Over the last few months I have done short reviews on more than 30 CD’s in two articles here and here. As I mentioned before, the response has been amazing! I continue to get emails and more unsolicited (but always welcome) invites to listen to music.
But I also have been called out as an elitist. Because I love jazz and modern classical music and tend to prefer rather esoteric styles in those genres, and because I have always had a fondness for highly skilled artists who polish their technical abilities to better serve their craft, I am often seen as looking down on popular forms. When I ask my family if I’m a musical elitist, they say ‘Yes’. But at the same time they also say that much of my music – from Black Flag and Sex Pistols to NWA and more – doesn’t fit that mold.
But one comment I got talked about how I fawn all over these jazz and abstract classical recordings and in many of my posts tend to be critical of pop music. While I said I was only going to talk about stuff I liked, there have been a couple of recent releases that came my way that I wanted to highlight … for different reasons.
It was perhaps fitting that we had just returned from our vacation in Washington D.C. when I got this music. While there we tuned in to ‘Hot 99.5’ – the local pop music station – as something we could have on in the background that was generally unobtrusive and agreeable. As it turns out Hot 99.5 has a playlist about 10 songs deep, with a 5 song primary rotation and 5 ‘extras’ they drop in about once per hour. We have a similar station ‘WINK 106’ in our area that is my younger son’s favorite … but that station has a much broader playlist that none of us appreciated until we returned!
The reason I say it is fitting is because to my ears most of these top selling songs – stuff by Ke$ha, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and so on – sound as though they are written by a committee and produced in a factory setting with QA inspectors who make sure that every note is in tune and every second is perfectly aligned. Having listened to way too much 1985 music with the kids on the Odyssey of the Mind team my wife and I coached, I now laugh at the description of that period in popular music as ‘soul-less’ and how the digital instruments made the music cold. Sure there are the same over-wrought pop song styles as now, but the singers had to sing, the players had to play (except possibly drums), and when you listen to songs now you hear the very human mistakes, miscues, off-notes and so on that mark the reality most of us deal with.
Within a week of being home I’d listened to the first record I review below three times through and not a single track had taken hold in any way – yet it wasn’t ‘bad’ either! This made me think ‘hey, I need to highlight THIS recording as well!’ And then along came the other recording and I knew it was time to send out another set of reviews!
Lee Ritenour – 6 String Theory
Summary: Lee Ritenour is famous for being the consummate studio professional guitarist, able to add value and style to any recording in virtually any genre. He has been a mainstay for decades to the point that if you heard a studio guitarist in the 70’s and 80’s it was probably him, but his own personal style of play was jazz. Smooth jazz, in particular – not that there is anything wrong with the style, as I enjoy stuff by Larry Carlton, the Rippingtons, Yellowjackets, and so on.
For Six String Theory he has assembled a huge cast of very talented musicians including: guitarists John Scofield, Slash, B.B. King, Steve Lukather, Keb Mo, Part Martino and more; bassists including the wonderful young Tal Wilkenfeld; organists including Joey Defrancesco; and many more very talented folks.
So how could it go wrong? Simple – it has no driving purpose: it simply is a collection of great guitarists playing together, and that is the most it can ever aspire to. So there is some solid playing – even some great playing – but the songs are generic, the overall performance unworthy of the contributors, and the entire record so bland and flavorless that I was amazed at how little I recalled as I wrote this … and I’ve listened to this whole CD at least 5 times!
Choice Track (and why): Lay It Down – I was hopeful that I was going to like this record after John Scofield started tearing things up … and while I thought Ritenour’s silky smooth emasculated emulation of Sco wore on me, that hopefulness was the best thing about this whole record.
You Might Love This If: You are looking for a purely guitar-focused recording that crosses jazz, rock, pop and even country music boundaries with some of the most talented artists contributing.
Here is a short video vignette talking about Lay It Down:
Summary: If someone had told me this was a 25th anniversary re-release of Asia from the time they had already fallen into obscurity in the mid-80’s, I would have easily believed it. After all, Asia was a ‘project’ band of guys formerly from King Crimson (Wetton), ELP (Palmer), Yes (Howe), and some dude from the band Yes became when nearly everyone left and the rest merged with the Buggles (Downes). I remember 1982 and radio stations touting them as the ‘first super group of the 80’s’, with their huge first record. And how their second record was pretty mediocre and more of the same, and I don’t really recall hearing anything after that. My wife owns the Asia record, and we put it on the turntable occasionally and all of us know the songs and find it a very entertaining record. So I was very open to giving this a shot.
Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet … and I can only hope that is symbolic for this being their last recording.
I played Omega for my family, and my wife summed up our thoughts: it sounds a lot like their old stuff, but while those songs made me want to sing and dance, this stuff is depressing and sleepy. The lyrics are ponderous and over-crafted, the songs sound largely the same, with perhaps three basic variations spanning the twelve song CD.
It is amazing to me that with the array of talent present – Howe is one of the best rock guitarists of all time, Palmer is amazing, and Wetton was great as part of the King Crimson variant that produced the legendary Larks’ Tongues in Aspic – what we get is watered-down pop-prog-rock that sounds completely out of its element in 2010. Maybe it is cynical of me, but this sounds like a bunch of 60-ish year old guys looking to reclaim some of their 70’s & 80’s glory and a bunch of 60-ish year old record company suits looking to ignore that the last twenty or so years have happened. Well, at least that is how the music sounds.
Choice Track (and why): Light The Way – like most of the songs, it feels very 80’s in terms of style and production, but this has the ‘lightest’ feel and really allows Steve Howe to shine through in a way he doesn’t for the remainder of the record.
You Might Love This If: You are a sentimental old fan of Asia who just wants a recording that celebrates what you loved about that group from that time.
I very specifically called this the ‘corporate boardroom edition’ and referred to mass-produced pop music in the introduction for a reason: both of these records sound like they were created for reasons other than the music and musicians.
I love music – I think that is very clear by now. And while I focus my personal listening on ‘out there’ stuff, I can sing along with loads of pop music of the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, right up through ‘California Gurls’ on my son’s iPod! And while I can appreciate and enjoy pop music even when it is obviously mass-market stuff that has been heavily studio edited, I hate feeling like I am being played or ‘worked over’.
And ‘played’ is exactly how I feel about these recordings – the Asia record is released to take advantage of the annual ‘oldies revival tour’ season that props up former stars in front of aging baby boomers and let’s everyone pretend they are young and hip once again. That is fine – but don’t pretend that you really have anything relevant to say anymore, guys, because this is the worst sort of pandering … and for talent such as that it is a shame.
As for Ritenour … I’m not opposed to collaboration records, but I am always suspicious of motives. This one plays like the recent Herbie Hancock record – trying to name-drop their way to credibility with a wider audience and cash in on cross-genre sales.
At least pop music like Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry are up front – their stuff is over-produced ear-candy with the staying power of cotton candy, but you will know it, sing it, and enjoy it in spite of yourself. (As an aside, I don’t find Eminem honest, as his new record is a pop album but he tries to sound edgy to pretend that it is some sort of hardcore street music or something). I remember a lyric from the old Rush song that spoke about us wanting to believe in freedom in music – and it is true, we want to believe in the honesty of an artist trying to communicate their music … whether or not there is even an audience to hear it! But the ‘glittering prizes’ distract from that honesty and we end up with … well, this stuff.
These two recordings are inherently dishonest. And they are crap. I hope I can come back soon with more great music to share!