Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Unusual Collaborations: Run-D.M.C. & Aerosmith


Although I like to believe that I have pretty broad musical taste, I just don’t like rap music, with very few exceptions. And I don’t like Aerosmith, again with very few exceptions. And yet this pairing, which at the time was considered to be shocking, just works.

The original version of “Walk this Way,” by Aerosmith, is admittedly one of the few exceptions to my generalized dislike of the band. Not only is the title based on one of my favorite old rimshot jokes (the punchline being, “if I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder,” often referenced on Monty Python), it is a buoyant hard rock song with a great riff and clever, internally rhyming lyrics that made it a natural for a rap version. (And it actually sounded good in context the other night at my 35th high school reunion.)

Really, it is the video that really makes it work. The conceit is that Aerosmith (actually just Steven Tyler and Joe Perry—in a cost saving move, the rest of the band is impersonated by members of the band Smashed Gladys) is playing the song loudly in a room next to where the Run-D.M.C. crew is hanging out. The rappers are annoyed by the song, and yell for the band to turn it down. But when their pleas are ignored, Run-D.M.C. cranks up their turntables and drum machines, and the song begins in earnest.

Initially Aerosmith seems pissed off by the intrusion, and Steven Tyler breaks down the comically thin walls with his mike stand. Ultimately, everyone gets along, the two groups perform together in front of a rapturous (mostly white) audience and all is well with the world.

This version of the song charted higher than the original, and shot Run-D.M.C. to stardom. Not only that, it is credited with the dubious achievements of opening MTV up to playing rap, revitalizing the sinking career of Aerosmith and spawning the genre of rap rock. A great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Robert Plant and Alison Krauss: "Please Read the Letter"

For my money, when it comes to unusual collaborations, it doesn't get a whole lot more unusual -- or, at the very least, "unexpected" -- than Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Yes, true enough that Plant has done some fairly eclectic stuff throughout the course of his post-Zeppelin career, but few could have foreseen his joining forces with the queen of modern bluegrass, Alison Krauss.

Ultimately, it's T-Bone Burnett who oversaw the making of their 2007 album, Raising Sand, but Plant and Krauss first joined up for a duet on a Leadbelly song in 2004 when Leadbelly was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When that went well, the two of them began discussing an album, and it was Krauss who brought in Burnett, having worked with him on his soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?

With the help of Burnett's expert production, Raising Sand works beautifully. Plant and Krauss come from different worlds, but clearly have much in common when it comes to music sensibilities. Their voices, Plant's now mellowed with age and Krauss's already angelic voice now truly a thing of wonder, complement each other perfectly throughout the album. And among all the excellent songs on the album, "Please Read the Letter" is the one on which they (arguably) work together best of all. Interestingly, as the album is full of covers, it's also the only song that either of them had a hand in writing -- composed by Plant and Jimmy Page, it originally appeared on that duo's 1998 album, Walking into Clarksdale. But it might as well have been written with Krauss in mind, as this version easily surpasses the original.

There was talk of a second album from these two, but apparently that is on hold after a false start in the studio a couple of years back. Whether that ever sees its way through to completion is an unknown, but until then there is always Raising Sand.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Unusual Collaborations: Michael Jackson and Dave Mason

How in the world did the hottest pop star of the 1980's team up with the founder of Traffic? Michael Jackson was recording Thriller in the same studio where Dave Mason was recording Old Crest On a New Wave. I'd say it was a pretty ballsy move for Mason to ask Jackson if he'd like to sing a song on his album. Jackson practically takes over the track "Save Me". Released as a single, the tune charted at #71 in the Billboard Hot 100. 

 "He'd done a song of mine,'Feelin' Alright', that I wrote when I was 19." Dave Mason told Dick Clark in 1980. " He'd done it when he was 9 years old with Diana Ross so the title ( of the album) Old Crest On A New Wave seemed to tie in at that moment."

Fans may remember that moment on a Diana Ross variety show way back in '69. Especially for the moment ( at 3:00 in) when Diana Ross was thrust in the midst of the dancing Jacksons  to "show them how it's done girl".


Unusual Collaborations: Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner and then some

Herbie Hancock and Tina Turner: Edith and the Kingpin

Herbie Hancock and Melody Gardot: Edith and the Kingpin

Herbie Hancock and Elvis Costello: Edith and the Kingpin
I don‘t know why it took me so long to settle on something to post for this theme. I landed on one of my favorite songs in the world, so it shouldn‘t have been so hard. Long time readers of Star Maker Machine are aware of my love of the music of Joni Mitchell. It‘s hard to consider anything on her own albums an unusual collaboration, because Mitchell was always a restless artist, always changing her sound, always searching, and that meant that the make-ups of her bands were always changing as well. But tributes to her have certainly resulted in some odd pairings. In 2007, Herbie Hancock released his tribute, River: The Joni Letters. This one surely had Mitchell‘s blessing, considering that she sings The Tea Leaf Prophecy on it. But elsewhere, Hancock worked with some surprising partners indeed. Tina Turner strikes me as one of the most unusual, but the result sounds like they have worked together for years.
To back up for just a moment, Herbie Hancock is one of the biggest names in jazz today. His career began in the 1960s, with fairly straight ahead accoustic jazz albums, although very fine ones. He soon caught the attention of Miles Davis, and was with Davis for the birth of fusion jazz on the Bitches Brew album. Hancock then went on to make some of the best music fusion jazz had to offer with his Headhunters band. Later, Hancock collaborated with Bill Laswell on the hit Rockit. So it’s safe to say that Hancock is also a musical explorer, which may be what drew him to Joni Mitchell’s music in the first place.
Meanwhile, I can’t say that I ever followed Tina Turner’s career at all closely, but this is the woman who went from the R&B powerhouse performance of Proud Mary to the much mellower Private Dancer, (the result, by the way, of another interesting collaboration, with producer Mark Knopfler). Nothing there suggests that Turner would be a good jazz singer, but she nails Edith and the Kingpin.
I needed a video for this post, and unfortunately, that meant using the one above, where you stare at the album cover while the song plays. I did find a fan-made slide show, but I thought the choice of images showed a complete cluelessness about the meaning of the song. But looking for the video led me to the two live versions I have also included. Hancock was able to get the singers he wanted for the River album, but they were not necessarily available when he went out on tour in support of the album. That is what must have led to the version with Melody Gardot. Gardot is a young jazz singer who has already made quite a splash, three albums into her career. She is influenced to some extent by country, folk, and blues. Her performance with Hancock here uses the same arrangement as the album version, but the results are quite different. Where Turner is rueful and knowing in her performance, the younger Gardot is sassy and maybe a bit defiant. Gardot also is a bit freer with her timing, and that loosens up the band somewhat as well. The version with Elvis Costello (!), comes from a show called Spectacle that Costello hosted on the Sundance Channel. Costello had recorded his own version of Edith and the Kingpin for a multi-artist compilation called A Tribute to Joni Mitchell earlier in 2007. This version slowed the song down, and featured a lush arrangement that featured Costello in his crooner mode. But the version here is a stripped down arrangement that restores the songs original tempo, and leaves Costello less room to hide as a singer. I am afraid that Costello shows here why he is not a jazz singer. His performance is somewhat stiff, and he has trouble when he tries to bend some of the notes. But this version does have heart, and it shows that Costello gets the song.