Category Archives: Music

New Music Releases

It might be wicked ass cold out there but make no mistake, the new music releases this month are super hot Popsters! In fact, we don’t have an album rating lower than four stars this week, (out of a possible five)! Are we feeling overly generous these days? Not a chance, we’re just as obnoxiously opinionated here in the Pop Bitez offices as we’ve ever been, but we’re having a great time rocking away the winter doldrums with these amazing new releases. Trust us on this one, these are just what the doctor ordered and are guaranteed to help you fight off your cabin fevers!

Dum Dum Girls- Too True

★ ★ ★ ★★

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Singer/Songwriter Dee Dee Penny and her band are moving further and further away from the retro girl group sound with each new release. While the band’s previous efforts were excellent, solid pop collections, Too True is definitely a groundbreaking effort  for the Southern California quartet. The retro vibe of the 60s and 70s has been replaced with the synth pop sound of the 80s this time around and, while the influences of Siouxsie And The Banshees and L.A.’s own Concrete Blonde can be heard throughout the album, the band masterfully maintain a contemporary sound that is always fresh, never derivative and all their own.

Too True is the best album the Dum Dum Girls have recorded to date. What a way to kick off 2014! 

Check out the first single, Lost Boys and Girls Club

Hospitality-Trouble

★ ★ ★ ★
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Is there a hotter music scene on the planet these days than Brooklyn, NYC? If you’re asking us we’d have to say, nope. In fact, the rocking borough of Manhattan is practically on fire with one amazing band after another emerging for the last several years. The latest band from the area due for a big breakout this year call themselves Hospitality and, despite the industry legend of the sophomore curse, this band has no reason to be sweating that myth with their second release, Trouble.

This solid effort surprises with nearly every track as the band explores a stunning variety of sounds and styles with 10 great tracks, each more impressive than the one before it. 

Listen to, I Miss Your Bones, a track that recalls the best of The Who and the glory days of NYC’s CBGBs.

Beck- Morning Phase

★ ★ ★ ★ 

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Beck is back in fine form with his new release Morning Phase, which could easily be considered a sequel of sorts to one of his most brilliant and beloved albums, Sea Change, originally released 12 years ago. The opening track, Morning, kicks things off in very much the same way The Golden Age did on Sea Change and it’s all brilliantly up hill from there.

Taking a break from his widely celebrated experimentations, Morning Phase is a simple yet strong, 13 track collection that, in it’s own way, seems timeless. This album actually could have been released any time in the last 50 years and would never have sounded out of place, in other words, you can turn this one up as loud as you want and your parents aren’t going to mind a bit, (get over it junior, that’s actually a GOOD thing).

There’s not a bad tune on this album but a definite favorite would be Blue Moon!

Broken Bells- After the Disco

★ ★ ★ ★
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Much to the relief and joy of music fans everywhere, it turns out Broken Bells, the brilliant team up of Brian Burton– a.k.a. Danger Mouse– and Shins’ front man James Mercer, was not, as many of us worried, a one off proposition. After the Disco is, of course, the follow up to their instantly classic self titled debut album released in 2010 and, though we can’t say this album is quite as strong as their first, it’s still a lot of fun and better than 90% of what’s playing on the radio these days.

In pop music history there was a brief window of time when Disco was fading and New Wave was creeping onto the scene. If we had to guess, it’s the specific sound of this period that the guys have focused on with this album, at least that’s how we’re hearing it. We happened to have loved a lot of the music from that time so loving After the Disco, for us, is really a no-brainer. The exploration and excavation of Top 40s past is subtle at times and, at others, almost hilariously obvious. Nowhere is this concept more apparent than when James Mercer delivers his best Barry Gibb impression on the chorus of the track, “Holding on for Life“, which in many ways sounds like a long lost Bee Gees tune if it were produced by Giorgio Moroder, (honestly, how did that NOT happen?)

Check out the title track of the album, which is as fresh as it is retro and wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Daft Punk’s Grammy winning Random Access Memories.

Above and Beyond- Acoustic 

★ ★ ★ ★
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Above and Beyond have been well known in the world of trance music for the last 15 years, which is why their new album, Acoustic, is such a shocker, honestly, we didn’t have a clue they were capable of anything like this. 

The album release comes after members Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness and Paavo Siljamaki debuted acoustic versions of their music this summer in London. The 24-instrument orchestra was not only a success in the eyes of their massive fan base, but to all fans and critics who heard their new soothing compositions.

Collecting the trio’s best loved songs and re-imagining them as rich orchestral acoustic arrangements, Above & Beyond Acoustic contains the studio recordings behind their already legendary acoustic shows at London’s Porchester Hall and LA’s Greek Theatre – described by Billboard as “one of the finest shows in dance music history“. Upon its release last week, the album went straight to number one on the iTunes US Dance Album Chart. The new release has been compared to previous works from the likes of  Zero 7 and Portishead but, make no mistake, this lush and gorgeous collection is Above and Beyond any release we’ve heard from either of those excellent bands in the last few years.

Enjoy You Got to Go 

 

Album Review: Sway- Blue October

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ (out of a possible 5)

 

 

The more I listen to the new Blue October album Sway, the more I’m convinced this one is a personal best for the Austin based rockers, which is no small feat when you consider this is the 7th album in the band’s catalog.

At a time when many of their contemporaries have either disbanded or resigned themselves to regurgitating past glories, Blue October have raised their bar and all but reinvented themselves. It’s extremely rare for a band that has been around for as long as these guys have to sound anywhere near this fresh, but they truly do, with the kind of enthusiasm, passion and energy usually reserved for an up and coming indie act charging out of the garage and onto the charts.

One could argue, as a follow up to their brilliant but emotionally draining album Any Man in America, in order for the band, (as well as lead singer and songwriter Justin Furstenfeld ), to realistically survive, they were going to need to lighten up a bit, deny the darkness, embrace the beauty of their world and just “Sway“. The result is an album that is almost a spiritual revelation, an awakening of purpose and a celebration of the healing power of great rock and roll. My first thought as I listened to the new album was, “Holy shit, these guys are going to love touring in support of this one!”

The album opens with the short hymn-like, “Breathe, It’s Over“, which wouldn’t sound out of place on Pink Floyd’s The Wall– just after the wall comes down. It’s a perfect opener, and quietly announces a new journey down a healthier, happier road. Forget Green Day’s American Idiot on Broadway, personally I’d love to see a rock musical with Any Man in America serving as Act One and Sway as the uplifting and redemptive Second Act, (just putting it out there guys, do with it what you will, ha!). In many ways the two albums combined both contradict and compliment each other very well.

After the quiet opening the album launches into the radio friendly title track, “Sway“, which plays like a deep sigh of relief that comes after holding ones breath for far too long. “C’mon, dance with me…“, Furstenfeld beckons, with a new attitude that almost says, “you know what? Fuck it, we’re all going to be O.K., let’s enjoy the night“.

The album continues that vibe with “Angels in Everything“, a solid uptempo love song, as celebratory as it is earnestly thankful and “Bleed Out“, the first single released from the album, a driving and strong musical declaration of empowerment that should be put on constant rotation in your “work-out mix” for the gym.

The album takes a surprisingly sexy and groovy turn with the next track, “Debris“, (currently my favorite on the album). Furstenfeld’s strong dramatic vocals, combined with some of the sweetest bass work Matt Noveskey has ever committed to tape and the expert production work from Furstenfeld, David Castell and Tim Palmer makes this one a keeper for the ages, an instant classic in the band’s ever growing catalog of great songs. Coming in at over six minutes, it’s the longest track on the album but you’d never know it, it moves like a cool midnight breeze over the lake and almost demands an immediate repeat listen, (which I’ve been doing a lot in the past week).

In lesser hands the message contained in the album’s next track, “Fear“, would sound like it was ripped from the pages of a self help book, but Furstenfeld’s skilled songwriting expertly avoids this trap and features one of the most memorable melodies on the album. ” Fear in itself, will break you down and use you up, like you were never enough, I used to fall, now I get back up“. The reason the lyrics work so well is that you know the singer has been there and done that, the sincerity is impossible to deny and, while cynics may roll their eyes, I have no doubt the tune will help many a person facing a difficult situation in the future, the singer and this critic included.

Next up is the warm and hopeful, (how often have you seen those two words together in a Blue October review?), “Things We Don’t Know About“, a love song for a child from a parent, which Furstenfeld co-wrote with longtime band member/ bass player, Matt Noveskey. It’s all about growing up, both for the kid and the Dad, and is accentuated nicely by drummer Jeremy Furstenfeld’s accomplished percussion and some beautiful string work from the band’s multi- instrumentalist Ryan Delahoussaye.

The structure of an album isn’t often discussed or acknowledged in a review despite the fact that the creative teams often take great pains to line up the tracks in the best possible order, I feel obligated at this point to mention, these guys nailed it, (as they most often do). I honestly can’t imagine these tracks in any other order, (which, come to think of it, is why I might have been considering it in a stage musical/ concept album structure earlier).

Two of the albums strongest rockers come next, “Hard Candy” and “Put It In“, proving the band hasn’t lost it’s playfulness or sense of humor. In fact, “Put It In“, may be the most playful I’ve ever heard them. The tune rocks and the lyrics are occasionally laugh old loud, it’s a strong indication Furstenfeld doesn’t feel as obliged to take it all as painfully “serious” as he seemingly once did.

Light you Up” is definitely a track for those who loved the band’s platinum selling album, Foiled, and would have easily fit as comfortably on that album as it does on Sway, it’s a solid return to form and one I can already hear the extremely loyal fan base shouting-along with on tour, like most of this album, it’s going to play live very well. The same can also be said for the excellent anthemic rocker, “Things We Do At Night“, yes, the chanting with fists in the air are all but guaranteed, (I could lie and tell you I haven’t already done this but why bother, honesty is always the best policy).

The final song on this album, “Not Broken Anymore“, is- in my opinion- the best ballad from ANY band in 2013 and may actually be the best Justin Furstenfeld has ever written, it’s that great. The best thing I can say about Furstenfeld’s songwriting is that he has never been afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve and put it out there, which, if you’re asking me, is the first rule in any art form and, as the songwriter matures and his well of experience gets deeper, the audience is rewarded as much as the artist himself. I should also mention this track, with it’s dreamy and haunting cello, is as perfectly produced as any record I’ve heard this year. Heads up Hollywood, if you don’t get this tune on a soundtrack ASAP you will have totally dropped the ball hard, (again).

The album closes with the gorgeous instrumental, “To Be“, a contemplative epilogue that encourages the listener to take a few minutes and reflect on the journey of hope and self discovery that you just experienced by way of Blue October’s Sway.

Though I will never deny the brilliance that was Any Man in America, it was a dark and painful journey. That being said, it was most definitely a road that needed to be traveled, if for no other reason, than to lead us- and the band- to the beautifully cathartic destination that is Sway.

I am as stunned to write this final statement as you will be to read it, you won’t find another album that will make you feel better this year than Blue October’s Sway. Wow guys, to quote one of your classics, “Congratulations“.

One final thought; This album was funded almost entirely by friends and fans who were generous enough to donate by way of the PledgeMusic website, you don’t get more “independent” than that. Please show your support for independent music and buy this one, save the file sharing for another day.

For more info on Blue October, including all the tour dates, check out blueoctober.com

Catching Up With IAMDYNAMITE

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I first heard IAMDYNAMITE when the producer of their EP, (and subsequently their debut album SUPERMEGAFANTASTIC), Matt Noveskey, of Blue October, slipped me a copy of their impressive demo in the Spring of 2011. Fast forward to the Fall of that same year when Blue October began the first leg of their “Any Man in America” tour in Phoenix, AZ with IAMDYNAMITE opening. This is when I had my first chance to meet and talk with Christopher Martin (Vocals & Guitar) and Chris Phillips (Drums & Vocals) which, if you happened to have missed that interview, you can check it out HERE.

Since that first meeting the Chris’ have been on the road virtually non-stop, coast to coast and all over the world, opening for bands like Sum 41 and Blue October as well as headlining in some smaller clubs. They’ve been a featured act on the bill at several radio station sponsored rock festivals (to say nothing of all the early morning “in studio performances” at those same stations) and, of course, they enjoyed a very successful showcase at this year’s SXSW in Austin, TX.

When we first met IAMDYNAMITE had yet to play any shows in Europe, since then the guys have toured extensively overseas and flown to Germany SIX times to date! Yeah, it’s true, I’ve got a few years on these guys but, holy shit! I’m exhausted just thinking about their travels in the last year and a half!

Such is the life of an up and coming band promoting their debut album. There’s little doubt that, five years from now, Rolling Stone and Spin will be hailing this dynamite duo as “overnight sensations”, despite the fact that those of us in the blogosphere will have been writing about them for over half a decade. The extremely popular, Grammy Award winning Black Keys are perfect examples of this strange show business anomaly and there is no reason to believe IAMDYNAMITE, with their strong melodies and expert musicianship, won’t eventually see the same kind of success, provided they stay the course and don’t burn out first.  

This past week the band finally wrapped the “SUPERMEGAFANTASTIC Tour” and are home for some serious rest and relaxation, with only a few random shows intermittently scheduled throughout the Summer.

I had a chance to catch up with the guys a few weeks back as they passed through Arizona, (their third stop here in the last year and a half), and despite their seemingly endless travels on the long and winding show business road, they were just as funny, affable and ready to rock as they were the first time we met.

Pop Bitez: So guys, what’s your secret to staying sane on the road?

Christopher Martin: Aww, man, I think you just try to sleep as much as you can….

Chris Phillips: And headphones…. lots of headphone time!

(they laugh)

Christopher: Absolutely, a lot of headphone time.

PB: When you look back on this tour what do you think your strongest memories are going to be?

Chris: I think the crowds, the crowds that weren’t vibing with us or just not feeling it tend to stick out in my mind or- likewise- if they went absolutely crazy.

Christopher: For me I think it’s the ‘firsts’, any of the big firsts, like the first time we played in New York City and the first time we played for a real big crowd- like thousands of people- the first time we went out to the west coast, our first tour in Europe, the first time a crowd was there to see YOU in some town you’ve never been to and they know all the words, that kind of stuff…that’s what I’ll really remember.

PB: And what’s the biggest difference between American “sweaty hugs” and European “sweaty hugs”?

Chris: You can understand what they’re whispering in your ear, (laughs), you know, in the U.S. it’s just like a “bro hug”, and that’s it, the Europeans full out hug and then they talk to you, you’ll share a conversation while ‘in hug’.

Christopher: (laughs) Yeah, and then you get a little kiss on the cheek, it’s kinda nice honestly.

Chris: European hugs are just a little bit more passionate than the usual U.S. hugs, I think.

PB: So I understand you’ve got one more video and single from the SUPERMEGAFANTASTIC album in the works?

Chris: Yep, we’re actually in the process of filming the video right now.

PB: And what’s the track?

Christopher:Hey Girl”.

PB: Now I’ve been playing the hell out of this album for nearly 2 years and, as much as I love it, I know I speak for a lot of your fans when I say, we need some new stuff! So, where are you at as far as the sophomore album is concerned?

Christopher: We’re at a point where we’re starting to accumulate little bits of songs, melodies and parts and we’re puting them together, like a big stew, and some work for awhile and then you’re ‘no, no, I don’t want that’ and then you try something different, we’re in that phase right now. It’s kind of taking awhile because me and Chris are living in different states right now, you know, when we made the first album we were living in the same state and we could get together and practice and jam and fuck around all of the time, that being said, we’re going to try and make a new album in November, that’s the time everyone is on board for.

PB: So while you’ve been on the road you’ve been playing with some of these new ideas?

Christopher: Every time we go out we’re like, ‘THIS time we’re going to play some new songs’, and some shit happens, like someone gets sick, I get sick or Chris gets sick, and all of the sudden we don’t have any time to work on anything.

Chris: We have gotten together a couple of times on this tour where we just HAD to play, that’s it, we sit there and jam, but it sucks sometimes because, you know, it’s a struggle, but we just gotta DO it. We both got sick at different points and eventually you really need those days off, you get to that point at the end of the tour or even in the middle of a tour, you know, when that day off comes and you just want THAT DAY OFF! You don’t want to do anything! Also a lot of our days off right now are spent driving, but we’re on the same page with you guys, we want that sophomore album out and done as much as you do, so that we’ve got some new stuff to play. 

• You can stay up to date on all that’s happening with IAMDYNAMITE by following them on Facebook, Twitter and, of course, the band’s Official Website.

Pop Bitez 10 Worst Christmas Songs of All Time

The best thing about many Christmas songs is that we only have to hear them for roughly a month and a half a year, (unless you live near one of those hateful radio stations that insist on dedicating a week to “Christmas in July”).

Christmas is my absolute favorite time of the year. I love the weather, the lights, the food and, yes, SOME of the tunes. That being said, there are certain holiday songs that truly bring out the Grinch in me and immediately provoke homicidal thoughts that make me want to take a chainsaw to the sugarplums dancing in my head. These are the songs, this is the shit list.

You might notice, unlike other lists I’ve seen online, I am NOT including videos, links or song samples. Why, I ask you, would I do that if in fact I LOATH these tunes?! The simple truth is, this list is more for me than you and I’m really hoping I feel a little better after I vent on these hideous tracks.

10. Fairytale of New York- The Pogues

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Look, I’m a big fan of The Pogues, I “get” the fact that this is an “alternative” Christmas song and I appreciate the humor, but for me Christmas is the holiest of holidays and any Christmas song that features the lyrics, “you scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot, happy Christmas your arse I pray God it’s our last“,  is just wrong.

 9. Baby, it’s Cold Outside- Various

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Attention songwriters of the world, please for the love of God, could you maybe write a good Christmas duet so we are no longer subjected to the latest “cute team up” of this lame tune every freaking year? For the record, this is NOT a Christmas song, it has NOTHING to do with Christmas, it’s just another secular song that pop stars uncomfortable with the idea of faith gravitate to when pressed to record a “holiday” tune. As an added bonus of awfulness, the male character in this song, no matter who is singing it, always sounds like a date rapist. Have I ruined it for you? Good.

8. Merry Christmas Baby- The Beach Boys

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My baby done told me, she don’t wanna hold me and kiss my lips anymore…” If there is any one thing I absolutely abhor about pop radio during the holidays it’s the Christmas “break up” songs. I put a large part of the blame on “Blue Christmas” which, for the record, I don’t think is a bad song though, again, it’s an odd way to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, ( in case you’d forgotten the reason for the season). Love the Beach Boys but not the majority of this album,  they should have called it Abused Pet Sounds.

 7. Last Christmas- Wham

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Last Christmas I gave you my heart but the very next day you gave it away…” 

Again, it’s a holiday break up song, though you could argue they were never really together anyway, I mean, if she/he(?) is going to take this loser’s heart to the returns and exchanges department “the very next day”, right?  This song SUCKS, it always did and so does every DJ who still feels compelled to torture us with it every December. This song is the musical equivalent of a fruitcake that tastes just as shitty as it did the first time you took a bite.

 6. Santa Baby- Eartha Kitt, Madonna, etc.

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A money grubbing, superficial whore fills out her Christmas list for Santa, how charming. Isn’t this song a little lyrically dated? I mean, the independent modern woman isn’t really like this anymore, they understand what’s really important in today’s modern world, they aren’t looking for a man to provide all of these materialistic trinkets, more than half of you voted for Hillary, right? Right. It’s my sincere hope that none of you have a high maintenance vixen in your life who claims this is her “absolute favorite Christmas song of all time!” every time it comes on the radio, (if you do, don’t slow down, just open the door and push.)

 

 5. Do They Know it’s Christmas- Various Artists

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There won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time….” and, if there ever was snow in Africa you can be sure we’d get a bunch of limousine pop stars together to record a song about how global warming is actually ruining Christmas in Africa and how we need to raise money to buy them snow blowers. Look, it was a good cause in the eighties and it’s a good cause today, you’ll get no argument from me when it comes to famine and third world suffering, that being said, you can’t guilt me into believing this is a good song, it sucked then, it sucks now. I will admit the video was fun at the time, it was cool to see all of those coked up pop stars come together to help those less fortunate, (before most of them blew their fortunes and lives on runaway drug addictions.) 

Feed the world, no child anywhere on this planet should ever go to bed hungry but please, stop playing this AWFUL song!!

4. Happy Christmas (War is Over)- John Lennon & Yoko Ono

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And so this is Christmas…and what have you done?” Ah yes, the second most popular atheist Beatle records a Christmas song and, from the very first line, hits you with his signature smugness and judgement. What have we done, John? What have YOU done? Oh, that’s right, you hooked up with a crazy, fugly, tone death witch and broke up one of the greatest rock bands of all time, nice. This is an anti-Vietnam protest song and, despite what some idiots would have you believe, is NOT “as relevant today as it ever was” and please, forgive me if I’m not feeling all warm and fuzzy with this song being sung by someone who once claimed “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus”, and is snidely wishing me a “Merry Christmas” with his warbling, vocally challenged she beast joining in on the chorus.

Just shoot me already….oh, sorry, bad taste, rest in peace John.

3. Wonderful Christmastime- Paul McCartney

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And here we have the number one most popular atheist Beatle wishing us a “Merry Christmas”!

If someone had told you back in the day that the two most talented and prolific members of one of the greatest rock bands of all time would produce two of the worst Christmas songs of all time you would have thought they were smoking some serious ganja. The simple truth is, when it comes to writing a good Christmas tune, your heart has got to be in it. John was making a political statement, Paul was cashing checks, and the true spirit of the season was never a part of either of their mixes. 

The word is out, about the town, to lift a glass, ah, don’t look down“, what the f#*k does that even mean? It means, “this is your brain on drugs, any questions?”

 2. All I Want for Christmas is You- Mariah Carey

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Dear God, please let Christmas get here SOON, if I have to hear this song ONE MORE FREAKING TIME I am converting to the Muslim faith.

I still find Mariah insanely hot, I admit it, but, as was always the case, I prefer to enjoy her music videos with the mute button engaged.

First, I can’t quite explain it but, I hate EVERYTHING about this song, including the chord progressions and the AWFUL backup singers. Secondly, this song was prominently featured in the film “Love, Actually” which, if there is a Hell, is currently the only movie playing on every channel of Satan’s cable box. I would rather be anally raped by an army of ravenous elves than ever watch that film again so you can only imagine how I feel when this dreadful ditty comes on the radio, every half hour.

1. Christmas Shoes- Newsong

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Mama needs a new pair of shoes in the event she “meets Jesus tonight”, because we all know the chapter in the Bible where Jesus goes on and on about the importance of wearing proper pumps as you begin your journey to his Father’s House. Alright, I get it, not the point of the song, whatever.

The bottom line is, this one hit wonder of awfulness grossly attempts to pull every cheap trick in the book to manipulate it’s listener into tears, and in doing so, fails miserably at every attempt, though I have to believe it’s worked on more than a few folks or I wouldn’t still be hearing this obnoxious and cloying excuse for a Christmas song every year. As a footnote, the band called themselves “Newsong”, seriously, what, I ask you, is there not to hate?

 

 

Don Black: The Man of Many Words

There can be no doubt, pop lyricists are truly the unsung heroes of the songwriting world. Billions of people know Elton John’s tunes but, when they’re singing along, do they appreciate the words embedded in their brains and coming out of their mouths are actually the work of master wordsmith Bernie Taupin? Broadway superstar Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name now appears above every one of his titles but, unlike Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe or Kander and Ebb, these days his lyricist’s names most often appear on a lower and separate line. What too often seems to be lost when people talk about Sir Andrew is that, without Tim Rice, there’s no “crying for Argentina“, without Trevor Nunn and T.S. Elliot there’s no questioning of whether the moon has lost her “Memory” and without legendary lyricist Don Black, there’s no “Unexpected Song” or “Sunset Boulevard“.

Don Black began his creative life as a stand up comedian, he has said he “wrote his first song waiting for a laugh in Manchester“. His first musical for the stage, Maybe That’s Your Problem, dealt with the misfortunes of premature ejaculation and was, as you might imagine, less than successful. Still, it was only a few years later that his lifetime collaboration with celebrated film composer John Barry began, when Barry first approached Black about putting some words to the theme he’d written for the feature length documentary Born Free. That collaboration lead to an Academy Award for the composer and lyricist and established Don Black as the go-to-guy when Hollywood was in need of some words to sing with the tunes. What followed were several James Bond title songs, written once again with Barry, and the monster hits Lulu’s To Sir, With Love and the only song ever written about that “special relationship” between a boy and his rat, Ben, which Michael Jackson took to the top of the pop charts in 1972.

In the many years since, Black has collaborated with some of the greatest living composers of our time. That long and impressive list includes; Quincy Jones, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Jule Styne, Charles Strouse, Michel Legrand and Marvin Hamlisch. With Andrew Lloyd Webber he has worked on the Broadway musicals, Tell Me on a Sunday/ Song and Dance, Aspects of Love, Starlight Express, Whistle Down the Wind and the Tony Winning Sunset Boulevard. Most recently Don Black worked with composer Frank Wildhorn on the Broadway musicals Dracula and Bonnie and Clyde and, just last month, he put words to the theme of the popular PBS series Downton Abbey which will be featured on an upcoming episode of Dancing with the Stars.

I think it’s only fitting we begin our interview today with a Don Black classic from one of his many John Barry collaborations, enjoy!

 

Pop Bitez: So, it seems like the Bond themes have lost some of their magic throughout the years, why do you suppose that is, what changed?

 

Don Black: What changed was when they went for the artist more than the song. When I did it with John Barry it was all about getting the song right. When we did Thunderball we got the song right first and then you’d get the artist. I’m not sure when it changed, but it changed when they said, “wouldn’t it be great to get a big star to sing it?”, and then the song came second. I don’t want to be nasty about any of them but it did lose a lot, you know, there have been some great songs, but every now and again one comes along and you think, “Oh my God, it’s lost that lovely, seductive quality”. Then again I think maybe it’s only the older generation who remembers Diamonds Are Forever and the other songs, I’m sure with Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace, there’s an audience for that, but I find people of a certain age want to go back to Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever.

 

PB: I’m actually one of those people who think the Bond films take themselves too seriously these days, I blame Austin Powers for some of that.

 

DB: (laughs) That’s right.

 

PB: Now your career as a lyricist pretty much began when you won the Oscar for Born Free which is actually the reverse for most people, winning the Academy Award so early in a person’s career has ruined more than a few, but for you it seems like it was more of a launching point.

DB: Yes, I mean, I’ve never really changed in my outlook to writing. I love writing lyrics, you have to have fire in your belly to stay the course, so I’m as enthusiastic about projects today, whether it’s movies or shows, as I was all those years ago. I was only 27 I think when I won that Oscar and, you know, it is like yesterday, but nothing has changed my outlook from Born Free to right now, I’m still doing the same things, I’m still writing songs.

 

PB: It’s still the same process.

DB: Same process, it’s exactly the same.

PB: In terms of your many collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tell Me on a Sunday, which eventually became, Song and Dance,  and then toured the U.K. recently in a return to it’s original form, is a bit of a curiosity. More than any other show I can think of, the genesis of that project is long and dramatic and- through the years- you’ve adjusted the story and lyrics many times over. So, I guess the question is, how difficult is it to go back to a song you’ve heard hundreds of times before- with a certain set of lyrics- and completely rethink them?

DB: It’s difficult, it is difficult, but then it’s a job, it’s just like, you know, a journalist writing about Obama, he may have written about Obama a thousand times but he’s got to do another piece on Obama, he’s got to come at it from a different angle, it’s the same thing with a melody really, to forget everything you’ve done and start again, but, you’re right, it isn’t easy, it’s tough.

 

PB: Do you remember a title a composer or studio threw at you that was especially challenging?

 


DB: I think True Grit was a difficult one, but then also writing a musical like Bombay Dreams for Broadway, because it’s all Bollywood and a different language, anything that’s a different language, in a way it’s good. My first musical that was successful was called Billy, which I wrote with John Barry, and it was set in Yorkshire and the fact that you have dialects….it’s very, very good, it’s the same as Sondheim writing West Side Story, the fact that he’s writing for Puerto Rican people is probably good, it makes him go places he’s probably never been before, in a way it’s something to cling to as a writer.

 


PB: Can you talk a bit about the differences between working with Andrew Lloyd Webber and John Barry?

 

DB: Well, they’re different people, but the process is the same, at the piano they’re both identical, it’s only when they get up from the piano, John is much more of a loner and Andrew is a different kind of person, interested in many things, and I love working with both of them. What they both have in common is that they’re both stimulating, they both really have this fire in the belly for whatever they’re doing, they’re both very dedicated and focused.

 

PB: I’m sure many would debate this point with me but, personally, out of all the Webber musicals, I think Sunset Boulevard is his most traditional show and, for that reason, I consider it one of his best. The film is, of course, a highly revered classic, I’m curious, how daunting was it to take on such a legendary story?

 



DB: It wasn’t daunting because I love movies, my whole life I was raised on movies, as a kid it was always movies, movies, movies…and Christopher Hampton, who I wrote it with, loved Hollywood and that period, and we met Billy Wilder and we spent some time with him which was incredible, it was a labor of love. It was hard work because anything you do with Andrew Lloyd Webber the world is looking at it, he’s the only composer in the world that when he announces his next thing every paper in the world covers it, that doesn’t happen with anyone else.

 


PB: Now Barry and Webber are both extremely romantic composers, do you have to be a bit of a romantic yourself to match the words with their tunes?

 


DB: Well, I am anyway, but I’m also very sensitive to music, the way the notes are and how they should sing. It’s a delicate kind of sculpting, the words to those tunes and it sounds very hard, and it is very hard if you don’t enjoy it but, if you love it, it’s a crossword puzzle.

 

PB: Now you recently collaborated with composer Frank Wildhorn on the Broadway musical, Bonnie & Clyde,  which closed at the end of December after a very brief run. From all reports the audiences loved it, but the critics- who I am now convinced have it in for Wildhorn- were surprisingly harsh. What do you think happened there?

DB: Well, this is the real shock of my career, up until the opening night, all through the month of previews, there was a standing ovation every single performance. There were lines around the block, people raving about it and coming back, one guy saw it twenty times, people were saying, “I’ve seen it 12 times”, “I’ve seen it 10 times”, it was fantastic, and the fact that we opened to bad reviews, particularly the New York Times, really surprised us. However, it will have a happy ending I think, we opened in Japan a couple weeks ago and it was a huge success and we are definitely going to go to London, I had emails about it yesterday, they’re over there now working out a West End production and we’re hoping the rest of the world will enjoy it and, you know, we can always come back to the states.

PB: I understand you’re currently working on a musical version of The Count of Monte Cristo with composer Michel Legrand, what can you tell me about that project?

 

DB: Well we’ve been playing with the book a lot, it’s always about getting the book right with a musical, but the guy who wrote the book, Richard Bean (One Man, Two Guvnors), is a bit of a genius, he’s going to be the toast of Broadway and win the Tony this year, and we’ve got it nailed I think, he’s actually going to do the play of it at the National Theatre this year and we’re hoping to get the musical ready by the end of the year.

 

PB: Is it a straight forward adaptation or will it be more like Frank Wildhorn’s The Scarlet Pimpernel where the humor was played up a bit?

 

DB: It’s witty because the writer Richard Bean is very witty, but it’s a truncated form, the brilliance of it is… when I read it…I thought, “how do you get a 1200 page novel down to a few hours on the stage?”, but he did it, it’s a great story about revenge, it’s a lot of people’s favorite, so we absolutely have to get it right.