Monday, July 31, 2006

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Jack of All Trades, and Master of All

To call Ryuichi Sakamoto - synth-pop pioneer, ethnic-fusion guru and progressive-electronic stalwart - a jack of all trades may be a bit of a cliché, but the point to be made here is that he has indeed become a master of the various genres he has dabbled in throughout his three-decade-plus residency in the music business.

From the early, pioneering days with avant-rockers Yellow Magic Orchestra (during which he virtually set the blueprint for the emerging techno-pop movement), to the grandiose but measured orchestrations he did for cinematic epics like 'The Last Emperor' and 'Little Buddha', to the latter-day experiments in modern classical, Sakamoto can well and truly be called "a careerist who lives on the cutting edge" (as described in Time magazine's profile of him in their 2002 'Asian Heroes' issue).

Here are some of the more prominent recordings that Sakamoto has made in his three-decade-plus residency in the business:

Sakamoto's debut solo effort is an intelligent updating of his works with Y.M.O., highly reminiscent of Kraftwerk's middle-period endeavours. A milestone album that signalled the beginning of a new trend in Japanese techno-pop.

A singularly unique work combining classical gagaku tonalities with Renaissance-era textures, Sakamoto's collaboration with the early-music ensemble Danceries is a breathtaking, complex yet accessible album remains the most adventurous in his repertoire.

Sakamoto's soundtrack for Nagisa Oshima's existentialist drama, aptly displaying the inventive pentatonic arrangements that he would soon be known for. A purely synth-derived effort that remains surprisingly undated and engaging, even after more than two decades after its initial release.

Arguably Sakamoto's most eclectic album, this sprawling work takes in everything from straight-ahead synth-pop ("Field Work", featuring synth maestro Thomas Dolby), to austere minimalism ("M.A.Y. in the Backyard"), to electronically based fusion jazz ("Etude") and Oriental dub ("In a Forest of Feathers"). Might sound uneven at times by virtue of its stylistic variety, but still remains Sakamoto's most adventurous venture.

NEO GEO (1987)
A more streamlined version of "Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia" that incorporates large doses of funk into its structure. Notable for appearances by Booty Collins and Bill Laswell, and including "Risky", a startling techno-pop duet with punk godfather Iggy Pop, of all people.

Sakamoto's lavish score for the Bernardo Bertolucci epic that earned him an Oscar. A staid, expansive suite that makes wonderful use of romantic-era motifs, Ching-dynasty musical themes and Sakamoto's own distinct timbral sensibilities, and a landmark in modern classicism.

Essentially Sakamoto's contribution to the then-burgeoning house movement, with some avant-pop aesthetics. A controlled artistic experiment that merges Parisian swing, Hendrix samples, proto-ambient patterns, ethnic fusion and disco glitz. A genre-defying woldbeat melange.

In which Sakamoto visits the New York underground club scene and comes away with appropriate-sounding collaborations with Roddy Frame, Andy Caine, Paul Alexander and Holly Johnson. Some tracks are hard-edged (the brutal techno-pop workout "Love and Hate") and stately (the minimalist title track), others dreamy (the free-flowing "Interruptions") and placid (the soothing "Water's Edge").

1996 (1996)
A serious, studied chamber-orchestral work that brilliantly displays Sakamoto's modern-classical arranging aptitude. Past themes from "The Last Emperor", "The Sheltering Sky" and "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence" are given new, vibrant life in this elegant, sophisticated setting.

SMOOCHY (1997)
Sakamoto's most carefree album integrates neo-bossa nova ("Bibo no Aozora"), post-romanticism ("Bring Them Home"), late-1970s Miles Davis ("Insensatez") and modified reggaeton ("Poesia"). However, tarnished by an appalling album design.

DISCORD (1998)
A thematic neo-classical symphony about the state of the late-millennium world that is largely influenced by timbral chromaticism and harmonic atonality. Soberly ascetic, yet animated at the right moments, this is akin to locking Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Gorecki in a small room, and forcing them to come up with an experimental soundscape that sets free their innermost inhibitions.

BTTB (2001)
Back to the basics, indeed. A minimalist solo-piano showcase that is also informed by post-romantic motifs from Ravel, Satie and Debussy, this is an avowedly avant-garde, painfully perfectionist recording that is like a vanity project for Sakamoto's pianistic dexterity and range. Look out for a John Cage-influenced prepared-piano piece that is a marvellous study in tasteful dissonance.

CASA (2002)
"Lush" and "melodic" are the two words that come to mind when describing this refined, poised tribute to bossa-nova legend Antonio Carlos Jobim. Aided by longtime Jobim partners Jaques and Paula Morelenbaum, Sakamoto interprets a selection of well-known Jobim gems ("O Amor em Paz", "Vivo Sonhando", "Inútil Paisagem") and other less-celebrated tunes ("Chanson pour Michelle", "Tema para Ana"). An all-round artistic triumph for all concerned.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Kraftwerk: Pioneers of Almost Everything

I had on Kraftwerk's super-sleek "Minimum - Maximum" live document last night, and was struck once again at how inventive, relevant and influential these German synth-pop pioneers are, almost four decades after their initial formation. But you might ask, how do four ageing Teutonic studio boffins still remain significant in this day and age? Here are three examples of Kraftwerk's stylistic reach and legacy, and solid proof of why they should be made rock deities:

1. Without Kraftwerk, there would be no modern-day dance movement: everything from direct, hard-stepping styles like house, techno and drum n' bass, to more fluid, freeform sub-genres like trance, ambient and dub owe their existence in large part to the proto-cybernetic forms and structures that the Dusseldorf collective conceived in their spotless laboratory back in their halcyon days.

2. Without Kraftwerk, important latter-day trends like synth-pop, new wave and new romantic simply would not exist. Seminal acts like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Howard Jones, O.M.D. and about a million others virtually Xeroxed their fundamental artistry from ideas taken from classic albums like "Trans Europe Express", "The Man Machine" and "Computer World".

3. Even the basic building blocks of seemingly unrelated genres like hip-hop, acid jazz and Brit-rock are derived from Kraftwerk works. After all, Afrika Bambaataa's groundbreaking "Planet Rock" (virtually the original blueprint for all of today's hip-hop forms) takes its lead melody from 1977's relentlessly propulsive rail travelogue "Trans Europe Express". And let's not forget Coldplay's shameless lift of 1981's whimsical "Computer Love" for their "Talk" single.

Kraftwerk! We're functioning automatic, and we are dancing mechanic!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Great Rock Producers

Behind every acclaimed artist stands a great producer, who, by and large, is mostly responsible for shaping said artist's sonic fundamentals and helping in developing the pertinent artistic vision. Or else to just make really great coffee. But seriously, there has been a handful of distinctive board-manning personalities who have stamped their mark on some of the most celebrated recordings of the rock era:

The word "atmospheric" should be made synonymous with this immensely talented French-Canadian studio whiz, who have worked on everything from U2's "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby" to Peter Gabriel's "So" and "Us". Lanois's signature sound is a widescreen, ambient-influenced, eclectic blueprint that takes in occasional Third World touches, some industrial tones and traditional folk balladry.

Perhaps the foremost progenitor of archetypal 1980s synth-pop, Hague has sprinkled his fairy dust on albums by New Order, the Pet Shop Boys, O.M.D. and Erasure. Hague's trademark sound comprises polished, hard-edged techno patterns combined with sleek, aerodynamic Kraftwerkian tones that worked to great effect on classic tracks like the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls", New Order's "True Faith" and Erasure's "A Little Respect".

A studio maven who got his first big break co-engineering U2's historic "The Joshua Tree", Flood (real name Mark Ellis) went on to become one of the most respected names in the business, via Depeche Mode's hugely influential "Violator", the Smashing Pumpkins' epic-sized "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" and Nine Inch Nails' claustrophobic "The Downward Spiral". Specialises in combining dark, industrial tonalities with progressive electronica textures.

While better known these days as a celebrity DJ, Oakenfold initially found fame as a stalwart pioneer of the late-millennium dance scene, manipulating the basic foundations of Balaeric beat, Italian disco and Detroit house to his own unique designs. His singular remixing technique can be heard on myriad works by New Order ("World"), U2 ("Even Better Than the Real Thing"), Massive Attack ("Sly") and the Happy Mondays ("Step On").

The only producer to successfully combine the grandiose sound of full-sized orchestras with lush synth-pop sensibilities, Horn's deliberate overproduction has reaped him due rewards on songs like Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" and "The Power of Love", the Pet Shop Boys' "Left to My Own Devices" and Yes's "Owner of a Lonely Heart". Also a considered songwriter in his own right, having penned hits for Buggles ("Video Killed the Radio Star"), Grace Jones ("Slave to the Rhythm") and the Art of Noise ("Close to the Edit").

Without Nellee Hooper, there would be no trip-hop. It's that simple. Massive Attack is obviously the biggest beneficiary of Hooper's inventive sonics, but others like Bjork, Madonna, Garbage and U2 have also profited from Hooper's production. Hooper's artistic zenith must be Massive Attack's sophomore album "Protection", a lavish, kaleidoscopic cornucopia of downtempo electronics and orchestral, John Barry-informed strings.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Great Cover Versions

Cover versions. Love them or hate them, they constitute an unavoidable part of the business, nowadays becoming a bit of a de rigeuer staple for any act, mainstream or leftfield, self-respecting or otherwise. Besides lending that aura of credibility (given the right song to cover), cover versions also serve as a marketing device to help hawk an album (especially if the act is a relative newcomer, or a veteran seeking a second wind).

However, for every outstanding rendering of an accepted standard (e.g. Bruce Springsteen's fierce in-concert account of Norman Whitfield's "War"), there have been more than a disproportionate number of less-than-stellar reinterpretations (e.g. Simply Red's abysmally pedestrian travesty of the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New", or Bomb the Bass's gimmicky redoing of Burt Bacharach's "Say a Little Prayer"). Thankfully, looking through my record collection, I did find some examples of several exceptional numbers (some attached with the much-debated "classic" tag) given new or intriguing twists by other acts:

1. WILD IS THE WIND (David Bowie, 1976)
Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington's torch-song archetype is given a superb second life by chameleonic luminary Bowie. Done as the closing track to his masterful 1976 album "Station to Station", Bowie and producer Tony Visconti managed to infuse it with the appropriate amounts of drama, pathos and a smidgen of understated menace, all couched in a suitable chamber jazz-tinged casing. Thoroughly engaging and compelling.

2. JUMP (Aztec Camera, 1984)
Roddy Frame slyly turns this arena-rock fist-pumper into a bemused, laidback bedsit ditty, filled with the right quantity of whimsy, and bolstered by basic synth chords and a downtempo backbeat. One of the most underrated and undermentioned covers of all time.

Only the dynamic duo of arch synth-pop pioneers Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe can turn U2's rousing soul-stirrer into a high-energy, self-mocking dance track, and matching it with the cabaret staple "Can't Take My Eyes Off You". All manner of deliberate, tongue-in-cheek touches like grandiose orchestral-synth flourishes, bombastic brass blasts and stadium-audience samples are added to the mix, although the whole contraption holds up remarkably well in the end. Sheer, intentional creative inanity, and one hell of a musical deconstruction.

3. MEMORIES CAN'T WAIT (Living Colour, 1991)
The Talking Heads paranoia anthem is done in a well-suited kinetic, creeped-out treatment by 1980s hard-rock icons Living Colour. As Vernon Reid unleashes all kinds of weirdly wonderful guitar noise and Corey Glover ruthlessly barks out the fear-filled, jittery songwords, there is an overwhelming compulsion to move one's body in ways never imagined possible before.

4. LITTLE WING (Sting, 1987)
What was once a diminutive tune intended as a bit of a breather in Hendrix's "Axis: Bold as Love" album is transformed completely into a majestic, towering epic by Sting and legendary orchestrator Gil Evans for the former's sophomore effort. Highly evocative and elegiacally elegant, this is the perfect musical equivalent to a sprawling, nocturnal cityscape. A prime, consequential exemplar of how an accepted standard can transcend its fundamental makeup to become something different altogether.

5. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU (Bryan Ferry, 1993)
Screamin' Jay Hawkins's psychotic voodoo-enchantment anecdote metamorphoses into a despondent, despairing after-hours crawl in the hands of stalwart lounge lizard Bryan Ferry. The original's restive, manic disposition is exchanged for a melancholic melange of subdued guitar riffs and funereal synth chords that is equally menacing in its own unique, ghostly way. Absolutely foreboding.

6. HURT (Johnny Cash, 2003)
Trent Reznor's unflinching description of a junkie's last days is made even more poignant - and frightening - by the soon-to-be-departed musical deity Johnny Cash in a rendition for his final album, "American IV: The Man Comes Around". The industrial clatter is replaced by some bleak, downcast acoustic atmospherics, as Cash painfully croaks out the agony-wracked verses, providing a decidedly distinct and knowing dimension to the prophetic words. Don't listen to this with razor blades lying around.

7. MOONLIGHT SONATA (Depeche Mode, 1987)
This is not so much a cover version than it is a well thought-out modern-day reinterpretation of one of the undisputed standards of the romantic era. Featuring the sole participation of resident multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder on piano, Ludwig's immortal paean to unrequited love is rendered in a thoughtfully measured, quietly emotional transcription that speaks volumes about the subject matter. Unadulterated espondency made into song.

8. I SAW THE LIGHT (Lori Carson, 1997)
Breathy, emotive NYC singer-songwriter Lori Carson delivers a quietly confident rendition of Todd Rundgren's originally exuberant ode to love at first sight. Carson's version is a mannered, reserved, yet gently soulful ballad that perfectly balances the song's lyrical uncertainties with the aura of cautious optimism that eventually shines through. Exquisitely beautiful, much like Carson's inherent artistry.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Season of Silence

An original piece:


In the twinkling of twilight once broken
As the river sinks to its lowest tonight
I hear the whispers in the cold distance
All my past lives are all packed away

No rhyme or reason can take this away
Across the bleakest skies this thought rises
In the expectations that have been laid out
Hoping against hope in a season of silence

In the songs of experience heard before
As the winter comes to cast its sad spell
I feel the shadows lighting up the end of summer
All the years that are stretching before us

No rhyme or reason can take this away
Across the bleakest skies this thought rises
In the expectations that have been laid out
Hoping against hope in a season of silence

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Peter Saville and New Order

Peter Saville is a bit of a celebrity in the world of album design, especially amongst post-punk acts that made their names in the late-1970s, early-1980s British scene. Joy Division, New Order, O.M.D. and Roxy Music are just some of the luminaries who have benefited from Saville's oftentimes enigmatic, yet strangely compelling graphics. Having grown up a compulsive aficionado of Joy Division and New Order's works, I also became, by corollary, a fan of Saville's cover motifs for those wonderful albums and singles that soundtracked my younger days (and are still playing a major musical role in my thirties). Here are some of my favourite Saville designs for Joy Division and New Order:

UNKNOWN PLEASURES (Joy Division,1979)
A bizarre-looking design for a jagged, scary album. That mountain range-looking pattern is actually a collage of 100 consecutive radio pulses from the CP-1919 pulsar. Art-wankery at its best.

CLOSER (Joy Division, 1980)
Joy Division's second and last album has a palpable aura of despair and mortality hanging over the proceedings, and Saville appropriately played up the funereal atmosphere by using a close-up of a mausoleum in the Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy.

This by-now classic design for New Order's sophomore effort is a simple, elegant still-life painting by French Impressionist Henri Fantin-Latour that provided a sense of the band's quietly burgeoning confidence, who finally found their own unique style on this album, after the half-hearted Joy Division affectations of their first album "Movement".

BLUE MONDAY (New Order, 1983)
The notorious floppy-disk design for the best-selling 12-inch single of all time that supposedly cost New Order and Factory Records to lose 20 pence on each copy sold (it's an apocryphal account, by the way).

LOW LIFE (New Order, 1985)
A unique, interactive design that features four interchangeable photographs of the band members tucked inside a semi-transparent sleeve, stamped with the band's name.

TRUE FAITH (New Order, 1987)
New Order's American breakthrough sports a straightforward, oil-based diagram for its cover. That falling leaf is perhaps a visual representation of the band itself, as they drift towards an unknown but promising future, after years of trying to break into the world's most impenetrable market.

SUBSTANCE (New Order, 1987)
A stark, bold, modernist-informed theme for arguably the ultimate New Order compilation. Ridiculously simple but assuredly effective.

TECHNIQUE (New Order, 1989)
A Technicolor reinterpretation of a Renaissance-era sculpture? A tongue-in-cheek visual representation of an Ecstasy-inspired vision? Whatever Saville's original intention might be, this cover for New Order's best-loved album is a brilliant depiction of the house-influenced, acid-drenched Summer of Love of 1989.

REPUBLIC (New Order, 1993)
As the finances of Factory Records quickly went into decline, so did New Order's intra-band relations. The design for this first release on new label London Records (the band's last one for almost a decade) effectively captures the spectre of discontent that hung over the recordings. The juxtaposed images of fleeting exuberance (the couple on the beach) and destruction (the conflagration) speak volumes about the contrast between the pseudo-stridency of the opening tracks and the sheer resignation of the closing tracks.

SINGLES (New Order, 2005)
An early-millennium reformation of New Order that spawned two utterly brilliant albums (2001's "Get Ready" and 2005's "Waiting for the Sirens' Call") led to the release of this latest anthology, which collects in chronological order all the official singles. Saville's design, a conscious update of the falling-leaf motif of 1987's "True Faith" single, is both an acknowledgement of the band's illustrious past and an affirmation of their current standing as elder statesmen of rock.

Till the Dreaming's Done

My theme song for today is Bruce Hornsby's upliftingly melancholy "Till the Dreaming's Done", from his 1988 sophomore album "Scenes from the Southside". What needs to be said is expressed perfectly by Bruce:

Well I saw her one day at the corner cafe
Everybody there knew she's a wonder
I sat there all night, too shy to say
Honey you could keep me from going under

Oh, my, my, when she walks on by
It's hard not to get lost in the view
How can you know if the feeling's a lie?
When love comes out of the blue

North, south, east, west
Up, down, all around and all the rest
I'll go anywhere she wants me to go
Of all the girls I've loved, she's the best
She's the one, till the dreaming's done

Well I left in the springtime long, long ago
Funny but I never got to know her
Some people tell me she stayed alone
And if things were different, I'd go and show her

But, oh, my, my, when she walks on by
It's hard not to get lost in the view
How can you know if the feeling's a lie?
When love comes out of the blue

North, south, east, west
Uptown, downbound, and all the rest
I'll go anywhere she wants me to go
Of all the girls, I've loved she's the best
She's the one, till the dreaming's done

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

"You were never meant to belong to me"

About a trillion songs have been writen about romantic disillusionment throughout the history of rock, but there are only a handful that accurately convey that particular emotion that seizes you when you realise the one you're in love with is, alas, not in love with you. Here are some appropriately sad-sack songs about unrequited love:

1. JEALOUS GUY (Bryan Ferry, 1982)
John Lennon's classic ballad is given a moody makeover by lounge-lizard extraordinaire Bryan Ferry, who intones each word of this meticulous study in envy in an anguish-wracked tenor. Resentment has never sounded more stylish.

2. THE DOWNTOWN LIGHTS (The Blue Nile, 1989)
The forbidding northern metropolis of Glasgow makes for the perfect backdrop to The Blue Nile's sprawling and dramatic account of urban isolation. Replete with lyrical images of bright neons, empty after-midnight trains and deserted late-night streets, the song successfully makes inner-city loneliness sound like an attractive proposition. Almost.

3. LITTLE HANDS (Duncan Sheik, 1996)
Poignant and painful, "Little Hands" has South Carolina singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik conjuring the ghosts of Nick Drake and Billie Holiday for a late-night acoustic session. Bitterly disheartening, haunted by the knowledge that his would-be significant other will never be, well, his signifcant other, the protagonist eventually concludes "And I'm smiling, even though I'm dying, to know the love she says will never be". Romantic glumness at its best here.

4. CRESTFALLEN (The Smashing Pumpkins, 1998)
A quietly emotional piano ballad that eventually blossoms into a full-scale, all-out lamentation, "Crestfallen" has Billy Corgan practically crying for the attention of the object of his affections, even as he realises that "You were never meant to belong to me". One of the most underrated numbers in the Pumpkins' repertoire.

5. IT'S NO GOOD (Depeche Mode, 1997)
A barely restrained, edgily threatening number that pulses with an unearthly glow, "It's No Good" is effectively Depeche Mode's response to The Police's stalker anthem "Every Breath You Take". "You can run but you cannot hide" is the most ominous line since "Oh can't you see, you belong to me".

6. WICKED GAME (Chris Isaak, 1989)
Morose to a fault, Chris Isaak's shimmering, reverbed revivalist classic should be the theme for every individual who had their hearts broken by a rejection, outright or otherwise. Simultaneously visceral and ghostly, "Wicked Game" is virtually unmatched in its tear-soaked intensity.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Perfect New Order 12-Inch Remix

While they can't claim to have invented the 12-inch remix, Mancunian music institution New Order can however claim to be the most intrepid innovators of this particular art form. From the nascent, tentative dabblings of the early era to the radically inventive reworkings a quarter of a century later, New Order's remixes have perpetually helped to set the gold standard in dance remixes, taking in a myriad of electronica genres like house (Shep Pettibone doing "True Faith"), techno (the Perfecto team's makeover of "World"), ambient (the Magimix of "Spooky") and progressive trance (John Digweed's overhauling of 'Crystal").

However, the best New Order 12-inch isn't done by any outside producer, nor is it influenced or informed by any so-called "trendy" movement of the day. The remix in question is the interpretation of the classic 1985 single "The Perfect Kiss", as done by New Order themselves. How is this particular eight-minute remodelling first-class? Let me count the ways:

1. The thrilling build-up, with each individual instrument gradually introduced into the mix until it all becomes one kaleidoscopic sonic epic.

2. The incredibly assured chorus, with processed synth strings, Bernard Sumner's usual vocal nonchalance and Peter Hook's familiar intuitive bass line.

3. The croaking-frog instrumental breakdown: The finest use of amphibian sounds on record.

4. The ballsy instrumental outro, a wild melange of instruments all vying for space. The best last two minutes of any 12-inch, ever.

Friday, July 14, 2006

"Darkest Dreaming": The Perfect Lullaby

Veteran art-rocker David Sylvian's complex yet accessible 1999 work "Dead Bees on a Cake" closes with what has to be the most perfect lullaby ever conceived. "Darkest Dreaming" is a glacially paced, yet wholly moving track that effortlessly mixes downtempo ambient textures, slow-motion synth effects and processed doudouk (Armenian flute) keenings, held together by a commanding vocal by Sylvian.

With fitting lyrics to match the instrumentation ("Stay tonight, we'll watch the full moon rising, hold on tight, the sky is breaking, I don't ever want to be alone, with all my darkest dreaming, hold me close, the sky is breaking"), "Darkest Dreaming" should be played during the witching hour for that appropriate atmospheric effect.

A good musical nightcap to partake of before you drift off to dreamland.

Sting: Before He Stunk

For those of you who can barely remember how bloody brilliant Gordon Matthew Sumner was before he turned into a utterly hopeless wanker somewhere in the mid-1990s, here's a quick refresher course. Note however that I'm only going to focus on his post-Police track record, so there will be no minute deconstruction of the allegorical lyricism of "King of Pain" or the power-play innuendoes of "Wrapped Around Your Finger".

An uneven, but competent enough debut that managed to spawn a lightweight hit single ("If You Love Somebody Set Them Free"), but more memorable for its ability to incorporate a mishmash of styles (New Orleans jazz in "Moon Over Bourbon Street"; cheery pseudo-reggae in "Love is the Seventh Wave", post-romantic classical in "Russians"). But the most striking track here has to be the solemn closer "Fortress Around Your Heart", an elegiac and metaphorical analysis of a dead romance.

With a title borrowed from Shakespeare, this sophomore effort has a musical foundation of Latin American-based grooves. This is especially, obviously prevalent in songs like "They Dance Alone", "Fragile", "History Will Teach Us Nothing" and "Straight to My Heart". Sting's most overtly political work (remember the hokey rainforest activism?), but also notable for an epic, nocturnal-cityscape makeover of Hendrix's "Little Wing".

3. THE SOUL CAGES (1991)
After a debilitating and protracted bout of writer's block, our favourite Geordie returns with an album inspired by his childhood in the Newcastle docklands. It's water, water everywhere, as Sting tells us tales of economically devastated fishing villages ("Island of Souls"), seaside burials ("All This Time"), shipwrecks ("The Wild Wild Sea"), and takes us to meet Davy Jones himself ("The Soul Cages"). However, all this talk about mortality does get a bit heavy-going after a while.

Now, this is more like it. A brightly coloured, light-hearted semi-parody of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", this twelve-track set (including a "Prologue" and an "Epilogue") pokes fun at almost everything, including spaghetti Westerns ("Love is Stronger Than Justice"), organised religion ("St. Augustine in Hell"), traditional images of bravura ("Seven Days"), and the battle of the sexes ("She's Too Good for Me"). However, there are moments of real virtuosity, like the nicely paced folk ballad "Fields of Gold", the unrequited-love anecdote "It's Probably Me" and the haunting morality tale "Shape of My Heart".

After "Ten Summoner's Tales", Sting's career trajectory took a loopy turn and went into a tailspin with the awfully, drearily grey "Mercury Falling", the inane world-music showcase "Brand New Day" and the insanely forced "Sacred Love". He has never recovered since.

Sky Blue and Black

On the way to work today, I was running through the Jackson Browne playlist on my Creative Zen, when it suddenly struck me that "Sky Blue and Black" is, quite possibly, the most beautiful, striking and heart-wrenching love song ever written in the history of rock. Ever.

Now, I know I've blogged about the virtuosity of Browne's music before, but I just have to say something about "Sky Blue and Black" again. Written as an acknowledgement of the end of a troubled relationship, "Sky Blue and Black" just reaches into you and seizes your heart, providing a combinatory sense of regret, acceptance and liberation all at once.

With elliptical yet evocative lyrical images ("I hear the sound of the world where we played, and the far too simple beauty of the promises we made", "And the heavens were rolling, like a wheel on a track, and our sky was unfolding, and it'll never fold back"), and simple, heartfelt sentiments ("Where the touch of the lover ends, and the soul of the friend begins, there's a need to be separate and a need to be one, and a struggle neither wins", "I'd have fought the world for you, if I thought that you wanted me to, or put aside what was true or untrue, if I'd known that's what you needed"), this song speaks more directly and effectively to the heart than a million other so-called love songs could.

If you can keep your composure while hearing it all the way through, then you have a heart of stone.

Completely shattering in its emotional reach.

I need to go hear it again.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

An Appreciation of Peter Gabriel's "Us"

This is, without a doubt, my favourite album of all time. While many longtime Gabriel fans will cite 1986's "So" as his artistic pinnacle, it's 1992's "Us" that does the trick for me. Why is that? Bear with me here.

Yes, it's "So" that delivered real commercial success, with its trio of chart-busting singles ("Sledgehammer", "Big Time", "In Your Eyes"), polished art-rock aesthetic and Gabriel’s strongest songwriting to date. Consequently, "So" was so triumphant that anything that followed would inevitably be compared to its commercial and critical accomplishments, and, consequently, forever be overshadowed by its aura. Therefore, when Gabriel finally dropped "Us" six long years later, the general response was predictably muted and indifferent.

In retrospect, it was completely understandable why the initial reaction to "Us" was considerably less than enthusiastic. Severely lacking in any prospective, hooky radio singles, shrouded with a perfectionist, solemn production sheen, and caught up in an exacting, unrepentant fug of introspection, Us was a decidedly more challenging piece of work than "So", which led to some speculation that Gabriel had finally reached the end of his tether. Bandwagon fans who jumped aboard during the "So" carnival quickly searched for the nearest Stop sign.

Nevertheless, take a closer look at "Us", and much of the criticism turns out to be unwarranted. Yes, it might not be as immediately engaging as "So", but there are so many more layers to it than any of Gabriel’s preceding records. While "So" has a dynamic urgency that endeared itself to listeners instantaneously, "Us" reveals its treasures more gradually and luxuriously.

Its intricate, innovative textures are a collective wonder to behold: Gabriel’s prodigious sense of experimentation is in full flight here, and while the official follow-up, 2002’s "Up" (which came a staggering full decade after "Us"’s initial release), was an even more complex affair, it somehow lacked the unifying concept that is at the heart of "Us".

The concept in question was romantic dysfunction, stemming from Gabriel’s then-recent divorce from wife Jill, and his subsequent failed relationship with actress Patricia Arquette. As befitting the general premise, Gabriel eschewed any of his usual abstract noodlings (especially on the first Peter Gabriel, which was musically schizophrenic to a fault), instead opting for a cohesive thematic entirety which fleshes out the ideas that he has meticulously laid the table with.

"Come Talk to Me" makes for a fantastic beginning to the collection, its head-spinning, genre-defying swirl of textured synths, crashing percussion, keening bagpipes, Armenian wind instruments and a traditional Russian folk choir still making for one of the most breathtaking moments in Gabriel’s oeuvre.

Second track "Love to Be Loved" is just as powerful, if more subdued in temperament: a mid-tempo meditation on the primal need to be loved, anchored by a gentle, rhythmic tabla pulse and marked by Gabriel’s yearning, tortured tenor.

"Blood of Eden", if you must, is this album’s counterpart to "Don’t Give Up", Gabriel’s delicate duet with like-minded songstress Kate Bush from "So": a gentle, acoustic-guitar and violin-led ballad dwelling on the different emotional dispositions of men and women, with an uncharacteristically restrained Sinead O’Connor providing backing vocals.

Meanwhile, "Only Us" is a quietly bitter rumination on the aftermath of a failed relationship, with processed electric-guitar fills and an understated but busy percussion bedrock.

Things get even more pensive with "Washing of the Water", a virtual Bible belt hymn, complete with a soundalike Muscle Shoals horn section and an evocative lyric that brings to mind some of the more accessible Sacred Harp chants.

On the other hand, "Digging in the Dirt" is arguably the disc’s highlight: a palpable statement of rage and hurt, with mercurial, powerhouse guitar chords, disturbing found-sound effects and one of Gabriel’s best and darkest vocal performances ever.

But it’s not all contemplative navel-gazing and embittered reminiscing here. Gabriel also lets loose with a couple of energetic, visceral rockers, which, while not constituting instantaneous candidates for radio play, were welcome changes of pace in the otherwise sombre proceedings.

"Steam" is a lumbering, ballsy, funk-infused behemoth that is basically a sexed-up descendant of the earlier, massive "Sledgehammer". "Kiss That Frog" practically revels in its sly retelling of the frog-prince fairytale, strutting by smugly in its kinetic Cameroonian-percussion groove and exuberant carnival-style organ lines.

And only the cathartic, widescreen "Secret World" can provide a thoroughly appropriate ending to what has been an extraordinary record so far. A liberating proclamation of healing and acceptance, "Secret World" is underpinned by a simple but effective percussive loop and a heartbeat-throb bass line, above which rides a clutch of melodic piano chords, some minimalist electric-guitar patterns, and Gabriel’s most sympathetic singing on the entire album.

So…"Us" might not be as commercially lauded as "So", but in many other ways, it’s a more robust and consistent effort than its antecedent. Most critics will still point out the inherent, studied seriousness of "Us" as its most glaring shortcoming, but it’s only a deficiency if it’s compared, oftentimes unfairly, to "So".

Only the most churlish observer would cite "So" as Gabriel’s most consummate endeavour in a repertoire studded with numerous jewels. At the end of the day, "Us" has to be viewed as what it really is: a brilliant example of Gabriel’s dependably idiosyncratic sensibilities, and that rare musical creature - a near-perfect blend of modern musical technology and good old-fashioned soul.

And that's why I love it to bits.

The Most Awesomely Godawful Video Ever Made

What's the most awesomely godawful video ever made? Let me introduce you to Journey's arena-rock standard "Separate Ways".

In how many ways is this video bad?

Let's see now...
The poofy mullets? The power chords? The air instruments? The cheesy stage effects? The faux-macho posturing?

Need I go on?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


What's the ultimate summer anthem for Generation X, the one you play all summer long in those carefree final days of high-school innocence before you head off to the big, bad world of college life and beyond?

"1979" by The Smashing Pumpkins. Fantastically evocative and brilliant to a tee.

"Disintegration": Absolute Misery Personified

What's the most appropriate album to seek comfort in when you're down in the absolute pits, after having your red, beating heart ripped out in a gory welter of torn blood vessels and twisted pulmonary valves and trampled underfoot with steel-toed boots into a runny, unidentifiable mess and left to wither away?

If you say "Disintegration" by The Cure, give yourself a pat on the back, and then get completely pissed and wasted, and sink even lower into the depths of despair.

When Robert Smith produced "Disintegration" in 1989, it was immediately, unconditionally hailed as the epitome of The Cure's career. This is the sort of album that not only defines the critics'-favourite phrase "sonic cathedral", but also captures the ominous spirit of that particular combination of romantic disillusionment and unrequited love that comes to roost in everyone's life once in a while.

While it's too distressing and heart-wrenching to go through each of the tracks one by one, there are a few examples of how close the album's overall doom-laden atmosphere can hit close to home (and hard at that). "Pictures of You" is a bleak, icy study in slow-motion heartbreak that speaks to the masses of rejected lovers that dwell throughout the annals of human history. "Prayers for Rain" is a slow, desolate Gothic crawl through a dingy twilight garden, in desperate search of a departed love that never was in the first place.

However, the most devastating song has to be the title track, which runs for a brutal, merciless eight minutes and twenty seconds, tearfully and angrily howling its account of romantic neurosis, emotional grief and detachment, and viciously deconstructing the myth of happy endings, and eventually collapsing upon itself in utter resignation and anguish, concluding with the final sound of a glass being smashed to smithereens against the wall.

Enough said.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Jamie Cullum?

Modern-day purveyors of traditional vocal jazz are a dime a dozen in the new millennium, but British-born Jamie Cullum must surely count as one of the more popular ones, alongside Grammy darling Norah Jones. A friend of mine recently asked me about my opinion of Cullum, so, as a favour to's my two cents' worth.

Yes, the A&R suits might position Cullum as the natural successor to neo-trad-jazz Renaissance Man Harry Connick Jr., but shorn of the knowing wit that is a hallmark of most of Connick's works (especially the early-era recordings), Cullum is but an ersatz pretender whose immediate faults are cruelly exposed:

1. Cullum's piano chops are competent enough, but still show up as drearily workmanlike, and containing not an iota of the required fervour or singular technique that comes so easily to some of his idols, like the restlessly inventive Bud Powell or the brilliantly mercurial McCoy Tyner.

2. Too derivative of Randy Newman-esque, satirical humour. While the great Newman has long been established as a giant amongst singer-songwriters, by virtue of an incomparably wicked wit and elliptical songwriting, Cullum falls flat in his half-baked attempts to emulate the same sort of parodic drollness.

3. Cullum's attempts to transpose non-traditional, rock-informed songs in a vocal-jazz mould are academic exercises at best, hardly bringing a sense of innovation or imagination to the proceedings. For lessons on how to do this properly, just listen to some of Brad Mehldau's works. Now, that's a virtuosic pianist who can recreate material from outside the specified boundaries of jazz in endlessly intuitive and cerebral ways.

But then again, these are just spur-of-the-moment, stream-of-consciousness observations, so if any naysayers out there who think otherwise or have any brickbats to hurl...well, you know where to leave comments.

Latter-Day Bowie

I've been on a bit of a David Bowie trip lately...specifically, latter-day David Bowie, i.e. works produced in the 1990s and beyond. Yes, most purists will argue that Ziggy-era Bowie is the most accomplished, or that Berlin-era Bowie is the most inventive, and will diss the Bowie of the latter era as dilettantish and unfocused, but let me buck the trend here.

While I have huge respect for classics like "Ziggy Stardust", "Starman", "Heroes" and "ashes to Ashes", I still think that the works that Bowie put out in the 1990s are equal in quality to, if not surpassing, the certified standards that everyone else agrees on. The spacey "Thursday's Child" in particular (from 1999's "...hours") is a brilliant summation-in-song of Bowie's feelings about his time in the industry, while the severely underrated "I'm Afraid of Americans" (from 1997's "Earthling") is a powerful indictment of monoculturalism (made even more potent in the mix by Trent Reznor).

Elsewhere, the frankly spooky "The Heart's Filthy Lesson" (from 1995's "Outside", accompanied by a mind-warping video) is Bowie's competent take on industrial rock, and the jazz-noirish "Bring Me the Disco King" (from 2003's "Reality") is arguably his most rounded song from this period, an extended meditation on existentialist angst and ageing. Fantastic stuff, all, although old-time Bowie devotees will disagree vehemently.

Just don't mention 1993's embarrassingly trite "Buddha of Suburbia" soundtrack, and we'll call it even.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Modern-Day Minimalists

Avant-gardism, or minimalism if you like, has been a frequently misunderstood movement in the history of music composition. Staunch critics will bring up the usual charge of art-wankery, referring in particular to the seemingly extreme, face-value absurdity of John Cage's "4'33" (which consists of nothing more than the ambient noise produced while the player(s) does nothing for that exact length of time). However, without the minimalist movement, there would be no luminaries like Glass (with his hypnotic recurrent-chord motifs), Stockhausen (the pioneer of modern electronica) and Ligeti (who freed fundamental chords from their restrictive moorings to move into unexplored sonic territories) to startle the somnambulant post-romantics out of their fancy-free reveries.

The proponents of modern-day minimalism might be few and far between (when compared to the numerous performers of works from the classical and romantic periods), but a handful do stand out by virtue of their artistic audacity. Stalwart brainiac Brian Eno has produced literally hundreds of electronically inclined avant-garde works (taking inspirational cues from Stockhausen and Boulez), while Michael Nyman has more or less inherited the mantle of modalism from Glass, specialising in a more hermetic style, but still retaining the basic structures of minimalist repetition).

Elsewhere, Dominic Harlan is an adroit session pianist who excels in reinterpreting romantic and post-romantic-era compositions in the micro-polyphonic methodology espoused by Ligeti. Even serial diletantte William Orbit managed to come up with a decent work in the form of "Pieces in a Modern Style", which gives a number of classical, post-romantic and minimalist compositions spacey downtempo ambient makeovers.

Of course, none of the hardcore traditionalists who are set in their worships of Ludwig and Wolfgnag will be remotely moved by the truly revolutionary events occurring on the other side of the spectrum. A bit of a shame, really.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Latter-Day New Order: Any Good?

While most right-minded observers would point to Mancunian legends New Order's early and middle-phase works as their most accomplished and rounded, the real question that needs to be asked is this: can the new-millennium albums (since their apparent reformation at the turn of the century) match the all-round brilliance of standards like "Blue Monday", "True Faith", "the Perfect Kiss" and "Bizarre Love Triangle"? Or are they merely pale imitations of the real thing, much like the works from Bernard Sumner's pleasant-but-vacuous Electronic project?

I'd like to argue the case that there are several tracks worthy of the "New Order Classic" tag, although, of course, not one of them can really emulate, let alone surpass the sheer power of the tracks from the 1980s. Still, these representations of the new-look New Order (minus Gillian Gilbert, who opted for early retirement) are still potent examples of their peculiar blueprint of effortlessly mixing post-punk guitar-pop and underground dance-music aesthetics:

1. WAITING FOR THE SIRENS' CALL (Waiting for the Sirens' Call, 2005)
Arguably the finest composition New Order have written since the band's restoration, "Waiting for the Sirens' Call" (off the 2005 album of the same name) is a virtuosic, elegant gem that consciously acknowledges several important stages of the 1980s New Order: a "Power, Corruption and Lies"-informed synth-string overlay, "Low Life"-approved melodic-guitar riffs, and a"Technique"-styled rhythmic backdrop. Combine all these elements together, and you get an instant masterpiece that is already becoming a confirmed fan favourite.

2. CRYSTAL (Get Ready, 2001)
Admittedly showing a harder-edged New Order than any previous song, "Crystal" is a propulsive, driving number that relies heavily on Sumner's jagged guitar riffs (he hasn't played this fiercely since those faraway Joy Division days) and Peter Hook's familiar high-register bass lines. The addition of those female backing vocals are an unexpected, welcome touch, and ably displays the band's newfound adventurism.

3. TURN (Waiting for the Sirens' Call, 2005)
A straightforward guitar-rocker that shows Sumner's tuneful guitar chords to great effect, "Turn" is almost a throwback to the type of indie guitar-pop that fellow Mancunians The Smiths used to excel at, way back in the early 1980s. Hook's usual bass embellishments constitute the icing on a satisfying musical cake.

4. PRIMITIVE NOTION (Get Ready, 2001)
The spirit of Joy Division is resurrected in this dark-hued, brutal guitar-shred fest that has Hook doing a variation of his spooky bass line for 'Twenty-Four Hours". "Primitive Notion" could have benefited by some judicious editing, especially on the slightly meandering outro, but it's still a persuasive rock-out that reaffirms New Order's standing as rock luminaries.

5. HERE TO STAY (24 Hour Party People Soundtrack, 2002)
A storming collaboration with big-beat stalwarts Chemical Brothers, this is dancier than anything else New Order have done since the early 1990s. The usual array of Chemical Brothers sound effects are present, but this is still a New Order tune in overall nature, by virtue of Sumner's guitar pyrotechnics, Hook's ever-reliable bass flourishes and typically melodic structure.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Best Soundtrack of This Century (So Far)

The movie was absolute drivel, but the soundtrack for Cameron Crowe's woefully misfiring-on-all-cylinders "Vanilla Sky" stands out by virtue of its intrepidly eclectic nature and remarkable consistency. Featuring a register of major-league leftfield acts, "Vanilla Sky" the soundtrack is a resonant, evocative collection of songs that convey the script's fundamental message a million times better than Crowe's slipshod directing (not to mention the abysmal performances by almost all concerned - except for a stupendously stunning cameo by the perpetually excellent and persistently divine Alicia Witt).

Starting with REM's strident "All the Right Friends", a lost gem from the "Document" era, the proceedings go on with the spooky, downtempo electronic-ambient workout "Everything in Its Right Place", a good example of Radiohead's new-millennium electronica direction. Paul McCartney's title-track contribution is appropriately grey-hued and pensive (almost like a modern-day update of "Blackbird"), while Peter Gabriel's evergreen emancipation anthem "Solsbury Hill" has never sounded more resounding than on here.

Fortunately, the rest of the album ably match up to the virtuosity of the opening numbers. Icelandic avant-rockers Sigur Ros's glacially paced "Svefn-G-Englar" ably conveys an apropos sense of mental and emotional dislocation, while Todd Rundgren's ironic "Can We Still Be Friends" is a welcome melodic distraction, arguably the brightest moment on the album. The inclusion of Red House Painters' superbly morose "Have You Forgotten" is an unexpected nice touch, while the late Jeff Buckley's "Last Goodbye" is a superior piece of folk-rock. Things end on a fantastic note with the cinematic "Where Do I Begin", a kaleidoscopic Chemical Brothers epic featuring singer-songwriter Beth Orton on archetypal wispy, fuzzed-out vocals.

Verdict: An all-round inspired effort, which is more than what one can say about its screen counterpart.

Lori Carson: Fragile Beauty

New York City is a perpetually active and fertile birthplace and breeding ground for some of the industry's most accomplished singer-songwriters, but rarely has one emerged from the Big Apple who combines such delicate, glass-like artistic fragility and a keen, observant awareness of harsh, sometimes surreal modern inner-city life. Yes, it's the perpetually underrated Lori Carson that's the subject of this article.

Much like Suzanne Vega (but without the sometimes-heavygoing literateness that is a trademark of most of Vega's works), Carson specialises in detailing the ebbs and flows of NYC life, brilliantly capturing that sense of urban disorientation that comes with living in such a gargantuan metropolis. Her conventionally-structured, if somewhat bittersweet-flavoured pop songs possess a translucent, Zen-like quality that belies their oftentimes-turbulent lyrical content. Plus it's all eminently hummable.

Here are three stellar examples of Carson's brand of confessional songwriting, displaying the full array of human conditions, i.e. the untouchable triumvirate of Melancholia, Heartbreak and Delirium.

A pensive study in morning-after miserablism, "Where It Goes" is replete with aching self-doubt and surreal lyricism ("A friend went to Paris, and even if it rains there, going somewhere is better than nowhere", "If you can't sleep, call her up in LA, she's living there in a house full of bluejays"), set to a crafted acoustic-guitar loop and subtle percussion backdrops.

One of the most open-hearted odes to an unrequited love ever penned, "Snow Come Down" is almost unbearably, frighteningly intense in its slow realisation that the protagonist's anguished outpouring of emotions ("Every time I see your face, I can hardly breathe, every time I see your face. I feel stupid and happy") will never, ever be reciprocated.

The most evocative portrayal of recurring psychosis ever set to song, "Train" finds Carson half-saying, half-singing the deliberate, stream-of-consciousness babble ("You know I never get anywhere, just go back and forth, I'm a freak at the station, and I don't know why, I have nothing in common with any other human being", "People look at me cross-eyed and I know I've really lost my mind"), against a backdrop of industrial clatter and train noises.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Bruce Hornsby: Studied Exuberance

Studied exuberance. That just about describes the music that iconic singer-songwriter Bruce Hornsby has been making throughout his two decades plus in the business. Having received a serious music education at ultra-prestigious Berklee, the Virginia-born Hornsby then got his chops by playing underground bars and other assorted dives before getting a contract in 1985. There's been no looking back for him ever since.

Hornsby's nascent trademark style was what many commentators refer to as "heartland rock", a rootsy, rousing rock and roll form that addressed a variety of sociopolitical issues close to the hearts of Southern liberals, with the occasional reference to more personal matters of the heart. Although it has to be noted that Hornsby's flavour of heartland rock was a form that has been streamlined and informed by his disciplined inclinations, making for a somewhat calculated, but still emotive and evocative approach that rocked as hard as Seeger or Springsteen.

Here then are several examples of Hornsby's early-phase signature heartland rock, before he went a bit loopy around the turn of the century and started experimenting with electronica loops, freeform Parker-esque post-bop and extended piano improvisations.

1. EVERY LITTLE KISS (The Way It Is, 1986)
A superb, jaunty rocker that brilliantly displays Hornsby's virtuosic melodic right-hand runs, the seemingly lighthearted melodic nature of "Every Little Kiss" masks a desperate lyric about the travails of waterfront labour, chronic homesickness and the pains of missing a loved one. On its parent album, "Every Little Kiss" boasts arguably the most dazzling musical progression, a breathtakingly original solo-piano breakdown that practically embodies the title of this article. A real contender for the the title of Most Consummate Hornsby Composition.

2. MANDOLIN RAIN (The Way It Is, 1986)
Most casual listeners will be instantly familiar with the hit-single status of "The Way it Is", Hornsby's scathing overview of a socially decaying mainstream America, but "Mandolin Rain" off the same album has invariably garnered the most accolades as Hornsby's most accomplished early-career number. An easygoing, laidback bluegrass-influenced ballad that suggests humid evenings in the older locales of Raleigh, "Mandolin Rain" is a thoroughly heartfelt, tearjerking ditty that relies on that old standby, unrequited love, as its subject matter. The understated mandolin ripples are a nice touch.

3. TILL THE DREAMING'S DONE (Scenes from the Southside, 1988)
A reflective but still animated slowie that is another fine exemplar that has Hornsby extolling the agonies of harbouring an unrequited love from a distance, ruing the fact that "I left in the springtime long, long ago, funny but I never got to know her". The perfect theme for not-quite-there relationships.

4. THE VALLEY ROAD (Scenes from the Southside, 1988)
A propulsive, straightforward rocker that deceptively couches its bitterly realistic anecdote of inter-class resentment and discrimination within a series of jazzy piano riffs, "The Valley Road" magically merges Hornsby's sparkling arpeggios with drum-machine aesthetics, making for a seemingly impossible confluence of mechanised firepower and good, old-fashioned rock and roll.

5. LOOK OUT ANY WINDOW (Scenes from the Southside, 1988)
Highly reminiscent of Jackson Browne's brand of elliptical, socially aware songwriting of the 1980s, "Look Out Any Window" is a panoramic snapshot of corporation-led environmental degradation in Reagan-administered America, marked by a brightly coloured, minute-long solo-piano breakdown that makes the best of the song's fundamental two chords.

6. ACROSS THE RIVER (A Night on the Town, 1990)
Standing out by virtue of the absence of any Hornsby piano solo, "Across the River" is still a powerful reaffirmation of individual independence and the pursuit of one's ambitions. The late Jerry Garcia helps out with an intuitive, straightahead slide-guitar solo that aptly drives home the song's message.