This week, I dive into the recent Amy Winehouse documentary, Muse's new album Drones, and The Roots' 2010 masterpiece How I Got Over.
- Lyrics for LCD Soundsystem's 'Losing My Edge' can be found on Genius.com here (Genius is a lyric annotation site, and really helps explain the many artist references in the song)
- Trailers of the 2015 documentary 'Amy' can be found on Youtube here and here.
- Muse's 2015 album Drones can be downloaded from iTunes here.
- The Roots' 2010 album How I Got Over can be downloaded from iTunes here.
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Hi there everyone, and welcome to another edition of Musicology With The Eagle and I'm your host, The Eagle. Hope you've all had a great week and I definitely have myself, seeing the feedback and response to the first episode of this podcast. I just want to thank you for your comments and your support. It really means a lot to me and it’s giving me the motivation to continue doing this on a weekly basis and I think once we've established a regular schedule, we can start playing around with the format and trying some new ideas.
But before we get into this week's episode I want to highlight an issue that is worth mentioning amongst music fans, and it’s that of musical elitism and snobbery. This week I listened to a song by LCD Soundsystem called ‘Losing My Edge’. Now the song pokes fun at two types of music fans that are just insufferable: it's the old-timer snob, who's been around the block and seen everything. And then there's the up and coming precocious know-it-all. Both are not spared from lead singer James Murphy’s biting lyrics.
As a record producer and DJ, he aligned himself with the old-timer camp, with lines such as “I was at the first Can show in Cologne” or “I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988/We all know I was there/I have never been wrong”. And as the song title suggests “I'm losing my edge to the internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978”.
But he’s not done yet. After he's finished boasting and trying to reassert his credentials, he tackles the modern scenester, with lines such as “I heard that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables/ I heard that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars”, and ends with “You don't know what you really want”.
It’s clearly pointing to two dangerous mentalities as a music fan. And look, it's obviously impossible to be able to attend every amazing gig or festival or concert over the years, particularly due to age or location. I mean, some artists were in their prime when I was a child or before I was born; there’s not much one can do about that. Also, people nowadays don't have enough time or resources to be able to collect stuff and treat every aspect of their life as an obsession. That's asking a bit much.
No matter how cool we want seems music fans, a lot of us would give credit to chance introductions and recommendations from friends, which lead us to becoming fans of a particular artist. That's why I think we should take our cues from the scientific community, and be humble and accepting of what we know and what we don’t know. Which can really be summed up in a quote that I came up with: “Even though you can know so much, you can still know so little”.
So, bringing us to our first bit of music news this week. We have the new Amy Winehouse documentary that came out this past weekend. It premiered at the famous Cannes festival in May but was only made widely available recently. The director, Asif Kapadia, who has also directed another film about a fallen icon ‘Senna’ - as in the Formula One racer Ayrton Senna – offers a humanising insight into Amy as the artist and Amy as the addict and tabloid victim she fell prey to.
The film apparently offers a lot of home video and private footage, and puts Amy’s story front and centre, with no ‘talking heads’ (although people still talk over the top of footage; she's always in every scene). Now the film has not been without controversy. It's been denounced by her father Mitch Winehouse because he condemns the narrative and that it paints him as the villain. And it's difficult not to agree with the film when you actually do a little bit of research into the effect that he and her management had on her.
Her most infamous song ‘Rehab’ alludes to this issue with lines such as “They tried to make me rehab/And I said ‘no, no, no’/And if I ain’t got the time/And my daddy thinks I’m fine”….then it’s supposedly not okay to go to rehab. It points to a woman that was just manipulated by a lot of relationships in her life. In addition to her father, she had her husband Blake Fielder-Civil - who is said to have got her into the use of heroin - and her management – who whilst she was lying in bed after an overdose actually spoke of putting her back out on the road to tour, saying that various other musicians have been able to function on heroin.
It just paints a very bleak downward spiral of abuse and control, and she is not the first female musicians to have these sexist double-standards put upon her, where looks are punchlines for news, and her daily exploits are front page news. There's been other female artists that have succumb to struggles with fame, such as Whitney Houston, Janice Joplin, and Billie Holliday - whose story parallels Amy’s quite closely, since she was an incredibly-talented jazz singer and also struggled with heroin and alcohol.
In comparison, there was another documentary that came out recently about another troubled star Kurt Cobain, and the documentary was called ‘Montage Of Heck’. And in that same film, he also struggled with fame and drugs but his struggles were mostly private and there were never many front-page photos of him at the worst of his addictions, even though the public did know that he was a junkie. Perhaps you could say “Well, at that time of the Nineties there wasn't smart phones and people walking around that could just take photos of anything that easily” but this issue is endemic to the music industry, and male artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon, or Jim Morrison - who died under suspicious or drug-related circumstances - get a free pass and obituaries written about them have glowing achievements put up front with a brief mention of their addiction. However, women have to fight to get their achievements given credit, and we as the public are often also to blame for feeding on the scandal that gets created with artists such as Amy.
I'm the first to admit that I didn't pay much attention to her music in her final years in the spotlight. And only a week before her death did I decide to listen to Back To Black - her break-out second album - and I really found her music to be really incredible, and the lyrics particularly spoke to me. On the weekend of her death in July 2011, I was actually planning to listen to her debut album for the first time – because I thought if her second album was so great, let’s look back and see what she’s done. I remember going out for the day and getting a call from my mother in the evening saying “Did you see the news, Amy Winehouse has died”. And I just thought: I had failed this precociously-talented musician, because I chose to judge her on the media's portrayal of her, instead of focusing on just the music. And now it’s too late because tomorrow, I'm going to be listening to a dead person’s album. That’s just how I saw it: I didn't know what I had until it was gone.
But since that fateful day, I have come to adore Amy the artist, and fortunately the film touches on a lot of that aspect of her career - starting right from home video footage of her at fourteen years old singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for a friend, right up to recording sessions that she had with Mark Ronson for the Back To Black album, where she delivers an amazing take of the title song ‘Back To Black’ and gives us this haunting rendition of it which probably was included in the final version of the song, and then at the end of it she turns to Mark Ronson and says “Aww it’s a bit upsetting there at the end” and gives a little laugh.
Aside from her mesmerising vocals, she played guitar and she wrote almost all of her own songs, infusing them with devastatingly personal lyrics - no editing for content – and that’s seen on our first album, which was called Frank. Now you could see it two ways: she named it Frank because of her passion for Frank Sinatra, or the sexy, confident, frankness of the lyrics. Although she sang like a jazz diva, she carried herself like a punk rocker and infused a lot of her work with hip hop, Motown sounds – especially on her second album - and cared deeply about the music that she was creating and the people that she was working with. One example of this was one of her final songs that we recorded was a duet with the famous jazz singer Tony Bennett on a duets album of his. She was visibly nervous and in awe of being in the same room as him, let alone recording with him. So with all this in mind, I recommend checking out the documentary ‘Amy’ to decide for yourself what you think the real story of Amy Winehouse was about, and what it continues to be.
Moving on to our next segment, we focus on a new release from alternative rock band Muse; their new album called Drones. Now this album was released in June, but for the sake of programming I consider it a new release.
The album has been made to be quite a back-to-basics exercise. For their last two albums – The Resistance and The Second Law – Muse have really focused heavily on themes of revolution, global conspiracies, and shrinking natural resources. Musically those albums experimented with electronic dance music (or EDM) and had a lot of orchestral parts and multi-suite symphonies. But now the band - in their own way - want to return to the sound that made them, such as 2001’s Origin Of Symmetry, and the producer that they've brought to the party is Robert Mutt Lange.
Rock fans from the Eighties: you'll maybe know him as the arena rock producer; this guy has done is AC/DC’s Highway To Hell and Back In Black album’s, and he did Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Hysteria - as mentioned in last week's episode. He also did The Cars’ Heartbeat City album, and then in the Nineties, he met Shania Twain - they actually married – and the country-pop star had huge crossover success with her album Come On Over, which he produced. Since then he's lent his services to Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Nickelback, and Maroon 5. Yeah, not exactly the same category I think as AC/DC.
But either way, his signature style is really layered vocals, big guitars, big drums, a very polished sound packed to the gills with noise, and is particularly good with a glam-rock style of music. And Muse are known for that; they’re the modern-day Queen, really, with grand gestures that they make in their music and very operatic in their style. Mutt Lange has sort of brought it all together in this album.
Some of the highlights I think are the song ‘Reapers’, which has guitar tapping very much like Eddie Van Halen or Ingwie Malmsteen, and it blends the personal and political in quite an interesting way. That's what the album concept that they've chosen is of the dehumanisation of modern warfare. In some ways it could affect our personal relationships and some of the songs touch on that. Album-opener ‘Dead Inside’ makes it in quite a ham-handed fashion that the person is “dead inside” – or their lover is - and perhaps this content could've been informed by lead singer Matt Bellamy’s relationship with actress Kate Hudson. Who knows.
There are also a few interludes and spoken passages dotted through the album, the first one being ‘Drill Sergeant’, recalling the film ‘Full Metal Jacket’ where the sergeant is shouting at the protagonist that they’re a ‘psycho’, that ‘your ass belongs to me now’. It segues into the song ‘Psycho’, which musically is very lumbering and loud; relatively simple for Muse standards, but it's good to hear them to just doing guitars, drums, and bass and Matt Bellamy’ operatic shriek on top of it.
The other interlude actually uses a sample of a speech given by John F. Kennedy, the US president, and it talks about shadowy Cold War tactics. Other than that, the plot line gets a little confusing and isn’t abundantly clear what's going on, but it's really just a front for Muse to tread between the sublime and the ridiculous, recalling aspects of their previous music. Like in the song ‘Mercy’, I heard a looping piano part in the beginning that is very much like the song ‘Hysteria’.
Even though it's back to basics, they still can't help have a ten-minute multi-part prog-rock epic such as ‘The Globalist’. The final song on the album is actually based on a sixteenth-century choral piece called ‘Sanctus Et Bendictus’. Yeah I know - weird right? And as the listener, we're treated to a choir of Matt Bellamy’s, all overdubbed, singing ‘My mother, my father, my sister, my brother, my son, my daughter/All killed by drones”. If the point wasn’t made clear enough: drones and remote-controlled warfare is bad, people – but enjoy the music at the same time. Yeah, so those are some of my first thoughts on consuming the album a few times. I still think that there’s a few missed opportunities that they could've done a bit better. But for now, we have a new Muse album out. So strap in and enjoy this brawny, brash, Orwellian breakup-album of sorts. It’s still a lot of fun.
For this week's retrospective, I decided to have a look at one of my favourite hip hop groups, The Roots. What’s interesting about them is that they're a hip hop band. There’s not many of them around; off the top of my head I could probably think of another one: Gym Class Heroes? But what that means musically is that there is a lot of variety to this sound, and for the last few years, they've proven to be one of the most versatile bands around, being the backing band for Jimmy Fallon's Late Night TV show.
But an interesting exercise for me is always been to find the most appealing record of theirs; which one would I recommend to a friend or someone who doesn't like hip hop, or only likes hip hop for the lyrics. With The Roots, you gotta sort of look at a few factors that make up a Roots album. There’s gotta be musical experimentations, like their Phrenology album, which has a ten-minute multi-part epic where there’s a whole jazz breakdown; that can break up the sound a bit. There’s also random interludes sometimes, there’s changes in production – like their Tipping Point album was a very radio-friendly sound.
And for their last three albums, they've tried to tackle the concept-album idea. This has marked a move towards more introspective, sombre records, and the best example of this is 2010’s How I Got Over. It's the perfect blend of all Roots albums, I think. Its musical approach tackles blues, soul, gospel, even a bit of funk. And to add to that, they've included a little bit of indie rock by having Monsters Of Folk – a indie rock supergroup - form the hook for the song ‘Dear God 2.0’. It’s the latest in a long line of great feature artists that appear on their albums. They always have collaborations; if you check the liner notes, each song always has a lot of people on it. For rappers, you have Dice Raw, Truck North- for this album they have John Legend singing part of one of his own songs ‘Once Again; on the song titled ‘Doing It Again’.
For a concept album, it really has a great mood progression. For the first few songs on the album, you get a sense of despair, loneliness, and disillusionment with the world. It’s the sort-of middle-class anxiety that isn't often dealt with on hip hop albums. The Roots are about twenty years in their career and it's great to see them not afraid to show humility and frustration with the circumstances that they face. The middle part of the album follows a more transitionary feel, where the songs like ‘Now Or Never’ or ‘How I Got Over’- they really even in the names themselves, you can see that the protagonist or the people involved in the songs are moving towards a feeling of positivity, confidence and expectance of the future - which are found in my favourite songs on the album, ‘Doing It Again’ and ‘The Fire’.
What holds this all together will always come down - for me – to Black Thought, the main rapper for The Roots. He just manages to condense reality into deftly-delivered lines. Some of his verses on this album are some of his greatest that he’s had in his career, such as on ‘The Day’, ‘Right On’ and ‘Dear God 2.0’. When I first heard this album, that was the song that really stood out for me. It's quite spiritual; he has a conversation with God, saying how he's coping with his status as a member of The Roots, where they were really busy taking over the house-band position for the Jimmy Fallon show. On Genius.com, which is a lyric website where people can annotate lyrics of songs, he actually admitted one the lines of the song saying that they would finish recording at 6PM for the show, and then it was straight to the studio to work on the album. It was a trying time for the band.
But even then, they had the perspective to see that they’re actually in a very good position and it's a blessing to be able to be so busy with your work and have so many different things to be doing. And that's really shown on my favourite verses on the album by Phonte, guest rapper on the song ‘The Day’, where he says “But now it's like I'm the last lap of the car chase/And I finally understand my right to choose/My preacher mam told me it could always be worse/Even the three-legged dog still got three good legs to lose”.
And what I take from that verse and the album in general is that each of us have our issues in life, whether we’re a homeless person in the streets or a Grammy-winning hip hop group. But it’s just how you approach these problems and how you get over these issues that you're going to have. That’s the true meaning of success.
Well that’s episode two done and dusted. I’d like to thank you for tuning into our show. If you’d like to subscribe, we are now on iTunes. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See you next time.