Tomorrow, February draws to a close, so there’s no better time than the present for a new Song of the Day (the first since Arizona’s birthday/that one day where there’s a bunch of love and happiness and stuff). I have about 2 months left to post here, so I’ll be sure to make much more frequent visits to Harmony Avenue from now on. (Cross my heart. Which reminds me of “Up”: “Cross your heart?…CROSS IT! Cross your heart!” ) Here’s a terrific new single from last year’s Best New Artist Grammy winner, who recently appeared on Sunday’s Oscars broadcast, with a theme particularly appropriate for this month, though applicable throughout the year…
“Black Gold” by Esperanza Spalding (feat. Algebra Blessett)!
Esperanza’s new album, “Radio Music Society,” comes out next month, and from what I’ve heard so far, it looks to be a beautifully innovative fusion of jazz, R&B, pop, and lots of great bits of pieces of other genres. This lead-off single, featuring stellar R&B vocalist Algebra Blessett, is a great demonstration of that dazzling sense of musical experimentation. As stated on Esperanza’s website (and as displayed in the heartfelt music video), this song is a message to African American boys, and is meant to give them hope and a sense of inner strength. However, the song isn’t limited to just one group of people…it features a positive, uplifting message that anyone, of any walk of life, can identify with. It’s a beautiful, joyous piece of music with lots of wonderful moments (I love in particular when a children’s choir comes in during the latter half), and if the rest of Esperanza’s new record is as terrific as this, it’s going to be one wonderful album.
More great music is to come in the next month or two. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
Remember last week when I said I’d get this post out “today or tomorrow”? Or earlier this month when I planned a grand round of Christmas-themed festivities (aside from the Holiday Songs of the Day that I’ve thankfully already posted, for your reading & listening pleasure)? Ha. Like I can be expected to hold to some crazy, unattainable blogging standard like posting regularly. Posting regularly is for the little people. I scoff at people who update their blogs regularly. Ready? Do it with me. Scoff in disdain. SCOFF, I SAY!
OK, so most of that paragraph was kind of ridiculous. Moving on…I’ll do my best to make this week of Christmas Eve/Christmas a lovely one, at least blogging-wise. Look for some Christmas Cover Stories to come before Saturday, something I’m holding myself to. You saw it here. If I do not deliver on my promise, feel free to send me copies en masse of particularly distressing rap albums or something. Unless, of course, you don’t know my address, in which case I shall be able to escape unscathed.
And I have now spent two paragraphs spouting nonsense. What else is new? Anyhow, this post is a (hopefully concise and pithy) exploration of a few of my favorite holiday albums. They’re not even close to touching even part of my Christmas music tastes (and they’re even farther from covering all of the wonderful, even definitive, holiday albums there are out there)…but they’re records that have touched me, inspired me, or warmed my heart in some way. It’s not a Christmas season for me without them, that’s for sure.
Harry Connick, Jr. — “Harry For The Holidays” (2003)
I’m a huge Harry Connick, Jr. fan, so when I got this album back in the day (early 2000s ftw!), it was pretty much a given that I’d enjoy it. However, years later, I probably never could have expected I’d still love it this much. Harry has recorded 3 holiday albums over his career, and while I like what I’ve heard of his first one (which came out back in 1993), and I own and enjoy his latest one (2008), this is the Christmas album of his that I keep coming back to. The selection of songs is top-notch, a great balance of holiday classics both secular and sacred. He includes an outstanding selection of original tunes (my favorites include his buoyant “The Happy Elf” and a heartstoppingly touching ode to the Savior’s life, “I Come With Love”). And best of all, his arrangements and voice are in peak form. From the opening trombone wails of “Frosty The Snowman,” I’m always absolutely hooked. Harry doesn’t phone anything in on this album…he brings a daring sense of reinvention and life to a fine collection of Christmas melodies, all while keeping the innate charm that made them chestnuts in the first place. You really can’t get much better than this, whether it’s Christmastime, or anytime in the year.
Check out a track from the album, “Frosty The Snowman”:
Ella Fitzgerald — “Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas” (1960)
It took me a scandalously long time after I fell madly in love with Ella’s voice in her music to discover this Christmas gem, but rest assured that after I did find it (and buy it on eBay) a few years ago, I have cherished it completely since then. Recorded at what was in many ways during the height of her career, this is a holiday album that’s darn near perfect. Accompanied by Frank DeVol’s orchestra (his arrangements are both thoughtful and timeless), she doesn’t do as much scatting here as her other work, but her improvisational skills are still on full display, and what’s more, her warm, captivating voice is an effortless fit with the Christmas music canon. You’d be hard-pressed to find lovelier versions of oft-covered songs like “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (done here with a bit more swing than most takes on the song), “Sleigh Ride” (featured in the hilarious Will Ferrell film “Elf”), and “Jingle Bells” (the album’s jaunty opener). Check out the 2002 reissue and you’ll also find a wealth of bonus tracks, including a lovely holiday obscurity, “The Secret of Christmas,” and 3 intriguing alternate takes of songs on the album that would have fit inperfectly had they been released instead. All in all, if you don’t have this album in your Christmas collection, you’re seriously missing out.
Want to hear a taste? Here’s Ella’s spin on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:
Any Mormon Tabernacle Choir & Orchestra at Temple Square Christmas album (2000-2011)
A bit of a cop-out, I know, but they’ve released eight Christmas recordings since 2000 (a majority of them being live recordings from their long-standing annual Christmas concerts, a practice they experimented with in 2006 and began in earnest in 2007), and if I went over all of them individually, they’d overtake this list in a hurry. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Christmas have long been synonymous for many, but thanks in part to Mack Wilberg’s stunning arrangements (and since taking over the baton as director in 2008, his conducting), along with the richness that the Orchestra at Temple Square provides, plus a cornucopia of great guest artists (Angela Lansbury, Bryn Terfel and Frederica von Stade, Audra McDonald, Renee Fleming, Sissel, the King’s Singers, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Natalie Cole, and David Archuleta, oh my!), they’re better than ever when it comes to holiday music. Their performances of Christmas classics new and old are vibrant, dynamic, and full of warmth and heart. It’s bigger than a choir, than a song, than a season. They give us pure, beautiful, enduring music.
Just one of the many highlights of their Christmas repertoire…their traditional Christmas concert closer, a rousing arrangement of “Angels From The Realms of Glory” (Special Note: I was in attendance for this specific performance):
Jane Monheit — “The Season” (2005)
Jane Monheit’s vocals are rich, smooth, and dare I say sexy, but distinctive, top-notch vocals do not a great Christmas album make on their own. But when they’re paired with an excellent collection of songs and fine arrangements ranging from gorgeous to fun to everything in between, you’ve got a recipe for a holiday classic. From her delicious opening take on Donny Hathaway’s seminal “This Christmas” to a hauntingly spare rendition of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” done with just guitar, this album is captivating, warm, and beautiful, and I really can’t get enough of it. Jane’s vocal skills are close to peerless, and here they’re certainly very well showcased. She includes a nice selection of uptempo numbers as well as ballads, and the result is an album I’m very proud to have in my holiday collection.
Jane’s sizzling rendition of “The Christmas Waltz,” coming right up:
She & Him — “A Very She & Him Christmas” (2011)
Seeing as I’ve only had this album since the end of October, I’ve been kind of asking myself whether it really belongs on this list yet. However, even considering the short time it’s been around, I think it’s worthy of inclusion. Yes, my great admiration for Zooey Deschanel is a big factor, but that aside, this is a lovingly crafted throwback to days of Christmas past that still has a lot to offer to the holiday music world today. Zooey’s voice has a real classic quality…I remember when “Elf” came out and she sang in it, that it reminded me a bit of Judy Garland’s in a way. It’s soft and fragile at times, but also very rich and distinctive as well. And the new spins on holiday tunes Zooey crafts with M. Ward are gorgeous and smooth. The only clear misstep is an awkward rush through “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that seems like it was included only because this is a Christmas album done by a duo, but otherwise, this is a piece of Christmas gold that will last for years to come.
Haven’t checked out the album yet? Hear Zooey & M. Ward take on the Beach Boys’ sunny tune “Christmas Day” here:
Diana Krall — “Christmas Songs” (2005)
Backed by the incomparable Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, along with her own top-notch piano playing, Diana Krall is an absolute delight singing a lovely assortment of Christmas tunes here. The album’s opening track, a firecracker of a take on “Jingle Bells,” is one of the best holiday tunes I’ve ever heard, and things rarely let up from there. Diana’s well-known for having a very sultry voice, but it fits like a glove on songs like “Let It Snow” and “Sleigh Ride,” as well as tender ballads like “The Christmas Song” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”. The big-band arrangements are vibrant and dynamic (thank one of the best arrangers and musicians of all time, John Clayton, for those), and the intimate combo settings for the ballads work beautifully as well. There’s even a tune included at the very end that’s not often associated with the holidays, but closes the album nicely…a tender version of “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.” This is a treasure of a Christmas record, a heartfelt homage to the past and a full-on embrace of the future, full of holiday warmth and spirit.
Hear the album’s ebullient first track, “Jingle Bells”:
Johnny Mathis — “Merry Christmas” (1958)
And I’ve saved the best for last. By “best,” I don’t necessarily mean that I enjoy this more than all the other albums I’ve listed…on the contrary, true to form, I love them all the same, for the most part. However, this album holds a special place in my heart, and that’s all thanks to my dad, who made it a Christmas tradition to have it played frequently each December. I’ve grown up with this album…it’s a holiday institution in our house (well, now it’s technically houses, but you get the point), and I haven’t gone a year without listening to it fondly. The nostalgia is a huge element in my love for this record…but it’s more than that. There’s a perfect storm of song selection (there’s not a bad track on the album), vocal delivery (Johnny was in peak form, and his singing is beautifully heartfelt and tender), and instrumental backing (Percy Faith & His Orchestra provide gorgeous, rich arrangements that stand the test of time, yet never seem phoned in) at play here. It’s the quintessential embodiment of Christmas spirit. When I hear the opening strains of “Winter Wonderland,” when I hear Johnny’s soaring high notes in “O Holy Night” (a song that you really can’t get wrong*), when I hear the tinkling sounds of “Silver Bells”…I’m home, and I feel Christmas in my heart. When it comes to holiday music, you really can’t ask for anything more.
Just one of the many terrific songs of this album…a lush version of “The Christmas Song”:
And there you have it. Just a taste of the Christmas music that soothes my soul. Feel free to take to the comments to share your favorite holiday music, or comment on my choices. I’ll see you later this week (remember…hold me to it!) with some more Christmas music goodness. Hope your holidays are going splendidly so far!
(*For someone who DID get it wrong, in the most awful but oddly wonderful way, click this link if you dare. You may have heard it already.)
Last night, “The Sing-Off” whittled its 4 semifinalist groups down to 3 finalists, and it’s a lovely finale we have before us…Afro-Blue, Pentatonix, and Delilah. I can’t wait for next…
Oh, that’s right. Delilah got eliminated two weeks ago. Sorry about that. I’m still in denial. OK, well then, the final 3 must be Afro-Blue, Pentatonix, and Vocal Point, right? I mean, who else would the judges pick if Delilah is gone? Vocal Point is terrific. So, like I was saying, next week will be…
Wait a minute. Vocal Point is gone too? Seriously? They really went home already?? Ah, that’s right. I had forgotten. So I guess the final 3 is Afro-Blue, Pentatonix, and Urban Method, then. That I can live with. I’m going to have a hard time choosing who to vote for the most, but I’ll…
Oh no. Oh no. Oh no…oh NO. You can’t be honestly telling me that Afro-Blue is gone. They got eliminated? Right before the finale? Are you KIDDING me? They’re terrific. They’re amazing. Last night they gave two of their best performances! So who advanced instead of them? The Aires? Please. Like that could happen…
Last night on “The Sing-Off,” for the third week in a row, the judges (and, I have reason to believe, possibly the producers…more on that later) made a horrific call. Last night on “The Sing-Off,” just a week shy of the finale, one of the competition’s most outstanding groups was eliminated, while a group that has been inconsistent, underwhelming, and overpraised the entire season sailed through to the finals. True, there was a few positive things to be found in the aftermath of last night…this season’s clear frontrunner is still cruising to a well-deserved win next week, and a group that has continued to successfully rebound from a mid-season slump was rewarded with a berth in the finals as well. But honestly…I can’t believe this. I really can’t. Let’s just jump into the recap now…I’ll find a way to vent some more throughout, most likely. First off, the group mastermix round (in which the groups had to take on two songs by different artists and mash them together in a “mastermix”):
Pentatonix (performing a mastermix of “Forget You” by Cee-Lo Green & “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson): It’s become old hat to say that Pentatonix did an amazing job. But seriously…not only did they give these two songs a fresh, dynamic spin with, as always, some top-notch arranging, they were able to seamlessly blend these two contrasting numbers with a clever on-screen story that worked perfectly. What’s cool about this is that the choreography on stage enhanced the music beautifully, yet the performance works just as well on its own, with just the music to speak for it. That beatbox/bass battle between Kevin and Avi was a terrific touch, and the whole performance even further solidified Pentatonix’s pretty much set-in-stone status as the group to beat. The judges noted that there were a few fleeting pitch problems, but I didn’t notice them at all during the broadcast (and you know me and my pitch-police ways), and it was only after a few listens on iTunes that I finally spotted those small pitch issues. That’s how good Pentatonix is, yo.
Urban Method (performing a mastermix of “Hot In Herre” by Nelly & “Fever” by Peggy Lee): I’m pretty sure no one expected these two songs to ever be sung within a mile of each other, but I thought Urban Method did a great job making them work in tandem very well. The fact that “Hot In Herre” is quite possibly one of the most lightweight, ridiculous songs in the history of music kind of hurt the enjoyment level of their performance a bit (as talented as Urban Method is, there’s just not much you can do to make that song better), but I really loved what they did with their mastermix. Liz’s solo on “Fever” was restrained, gorgeous, and hit just the right tone, and the use of a female trio to keep the strand of “Fever” going during a return to “Hot In Herre” towards the end was a smart arranging choice. Urban Method has really impressed me the past few weeks, and this performance was no exception.
Afro-Blue (performing a mastermix of “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly & “Fly” by Nicki Minaj): Ballads are clearly one of Afro-Blue’s strengths, so it was kind of a given that they’d do well on “I Believe I Can Fly.” However, they did more than just ‘do well’…they brought the song to new heights with a gorgeous mix of complex harmonies and a strong sense of emotion and class. (In a nutshell, what Afro-Blue is at its core.) If that wasn’t enough, they brought in “Fly” (a tonally different song if there ever was one) seamlessly in the second half, with a showstopping rap/singing solo by Mariah, who proclaimed during the rehearsal package that she couldn’t rap, then proved otherwise during the performance. I know I say this a lot, but it just worked. Afro-Blue has a knack for making even the most subtle performances dynamic and engaging, and that’s a skill that really can’t be ignored. (Addendum to this section of the recap based on something Brandon noticed after he had written the first half, and subsequently listened to the iTunes recording: Not having heard “Fly” before, I didn’t even realize they actually introduced it much earlier in the mastermix. I quite honestly thought the first part of the performance was all “I Believe I Could Fly.” That’s how well Afro-Blue blended it in. And, admittedly, that’s how little I know about the music of Nicki Minaj…)
Dartmouth Aires (performing a mastermix of “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones & “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga): This one was an unfortunate combo of weak songs and an unfocused arrangement, and while it wasn’t trainwreck bad, it certainly came close at a few points. Both soloists were not up to scratch…Brendan (who, by the way, always looks like he’s half-asleep, in the worst way) tends to growl aimlessly more than he sings, and while in theory it should have worked for a song like “Sympathy for the Devil,” it really fell flat for me. Michael, on the other hand, hit all his notes just fine, but sounded 10 times too formal and placed for a song like “Born This Way.” It’s a problem I’ve had with him all season…he’s talented, but he always sounds like he’s playing dress-up, rather than truly having soul, emotion, and maturity. That, combined with a strange onstage aesthetic (so the devil is fighting against Lady Gaga and her little Monsters?), along with yet another uninspired background arrangement fraught with pitch problems, made this by far one of the weakest outings of the night.
Now, the second round…the Judges’ Choice numbers:
Pentatonix (performing “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine): There was a small part of me, in the corner of my mind, that didn’t think that Pentatonix could pull this off. I absolutely adore Florence + the Machine, and this song is of course one of my favorites of hers. That said, it’s pretty hard to do in a live setting, and more importantly, it’s even trickier to put an original spin on. Pentatonix most certainly accomplished both of these challenging feats. Their performance started off solid and only took off from there, building in an absolutely thrilling way, and culminating in a heartstoppingly beautiful, wonderfully unexpected solo turn by Mitch while all the other singers dropped out, then a rivetingly powerful ending with the whole group to top it all off. This was truly one of the most breathtaking performances of the entire season, and if I’m not mistaken, I think Pentatonix just won the whole show right then and there.
Urban Method (performing “All of the Lights” by Kanye West feat. Rihanna): A Kanye West song (and on top of that, a Kanye West song I haven’t heard of) most certainly wouldn’t have been a place I would have expected to find one of my favorite Urban Method performances, but indeed, I think this was one of their best efforts, and a clear showing of why they earned their place in the finals. Mike’s rapping fit perfectly in the mix, the arrangement was powerful and focused, and the soloists were very on point. It seemed like Urban Method at their very best, and when they’re at their very best, they can certainly hold their own with the big boys (and girls). A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have minded seeing Urban Method go home, to be honest, but after this performance, I was rooting for them to head to the finals.
Afro-Blue (performing “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke): In recent years, “A Change Is Gonna Come” has been covered by quite a few people, and as a result, at times it feels a bit overdone. Which is why I was slightly worried when Ben, Sara, and Shawn gave it to Afro-Blue as a judges’ choice…I mean, what more can you do to such a timeless composition? Afro-Blue answered that question for me…with resounding, unequivocal musical brilliance. Their arrangement was devastatingly gorgeous, and their performance was stirring in all the right places. Christie is an endlessly gifted lead vocalist, and she struck a perfect balance between singing the song with all her heart and soul, and sounding natural and effortless at the same time. The background harmonies (especially in the moments where they swelled and stood out) were terrific. All in all, it was one of the most rewarding 2 1/2 minutes of the entire season. It’s performances like these that are why I watch “The Sing-Off.” Simply put, Afro-Blue absolutely nailed it.
Dartmouth Aires (performing “Shout” by The Isley Brothers): The Aires certainly gave their all here. And even I have to give it to them, it was fun to watch. But as the judges noted, because of the sheer amount of performance energy they put out, musically, they really suffered. It wasn’t wildly off pitch by any means, but the group was clearly not paying attention to the harmonies. It all seemed muddled and unfocused. Once again, Michael sang powerfully, but emotionally, resonated very, very little. It was a dime-a-dozen lead vocal…there was no distinction to it, no soul. It wasn’t completely ineffective, and it was one of his better outings, but in the end, it didn’t stand out as much as it should have. This was a great way to close the show, but in the end, it should have been much more well-rounded and polished, and as is the case constantly with the Aires, it wasn’t.
Then came the announcement of who would make the finals. Urban Method was called safe first (somewhat surprising given the fact that coming into tonight, they certainly weren’t a sure bet for next week). Pentatonix was subsequently sent into the finale, a forgeone conclusion if there ever was one. After that, I fully expected the Aires to get sent home (after all, they were the only group that were truly given any points of criticism last night)…but then, with about 20 minutes left in the show (I was wondering how they were going to fill time…of course, seeing as this is taped and not live, everyone involved with the show already knew exactly how it would be filled), Nick announced that the judges hadn’t come to a decision on who to send home, and that there’d be a “Sing-Off Battle” where the remaining two groups would sing what they considered their best performance of the season. Afro-Blue wisely reprised their stellar Week 3 take on “American Boy” (one of their most clever yet accessible arrangements), and hit it home once again. The Dartmouth Aires, on the other hand, did the “Somebody To Love” portion of their Week 7 Queen medley. It was fine, I suppose, and Michael rather impressively held his glory note at the end of the number much longer than he did in the original performance (if Michael’s good at one thing, it’s belting out much more proficiently than I or many other people ever could), but it didn’t hold a candle to Afro-Blue’s repeat performance. It was abundantly clear that the Dartmouth Aires were outclassed, and as it came down to Ben as the deciding vote (Sara voted for the Aires to stay, a choice that caused me to impulsively shout “idiot!” at the screen…sorry, Sara…and Shawn stuck to his guns and voted for Afro-Blue), it was all set for Afro-Blue to make it to the finals next week…
But that didn’t happen. Ben’s vote was for the Aires, and thus the finale next week consists of Pentatonix, Urban Method, and a group that shouldn’t have even made it to the semifinals in the first place. This is all kinds of wrong, and even more frustrating coming off the heels of the all-too-early eliminations of Vocal Point last week, and Delilah two weeks prior. Why is there such a disconnect?
And here I briefly launch into mild “conspiracy theory” mode. From what I’ve heard, the decision to oust Afro-Blue was somewhat colored by producer involvement. That’s not to say that I think the judges wanted to put through Afro-Blue, the producers didn’t, then they made Sara, Shawn, and Ben go their way, because it’s definitely more complicated than that. But I do believe there was a bit of pressure from the powers at be to put through the more ‘exciting’ group because of the TV potential. The “Sing-Off Battle” seemed a bit contrived and tacked on at the end, and it all too easily could have been a way to try to convince viewers that the choice between Afro-Blue and the Aires wasn’t as one-sided as it should have been. If indeed the producers were behind Afro-Blue’s elimination, was it something that crossed the line? Of course not. They’re putting on a TV show at the end of the day, and it’s their right and prerogative to do whatever they think is necessary (within the rules of the show) to have that TV show produced the best they see fit. Do I think it was the right decision, though? Not in the slightest. It didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth, per se, but I fully and completely disagree with how it played out.
Now to Afro-Blue for a moment. I’ve heard previous remarks to the end that they’re boring, that, as one commenter here put it, they’re “like a physics problem about a bridge that no one wants to see built.” I beg to differ. I know I’m a jazz fan, and as a jazz fan, I’m going to gravitate towards the groups that are driven by jazz. However, what Afro-Blue did this season was greater than jazz music, greater than one genre. They took jazz music and touched hearts with it. Their performances were anything but boring…they were inspiring, they were full of energy, they were fun when they needed to be, tender and soul-stirring when the occasion called for it. They showed that jazz music, and music as a whole, doesn’t have to be solely high-concept and go over people’s heads. It can be complex AND engage the average listener at the same time. They mastered the balance between innovation and accessibility, and for that I applaud them. They’re anything but “boring,” and for that they’re my winners.
It’s disheartening to see a finale more akin to Season 1 (an outstanding group, Nota, and two underwhelming groups, Voices of Lee and the Beelzebubs) than last season’s anyone-can-win powerhouse (the top-notch quartet of Street Corner Symphony, Committed, the Backbeats, and Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town), and looking back on this season, the wonky eliminations have parallelled that first season’s barrage of questionable judging decisions much more than last season’s relatively peaceful journey. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by Season 2, seeing as there wasn’t too much heartbreak (aside from Groove for Thought going way too early, and On The Rocks staying a week or two too long). That said, next week should be a great show (Afro-Blue confirmed on Twitter that they’ll sing with Smokey Robinson next week!), and things are looking great for the group that deserves to win (Pentatonix) taking home the crown. (I’ll be using my voting powers rather liberally to help make that the case.) As for now, I’m taking comfort in the fact that for my fallen faves of this season…Sonos, Vocal Point, Delilah, and now Afro-Blue…it’s only just begun. To close, a final pair of polls. I’ll see you later this week with more posts.
Well, it’s been a fair bit since I’ve posted here, hasn’t it? (You could plaster a wall with all the posts I’ve started with something to that effect…) Anyways, I still have yet to get to much of my ever-increasing blogging queue, but here’s another project I have to add to that list…Season 3 of the show that made up 90% of my page views last year ”The Sing-Off” premiered tonight, and like last year, I’m going to be recapping each and every episode. (Good old NBC has made that harder on me this year by making this an expanded fall season, unlike the previous two which were short winter runs, but that just means more a cappella goodness…and, if you’re a glass half-empty sort, more elimination heartbreak, I suppose…so it’s a win-win.) Tonight half of the 16 talented groups competed, and only 6 advanced to the next round. (They’ll presumably perform again in 2 weeks.) It’s shaping up to be a terrific season so far, and I’m excited to see how it ends up. Plus, SARA BAREILLES! Let’s start with the first group…
The Yellowjackets (from Rochester, NY): Hey, I just realized they’re from the New York Rochester. As in the Rochester a good friend of mine is from. (Gee, that only took me about 4 hours…) Anyways, in seasons past, there’s always been a token College Group That I Potentially Somewhat Irrationally Dislike (I may need to work on that name, but I guess it’s fine for now). Season 1, it was the Beelzebubs (who I still derisively call the Devil Children, with much glee), who got on my nerves early on for some reason. Season 2, it was the Whiffenpoofs from Yale (who thankfully made a very early exit). This season…it just might be the Yellowjackets. But maybe not. (There are two other college groups that have yet to perform, after all.) Their intro package was just a bit…overly polished. It seemed kind of soulless, in a way that I can’t quite explain. And as for their rendition on K’naan’s anthemic “Wavin’ Flag,” it was very good, but I didn’t quite dig their soloists, and for me it was a bit too stilted. (I audibly groaned when I saw them take out ACTUAL flags at the end. Seriously?) Sara did bring up an interesting point with her comment about the arrangement, though…I agreed with her when she started saying she thought it might have needed more counterpoint, but then (surprisingly) I also agreed with her when she noted that maybe this particular song didn’t really require that. It is a pretty stylistically simple song, I guess, and putting too many bells and whistles on it might have diluted its effectiveness. That all said, I’m not a huge fan of the Yellowjackets yet, and I wouldn’t mind seeing them go home in the least, but they still have a bit of a chance to win me over. (That is, until they break out something like this. Shudder.)
Fannin Family (from Hortonville, WI): You can’t really beat a family in terms of sweetness and charm. (Well, at least a family that actually loves each other. That element’s kind of important. ) The Fannin Family won my hearts during their intro package, but then…hmmm. Their lead vocalist, brave 14-year-old Maria, gave it all she got, but her voice just didn’t sound developed or distinctive enough. She has the raw power, and when she gets older I bet she’ll sound terrific, but as she stands right now, she’s not quite a cappella-fronting material just yet. She also went a little sharp and shouty towards the end. Add to that a song choice that didn’t quite work (“Who Says” by Selena Gomez, a pleasant enough tune, but not very conducive to an a cappella setting), and some pitch problems throughout, and you’ve got a performance that was full of heart and effort, but a little short on the execution.
Afro-Blue (from Washington, DC): I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with Afro-Blue, but once I heard the phrase “jazz choir” in their rehearsal footage…I. Was. Sold. OK, not really, but yes, I did go into the performance with higher expectations as a result. Which were promptly exceeded. This performance (of Corinne Bailey Rae’s delicious hit “Put Your Records On”) was absolutely stellar. The lead vocalist worked it (I think there’s even a bit more power in her that she can bring out next time), the arrangement was stunning, inventive, and vibrant, and heck, even the choreography enhanced it all. (I liked the little shuffling effect they did in the latter half.) They have a terrific blend, a warm, unique, vibe, and…I just love them. I can’t wait to see what they do next, and I hope they go even farther than Groove For Thought (last season’s outstanding resident jazzers) did–AKA all the way to the finals. (P.S.: I have heard very mixed things about grits, but I’m tempted to try them now after Shawn’s comment comparing the lead vocalist to warm butter on them. I’ll of course make sure I have said warm butter handy. )
Delilah (from Los Angeles, CA): Before I, y’know, comment on their performance, I must note that every time I hear their name, I think of the insanely catchy jingle for syndicated radio host Delilah (who my mom very much dislikes, and who apparently got dropped in our market 2 years ago? Bummer. I was wondering where she went). I guess it’s ingrained in my brain or something. That aside, let’s get to Delilah the group…whoa. Just whoa. I was awaiting great things for these girls (um, hello, Amy Whitcomb. Need I say more?), but then their rehearsal footage seemed a little all over the place, but I was still excited, and then…brilliance. Amy simply nailed the lead vocals on “Grenade” (is it humanly possible for her to do anything else?), and the harmonies around her were just as bold and fiery. However, it wasn’t just a bunch of loudness or shouting…the arrangement had a breathtaking build to it, and I loved how it started off very slow, deliberate, and intimate. These ladies can pack a punch, but they can also tread lightly when they need to. (Their bass vocalist also did a terrific job, effectively solving the low-end problem that often dogs female a cappella groups.) It’s been long overdue for an all-female group to go far in this competition (I still think Noteworthy was 1-800-Completely Robbed), and I think Delilah could be that group this season.
The First Elimination: The judges did the right thing and sent the Fannin Family home…which was kind of a bummer to watch, because they’re all so sweet and endearing and earnest. (Too bad it wasn’t a shock elimination of the Yellowjackets…just me? Yeah, probably.) Their swan song, though (the beloved “Annie” chestnut, “Tomorrow”), was a bit shaky. Their lead vocalists were kind of all over the place. Still, they gave their best effort, and I hope they really go places in the future. (After all, the Osmonds aren’t getting any younger.)
Urban Method (from Denver, CO): Oy, here’s where my longstanding anti-rap bias comes to bite me in the behind. I just couldn’t get into this performance. Was it well-done? Yes. Was it visibly committed and full of strength and effort? Of course. Did I like the cool studio-esque effects at the end? Why yes, I did. But all those positives aside…it’s just not my thing. I can’t fault them for taking a relatively new fusion of genres (rapapella, yes?), and doing a great job with it, but it’s incredibly hard for me to get into rap, and that really hindered my enjoyment of this performance. I might get into Urban Method more once they’re not tackling a song originally done by one of my absolute least favorite rappers (the song would be “Love The Way You Lie,” and you should probably know who said rapper is…I’m not going to bother typing his name, quite frankly), but right now, I’m not quite in their corner. (P.S.: Did anyone else get a weird Svengali vibe from the guy who formed the group? He kind of rubbed me the wrong way.)
Cat’s Pajamas (from Branson, MO): Full disclosure: I have a good friend that lives in Branson right now and does sound engineering for this group (he also had me watch a few of their YouTube videos, and I was quite impressed), so the Cat’s Pajamas were going into tonight with a bit of an advantage, at least in terms of my personal preference. Still, even without that previous connection, I bet I would have enjoyed this performance just as much. They’re just so incredibly solid…their blend is effortless, their sound is crazy for only 5 singers, and they work together amazingly. They make 50s/60s/70s era music sound cool, in many ways. (I’m generally not a fan of that brand of a cappella fare usually, but the Cat’s Pajamas really bring it to life, in my opinion.) The judges were astute in pointing out that the group could really benefit from some stylistic branching out…I’d like to see how the Pajamas do with a contemporary hit, for example. It’s something to think about. (Also, Sara’s accidentally innuendo-filled critique? Gold. That’s one way to introduce yourself to America…and props to Nick for actually being quick on his feet for once and quipping, “I think Sara wants to see them in their Cat’s Pajamas.” )
Kinfolk 9 (from Los Angeles, CA): Last week sometime, I watched the group performance of P!nk’s “Perfect” that opened the show (I actually missed catching it tonight) embedded in one of the NBC ads online, and I clearly remember not being a huge fan of the lead singer’s voice. That, combined with the intro footage mentioning the fact that Kinfolk 9 is completely new to a cappella, made me a bit apprehensive before their performance. (Their personal stories of hardship and struggle to break into the music industry, however, were very touching.) After all that, though, I ended up being very impressed. I’ve changed my tune on Moi’s lead vocals…his tone takes just a little bit to get used to (it’s very distinctive, kind of like an indie rock vocalist-type voice), but once you get acclimated to it, it’s very intriguing to listen to, and he (along with the rest of the group) really cut to the emotional core of the song. (You wouldn’t think there was an emotional core to an overplayed OneRepublic song [I like their music, but this song has been all over the place], but Kinfolk 9 found it.) Their blend isn’t quite all there yet, but there’s so much potential for growth in that regard, and they had some very striking harmonic moments. (The arrangement was excellent.) Kinfolk 9 needs a bit of time to gel, but I really like what I’ve seen and heard so far, and they have nowhere to go but up.
BYU Vocal Point (from Provo, UT): (I had to restrain myself from adding “the best place in the universe” there. ) So as you know, I’m a BYU student. (More or less.) You may think that that might give me a bit of a bias towards Vocal Point. If you thought so…you’d be correct. I was very, very excited to see them perform, and it probably would have taken a lot for me not to have enjoyed it. Still…they really, really did an amazing job tonight. Their rendition of “Jump, Jive, An’ Wail” was full of energy, fun, and power, and they had a killer blend, some zippy (but not too busy) choreography, and it was just a huge, heaping ball of entertainment. I have to admit as high as my expectations were pre-show, I was worried Vocal Point might seem a bit too buttoned-up (from my previous experiences seeing them perform, they’ve had small moments where that concern came up for me), but that wasn’t an issue at all tonight. Here’s hoping they can keep their high level of performance and energy up even when the songs get more recent, out of the box, and/or low-key. (I’m betting they can.) If they show their versatility as the competition goes on, they’ll certainly be ones to beat. (Rise all loyal Cougars, and hurl your challenge to the fo…oops, sorry. Got carried away.)
The Second Elimination: For some reason, I had a feeling that the last two groups in danger would probably be Kinfolk 9 and the Cat’s Pajamas, and my suspicions were indeed confirmed. I also suspected the judges might send the Cat’s Pajamas home, and again…I was correct. The Cat’s Pajamas vs. Kinfolk 9 thing was an interesting conundrum, and although I’m really gutted that the boys from Branson went home the first night out, I see where the judges were coming from on keeping Kinfolk 9 in the competition. I don’t buy the sentiment that the Cat’s Pajamas were soulless or ‘too perfect’ per se…but they’re an incredibly polished, experienced group (even if they don’t perform 200 shows a night, like Ben mistakenly proclaimed at first), and there’s not much room for improvement…they’re really pretty much already there. Kinfolk 9, on the other hand, have tons of potential, and this competition can be an ideal way for them to reach that potential. They can really grow and shine from a few more performances on “The Sing-Off” stage, and although I would have rather had the Cat’s Pajamas stick around, I’m interested to see what Kinfolk 9 does in the weeks ahead.
And that’s all she (or in this case, he) wrote. This was a great start to the season, and just like last season was even better than the first, this season looks to, in turn, be even better than the last. (I’m pretty sure that made absolutely no sense. Ah, well.) Sara Bareilles [insert fanboy squeal here] is a terrific addition to the judging panel (Nicole was really growing on me, but let’s face it, she’s not quite astute-judge material…good luck with her, Simon, on that little talent show you’re doing), full of great constructive comments, as well as wit and (in the case of the Cat’s Pajamas tonight) some unintentional humor. (Nicole was good at that too, I guess, but it always seemed as if she SO wasn’t in on the joke. Ever.) I’m way pumped for Season 3 (yay for more groups and more episodes!), and I’ll see you all next week with a new recap. (I’d better see you before that, too, with one of the many posts on my to-do list.) Thanks for reading!
But wait, there’s more! Here’s a poll to keep you occupied until next Monday… (And as always, comments are much welcomed.)
Hey, I’m back with a new Artist Spotlight. Alas, as always, it has been too long. This post is a milestone for Harmony Avenue…it’s this blog’s 50th post. More celebration of that to come…but first, let’s jump right into talking about an artist I’ve been wanting to spotlight for quite a while now, the amazing…
Alyse is a dynamic indie singer-songwriter with a very engaging, interesting artistic vibe. Her music is warm, playful, passionate, unique, alluring…sometimes all at once. I stumbled upon her music while on a road trip with my family through California and Washington up to Spokane (where I lived when I was little for about 4 years, and where a good portion of my family still lives). I was in our hotel room in Spokane, after a long day which included a whirlwind 2-hour visit to Seattle. (Not. Enough. Time. City. So. Awesome.) (Oh, and trying to get out of Seattle traffic when you’re in a hurry? NOT fun.) Since I’m the Wikipedia-browsing fiend that I am, I was looking at the article for Pike Place Market, and since I had seen a few really cool buskers on the street while we were walking to Pike Place, I took special interest in that section. Alyse’s name was mentioned among the many performers that have graced Pike Place, and for some reason (maybe the description of her of “alternative jazz-pop singer-songwriter,” AKA “a combo of genres that Brandon adores”?), I clicked through to her own Wikipedia article, and subsequently started dipping my toes into her music. (There’s also some interesting biographical info on her Wikipedia page…such as the fact that Alyse actually worked in the corporate world before deciding to pursue her passion, music.) Thanks to the fact that the article mentions it “won the 2007 Billboard World Song Contest in the jazz category,” this was the first song of hers I listened to (seen here in a live version, as the studio version isn’t quite embeddable here):
That was the only interaction I had with Alyse’s music for a bit, until late in the fall of 2009, when I was starting out my freshman year at BYU, she came up with a special offer for her fans…to buy one or both of her CDs (“Too Much and Too Lovely” and “Hold Onto This”) for any price. Being a college freshman at the time (I rarely had any money to buy new music), I jumped on this, wanting to hear more of Alyse, and soon I was hearing her two albums for the first time. I really loved what I heard, and as always, the rest is history.
Alyse counts the likes of Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and Norah Jones among her influences, and while you can certainly hear that sort of atmosphere in her work, she’s created a sound that’s really all her own. Her rich voice is full of character and charm, and it’s a key to bringing her music to life. “Mesmerizing” would be a great word to describe her music…it’s captivating and Alyse really puts her all into every song she creates, even when it’s something more upbeat, such as this fun little number from her debut album, called “Complete With Sound Effects” (sorry for the pictures of random people…you don’t really need to watch the video, per se…but this was the only way I could embed this song):
One of the press quotes on Alyse’s homepage says, “Boy, she’s got a sexy voice” (that would be courtesy of Back Beat Seattle). She uses it to devastating effect on the very slow-burning, breathlessly inviting “Willowing.” (Alyse herself has described it as a song that requires a shower afterwards. )
Some of her other ballads take a different kind of flavor…they’re similarly stripped-down, but they’re also very vulnerable and introspective as well. Take this beauty from her second album, a song called “B-17 Bomber Girl”:
Here’s another example of that captivating sense of vulnerability and honesty, taken from (naturally) her recent extended-play called “The Honesty EP.” (It’s so named partly because of the concept behind its production…Alyse essentially went back to basics and often sings on it with little more than a piano backing her.) The song is “Dim The Lights.”
One of the many reasons that I love Alyse’s music is that her whole artistic sensibility is very uplifting and positive. Her song aren’t always “happy” songs, per se…but they bring a smile to my face (or heart) in some way. Here’s two songs that embody that quality very well…”Wild Child” from her second album, and “Watch Me Jump,” the opening track off “The Honesty EP.”
Finally, even when she’s taking on others’ songs, Alyse’s passion and love for music, as well as her top-notch, authentic artistry, really shines through. Last year she did a little covers series on her YouTube page, and here’s her stunning version of a Regina Spektor tune you may be familiar with:
Alyse is that special kind of artist with the type of music that just begs to be explored and listened to again and again. It’s very individual and unique, and it’s definitely not like much out there in the music world right now, but it speaks to the listener in a very profound way, and that’s a quality that shouldn’t be taken for granted. I highly urge you to check out more of her music, and you can find her website here.
So this is my 50th post on Harmony Avenue. Months ago back in October, when I was starting this little experiment off, I never could have imagined I’d make it all the way to 50. Being the small operation this is (it’s just me, blogging, whenever I feel the fancy to), and looking at my past blogging activities (none of my previous blogs have ever had this many posts or been updated this regularly, at least for this amount of time), that’s a huge milestone for me. It’s been a terrific experience running this site, and although I’m planning to leave on a mission before the year is out, I hope to continue sharing music (and my thoughts on it) for a long time to come. A special thanks to those who have helped get me to this point:
The good folks at WordPress, who of course host this blog (for free!), and make it as easy as pie to post, share, and shape this blog into exactly what I want it to be.
Sites like YouTube, SoundCloud, and Grooveshark, that help make sharing music simple, universal, and incredibly accessible. Harmony Avenue wouldn’t be the same without them.
Although I thanked her at the end of last year (in my end of 2010 spiel), I’d like to take another opportunity to give a shout-out to the amazing Julia Barry, who helped set up an interview AND give-away here on Harmony Avenue (as well as inspiring an album review I did of her last album, “Once, or Twice”). That was back when this blog was still in its infancy (well, even more infant than it is now ), and it really gave me a boost of confidence, and a feeling that this music blog endeavor could actually be worthwhile. Thank you, Julia, for the terrific music you create, and for seeking me out on Twitter in the first place.
Any of you who have ever read this blog, even if it’s just been a post, a paragraph, or a sentence. I harbor no illusions about my readership…it’s rather small, spotty, and potentially nonexistent, and I’m pretty sure at least half of the views I get are by spammers and the like…but I know at least some of you reading this are humans, and I’d like to thank you for taking your time to read what I have to say (and share, music-wise). It means a lot to me.
Making it to 50 posts is great, but I won’t stop here. I hope to continue making this blog better, and finding lots of new artists, songs, and music to share. As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for listening. See y’all soon with a new post, and for now, Happy 50!
Apparently now “tomorrow” means “many days later, while Brandon is slowly recovering from wisdom teeth removal surgery.” Anyways, here’s my long-promised new Artist Spotlight, on…
Jamie is a singer-pianist from the UK with a very unique angle. His music is very grounded in jazz (not just influenced by jazz, like straight-up jazz-driven music)…but it also takes elements from pop, rock, even a tiny bit of hip-hop at some points. But before we get into that…how did I come across Jamie in the first place? That would be thanks to the dear, departed Star 97.5, what used to be our local vocal jazz radio station. It only lasted about a year or so in about 2007 (it met an untimely end due to ridiculous reasons that I will refrain from ranting about here), but while it was around, it was BRILLIANT. They played a mix of jazz-centered music that seemed to be tailor-made for me and my musical sensibilities. One of the songs that was playing one day was this gem, “All At Sea,” from Jamie’s second album (and major-label debut, if I’m getting my facts right), “Twentysomething”:
This is one of Jamie’s more pop-influenced songs, as most of his original stuff tends to be. The piano is simply gorgeous, Jamie’s voice complements the music almost effortlessly, and the lyrics are fine too. Naturally, this got me hooked on Jamie, and although it was a painstakingly slow and steady process, I started checking out more and more of his music. The rest is history. Ish.
Notice how I mentioned the piano first. Jamie is, as briefly mentioned in my intro, an accomplished pianist. What boggles my mind is…he’s not formally trained. It’s all done by ear, pretty much. Seeing as I myself can’t play piano that well with music smack dab in front of me, Jamie being able to do that off the top of my head…it’s not something I ever take for granted as a listener. Here’s another nice example of his killer piano chops, on a jaunty version of the classic standard “I Get A Kick Out of You” (also off the “Twentysomething” album):
As with pretty much any artist I end up spotlighting, I could pretty much just have you listen to my entire Jamie Cullum collection and call it a day. Which I’ll kinda probably end up doing. But anyways, as you may have heard a bit from his version of “I Get A Kick Out of You,” Jamie has a real knack for taking extremely well-known songs and completely reinventing them in a very dynamic way…not to mention the songs he ends up choosing are often quite all over the place genre-wise. Case in point…here’s his cover of “Singin’ In The Rain” off “Twentysomething,” and then a take on Rihanna (yes, you heard that right) off his most recent record, “The Pursuit.”
And, as I talked about earlier, his original compositions are terrific as well. He really was firing on all cylinders with his latest album, “The Pursuit”…two choice cuts off that disc, the buoyant “I’m All Over It” (which interestingly enough, seems to be about a breakup) and the deliriously catchy “Mixtape” are two of my absolute favorites:
And just so I’m not leaving his excellent sophomore major-label effort “Catching Tales” out, here’s a song from that record called “Catch The Sun” (which is actually a cover, of an English alternative band called the Doves). The piano (as always with Jamie’s music) is absolutely terrific:
I could go on and on about him (for example, did you know he has his own BBC Radio show? or that he and his wife just had a baby? or that he was the singing voice of the main frog in “Meet The Robinsons”?), but I won’t. Jamie just has a knack for taking jazz music, a genre that people often see as old-fashioned or one-sided, merging it with his own outside influences (as well as his own clear love for jazz), and creating something fresh and vibrant that both celebrates the old and embraces the new. I honestly couldn’t think of a better sign that the jazz genre will be thriving for years to come than Jamie’s endlessly inventive and incredibly accessible music. To close, here’s a rollicking performance of his song “You and Me Are Gone,” with the BBC Heritage Orchestra at a 2010 Proms performance (the fact that he’s a jazz/pop/rock artist and was invited in the first place to play the Proms is a major recognition of just how versatile he and his music can be):
See y’all soon (and “soon” hopefully won’t change into a similar meaning as “tomorrow” ) with some more new posting. I hope to get my cover-centered new feature off the ground, and we’ll see if that ends up happening. For now, thanks for reading!
So I haven’t done an Artist Spotlight since last year. Which means you got a break from them…but I have TONS of artists I still want to share, so let’s bring sexy the artist spotlight back, and shine it today on a band (Harmony Avenue’s first spotlighted group since Local Natives)…
So what exactly is Hem? A band with quite a simple name, and a simple…yet stunning aesthetic. Their music is a beautiful mixture of folk, Americana, rock, country, even tiny bits of jazz here and there…fronted by the golden-voiced Sally Ellyson, and gorgeously backed by strings and orchestral instruments. And guess what? You might have heard a bit of their music, provided you were watching TV a few years ago and a Liberty Mutual commercial came on (built around the heartwarming concept of strangers “paying it forward” and doing good deeds for each other in succession), backed by this song, called “Half Acre” (from the band’s debut album, “Rabbit Songs”):
Like quite a few of Hem’s current fans today probably can say, this is exactly how I found out about their music. I saw the commercial and heard a 30-second snippet of the song…and I really, really wanted to hear more. I had no way to find out what the song was and who sung it at the time, but probably close to a year after I first heard it, for some reason I decided to search around the Internet for the song, and found my answer…and from then on, I was absolutely, 100% hooked.
Here’s another tune from another Liberty Mutual commercial. It’s called “The Part Where You Let Go,” and is on an EP called “Home Again, Home Again.”
So I could basically just show you a bunch of their songs and call it a day…because like many great artists’ work, Hem’s music speaks for itself. IT’s gorgeous, heartfelt, lovely, simple, tender, warm…yet not “sleepy” or “boring” by any stretch of the imagination. It’s full of life and color, and the music practically dances into your ears. It’s comforting, but not bland…it’s heartwarming, but not treacly or overly sweet. It’s the perfect balance of heart and invention. Here’s three terrific tracks from their second LP, “Eveningland” (which is my favorite album of theirs so far, though all of them are terrific). Their names are “Pacific Street,” “My Father’s Waltz” (which might make you cry), and “The Fire Thief,” respectively. (Note: I believe the version of “Pacific Street” I found on YouTube is a bit truncated. Sorry if that’s the case.)
(The video for “The Fire Thief” also features a song off their covers/B-sides album “No Word From Tom,” called “Oh No!” So there’s a bonus for y’all there. )
One more song before we part. First, a passionate cut from their most recent full-length album (“Funnel Cloud”) called “Not California” (complete with official music video!), which apparently was partly inspired by lead songwriter Dan Messe’s wife being obsessed with shows like “The OC” and “Laguna Beach.” The song is called “Not California.”
Also, I couldn’t find anything to embed here, but Hem also branched out and provided the music for the summer 2009 Central Park production of “Twelfth Night,” featuring Anne Hathaway and Audra McDonald, among others. It’s lovely and sets the stage beautifully for…well, whatever the play was like. (Sadly, I was not able to see it in any form, but they did release the soundtrack.)
But wait! There’s more! As a special bonus (or punishment? ) to you faithful readers, here’s a little something from yours truly. Enjoy, be sure to subscribe, and many thanks for coming to my blog in the first place. Keep listening!
So this second installment of my Grammy predictions and picks, thanks to some big, time-consuming (but fun) events in my little corner of the world this weekend, is exceedingly last-minute. So last-minute, in fact, that I believe the pre-televised Grammy ceremonies (where the bulk of the awards, especially the non-big-ticket ones, are given out) have already occurred/are occurring at the moment I’m writing this. I’ve only seen two of those categories’ winners, and neither of those categories are being covered here, so rest assured I’m not making fake “predictions” just to look good. So very hurriedly…let’s do some more Grammy discussin’.
Best Female Pop Vocal Performance
A nice cross-section of talent this year…we’ve got ourselves some Norah Jones and Sara Bareilles, as well as superstars (for better or for worse) like Lady Gaga and Beyonce. And oh dang it, I was looking through the category Wiki page just now and I accidentally saw the winner, so I can’t really predict anyone, can I? (Because of this, btw, I will probably refrain from looking at any category histories at this point to help my predictions, so I might be winging it a little bit from here on out.) Anyways, interestingly, the live version of “Halo” by Beyonce is nominated (probably because the studio version isn’t eligible for this year, and last year around nomination time it must have been still growing). I’d go for that, Norah, or Sara if I was a Grammy voter. As for the actual winner, I shan’t spoil it here.
Best Male Pop Vocal Performance
If the female category for pop vocals is a “nice cross-section,” the male category is kind of…all over the place. But in a good way. I can’t say I dislike any of the songs here (even the Adam Lambert one, admittedly, and I am NOT a big fan of him at all, dating from his AI stint). As for who I think will win/already won? I’m going to go with some other predictors and say that the Grammy voters will go the sentimental route and give a posthumous award to the legendary Michael Jackson for “This Is It.” (Seeing as it’s probably one of the last chances they’ll have to give MJ a Grammy, I doubt they’ll pass it up. Heck, I probably wouldn’t pass it up either.) Bruno Mars could be a spoiler, though. He’s nominated for quite a few other things (a lot of them producing/songwriting), and “Just The Way You Are” is the kind of song that’s both popular and kind of old-school (AKA huge Grammy bait). I’ve grown rather fond of the tune, so that’s one of my personal picks, along with “Haven’t Met You Yet.” Another nominated song in the category, “Half of My Heart,” is also on my iPod, and I rather like it, but I’m kind of scratching my head at why it was nominated here in the first place, seeing as it’s more of a duet/collaboration than a solo performance by John Mayer. (Taylor Swift contributes prominent vocals to it.)
Best Dance Recording
I have to admit, I was totally not planning to cover this category at all. (P.S., I don’t have time to cover all the categories I could conceivably write about/have knowledge of, so I’m basically going to skip to the jazz ones after this. ) But last week, I finally decided to check out the music of Robyn…and I fell in love. Mad musical love. So I’m going to throw conventional wisdom to the wind and predict that the Grammy voters will be kind and awesome and give her terrific “Dancing On My Own” an award. (Either that, or La Roux, who similarly rocks, or Goldfrapp, who I admittedly haven’t heard too much of, but have loved what I’ve heard by her so far.) It’s soulful, easy on the ears, great to dance to, and heartbreaking all at the same time. And as talented as Rihanna and Lady Gaga can be, methinks that Robyn could really do wonders with the extra recognition.
Best Rap Solo Performance
Best Jazz Vocal Album
I could write for hours and hours about this category, but I only have about less than ten minutes (and I have at least one other category I wish to cover), so here’s the skinny. (Sort of. ) My predictions are twofold…I’d say Dee Dee Bridgewater‘s energetic, innovative tribute to Lady Day, “Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee” (now THAT’S a title) has the best chance to win, seeing as it’s by a prestigious previously-nominated artist, it goes outside of the box (but in an accessible way, for the most part), and it’s a tribute, which in the past, if memory serves me right, Grammy voters have simply eaten up. (An example off the top of my head is Patti Austin winning a few years ago for “Avant Gershwin.”) However, here’s where the second part of my prediction comes in…I think Freddy Cole (AKA Nat King Cole’s younger brother, something I did not know until recently) and his fine (albeit a little low-key) Billy Eckstine tribute, “Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B,” could be a definite spoiler here. The Bridgewater album is terrific, but some more traditionally-minded voters could be turned off by her unique approach to Billie’s classic songs (they shouldn’t, but it’s a possibility). Freddy, being pretty close to jazz royalty and all, would be what said traditionally-minded voters would flock to next, I’d wager. As for what I’d pick if I were king a member of NARAS? Definitely Denise Donatelli’s outstanding “When Lights Are Low.” Geoffrey Keezer’s arranging is superb (more on that in a second), Denise is in fine voice, and it’s even a little close to home, as I’ve sung/worked (!!!) with the husband & wife who do background vocals throughout the record, Kerry Marsh & Julia Dollison. It’s just a beautifully put together album (though I may be a bit biased ). The other two entries, “Ages” by Lorraine Feather, and “Water” by Gregory Porter, sound great too. I was especially intrigued by the former, and it could be a sleeper win if the votes get split in weird ways. However, as stacked as the vocal jazz category is this year, I hate to say their chances are slim. (Can’t we just give the Grammy here to everyone? )
Best Instrumental Accompaniment Accompanying Vocalist(s)
Yeah, so this isn’t one of the big Grammy categories at all…but I’ve been very interested in it for a while (I even know the 2011 nominees by heart), mostly because I’m a big arrangement buff. (I have a mental list of favorite arrangers. No joke. ) This category is pretty dang stacked this year. First is “Baba Yetu” (a track by the Soweto Gospel Choir that interestingly enough, was used for a video game trailer if I’m not mistaken). The orchestral arrangement is sweeping, and I dig it a lot, but it did seem a little by-the-numbers. So that one’s out. Next is “Baby” by Bobby McFerrin, from his absolutely breathtaking album “Vocabularies” (which should have been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal, but instead got shoehorned into Best Classical Crossover…sigh). It’s a stunningly beautiful song…but it doesn’t quite belong in this category, in my opinion. The vocal arrangement (and the song itself, of course) is worthy of a billion awards…but the song is almost entirely a cappella, so I think NARAS just shoved it into the wrong category. That leaves three heavy-hitters…”Based On A Thousand True Stories” by Norwegian artist Silje Nergaard and arranged by the brilliant Vince Mendoza; “Don’t Explain” by the aforementioned Denise Donatelli & arranger Geoffrey Keezer; and the Herbie Hancock-led and co-arranged “Imagine” project. I’d say Herbie & Larry Klein have the best chance to win (seeing as he’s been a Grammy fave in the past). Vince Mendoza is a multi-time winner in this category, and his arrangement brings “Based On A Thousand True Stories” to life, so I wouldn’t count him out either. I’ll be quite happy if either of these two win, but my very, very favorite would be Geoffrey Keezer’s work on “Don’t Explain.” He turned it from a Billie Holiday chestnut to a fresh, dynamic showcase for Denise’s terrific vocals. Plus, to my knowledge, he’s not a past winner, so he’d be getting his first Grammy.
So that’s all, folks. The Grammys are already airing (at least in my time zone), so I’m running late/irrelevant anyhow. Now I’ll go to check how many of my predictions were right, yo. Look out tonight or tomorrow for a new Sketches post (complete with video!), be sure to subscribe, and thanks for reading!
Here we are…the weekend before arguably the biggest music awards event of the year…the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards. I’ve been planning to do a little who will probably win/who should win-type post for a while, so here it is…well, part one, at least. I’ll be taking on a few of the big-ticket categories, as well as some more specialized ones (mostly jazz). And at least in the case of this part, I shall be writing this quick like a bunny, since I’m a bit pressed for time. Caveat: My predictions are not incredibly well-founded, but I’ll do my best. And feel free to disagree with my choices in the comments. We need a little good-natured controversy around here.
Album of the Year
The Grammy voters have gone all over the place with this category in the past…everywhere from jazz to hip-hop to folk to country-pop. One thing that’s sometimes held true in the past is that they tend to go for the dark-horse choice. Examples: “Raising Sand” winning the ’09 trophy; “River: The Joni Letters” taking the ’08 prize over Amy Winehouse and Kanye; OutKast earning the top honor in ’04. Thus, I’m going to get a little bold (and OK, full of wishful thinking…) and say that Arcade Fire‘s outstanding “The Suburbs” will be the voters’ choice for Album of the Year in 2011. Eminem definitely is a huge contender, seeing as he had a whirlwind year both critically and commercially in 2010 (one of his greatest detractors says through gritted teeth), and the Academy could finally decide to give Lady Gaga more recognition than she’s received in the past, but Arcade Fire’s album seems like the kind of quality, slightly offbeat entry–that nevertheless pleased tons of critics and fans alike–that has won in the past. “The Suburbs” is both what I think will win, and what I want to win.
Record of the Year
One of the oft-confusing twin categories that usually overlap a lot (Song of the Year, which honors songwriters, is the other one), Record of the Year goes to performers. It’s often hard to predict this category, as sometimes the NARAS goes for something pretty expected (“Use Somebody” and “Rehab”)…but just as often, the winner comes from out of the blue (“Please Read The Letter” and “Here We Go Again”). I’d say “F— You” has the right combination of “big song” and “unique song” status to catapult it to the top. One of the other nominees (except for perhaps “Nothin’ On You,” though I wouldn’t count it out) could easily take the prize, of course. My personal preference goes to “F— You” (though I’ve only heard it in its edited form, “Forget You”) or “Need You Now.” (I have both of them on my iPod.)
Song of the Year
Interestingly, though this category usually has a few less high-profile nominees than Record of the Year, one of the big-ticket items usually takes the honors here, judging from years past. I’ll say “Love The Way You Lie” as my prediction here. I’m not a personal fan of the song, but it takes on a weighty issue (domestic abuse) with a wide-appeal combo of rap & vocals. “Need You Now” and “F— You” are also in the thick of things. My personal picks are the same as Record of the Year, with the addition of Ray LaMontagne’s beautifully understated “Beg Steal or Borrow.”
Best New Artist
And here’s where things get a little messy. In years past, there’s maybe been one or two dogs I’ve had in this race., tops..but this year, the NARAS went ahead and decided to stack it with 3 of my absolute favorite artists (well, I have a lot of favorite artists, so it’s not like it would be a long shot for that to happen)…and then top the category off with 2 huge acts (the Bieber and the Drake) that have a combined 40% chance to break my Grammy-following heart. It kind of goes without saying that I’d prefer for the latter two boys (interestingly enough, both Canadians) not to take home this particular trophy. And thus, I flatly refuse to predict that either of them will win. (It’s my blog, I can cry if I want to. ) My prediction goes to Florence + The Machine, simply because she had a breakthrough year (“Dog Days Are Over” simply exploded, almost out of thin air, after doing so well in the UK), and she’s the kind of quirky, daring choice the NARAS loves to go with, mostly to look somewhat hip. As for who I want to win…it’s a huge step forward just to have Esperanza Spalding nominated in this kind of high-profile category, so I’d be fine with her either winning or not. As for Mumford & Sons, their sweeping brand of folk-rock is simply irresistible, and I’d LOVE for them to receive some more recognition here across the pond. And of course, Flo’s music is absolutely breathtaking. I can’t choose between the three, so if any of them win, I’ll be as happy as a clam. (I do have a feeling Florence & Mumford/Sons fans might be a bit more gutted, though, should either of them not take home the prize. Us jazz fans are [I hope I'm reading this sentiment right] happy enough to see the field break through here, and a win would just be cherry on top. Sadly, there’s probably not too many people who love all three artists basically the same, as I do, though I could be wrong.)
That’s all for Part I. Stay tuned for Part II (and possibly Part III, though probably not)! And be sure to state your opinion and challenge my picks/predictions, with style and class (ish), in the comments.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted an Artist Spotlight, eh? I hope to correct that this week with one or two more aside from this one. After all, there’s lots of outstanding artists I’d love to share with you. Today, the spotlight shines on a singer/songwriter from Norway you may or may not have heard of, depending on whether you’ve seen two certain Steve Carell comedies recently. His name is…
So how did I get into Sondre’s music? Well, I’m not quite sure, to tell you the truth. My best theory is that I had seen his name a bit on iTunes or MSN Music or some music website or something a few years ago, and decided to check out his music on an impulse. After all, you don’t see a name like his every day. (In fact, you don’t see a name like his, period. I’m still not entirely sure I’m pronouncing it right. ) So however I discovered his stuff, here’s the excellent title track to his second album, “Two Way Monologue,” that was one of the first songs I heard of his, if I remember right. (I didn’t realize until posting it just now that it’s nearly 6 minutes long. Trust me, it’s worth the time…a great word to describe it would be “tour de force.” It’s a good example of how much of a stylistic chameleon Sondre can be.):
Like I said, Sondre is somewhat of a stylistic chameleon. He goes all over the place, and then some. The cool thing about his ever-changing music, though, is that it never seems disjointed or lost. Sondre delivers it all with flair, confidence, and his own individual spin…qualities that any singer/songwriter worth their salt have. Here’s a music video from his follow-up to “Two Way Monologue,” which was a jazz CD of all things. The album was called “Duper Sessions,” and this song is called “Minor Detail.” It’s very beautiful. (P.S.: Apologies if you hit an ad before watching the video.)
After “Duper Sessions,” Sondre went to the first place all musicians go after cutting a jazz album…rock. OK, so he’s probably one of the few musicians to do that. Here’s the title track for that album, called “Phantom Punch.” It well, packs a pretty mean punch… (Bonus! Another cool music video.)
So if you weren’t paying attention earlier…Sondre has, coincidentally, been part of the soundtrack for 2 Steve Carell films. The first one, “Dan In Real Life,” was scored entirely by Sondre. The songs are all his, and he composed the music for the scenes. The short, sweet waltz he composed for the very beginning of the movie:
The second recent Steve Carell movie he provided music for was “Dinner For Schmucks” (which I didn’t love as much as “Dan In Real Life,” but wasn’t too bad). The (paraphrased) story behind this song, taken from Sondre’s blog…the composer for the film, Theodore Shapiro, wanted to have “Fool On The Hill” by the Beatles accompanying the opening credits scene. However, he didn’t think he’d be able to get the rights, so he contacted Sondre and had him compose an original song to play during the opening credits…but then the Beatles ended up granting permission. So his song was played during the closing credits instead. A pretty good deal, I would say. It’s a beautiful song, a little reminiscent of “Fool On The Hill,” but also very unique.
To close it all off, the terrific opening track from Sondre’s latest album, “Heartbeat Radio.” Sorry I’m just mostly throwing songs at you, but although I could talk about Sondre’s style a bit more (jazz/bossa-nova/even 80s music influenced at most times), or why I love his music, it’s probably best just to have you listen for yourself. This song, called “Good Luck,” is another tone-shifting tour de force (like “Two Way Monologue”), and ends with one of the most intense string outros I have ever heard:
Check out Sondre’s website here. See y’all tonight with a recap of the fourth episode of “The Sing-Off,” and later this week with another Artist Spotlight, and Song Shuffle Game.