Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My Lana Del Rey Problem

When judging music, everyone boils it down to the same question: Do I like it or not? The answer doesn't take much effort, its as natural as breathing and can be just as instant. However, on the other hand, the reasons why you like a song, album or artist, might not be as easy to articulate. You tend to check off the usual stuff: great hook? Check. Nice melody? Check. Awesome beat? Yep. A swinging rhythm? Sure. Easy to sing along to? Absolutely. Then, you give a little more thought to what it is you really like about it. You try to sort through the stuff beneath all of the surface qualities, the deep subtle underbelly of a song. Things that are related to the easy stuff but when analyzed add much more complex characteristics for your consideration. Currently, that is where I'm at with Lana Del Rey. The underbelly of her material. See, my problem is that I'm a fan of Lana Del Rey, but I don't know why I'm a fan of Lana Del Rey.

I've had this problem ever since I listened to her second album Born to Die and began realizing I had an issue when I bought her third album Ultraviolence. I knew I liked the songs, but I didn't know what it was that I liked about it. So, I began breaking it all down.

The Music

When I think of Lana Del Rey's sound and style of music, a few things appear in my mind. The first is a dark, quiet, smokey lounge. The kind of lounge where people go to in order to disappear from the world. Its the same kind of place in Joni Mitchell's "The Last Time I Saw Richard". Nobody's having a good time here. This place is meant for depressed, weathered souls. 

The second image I get is a room with shag carpeting and dark wood paneling on the walls, similar to the Fiona Apple video for "Criminal", with a bunch of passed out, drunken or stoned out people lying everywhere, like at the end of the film Kids. There's no romance here, no courtship, no attraction. There's lust and blind sexual tendencies to fill in the void of whatever is missing in people's lives. 

The music tends to rise and fall like waves with an easy to sing melody. It starts out low and mysterious and rises to an intensity without taking the crescendo too far. Her songs tease the listener into thinking the chorus has arrived when in fact its still ways away. The sound has a melancholy feel to it, as if its from a movie and the main character is driving somewhere knowing he will suffer some heroic death. I don't know if that makes any sense. All I know is that when I listen to her music I sense a deeper urgency to it. Something is going on here and I can never seem to put my finger on it. Maybe that's what keeps me coming back.

Her Voice

Some criticism I've heard about Lana Del Rey is she doesn't have a very good singing voice. Her singing is soft and generally in the lower register. She gently rises and softly falls with her notes. She's no Mariah or Whitney Houston, nor does she need to be. It fits exactly where it needs to fit. The smokey lounge or shag carpeting images that I have in my head because of her music is only accentuated with her voice.

The weird thing about it is that I don't usually like that kind of singing. When I listen to Lana Del Rey and focus solely on her voice, it comes across initially as monotone and boring. There is nothing extraordinary about her voice. There are no theatrics or fireworks, no long drawn out high notes. It's just her singing in a pouty, almost mumbling sort of manner. However, when I incorporate her singing with the music, it fits seamlessly. Her voice is dependent on that particular style of music. Any other style would force her to be out of place and, one could say, that makes her a one dimensional singer. That might be a valid point, but why does it captivate me and millions of others so intensely?

In all actuality, Lana Del Rey has a really good singing voice and her range is incredible, and in certain songs and performances she displays nuances to her singing style that distinguish herself from other singers. She doesn't have an all time great singing voice, like Mariah or Whitney, but there's something beneath it that lends itself to the songs she sings. Is my attraction to her material a result of the sugary, over the top production of today's pop music in general? Because she is an anti-pop songstress, one that is not driven toward having hits in the conventional manner within pop music, is that the reason I'm drawn to her?


If I'm placing bets, I would put my money on the themes of her songs as to the cause of my fandom. Her material is not black and white to simply say "Yeah, she sings about stuff I can relate to." I feel quite the opposite, that none of her songs are relatable. She sings about broken relationships, lost love, drugs, sex, and booze, pretty common themes within everyday people's lives. However, interspersed throughout these themes are characters, exotic characters of almost a different time and place. Characters that are exclusive to the world she creates. The way she sings about all these things give it an almost mythic quality to it. Everything about the story and setting seem realistic but the way she sings their story makes it seem fantastic. I can't relate to what she's singing about or whom, I just know that I want to relate, and find myself getting lost in this crazy, somewhat chaotic world. 

But what good is a world in which I can't relate to? There's no emotional or personal connection for me to what Lana sings about. So, why am I dying to hear her songs again and again when there are so many artists out there that I can relate to and see myself and my experiences in the songs they write?

Her songs are dark, sad and down right depressing. I am none of those things, which could also be why I'm attracted to those qualities. If I ever needed to feel all sunshine and rainbows, I'll go listen to Katy Perry and be a firework. In the meantime, Lana Del Rey makes this depression seem romantic and introspective, forcing you, the listener, to figure it all out. That's an important thing. She never hands you the meaning of her songs, she leaves it open for your consideration which causes you to analyze why you like her in the first place and makes you write a blog about it. (I digress.) We all get in those moods every now and then, its normal stuff. Does Lana wallow in that mood? Sure, but its not a bad thing to follow her down every so often, if only to pull yourself back up and feel good again.

The complicated aspect to all of this is that I get why people don't like her. It's the Pink Floyd conundrum. You don't like their music yet you understand why people think its great, where in this case, the opposite is also true. She doesn't comfortably fit into the landscape of popular music and she challenges her listeners with her music by using the dark, morose tones in her songs. That's not a bad thing. She gives you something else to listen to and again, the musical landscape of the mainstream can only benefit with having something else for listeners to consider.

Yet, the question still stands; why do I like Lana Del Rey's music so much? Is it the "anti-pop" characteristic of her sound? Am I attracted to the depressing nature of the subject matter of her songs? Is it simply a challenge to listen to her and that makes it more interesting to me?

I don't know if there are simple answers to these questions or any others that may arise in this discussion. All I know is that when I listen to her songs, I'm engrossed in the story she is telling and want to know how the characters in her songs crash and burn.

Maybe that's a good enough reason.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Spotlight - Kamasi Washington 8-22-2015 Portland, Maine @ Blue

People will tell you there isn't a difference between jazz that is played down at the local jazz club by a collection of older local musicians who love to play jazz and the traveling, professional jazz musicians who tour nationally and are well respected and known for the albums they release. It's all about the music is what they say it all boils down to. If you love it and feel the music and let it communicate through you and your instrument, there is no difference.

Before Saturday's show at Blue, a local jazz bar in Portland, Maine, I would've believed there isn't a difference. Then Kamasi Washington had to come to town and give me reason to call bullshit. Kamasi Washington has floated around the music industry for years playing as a side musician on other artists' material such as Ryan Adams, Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. He's self released three albums of his until his fourth release, The Epic, his first on a label, crashed through the jazz world like a streaking meteor looking for it's point of impact. It contains nearly three hours of music over three discs and the music tends to follow the styles and likes of Coltrane. The album was universally praised upon its release. For me, it nearly knocked me on my ass the first time I listened to it. Needless to say, when I heard he was coming to a town near me, I had to get tickets.

The Venue

I didn't know anything about Blue as a venue, except that it was in Portland. The more I learned about it, the more I began to realize that it wasn't a very big venue. Me and my wife took an Uber into downtown Portland and our driver repeated several times how small Blue was. So, since the show was sold out, I expected to be surrounded by people and began thinking if my experience at this show was going to be a poor one.

There were two show times, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. We had tickets to the first show. The doors opened at 5 p.m.  and we got in line at 4:45. There was an older gentleman in front of us who said that he heard the sound check and it sounded great. We spoke briefly about our excitement to see Kamasi and he told me how he just listened to his album the other day and was blown away by it. A few passersby saw the line grow and asked who was playing, reacting with unfamiliarity when told who was performing. I couldn't help but think to myself, "Better get to know this guy. He's going to be huge!"

The doors opened and as we walked in with our tickets in hand we saw how small the venue actually was. The stage stretched from the wall next to the door across the front of the bar to another wall, the windows had dark blue curtains that you couldn't see through and a chalkboard that read "For your listening pleasure KAMASI WASHINGTON" that covered the glass door behind the stage. 

Directly in front of the stage and along the far side wall were small tables, four chairs per table. We chose a table along the wall, about three tables from the stage. No matter what table you chose, your were close. My wife and I marveled at how close we were and the aisle that the musicians were going to be walking up to the stage was right there next to us. Behind the section of tables was a bar with stools and directly behind us was a long table with stools. The merch table was in the back near the restrooms. 

My wife and I sat down, ordered drinks and settled in. 

The Show

When Kamasi's album was released, he put on a four hour show (might have been three but whatever) back in Los Angeles that was recorded and streamed by NPR. I watched it and became somewhat familiar with what to expect. As soon as he took the stage though, I knew there was no way to prepare myself.

When Kamasi Washington plays he not only puts his soul into it, he puts his entire body into it. He pushes and pulls his tenor saxophone with each heavy breath, his fingers working the keys with, what seems to my inexperienced, amateur eyes, an almost gentle ease. Then, he stopped playing and turned his attention to the musicians behind him as each had a solo, letting it be known that Kamasi wasn't the only player you needed to see. 

Kamasi's band, known as The Next Step, consisted of Jamael Dean on piano, Miles Mosley on bass, Ryan Porter on trombone, two drummers, Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin, and vocalist Patrice Quinn. In the middle of the performance, Kamasi paused to welcome his father to the stage, Rickey Washington, an impressive flutist in his own right. 

Each member had their time to shine and showcase their talents and it was clear that Kamasi has surrounded himself with bonafide players. As a band they were tight and well versed in each other's own chemistry. The communication between each member was uncanny and flawless and the sections of back and forth interplay drew smiles to audience members and the musicians themselves. It was a sight to see and one you don't see much of at the local jazz bar in town. 

I knew when they began playing a different song but I would've been just as satisfied if I didn't. I was so taken by the music, the energy, the vibe the audience was giving off, that I didn't care to make an effort to focus on my senses. I just allowed the performance to take control and it was a fantastic feeling. 

The songs were a smooth blend of jazz, hip hop, soul and funk. Each musical style blended into the other seamlessly. I like to imagine to myself how artists grow into their chosen genre and jazz is interesting because of its close relation to hip hop. Kamasi is one of many artists that have incorporated the two forms flawlessly, using it as a foundation to build on and I could tell all styles of music were ones that Kamasi has grown with, breaking them down to their bare bones to see how he could build them back up again with his own signature sound. It was intense and each player seemed to punctuate their own performance with an attitude. To see it and hear it first hand was an experience I will never forget.

After the show we made our way to a local bar for a couple of drinks. My wife and I couldn't stop talking about how amazing he was. We talked about our favorite parts of the show. My wife, who played the flute in high school, kept emphasizing how hard those notes Rickey Washington was playing and how great he was. I kept humming some random jazz melody that might have been something played that night, or it was me making something up as the rush continued through my blood. Several times that night my head shook in disbelief. What did I just see? Greatness in music is easily recognizable and Kamasi Washington is a great artist AND performer.

All in all, if you like music then Kamasi Washington is an artist you must see. There isn't a question about it.

Before that night, I've seen live jazz before, however, I've never seen JAZZ live before. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Most Boring Beef in Hip Hop History

The beef is over! A few days ago Meek Mill quietly retreated from his standoff with Drake, thus ending one of hip hop's lamest and uninteresting feuds. And thank the lord because it was downright brutal how boring this turned out to be.

There were quite a few things about this beef that made it completely unnecessary and very easy to ignore. However, my biggest issue with this beef has to do with the result. Drake easily won the feud but it just caused the internet to deem Drake a rapper no one wants to mess with. This confused me. Again, Drake might have won the beef but he didn't display any kind of death knell in his songs, spit a witty lyric that basically shut down the whole beef. He had one great line in his second diss track "Back to Back" where he raps, "You love her, then you gotta give the world to her/Is that world tour or your girl's tour?/I know that you gotta be a thug for her/This ain't what she meant when she told you to open up more"

Truth be told, it was a pretty good dig at Meek, but on a scale of 1 to 10 for me it was a 4 and it made me wonder, if Drake was up against another emcee, a better emcee, would that kind of line or diss be good enough? I doubt it. Drake isn't known for being a top notch lyricist. He's no Nas or Rakim, and that's alright. He doesn't have to be. But if this beef is what hip hop fans are using as an example to show how Drake is a legend in waiting or a rapper no one wants to mess with, they might want to get their heads checked. If you put Drake up against Nas, Eminem, Common or Kendrick Lamar, the thing would be over before you could set the radio dial to HOT 97. So now that he's won over a mediocre emcee such as Meek Mill, why does that make him an artist that you should go after at your own risk? It doesn't, not even close.

This is where Meek Mill surprises me here. He grew up in North Philly and cut his teeth battling other rappers so he's been in a position where he has to kick some bars out in order to "destroy" another rapper. Yet, his response to Drake's first track "Charged Up" was on stage while opening for his girl Nicki Minaj's tour and it was summed up in only three words: "Baby lotion soft." There was no response track from Mill and four days later Drake hit him with what ended up being the game winner "Back to Back". At that point Meek Mill released a freestyle "Wanna Know" but it was a little late and there was no need for Drake to respond. When the biggest disses you have are about your girl and how Drake wishes he had your girl, you lost my man.

Maybe I expected more out of this beef than what it could produce. I was a teenager when Tupac and Biggie went back and forth with each other and I was twenty-one when Nas and Jay-Z had their battle, so maybe I'm used to quality feuds. Perhaps it was an attention grab by Meek Mill to go after a high profile emcee such as Drake? I dunno. It seems weird that Meek would stir the pot to just shit the bed. Maybe Nicki told him to cool it because he was hurting her ticket sales for her tour? Who knows?

All I know is that it was probably the most boring rap beef I've ever witnessed. It didn't change my impression of Drake one bit because I still think he's a mediocre emcee. If Drake is someone not to fuck with in hip hop, as a lot of people on the internet are claiming, then the jig is up and hip hop needs to start worrying about who is representing at the mainstream level these days.