then there’s the horns.  And then it’s pure 80’s dance-pop – leaving any shred of the original version’s gusto behind.

It’s not like either Bowie or Jagger didn’t know how to record a soul song.  The Rolling Stones covered numerous soul singles before this (including a great version of “Just My Imagination”) and many of the songs on Exile on Main Street found the Stones dabbling in soul among other genres.  And many of Jagger’s signature dances movies were ripped off soul-singers (most notably taking cues from James Brown).  As for Bowie, he put his stamp on “plastic soul” with “Changes”, “Young Americans” & Golden Years”.

Throughout their career, both Jagger and Bowie took cues from musical genres that preceded them and reinvented them in their own image creating some of the best rock and roll in the process.  This was probably their intention when they made “Dancing in the Street”.  (I’m hoping.)

Without the video, the song would still be ridiculous.  (Especially when Jagger ad-libs, “Back in the USSR!” ).  But then there’s the video.  Believe what you want to about Jagger & Bowie sleeping together, but there’s no denying the chemistry that they have in this video.  (There’s a pretty long article about the “affair” between the two here.) Jagger’s outfit is pretty awful, and what’s up with Bowie wearing what appears to be a  lab-coat?

Yet, all the same, as bad as the song and video are, I still find them both extremely hilarious.  It makes me laugh every time, and I would definitely rank “Dancing in the Street” as one of the greatest videos ever.  Perhaps that was their idea along.

Incidentally, when I was in New York City last year I saw someone with a shirt with Jagger’s face on it that said, “I fucked David Bowie”.  I really wanted to get it.

Dancing in the Street:

 

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