Sunday, March 09, 2014

Kat's Korner: Are you listening to Ben Taylor?

Kat: Singer-songwriter and jam master Ben Taylor's touring the West Coast, Tuesday performing in Hermosa Beach, Wednesday in San Francisco, then on to Seattle . . .

This gives me a chance to note his latest album, the one he's promoting right now, Listening

Sun Pedal Recordings released Listening in August 2012.  You may or may not know that.  I didn't until well into 2013.  By which point, it seemed pointless to review it.

Instead, I thought I'd just write it off as another album the digital music de-volution couldn't get behind.

The digital music de-volution has allowed strippers and skanks and men who exploit both to rake up hits -- even if, like Robin Thicke, they just steal from Marvin Gaye.

But real artists?

They struggle.

I've counted my blessings and earned my mistakes 
And I'll see you the next time around
I'm done with the game 
Let there be no mistake
But I'll see you the next time around

That's Ben singing about any number of things but to me it's about the music industry.

He can sing.  He can write a a strong song.  He can play the guitar.  He can make a satisfying album.

But so what?

In 1988, a friend nervously palmed me an audio cassette -- did so in such a way that I was a little alarmed.  It was all very secretive, all very hush-hush.  "Listen," he told me, "it's going to be the most important album of the year."

He was working for a division of Warner Bros., yes.  But I was strictly photography at this point so there was no way he thought I'd be doing a music review.  And it wasn't hype as we understand it.  Hype would have been, "It's going to be the biggest seller of the year."

I tossed it in my purse and forgot about it for a bit until I was stopped at an intersection infamous for it's slow, slow signal change.  Bored with the radio, I remembered the tape and dug around my purse to find it.  The only label was an artist's name.  I'd never heard of him or her before.  I put the tape in my player and . . .

Don't you know 
Talkin' bout a revolution
Sounds like a whisper
Don't you know
Talkin' bout a revolution 
Sounds like a whisper 

Tracy Chapman.  And in many different ways, people across the country got the word out on her self-titled debut which was 1988's best album.

How would a Tracy Chapman break through today?

Bring Jay-Z on her song to rap about beating up women? Twerk on stage in her bra?

What would it take to get her single noticed today?

And grasp that it would only be a single.

U2 just kicked back the planned release of their latest album.  They're going back to the studio and working on it some more. Bono grates on my nerves but I still love Larry, The Edge and Adam so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they were trying to make an album and they're going back into the studio to try to make a better album.

I also give them the benefit of the doubt on that because I want to believe someone still cares about albums.

That wasn't always the case.  The Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, the Rolling Stones and others took popular music into longform art.  It was a mirror of what Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Johnny Mathis and others were already doing in what I'll call the Hit Parade genre.

That's when the world split between a Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band or Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow on FM and, on AM,  the Monkees warbling  "Last Train To Clarksville" -- a song the four actors hired to play a group did not write or play an instrument on.

The kiddies, we all understood, needed to chew on their candy before they'd be old enough to sink their teeth into anything but empty calories.

For good or bad, artists and bands focused on the LP -- the long play album -- and not the 45 vinyl that singles were released on.

When it worked, it was amazing.  Joni Mitchell's Blue, for example, is one of the 20th century's musical classics.  And she didn't have one hit single on it.  Nor did she intend to.  On her follow up album, For The Roses, to appease David Geffen, she wrote "You Turn Me On I'm A Radio" which was the hit he wanted for the album.  Not everyone was so reluctant to have hit singles and most tried to balance the two.

Ben's father got a little bitchy when his then-wife was having hits and it became a mantra for James that he was an album artist and Carly Simon was a singles artist.  It became a mantra Carly picked up and repeated herself.  It wasn't actually true.  James tried over and over for hits but really struggled to write one.  That's why most of his hits are cover songs.  Carly, by contrast, was able to produce satisfying albums with a track or two that could successfully be pulled off to become a hit single.

But heaven forbid the male ego have to face that reality during marriage: That the wife had more talent and creativity than the husband.

Since the marriage ended, the reality's become clear enough even for Sweet Boring James.

When Ben was starting out, nothing destroyed my interest quicker than a mention of his father.

I can remember being excited by Carly's Letters Never Sent and being excited about all of it including the bits leading into songs like "What About A Holiday?" -- which featured Sally Taylor -- and "Time Works On All The Wild Young Men" -- which featured Ben Taylor.

I shared the album with many friends and for every 9 good and smart people there was a Natalie.

Natalie, just FYI, was a friend I dropped quickly. Around the time she married her second husband while passing off another man's child as the second husband's child.  She stayed long enough to spend all his money, then charge him into the poor house, announce her daughter was not his child and leave him for a third husband.  (She would rake up five marriages before the age of 29.  After that, I lose track.)

While nine people could listen and express delight over the riches of the album (which includes Carly's deadly kiss-off "Half Way 'Round The World"), Natalie could only gush, "Oh, that one song!  Where James' son sounds just like him!"

For those who hate women (including women like Natalie who hate other women), 44 seconds will triumph over everything else.  For those like Natalie, they will even insist that Ben sounds exactly like his father.  No, he doesn't.  His voice is richer -- it's the difference between a dark chocolate and a thin wafer or cracker.  Ben's voice is also less nasal and lacks James' intonation problems. At his height, James sang like a boy tenor.  Ben's recordings are of a man singing, not a boy.

But I've heard that crap a lot over the years since 1994 when Letters Never Sent was released.

And it pissed me off and it's pissed others off as well.

It has nothing to do with Ben though it may have harmed his career.  I can remember seeing Famous Among The Barns at Tower when it came up and turning my nose at it because I just wasn't in the mood for all the crap.  Sally Taylor can sing, she can write songs, she's very talented.  No big labels were rushing to sign her.

Ben?  The music industry thought they could make a buck off him and, let's be clear, that was because he was a man.

Well, they couldn't make a buck off him.

Selling him as James Junior went no where.  No surprise.

His father's fans didn't want a clone and the rest of us avoided his father's records for good reason.

Then he ended up on his own and discovering his own voice with 2008's The Legend of Kung Folk Pt. 1 and now he was someone worth listening to.  But it was 2008 and the world of music had changed.

What he had to offer wasn't easily marketed so those who valued it would have a difficult time finding about the album.

Of all the reviews I've done, my May 2009 review of David Saw's Broken Down Figure is one of my favorites. That is an amazing album, one I listen to to this day, that was either overlooked or slammed.  I get e-mails on it to this day.  People discover the album either through the review or discover the album and going looking for reviews and find my positive one.  Either way, they write.  And they are writing these detailed e-mails about Broken Down Figure and what it means and what it specifically means to them.

That's not surprising because it's a rich album.

But by 2009, the digital de-volution meant lots of luck selling an album.

Ben's album came out in August 2012.  He's touring right now to promote it.  That's apparently the only way to get the word out these days.  For all the 'social networks' and apps and other crap, the reality is that we've de-volved into music consumers that just want the hits everyone is singing because, please God, don't you dare let me be even a little different than Billy and Muffy and all the other cool kids.

The digital de-volution preaches and demands conformity.

And the result is what we used to know as Muzac.  Piped in elevator crap, meaningless and not worthy of real attention.

Ben, on his own or with David Saw, can't write a meaningless song.

So he's doomed to cross the country playing his songs and trying to get the word out the way one might have if they were a folk singer in 1961.

I can't forget, I'm always holding you 
I draw you in with every breath
Same song, same sky
So far away 
I sing along to make the time go by
You may be a lot of things but you're not alone, you're not alone

There are so many reasons to love that track including the song itself.  But there's a lot to be said for the production and for Ben's instincts as a singer.  On the latter, he floats the vocal when most would rush it.  Donna Summer was one of the few singers who, if presented with a song with this beat, would have the confidence to float it.

He brings confidence and assurance to the vocal, he keeps it light and he makes it sexy.

It is among the perfect and near perfect songs on his album Listening.

But barring Fox deciding it's the perfect theme for Nick and Jess on New Girl, most people aren't going to hear the song or the album.

The digital de-volution is not assisting music or art currently.  Until that changes, real artists will continue to suffer.  If you're tired of being victimized by the hulled out and hollow 'hits' of today, make a point to check out Ben's Listening.

ben taylor
david saw