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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So, About That Canadian Americana... Also Some Belated Thoughts On That Jackson Fella.

Just to finish off my review of my favourite stuff from a few weeks ago, here's a few thoughts for my music pick of the week: Tonight at the Arizona by The Felice Brothers.

As anyone who even remotely knows me might be able to tell you I generally prefer music from the 60s and 70s to what's being produced today. I do need to stress the word "generally" though because I am finding more and more stuff recorded more recently that I really enjoy - though, sure enough, very little of it gets much in the way of play on mainstream, Top 40 radio or MTV. One complaint that I still have about a great many of these newer acts (and indeed, new releases from many music veterans) is that even if I really like the music the way it's recorded leaves a lot to be desired. The latest and greatest in recording technology should in theory make music sound better than ever but a hell of a lot of the time it makes things a whole lot worse. Far too many albums released in this digital age are plagued by some really off-putting problems in the way they are recorded. Well, to my ears anyway. That clean but organic sound that was present on even lesser recordings from the late 60s, early 70s have been replaced with a sound that is either lifeless, too loud, cluttered, overbearing, undynamic or, as is all too often the case, a mixture of all of these.

The best thing about Tonight At the Arizona isn't the pitch-perfect arrangements, beautiful melodies, evocative lyrics, excellent musicianship or even its irresistible blend of various strands of American roots music, though these are all present and accounted for. It's not even that every song here is a fully formed gem in its own right or that the singer sounds like a more technically competent Bob Dylan. No, the thing that I love most about the Felice Brother's second (?) album is the way it sounds.

It's been well recorded (or at least as well recorded as it can be for such a seemingly obscure band) that the Felice Brothers hail from the same place as their most obvious influence - and Canada's greatest musical export this side of Neil Young - The Band and I'm certainly not going to argue that point. I'm also not going to argue that much like the band, they have the kind of understanding of traditional forms of American (as in, from the USA) music that most born and bred American musicians would be envious of. In fact, this is probably even more impressive in the Felice's case seeing as how the Band did have in drummer/ mandolin player/ singer/ guitarist (talented bunch them Band members) Levon Helm someone who came from the very heart of US cotton country, which was also right at the heart of many of America's great musical movements.

Tonight at the Arizona doesn't merely display this intricate understanding of the United States of America's rich musical heritage so much as lives and breathes it. It is one of those all too few albums that sounds genuinely timeless. Admittedly, it does sound like it was probably recorded after the invention of decent recording equipment sometime in the middle of the 20th century but beyond that it is pretty much impossible to date. It was recorded some 40-odd years after the release of Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, which was clearly something of an influence on The Felice Brothers, but it sounds for all the world like a contemporary work. Hell, it wouldn't even be hard to imagine it pre-dating that landmark album by a few years.

Admittedly, comparing Tonight at the Arizona to Blonde on Blonde is probably a bit of a stretch as it displays none of the originality or ambition of Dylan's masterpiece but as a rich slice of classic Americana, it more than stands up.


Moving about as far away from classic Americana as it is possible to get, a few words on the death of Michael Jackson.

I have to admit that when I read the news, my initial reaction was hardly one of shock. Michael Jackson has over the years abused his body in a way that would shock even Keith Richards. Well, perhaps not, Keef is another story all together but the fact that his heart finally gave in was ultimately inevitable. Beyond that initial thought though, I felt some sadness that he did die so young but, I have to admit, that as someone who never really cared for the man's music, his death didn't really affect me in the way that, say, George Harrison's or John Entwistle's did.

Regardless of my feelings however, I am still shocked at the amount of media attention Jackson's passing has received. Oh sure, Michael Jackson's obvious mental instability has made him a fixture of lowest-common-denominator tabloids over the past decade at least but I would have thought that as a pop-icon, his peak as an artist, performer and popular figure would be little more than a distant memory to most. I would also have thought that his sometimes shocking apparent behaviour and appearance would have turned many fans against him as the decades passed.

Apparently not.

What I really have trouble with however is the way the media has reacted to his death. You really need look no further than Jackson's life and death to see exploitative, sensationalist junk journalism at its absolute worst. As Michael Jackson, beloved pop prince, receded spectacularly from public conciousness to be replaced by Michael Jackson, psycho freak, the media were there to chart every pathetic moment of his hideous fall from grace. They sneered during his scandalous lawsuits, jeered at his financial destruction and laughed at his outlandish behaviour. "Wacko Jacko" had the jackals salivating at his every move since the mid-90s as he clearly became an image of public ridicule, all the while his sanity allegedly nose-dived, his talent faded and his life fell apart.

Who knew that all he needed to do to get into everyone's good books again was to kick the proverbial bucket. The very same mind-pulverising tabloids and abominable "entertainment news" programs that went out of the way to ridicule Michael Jackson's every living move, suddenly but not expectantly, turned tails and turning him into a mighty heroic legend in death. Jackson was clearly a complicated person and an important, if not necessarily great, music personality with more than his fair share of demons but from all the duplicitous, hypocritical media coverage of the past days, all I'm really left with is a strong sense of distaste.

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