Monday, November 24, 2008

All-Time Greatest Singers

Rolling Stone magazine's latest cover story features the all-time greatest singers. Ballots were sent to scores of musicians, producers, executives, etc., including everyone from 50s country-pop darling Brenda Lee to Evanescence's Amy Lee to Rush's Geddy Lee, 70s singer-songwriter Carole King to blues legend B.B. King, the Late Show's Paul Shaffer, Rolling Stone Keith Richards (whose ballot is featured in the "Editor's" section) and, of course, self-proclaimed "g*dd*mn prince of darkness" Ozzy Osborne.

I have to confess a guilty pleasure of mine that arose when I saw the cover story. It's funny how these fleeting thoughts come and go with the brain's electricity. I first thought it interesting (but appropriate) that Bob Dylan was featured on the cover I received (there are four different covers). He is certainly known for his singing, but not for its melodious sweetness. So, right off I know "great" is going to be a broad category for these singers. I also know my guilty pleasure will not be among the top 100--too commercial, too sappy, too pretty. Nevertheless, to my delight, there at number 76 was Journey's Steve Perry--the perfect combination of nose and throat. When Perry pleads in his soaring tenor "Don't stop believin'," you think you just might make it through another night. Don't lie, you know you feel it too! For a stroll down amnesia lane, take a listen to what he does with his 7 seconds of "We Are the World" (sandwiched at the 2:30 mark between two other sweet-voiced white boys, Kenny Loggins and Daryl Hall--also, you gotta love the rawness of the Boss, no. 36). The video features a number of other vocalists who made the top 100.

So, without further adieu, here (spoiler alert) are the top 10: 10-James Brown; 9-Stevie Wonder; 8-Otis Redding; 7-Bob Dylan; 6-Marvin Gaye; 5-John Lennon; 4-Sam Cooke; 3-Elvis Presley; 2-Ray Charles; 1-Aretha Franklin. Check out the whole feature, including playlists of the best from each of the top 100.

I can't believe they left off ________! Fill in the blank. Who got robbed? Who do you say is/are the all-time greatest? What makes a "great" singer--power, technique, influence, relevance, musicality, great songs? Turn others on to some folks they may not know or have forgotten about.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Review: Chinese Democracy

In late 1987, toward the end of a decade dominated by a sabre-rattling and fear-mongering administration, glossy celebrity worship, bank scandals, and music so slick and lifeless it seemed little more than a corpse made up for its own funeral, I had a late-night revelation. I was a 16-year-old hard rock guitarist and occasional high-school student, watching "Headbanger's Ball" on MTV one weekend night, when I heard the banshee cry: You know where you are? You in the jungle, baby! You're gonna diiiiie! With Axl's scream and Slash's grinding riff I was welcomed to the jungle, where it seemed the culture had been for so long, but now the gleaming veneer was cracked and the ugly truth was punching free. Appetite for Destruction was just about a perfect album--dark ("Welcome to the Jungle", "Nightrain"); anthemic ("Paradise City"); even poppy ("Sweet Child o' Mine"); and all with the blood of 80s corruption (see "It's So Easy" and "Mr. Brownstone") running through its veins.

Now, another decade of said sabre-rattling, scandals, and gloss. And now--15 years in the making--another nearly perfect album from Guns n' Roses, Chinese Democracy. I have to admit resentment toward Axl's prima dona antics over the years, but his genius is undeniable and work like this is why we put up with him. From the opening strains of incidental noise, it is clear that this album is going to be an event. Songs like the title song, "If the World" (a perfect fit in the movie Body of Lies), and "Riad n' the Bedouins" mark an expanded scope for G n' R into a more "world" sound, employing Middle-Eastern textures and references appropriate to our times. Present in songs like "Shackler's Revenge" is the familiar mixture of Axl's overdubbed low-high vocals, which sound like his own internal split between meditative and manic! The traditional dark lyrical content is also present, as in "Shackler's" where Axl repeats, "I don't believe there's a reason/I don't believe it." There are many familiar G n' R elements keeping Chinese Democracy right in line with the "band's" catalog.

Absent, however, are Slash's riffs. Like the Rolling Stones ("Satisfaction"), G n' R used to be a "riff band," with songs like "Jungle" and "Sweet Child" (and most others) defined by Slash's opening guitar riff. The new G n' R markedly departs from such raw and traditional blues-based rock sensibilities, in exchange for drum loops and slicker production. Nevertheless, the guitar work is stellar! Axl has surrounded himself with considerable talent and, though the guitar lacks Slash's personality, the technique is flawless and there are many moments that require words like "tasty" and "elegant" and even "magnificent." And for guitarists like myself it is great to herald that, at least on Chinese Democracy, the guitar solo is back!

The few lower points on the album have to do with over-producing ("Scraped") and sentimentality ("This I Love"), though even these are buoyed by lyrical and musical inventiveness. Also, I would be remiss not to single out "Street of Dreams," perhaps the most beautiful of all of Axl's writing. Yes, the song is radio-ready, but it deserves any play it will hopefully get. A more mature "November Rain," "Dreams" moves through beautiful chord changes and uplifting guitar play that truly elevates the soul. "Better" will be a good option for rock radio, and "Catcher in the Rye" even borders on prog-rock with its various movements. Axl's lyrical craftsmanship has sharpened as the well from which he draws seems to have deepened considerably. Cliches are few and lyrics are biting, personal, gritty, and even cathartic and spiritual--often in the same song (from "Prostitute"--What would you say if I told you that I'm to blame?/What would you do if I had to deny your name?). Basically, the album's high points are many and varied--take your pick! Like any G n' R record, there is something for just about everyone.

Indeed, the entire album seems to be a concept a decade-and-a-half in the making, but somehow landing right in stride with the rapid-fire 21st century. The despair and darkness that so plagued Axl and so defined the Guns n' Roses of 1987 still lurks throughout Chinese Democracy, but there is light. The unusual song "Madagascar" employs audio from Martin Luther King Jr., sounding notes of hope (Forgive them that tear down my soul/Bless them that they might grow old), again appropriate for our times. Rumors of this album's release have been spread for years, but with its broader lyrical and musical scope, and cries for justice and healing--both personal and global--the timing of this release seems like marketing genius. Just as our ears and souls are glazing over again, Axl arrives to wail us out of musical complacency. Welcome to...Chinese Democracy!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Singing vs. Preaching

Regarding the previous post "Music on Mars," I want to begin a discussion on the power of music in worship. I am amazed at the power of music to lift our spirits and minds into the presence of God--so much so that music (for good and ill) has become almost synonymous with worship. Is this good or bad? Can singing the Word replace traditionally "preaching" the Word? Do we place too much value on music in our worship, or not enough for the 21st-century mind? Why does music have this power?

Music from Mars

I recently commented on my Twitter and facebook that I think Life on Mars has the best soundtrack of any television show, not least of which is the show's title which is a great David Bowie song. It's amazing the power music has to really alter the mood of a visual scene. How about you? What do you say is the TV show with the best soundtrack, and we can expand the question into movie soundtracks. Also, why does music have such power?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sunrise Secrets--Coffee or Crack

Black sweatshirt hood gathered around my face, I walk through the streets at sunrise, when "the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." The sun is emerging from the horizon, though I only see its light touching the tops of taller houses. The full white moon still shines overhead in the cold blue sky. The still neighborhood begins to stir--lights glowing in the windows as coffee is made and children get ready for school.

Who are these people? What secrets are they keeping--fears and dreams? Who am I to them or they to me? Ah! The discovery. These questions bring or forbid the dawn, because across town there are homeless families stirring in their car-homes, prostitutes striding home with false pride stretched over numbed shame, junkies lying in deathly bliss having silenced the secrets--fears and dreams. And we're back in my neighborhood.

House or car, school or street, coffee or crack, is it a fine line? It may not seem so from suburbia, but for the homeless and the whore and the junkie it is all an unholy ghost--a life just on the edge of sunrise. And this is true of our love as well, of our relationships--the things that go on forever. If only we would allow the sun to rise, night may never come again.
Help Me: What keeps us from truly relating to each other?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Change Your Mind in 2009!

Well, the historic 2008 presidential campaign is history. The ads and debates and talking points and scandals and mudslinging and polling are over, though the 2012 campaigning can’t be far away! No matter how you voted or what your political leanings, it is our duty as people of faith to pray for our president and leaders, and to serve others as children and heirs of God’s kingdom. But the campaign is over!

I have to admit, though, I already sort of miss the campaign. The news was just a bit more interesting then. Maybe it was a little like watching sports—who’s up today, who’s down, who’s advancing and who’s falling behind, who’s injured and who’s committing unsportsmanlike conduct! So, to fill the campaign void in my heart, I’m launching my own campaign of sorts.

The campaign I’m launching isn’t one that can be easily polled, though its forward or backward movements can certainly be felt. It is not a campaign between different factions or parties, though there are two sides to choose from. This campaign is not a grasping at power, though it will surely result in much greater strength the longer the campaign advances. My campaign does not have room for attack ads or mudslinging; just the opposite, in fact.

So what am I campaigning for? Today I declare my campaign to “Change Your Mind in 2009!” Say it with me: Change Your Mind in 2009! Change Your Mind in 2009! “Change my mind about what?” you may ask. Well, everything!
Tucked into the highly quotable book of Philippians, in chapter 4, there is little verse 8 that just explodes with the potential to change our lives—by changing our minds. Paul writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” I’ll let you think about that verse for yourself, and we’ll revisit it soon. For now, make your campaign signs and hit the streets—Change Your Mind in 2009! Change Your Mind in 2009!

NEW BOOK--An Untold Story: Heroism, Mysticism, and the Quest for the True Self

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~ Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings About the Boo...