Archive for September, 2013

bizarroMUSIC: Hugh Laurie – Didn’t It Rain?

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Hugh Laurie - Didn't It Rain 003

the DOCTOR is in…

 

Poor Hugh Laurie, 

Twenty years from now, people will still be going up to him and asking “hey, didn’t you play some grouchy doctor on TV…and why do you have a British accent?”

Sadly, because of this very reason, the fact that he has managed to create in his performance as the misanthropic super-doctor Gregory House an iconic pop culture touchstone that will stand alongside other beloved television characters like The Fonz, Constanza and Jack Bauer  for eternity, no one will ever go up to him in twenty years’ time and ask “hey didn’t bring out a couple of albums of great New Orleanais blues-jazz that were as admirable for their virtuosity as they were for their impassioned dedication to a nearly-lost genre of music that holds much historical importance?”.

Which is all the more pity, because Hugh Laurie is very good, as good as he is at imitating an American on TV, on Didn’t It Rain?, his second album of rowdy, but masterfully executed piano-jazz standards

Actors and music, as anyone who has a Jennifer Love Hewitt or Minnie Driver album hidden in the back of their archives will tell you, is a volatile concoction. It doesn’t always work. Reputation for one career will, undoubtedly, overshadow attempts at the other. Critics have already passed on Laurie’s attempts at a musical career, calling him a dilettante overwhelmed by the music and the canon of collaborators he chooses to work with – most notably on Didn’t It Rain: blues icon Taj Mahal – even going as far as attacking his often-clandestine Englishness as a barrier to his ability to interpret authentically this very American art form. Not that all of the criticism would bother Laurie, who, as evidenced on his first album Let Them Talk, has an obvious, unapologetic and real love for the genre, and is a more than competent and intelligent musician.

This collection sees Laurie even more confident and comfortable with second-tier, lesser known blues-jazz standards. By the sounds of things here, he is having a rollicking good time with it all, and isn’t that what matters, whether you’re one of the highest paid TV actors in history, or a teenager in a garage band.

Didnt_It_Rain_Hugh_Laurie

Things get off to an archetypally sombre Orleans start on Didn’t… with the funereal St Louis Blues, a slow march of clarinet melancholy and maudlin guitar picking, evolving quickly into an uppity two-step of brass and piano, as the musical procession nears some celebratory destination, and once there, the saucy tones of soulstress Jean McClain, along with Laurie, warmly invite listeners to the party. The music is full and bombastic, and a great way to start the album. The progression of the songs moves narcotically, from the low quiet moments to ecstatic highs where the music fills every space; most typically and appropriately on Junker’s Blues.

A flitter into tango (“Kiss Of Fire”), a pounding of honky tonk (“Vicksburg Blues”) and then a quick hazy smoke break of cabaret (“Weed Smoker’s Dream”, featuring some near-scandalous vocals by Gaby Moreno, Guatemala’s answer to Norah Jones) the album reaches its first high point: Wild Honey, an old Dr John standard where Laurie genially comes into his own, both as singer and piano player. While no Mac Rebennack, Dr House is also no showboating Harry Connick – undoubtedly the Brad Pitt of piano jazz – and Laurie fits comfortably into the role of grizzled journeyman and storyteller. It’s a part he plays well throughout the rest of the album, never once letting the story overwhelm the journey.

More accurately, read on a meta level, it is never a case of letting the star appeal of Hugh Laurie, TV celebrity, overwhelm the music and band. The ever-consummate band leader, Laurie never lets his ego get in the way of musicians far greater than he could ever be. Dilettante, perhaps, inexperienced, maybe; but the atmosphere created on the album is not of one person presiding over a vanity project, but one similar to a well-versed and enthusiastic fan boy taking a tour of Skywalker Ranch with George Lucas. Respectful, but brimming with interesting, constructive new embellishments.

Highlights in the second half of the album include a sweet, but barbed “Careless Love”, with Laurie doing a fairly admirable early Tom Waits impersonation that doesn’t seem derivative or unholy. Album closer “Changes” attempts the same formula, but with much more gravitas, and can be easily read as a subtly delivered personal manifesto of an artist in limbo (the album was recorded in and around the filming of the final series of House,MD.).

One small criticism is Laurie’s voice, which, considering his much-documented proficiency at mastering the American accent for his TV persona, seems a little forced when singing, with a little too much emphasis on the rolling of the Rs and overstressing syllables to the point of parody. A little niggling, I suppose, on the surface of what is truly a great anthology of music, but it does begin to grate the further one explores the album.

If anything Laurie can be praised for highlighting the often forgotten jazz-blues genre, particularly to fans of his acting work, which may have usually avoided this type of music. His obvious love of the material and the experience in recreating it comes through clearly on the recording, with a crisp tone to the production, that doesn’t attempt to add an overly sophisticated or formulaic modern texture to the music.

bizarroMUSIC: a collection of bizarrojerri music videos

Monday, September 16th, 2013

bizarroMUSIC: Queens of The Stone Age

Monday, September 16th, 2013

JOSH HOMME

and his

swampy apocalyptic cabaret

QTSA (1)

Josh Homme – apparently pronounced to rhyme with ‘mommy’ according to the hippest of linguists – is rock’s Great Mobiliser, able to bring together some of the most proficient talent in a vast array of musical collectives. Along with contemporary and friend Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl – himself a serial collaborator of high regard – Josh Homme has all ten fingers and all ten toes in lots of different rock n roll pies at any one time. He’s the Johnny Pie-Fingers of rock n roll.

If he’s not playing guitar solos on Biffy Clyro records (“Bubbles”) or creating lysergic stoner rock out in the California desert with his all-star Desert Rock collective (whose semi-official bootlegs Desert Sessions Volumes 1-10 are well worth finding for their experimental audacity alone), Homme finds time to write theme songs for subversive TV shows (“Aqua Teen Hunger Force / Unit Patrol Squad 1”), produce Mastodon and Arctic Monkey albums and even coax Led Zeppelin’s most reclusive member John Paul Jones out into the open long enough to triangulate (along with Homme and Grohl) into Them Crooked Vultures, unofficially the greatest supergroup in the history of modern music.

All the while, Homme still manages to keep full time groups, Eagles of Death Metal and Queens of the Stone Age (QTSA), afloat and active, regularly releasing consistently respectable, genre-busting rock.

Like Clockwork is QTSA’s sixth album, and in addition to being a fantastic collection of the most sonically swashbuckling (Exhibit A: the latterly track “Smooth Sailing”, a veritable bayou pirate ship cruise, drunk on boxed fuzz, shrill shanty and bawdy lyrics), and one of the most intelligent rock music releases this year, the new album also fully embodies Homme’s communal spirit and his keen ear for the bizarre juxtaposition of musical motifs, using the most unlikely collaborators.

Cameos on the new album include Elton John (on both vocals and piano), grunge-folkster Mark Lanegan, Trent Reznor, Arctic Monkey Alex Turner and, most surprisingly, Jake Shears from Australian camp discoteers Scissor Sisters. That’s not the kind of roster you’d find on a Nickelback or Death Cab For Cutie album.

Along with Grohl (filling in for deserting drummer Joey Castillo) and regular Queens sidemen Troy Van Leeuwen (guitar), Dean Fertita (keyboards) and Michael Shuman (bass), Homme has created a worthy addition to QTSA’s already strong canon of dark, swampy apocalyptic cabaret.

Proceedings get off to an appropriately spooky start – the album’s ambience, if not its overwhelming theme is one of freak show oddity and mythological horror – with Keep Your Eyes Peeled, slow and dirgy, featuring Homme’s signature spectral guitar sound of demented riffs and scratchy tangents.

QTSA (2)

Track 4, If I Had A Tail, featuring a heroic riff, is the album’s first real stand-out and the first real chance to pick up on the little embellishments Homme likes to hide within the music, creating an evocative scavenger hunt that helps define the uniqueness of the QTSA sound.

Little guitar and keyboard melodies and percussive bass and drum bits creep in through the back of the song between the spaces of …Tail’s overdriven riff, producing a fleshy probing document that will draw  many repeat listens, as do all the songs on this collection.

By the time the album’s best and most explored track, Fair-weather Friends appears – with all its anthemic ambition and celebrity stunt-casting (Elton John, Lanegan, Reznor all appear here) – the elements of the album’s identity have been fully cemented: dramatic and exciting musical ideas funnelled through a rock filter, uniquely prepared and concisely performed by Homme and cohorts without fear nor concern.

It’s refreshing to hear exploratory rock music like this in a day and age where more popular alternative rock music is so full of cliché and mundaneness. For this album to receive both critical and commercial success for its efforts, building on the band’s already well-established, well-deserved progressive credentials, positively rejuvenates the never-ending ‘is rock dead?’ debate.  On Like Clockwork, it is not.

bizarroINTERWEB: journalistic hijinx

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

* a couple of pieces I wrote recently on spec for a (censored) looking to start up a (censored) website. (I signed something that promised I wouldn’t spill the beans…I’ve said too much already)

Right now, am still not sure if they will pick up on these or if I got the job, but I had a lot of fun writing them and they were too good not to share here.

The brief was to be short (oops!), funky (whatever that means?), fun, tongue-in-cheek, borderline satirical, but with all the facts communicated to a notoriously ambivalent audience target market . Seems right to me. 

Particularly proud of my description of Samsung as ‘the Ryan Gosling of  the smartphone game’. Brief filled, mereckons. 

Hack Wars: US and China Square Off in Cyberspace

CHINA-IT-INTERNET-US-MEDIA-HACKING-SPY

The online battlefield of international cyber-espionage just got a little more serious, with reports today of increased activity by hackers attempting infiltrate a so-called “(unnamed US organisation) involved in shaping economic policy”.

Super-sleuthy cyber security company FireEye (not to be confused with the new Hunger Games movie) revealed that the group of (possibly Chinese) coffee-addicted computer propellerheads holed up in a building somewhere in Beijing and previously believed to be behind a series of 2012 malware attacks on US media companies including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, are preparing for another eminent attack.

FireEye researchers wrote in a post on the company’s blog that “the new campaigns mark the first significant stirrings from the group since it went silent in January in the wake of a detailed expose of the group and its exploits.”

The company identified suspicious malware that used a unique and almost undetectable network traffic pattern during a systems analysis of an organisation involved in shaping economic policy.

We have no idea what that means either, but it’s safe to assume your outdated version of Norton would be pretty much powerless against it if the Chinese thought you had anything significant to steal on your laptop. FireEye have deduced, somewhat cryptically, that “(hackers) appear to be mounting fresh assaults that leverage new and improved versions of malware”.

The on-going hacking scandal has led to an extended period of diplomatic awkwardness between the US and China, with some not-so-subtle accusations fired from Washington against the Chinese not playing according to the official rules of Superpower Twister.

The Chinese, naturally, have responded: Who? Us? And have even dragged infamous Whistle-blower Monthly pinup boy Edward Snowden into the furore, saying Snowden’s recent revelations about the inner workings of the US government intelligence operations reveal that the US are not playing by the rules either, adding, mockingly, ‘you really dropped ball on that one, Barry’, before delivering a shipment of 30,000 plastic coat hangers to Wal-Mart.

All’s fair in love and war, as the saying goes.

Meanwhile, in an anonymous office block somewhere in Beijing, a group of increasingly bored geeks order pizza, play Call Of Duty and discuss the subtle sexual ambiguities of the Star Wars movies, while awaiting further instructions.

Blackberry’s Juices Souring

bblogo

Blackberry, the granddaddy of smartphones – much beloved of fashionable parents, fidgety executives and other small-thumbed people – may soon find itself going the way of the dinosaur.

In an official statement released today, the company has announced that it will be seeking out “new alternatives” for its stagnating business models, product lines of diminishing degrees of success and overall survival. All of which is just fancy business-speak for “we’re just going to take a time-out over here in the corner and have a bit of cry.”

The statement comes at a time when Blackberry continues to find itself increasingly irrelevant in a market dominated by The Company Who Shall Not Be Named That Sell i-Phones and the Ryan Gosling of the smartphone game, Samsung. Blackberry share prices have fallen by almost 38% over the last six months and has seen the departure of several senior executives, which is lot like the rats on the Titanic strapping on golden parachutes and calling a taxi before the bill arrives.

Most of the blame for the current state of affairs at the company can be attributed to their product line, specifically: the very public failure of their Playbook tablet in 2011, the delay in releasing their latest Blackberry 10 handset (along with their flat-out refusal to revitalise and modernise the phone’s software) and, most inexplicably, doing away with the Blackberry’s most unique and successful selling point: the tangible keypad.

In a no-man’s-land strewn with the cadavers of also-rans like Panasonic, Motorola and Sony Ericsson, Blackberry will have to tread lightly, cap in hand, if they hope to see out the rest of the year. With statements like “there can be no assurance that this exploration process will result in any transaction,” it seems inevitable. Short of commissioning a voodoo doll of Apple CEO Tim Cook, the company could have new owners very soon.

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