Archive forNovember, 2002

MUSIC FOR THE MASSES VS. VOLVO ROCK

    No rock band wants to make white-bread suburbia music. But the culture of niche marketing drives them inevitably towards it. Makes you wonder how a guy like Elvis was loved by so many different demographics.

A couple of nights before Thanksgiving, I met my friend Brian at Mercury Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to see a showcase of a new band. Well, new to a major label, anyway – the Exies have just been signed to Virgin. Brian, a Billboard editor, has lots of contacts at EMI, Virgin’s parent company, and someone put him on the list for the show. I was his plus-one. We’ve been in these circumstances before; for whatever reason, Mercury, with its manageable size and semi-hip downtown location, has become the labels’ venue of choice for small showcases of promising new rock bands.

The Exies hail from California and made their name in the late-’90s Los Angeles rock scene, where their riff-heavy rock reportedly attracted the attention of Stone Temple Pilots’ Dean DeLeo. Their major-label debut will be out about a month into the new year. Virgin is doing a pretty good job of setting up the Exies – MTV2 has just broadcast a “You Hear It First” profile on the band, and it just so happened I saw it the day before Brian invited me to the show. The band members give good interview – they come off as unpretentious, self-deprecating and reasonably smart (”Exies” is a cheeky play on the Existentialists, a ’60s philosophy movement). I run hot and cold on the band’s kind of meat-and-potatoes rock, but EMI has been releasing some good rock acts lately (the Vines, OK Go, Coldplay), and so I went into the gig with an open mind.

The boys played their hearts out, but I came away convinced that the Exies are not my kind of band. This does not mean, however, that they won’t sell records. The Exies have a grungy, bashing rock sound that in its best moments sounds like a thrashier Nirvana but more often sounds freeze-dried, a little too studied. Though informed by post-grunge rock and punk, the Exies’ lamer songs are tousled instead of tough. It’s the kind of rock we started to hear on “alternative” radio in the late ’90s: one-word-name bands like Fuel, Filter, Tonic, Lifehouse, Nickelback. (Can I get some props for even remembering these bands’ names?) In short, no matter how good the Exies’ intentions, they’re on their way to producing Volvo Rock.

I coined the term Volvo Rock a few years ago to refer to rock that sounds like it was created by a focus group to target a 25-to-40-year-old suburban demographic. Truthfully, my term is kind of dated – I probably should have called it “SUV Rock,” but that doesn’t roll off the tongue, and there are too many asshole SUV owners. My archetypal Volvo Rock listener isn’t an asshole – she’s friendly, well-intentioned and wants to hear new music, but the bands that light her fire on the radio can’t be too dangerous; the White Stripes sound like noise to her. (She’s not necessarily a she, but her male counterpart is probably listening to more retrograde music, like the same old AC/DC or Steve Miller Band records he liked back in high school.) She’s not necessarily a soccer mom – she can, in fact, be quite young – but she’s a consumer with plenty of disposable income to spend not only on CDs, but on the stuff advertised on radio stations that play this music. Like the car in its title, Volvo Rock is safe, a lifestyle accessory.

What’s perverse about the existence of Volvo Rock, in its numbing uniformity, is that it’s the product of a culture of more choice, not less. We now have more niche genres than we can count, and more bands with a wide array of influences. Yet bands like the Exies end up being produced by people like Matt Serletic (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul) who move them toward uniformity. That’s because in our niche entertainment universe, artists have to super-serve a niche, not play to the masses. Gone are the days when a Zeppelin or a Police or even a U2 could play to everyone by being themselves; in the old days of mass culture, when we had fewer choices, bands believed they could win the hearts of all of us. It’s heartbreaking to see a band enter the business already aware that their only goal is to be the kind of act that vaguely satisfies a sliver of us.

A few nights after the Exies gig, as I settled on the couch after Thanksgiving dinner, I flipped around the tube and landed on NBC’s Elvis Lives. The program was produced by RCA Records to help them flog more copies of the big-selling Elv1s 30 #1 Hits during the holiday season. As I watched the slickly edited montage of testimonials to the King by current pop acts, I got to thinking about what it takes to sell an artist as universal as Elvis in the current market. The last two decades of Presley’s life, he was a purely commercial enterprise, and it’s hard to argue that even half of his career moves were motivated by artistry, rather than by product-shifting. Still, last night, what struck me about the footage of Presley himself in Elvis Lives was how unpretentious, how variety-show-simple his performances were. He wasn’t playing to any one group in the audience on Ed Sullivan or the ‘68 comeback special or Vegas; he was there to entertain them all. It was a stark contrast to the parade of artists on Elvis Lives declaring fealty to the King – Britney to Bono to Rob Thomas. “Hey, I like Elvis,” each seemed to be saying, “and even if I’m the only person on this show whose music you like, you should like Elvis, too.” Each niche was served, each demographic targeted. Perhaps a few Volvo Rock listeners were convinced to go buy the Elvis CD, and it might be refreshing for them to get reacquainted with music that wasn’t produced specifically for them.

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ROTATIONS: DARK HORSE, BRIGHT EYES

    This week on the CD carousel: George’s last record is saved by his son from Evil Jeff Lynne; Common hits that perfect beat; Tom Waits kicks it old-school Tom Waits-style; Bright Eyes is Dylan on a power-mad bender; and the Basquiat soundtrack makes us wistful for an ’80s we never really lived in.

How much do I love you people? Well, I love you eternally for reading this stuff, certainly. But this week my love must be even deeper, because I recreated this entire post from scratch after my computer shut down yesterday, just minutes before I was done and about to hit the “Post” button; two-plus hours of writing, lost. I haven’t screamed that loud since losing essay drafts in college. My beloved Smily can now say she told me so – she’s only warned me a half-dozen times not to write long posts directly into the LJ web page. Lesson learned, the hard way.

Anyway, here’s the second week of “Rotations.” I bought some new discs last week (so what else is new), but I haven’t digested some of them. So here’s what’s on the carousel right now.

George Harrison, Brainwashed

George Harrison, Brainwashed – Thank Krishna for Dhani Harrison. He may have just saved his father’s last album from the busy hands of Jeff Lynne. George’s two loved ones coproduced this posthumous album, and it’s a testament to Dhani that the record mostly avoids the tacky, thudding multitracked sound Lynne heaped onto so many Harrison-related projects over the years. (Seven years later, I’m still furious at Lynne for the atrocity of his production of “Free as a Bird”; apparently Lynne thought the reunited Beatles had been renamed The George & Ringo Project.) I don’t think I’m being disrespectful to the Cranky Beatle – c’mon, was George ever really quiet? – when I say that Harrison’s post-Beatle oeuvre had been erratic; after the mostly brilliant solo debut All Things Must Pass, the quality of the output on his self-created Dark Horse label drops off steadily. Harrison’s work became mannered and flimsy throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, but his last solo album, Cloud Nine (1987) had some fine songs marred only by Lynne’s dated-on-arrival production. Brainwashed finally gets it basically right – the production matches the songs’ laid-back, easy charms. Harrison’s signature guitar work is ever-present, but it’s not as pushy as it’s been on the Lynne projects and the Wilburys records. A decade away from recording allowed Harrison to focus on the songs, and it’s all B-plus to A-minus material, typified by the fun, acerbic “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” – nowhere near his late ’60s–early ’70s output but a lot less embarrassing than what McCartney’s churning out these days. I find myself humming and nodding along, and that’s something I haven’t done with a Harrison record in a long time. Brainwashed shows us a George in repose, serenely facing his last earthly years and leaving us exactly the way he’d like to be remembered: cynical but full of heart.

Common, Like Water for Chocolate

Common, Like Water for Chocolate – I’ve had Common on the brain recently, what with his appearance on his pal Erykah Badu’s current hit “Love of My Life,” but this 2000 CD has actually been on my must-buy list for a while. I was inspired a couple of months ago by his appearance in MTV2’s 9/11 playlist: the channel had chosen to play songs that day that weren’t about 9/11 itself but were broadly uplifting and/or inspirational; and when Des’ree’s “You Gotta Be” segued into Common’s “The Light” (”I will be by your side/There is a light that shines…”), it felt appropriate – genial, empathetic, not sentiments I normally associate with hip-hop. But Common has become a fairly singular rap figure, not so much for his skills but for the middle ground he’s claimed – cleverer, earthier than the current platinum lineup, yet more accessible than left-field rappers like the Def Jux crew. Like Water for Chocolate – its title a witty, bitter pun; look closely at the cover photo – lists ?uestlove of the Roots as its executive producer, and you can feel his influence. Indeed, Chocolate is probably what the Roots would sound like if they had fewer MCs and relied on samples instead of live instruments. Whether it’s ?uestlove’s doing or Common’s, Chocolate has an album-length coherence that relies on a soulful vibe rather than the plethora of between-song skits that mar so many rap albums (Common has just one here, an uneasy, Eminemesque sketch that tries to play both sides of “keeping it real”). Common is an adaptable rapper, veering from a barking, low-grade-DMX approach to a jazzy Q-Tip vibe from one track to the next. Despite unfortunate bits of homophobia and sprinkles of sexism, he is a generous collaborator, trading verses with MC Lyte and Macy Gray in a way that doesn’t reduce them to hook-girl status. Chocolate suggests Common can walk the line between bling-bling and indie, building a mainstream career with authenticity and soul. I eagerly await his next album, reportedly due any month now.

Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones

Tom Waits, Swordfishtrombones – As a New Yorker, I get exposed to plenty of Tom Waits – to a certain, ubiquitous species of NPR-listening, pop-eschewing beast in this city, he may as well be elevator music. That may explain why I own so few of his CDs (only a copy of 1992’s Bone Machine has made it into my collection heretofore). Waits has been the soundtrack to brunches and cocktail parties I’ve attended, the backdrop at certain hip boutiques, the background noise at any number of downtown bars and restaurants. I do enjoy his music, though, and it finally became embarrassing enough that last week, I decided to flip through the racks at J&R and just buy one album, whatever they had in stock. I’ve heard years of debate over the supremacy of Closing Time versus Rain Dogs versus Franks Wild Years, but Swordfishtrombones, in the racks and on sale, won out. It’s instantly loveable, but it may as well be packaged in a white slipcase with big, black letters: “TOM WAITS ALBUM.” I get a kick out of how a 1983 Waits disc sounds fundamentally similar to a ‘73 or ‘93 album: the kooky-calliope jazz, the polished ballads, that soulful, gravelly voice. For all the adventurousness Waits is credited for, his career seems like one long meditation on a few similar themes. But what that means is that you get to judge a Waits album not on whatever phase he was going through at the time (like, say, Neil Young) but simply on the songs. And Swordfishtrombones has some stunners, as well as some intriguing instrumentals and boho spoken-word bits that knit the songs together. If you don’t feel your heart soaring during the aching ballad “In the Neighborhood,” you might want to check and make sure you have one.

Bright Eyes, Lifted

Bright Eyes, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground – Regular readers of my posts may have noticed this strange title on the “Current Music” line several times, which only shows how addicting this intermittently brilliant record is. Bright Eyes is Nebraskan Conor Oberst, a quivery-voiced character who’s doing for indie-rock in the ’00s what Lou Barlow of Sebadoh and Folk Implosion did in the ’90s – bending it to his multifarious ends. Oberst fronts the thrashy heavy-rock act Desaparecidos, but he’s on his fourth album as Bright Eyes. Lifted may be his most ambitious project to date: an intense, seemingly personal folk-rock epic that begs to be compared to classic Dylan but may be even craftier than Mr. Zimmerman at his most self-invented. I have warned several friends not to judge the record by its meandering, low-fi opening song, eight minutes of found sounds and faux-naïve street folk that’s not as heartfelt as, say, Daniel Johnston. But the rest of the album is a paradise of ringing guitars and impassioned songs, complemented by judicious instrumentation (brass, strings) and Oberst’s naked, fervent vocals. What sets Bright Eyes apart from Dylan or Nick Drake or even Badly Drawn Boy is his easy versatility, his ability to reimagine gothic rock or orchestrated waltzes or foot-stomping hoedowns in his own idiom.

OST, Basquiat

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Basquiat – I pulled this 1996 compilation off the shelf after last week’s post about soundtracks that hold up apart from their corresponding films. Quite possibly the most underrated soundtrack of the ’90s (topped only by the inexplicably ignored Good Will Hunting CD), Basquiat is an especially timely collection to revisit now, what with the growing pop-culture obsession with all things ’80s – like the biopic about New York pop artist/cautionary tale Jean-Michel Basquiat, the soundtrack imagines a very hip ’80s, dominated by cutting-edge new wave and electro: Public Image Limited’s “Public Image,” Joy Division’s “These Days,” and Grandmaster Flash’s era-defining, awe-inspiring “White Lines.” But it’s a far-reaching compilation, stretching back to Van Morrison’s 1966 cover, with Them, of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” (the melody familiar to anyone who’s heard Beck sample it on Odelay) and working its way back to the ’90s and Gavin Friday. In keeping with the artist’s theme of interpretation, the album boasts an unusually good array of covers: PJ Harvey’s version of Peggy Lee’s doomed fin-de-’60s classic, “Is That All There Is?”; John Cale’s take on Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous “Hallelujah”; and – most surprisingly successful – thrash-grunge Texas band the Toadies taking on Talking Heads’ jittery “I’m Not in Love.” But lest we forget the movie is about a downtown New York demimonde, toward the end the soundtrack offers up a mournful Tom Waits singing about “waltzing Matilda” on “Tom Traubert’s Blues.” New York=Waits – I rest my case.

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SHANIA-BOT

    Who needs Bond girls like Jinx or Pussy Galore when we’ve got Shania Twain, the ultimate lethal babe? One day, all our pop stars will be this efficient, this genre-neutral, this soulless. For now, Shania’s world-domination plan is all her own.

As I wandered through the record store today, I had a look at the album that’s expected to top the charts next week with nearly a million in first-week sales: Shania Twain’s UP! I had no intention of buying it, but I was intrigued by the fact that it’s a two-disc set. That’s when I remembered something I’d read in the trades a couple of weeks ago. That second disc isn’t some bonus DVD with videos or promotional fluff. It’s the entire album – all the songs, all over again – rerecorded and remixed in pop versions to complement the country versions.

Shania and her husband, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, are so intent on conquering the world that they’ll give you their music in any flavor you want it – so long as you succumb.

Political pundits often theorize that the first woman or African American to be elected President will have to be a Republican. The winning candidate will have to come from the center-right, they say, just to counter voters’ preconceived notions of what a female or black President would be like. This ideal Presidential candidate would have to capture the heartland, then work her way out to the cities, not the other way around. By the same token, the first genre-blind music superstar – the Universal Diva – would, logically, have to come out of country music. Madonna may be a global superstar, but whole stretches of America don’t care for her, and her sales have never quite matched her stature (not one of her albums is among the 50 biggest sellers of all time). If the history of American pop is one of urban hegemony, of hits breaking in cities and working their way inland, the Universal Diva – the unstoppable force of the new Millennium – will turn this pattern on its head: capture Nutbush before capturing New York.

Shania, the biggest little ol’ cowgirl Canada ever produced, has a world domination plan, and it’s so brutally efficient I wonder why more people aren’t afraid of her. I certainly am. Maybe it’s that ice-cold, strangely unsexy gaze of hers. It’s in every photo she takes, and especially in her videos; the “From This Moment On” clip still haunts me, Shania’s frozen, unblinking face, swaddled in a parka, as she marches ceaselessly toward the camera tormenting me evermore. Maybe it’s the creepy überpop Shania sings over – no swing, no soul, certainly no twang, just hooks hooks hooks, like the songs are all climax. Or maybe it’s the creepy pushiness of her songs, represented by those! relentless! exclamation! points! (”Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” “If You’re Not in it for Love (I’m Outta Here!)”) The forceful punctuation mark hasn’t gotten this much use from a musician since Britain’s skinhead Oi! bands.

Shania couldn’t have been paired with a better collaborator than Mutt, the man who, in the ’80s, honed Def Leppard into a kind of cyber-metal that, one day, will be credited as a formative electronica influence. I have enjoyed my share of Mutt compositions, and I reserve my loathing for far worse purveyors of pop schmaltz like Diane Warren. But what’s unsettling about Mutt is that his songs once seemed to belong to a certain ’80s hair-metal genre but have now morphed into everymusic, without losing their fundamental Neuromancer qualities. The first single from UP!, “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” has been released in both varieties, pop and extra-crispy…er, country – the latter with steel guitar and fiddle, the former without – but the differences are so cosmetic, all I hear is Mutt. “Outta!” has a late-period Supertramp keyboard sound (think “The Logical Song”) that overpowers all other elements of the song. The Muttness is further enhanced by the video, an expensive, truly scary gloss on, I swear, Tron – Shania as post-Matrix robot-girl. Interestingly, the video wasn’t shot in a country version – the musicians barely visible behind Shania-bot don’t seem to include any fiddlers or lap-steel players. (Judge for yourself: the video is up at Country Music Television’s website.) I guess The Mutt Sound conquers all.

Japan has had virtual pop stars for several years now – PC-created, wide-eyed sugar babes who provide a flawless, robotic approximation of stardom. U.S. listeners haven’t warmed to the trend, but Shania will finally bring it to them. There’s a chance Shania will record something with a pulse again, à la her surprisingly warm megahit, “You’re Still the One.” But for now, she and Mutt have bigger plans. They’ve already moved past your CD player and are setting up a colony in your brain.

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WHO YOU CALLIN’ A PUNK?

    Avril Lavigne is no more a punk than Madonna is a cowgirl. Avril herself knows it. But she doesn’t seem to understand what’s being said in her name – how she’s being sold to a generation of impressionable pop fans who desperately want to move past Britney.

I’ve been hesitating in weighing in on the whole Avril Lavigne question. You know the one – with her ripped clothes and insouciantly worn neckties and low-strapped guitars, is Lavigne a punk? The biggest new-artist success story of the year, with an album lodged in the Top 20 all summer and fall, Lavigne has already scored two major radio hits: “Complicated” and “Sk8r Boi.” In her videos – Lavigne is a fixture on TRL – Lavigne’s idea of teenage riot is running through malls and knocking over point-of-purchase displays. It’s enough to make a music fan over 22 run screaming. But I have to say that I reserve my disdain not for Lavigne but for the machine that created her. The confusion over Avril Lavigne right now says more about people’s need to identify than it does about what’s good or bad about her music.

I think it’s fairly obvious to any reasonable music fan that the ditties Lavigne offers up are, musically, nothing like punk. It’s not because her songs are ditties; the history of punk is bedecked with catchy three-minute songs. It’s that her songs simply don’t fit the musical terms of punk – vocals, guitars, song structures or lyrics (the more nihilistic, the better). You can get away with calling something “punk” that eschews one or even several of these elements, but lose all of them and it just doesn’t fit the genre.

Let me be clear: punk to me is a genre, not an ethos. Three decades after its birth, even after volumes of bloody-minded words have been written about what it means to be punk, I have come to accept that punk is only useful as a term if it connotes some shared musical hallmarks. Yet all too often, this question gets, as Avril might say, so complicated.

Remember the angry 1994 debates over Green Day? They played music that to any sensible ears sounded like punk; in fact, they built their audience and honed their chops in the Bay Area punk scene. Yet somehow, they were derided as poseurs the minute they released a major-label album. (Insert long, tiresome debate about “selling out” here.) For me, the bar was so much lower for Green Day: bratty vocals, distorted guitars, minimal solos, three-chord rumba – ta-da! punk. I didn’t even need their mud-flinging episode at that year’s Woodstock for me to be convinced. Hell, even if, for the sake of argument, we ignore the last 25 years and allow “punk” to include only the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and the Clash (go ahead, dump the Pistols or the Clash if you want, and add in the New York Dolls if that makes you happier), we’re still talking about a bunch of bands that can only be grouped by the rough echoes of a sound.

Anyway, I would be happy to call Lavigne’s music punk if it fit the outlines of the definition, but it doesn’t. Still, it’s clear that lazy journalists and Lavigne’s handlers – especially her photographers, who never took a photo they didn’t like of Avril snarling and flipping the bird – are having a field day positioning the perky little mallrat as a modern-day riot grrrl. Her management understands that in the world of pop, sometimes just dressing the part is enough to convince the public that you live it. Still, Madonna doesn’t claim she’s country after a photo shoot in which she’s clad in cowboy hats.

For Lavigne’s part, she declares in interview after interview that her music isn’t punk, that she never calls herself a punk and that she’s tired of being accused by punk fans of posing as one. In one recent Q&A she confessed to finally buying a Ramones album to see what all the fuss was about (no word yet on how she liked it). A college friend of mine and former magazine colleague despairs of this news, that Lavigne will soon become cognizant of punk tradition. In my friend Kate’s brilliant essay (it was on a listserv, otherwise I’d link to it), she proposed, quite convincingly, that Lavigne in fact was a punk because of her very lack of punk knowledge, and that she would cease to be punk on her next album because her newfound knowledge will spoil her blissful ignorance. Kate’s definition of punk veers too close to the punk-as-ethos school for my comfort, but I am sympathetic to her contention that naïveté is a key element of the music.

Lavigne is naïve, all right, but not just to the discography of Sid Vicious. At the risk of sounding patronizing, I don’t think Lavigne comprehends the way her image is overpowering her music. Lavigne’s music is basically a punchier form of teen pop, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But she is being promoted as a punk, whether she admits it or not, for one simple reason: teen pop is out; teen rock is in. The major labels have watched Britney Spears’s sales diminish by half with each subsequent release, and they’ve also seen how tricky it is for a pop act trying to go “street” (most recent victim: Christina Aguilera). Pop-to-rock is a much easier transition for radio-friendly young acts than pop-to-rap or pop-to-horny adult; it even worked eight years ago for Lavigne’s fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette. Much as Alanis couldn’t get a break on American radio until she convinced a couple of Chili Peppers to thrash on her record, there’s no way Lavigne’s music would be selling as well if Lavigne came out wearing snug outfits and leading a choreography team.

Chalk up the image-manuipulating to the folks at Arista Records, who know a thing or two about selling pop post-Britney. The only pop act to make a successful transition this year has been Pink, who rode out the decline of teen pop by giving her mild booty-funk a guitar dress-up. Her fine-but-overrated second album, M!ssundaztood, was released by Arista, whose own chairman, Antonio “L.A.” Reid, is lampooned in the album’s best hit, “Don’t Let Me Get Me.” Pink sings: “L.A. told me/’You’ll be a big star/All you have to change/Is everything you are’/Tired of being compared/To damn Britney Spears/She’s so pretty/That just ain’t me.” Having struck gold with this attitudinal pop-rock once, Arista is mining similar territory with their other hit act of the year, Lavigne. Only this time L.A. and co. aren’t waiting for their artist to call them out in a hit song; they’re controlling her image makeover right from the start, making sure she doesn’t resemble “damn Britney Spears” in advance.

I’m not saying Lavigne, or Pink for that matter, doesn’t have a touch of self-determination or rebellion in her. Pink’s new sound may not be as revolutionary as she thinks it is, but I do believe it comes closer to matching her polyglot personality than her previous, smoothed-out sound did, and it probably did take some bravery for her to convince Arista to let her evolve. Lavigne, meanwhile, gets trashed by punk purists because she was raised singing contemporary Christian music; but her post-pubescent switch to guitar-based secular pop, some of it self-penned and purportedly featuring her own guitar-playing, actually makes her more punk to me. Even if the music she’s now playing is, again, not punk.

This is what makes me weary taking on the question of whether Lavigne is a punk. It just doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the public is smart enough to distinguish her packaging from her music. We all know we shouldn’t judge music by how it’s packaged – after all, the Beatles were introduced to the world in identical suits. But sometimes music that looks different actually also sounds different. The last time we rejected glitzed-out trash-pop for something else, the something else was Nirvana. I’m under no delusion that there’s a new Kurt Cobain out there waiting to save us now, but I find myself asking, as I watch Lavigne cavort through a food court in her videos: We’re rejecting Britney for this? “Complicated” and “Sk8r Boi” are charming pop songs, but strip out Lavigne’s caterwauling vocals and feisty pout, and they’re really no better than Britney’s or Backstreet’s best singles. It’s like Smithers on The Simpsons insisting he needs to buy the new Malibu Stacey doll because the same old doll now comes repackaged with a new hat.

That sound you just heard was the moan of Britney, who’s sitting at home, watching Avril Lavigne, whining, “You mean I didn’t need the stripper pole and the snake? All I needed was a necktie and a guitar?!”

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NEW FEATURE: ROTATIONS

It has been brought to my attention that, for a journal that’s supposed to be about music, this little blog of mine has contained more culture-ranting and industry-assessing than music-reviewing lately. There’s no excuse for that, given all the CDs I consume regularly, and so this week I commence a new feature that I hope to keep up every Monday or Tuesday: a shorthand assessment of the discs currently in my CD changer.

I have chosen this approach because it’s the closest approximation of the way I consume albums. Sure, I have an iPod and love it, but now that the initial infatuation has worn off, the little device has settled into its role as street-walking soundtrack and, most important, gym companion. Such short bursts of music listening don’t lend themselves to much serious assessment; whereas a disc that makes its way into my changer might live there for days, even weeks, insinuating itself into my daily homebound routines. So as pre-millennial as it may seem, the five-disc changer will be my writing framework.

[To answer the inevitable question: Yes, a five-disc changer; no, I don’t own one of those 40-disc or 200-disc jobbies. I am occasionally asked why I don’t, given my enormous collection and my obsessiveness. Well, duh: Which 200 discs out of nearly 2,000 would earn slots in the changer? How would I keep track of 200 empty jewel boxes while keeping them interfiled/alphabetized with the larger collection? How big of a pain would it be, every time I bought a new disc – at least once a week – to figure out which older disc deserved expulsion to make room for the new guy? Yeah, I’m a little anal. No mega-multi-changer for me; five slots are plenty.]

What’s even better about this approach is that it probably well approximates the way most of you – whoever you are, reading this – actually digest music yourselves: the weeks-long obsessions, the passing fancies, the old favorites. So without further ado, here’s my current rotation:

The Streets, Original Pirate Material

The Streets, Original Pirate MaterialI– Quite possibly the year’s only new artist with a name cheesier than Audioslave, the Streets is actually a (singular) Brit rapper, Mike Skinner, with a thick cockney accent. The British have always had a dysfunctional relationship with rap, admiring it as they do so many African-American art forms but utterly unable to reproduce it believably – unlike, say, R&B (cf. Stones) or the blues (cf. Clapton). There have been a few passable British rappers, but what’s winning the Streets so much acclaim is that, finally, a Brit rapper isn’t trying to sound American. He isn’t even trying to sound much like a rapper; like Craig David, whose major brakthrough last year disguised British dance sounds as American R&B, Skinner has taken garage, the U.K.’s omnipresent club music, and is trying to reimagine it as a kind of East End hip-hop. He has a flow, sort of, but it’s more the natterings of a weirdly compelling limey chatterbox. The album basically sounds like what would happen if Blur’s mid-’90s mega-Anglophile album Parklife was reinterpreted by a British producer who’d spent six months in Detroit. It’s best to think of this as an easy-listening, fairly current British dance album rather than a hard, “street” (name notwithstanding) rap album. On the former terms, I’m loving it. There’s a ballad, “It’s Too Late,” that’s nearly the equal of L.L. Cool J’s classic “I Need Love”; and a final track, “Stay Positive,” that lampoons that overused hip-hop phrase while somehow remaining sincere. Original Pirate Material hasn’t left my changer since I bought it a week ago.

Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet

Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet – This old (1969) album is in my changer because I just purchased the reissued, remastered CD a couple of months ago. It’s the one Stones album I lacked that I really should’ve owned all along. I also own Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and three hits collections. Chris’s Sacrilegious Stones Statement #1: The Stones are a far better singles act than they are an albums act. No shit. Stones albums, even the most exalted ones, are collections of songs that only feel like coherent albums because of the place where the band recorded, say, or the drugs they were taking at the time. This is why so many Stones albums are overrated – critics ascribe a sense of purpose to them that just wasn’t there (e.g., the fine-but-overpraised Exile; there’s my Sacrilegious Stones Statement #2). Beggars Banquet is rather exceptional because it almost accidentally captures a mood, one that Mick n’ Keef are probably too circumspect to articulate but which can be summed up as post-counterculture paranoia. I guess that’s what a couple of well-timed late ’60s drug busts will do for one’s art. The album opens with one of my two favorite Stones songs, “Sympathy for the Devil” (my other fave: “Brown Sugar”; what can I say, I like the offensive ones) and also includes the iconic “Street Fighting Man” and “Salt of the Earth,” given new life by the group just last year at the New York City 9/11 concert.

Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections

Cee-Lo, Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections – The best Outkast record of the year, since Outkast themselves decided to sit 2002 out, Cee-Lo’s epic (it’s well over an hour long) has an inspired lunacy only the Neptunes have tried to match this year. A protégé of Outkast’s Dre and Big Boi and a member of Atlanta’s Goodie Mob, Cee-Lo uses his Dirty South heritage to full advantage: the tracks have a charming sloppiness – you can taste the grits. There’s a merciful minimum of shout-outs – no tiresome guest shots by his hometown crew here – and a generous tunefulness that makes the record gradually addicting. This one didn’t really sink in when I first got it a couple of months ago, but a monthlong break and a return to the CD player just last week has given me a fuller appreciation of it. Along with Blackalicious’s Blazing Arrow, the most artistically successful straight-up hip-hop album of the year.

Badly Drawn Boy, Have You Fed the Fish

Badly Drawn Boy, Have You Fed the Fish? – A vast improvement over the treacly About a Boy soundtrack Damon Gough (BDB) released earlier this year, this second album proper is to the ’80s what his 2000 masterpiece, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, was to the ’70s. The earlier album was a melange of prepunk influences, a brilliant amalgam of Nick Drake’s polished folk and early-Springsteen centrist rock, with just a touch of Brian Eno around the edges. Conversely, Fish has the punchy melodicism of mid-period Elvis Costello , the flip-floppiness of British New Wave stars like Madness, with a touch of late-period Queen pomp; it eschews tenderness for eager-to-please magnum pop. If I sound underwhelmed, understand that I am still haunted by Gough’s uncanny gift for a tune; I have literally awakened in the middle of the night with some of Fish’s songs stuck in my head. The album proves addicting where its forerunner was more ingratiating, which I guess is an achievement in itself.

OST, Brown Sugar

Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Brown Sugar – I haven’t seen the movie, but I have always had a thing for Erykah Badu, and “Love of My Life (An Ode to Hip-Hop)” is easily her best single in years, better than anything on her laconic, meandering second album. The ’90s was a great decade for soundtracks that worked as albums outside of the movies they supported (Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, New Jack City), but it’s been a long time since I’ve found one as smart and well-compiled as this one – an elegant distillation of hip-hop-influenced modern R&B. The disc’s other highlight is a straight-up old-school classic, the Coldcut remix of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid in Full” (1986), the beat that launched a thousand dance tracks in the half-decade that followed. By the way, not to digress into industry talk again, but this is the first CD I’ve purchased that has copyright protection – the disc can’t be copied, ripped, or even played on a computer. The labels (this one is on MCA/Universal) obviously feel more comfortable experimenting with these infuriating technologies on multi-artist soundtracks, since there’s no one musician likely to bitch that the technology is hurting sales of their record. Anyway, the copy protection is a big reason why I’m leaving this CD in the ol’ stereo for now – much as I’m enjoying it, after it leaves the stereo it won’t be seeing repeat plays in any of my other music devices. What a shame.

One final note before I sign off: Yes, I am listing a sixth, and completely different CD under “Current Music”; this is something I am also listening to, currently in my DVD player. Consider it a preview of a possible future “rotation.” In the meantime, I welcome comments on the above five.

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FAUX JACKO, FAUX ELVIS(es)

Just a couple of small items to share today.

First, for those who haven’t heard, Michael Jackson emerged from his self-imposed exile this week to appear at a trial at which he is being sued for failure to appear at a pair of Millennium concerts. (Sigh – remember the Millennium? Such innocent times.) Anyway, click here for the full story, but only if you have a stomach strong enough for the accompanying photo, which captures the ever-morphing phenomenon that is Michael’s face. For a close-up view, as well as a more opinionated and, I must say, dead-on photo caption, check out what an African newspaper has to say.

I needn’t waste many more words on Michael Jackson than are generated by tabloids every day, but I just have to say that when I see things like this – self-mutilation that distracts people from what once made this guy a real talent – I get sad. Jackson hasn’t been musically relevant for about a decade and a half now, but at one time, even in the late ’80s–early ’90s, you could ignore the static and actually enjoy some of his music (underappreciated latter-day Jacko singles: “Leave Me Alone,” “The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Who Is It,” and the recently rediscovered “Smooth Criminal”; the Off the Wall, Thriller and Jackson 5 classics speak for themselves). Now, it’s impossible to extricate the desperate persona from his equally desperate creations. The fact that his last couple of albums sucked doesn’t help. All we do is shrug our shoulders and laugh in disbelief at this guy now, but 20 years ago – when he was still a black man and still part of the human genus – we referred to Michael Jackson as a talented musician.

Maybe Michael should form a new band and call it Deviated Septum? Y’know, embrace his look and all.

In other earth-shattering pop-culture news, I have an update on something I previously posted. I finally got a good explanation today, from Variety.com, as to the Elvis shortage we witnessed on our trip to Vegas last month (the site requires a subscription, but the story is short enough):

    Vegas Elvises get raise
    Faux Kings are stars of trade shows, events

    By BARBARA SCHERZER

    LAS VEGAS — Ersatz Elvises received a healthy raise this week. As part of a new agreement with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Board of Directors, stand-ins for the rock ‘n’ roll icon will get a salary bump from their current $350 to $650 per daily appearance. This is nearly double the amount that model showgirls are paid for similar four-hour gigs.

    Nonetheless, the talent agencies that book “meet and greet” Elvis impersonators for trade shows, marketing events and such feel they are getting a good deal. “We rely on Elvis impersonators to generate foot traffic into our booth and to generate excitement,” said board spokesman Terry Jicinsky.

    Date in print: Thurs., Nov. 14, 2002

Man, fake Elvises are unionized! Which, business-wise, makes them smarter than the actual Elvis. Unless, of course, their union boss goes by the name Colonel Tom.

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CD PREORDERS: BUY BUY BUY NOW NOW NOW!

Woo-hoo! Good news came in this afternoon from my editor Brian at Billboard – my longish feature on preordering music is going to run in the magazine this week (issue date: 23 November). “Very few edits,” Brian said. Sweet! This will be my fifth article published in Billboard – the only place I get to write about industry stuff, other than what I “publish” here.

This is an article I started working on about two months ago at Brian’s behest. Basically, the news is that music retailers are taking a page from the home video/DVD business and encouraging consumers to preorder albums before street date – and the labels are just starting to pay attention and plan their marketing accordingly. The big driver is the Internet, where all purchases are basically “pre-orders”; you’re ordering now, getting later. But because the Amazons and CDNows have gotten so good at directing web shoppers to specific artists/genres, they’re better equipped to tell fans when a new record’s coming out and get them to buy it early. Amazingly, brick-and-mortar retailers are having some success with preorders, too; the idea of a store running out of a big title on street date is pretty ridiculous in this day and age, but some Sam Goody’s have actually convinced consumers that it’s worth putting down a deposit on that Justin Timberlake CD now, to “reserve” their copy. (It’s fetishizing the purchase even more than the object being purchased.)

I only implied this in the story, but what’s most interesting to me about this mini-phenomenon (and it is “mini”: not even the e-tailers claim music preorder generates big sales yet) is that it’s the final step in making music more like the movies: front-loaded and release-date-driven. Before the launch of SoundScan on the charts in 1991, only rabid fans knew when a band’s CD was hitting stores, and only a handful of industryites knew what first-day sales were like. Albums would debut low-to-middling on the charts – even superstars would debut outside the top 10 – and then work their way up to a peak. Now, a blockbuster album is like a blockbuster movie: It starts at #1 and has nowhere to go but down. Flip on MTV’s TRL and every other day you’ll see the hosts and the guests hyping the date a new CD “drops” and all but imploring the kids to go get it on day one. I am still convinced that the epic 2.4 million copies ‘N Sync sold of No Strings Attached in a single week in March 2000 were attributable to kids who had been peer-pressured into remembering the album’s release date.

Sadly, Billboard posts only a fraction of its content online, and very few of its features. So I probably won’t be able to share the full article on publication. But I will happily offer scans or excerpts if anybody’s interested.

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B-RABBIT, ESCAPE AND THE CULT OF 1995

We saw 8 Mile on Friday night, and it basically lived up to our fairly high expectations. The movie has its flaws – Brittany Murphy’s phoned-in character being the biggest – but the movie is totally engrossing and, unlike most pop-star movies, rarely takes the easy way to victory or resolution. Mirroring the movie’s strong and surprisingly broad-based appeal, the group Emily and I assembled to see the flick numbered 10 people, each with varying degrees of hip-hop interest – from me and some of my music-obsessed friends, to a couple of people who couldn’t care less about Eminem. Everyone seemed to enjoy the film to some extent, which says a lot.

Backpedaling a bit on my previous 8 Mile post, I must say that the movie turned out to be a bit more like Saturday Night Fever than Purple Rain. The small-music-scene-emerges theme does carry over from Rain to 8 Mile, as does the troubled-family-produces-iconic-figure theme. But 8 Mile isn’t really about knowing you’re better than your hometown and walking the walk of a bespoke prince; like Fever, it’s about wishing to get out. Like Tony Manero in Fever – a film I know well, as it took place in the Brooklyn neighborhood in which I grew up – B-Rabbit (Em) sees his talent as the ticket out of his dead-end existence but doesn’t quite know how, or doesn’t have the guts, to utilize that talent and make his move. Just as Tony needs to be practically hit over the head with a 2-by-4 by his friends and family to realize how singular his dancing is, Rabbit is all but dragged bodily to battle-rap contests by his loving, half-cocked friends. (And like Tony, Rabbit spends much of the movie driving around in a wack-ass car with said friends.) What makes 8 Mile gripping is what made Fever captivating back in the day: the notion of music as escape, if only temporarily, with the promise of full flight to come.

One other, subtler theme in 8 Mile is the nostalgia for 1995 – yes, that particular year. It’s the year in which the movie takes place and one that’s become a strange source of wistfulness for rock fans lately. In Rolling Stone’s annual, cheesy “Hot Issue” this summer, Rob Sheffield half-jokingly (as it always is with Rob) coronated 1995 as the “Hot Year”; his writeup was accompanied by a picture of Alicia Silverstone in full Clueless garb and a quote from a song called “1995″ on Luna’s latest album: “In 1995/I told a thousand lies.” Rob wrote that 1995 was the year of “possibilities,” the moment when pop culture was poised between the waning days of alternative and the nascent return of pop, when even the strangest indie-like records were getting pushed by major record labels and Pulp Fiction was winning Oscars.

There’s not as much open fetishization of 1995 in 8 Mile, other than the title card, “Detroit: 1995,” that opens the movie. But you can sort of tell that, to the film’s creators and probably to Eminem himself, 1995 was pregnant with possibilities (”the moment,” as Em raps in the song “Lose Yourself”). Poised at the height of gangsta, with old-school rap well established, white crossover now more phenomenon than fad, and Tupac and Biggie still roaming the earth, 1995 must have been a fertile time to be an up-and-coming M.C.

Personally, I have never felt any particular allegiance to 1995 as an apotheosis year for pop culture. For me, 1991 has always been a greater, more pivotal, more catalytic year: “The Year Punk Broke,” as one documentary put it – or at least the year Nirvana broke; the last good year of ’80s-style pop (after the decade had lately spewed so much awful music); a fantastic year for album-length, “conscious” hip-hop; the year R.E.M. and U2 transformed themselves from ’80s artists to ’90s artists; in short, the year my generation finally wrested the Zeitgeist from the Baby Boom’s clutches. But when I think of the many ways Gen-X botched up the Zeitgeist while we were trying to improve it, I can see why 1995 looked so auspicious, and why it now looks so sad. It was just a year or two more before the gates came crashing down, before indie and rap morphed into Mook Rock and Ghetto Fabulous, before the content industries figured out how to co-opt everything again (Nirvana becomes Bush; Liz Phair becomes Jewel; Q-Tip becomes Mase; Reservoir Dogs becomes The Big Hit). Like so many times we’re nostalgiac for, it was the beginning of the end.

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COMING TO TERMS WITH MY PAST

I just finished spring cleaning – um…six months after I started. Naturally, it took the prospect of company to put the gun to my head; my college friend Claudia and her beau are staying with me this weekend. I still have pictures to frame and filing to do, but my apartment hasn’t looked this tidy in at least a year, maybe two.

The biggest task – I always underestimate how long this takes – is CD filing. For my birthday two months ago, my Dad, a hobbyist woodworker, gave me a homemade CD tower, the second one he’s built for me. The first, which we dubbed The Monolith (cf. 2001, A Space Odyssey), was given to me in 1994 and holds about 1,100 discs, front to back. Dad built it on wheels, but fully laden it’s a beast to move around. Wisely, Dad built the second Monolith to be modular – it can be separated into two halves; even the base with wheels comes off. The top half is in my closet for now, and I have already filled the bottom half with about 500 discs. That’s not counting the piles of not-fully-digested discs sitting atop the case, awaiting their turn in the CD changer.

Refiling the CD collection means a lot of sliding discs around and, in the process, coming to terms with my mania. To answer the High Fidelity question, “How does this record geek file his discs?”: I have them alphabetically by artist, with some quirks here and there (soundtracks and compilations are not separated but interfiled, by title). People often ask me if I sell off old CDs, and the answer is no, for a couple of reasons. One is practical – the stuff I’d want to sell is so old/marginal, the discs wouldn’t be wanted by even the least discriminating CD shop. But a bigger reason is that I view my collection as a kind of library. I started collecting CDs in 1986 – way before almost all of my friends, who were into tapes or even vinyl – and so it’s sort of a catalog of my evolving tastes: everything from the cheesy pop I liked as a 15-year-old to the more tasteful (sometimes more boring) stuff I like now.

But as I was sliding CDs around this week, I found myself wincing – a lot. Questioning myself: how seriously committed am I to this “library” concept, anyway? There are some useless, truly awful discs in my collection, and not even affection for my youth is enough to warrant all the crap I have on these shelves. It’s not so much that I regret once liking certain ’80s artists; it’s the fact that I felt the need to own an entire album by them…sometimes two or three. So, to show how little I care for my ego…

THE LAMEST CRAP IN MY CD COLLECTION

  • Journey, Raised on Radio – Journey is probably considered the über-cheese, ur-mullet-headed rock band of the ’80s. But I have no qualms about owning their Greatest Hits. It’s this squishy mid-period album of theirs that truly embarrasses me. Even a Journey fan probably doesn’t think much of Raised on Radio, which doesn’t contain any memorable hits. I think I own it because a kid in high school got an extra copy and sold it to me for five bucks. But that’s no excuse.
  • Huey Lewis and the News, Fore! and Small World – Again, it’s not just the fact that I own any CDs by this band, it’s the sheer volume of them. I own three. I am less sheepish about owning Sports; I still think “Heart and Soul” and “I Want a New Drug” are pretty good new-wave-rock songs. But I don’t know what I was looking for in the next two Huey CDs I bought. Shit, I don’t even think I liked them that much in the ’80s; talk about dangerous habits.
  • Glass Tiger, The Thin Red Line – Schlocky proto-boy band (sans choreography) from Canada. Canada! These guys make Bryan Adams sound edgy. I remember thinking back in 1987 that I was a smart consumer to wait for an album to generate at least three hit singles before I plunked down my hard-earned cash for it. So when Glass Tiger scored the requisite hat trick (”Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone),” “Someday,” “I Will Be There”), I dutifully bought the CD. I don’t think I’ve played it since 1987; I should probably stick the disc into my player just to make sure it hasn’t oxidized since then. Jeez, I kinda hope it has.
  • Various Artists, Toga Rock – Crappy compilations are now common on CD, but when I bought this 15 years ago they were kind of a novelty (K-Tel hadn’t moved into CDs yet). Actually, there’s nothing wrong with many of the songs here, in terms of general library-building: “Louie, Louie,” “Devil with a Blue Dress On,” “I Fought the Law,” “Mony, Mony.” It’s just so damned embarrassing that I own a CD with this title. And the cover “art” has to be seen to be believed.
  • Chumbawamba, Tubthumping – Just to prove that not all of my useless CDs were ’80s purchases, I offer this recent one-hit-wonder. But it’s not my fault! My uncle gave this to me for Christmas in 1997. I actually like “Tubthumper,” the song, burned-out though it is. (I am now partial to the Homer Simpson version: “I drink a whiskey drink!/I drink another drink!/And when I have to pee!/I use the kitchen sink!”) But I remembered thinking when it was saturating the airwaves that there was no way I was going to buy the whole damn album. And now, here it is, in my collection. It has huge lettering on its spine, as if it’s mocking me.
  • The Creatures, Boomerang – This is more typical of the deadwood in my collection; not actually embarrassing, just pointless. The Creatures were a one-off late-’80s project by a couple of members of Siouxsie and the Banshees. There was a lot of buzz around them at the time, but the album is pretty flimsy. To be fair, one-off spinoff bands don’t always suck: the Breeders were a little-remarked Pixies spinoff, until they outsold the Pixies. I think the Creatures actually released more albums,as if they were somehow going to become more interesting. As it is, I have no desire to play this CD ever again. I swear, I’m going to get rid of it…next time I refile my CDs. Whenever that is.

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NICE MP3 COLLECTION – BE A SHAME, SOMETHIN’ HAPPEN TO IT…

E-mail from my friend Jay, received yesterday:

Click the link above for the skinny – apparently Emusic is reneging on their unlimited-downloads contract with users because, simply put, heavy downloaders cost them money. My friend Jay has gotten one of the vaguely threatening e-mails from Emusic, implying that he’d better stop taking such full advantage of his $9.99-a-month subscription, or else.

Sheez, haven’t these guys heard of loss-leadering? The handful of unprofitable download freaks create buzz for the service and attract more casual users who only download a couple of dozen tracks a month. Net-net, Emusic profits. I didn’t go to business school or anything, but how hard is that?

This is such a shame, because Emusic was supposed to be among the good guys. Jay says he’s been enjoying the mostly indie-music service tremendously since he signed up just under a year ago. Emusic was a viable business long before the current goldrush by services like Listen.com’s Rhapsody to sign up major-label music for streaming, downloading and, now, burning. Although I never signed up myself, I always admired Emusic from afar for making a decent, viable business through the two recent mini-eras in music downloads: the Napster Era, and the year-old Straining Toward Legality era.

To be fair, it’s not Emusic’s fixed costs that they’re whining to heavy users about; it’s the industry-imposed royalties that have them worried about song-sucking enthusiasts. But that, too is a fixed cost Emusic should have priced in. Like the major labels and paranoid anti-download artists, the web music service is freaking about imagined losses, an all-download future that isn’t even here yet. Sure, we’re not losing net money yet, Emusic thinks, but what happens when everyone figures out how many downloads they can suck down? It would be like cable companies complaining that people were getting too much value by watching more than their alotted share of HBO. Never mind that most subscribers (me included) probably watch little of their pricey movie channels each month. Likewise, if any of the MP3 services ever goes mainstream, it will succeed by letting users have carte blanche – giving them the perception of value – and expecting that 80% of the users will download far less than their monthly fee covers in royalties. And if that fee doesn’t cover their costs, they’ll raise it two or three bucks, like a cable company or an ISP.

I was all set to take the plunge into one of the legal services soon; peer-to-peer has become too depressing to bother with (what a sucker I am – I’ve had my cable modem for less than a year; I did all of my heavy Napster downloading in 2000–01 on dial-up). Emusic nearly had me. But this news has soured me on them,at least for a while. With the good services starting to turn bad, and Listen, Pressplay and MusicNet still signing deals across the labels and hammering out download-and-burn policies, I’m feeling like sideline-sitting may still be the way to go until well into 2003.

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