26 August 2007

Time After Time (After Time, After Time)

As I write this, a rock band called Quietdrive has reached the Top 100 of the iTunes singles chart with its version of "Time After Time."

Yes, that "Time After Time." The one that was first a hit for Cyndi Lauper in June 1984. (Back then, I told my parents I was going to marry her. I was only 5 1/2, but I knew what I knew. I also knew that I loved watching Boy George on MTV, so draw your own conclusions.)

In between Lauper and Quietdrive, a dance singer named Inoj ("i-know-jay") reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 with her club-friendly remake. Remember it? It's most notable for sounding just like the dance covers of "Heaven" and "Listen to Your Heart."

But that's not all. Wikipedia reports that "Time After Time" has been recorded at least 120 times. Dizzamn!

Obviously, none of us will listen to 120 versions of the exact same song. Unless, of course, we own several Nickelback albums. Boo-yah!

But seriously... in the interest of time-saving, I'd like to narrow the field to the top five versions of "Time After Time." My findings are based on my life experience and the clips I felt like listening to on iTunes, so I wouldn't call this an exhaustively researched list. But it's good enough for government work. Boo-yah!

The All-Time "Time After Times"

(1) Cyndi Lauper's original. Obviously, right? If Cyndi hadn't recorded and co-written such an awesome song, 120 other people wouldn't have cared about it. And don't even pretend like you can surpass her video, in which her boyfriend can't handle her crazy 80s hair.

(2) Eva Cassidy's version Do y'all know bout her? If not, you should really seek out her music. She has the most astonishing voice--the kind of voice that can make her version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" feel as definitive as Judy Garland's--and her technique could melt your heart. Famously, her music didn't gain widespread recognition until after she died of cancer in 1996. She was only 33 at the time, but she still was able to record dozens of songs, including her haunting take on "Time After Time." That's a great gift to the rest of us.

(3) Willie Nelson's version I can't find a full version of Willie's "TAT" online, but I highly recommend you seek out a sample. It's on his 2002 album "The Great Divide," and it really, really rules. I've already espoused Mr. Nelson's awesomeness, and this song proves my point all over again.

"The Great Divide" caught some flak for sounding too adult contemporary to be considered a "true" Willie album, but I think it marks an interesting side trip in his career. Why complain about a record that can make "Time After Time" sound haunting in a new way? Nelson's talk-sung vocal is buffeted by a backing track that reminds me of outer space... all electric instruments and angelic backup singers. Those might seem like odd ingredients, but the result is superb.

(4) Tuck and Patti's version I have a soft spot for this married folk duo because my high school friend Jessica really liked them. We both got emotional over their work, in the same way that we got destroyed by Immortal Beloved. Nowadays, we're better at noticing when earnestness turns into cheese, but it's fun to remember a time when we weren't.

(5) Inoj's version What can I say? I'm a sucker for a dreamy house beat. I like those covers of "Heaven" and "Listen to Your Heart," too.

Special Bonus Treat!

(BONUS) "Time After Time" by Japanese girl-group Earth

Okay, so this isn't the "Time After Time" written by Cyndi Lauper, but sometimes you have to celebrate what a YouTube keyword search provides. The song itself sounds like any other widget created by the pop machine, but the music isn't the point. The joy comes from the English subtitles running at the bottom of the video.

For instance, take a moment to whisper the following phrases out loud: "The falling rain landed on a transparent umbrella/It felt like the same sparkling childhood dream."


I'll let you experience the rest for yourselves...

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24 August 2007

If Virginia Woolf Wrote About Jordin Sparks...

Note: The following blog post is an experiment. I wrote it in real time as I gave my first listen to the new single from Jordin Sparks. Though it has been edited for grammar and spelling, the post is otherwise a stream of consciousness reflection.

Please note the moment I lose all pretense of professionalism and start chatting about Jordin Sparks like she is my best gal pal.


Here's "Tattoo," the first single from Jordin Sparks' upcoming album.

My first impression? If Blake Lewis' album is influenced by the 80s, then Sparks is totally giving props to the early 90s. (Props! Remember that word?)

If it were 1991, "Tattoo" would be by Sweet Sensation or, frankly, Timmy T. It's pleasantly melodic but not very arresting, which means it's the kind of song you might hear in CVS.

But that's not bad, per se. First of all, I love early nineties pop music. And I appreciate that unlike Katharine McPhee, Sparks has not tried to ape the sassy-yet-horny sound perfected by Christina Aguilera. She at least can avoid claims that she's a trend-chasing puppet.

But is this the kind of debut single we want from an Idol winner? It doesn't grab me by the shirt like "Miss Independent" did.

Okay, let me play it again.

Hmm... is it growing on me? There's something vulnerable and sweet about her vocal. And that yelp they've got looped in the background--Jordin basically yells 'hey!' every four seconds or so--is kind of cool.

And the chorus invites sing-alongs. I can imagine myself at age 11, locked in my bedroom, intently swaying to the mid-tempo beat and relishing the lyrics that sound close enough to poetry for a fifth grader. (This song is certainly more literate than Fergie's moronic "Big Girls Don't Cry." We'll play jacks and Uno cards, will we? First, can we try writing above a second-grade level?)

So anyway... this song is earnest and pretty, and the chorus is catchy. I especially like the way Jordin sings the line "I can't waste time, so give it a moment": She puts a tremulous lilt on the word "moment," giving it about forty-five syllables. It's fun to sing with something like that. It encourages you to ball up your fist and squint your eyes, which totally proves that you're feeling it.

(third listen now)

Of course, the chorus also contains the phrase "Don't look back at a new direction."

Um... what?

Well... maybe I'm misunderstanding the lyrics. Like I said, though, they're generally pretty good. The song seems to be about moving forward with your life, even if people that know you want to protect you from mistakes you might make. In the first verse, she sings:

No matter what you say about life
I learn every time I bleed...

I gotta let my spirit be free

to admit that I'm wrong
and then change my mind.
Sorry, but I have to move on

and leave you behind.

That's appropriate for a teenager to sing. Since Sparks is seventeen, this song could be about her parents. Even though she's leaving them to go be an adult, she says they're still "on [her] heart just like a tattoo."

Wow... so this song doesn't have to be about a lover! That surprises me. It's very "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac.

Now that I'm thinking about it, that's really sweet.

Oh my god! Am I getting emotional about "Tattoo?" Is it making me reflect on the bittersweetness of outgrowing your need for your parents' advice?

Did I just get chills from the big note Jordin sings in the bridge?

Am I calling her Jordin now?

Well, damn. Looks like this song is having its way with me. That's how these mid-tempo ballads operate. They seem like they're just sitting quietly in the back of the room, when all along they're worming into your brain. "Let the power ballads grab you with their bombast," they say, "We'll still be here, seducing you. That's how you came to love 'More than Words,' remember?"

So there it is... in the space of a single blog post, I've gone from skeptic to fan.

And yet... strangely... now that I've stopped the audio player on Jordin's MySpace page, I can't remember the song's melody. What is going on?!? What is this twisted magic? Can anyone explain?


21 August 2007

You can't spell "cool" without "a-n-n-i-e."

When I was in college, I asked my friends if there was an artist that we could all agree we liked. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there wasn't, though I suspect a few people claimed they didn't care for The Mamas and The Papas just to be ornery. (Really, who doesn't like "California Dreamin'?")

But even though there may be no act that lives on all our iPods, I would submit that some musicians, regardless of who digs their music, are just unassailably cool.

Case in point? Annie Lennox.

Personally, I've got a sweet spot for most of her work, though I did think "Into the West," the Oscar-winning song she co-wrote for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: The Unedited Director's Cut: Now With Extra Footage" was all tease and no reward. Do you guys remember her performance at the Oscar ceremony? That song kept promising to break out the tympanis, but the backbeat never arrived. It was just strings upon strings upon strings, building to nothing.

Still... she's just so awesome. In the 25 years (!) since "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" was a hit, she has rarely seemed anything less than self-possessed. She sings with confidence, almost always sounds fantastic, and carries herself with a cool-yet-nonjudgmental elegance that suggests she has been happy in her own skin for a long time.

Plus, despite changing its color, she has had the same haircut for almost three decades, yet she's always on the forefront of fashion.

Another thing I love about Annie Lennox is how well she executes the theatrical in her public life. Every video and album cover is a carefully wrought performance. She's like Marlene Dietrich, seducing us with the character of herself--never letting us know how much of her we've actually seen.

Even on the cover of her album "Bare," whose name implies a revelation, she keeps up the game. Yes, she's naked, but she's covered in a coat of white dust. She's bare, but she isn't. She's revealing only as much as she wants us to see.

The delicious irony here is that her singing always sounds so pure. Even within the techno chill of "Sweet Dreams," her voice is warm with emotion. And songs like "Why" and "No More 'I Love You's'" demonstrate that she should always be called a soul singer.

Through the fusion of her calculated image and luscious pipes--not to mention her deft songwriting--Annie Lennox has remained majestic.

She stays that way in the video for "Dark Road," the first single from her upcoming album "Songs of Mass Destruction." As a pop song, it's her strongest release in years--maybe this is where the drums from "Into the West" ended up--and as a video, it showcases her genuine skill as an actor. (Sort of like "Ring the Alarm" did for Beyonce.")

Here's the video: Watch and enjoy!


19 August 2007

So Much Smoother Than "Smooth"

Wait. Seriously? I like the new Matchbox Twenty song? Because I really loathe Rob Thomas' music. As in, "Smooth" makes me want to kill somebody, and that damn song "Lonely No More" is just so... proud of itself. Being able to use a drum machine doesn't make you cool, Robbo. If it did, we would all be worshiping at the feet of Club Nouveau.

And do not get me started on Matchbox Twenty's earlier music. Yes, I bought their first album, but what was I supposed to do? I was in high school! "Push" and "3 A.M." were always on the radio, and I had disposable income!

(Just so you know, a similar set of circumstances, resulted in my purchase of a Spin Doctors album in the 8th grade. Turns out, little miss was wrong on almost every damn song.)

Generally, I find Matchbox Twenty--or Matchbox 20, or MtchBx20, or whatever variation they're using--to be bloated, self-serious, and absolutely no fun. They're like Live, but without the one really great album.

Given all this antipathy, you can imagine how surprised I was when I was listening to the radio; heard "How Far We've Come," the new Matchbox Twenty single; and didn't hurl anything at the wall. In fact, I bobbed my head. Possibly, I danced a little.

But I can't get past that jangly guitar in the intro, which is sassy like a beach party. Then there's the syncopation in the bridge: The vocal and the drums have a war, and the only victims are my swiveling hips.

More than anything, I like this song because, despite its heavy guitar line and Thomas' standard mumbling, it sounds effortless. It's a short, sharp shock of power-pop that makes Matchbox Twenty sound less like Counting Crows' mopey cousins and more like Fountains of Wayne's crazy next-door neighbors. You know, the ones they call when they want to cook burgers at 4 A.M.


16 August 2007

Since Prince was on Apollonia

Kanye West has made me cranky before, but these are the times when he justifies his arrogance.

"Stronger" lays waste to so many current hip-hop songs that it should make artists like T-Pain ashamed. Hell, even Timbaland, darling of the moment, hasn't created a beat in the last two years that has the thumping, epic grandeur of West's latest brainchild. This song is on par with "Jesus Walks," and that's one of my favorite songs of all time.

"Stronger's" sample of the Daft Punk song "Harder, Better, Fast, Stronger" is particularly brilliant because it tweaks the techno-fuzz in Timbaland's songs without making West beholden to it.

(Ironically, Wikipedia reports that Timabaland helped West finish the track. I'd like to think that means both men are so secure in their abilities that they can help each other, even as they tease.)

And, you know... I love any and all references to Prince and Apollonia.

Meanwhile, West's continuing ability to be upfront about homophobia is starting to be inspiring. It would be easy for him to drop the subject or massage his position into something less alienating. Instead, he honestly admits his own prejudices while acknowledging how poisonous they are.

Unlike the forced "confessions" of celebrities like Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, or Isiah Washington, I believe West's declaration that he thinks it's wrong to hate people. After all, he spoke up of his own accord, not because he was caught doing something disgusting.

P.S. -- Who do you think he's talking about when he says he'll "do anything for a blonde dyke?"


14 August 2007

Girl Robot Wanders the Fields

The fourth installment of "Girl Robot" has arrived, and it's my favorite so far. Merideth and Ricky have written a beautiful folk-rock song, and Merideth's vocals are particularly impressive this time around.

For me, the teardrop sadness in her voice is even more affecting because it's contrasted by such silly images in the video. I always think it's moving when someone feels genuine emotion in an environment that won't allow it.

And... how awesome is her hair?

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12 August 2007

A Country Buffet

You guys, about a year ago I made a bit of a fool of myself. I cast aspersions on... ahem... Carrie Underwood, implying that she was only mildly awesome, when in fact she is almost totally awesome.

Now, I'm not going to tell you that I like every song on her album "Some Hearts." Banal country-pop doesn't grow a soul just because the person singing it can blow the roof off a barn, so no amount of belting will make me enjoy "Don't Forget to Remember Me" (check these lyrics, people).


There's a reason "Before He Cheats" was a top ten hit on the pop charts. And there's a reason I got chills watching La Underwood perform "Wasted" on "American Idol" this season. Those songs rule.

Judging by the sound of "So Small," her latest single, Carrie Underwood has stayed with the producers and songwriters who know how to inject a song with 10 ccs of genius.

And if you listen to country radio, you know that "So Small" is in good company. Right now, there are tons of exceptional ditties out there. Sure, many of them sound like easy listening hits from the 80s, but so what? Country's been turning into pop since at least "Achy Breaky Heart," and we've had plenty of time to get used to it. It's best to embrace the good songs we're given without quibbling over their genre.

In that spirit, let's discuss the following examples of what country has been doing for us lately.

(1) "So Small" by Carrie Underwood

Huh? This is the first single from Underwood's upcoming second album, co-written by the artist with songwriters Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsey. It's a power ballad about realizing that true love makes all your problems seem insignificant.

Why does this rule? Did you follow the link up there? The supple quality in Underwood's voice is, like, impossible to miss. Starting at about 1:32, she sings with these small touches of vibrato that show incredible technical skill, and then she leaps up to the top of her range like she's leaping up to answer the phone. She's in complete control of her instrument, and it's thrilling to hear.

But her vocal gymnastics don't overpower the song. Instead, they complement the muscular instrumental track, which features surging drums and an electric guitar solo.

For bonus thrills, there's also a "bring the beat back" moment at 2:40, right after C.U. hits her big power note. God! It just gets me every time! It's like hitting the top of the roller coaster and then, when the instruments drop out, racing down the hill.

Now... the lyrics may be a tad phony, since they do that country music thing where they ambiguously talk about God. Is it Christian love that makes troubles seem so small? Or is it romantic love? If you make it unclear, you can pander to... um... please everyone.

But, dammit... Carrie just sounds so committed. Whatever we want the song to mean, we can imagine she passionately agrees with us.

(2) "I Told You So" by Keith Urban

Huh? You know! Keith Urban! Aussie country hunk! He's married to Nicole Kidman, and he checked into Betty Ford! And when my friend Laura worked at the Frick Museuem here in New York, she once sold tickets to ol' Keith and Nick. Or as she put it, "I sold tickets to Nicole Kidman and some guy with great highlights."

True enough. His hair is worthy of a Bravo reality series called "Urban Style," in which 12 Australian rubes try to sexify themselves to be just like Keith. The winner marries Nicole Kidman's nanny.

Anyway, "I Told You So" is the third single from Urban's album "Love, Pain, & The Whole Crazy Thing." It recently hit number 2 on the Billboard country chart, and it's a straight-up rocker about a man whose lover comes back to him.

Why does this rule? First and foremost, because of the music. How often can you say a hit single has a surprising sound? Well, here comes Keith Urban, rocking out with Uillean pipes. It's haunting, really, to hear the pipes gently contrast the frantic pace of the drums and the banjo. They bring a type of peace to the otherwise rollicking tune.

As it rides on top of all this, Urban's voice is buoyant, especially in the chorus. He starts by singing short, sharp syllables ("Well! Oh! Can't. You. See."), and then he launches into falsetto. Then he repeats the pattern and ends with a long, growled note on the phrase "I told you sooooo."

It's so dynamic that it can sweep you away, forcing you to bounce in your chair as you write a blog post about it. The energy perfectly reflects the narrator's joy over his lover's return.

(3) "I Need You" by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

Huh? This ballad is the 10 billionth collaboration between McGraw and Hill, the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of country music love. It's currently number eight on the Billboard country chart, and it's about two people savoring their addiction to one another.

Why does it rule? Do you know the song "Leather and Lace" by Stevie Nicks and Don Henley? It's great for the same reasons as "I Need You." Both songs are about the love between sinners--people who drink, smoke, and nurse old wounds--and they both have an unpolished sound that supports their lyrics. They seem like they were recorded in one take, with all the musicians together in a room, playing their instruments as they drank beer and petted old dogs.

That authenticity is particularly impressive on "I Need You," since it isn't something Faith Hill normally has. Most of the time, she sounds like she's racing toward the latest trend--as in, "The people want pop? Here's 'This Kiss!' Oh, wait! They want an homage to old-school country? Here's 'Mississippi Girl!'"

But singing alongside McGraw, explaining that she needs him like a needle needs a vein, Hill sounds emotional and alluring. Her clear tone blends well with the gravel in his throat, letting us imagine these singers slow dancing in some dank Oklahoman bar.

I bet that when Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow heard "I Need You" for the first time, they realized it was the song "Picture" was supposed to be.

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11 August 2007

It Looks Like Chaos, but It's the Fringe

Hello, hello!

In this week's Sunday arts section of The New York Times, I have a splashy feature covering the New York International Fringe Festival. You can read it here.

Have a great weekend! (Or week, if you're not reading this until Monday.)


09 August 2007

I Have Pity... Just Not for Television

Hello everyone! I'd like to point you toward an article I wrote for Television Without Pity, which is a smart, snarky, and generally awesome website that everyone should know.

I interview actor Maulik Pancholy ("30 Rock," "Weeds") about everything from being on two hit series at once to the realities of working as an East Indian actor. There's also a bit about Tina Fey's e-mailing habits.