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Beating the Slump

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Pop music is in turmoil. Britney is drowning in her success, Justin crossed over to hip-hop and Pink went punk and lost touch with fans.

Billboard’s bookies are feverishly looking to make up for what’s lost. Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguilera aside, bookmakers bank on comeback records from golden oldies like Prince, Blondie, Alanis and even “MMMbop” boy trio Hanson who are releasing new music in April.

More potent remedies to the pop slump are in closer reach than you might think. Take for example JC Chasez’s debut album “Schizophrenic.” This effort will surprise many even though the odds are against him.

The lead singer of teen sensation *N SYNC is challenged to shed his tame boyband image while avoiding comparisons to band mate and pal Justin Timberlake.

This odd case of double jeopardy has worked fully in Chasez’s favor. “Schizophrenic” starts where Timberlake left off. The album has a distinct mature sound, versatile vocals and no less than 15 diverse tracks that should withstand the public’s rigorous test of comparison.

Timberlake’s millions-grossing collaboration with The Neptunes focused primarily on hip-hop infused pop. Chasez has taken the chance to experiment with a lot more genres that are all packaged in a sleek pop outfit, including hip-hop, funk, electroclash and even reggae.

The ex-Mickey Mouse Club actor co-wrote all of the songs on this album with an illustrious bunch of collaborators such as long-time friend Robb Boldt, R&B hero Dallas Austin and electronica wizards Basement Jaxx. The singer also worked with Jaxx’ Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton on their “Kish Kash” album.

Chasez recently became the latest victim of tighter broadcast decency guidelines when the NFL refused to let him perform his single “Some Girls” at the Pro Bowl All-Star Football Game. In turn, the celebrity refused to sing the national anthem at the event.

The song is a lean percussion tune that might imply sexual content, but which is in fact playful and flirtatious when Chasez sings, “Some girls dance with women. Knowing that it gives them attention. And I wanna get in with them.”

On “She Got Me,” Chasez takes cues from late 70s soul and disco with a mellow feel-good groove that is reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s work on “Off The Wall.” With fitting high-pitch vocals he croons about a new-found love who “was such a find. It's like she was designed.”

Chasez is particularly strong on the album’s hooky ballads “Build My Word,” “Dear Goodbye” and “Lose Myself.” He is able to translate his vulnerability into profoundly intimate love songs that convey great vocal timing and sensitivity

His experimentation with 80s electroclash on “All Day Long I Dream About Sex” and “ Come To Me” works out well. The synth pounding dance tunes prove that electronica remains musically relevant in today’s hip-hop oriented pop scene.

On the other hand, Chasez fails with the reggae tune “Everything You Want,” which is dull at best with an odd synthetic instrumentation and Sting-inspired vocals.

He adds a nice gay flavor to the thumbing “One Night Stand,” which includes a sample of Donna Summer’s Studio 54 classic “I Feel Love.”

“Schizophrenic” turns out to be a surprisingly good effort from an artist who has clearly outgrown his boyband roots. JC Chasez delivers the goods quite effortlessly without feeling restraint by listeners’ expectations and musical boundaries.

March 31, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Feelin' Dizzee

Boy George once told me that people should pay more attention to hip hop. "It as groundbreaking as pop was in the sixties," he said.

He was right.

Artists like Jay-Z, Missy Elliot and Busta Rhymes have artistically moved the genre to a whole new level of creativity.

Dizzee Rascal, 19, is taking his music even further. The British MC makes hip hop look cool again with his fusion of hip hop, UK garage, dance hall, techno, and most importantly, his fierce and powerful delivery.

Rascal’s debut album “Boy In Da Corner” was the surprising winner of the Mercury Music Prize, the British Grammy equivalent, for Album of the Year in 2003.

Dizzy Rascal grew up in government housing in London’s East End. His lyrics vividly portray the angst of living on the streets with stories about violence, robbery and teen pregnancy. The prodigy admits, “music was my only option. It was my only way out.”

He recently showcased his genre-busting music at Miami's Winter Music Conference and Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival. “I just wanted to stretch the boundaries,” Rascal tells Arjan about his music. “It is not about me being angry or pissed off. It is all a matter of delivery. I want to do something new. Something that I like.”

March 28, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Amber Feels Like Reborn

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Dance diva Amber loves her club fans but is ready to do something different. After a bitter financial and creative dispute with Tommy Boy Records, the Dutch singer is preparing the independent release of her new album “My Kind Of World” early this spring.

In the meantime, the singer of chart-toppers such as “This Is the Night” and “Sexual (Li Da Di)” will be touring the country to perform old hits for her adoring fans.

Together with famed production duo the Berman Brother, she sang songs like “One More Night” and “Above The Clouds” to the top of the international pop charts. With her sexy videos, powerful vocals and the Berman’s hooky productions she became of one the most successful club singers of the last five years.

One might think Amber is on top of the world with all her success. The truth reveals otherwise. “The past few years have been difficult, but I feel I have paid my dues and I’m ready to move on,” she tells Arjan in an exclusive phone interview from her home in upstate New York.

Amber calls the hits she made with the Berman Brothers “shallow” and not the type of music she wanted to put out. Her father is a professional opera singer and her mother is piano teacher, and Amber was looking to challenge herself more musically.

Even with her club hits, Amber claims she has always tried to take her dance music to a different level. It is not all just “boom boom boom.”

Amber, who is now in her thirties, explains that she was naive when she first entered the record business and agreed to contracts and terms that were not in her best interest. “When I started my career I signed a deal with the devil,” she says. “Publishing rights were stolen from me. So many ugly things happened.”

The singer believes that chart success does not always benefit the artist so much financially. “People are wrong if they think that all pop stars live like those celebrities on MTV Cribs,” she says. “There is only a very small percentage of records sales that actually ends up with the artist. Most of it goes right into the pockets of the record label.”

“What has always been an issue for me in this industry is to be controlled by other people,” she explains. “Controlled in terms of what to think, how to act and how to look. I don’t like that and when it boils down to being an artist you want to be able to have full freedom of creation.”

Amber’s dream of making music her way finally comes true with the forthcoming release of “My Kind Of World.” The first single is a rocky guitar track called “You Move Me.” She co-wrote and produced the album with long-time collaborator Wolfram Dettki

She describes the songs as “electronica” with “a darker sound” that is “very emotional.”

She is not afraid she might alienate a large portion of her fans with a new sound. “Fans come and fans go,” she insists. “I cannot live my life pleasing everybody around me if I’m not happy in the first place.”

“No worries there will still be mixes,” she quips.

March 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6)

Playing With The Boys

There are superstar DJs in the club world that gays flock to see, and they usually have at least one thing in common: a Y chromosome. But there’s one DJ out there who’s getting everyone’s panties in a twist.

Twisted Dee is one of the few lesbian DJs on the club circuit, and has been spinning dance music since she was in her early teens. Raised in an Italian family on Long Island, Dee (whose real name is Denise Gurney) has slowly but surely gained the respect of club-goers and peers.

Today, Friday, March 19, she celebrates the release of her debut compilation remix album “Addiction” at Apex in D.C. Arjan spoke with Twisted Dee from South Beach, Fla., where she was preparing her gig at the annual Winter Party event.

How did you get your start as a DJ?
My father owned one of the first disco/nightclubs on Long Island. I was fascinated with the whole club scene and I used to help out during the day. I wanted to learn more about the business and get into it. The DJ who was there taught me how to work the equipment. I started to play more at home and at high school functions. When I was 17, I got my first job at a real club.

How do you describe your music?
Well, people won’t walk away with a headache. I play feel-good house music, covering the whole gamut — tribal, progressive, underground, you name it.

You’re openly gay. How do you differ from some of the other lesbian DJs?
The lesbians DJs that are out there come from a very different background. I have a family with two children. I did not hang around clubs or do the whole circuit thing. I had a family and always worked. I never had the time to go out and play.

How do you combine being a DJ with family life?
It works very well, actually. I get incredible support from my family. I have two girls who are 21 and 16 who are very supportive.

Were you married before?
Yes. In another life. I got married at a very young age and not until I entered a gay bar did I realize I had made a big mistake.

How is it to be a female DJ on a male-dominated scene?
It is very hard, especially for the fact that I play for the men. Being a female is hard because I play for a predominantly gay audience who’d rather see a beautiful gay boy DJ. It is hard to get noticed and recognized. It is a constant struggle to know what I can do to get my name out there a little bit more.

Do you think the circuit is lacking diversity?
I’m not sure. I do know that the circuit is not what it used to be. I think a part of the circuit is dying, as are certain parts of the record industry. The party is not the same anymore with all the new drinking and smoking laws, and other rules for clubs.

Do you prefer to play for the boys or girls?
I like playing for the boys better. They are progressive and on top of dance music. If it is up to the women, I’d be playing classic disco and Melissa Etheridge all night long. That’s not what I’m about.

How did your new remix album “Addiction” come about?
I’m very proud of this CD. I was approached by Episode Records and I hit it off really well with them. The CD is really beautiful. It has a lot of different styles with a total of 15 tracks, including Billboard hits such as “Burning” from Robbie Rivera.

March 20, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3)

Indigo Girls' Food for Thought

The cover of the Indigo Girls’ latest CD might be just as telling as the songs on it. The artwork draws a sharp contrast by picturing a young woman balancing herself on a rusty oil pipeline in a seemingly serene landscape.

A similar contrast can be found in the Indigo Girls’ use of melancholic folk pop to spread their message of social activism.

Ever since “Come On Now Social,” the group has been known for taking clear social and political stands. Their new album, “All That We Let In,” is not any different and even lists the names and Web sites of 10 activist organizations on its inside cover, from Moveon.org to the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

For a band that portrays an anti-establishment image, it is surprising that the Indigo Girls are signed to Sony Records, one of the world’s largest and most influential entertainment conglomerates. Sony should be commended for supporting the Girls’ political polemics, but it’s questionable whether the company is a credible outlet for their activist musings.

Singers/songwriters Emily Saliers and Amy Ray come from opposite ends of the music spectrum, combining the former musician’s traditional folk interests with the latter’s punky edge. The duo started to play together in Atlanta in the early ’80s, but didn’t formally take on the Indigo Girls name until 1985.

They had their first commercial and artistic success in 1989 when their self-titled second album won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording of the Year and broke into the upper ranks of the Billboard Album Chart.

“All That We Let In” is the group’s ninth studio album, and Saliers and Ray worked with producer Peter Collins and musicians Brady Blade (drums), Clare Kenny (base) and Carol Issacs (keyboard), as they did on 2002’s “Become You.”

Rock singer Joan Osborne (“One Of Us”) contributes background vocals on “Tether,” “Rise Up” and “Hearthache For Everyone.”

The two singers decided to push their own musical abilities on this album. For the first time, Ray, who usually plays rhythm guitars, took on some solos, and Saliers experimented with new instruments, including the mandolin and high-string guitar.

At first Listen, “All That We Let In” is an alternative pop album that combines the Girls’ wholesome brand of folk, rock and gentle country tunes but it is hardly groundbreaking. But the singers’ poignant lyrics will make many sit up and take notice.

After making music for almost 20 years, the Indigo Girls still have something to say that is worth hearing. The 11-song album kicks off with Saliers’ up-tempo “Fill It Up Again.” The song features the duo’s pitch-perfect harmonies that, at times, almost sound Beatles-esque.

On the surface, the song appears to be a poetic love-gone-sour tune, but Saliers cleverly included some of her environmental concerns by inserting ambiguous phrases such as “the hole in my sky, my shrinking water supply.”

One of the album’s highlights is the breezy “Perfect World,” which includes a playful accordion arrangement. Ray takes a stand in support of balancing environmental concerns and materialistic needs when she sings, “We are forgetting what it takes for one perfect world.”

The band’s activism takes center stage again on “Cordova,” which highlights Ray’s friendships with protesters in the Native American community.

“All That We Let In” is a touching tribute to an activist friend who died in a car accident.

Another high point is the truly heartfelt “Come On Home” about a relationship gone awry. Saliers sentimentally croons, “I count my blessings, while I eye what I’ve neglected.”

This CD marks another milestone in the Indigo Girls’ critically acclaimed career. Their all-American sound and timeless lyricism warms the heart while giving listeners something to think about.

March 12, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1)