Tag Archives: Yoko Ono

We All Shine On

Music Review: “Breathe Air” by the Plastic Yellow Band

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Plastic Yellow Band

The name Plastic Yellow Band (PYB) practically screams “Beatles.” By the time one has listened to the first third of the album, Breathe Air, any remaining doubt is resolved. PYB’s founder, Gerry Jennings, admits to modeling the band after John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band.

Gerald-Jennings-4

The first song, “Lonely Place,” sounds a bit like Paul McCartney on piano while also being reminiscent of a late ’70s/early ’80s arena rock band’s power ballad. The second cut “She’s My Woman,” resembles a Beatles song with a Southern Fried rock twist. “Nowhere” features a sitar and George Harrison sound. “Nervous Stuff,” the fourth track, possesses the spirit of the Beatles’s “Helter Skelter”; it just so happens that the repeated lyrics might sound a bit familiar: “All you need is love.”

The album shifts gears a bit on “I Want to Feel Your Love” with Dana Rideout on lead vocals. “Love” has the countrified flavor of an Emilylou Harris song from the early ’70s.

“She Let It Down” is simply filler, while “Oil Kings” initiates the political overtones that are found throughout the rest of the album. Interestingly, “Oil Kings” sounds similar to “Nervous Stuff.” “Alone (It’s Hard)” is a mid-’80s-style pop song that I didn’t care for much. It’s notable that the lead vocal mimics the Lennon/McCartney sound to an almost greater-than-acceptable (or necessary) level.

The ninth track, “Climate Change,” clocks in at 4:45 and seems to be the band’s attempt to fashion a traditional popular single. The song has some of the dreariness, harmonies and production found on early Pink Floyd albums. And the lyrics are interesting: “Thirty years from now I’ll be just a memory/And you’ll still be around, not sure what your temperature will be.”

The Pink Floyd theme continues and deepens as Breathe Air closes with a trilogy of instrumental tracks – “Sunlight I,” “Sunlight II,” and “Sunlight III.” “Sunlight II” includes the line, “Say hello to sunlight and breathe air.” I was reminded of both Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here while listening to these closing numbers. Unfortunately, the trilogy – while creative and perhaps a bit pretentious, if not bland – threatens to lose the listener’s interest.

All in all, Breathe Air is a decently strong first effort. It runs a full 57 minutes, which makes up for the weak closing tracks. I’m hopeful that on PYB’s next release, the music will display a bit more punch, with leader Gerry Jennings more up-front, and fewer references to Jennings’s musical influences. (Imitation is not always flattery or tribute. Sometimes it’s just imitation.)

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was downloaded from the band’s website: http://plasticyellowband.com/

Dave Moyer is a public school administrator, a drummer, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Strong As You

Music Review: James McCartney – Me

Me James McCartneyMe

It’s not often that a musician releases his first full album at the age of 35, but that’s the case with James McCartney. James is not related to the pop rocker Jesse McCartney, but his father once wrote a catchy tune called “When I’m Sixty-Four.” It’s said that the senior McCartney also wrote a few other songs that have been played on the radio.

Me is an album about a person facing adversity in his life. He’s not sure about his love life, his career, his familial relationships, but he tries to display a stiff upper lip: “We’re on our own and we’ve got to go on….”; “I am strong enough to make it through / I am strong enough as strong as you….”; “You think I’m going to lose / But I will win in the end….” Still, he has his doubts, “…we’ve got to go but we can’t go on forever.”

Here’s a look at the lyrics and songs on McCartney’s Me:

“Strong As You” – “It’s hard for me to say how happy I am / Happy man….” On this single from the album, James sounds like Julian Lennon and the lead guitar part that he plays will remind some of George Harrison. Badfinger also comes to mind.

“Butterfly” – “Little bird you don’t quite understand / Everything is lying in the sand….” Here James sounds more like John Lennon, especially in the phrasing, than Julian. It’s a song that might have fit on the Imagine album and there’s a trace of Dave Mason’s “Sad and Deep As You” in the melody.

“You And Me Individually” – “You and me are different / You and me were different individually….” It’s acoustic guitar opening is reminiscent of “Blackbird” from The Beatles White Album and reflects the fact that James and his father reacted in different ways to the death of Linda McCartney. The lighter than air quality of the song shows that James may have listened to Harry Nilsson’s sui generis compositions.

“Snap Out of It” – “You know that I’m not here / The candle’s burning at both ends… And I know that I can make it / And I think that I can take it / I’m not going to fake it anymore….” This is a song that’s very much in the style of George Harrison, who often mixed fear and self-doubt with grit in his compositions.

“Bluebell” – “Something pulls me close to you / Like a moth to a flame like a music box / Unwinding rewinding / I’m on my own / I’ve got to go on but I can’t go on forever….” This melodic piece sounds like a cross between two of John Lennon’s songs, “Across the Universe” and “Beautiful Boy.” It’s nicely done although the slow pace of the music to this point begins to feel plodding. A change is on its way.

“Life’s A Pill” – “…now I’m bleeding still / I know the pain will leave / When troubles disappear… Life’s a pill give it to me now.” Now the rocking begins. “Pill” sounds like a merger of “Things We Said Today,” “Running On Empty,” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and it’s just a warm-up for the next track.

“Home” – “I kind of heard it on the radio / Oh my god what am I to do….” James and his musicians kick out the jams on a song that’s a melding of Wings’ “Helen Wheels,” “Magneto and Titanium Man,” and Styx’s “Mr. Roboto.” The drummer kicks, punches and violently pounds on the drum kit until it’s destroyed. Yes, some serious behind is kicked!

“Thinking About Rock & Roll” – “Walking around Disneyland / It’s so pretty me and Mickey the Mouse / And he turns and says / It’s so fine and it’s going to be mine / Life’s so fine and it’s already mine.” This is the “Silly Love Songs”-style track on the album. It’s a song about celebrating life and living and appreciating what one already has (rather than what one wants and desires). A bit silly, but fun.

“Wisteria” – “Baby if you know what love is for / Let me know what it means to you….” This one’s like a track from Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album. It’s pure energy. Wisteria is apparently a woman’s name, although it might refer to Wisteria Lane.

“Mexico” – “Moving down to Mexico where the women treat you right / Moving down to Mexico where no one gives a shite….” A celebration of the joys of living in Mexico; it’s no threat to James Taylor’s song of the same name and theme.

“Snow” – “Nighttime falls on Manhattan city / New York like white snow / I’m on the fence for you / I’m in the zone glancing at you / Dancing with you for the very first time / Dance for the first time….” James channels John Lennon in a stunningly beautiful piano-based composition about love and winter in New York City. It’s like a lost love song written for Yoko Ono.

“Virginia” – “…my baby’s gone and left me… She left me at the station / And I don’t give a toss….” This is a non-essential bonus track that displays the McCartneys’ wry sense of humor. It would have fit well on the Wings Wild Life album.

Me is definitely a good album, but the question is where does James McCartney go from here? He is so clearly fascinated with the Lennon sound that it might make sense for him to join with 50-year-old Julian Lennon to jointly write and record a collection of songs together.

What would they call such an album? That’s easy, Lennon & McCartney.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review CD was provided by ECR Music Group.

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-james-mccartney-me/

This review was also used by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Music-Review-James-McCartney-Me-4637098.php

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Days Like These

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (Gallery Books/VH1 Books; $26.99; 262 pages)

starting over book

“You don’t have to do it anymore.   You can exist outside of the music.”   Yoko Ono to John Lennon, 1975

“There’s only two artists that I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night stand.   That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, and I think that’s a pretty damned good choice!”   John Lennon, 1980

Before this, only one book took you inside the recording studio with The Beatles, and that was Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick.   Emerick’s book explained the fascinating work performed by sound engineers such as that which led (in some small measure) to the success of the four moptops.   One of the disclosures in HT&E was that the recording sound process at Abbey Road always began with ensuring that Ringo’s drums would sound right and/or unique on each track. (Paul McCartney, who lived around the corner, was the individual who usually tuned the drums used by Ringo and Badfinger’s drummer.)

Now, with Ken Sharp’s book,  we go into the sound studios of New York City circa the winter of 1980, with former Beatle John Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and a new band of hotshot musicians.   Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, would be recorded just weeks before his death (the single “Starting Over” was the track the public heard first), and would be well-crafted enough to preserve his legacy as a musical genius.

This was the happy-husband period for John Lennon who was pleased about everything, even the past:  “He never spoke about the Beatles in a negative way.   Ever.   He only said positive, affectionate things about them…  He was able to look back at their work and realize how great a band they were.”   (Andy Newmark, drummer)

And this was the John Lennon who filled his new album with what some viewed as recordings invading Paul McCartney’s well-marked territory – (silly or non-silly) love songs and songs of domestic harmony and bliss.   John was not at all apologetic about his new-found contentment:  “To work with your best friend is a joy and I don’t intend to stop it…  My best friend is my wife.   Who could ask for anything more?”

“…records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.   I would say Double Fantasy is one of the many excellent records that has gained a certain aura, glow, stature and presence.”   Robert Christgau

The participants interviewed for this book all display a sense of both bittersweet happiness and sorrow at having worked with John Lennon before his untimely death.   “I hadn’t listened to Double Fantasy in a long time.   I recently put it on and as soon as I started playing it, the tears welled up.   It was a real emotional experience for me.   There was a lot of joy doing that record…  When I hear the songs, I see John working on the tracks.   It’s the closing musical statement of his life and it’s filled with great songs.”   (Hugh McCracken, guitarist)

Well said, and this account is a well-written, detailed and loving tribute to someone who simply left us too soon.   Read this book and you will come to know and admire John Lennon’s honesty and his integrity.   By reading this book you’ll also come to discover the background stories of such great songs as “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels”.

Think of Starting Over, the book, as the great lost album notes to the original vinyl release.   It will serve you well.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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All My Loving

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Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $16.99, 384 pages)

“Take a sad song and make it better…”

Peter Ames Carlin wrote what was likely the second-best biography of Brian Wilson, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.   It was very good but a bit dry in places, especially when compared to The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White.   White’s earlier biography masterfully blended the migration of the Wilson family from the Midwest to Torrance with the history of Southern California itself.   (The title referenced the phrase used by Brian’s mother whenever she wanted to escape to the not-so-close and not-too-far-away community of Ventura.)

This time Carlin has come closer to fashioning a definitive, lively and warmly human account of the man they call Macca in Great Britain.   More than half of this bio covers the story of the Fab Four, which seemed to have had its last good moment with John Lennon and Paul – just the two – recording The Ballad of John and Yoko.   Said Paul, “It always surprised me how with just the two of  us on it, it ended up sounding like the Beatles.”

This is far from a totally fawning tale of Sir Paul, and Carlin does well in picturing the band as a dysfunctional family.   In Carlin’s eyes, John was the wild husband, Paul the responsible mother figure trying to keep the family on track, George the often brooding and secretly rebellious son, and Ringo the “What, me worry?” older brother.   And yet…  Yet they all came to realize – in one way or another – that they had destroyed the household too soon.   The break-up came too early.

Carlin illustrates several times how much Paul came to miss John once he was suddenly gone:  “I really loved you and was glad you came along/and you were here today, for you were in my song.”   This is the Paul who was subsequently again destroyed by George Harrison’s untimely death:  “To me he’s just my little baby brother.   I loved him dearly.”

The one caution with Carlin is that you should certainly feel free to disagree with his musical judgments, as when he praises the disastrous – to this listener’s ears – remixes of the Beatles songs on albums like Yellow Submarine, 1s (Ones) and Love.   They’re louder and brasher, but not better nor true to the original recordings.   He also fails to understand the simple genius of the album called McCartney – which contained Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night (the alternate version of You Never Give Me Your Money) and That Would Be Something.

But in the end, we see here a musician who carried on quite, quite well even after the loss of his two quasi-brothers and two wives (one by death, one through a bitter divorce).   If you love Paul McCartney, you will feel the same way about him once you’ve finished A Life.   If you’ve never much liked Beatle Paul, you may grudgingly make your way through this bio and find that he’s earned a bit of your respect.   “Take it away…”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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On the Road Again

Corn Flakes with John Lennon and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n Roll Life by Robert Hilburn (Rodale; $14.99; 280 pages)

“…the best music doesn’t just fill a void in the listener…  it can also fill a need in the artist.”

“I look at people as ideas.   I don’t see people as people.”   Bob Dylan

The fine long-time music critic for The Los Angeles Times, Bob Hilburn, takes us along on his trips with “the best rock stars” in this engaging account of his years in the music business.   It is mostly a study of personalities, big ones, such as John Lennon, Bob Dylan (“The most important figure in rock…  rock’s most celebrated living figure…  the greatest songwriter”), Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bono of U2, Johnny Cash and Janis Joplin.   There are also brief encounters with Elton John, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Waylon Jennings, and Jack White.

You might be thinking that you’ll enjoy this memoir if you like these artists, most of whom were blessed with the approval of both Hilburn and Rolling Stone magazine.   You’ll be right in that thought, and also will likely find that it has less charm if these artists are not your cup of Java.   Hilburn makes very clear that he dislikes “superficial artists” (a term coined by Dylan), among whom he includes Rod Stewart, the “cold” Steely Dan, and Madonna.   He writes of the latter that she’s a “sharp cookie” who always provides good quotes for an interviewer, but “I’m not generally a fan of her music.”

So, yes, this is an account of hanging out on the road with the stars of boomer rock and country music.   The true tales from the 1970s are the most interesting ones – when rock was full of excitement and energy – and the telling seems to get tired and pessimistic as we approach present times.   Hilburn, in fact, closes the book with a lot of pessimism about the current music trade’s prospects for survival.

If Hilburn has a fault, it’s an obvious one in that he often gets close to being over the top about those artists, those geniuses, he favors.   Not only does he realize it, but so do some of the artists he’s supported.   For example, at one point he asks Bono if the musician is afraid that the public will become tired of him.   Bono answers, “Look, I’m tired of Bono and I am Bono.”

“Paul’s like a brother.   We’ve gone past all that.”   John Lennon

If there’s a reason to buy this book, now available in trade paperback form, it’s for the touching overview of Hilburn’s days spent with Lennon in New York City just two weeks before the former Beatle’s tragic death.   This Lennon is a man at peace with himself, in love with his life, and ready to forgive and forget.   One very revealing note is when John tells Hilburn that all of the stories about the deep rift between him and Paul McCartney were just that, stories.   John noted that he and Paul were, deep down, brothers still.

Hilburn’s book is a brief for the power of rock ‘n roll.   It may now be an endangered art form, but Hilburn reminds us that, at its best – as when it’s performed by Bruce Springsteen, “rock ‘n roll (can) still be majestic.”

Well recommended.

Take Away:  This is a very entertaining journal of life within the rock ‘n roll circus tent.   However, Hilburn sacrifices a bit of credibility when he refers to Kurt Cobain as one of rock’s great figures and as “the great talent” of the 1990s.   As he admits, “I often had a hard time convincing…  people when it came to Kurt.”   Take what you need from this account and leave the rest.

Joseph Arellano

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Watching the Wheels

On Book Reviewing and Reading

During his unfortunately short lifetime, John Lennon had to deal with a lot of guilt.   Some of it was due to the break-up of his personal and working relationship with Paul McCartney.   But for a time, the public viewed his relationship with Yoko Ono as the likely cause of the Beatles’ dissolution (in retrospect, there were other factors involved).   It finally arrived at the point where John felt compelled to sing, “I don’t believe in Beatles/ I just believe in me/ Yoko and me/ and that’s reality.”

It may seem odd, but a book reviewer is sometimes affected with guilt.   This is especially true after spending hours and days reading a novel, a memoir, a nonfiction account or a survey book and finding it a disappointment.   You might not think so, but most reviewers would love to just write positive reviews.   Except that in the real world, writing exclusively positive reviews just would not reflect reality.

So the books that don’t meet the reviewer’s high expectations must be documented with a dreaded negative review.   And here is where the guilt comes in…  As the reviewer begins to draft a not-so-positive review, he/she begins to wonder if he/she did something wrong or miss the point?   Is it somehow my fault that I didn’t like it?   It’s an odd question but it’s one that I find me asking myself.   Other reviewers that I talk to ask themselves the same question.   Regardless, it’s a thought that must quickly be put aside.

Each of us, after all, is providing only one perspective, one that each review reader (and author) is free to accept or reject.   Talk to four or more people about the Beatles, for example, and you’re likely to hear all of the following:  “John was my favorite.”   “I was always a Paul fan.”   “I always loved George.”   “Ringo was my guy.”   If you were a Paul McCartney fan, you didn’t wonder if it was somehow your fault that John wasn’t your cup of tea.

When I talk to people about music, I get a sense of honest straight forwardness about one’s opinions.   You may know that I love Van Morrison but have no problem in telling me that he is not someone you listen to.   Why should it be different with literature, with books, with popular fiction?   I think it’s because many of us grew up seeing academic standards applied to literature that were not applied to modern music.   There was a sense that opinions about books were more formal, more standardized; therefore, there should be a consensus as to whether a particular book was “good” or “bad.”

Of course, all that has changed with the advent of the internet and with the more traditional style reviews (especially those printed on paper) moving into the background.   We’re entering the new world where, it might be said, we’re all “free to be you and me.”   So your opinion about a book is just as good, as valuable, as mine and vice-versa.   We’ve entered a zone where everything in life is, as one New York City newspaper observed, both large and small all at once.

So when, for a moment, the feeling of guilt crops up because you love something that other people don’t – or fail to admire a book that others may – it’s time to move past that moment and accept that you simply feel what you feel.   You think what you think and this is fine.   You get to judge what you want and need to judge, and don’t ever believe those who tell you that you “shouldn’t judge things.”   Everyone judges everything in life almost every minute of the day, but only some admit to it.   Book reviewers, by necessity and by role, must admit to it.

And John Lennon offered us some valuable advice – in the song “Watching the Wheels” – as to what to do once we’ve boarded the merry-go-round of guilt…  Get off of it.   “I just had to let it go.”   We just need to let it go.

Joseph Arellano

One in a continuing series of articles.   Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by author-musician Ken Sharp was published by MTV Books.

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