It’s been a long ten years since the premiere of The Postal Service’s Give Up and after a decade of wondering just how Ben Gibbard made the cut, we get a sneak behind the scenes. In a freshly released video that takes us back to 2002, we watch as Sub Pop holds auditions to round out the band. Everyone from Tom DeLonge and Al Yankovic to Aimee Mann and Duff McKagan audition and get rejected for the spot—even a shirtless screaming manic Moby. Finally, Gibbard shows up at the end and is reluctantly accepted into the band.
Written and directed by Tom Scharpling, check out the video below.
If this sounds incoherent, it’s only because I am listening to the Magnolia soundtrack and am growing too emotional to type. Sorry. But that only makes sense, considering today is the 49th birthday of cinematically minded musical genius Jon Brion. Although perhaps best known for his work in the PT Anderson-Fiona Apple-Aimee Mann world of collaboration, the whimsically dramatic singer/songwriter/composer/record producer has scored dozens of films—ranging from Adam McKay’s Step Brothers to his absolutely perfect work on Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—while producing for everyone from Kanye West to Rufus Wainwright.
Although his projects may vary in medium and style, there’s a very specific sensation that wanders through all of his work—like gentle fingers plucking away at your heart strings, unhinging tearducts, and allowing you to journey even farther into the work it’s a part of. He isn’t melodramatic or devious with senitment, but provides an atmospheric, emotional through-line to guide you amidst the tangled worlds that his work speaks to. But however you see it, here’s a tasting of some favorites from his wonderful body of music.
Magnolia, “Stanley/Frank/Linda’s Breakdown”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, “Phone Call”
Punch-Drunk Love, “Punch-Drunk Melody”
Hard Eight, “Sydney Doesn’t Speak”
I ♥ Huckabees, “Monday”
Step Brothers, “Back and Forth”
Fionna Apple, “Fast as You Can”
Rufus Wainwright, “Damned Ladies”
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Full OST
The Jon Brion Show – Feat. Elliott Smith / Brad Mehldau
Bettye LaVette has one of the greatest voices in R&B history, but we came very close to never hearing her sing. At sixteen she recorded her first song, “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” in 1962, and that early success allowed her to tour the country with folks like Otis Redding and offered the promise of R&B stardom. Fate, however, wasn’t kind, and a string of bad luck and broken promises kept her from truly making it big. But with a dedicated circle of friends and fans, LaVette continued to perform, and in the early years of the new millennium she found success with albums released by indie label ANTI-, through which she recorded an album of songs by singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Lucinda Williams, as well as a collaboration with southern rockers Drive-By Truckers.
It was her performance of The Who’s classic “Love, Reign O’er Me” at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors that delivered her much-deserved national spotlight, which led to her chance to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Now, the singer has a new album as well as a memoir, A Woman Like Me. The book is a no-holds-barred account of the roller coaster ride that was her career, featuring cameos by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin—all of whom LaVette remembers at times fondly and, at times, with aversion.
I was excited to talk to the singer, who eagerly shared her excitement about writing a book, how she’s happy to share the stories from her life, and how the music industry has drastically changed in the last forty years.
What I really liked about your book was that it wasn’t the typical rock ’n’ roll memoir where you make it really big and than you have this giant tragedy. You kind of see that a lot in movies and books about people in the music industry. Did you have this idea of wanting to set the record straight about things that happened in your career? No, not at all. These were stories that I’ve told over the years. You have to remember, just a little while ago all I had was these memories, that was absolutely all I had. Someone would always say, “You need to write a book,” and I would say, “I’m sure somebody’s gonna write one, either my daughter or my best friend—the people who have heard these stories a million times or whatever—but I thought it would happen after my death because I didn’t think that I would be around long enough to have somebody write about me and a whole bunch of tawdry stories. So no, it wasn’t conceived in the way that most books are, and I didn’t know it’d be different from what I’m doing now: sharing my stories.
It comes across that way. It’s written with a more personal style, as if I were sitting and listening to you telling me tales. It jumps around a bit; you’ll end one story and pick it up later, and characters come back just as you’re giving your memories of how you remember them. That’s what I liked about it; it wasn’t the standard kind of memoir in that way. And I want people to know, too, that these stories are about who these people were. They’re not about who you know them to be. People sort of have problems with that because they know Marvin Gaye as a star. But I know Marvin Gaye as a man trying to be a star. So that’s completely different.
You’re pretty brutally honest about a lot people and give a lot of surprising opinions. You mention Ike Turner at one point and talk about the Ike Turner that you knew being different from the person portrayed on film and thought of in the popular culture. Were you at all worried about how people would react to how you were describing the people you were around at the time? I have the advantage now of almost being 70, so I don’t care what you think! I do not care what you think. You know, the thing of it is: there’s no reason to lie, and there’s nothing to lie about. The only people I would have been worried about were my grandchildren, and they are now 21 and 27, so at least I can explain myself thoroughly to them now. The people I spoke about in the book haven’t spoken to me at all this time. I wouldn’t be losing anything if they decided not to speak to me now.
It’s kind of surprising, I guess, when you think about your family reading it. I’ve seen so many movies and read stories about this era and of people in rock ’n’ roll, and it’s not super surprising— But Tyler, if you’re just twenty-something, you haven’t seen too many!
Well, I mean, there’s probably more of an expectation that I would get out of reading a book by a musician than maybe a that person’s grandchildren would have. Really, why?
Well, I can’t imagine my grandparents writing about sex and drugs. Ha, I love it!
But that’s interesting! It didn’t even cross my mind—thinking about how your family would react to it. I was thinking, “What if Diana Ross read this book, and what would she think about it?” I don’t know if I would have even written it had my mother still been alive. You were just saying about your grandparents—I know how much of it my mother would have understood, and it wouldn’t have been enough. If I were trying to explain it to a young kid, what they would understand would not be enough. Those are the only people I was concerned about.
I saw you perform at the Robert Johnson tribute show back in March, and I remember you saying it was the first time you had been at the Apollo since like some time in the mid-’60s and how it seemed a lot bigger to you when you were there the first time. It seemed like a little community theater!
It was the first time I had been there, too, and I was surprised because I had expected it to be much bigger. It’s such an iconic place, especially for R&B and African American artists. Was that a place you always strived to get to? Oh, absolutely. You certainly wanted to work at the Apollo—that was absolutely it. I remember touring Otis Redding and The Shirelles. When we got to Philadelphia, Otis and I headed back down south and The Shirelles would go on up to the Apollo. Then everything happened so fast, and it wasn’t a long time before Otis was at the Apollo—it was maybe like six months later.
I didn’t know much about the industry at the time, but these days it seems artists are getting a lot buzz before they’ve come out with a proper album and can tour on that early successful buzz. That’s what I thought of when I was reading your story; you had a lot of singles that were getting some pick-up, and you would get the chance to record an album and then that opportunity fell through. It seems like before there was the major crossover for African American artists the industry was much more competitive. Looking at how the industry works now, have things changed that much for new artists? I think the record industry today is virtually unrecognizable to anyone my age unless they’re, like, Clive Davis. My manager once introduced me to Billy Eckstine, who had a record on the charts for the first time in his twenty-year career. Whereas today you can sing for thirteen weeks and be on the cover of Vogue. The children have taken over! It’s just like the children running the house.
People are becoming successful based on nothing, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a long shelf life for them. Oh, no, they’re almost disposable. And I think that the thing that keeps me from being terrified of them; I know that they are disposable, and that none of them are going to run up against me way late at night in a little small joint where there’s nothing but a baby grand piano. So those two things keep me sane.
What you are doing even now is a little more classical in a way—you’re singing songs and interpreting them in your own way, and you can continue to find an audience. I first discovered you from hearing your covers of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different.” I’m a big fan of Marianne Faithfull, and she recently did an album where she covered a lot of contemporary indie-rock songs and recorded them in her own style, and that something she’s been doing for decades. Was that approach introduced to you and did someone suggest you record those covers? The songs, first of all, are just songs to me. Some people have small churches they have built dedicated to some of those tunes, and I don’t. They’re just songs to me. And I have always sung all kinds of songs because I’ve always heard all kinds of songs. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of song it is. If I sing, it’s gonna be rhythm and blues. None of them frighten me. I don’t think of them in categories or anything, because I know that if I did a song by Roy Rogers, it won’t sound like a Roy Rogers song when I sing it. It’ll sound like me.
In 1986, David Byrne made a movie called True Stories, a mockumentary of sorts about the fictional city of Virgil, Texas. With a nod to the ugliness of industrialized civilization predicated on a mass killing of the native people, animals and vegetation, his treatment of the town—look at this field, where they build houses; the shopping mall is where people socialize on the weekend—comes in its own brand of wry compassion, with the same degree of bite as A Prairie Home Companion.
And a new book by Byrne, How Music Works, is a tour of all things musical delivered in the same voice that took us through Virgil. As smart and impeccably researched as it is, it doesn’t lack for irony. For one, it comes packaged by McSweeney’s as a minimalist coffee table tome, designed by the staggering genius himself. And threaded through an otherwise disjointed collection of chapters on Talking Heads history, the music industry, recording technology, and the science of sound is a cheekiness bordering on disdain directed at the Roger Scruton school of classical music is virtuous music, and pop music is for the plebian masses.
He spends a good deal of time picking on Theodor Adorno, who saw the jukebox, and all mechanized distribution of popular music, as a gimmick for suckers. “He might be right,” says Byrne, “but he might also have been someone who never had a good time in a honky-tonk.” It’s hard to imagine Byrne in a honky-tonk unaccompanied by a “check this shit out, I’m in a honky-tonk!” kind of attitude. Or maybe not. His ambiguous sensibility is what makes the fun parts fun.
A student of design, some of the passages on the architecture of musical spaces make for the most interesting stuff. He has a few good jabs at the opera houses and even Carnegie Hall, whose acoustics aren’t conducive to rock ’n’ roll: “This acoustic barrier could be viewed as a subtle conspiracy, a sonic wall, a way of keeping the riffraff out.” He favors the populist scenes around the likes of CBGB’s and Le Poisson Rouge (“I go to at least one live performance a week, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. There are other people there. Often there is beer there, too.”)
In a lingering op-ed piece of a chapter, he knocks the moneyed set for “supporting the arts” by preserving antiquated opera houses and museums while scores of aspiring artists and musicians go hungry. His historical tracings of musical gentrification are of note; apparently, people would drink and socialize during operas and shout at the stage, requesting encores of their favorite arias. A similar transformation occurred with jazz, where the relaxed, funky vibe was taken over by tweedy highbrow geezers in Greenwich Village. Out with dancing, in with sitting quietly. “Separating the body from the head seemed to have been an intended consequence—for anything to be serious, you couldn’t be seen shimmying around to it,” he notes.
All this is not to say that he doesn’t have any grievances with pop music. The shimmying going on in the discos of the ’70s wasn’t merely the effect of catchy tunes—“I suspect there was a drug connection as well; those high frequencies in particular sounded sparkly fresh if you were on amyl nitrate or cocaine.” And not every pop song comes off the pen of an Andre 3000 or an Aimee Mann. “In Beyoncé’s song ‘Irreplaceable’ she rhymes ‘minute’ with ‘minute,’ and I cringe every time I hear it,” he concedes.
Byrne notes in the forward that the book can be read in any order, and I may go so far as to say that certain passages can be skipped altogether, sans guilt. One chapter begins with this gem: “The online music magazine Pitchfork once wrote that I would collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos.” While I think there’s nothing wrong with amassing collaborations, it gets pretty tedious to list them all; every member of an obscure Latin jam band that he may have played with gets name-checked. He gives an exhaustive account of how songs were written for all of his albums, and anyone who doesn’t know an A-flat from an A need not try to comprehend those passages. A chapter detailing the six major variants of a recording contract is enlightening by way of proving, with thorough charts and figures, that musicians make no money. But it reads like a textbook—and, in many ways, How Music Works kind of is a textbook, backed up with a thorough bibliography and peppered with annotated images. The handsome presentation may cause some hesitation, but it really is a text to read and pick through time and again.
And all this is what you’d expect, and hope for, from the foremost heady apologist of pop music. It’s a must-read for anyone who has ever felt moved by a catchy tune and wanted more. And for those who haven’t, I suppose it’s understandable—it’s hard to shimmy around a room with a stick up your ass.
First of all, Tom Scharpling of The Best Show on WFMU fame is the best music video director ever. Yes, even better than whoever made the video for Michael and Janet Jackson’s "Scream." (What, that isn’t the bar at which you base the entertainment value of all things?) In recent years he’s been responsible for clips for Ted Leo and the Pharmacists’ “Bottled in Cork,”The New Pornographers’ “Moves,” and Wild Flag’s “Romance.” Naturally, Aimee Mann tapped the auteur to direct the video for “Labrador,” the second single off her new album, TK.
Scharpling directed the previous video for “Charmer,” with Laura Linney as an Aimee Mann imposter. For “Labrador,” Scharpling spoofs the video for Mann’s old band ‘Til Tuesday’s classic weeper, “Voices Carry,” and features funny people like Jon Hamm as Scharpling, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster as an actor who gives it his all, whether it be a music video or the new Stanley Klubrick flick, and a cameo from Ted Leo. Scharpling and Mann have proven again that music videos are BACK. Take that, Hype Williams.
Check out the video for “Labrador” and the original clip for “Voices Carry” below.
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As fall rolls in, nothing scrubs away the mindless optimism of a “Call Me Maybe” like an Aimee Mann solo effort. Or, rather, the duet with James Mercer of The Shins, “Living A Lie”. “For every open arm has a cold shoulder, waiting to turn,” swoons Mann in the final verse.
At shows of late, she tells an anecdote about having been approached to pen a song for the film Shrek the Third, for a scene in which the mood is upbeat and inspiring. “That’s not really my forte,” she notes wryly. Which is well enough. There’s a class of us, myself included, that think if you’re not going to write sad songs, you’d be better off going to dental school.
But Mann’s albums have never been merely stark. Between the retro synths and the hooks that are catchy as all get out, there’s a boreal kind of coziness. The track “Slip and Roll”, perhaps a bleed-over from the down-and-out-boxer concept album The Forgotten Arm (“slip and roll, ’til you’re willing to take the hit”), feels less like getting smacked and more like having your coach wrap a towel over your shoulders while you rest in the corner.
If Mann goes as sappy as “Slip and Roll,” most of the album stays within her signature brand of irony; heavy on the wisdom, light on the apathy. “What’s more fun than other people’s hell?” she pokes in “Soon Enough”. “Labrador”—perhaps the biggest bummer of a song, wrapped in the prettiest of tunes—feels oddly affectionate in the hook: “I came back for more / and you laughed in my face and you rubbed it in.” But this, if anything, is the kind of Sisyphean thesis that Mann has relied on as a singer/songwriter. Anyone charming is just “a victim of such a hypnosis, like everyone else,” she prescribes in the title track.
Her mood and sound hasn’t deviated too much since Bachelor No. 2. If anything, the turn towards synthesizers and a ‘70s pop style maintains a distance between Mann and the general craze around electronic music. And it seems she’s still the only one who knows, as it were, that Disneyland’s about to close. One day, Carly Rae Jepsen will get dumped, as Justin Bieber becomes the next Quiz Kid Donnie Smith.
Life on the road can be draining, even for someone as experienced and established as Aimee Mann. Sometimes, to meet the demand, you have to take some seriously drastic measures. Mann explores one possible solution in the very funny video for "Charmer,’ her first single off the album of the same name. Tired of the rigors of touring, she takes some unsolicited advice and hires a robot double, played with impressive commitment by Laura Linney, also recently of The Big C, John Adams and the introductions before Downton Abbey. Linney adopts Mann’s mannerisms (rim shot!) and fashion sense, tension arises and the struggle between the real and ‘bot Aimees becomes absurd, and will make you smile as well as ponder the nature of fame.
Tom Scharpling directed the clip, in which Jon Hodgman makes a cameo as a sleazier, traveling-salesman version of himself to sell Mann on the idea of the robot double. Hodgman previously appeared in the Scharpling-directed video for The New Pornographers’ "Moves," if you’re into playing "six degrees" with funny people who also were in music videos.
"I love this video concept because the idea completely falls apart when the robot double begins to do a better job than the original. Such are the pitfalls of relying on a persona," Mann writes, via the post at NPR. "I think Scharpling did a great job, and honestly, it’s a rare experience for me to have complete confidence in a video director. But he has great and funny and interesting ideas, and knows how to make things happen."
Charmer will be released September 18th, but in the meantime, watch the video and have yourself a good laugh. Goodnight, everybody!
John Lennon fans filled the Beacon Theater on Friday night to watch over a dozen entertainers – including Jackson Browne, Patti Smith, Cyndi Lauper, Aimee Mann, Keb’ Mo’, Shelby Lynne, and Martin Sexton – take the stage for the 30th annual tribute concert in honor of the late, great Beatle.
During the rousing three-hour celebration, the all-star lineup sang Lennon covers that varied from heartfelt to eclectic to plain absurd. For an example of the last, look no further than the version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that featured Joan Osbourne and Maura Kennedy on vocal duties, while Chris Bliss sent yellow glowing balls rapidly into the air in perfect tune with the song (his juggling routine for the Abbey Road finale has been viewed on YouTube over 60 million times).
While the divergent musical lineup gathered to honor the memory of Lennon, they also hoped to raise funds for Playing For Change, which builds music schools for impoverished children around the world. The 6-year-old organization announced that together with Theatre Within, producers of the annual charity show, they’re launching Power to the People, a worldwide “peace through music and activism” campaign. The charity has earned the rare blessing of Yoko Ono, who delivered a video message to kick off the concert, saying: “John would have loved what you are doing.” The endorsement of Lennon’s very private widow is not entirely surprising – one imagines if Lennon was alive today, he would be at the center of this kind of idealistic grassroots cause.
We caught up with the performers backstage and asked them about why they chose to perform the Lennon classics they did. Their responses, along with a photo gallery of the event by guest photographer Jeff Fasano, follows.
Jackson Browne plays “Revolution” with Mermans Kenkosenki (right) and the rest of the Playing For Change Band, a globe-trekking band of musicians from places as diverse as Senegal, Argentina, New Orleans, Netherlands and New York. Kenkosenki, who grew up in the Congo, has lived in South Africa since 1998. He spoke to us after the show about performing with Browne. “Yaaw! He’s a very good guy,” said the always festive Kenkosenki. “We’re from the Congo so we don’t know much about American music. But he’s a lovely guy.”
Among the most inspired renditions of the evening was Martin Sexton’s breathtaking acoustic cover of “Working Class Hero.” While too many artists were content to hang in the background along side the house band, singing behind music stands, a solitary Sexton sat on a crate in the front of the stage, guitar in hand, and then with the wry howl of a down-on-his luck troubadour on a Dublin dock, peeled the song to its most angry, defiant and heart-wrenching core. “It was an honor to sing that song, especially in these troubled times we’re living in now,” Sexton told us. “John said that was a song for the revolution, and I think it’s a wonderful song for a revolution because even though it has some cuss words, it means something.”
Patti Smith delivered a subdued, utterly surreal take of “Strawberry Fields” before telling the crowd about the pain of losing her husband Fred Smith in 1994, and how Yoko Ono’s graceful strength and determination after John had been killed served as a model for her. “She taught me how to carry on as a widow,” Smith told the rapt audience before honoring her with a light, zippy “Oh, Yoko.”
Eighties pop icon Cyndi Lauper, looking great in a black leather outfit, belted out “Across the Universe” over swelling digital strings, so that her distinct voice could be heard, well, across the universe. Lauper emailed us her reason for picking that song. “As a kid, when school or life as I knew it then became unbearable, that song made everything bearable.”
By injecting his mellow, Delta blues style, Keb’ Mo’ rearranged the melancholy ballad “In My Life” into a joyous piece of remembrance. “John Lennon wrote it, so he’s in there,” Keb’ Mo’ told us after the show. “So what I do is kind of to represent his soul.”
Joan Osborne lent her gutsy voice to a groovy rendition of Yellow Submarine’s “Hey Bulldog.” “It’s a great rocker,” said Osborne. “I love that aspect of John Lennon, but actually, years ago when I was a film student at NYU, I used it as the soundtrack of a short film of mine. The film I had made wasn’t that good but when I put “Hey Bulldog” to it, it made it ten times better. So I thought, this is all you have to do – put great music to a scene and you’re home free.”
Among the highlights of the show was Shelby Lynne’s rendition of “Mother.” Hearing her universe-splitting quaver exposes the deep wounds that sent Lennon into “primal scream” therapy around the time he wrote this heartbreaker.
Jackson Browne gives a faithful rendition of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Way.” We spoke to Browne before the show but he barely spoke above a whisper, and stared at me with such focused intensity whereby he put some kind of mind meld on us, rendering us and our digital recorder useless. After speaking to his road manager, among others, we learned it’s Browne’s m.o. not to look at you, but through you. Funny thing is Browne should have done a bittersweet countrified “Take It Easy”-like rendition of “I’m Looking Through You,” a song he could have connected with better than the one he chose.
Just before intermission, Chris Bliss delivers a fresh, psychedelic spark with his oddly moving juggling routine to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
Aimee Mann, who writes as good a Beatlesesque ballad as anybody around, delivers a solid if not exceptional version of “Jealous Guy.” We’ll stick with Bryan Ferry’s soulful, spaced-out treatment.
The headliners valiantly try to perform the majestic epic “A Day in The Life.” To be fair, tough song to pull off without much rehearsal. To create some chemistry between the quirky pair, they might have joined for a sweet, heartfelt “Norwegian Wood.” Oh well, we can imagine.
The show closed with the all-star lineup gathering on stage to remind concert goers of Lennon’s defining message: “give peace a chance.”
Yesterday heralded a landmark development where rock band Pink Floyd won an estimated settlement of $90,000 against EMI, who had been selling tracks off the band’s concept albums individually on digital retailers like iTunes. The band basically argued that albums like The Wall are meant to be experienced as entire entities, not piecemeal. And their victory begs the question: What other celebrated bits of rock and pop should be sold as entire extravaganzas? To keep this manageable, let’s look at it through the same rose-colored filter through which everyone’s waxing nostalgic about the ’90s. Mind you, these are in no way the best records of their time–although such an assessment wouldn’t be untrue in any of these cases, either.
Liz Phair, Exile In Guyville. Few records have ever cohered as well as Guyville. It pulls off the achievement of being thematically and sonically consistent — without verging on redundancy.
Aimee Mann, Magnolia soundtrack. Although the Tom Cruise-starring film is epic in length, the soundtrack is a showcase of Mann’s finest moments. More than that, the soundtrack manages to re-create the film without putting you through the punishing ordeal of having to sit through all three hours of it time and time again.
Garbage, Version 2.0. Essentially Shirley Manson’s gift to the world, Version 2.0 did what no other album by the band could: It straddled a line between pop and rock that put both audiences ill-at-ease. And it did that without any filler.
Björk, Homogenic. To this day, this record remains the warbler’s most eclectic, buoyant offering. And released during an age of MTV when the network still encouraged forward-thinking media.
Radiohead, OK Computer. The case could probably be made for In Rainbows or Kid A similarly — or any of the band’s other records — but the versatility of Computer is better experienced as a whole, not simply track-by-track.
Spice Girls, Spice World. No, wait! Come back. Though neither lofty in concept or execution, this worked as an unofficial soundtrack to the band’s $29 million-grossing film of the same name. But mostly, the album, in its less-than-40-minute entirety hearkens back to a golden age of pre-Ke$ha pop. It’s one of the most airtight summaries of what the genre was before the age of Twitter and Facebook.