Sunday, January 22, 2012

Michael Bolton: The Rock Star That Was Never Fully Known

Cartoon Artwork, again, by me, and again, it's unpolished. Partially because I traced this from another drawing I did of this scene.
If there's one thing about the music industry that I can't stand, it's when an artist that performs rock music is only known for their ballads. Personally, if there's an artist that interests me enough, I look for more than just their hit singles and I hunt for cool album tracks and deep cuts, and often times, it's usually these kinda musicians who are only known for their ballads and have some really good rockers or upbeat tracks that don't get enough attention that I tend to focus on. There have been several examples especially in the 80s, like REO Speedwagon, Chicago, Bryan Adams, Richard Marx, and quite possibly the ultimate example, Michael Bolton.

Oh, how the mighty hath fallen...

I seriously don't get what it is with Michael Bolton. The guy has an awesomely husky voice that sounds like Sammy Hagar, with a powerful 4-octave vocal range that is perfect for stuff like Van Halen and other hard rock and heavy metal music. And yet, he's mostly known for singing ballads and R&B covers like "When A Man Loves A Woman" and "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay". I mean, sure, I like some of his ballads, but often times, I don't think his voice truly fits with that kind of music. However, I blame the mass audience for encouraging him to do this kinda music. Yes, the popular audience was most likely demanding “more ballads” and so Bolton had to give into their demands. Either that, or because he actually WANTED to do those, I don’t know the whole story. I mean, sure, branching out to R&B covers and ballads is fine, but I really rather not have that be his entire schtick. Seriously, Bolton, WHAT HAPPENED WITH YOU?

What most people familiar to his hits don't realize, though, is that Michael Bolton really could rock, and I personally prefer his much cooler 80s AOR (Album Oriented Rock) material over the kinda schlock he's making nowadays. He started out recording two solo albums in 1975 and 1976 before forming a short-lived obscure heavy metal band in the 70s known as Blackjack.

Not that Blackjack...

That's the one! The band lasted from 1979-1980 and recorded two albums before splitting up. Also, Bolton's name at the time was Michael BOLOTIN, which he would change to the more familiar version in the 1980s.

"Fool's Game"

In 1983, the newly-renamed Michael BOLTON recorded a self-titled album, his third solo album overall, which was his debut on Columbia Records. This was a great AOR album, and it contains one of my personal favorite Michael Bolton songs, "Fool's Game". Another cool song from the album, “Can’t Hold On, Can’t Let Go”, was later covered by Mr. Big lead singer Eric Martin on his self-titled 1985 solo album. And yes, he had a mullet in the 80s and 90s.

"Save Our Love"

"Everybody's Crazy"

"Can't Turn It Off"

1985's "Everybody's Crazy" was also a great album, but sadly overlooked, as it was a critical and commercial failure at the time. However, it's gone on to be considered one of the best AOR/Melodic Rock albums from the 1980s, and the title track was a minor hit that made an appearance in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield movie, "Back To School". Heck, a poll in Kerrang! Magazine has cited this as the #2 best AOR album of all time; with Journey's Escape being #1. It's out of print in the U.S. but has been reissued and remastered oversees, and I would love to get my hand on a copy of that version. Other awesome tracks include “Save Our Love” and “Can’t Turn It Off”.

"Hot Love"

"Wait On Love"


In 1987, Bolton released "The Hunger", which was his breakthrough album, but also the start of his slow descent into mediocre crap. Its hits were the cover of Otis Redding's "(Sitting On) The Dock Of The Bay" and the ballad "That's What Love Is All About". However, there were also several cool rock tunes that were virtually ignored, like "Hot Love", "Wait On Love", "Gina", and a few others. It earned 2x Multi-Platinum in the U.S.

"You Wouldn't Know Love"

"Soul Provider", released in 1989, was an even bigger success, turning Bolton into a superstar, earning 6x Multi-Platinum in the U.S., reaching #3 on the U.S. charts, and selling over 12,500,000 million copies worldwide. It featured the title track, a cover of Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind", "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You", which he co-wrote for Laura Branigan in 1983 and won a 1990 Best Male Pop Vocal Grammy with his version, and one of his few hard-rocking hits, "How Can We Be Lovers?" It also included a cool song called "You Wouldn't Know Love", which was also performed and recorded by Cher that same year.

The Nineties came, and with it continued Bolton’s descent into bland repetitiveness and mediocrity. In 1991, his seventh studio album, “Time, Love & Tenderness”, was released, and it went on to sell 8x Multi-Platinum U.S. and became #1 on the U.S. charts. This had hits like a Grammy-winning cover of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman”, which has been previously covered by Bette Midler for her movie, “The Rose”, “Missing You Now”, with saxophonist Kenny G, the title track, and my personal favorite from this album, and one of his last few rock hits, “Steel Bars,” which was a songwriting collaboration with, surprising enough, Bob Dylan. You know, one of the most famous and influential singers/songwriters ever? Responsible for such famous songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind”, “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and “Like A Rolling Stone”? But why would any of you un-appreciators actually care anyways, you with your Justin Bieber, your Slipknot, your Limp Bizkit, your Lady Gaga, your Linkin Park, your- wow, I really sound like an old-timer, don’t I? Ah, the curse of being someone who thinks the vast majority of today’s popular music is garbage.

This album is also notorious for being part of a lawsuit involving the song “Love Is A Wonderful Thing” and The Isley Brothers, who composed a song with the same name that Bolton’s song sounded similar to. The R&B group wound up winning a 5.4 million dollar award in a trial against Bolton. I haven’t heard both versions of the song to compare them yet, but I still hate how today’s society is willing to sue everyone over one measly little thing, which was something that was poked fun at mercilessly by Weird Al Yankovic, in his song “I’ll Sue Ya”. It really says something when the stereotype for lawsuits is that everyone nowadays thinks that copyrights and suing someone will solve all the world’s problems, which is bullcrap beyond compare.

Ok, I went off topic there. AGAIN. It shows what a screwball I am.

Anyways, as the nineties went on with the 4x Multi-Platinum Timeless: The Classics and the 3x Multi-Platinum The One Thing, Bolton’s songs got softer and his image got more and more tainted with wimpiness. However, when he compiled his Greatest Hits compilation from 1985-1995 (sadly not including anything from the “Everybody’s Crazy” album), he did record a few originals, one of which, “I Found Someone”, was a faint hope that he hadn’t forgotten his AOR roots. This song just so happened to be a minor hit that Bolton co-wrote for Laura Branigan in 1985. Two years later, however, Cher did a cover of the song, and it revived her own musical career. So it seemed only reasonable that Michael Bolton did his own take on the song.

However, His last Top 40 single in the US on his own right was the version of “Go The Distance” that he recorded for Disney’s “Hercules”. The album it was featured on, 1997’s “All That Matters,” was the last album that made an impact on the US charts with a gold certification, but it was considered a disappointment compared to his other albums at the time. And from there, his image continued to degrade, as his next album My Secret Passion, an album of Opera arias, marked the end of his hit making period.

Seriously, Michael Bolton? SERIOUSLY?!!?
And to this date, he still hasn’t gotten the message to try something different, (probably because how narrow-minded and resistant to change a lot of the popular audience is,) as he has continued to make pop ballads and R&B covers that didn’t make very much impact compared to his hit making days OR his AOR days. He even went and recorded an album where he covered songs made famous by Frank Sinatra. FRANK. FRICKIN’. SINATRA. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of Frankie’s music, as long as it’s jazzy and has a groove to it, but I think that just demonstrates how creatively bankrupt Ol’ Mikey had gotten at that point.

However, he has made something of an impact lately, since he was a guest star on comedic hip-hop group The Lonely Island’s song, “Jack Sparrow”. His performance consisted of an intentionally off-topic chorus and miscommunication with the group, as he delivers it with incredible gusto that really fits the backbeat of the music. The music video takes the silliness to the next level by having him dressed in costumes of Jack Sparrow from “Pirates Of The Caribbean”, Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich, and even Tony Montana from “Scarface”. Because nothing says hardcore like a PO-ed crack-head Cuban drug overlord wielding an M16 Rifle equipped with an under-barrel M203 grenade launcher and shouting “SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!!”*

*I haven’t actually seen “Scarface” yet, but I have heard about that part, and I really want to see the actual movie at some point in the future.

Even if the entire thing WAS treated as a joke, an incredibly funny joke, I must remind you, it’s a shame that most people out there don’t know of his pre-hit years, before he got popular from getting pigeonholed into a style of music that didn’t really take advantage of his powerful vocals as much as it should. And while I’ve complained about a lot of his later stuff, I personally love his work from 1983-1995 the most, and even some of his current songs I think are okay, but they’re just not as interesting to me compared to the earlier works. Again, I like his hit ballads, but I like his rock stuff much more, and I hope to raise awareness about this underrated part of his career by revealing this info to people outside of the AOR fan community.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Linda Ronstadt's Disappointing 80s Career

Cartoon drawn by me. Very sketchy and unpolished, but hey, I'm still learning as an artist. Besides, I don't always need to color these in, do I?

I’m not afraid to admit that I am a fan of Linda Ronstadt. Her voice is lovely, her performances are great, & I love how diverse she is, ranging from rock & roll to country (not the new crap they have) to Mexican mariachi music. I also love her interpretation of hits like “You’re No Good”, “Blue Bayou”, “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me”, “Love Has No Pride”, and many others (I’m guessing she wasn’t much of a songwriter, since she only released a few songs that she actually had writing credits on.) 

While she has gotten a little, well, stouter in later years, I think she's still about as attractive as ever. (However, THIS image is NOT of her later years, before you get confused.)

I’m also a fan of the 80s, especially 80s music which is lively, fun, eclectic, weird, and rather underappreciated and underutilized, in my opinion, so combining two things like the 80s & Linda Ronstadt should’ve been a good thing, right? Well, it wound up pretty disappointing, really.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to be the only one who thinks this, but I hate the direction that Linda Ronstadt went during this era. A lot of people cite her as a versatile singer, and while I agree with that, I don’t think she put this versatility to good use here. I mean, sure, she broadened her approaches to Traditional Pop AND Mexican music, but I think in the former, she focused on it TOO much and didn’t devote attention to a whole lot else. That’s not versatility, that’s just milking a particular sound for all its worth. Basically saying, I liked her better in the seventies.

What I should also note is that Ronstadt never really thought of herself as a rock singer and apparently wasn’t fond of her rock hits, preferring more of the ballad stuff. Personally, I’m the opposite of her. I think the title track for “Heart Like A Wheel” is the dullest song on the entire album, and “You’re No Good” was part of what got me really interested in checking out more of her work, along with another song she did, but I’ll get into that later.

What's going on here is beyond me, but hey, sometimes cover art can be unusual.

What’s funny, though, is that the decade didn’t start out bad for her. In 1980, she released one of my personal favorite albums from her, the absolutely awesome Punk Rock/New Wave based “Mad Love”, which spawned the hits “Hurt So Bad”, “I Can’t Let Go”, and the incredibly underappreciated “How Do I Make You”, 2 minutes and 25 seconds of pure, undiluted energy. It also contained three songs by New Wave icon Elvis Costello, three songs by obscure New Wave group The Cretones, and a song by Neil Young. Apparently, from what I heard, some people didn’t seem to like this new approach (I honestly don’t know why, more on that later), but it still managed to sell platinum, her seventh consecutive million-seller since 1974’s “Heart Like A Wheel” and it’s also her most consistent album. Personally, I feel Linda Ronstadt’s albums were hit-and-miss, since most of them were usually full of ballads with most of the rockers saved for the singles. Don’t get me wrong, I like her ballads, but I still love being able to listen to stuff that’s energetic and lively as well. Besides, her albums always seem to feel uneven with this mixture of ballads overweighing the rockers, so I like how this one is pretty much consistent.

Wow, what a design.

1982’s “Get Closer” wasn’t as awesome as Mad Love, but it was still a nice record. Ironically, despite this being a return to the genres of her critical and commercial successes in the 1970s, the album was the first album release in ten years to miss a million selling Platinum certification. Aside from the cool title track, a few other examples from this album were “Easy For You To Say”, a cover of “Tell Him”, and a duet with James Taylor, “I Think It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”.

Then 1983 came along, arguably one of the best years for music in the decade, and Linda Ronstadt went a direction that was excellent in description, but HORRIBLE in execution. She released the unholy travesty known as… WHAT’S NEW.

Hide the kids!
Now, before you go nutso on me, YES, I was aware of what Ronstadt was intending to do with this, and while I DO admire her efforts, I honestly thought this entire thing could’ve been done better, because what WAS released was an overrated, BORING mess of an album.

From what I heard, she produced and recorded an album of Jazz and Pop Standards in 1981, known as “Keeping Out Of Mischief”, which she ultimately scrapped due to dissatisfaction with the final result, but was later marketed in bootleg form. This didn’t dissuade her, however, as she attempted to convince Elektra Records to greenlight a project that involved the same kind of music that was on the failed album. Eventually, in 1983, she released “What’s New”, an album that was a massive success at the time, getting a triple platinum certification from the RIAA, spending 81 weeks on the Billboard Album Chart and holding the #3 position for a month and a half, behind Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Lionel Richie’s “Cant Slow Down”. The album earned critical raves and another Grammy Nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and it apparently brought composer Nelson Riddle and the American Songbook to a younger audience.

However, this kind of critical and commercial acclaim doesn’t change anything for me. It still sucks.

I once bought a vinyl copy of this album to see what it was like, but it wound up being so dull and so un-engaging that I was nearly put to sleep by it. While the Nelson Riddle composed music was nice, Linda’s voice was passable, it apparently remained true to the originals (or so I heard, as I haven’t listened to the original versions of most of these songs), and it helped keep traditional jazz songs alive and introduce them to a new generation, that doesn’t save the entire album from being an incredibly boring snooze-fest and an overall forgettable experience. And that’s saying something, considering that I have a relatively good memory, and it usually allows me to remember stuff that others would usually find forgettable.  Also, even if she did a decent job on singing these ballads, I had to agree with the usually controversial (at least, to me) AllMusic, whose critic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, cited that “Ronstadt’s voice isn’t always showcased to a fine effect on these songs.” Seriously, Ronstadt’s performances during her glory days were much more memorable since she sang the songs with a gusto that made even the ballads worth listening to, but here? Dear Lord, I can’t remember a single note she sang from this album. Not one! I don’t feel like I’ve been exposed to a groundbreaking album that revitalized an endangered form of music, I felt like I wasted 36 minutes and 36 seconds of my life listening to the same kind of dull elevator music that Ronstadt was trying to prevent this kind of music from becoming! But what really killed this album for me is that the entire thing was just ballads. I’m personally fine with ballads, but I never liked American Songbook ballads because of how bland, uninteresting, unengaging, and unmemorable that most of them tended to be. Seriously, what was wrong with throwing in some livelier standards that one could groove to? Frank Sinatra did a TON of those kind of songs, as well as the famous ballads like “My Way”, so why the hell couldn’t she?

Another issue I have is that apparently, some people didn’t like the New Wave approach, but weren’t bothered with this one, which doesn’t really make sense to me. I would have figured this kind of record would have alienated her fans much more, but with the reaction it got, I’m surprised that I didn’t hear much negativity about this.

If Ms. Ronstadt wanted her music to appeal to a diverse crowd, she should have at least make sure to have something for the youth as well, and I’m sure they would’ve enjoyed some of those livelier tracks I talked about earlier. I mean, even though she introduced pop standards for a new generation with it, I doubt any kids would’ve seriously found this album appealing in the slightest. Especially considering some of the hit acts at the time, like Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, & The Police. Heck, even Billy Joel’s “An Innocent Man”, another tribute to pre-rock pop released that same year (although he did all original songs in the style of doo-wop, R&B & soul instead of pop standards) was more interesting, energetic, enjoyable, and most importantly, memorable, than this record. 

I don't care what anyone else says, Billy Joel is awesome.

If you like “What’s New,” that’s great, it just doesn’t do much for me.

This is what I think should have been done for “What’s New”:

First of all, it should have been a double LP. Yeah, I know, this was a major risk at the time already, what with fear of alienating her rock audience and all that, but I honestly doubt this would have changed things. A LOT of double albums, like Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, and Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive”, were smash successes, so I honestly think that wouldn’t be much different for this one, especially since this was such a unique move at the time.

Second, this album should have been divided up in two parts: one half for ballads, and one half for more lively songs. That way, this would be able to appeal to both sides of the audience spectrum, those that enjoy ballads and those that enjoy stuff that makes them move or dance.

Third, this should have been a ONE ALBUM EXPERIMENT only and nothing more! She didn’t need to record two more albums of this kind of music and waste two more years just to get her point across! She could have been experimenting with OTHER kinds of music during this period, even stuff that was mainstream at the time, rather than exposing us to two more albums of this torture!

Oh, did I forget to mention that she recorded two more albums like “What’s New?” That’s right, meet “Lush Life” and “For Sentimental Reasons”, which came out in 1984 and 1986, respectfully.

Very 40s-50s retro, if I do say so myself.

Oh, COME ON, Linda! Seriously? This is how you wanted to spend the decade of excess?!!?

It would have been enough if she had released just this one album, but NO, she had to release two more albums. TWO MORE ALBUMS of this schmaltz. I would have been fine if she at least did one more album to cash in on the success of “What’s New”, but TWO OF THEM?!!? Were you deliberately trying to kill off the audience that loved your rock albums, Linda? Again, I agree with Erlewine that, while the traditional pop sound was an interesting change of pace, it didn’t need to be followed by two more albums of the same sound.  Seriously, Barry Manilow was more credible at this period than she was, since he at least tried both mainstream sounds and the more easy listening stuff that people are familiar with.

The albums shown here are from 1984 and 1985 respectively.

And before you ask, yes, I do consider Barry Manilow something of a guilty pleasure. I'm not big into his ballads, but I enjoy his more upbeat stuff.

Though, to be fair, I listened to some samples from the latter two American Songbook albums on iTunes, and they seem to have a few of those lively tunes that were sadly absent from What’s New, so while I don’t think they should have been really made, I can at least give them that. However, Nelson Riddle, who arranged all three Pop Standard albums, died in 1985, one year before “For Sentimental Reasons” came out. The cause was from liver ailments, but I dunno, I hope it wasn’t because Linda was overworking the poor bastard.

However, in 1986, the same year she brought out “For Sentimental Reasons,” she joined up with soul singer James Ingram to perform a song for an animated movie made by former Disney animator Don Bluth and released that November. The movie? “An American Tail.” The song? “Somewhere Out There,” the version heard on the credits.

(Sorry for the quality. I couldn't find another one that wasn't an AMV, montage, or fan attempt at performing it.)

THIS was how I was first introduced to Linda Ronstadt.  Like a lot of my other favorite singers, musicians, and bands, I learned about her through an animated movie. And when I saw the sequel from 1991, “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West,” I really loved her version of “Dreams To Dream” as well.  

(A very beautiful way to end a surprisingly decent sequel, in spite of the movie's contrasting tone to the original.)

But enough of my nostalgia. How’d the song fare?

Well, “Somewhere Out There” was a great ballad, and it was really successful. It peaked at #2 in the U.S. Top 40 in March 1987 after a four-year absence for Ronstadt, and at the 30th Grammy Awards, it won both the “Song of the Year” award and the “Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or Television.”

So THAT should have been able to convince her to return to the mainstream, right?

NO, it’s time for another experiment in style! But thankfully, this one actually seems a little more interesting than her previous Pop Standards incarnation. Can you guess the style this time? That’s right, MEXICAN MARIACHI MUSIC! Wait, what?

Ay Carumba!

Yep, it turns out that she wanted to try her hand at something that was apparently a big part of Ronstadt’s family tradition and musical roots, with 1987’s Canciones De Mi Padre. (That’s Spanish for “Songs Of My Father” or “My Father’s Songs.”) I’m not a big fan of this kinda music, but I do admit that I kinda have a soft spot for that Latin/South American folk sound. I can at least tolerate it, mainly. I never really listened to it yet, but the samples on iTunes were pretty nice, I guess.

Rhinestone Cowgirls without the Rhinestones.

Also in 1987, Linda collaborated with her country singer friends Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton to record the “Trio” album. I’m not really a fan of country music, but I do like this album, and I think it’s much more interesting than “What’s New.” Both of these albums were incredibly successful, but neither were a match for her next release.

"Featuring Aaron Neville?" More like "Four Songs Featuring Aaron Neville."

In 1989, she released her first contemporary pop album in seven years, “Cry Like A Rainstorm, Howl Like The Wind.” Even though people cite this as a collaboration with Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers fame, I cite this as a solo Linda Ronstadt album, since Aaron wasn’t very prominent on this album, only doing a duet with Ronstadt on four songs: “All My Life,” “I Need You,” “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” and the biggest hit, the #1 Gold-certified “Don’t Know Much.” The album itself reached 3x Multi-Platinum in the U.S., and is one of her three highest selling studio albums of all time in the US, along with 1977’s “Simple Dreams” and (uggh) “What’s New”.

As to my thoughts about the album, it’s really good. The duets with Aaron Neville are great, and so are most of the solo songs, although a few of the Jimmy Webb-penned tracks outside of “Adios” are pretty bland and forgettable. It’s not much of a return to standards, but I feel something like this was what Ronstadt should have been doing more of in the 80s.

Overall, I felt this was a disappointing decade for Linda Ronstadt. She had some good stuff come out, but the majority of it was wasted on an overrated album and milking the style of this album for what it was worth. She did try a few more musical directions, but I would not call her being very versatile here, at least, to my preferences. There are a ton of things I feel she could have done differently around this period, and quite frankly, while her 80s period wasn’t terrible, I personally feel it could have been done better than this and I expected more from Linda Ronstadt here.

Wow, strange but fascinating cover design.

On a final note, I feel Linda’s 1993 album “Winter Light” deserves more recognition, as it’s a beautiful album. It’s another one of my favorite Ronstadt albums and even Allmusic thinks it’s underappreciated, so if you find it, I recommend giving it a listen.

(Apologies to Linda Ronstadt, who really is a great singer. Also, I feel that someone REALLY needs to remaster all of her albums at some point in the future.)