Friday, November 16, 2012

Future D'L: Teena Marie - Luv Letter

As I've grown older, my list of favorite recording artists has grown substantially, but I'll always have my personal favorites -- those artists whose music I grew up on or borrowed from my parents. Teena Marie is one of those artists.  Her commercial peak was in the 80's with hits like "Lovergirl" and "Ooo La La La." She took a brief hiatus in the 90's and then returned full force with comeback record La Dona in 2004, one of the first CD's I bought with my own money. Six years later, after obsessing over practically everything she released, I learned she passed away. I was devastated. Her daughter, up-and-coming singer Rose LeBeau, is determined to release Marie's final project, titled Beautiful. It doesn't surprise me that Marie had enough leftover material to compose an album. She released music pretty consistently before she died, so I'm sure her feverish recording pace never let up. The first taste of her posthumous album is lead single "Luv Letter."

For anyone familiar with Marie's work, "Luv Letter" should come as no surprise. It's the same subdued, adult R&B format she's been releasing since the turn of the century. Her voice is still in excellent form. Her delivery is still fresh, hip and confident. Her lyrics here are delicious and still read like free form poetry. She demands her lover read her lines "because they never lie" and to listen to her lips because "they want to testify." That's the type of wordplay that as a poet myself keeps me intrigued. But Marie knows she's good. She even says so in the opening lines:

I know you heard about me and what the people say I do
The way I mix my metaphors, the way I do just what I do

On the second verse, she delivers more fun wordplay, singing:

I ain't saying nothing, baby, that ain't been said before
If all there is in life is vanity, I'm gonna even out the score
This one's for my music, pretty notes each melody
This one's for the many blessings, living inside of me

I can go on and on about Marie and her poetic lyrics. She will certainly be missed, because there was no other. If "Luv Letter" is any indication of the quality of her next album then fans of the late R&B legend are in for a treat. Be sure to feed "Luv Letter" to your MP3 player as soon as you can.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Standard: Billie Holiday - You Go To My Head

Some songs never grow old. Sure, some may be forgotten, but when you find them again, it's like opening up an old bottle of brandy. Virtually all of Billie Holiday's records are like brandy. She's a song stylist, not just a singer, so she can breathe life over the most dismal records (and there were plenty tin pan allen throwaways in the 1930's). But when you match a highly stylized singer with a highly stylized song, you take all that brandy, mix it together and you get a frat party. Take Holiday's reading of the J. Fred Coots classic "You Go To My Head." Years before Stevie Wonder wrote the book on pretty song harmonies, there was this 1938 gem. It sorta reminds me of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" in that the song is so gorgeous anybody can try singing it and sound good. Holiday recorded the song a number of times. First in 1938 to chart success, then in 1952 on her first full length album and then live in a rare duet with Helen Merrill in 1956.

The earliest recording is the most accessible and bound to hook new listeners on Holiday's work. It's a mid-tempo, sophisticated piece. The backing is subtle. Pianist Claude Thornhill strolls behind Holiday every time she sings a line, filling out the empty spaces of the song. For the bridge, there's a light tenor sax solo that's just as meaningful if not as memorable as Holiday's own vocal reading. Everything about the song is beautiful. The lyrics are sophisticated. Lines such as "sparkling burgundy brew," "bubbles in a glass of champagne," "You intoxicate my soul with your eyes" and the song title "you go to my head" sound high class and poetic. There's nothing about beer or picking somebody up from a bar here.

The second recording during the early 50s shows a major change in Holiday's voice. It's a lot deeper and fragile yet still poignant. For those entranced by the 1930's version, listening to her sing the song in such a different way should be a treat. All of her characteristic phrasing is here; she still catches the hook of the song and sings it in a cool way. The tempo is a lot slower and the backing more sparse. One of the greatest jazz guitarist of all time, Barney Kessel, gives the song a big boost. I would always listen to Holiday's 1950's records and wonder who was strumming so beautifully behind her. Kessel adds a pinch of class and sophistication to the song that arguably makes it a stronger performance than its 1930's counter-part.

For historical purposes, and also pure fun, there's a live, rare recording of Holiday in the apartment of jazz critic Leonard Feather singing the record. I guess they were having a random jam session. She suggests the song and then jokes about how she doesn't like clarinets (poking fun at contemporaries Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw). Jazz vocalist Helen Merrill alternates lines with Holiday, singing in a smokey, classy tone. It's rare that Lady Day ever sang with another person, so this was a real treat. Her reading was more drawn out than the other two versions but basically sounded like the one from a few years earlier.

Feed your mp3 player with as much Billie Holiday as you possibly can. Try all three of her versions of "You Go to My Head" if you want. But also, if you're feeling extra sophisticated, download pianist Teddy Wilson's version too.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Easy Listening: John Mayer - No Such Thing

Acoustic pop singer John Mayer has come a long way from his breakthrough 2002 hit album Room for Squares. Since then he's arguably garnered more attention for his bedroom follies than his music. Being labeled a womanizer by the media, he's dated several Hollywood A-Listers, dumped or been dumped by all of them, and even dished out the goods on Jessica Simpson's bedroom performance in a controversial Playboy interview. He made headlines in 2012 for feeling "humiliated" by Taylor Swift who reportedly penned the scathing Dear John about their breakup. Rewind back to 2002 and women seemed to be the least of Mayer's problems. His debut single the adult contemporary piece "No Such Thing" is all about rising above the usual path of going from high school to college to pursue your dreams.

The track was co-written by Clay Cook, Zac Brown Band member and one of Mayer's college buddies in the late 90s. Mayer starts out as a young man presumably being lectured by his condescending guidance counselor about "the real world" and how he needs to "stay inside the lines," grab a few credits from college and take the "so called right track."  By the time he hits the chorus, which is a bit of a climax, Mayer wants to run through the halls of his high school and tell everyone he made it the nontraditional way. He sings, rather melodically:

I wanna run through the halls of my high school
I wanna scream at the
Top of my lungs
I just found out there's no such thing as the real world
Just a lie you got to rise above

John Mayer's the type of songwriter that can send a chill down my spine with his lyrics. His songs make me think and daydream. It definitely helps that "No Such Thing" is strikingly relatable, and I imagine more-so for a coming of age crowd.

Mayer uses his trademark breathy vocals for the track. There's no over-singing here. I can detect a little bit of blues influence in his voice. He'll embrace it full on with songs like Gravity later in his career. For new John Mayer fans looking for entry level songs, "No Such Thing" is a sure thing for your MP3 player. Feed it the dreamy record ASAP!