New Prince Album Reveals the Creative Process; Slash Just Rocks the Joint on His Return

In the world of music, there is nothing that is more interesting than the creative process. Hell, with ANY artistic endeavor, the most interesting thing is the process of bringing disparate parts together into a cohesive and entertaining form. The late Prince Rogers Nelson were arguably one of those people that had a tremendous artistic process, something that he often kept in secret for simply privacy’s sake. With his new CD, Piano and a Microphone 1983, we see the artist just before his big explosion on the musical scene, working out the kinks on some compositions that would go on to be huge for his career and some that have never seen the light of day. On the other side of the dial, Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash is continuing on without Axl Rose (again) and his new collaboration, his third time teaming with Alter Bridge singer Myles Kennedy and the Conspirators, just flat out rocks.

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In 2016, the music world lost one of its greatest voices and one of its greatest creative musicians when Prince passed away from an opiate overdose. But back in 1983, Prince wasn’t the icon he had become by 2016; Prince was still a man looking to make his mark in the music world. Coming off a highly successful double album in 1999, the man known as the Purple One was considering his next step. One night, with only a microphone and a piano as accompaniment, Prince put some of those ideas onto a simple cassette tape.

The result of the recording session was the latest release from “The Vault,” the treasure trove of Prince material that was locked up for decades in his Paisley Park home. Entitled Piano and a Microphone 1983, the nine-song CD clocks in at less than 40 minutes (37, if you’d like the exact number). But what Piano and a Microphone 1983 shows is the artist in the midst of the creative process as well as some of the genius behind that process.

Leading off the album is “17 Days,” one of your typical Prince-type songs that one would expect but, stripped down to just the piano, is riveting. The fact that it is a “Prince-type song” isn’t surprising as Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin, who were part of The Revolution, helped in the writing of the song (along with Revolution keyboardist Matthew “Doctor” Fink). From there, Prince goes into a little noodling of what would become “Purple Rain,” but the version found on this album is melancholier then you might expect. Other songs that Prince would become known for – “International Lover” from 1999 and “Strange Relationship,” which would show up on 1987’s Sign O’ the Times, also make their experimental debuts here.

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It is when Prince delves into new material that the CD takes on a life of its own. Prince performs a cover of the African-American spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep,” with a blues styling for the song bringing out so much emotion you can actually feel what Prince is trying to say. The song was used in director Spike Lee’s latest film BlacKKKlansman because Lee felt it was perfect for the film. After unveiling the emotions for “Mary Don’t You Weep,” Prince then goes back into his “funky era” with a song called “Cold Coffee & Cocaine,” complete with James Brown-esque yelps and howls. He wraps up the compilation with a beautiful song called “Why the Butterflies,” an amazing coda to a short practice session.

Even though it is fascinating to listen to the creative process that Prince is going through with the creation of this music, I’m still a little bit disappointed. It is obvious that Prince never meant for these tapes to be released; at certain points in the recording, he clears his throat, speaks directly to the technician in the studio recording this session (surprisingly, Prince tells him to turn the tape over, as if he knew how long he had been playing) or clears his throat with a cough. For Prince’s family to release these songs from “The Vault” as the first posthumous music from Prince, I feel it takes a little bit away from not only the man himself and his tremendous process in creating such wonderful music but also cheapens what should have been a grandiose occasion.

Even with this criticism, Piano and a Microphone 1983 is a priceless piece of music from what was one of America’s greatest artist. Prince may not be with us anymore, but “The Vault” should provide us with decades of music to come. Just imagine what jewels await us from Prince? Piano and a Microphone 1983 is simply the first chip off the diamond that Prince and his music was.

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Somebody who may be as prolific as Prince in the musical output department is Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash. While Axl Rose was sitting around for the decade or so after Guns N’ Roses’ last release in 1993, Slash would go on to do his own music with a dizzying array of talent backing him up. Counting the five albums he did with the Gunners, Slash has also put up two albums with Velvet Revolver, two with Slash’s Snakepit, and one straight solo album, not to mention guesting on several songs by such artists as the late Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, Bad Company’s Paul Rogers and Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies, Alice Cooper and Rhianna. Slash’s latest album is Living the Dream (technically his 13th studio release) and it features some of that talent in vocalist Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge and an array of talented musicians called The Conspirators, who are joining Slash for their third album together.

Although his time in Guns N’ Roses has made him a hard rock and metal icon, Slash goes into his own style when he picks up with Kennedy and The Conspirators, a simply hard driving, blues-based rock and roll approach that you really don’t hear much of anymore. From the start with the song “The Call of the Wild,” Slash and Kennedy groove together instantly, with Kennedy’s soaring vocals only outdone by Slash’s crunching guitars. This continues on through such songs as “My Antidote”  and “Mind Your Manners,” but there are two songs in particular that deserve mention from this record.

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First song of note from Living the Dream is “Lost Inside the Girl,” a very good up-tempo rocker that is a love song about a lady that has entranced Kennedy. The song that is really the piece de resistance on the album is its first release, “Driving Rain.” It is a typical trope for rock musicians – a song about being out on the road and having to come through a whole lot of pain and torture to get to the one that you love  – but it displays both Kennedy and Slash at the top of their game. Both of these tunes are well worth the price of admission for Living the Dream.

Whether you’re looking for the remembrance of a great artist that has passed far too soon or you’re looking for something from a rocker who is still cranking it out at 53 years old, you can’t go wrong with these two releases.  Piano and a Microphone 1983 from Prince and Living the Dream from Slash featuring Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators, while offering greatly diverse material, will give you plenty of enjoyment if you’re willing to take the ride.

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Dear Bernie Fans: Don’t Become the Democratic StormTrumpers

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Since the campaign started immediately following the second inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, it seems that there has been a course. On the GOP side, they rolled out a clown car of buffoons, religious zealots, has beens and never weres and even three civilians, just to give the right seasoning to the idiocy. Now they are down to a representative of each of those categories and I will let you figure out where they go.

On the Democrats side, however, they were supposed to be the adults in the room. They put up a solid policy person in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who seemed as if she were a shoo-in for the nomination, but some challengers arose. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was supposed to represent the “new guard” of the Dems (at the wet-behind-the-ears age of 53), while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was to represent the progressive side of the party. On the way to the coronation of Hillary Clinton as the nominee – she did, after all, swallow her pride and take a position in President Obama’s cabinet following his crushing defeat of her in 2008 – a strange thing happened:  the people listened to someone else.

Much like the knuckle draggers who began listening to the rantings of a lunatic on the GOP side (once again, take your pick of lunatic), some on the Democratic side found a message in the anti-Establishment rhetoric of the Independent Senator from Vermont, Sanders. An avowed democratic socialist (definition:  while businesses can run just fine and not under government ownership, heavy taxes WILL be paid by those companies; the money then will fund several social programs that will lift all boats, such as free college and other items), Sanders’ message first alit on the ears of the youth, then on those who were disillusioned with having to look at another Clinton taking a turn in the White House.

Sanders stunned Clinton from the start, battling to a near draw in Iowa before moving onto his backyard in New Hampshire and taking the bellwether state by a large margin. Clinton regained her footing by romping through the South in early March, but Sanders hasn’t gone anywhere. Of the 33 primaries or caucuses that have been held to this date (with the delegate-rich state of New York up for grabs on Tuesday), Sanders has won 16 of them, primarily states with large white demographics and large college towns that will probably be Republican states come November (Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, etc.).

Sanders’ performance has not only driven out every other candidate in the Democratic race (O’Malley at least made it to the first primary in Iowa before dropping out; Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb and Lawrence Lessig didn’t even make it that far), he’s getting the attention of many in the Democratic Party. Noted director Spike Lee led a pro-Sanders campaign ad that featured such fellow Hollywood celebrities as Rosario Dawson, Susan Sarandon and Dr. Cornell West and other celebrities such as Danny DeVito, Sarah Silverman and Mark Ruffalo (the Hulk in the Avenger movies as well as a two-time Academy Award nominee) have also come out in support of Sanders’ campaign.

But as the campaign has gone along, Sanders has been the victim of the political system. For the first time in ages, the Democratic usage of superdelegates may have an impact on the outcome of the primary. While only behind Clinton by a bit more than 200 elected delegates – those that are allotted by the results of the primaries – Sanders is vastly behind Clinton in the pledged superdelegates that the party uses as a final check on the results of the primaries. Of those pledged superdelegates, Sanders has earned 31; Clinton has picked up 469. Thus, when some news outlets post the delegate count, they show it as a rout for Clinton, 1758-1076, without pointing out that the superdelegates are a huge factor in that count.

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Once again much like the StormTrumpers of a particular candidate in the GOP race, the Sanders forces have been responding in similar manners. During a fundraiser held by actor George Clooney and his wife, Amal, for Democratic candidates in San Francisco on Friday night, Sanders supporters protested the fundraiser and Clinton, refusing to look at the work that the fundraiser was doing for “down the ballot” candidates in the upcoming races (of the nearly $350,000 raised, approximately $300,000 of it was to go to the Democratic National Committee and candidates from the Democratic Party in several states; Sanders has done little to no campaigning for fellow Democrats in their races). Hurling insults at Clinton’s motorcade and carrying derogatory signs, the Sanders supporters seemed to lack the knowledge of what the Clooneys have done for people, if anything else.

Then there’s the tactics that are straight out of Roger Stone’s handbook (if you’re in a cave, Roger Stone is the GOP “strategist” who works with Drumpf). According to many superdelegates, phone calls as late as 2AM have been made by Sanders supporters to their homes. Many of these persons who have issues with the superdelegate process have taken to populating websites and databases such as those called the “Superdelegate Hitlist” (perhaps noting the murderous tone, it now is the “Superdelegate List”). Those that venture online and attempt logical discussion with Sanders supporters on the Democratic process are often met with a literal wall of non-discourse and, when discussion is taken to the nth degree, commentary that seems as if it has come from a StormTrumper themselves.

The battle between Sanders and Clinton has had moments when it has been an excellent exchange of ideas and viewpoints as to the future of the Democratic Party and perhaps even the United States itself. Lately, however, the civility that the two candidates have carried has been fraying a bit, perhaps because they’ve been at this for several months and there’s still a long time until the convention in July. What the candidates – and what their supporters – have to remember, however, is that they are all on the same side.

Unlike the train wreck that is occurring before our eyes on the GOP tracks, the Democrats have two excellent choices. While neither is perfect, either one presents a logical and practical future for the United States in both domestic and foreign policy. Clinton’s vision is one of pragmatism and hard work; Sanders’ is one of bold steps that would alter many aspects of life in these United States. But with either one, the option is better than what is slobberingly gazing from the opposite side.

Over the past few months, we’ve seen a U. S. Senate who will not even consider doing their jobs – the work of leading the country – over confirming a nominee for Associate Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. We’ve seen several states enact draconian legislation against LGBT persons, knocking them down to second-class citizens because of a “religious freedom” to be as fucking bigoted as they can be. We’ve also seen one candidate on the GOP side freely admit that the U. S. should be led as a “Christian nation,” despite the fact the Constitution that he seems to so lovingly want to follow says that something such as that should NEVER be done. Do you really want three or four SCOTUS seats, more “religious freedom” bullshit and other social doctrines attacked by whomever comes out of the GOP coven?

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Look, Sanders supporters, I get it. You’re tired of the same old politics and want a change. Through his very candidacy, Sanders has garnered the attention for those changes. But if his supporters continue to call those that support Clinton “Democratic whores,” it’s going to be a bit difficult to be able to keep him in the mix or potentially even consider some of those ideas he has so powerfully presented so far.

The ability to look at things logically and, if the facts demonstrate that the fight is truly unwinnable, to be able to accept whatever prize can be gained from the battle is one of the measures of compromise that this nation is built on. To either downgrade Clinton or pout in your rooms and not vote if “your guy” doesn’t win is juvenile at best. Look logically at the situation and hopefully the skies will clear…if you don’t want Iran in the Western Hemisphere as a theocratic government for the U. S., the only way to go is with the eventual Democratic nominee, whoever it is.

For Minorities, It’s Better to Have Deserving Oscar Nominees Than Token Lip Service

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There used to be a time when I went to the movies quite frequently. I was, at one point in my life, very active in seeing Hollywood’s greatest – and sometimes not-so-great – cinematic efforts as soon as they came out, simply for the entertainment value of it all (at that time, I was also working in radio, so I used it as fodder for my on-air commentary). Thus, I was at one time quite knowledgeable when it came down to the films that were nominated for the Academy Awards and the actors and directors that were put up in their particular categories.

As the years have gone by, however, I’ve gotten less tolerant of what goes on in movie theaters. Maybe it’s the price that is being paid to get into seeing these cinematic efforts. There was a time you could pay as little as $.50 to see a film that came out three months previous and, if it was in its first week of release, you could catch the matinee for $2.50 or $3; now, you can’t touch a film for under $7.50 in its first week and these bargain movie theaters don’t exist for the most part. Maybe it’s the concessions and the jacked-up prices there, maybe it’s the incivility of the people going to the movies…I’ve gotten to the point that I wait until the film I REALLY want to see comes to my house On Demand where I can sit with my microwave popcorn and my beverage of choice in my recliner and watch the movie (not to mention if I have to go to the bathroom, I just pause the film). Thus, my knowledge of the movie world isn’t quite as extensive as it has been in the past.

When the 2016 Academy Awards announced their nominees last week, I took note accordingly to potentially get some ideas for Movie Night with my lovely wife. Unfortunately, from looking at the Best Picture nominations, there aren’t many that will pass both of our stringent guidelines. Trumbo may be something that interests me (and thus might see Bryan Cranston’s Best Actor nominated role), but Lovely Wife may be interested in something along the lines of Joy or  Brooklyn (knocking off one of the Best Picture nominees and Jennifer Lawrence, who earned another Best Actress nomination). As you can see, the Movie Night decision is a difficult one in the Burton household (the last movie watched? Inside Out and don’t judge us…that was a more adult film than many you get out of Hollywood!).

The point being made here is that, from the glance over the list of nominees, there were some excellent choices made by the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Some may tilt the head a bit at Mad Max:  Fury Road or The Martian, two films that were extremely popular with moviegoers, but this installment of the Mad Max franchise was a visually stunning and exhausting exercise for viewers while The Martian was a well told story. In the acting categories, there were no weak spots save for maybe the sentimental nomination of Sylvester Stallone in the Best Supporting Actor category for bringing back his iconic boxer Rocky Balboa in Creed (he’s probably also the favorite, however). The one thing I didn’t think of was “Who do I drop so that some minority actors can get into the mix? What film do I eliminate so that a minority film gets some attention?”

Most of the attention after the announcement of the nominees for the Oscars has been the factor that, over the five major awards (Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actor and Actress and, hell, let’s throw in Best Director just for shits and giggles), no minority actor – and, in particular, no black actors – were nominated for any of the awards. This was a point brought up by the host of this year’s Oscars telecast, comedian Chris Rock, who Tweeted that the Oscars had become “the White BET Awards.”

While that was probably meant half funny/half serious, what has happened since has been all serious. The wife of actor Will Smith (who himself has supposedly done some great work in the movie Concussion as the doctor who discovered CTE in pro football players – I only say supposedly because I haven’t seen the film), Jada Pinkett-Smith, went on a tirade about how black actors should boycott the Academy Awards ceremonies over the lack of “diversity in nominations.” For his part, director Spike Lee has jumped on the bandwagon also, saying that he will not attend as a protest over the situation.

A boycott or protest are completely unnecessary on several aspects. First, the head of the AMPAS has noted that the organization is in the midst of changing its membership and, as that takes time, seismic shifts aren’t going to happen overnight. In an announcement following Pinkett-Smith’s hissy fit, AMPAS president Cheryl Boone said “dramatic steps” were being taken to “alter the makeup of our membership” to become more diverse, but more time was needed. The average member of AMPAS is a white male that is 62 years of age so, yes, it needs some changes. Boone and those in charge are sharp to realize this and some time has to be given to be able to make those changes.

Second, would you rather have token actors and/or directors on the list rather than those who actually did outstanding work? When Denzel Washington and Halle Berry swept the Best Actor trophies in 2002, they were the most outstanding actors in film that year. When the movie 12 Years a Slave and actor Lupita Nyong’o won Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress in 2013, they were the best in those respective fields that year. I would rather see people nominated when they arguably deserve the nomination, not just because they are of a particular racial background.

Sure, there were some great performances this year by black actors (and, since this seems to be where much of the screaming is coming from, let’s focus here). The movie Straight Outta Compton was one of the bigger success stories of the year (grossing $188 million by the end of 2015, the best in the history of musical biopics), but which person gets the Best Actor nomination from the five men who performed as the rap group N.W.A. (as an aside, one of my favorite actors from Leverage, Aldis Hodge, was a part of that group)? O’Shea Jackson, Jr., might be the logical choice, but he was simply playing his father, Ice Cube, not a huge leap in any stretch.

Then there’s John Boyega, who is the British actor currently starring in the final three installments of the Star Wars franchise, starting with Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, as Finn. Now, since I haven’t seen this film as of yet, I have to go on reports that say he has done an outstanding job of portraying a Stormtrooper whose loyalties are strained, and this may well be deserving of an acting nomination. But did you see how many Academy Award nominations that Star Wars:  The Force Awakens got overall? Five nominations are great for a film, but all were in technical categories, none of them in any acting categories.

There’s also some other well-known black actors, such as Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), Will Smith (Concussion), Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and Latin actor/director Benicio del Toro (Sicario), who weren’t chosen for their roles on screen in 2016. I don’t believe that they are being slighted in any way due to their skin tone or racial background. It more than likely is due to a certain snootiness of Oscar voters – who will often go for “artistic” films rather than “popular” ones when it comes to the Academy Awards – more so than any conspiracy over skin color.

Finally, there’s the simple logic of the numbers. Most of the films that come out of Hollywood feature actors that are Caucasians. In a study in 2014 from the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, only 10.5% of the 172 films that were released in 2011 featured minorities in lead roles. The study found that many of those films were comedies, such as efforts from noted black director Tyler Perry, and films like the action flick Fast Five, not exactly the fare that Academy Award voters are considering. Furthermore, more than half the films (51.2%) featured a cast that was 10% minority or less, the study found. You’d like to think that, by this point, it might have gotten better, but apparently not to the point where it would have an impact on the nominations.

What is the answer to the lack of minority nominees for the Academy Awards? Simply time and the proper vehicles. The more diverse that AMPAS becomes, perhaps the more diverse the nominee list will become also. Additionally, when there are more quality films for minority actors and directors to take part in – instead of movies like White Chicks – then perhaps the attention of AMPAS will be attracted. Either way, it isn’t a situation that will be fixed overnight.