Artist and Album Profile: Hollywood: A Statement of Musical and Social Significance signed Lukas Rossi (Part 1)
An artist can never please everyone. How many times have you been to a concert and left ‘disappointed’ because your favorite song wasn’t played? When you have a prolific and versatile artist and an accomplished musician such as Lukas Rossi, there are bound to be some who would have preferred that he include some songs on the album and exclude others that made the cut. That’s not a slight against the artist. It’s a recognition of his talent and diversity of appeal. Well, there is something for everyone on his album Hollywood, from straight-up, pure, unadulterated rock of the grabs-you-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach kind to the more pop-driven and contemplative, some more classical and some more modern-sounding.
The Journey to Hollywood: Like A Phoenix Rising From His Ashes
If you have followed the rise of Lukas Rossi from his Cleavage and Rise Electric ‘little-punk-from-Toronto’ (as he likes to call them) days to his stellar and unique performances on the reality-TV show RockStar: Supernova and his disappearance for several years into relative obscurity after the breakup of the ‘supergroup’ formed as a result of that show, you will understand why this first full-length album by Lukas is a breakout album for him after close to 20 years in the business, why it means so much to him personally and to those he has touched with his music, his heart and his words.
Throughout all the hard times after the worldwide stardom he achieved with the broadcast of the RockStar TV show, his loyal and die-hard fans stuck with him through thick and thin, convinced he had far more to say than he had been afforded the opportunity to and that he could not just be relegated to being a footnote in history or a blip on the map of the money-hungry radar of the cutthroat music world. Lukas put out a series of EPs (all very good, by the way), either acoustic or with his band Stars Down. They are all available on his Website (lukasrossionline.com) and on iTunes and several other music distributors. They are certainly worth a listen to, if you are wondering where this artist is coming from.
He embarked on three acoustic tours of parts of North America, dubbed Love & Lust I, II and III, named after his solo 4-track EP and the letters of the words tattooed on the fingers of his hands. He drove back and forth across the continent in his very own Navigator, along with his manager wife and often accompanied by another very talented Canadian keyboardist, Lou Dawson, all cramped into very little space among the musical instruments and equipment. Tour dates in the middle of the dog days of summer or in the dead of the fierce Canadian Prairie winter. He played relatively small clubs, sometimes six, seven nights in a row over rather large distances, like he was paying his dues to the business, honing his craft for that promise of a better day. And there must have been days when he felt like throwing in the towel and wondered what he was doing this for. The fans, far and wide, knew because he had touched a chord with them and he sang and wrote about things that spoke to them like no other artist ever had.
Lukas Rossi quietly established himself as an artist that could write exceptional lyrics that delve into the human soul and capture the universal spirit and show an appreciation for, and attention to, the pain and troubles of others and an uncanny understanding of the social environment in which he lives. He always had a way with words, and such a unique perspective on the world and its problems. He has something important to say and such an original and passionate and compelling way of saying it. Whether he draws from his own experience or merely taps into a vibe that he channels from paying attention to those around him, I would venture to say that it would be important, and in fact be quite cathartic, for many people to hear, and especially really listen to, songs from his repertoire like:
Take 2 (about child abuse)
Memories of You (about anger, bitterness and resolution after a breakup)
Wherever You’re Going (about losing someone dear to cancer)
Father’s Day (about not growing up to be like one’s abusive father)
Enya (about hoping to meet up with a loved one in heaven and wishing one could trade places)
Empty Cities (a dream about the end of the world)
War (perhaps a parallel between real and domestic warfare?)
Dark & A Gun (apparently about suicide)
Dead Flowers (a dream about one’s own mortality)
…and the list goes on. The man has a back catalogue that goes back close to 20 years, most of which has never even been heard before. Lukas Rossi is a modern-day poet and has written some of the most beautiful lines ever written about transcendental love (You are my Rose, my Empire), positive reaffirmation (Sometimes we forget how beautiful we are) and about empathy (I cry someone else’s tears — this last one especially impressed me, because seldom does a man speak of crying, much less spilling tears over the fate of another). He has also written some of the most disturbing and brutally raw and honest words I have ever read in any song, for instance:
I want to burn down this town
And make sure I kill all the memories of you
(Memories of You, sometimes known as Angry Memories of You depending on the level of emotion he brings to the performance)
I said hello to a man today
He didn’t have much to say
But “I’ll kill you where you stand.”
(Dark & A Gun)
This reminds me of the lyrics in Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody about the randomness of murder and ruining one’s life:
Mamma, (I) killed a man today
Put my gun against his head,
Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead
It is also reminiscent of the tone and subject of French author Albert Camus’ L’Étranger/The Stranger where a young man callously and matter-of-factly murders an Arab on the beach ‘just to see what it feels like’.
And the album Hollywood includes the song War which contains the following extraordinary but very unsettling lines:
You nailed me to your cross
Say your good byes …Say your good byes
I know it’s hard to put away that gun
But I wanna watch you die
Have I ripped into you
Like you always want me to do?
Have I bled
Close to dead?
Have you heard a word I’ve said?
On your knees
Till they bleed
And pray for me please
Thanks to you I’ve become the devil’s only son.
So what are we fighting for?
There’s no compromise in war
They say you can’t fully appreciate an artist unless you see them live. Experiencing Lukas Rossi live is quite unique: not only does he breathe life into his words, he also ‘acts them out’ with his facial expressions, his movement on stage, his body language, the inflexions, the rage, the subtleties in his voice or the tiny little ‘gimmicks’ he adds to the music that enhance the finished product. I don’t believe I have ever met any person, whether a true fan or a casual, fortuitous observer, who left one of Lukas’ concerts unaffected by what they had just seen and heard. Is that not the true essence of an artist?
Some of the album Hollywood his fans will have heard before when he tried the songs out on (unsuspecting) audiences for good measure and then went on to perfect them lyrically and musically in the studio. And he does on stage something I have never seen another artist do – at least not consciously and consistently. Every concert was and is unique because he would (and still does) mysteriously change the lyrics to his songs and keep the listener on his or her toes trying to understand what he has changed in the words and music and why. Is it because he’s a little mischievous and wants to keep people guessing or because he’s feeling something at the time and needs to channel it? At times, he becomes so engrossed in the moment that he starts experimenting with sounds or lyrics right before the audience, just creating new songs on the spot that find their way into productions later on. One thing is for sure: Lukas Rossi knows how to shroud things in mystery and keep things interesting and it is entirely possible, in fact rather likely, to attend his concerts several nights in a row and be treated to a totally different experience. Most of the recordings from these concerts throughout Canada and the US are still available on his Website.
In 2008, Lukas and his band Stars Down toured a good portion of Canada and the northeastern United States with the very accomplished band Ours fronted by Jimmy Gnecco. Lukas confessed at the time that it had been a dream for him to tour, or take part in some collaboration, with Ours. And what a fascinating pairing these two bands were! Lukas gave a whole new and raw twist to songs he had sung acoustically before and were now being interpreted as outright rock songs with the power of a full band behind them. The crowning moments of that tour came in two concerts in particular towards the end of the tour in Canada where the two bands got up on stage in the finale of Stars Down’s set and jammed and ad libbed off a Lukas song for 18-20 minutes of insanely good music and camaraderie, with Lukas and Jimmy alternating as lead singer and backing vocals and actually both at one point getting behind the drum set and wailing away on the skins, which is when most realized that Lukas knew more than just how to sing and play guitar, but knew how to perform with the best in the business. The Toronto jam is still on YouTube I believe. Whether it was a case of two bands that admired and respected each other getting carried away in a planned or impromptu fashion, it epitomized, I think, the soul of pure rock and roll, delivered with an intensity that must have been what it was like to attend a Doors’ concert in the day. I am too young to have had the pleasure. I can only just imagine.
After that tour, Lukas concentrated most of his concerts in California, playing some prestigious venues like the Viper Room several times with and without his band, as he started crafting his solo record and learning more about the science of recording (he actually went back to ‘school’ and took courses). He roadtested some of the tracks he was contemplating putting on the record and he continued to write and perform both his own original material and some stunning covers of works by other artists. To name only a few, his renditions of Dream Brother by the late Jeff Buckley, Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen with violin accompaniment and his punkish remake of The Eurythmics’ Here Comes The Rain Again were just outstanding. And, of course, by popular demand, he would often indulge the audience and close a show with the covers that made him a household name on RockStar: Supernova. He even dabbled in some holiday music, which may sound sort of corny and hokey until you listen to the reinterpretation he did of John Lennon’s So This Is Christmas and the Little Drummer Boy the following year.
And the artist, the perfectionist, kept evolving: It’s in the transformation of Wherever I Am Going into the much more engaging Wherever You’re Going. It’s in the way he interprets Hallelujah. I urge you to relisten to certain concerts and how Lukas has arranged them and, in particular sequencing of songs, that may give some insight as to the final format and tone of the upcoming album. The February 1, 2010 Live At the Dover Brickhouse concert is a perfect example of the evolution and how it all fits together seamlessly. In fact, it was already apparent in the January 22, 2009 Coach House concert.
And all these experiences, all this slow maturation process, culminated in the birth of Mr. Lukas Rossi’s musical baby Hollywood, an album which he entirely wrote, performed and produced.
Next part…the album…
Artist and Album Profile: Hollywood: A Statement of Musical and Social Significance signed Lukas Rossi (Part 2)
It was a long time coming but well worth the wait. Like all good things in life, they need to macerate, to be tenderized a little, in order to improve the taste in the end. Hollywood is more pop than I expected or hoped for (I’m a hard rock aficionado at heart), though it’s not pop in a cloying sense, like what pervades much of radio today. Warning: I’m brutally honest when it comes to music and poetry (and certain sports). What I usually dislike about pop is that it replaces deep lyrics with syncopated repetition of words that generally do not have profound import, so it takes away the layers of complexity and meaning, which is what I adore in Lukas’ earlier work. But I realize that’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it unfortunately doesn’t have the same commercial appeal. Writing good music and lyrics doesn’t guarantee success or attention from the right people. Lukas doesn’t fall into this trap. He crafts his music so that it can be appreciated on several levels, namely for its sheer musicality (a beat or melody that grabs you and sticks in your memory) or, if one takes the trouble to scratch beneath the surface, one discovers often very powerful words and images that you cannot shake from your mind.
Hollywood is the culmination of Lukas’ musical journey … so far. I expect we have not heard the last of him and there is much left to discover and that will either gush or trickle out from his – it seems – unfathomable creative well. The songs on this album generally come from a happier place than his earlier work without tilting too far into synthesized pop. Perhaps it is the happier sound that my ears interpret as pop? The message is more positive, the sound is cleaner, crisper, much more polished. Is this due to an evolution of the voice or to recording techniques or equipment, or to a combination of both? I tend to think it’s both. I was particularly struck by the mastery of Lukas over his voice and the clarity and sheer power of his sound the last time I heard him live. It was in Sudbury (Ontario, Canada) in September 2009 and it had been nearly a year and a half since I had heard him last. It is now in the phrasing, in the clarity of the voice, in the choice of instruments that one can see a certain Lukas style developing, a common musical thread, that, at times, is more contemplative, introspective, even bordering on the nostalgic, and, at other times, infuses the tracks with pure, unadulterated passion.
I believe hat Lukas’ forte (though he does it very well technically) is not the ”pop” sound. I’m not a big fan of pop at all, at least not the commercial drivel pumped out of our radios. I personally much prefer Lukas’ dark, contemplative, brooding, complex, mysterious, even angry side at times. My opinion is that it makes for better music and more interesting (and honest) lyrics. ”Pop” to me means much less engaging (watered-down) lyrics and more ”danceable”, i.e. simpler, repetitive tunes, which may be catchier for radio aficionados but quite honestly doesn’t grab me. I like brutal, raw, powerful music that comes and reaches inside you, pounding, palpitating, that invades you musically and emotionally, music that you experience both physically and spiritually. I love the driving, animal drums, the demented bass lines, the wailing guitars that shriek their agony and the intense, haunting voice that wraps you up in the cloak of mystery and intrigue and takes you on a journey into the maelstrom of musical madness. I like to feel my music, I like it speak to me musically and lyrically, I like it mean something. Very rarely does ”pop” have any sort of intelligent discourse, which is why it doesn’t appeal to me unless the music is particularly original. I like the whole package and I’ve seen Lukas deliver that in ways no other artist does. I, personally, miss songs replete with brutal social commentary in today’s music but I am aware that they do not have the same commercial appeal as the ones that did make it past the studio chopping block to the album. In my view, Hollywood is a happy compromise between the two imperatives.
There is both a classic and a modern quality to the delivery on this album (think, for instance, of the evolution of the song Science and the vocals that at times reach out to the operatic). The songs on this album incorporate certain piano and even violin elements, and the guitar portions could just as well be played with a full band or orchestra or around an intimate campfire.
If you are already a Lukas fan and know most of his work, the new songs Revolver and Hail To The Queen alone are worth the price of the album. But, then, there’s also Lay It On The Line and When We Were Young and The World Is Not Enough, each evocative titles in their own right. If I can voice a disappointment (assuming you can call it that), it is that the more positive, life-affirming songs he has penned like I Love Myself Today and Let Me Live Inside Your Heart didn’t make the final cut, but Lukas has so many titles to choose from, it must have been a challenge to whittle the song selection down to just 12. (I Love Myself Today, which is always a popular feature of recent live concerts, did make it to the Dark & A Gun 4-track EP released shortly before Hollywood and containing so-called ‘B’ sides). And, perhaps, come to think of it, these songs that were excluded from the final album just didn’t fit in with the overall theme and will find their way to an album with an entirely different feel to it.
First things first, however. I absolutely love the album cover: there’s something positive, reflective, hopeful in the image of Lukas cut out against a rosy sky against a pale green background. It has a calming, mature feel to it. It appears that Lukas has some sort of shoulder strap (perhaps a bag of some sort hidden from view?) and, by his posture and expression, you can practically see a boyish, carefree attitude, as if he were reconciling with his past yet connecting with the future in those clouds behind him. It is no coincidence, in my view, that the title track does musically what the cover art succeeds in doing visually.
I must confess that I cringed when I heard that Lukas had changed the title of his upcoming release from Miracles & Memoirs to that of the title track, Hollywood. As a music lover and amateur critic, I cannot in all honesty think of many (any?) songs bearing that title in any musical genre that are praiseworthy either from a musical or lyrical point of view. I always get the impression that artists call their song Hollywood Something or Something Hollywood as a cheap shortcut to evoking something that is perceived as glamorous and will garner attention, which is precisely what Lukas tears down in his song.
Next up…the individual tracks…
Artist and Album Profile: Hollywood: A Statement of Musical and Social Significance signed Lukas Rossi (Part 3)
Title Track: Hollywood
The last track on the album is the title track, which is somewhat unusual. But, then, perhaps it is meant to sum up the rest of the record. This is not the first time Lukas has broached the subject of the ‘Hollywood’ or rockstar life. He wrote a song a while back called Bleeding The Dream about the price of fame and those who lose their way. That particular song was written from the point of view of a more or less dispassionate observer watching a young starlet snorting her life away with China White. Another song on this album (Sedated) also tackles the issue of the dangers of celebrity and what happens to people in the limelight who end up being overmedicated. That song hit closer to home because it was written after his wife went through painful rehab. And, now, Lukas tells us the Hollywood story from his most personal angle: his own experience with fame and the promise of rags to riches.
As I mentioned before, I have a problem with songs titled Hollywood, mainly because I’m usually left a little (or a lot) dissatisfied with their lyrics. There’s just not enough ‘meat’ for me. It’s like the artist has gone soft in the head and forgotten how to express himself and took the easy way out musically and lyrically. Perhaps that’s my problem: I just don’t find Hollywood to be a musical word or the idea it conjures up to be even mildly interesting…
…Until now…I must say I am mostly reconciled with the song title. Still not in love with the name but much happier about my pet peeve. I was worried that Lukas, in handling this topic too often ‘explored’ by others, would prove to be too simple, too literal with the Supernova thing so as to enable him to make his mark and carve out an identifying niche for himself with something people will remember, especially since it was to be the title track, therefore the dominant theme, and the first video for release off the album (which can be viewed on his official YouTube site at http://www.youtube.com/user/lukasrossiofficial). But this song is much more than that and actually has substance: it’s about exploding a myth (like a supernova, I guess) by injecting Lukas’ personal painful journey into the mix. This is the music of a musician and man who has grown up and matured and realized that Hollywood is only a chimera (‘’I don’t think this wonderland’s for me’’, ‘’Hollywood don’t shine as bright’’). To me it’s so telling that Hollywood is a slow and reflective song and not an angry one. It is a sign of the maturity of the artist. Not only has his voice matured but so has he. The lyrics are also about standing up for, and being, yourself and self-affirmation which is a constant theme in Lukas’ more recent music. He sings:
Hollywood won’t change me,
Hollywood won’t break me,
I’ll never change for nobody.
I guess you gotta lose it all
To find out what you have
My happiness was right inside of me.
The most striking lyric that I take from his song is his musical loss of innocence: I was just a boy Who turned to a man. This line is delivered with the wince of pain of someone flinching at the memory of being abused and discarded after use. Very effective in my view.
I do like the melody of this song although I find the word Hollywood too high-pitched. But I must say the piano and the violins on Hollywood are just gorgeous. It is interesting and somewhat ironic to note that one of the best tracks on the ill-fated Supernova album that led to Lukas’ temporary downfall was (Can’t Bring Myself To Light This) Fuse, and the best portions of that song incidentally were the piano and the violins. Bravo to the musicality of Tommy Lee for creating that song and to the ingenuity of Lukas Rossi for picking up that musical gauntlet in order to release himself from the unfortunate grip the association with Supernova held over him and the pall that it cast over his career for a little while.
OK, Mr. Lukas Rossi really knows how to pull my trigger. I just LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE the song Revolver and the massive drums! But, underneath the pure rock beat of the track, I’m truly glad to see that the social commentary hasn’t disappeared. It’s perhaps more subtle (less in-your-face because the music is), but it’s there. I view this song actually as an urgent call to arms or action about poverty. Lukas has a knack for latching onto the problems of his time and asking the hard question about the correlation between poverty and social conditions (the mother and crying baby in the next room) or bullying and violence (both are ostensibly posed here). The issue of taunting and bullying has made it to the forefront of our social disease since the Columbine massacre and other horrible mass shootings or murders, which are no longer confined to the borders of the US. In Lukas’ telling of the tale, Little Johnny doesn’t want to shoot (‘’With his look in his eye He wanted to cry, Just look what your friends made me do’’) but that’s the only way he gets respect. Perhaps this story is even to a certain extent autobiographical and tells Lukas’ own tale about growing up on the mean streets of Toronto and delivers his poignant warning to all to Get Up! When We’re Down! Everyone Needs To Fight For Their Ground! …Wake Up! Wake Up! The Clock’s Ticking Down! and never to be arrogant enough to think it could not happen to anyone or it doesn’t concern or affect you:
See the ones, they lie on the street
They barely got money to eat
But you’d rather ignore it
Like the last one before
You say: That’ll never be me
There are some mistakes
We cannot erase
And the most damning condemnation of all: Everyone cries, Everyone lies…
When I first heard this song and its appeal to fight apathy and fatalism and the growing cancer of urban decay, I immediately thought of a very famous Mac Davis song called In The Ghetto, unforgettably interpreted by Elvis Presley. I will let you judge for yourselves:
As the snow flies
On a cold and gray Chicago mornin’
A poor little baby child is born
In the ghetto
And his mama cries
’cause if there’s one thing that she don’t need
it’s another hungry mouth to feed
In the ghetto
People, don’t you understand
the child needs a helping hand
or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
are we too blind to see,
do we simply turn our heads
and look the other way
Well the world turns
and a hungry little boy with a runny nose
plays in the street as the cold wind blows
In the ghetto
And his hunger burns
so he starts to roam the streets at night
and he learns how to steal
and he learns how to fight
In the ghetto
Then one night in desperation
a young man breaks away
He buys a gun, steals a car,
tries to run, but he don’t get far
And his mama cries
As a crowd gathers ’round an angry young man
face down on the street with a gun in his hand
In the ghetto
As her young man dies,
on a cold and gray Chicago mornin’,
another little baby child is born
In the ghetto
However, in Lukas’ story, redemption from the vicious cycle apparently resides in ‘’Angels watching over me, I can feel them in my heart…There were Angels watching over you. Can’t you feel them in your heart?’’.
Hail To The Queen
I will confess that I don’t have a clue what this song is really about (I believe it is about a relationship doomed from the start) but it sure packs a wallop and has very intriguing lyrics:
I’m just an alien
I can feel your grip so tight
Over my heart
It’s best you know the things I hide
This song is very unlike what Lukas has ever done before (except perhaps for a very brief collaboration called Alive with some musical journeymen he wanted to form a band with under the name Daylight Division). All I can say is, In the fine tradition of maelstrom rock, I’m loving the voice-trailing-off-in-the-tempest sound and even a few metal-like shrieks added in there for good measure, à la 30 Seconds To Mars. No discernable social discourse here. Just straight-up rock ‘n roll! Wicked track!
More on the album in Part 4….
Artist and Album Profile: Hollywood: A Statement of Musical and Social Significance signed Lukas Rossi (Part 4)
A few more notes on the tracks of this album…
One of my personal favourites , probably because it is more gut-wrenching, a little bit à la (Angry) Memories of You, is Lay It On The Line, which was a great similarly-named track from another great Canadian act, Triumph. In this track, Lukas sings of no longer listening to ‘that animal inside’. He’ll take you (I wonder who ‘you’ is?) with him (he means murder, not a trip) and make the pain go away because he has ‘the devil in my veins. I push all the good away‘.
Then, there’s the track Sedated which recalls the more disembodied voice of Tarantula until the refrain, which is very catchy. Here again, the focus is on another of the pitfalls of seeking fame and fortune in the modern-day El Dorado of Hollywood: you spend your life pumped up on Valium just to cope.
In the track War, which Lukas dusted off from the Love & Lust tour vault, one cannot ignore the poignant, yet visceral and somewhat disturbing, lyrics à la (Angry) Memories Of You, especially the line: I’m gonna watch you die.
I like the nostalgic feel of The World Is Not Enough. I was struck by how the beginning of the song resembled the tone of Fly. Lukas Rossi sings of the world being an empty canvas. We can paint it anyway we want. In an all or nothing world, we cannot lose. Is it a sort of call to arms about making your statement in life and standing up for something you believe in? If so, I would say that this album is living proof of it.
All in all, quite an interesting package with a little bit of something for everyone! Never a dull moment with Mr. Lukas Rossi!