Say what you will about Dave Matthews, but it’s nice to see an A-list musician with a sense of humor about himself. He even acknowledges the not-so-small demographic who thinks his face is stupid and wants to throw up in their hands when his voice comes on the radio. One wonders how Jason Mraz took this – after all, it’s easier for Dave to poke fun at himself seeing as he actually has some, you know, talent. As for Jack Johnson, well, everybody has their own opinion about Jack Johnson. And you can just imagine Ozzy’s reaction: “Odd.. I don’t remember doing this.. really gotta stop with those pills.”
It’s a rare producer who develops a style so unique and interesting that he’s recognized by – and his music is recognizable to – your run-of-the-mill music listener. It’s a rarer producer still who is so capable an instrumentalist that the distinction between making and mixing breaks down completely. There’s no better example of this unusual breed than Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), the Grammy-nominated producer and Gnarls Barkley founder, who recently released an album with The Shins’ frontman James Mercer, himself known primarily as a songwriter.
So what was their approach to the creative process? As fluid and informal as can be, Mr. Mouse explained in a March NPR interview. Instead of getting carried away by technological bells and whistles, the duo, who call themselves Broken Bells, focused on crafting songs driven by an anything-goes attitude, with “anybody jumping on any instrument” and “no formal way of doing things.” Mercer, shattering a questioner’s assumption that he brought in complete songs for electronic treatment, echoed Burton’s description of every sound on the record as the child of a spontaneous, collaborative studio environment. When it comes to songwriting, that kind of real-time exchange of ideas between two artists is tried and true: we owe A Little Help from My Friends – and undoubtedly numerous other Beatles classics – to the method.
Here’s Broken Bells playing an acoustic version of The High Road, their first single. Ever seen a Mouse play drums?
Pat Metheny is one of my favorite guitarists to watch – not only because of his utter mastery of the instrument, and not only because he brought jazz to an entire generation of mainstream Americans by fusing an unpretentious garage-rock sensibility with the modular and rhythmic complexity of top-notch jazz composition (1980’s American Garage reached #53 on the pop charts). The thing I love most about Metheny is the way he loses himself so completely in the experience of musical expression that everything about his playing, from his phrasing to his frills to his posture to his facial expressions, seems a naked display of the soul of a true artist. This kind of intensity is something that all the exercises and all the theoretical knowledge in the world cannot produce.
Here’s Metheny performing his arrangement of Norah Jones’ Don’t Know Why. Of all the voices on the pop and jazz scenes today, Jones’ is among the best in terms of both soulfulness and raw ability, and only an instrumentalist as lyrical and expressive as Metheny would be capable of conveying the emotional power in this song without help from a human voice.
The Killers’ drummer Ronnie Vannucci, Jr. once commented that “everybody thought we were from England when we first came out.” This seemed to amaze Vannucci, but I think a listen to this acoustic version of When You Were Young – if you can hear it over all the screaming girls (itself a Brit-rock innovation, incidentally) – helps to explain things. After all, it was our friends from across the pond who invented the incredibly simple rock song with an unforgettable melody. Songwriters: take note!