Inside Music with Melinda Newman

Watch: Matthew McConaughey stars in Jamey Johnson's 'Playing the Part' video

Does Johnson make a monkey out of him?

<p>Matthew Monkey</p>

Matthew Monkey

Ever have the overwhelming urge to see Matthew McConaughey in a gorilla suit? Well, here’s your chance. On the video for Jamey Johnson’s “Playing the Part,” McConaughey hides his pretty, pretty package in a chimp suit as he strolls through Venice and Hollywood dejected and worn down by the L.A. grind. He even seeks solace at King Kong’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Things, however, turn much brighter when he saunters (or saunters as much as a gorilla can), into some downtown honky tonk where Johnson is playing. Johnson is so laid back here it’s a damn miracle he’s upright.

McConaughey’s director’s cut premiered on Vevo today and it has much that will undoubtedly be cut out of the real version including a pointless opening with a sleazy boss having phone sex until he’s distracted by the poor schlub he’s hired to put on the gorilla suit and spin a sign outside of his hubcap establishment. It explains why McConaughey is in a gorilla suit, but can definitely be edited.  Otherwise, the video is a fun look at sites many of us who live here with a very familiar with, including the characters who inhabit Venice Beach and Hollywood Blvd.

Album Review: Taylor Swift's 'Speak Now' has a lot to say

John Mayer may want to watch his back

<p>Taylor Swift, &quot;Speak Now&quot;</p>

Taylor Swift, "Speak Now"

Credit: Big Machine

In interviews, Taylor Swift often comes across all wide-eyed wonder,  preternaturally sweet, and with girlish, bounce-on-the-bed enthusiasm. And, most importantly, she's very careful to reveal nothing.

It turns out that’s because she’s been saving all the good stuff for “Speak Now,” her new album out Oct. 25.  Her first two collections, 2006’s self-titled effort and 2008’s “Fearless,” were just warm-up acts. On “Speak Now,” she’s slashed open an emotional vein and she’s let it bleed all over the tracks. 

When “Speak Now’s” first single, “Mine,” came out in late summer, it sounded pretty much like more of the same, albeit in the romantic ditty she clearly was showing that she wasn’t a minor anymore. She even had a drawer at her boyfriend’s place, for gosh sake. The track wasn’t different enough to reveal if Swift was going to be able to make the leap from teenager to adult. Was she still the band geek swooning over the quarterback? Was she still singing about being 15 in a way that carried none of the emotional heft of the benchmark song about the hell of those teenage years, Janis Ian’s “At 17?”

In a word: no, she is not. 

[More after the jump...]

Who knocks Bruno Mars out of the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100?

Taylor Swift comes on strong... again

<p>Far East Movement</p>

Far East Movement

We travel from Mars to the Far East this week as Bruno Mars vacates the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and Far*East Movement moves into the penthouse as “Like a G6” flies to No. 1 on the chart.  Mars had a good run, thought, logging four weeks at the summit. He falls to No. 2.

Far*East Movement is the first group to take its Hot 100 chart debut to No. 1 since D4L with “Laffy Taffy” in January 2006, according to Billboard. Let’s wish for a better fate for Far*East Movement since we haven’t heard from D4L since.

Taylor Swift continues to break records as she extends her own record for the most Top 10 debuts to seven as “Back to December” shoots onto the Hot 100 at No. 6. Next week, she’ll make it eight as “Mean” is likely to debut in the Top 10 as well. Still eluding Swift? A No. 1 on the Hot 100.

In other Hot 100 news, the Pink party continues as Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”  leaps 51-11; Mike Posner’s “Please Don’t Go” jumps 54-34, in part due to the video premiere of the song.

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Watch: Neon Trees' new video takes you back to '1983'

Bring your red leather jacket

<p>Neon Trees</p>

Neon Trees

In a Top 40 radio climate totally dominated by solo R&B-influenced males and solo females, alternative rock band Neon Trees has done the near impossible and scored a Top 20  hit with the catchy “Animal”  (In part, no doubt, due to its placement in a television commercial for Las Vegas). They are the only rock band in the Top 20.

We'll see if they can make it two in a row with their new single, "1983," the video for which premiered today. “1983”  sounds strikingly similar to “Animal” with its big chorus. The video opens like the scene in “Big,” where Tom Hanks’ character visits a fortune-telling machine. In this case, lead singer Tyler Glenn wants to go back to, you guessed it, 1983. He gets transporting to a carnival. He even gets to  wear a red, Michael Jackson leather jacket.  There’s really not much more to it than that. Bright lights, small city. Try not to be distracted by the obvious product placement by soft drink Crush.  Nothing subtle about that one.

“1983” debuts on Billboard’s alternative chart this week at No. 37. There’s a performance clip of the song that was making the rounds this Spring (you can see it here), but the official video arrived today--- 27 years behind schedule.

 

What do Weezer, Elvis and Kermit the Frog all have in common?

They all recorded songs by some of the world's best songwriters

<p>Weezer</p>

Weezer

The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards once told me that the key to songwriting is “keeping your antenna up.” It’s a concept that almost every songwriter I’ve ever interviewed has repeated in some fashion.  They may be the ones with the songwriter credit, but  they are really just a conduit for something flowing through them.  Or, as Paul Williams put it Tuesday night at the Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) evening at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, “There’s something in the song that didn’t come from us.”

That, however, does not mean that there aren’t often wonderfully amusing stories accompanied by the creation of the music. The Oscar-winning Williams was joined by some of the best songwriters to ever take pen to paper, as they told tales about how their most famous songs came about. The event heralded the opening of SHOF’s permanent exhibit at the museum.

The most amusing story came from the legendary Lamont Dozier, who, as part of the songwriter trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, has written more than 50 No. 1s, most of them for Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross and the Supremes.

“I call this my infidelity song,” the good-natured Dozier told the crowd of his classic, “Stop in the Name of Love.”  “It was  six or seven in the morning. I’d had a couple. I was in a no-tell motel and I heard a knock on the door. My ‘friend’ went out the bathroom window because the woman I was with at the time was known to be a bit of a terror.” Dozier’s girlfriend came in the room and started chewing him out.  “I said, ‘Baby, please. Stop in the name of love!’ She said, ‘That’s not funny.’ I said,’ Wait. Did you hear that cash register?’” He went on to write the song that became a massive hit for the Supremes.

Dozier also told a remarkable story about Marvin Gaye recording “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). Gaye showed up at the studio with his golf clubs, unhappy to be kept off the links. He groused that he didn’t know why he was there and that he hadn’t received a copy of the song to learn it beforehand. After he heard it, “he was immediately perturbed. He was pissed because the key was too high,” Dozier says, adding with a wink, “We did that on purpose because we knew if he reached for it, he would shine.  He did the song in one take and he just heard it for the first time that day. He was a genius.”

Mac Davis talked about writing songs recorded by  Elvis Presley, including “In the Ghetto,” “A Little Less Conversation” (which he originally wrote for Aretha Franklin) and “Memories.”

Davis first met Presley at a looping session for “A Little Less Conversation,” which appeared in “one of [Elvis’s] worst movies. That narrows it down to 50,” he joked. (The song appeared in 1968’s “Live a Little, Love a Little.”)  Col Tom Parker approached Davis and said, as Davis recalled, “‘You’re a good-looking boy. Let me rub your head.’” A slightly weirded out Davis complied, and Parker said to him, “You go tell everybody  you met Col. Parker and you’re going to be a star.”  He was right.

Despite protestations from his camp,  Presley insisted on recording “In the Ghetto.”  “He fought to record that song,” Davis says. “He was used to listening to Col. Parker. He was no longer No. 1, the Beatles were.  Priscilla’s told this story. They didn’t want him to cut it. They thought it was too political. It was a white guy singing about the ghetto.” “In the Ghetto” didn’t go to No. 1, but it showcased Presley in  totally new light.

Davis most recently wrote with Weezer. “Rivers Cuomo called and asked if I’d write a song with him,” Davis said. “I now have street cred with my kids.”  The clever tune, “Times Flies,” is on Weezer’s new album, “Hurley.”

Nick Ashford, who was joined by his wife and songwriting partner Valerie Simpson, talked about how nervewracking playing a song for Motown founder/chief Berry Gordy could be.  “There was a Motown quality control board,” he said. “It would be Berry and his disciples. Berry looks like Jesus.” Ashford had been summoned to play a song, but was quaking in his boots when the board sent a song by Norman Whitfield, author of such classics as “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “Just My Imagination,” got sent back to the songwriter for more work. Ashford played “You’re All I Need To Get By” and held his breath. “Berry Gordy said, ‘We’re not going to vote on this song. We’re just sending it out.”  The song, recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, became one of the biggest R&B hits of 1968 and was the biggest duet of Gaye’s career.

In a few other tidbits, Hal David, who, with partner Burt Bacharach,  wrote everything from “This Guy’s in Love With You” to “Alfie” and “Close To You,” revealed that “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” was turned down repeatedly before BJ Thomas recorded it for “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.” The song went on to win an Oscar.  (David did not say who passed on the song, but according to lore, both Ray Stevens and Bob Dylan declined to record it for the movie).

Williams said that “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a hit for the Carpenters, was originally written as a bank commercial. As much as he loved working with a number of artists, Williams holds a special place in his heart for a piece of felt that turned into his favorite partner: Kermit the Frog, for whom he wrote “The Rainbow Connection.”  Jim Henson gave me the most freedom I’ve ever been given,” he says of his work on “The Muppet Movie.”  “‘The Rainbow Connection’ is my favorite song I’ve ever written.”

In addition to the celebrated songwriters on the stage, there were many in the audience, including Jimmy Webb, who is responsible for my favorite line ever written:  “I need you more than want you/And I want you for all time,” from “Wichita Lineman.”

What do you think is the best song ever written?
 

Listen: Taylor Swift takes on all bullies with 'Mean'

Living well is the best revenge

<p>Taylor Swift's &quot;Mean&quot;</p>

Taylor Swift's "Mean"

Taylor Swift has now convinced me she has some kind of supernatural ability. Her new song, “Mean,” the latest iTunes exclusive released before her new album, “Speak Now” comes out Oct. 25, is the perfect response to the recent spate of teen suicides--even though it had to have been written and recorded way beforehand. It’s also the most country of the five songs we’ve heard from the album. Hear it here.

With a jaunty banjo background (this is as bluegrass as we’ve ever heard Swift), she questions why a bully keeps picking on her, but she has unwavering faith that she will triumph, despite the pain.  “You can take me down with just one single blow/what you don’t know/someday I’ll be living in a big old city and all you’re ever gonna be is mean... I walk with my head down trying to block you out cos I’ll never impress you/I just want to feel okay again.”

Swift’s appeal is primarily young girls, but this song will appeal to anyone, no matter his or her age, who was ever bullied and who has realized, long before it became a catch phrase, that, it does, indeed, get better. But it’s also a reminder that words hurt and words sting and unkind words live on long after the bully has moved on to his or her next victim.

At the end, Swift takes the message from the macro to the micro. As she’s said, every song on “Speak Now” is about some incident in her life, so we pity the fool that this one is about as she sings, “Washed up and ranting about the same old bits or things/drunk and going on about how I can’t sing/but all you are is mean...all you are is mean and a liar and pathetic and alone in life and mean.”

Since the start of her major label career four years ago, Swift has proved an exemplary role model and a strong songwriter because she is able to tap into her emotions in an authentic way. She’s reached a new high watermark with “Mean.”

Watch: Willow Smith whips it good in 'Whip My Hair'

Is Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's daughter the next Rihanna?

<p>&quot;Whip My Hair&quot;</p>

"Whip My Hair"

Willow Smith, daughter of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, may only be 9 years old, but she had the punky attitude of a full-blown teen. As Miley Cyrus gets ready to become an adult, we can fill that spot with Willow.

On the video for her horribly monotonous, seizure-inducing  “Whip My Hair” she sports diamonds on her upper lip (quick: buy stock in Claire’s Accessories right now) in what is sure to become the next trend for pint-sized party girls. She also brings a veritable rainbow of color to her classroom via her very talented ability to, yes, dip her hair in paint and then whip it. She inspires everyone, from her school teacher to the lunch room lady to a toddler to explode in a frenzy of dance. Don't risk this at home or risk whiplash at your own peril.

Willow is a mini-Rihanna with attitude to spare in this totally age-appropriate video. Her singing voice is competent and she has great charisma. Girls her age are going to eat this up. It’s not meant for the rest of us. You’ll want to watch it once to make sure you feel it’s appropriate for your kid, but after that, anyone over 10 hopefully doesn’t have to watch it again.

We’re relieved to see that she’s not a very proficient lipsyncer.  She shouldn’t be perfect at 9 at anything.

The song could really stand to be chopped in half. There’s a great ending point right around 2:45. By then, you’ve gotten the theme. Actually you have that within 10 seconds, but the next 90 seconds are fairly excruciating, if not downright tortuous as Willow repeats about 100 times “I whip my hair back and forth” and the non-existent story line just repeats itself over and over.

[More after the jump...]

Watch: Ingrid Michaelson's new video for 'Parachute'

Is her version better than Cheryl Cole's?

<p>Ingrid Michaelson</p>

Ingrid Michaelson

Credit: Mom + Pop

Want to see Ingrid Michaelson like you’re never seen her? Check out her new video here for “Parachute,” a song she co-penned and  former Girls Aloud member Cheryl Cole had a huge hit with in the U.K. Now she’s recorded her own version as a stand-alone track.

Michaelson glams it up in a way we haven’t seen before, complete with Princess Leia braids and fake eyelashes out to there.  The video, directed by Adria Petty (yes, Tom’s daughter) follows Michaelson, who rockets into space to a planet that looks like a big orange.

Our main complaint? The outer space footage is way too dark. If she has the ability  to rocket into space, couldn’t she at least take a flashlight?   Somehow she ends up in the belly of the planet, wrapped up in the deep roots of the one plant growing on a planet.  The plant thrives, as we hope the relationship does. It’s one of those videos that has nothing to do with the song, but it’s fun to try to decipher what the heck is going on. Kind of like Goldfrapp’s “Rocket...” except, oh yeah, Allison Goldfrapp is on a rocket on that one. But as Michaelson sings here, she doesn’t need a parachute.

Michaelson’s version of the song is spunkier and more fun than Cole’s, plus she has a better voice than Cole. Cole’s big advantage in the video is she has “Dancing with the Stars’” Derek Hough in her video (the two were romantically linked at the time).

Below is Cole’s video and we’ll embed Michaelson’s as soon as Entertainment Weekly lets us. Which one do you like better? 







 

Album Review: Elton John & Leon Russell's 'The Union'

Do the two piano legends create a new masterpiece?

<p>Elton John and Leon Russell's &quot;The Union&quot;</p>

Elton John and Leon Russell's "The Union"

It’s no coincidence that the first voice we hear on Elton John and Leon Russell’s new album, “The Union,” is that of Russell. The album is a complete labor of love by John as a thank you to one of his musical heroes. We’re so glad he didn’t decide to just send a fruit basket.

As John tells it, he and his husband, David Furnish, were on safari and Furnish began playing some of Russell’s music. Memories came flooding back for John, who opened for Russell in 1970 and had always been a big fan. He reconnected with Russell, who had faded into near obscurity, and suggested they work together.

If you don’t know who Leon Russell is, you’re John’s target audience here. Russell is an Oklahoma singer/songwriter, who, in addition to his solo work, has collaborated with Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, George Harrison, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton, John Lennon,  Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones and just about everyone else you can think of. He also wrote “Superstar,” which was a big hit for many artists including The Carpenters and Luther Vandross, and his only major pop hit as an artist, 1972’s “Tightrope.” His piano playing is inspired and his voice unique--think Willie Nelson with a bit more of a nasal twist.

With “The Union,” John wanted to create an album that reminded people of Russell’s prodigious talent and introduced Russell to a new audience.  John has been unabashed in stating that he hopes the project will “improve” Russell’s life.

None of that would amount to anything other than a lovely sentiment if the collaboration didn’t work. But it does...and how.  Throw in producer T Bone Burnett, whom John handpicked based on Burnett’s work on Robert Plant/Alison Krauss’s  “Raising Sand,” and the trio has created a testament to talent that doesn’t fade even if the spotlight has shifted elsewhere.

Written by John, his longtime partner Bernie Taupin, Russell and Burnett in different combinations with each other, the songs--many mournful, some rollicking--all highlight John’s and Russell’s ability to boogie woogie on the keyboards. Under Burnett’s steady hand, the production is kept minimalist with no unnecessary embellishments.  Russell and John’s piano playing and vocals (surrounded with stellar musicians) are all the bells and whistles you need.  In fact, we would have pared it back even further, stripping away the female backing vocals on all but “There’s No Tomorrow,” a dirge-like, striking tune built around “Hymn No. 5” by the Mighty Hannibal.

The album succeeds best when Russell and John play off each other, such as on “Hey Ahab.”  John sings lead, but in the distance, Russell vamps backing vocals that give the song extra heft and depth, or on the set’s crowning glory, “Gone to Shiloh,” a somber ballad about the bloody Civil War battle.  Neil Young joins the twosome for lead on a verse and the sound of the three distinctive voices wrapped around each other on the chorus is a singular delight.  The boisterous "Monkey Suit" is 100% fun.

As if a pupil showing off for his teacher, John is at the top of his vocal form here. He sounds reinvigorated and enthusiastic. Many of the songs, such as the chugging “Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,” which references the  Singing Brakeman, would have easily fit in on John’s ‘70s classic “Tumbleweed Connection.”

There’s something intoxicatingly refreshing about an album that is made simply for the joy of making music with an old friend. The good news is that we’re all invited to the reunion.

Review: Is Sugarland’s 'The Incredible Machine' built to last?

Duo's fourth album aims high: Does it succeed?

<p>Sugarland</p>

Sugarland

Sugarland was never a country band by any traditional measuring stick, but let’s get this out of the way from the start:  “The Incredible Machine” is the least country album likely to come out this year under the “country” moniker. Unless Lady Gaga decides to spring a country album on us in the next few weeks (BTW, we don’t consider Taylor Swift a country act anymore). 

The immensely popular Sugarland knows and respects the fact  that music fans today--and especially younger ones--- listen to songs they like. They don’t care what arbitrary genre some radio programmer has slotted them into. However, by Sugarland’s flinging its net so wide, there are times that “The Incredible Machine” sounds like, as Jennifer Nettles sings in “Little Miss,” “one big mess.” 

From the opening notes of “All We Are,” with  Nettles’ dramatic, slowly delivered vocals accompanied by organ and building guitars,  “The Incredible Machine” screams “LISTEN TO ME.”  The duo’s fourth studio album doesn’t so much embrace the listener (more about that later) as grab him by the throat and not let go in an effort to spread its primary message that help is on the way....and you'll be able to fist pump your way to recovery.

Anthems dominate “The Incredible Machine.” Even slower songs like “Tonight,” which features Nettles in a thickly nuanced vocal performance unlike you’ve heard her before, feature big echo-y kick drums. Sugarland co-produced the album with Byron Gallimore--best known for his work with Tim McGraw-- but the team definitely took its inspiration from Steve Lillywhite’s drum-heavy production with U2.

Speaking of U2, anyone who has seen Sugarland on “The Incredible Machine” tour knows the pair is aiming for the Irish rockers' grandiose impact and power with its live show.  Forget the big feel of arena rock; Sugarland is going straight for the majesty of stadium rock. Every song is meant to reach the rafters. In concert, on “Stand Up,” Nettles brings out a white flag, spray paints a message about love on it, and carries it throughout the venue. And, depending upon whether you find such antics inspiring or preachy, it works. “Stand Up” is the moral centerpiece of “The Incredible Machine”--both the album and the tour. The song feels important in a slightly self-conscious way, but its message of rising up for good is one that will hopefully reach some ears.

“There’s a comfort/there’s a healing high above the pain and sorrow. Change is coming/can you feel it/ calling us into a new tomorrow,” Kristian Bush sings in his raspy tenor in a brief interlude on “Stand Up.”  Although the song was recorded before the recent spate of gay teens committing  suicide (or at least the media shining a light on the issue), it serves as the perfect anthem for any kid struggling, especially with its “Won’t you stand up,  you girls and boys” refrain. It is one of those songs that arrived at the right time and will, hopefully, find a higher purpose.

To Sugarland’s credit, it never pulls a punch on “The Incredible Machine.”  Nettles and Bush are fearlessly confident in their ambition. With very few exceptions, the pair reaches for the hammer every time, even if a much lighter touch might serve them better. Additionally, Nettles has one of those remarkable voices that loses none of its potency the more she belts. Vocal issues have plagued her in the past on tour, but there’s nothing here to suggest that she isn’t back to full throttle.

First single, the spiky “Stuck Like Glue” has found an audience at country radio despite the rap/dub Nettles delivers in the middle.  She raps again on “Every Girl Like Me.”  (something about a “hootie hanging down?”). The maneuver feels novelty on “Stuck Like Glue” and it does here as well.   She’s having fun and that’s infectious for the first few listens, but on repeated plays, you may find yourself  skipping both songs.

After two forgettable tracks,  “Find the Beat Again” and “Wide Open,” the album closes with another stunner, the elegant “Shine the Light.”  Accompanied primarily only by piano, Nettles delivers a benediction of sorts to a friend in need that she will stick close through troubled times. It’s a lovely finale, but it’s a shame that it takes until the ending tune to stop the bombast.


 

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