KT Tunstall and fans make a video

Singer-songwriter KT Tunstall has enlisted the help of fans for “Glamour Puss,” her latest YouTube adventure.

The video compiles clips from fans performing on a variety of instruments (from slide guitar to drums to bottles) to support Tunstall’s sassy rock vocal.

It’s an excellent example of a way forward for the music industry that encourages collaboration and participation rather than one-sided consumption. Rock on KT!

Folds/Hornby collaborate on new CD (review)

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
Lonely Avenue
Nonesuch CD

Nick Hornby has written eloquently about pop songs in the novel High Fidelity and the essay collection Songbook. But what happens when he tries his hand at being a lyricist? On Lonely Avenue, his first musical collaboration with singer-songwriter Ben Folds, Hornby makes the leap convincingly, suggesting that he belongs in the musical realm not just as an astute commentator, but as a full-fledged participant.

Of course, it certainly helps that Hornby’s lyrics are married to eloquent, often poignant, music by Folds. Indeed, Lonely Avenue is his most musically ambitious and wide-ranging effort to date; yet it’s uniformly distinguished. Perhaps in response to the rich lyrical terrain he has before him, Folds incorporates a number of stylistic inflections this time out, from savvily arranged seventies pop to undulating minimalism and from sensitive balladry to brash piano punk.

The CD contains at least three “single-worthy” cuts: “Doc Pomus,” “Picture Window,” and “From Above.” Folds’ piano-playing is as supple as ever – he cooks up some brilliant flourishes on “Doc Pomus” and rocks out with abandon on “Your Dogs.” The arrangements highlight Folds’ piano, but also feature strings and effervescent instrumental contributions and backing vocals from the indie pop duo Pomplamoose.

While one hopes that Hornby doesn’t quit writing compelling stories and cultural criticism anytime soon, he’s welcome to keeping work as a lyricist in the rotation!

Antony and the Johnsons: Swanlights (Review)

Antony and the Johnsons
Secretly Canadian

Swanlights, Antony Hegarty’s fourth Secretly Canadian LP, is his most musically adventurous recording to date. That said, he doesn’t lose sight of any of the focal points of his previous releases. Antony and the Johnsons still craft music that has one foot in the pop singer-songwriter domain (“The Spirit Was Gone”) and the other in a wondrous kingdom devoted to the post-folk aesthetic (“Everything is New”).

But there are forays into still more adventurous terrain here. His duet with Björk on “Fletta” could seem, at first blush, like an overt attempt to add some star power to proceedings. But it’s hardly a marketing ploy. Placed on the back half of the album, it serves as a meeting place for two famously stylized vocalists: a high wire prospect to say the least. But Antony and Björk, while remaining distinct entities on the track (how could they not?), come together as a felicitous pairing, singing dovetailed phrases and stacked harmonies that are both effusive and elegant. Correspondingly, the piano-only arrangement channels a bit of the character of Vespertine’s post-classical ambience.

Elsewhere, Hegarty and company explore other classical reference points too. “Ghost” is rife with minimal piano ostinatos and awash with string section underpinnings, all buoying a sumptuously soaring vocal. The chamber orchestra returns for “Salt Silver Oxygen,” creating a pastoral ambience that accompanies Antony’s elfin double-tracked vocals.

But Swanlights isn’t all longhair charts for strings. On the single-worthy “Thank you for Your Love,” Antony is backed up by a horn section, supply singing a modern day version of blue-eyed soul. If the song presents itself as a comfortable echo of Antony’s previous work, it’s a most welcome reminder of his uncanny ability to thoroughly inhabit a warmly embracing hook with affecting earnestness. That quality is most welcome in the often jaded terrain of today’s indie pop.

Antony and the Johnsons appear live on 10/30 in New York City at Alice Tully Hall

Sting’s Symphonicities: new CD, concerts at the Met

As David Itzkoff reported in the NY Times yesterday, tonight and tomorrow, Sting will be appearing at the most venerable of venues: the Metropolitan Opera House! But instead of being backed by his own band, reuniting with the Police, or even engaging in a revival of his Elizabethan-era lute song collaboration with Edin Karamazov, he will be accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. They will be presenting selections from Sting’s new album Symphonicities.

Sting plus symphony

The Deutsche Grammophon recording reprises Sting’s back catalogue, treating a dozen songs from his work with the Police and as a solo artist to full blown orchestral renditions. Abetted by conductor/arrangers Rob Mathes and Steven Mercurio, Sting refashions some of his biggest hits — Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” and “Roxanne” among them — as well as lesser known songs: “I Hung My Head,” “The Pirate’s Bride,” etc.

Given Sting’s longstanding interest in classical music – his first solo effort included liberal quotations from Prokofiev – and his recent forays into concert repertory – singing Dowland and Schubert, narrating Prokofiev and Schumann – perhaps a symphonic project was inevitable. And some of Symphonicities works quite a bit better than most pop-orchestra collaborations. Those songs which previously included classical instrumentation, such as “Englishman in New York” and “When we Dance,” actually serve to more fully realize the proto-symphonic ambitions of the pop originals to stirring affect. Repertoire from the brooding Soul Cages LP, such as “We Work the Black Seam,” with its darkly hued harmonies and a more expansive formal design than your average pop song, also lend themselves to orchestration.

By now, Sting’s versatility and curiosity are well known. These two traits alone are enough to explain his willingness – some scoffers might say temerity – to tour with a renown orchestra and appear at one of the most important opera houses in the world. But Symphonicities also serves as a reminder of why Sting has in recent years steadily moved away from more straightforward pop ventures and toward crossover projects: to preserve both his voice and his hearing.

In his late fifties, Sting still possesses a suave croon, and the ballad numbers on the DG recording are served well. But he’s no longer entirely comfortable above the staff. Even a bevy of background singers can’t save “Every Little Thing She Does (is Magic)” from sounding strained. On “Roxanne,” Sting abandons the upper register altogether, murkily riffing on the tune in a faux-improv down the octave. Since the song’s clarion – stratospheric – cries were a signature element of its appeal, one cannot help but feel a little let down.

That said, the care with which the music on Symphonicities has been prepared, and the musicality which both singer and ensemble display in abundance, set it a cut above many crossover affairs.

Two Keyboards Week begins: Perfume Genius (video)

We’ll be spotlighting several recent releases that feature keyboard duos this week on File Under ?.

The first is a song by Perfume Genius (Michael Hadreas). He’s just recorded a live session in support of Learning, his debut Matador LP. We’ve included a video excerpt below.

We’re very enamored with the lead-off single, “Mr. Peterson;” so is Pitchfork (they named it one of their best new music tracks)! This dystopian ballad presents an ambiguous tale with just the right amounts of reminiscence, vulnerability, regret, and lingering pain to make it a bit creepy, but both believable and affecting.

And a four-hand offering from Perfume Genius:


Check back later in the week for keyboard duos in strikingly different contexts, CD & concert reviews, and more Sound Cloud offerings of my music!