Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color might be my favorite album on the list, but even I have to reluctantly admit it's not the best. It's probably not even in consideration for the win. This is truly an "honor to be nominated" album, one rewarded for showing real growth and future promise.

It is a clear step up in production values from the band's debut. It's sort of expected since they did their entire first album on their own. Sound & Color has a richer, fuller sound whereby their able to explore a lot of different directions and interests without losing their signature sound. Being fronted by Brittany Howard, who also writes all the songs, helps in that way. It's impossible for her to be anything but her.

Still, the band provides, as she's often said, a real diversity of style that makes Alabama Shakes unique. It's Alabama-inspired Southern Rock, but there's plenty of blues and more alternative elements present. Howard, on this album, explores her voice as an instrument, experimenting with falsetto and various rhythms to provide a broader canvas for the art.

"Don't Wanna Fight No More," their most popular single to-date, it likely the best track on the album. It's got a rousing beat and indomitable lyrics that show off the kind of country folk wisdom that seems to exude from Howard. This from someone who, admittedly, was relatively isolated prior to gaining sweeping fame. It evokes even more respect for the introspection and depth present, even on songs with such simple lyrics. This song deserves to be recognized on its own.

Overall, many of the middle tracks on Sound & Color do possess a stark similarity to one another, perhaps more reminiscent of a jam band (something Alabama Shakes certainly has in their DNA). This is really helpful in a young band finding its unique (and awesome) place in the world of music, but it's not likely to garner a lot of Grammy votes. Still, the range, emotion, and sheer power of Howard's vocals propel this to something more than a good follow-up (which is a difficult feat in its own right).

The album finishes with "Over My Head," which does capture the promise, imagination, emotion, simplicity, and complexity that it the best of what Alabama Shakes can do (check out this NPR interview with Howard), but one or two or five tracks does not a "Best Album" make.

In the end, a track like "The Greatest," an adorable, but failed attempt at punk? pop? 50's do-wop?, perhaps an attempt to show a young woman's desire to change herself into anything for a man (which sort of tracks with the lyrics) just isn't something you necessarily put on an album. It almost betrays the rush by which their new label wanted to capitalize on early success - this is perhaps a terrific EP, four songs short of a truly classic album.

This is truly a band, though. Howard's solo project, Thunderbitch, proved she's at her best collaborating with a band and Alabama Shakes is better because of the diversity of input and experience one would only find in small-town Alabama where the only musicians available just have to play together. A track like "Gemini" makes me look forward to what this band can continue to produce, but it's not fully there yet and Sound & Color is not likely to be the album that puts them on the map.

Verdict: Kendrick Lamar's accomplishment is undeniable, simply one of the best rap albums of the last 25 years, certainly the best, by far, of this generation. I'm not sure he's gonna win, because Taylor Swift put together perhaps the most perfectly constructed pop album since the Beach Boys and she's really, really popular, but I vote Kendrick #1. I think I have to put Swift #2, even though Chris Stapleton did do more of his own writing and he certainly transcends his genre by a much higher degree; I might have them 2a and 2b. I (and the voters) don't always like to reward a group effort on par with Swift's soundmachine-ing on 1989, but you sort of have to respect the result. Alabama Shakes is an easy fourth and The Weeknd is last.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Millennial Athletes and the Media

Michael Jordan had a famous line when asked why he didn't speak out more about social or political issues as players in previous generations had. He said, "Republicans buy shoes, too," and thus set the tone for the next thirty years of player-media relations. Guys were going to play along, give the cliched quotes at the right time and cash their checks.

Millennial athletes are taking a different tactic - we saw it on display after the Superbowl. Cam Newton came out visibly sad and frustrated, gave a bunch of one word answers and one incredibly concise, but accurate explanation of how the game went, before leaving the stage. It was raw and honest and expressive and is shows the kind of authenticity and openness that characterizes this millennial generation.

It wasn't pretty. He was sulking and short and visibly upset. He took a lot of beef for being childish or a poor loser. I didn't see any of that, though. I saw a guy who did his duty, answered his questions, took responsibility for his mistakes and gave credit to the other team for winning. He did everything we expect an athlete in his situation to do - he just didn't look happy doing it.

This is the new battle ground, and I think it is very much a generational shift. In many workplaces around the world there are discussion about how we define "professional" and what expectations we place on workers. None of those is more visible, though, than professional sports. We've long been accustomed to the "suck in up" mindset, where even if a player or coach is passionate (either positively or negatively), they calm down for the cameras, answer questions as best they can, and emote in private.

It's prettier, for sure, and it makes the media's job a lot easier. But, as Cam said in his follow up comments today, is it really necessary or required? I'd ask, is it healthy?

We make these guys out to be robots, vessels for our entertainment. We don't like seeing them as real people - unless its in a factory polished window into their real people-hood that's as managed and fake as the image we think we're seeing past. The athletes have played into this, of course - look at the Michael Jordan quote above. It's about marketing and branding and money. Be as bland as possible and don't alienate anyone.

That's the down side of Cam's honesty here. He's going to make some people mad. They're not going to like the way he conducts himself and they might not buy his products or support his team. It could cost him something. He seems to be ok with that - and I am, too - I don't think people have to like Cam Newton. I just have an issue with people saying he's wrong, or it's not the way things should be done.

As with much in life, just because it hasn't been done that way before, doesn't mean it can't. Just because it's how things work, doesn't mean it has to be that way. Reality doesn't make right. Maybe there is no right, and players will choose to do their duty in a variety of ways, rather than those approved by media and tradition.

I'm not quite a millennial, but I really appreciate the millennial love of authenticity. Cam Newton doesn't want to be a different guy in the media than he is out of it. That's incredibly strange to conventional wisdom, but it makes a lot of sense to the kids he's hoping to inspire (and leverage for profit), in fact, it's almost required.

The other element is that players don't quite need the media as much as they used to. Yes, the media is still essential and still pays the bills, just not as many as it once did. Leagues are increasingly beholden to these broadcast deals (although I think the NFL could just set up channels or apps to broadcast all its games and people would follow pretty readily), but the players, especially star players, make more money from endorsements than they do from playing. They need the media, but not desperately. Therefore, they're not necessarily out to make the media's job easier.

Look at NBA star Steph Curry - he's super talented and super likable. He won't put off the old school sports fans upset with Newton - that's just his style. But he's got no problem staking his own claim to the press conference. He was criticized during the NBA Finals last year for bringing his young daughter out to the press conference with him - some journalists felt uncomfortable asking difficult questions or challenging Curry with his young daughter present.

Curry laughed it off (and won the public relations battle largely by leveraging social media - another avenue that marginalizes the traditional player-media relationship) and said essentially that he's an open book, suggesting that both, his daughter can hear the truth AND that perhaps the media need to remember that the guys they cover are real people with families when they ask questions. It was a subtle move, but an important example of how this new generation of players is approaching the media. This long held unwritten contract between the two is being renegotiated and things are a little uncertain.

Allen Iverson was the first to challenge this model (maybe Charles Barkley, although when he spoke out, media just didn't cover it, which means his reach was pretty much non-existent), he was way ahead of his time and we nearly killed him for his honesty. We're now in a generation of players (and increasingly, of fans) who understand and appreciate this approach. It's going to change things.

One thing people seem most uncomfortable with in Cam's performance is emotion. There is, of course, a difference between acting on your emotion and expressing your emotions; people seem to miss this. For the most part, we don't want athletes expressing emotion in a press conference. We like it (sometimes) during or after a game (unless you're Richard Sherman, anyway), but we'd rather get dispassionate comments afterwards. When players and coaches do express genuine emotion, we typically make fun of them (Jim Mora: "Playoffs!").

Cam wasn't whining or complaining. He took responsibility and gave credit to his opponents. When he did finally give more than a one word answer, it was pretty eloquent, honest, and restrained. He summed up the game remarkably well. This was not a guy out of control - he was simply sad. Yes, a happy guy is going to speak louder and longer and more entertainingly than a sad one, but he did his job, faced the press, and answered teh question.

I'm just excited for the precedent this sets. Players might feel free to be more honest about their feelings and we might get to know them a little more as people. You see it being a challenge for everyone, players included. LeBron James tried to manage his response to Newton, but it's clear he's coming from the same long-held mindset that we've too long taken for granted.

It will be interesting to see how the juxtaposition works itself out between this kind of authenticity from athletes and the growing managed output of "reality" stars. In some sense, the millennial generation is trying to figure out the balance between projecting an image and being true to yourself, especially in a world of social media, where the walls are blurred between personal relationships and media portrayals. I find it interesting that we'll get to see this play out among our most recognizable stars.

*Oh, and, yes, there might just be some bias here as well - it might be racial, it might just be flashy vs buttoned down - but this provides an interesting notion to think about with regards to how Cam Newton is viewed.

Thursday, February 04, 2016


I generally say I'm not a fan of hip hop or country music - in reality, though, I'm a fan of good music and it's just that not much of what comes out of hip hop and country is ever all that good. This year we've got some real treats, especially in the Grammy Best Album category. I compare hip-hop and country because they are essentially two branches of the same tree. Both usually comprise simple, straightforward lyrics that are often outright storytelling in nature.

While Chris Stapleton is country, because of his instrumentation, demeanor, and Nashville connections, he has much more a classic southern rock sound. The charts, ironically, have no real place for rock music that isn't alternative anymore - and he certainly fits well with country music, but there is something more appealing to his debut record, Traveller. Stapleton combines a real blues feel to both the lyrics and with his vocals - that made a perfect fit when he joined up with Justin Timberlake at the CMAs for a performance that went viral and launched his popular noteriety that's culminated with this Best Album Grammy nomination.

The song from that performance, "Tennessee Whiskey" is perhaps his most popular, even though its yet to be formally released as a single. A cover of George Jones' 1983 hit, Stapleton's version it perfectly illustrates what Traveller has to offer. Blues, with country roots, but also a broader scope of musicality and spare production that create a unique brand for a guy who's been a Nashville hit maker, writing for huge acts across all genres and just now breaking out, in his late 30's, on his own terms. The music fits the man - or at the least the perception he gives off in interviews and public statements.

The vocals on "Fire Away" sound a bit like Springsteen. The overall vibe of "Parachute" is pure early 70's mellow rock, save for the decidedly simple, country guitar riff. But more than anything else one discovers on Traveller is the vocal talent Stapleton brings to th table. He can just flat out sing. His wife, Morgane, a singer-songwriter in her own right backs him up for the most part and adds some real depth - she's sold for his success more than any other backup singer could be, and it shows.

It would be awesome if the Grammy's would find a way to pair Stapleton and Kendrick Lamar, but seeing as how they're both up for the big award, they'll likely get their own performances. Maybe Stapleton can headline the Glen Frey tribute? He would hit that out of the park. He'll be good doing any strange pairing they find for him, because the guy is just flat versatile - the years as a songwriter for hire just make someone that way. "When the Stars Come Out" is produced country and Stapleton's voice makes it easy to hear country in it, but if you look at the construction and lyrics, it could easily be made into a pop record. It sounds so different than most of the rest of the album, but also fits in so well. I'm not sure it's the best track, but it might be my favorite, just because it shows how much more Stapleton is capable of - and it seems effortless.

I'm not sure Traveller is good enough to win the Grammy in a year like this, with such a stacked field. In other years, he might be a frontrunner. I know I've said this at least twice already, but it's a shame there aren't straight rock stations on the radio anymore, or Stapleton would definitely be getting steady play outside the country niche. Of course, I do have to throw that niche some love, since Stapleton isn't at all looking to break out - songs like "Whiskey and You" and "More of You" are nothing but a fantastic country track.

I haven't officially reviewed Sound and Color yet, but I suspect Alabama Shakes and Kendrick Lamar will be fighting for my vote in this category, so I've spent some time trying to figure out if Traveller or T-Swift is #3. On the one hand, as perfect a pop album as 1989 is, it feels like getting someone to make and then getting people to discover an album as unique and personal as Traveller might be more difficult. You can always find Swedish producers to punch up your pop sounds, but you don't always find a talent like Stapleton. That feels like a slight for the massive talent that is Taylor Swift. In any event, the very fact that it's a discussion in 2016 over which is better says a lot for just how good Chris Stapleton's Traveller really is.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Midnight Jesus by Jamie Blaine

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I've had Midnight Jesus sitting on my shelf for almost two months now. I've been afraid to read it, because a lot of the books I've been getting for review lately have been disappointing. Jamie Blaine, though, has gone a long way in saving the reputation of Christian publishing. This is a collection of narratives, both autobiographical and otherwise, about the messiness of life and reality of love.

Blaine recounts stories from his years of working with people suffering from mental health issues. He also recounts stories from his own journey to figure life out and the ways in which God intersects with everything. There's no theological agenda, though, and no easy answers. He doesn't really provide any answers at all, other than to just keep moving forward and to pay loving attention to the people around you. It's profoundly mystical and profoundly concrete.

There's pretty much nothing but gospel here - and by that I don't mean words about belief and technicality, but words about life and grace and forgiveness, and faith. I think it's officially listed under "inspirational" which is definitely true, but not in the way you normally expect from so-called "christian" books. It's inspirational in a very real way, freeing the reader to be both realitic and hopeful about the human condition and our own personal life conditions individually.

I found great comfort and peace in these pages and I sincerely hope other people will pick it up. This book will do you a lot of good.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Thursday, January 28, 2016

To Pimp A Butterfly

So, a minute into Kendrick Lamar's newest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, even with all the impossible hype behind it, I couldn't help but thinking this might just be the best Hip Hop album of all time. That's likely an over-exaggeration, while Lamar hits us with some thoughtful, timely, and applicable rhymes that drive the discourse of rap ahead, his concerns are not really on the same level of those we see in the pioneers. He's critiquing the culture that's arisen around the image of hip-hop which is a positive refocusing on the actual culture that drives the anger and frustration that gave birth to hip hop in the first place. It might be the best hip hop album of this generation, though, and that's something.

On the album Lamar explores the reality of fame - examining how everything we're taught to want only brings with it those things that are most destructive. He uses Lucy (short for Lucifer) to embody temptation (something that's pretty darn biblically literate, another trait you'll find across Lamar's work). The album is not about what to do and not to do, but about the difficulties of navigating a world of pleasure and pain and how the human situation doesn't elementally change with money and fame, even if the particulars are quite different. It's a strong album lyrically and thematically, but you'd expect nothing less of Lamar, who will hopefully force everyone else to up their game (attention Kanye).

The production is incredible and compliments the lyrics with a kind of historic understanding and compositional sophistication you just don't see anywhere else. It does everything The Weeknd album does, but ten times better. It's a different approach, for sure, but Kendrick tackles everything we hope The Weeknd might do, but he actually does it. Difficult and often offensive topics are justified when they're leveraged from reality for reflection and social comment. You might not like to listen to Kendrick's tracks, but if you did, you'd have to give some grudging respect for what he's doing.

One of the best examples of what the album can do is "u" a track that sounds like a typical condemnation of an absent father, but over the course of the track you realized it's an expression of self-doubt, highlighting the humanity and weakness of the rapper as opposed to the typical confident persona the industry drives them to present. Many of the tracks do this kind of switch, addressing real issues in direct ways, but in ways the listener won't expect and forces us to challenge the perceptions we bring and the way we view ourselves, others, and the world.

Now I'm not really a hip-hop guy. I make the statement about "best hip hop album ever" with some tongue in cheek, because, frankly, I'm in no position to know. There's also the matter of everyone's tastes being different. I like hip-hop and if there's any resonance between it and my life it's because of the time I've spent working with teenagers; I don't live the life Lamar writes about, but I've cared for enough people fopr whom this is serious to appreciate the seriousness. What I appreciate most is that Lamar puts together an album that both speaks from and to the society and culture that gave birth to him. It's not just pretty ear candy, but a challenge to be more than someone who listens to pretty ear candy.

It's easy for someone to object to the profanity and course subject matter as inappropriate for public consumption - and on a lot of hip hop albums that's really true; they're self-indulgent and offensive - but To Pimp a Butterfly is doing something with the mess. A track like "Alright" doesn't ignore the realities of the world, but doesn't wallow in them either. It gets a bad reputation for its negative reference to police, but it also calls for hope and perseverance in the same way a gospel classic speaks to another generation. If this album is anything, it's Kendrick Lamar's understanding of and genius re-appropriation of cultural and musical history for a worthy purpose.

There's a tremendously high degree of difficulty with a task like this and, on To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar not only meets the challenge, but clears it with room to spare. I don't know if it will win the Best Album Grammy - this is a year with a ton of really great nominees, but it will certainly go down as a classic.