Saturday, October 16, 2010

This Fire Still Burns

There was a time when female singer-songwriters ruled the charts. From Sheryl Crow to Shawn Colvin, Alanis Morisette and Fiona Apple. While all the ladies were ultra-talented, Paula Cole broke through with probably the best Lilith Fair-esque album, the epic This Fire. Most of these women were angry, but few took their anger like Cole to make such magic out of the emotion. Combined with her impressive voice and a background in jazz, Cole made music that her contemporaries only wish they could’ve.

That was 1996, and since then Paula Cole has been somewhat hidden from the music world. With only three albums in 14 years, Cole seemed to have lost her way in the past. In 1999, with the release of Amen, Paula Cole dove deeper into her jazzy roots, but at the same time, didn’t make the transition from angry and hurt to a born-again Christian successfully. Lyrically the album is among her weakest, and while there are amazing moments on the album, overall Amen paled compared to her peak years.

Then came 2007’s Courage—another disappointment. Paula Cole gets it the most right when it’s just her, raw and open, alongside her piano. Something Courage was missing, raw-Cole. Radio-friendly it was, something better suited for Sarah Mclachlan than Paula Cole.

Now with the return of Cole in a new form with Ithaca, the singer-songwriter has finally found out where have all the cowboys gone, and has found many new stories to tell about what real life can be. .

It’s easy to say Cole has went back to her roots for this album, but Ithaca is a completely new journey. While This Fire was about her early years and breaking her own mold, Ithaca finds Cole finding her way home, if not the long way.

“Music in Me” the album’s first commercial single finds Cole at her creative and artistic peak. If one had ever thought that Cole would never be able to make a record as impressive as her past material, “Music in Me” hails the return of Super Paula, back with infectious hooks, raw emotion and personal lyrics that are eerily universal.

On the album’s most soft and precious moments, “Elegy” and “Violet Eyes” Cole dives deep down inside of her to create a tenderness that is beautifully haunting. Lyrically, they see Cole reflecting on herself and life itself, pondering the deep questions and looking at herself in a real way for the first time in years.

Retro-Paula comes out the most on “The Hard Way,” which could have easily been tacked onto Cole’s debut LP. But Cole really steps back in time on“P.R.E.N.U.P,” Cole’s update on the Tammy Wynette country classic “D.IV.O.R.C.E.” The song finds the singer in a new area: twang. Not a cover, more of an homage to the iconic track, but finds Cole’s humorous take on the contemporary state of marriage (or the dissolution of it).

“Sex” is simply put, Cole’s most erotic expression since “Feelin’ Love.” One of the few singer-songwriter female artists to express raw sexuality, Paula Cole shows that a woman can be creative, poetic, intelligent, talented, but still have a sexual drive and sensuality that makes someone like Fergie look like a silly school girl.

Cole does resort to the safer side at times (as she did on Amen and Courage). Songs like “Come On Inside” and “Somethin’ I’ve Gotta Say” sound just a little bit like something from a romantic comedy, and while Cole makes the most of the genre, still, these are chick-flick songs. “Waiting On a Miracle” isn’t quite as bad, but lyrically and sonically sound similar to the weaker Amen material.

It has been over 15 years since Cole’s debut with Harbinger, and even though the songstress has seen her share of success and flops over the years, there is one thing for certain: there is still a burning fire that is deep inside the singer-songwriter and her connection to herself, her music and to her fans has not been watered down. With Ithaca, Cole has only begun her musical journey and it has become more than obvious that she doesn’t need that cowboy, anymore.

Not So Sorry

In case you create a band that uses absolutely no lyrics or vocals, period, in your records, there is only one thing to do: create an instrumental album to rock the senses. That is just what Sorry No Ferrary does on their debut full-length LP Ternary. Rarely does American contemporary rock take such risks, but Sorry No Ferrary takes on the challenge and the results are winning at times, not so great at others, but for a debut album, especially an instrumental one, Sorry No Ferrary has really nothing to be sorry about.

On of the few non-suite songs on the record, “Ashar” dives in first for the most haunting track on the record. Filled with the type of passion and emotion, that, with vocals, would’ve surely been a radio hit for the band. But because of its lack of lyrics, the electric guitar becomes the voice of the song (and the record itself), allowing for a more free-flowing adventure that may have been limited by vocals.

“Setun” sounds like an instrumental track on an early 80’s power-rock record, and the opening song “Ternary” sprawls over three tracks, influences by a few eras of rock music, mostly contemporary and 80’s. While one can see the attempt to create an epic opening track for a debut album, but what is missing from the songs are any real surprises. Perhaps a little more experimentation could have been done with such a long opening, something along the lines of “Ashar” only, well, different. Even so, the opening is an interesting ride.

Truth be told, the album does end on a sour-note, though. “Talos II” takes the least risk on the record, sounding more like a common backing rock track, than a musical tapestry that most of the other tracks. What’s baffling is the difference between “Talos I” and “Talos II.” While “II” is a disappointment, “I” get down and shows all what the band has got. “I” sounds like a free-for-all jam session, on the other side, “II” sounds cold, calculated, and rehearsed to death.

In the end, this is an instrumental album, making it less likely to be on your most played list, but that’s the magic of the record. The music itself isn’t made to be worn out, but to be enjoyed when the mood strikes the listener, making allowing the music to get the attention it deserves.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Shakira Burns Bright

In the wide range of things, one might question what ever happened to Shakira? In the beginning, with her major label, worldwide debut with Pies Descalzos, Shakira reigned as a talented singer-songwriter, with, while had some Latin influences, was more about the lyrics than anything else. Then came the English debut album and the bleached blonde hair. Not much changed, she still produced some impressive work, but shortly after that, when her career began to falter, things began to change.

While Shakira has done a world of good for the world, her music lately hasn't done as much. “La Tortura” still remains a classic, but between then and now Shakira has been shaking her honest hips (since they don't lie) down the sell-out lane.

First was the English rock-album that had the musical and lyrical “quality” (or lack their of) of an Avril Lavigne LP, then a techno-based record that sounded like Britney Spears rejects. “She-Wolf” was one of her finest moments, 3-minutes of organic-disco bliss, but the rest of the album was more of a chihuahua than a loba music wise.

This time around, Shakira gets back to her roots at times, and moves forward at others, something that allows most of the album to shine as bright as the sun.

Staying away from the most obvious dance-trends traps she fell into on her last album, Shakira this time spins into a merengue club sound. Slower and more sensual than conventional merengue, the tracks “Gordita” and “Addicted to You” and “Rabiosa” (Spanish Version) show Shakira has found her sexy-side, something that was missing on She-Wolf.

Thankfully there is a various Spanish version, because “Rabiosa,” (English Version) features Pitbull, which is kind of featuring Vanilla Ice on a Madonna record. Pitbull has no place on a Shakira album, or on anything musical for that matter.

The premiere single “Loca” isn't the craziest decision for a single, but it's certainly not the shining moment on the album, sounding more like a b-side to the should-be-single “Gordita.” Shakira starts the song ordering her audidence to “dance or die.” Perhaps the most commanding, yet cringe-worthy opening for a song, well, ever. The English version contains Dizzie Rascal and the Spanish-version has El Cata rhyming along Shakira. Both versions could lose the rapper and use the time to expand on the enjoyable merengue sound.

The rock-flavored tracks, like the weak “Devocion” always tend to weigh down Shakira's albums, yet no matter the sound of the album itself, the rock songs always seem to make their appearance. Much stronger rock-tracks then the Oral Fixation records had, songs like “Islands” and “Antes De Las Seis” float musically into a much lighter side than the usual aggressiveness of Shakira's electronic guitar-driven moments.

Shakira softens even more on the soft-piano ballad “Lo Que Mas” and made-for-radio “Mariposas.” Both tracks are sweet, if not particularly memorable.

The sun does go down sometimes, though. “Waka Waka” was fine for the World Cup, whatever, but to include on the record feels oddly out of place. Not merely because the track itself it as kitschy as a 90's one hit wonder, but because the new recorded tracks outshine it to the point it's the only real spot on the record where the sun doesn't touch.

Finally, after record, after record, Shakira has made a comeback. Not commercially, as she has remained on top all these years as the top Latina artist (though, with little competition), but artistically. Looking up, Shakira has finally found a balance between the Shakira we want, the Shakira we remember, and the Shakira she wants to be.

Step Back in Time

Strange Veins

Add a dash of the dark electronica/pop of The Cure, then mix in some of the experimental dance beats of David Bowie, refresh it with some talent from today and you have yourself some Sealions. The Atlanta-based foursome have recently been taking over the local music scene with their new take on what it means to be an indie artist in Atlanta. A city known for its abundance of alternative rockers and hip-hop stars, the Sealions bring a fresh new sound to the scene.

It’s undeniable how influential the music of the ’80s has been on current artists, but with the Sealions, the music actually sounds like it could be played alongside a playlist of early Madonna and Human League and not sound out of place. Retro isn’t the word for it, perhaps homage?

Not a concept record, but Strange Veins does have a theme: “I Love the 80′s…A Lot!” Because of that, while it’s easy to call the album dated , it also becomes a strong contender for filler, something the band smartly avoids by filling the disc with sing-a-long harmonies and sharp production.

The band gets it the best when they channel their ’80s-disco side. Both Joey Pation and Jason Travis capture the true elements of their sound with their voice. Tracks like “Bellweather” blend the airy-pop of Erasure at their peak and the SAW production of Kylie Minogue in her beginnings. Perhaps the most infectious track of the bunch, it makes for the perfect night at the disco. That’s not to say the rest of the album is anything to skip, in fact the entire album takes in mind the dance sensibility that the ’80s provided much of. Some songs are more downtempo (“Apparition”) than others (such as “Islands”), but each and every track does have something for the dance floor.

“Quarter Moon” not only sounds like something David Bowie would have recorded during his “Ashes to Ashes”-era, but actually sounds better! But with all these influences, the one thing the band is missing in their music is warmth. While none of the tracks are sweet-n-low sweet, at times the music seems cold and calculated, with the production bordering on icy. No worries though, the band has much time to melt and let some emotion show.

Two decades after the ’80s are over, the sound still reigns supreme, the same way disco did in the ’90s and the way that house music will most likely made a comeback in the 2010s. Wait long enough and all music will come back in style, which is a good thing. Ten years isn’t long enough to enjoy a certain type of music and the Sealions are doing their part to let those who love the ’80s to continue to get into that groove.

Bipolar Audio

Weapons of Audio


If there is one thing you cannot do, it’s define what kind of sound that Weapons of Audio have created for their album Bipolar. There’s a little hip-hop, some electronica, a bit of pop, some rap, even a little slice of blues. With all these sounds, does the band create a successful stew of sounds?

Prince, or the Artist Formally Known As Prince, is a definite inspiration here, but the duo dips into the sounds of several other artists as well. This is no insult, as for a debut album, while drops of their influences show up here and there, the duo definitely have established their own sound.

“Partyline” shows what a song would be if Outkast remixed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” It’s catchy, fun, different, and has the wide appeal the King of Pop had, along with some bits and pieces of experimental sounds. Let’s just say if the duo followed this sound throughout the record, they would’ve had a smash on their hands.

“Boulevard” borrows from the one-hit-wonder sound the band The Black Eyed Peas have been making a career out of for the past five years. The track, if released as a commercial single, would undoubtedly become a hit (if not a minor one), the only problem is, it’s a bit too kitchy to establish the group an album artist. Same thing with the sexually-charged “If You Want Me” and its accompanying x-rated music video clip. It just feels like this has been done before.

Mostly a feel-good music LP, the album takes an dark turn on the track “Kill My Boss,” which dives deep into the group’s fantasy of the multiple ways in which they would murder their employer. Perhaps a tongue-in-cheek song, lyrically the song is reminiscent of Eminem’s earlier material, in which he obsessively wrote about what he would do to his ex-wife. Controversial? Perhaps. Shocking? Yes.

Even with the lyrics of “Kill My Boss,” the most shocking moment of the disc is the opening “Boogie Shoes,” if only because it is so distant sonically from the rest of the record. Incorporating more of a bluesy, harmonica-based sound, the track shows from the beginning that this band takes their idealized version of club/hip-hop music to an experimental place that few have gone to before.

With the abundance of copy-cats out there in the music world, it’s refreshing to hear a duo take on the music on their own terms. With that, the record does run the risk of not becoming a commercial success, but at the same time, so many artists have seen success on their own terms with their own sound, there is no reason Weapons of Audio couldn’t join these ranks and change the face of music. In the end, the stew of sounds this band created with their own recipe may be a bit strong or “strange” for some, but for others looking for hip-hop with a fresh take, this just might for you.