Shuffle Lessons, Volume 4.

Let’s do some shufflin’, shall we? This one is a lightning round: I’m only giving myself until the end of each song to write about it.

For a refresher on the process, you can go back and read other lessons.

Drunk and Hot Girls – Kanye West

Blah. Rough start.

The lowest point on Graduation. Well, the only low point on Graduation, really. Along with “Barry Bonds” (which I admittedly like from time to time), this makes up the sad 9/10 spots on the album. Skip it 90% of the time. Although, it’s hilarious when Kanye makes fun of her singing. It’s good for a laugh, but for the most part this is…blah.

From Above – Ben Folds & Nick Hornby

I don’t listen to this album enough. Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, wrote the lyrics. Ben then composed, played and sang them. Brilliant stuff.

It’s a track about soulmates. Everyone has one, but we rarely end up with them, according to Hornby. Personally, I think the idea of soulmates is a buncha baloney. I think there are probably dozens of mates we could marry. Maybe more. The trick is finding someone who feels the same way, but I mean, c’mon – you’re telling me my soulmate just happened to coincidently live right around the corner from me? Of anywhere in the world? Nah. I think we just meet people we like and love and decide to commit. Connection? Sure. But “soulmates” is a made up romantic ideal that I refuse to buy into. Sorry, Karlie.

Late – Ben Folds

MOAR BEN. Songs for Silverman is probably Ben’s most beautiful album. It lacks his Five goofiness, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking as an album. It’s just serious business.

“Late” is no different. It’s a tribute to Elliott Smith. Smith was a singer-songwriter who suffered from depression and died from stab wounds that may or may not have self inflicted. The lyric “the songs you wrote got me through a lot just want to tell you that,” is particularly meaningful – I wish more of us would take the time to share why we are important to one another. Perhaps Elliott Smith (if suicide was the cause of death) would still be with us had Ben shared this with him earlier?

Bloodstream – Ed Sheeran

How is Ed Sheeran already on my Top 2000 played list? He ascended quickly. I guess I gave this album 4 or 5 listens before writing my GRAMMY post about it.

Bloodstream is one of the better tracks on x. (It’s pronounced “multiply” – lame.) The song is about drugs/drinking – as most of Ed’s songs are. It’s dark and eerie – an outlier on x since most of the songs are either poppy fresh or acoustic chill. Here’s the whole album review.

Smile Away – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ranking the Beatles without thinking about it…

  1. Paul
  2. George
  3. John
  4. Ringo

Now, ranking the margin of victory between each ranking without thinking about it…

  1. George to John
  2. Paul to George
  3. John to Ringo

Paul is my favorite by a wide margin, but George is my second favorite by an even wider margin over John. And the fact that John is close to Ringo at all speaks volumes of how I feel about Lennon. Too political and ideological for me most of the time. Gets annoying.. George is the most talented, but Paul is the most fun and his Wings career is way too good.

Ram is one of my all time favorite albums. It stands alone as an album by  only Paul & Linda McCartney, before the rest of Wings was formed. “Smile Away” is fun and lively. The story is simple: Paul runs into a friend on the street who says he can “smell your feet/breath from a mile away.” Paul decided to brush it off and smile away. I guess it’s about positivity/not giving a rip about what others think. Which is maybe what got Kanye to tap Paul to co-produce his new album, So Help Me God, whose title was announced today.

-apc.

The 2015 Grammys in Review

Phew. Last night was crazy. I started the 2015 Grammys in the airport in Denver and finished them at home in Kansas City. I missed certain performances live due to boarding and safety information protocol, but I was able to catch up this morning on the major moments I missed the first time around.

The Grammys are a highlight for me each year. It’s basically a 3 hour concert of the greatest musicians in the world, so when people say they just can’t get into the Grammys I visualize myself giving them a wedgie before calmly responding, “that’s understandable.” No. It’s not really understandable. I mean, how often do we get to witness John Mayer, Questlove, Herbie Handcock, ELO and Ed Sheeran playing music in the same place at the same time?

It’s just a special night. It’s loads of fun.

If you’ve been following along here at all over the past month you know that I took some time to review all 5 albums up for Album of the Year, which I believe is the most important category. Last year, Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories took home top honors. This year, it was Beck’s Morning Phase.

Beck over Bey

Going into last night, I had Beyonce as the clear favorite and Beck as a dark horse. If there was someone who was going to take down the Queen, I thought Beck had the best chance among the others. I didn’t really think it would happen, but wouldn’t you know it, the dude pulled it off.

And he deserves it. He really does. Morning Phase is a beautiful album. It’s perfect for waking up on a grey Saturday morning, dropping the needle on the turntable and sipping some coffee for the next 47 minutes.

Twice last night, Beck tried to give the spotlight to someone who was a bigger star than he is. When he accepted his award, Kanye West stood up and “pulled a Kanye” by running up like he did to Taylor Swift back in the day. He ran up and acted like he was going to do it again but pulled away at the last second, laughing. Meanwhile, Jay-Z and Beyonce were absolutely mortified until they realized he was joking.

“No, Kanye, no…bahahahaha.” And just look at Jay shaking his head. It never gets old.

Except Kanye wasn’t really joking. He made comments after the show saying that Beck should give the Grammy to Beyonce and that Beck isn’t a true artist. Major jerk move. To which Beck responded later that he thinks Kanye is a genius regardless of what he thinks of him in return.

It’s hard for me to say this because I spent a decade of my life borderline obsessed with Kanye West’s music, but I’ve finally had enough of his ego. I justified his antics when he embarrassed Taylor Swift by remembering that he was standing up for his friend, Beyonce, even if it was at the expense of someone else. You can think someone else was more deserving, but you cannot publicly claim that someone isn’t a true artist. Art is not objective, and Kanye West is not the absolute rule.

Clearly Kanye’s never seen this:

Yeah. Put a sock in it, dummy.

Anyway, when Kanye started walking away, Beck told him to come back. He invited him on to the stage with him. Weird. Then later, following his performance with Chris Martin of Coldplay, Martin intentionally faded into the background to give Beck the spotlight. Beck noticed this at the last second and ran back and tried to pull Martin back into the front.

There’s something selfless and open about Beck that is very likable. Like when he began his entire speech with “Hi, Prince.” Just so genuine and friendly. It’s sad Kanye’s antics took the spotlight away from him. Because he deserves the spotlight.

By the way, during his speech Beck also thanked David Campbell for doing the strings on Morning Phase. David Campbell is Beck’s father. Campbell has quite the resume of arrangements and I encourage you to take a quick scroll through the list on his Wikipedia page.

Top 10 Performances

According to LL Cool J at the top of the show, there were 23 performances during last night’s show – probably why the winners only goy 6 seconds to give their acceptance speeches – and while I’d like to talk about each one separately…I’m not going to.

But what I am going to do is list my Top 10 performances with a line or two about each one.

10. Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga – Cheek to Cheek – This song is cute, but every time I hear it, it makes me miss Amy Winehouse. She would’ve been the right choice for this song. Lady Gaga is fine, but Amy…

9. Beck featuring Chris Martin – Heart is a Drum – Listening to one song from Morning Phase is like being forced to only eat one potato chip. The performance was good, but I wanted more of the album than just this sampling.

8. Sia – Chandelier  – So Sia just stands in the corner and sings with her face to the wall while Kristen Wiig runs around dancing dramatically? Goofy stuff. But a powerful song.

7. Ed Sheeran featuring John Mayer, Questlove & Herbie Hancock – Thinking Out Loud – The first time I saw this performance, I was so entranced by John going nuts on his pink guitar that I totally missed Herbie sitting on the piano behind him. Quest is awesome. I wish he’d hung around for the ELO performance. Wish it was a funner song too – TOL isn’t my favorite of his, but I’m a big fan of large chunks of x.

6. Usher featuring Stevie Wonder – If It’s Magic – “If It’s Magic” is track two off side four of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. Last year, Stevie performed “Another Star” which comes two tracks later on the same side. The song in between these two is “As” which is my all-time favorite Stevie Wonder track. Since it seems the Grammys are now attempting to cameo Stevie Wonder as much as possible while he’s still around, I’m holding out hope for an “As” performance in 2016.

5. Pharrell featuring Lang Lang – Happy – What a fantastic rendition of the song that Pharrell obviously realizes is starting to get a bit redundant in the world these days. Lang Lang provides an epic piano solo while Pharrell and his backup dancers do the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” motion. The Great Hans Zimmer comes out on guitar. I am itching for new N*E*R*D in 2015.

Pharrell continues to plow an amazing path in the world of today’s music. He’s come a long way in a really short amount of time. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes in the future with the success of not only GIRL, but also his many collaborations and productions in recent years.

4. John Legend/Common – Glory – The final performance of the Grammys. Common has one of those voices – similar to Morgan Freeman, I think – that commands attention. He’s not necessarily the best rapper, but what he lacks in cadence he makes up for in clout. He has a powerful presence and the subject matter is obviously wonderful.

Also, I love the word “glory” – in Hebrew, the word is kavod which means something has significant weight. When we glorify God, we are recognizing that God has kavod. And when we ask for his glory to reign, we are asking that his weight overcome the heavy burdens we feel in our world. Appropriate image for this performance, I think.

3. Hozier & Annie Lennox – Take Me to Church/I Put a Spell on You – Four comments about this performance: 1. Hozier looks like Madison Bumgarner. 2. You may know Annie Lennox (that woman who looks like Ellen Degeneres) from The Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and her song “Walking on Broken Glass.” 3. Her new album includes a cover of “I Put a Spell on You.” 4. A song originally by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins that you might recall from this Pringles advertisement…

2. Beyonce – Take My Hand, Precious Lord – Chills. Just chills. Over and over and over. The more I watch it, the more I love this performance. Power singing about power. Creates some exponential biological singularity situation. Brings me to my knees. Another “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” here too.

1. ELO featuring Ed Sheeran – Evil Woman/Mr. Blue Sky – I had no idea ELO was going to be performing, so when Ed announced them, I exclaimed “YES” in the airport loud enough that the woman at the gate raised her eyebrows in my direction.

In the summer of 2004, I found Electric Light Orchestra’s Greatest Hits on cassette at a used bookstore. It was one of the three cassette tapes I had in my car for about a year until I sold my 1991 Geo Prism for a new ride in 2005. Mr. Blue Sky has the power to put anyone in an immediately positive mood (most of their music has this power, I suppose). That piano in Evil Woman just gets me immediately bumpin. These two tracks probably round out my top five ELO songs along with Livin’ Thing, Don’t Bring Me Down and Strange Magic (you can keep Xanadu, no thanks).

But the best part of this performance – for the second year in a row – was Paul McCartney dancing along in the audience. In case you’ve forgotten, in 2014, we had Snap and Wiggle Paul during Daft Punk’s performance:

This year, we were awarded with an equally wonderful moment. Behold, Sing Along Standing Paul:

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Sir Paul, in the very front row, appears to be the only one standing in the entire Staples Center. But what happens here? It seems Paul makes eye contact with someone to the left of the camera, nods, then throws his hands up and sits down.

DID SOME JERK HAVE THE AUDACITY TO TELL SIR SING ALONG PAUL TO SIT DOWN?!? No one tells Paul to sit down. No one. Ever. This is unacceptable and must be addressed. But I’m not really worried. The Illuminati will likely take care of it in one quick silent movement. It’s possible that’s what Madonna’s performance was all about.

Sam Smith Wins a Bunch

Best New Artist. Record of the Year. Song of the Year. Best Pop Vocal Album. He also performed with Mary J. Blige.

Whatever. I will not argue that the dude has some crazy pipes, but the sound of his voice give me the creeps. He’s got some weird lisp thing going on along with a glottal situation that makes me want to run away when he sings. It’s unfortunate.

I can see how he could win all the categories above – people really seem to love the guy – but Taylor Swift should’ve won at least one of the two song categories for “Shake it Off.” I’m just thankful he didn’t win Album of the Year because In the Lonely Hour is just one big cryfest that never goes anywhere else.

A quick bit on Kanye

What are these new Kanye songs? “Only One” sounds like something off 808s and Heartbreaks only there’s no 808 and instead of heartbreak it’s heartfelt. So maybe it’s the opposite in terms of content, but the autotuned voice and stripped down style is NOT working for me. “FourFive Seconds” is maybe a little bit better, but if these are the tracks that are supposed to launch a new album you’re counting down to…sorry Kanye. You may have finally lost me.

But what I don’t understand, is how Paul McCartney’s touch has created this stuff. Paul is quirky and goofy and way out of the box. So is Kanye West. I’d think that if this partnership is actually going to create something, it would have to be waaaaay out there. Paul has never been one to make boring music. Kanye certainly hasn’t either. But these two songs are boring. They offer me nothing exciting and I don’t get it.

Couple that with the comments I mentioned earlier, and I’ve all but given up on Kanye West. The only thing I can figure that might save him is if this album turns out to be another stepping stone on to another chapter in his musical discography. Perhaps his forthcoming album will act like an interlude like 808s ended up doing. Who knows. But he’s on really thin ice.

A quick bit on country music

A quick comment on country music here: this years performances were good. Miranda Lambert (who I think is adorable) played early in the show, but the two that I really enjoyed were Eric Church and the Brandy Clark/Dwight Yoakam back to back performances around the halfway point.

Last year, I had a serious issue with the country music performances. I left struggling to understand the genre. What makes something “country” music these days? Is it storytelling? Because then Ed Sheeran is a phenomenal country artist. Is it the sound of their voice? Because then anyone can play country music if they just change up their twang. I don’t understand.

But this years performances seemed to fit the bill. There wasn’t an over the top voice alteration to fit the genre, and there was plenty of storytelling to go around. It wasn’t the poppy, boy band country, and it wasn’t stereotypical subject matter either. All that to say, it didn’t leave the same bad taste in my mouth as it did in 2014.

Cats on the Red Carpet

Finally, I have to share this shot of my cats – Desmond (right) and Hugo (left) – from the Red Carpet last night.

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A thousand shout outs to Maureen for her photoshopping brilliance.

That pretty much does it for the Grammys this year. Another amazing year in music comes to a close. Looking forward to the 2016 Grammys, AKA “D’Angelo Wins Everything.” Although, Mark Ronson’s Uptown Special will get some nods, and if Frank Ocean decides to exist again, I’m sure he’ll make his presence known too. Until then, it’s back to baseball for me.

-apc.

BACK TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

x – Ed Sheeran

Ed-Sheeran-x-2014-1200x1200

I’m not a musician.

I took piano lessons for something like eight or ten years when I was a kid. I started when I was 7 and quit sometime in high school. I never learned how to read sheet music without counting “Every, Good, Boy, Does, Fine,” so at a certain point (high school) the music got too difficult to play by ear. I don’t have many regrets in life, but dropping the piano instead of finding a jazz piano teacher who can teach playing by ear could be considered a regret. Maybe there’s still time. Life after seminary.

Today, I can play most piano chords – C, F#, D7, Asus2, G, Emaj7, etc. – throw it at me and I can look at the keys and play it. I understand chord progressions. I can sit down at a piano and play through most any song as long as I’m given the chord progression. I can even figure out the melody if I’ve listened to a song enough times. But I’m not a musician, and I don’t review albums as if I am.

I do, however, know how to groove.

I like percussion, cadence, chord progressions, samples and lyrical flow among other things. Strings are gorgeous. Gimme a dirty bassline (see: “Don’t” on this album) and I can’t get enough. The tone of an artist’s voice is more important to me than what they’re singing about. I don’t care much for actual lyrical content – songwriting is impressive and creative, absolutely, but for some reason my ear doesn’t hear the words themselves. I don’t know the words to some of my all time favorite songs.

When I listen to music, my mind is not tuned into the meaning or language in songs. I’m in it to experience the groove. I feel music more than I listen to it.

Friends who know me well will respond: “Whatever. You know all the words to all the songs we listened to on that road trip we went on that one time.” True. And some artists are easy for me to actually hear and internalize lyrical content – hip hop, boy bands, pretty much anything I digested between 1998 and 2004 – these are exceptions. When I take in an album for the first time (Ed Sheeran’s x, for example) I don’t hear the words themselves as much as I hear their sound and flow (both areas where Ed excels greatly).

I say all this to make sure we’re all on the same page for where these album reviews come from: I am a consumer. My angle is not remotely “expert” on anything besides my own personal experience of music.

If you’re purely a consumer like me, then these reviews are for you.

Disclaimer over. On to the review.

***

It’s pronounced “multiply,” which is an extremely annoying album title, but follows up nicely to Ed Sheeran’s debut album + (pronounced “plus”) which is equally goofy.

But that’s pretty much where my negativity ends with this album. Ed Sheeran is fantastic. x is predominantly acoustic guitar centered with strong percussion/piano parts, but what truly drives the sound Ed Sheeran’s work is his vocal cadence. He’s quick and clever with his flow. His crooning quickly gets into my shoulders and neck area and gets me bobbing around.

The only song I really knew off this album prior to my first listen this week was “Sing,” and I was already a big fan. It came across Justin Timbelake-ish. It’s the high range vocals that do it – every time he goes up, he sounds like JT. Turns out, that track is produced by Pharrell Williams and while I was doing some research I literally read, “Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, was a favourite of Sheeran’s, which he consciously tried to channel for ‘Sing,'” on Wikipedia. Well, boom. Talk about stroking my listening ego.

Take a listen here…(warning: video contains puppets)…

Caveat here: Sheeran wanted to keep “Sing” off the album and work more exclusively with Pharrell and put it on a future album. It’s the only Pharrell track on the album, so it’s naturally one of my favorites. But let’s be honest: if Ed puts out a full album with Skateboard P he’ll win multiple Grammys. You heard it here first. We’ll revisit it in a couple or three years. #Grammys2017?

Also, I’m not sure everyone realizes just how impressive Pharrell Williams is. I mentioned this in my review of G I R L earlier this year, but everything the dude touches turns to gold. But this isn’t a Pharrell post, so moving on.

This album keeps me bringing me back to Adele. Not necessarily in the sound, but in the content. This whole album is about Sheeran’s heart being broken and drinking/drugging his sorrows away. He’s not happy with this chick, and it’s entirely to our benefit. I’ve often thought if Adele falls in love and gets married we’re going to lose out on a lot of quality music. I might feel the same way here. Nobody wants to hear cute love songs (okay some people do, but I don’t) – we want tales of heartbreak and anger and frustration. WE want songs that get under our skin and make us feel something strong. That’s how Ed is like Adele – okay, they’re both British too.

Sheeran clearly has a bent toward self-medication. The entire focus of “Bloodstream” is feeling the chemicals kicking in as he tries to recover from broken heart. Those are his words, not mine. He mentions drinking away his sadness in multiple songs – which ALWAYS reminds me of Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting.”

Elton and Jamie Foxx get the most mentions on how Ed Sheeran hit it big. Now I’m picturing the three of them hanging out at the booth from Horrible Bosses drinking cider – Elton and Ed on one side of the booth and Motherf*cker Jones drinking from a straw on the other. I digress.

While the core of the album is groovy and fast-paced, “One” is an odd choice for an opener upon first take. It’s directed toward the same love interest from +, which feels opposite from the rest of the album. However, it makes sense when partnered with track 2, “I’m a Mess.” By opening the album with love, it actually manages to pull the listener into the heartbreak deeper. Ed’s like, “here’s this love that I had, and now I’m going tell you how I jacked everything up and now I’m broken hearted.” And I’m like, “thanks, but no thanks, Ed. I wish I’d never met this girl so I wouldn’t have to feel your heartbreak as much.” It’s better for it though. “One” is a cute lead track that I’m sure the sentimental ladies really swoon over.

Apparently “One” was the first track recorded too, which makes me believe the track layout is less about the ebb and flow of the album as much as mirroring the story of Ed Sheeran’s own life. I wonder…is the track list simply in order of when he wrote them? Hmmm.

I should also mention this nugget: Ed Sheeran can rap. “The Man” and “Take It Back” are both straight rap. Don’t let his lyrics convince you otherwise: “I’m not a rapper/I’m a singer with a flow,” he says in the latter track. Malarky, I say. This is acoustic rap and it’s so good. It is a bit strange to hear someone with an English accent rapping – just different. The sound has a subtle enough difference that it sounds like something fresh and new.

There’s a balance between up-tempo grooves and stripped down acoustic ballads here. I’m a huge fan of the former and kinda meh about the latter – shocker, I know. Overall, it’s a very strong album. Henceforth, I’ll proudly claim to be an Ed Sheeran fan.

Top Tracks (no particular order):
– Sing
– Take it Back
– The Man
– Don’t
– Bloodstream

x is up for Album of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album at the 2015 Grammys. His competition for AOTY: Beyonce, Sam Smith, Pharrell and Beck. His competition for BPVA: Coldplay, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Sam Smith.

As of this post, I think he’s the front runner for BPVA, but will lose out to Queen Bey in AOTY.

One last thing before I go: I’m planning reviews for all 5 albums up for Album of the Year. Potentially more than that if I really get into this. You can find the other links here (will update links as posts are released).

For other reviews up for Album of the Year…

Pharrell Williams – G I R L
Ed Sheeran – x
Beck – Morning Phase

Beyonce – Beyonce
Sam Smith – In the Lonely Hour

RETURN TO GRAMMYS HOMEPAGE

-apc.