Monday, April 11, 2011

The New Soul Music

At South By Southwest this year, the biggest, most audible buzz (at least for those of us who didn't attend, at least!) was for a group from Silverlake called Fitz and the Tantrums. No angular indie or beardy folk group they -- the Tantrums play what could probably be termed "classic soul" music, heavily influenced by the sounds of Motown and Stax from the mid-to-late '60s.

And they're certainly not alone. Fitz and the Tantrums are part of a larger move back into the vintage soul sound that's been echoing loudly across the R&B genre for the last three or four years (at least in the overground -- even longer in the underground, natch). Indie listeners have slowly been crawling on the bandwagon, too -- the Tantrums, Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears and other New Soul artists have been creeping onto typically homogenous, whitebread indie radio playlists.

Why now? What happened?

As with any musical movement worth its salt, the New Soul started off as an underground revival movement. East Coast indie-soul groups like the Dap Kings and the Budos Band started cropping up five, six, seven years ago, and a largely underground soul revival movement based primarily in New York (and primarily around the Daptones label) began to bubble under the surface.

It could have been one of a thousand short-lived revival fads -- remember the swing revival in the late 90s? The burlesque revival in the early 00's? -- if it wasn't for the emergence of a few mainstream artists who championed this New Soul sound to the masses. Producer Mark Ronson grabbed onto the sound with both hands, and used the Dap Kings to back up Amy Winehouse on the Back To Black LP, the first mainstream New Soul album and still perhaps the finest.

Mainstream R&B was ready for this New Soul. It had been evolving towards a more organic, classic sound for a long time. After New Jack Swing, perhaps the next real "forward" evolution of the form in the late 90s and early 00s was the so-called "Neo-Soul" movement (D'Angelo, The Roots, Erykah Badu), which already embraced some of the New Soul values -- deep, often complex songwriting; influences from the 60s and 70s, organic instrumentation, and a "conscious" vibe that was as far apart from mainstream love-ballad-driven R&B as indie rock was from modern radio pop.

Perhaps the next most important New Soul salvo after the Winehouse album was Raphael Saadiq's exquisite The Way I See It. Saadiq, a founding member of Tony! Toni! Toné!, was already an important writer and producer in the Neo-Soul movement, having worked with D'Angelo on the seminal Voodoo LP and been a member of Lucy Pearl before striking out as a solo artist. On The Way I See It, Saadiq fully embraced the sound of Motown, even going so far as to work with some of the original Motown backing musicians.

What made the album great, though, and more than just a "revival" album or "retro" album, is that he remembered that Motown was more than just a "sound" -- it featured great, memorable, diverse songs. For years, the primary sound of R&B had been sexy bedroom ballads with nary a hook among 'em, but The Way I See It was top-loaded with popping dancefloor classics like "100 Yard Dash" and "Let's Take A Walk," all of which were loaded with great soul beats and memorable hooks.

Saadiq's album, too, was a hit in the indie world -- it received airplay on alternative and indie stations around the country, and received plaudits from normally soul-free "best of the year" lists. In a way, the mainstream success of Amy Winehouse gave the movement a voice, but Saadiq's success gave it cred -- no producer's darling he; Saadiq was a genuine R&B/hip-hop practitioner, and his refusal to sell out to trends made New Soul look like more than just a revival movement or brief side-track or fad.

Since the release of these albums, the New Soul movement has exploded. Artists previously associated with other movements scrambled to keep up, sometimes to excellent effect. John Legend, previously a smooth/adult-contemporary artist, teamed up with Neo Soul hip-hop group the Roots and made Wake Up, an album of fiery, stomping covers of 60s and 70s songs. Even R. Kelly -- known as much for his sex-crime exploits as his batshit crazy song moves -- got in on the action, releasing the excellent Love Letter, a smooth R&B album that channeled mid-70s Marvin Gaye. And improbably, talk-show-host son Robin Thicke released the amazing Something Else, an album of heavy, horn-driven R&B that sounded as gritty and as realistic as anything from the underground.

And what's interesting about the New Soul movement is that, like the Stax label in the mid-60s, it's fully integrated, a word that means more in the '10s than it should -- there are as many white artists as there are black ones, as many male as female, and as many old as young, all equally valid and "genuine." Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings are the perfect picture of this New Soul movement -- Jones is an over-50 African-American woman, fronting a band made up of black and white members of various ages. Fitz and the Tantrums features a white, over-40 lead singer, a mid-20s black female co-lead, and an integrated membership made up of members of various ages. The Budos Band feature no lead singer, a mostly-white membership and yet sound more like the early-70s Meters than anybody ever has. It all, impossibly, works.

And then there's Eli "Paperboy" Reed. Paperboy is a potent, gritty soul belter and one hell of a performer. Close your eyes, and you hear Memphis or Detroit in the mid-60s. But Paperboy's a 20-something nerdy white kid -- almost impossible that such a seasoned, powerful voice could even come from that body, but "Come And Get It" is possibly the best single yet in the New Soul sweeps, a horn-driven rocker that could have just as easily been written in 1965 as 2011.

But what keeps New Soul from being just another revival movement, embraced for a moment but soon forgotten? And why wouldn't you just go on to iTunes and download a bunch of old Motown, Stax and Gamble/Huff records?

I'd argue -- and of course time will either prove me right or wrong -- that its longevity is what makes it a genuine movement rather than just a retro sidestep. It's developing and growing within itself -- the new Saadiq album, for example, sounds like a logical extension of his last one, but with new influences, and an even more pronounced sense of experimentation, while the awesome Black Joe Lewis album sounds even grittier and funkier than its predecessors, an aggressive angle taken from, say, the White Stripes. This evolution means it essentially is R&B right now -- even though it exists parallel with whatever's on mainstream R&B radio at the moment (you know, autotuned electro-pop) it is informing what's happening within the genre and will probably push even further into the mainstream as time moves on and people take more risks.

Too, what does "retro" even mean in this information age? In a time people have absolutely equal accessibility to albums of all vintages and genres, is it even valid to call something out for being "old?" What does that even mean anymore? As information moves at the speed of a blink, genres can be born and die with the speed of a meme, shouldn't we be more concerned with great songwriting, with longevity, with substance, with excellence than whether something sounds "old" or "new?"

I'd also argue that there's quite a few albums within this genre -- Winehouse's, Saadiq's two, the Fitz and the Tantrums, both "Paperboy" Reed LPs, even R. Kelly's! -- that stand quite strongly against whatever Motown you wanna stack 'em against. Again, time will prove me right or wrong, but I'd say you could take Saadiq's album and stack it song-for-song with the Four Tops' mighty "Reach Out" LP and you wouldn't be throwing it out the window. You know?

It remains to be seen how far this New Soul will go. Will it continue to run parallel with mainstream R&B until it produces masterpieces like What's Going On or Innervisions? Will it fade out and be replaced with something utterly else? It's absolutely hard to say, considering how capricious the music industry is and has been lately. But for those of us who love the vintage sound of a horn section, a gospel/soul belter, a funky dance-beat, it's a ride that promises at least a few awesome highlights along the way.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Duran Duran Is Great.

When I was in tenth grade, my favorite band was Duran Duran.

This, of course, got me an inordinate amount of stick from my classmates, who were ankle-deep in 'Halen and Def Lep (or Hendrix and the Doors for the stoners). Duran Duran were, as everybody "knew," a girls' band. If a boy listened to Duran Duran, their sexuality was suddenly in free-play -- after all, the only possible reason you'd ever want to listen to Duran was because they were good lookin' blokes. There was certainly no musical merit to 'em -- I remember when Guitar magazine did a super-sarcastic piece on Taylors Andy and John. Their lack of musicality was common knowledge. So clearly -- clearly -- my fandom just meant I was a "fag."

The lavender-frosted lipstick and eyeliner I occasionally wore 'cause of Nick Rhodes probably didn't help with that impression either. Somehow it got them chicks. It got me shut into a locker. That can probably be put down to growing up in the London club scene vs. growing up in Crystal, MN.

At any rate, it's 30 years on and I'm still a Duran Duran fan. And despite the fact that we've had thirty years to analyze, re-analyze, retro-chic and RE-retro-chic, ironic-i-fy and de-ironic-i-fy the band, I still get an inordinate amount of stick for liking them.

This, my friends, is not fair.

People's opinions about Duran, if they're negative, are almost always steeped in ancient, outdated pre-suppositions. They're just a pre-fab video band. Or they only had one good record. Or they were just disposable, barely-musical teen idols like David Cassidy. Or they represent a particularly virulent and awful brand of Thatcherism. All of which are the same arguments that were leveled at them in 1984, and ignores the fact that the band has been producing music this entire time. And lots of it has been quite good. And much of it has been very, very good.

They're also completely false. Let's examine them one by one, shall we?

1. They're just a pre-fab video band. Okay, what do you mean just? Duran Duran were one of the first bands to take full advantage of the medium of video to take their music into a visual realm, and if you ask me, that's actually pretty impressive. At the time, of course, MTV looked like nothing less than the death of REAL ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC. Video killed the radio star, dontcha know. Except it didn't -- what killed the radio star was the excesses of the 70s + failure to change with the times or find a new audience -- basically the same thing that killed every radio star that's ever been killed. I think the eventual video successes of just about everybody worth their salt proved that pretty bands like Duran didn't kill anybody. But people are still sore about that.

Duran Duran, though, understood that videos were just an artistic extension of the music -- or could be, if done right. And theirs always were -- take a look at the fascinating and frequently gorgeous videos for all the songs on spin-off band Arcadia's "So Red The Rose" album. Now look at the video for Journey's "Separate Ways." It's clear that more than just "pretty-boy-ness" is happening here -- Duran worked with fantastic and visionary directors and created a complex and gorgeous visual language that was way ahead of its time. That's not a bad thing. That's awesome.

2. They only had one good record. That's not true, but if you're a casual music listener, or even a deep music fan with only one ear on pop music, you might be forgiven for thinking that. The album is, of course, "Rio," the album that broke them in America. It is a fantastic record, and deserves its place among the classics of that decade. But it wasn't their first good record -- the self-titled debut is great too. And it was by no means their last -- despite following it up with the lackluster "Seven and the Ragged Tiger," their career continued for two more decades, and they've got a bunch of records -- "So Red The Rose," "Notorious," "Big Thing," the 2nd self-titled album aka "The Wedding Album," "Medazzaland," "Astronaut" and now "All You Need Is Now" -- that fully stand up to "Rio."

It's just that you probably didn't hear them, because apart from their brief early-90s comeback hit "Ordinary World," they sort of stopped having massive culture-defining hits.

But since when is commercial viability a gague for what's good and what isn't? It sure isn't for any of the other bands you probably like. It wasn't for Duran's ancestors like the Velvet Underground, David Bowie or Roxy Music -- some of those bands' best records weren't their hit albums, necessarily, if they had any hits to begin with. In other words, your unfamiliarity with the band's canon is not a good reason to dismiss it.

3. They were disposable, barely musical teen idols like David Cassidy. First of all, I'd love to argue for the musical viability of David Cassidy with you sometime, 'cause I can, and I'll defend just about ALL the teen idols that have ever been, including the newest ones. But secondly, it's just not true -- they were by no means "barely musical" in the first place. Ask any bassist worth their salt and they'll tell you that John Taylor, to grab a band member at random, is a phenomenal bass player. He understands the principles of funk and disco, and his "walking octave" style has become EXTREMELY influential in this recent wave of neo-80s dance music. But it's not just John -- did you know Nick was one of the first guys to use a computer to sequence his keyboard sounds? And he wasn't even musically trained -- he was making that shit up as he went along, and his Apple-powered keyboard rig might well have been the very first of its kind.

And don't even get me started on Simon LeBon's "adenoidal yelps," as I've heard them described -- first off, he's not the first overly-mannered crooner out there (see also: Scott Walker, David Bowie et al) and secondly, he hasn't "adenoidally yelped" in years. His voice is smooth, strong and powerful, and sounds better today than it ever has.

Plus, they're great songwriters. I'm not sure I can defend Simon as a lyricist -- he's always interesting but occasionally quite silly -- but the lyrics aren't even important in music like this, which is far more concerned with creating a mood and a dance beat, a situation for you to be able to move around in. They've got great melodies and ENORMOUS hooks, and they're far more experimental than they're given credit for. Listen to side two of "Big Thing" if you don't believe me -- it's the slightly-more-accessible version of something like Talk Talk's "Laughing Stock" or David Sylvian's "Gone To Earth" -- it never sacrifices great songwriting or structure like those albums do, but still creates THAT KIND of ominous, sumptuous, earthy mood. And then you flip the record over and side one's full of killer dance music.

4. They represent a particularly virulent brand of Thatcherism. I dunno, dude, I'm from America. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. I don't know them personally, but from what I've read I'd have a hard time believing someone as forward thinking and just all-around kind as Nick Rhodes, for example, would be a Thatcherite. To me, it's like Springsteen representing Reaganism -- the fact that his music was around in the era when Reagan was around is no reason for any kind of connection between the two, seeing as their philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed. Just 'cause Duran were on when Thatcher was in power -- and just 'cause they were played in dance clubs filled with cocaine-sloppy, self-absorbed Thatcherites is no reason to equate the two. They're musicians. They can't help when they came around, or who likes them, or who danced to 'em, any more than Springsteen can control fist-pumping jingoists liking "Born In The USA." If Duran actually voted for Thatcher, I guess that's their business.

I'm pretty sure that my highly enlightened readers don't need the "their music is for fags" impression refuted, right? We can just let that one pass as pure and simple homophobia, and none of your impressions of Duran are based on that, right?

So okay, your presuppositions are wrong, what next?

Well, if you haven't heard anything beyond "Rio," you need to. Let me give you a quick run-down of what you need to get:

Arcadia, So Red The Rose. The thinking-fan's Duran album of choice. While Taylors John and Andy were off with Robert Palmer making "Some Like It Hot," Taylor Roger, Simon and Nick produced this gorgeous, underappreciated, forward-thinking gem. Not a commercial album by any means -- the hit "Election Day" still sounds as weird today as it did back then -- it is never less than beautiful. Even a Sting cameo in "The Promise" can't sink it -- he sounds great, and soaring.

Notorious. The very minute a lot of early, casual fans dropped out, this is a mature, lavish, very slick and very credible funk album, and sounds less dated and "of its era" than any of their albums. Produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers, this album is a horn-powered tour-de-force of great songwriting and phenomenal performance.

Big Thing. Remember how "I Don't Want Your Love" sounded like pre-jungle club-rock six, seven years before anybody'd ever heard those terms? Probably not, since it wasn't a huge hit, but this album's highlights -- especially the aforementioned and rather arty side two -- prove the band were still a viable creative force with one eye on the future of electronic music.

The Wedding Album. The first wave of 80s nostalg came just at the start of the grunge era (Courtney Love was a Durannie, remember!) and "Ordinary World" was a deserved, massive ballad hit -- the rest of the record was great, too, expanding on the slick funk-rock of "Notorious" and adding in some arch hip-hop beats that oddly sound not the least bit dated.

Medazzaland. The group squandered their newfound success on an album of covers called "Thank You" that's far less awful than its reputation suggests, but people dropped off the nostalgia train in droves. Undaunted even by the ship-jumping of John Taylor, the group made this rather odd, chilly, electronic-powered record -- "Electric Barbarella" was a minor club hit, but the rest of the album was too arty for club-goers and too strange for E-gobbling club kids enamored of the Chemical Brothers. It is, nonetheless, a minor classic of the era and one of their most overlooked albums.

Astronaut. A late-period reunion of the "original five" lineup, it manages to suggest the sound of the early albums without aping them, and manages to sound credibly forward-thinking besides. Great songwriting and a couple of club-pumpers the likes of which we'd not heard from the band in 10 years.

All You Need Is Now. Possibly their second-best record, delievered a mere thirty years after "Rio." Produced by Mark Ronson, a man clearly and rightfully obsessed with Nick Rhodes' 80s analog keyboard sounds (see: his own excellent "Record Collection" LP). He reminded the band how cool they were back when they were (and perhaps how influential they'd become in the last few years), this record delivers ample hints of their 80s sounds in the form of retro keyboards and slashing guitars. But far from a sad attempt to snatch past glories, the songwriting is remarkably tight and well-considered, and the band channels their experimental side into concise dancefloor classics that sound not the least bit contrived. One of the only "rediscover-old-sound" records that actually works.

I'm ready for a full-on critical reassessment of Duran. It's time. I'm sick of having to defend my love for them at this stage of the game -- they've more than proven themselves if anybody's paying attention, and you're only missing out on some very interesting, near-classic LPs if you stop at the one album, their latest album among 'em. I'm sincerely hoping that when Jake Rudh does a Duran night at Transmission in a month-ish, he lays some of the lesser-heard classics on y'all, opens your mind, and shows off the ample strengths of a band that deserves more love and more critical consideration than they've yet received. I still love 'em as strongly after thirty years, and that counts for something. Join me, won't you?

(Editor's note: if you've not yet heard Mark Ronson's "Record Collection," and think the guy's just a rich club-kid dilettante with no actual musical ideas, you need to give it a listen. For one thing: it sounds great. For another: he took just exactly the right stuff from the 80s synth stuff he obviously loves. For yet another, he begins Simon LeBon's critical rehabilitation on the title track, and teases us that yet another one -- Culture Club -- is yet to come. And then there's "Bang Bang Bang," which is probably my favorite song of last year. Go. Listen.)