Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The International Songwriting Competition – Worth It or Not?

Today is ripoff day. A ripoff differentiates itself from a scam by not being downright illegal. The $25K grand prize for the International Songwriting Competition may or may not exist, the latter case which would vault it into the former category. The promoters of the competition claim that the judges include Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Loretta Lynn, Black Francis, McCoy Tyner and Toots Hibbert, but even if that’s true, and those luminaries voted en bloc, they’d still be outnumbered many times over by a crew of schlockmeisters from the soon-to-be-defunct major labels. Ultimately, contests like these boil down to a glorified lottery. What chance does a musician’s hard-earned $25 entry fee stand? A look at last year’s winners provides the answer – and the organizers’ decision to make this information public may turn out to be the marketing disaster that shuts them down for good.

The grand prize winner was a generic trip-hop song. The production is laughably obsolete – the drum machine shuffle was over by 1996, something you would expect judges ostensibly the caliber of Messrs. Waits, Hibbert et al. to be aware of. Perhaps far more telling is that the song’s writers, fortysomething pop singer Kate Miller-Heidke and her husband Keir Nuttall already had a gold album and a major label deal in Australia when they entered the contest. Is this contest simply a lower-budget version of the Grammies, a major label circle jerk with zero acknowledgment of what the listening public might prefer? In other words, considering its association with the major labels, is the deck stacked against artists who don’t fit the cookie-cutter corporate mold?

The song that won in the rock category, by Kristopher Roe of the Ataris was even worse, an even more cliched emo-pop song. “The only thing that matters is following your heart, and eventually you’ll get it right,” Roe strains, affecting an intensity of emotion that his band’s third-rate Good Charlotte imitation reaches for halfheartedly before giving up. “Being grown up isn’t half as fun as growing up,” Roe asserts, a tautology for the comfortable upper middleclass children he envisions as a customer base. In case you’re not familiar with the band, they achieved some recent notoriety by recording an earnest Green Day style cover of a Don Henley song. The ersatz emotion recurs with the second-place winner, Quebecois emo-pop band Tailor Made Fable’s A Case of Mistaken Identity. At least the third-place winner, Irish band Chrome Horse’s Reflections of a Madman shows  some passion, even if the verse is a blatant ripoff of the Ventures’ Egyptian Reggae.

A look through the rest of the winners didn’t turn up much of anything worthwhile either. The second-place winner in the World Music category wasn’t remotely exotic: Leni Stern’s 1,000 Stars is a vapid semi-acoustic pop song in the style of the grand prize winner. Americana winner Kevin Meisel’s Cruising for Paradise is a third-rate Jimmy Buffett pop number with a little mandolin overdubbed to give it that down-home Americana flavor. Jazz winners the LeBoeuf Bros. Quartet’s Code Word at least shows some promise, even if it it’s not exactly edgy. And in case cutting-edge lyrics are your thing, for a laugh, here are the winners in the Lyrics-Only category.

In case you haven’t figured all this out by now, the winners here may actually be the best of what the judges had to work with. Consider – would your favorite cool band be caught dead entering a generic corporate talent search like this one? Imagine for a minute a first-class group like the French Exit at Emergenza. They’d clear the room in seconds flat.

September 18, 2009 Posted by | Culture, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 108 Comments

Concert Review: Pat Benatar and Blondie at Coney Island 8/13/09

What promised to be a gay old night of high camp turned out to be more like a trip to the supermarket: interminable lines of rude, obnoxious people, pleasantly cool temperatures, pretzels and drinks within easy reach and oldies radio songs playing over the PA. Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, every out-of-town scam luxury housing developer’s best pal, spent a rambling, senile hour and a half on and off the mic before the show, ass-kissing and giving shout-outs to every corporate type he could still recognize who’d showed up. Finally, he was assisted off so that big lesbian faves the Donnas could phone in a small handful of generic bubblegum metal songs.

Long Island’s very own fifty-four year old Pat Benatar was next. It took about three seconds before it was obvious that the poor woman’s voice is completely gone. Like a battered cassette tape from the eighties, she’d waver on and off pitch, then drop unexpectedly out of the mix, then come back in like one of Marge Simpson’s sisters attempting to do karaoke. At this point in Benatar’s career, lipsynching might not be such a bad idea. Meanwhile, her husband Neil Giraldo released his inner fantasy over and over again with an incessant barrage of garish, gratuitous heavy metal guitar licks. Like that Love Camp 7 song goes, he plays a million notes where one would do, and if it fits the song that’s ok too. Not many of them did. Benatar’s set allowed for plenty of time to find the local McDonalds and the urinal – woops, dumpster – adjacent to it. Forty-five minutes after she’d taken the stage, she was still struggling to stay in the mix, one cliched power ballad after another. Benatar is a gay icon – there at least used to be several YMCA’s worth of Chelsea boys who wanted to be her. Not many of them seemed to have made the trip. Perhaps they were on to something the rest of the crowd wasn’t.

Similarly, Deborah Harry has made a career of singing off-key for the better part of 35 years if you count her time in the Stillettos. Be that it what it may, when Blondie were at the top of their game, they were one of the world’s greatest powerpop bands and they were all that Thursday night. What they did was anything but camp. This version of the band sizzled and burned, layering nonchalantly stinging, distorted guitar and playfully oscillating synth over a steady, thumping backbeat. Now in her sixties, Harry carried herself with grace, even gravitas in places, holding back for when she had to go to the top of her range and when she really had to nail the note, she inevitably did. Benatar ought to find out who her vocal coach is. Because this band plays so many of the same songs over and over again, they way they keep them fresh is to reinvent them. Children of the Grave – woops, Call Me – bore a much closer resemblance to the Black Sabbath original that Georgio Moroder ripped off and glued to a disco beat for the soundtrack to the Richard Gere vehicle American Gigolo (anybody ever sit through that one all the way? Yikes!). The best song of the night was a stinging, slightly mariachi-esque version of Maria. The Tide Is High was no better than Johnny Clarke’s cloying  rocksteady original, but Rapture was reinvented as evilly slinky funk with a big guitar break and then a new rap at the end which only offerered further proof that hip-hop is not Harry’s thing. A couple newer numbers were starkly minor-key and equally compelling. After they’d burned through a pleasantly loud, swaying One Way or Another, they left the stage and then it was clear that  Benatar had overdone it in more ways than one, cutting into Blondie’s stage time. The second of the band’s two brief encores was a rocking, organ-driven take of Heart of Glass. If you’re contemplating seeing Blondie on tour this month or next, you won’t be disappointed – especially when they have another charismatic, platinum-tressed siren, Sarah Guild and her amazing band the New Collisions opening for them.

August 16, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments