Saturday, July 19, 2008

Sharleen Spiteri injects soul into Melody

Over the past twenty years Sharleen Spiteri is mostly associated with the Scottish rock band Texas. Intererstingly, she's just released her first solo album, 'Melody' and the accompanying Northern soul single 'All The Times I Cried'. The album is a masterclass in singer/songwriting and makes Duffy and Adele sound souless.

Spiteri not only wrote and produced all the songs on the album, apart from one track which was co-produced by ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler at Edwyn Collins' London studio. Now, at he age of 40, Sharleen says the album was her response to the recent split with her longtime partner Ashley Heath, the father of her daughter Misty Kyd.

The collection of songs sound genuine and steeped in authentic soul power. The influences are there, with shades of the Supremes, Shangri-las, Dusty Springfield, Nancy Sinatra, Jackie De Shannon, and even Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin.

The title track, 'Melody', is based on 'Jane B', the b-side of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's 1969 'Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus'. "It's about me finding salvation through this record," explains Sharleen. "Coming out of a long relationship, made me rethink my life and the one thing that kept me going was music."

The album closes with a sentimental tribute to the 60's singer Francoise Hardy. Explains Sharleen, "It's saying, 'You tried to take something from me, you maybe took it for a second, but you never really stole it'."

This is a wonderful sounding record with a authentic sounding sixties sound sung by a real torch singer with plenty of emotion, heart and soul. Not only does Sharleen sound sexy and sultry, but she displays buckets of emotion and makes each song sound like a memorable timeless modern classic.

She's not faking it.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Martha and the Muffins: It started in Echo Beach and ended up in Danseparc

A few weeks ago I stumbled across a French Canadian blogger who swore blind that Echo Beach was a make-believe place that never existed (except in song). I always thought the beach existed, but now, with an interview that was recently published in Canada's National Post newspaper, I think I was bang on the money.

"The song was inspired by a trip the Muffins' guitarist, Mark Gane, took with his pal Harvey to Sunnyside Beach, a soft-sanded cove on Lake Ontario in Toronto's west end. On that fateful summer evening 30 years ago..."

Here's the National Post story in full (published on July 14 08)

Song's creator goes back to 'Echo Beach'

Craig Offman on Martha and the Muffins' guitarist, Mark Gane, who was inspired by a trip he took to Sunnyside Beach in Toronto.

In the late '70s, when walrus-moustached rockers in hockey jerseys ruled Toronto's stodgy music scene, an aspiring guitarist named Mark Gane helped change all that with a hit called Echo Beach.

The song was inspired by a trip he took with his pal Harvey to Sunnyside Beach, a soft-sanded cove on Lake Ontario in the city's west end. On that fateful summer evening 30 years ago, Mr. Gane may or may not have smoked the sweet herb, soaked up the Impressionistic lights flashing in the evening fog and dreamed up lyrics about this isolated retreat, where "waves make the only sound" and "there's not a soul around."

Echo Beach, as the chorus goes, was "far away in time." So far away, in fact, that it can't be found on any map. Legend has it that Martha and the Muffins made up the whole damn thing.

Over the span of about six weeks, Mr. Gane cobbled together a larger narrative about an office clerk remembering her summer idyll. "The only thing that helps pass the time away," she laments in the chorus, "is knowing I'll be back at Echo Beach some day."

Sung by Mr. Gane's future wife, Martha Johnson, and performed by their band, Martha and the Muffins, the jazz-inflected tune quickly became a CanCon classic in 1980 and cracked the Top 10 on the U. K. charts. At the time, this was a rare coup for any Canadian band with arty pretensions.

"The year before, we were playing at the Beverly Tavern," said Mr. Gane, sitting at the Sunnyside Cafe, metres away from where the inspiration hit him. "Then all of a sudden we're on top. It was all very surreal."

A one-time student at the Ontario College of Art, Mr. Gane was part of an era when many art-school kids minored in rock. Many of them flocked to the Beverly Tavern, a hangout that helped pioneer alternative culture in a white-bread city. "It was where weird bands like ours could have an audience without people calling us faggots and throwing beer bottles at us," he recalls.

Bans like the Diodes and the Dishes hung around there. So did another act, Oh Those Pants!, led by Martha Johnson, who with Mr. Gane and four other musicians would form the Muffins in 1977.

A year later, the band snagged a record deal with Virgin Records, which signed them up partly on the strength of their song Insect Love, which was about a lovelorn man who falls in love with a moth.

That summer, Mr. Gane took his fateful trip to Sunnyside Beach.

Three decades later, Mr. Gane's recollection of the creative process is a little hazy. At first he suggested that pot might have assisted in the songwriting craft, but then wasn't sure. "It's not out of squeamishness. I just don't remember."

Other details are equally hazy. The song's name occurred to him subconsciously, he said, as did one of its signature lines, "My job is very boring/I'm an office clerk." For several summers Mr. Gane was a wallpaper-quality checker. In hindsight, he speculates that he could have been channelling Ms. Johnson's brief experience as a provincial ministry worker. "Martha would finish her work, and when she offered to help out the others they refused because they wanted to drag it out. They wanted the overtime pay."

The song also cites a surreal building, but from our vantage point on Sunnyside Beach, I couldn't really see anything except a wind turbine.

"I actually haven't come back here to look at what I was actually seeing," he said.


"I probably have been here," he replied ponderously. "But not in the analytical sense. Not to analyze it."

After Echo Beach took off, the band headed to London, where they dodged spitgobs from adoring punk fans at such venerable clubs as The Marquee and The Electric Ballroom. They also won a coveted appearance on The Top of the Pops, only to be ridiculed by disc jockey Steve Wright while they lip-synched. "Strange to see that the singer of such a cool song had hair like Auntie Iris and dresses like Lieutenant Ohura," he scoffed.

Mr. Gane recalled a lot of sniffy reaction from the Brits, not least of all from the New Musical Express. "They hated us: The mewling muffins and their crappy little song."

At the same time, fans recognized them in chip shops and in Scottish hamlets. An audience in Paris bowed to Ms. Johnson as she sang.

Following the initial success, there were other memorable early-'80s CanCon gems, notably Women around the World at Work. The band then survived many intra-band hookups and breakups, teenage stalkers, critical praise, a name change (M + M) a brief commercial resurgence with the single, Black Stations/White Stations, and then a slow slip into obscurity.

After a 16-year hiatus, Mr. Gane, now 54, and the rest of the Muffins will release a new album in November, mixed by Grammy-winner David Bottrill. In the meantime, the band has just reissued a remastered version of Danseparc, their 1983 album produced by the legendary Daniel Lanois, brother of Muffin bassist Jocelyn.

Despite the band's absence over the years, the song's mystique has not waned. Fans from all over the United States e-mail Mr. Gane, wondering where they can find Echo Beach. There are hotels, hostels and boutiques all over the world named after the song. There is even a namesake drama series in Britain.

Ironically, Mr. Gane believes that Echo Beach does not represent his band's best work, but he is not about to disavow it, either. "I don't like taking anything for granted," he said. "I don't."

Okay, but what's the story behind "Danseparc", Martha and the Muffins' 1983 studio album, produced by Daniel Lanois. Danseparc, a far cry from Echo Beach, is like a distant cousin. First the obsession with beaches, and then parks? What's the connection?

Danseparc is one of those songs that has this hypnotic bassline, played by Jocelyn Lanois (sister of Daniel), enhanced with Martha Johnson's sexy Karen Carpenter vocals, backed with some weird keyboards and King Crimson-like guitar rhythms.

The album is getting a 25th Anniversary release on August 4th via Cherry Red Records in the UK. The album's been digitally remastered by Peter J. Moore (the dude who produced the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions album) and includes 3 bonus tracks including a 12" inch dance mix of the blessed Danseparc.

What's next for the Muffins, Smells Like Teen Spirit?

And for those cynics out there that said it couldn't be done, think again.

How to destroy a classic in three easy steps.

1. Choose the wrong singer.

2. Film the video as if it was a cross between a Jane Fonda workout video and a piece of soft porn.

3. Watch as the singer attempts some really naff dance moves.

The result?

Toyah slaughters Martha and the Muffins's classic Echo Beach.

Be very afraid...

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Madonna says "Don't stop me now, don't need to catch my breath, I can go on and on and on."

Give It 2 Me, the dancefloor stomper produced by Pharrell Williams, is quite possibly one of the best tracks from Madonna's chunky funky album "Hard Candy". What's incredible about the video is how amazing Madonna still looks. The woman is aspirational to 50 year olds who should know better. When Madonna shakes her ass, she's definitely putting out the right signals.

It's no surprise that the video medium was made for Madonna (or was Madonna made for the video medium?). Either way, put her in front of the camera, Madonna's musical persona becomes larger than life.

A welcome cameo appearance from Pharrell adds to the funky celebrations, making this the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid party video of the year.

It comes to no surprise then, that Madonna's clock was probably ticking, and it was time to ditch Justin for the real deal.

Snazzy, groovy, stylish and fun. Madonna chalks up another winning pop video to add to her candy store shennanigans. The one goes out to all those bitches out there (who still haven't forgotten how to dance).

Friday, July 11, 2008

Todd Rundgren strikes gold with 'Arena'

In 2004, Rundgren wowed fans and critics alike with the mind blowing return-to-form retro modern album "Liars". Expect the unexpected from the Wizard, A True Star. Todd's back, but this time he's not asking "can we still be friends?"

Rundgren's new album, "Arena", is a stripped down, back to basics collection of guitar rock anthems. Nuances and nods to vintage ZZ Top, Ted Nugent, RUSH, Robin Trower and AC/DC, make no mistake, this ain't no Salvation Army, formula rock dime store, digital plastic fantastic or a throwback to AOR radio. This ain't distant relative to the likes of REO Speedwagon, Foreigner and Journey.

Todd's got something to shout about. This time around he's really got his trip together, and the process is very entertaining. Like Neil Young, Rundgren continues to push the envelope.

The once-upon-a-time boy wonder who always reinvented the rock landscape with every new album he released, now, at the ripe age of 60, makes bands like the Strokes and the Killers sound redundant.

On his 1975 album, "Initiation", Rundgren once echoed the sentiments in the song "The Death of Rock and Roll"... "The critics got together and they started a game. You get your records for nothing, and you call each other names."

Twenty-eight years later, the former Hermit of Mink Hollow, continues to wave the rock'n'roll rule book in front of the noses of all those cynics who never even knew how to rock in the first place. It's a delightful display of self-recognition and an affirmation that he still holds all the cards close to his chest.

What you get on the new album is a one-way ticket into rock'n'roll salvation. Marvel as you listen to these gorgeous collection of songs. Not only do they evoke an emotional impluse, but, collectively, they also represent a rock mindset that doesn't date.

The album kicks off with the rock humdinger "Mad", followed by the lush mid-tempo power ballad, "Afraid." Make no mistake, on "Arena", Rundgren makes no concessions. This is a guitar rock album, simplified, potent and direct.

Third track in, TR hits the nail on the head with "Mercenary", a song that sounds like it could have stepped out of RUSH's "Moving Pictures" album. "How do you like me now?," screams Todd. No doubt, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson fans will love it.

Are you just lookin' for some "Tush", or is that that the same riff TR's executing in the song "Gun"? The latter starts off all retro sixties electric guitar and then if flash forwards to Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" with Utopia backing vocals. This is a bluesy guitar rockin' track that blasts Hendrix and Gary Moore. "This is my rifle and this is my gun. This is for fighting and this is for fun."

When you think there's no stopping the harder edged rock riffs, Rundgren, takes two steps back and introduces one of the best rock ballads of his career. In "Weakenss" he epitomises the human experience. The song starts with a lazy Hendrix guitar riff that sounds it was just ripped out of Electric Ladyland. Todd comes on with a bluesy, gutsy vocal, and literally sings his heart out. Shades of "The Last Ride" from the "Todd" album, and you suddenly find yourself in some kind of post hippy psychedelic acid flashback.

"Are you ready to rumble?" So, asks Todd in the AC/DC electrified song "Strike". Raise your fist in the air. FM radio, smoking dope in your best friend's kitchen, getting so drunk that you can't even remember your name or your home phone number. Remember that scene in Cameron Crowe's movie "Almost Famous", when the guitarist from the band "Stillwater" jumped off the roof of the house, into the swimming pool?

"Pissin" sounds like it was performed by a bar band straight out of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet", and then gradually morphs into some southern fried slide guitar anthem. Perfect for driving down Ventura Highway with the top down, drinking a beer with the car radio blasting.

"Today" begins with a shimmering keyboard intro, sneaks up and subjects you to a masterpiece in pop perfection. It's also quite possibly the only song on the new album that sounds like a distant relative to 2004's exquisite "Liars" album.

As you dig deeper into the album, the song "Courage" rears its head, and suddenly, you find yourself thrown back into Side 1 of "Faithful" where acoustic and electric guitar interweave into a hypnotic flurry of stunning melodic hooks, enhanced with beautiful vocals and glorious harmonies. This is Rundgren's shining moment; the key song that establishes the man as one of the greatest singer/songwriters of our time.

The song that illustrates Rundgren's genius as the ultimate songsmith is celebrated in the thumping, grunge electro guitar rocker, "Mountaintop". Here, Rundgren borrows the riff from Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In The Sky", and then turns it into a radio active guitar anthem, featuring one of the catchiest choruses you're likley to hear this year.

"Arena" is Todd Rundgren's masterclass in pop perfection. This is the Wizard's gripping return to the guitar rock album. It's a remarkable achievement.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Lou Reed: "I Dunno, What's The Difference?"

In 1974, Lou Reed flew to Sydney to perform two sold out concerts. As part of the trip, Lou was forced to endure a ridiculous press conference where he was cross-examined by a group of Australian news reporters.

The interview is done in a style reminiscent to the Warhol school of deadpan "show-no-emotion" answers. Lou turns the tables on the redneck Australian journalists, and comes off cooler than Marlon Brando in a scene straight out of the "The Wild One."

Reporter: "Could I put it bluntly... parden the question, but are you a transvestite or a homosexual?"

Lou: "Sometimes."

Reporter: "Which one?"

Lou: "What's the difference?"

Peter Gabriel champions Emmanuel Jal at the 46664 Nelson Mandela Concert

I was fortunate to attend the 4664 Nelson Mandela concert in London's Hyde Park on Friday June 27th.

The low points of the concert included Amy Winehouse, the Sugarbabes and Leona Lewis. And why was Gerri Spice standing beside Nelson Mandela when he made his speach?

The highlight of the show was totally unexpected, and went to the former Sudanese child soldier turned rapper, Emmanuel Jal. He blew the 50,000 strong crowd down, with a lovely introduction by none other than Peter Gabriel, who proclaimed him as “having the potential of a young Bob Marley.”

Jal's Mandela performance was timely, as it dovetailed his forthcoming digital download single, 'Emma' (keep checking iTunes), released from 22nd July.

Featured on the Sudanese rapper's new album ‘Warchild’, ‘Emma’ is dedicated to the British Aid worker Emma McCune, who rescued Emmanuel Jal from a continued existence as a child soldier.

Emma adopted Emmanuel and smuggled him to Kenya to begin a new life, where he could grow up safe and get an education. A few months later Emma died in a car accident.

“I met the next artist about 3 years ago and was enormously impressed with this young man from Sudan,” said Peter Gabriel, as he introduced Emmanuel Jal at the 46664 Nelson Mandela concert.

“His brutal childhood as a 7 year old child soldier taught him to be a mindless killing machine. People expected Mandela to come out of 27 years in jail calling for revenge but he came out calling for forgiveness, compassion and collaboration.”

"This next artist came out of the horror of a brutal war, a brutal childhood with a clear voice calling out against violence, hatred and materialism. He’s gonna have a huge influence in the world way beyond his music."

"He’s still developing and exploring his musical voice, but I think you have the opportunity to see someone with the potential of a young Bob Marley… Please give an enormous welcome to the amazing Emmanuel Jal.”

But this was no ordinary hype. Not even the likes of Queen and Paul Rodgers or Amy Winehouse could compete against the killer combination of Emmanuel Jal and Peter Gabriel. Along with Simple Minds and Eddy Grant, these were the only other artists that truly displayed pure "masterclass" at the Mandela event.

It came to no surprise then when the Daily Telegraph newspaper acknowledged Emmanuel Jal's explosive contribution to the Mandela bash.

"Some of the most memorable moments at the Mandela concert were the least expected. Peter Gabriel popped up to introduce Sudanese rapper and ex-boy soldier Emmanuel Jal, whose vivid and eloquent performance suggested the arrival of a star-in-waiting." - Adam Sweeting, Daily Telegraph

“His story demands to be heard” – Mojo

“Emmanuel Jal was electric (at Mandela).” – London Evening Standard

Emmanuel Jal on tour / Summer 2008:
* July 12th - Rising Styles Hiphop festival in Brighton
* July 13th - Rise Festival in Finsbury Park, London
* Aug 4th - 9th - Afrikadey Festival in Calgary, Canada
* Aug 16th - 17th - the V Festival
* Aug 22nd - the Greenbelt Festival, Cheltenham, UK