Various Artists: Cadillac Records — Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
As was already mentioned in Dan’s excellent review, Cadillac Records is not a particularly good movie, taking what should be dense, layered material and not giving it its due. It won’t be helped by the fact that it’s barely being marketed at all… in fact, I learned about it only last week, when I was perusing new musical releases and came across this album. It’s a shame, really, because the music is sort of fascinating. It’s by no means a great release, and after a while, one fails to see the point. But as an artistic exercise, it’s an interesting idea.
In some ways, it’s similar to how the soundtrack to 2005’s Walk the Line was sung by Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, as opposed to using the original tracks by Johnny Cash and June Carter. In addition to original versions of some artists’a songs, the minds behind Cadillac Records opted to use the actors’s covers of the tracks from the old Chess Records standards as well. As such, it’s a provides a unique vision of music in its original form, as well as artists that we’ve never heard sing before (Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Mos Def as Chuck Berry). Finally, more experienced singers such as Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James round out this little experiment. Originals like Little Walter’s sparse, solemn blues dirge, ”Last Night” and Mary Mary’s funky, ass-shakin’ “The Sound” provide a solid, impressive foundation for the formula.
Mixed in with those classics are some modern pieces like Solange’s (younger sister of Beyonce) and Raphael Saadiq’s, both decent, solid pieces. But the real meat comes from tracks such as Beyoncé Knowles covering Etta James’s “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.” It’s no surprise that Knowles is a talented songstress, and she manages to hold her own with her versions. She doesn’t surpass, or even achieve the same level as the phenomenal James, but I don’t know that anyone can be expected to. The bigger surprises come from Wright, whose covers of Chicago blues progenitor Muddy Waters are pretty impressive. The harmonica-driven monster hits “I’m A Man, ” and “I’m Your Hoochie-Coochie Man” are another incredibly difficult hill to climb in terms of comparison, and Wright handles them with style. Similarly, Mos Def covering Chuck Berry is something of a revelation. Mos Def has already proven himself to be an excellent actor and a phenomenal recording artist in the hip hop world — Black on Both Sides was an instant classic, and The New Danger is nothing short of revolutionary — but to hear him belting out “No Particular Place To Go” and “Nadine” came as a pleasant surprise. His covers are by no means perfect — they clearly feature his already unusual inflections and vocal oddities — but he sounds like he’s having a hell of a time, and enthusiasm goes a long way sometimes. Perhaps the oddest inclusion was Columbus Short, who played Little Walter, covering “My Babe.” His performance is pretty lackluster, and made all the more so by the inclusion of the aforementioned “Last Night, ” which really brings out the clear disparity in talents.
After giving the entire album several listens, I suppose I’m left with one last, and very important, question: Why? Similar to my question about Phoenix and Witherspoon on Walk the Line, I can’t figure out the reasons for it. Don’t get me wrong — I’m thrilled to have the actors take a crack at singing in the film, since it spares us from dealing with them lip syncing. But to release an album where a majority of the tracks are covers is somewhat baffling — regardless of how good or fun their performances are, they’re still inferior to the originals — the competition is simply too stiff. As such, it’s strictly novelty after the first couple listens and I’ll be honest with you — that novelty has already worn off. So I guess it’s worth listening for the experience, but if you’re already a fan of Muddy, Etta, Chuck and company, you’re likely to find yourself reaching for the originals. If you aren’t, you’re likely (I hope) to start to seek them out. I guess in that respect, it’s valuable just to get people to look back to the classics.
When some people in the modern rock scene throw around words like “ambient” or “shoegaze” when referring to a band, they’re usually discussing the music as if it’s pure background noise. A good ambient album is exactly that: Pure ambiance. You don’t need to pay attention. You just turn it on and go about your business.
Deerhunter, the indie/post-punk outfit from Athens, Georgia, understand this concept, and can execute it quite well. But, as the title track of their third full-length album proves, they don’t necessarily want to. The track begins serenely, guitarist Lockett Pundt lazily strumming as lead singer Bradford Cox’s reverb-coated voice croons like Chet Baker in the Luray Caverns. The song could take you to a Georgian summer night by a pond, lightning bugs flitting by your face as you drift to sleep. But, just as the lull of the music pulls you to the point of forgetting that a song is even playing, the rest of the band dives into the water, a grand splash of energy that cleanses the palette of all the ambiance and reminds you that yes, this is a rock band after all.
The band’s presence isn’t always so full, as on the last half of “Green Jacket”, which fades into obscurity as if your speakers were floating away into space and taking the music with them. But credit must be given to the group for not getting lost in the static like so many of their counterparts and, I daresay, their predecessors. The album’s longest cut, “Nothing Ever Happened”, strikes the bouncing punch of The Pixies with Pavement guitar licks, even as the reverberated vocals recall My Bloody Valentine soundscapes.
With Microcastle, Deerhunter reminds us that, in all the ambient noise and beauty a young band might choose to delve into, there can still be melody and, most importantly, rock.
Neil Young: Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968
I like folks. I like music. If we then assume the transitive property, then I must like folk music. Don’t worry, your geometry classes didn’t lie to you: I do like folk music. It might not come as a surprise then, that I like Neil Young. Among musicians, Young is claimed as an influence almost as much as Woody Guthrie, and for good reason: The man is a constant font of musical expression and creation. Having fallen in love with his timid voice, soulful delivery and simple salt-of-the-earth songwriting at a very young age, I have always related his music to a time in my life that was the epitome of carefree: Just turned 16, falling in love, discovering sex and the personal freedom that comes with acknowledging your own budding and powerful sexuality, creating the semblance of a life, feeling the first quivers of excitement that come from knowing that yes, one day, you will eventually be the master of your own destiny. Young represented freedom. And I say, “Yay Freedom!”