Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Morrissey & Siouxsie


Morrissey & Siouxie: Interlude


Our mononymic week is quickly coming to an end (and I finally learned how to type mononymic at the first try). I thought it was a brilliant topic, don't you? We managed to get quite a few j-rockers in there, but we missed a boatload of other worthy artists.

We missed the rappers and hip-hop dudes like JayZ, Coolio,, and Eminem. We missed the tough chicks like P!nk and Peaches, the pop princesses like Jewel, Tiffany, and, er, RuPaul, the rock stalwarts like Bono and Sting, the soulful sounds of Ne-Yo, Duffy, and Sade, and the quirky guys like Jonsi, Mika, Moby, and Beck. So here's my last stab at a final two-fer. I can't say it's a stellar duet---to me it sounds like two pretty unique voices that aren't trying at all to blend as one. Actually, these two had a falling out over the making of the video and haven't spoken since, which surprised no one given Moz's record of taking himself way too seriously, not to mention slagging off other vocalists. Still, they're both indie icons of a generation (he of The Smiths, she of The Banshees), and getting them to record this Timi Yoru cover together was a 1994 event.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Mariza

Mariza: O Gente Da Minha Terra


Amalia Rodrigues was the queen of Fado music until her death in 1999. In 2001, Mariza made her debut, and arguably took over Amalia’s old title. In Portugal to this day, Rodrigues is still referred to by her first name, and everyone there knows who you mean. O Gente Da Minha Terra represents a passing of the torch; the lyric is by Amalia Rodrigues, but it was Mariza who finally wrote a tune for it. But what is Fado? Let’s let some Portugese musicians answer that question:

The man that sings Fado usually does it in a black suit. He sings his love affairs, his city, the miseries of life, criticizes society and the politicians. He often talks about the bullfighting’s, the horses, the old days and the people already dead, and talks, almost every time, of "saudade" (longing). But where did the word Fado came from? It came from the Latin fatum, which means fate, the inexorable destiny that nothing can change. That is why Fado is usually so melancholic, so sad: as it sings that part of destiny that was opposite to the wishes of its owner. The woman sings always in black, with a mournful voice, and usually with a shawl on her shoulders. She sings the love and death: the death from the loss of love, the love lost to death...

This way of singing shows, in a certain way, the spirit of the Portuguese people: they believe in destiny as something that overwhelms them and to which they can't escape, the domination of the soul and heart over reason, that leads to acts of passion and despair, and reveal such a black and beautiful sorrow.

From: "Fado: the people's soul", by César Silva, Fernando Jorge, Paulo Reis, Sandra Franco and Vítor Carvalho

So it would be a gross oversimplification to call Fado Portugese blues, but it is a folk style that covers some of the same emotional territory. I don’t speak Portugese, so I don’t know what this song is about, but the emotion comes through loud and clear.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Lulu

Lulu: Feelin' Alright


Raspy-voiced Scottish Britpop soul singer Lulu had already recorded a couple of albums by the time she made her film debut in To Sir With Love at the tender age of nineteen, playing the rebellious Barbara "Babs" Pegg to Sidney Poitier's inspirational inner-city teacher. Lulu's memorable delivery of the film's title song charted at number one in the US, but her career neither began nor ended there; the woman has released scores of hit singles in her long, rich career, won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1969*, appeared as a judge and TV host for plenty of programmes since, and was named an OBE in 2000 in recognition for her contributions to British music.

To prove her prowess, here's one of many favorite funky coversongs she took on during her peak as a name-brand musician, from a 1970 major-label release spawned, in part, by her engagement to first husband Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees. The Memphis-style horns, actually recorded in Alabama's Muscle Shoals, really drive the song forward, though the song could really use a bit more cowbell. And if you like this, you really should check out her takes on Dylan's The Mighty Quinn and Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World.

*Bonus points: Lulu's winning Eurovision Song Contest entry, Boom Bang-a-Bang, was only the second Nonsense Song to win the contest; the following year, it would be succeeded by a song from another Mononymic Artist, Irish singer-songwriter Dana

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Hakuei


Hakuei: Kyou wo Ikiyou (Let's Live for Today)


Just a quick drive-by post, in case you were thinking that J-Rock's all about death and mourning (my last two posts happened to pick up that theme).

I mentioned Hakuei (pronounced "Hawk-way") and his voice that's so much like Kiyoharu's. Here's a fun little song of his, a cover that maybe some of you know as a 1967 hit for the Grass Roots.

It's fun to check out this guy's photos, 'cuz he's also a model for Black Peace Now, a Japanese gothic clothing line. He's got more looks than Lady Gaga. In his spare time, he also produces a YouTube advice column, "Ask Dr. Hakuei ". I don't know about you, but when I'm having serious life issues, the first person I think of to turn to for advice is...the lead singer of the Visual Kei band, Penicillin.

You know what, though? He seems to do as well as any of the other agony aunts I obsessively read.

Mononymic Artists: Odetta

Odetta: How Long Blues


Odetta had one of the most remarkable voices I ever heard. I talked about that in my tribute to her during our In Memorium week two years ago. I wanted to present her again for this week’s theme, so I went shopping in Amazon’s mp3 store, not knowing what I would go with. How Long Blues shows a side of Odetta I hadn’t been aware of before. Here she is as a jazz singer. The reviewers on Amazon are roughly split on whether this was a good idea for her; I think it was. Odetta would return to the idea shortly before her death. She made another album with a jazz combo in 2006, and it too sounds great.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Kiyoharu


Kiyoharu: Note


Last time in J-Rock 101, we were treated to the mellow tones of Hyde and Gackt. I think you all are ready for someone a little bit more challenging (just a little bit, though---I'm not sure we're ready for the screamo artists yet, like Kyo from Dir en grey).

Kiyoharu's voice can be a bit of an acquired taste. Whereas in western music, any vocalist who sings with such a pronounced nasal tone and quirky vibrato would find it hard to find a recording contract, that sound's not uncommon among Japanese rock singers (Hakuei is another one with the same sound – they're hard to tell apart sometimes). And yet Kiyoharu's wildly popular in Japan both as lead vocalist for the bands Kuroyume and SADS and as a solo artist (yeah, he's older than he looks - he's 42).

I've avoided any of his rock-y songs in favor of this ballad that starts out more like something by Gordon Lightfoot or Jeffrey Foucault. The more I listened, understanding none of the lyrics but hearing that intensity, the more I was sure that this song wasn't some simple boy-meets-girl tale. So I poked around and found out my impression was right. According to Kiyoharu, his father was diagnosed in the final stages of pancreatic cancer so while he worked on this album (Forever Love), he often returned home to take care of him. He stated, "Because my father was the only one who approved of me becoming a musician, this is a work packed with my thanks, and I'll never forget it." I found the translated lyrics by Cayce on, and I have to say that after I read them, I was so moved by Kiyoharu's grief for his dying father that I cried.

I read the notebook that chronicled our days together,
I’ll break away from the grey sky, ah,
Your hand was weak holding mine,
You left me, saying “I’ll come again”… bye bye.

“The end was faster than we are,
Was it just that I wanted more time?”
I said, “I think I just gave up a little,”
I wanted to stop it, but it didn’t change.

complete lyrics here

Mononymic Artists: Bjork

Bjork: It's Not Up To You


With a first name like Bjork there's not much need for a last name. But when your last name is a mouthful like Guðmundsdóttir, your fans will thank you for shortening it for them. As it is, she is known the world over by her first name, and has singularly put her homeland of Iceland on the map for many people.

The song I chose is from her 2001 album "Vespertine". It's a little after our 2000 cut-off for this blog, but it was an important year for my love of Bjork, and I really love this song. It was the year that I saw her in the Lars von Trier film "Dancer in the Dark", and showed the movie to a number of friends, and also my parents. Later that year I received an excited call from my mother while she was on vacation to tell me that she has sat next to Bjork on the flight into New Mexico that afternoon. I of course didn't believe her, but all signs point to it being true at this point. Figures my mother who only knew of her because I showed her that movie would sit next to her and make small talk about ginger ale and I'd be sitting at home, because I had decided not to join my family on their trip to New Mexico. Silly me.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Donovan

Donovan: Wear Your Love Like Heaven


Donovan's dreamy psychedelic folk rock doesn't age that well - this 43 year old hit single, for example, has a retro, slightly sluggish feel in a world of crisp pop production. But it's still sunny enough to fit nicely on the odd folk-and-then-some mixtape. And it made for a great moment in Season 13 of the Simpsons, where it served as soundtrack to Homer's experiment with medical marijuana.

Mononymic Artists: Falco


Falco: Rock Me Amadeus


I thought I'd give you something non-Japanese today as a bit of a palate cleanser. It's still foreign, though, so there's that.

Falco, an Austrian New Wave singer, gave the world this funky ode to the awesomeness of his fellow countryman, Mozart. (He was a virtuose, was a rock idol, and everyone shouted: Come on and rock me, Amadeus…) It became a worldwide hit in 1986, even reaching #1 in the US, a country notoriously tough on songs without English lyrics. In fact, Falco's first hit, Der Kommissar, only made it to the US charts as an Anglicized cover by the one-hit band, After the Fire.

I now feel properly rocked!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Mononymic Artists: Ferron

Ferron: Shadows on a Dime


Ferron is one of those songwriters that more people should know about. I’ve never known her to resort to clichés in her writing. Shadows on a Dime is a fine example of her artistry. Here, a train ride becomes a metaphor for a string of memories. People the narrator has known are deftly sketched in just a few lines. Ferron’s voice perfectly conveys the layers of emotion that memories can involve, as fond nostalgia mixes with regret in the same line at times. And the arrangement of this song is perfect, with the interplay between the acoustic guitar and bass just enhancing the overall effect. So, if you haven’t heard Ferron before, explore her music further. There are many more gems in the mine this came from.

Mononymic Artists: Gackt and Hyde

Hyde (left) and Gackt bask in their hotness...ah, of the Orange Sun, I mean.

Gackt & Hyde: Orenji no Taiyou (The Orange Sun)


Gackt: Freesia ~op.1~


At dusk, I beheld the orange sun with you.
With a tear-streaked face, you bid an eternal farewell.

I can’t love you any more than I do, and just by that, I feel complete.
So don’t cry, we can always meet again whenever we close our eyes...

Could you hear me squee when boyhowdy announced this week's theme? 'Cuz guess what, SMM fans? J-rockers, bless their hearts, rival western rap/hip-hop musicians in that nearly all of them go by single names. That means either you're gonna get an earful of new j-rock music this week, or your finger's gonna get some fruitful exercise looking for that scroll key. Win-win, right?

Gackt, aka Gakuto Kamui, is one of the most successful J-Pop/Rock singers in Japan. Hyde, born Hideto Takarai, is the vocalist for the hugely popular band L'Arc~en~Ciel. Together they wrote and starred in a pretty strange 2003 film, Moon Child (that I actually own), in which all of the cast but one ends up dead or, well, undead. Orenji no Taiyou is the film's theme song.

And you know what? I think it's utterly gorgeous. It's unusual in any genre to have two guys sing a stunning ballad like this. Check out how well matched their voices are, especially at the climax around the 5-minute mark. I know both of their tones pretty well, and even then I have a hard time working out who's who (Gackt takes the high part). You can hear his beautiful baritone strutting its stuff in the second song, from his 2000 album, Mars.

Nonsense -> Mononymic Artists: Feist's Mushaboom

Feist: Mushaboom (live on KEXP)

[purchase studio album]

Unless you're still a pre-teen, or a cultural hermit of some sort, you've probably heard this week's transition song on the radio plenty of times in its original form, as released in 2004 on major label debut Let It Die. But there's actually five or six different versions of the song that came floating around the blogs in the year or two after its release, as Canadian singer-songwriter Feist (legal name: Leslie Feist) made the radio station rounds solo, without the backing of similarly mononymic artist Gonzales, the fellow Broken Social Scene collective member who Feist supported on tour when she was first emerging as a solo artist, and who provides much of the instrumentation on the album.

And with just her quiet, almost-drowned vocals and a simple electrified guitar, under the poppy beat and the silly title, in live performance, Mushaboom turns out to be a sweet song of struggling middle-class longing, offering both self and partner a promise for a better, more rural life, with all the concrete trappings of kids and a flower garden, once the day comes where her "dreams...match up with her pay." Maybe it's just me - and certainly, losing the determined beat of the original recording is a trade-off here - but I think you can hear the dream that much better without all the layers and horns.

*Note: though it's clearly used here for its "sh-boom" sound, technically, "Mushaboom" isn't a nonsense word - it's the name of a sleepy rural seaside community in Nova Scotia, which aptly embodies the dream Feist longs for. But since most people have never heard of the place, or the harbor it was named for, the song title is effectively nonsensical for the vast majority of its audience.