CELINE DION SHOWCASES “LOVED ME BACK TO LIFE” AT INTIMATE NYC CONCERT

IMG_1155It’s been six years since pop icon Celine Dion has released an English-language album.

“I had two babies and a French album and a Vegas show! I’ve been busy!” Dion explained to an adoring audience at her concert in New York City on October 29. But with this week’s release of her new album, Loved Me Back To Life (which hit stores yesterday), the French Canadian songstress is more than ready for her comeback.

When it came time to record Loved Me Back To Life, Dion decided to recruit some fresh blood to put a contemporary spin on her signature Lite-FM sound. She turned to songwriters and producers like Sia, Ne-Yo, Babyface, and Tricky Stewart to build a record that was still distinctly Celine – but with a slightly grittier edge than her audience has come to expect from her.

“For 30 years, I’ve had the same recipe, which puts a lot of reverb on my voice. But for this album, I wanted to break from that. There are no effects on my voice. It’s very pure. Very direct,” the singer recently said. “I have nothing to lose. I’m not looking for career attention, for more success, more money. I’m just singing songs I chose because I love them.”

IMG_1162“I’m not trying to reinvent myself,” Dion continued. “I don’t want people to think, ‘This is a brand new Celine,’ but I am at a place in my career where I’m 45, I’m at the peak of my life, and I’ve never felt like this before. I want to have a good time.”

It was that passion and artistic versatility that was on full display during Dion’s concert last week. Sponsored by Pandora, the invite-only show found the five-time Grammy Award winner playing an array of her greatest hits and select new tracks to celebrate the release of her record. And unlike the Colosseum at Caesars Palace – the massive Vegas venue she’s used to – the Edison Ballroom provided a much smaller setting, making it one of the most intimate concerts Dion has performed in years.

Opening with a stunning medley of “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” and “The Power of Love,” Dion instantly had her audience entranced by her trademark vocal runs and often-dramatic delivery. The singer followed with her first English-language hit “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” and the epic power ballads “Because You Loved Me” and “The Reason,” before breaking into a trio of new songs from Loved Me Back To Life.

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The first of this set was “Water and a Flame,” originally recorded by Adele and Daniel Merriweather (fun fact: Dion’s new album was initially meant to be named after this song, but was retitled after Merriweather publicly criticized Dion for not crediting the song to him during an interview with Katie Couric). A perfect example of the huskier flavor Dion’s voice is currently sampling, “Water And A Flame” is a harrowing lament for a couple that is just too opposite to attract. And Dion’s subdued live performance added layers of rawness and vulnerability to the already heartbreaking song.

Next was the album’s lead single and title track. Co-written by Sia Furler (the mastermind behind Britney Spears’ “Perfume”), “Loved Me Back To Life” is easily the most radio-friendly song on Dion’s new record. Featuring a chilling vocal loop and a dubstep beat drop, the song expertly blends classic Dion with contemporary pop trends to attract both longtime and new fans alike.

The final Loved Me Back To Life song that Dion performed was the Janis Ian cover, “At Seventeen.” An anthem of remembering teenage awkwardness, the song was the weakest of the new offerings, but still managed to pack an emotional punch when the singer wailed about “ugly duckling girls like me.”

Dion wrapped up her set with her cover of Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” which seemed to have a majority of the audience singing along full volume, the disco-tinged “Love Can Move Mountains,” and the rock-n-rolling “River Deep Mountain High.”

But naturally, Dion saved the best for last. Closing the show with “My Heart Will Go On,” the Academy Award-winning theme to Titanic, the chanteuse managed to breathe new life into a song she’s sung countless times over the past sixteen years. Using just her voice, Dion re-created the song’s iconic instrumental introduction, producing a haunting effect that really utilized the intimacy of the venue. It was truly like watching a master class in perfection.

With the release of Loved Me Back In Life now behind her, Dion has her sights set on preparing for her return to Vegas for a new concert series, which will last from this December through next March. And does Dion plan to see the show of another pop legend kicking off a residency in Sin City next month?

“If Britney wants to give stability to her family, I really can’t think of a better place,” answered Dion. “I’m not a wildcat. I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs, and Las Vegas has been wonderful for me. I wish (Britney) the best there, and I will make time to see her.”

Although she may not be a “wildcat,” Dion certainly is a risk taker. Loved Me Back To Life is far bolder and more interesting than her last English-language record, 2007’s Taking Chances. And if her once-in-a-lifetime concert in New York last week proved anything, it’s that her star power has anything but faded over the years. In fact, it’s still burning as brightly as it ever has.

Welcome back, Celine.

IMG_1866IMG_1153Originally published on PopBytes

BEN FOLDS RELEASES 3-DISC CAREER RETROSPECTIVE, THE BEST IMITATION OF MYSELF

by ALEX NAGORSKI
I’ll never forget the first time I heard a Ben Folds song. I was nine-years-old and Titanic had just hit the theaters. It was the second or third week that the movie was out, but already I had seen it four times. The weekend was approaching and I begged my mother to take me to go see it again. Her answer? “Are you crazy?”
Defeated, I retreated to my bedroom and proceeded to flip through every magazine in the house to find pictures of Kate Winslet to add to the collage that was quickly spanning my entire wall. In my angsty, pre-pubescent rage, I turned on the radio, hoping for a little Celine Dion. Instead, Ben Folds Five’s “Brick” began to play.
Immediately, I was drawn in by the somber piano introduction and the melancholy tenor voice that sang above it. I remember putting the scissors and tabloids down so I could devote all of my attention to this music – this music that for some reason was putting the rest of my life on pause. “She’s a brick and I’m drowning slowly, off the coast and I’m heading nowhere,” rang the chorus. “Oh my god,” I thought to myself as I began to interpret the lyrics very literally. “This is Jack’s song!”
It goes without saying that “Brick” was not written as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character’s final lament. But the key words I chose to focus on and the undeniable sorrow in Folds’ voice convinced me that this was the musical response to that now iconic scene of Jack floating in the water, sacrificing himself to keep Rose alive.
It wasn’t until years later that I was old enough to understand that “Brick” was in reality a song about abortion. I’ll never forget the moment when I popped in that old mixtape I practically wore out in elementary school and really listened to the lyrics. It was the millionth time that I heard that song, but the first time that I grasped its true significance. Not to say that other songs on the mixtape aren’t classics in their own right–Madonna’s “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” and The Spice Girls’ “Who Do You Think You Are?” But “Brick” taught me something essential about music.
The lesson I learned is that although you may not always be able to relate exactly to the words being sung, you can apply your own narratives to the music you listen to. And even if millions of other people may be listening to the same song that you are, how you interpret it and the feelings and thoughts it triggers inside of you are yours alone.
Through the years, I continued to listen to Ben Folds and treated him as a teacher. His songs were everything to me, educating me about aspects of life I hadn’t yet experienced. Through his music, I learned that one day I would have my heart broken and although I’d be sad about it, I’d be okay. I learned that it was not only alright but that it was cool to be different. Folds’ lyrics demonstrated to me that even though life was full of disappointment, it was something worth cherishing.
Last week marked the release of The Best Imitation Of Myself, a career spanning 3-disc retrospective of Folds’ work from the past 15 years. Highlighting his time in Ben Folds Five and the solo career that followed, this 61-track collection brilliantly weaves together a portrait of a man that legions of fans revere as their messiah.
One of my absolute favorite things about Folds is his dry and sarcastic sense of humor. He’s one of the few artists I know who is consistently able to remain funny in his music while simultaneously singing catchy tunes and telling a story.
On The Best Imitation of Myself, Folds’ humor has never been more front and center. After all, what other musician would include mellowed out covers of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” and Ke$ha’s “Sleazy” on a record that’s supposed to define the premiere (nearly) two decades of their career?
With “Rockin’ The Suburbs,” Folds created one of the catchiest hooks in contemporary pop/rock. “Y’all don’t know what it’s like being male, middle class and white,” he repeatedly chimes in the song’s bridge before crescendoing into screaming profanities. By channeling the socio-politics of the well-to-do, Folds points a finger and playfully laughs at their expense (for more, see also “Levi Johnston’s Blues”).
The Best Imitation of Myself also reveals just how much Folds enjoys sharing the spotlight. Collaborations with artists like Regina Spektor, Ben Kweller, The West Australian Symphony Orchestra and literary figures such as Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman populate the tracklisting. My personal favorite? The flawless live cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” in which Folds duets with Canadian singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright.
For this retrospective, Folds reunited with his former Ben Folds Five band members and recorded a series of new tracks, each one sounding like a polar musical opposite of the other. With “Tell Me What I Did,” Folds shows off just how hard he can rock. On “Stumblin’ Home Winter Blues,” he channels a soft folk side that incorporates Bob Dylan-esque lyrics with gentle strings, percussion and his signature piano. And with “House,” Folds has created the most honest pop song of the year, earnestly telling the sad tale of attempting to let go of one’s past against the backdrop of a Lite FM-friendly midtempo alternative rock track.
When Rolling Stone asked Folds about how he selected tracks for The Best Imitation of Myself, he replied: “The excitement about it started when it graduated from being like a ‘best of,’ which anyone can make as a mixtape, to something that had tracks that hadn’t been heard, much less released.”
And that’s part of what makes this collection stand out so much. Usually when artists release retrospectives, they try to cram all of their biggest songs onto a single disc. While you will find all of the Folds standards like “The Luckiest, “Underground” and “Landed” on The Best Imitation of Myself, this is a far cry from a greatest hits album.
Instead, The Best Imitation of Myself serves as a map of Folds’ entire discography, putting up flags in each era of his career. Where the first disc is mostly his hits, disc two is made up entirely of live recordings of fan-favorite songs, the majority of which never saw the light of day as singles. And disc three is composed of previously unreleased demos, live recordings and alternate mixes of album tracks. In other words, fans who have purchased every album Folds has ever put out will still have at least an entire disc’s worth of new content.
Whether you’ve been a fan since day one or are just boarding on the Ben Folds train now, The Best Imitation of Myself is a rare musical treat that not only exemplifies the talent of one of the most prolific artists in the industry, but showcases that at its core, music is one of the most exceptional, beautiful and powerful resources available to us as human beings.
Ben Folds is a true genius. And if you don’t already agree, I promise that one listen of The Best Imitation of Myself will change your mind.

The Best Imitation of Myself is in stores now.

MY NIGHT WITH KATE WINSLET

“Don’t be freaked out that I roll my own cigarettes,” Kate Winslet tells me as we huddle under a small awning to avoid the Manhattan raindrops. “I know, it’s very European of me,” she continues as she reaches out her hand and offers me one. She then pulls out a box of matches from her sleek and elegant black trench coat, sticks her cigarette in her mouth, and brings the flame to her face, putting a momentary spotlight on her signature beauty mark above the right corner of her lip.

I’m not one to be starstruck. Living in New York and working various jobs around Manhattan has made seeing celebrities just part of my job. At Estee Lauder, I sold make up to Christina Aguilera. At Starbucks, I made cappucinos for Marc Jacobs, Anna Wintour, and Jodie Foster all in the same day. Having an entertainment blog has made me fortunate enough to interview and even befriend some of my favorite musicians. The closest I’ve ever been to being intimidated by a celebrity’s presence was two summers ago when I interviewed Anne Hathaway at the Shakespeare in the Park opening night gala. It was two a.m. and we had both taken a little too much advantage of the open bar. The impromptu questions I was asking were a bit slurred and I had a momentary panic attack that I would make an ass out of myself. But in the end, her not so sober state balanced mine out and the interview ended up as a success.

When I was nine years old, I was living in Germany. My father used to be an international correspondent for Newsweek so my childhood was spent moving from one European country to the other. The year was 1997 and a little movie called Titanic had just been released. My girlfriend’s mother (my first in-law, if you will) was a huge fan of director James Cameron due to the sequels he had made to Alien and Terminator. She decided, therefore, to take Nathalie and me to the theater to see his newest film endeavor.

The only problem was the movie was in German. I was taking the basic level of German at my American school, but my knowledge was certainly not extensive enough to understand a three-hour period film. Regardless, I sat in the movie theater with my bucket of popcorn and watched the world’s most epic cinematic love story unfold before my eyes.

The language barrier soon became a non-issue, as I immediately fell in love with everyone that graced the screen. I didn’t need to understand what Jack and Rose were saying to know that they were from two different worlds and shared a Romeo and Juliet-esque forbidden love. It didn’t matter that I didn’t understand the iceberg warnings because I was familiar with the history of the ship and knew what was coming. It didn’t even matter that I didn’t understand what Jack was saying to Rose right before he froze to death because I knew what it was. A few years later, I made my Polish grandma watch the VHS tape with me, and even though she didn’t understand the language either, she still cried through half of it and said it was the best motion picture she’d ever seen. How many movies can honestly make such claims?

Titanic changed the way I viewed movies. It was the first blockbuster film I saw and today remains on my short list of all-time favorite films. The memories I have associated with it are endless, making it a true time portal to my childhood.

What I loved most about the movie, though, was Rose. Kate Winslet, only twenty-years-old at the time of filming, had me completely enamored from that first iconic moment when she steps out of the towncar and swoops her massive ascot hat to the side to reveal her fiery red hair and blasé attitude toward “the ship of dreams.”

When the English movie theater in Berlin started playing the movie, I made everyone I know come see it with me. My mother, my brother, my piano teacher, my friends. I became obsessed, with my walls covered floor to ceiling in magazine cut-outs and posters of Ms. Winslet.

From there on out, I always went to see every movie Kate Winslet was in. No matter where I was in the world, I was always at the movie theater on opening day when she had a new film. Whether it was a serious sociopolitical drama like The Life of David Gale and Little Children or a period piece like Finding Neverland or a romantic comedy like The Holiday, I have contributed at least one ticket to the opening weekend box office revenue of every film on Kate’s extensive resume.

In 2001, Kate lent her voice to an animated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. The film was released solely in the United Kingdom, and stayed that way for a few years (I recommend you check it out now as the holiday season comes up, as it is currently streaming on Instant Netflix). In this film, Kate tried out something new and sang the theme song: a gorgeous ballad entitled “What If”. Imagine then my disappointment when I would request the song on American top 40 radio, only to have DJs laugh at me and say “you mean the actress?” before they hung up. To compensate, I (living in New York already at this point) used my allowance to have a copy of the soundtrack specially shipped to me from a record store in London so that I could hear Kate sing.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to meet her. What would I say? Would she be a total bitch and shatter my adolescent vision? To be honest, I was scared. I’d always seen interviews with her where she seemed completely down to earth, but what if that was just an act? What if I met her and she was cold and rude and stuck up and mean? Would I be obliged to cross my name off the list of her top fans?

Fast forward to tonight. Thursday, November 4, 2010. I’m standing outside of a restaurant in the East Village, talking to my mother on the phone. I look to my right and strolling down the block is none other than Kate Winslet. I immediately hang up and shove my cell phone in my pocket, as I look to see if this really is who I think it is coming in my direction. She’s walking by herself, an umbrella in one hand and texting on her Blackberry with the other.

“Excuse me, Ms. Winslet,” I say as I awkwardly approach her. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you, but I saw Titanic when I was nine-years-old and ever since then, whenever somebody has asked me if I could have dinner with anyone in the world, you’ve always been my answer. So I couldn’t just let you walk by without saying hello.”

“You’re too sweet!” she responds with her fabulous British accent. “My friends aren’t here yet and I was just about to smoke a cigarette. Would you like to join me?” She ushers me over to a little alcove on the side of the street near the restaurant. She sparks the flame of her match and my childhood fantasy.

We begin to small-talk and she starts asking me about my life. What I do for a living, am I dating anyone, what did I study in college, what do I want to do in life, etc. I answer all of her questions as she smiles and listens, making little jokes here and there and rubbing my arm to comfort me when I tell her my boyfriend works on a cruise ship and I don’t get to see him very often anymore. “That must be hard for you, you must miss him very much,” she says.

The conversation then turns to her. “I read you’re doing a film adaptation of God of Carnage, is that true?” I ask. “You must be a real devoted fan if you know that already,” she replies with a chuckle. She goes on to tell me about the film, but mentions that she is shooting another movie first: Contagion. She tells me that she’s flying to Chicago on Monday for a couple of weeks to film, but that she can’t give me too many details about the movie because it’s “a very rare circumstance where I’m sworn to complete secrecy about the project.” She does mention that it is an ensemble piece and that she’s thrilled to be working with director Steven Soderbergh (upon research later, I learned that the film is an action thriller about the outbreak of a deadly virus that threatens to wipe out earth’s human population. Winslet plays a doctor contracted to help find a cure). “So many times you see movies and you wonder why the people making it made certain, well frankly, shitty choices. I’ve never had that experience watching Steven’s work and it is just such an honor to be working with him.” Winslet’s genuine excitement for the film makes her sound like an actress who has just landed her first big role.

“So you saw Titanic when you were nine? How old are you now?” Winslet asks me. “I’m twenty-two,” I respond. “Fuck, that makes me feel old” she says through her smile.

When I ask her what her favorite role she’s ever played is, she doesn’t hesitate to say Hanna Schmitz in The Reader “because it was by far the most challenging part I’ve ever had to play.” (Sidenote: Winslet won her first best actress Academy Award for this film ten minutes prior to my 21st birthday. Needless to say, I had a monumental celebration). “Have you seen that film?” she asks me. Have I seen it? Honey, I own the DVD of every movie you’ve ever made. “Yes, I have,” I respond.

I chime in my two cents and tell her my most loved character of hers is Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, my all-time favorite movie. She responds by telling me that Clementine was “the most fun” she’s ever had playing a character. She then goes on to tell me that she never watches her own movies (“except at premieres because then I kind of have to”), but that a friend recently asked her to watch Eternal Sunshine with her. “I agreed because I hadn’t watched it in ages, and my god, was that an experience! It was such a terrific film and so fun to make,” she divulges.

Fifteen minutes have gone by and Winslet gets a text from her friends that they’ll be there in any second. “I’m throwing a surprise shindig for my friend’s 42nd birthday,” she tells me. “She’s going to kill me because I promised I wouldn’t make a big deal out of her birthday, but it’s her birthday! What kind of friend would I be not to make a big deal out of it?” I laugh as she continues to tell me that “I was going to make this an early night but my kids are already asleep so why not celebrate?” It is clear that, despite the countless jewels and designer dresses for red carpet affairs she has received and multi-million dollar contracts she has signed, Kate Winslet is just like anyone else.

“Well, I should go inside and make sure we have a table,” she says as she smothers the lit remains of her cigarette with the toe of her chic, tall leather boots. She gives me a hug and kisses both my cheeks (like a true European). “It was so lovely to meet you,” she says. I ask her if I can take a photo with her. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just terrified of Facebook and the Internet and all that shit,” she replies. “Would you mind if we just kept this our little memory?” She stretches out her hand to shake mine once more before she leaves, smile still intact. She gets to the door and turns around and waves to me. My childhood dream had just come true.

There’s that old expression that people say: never meet your heroes because chances are you’ll just be disappointed. Well, I’ve never been able to confirm or refute that statement because I had never met my idol. Tonight, I can safely say that I don’t find that expression to be true. Kate Winslet was everything I had hoped she would be. She was warm, funny, beautiful, charming, and just … normal.

Near the end of Titanic, Old Rose (played by the marvelous and recently deceased Gloria Stewart) reminisces about Jack: “I don’t even have a picture of him. He exists now only in my memory.” I may not have a picture to document my twenty minutes with Kate Winslet, but tonight will forever stay engrained in my memory.