Thursday, March 8, 2012

Musical Left Turns

I was thinking about doing a best of 2011 post regarding movies and music, but I don't think I'm there yet; I simply haven't seen all the movies from 2011 I wanted to see yet, so I don't think it's fair to judge at this stage. Musically, 2011 was a great year for innovation, if you knew where to look, which brings me to this post's topic: by musical left turns, I'm referring to experiments by bands and recording artists where they venture into musical territory with which they are not normally associated. Sometimes the experiment is a colossal failure, sometimes it is mildly interesting, and then other times, you sit back and wonder, "Why haven't they tried this before?" To that end, I present a handful of musical left turns; if you feel so inclined, suggest some I haven't heard.

Garth Brooks: The Life of Chris Gaines
This one fits into the "mildly interesting" category, mostly because it really isn't too musically different from what Garth was doing at the time musically. There was an image change for the album, but it stands now more as an unintentional indictment of the homogenisation of country music in the 90s into something more like pop-rock, something that continues to this day. About the most unusual track on the album is "My Love Tells Me So", which is a perfect slice of faux-80s pop, and the one thing that elevates this entry from, "What was he thinking?" to "mildly interesting."

Harry Connick, Jr.: She & Star Turtle
Harry Connick, Jr. was shaping up to be the second coming of Frank Sinatra (standards singer, movie career) when he dropped She on an unsuspecting public. To be known for lavish jazz arrangements and smooth vocals and suddenly release a pair of funk albums definitely qualifies as a left turn. Still employing longtime collaborator Tracey Freeman as producer, Connick assembled a funk/soul band and put together a raw, spacious sound that was equal parts Earth, Wind & Fire, James Brown and Steely Dan. If you were to ask most Connick stalwarts, they hated the new sound. Me? I really enjoyed it, and loved what it did to his overall sound: Connick became more daring and experimental, not content to simply play standards. Listen to his Christmas albums Harry for the Holidays and What a Night!, as well as Oh, My NOLA and Your Songs. Definitely a "Why haven't they tried this before" entry.

Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Raising Sand
More of a stretch for Plant than Krauss. Most of us are used to Plant's wailing vocals as lead singer of Led Zeppelin and solo, so bluegrass seemed an ill fit, but given the right collaborators, Plant turned in an album that straddles "mildly interesting" and "why hasn't he tried this before?"

Bjork: Medulla
Bjork is constantly experimenting musically; her latest album comes with its own iPod app to allow you to explore and manipulate the content, but this album was a curiosity when it came out: an a capella album, featuring contributions from Mike Patton, who we'll get to later in the list and Rahzel "the human beatbox." Bjork has always had a unique vocal style, and when people think a capella, my best guess is that they're usually thinking of doo-wop revivals like The Nylons, vocal experimentation like Bobby McFerrin or the likes of Straight No Chaser; Medulla winds up challenging all notions of a capella by combining elements of opera, hip-hop, techno and modern pop. It's a fascinating listen, and definitely in the "why didn't she try this before?" category.

The Honeydrippers: Volume One
Plant makes the page again, this time with Led Zeppelin cohort Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, as well as a passel of studio musicians recreating the early days of rock & roll, ranging from doo-wop ballads to blues. It shouldn't be a secret that the blues are no stretch for Zep alums, but the first single, "Sea of Love", was something completely different, and it worked.

Mike Patton: Mondo Cane
Much like Bjork, with whom he collaborated on Medulla, Mike Patton is a musical chameleon with a unique voice. Unlike Bjork, Patton's voice is chameleonic to the extent that he can sing anything. Hence, an album of Italian pop songs, including the theme to the 60s camp comic-book film Danger: Diabolik, "Deep Deep Down". Patton makes it look easy on this quantum leap from his Faith No More and Mr. Bungle days. Worth repeated listens.

Korn: The Path of Totality
Anyone out there familiar with dubstep? The current dance music craze with dramatically slowed-down beats and the wobbling wawawawawa bass lines that seem to extend far below the range of human hearing? Ever heard of Skrillex? While this might seem to be a strange bedfellow for the typically self-loathing nu-metal of Korn, because of its similarities to industrial rock, it makes for a better than expected fit. The best track on the album, hands down, is Narcissistic Cannibal, but the rest of the tracks aren't exactly slouching. Though I don't expect them to continue in the dubstep idiom beyond this album, I'm certain it will influence future works.

ABC: Beauty Stab
Lumped in with the New Romantic movement, based on the success of their debut album, ABC was suffering an identity crisis: as one of the rare bands out there with a full-time string and horn section, where to go from a super-successful worldwide debut? If you're Martin Fry, Mark White and Stephen Singleton, you ditch the mini-orchestra and release a stripped down rock album with a smattering of saxophone (since sax was essential in 1983) and wait for the accolades. And wait. And wait. And watch as your fans abandon you faster than rats on the Titanic. My take? I like Beauty Stab. I like it a lot. It's an album that's more Rolling Stones than Roxy Music, and for the better IMHO. If you can find it, it's worth a listen beyond "That Was Then, But This is Now", arguably one of the weaker tracks on the album.

Any other left turns you think I should look at, either from the "what were they thinking?" paradigm, since I can't resist a train wreck, or otherwise? Let me know in the comments.