Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Otherlands - Lewis Taylor

Hey Guys and Gals,

Hope you're all doing ok. I find myself in Memphis again, at the Otherlands cafe in Midtown to be precise, keeping the rest of the world at arm's length via this glorious medium of the internet. It's been a little while since my last one of these, so I thought I'd do another installment of...


And today's subject is the curious, enigmatic, mysterious and downright bewildering Lewis Taylor. There's a chance if you were into the blue-eyed soul or nu-soul movement of the 1990's that you may have happened upon his name on some compilation or another, or maybe were even one of the few that bought his self-titled debut record when it came out in 1996. At any rate, I think it's perhaps best we kick off with how I happened to come across his music, as this is an artist you can seemingly only find out about by word of mouth.

The first music of Lewis Taylor that I heard was actually possibly never going to be heard at all. It was an album called The Lost Album, released in the U.S. on the Hacktone label in 2006 that was originally a bunch of re-recorded demos Lewis had originally made for his then label, Island records, in the late 1990's. I instantly appreciated and loved his music, which is probably why my friend Greg Reding from Memphis decided to lay it on me. The album is sun-kissed west coast meets progressive soul-psychedelia (think Brian Wilson-era Beach Boys meets Todd Rundgren at a party at Marvin Gaye's place), and is quite different from his other work on Island and to a certain extent his own releases in the early 2000's, which have one foot very firmly planted in nu-soul (albeit another one in progressive rock). Though, in accordance with the progressive rock taste of Mr Taylor, this record does not shy away from a face-melting guitar solo or two, and even odd time signatures. But it's really Lewis' talent for arrangement (vocals, in particular) and excellent songwriting is at the core of this entire album. Given that Lewis' incomparable presence throughout the record is maybe its sole defining characteristic, and when one takes his other work into account, perhaps he should simply be put in a new genre called Lewis Taylor. Although who says music even needs to be categorised, anyway? Good music is good music, period.

The story of Lewis Taylor is a difficult one to tell, mainly because there is a distinct lack of ready information available on the man himself, and on his music. One has to dig very deep to find any information at all, and very little of it can be classed as 'official'. Having said that, though, this lack of information is chiefly due to the man himself and his apparent wish to erase himself from the music history ledger after his 'retirement' in 2006. What brought this 'retirement' on is a matter of much debate for Lewis' small but rabid fanbase on the internet. There are reports of vocal nodules forcing him to quit after a hamstrung American tour in 2006, where he cancelled more gigs than he played by most accounts. In fact, when one tries to find out what exactly went wrong with Lewis' career, and why we ALL haven't heard of him, the answers are even more elusive. To add to this, the man himself isn't speaking. He even went to the trouble of taking down his old website, removing all videos from youtube, and to this day the appearance and use of his music is carefully monitored and if it is 'in breach of copyright', it very quickly disappears. The only place you can get a hold of his catalog (apart from second hand stores) is through Itunes, or by streaming through Last FM or Pandora or other such sites. This is someone who clearly doesn't want anyone to know anything about him, or not right now at least.

So let's jump to the beginning. Lewis Taylor, according to one source, started to learn music after a car accident in his early 20's which encouraged him to spend his recovery time developing his musical knowledge and talent. Within a few years, he scored a gig as guitarist in the mid 1980's with the Edgar Broughton Band, a progressive rock band that had already been in existence for nearly 20 years by the time he joined. He then released through Chime records in the late 1980's two albums of his own progressive rock-influenced psychedelic material under the pseudonym 'Sheriff Jack', and after further developing his singing voice (apparently the last instrument he claims to have developed in his diverse portfolio), found himself signed to Island records in the mid 1990's based on the strength of demos of his new material alone.

His first record Lewis Taylor was released in 1996 to phenomenal critical acclaim, and soon had many famous and influential tongues wagging (Elton John and David Bowie, amongst others) through the sheer audaciousness of the talent displayed (Lewis plays most or all of the instruments on his recordings) and the smooth soul-like quality of his singing voice, which drew frequent comparisons to honey-voiced artists such as Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. However, Island records did not seem to know how to handle or properly promote the music of their precociously talented new artist, and an album that was an unprecedented amalgamation of soul, groove-based psychedelica and rock. As a result, despite critics falling over themselves to throw superlatives at the artist and record, sales barely managed to move the needle. Island put out a second record, Lewis II, in 1998, which was enthusiastically received by critics, but unless you were one of the few who buys records based on a good review, you probably never even heard it or knew of its existence, again most likely due to Island's inability to sell their artist to the general public. In Island's defence, however, it must be said that Lewis Taylor is no ordinary pop artist, so they set themselves a challenge to begin with. After submitting demos to Island for the songs that would later become The Lost Album (apparently in response to the label's request he pen more 'commercial' material), he was dropped, and he found himself - quite happily, I imagine - a free agent.

In 2001, he started his own label, Slow Reality, and released two albums in England and Europe, Stoned, Pt 1 in 2002, which was followed by Stoned, Pt 2 in 2004. These records soon gained a small but faithful underground following (thanks in part to his reputation from the previous two albums), and he found his audience slowly growing, through word of mouth and well-received performances in England and Europe. The Lost Album soon followed in 2005 on Slow Reality, but Lewis still remained frustratingly under the radar of mainstream success. Given that critics were prone to gush profusely when Lewis' name was mentioned, it was somewhat inevitable that his music should find an audience in America. With a new label Hacktone releasing Stoned in the U.S. (again to an overwhelmingly positive critical response), and about to release another one (what would be The Lost Album) with some trepidation a short tour was booked for 2006, ostensibly for promotional purposes, starting with a show in New York City at the Bowery bar. This gig has since been described with almost religious-like reverence by those who attended it, and many fans from throughout the U.S. traveled great distances to be there. Lewis himself was stunned by this welcome and recognition from his audience, getting emotional when they sang the words to his songs and responding to requests from the audience that he hadn't even rehearsed with his band (he apparently called out the changes to them as they went - no small feat considering the complexity of his songs). Success and recognition for Lewis Taylor finally seemed only a matter of time.

But it was shortly after that it all started to unravel, and there are all kinds of varying and unconfirmed reports why. The next night, he performed live on 'Late Night with Conan O'Brien', and reportedly tore it up, though no footage of the show is now available on the internet. A date in Atlanta was cancelled and then a following date in Los Angeles (at The Troubadour) was also cancelled. A publicist claimed that Lewis was suffering from vocal 'nodules' and so was unable to perform, and that follow up tour dates would most likely soon be announced. But they never were.

Lewis Taylor slid back into his own private world and publicly announced his 'retirement' via his now shut-down website, and has not released anything since. Rumours abound that he has been working on new material, and perhaps we shall soon new Lewis Taylor music, but nothing has yet surfaced. Despite seemingly attempting to wipe his own musical existence off the map, you can still buy Lewis Taylor on Itunes (simply do a search and he'll come up), and in respect for his apparent wishes that no illegal or copyright infringing use of his music pervades the internet, I recommend you simply buy it. You won't regret it, and who knows, it may encourage him to come out from the shadows again.

I would recommend starting with The Lost Album, then Stoned, and find your way from there. For those curious, you can stream two non-downloadable promo interviews and live performance radio shows recorded on Lewis's 2006 tour here on KCRW and here on NPR.


Lewis Taylor - 1996, Island Records
Lewis II - 1998, Island Records
Stoned, Pt 1 - 2002, Slow Reality (U.K.)
Stoned, Pt 2 - 2004, Slow Reality (U.K.)
Stoned - 2004, Hacktone (U.S.)
The Lost Album - 2005, Slow Reality (U.K); 2006, Hacktone (U.S)

as Sheriff Jack

Laugh Yourself Awake - 1986, Chime
What Lovely Melodies! - 1987, Chime

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sleeping in Seattle (and other places)

This blog is affectionately dedicated to my friend Joel Williams, even though he has nothing to do with the content of this particular posting, but it's his birthday on March 23rd.

Hi there everyone,

Sorry, It's been a little while since my last one of these, but I've had a good excuse. I've been doing a short little tour of the West Coast with two very special people and amazing writers and musicians, Miss Savannah Jo Lack, and Miss Annie Bacon. It was the first time I've actually driven extensively around northern California and up through Oregon and Washington state, and boy, is it a pretty scenic place.

After a few days in San Francisco, where Annie and Savannah both reside (if you're a SFO resident, you should really check them out), we rehearsed, played a little warm-up show, and managed to get in a little socialising on the side. The next day we headed north in our amazing tour vehicle, the sprinter, which was big enough to take a mattress in the back, an addition that we were all extremely grateful for.

Our first stop was Seattle, via a short stop in Portland, where had had to pretty much hold each other back and not buy anything buying from an awesome music store called Old Town Music, which is right there on 3rd Avenue downtown. Portland seems like a pretty nice place, and kind of feels a bit like Launceston, although bigger, and minus all the things that make Launceston a bit of a drag at times (rednecks, I'm looking at you). Another place worth stopping in at in Portland (besides going to see a Trailblazers game) is Voodoo Doughnut, which literally had the most impressive range of doughnuts I'd ever seen. I was tempted to try one called "Cock'n'Balls", which I assume must be cooked in the shape of a ball-sports obsessed Rooster, but there wasn't one on display in the case so I never got to find out. I did however try one with vanilla icing and toasted coconut, and frankly it was so good I wished my shrunken starving musician stomach had room for another one. I'm not much of a sweet tooth at the best of times, but this was enough to make me reconsider. Even if I did feel a bit sick because it tasted so good.

After leaving Portland, we started to play a game with the self-explanatory title of "Look at THAT f*cking Volcano", the aim of which is basically whenever you see a Volcano, the first person to say "Look at THAT f*cking Volcano" gets 10 points. Suffice to say, around this area it was a very high scoring game. There are Volcanos everywhere up here (lucky for us, not spewing forth hot magma and lava into the air at the time) and it is an amazing site to see these snow capped harbringers of destruction from a distance, towering over the landscape with 'don't f*ck with me' written all over them. As you can tell, I find Volcanos pretty impressive.

After we escaping our inevitable doom (had we hung around for a few hundred thousand years or so) from these earth-shaping titans, we drove into Seattle, where our gracious host Mr John Fitzsimons was exactly that, a very gracious host. Now, if Portland is like Launceston, Seattle is definitely like Hobart, although again quite a bit bigger, but including the pre-requisite stunning harbor and stupidly beautiful surrounding mountains. Besides being the home of Grunge music and good coffee (I wouldn't know about the latter, being not much of a lover of the dirty bean), Seattle is also regarded as one of the unofficial origins of the hipster. Now, whilst you won't find that written on a plaque anywhere, it is kind of obvious by looking at the people there. They definitely seem cooler than everyone else, and I felt so uncool (somewhat akin to my goofy period in grades 8 and 9) I was tempted to get a tattoo, large-rimmed spectacles and disillusioned attitude just to fit in. Although this would not really be doing it justice by this simple surface based description. Seattle people are actually incredibly nice, even the hipsters, and are actually fans of culture, music, art and whatever creative expressions people have, which is what makes them GENUINE hipsters (ie very hip and switched on people). Our friends that we made in Seattle are awesome people and I look forward to hanging out and playing there again, even if they did make us feel incredibly dorky just by being within 30 feet proximity to them. Incidentally, whilst in Seattle I also took the opportunity to be a tourist for a couple of hours and went down to the Pike Place markets and had possibly the best fish and chips I've ever had. Go check it out if you ever find yourself in Seattle, and there are also some wicked bookstores around there too.

OK, so after a triumphant show in Seattle, we drove down to Dunsmuir, which is a small gold rush town in northern California, at the foot of Mt Shasta (yet another Volcano). Here (after a few sound difficulties) we played acoustically to an extremely appreciative audience at Sengthong's Blue Sky Room, which is a fantastic venue, and they really made some travel-weary musicians feel a lot better through some awesome food and incredible above and beyond hospitality. The town itself is pretty darn stunning too, with an one street olde-worlde western vibe to it (without any cheesiness), a stunning backdrop of mountains, the Union Pacific railroad, and it is also one of the origins of the mighty Sacramento River, which really isn't very big at Dunsmuir, but sure as hell gets a lot bigger before it opens up into the bay just north of San Francisco and Oakland.

After coming down from the mountains the next day we arrived back in San Francisco, one of my favourite places and in my opinion one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We played a gig the at The Blue Macaw in the Mission district, and those who live in the bay area know that the Mission district is the place to go to get a good burrito. The gig itself was awesome, and actually the first time I've ever played one of my own shows in San Francisco, despite spending a lot of time there. We then proceeded to party down San Francisco style, and I don't remember much after that.

After waking up feeling surprisingly good, we headed down to Los Angeles for a combined set at Room 5, which is one of the best places to see live acoustic music in LA, if you don't mind posh surroundings in your live music experience. Seriously though, it's a nice place. For lunch the next day, we headed to Langer's delicatessen in the heart of little Mexico, right opposite MacArthur park (yes, THAT MacArthur park), which is apparently the home of the best pastrami sandwich in the world. Now, given that Savannah and I aren't very good carnivores, we passed on the experience. However, Annie and our good friends Rowland and Luke Weinstein all seemed to enjoy theirs, judging by the blissed out looks on their faces upon completion of these behemoth piles of pastrami, cheese and mustard, all barely contained within the two slices of bread that are seemingly added as an excuse just so they can call the damn thing a sandwich. So if you're a pastrami fan, check it out.

Our last stop and gig on this all-too-brief tour, was Santa Barbara, home of the ill-fated soap opera and occasionally confusing series of one-way streets. Here we played a show in Jeff's Tea House for a large and extremely appreciative audience. A very large thank you to Jeff and friends for amazing hospitality and a good time had by all. We'll most definitely be back.

So now I'm back in Nashville and the same bed for a little while, though the mattress in the back of the sprinter was certainly starting to feel very comfortable indeed. for all you west coasters, we'll be doing it again later this year I'm sure, so be sure to keep a look out for us. We'll probably even manage to get a few more stops in next time.

So take care, and you'll be hearing from me again very soon, with some exciting new music news...

Be good,


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Drum roll please....

Hey Folks,

It's Oscar night, which as you may imagine is not marked on my calendar, nor do I ever watch it. I have also often wondered what the great Oscar Wilde would think of this event that has so grandly misappropriated his name. My first reaction would be to think that he would have hated the morass and pretension, but then I'm sure his more fanciful side would like the idea of being feted in public to such an extent. I guess we'll never know, much like I wish I could never know anything about it at all, as I don't exactly hold the awards with much degree of respect as a sound barometer of quality in movie-making.

However, due to my friend's control of the remote this evening on one of the rare occasions I was actually watching television, I did get to see a bit of it. I think the last time I saw it was maybe 6 years ago, and then I only saw a small part before changing the channel in disbelief at the sheer decadence and sordid back-slapping of it all, a feature that has become all too common at most awards shows.

And I may as well say that it hasn't changed much. It's still the trademark "look at how great we all are" Hollywood attitude. Which is all part of it, and kind of always has been, so I don't want it to sound like I'm blaming the people involved. The thought just always occurs to me whenever I actually go to a mainstream cinema (and my long-suffering siblings can attest to this) that there is an absolutely ridiculously exorbitant amount of money spent on making these movies, and in particular, promoting them.

Now, I am all for movies as a form of art and expression, and a great form of social commentary and conveying messages. The movie 'The Cove' which took out best documentary is a fantastic example of this. But I just wonder if the millions upon millions of dollars that are spent on promoting stupid mindless crap like Alvin and the Chipmunks or the recent Terminator or any movie Eddie Murphy's made in the last five years, could not be better spent on more valuable causes like poverty or public health?

There's something to be said for escapist entertainment, and that it does serve a purpose. But if people want to see a movie, do they really need all the posters and cardboard cutouts and all that extra stuff constantly REMINDING them to see it? In many cases, it's actually compensating for something. The main thing that makes people go and see a movie is and always has been word of mouth, or a recommendation. So the key really seems to be: make a good movie, people will go to see it. Simple enough. So why does there need to be SO much spend on movie advertising?

Before we get carried away here, let me point out that I do recognise the issue in proposing that the money spent on movie advertising should instead go into the public benefit, feeding the starving masses or what have you. Both fields of industry are extremely different and despite one's temptation to do so, one can't simply say to the movie executives "shouldn't all this extra money you're using to make MORE money for yourselves be put towards charitable causes instead?". If only it could be that simple. But as we know, whilst corporate charity does exist and plays a very large part in helping many worthwhile causes, poverty and poor quality public health care still exist too, and quite frankly, they shouldn't.

The main problem is that while Big Movie industry does occasionally turn out worthwhile pieces of celluloid, infinitely more high-quality movies that are foreign or made independently don't reach a wider audience. Which is a real shame. I'm not really in the movie industry and I don't know how this can be helped, but I think perhaps the mainstream movie industry has come to dominate so much, and has so much control over the mediums through which movies are advertised, that it's a struggle for smaller movies to get through. It's more and more up to the individual discerning movie goer to find the quality movies that they get the most enjoyment or fulfillment from. Sound familiar, music lovers?

Getting back to the 'Academy Awards', I think my Australian upbringing may have something to do with my apparent revulsion of all things that are 'hyped' up. It tends to be a fairly consistent Australian trait that we tend to take most things with a grain of salt, especially in a situation where a big fuss is made of something fairly lightweight, and in the overall scheme of things you would have to say the Oscars is pretty lightweight.

People who manage to bring half their family across the world as refugees to start a new life, escape persecution in their own homeland and hope for something better in ours are maybe more deserving of our attention than all these moviemakers under those oh-so-bright lights reassuring themselves through the medium of interpretive dance (really), expensive staging and prompted applause.

But then, I guess that's the point of these awards shows. For a brief shining moment, we can choose to forget all these political and social issues constantly confronting us in those headlines for just a minute and focus on something that looks shiny and pretty. There's no harm in that. Providing it's for just a minute.

However, to use a filmmakers turn of phrase: keeping and maintaining proper perspective and focus on key plot elements is critical, and has the greatest power in determining how the audience follows the story.

Whilst stories are important, it's how we apply the lessons in these stories to our own flesh-and-blood existence, and maintain perspective on the tangible issues of our time that can make all the difference in this real, not celluloid, world. I think if the movie industry keeps trying to make dollar signs instead of changing lives for the better, then this is a great missed opportunity.