December 15, 2012 Leave a comment

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Relatively unknown to the United States at the time, British singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse released her second album, Back to Black, in March 2007. As Winehouse was inspired by the girl groups of the 1960s, the album is buoyed by classic jazz and soul with light ska and jazz influences, not unlike the classic Phil Spector wall-of-sound productions that were released during this period. The album was critically applauded and was named a classic must-have only months after the release.

Nostalgia aside, the album was a very focused, modern and current record for music lovers of any major genre to appreciate. Winehouse wrote all of the 11 tracks while the production duties were almost evenly split between famed R&B/Hip-Hop veteran Salaam Remi and British DJ/production wizard Mark Ronson. Both producers take Winehouse to revisit the glory of Motown in its heyday, while still bringing a fresh taste of the current music scene to the fore.

In a similar fashion to her previous album FrankBack to Black offers an honest account of the complexities of fidelity and pride, the wit of a strong and almost stubborn personality and the miseries of bittersweet love. There is a vivid sexuality and candidness that is strikingly tender and is nothing short of mesmerizing. She croons and sulks, sucks her teeth and scowls, laments and serenades – all while baring her heart on her sleeve.

Lyrically, there is much to take in. Her passionate eye for observing details is wisely documented in her strong songwriting skills. Her knack for producing simple yet effective melodies are can be easily relatable to the listener. For all we know, it could have been a song she wrote about an instance that has happened in any one of our lives.

The brassy “Rehab” is a bold statement in itself. Winehouse cleverly satires the reaction of her closest business partners and family members during an intervention about her escalating alcohol habits (a habit she relies onto and often alludes to in many of the other album tracks). In turn, she defiantly declares her refusal for help, stating that she would rather “be at home with Ray [Charles]” because there is nothing that a rehabilitation center can teach her “that she can’t learn from Mr. [Donny] Hathaway”. A topic not tackled in a conventional pop song in recent memory, the track surprisingly works with its undeniable hook, skittering drums and shuffling keys.

Continuing with the striking tell-it-like-it-is honesty, “You Know I’m No Good”, finds Winehouse confessing to a lover of sleeping with an ex-boyfriend as she had previously predicted that she would before. Her lyrics are seamless and so meticulously delivered from verse to chorus that you are almost set in the eloquent visual vignettes that she maps out musically.

But when she isn’t sarcastically serving her opponent (and herself) with deprecating humor and wit, Winehouse spends much of the album analyzing her more pressing matters in her personal relationships with men.

The emotional centerpiece of the album is in the three middle songs. She states the running theme of the album on “Love Is a Losing Game” – a somber ode to the finality of a failed relationship. The sweeping and swelling strings are complimented with Winehouse’s naked vocal delivery and phrasing that channels the late DinahWashington. “Over futile odds and laughed at by the Gods…and now the final frame – love is a losing game,” she sings with a tender sincerity that pierces through to the very core of the listener. Contrasting this is the upbeat “Tears Dry on Their Own” which reprises a sublime “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” loop as a backdrop for Winehouse to specify her declaration of optimism, despite going over the numerous reasons why a particular relationship floundered. Though she admits “we never had it all, we had to hit a wall,” the song essentially finds Winehouse looking to days ahead with a sense of hope. The tempo slows with “Wake Up Alone” which dissects and details hitting the emotional low of attempting getting on during a typical day and night without having her loneliness consume her. “This face in my dreams seizes my guts, he floods me with dread. Soaked in soul, he swims in my eyes by the bed. Pour myself over him, the moon spilling in…and I wake up alone.” It is one of the chilling and darkest moments in the course of the entire album.

The most hope in Back to Black lies in the final two tracks, “Some Unholy War” and “He Can Only Hold Her”. The former is a mellow, late night assertion to her partner of undying love. Her dark vocal tones tumble like dice upon the moody ballad’s guitar licks, giving a new shade to the album’s atmosphere. The latter switches her role from first person to third, Winehouse seems objective when the “I’s” become she’s and the “you’s” become “he’s” as she speaks about a couple’s standstill. Possibly critiquing her own situation, the man is frustrated by the woman’s insecurities from a past relationship – “Now, how can he have her heart when it got stole? Though he tries to pacify her, what’s inside her never dies.” Laid against an uplifting, glitteringand melodious accompaniment, it is the album’s shining moment.

What made Back to Black such a masterpiece among music lovers and an experience among casual listeners was the honest look at the downside of love. If you take a comparative look at the songs on popular record, there is nothing that matches or captures the sheer genius of the record, stylistically, lyrically and/or musically speaking. Several critics lauded the blended styles of music into one piece that fans of different genres could appreciate singularly. Many other critics praised the creativity, the well-juxtaposed sense of humor and self to bare honesty in the lyrics that told stories and made people think about their own lives.

Categories: Michael Ashton

Album Review: “Glassheart” by Leona Lewis

October 24, 2012 Leave a comment

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One of Leona Lewis’ biggest assets is her voice – a rich, honeyed vocal that can wrap its way around any lyric and instrument light years beyond any of her contemporaries. It has been the siren’s calling card since her stint on the original UK version of The X Factor and her 2007 debut album Spirit. That album, designed to update the MOR-schmaltz that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston occupied in the 90s, wonderfully displayed her glorious pipes with worldwide hit “Bleeding Love”. After the relative disappointment of her last record Echo, Lewis eschews the chugging, formulaic throwaway ballads for tempo and small experiments with fuzzy electronics on her newest album, Glassheart. Lewis brilliantly teams up with producer Fraser T. Smith (Adele, Taio Cruz) to helm much of the album that takes a distinct foray into dance music.

The first single “Trouble”, co-written by Emeli Sande, is a sleek homage to Massive Attack-like trip-hop with a bed of swelling strings, chronicling an emotional break up. Both the single-worthy title track “Glassheart” and “Come Alive” are pacey, looming numbers – a wall of Lewis’ lilting vocals sliding against eruptions of volcanic, feverish beats. On “Shake You Up”, Lewis lets loose on the summery Rodney Jerkins-produced track which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Rihanna or Katy Perry album.

Even when the songs venture into the balladry of her first two records, they are less meandering and more progressive. Both “I to You” and “Fireflies” channel her influences of Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as she respectively evokes mournfulness and marvel into her performances.

Glassheart benefits from increased writing contributions from Lewis as well as an injection of her personality, two key aspects that have been eclipsed by her walloping vocals. She sounds engaged and exuberant, even on quiet and muscular ballads like track “Fingerprint”. The album is a unified set of songs from an artist who has finally stepped outside of her comfort zone.

Album Review: “P R E S S U R E” by Rochelle Jordan

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Released independently as a free download in 2011, Toronto songstress Rochelle Jordan released her debut EP, R O J O – an adventurous, multi-layered joyride showcasing promise and an equal footing in the R&B of the 90s and the future. She makes a clear step forward with her second EP, P R E S S U R E, released digitally in August 2012.

As implied by the title, P R E S S U R E underscores conflict and tension, specifically in romantic relationships. Written entirely by Jordan and intricately produced by PROTOSTAR producer KLSH, the record closes in on a specific vibe, both sonically and vocally. Her influences are obvious – the fluttery coos of Aaliyah and the slick vocal layering of Amerie’s heyday, among others. Yet, Jordan manages to fuse them into a singular style and sound that is uniquely hers throughout the record’s twelve tracks. Meanwhile, KLSH’s minimalist and atmospheric productions are approached completely with swirling synths, pulsing bass lines and menacing, snare-driven drums. This provides ample room for Jordan to explore textures and rhythmic patterns of her detailed and impassioned lyrics.

The first e-single, “Losing”, is a downbeat lament to the sacrifices made in the name of a strained relationship. Equally alluring as it is chilling, it is a tender and deeply intimate moment that very few unsigned artists are willing to display in their early musical offerings. Elsewhere, Jordan aims to please her lover on the frenetic up-tempo title track, reminisces on a past love on “Could’ve Been” and is haunted by that same former love in a new setting on “Somebody”. Elsewhere, her frustrations with insecure and dismissive men are laid out with serious bite and sass on “You Ain’t My Man” and “Too Long”. However, it is on the spare “Shotgun” where Jordan wallows in the beautiful anguish of the end of a relationship, brilliantly winding up with what is the record’s best vocal performance.

Hailing from Toronto, home of fellow artists like Drake and The Weeknd, Rochelle Jordan is a welcome addition to those following independent R&B music and is sure to delight fans with her distinct sound.

Song Review: “Simulation” by Róisín Murphy

After the success of her second solo album Overpowered in 2007, Róisín Murphy continued her forray into dance and electronica. Aside from two self-released solo singles (the moody “Orally Fixated”, and the menacing Detroit techno of “Momma’s Place”), she appeared on tracks laced by the Italian duo Crookers and house music pioneer David Morales, among others.

This month via , Murphy releases “Simulation” – her first solo single in almost two years. , the slow-burning 11-minute original mix swells with sliding and hissing hi-hats, classic disco bass and shimmers of silky fender rhodes, providing an ecstatic atmosphere underneath layers of Murphy’s cooing vocals, which exude a sexuality that is equal parts refined and orgasmic. Aside from the original mix, the EP also features a dub remix by New York tribal-house guru Eric Kupper. An additional mix is served up by Mano Le Tough, a stunning rework that cascades synths over layers of percussion.

The History of the Telephone

Communicating information has always been an extremely important factor for people to maintain relationships. Since the inception of the telephone, communication has significantly improved, providing a tool for relationships of all types to be sustained at any distance. This tool provided a sweeping way for individuals to speak to one another, person to person, in real time. The power of the telephone was immediate across the country. Because of this important step in technology, a major change was signaled in American society and around the world.

The telephone is a historic device that transmits and receives sound, usually that of a human’s voice. The invention of the telephone was to serve as a bridge between short to long distances, providing a convenient means to verbally communicate to one another. This invention has changed many facets of human life at that point, as mail was the standard mode of communication before the telephone came into the fore. Because phone calls were comparatively instant and cheaper, people were able to speak to each other within seconds. With its impact, it made businesses run tighter and more efficiently, saving money that would have otherwise been spent on traveling to great distances, making transactions occur more quickly.

As Alexander Graham Bell began designing and developing the telephone, one of his main goals was to allow everyone, including the poor to use the telephone. Bell carried an extensive knowledge of the nature of sound as well as an understanding and appreciation of music. It was this unique combination that enabled him to raise the possibility of transmitting multiple messages over the same wire at the same time. The entire focus of his first creation was to produce an alternative that would eventually replace the telegraph. Although the telegraph was a highly successful system, it was also deeply limited to being able to receive and send one message at a time.

As Bell began experimenting with electrical signals, the telegraph had already been an established means of communication for some 30 years. Initially, when the telephone was introduced it was met with some resistance and a few technical problems. Although the telephone would later become a necessity of daily life, it was not as warmly received by the public. People believed it was nothing more than a toy. The company that became AT&T (shortened to American Telephone and Telegraph Company) began in 1875, in an arrangement among inventor Alexander Graham Bell and the two men, Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, who agreed to finance his work. There had been manyalterations in the structure and design of the telephone since the time it was first made. Bell’s interest in electricity continued and he attempted to send several telegraph messages over a single wire at one time. Missing the time and proper skill to make the equipment for these experiments, he solicited the help of Thomas A. Watson from a nearby electrical shop. The two became fast friends and worked together on the tiresome experimentation to yield sounds over what was dubbed the “harmonic telegraph.” On June 2, 1875, while Bell was at one end of the line and Watson worked on the reeds of the telegraph in another room that he heard the sound of a plucked reed coming to him over the wire. Bell announced his findings, first in a series of lectures to Boston scientists and later at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. He later received the patents in 1876 and 1877. Building out from New York, AT&T reached its initial goal of Chicago in 1892, and then San Francisco in 1915. On December 30, 1899, AT&T acquired the assets of American Bell, and became the parent company of the Bell System. Because the signals would tend to weaken as they traveled down telephone wires, producing a nationwide network required a wide range of inventions. Loading coils, which were invented independently at AT&T and elsewhere allowed the network to be built out to Denver. The first practical electrical amplifiers, devised at AT&T in 1913 made transcontinental telephony possible.

After Bell’s patents expired in 1893, independent telephone companies spread across the county. The Wisconsin Telephone Company and its parent Bell fiercely competed with the smaller companies, who fought among themselves as well. Smaller companies built phones and installed systems in different parts of the companies. A growing pain during this time was the fact that subscribers to the service of one particular company could not talk to those of another, unless they wanted another line with that other company. Independent subscribers could not make long-distance calls from their telephones, as Bell owned all the toll lines. Bell offices could provide this service, albeit for an additional charge. Eventually, many of the smaller companies sold out to the Wisconsin Telephone Company, which soon dominated in the larger towns and cities. Smaller companies would continue to provide service to rural areas and small towns. By 1900 there were nearly 600,000 phones in Bell’s telephone system. Five years later, that number multiplied, reaching 2.2 million phones. By 1910, there were nearly 5.8 million phones active in Bell’s telephone system. In 1915, the transcontinental telephone line began operating.

By the end of 1907, AT&T had control on phone and telegraph service, thanks to its lucrative purchase of Western Union. Its president, Theodore Vail, urged at the time that a monopoly could most efficiently operate the nation’s far-flung communications network. At the urging of the public and AT&T competitors, the government began to investigate the company for anti-trust violations, thus forcing the 1913 Kingsbury Commitment, an agreement between AT&T vice president Nathan Kingsbury and the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Under this commitment, AT&T agreed to divest itself of Western Union and provide long-distance services to independent phone exchanges. During World War I, the government nationalized telephone and telegraph lines in the United States from June 1918 to July 1919, when, after a joint resolution of Congress, President Wilson issued an order putting them under the direction of the U.S. Post Office. A year later, the systems were returned to private ownership, AT&T resumed its monopolistic hold, and by 1934 the government again acted, this time agreeing to allow it to operate as a “regulated monopoly” under the jurisdiction of the FCC.

Throughout the years, telephones had become a staple in American life, with as many as 30 million being used in homes in the United States in 1948. Call volume was measured to have augmented during the 1940s, citing a dramatic increase after the Pearl Harbor attack in December of 1941. Though Bell had originally designed the telephone’s only function to serve voice communications, technology has developed over time, producing newer capabilities for people to communicate. Debuting in the 1970s, pay telephone booths (which could arguably be considered the first of mobile phones) began appearing in parts of the United States and Canada.

In the 1980s when the first mobile phones were introduced, some weighed up to 10 pounds and were priced expensively until the slimmed down versions debuted into the market. Motorola introduced the 16-ounce “DynaTAC” phone into commercial service in 1983, with each phone costing the consumer $3,500. It took seven additional years before there were a million subscribers in the United States.Up until the release of the first truly portable phone in 1989, most cellular phones were installed as car phones due to the inability to fit them into a jacket pocket.

As technology continues to change and take its users into different directions, the telephone has remained an indispensable tool in the United States and around the world. By transforming communication technology, interpersonal communications have been expanded at a level that Alexander Graham Bell probably wouldn’t have imagined.

Song Review: “Wildest Dreams” by Brandy

After the success of the first single “Put It Down” featuring Chris Brown and it’s accompanying video which premiered last week, Brandy unveiled her anticipated second single, “Wildest Dreams”. Helmed by production duo Tha Bizness and written by Sean Garrett, the track is a mid-tempo 90’s throwback finds Brandy wide-eyed and blissed out after finding a new love that is seemingly too good to be true.  “Never in my wildest dreams / did I think someone could care about me / not just the way you love me / you know I’m emotional (sometimes)…”. Her signature runs and walls of vocals weave themselves warmly around a thick bass line and lush keyboards.

The single will be released to iTunes and other digital retailers on August 28th, while her sixth studio album “Two Eleven” is scheduled for release on October 16th, 2012. The album is set to include production from Danja, Noah “40” Shebib, Bangladesh and Mario Winans, among others.

Justify My Love: Music Videos and the Construction of Sexuality

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