SMILING THROUGH THE PAIN

Annika Bentley — Live at the Abbey Pub, Chicago, 1/24/02

Johnny Loftus

Annika Bentley is a young artist creating insightful, pretty music that will inevitably be compared to nebulously similar musics, previously created by female artists who may or may not have written similar tunes than she. Put another way, into a world too quick to generalize any female singer-songwriter’s work as sentimental stool-folk worthy only of a side stage at a future Lillith Faire, Bentley has quietly put forth her distinct, recalcitrant brand of oddly-attired pop music, with the hope that people will just listen with an open ear.

This can be difficult.

On a Thursday night in Chicago, Annika Bentley is trying faithfully, desperately, to ignore the types having a laugh in the back corner. It’s not their fault; the pints are flowing, and the Abbey Pub’s music room is a dark, smoky affair that lends itself to nooks and crannies. Towards the back of the venue, away from the stage, they might get the feeling that one can speak freely. But that’s when they fuck up. And then they get the stink eye from Annika, whose fractal, lilting performance enjoys the silence between notes as much as the analog groove kicked up by her bandmates’ cello and an upright bass. Be embarrassed you weren’t listening. And kick yourself in the shins when she’s famous.

Bentley’s music is guided by her voice, an instrument that soars and whispers, hinting at the sinister qualities of Polly Jean Harvey while still retaining a crystalline virtue that’s intrinsically her own. As she alternates between guitar and piano, her melodies are backed by her mother (!) Kathleen Fraser on double bass, cellist Ian Downey, and drummer Otto Hauser. Because of her classical turns on piano, and a certain similarity in vocal delivery, comparisons to Tori Amos are inevitable, and maybe a little apropos. But at Thursday’s show, Bentley’s chamber-core reminded me more of a sans reverb Dream Academy, or perhaps some middle ground between the quiet moments of Sarah McLachlan’s Solace and Mary Timony’s post-Helium riffs on Medieval fairytales.

I have just made the mistake of comparing Annika Bentley to numerous female artists who have used the tenets of pop music to reach for a more austere, introspective, or cathartic – yet still rocking – result. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as Bentley isn’t critiqued into a corner, labelled before her own muse has a chance to reveal itself. And in the details Thursday, it did. All influence aside, the music was passionately, painfully original, to the point that it demanded an attentive listener. As such, it was unfortunate that the audience onhand was on the smaller side, and a bit more interested in bullshitting than an acknowledgement of the raw talent on stage. The loudtalkers in the bunch missed out on a few prescient moments in Bentley’s set – a whispered vocal here, an inspired chord change there – that suggest widespread greatness in her future.

Here’s hoping that, next time, they listen.

JTL

Yellow Matter Custard. . .

While doing a bit of research for something other than this, I chanced upon the John Lennon biography on the Rolling Stone website. Prior to reading it, I anticipated that the unsigned item would be nothing less than the most fawning hagiography imaginable. After all, of the Beatles, Lennon was evidently the most in keeping with RS‘s ostensible ethos of edginess in all things.

But much to my surprise, I find that the Lennon biography is downright dismissive of much of Lennon’s work and archly critical (perhaps the old damning with faint praise approach) of his lifestyle.

In the opening paragraph, the writer notes that Lennon and McCartney split the songwriting for the Beatles, and that while McCartney’s songs were “more pop-oriented,” Lennon “contributed more experimental and mystical music during the band’s later years.” There is no mention of the type of music contributed by either during the band’s earlier years; the implication, however, is that the songs were neither experimental nor mystical. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Presumably there is an explanation for this musical wackiness: “Lennon also led the group into drug use during the mid-’60s and encouraged them to follow his guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.” While the mid-’60s isn’t exactly their later years, one can see the seeds of discord.

As the bio moves on, we learn that John had a “rocky” marriage with Cynthia Powell, mother of Julian, “especially after Lennon began openly dating an older Japanese-American artist named Yoko Ono.” [Enter villain, stage right] An “older Japanese-American artist”? What’s interesting here is that while the first sentence of the piece indicates John’s date of birth (10/9/40), there isn’t any other discussion of age. So I can only assume that the writer figured that s/he couldn’t get away with the adjectives that were really being thought of when the dreaded Ono appears in this story.

In ’68, not only were John and Cynthia divorced, but the Beatles produced The White Album. Then the other shoe (yes, I know that this would be the third one) drops: “John and Yoko released the experimental ‘found sound’ collection Unfinished Music, No. 1—Two Virgins.” This is the recording with the naked John and “older Japanese-American artist” on the cover. The Beatles put out a blank cover; Unfinished Music, No. 1, was banned from many stores and caused a hue and cry from the media: “reporters speculated that Ono was ‘controlling’ Lennon and causing trouble for the beloved Beatles.” The “beloved Beatles”? Beloved by whom? The structure of the phrase is unclear whether it is the reporters who love them or, what is more likely, the anonymous biographer.

1969 sees “Lennon and a very pregnant Ono”—note, again, the adjective—”embarked on a ‘honeymoon’ in Europe, stopping along the way to get married in Gibraltar on March 20th.” The quotation marks around “honeymoon” can be construed as some raised eyebrows: How dare they! The two “staged a notorious ‘Bed-In’ at the Amsterdam Hilton.” Notorious in what way? could be wondered but never answered. The duo went on to “constantly” decry “political injustices from their celebrity bully pulpit.” The bully pulpit, of course, is something that is ordinarily associated with historic figures like, say, Theodore Roosevelt, not a falling rock star and his controlling interest.

Next, the biographer claims that in order to deal with the “anguish” of a miscarriage that Ono experienced in May, 1969, the two “hastily recorded two more avante- [sic] garde albums, Life with the Lions—Unfinished Music No. 2 (which features such ‘songs’ as flipping through various radio stations and several minutes of silence) and The Wedding Album (whose entire B-side consists of John and Yoko screaming each other’s name).” At this point the venom of the biographer is almost palpable, especially since 1969 was the year of Abbey Road, yet John had to go form that damned Plastic Ono Band the same year.

“As Lennon spent more time collaborating with Ono, he began to distance himself from the other Beatles”—which is obviously a heinous thing. He wanted to quit the band in late ’69, but “contract negotiations were underway with EMI,” so he kept his mouth shut. Presumably, John was wise enough to know that he wasn’t going to be earning quite the same royalties from things like Unfinished Music as he would from Beatles’ records. In the spring of ’70, Paul McCartney evidently didn’t have such compunction because not only did he release his first solo album, but he publicly announced the End of the Beatles. [I’ll pause here for genuflection and a moment of silence.]

Look at Us!

The Chicago contingent of the Glorious Noise posse. Update: a few more photos, this time from the Blue Ribbon Brothers show at the Edgewater Lounge. [Full disclosure: Derek Phillips (a.k.a. Phil) is both a contributor to Glorious Noise as well as a member of the BRB, and by the way, they’re playing Saturday, the 26th, at the Beat Kitchen – ed.]

DOCTOR, DOCTOR, GIVE ME THE NEWS

Truthful Music Industry Press Conferences? Welcome To The Machine.

Johnny Loftus

The music industry needs their own Ari Fleischer.

As White House press secretary, Fleischer meets with the national and international press to answer questions, dispel myths, and generally put at ease those inquiring minds that wonder just what the US government is doing behind closed doors. (Besides choking on pretzels, of course). To watch Fleischer’s daily press conference is to witness a study in calm – an incredulous display of stressless communication – wherein the ever-pokerfaced Fleischer counsels, cajoles, and gently scolds members of the press corps as they valiantly field their insanely involved questions toward the perpetually bland face of President Bush’s first line of defense.

In recent days, Fleischer’s pressers have dealt principally with the collapse of Enron Technologies, the Houston-based energy broker that recently and imploded. How does the corporation’s rapid collapse reflect on its observers at accounting giant Arthur Anderson? And what does the dissolution of America’s second-largest company mean for the US Government? (The current issue of the Onion wonders sardonically about W’s trail of destruction with Texas-based companies he had a hand in…)

In its current, sprawling configuration, the music industry resembles the notoriously bloated US government. The Big Five – Universal, Sony Music Entertainment, EMI, Warner Brothers, and BMG Entertainment – probably shop at the same department store that stocks those $4,000 bidets and $850 hammers that government hacks are always getting in hot water for purchasing. And in their backroom machinations and shady decision-making regarding the questionable, ahem, entertainment that they foist on the taxpayer, are these behemoths much different from our intrepid lawmakers on Capitol Hill?

The difference is that Washington has Fleischer. Even if he is the king of Bullshit, the Kreskin of truth-bending, Fleischer is still Press Secretary, and is required to stand at his podium each day, fielding questions from sourpussed political reporters. What if the Big Five was made to employ the same post? What if they were required to hold daily press conferences where bitter music critics could accost their representative with pointed inquiries into just where Lifehouse came from, or how much money is spent daily on Shakira’s ever-widening web of hype? There’s no doubt that this mythical music representative would be every bit as wily as his White House counterpart, deftly spinning incoming questions off on themselves and blithely referring inquisitors to a backalley hell of committee meetings held in endlessly beige office corridors leading inevitably to floor 7 ½.

But watching Fleischer’s daily press conferences, there is a faint glimmer of pride in the roundabout discourse. That it exists at all is at least something, even if no one is really getting to the bottom of anything other than the realization that Fleischer is completely unflappable. This does not exist with the Big Five. Yes, there are publicists. Sure, press releases are, er, released. But no one really knows what’s going on in those smoked glass hallways and private dinners. What are the thought processes behind subjecting Americans to the wretched, G-rated rock of The Calling, a group whose music is so boring and fluffy, it makes Michael W. Smith look like GG Allin? This question would never be answered at our fantasmical music industry presser. But wouldn’t it be nice to have the option to ask it?

JTL

Separated at birth?

Ari Fleischer

Ari Fleischer

Jeff Zucker

Jeff Zucker

[Jeff Zucker is president of NBC Television. Perhaps he is also Ari Fleischer. Interesting, isn’t it? – ed.]

Heavy Metal

Word on the street is that when Cadillac prepares to launch its SRX, which is a variant of a sport utility vehicle that’s somewhat smaller than an Escalade, it will be doing so with the background music of a rock dinosaur—I mean dynasty—of day’s past: Led Zeppelin. I suspect that the irony of the name of that band in the context of Cadillac is lost on the people who made the selection. Either that, or they are amusingly subversive. The tune that they’ve culled is Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” Which makes me wonder more about the potential subversion, given that the tune opens:

“It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled”

Which is certainly true of Cadillac, but would they admit it?

Of course, the folks at the automaker are feeling pretty good. After all, JLo has sung about the Escalade (her love may not cost a thing, but it will set you back in excess of $50K for those wheels), and as Mark LaNeve, Cadillac general manager recently stated, “When I first started at Cadillac 21 years ago, Guy Lombardo was about as ‘hip’ as we got. Now we’re getting ‘heavy unpaid rotation’ on MTV and the players’ parking lots of many NBA and NFL stadiums look like Escalade showrooms.”

Now for a historic footnote: Guy Lombardo was a big band leader who began his career in 1924. Guy Lombardo died in 1977. Which means, I suppose, that when LaNeve started at Cadillac in 1980 or ’81, there was a dead guy who was quintessentially Cadillac hip.

Of course, given that the first verse of “Rock and Roll” ends,

“Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time”

maybe that’s right.

The Reel World

Television is an entertainment medium. With the exception of ostensible news programs (let’s not overestimate the veracity of them: there is an array of reasons why the networks can be less than forthright in providing the “news” whether it is in a straight-up “news” show or so-called news “magazine”), what is provided by a network is entertainment, not slices of actual life regardless of the way it is presented. And it should be clear to everyone—though it isn’t—that whatever information/opinion you witness on the screen has been carefully packaged prior to distribution: the News Managers are very careful in what is put out there. Although someone might think that this sounds paranoid, that is far from the case. Rather, this manipulation that I am noting is nothing more than good business sense. Those who are in charge simply want to make sure that (1) the advertisers are happy and (2) the audience will keep coming back for more. And then (1) and (2) feed off of one another. And Broadcast (and cable) is all about the Business.

For reasons not entirely clear to me, there is a fascination among many people with so-called “reality” shows. Consider the term: “reality shows.” The notion of production and entertainment are baked right in. Is this reality? Not in any but a show-biz sense. They are nothing more than performances that can be cost-effectively created by production companies. That is, a fundamental characteristic of a “reality show” is that it employs nonprofessional performers. These aren’t actresses and actors, per se. They are real people, or so they are portrayed. They are evidently not people who have selected acting as a profession—or at least they are not actors who have achieved sufficient awareness among a wide-enough public such that they can’t charge the kinds of fees that known performers are able to charge. What their actual motives are, however, isn’t particularly clear: Some of these reality show actors may be wise enough to know that by acting as a “real” person on a “reality” show they may reach their goal of being a “legit” performer.

What is in any of this for the viewer is not particularly clear. While there might be something to be gained in the way of entertainment by watching people debase themselves in order to gain some ill-gotten loot (think of all of those things from Survivor to Fear Factor), this was perhaps best described by the term “jackass,” as cleverly used by the producers of the game show of that name. And I don’t think they were merely describing the participants.

One of the more dubious undertakings in this reality show genre is now in its 11th season: MTV’s “The Real World.” Let’s completely forget that the term “real” relates to authenticity. Let’s completely ignore the fact that this is reality as constructed by a production company that is as careful in determining who gets airtime as the producers on the no-less manipulative “Pop Stars.” Let’s completely buy in to the notion that this is “real” life.

A somewhat amusing revelation of the level of artificiality of “The Real World” appears in the Chicago Tribune Magazine (1/12/02). It is a piece in the Design section by Lisa Skolnik, who describes the “set/apartment” of this year’s model. Skolnik notes, “The bathroom alone was the size of most studio apartments, and admirably equipped with sleek, futuristic pedestal sinks, enormous shower stalls and suitably singular lighting.” Yep. Sounds real to me. One of the more interesting things Skolnik observes is that the sofa really wasn’t much of a place to place one’s posterior. Skolnik writes:

“The sofa looked great, but it was so tiny none of us could fit on it,” says Tonya, 21, a cast member from Walla Walla, Wash., who’s now back at college is Seattle. “It was really just a padded bench, and when you sat on it half your [rear] stuck out,” seconds Kyle, 22, a cast member from Lake Bluff and a recent Princeton graduate.

Sure, we all have bad furniture. But in this case, the furniture was actually designed. Not for the “real” people in the “real world” that the cameras were allegedly capturing, but for those people who apparently lack real lives by watching people who have no more authenticity than the cast members of “Ozzie and Harriet.” But wait a minute, the Nelsons were real—you know, Ricky and all—right?

Rock and roll can change your life.