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Diva Madness: Elite Eight

In case you haven’t been paying attention, this tournament has been emphasizing the second word, madness.  I’m not gonna lie, I never expected this.  I did not consider a remote possibility that that BOTH Beyoncé AND Whitney Houston would be booted out of the competition during the Sweet 16.  Guys.  I was saving all their best videos!  I hardly have anything left for Annie Lennox and Lady Gaga.

It would be a different thing if this were simply a a female vocalist competition, but I feel as though there are some voters not properly taking the word “diva” in to proper consideration.  Still, I have no one to blame but myself, for putting this decision in the hands of voters.  I feel as though I understand for the first time how Trump could make it this far as a presidential candidate.  So, I will see these brackets to the end, but my heart is no longer in it.  Let’s see how the Elite Eight fare with some national anthems (when available), and in order to understand my deep sadness I dare you to compare them to this performance:

Thank you, Whitney, for showing us how it’s done.  And now with a heavy heart, I present you with the updated Diva Madness Brackets:

elite8

Lady Gaga vs. Adele

Perhaps it is true that there is no such thing as a modern diva.  If a post-90s representative has been narrowed down to Lady Gaga and Adele, then I certainly could be convinced.  The truth is, no matter what happens here, Beyoncé will always be the modern diva of my heart.  More than that, she is the most diva of her bracket, even if we are stuck voting between these two.  It’s as if we’ve forgotten that Bey has had more Billboard #1 singles than Adele and Lady Gaga COMBINED, not to mention she’s owned the Superbowl halftime show twice, and still blown away a national anthem like NONE of these women yet.  Ok, I’m done.  Maybe ya’ll just wanted a fairer fight.  Adele does not yet have an epic performance of “God Save the Queen,” so I found the closest thing: her Bond theme.

Mariah vs. Celine

Now, at least the 90’s still has some proper divas to offer the final four.  Either way, this quadrant will be represented a vocal legend and a personality to compete with the gods.  Just a reminder to please make your decision based on the singer (their voice, interpretation, and hand motions) rather than your patriotic (or aesthetic) bias towards either anthem.

STEVIE vs. ANNIE

These two do indeed deserve to face one another, even if I think this is not the appropriate time or place.  Neither of these woman have a time when they sang the national anthem, so I suppose it’s good they are competing against one another.  They are also, after all, the only two divas left who began their careers in rock bands.  Who will you pick to represent the 80s, and rock divas in the final four?

ARETHA vs. ELLA

We’ll end with a truly epic face-off, although I could not find a performance of Ella Fitzgerald singing “The Star Spangled Banner”.  Maybe she didn’t feel like she could swing it as much as she wanted.  Anyway, as with Annie Lennox, I’ve found her singing “Georgia on My Mind,” which is basically a State Anthem, if that was actually a thing.  Meanwhile, I found more versions of Aretha singing the American anthem than any other diva left – I picked this one primarily for the video quality.

Polls will remain open until Friday, April 1st (no joke!), so make sure to let your friends and diva-allies know to place their votes in time.  See you next weekend with the final four!

Diva Madness: The 90’s!

The final group of first round match ups is from a kind of golden era for divas. Even the great divas of previous decades spent the 90s showing up on VH1 Specials or award shows to have an ultimate Alpha-Diva sing-off. It could be argued that before this decade, we had seen massive female superstars who could sing, but in the 90s, at the birth of the pop era, we had women of legendary status with control of their voices as well as over everything around them. In that golden 90s era, these 16 divas emerged as the young divas ready to take the baton from their older role models in their midst.

Mariah Carey (1) vs. Faith Evans (16)

Regardless of her era, Mariah has more #1 Billboard singles than any of these potential competitors – in fact she has more than any solo artist ever. She may be turning out fewer hits than in her earlier years, but this extraordinary voice has an ongoing show in Vegas, and a yearly Christmas special in NYC. And that 5 octave range is no joke.  Faith Evans is probably most known for singing hooks on Puff Daddy tracks or being married to Notorious B.I.G., but this gospel singer has a set of pipes and an attitude that are hard to beat.

Faith Hill (9) vs. Toni Braxton (8)

If you want an idea of the kind of power and popularity Faith Hill as a country singer had in the 90’s, think Carrie Underwood. She could sing, she was gorgeous, and yet had this sense of relateability about her.  Meanwhile Toni Braxton‘s life has had so much drama that they made a lifetime TV special based on her story.  Plus, no era is complete without a lower-than-average alto vocal that commands any audience with her regal presence, and without a doubt it was Toni in the 90s.  I’m not entirely sure what she’s up to now – maybe doing the casino tours – but I would be completely fine with a comeback album.

Mary J. Blige (5) vs. Erykah Badu (12)

This is one tough competition.  On the one hand, when we’re talking about the stage presence of a diva, Mary J. Blige is a textbook example.  From the moment she entered the realm of pop music, it felt like she had always been there; from the time she was brand new it felt like she was influencing everyone around her.  Meanwhile, nobody can touch the level of artistry that Erykah continues to bring to her performance.  She is a diva with attitude and the kind of unique voice that doesn’t need to be loud to express power.  As I am writing this, I have no idea who I will vote for.  So good luck to the rest of you.

Missy Elliott (13) vs. Jennifer Lopez (4)

Missy may be a rapper, but there is hardly any doubt that she has reached diva status in every other category, and really was the original rapping diva that made room for Nicki Minaj to occupy the the diva category.  In a lot of ways I see this as an incredibly fair match up, since both Missy and J.Lo began their careers as entertainers (J.Lo as a dancer or “fly girl” on “In Living Color”) though not necessarily vocalists.  Which makes it kind of cruel to have them compete with slower melodies live, but at least it’s not a strength for either of them.

Britney Spears (3) vs. Nelly Furtado (14)

Britney Spears might as well have ruled the 90s.  She may be only seeded third, but my bet is that when we think of this era, for better or worse, Britney is a bit of a summarization of 90s pop music.  She became the model for pop princesses: get a childhood gig, be sexualized way too early, crash and burn, and make your way slowly back into the music business.  Nellie Furtado has made some news with her recent butchering of the Canadian national anthem, but they say no publicity is bad publicity, and maybe it was just enough to remember how much we liked Nellie’s unique voice and blend of folk, pop and eventually hip hop.

Lauryn Hill (11) vs. Shania Twain (6)

So yes, this is an odd match up.  Lauryn Hill dominated with her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, after making a name for herself as the female third of The Fugees.  She has always been a diva with her mix of immaculate rap flow and soulful gospel vocal tone, but eventually she also took on the attitude and drama associated with the title.  Shania Twain has had some drama, but has been out of the spotlight for some time now.  In her golden era, Shania put Canada on the country music map, and continues to be one of the most international symbols of Canadian music and culture.  Seriously, she’s right up there with Bryan Adams.

Christina Aguilera (7) vs. Aaliyah (10)

With her regular gig on The Voice, Christina Aguilera has found a way to remain in our consciousness years after significant billboard success.  From the very beginning of her popularity, it was always her powerful vocal range and style that was singled out, usually in comparison to contemporaries like Britney Spears.  As crass as this sounds, Aaliyah has tragic death on her side.  We can only imagine what success Aaliyah might have seen if she had made it to her 23rd birthday, but considering that in her short 22 years she was named the Princess of R&B, I think we can guess a lot.  For the record, the Aaliyah video below should read 1997… it’s not some crazy post-humous hologram or anything.

Jill Scott (15) vs. Celine Dion (2)

Jill Scott still does not get enough press.  She may not have as much drama or flashy performance as some of the others on our list, but Jill Scott’s voice is one of pure tonality and power.  She is also a poet and a writer who puts 100% of her very soul into the songs she sings.  She likely ranks low because she tends to get billed as a jazz singer, a genre which has not gotten much commercial love in the past several decades.  Still, here she is, representing, though she is up against one of the biggest most dynamic and dramatic voices of the 90’s, Celine Dion.  This French Canadian is a highly technical singer who also manages to add flair and personality to everything she sings.  She is holding a residency at Vegas now, as many of the great divas have done, giving those prepared to make a pilgrimage a chance to hear her talent live.

That’s it for our 90s divas!  Watch out for round 2 early next week, where the remaining divas will be featured by up-tempo party-starting tracks.

Old New Borrowed Blue #2: Can Con

CanLeafFlagThis instalment of Old New Borrowed Blue is brought to you by (drumroll please)… Canadian Content!  The Polaris Prize just released their shortlist earlier today (check it out here), and I’ve been inspired to share some music from particularly Canadian artists.  Hope you enjoy these old, new, borrowed, and blue tracks as much as I do!  And if you’re not a fan, please keep with the theme and be polite about it.  😉

Something Old:  I had completely forgotten about Bass is Base – a jazzy R&B group that a decent CanCon radio run in the 90’s – until I saw former member, Chin Injeti open for Erykah Badu last month in Vancouver.  I recognize that only a few people will experience a similar nostalgic rush, but I think it’s worth it.  Also, I promise that I will eventually venture outside the 90’s for this category – I do realize that there is far more to “old” music than the decade of my personal coming-of-age.  For now though, it’s all about 1994 Much Music!

Something New: You may know Sarah Neufeld as that fierce violinist from Arcade Fire, and Colin Stetson from that what-is-that-amazing-and-massive-saxophone? moment at a Bon Iver concert.  Although their collaboration, Never Were The Way She Was, did not actually make the shortlist, I thought their album was one of the biggest longlist standouts.  And there will be enough people writing about the ten Polaris nominees, so I don’t need to talk about who I’m rooting for… just yet, anyway.

Something Borrowed:  In order to make this as Canadian as possible, I’ve decided to go with a K-Os track built on a sample from yet another Canadian artist, Sarah Slean.  I am generally a pretty big fan of hip hop artists sampling unexpected genres, and Joyful Rebellion’s“Love Song” is one of my favourites.

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Something Blue:  I’m going to go super obvious with this one.  Prairie girl, Joni Mitchell is very likely my favourite Canadian singer-songwriter of all time (Sorry, Leonard), and the album, Blue, is nothing short of a classic.  If you have time for a whole record, go check it out.  For now I’ll leave you with the last song on the album which is especially blue and not quite as well known as heavy hitters like the title track, “River” or “A Case of You”. 

BJ & Dawn: The Land of Make Believe, 2010

Today marks an historical moment.  This is by far the most recent release I have ever written about.  This past Tuesday BJ Block and Dawn Pemberton’s The Land of Make Believe was released on iTunes, but can also be found on cdbaby.  It’s the work of BJ Block and his friend Dawn Pemberton, who after having many successful shared shows have finally written some music together, and the result is refreshing and uplifting.  Local Vancouverites BJ and Dawn are each incredibly talented musicians, but this is definitely one of those collaborations where the sum is even more than its parts.

The album notes on cdbaby describe The Land of Make Believe as “a children’s record for grown-ups,” and when I read that I laughed out loud.  That is exactly what it is.  BJ’s guitar lines often sound 80’s-Sesame-Street-inspired, and the references to the classic television show get a little less subtle when two tracks, “You Happy?” and “Up and Down” lift direct samples from my favorite Sesame Street guest: Little John John.  The result?  Wisdom from the mouths of babes, and a nostalgic smile on my face.

I’m getting ahead of myself though; those are nearly the last songs on the recording.  “Just Be” beams us straight into a happy “make believe” world, without it feeling too foreign a place.  In fact, a lot of the album has an optimistic take on life in a way that is almost otherworldly, yet Dawn Pemberton’s soulful voice make it thoroughly believable.

When “Unlucky”‘s dirty bass line begins to groove I find myself unexpectedly weighing the ever-debated paradigms of choice vs. circumstance.  “Turn It Around” feels a bit like a continuation of the same thought, but I don’t find it quite as strong.  There are, however, some pretty boss guitar solos.  And I am left wondering whether to call this jazzy soul or soulful jazz.

The next stretch of songs are my favorite, probably because they are all danceable party tracks.  “You Happy?” makes it clear that this is far more than a “children’s album for adults,” but the kind of album that anyone can enjoy.  I am seriously thinking of getting it for my parents, my brother who has three young children, and my teenage nephew who plays guitar.  And I can literally think of nothing else that would be a good gift for all three of those demographics.  Except maybe food.

By the time I’ve thought this thought I realize how perfectly appropriate the name of the next song is: “Everybody’s Party.”  BJ and Dawn just want everyone to have a good time, and I think they’re accomplishing their goals pretty well.  And though the last couple songs have done their job at creating a certain mood for the room, I am quite sure that “Up and Down” makes me want to do the muppet dance (you know, the one with the limp arms?) all on my own.  I can’t help imagine the guitar licks expressing the movement and language of some ridiculous new Jim Henson creature popping up around buildings and from behind trash cans.

The album is rounded out by two slightly more reflective love songs, “Without You” and “Tender,” which do their part in making me crave more from this duo.  BJ and Dawn to answer your question, I am happy too.

#2) The Arcade Fire: Funeral, 2004

When Arcade Fire’s Funeral is mentioned, I must admit, what comes to mind first is not always the music. I think of the thin cardboard disc jacket that often becomes hidden among my other CDs, and the single sheet bulletin style liner notes which in a short band bio notes, “the irony of their first full length recording bearing a name with such closure.” Ironic indeed. For as the tracks explore mortality and loss, they never gets bogged down with grief, but push ahead full of drive and… well, life!

Leaving my iTunes minimized, I pop Funeral into the ghetto-blaster that acts primarily as an alarm clock on my bedside table as I attempt to clean up my pig sty of a room before my roommate gets home. Christmas presents must find spaces, clothes must be washed, and papers must be sorted: welcome to the new year! I’m finding myself spending a lot more time with the lyrics than with all I need to put away though.

The album begins with 4 tracks with the same name: Neighborhood #1, 2, 3, and 4, with a short intermission between #2 (Laika) and #3 (Power Out), called Une annee sans Lumiere (Sorry, but I have no clue how to add French accents in here). #1 (Tunnels) paints a childhood dream in vivid picture of a town completely snowed in (did I mention these guys are from Montreal?). The two love-struck kids dig tunnels to meet in town alone, and find themselves in their own world, forgetting what life was like before.

The neighborhood tracks beckon us into a coming-of-age story, as we discover what we are to become only in light of reflecting on all that we’ve lost. #2 subtitled Laika refers to the first dog sent into space without intention to bring him back as a metaphor for the black sheep of the family. I love the relational dimensions brought into this song though, sung from the point of view of a sibling, we picture the fights with a parent, and even the way neighbors can revel in a good story to tell, regardless of the pain it causes. It’s sung with a lot of tongue in cheek goodness.

Thus begins the year without light. Une Annee Sans Lumiere breaks from the cycle of neighborhood pictures to find a moment to grieve and reflect, but only a moment. Upon closer investigation (looking up a translation), the song is really a joining of the songs on either side of it. Une Annee combines metaphors of family struggle (the father wears blinders like a horse) with a dark world that’s lost it’s power (“hey! The streetlights all burnt out”). In preparation for Neighborhood #3 (Power Out), Une Annee speeds up with tambourine and shouts of “Hey!” that make me want to start running all the way into the next track. Power Out continues to describe the town searching for light, and extends the metaphor to a final frustrated thought and plea: “and the power’s out in the heart of man, take it from your heart put it in your hand.”

Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles) uses actual kettle whistles above the repeated string patterns in between verses. It drives me a little crazy, but creates a mysterious effect as Butler continues to reflect on the relationship between birth and death in lines like, “Time keeps creepin’ through the neighborhood, killing old folks, wakin’ up babies just like we knew it would,” and “they say a watched pot won’t ever boil… just like a seed down in the soil you gotta give it time.”

Crown of Love seems to be the center of this album, while all the other songs run at full pace this one is a simple apology: “if you still want me, please forgive me, the crown of love is not upon me,” showing of Butler’s ability to embody great passion. In the final minute, the track’s string driven 6/8 feel breaks into 4/4 and I break out dancing for the last minute of the song. My only disappointment on the entire album is that it fades out instead of developing the energy yet again, and expanding the song to 6 minutes.

But I forget all disappointment as soon as Wake Up strikes up and calls everyone to sing along to the syllable of “oh” like a good U2 chorus. In this song we return to the theme of growing older, and although the song begins heavily, they cleverly transition into dance beat that seems to face death without fear, affirmed by Butler shouting, “you better look out below!”

Hanging up clothes as Haiti plays, I can’t help but think the repeated counter melody sounds like a steel drum melody, though it tends to be played be flute and voices. Suspended electronic sounds remain while nothing else does, and the anticipated Rebellion (Lies) beat enters right on top with energy-contagious kick drum and bouncing double bass combo. I don’t want to close my eyes, because it’s simply not safe when you’re jumping around the room.

Finally Funeral comes to a close with female vocalist Regine Chassagne, who sings with a haunting Bjork quality. Until now she’s only headed up “oohs” or accented words or lines sung primarily by Win Butler, and I wonder if she was held back earlier in the album in order to create the surprise that In the Backseat brings. Swinging between two feels of either thin arch-shaped piano lines, and a heavy rock underscored by bowed bass, the instrumentation seems to hint at the song’s theme of moving between childhood and responsibility: “My family tree’s loosing all it’s leaves, crashing towards the driver’s seat”. At the end of Funeral, this is one of the few songs that appropriately fades into silence, and I’m left with nothing to do other than push play again.