Archive forDecember, 2002

JOLLY MUSIC – SILENT NIGHT

    The malls and the radio stations are finally letting up on the Christmas music. But I have no right to complain – after years of compiling holiday CDs, I should be immune by now.

I just gave out the last of my Christmas CDs over the weekend. I’m ready to not hear any holiday music for another year. Next year, I’ll have to hear a lot of it: I am planning – indeed, am under pressure to create – a third volume of Chris Molanphy’s Christmas Classics, my periodic collection of holiday tunes. People have been passing me song suggestions for the past month, so many that I think I’ll have enough tracks to full up Volume 3 and start in on Volume 4.

I respect anyone who doesn’t like Christmas music, if only because of its omnipresence each December. A day shopping at the mall during the holiday season is like being in a cocoon of Jolly-ness – a parallel universe in which “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is the biggest hit of all time, all songs include tinkling bells, and all end with a “Jingle Bells” coda. Chart statistics bear this out. The Billboard singles charts move very little in the month of December, because many radio stations have cut back their airplay of current hit material in favor of “White Christmas” or “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”; the Country and Adult Contemporary radio playlists become almost all-Christmas as the 25th approaches. As for CD sales, Billboard had to start a Christmas album chart some years ago to ensure that moldering holiday albums wouldn’t clog up the regular chart every year. Breaking out Christmas CDs on their own list prevents chart-watchers from contemplating the sad truth, that Mannheim Steamroller outsells the likes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen every year. It’s enough to make you swear off “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” for life, or at least the next decade.

Of course, I have no right to complain. I inflict this torture on myself each year. By handing out holiday music CDs, I guarantee myself a month of incessant Jolly Music. For the uninitiated, Christmas Classics is a series of compilations that, for more than a decade, I’ve been giving out to friends, family, coworkers and schoolmates (yes, it’s been that long). It was a little gift idea that blossomed into a full-blown project. It all started my freshman year at college, when I was strapped for cash and wanted a cheap gift to give to my roommates, my folks, my then-girlfriend. Using just two CDs and a dual cassette deck, I compiled a tape and duped about a dozen copies. The packaging was the coup: laser printers were a novelty in 1989, and so when I created a cover for the tape using red paper, smooth laser fonts and (eek) clip art, the result looked awfully polished for a self-made compilation. Each recipient’s name was on the spine of the tape, a personal touch that proved the tape was Chris-produced, not mass-produced.

That first dozen tapes was followed by about a hundred more copies over the next two Decembers, and in later years by Christmas Classics Volume 2 and Volume 3. The advent of cheap recordable CD in the late ’90s prompted me to switch media. “Anniversary” CD editions of Volumes 1 and 2 appeared in 1999 and 2001, respectively, complete with bonus tracks and full-color packaging.

I’m still catching up friends and family with CDs 1 and 2, handing out discs to people I missed over the last three years. There was no point in compiling the “Anniversary Edition” of Volume 3 – not yet, anyway. My Mom’s large family still hadn’t received Volume 2, and so making about two dozen copies for them was enough project for this year. Emily was pretty relieved that I chose not to do a new CD this year. Last year it all but consumed me, rounding up song suggestions, making copies, and – worst of all – assembling the jewel boxes. (It will surprise no one that the heaviest workload in making these CDs is the packaging, not the running off of the discs themselves.) In short, I become rather un-Christmasy when making a new Christmas disc. Last year was especially tough, as Emily and I took a quick trip in the middle of December, and so I came back extra-frantic. Not interested in encouraging Emily to dump my Grinchy ass, I decided to take a break this year.

As good as this is for my lovelife, it does disappoint certain friends, who have come to expect regular holiday music installments. I’m always surprised at how much people enjoy these collections, given the ubiquity of Christmas music every December. Maybe they’re doing all of their shopping online and don’t go to the mall or listen to the radio. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve distilled the Jolly Music genre for them, weeding out all of the excruciating songs and leaving the good, or at least tolerable, stuff. (Well, I have been berated for including “The Chipmunk Song.”) Maybe they really don’t get as sick of these ditties as I do.

Yes, I do weary of these songs. And yet, to a certain segment of the population – well, my few hundred acquaintances – I have become Mr. Christmas. I suppose there are worse things to be. For now, the Phil Spector and Vince Guaraldi CDs have gone back on my shelf, not to return for another 11 months. Eleven months that will allow me to forget – just enough to start my elvish assembly line up again.

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WHITE MAN IN ST. PETER’S PALAIS

    Dead at 50, Joe Strummer should be remembered not as a punk, but as the man who brought the world to punk. Eternally besotted by rock, he created music with the Clash that included more than it excluded. There was nothing cynical about him.

The sad news of Joe Strummer’s death on Monday offers further evidence that punk rock is a vocation with a short lifespan. Either that, or getting inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is lethal: like Joey and Dee Dee Ramone, who, respectively, died mere weeks before and mere months after being recognized by the Hall, Strummer’s Clash were weeks away from receiving their coronation before rock’s old guard. Apparently that whole punk ethos against the canonization and stultification of rock wasn’t just a pose.

What’s especially ironic about Strummer’s passing is that he, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon were slated to reunite at the Rock Hall fete, their first time performing as the Clash since 1983 or so. It’s only heartbreaking because Strummer and Jones brought out the best in each other, and it would’ve been a gas to see the aging punks try to bring their jagged classics to life before a tuxedoed crowd. Anyone who appreciates an ironic moment would have enjoyed it no end – punk true-believers formally acknowledging their ties to the establishment. Strummer’s premature exit is probably an even better statement, if an unfortunate one.

Strummer was 50 at his death, and as tragically young as that seems, do the math: This means he was already halfway through his 20s when the Clash released their seminal debut in 1977, pushing 30 when they released London Calling. Now that punk and its offshoots have largely become a teenager’s game, the 20something Clash of the late ’70s seem like wizened geezers in retrospect. But then Strummer was always – belying his punk identity – something of a classicist, a lover of rock’s sprawling, unruly history, a music polymath determined to make relevant a passel of underappreciated or dismissed styles (reggae, dub, rockabilly, rare blues). He didn’t want to destroy the past so much as refine it to a diamond-hard essence; he wanted “phony Beatlemania” to bite the dust, not the Beatles.

Mick Jones was always a sort of McCartney to Strummer’s Lennon – the more overtly tuneful one, the singer of the group’s easier pop songs (”Train in Vain,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go”) and the one who went on after the group’s demise to greater success (Big Audio Dynamite). In the Clash, it was Strummer who sang the iconic punk anthems, the “London Calling”s and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”s while Jones’s quirky-sweet croon surveyed the catchy “Lost in the Supermarket.” But it would be wrong, on Strummer’s passing, to confer martyr-to-punk status on him – Strummer was no cynic, and it was he who sang the group’s biggest hit, “Rock the Casbah” – or to pretend his instincts were always the better ones; it was Strummer (and Simonon) who booted Jones out of the Clash and sullied the group’s name with the infamous final LP Cut the Crap. It would also be a stretch to say that Strummer’s post-Clash life has been underrated. Indeed, it’s been rated just about right, his work with the worldbeat-tinged Mescaleros keeping him on the road and following his muse, to middling critical and commercial success. One takes solace in the knowledge that Strummer died actively touring, actively creating, actively rocking, not flogging Clash classics or rueful for what could have been.

That he succeeded musically, helped to create some coherent albums and mattered to a huge audience on both sides of the Atlantic speaks to the magnitude of his achievement, against what should have been sizeable odds. Listening to the Clash’s twin masterpieces, The Clash and London Calling, Strummer earns credit for the music’s bite but also its sprawl, its effortless reimagining of a quarter-century of rock as leading up to the punk moment. To Strummer, punk was an ethos only insofar as it restored rock’s vitality and made the music egalitarian enough to embrace the rock spirit wherever it existed. Though the Clash were slagged as faux idealists, their only idealism was musical, not political. Rock could change the world by being a better version of itself. From “White Man in Hammersmith Palais”: “Ken Boothe for U.K. pop reggae/With backing bands’ sound systems/And if they’ve got anything to say/There’s many black ears here to listen.”

My favorite Joe Strummer memory is an interview segment in the 1995 PBS documentary Rock & Roll: An Unruly History, in which Strummer waxed passionately about his love for rock’s mid-’50s pioneers. I don’t have this series on tape or anything, and I’m quoting from memory, but Strummer’s commemoration of Little Richard is hard to forget: “I think back to Little Richard, growing up poor and black in Macon, Georgia [the way Stummer pronounces “Mah-con,” bitingly cockney, is priceless], thinking, ‘I’m going to be a star’…I love that music.” Strummer has the glint of childlike wonder in his eyes, recalling music that fired him up as a tot and imagining an American life that, to a Turkish expatriate and diplomat’s son, must have made poverty seem so poetic. There’s nothing remotely patronizing about Strummer’s image of Little Richard, no fetishization of Richard Penniman’s blackness or otherness; Strummer is recounting the moment he realized he had a soulmate living halfway around the world, a spiritual big brother who would set him on a path to follow for the rest of his life.

That Little Richard outlived him is strangely appropriate. Joe Strummer was not meant to be an institution, he was meant to be a exceptionally talented appreciator, one of the best rock has ever produced. The most punk thing he ever did was not following the script, by neither burning out nor fading away. He didn’t bring punk to the world, he brought the world to punk, and that’s not a shabby legacy.

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HEY, PAUL – DON’T MAKE IT BAD

    True, all Paul McCartney is doing is reversing two words – he’s not bumping John Lennon’s name off his songs entirely. But it’s a stupid move, made by a man more worried about his stature than his soul. Rather than burnishing Paul’s legacy, his fight for credit is tarnishing it.

Beatle-related news travels fast, and this month’s is no exception. Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono are engaged in some sword-rattling over a sly move Paul made in the songwriting credits of his new live album: reversing the storied Lennon-McCartney songwriting credit to read “McCartney-Lennon.” It’s a tag Paul has sought for years on the songs he primarily wrote, and Yoko, keeper of John’s legacy, has turned him down before (around the time of the 1995 Anthology series). Lawyers have been contacted, and while Ono hasn’t gone to court yet, the press has picked up on the first serious intra-Beatle scuffle since they settled two decades’ worth of lawsuits in the early ’90s. Billboard has a good summary article up here.

One of the most famous songwriting duopolies of the last century – only Rodgers & Hammerstein, Loerner & Loewe and Lieber-Stoller rival it – “Lennon-McCartney” has become so revered that rearranging it would be like referring to the South’s border as the Dixon-Mason. At least that flip-flop would make some sense; Lennon-McCartney is already alphabetical! But it’s that very familiarity, the unimpeachability of the brand, that McCartney is fighting. As a songwriter, he doesn’t want to go to his grave in second place.

To be fair to Paul, this may really not be about money (although in a widely quoted interview, he does gripe that Yoko made more from “Yesterday” than he did). It’s also not an across-the-board assault on Lennon’s legacy; McCartney just wants it known that “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be” were primarily his compositions, with minimal input from John. Paul is not even proposing to remove Lennon’s name from “Yesterday,” despite the fact that John contributed nothing to the song and not a single Beatle besides McCartney was in the studio for its recording. You could say Paul’s being generous in a case like that, and anyway, what’s the harm in a little name reversal?

Of course, this sharing-credit approach cuts both ways: McCartney had nothing to do with “A Hard Day’s Night,” little to do with “Help!” and nothing to do with “All You Need Is Love” or “Revolution” or “Come Together.” Lennon, too, has had to share his legacy with his prolific songwriting peer – a man whom Lennon wanted little to do with after the Beatles broke up. Indeed, it’s during the ’70s through 1980, in an array of interviews, that Lennon was most specific about who really wrote what. An exhaustive 1980 Playboy interview, the last major Q&A before his assassination, found John detailing almost song-by-song his contributions relative to Paul’s. Given the bitterness of that decade’s lawsuits and recriminations, Lennon could be expected to spew raw bile about McCartney’s abilities (especially at a time when Paul’s Wings work was insufferably sappy). But the Playboy interview, along with a handful of earlier ’70s interviews, find Lennon straightforward and fairly honest about his and McCartney’s respective contributions; famously, he lavished unstinting praise on Paul for 1968’s “Hey Jude,” a song Paul wrote about John’s divorce and which John loves anyway (”I made no contribution to that”).

The reason I am well-versed in this songwriting minutiae is thanks to a book called Beatlesongs by one William Dowlding. Beatles books are a dime a dozen, but I have held onto this one since 1989 because it attempts something no other book has: quantifying who wrote what. Dowlding’s method is insanely unscientific, based around studio logs, anecdotes and the Lennon interviews. But he has a system – each song is assigned a point. Actual Lennon-McCartney nose-to-nose compositions break down to a half-point for each man; songs where one or the other contributed “the middle eight” (a common occurrence – for example, Lennon added the “Life is very short…” bridge to McCartney’s “We Can Work It Out”; McCartney added “Woke up, fell out of bed…” to Lennon’s “A Day in the Life”) break down at .8/.2 or .7/.3; and a song that is well-established as belonging to just one of them gives the respective man the full point.

The result? Though McCartney wrote a greater share of the Beatles’ big hits, over the life of the group, Lennon’s songwriting index comfortably beats Paul’s. Dowlding attributes this in part to Lennon’s loquaciousness on the topic in interviews and willingness to take credit (imagine – Paul was once the more modest of the two of them). But even factoring that in, there are periods where Lennon is all but carrying the Beatles: literally 70-80 percent of the A Hard Day’s Night soundtrack was penned by Lennon. It is fair to say that in the group’s early days, Lennon was not just the more forceful personality but the more prolific writer. Crudely put, had it not been for John, Paul might never have had a forum for “Yesterday” in 1965.

Paul is in good company among embittered songwriters: Paul Simon has been griping for decades about “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” saying people forget that it’s 100 percent his song only because he let his high-pitched partner Art Garfunkel sing it. But as with Simon, it’s mystifying that McCartney thinks he needs any further credit or adulation. The truth is, like Simon, McCartney is fighting a lifelong insecurity, masked by his enormous commercial and artistic success. He feels he will always be in the shadow of John, slain martyr, cool frontman, artiste. He doesn’t mind his legacy being primarily about the Beatles; he minds it being “Lennon-McCartney.” But the name-flip-flop maneuver accomplishes nothing. The same people who are dumb enough to think “Bridge” is “that Garfunkel song” aren’t going to start calling “Back in the U.S.S.R” “that McCartney song” because of the fine print on the back of a live CD. On the other hand, the people who care deeply about the Beatles’ legacy and the Lennon-McCartney imprimatur will be – already are – offended that Paul has placed his grousings above the songwriting duo’s legacy.

Ono is right to be angry, and while any Beatle fan shudders at the thought of reopened lawsuits, she should be fighting back. It’s not just a case of telling Paul to let sleeping dogs lie, although that alone is a good reason. Stopping Paul’s move means preventing his revisionist tendencies, his need to tell the world that he was an artiste, too. None of the solo Beatles, John included, ever equaled their accomplishments within the group, because they were never that challenged by their collaborators again. “Lennon-McCartney” stands for this parity of talent, between two songwriting titans, each of whom would never be better than when the other was egging him on. Better to let the alphabet, and a brand name known globally, determine the order of names, than a man belatedly dubbing himself first among equals.

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THE COLD DECEMBER RAIN

    Mysteriously, but perhaps inevitably, the Guns n’ Roses tour is no more – and not a moment too soon. It’s high time Axl Rose scrapped Chinese Democracy, killed off the Axl & Friends revue he’s been calling GnR, and moved on like the last 10 years never happened.

It’s official – Guns n’ Roses have canceled their tour. This followed a riot at one of the tour’s last stops. Ah, now this is the band I remember.

About 12 years ago, when I used to fantasize about someday being an MTV music newscaster (go ahead, you can laugh now), I’d picture myself reading a report about another riot or cancellation at a GnR tour stop. That’s because that’s all Kurt Loder used to report – GnR no-shows, and resulting fan riots, were what passed for epochal music news in the early ’90s. When rock fans talk about missing Guns n’ Roses because they miss that “bad-boy rock n’ roll flavor,” I think they’re talking about missing all the riots.

(An aside: How are Guns still able to so easily mount a tour after their notoriously unprofessional, crowd-inciting behavior a decade ago, while even the most innocuous rap stars have trouble booking concerts? Makes you think.)

The bad boy with all the flavor is, clearly, still Axl. What I mean is, while we haven’t been told why this latest tour has been canceled, I think it’s safe to say that it’s something Axl-related. Back in the day, Axl used to insinuate that his bandmates were causing problems or taking too many drugs, one night staging an impromptu onstage intervention (”Too many people in this band have been dancing with Mr. Brownstone”). But with all the old bandmates gone – the new GnR may as well be a well-financed cover band – there’s no one left to point fingers at other than Axl. I use the same deductive logic that helped me finally determine that Eddie and Alex Van Halen must actually be bigger assholes than David Lee Roth, since they seem to be the ones who keep repelling bandmates, not the other way around. I mean, do you really think Buckethead is causing enough problems to get a multimillion-dollar tour canceled?

I nearly got to see the motley GnR lineup a couple of weeks ago at what turned out to be their last show, at Madison Square Garden. A couple of fairly choice seats were offered to me, at $80 a pop. In the end, I passed, mainly because I couldn’t find anyone with the night clear on his schedule who’d also be willing to shell out that much for Axl’s All-Star Revue. I must also confess that I have never been a full-blown GnR believer. Appetite for Destruction is pretty terrific, the singles are amazing, and “Sweet Child” contains one of the two best metal guitar solos ever (the other being Eddie V.H. on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” – discuss); but without Slash, I feel like the funk has been permanently eradicated from Guns’ nickel-plated sound. The new band’s sloppy, groove-less performance at the end of the MTV Awards – loudly adored that night by GnR true-believers Loder and Jimmy Fallon – probably satisfied my Guns jones for the year, maybe the decade.

With Chinese Democracy, the GnR comeback album, no closer to being released, and this tour now a shambles, I would humbly suggest to Axl that he disband this lineup, toss the album in the can, and hit reset. Thanks to the handful of live appearances, we’ve already heard what are probably the standout songs from Democracy – “Madagascar,” “Oh My God” – and they pretty much suck. The true believers are too loyal to admit it, but what they want back is the old lineup, or at least most of it, not the amalgam of studio musicians, touring guitarists and rotating producers that has represented GnR for the last half-decade; they want Guns, not Axl & friends. Imagine – a reunited GnR, the “Appetite for Reconstruction” tour; now that would be worth a dance with Mr. Brownstone.

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ROTATIONS: THAT’S THEIR SOUND, AND THEY’RE STICKING TO IT

    This week on the CD carousel: Neko Case is all gothic and Lynch-y; OK Go party like it’s 1979; Sparta make me wistful for what can never be; Interpol are 24-hour Joy Division people; and Iron & Wine get me all sleepy.

One thing I appreciate about this weekly record-reviewing exercise is sorting through possible picks for my top albums of ’02 list. It so happens that there are a couple of candidates in the CD changer this week.

Oddly, all of this week’s discs are by artists with stylistic obsessions, a sound they’ve latched onto and are shining up to perfection – or beating into the ground. It helps that all of these are recent releases (last six–nine months); if there’s one thing modern musicians seem to fear, it’s versatility, wandering too far afield from a chosen idiom. That said, this week’s “Rotations” showcases several artists who do their niche proud.

Neko Case, Blacklisted

Neko Case, Blacklisted – This gothic-Americana girl is at the same juncture where Ryan Adams, pop-Americana boy, found himself a year ago. Having released a widely praised but low-selling album (Heartbreaker), Adams came into his next album (Gold) amped to carry the country-rock genre into prime time. Similarly, Neko Case follows her furiously loved Furnace Room Lullaby (2000) with this latest high-lonesome opus, and the hype has kicked in again. The difference is, Case’s fans don’t seem as let down by her this year as Adams’s fans were by him last year. Her third album, Blacklisted, which won’t be going gold anytime soon, is a superb record that neither surpasses nor falls off from its predecessor. A model of consistency, Case treats her albums like chapters of a Faulknerian novel, down to the cover art – each spooky photo looks like a still frame from the Coen brothers’ nonexistent followup to Blood Simple. Case’s echoey recordings are absurdly trebly; but her cathedral-like production provides a bottom – indeed, a bottomlessness – deeper than any twang. Her fire-and-brimstone songs are about broken hearts, broken promises, broken souls. Case seems to find her inspiration – like no one since the mid-’80s debut of Chris Isaak – at the crossroads where mad lovers and murder ballads meet. It seems laughable now that he’s become a quippy Showtime goofball, but when Isaak started out he was a true original, at least against the megapop landscape into which he fell – a deceptively handsome, dark-heart-of-the-heartland crooner whose aching ballads reimagined America as an eternal David Lynch movie. (That explains why Lynch kept returning to his music, and eventually to Isaak himself.) Case picks up where Isaak left off. It would be tempting to call her the feminine Isaak, but her tough, brittle approach is, if not genderless, not self-consciously “womanly,” either – yet it’s still awfully sexy.

OK Go

OK Go, OK Go– “Mediocre people do exceptional things all the time,” one song proclaims. Sometimes, mediocre bands do, too. Not quite exceptional, OK Go is gobs more fun than a tossed-off power-pop record has a right to be. I’d avoided buying this for weeks, put off by the emerging buzz and suspicious by – I admit it – the song titles (“You’re So Damn Hot,” “C-C-C-Cinnamon Lips,” “Get Over It”). A couple of friends nudged me into giving it a chance – its low price helped – and I have been jamming to it ever since. Shiny and untroubled, OK Go are probably the least tormented or ironic band to come out of Chicago in the last decade. Suffused with old-school synths and marching guitars, OK Go wants to be new wave the way it was at the turn of the ’80s, after the darkness of postpunk had splintered off but before MTV and the New Romantics made new wave slick and glamorous. In short, they want to be the Cars. As if the comparison couldn’t be any more obvious (check the album cover), the band has titled one song “Let’s Go,” an implicit homage to one of Ric Ocasek’s greatest works; but OK Go aren’t terribly interested in the Cars’ dystopian chilliness, or even the sentimental geek-thrash of post–Promise Ring emo bands. This is bright music, peppy, unapologetic, and its exuberance is contagious. OK Go clocks in at 40 minutes, but it probably would have been truer to itself if the album were less than a half-hour.

Sparta, Wiretap Scars

Sparta, Wiretap Scars – I’ve been enjoying this album, but all it does is make me sorry At the Drive-In couldn’t stick it out. Formed from the ashes of that much-praised aggro-punk band, Sparta maintain the volume and unflagging energy but not the gritty anger that gave ATDI the power to take over the world. I pulled this off the shelf last week after catching Sparta on a Conan O’Brian rerun, where they proved furious live. About as heavy as a current rock band can get without being metal, Sparta proffer an uncompromising hardcore rock that’s less political than ATDI’s raging polemics but no less confrontational. I’m trying to put my finger on what’s missing, what makes me enjoy Wiretap Scars without loving it, and I think it’s subtlety – for all their rage, ATDI excelled in surprising tempo shifts and sneaky hooks. Sparta are all energy, all burn. It’s completely unfair to expect half a band to equal the greatness of the full one – Wilco only became a great band when their sound finally wandered away from Uncle Tupelo’s. But the abrupt interruption of Sparta’s forbears leaves one demanding a continuation, and Wiretap Scars’ near-similarity to the old band’s sound unfortunately invites such scrutiny.

Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights

Interpol, Turn on the Bright Lights – Inasmuch as New York City has been the locus of the garage-rock boomlet, its native bands have hardly been monolithic in their chosen idioms. Take Interpol. Totally ignoring the obsession with all things CBGB over the past two years, these New Yorkers kick off their own revival, of the post-punk/pre-goth sound of Joy Division (and in the process, they end up more CBGB than the Strokes, since all the original CBGB bands wanted to be British, anyway). This devotion has earned Interpol their share of criticism, and surely, the hallmarks of the great Joy Division are here: the droning vocals, the new wave crispness, the reverberating atmospherics. About the only thing Interpol eschews are Joy Division’s synths, but their bubbling guitar-and-bass sound offers a fine substitute. What makes Interpol more than mimics or nostalgists is their density, their willingness to be un-punk if a song calls for thicker sonic textures or more intricate time signatures. At the other extreme, some of Interpol’s most compelling songs are their simplest, like the bashing pop-rocker “Say Hello to the Angels.” True to the album’s title, this is not music that’s going to inspire anyone to off herself, or even to don black nailpolish; for all its moodiness, it offers straightforward get-off pleasures that are a respite from Joy Division’s glorious, but monolithic, chilliness. Anyway, the Joy Division catalog only consists of a couple of actual studio albums and assorted effluvia before lead singer Ian Curtis hanged himself; the prospect of a band reproducing their best qualities but actually surviving the next decade is to be celebrated, not mocked.

Iron & Wine, Creek Drank the Cradle

Iron & Wine, The Creek Drank the Cradle – This weekend I gave my friends Mike and Debbie a compilation I made called SleepyBen; its dual mission was to keep their toddler dozing in his crib while engaging and mentally stimulating the beleaguered parents (more specifically, keeping them from having to pull out the fucking Paul Simon CDs again). I’m not sure if I succeeded – it was one of the tougher projects I’ve taken on, collecting songs with a near-absence of prominent drums that weren’t uniformly dull or depressing. Looking back on it now, though, I’m thinking maybe I should have just given them a copy of this Iron & Wine album. Never rising above a whisper, The Creek Drank the Cradle sounds like a warm down comforter – not the new one you purchased from LL Bean, but the graying blanket you sink into when you want to shut out the world. Surprising, since the one-man Iron & Wine, a nom de four-track for a guy named Samuel Beam, comes from Miami, Fla., where I suspect they have little use for graying blankets. Floridians don’t have much use for low-fi acoustic bedroom confessionals, either, but that’s what Beam does. Like a Palace record recorded by Elliott Smith, Beam’s all-acoustic, banjo-inflected album – actually a compilation of two self-recorded records, pared down and recompiled by Sub Pop Records – is generous with melodies and emotiveness, if not emotion; you can tell Beam is baring his heart, but the whispery vocals belie the confessional approach. Arguably, I&W’s sound is too maddeningly consistent (as one fellow listserv critic put it, “It’s real purty sounding and all, but sometimes I wish the guy would get a lung full of air and belt one out instead of all that breathy stuff”). But I say the stylistic uniformity – think of it, originally this was two separate records! – is actually fairly bold. I have no idea how Beam plans to make a career out of such constancy, but I don’t think he knows either, or cares, which gives Iron & Wine a kind of admirable purity.

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KEEP YOUR FEET ON THE GROUND…

    Terminally embarrassing and, this year, intermittently bizarre, the Billboard Music Awards give Fox a ratings boost and give Jam Master Jay a surprisingly touching sendoff.

I was going to post something totally snarky about tonight’s Billboard Music Awards, but then they had to go and do something genuinely good at the end of it.

That touching moment was preceded by at least 90 minutes of schlock, however. Short of the Blockbuster awards, no statuette program is more low-rent than Billboard’s. I mean, it’s on Fox! I do watch the show every year, not only because I write periodically for the magazine, but because as a chart junkie, I actually have some respect for the science behind Billboard’s prizes. Based entirely on sales and airplay data, their awards are as close to unsullied-by-human-hands honoraria as you can get.

The thing is, this all-data system means no one actually needs to kiss Billboard’s ass to win one of its prizes. So why should anyone show up at the Billboard Music Awards? For certain big-hit, big-fizzle artists – this year’s act with a string of radio hits but not even enough respect to win a Grammy – the Billboard show may be the biggest night of their year, maybe their career. Just ask Nickelback.

The Billboard awards also allow certain passé artists to be treated like royalty. Cher, for instance, picked up a fairly inexplicable Artist Achievement award, in a year when she released a poor-selling album (no, not Believe, the followup to Believe). Apparently, Billboard’s many gay staffers just wanted to give her an award for being Cher. Not even bothering to show up to pick up her pointless award was Annie Lennox, winner of this year’s Timmy. Actually, it’s called the Century Award, but industry people have been mocking it ever since its creation by Billboard editor-in-chief Timothy White. Timmy wanted to reward the middle-of-the-road acts that he favored – like Lennox, a lovely but increasingly dull performer who hasn’t released an album of her own material in a decade. She was the last recipient White selected before his untimely death last summer; one hopes that the award follows him to his grave.

But no award was more pointless, and no one needed it more badly, than the special prize bestowed on Michael Jackson. According to Billboard, the manchild baby-dangler was recognized for “his 1982 Epic album Thriller, which spent more weeks at No. 1 (37 weeks) than any other album in the history of The Billboard 200.” Wow, a two-decade anniversary for an album that’s already won scads of accolades. I wonder if there’ll be a similar award next year for Wham!’s Make It Big. Andrew Ridgley, call your agent.

The Jacko “event” was more carefully buffered than a Diane Sawyer interview, with Michael appearing “live from his Neverland ranch!” alongside the only celebrity still willing to be seen with him, Chris Tucker. Why do awards shows keep taking pity on this guy? Didn’t the Billboard planners watch the MTV awards, where Michael begged the channel to acknowledge his birthday and then invented an award for himself live on the air? Michael didn’t concoct anything this time, but he did squeeze as much airtime as he could; after his acceptance speech went off reasonably smoothly, Fox went to commercial, returned to host Cedric the Entertainer, and then actually went back to Michael live so Cedric could talk to him some more about nothing. Personally, I try to limit myself to one slow-motion car-crash per night.

Just as the show had reached this schlock apex, it actually achieved something grand, as Chuck D. of Public Enemy came out to introduce a tribute to the late Jam Master Jay of Run-DMC. This all-star medley of Run-DMC hits was no better than any such performance you’ve seen on an awards show: over-populated, under-rehearsed, well-intentioned but stiffly executed. Yet, amazingly, the performance paid fitting tribute to Jay anyway – accidentally, unwittingly: All the performers, from MC’s Ja Rule and Nelly to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry, were forced by the overpowering beat to go completely old-school. It was a tribute to Jay’s thumping, stripped-down rhythms that no one, from the most modern tongue-tripping rapper to the most funked-out rocker, was able to bust loose. Run-DMC’s music wasn’t about loose, it was about form and power, and Jay’s thundering grooves left little room for stylistic wandering. All clad in black track suits and unlaced Adidas, the guest rappers were more hemmed in by Jay’s beats than they were by his clothes. It was a strange sort of sweet revenge for the old school.

Looking vindicated, Chuck D capped it off by introducing Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Terry Mizell, Jay’s widow. Each offered short speeches unstinting in grace and dignity – no empty hosannas to the Almighty or the label or the lawyers, just a heartfelt thank-you to the fans and hip-hoppers who were themselves grateful for Run-DMC’s pioneering work. I’ve rarely seen such genuine humility on an awards show, and I actually found myself choked up as McDaniels tried hard not to cry on the air.

It should have ended there. It didn’t – they gave out a couple of last awards – which was a shame, because the best, most old-school way to end would’ve been to invite back Casey Kasem, longtime counter-down of the Billboard Top 40. After a nice moment like the Jam Master Jay tribute, I wouldn’t have found it too cheesy to hear Casey say goodnight, “…and keep reaching for the stars.”

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FLIPPING, OLDSTER SELF-PITY

    As a Gen-Xer, I have a talent for feeling sorry for myself in almost any context – even reading glib entertainment magazines or watching late-night talk shows.

Flipping through Entertainment Weekly’s cover story on video games, which includes a timeline of major gaming events from the last 30 years: Sheez, what is this four-year gap in the timeline from 1985 to 1989? It’s like they’re saying, “Nintendo invented NES…nothing happens…Nintendo invents Gameboy.” And those years, ‘85 to ‘89…why do they sound familiar? Damn, that’s when I was in high school!

See, this is why video games are the only form of pop culture in which I am behind the times. I mean, my interest just stops dead around Q*Bert and Gauntlet. The very years I should have been falling more deeply in love with games, the years of algebra and acne, the whole industry implodes. (I know Nintendo sold like crazy, but not for at least two years after its launch.)

When I look back on the early ’80s, my late grade-school/junior-high years, I’m nostalgiac for two things: video games and new wave top 40 music. So why did one obsession follow me into adulthood and the other one didn’t? I’ve been kicking myself for a decade for not becoming a convert to Mario, Myst, Sonic and Lara Croft. Now maybe I understand why.

Flipping around the dial two nights ago, around 12:25 a.m.: Hmm…the late-night shows are almost over, time for the music slot. Who’s on Letterman? Ah, John Mayer. Doing that new hit. More perky semi-acoustic crap with a band. This guy had better watch out before he becomes Dave Matthews II. [Watches for a bit.] Meh, the first single was better. Let’s see who’s on Leno. [Flip, flip.] Shit – you’ve gotta be kidding me…John Mayer?! [Flips back to Letterman.] “Folks, John Mayer! We’ll be right back!” [Flips back to Leno – Mayer still performing “Your Body Is a Wonderland,” the same song, this time solo acoustic.] Goddamn! Is this boy on TV enough?! Which one of these is a rerun? Or did his handlers book him for both shows on the same night?!

I gotta look at the charts next week, see if Mayer’s album gets a big bump after this double-shot of tube exposure. I bet it sells better off of this appearance than from months of radio airplay of the single. Maybe the music business is devolving into two tiers: the MTV-friendly and the Leno-friendly. And the people who don’t appear on TV at all, they can forget it.

When I was a kid, MTV played music all day, and I didn’t have cable. Then I got cable, but the music sucked – all that late ’80s spandex metal. Now that I’m old enough to like a wide variety of music, MTV doesn’t play music at all, and to see music on TV, I gotta watch late night chat shows – which are booking the same damned act the same friggin’ night.

See, I keep missing out. No wonder we Gen-Xers are such self-pitying bastards.

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LET THE PLAUDITS BEGIN

    The Strokes? The White Stripes? Weren’t those last year’s bands? SPIN kicks off the music awards season with some chickenshit band and album picks – but they may accidentally be on to something.

SPIN put out its “Year in Music” issue this week, unofficially kicking off the season of critics’ lists and awards. Billboard televises its year-end awards later this week, and the Grammy nominees will probably be announced just after Christmas.

As in Hollywood, where awards season kicks off in early December and ends four long months later with the Oscars, music award-giving is a drawn-out affair. And as with movies, critics’ lists provide a somewhat more respectable alternative to the politicking and retrograde tastes of the awards shows. About the only difference between movies and music is that there’s far more agreeement in the film world – some years, one film will sweep most of the critics’ awards and the Oscars. Meanwhile, I can’t think of a year in which an album topped the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critics’ poll and simultaneously won the Grammy.

SPIN’s awards schedule is quite aggressive. This year-end issue, dated for January, has likely been in the works since early October. For years, Rolling Stone has done a fluffy year-end issue with no critics’ lists; this year, they offer an even flimsier holiday issue called “People of the Year.” RS won’t be anointing any artists, albums or singles until January–Feburary, after their readers’ poll has been tallied. But SPIN plunged ahead with their lists in time for Hanukkah, meaning that the magazine’s editorial staff had to assess the year’s recordings with a full quarter of the year yet to come. This may explain the somewhat bizarre results.

The SPIN lists are led by the Strokes, Band of the Year, and the White Stripes, winners of Album of the Year. Two great picks – for 2001. That’s when the Strokes’ stellar debut album came out and when the Stripes’ much-praised White Blood Cells debuted on indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry.

The Strokes’ accolade isn’t worth debating – Band/Artist of the Year is basically the magazines’ boutique prize, designed to put a unit-shifter on the magazine’s cover, and always lagging critical reception by at least a year. Last year’s SPIN Band of the Year was U2, still being praised for a 2000 album; in the ’80s, Rolling Stone infamously gave its Artist prize to Bruce Springsteen for years, even in those years when he didn’t release anything.

But giving Album of the Year to the 18-month-old White Blood Cells is lazy and inexcusable. SPIN’s writeup on White Blood Cells implies that its rerelease last winter on major label V2 makes it effectively a 2002 release, but it’s hard to argue that the album was previously unhailed and undiscovered – in 2001, it sold big for an indie release, topped countless critics’ lists, and won the Stripes almost as much press buzz as the Strokes enjoyed. SPIN’s pick just looks out of touch. It’s especially distressing one year after SPIN challenged convention and raised eyebrows by picking System of a Down’s nü-metal opus Toxicity as Album of the Year; it was a controversial pick then, but SPIN had the last laugh, as the album has since spawned several hits and come to be regarded as perhaps the sole classic record of the Ozzfest era.

To be fair to those SPIN writers, whose calendar is probably dictated by their publishers, it’s tough to come up with a sensible year-end list so early in the fall. Further down the album list, they’ve done a fairly good job, name-checking a number of records I plan to include on my own top 10 (comin’ to you by Groundhog Day). Plus, they did catch several late-in-the-year releases, including the latest from Jay-Z, Cody ChestnuTT, Foo Fighters and The Streets.

But by coronating Jack and Meg White’s aging record, you can just sense the editors throwing their hands up. In fact, if you call their #2 pick, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a 2001 record – it was widely disseminated on the web last year but only “officially” released in 2002 – SPIN’s top two records are basically old news.

Viewed another way, SPIN’s message is that there was no album of the year in 2002. I have a hard time arguing with this. Individual critics can put personal favorites atop their respective lists, but when a magazine declares a #1 album of the year, the implication is that the record not only is widely acclaimed, but had some cultural impact. Few, if any, albums met both criteria in 2002.

Eminem’s The Eminem Show? Huge seller, and important for his growing cred as an artist, but only a good, not great, record. Springsteen’s The Rising? Beloved on impact, a truly well-intentioned 9/11 statement , but…let’s be honest, folks, not Springsteen’s best. Beck’s Sea Change? A beautfiul record, heavily acclaimed by critics, but little cultural impact thus far, and other critics say it’s overrated, anyway. Even if you want to pick an album that celebrates a key rock movement – emo or garage, say – the best albums of each category are either not great, or they came out in ‘01; only Weezer’s Maladroit came out in ‘02, and no one seems willing to call it emo – especially Rivers Cuomo.

Personally, faced with SPIN’s dilemma, I would have moved their #2 pick to #1. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was already dissected and lauded by critics in ‘01, when the band’s disputes with Warner Bros. prompted them to let the album loose on the net. I myself have been enjoying the record for more than a year now, having received a burned copy from a friend. Finally released on Nonsuch Records last spring, nearly a year after its completion, Foxtrot won a raft of press coverage chronicling Wilco’s tussles with the Big Bad Media Conglomerate. The coverage gave the album a huge first week, for a Wilco record – it debuted in the Top 20.

It’s hard to argue that Foxtrot had serious cultural impact, as it hasn’t even gone gold yet; but it did sell amazingly well for such a sonically adventurous record. More important, it became a cause célèbre for critics and longtime music fans, who saw the album’s trials as the signal example of what’s wrong with the music industry. And the industry’s malaise may well have been the biggest music story of the year, bigger than any single artist. Wilco inadvertantly blew the lid off a problem for the business that’s deeper than Napster or CD burning: the labels are afraid of promoting any album that’s too challenging, too smart, too artistic.

If the Pazz and Jop poll had been held halfway through the year, Wilco would have won in a walk. But I’ll go out on a limb with my prediction now: both the Grammy and the Pazz and Jop poll will go to Springsteen.

Because however the critics may roll their eyes at 9/11 hype, they want rock and roll to respond to the greatest disaster of modern times. Because, as usual, the oldsters will vote as a bloc and the young critics will be all over the map (that’s how Dylan’s overrated Love and Theft took P&J last year). And because, all critics’ protests to the contrary, albums that are too artistic scare them, too.

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ROTATIONS: BOLLYWOOD, KWELI COULD

    This week on the CD carousel: Justin produces the pop-soul album Michael Jackson dreams of; Sunny Day Real Estate quietly start a movement; the Donnas bash and burn; the Roots trade rhymes on Talib Kweli’s record, and Talib returns the favor; and Bollywood brings the funk.

I haven’t received much comment on these “Rotations” columns, but I do hope people are finding them interesting, informative, if not exactly inspirational. Anyway, at least one of my discs this week is sure to raise a few eyebrows. Here are the five discs on the carousel right now – actually, six.

Justin Timberlake, Justified

Justin Timberlake, JustifiedWhy is he imitating Michael Jackson? God, those moves are so Michael Jackson. He thinks he’s Michael Jackson! Yeah, but if Jackson had released this instead of Invincible last year, we’d be calling it a comeback. I too made those Jacko comparisons three months ago, after Timberlake’s solo debut on the MTV awards. J.Lake’s everything-but-the-Moonwalk performance was so uncannily familiar, it was like he was declaring that neither Britney nor Billie Jean was his lover. I didn’t notice the song at all. Then I was alone in a car a few weeks later, and “Like I Love You,” that Neptunes-produced, flamenco-fied song came on the radio. There were no distractions, and I admit it: I loved it. Along with the Clipse’s “Grindin’,” it’s the Neptunes’ most original project of the year, pouring all their newest tricks into one glorious, smooth-riding single; but let’s give props to J.Lake, whose falsetto obviates the Neptunes’ usual pimpin’ guest vocals – he’s loverman enough by himself. Justin’s vocals have finally matured out of the nasal whine that made so many ‘N Sync songs insufferable. What finally pushed me over the edge was the second single, “Cry Me a River,” which I happened to catch on TRL. Like a classic soul man, The Lake follows up one song’s come-on with a second one’s plea, and it’s a percolating heart-melter (this time courtesy of Missy Elliott muse Timbaland). So I bought the CD. It’s virtually an homage to ’80s R&B, the way Rod Temperton (Jackson, George Benson, Heatwave) defined it; it’s either an extremely brave move, hopelessly dated, or canny, given the ’80s-nostalgia wave. The album is irresistible, and while it’s far from perfect – the opening track, an ill-advised call-and-response bit, seems to warn you to abandon all hope – it may be the best pop-soul album I’ve heard all year. Timberlake surrounded himself with talent, not boy-band svengalis, and he found a way to make the producers’ hotness fit his vibe. Laugh at the little twerp all you want, but Jackson tried to do the same thing, spent $30 million, and produced an album that’s not 1/30th as good.

Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary

Sunny Day Real Estate, Diary– My ongoing effort to track the history of emo continues with this seminal album. Much praised on its release in 1994, Diary offers a glimpse at an unheralded turning point, a moment when the prevailing alt-rock sounds of the first half of that decade morphed into something both tougher and more vulnerable. It’s easy to listen to this with 20/20 hindsight, after years of rockcrit emo debate, making Sunny Day Real Estate’s subtle innovations seem obvious. But what amazes me listening to this now – I remember all the great reviews in 1994 but never bought the CD back then, so I come at this totally fresh – is how unassuming Diary is, either as a generational statement or an open-hearted rock manifesto. There’s nothing manifesto about it, no here-we-are-now-entertain-us self-importance, and – despite the passion in the vocals – an admirable lack of self-absorption. For me, the album hits multiple pleasure centers all at once: the guitars have a feedback-laden shred that makes me wistful for the era of Trees and Pumpkins; but the polyrhythms and minor-key delicacy of the songs are more modern, reminding me of Dismemberment Plan’s best moments. You begin to see how a cohort of post-grunge bands found a way out of the dead end proffered by Layne Staley and Kurt Cobain. Unlike all the other movements that attempted to replace grunge – by going louder or looser or stranger – Sunny Day Real Estate seemed to understand that the future of music would be smaller.

Donnas, Spend the Night

The Donnas, Spend the Night – “I must’ve had too many Diet Cokes/’Cuz I’m laughing at all of your stupid jokes.” That favorite lyric encapsulates the Donnas better than I could – consciously female, furtively punk, unpretentiously witty. They haven’t produced an all-around great album yet, which is too bad, because they could take over the world – empowered by the Runaways and Go-Go’s before them, who fought the girls-can’t-rock stereotypes so they wouldn’t have to, the Donnas get to have it all ways. They play up their girliness, embracing the foxy outfits and makeup Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro essentially eschewed, but they model themselves unabashedly after the Ramones, taking on generic names (Joey Ramone and Dee-Dee Ramone become Donna A. and Donna R.) because who needs personalities when you can rock? And rock they do, on three-chord prom-destroyers that would be self-consciously gender-neutral if the Donnas themselves didn’t play up their femininity in such rousing form: girls are sexy but smart, and only they can call themselves “baby”; men are desired but doofuses. Spend the Night hurtles past you without making enough of an impression; the ladies’ inspirations, both Ramone and Runaway, produced a wider array of sounds with a handful of chords, and you wish the record displayed a little more breadth. But with breadth comes depth, and the Donnas would do well to never get any deeper than they are now. I would love to catch this band live – what a blast they must be.

Roots, Phrenology

Talib Kweli, Quality

The Roots, Phrenology and Talib Kweli, Quality – This has been a good season for smart, slightly-left-of-center hip-hop. I’ve been trading off these two new discs all week, and they feel like sides of the same coin – appropriate, given the fact that Kweli appears on the Roots’ latest and the Roots’ Black Thought makes an appearance on Kweli’s disc. I’m sort of surprised at which one I’m liking better: Kweli’s. That’s mostly because its pleasures are more immediate. This is, amazingly, Kweli’s first full solo record, after making his name with Mos Def on the much praised Black Star album and continuing with a Hi-Tek collaboration. The party line on Quality and Phrenology – typified by this Amazon review – is that Kweli’s album bolsters his reputation as a rapper but is not as coherent as the Roots’ latest. That’s fair, but it underrates the ample pleasures of Quality – its nonstop flow, meaty hooks and judicious use of guests (Bilal, Kendra Ross). Conversely, I was actually underwhelmed by Phrenology at first. Three years in the making, the album has an air of importance about it that used to make hip-hop exciting but, amid the Roots’ unfailing obsession with musical authenticity (live instruments, few samples, heavy soul textures), could result in something stultified, arid, bloated. It takes at least three or four listens to penetrate Phrenology, not because it’s dense or difficult; quite the contrary – it’s so buppie-smooth, you’re liable to miss its cleverness. Black Thought has always been a more calculated MC than a flowing one, and as a result Things Fall Apart, the Roots’ much-praised ‘99 album, was a record one admired more than loved. I’m not sure Phrenology is a “love” record either, but it grows deeper with each listen, a little bit like A Tribe Called Quest’s untouchable The Low-End Theory – high praise, indeed.

Bombay the Hard Way

Various Artists, Bombay the Hard Way; Guns, Cars & Sitars – This was on my must-buy list so long, the friend who recommended it to me moved out of town. It’s a strange collection of Bollywood instrumentals that’s not as cheap and amateurish as it appears – ubiquitous dance/hip-hop producer Dan “the Automator” Nakamura compiled, remixed and even retitled the songs to create a smooth-flowing über-mixtape designed to fool the uninitiated. I am among said uninitiated, and so I can only judge by what’s here, but it’s a fun, badass compilation as far as it goes. Cheesy keyboards, melodramatic strings, and of course, superfly sitars abound. In the sliver of ’70s-era sounds he’s chosen to focus on, Nakamura seems to have reimagined Bollywood as the ultimate in lounge music, an alternate to porn funk. But anyone who’s seen even a brief clip of a Bollywood musical knows the music is never this perpetually laid-back; missing here is the oblivious exuberance one normally associates with the mega-micro-genre (not to mention female vocals, surprisingly underrepresented). Thus, it’s best to think of Bombay the Hard Way as a selective mini-history, a clever chill-out collection rather than an instructive survey. For an hour, both Bollywood’s assembly-line ethos and India’s perpetual political woes melt away, and you think Bombay must be the most pimp-tastic place on earth.

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