Saturday, 21 March 2009

Chris Cornell's Scream

Everybody hates it, don’t they? Never have I read so many bad reviews about an album as I listen to it with highly appreciative ears. I’ll admit, when I heard that grunge legend Chris Cornell was teaming up with hip hop producer extraordinaire Timbaland I was surprised. But surprised in a good way, for here was a teaming of two talents that had soundtracked much of my life between them. I am very eclectic though.

In one corner we have Timbaland. The increasingly omnipresent (if you can be such a thing) and seemingly omnipotent producer has gone from being a highly respected hip hop and R&B beatmaker for the likes of Jay-Z, Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, and Ginuwine to the world’s most prolific hitmaker, providing his polish to pop stars such as Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, and Madonna.

In the other corner we have Chris Cornell. The distinctive singer made his name with his trademark howl in the band Soundgarden, part of a triumvirate of bands alongside Pearl Jam and Nirvana who spearheaded the grunge movement in the early 90s. He went on to form the equally successful Audioslave with former members of Rage Against The Machine, doubly securing his place in rock history.

It’s this rock legacy that makes this new project so jarring for Cornell’s fans. The shimmering electronica and stylised beats that make up Timbaland’s armoury are the polar opposite of the raw and gritty rock music that Cornell is known and loved for. But can you blame him for wanting to try something new? There was a sense that Soundgarden had done all they could when they came to an end, and the last Audioslave album certainly suggested a band that was also running out of ideas. Then there are Cornell’s two previous solo offerings – both uninspiring albums that failed to make anything like the impact of his band work. Cornell’s career seems to have been made up of projects that push the boundaries then move on. His decision two years ago to record the James Bond theme also drew gasps, but he made it okay for alternative artists to do such a thing. No one raised an eyebrow when Jack White recorded last year’s Bond theme with Alicia Keys.

As Scream has been released, reviewed and panned by critics and fans alike, it’s Chris Cornell who has taken all the flak. Timbaland seems to have come out of it relatively unscathed. Yet it’s his contribution to the project that is the most disappointing. Taken on its own Scream is a competent and highly enjoyable pop album that blends R&B and rock to great effect. All these songs would sound great on the radio and it’s a mystery why the songs haven’t been marketed there. But we know Timbaland can do big-sounding pop songs that sound great on the radio. From him it’s really nothing new. The presence of Chris Cornell should finally have elicited Timbaland’s rock album. There certainly seems to be one trying to get out. His music constantly references Coldplay, and his collaborations with The Hives and Fall Out Boy on his Shock Value album provided two of its highlights. But, despite working with one of rock’s most interesting and versatile singers, all Timbaland has done is foist the next Timberlake album on him.

As previously said though, if you put both men’s legacies aside, this is an extremely well-made pop record. Timbaland knows what he’s doing. The scuttling beats and Indian mysticism that lace a number of the tracks are his trademark tricks but they don’t sound forced. Each song feels like it was created lovingly by both men.

While Cornell has obviously had help with the melodies (judging from his last two solo albums), his influence is still felt. The chorus of opener Part Of Me has a barroom brawl feel to it, as does the rockiest track Enemy, while Other Side Of Town oozes small-town sleaze. When those guitars do appear though, they are disappointingly polite – choreographed aggression that’s unable to slip out from under Timbaland’s thumb. All the tracks flow into one another, which only works well at times, but does add to the sense that this is a labour of love. Sweet Revenge and Get Up is the album at its most R&B before it segues into highlight Ground Zero, a danceable barber shop soul creation. But the album is dominated by sweeping stadium-sized choruses, no doubt boosted by the presence of OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder on songwriting duties on some tracks. Just as things are getting rockier we are reminded once more of Timbaland’s presence by the final track Watch Out, which struts down the same path as Nelly Furtado’s Maneater.

So this is has been a huge experiment for Cornell – his unmistakable voice does some things you never thought you’d hear it do and wanders dangerously close to generic pop vocal at times. For Timbaland it’s certainly him at his best but hardly at his most experimental. Where he’ll go from here is obvious – pumping out more pop hits. For Cornell that’s the big question – what on earth will he do next?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Jade vs Wendy

Here’s a funny one. I was having some dinner with some friends who I know from the UK the other night and we were talking about the impending passing of reality TV star Jade Goody from cancer. I commented honestly that I kept checking the internet to see if she’d died yet. ‘What, in a ghoulish way?’ my friend enquired. And I said yes.

I went on to explain that I didn’t much care for Jade Goody. She’d made no impact on my life and had only elicited my curiosity on occasion because of her fame’s inexplicable longevity. Her insistent media presence was something that both puzzled and interested me. And it was the same with her sudden terminal illness. As much as I sympathised, it also just felt like yet another unexpected twist in her ‘you couldn’t make it up’ life drama. Her life is so much a TV show that I find myself caring about her as much as I would any TV character that died on screen.

But I wasn’t as articulate as that. I probably said, ‘I’ve never seen the point of her. Why should I care if she died?’ or something equally as blunt.

Then Wendy Richard came up. She, also, had cancer, also got it suddenly, and also before her time. With her I was fawning; conveyed sympathy and sadness. My friend picked me up on it. ‘What’s the difference between her and Jade Goody?’ My instant reaction was: ‘Ah, I grew up with her.’ And I had, in a way. She’d been a constant presence in my television viewing via Are You Being Served? and her long tenure in EastEnders.

But my friend had a point. What is the difference to me between these two women? Both were only present in my life because of TV; one longer than the other for sure, but that’s not a good enough reason.

It might be to do with the perception that Richard being an actress has worked for her recognition, whereas Goody has achieved her fame with no discernable talent. But really I’m not sure how much respect I have for actors in that regard. Don’t get me wrong, there are some incredible actors out there who do work that floors you. But I think there also many who just read lines convincingly. Arguably Richard was one of these; she certainly can’t be lauded for her diversity.

No, I think it’s more to do with to do with how they are presented to us by the media. Wendy Richard is a national treasure, Jade Goody a figure of fun; the nation’s whipping girl. I wonder: if Jade Goody had managed to prolong her career as long as Wendy Richard, would she have become a national treasure? If she'd got cancer in her 60s after that lengthy career, instead of in her 20s, would she be more lauded in the way Wendy Richard was?

The other friend who was present at this most inconsequential of discussions thought so. “I think I have more empathy for characters like Jade Goody as I get older,” he said. “When she first came on the scene, she reminded me of all those really annoying 'townie' girls at school, who revel in their own ignorance, and ridicule difference and diversity. And these "C" list celebs used to get on my tits anyway.

“But then I thought, sod it, if I had 15 minutes of fame would I not make the most of it and live the dream for as long as I could? The answer is yes. And I think fair play to her for making it last as long as she has.

“And I guess she has been an inspiration for all the 'underdogs', those people with under-privileged backgrounds, who haven't had the best education. Didn't she help look after her disabled mother from quite a young age? In any case, she makes no pretence to be anything she's not. She's very genuine and doesn't seem to have let her so-called 'fame' go to her head.

“In short I wouldn't invite her to a dinner party, but I might buy her exercise video.”

It seems this is where Jade Goody stands with a lot of people – with a grudging respect. You wouldn’t want to be her friend (can you imagine the noise?), but good on her, eh? And eventually, though sheer persistence (and continued very clever PR) she might have reached that point where a nation paid its respects from a genuine and heartfelt place. Instead a nation will pay its respects with the uncomfortable knowledge that they’ve not cared much up until this point, and really they don’t care much now.