DVD Review: From the Sky Down (U2)


I still remember the first moment I put U2’s Achtung Baby CD on. I was in the midst of a deteriorating relationship and I needed escape. I popped the disc in, sat on the ground, put on some headphones, and leaned against the wall. The music was like the soundtrack I had been hearing in my head but could not express. It affected me deeply, through the lyrics, the sonic walls of sound and the passion that seemed to be underlying another story of a relationship about to break apart. Mine did, eventually, and Achtung Baby helped me cope. That’s what music can do, I think.

I was remembering that first time as I watched David Guggenheim’s documentary of the making of the album. From the Sky Down captures the moment when U2 was on the verge of either collapse (from the weight of The Joshua Tree‘s success and the disillusionment of Rattle & Hum) or something great. It seemed for much of the recording sessions that the band would not pull itself up.

What changed the entire recording was the emergence of the song, One. It’s interesting because the chords for that song — which anchored Achtung Baby and pushed the band in a new direction — was actually the bridge for an original version of Mysterious Ways (then called Sick Puppy). There’s this interesting moment in the film where Bono and Edge are listening to an early tape of Mysterious Ways and then, that bridge comes into play. They both go silent and you can see it in their eyes — that was the first moments of One being caught.

In the studio, the band “heard something” and quickly pulled those chord changes from Mysterious Ways and began to build an entirely new song out of it. Bono has no words, only melody, so he scats phrases and words over the chords. The producer — Brian Eno — encourages the band to move beyond expectations, adding in the changes at the end of the song that are key to it all — shifting the melody every so slightly. The words come. The song falls in place in a relatively short amount of time, and suddenly, the band — after being on the brink of falling apart — is together again. The music is magic. It’s pretty fascinating to watch.

And best of all, the rest of the album begins to finally emerge and the band remains together.

As a fan, I devoured the documentary. (I admit to loving the behind-the-scenes work of musicians, particularly as songs come together). As a writer, the film reminded me of the difficult journey many artists have when confronted with a blank canvas, and high expectations, and the need to create something meaningful. What U2 didn’t want to do was repeat The Joshua Tree. How they created Achtung Baby was through the development of ideas, from the ground up (or as the title suggests, from the sky down). It’s a great message for anyone trying to create something out of nothing but ideas.

Peace (in the songs),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Ridin’ with the ‘Wrecking Ball’

My youngest son spent the weekend with my father, who lives about 90 minutes away. He regularly takes one of the three boys for an overnight visit, coming to get them from our house and then I go pick them up. Before I jumped in the car, I downloaded the new Bruce Springsteen album to my iPod. I figured this was the perfect time to give it a listen, in its entirety.

I hit the highway and hit the volume, and soon, I was cruising south down Interstate 91.

I’m a fan of Springsteen, although not one of those rabid ones who thinks he some sort of rock god. I often have mixed emotions on his albums. Most have one or two great tracks stuffed in with some fluff tracks. The one album of later Bruce that I hold in high regard is The Rising, which he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11 and still chokes me up sometimes when I hear some of the tracks. His ability there to bring the listener into the lives of characters experiencing profound loss and sadness … and hope, even, is something often missing in modern songwriters.

Sprinsteen’s latest album, Wrecking Ball, is another mixed affair. With Bruce returning to his tried and true themes of economic disparity and political corruption and the state of the American Dream (and using more studio work to layer his sound, echoing the Born to Run days), the album skewers the fat cats on Wall Street and mourns the loss of opportunity for the blue collar folks in our country. There’s a real Celtic edge to this album, too, which no doubt reflects some of the work he has done in recent years around the songs of Pete Seeger and that live disc recorded over in Ireland.

And Woody Guthrie’s words and voice seeps through the album, too. As does the saxophone of the late Clarence Clemons, whose sax part was engineered into the song,  Land of Hope and Dreams, after he had passed away from complications from his stroke. (Bruce gives an emotional interview about Clemons in the most recent Rolling Stone magazine, too. It’s touching the relationship and friendship that Bruce and Clarence had developed over the decades together.)

I didn’t skip any of the songs on the first listen, but on round two, I found myself centering on just four or five songs. While the song We Take Care of our Own is getting the spotlight because its a message that the song hammers into your head, I think the title track — Wrecking Ball — is the much better song. There’s a moment in the song where the band pulls back, and Bruce’s words come to the forefront. It’s a reminder of the power of a few lines, and the poetry of songwriting.

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the down the clock
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered to the wind
And hard times come, hard times go ….
Yeah, just to come again

By the time I got to my father’s house, I was immersed in Springsteen’s music and words. Sometimes being alone with music is the best way to spend your time alone.

Peace (with Bruce),
Kevin

 

Writing a Rap Song: The Class of 2017 is in the House

I wrote last week of wanting to try out the writing of a collaborative rap song with my sixth graders. Now, listen, they are 12 and live in suburbia. They don’t have hiphop in their blood. But they listen to rap, and they love music, and it was an interesting experience to walk them through the writing of a song. Most years, I bring in all of rock and roll gear — electric guitar, drum machine, amplifiers, microphones, the works. But, heck, times change. I went with rap this year. And using Garageband, there was a whole lot less gear to carry (my back thanks me).

Here’s what we did:

  • I wrote and recorded the first verse, which celebrates my sixth graders as the class of 2017 — the year they will graduate high school.
  • We listened to the introduction and then reviewed our work around couplets, rhythmic beats and flow from poetry.
  • I gave them a simple handout sheet with my verse written out and some blank lines. Their job was to write at least one couplet that continued the theme and kept the model of the introduction.
  • As a class, we wrote the rap, with students volunteering their lines in a Google Doc and then, again as a class, we worked on the editing of the lines. (Ideally, we would have had more time for this).
  • Volunteers came up to the front of the room, where I had my nifty Snowball microphone set up, and they “sang” the rap for the class. This often took a couple of tries and honestly, another day of recording would have been better. But it is the end of the year and time is our enemy.
  • I then took all four raps from my four classes and spliced them together into one rap song, which I noticed this morning has been downloaded almost 50 times from our class site by my student. And BONUS: a few students apparently took the song and used it as a soundtrack for some video project they are going to give to me. Not sure what to expect …

Why the Collaborative Rap Song Writing Worked:

  • We used elements from our poetry unit
  • They have a high interest in music — particularly rap and hiphop
  • They wrote for a purpose
  • They wrote as a class in a collaborative environment
  • Music became part of our writing experience
  • Some students could take center stage as performers
  • We published to the world

I know you must be dying to hear what they came up with. Right? Here you go:

Introducing: The Class of 2017

Or you can listen here.

Peace (in the hip, in the hop, in the hippity hop),
Kevin

Scenes from a Benefit Concert

I had some time yesterday to make a compilation montage video from our Benefit Concert which I am sharing at our class website and with our school community, and here. The kids who were on stage had some great talents.

Peace (in the rock and the roll),
Kevin

Playing Saxophone in the New Band

We don’t quite have a name yet, since this formation of the band is really that new (the bass player just joined us two weeks ago), but this is a short video montage of us playing the Benefit Concert at our school earlier this week. It’s a rough cut for now.
That’s me on the saxophone, stage right.

Peace (in the music),
Kevin

Sharing the Musical Stage with Students

rock concert in gazette
(a blurb in the local newspaper earlier this week)
Last night, we held our benefit rock concert to support the American Red Cross in the wake of tornadoes here in Western Massachusetts and in the South. It was extremely hot on the stage — the heat outside was in the 90s — and I wasn’t sure what the audience would look like. But it was OK — there were about 60 people or so, I think.

We raised more than $500 for the Red Cross, which is better than I expected and indicates a high level of generosity by the audience.

On stage, we had a mix of teacher and student acts, and I was so happy to be able to watch my current and former students shine in the spotlights on the stage as musicians and performers. I was up there, too, playing with my new configuration of our band, but it was watching my students that really made the night.

There were about a dozen student performers who performed everything from the Beatles to Kanye West to Lady Gaga to Green Day. It reminded me of my time in high school, when a band I was in took part in a talent show of bands, and although we were not all that great, I still remember that magical feeling of taking the stage and looking out, and playing before people.

Sure, our event (which was organized and run by a student of mine, with a little help) was designed to raise awareness and money for families hurt hard by the weather, but it was also a chance to turn the night over to the students, some of whom don’t shine in the classroom but do shine on the stage.

Peace (in the songs),
Kevin

PS — I do have a video of the night and will work on a montage one of these days.

From Japan to Joplin to Just Down the Road

For a few months, a student and I have been working to organize a live music benefit concert at our school featuring staff and student acts. We were motivated first by events in Japan, and then by the devastation in the areas around Joplin, and now local events have overtaken us as a tornado hit hard right down the road from us here in Western Massachusetts, causing significant damage to homes and businesses and families. As a result, our focus is now to gather donations to support the American Red Cross in its efforts to help local families.

The concert is this Wednesday night at our school.

I am playing music with a lot of people that night, and I just realized that I have quite a few songs to learn, along with the songs I am doing with my new R&B band, where I am playing mostly saxophone on songs like Midnight Hour, Do You Love Me, and Johnny B. Goode. But with other groups of teachers and students, I am bouncing around on guitar and bass. I am doing one original song — Innocent Boy, written for my sons when they were just little dudes.

Here are some of the videos I am trying to burn into my brain for this Wednesday night:




Peace (in the reaching out),
Kevin

Where Music is (maybe) Going

Bud Hunt shared this on Twitter and I am trying to  think about the possibilities here. In a nutshell: a band out of Washington DC is putting out new music as an album, but the album is not vinyl, disc or even an iTunes music download. It’s a location-aware App that works only in the vicinity of the Mall on DC. As you wander the Mall, the music changes based on where the piece was composed.

From the news article:

Washington, D.C.-based band Bluebrain’s new album drops Friday, but not in the way one might think. It will be available on iTunes, but not in MP3 form — rather as a location-aware app that only works within the stretch of park in downtown D.C. called the Mall … The disc will not be available for standard download as a musical piece, since it will only work when one is standing in the Mall … The music constantly changes as you wander around the park, Holladay tells us. Ascending the hill toward the Washington Monument, you’ll hear only a cello, then, gradually, violins, a choir, clapping, fireworks and drumbeats will come into the mix as you get closer to the obelisk. — from Mashable

It’s pretty fascinating how indie artists are always pushing boundaries and I love that music is one of those things that can become the cornerstone of re-imagining art. This particular idea not completely revolutionary — museums have been handing out mobile devices for some time, right? You wander with the device and learn about the art.

But here, the listener makes the path, and the music is shaped by the path you take. What you hear is what the composer and musician saw when they were in the act of creating the music. I love that connection. I know nothing about the band, and given that I live nowhere near the Mall, I may never listen to this album.

But it fascinated me just the same.

Peace (in the location),
Kevin

The National Mall by BLUEBRAIN. The First Location-Aware Album from BLUEBRAIN on Vimeo.

Autotune Saturation Point

I just finished Jay-Z’s Decoded the other day. Although I can’t say that I sit around and listen to Jay-Z, I certainly have heard some of his work and certainly know of him. The book itself is pretty cool, as he works through the thinking behind lyrics and offers up some background on his days growing up in the projects of New York City.

Towards the end of the book, he starts to make a stand on the importance of hip-hip music as it stands now, with a somewhat negative outlook on its very commercialized bent (while celebrating hip-hop’s ability to take over the music world, which it surely has). Jay-Z takes particular aim at Aut0-Tune, which has filtered into just about every song that I hear on the pop stations that my sons listen to in our car. Seriously, I hear it everywhere, and I point it out to my sons, too. (Auto-tune is a computer effect that takes a voice and situates the pitch of the voice perfectly. It also can alter the timbre and tone of the voice. That’s that slight robotic effect you hear.)

Jay-Z sees the Auto-tune effect as having a potentially devastating impact on hip-hop music. While he acknowledges that some artists (Kanye West) have used Auto-tune to their advantage as a medium of musical expression,  the problem is that it is now overused to cover up blemishes — slightly out-of-tune voices.  This glossing over rips something special from music, he insists, and he notes that an Auto-tuned track “…gives you a sudden sugar high and then disappears without a trace.”

This quote says it all: “Instead of aspiring to explore their humanity — their brains and hearts and guts — these rappers were aspiring to sound like machines.”

And Jay-Z notes that it reminds him of something similar — the Hair Bands that took an idea and a sound, and pounded its audience into submission, to the point where it took Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and a slew of others, to come along and dethrone the Hair Bands (Poison, Motley Crue, etc.).

Jay-Z notes: “Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..”

Which makes me wonder what style of music or what kind of bands/artists are waiting in the wings, with Auto-Tune clearly in their sights, ready to take it down ….. I’m sure they are already there.

Here are some more quotes from Jay-Z that I was sharing on Twitter as I was reading. I was looking mostly for his thoughts on writing and making music.

“That gave me freedom to be myself, which is the secret to any long-term success, but that’s hard to see when you’re young …” (p95)

“I’m a music head, so I listen to everything.” (p128)

“….I also make choices in technique and style to make sure that it can touch as many people as possible without it losing its basic integrity.” (p129)

“Knowing how to complicate a simple song without losing its basic appeal is one of the keys to good songwriting.” (p130) #JayZsez

“…whoever said that artists shouldn’t pay attention to their business was probably someone with their hand in some artist’s pocket.” (p131)

“There’s unquestionably magic involved in great music, songwriting and performances …. but there’s also work.” (p141)

“So I created little corners in my head where I stored rhymes …. it’s the only way I know.” (p144)

“Hip-hop, of course, was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens …” (p156)

“The entire world was plugged into the stories that came out of the specific struggles and creative explosion of our generation.” (p159)

“It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, that popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life.” (p163)

Playing at the rock concern “…was one of those moments that taught me that there really is no limit to what hip-hop could do, no place that was closed to its power.” (p163)

“Hip-hop gave a generation a common ground that didn’t require either race to lose anything; everyone gained.” (p180)
“I’ve never been a purely linear thinker … my mind is always jumping around, restless, making connections, mixing and matching ideas, rather than marching in a straight line.” (p180)

“My life has been more poetry than prose, more about unpredictable leaps and links than simple steady movement …” (p191)

“Great rappers … distinguish themselves by looking closely at the world around them and describing it in a clever, artful way.” (p203)

“Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people … miss.” (p205)
“… hip-hop lyrics — not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough.” (p235)

“Rap is built to handle contradictions.” (p239)

“Hip-hop has created a space where all kinds of music could meet, without contradiction.” (p240)

“… when I started writing about my life … the rhymes helped me twist some sense out of those stories.” (p245)

“Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..” (p251)

“I remember the music making me feel good, bringing my family together …” (p254)

“I think for hip-hop to grow to its potential … we have to keep pushing deeper … and (do it) with real honesty.” (p279)

“My songs are my stories but they take on their own life in the minds of people listening.” (p297)

Peace (in my blemished voice),
Kevin