Archive forJanuary, 2003

SUPERLUNGS MY SUPERBOWL

    For once, the Big Game provided some decent musical entertainment – if you could ignore Celine and Shania. Could we convince No Doubt to back up Sting for good?

I was pleasantly surprised by the musical offerings at this year’s Superbowl. That may be because I stayed out of the living room for most of the schlockiest offerings. Emily and I were at my parents’ house, and I had laundry to do.

I didn’t need to be in the room for Celine Dion’s performance of “God Bless America.” (Emily calls it, with eyes rolled, “our second National Anthem.”) Dion’s roar, complete with backing choir, reverberated throughout the house. Predictably, the Dixie Chicks outclassed the Blecch from Quebec with their three-part harmony on the actual National Anthem. The Chicks have reportedly been asking for years to sing at the Superbowl; happily, they didn’t take the granting of their wish as license to blow it out. We all agreed that they overdid it a bit at the end, with a heavily reimagined chord on “…the home of the brave.” If that’s the only oversinging they did, on a song that invites histrionics, it’s fairly admirable.

I caught only a minute or so of Shania Twain’s gaudy halftime performance of her latest single. Actually, most of the gaudiness was in Shania’s metallic outfit. I give her credit for having the chutzpah to fill the stadium with her boppy good cheer, a born performer. But the arena-ready hooks of her husband “Mutt” Lange’s songs kind of demand a stadium, so it’s hard to get excited that she pulled it off. It would be like giving Wayne Newton credit for a good Vegas show. It’s just what he does.

No Doubt’s songs, on the other hand, are not stadium fare. Their latest album, the lovable Rock Steady, veers from skittish dance-pop to languorous dub reggae – not stuff that plays to the rafters. So it’s appropriate that they chose to perform their first hit, the 1995 anti-anthem “Just a Girl.” The band sounded fine – punchy, flippy-floppy. But, sadly, Gwen Stefani made the mistake someone always makes on the big stage at a Bowl show or the MTV Awards: losing her breath by running up and down the vast runways. She barely kept up with the band. I love Gwen’s cooing voice, but it’s not exactly classically trained. To fill that big space, she needed all the air she could get.

Having eked her way through the song, Gwen stood back for Sting, launching into his own oldie, the Police’s “Message in a Bottle.” Der Stingle has been irrelevant to me for about a decade, but playing this song was an easy way to win me over. Actually, it may be the best song in the Police canon for him to play solo; old fans may remember a heartbreaking acoustic take he did 20 years ago at an Amnesty International concert. But for halftime, Sting decided on a full-band rock reading, sans Police.

He was just reaching the first chorus – when, in my mind, I hear Stewart Copeland’s cracking drums busting in – when I noticed that No Doubt were backing him up. I dunno if I’m dense or something, but the camera had been focused on Sting for the first verse, and I just assumed his touring band was there. Adrian Young is no Stewart Copleand, but sheez, they sounded good. As my sister astutely noted, No Doubt’s solid ska skills are a perfect fit for the Police’s white-boy reggae. Gwen, having caught her breath, slinked in to sing the second verse, which she did comfortably – the song might as well have been a Christmas carol to her. She and Sting dueted on the choruses, and the 50something Gordon Sumner sounded surprisingly great – impressive given his love of high registers. Not to imbue an new wave ditty with too much meaning, but I like to think that Gwen’s and Gordon’s insistent “Sending out an S.O.S.” chant at the end was the closest the Superbowl could get to expressing the country’s wartime ambivalence.

All-star rock pairings on TV are usually better on paper than in execution. Sting himself took part in a wildly overpraised one, huffing and puffing through “Every Breath You Take” behind the erstwhile Puff Daddy at 1997’s MTV Awards. High concepts are also a trap at these events – I think everybody now agrees that U2’s 9/11-themed performance at last year’s Bowl, however fervent, was a jump-the-shark moment for the band. But the Sting–No Doubt pairing was a why-didn’t-we-think-of-that-before concept that seemed unforced, in a way Superbowl music never is.

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ROOM TO RIP

    Why I got myself a roomier iPod – once my life adapted to it, I wanted to hear my music in new ways.

This weekend my best friend Ed was visiting from Boston, and I sold him my old iPod. I had one of the originals – a five-gigabyte, version 1.0 model with the actual mechanical wheel. (Current models use a round touch pad.) As Apple bragged when it came out in November 2001, it holds about 1,000 songs, which for Ed is plenty.

I sold it to Ed at a good price – one, because he’s a friend, and two, because my old iPod had been a little too well-loved. It endured through an array of bumps, drops and scratches, and its rechargeable battery was aging. I immediately sank the proceeds of this sale – and a Christmas gift certificate that was just searing a hole in my pocket – into a new, top-of-the-line iPod with four times the capacity.

So, why? Obviously I am a shameless Apple junkie, but I’d long since gotten over the gadget-lust phase with my iPod. And it’s not about keeping up with the Joneses. True, half the people at my gym now have iPods – the size of a T-shirt pocket, it’s the ideal workout device – and friends who once oohed and aahed have grown blasé or gotten one themselves. But it’s not like an extra 15 gigabytes of space is visibly noticeable or would mark me as extra-cool.

The fact is, for a music enthusiast, the iPod can never have too much space. It has prompted so many of us to reconsider the very ways we consume music. I wanted a roomier iPod because, already amazed at its library-reorganizing abilities, I wanted room to experiment even more. The iPod had improved my music-listening life; how much more of my life could I put in it?

The main thing the iPod has prompted me to rethink is the entire album format. There’s been much talk, since the advent of Napster, about the public’s reconnection with the song at the expense of the full-length album, now that MP3 makes it so much easier to grab the tunes you want, a la carte.

But Apple’s creative use of playlists takes the rethink a step further. With the ability to mix and match a pool of songs on a myriad of playlists – one song can be slotted on both your “gym mix” and your “party mix,” without making duplicate copies of the song – the very notion of album-length coherence is altered. Mix tapes have been around for decades, but the labor involved made artist-sequenced albums just easier to digest. Now, with the ability to categorize songs on a whim, I completely rethink the way my favorite songs connect with and speak to each other. My favorite approach is just to throw a bunch of songs into a playlist and let iTunes alphabetize them. The randomness is bracing: In my party mix, it’s a kick to find out how Happy Mondays’ “Step On” sounds right after the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive.”

The problem was, I was usually ripping songs to the iPod one full CD at a time, blunting its best feature. I do want to transfer some albums in toto – I want to hear the Avalanches’ Since I Left You in the song order that was released, otherwise its sense of coherence is lost. But once I’d filled the iPod with my two gigabytes of downloaded singles and about 30 albums (say, 50–75 megabytes per album), its five gigs filled up quickly.

It’ll be a long time before an iPod can hold every song I own, but for it to live up to its promise, it needs to contain a far-reaching library. My original iPod was clogged with my most recent CD purchases, random songs downloaded from Napster, and just a few library essentials (Beatles, James Brown, New Order, Led Zeppelin, Velvet Underground). Even with 1,000 songs, it was a strange mix.

Last summer, when Emily and I drove to the Adirondacks for the 4th of July weekend with her roommate Beth, I was occasionally asked to provide music – in the car, on the sun porch, while lighting sparklers in the backyard. It was then that I realized why I wanted a bigger iPod. My iPod’s library was dominated by recent indie rock and hip-hop. There were plenty of songs, but to please a crowd with an all-purpose mix of driving or relaxing or party music, I would need even more songs. (Thank goodness I had ripped the Beatles’ greatest-hits album 1 – it was the easiest thing to put on for everybody.)

In short, I want the iPod to reflect the spontaneity of music in my life. If my CD collection contains music for any occasion, my iPod should be equipped with a subset of that music, for when those occasions arise. For someone who lives his life only listening to dance or metal or folk, five gigabytes is enough to carry around a pretty impressive collection. For someone who uses music passively – as background at the gym, as aural wallpaper at work – five gigabytes is vast. But when you’re obsessive enough to want music to reflect all your tastes, moods and occasions, the iPod only fulfills its promise when you feed it a little bit of everything.

And…well, a little bit of everything takes up some extra space.

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GLAMOUR TO AN ELECTRO BEAT

    Here’s a preview of my next published review: a CD by New Wet Kojak, a cool bunch of New York indie rockers. Their latest is so good, it made me forget about the band from which they spun off.

For the first time since October, I was assigned a review for CMJ, my usual rockcrit gig. This month, I am reviewing New Wet Kojak, a spinoff band to New York indie stalwarts Girls Against Boys. The review (or at least, my pre-published draft of it) is pasted below.

As an aside: As I was playing this CD at home the other night, fairly late in the evening, Emily asked me about it and said it sounded – at least partway through – like pretty good background music. She withheld her full endorsement, since it is an indie-rock CD after all with rumbly guitars and (mild) electro beats. But if Emily finds she can read through parts of it, it must be a pleasant CD. Anyway, I like it and got plenty of work done to it this week (including some dull-as-dirt Annual Report reading for my current consulting client).

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

NEW WET KOJAK
This Is The Glamorous
Beggars Banquet

From their name to their playful urban rock, New Wet Kojak sound like the proverbial next phase – an arch version of something that was sly to begin with. The band is itself a side project, an offshoot of sardonic indie rockers Girls Against Boys. Except New Wet Kojak might just eclipse the band that spawned them. With their late-night, bleary-eyed sound, NWK takes GvsB’s wiry aggro-rock and chills it out, throwing sax, techno beats and drollness into a cocktail mixer and shaking. After four albums, it’s safe to assume that singer-guitarist Scott McCloud and bassist Johnny Temple of GvsB are taking NWK pretty seriously, and This Is the Glamorous, a full-on concept album, confirms their intent. Lyrically obsessed with all things glamour – from the cigarette you smoke to the players you hate – the album is all posing about posing; McCloud punctures beautiful people and hipsters while acting cool and hipsterish himself: “In a world of Jordache/In a world of techno and whisky…My baby is for real.” What keeps the idea grounded is NWK’s languid groove – a spooky, dirty rumble that lounges lazily in the background. Charles Bennington may be the key ingredient; after the late-‘90s demise of Morphine, if there’s still such a thing as an indie sax sound, it’s his – he turns “Nothing You Can Say” into a jazzy lament and “Bad Things” into an irresistible come-on. >>>Chris Molanphy

File Under: Post-digital post-punk.
Recommended If You Like: Morphine, Interpol, Suicide, Girls Against Boys.

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BAD WEEK FOR BRITISH ROCK ELDERS

    A few words about the late Maurice Gibb and the accused Pete Townshend.

I don’t have a lot to say about the death of Maurice Gibb, lest my blog turn into Rock Eulogy Central. But I am a fan, however reserved, of the Bee Gees. I’d be lying if I said their music didn’t inspire fond nostalgia.

It has been sort of odd to see the mainstream media this week referring to Gibb as a “rock legend.” The group approach the status of rock royalty, certainly, if only for their unbelievable staying power; and Barry Gibb, the trio’s primary writer, may one day go down as one of history’s more underrated pop songwriters. (Forget the disco classics; this guy wrote “To Love Somebody” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” two of the most covered pop songs ever.) But younger brother Maurice just seemed like a nice guy. I recall an interview he did about a decade ago, when the Bee Gees were releasing their umpteenth comeback album, and Maurice was surprisingly witty; the interviewer asked them how they came up with the album title, which was Still Waters, I think, and Maurice deadpanned, “Yeah, we were gonna call it Kicked in the Head. But then we thought Still Waters might be nicer.” Glad to see a guy with his mileage maintaining his sense of humor.

Speaking of elder rocker statesmen with strange senses of humor, the details are still coming out about Pete Townshend’s arrest for possessing child pornography. It would be shocking coming from any rock legend but Townshend, a sometimes inscrutable, sometimes shockingly frank personality who’s been making up his mind about his sexuality for about four decades now. (This week he’s defiantly straight; next week he’ll be professing he’s bi.) I find his excuse – that he was doing research for an autobiographical project – pretty flimsy, but coming from him it’s also oddly believable.

The British authorities are humorless about this stuff – Gary Glitter (famous for the stadium-halftime standard “Rock and Roll Part II,” the one where everybody chants “Doctor Whooooo…HEY!!”) had his meager reputation permanently sullied some years ago for possessing piles of kiddie porn. But Townshend is a far more beloved rock statesman, and I have a feeling he’ll put this behind him. I’ve never been a big Who fan – their near-invention of the rock opera is pretty unforgivable, and Roger Daltry is the most embarrassing singer in rock – but I’ve always had a soft spot for the intelligent, cranky Pete. Well, ehm…not that kind of soft spot.

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MASH-UPS: DIGITAL AND ANALOG

    Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve heard a good “mash-up” – an amateur’s grafting of two disparate pop songs. Here, links to some new ones, as well as a U.K. chart-topper that’s not really a mash-up but certainly is messed up.

As we move into the third year of the mash-up phenomenon, the web is exploding with Frankenstein-like songs composed of two, three or even dozens of pop hooks. Since 2001, when these homemade reimaginings of well-known songs started appearing online en masse, the phenomenon has inspired PC-equipped wizards to reach farther afield, mixing current pop hits with a wider array of classic tunes.

Last week, a fellow music-list contributor posted a link to Go Home Productions, a site that’s got a wealth of recent mash-up gems. Check it out. I haven’t had a chance to download everything there yet. There are a handful of duds, but I have already deemed four songs worthy of my iPod:

  • “Ain’t No Sunshine in my Closet” – combines Eminem’s recent hit “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” with the smooth-jazz of Grover Washington Jr.’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”
  • “Backstab Me One More Time” – the umpteenth rethink of Britney Spears’s first hit, imaginatively combined with the O’Jays’ soul classic “Backstabbers”
  • “Justin Likes Blondes” – having fueled Missy Elliott’s latest single, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” now makes a return appearance on Justin Timberlake’s very recent hit “Like I Love You”
  • “I Believe in Killing Time” – the stunner: Cher’s 1999 smash “Believe” gets a much-needed facelift, going goth with Echo & the Bunnymen’s ’80s classic “The Killing Moon”

For those new to the concept: A mash-up is a song created out of two or more other songs, by an amateur with little more than a Dell and a dream. (It’s also called a bootleg, a term I like, except that word obviously already has another, better definition.) The most common mash-ups combine the vocals from one track with the instrumental bed of another. It’s a phenomenon made possible by the democratization of raw PC power – the music junkie uses an audio editor to strip vocals from instruments, shift tempos, and generally make the disparate parts fit together. Mash-ups are wonders of creativity, from the mad inspiration that makes somebody say, “Wow, you know what would sound great together? Destiny’s Child and Nirvana,” to the songs’ made-up titles: “Smells Like Booty,” “Country Inferno,” “George Gets His Freak On.” To get yourself up to speed, visit this site. It collects 2001’s first wave of mash-up classics, including the Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke of Genie-us,” which arguably popularized the form, combining Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” with rock backing from the Strokes; the aforementioned “Smells Like Booty,” meshing Destiny’s “Bootylicious” with Kurt Cobain’s classic; and the spooky “Introspection” by Osymyso, which in seven minutes combines hooks from perhaps 100 songs.

It figures that mash-ups would be a trend spawned mostly by British gearheads. U.K. music lovers are suckers for trashy pop hooks. Case in point: a song that just debuted in Britain’s Top Five that might as well be a genre mash-up: a “dance-metal” song (actually disco–garage rock is more like it) by a queasy group who call themselves Electric Six. They’re actually from Detroit, but it figures that the U.K., appreciators of strange novelty music, would fall for it. Here’s a link to a Reuters Story my friend Ted sent me about it, and – if you have a broadband connection and a strong interest in the bizarre – here’s a link to the music video. Ever wonder what your third-grade teacher would look like with glowing breasts, making out with leather-clad Eurotrash? Now you know. (My friend Ted writes: “Tenacious D must be writhing with envy.”)

Besides the smashing together of electro-dance and trash-rock, what does the Electric Six song have to do with mash-ups? Nothing, really. It’s just that the video nearly made me blind, and I had to share it with others. Have a good weekend!

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GRAMMY PROS AND CONS

    Yes, the Grammy nominees are retrograde, middle-of-the-road and predictable, but they’re better than they used to be. And if they would only stop falling into the same silly patterns, they’d be a little more tolerable.

My friend Heather wrote to ask me what I thought of the Grammy nominations, which were announced on Tuesday. It’s easy to dismiss the Grammys. They enshrine middlebrow tastes, and the results – despite myriad categories – are numbingly predictable.

But the Grammys are still surprisingly respected, and I will admit that I watch the show every year, if only to complain. I still basically feel the Grammys should exist. My only wish is that there be an alternative, a left-of-center, second-tier awards show celebrating artists that a centrist, industry-sanctioned awards program can’t. It would make the Grammys’ middling tastes more tolerable, the way the Independent Spirit Awards let you give a pass to the Oscars.

Looking at the glass as half-full, the Grammys are a lot less embarrassing than they used to be. Actually, this is the moment when they are least embarrassing: the announcement of nominees. That’s because the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) made an important overhaul to the process about eight years ago. Stung by criticism that only aging or slick performers got nominated and won, NARAS switched the nominating phase from the entire Academy voting body to a hand-picked committee; the committee sifts through the year’s recordings and comes up with nominees, so at least the voters have decent stuff to choose from. It’s a much better system, and given the sheer volume of recordings released annually, it’s just common sense. This year’s crop of nominees aren’t clever or cutting-edge, but there’s no chance a Tony Bennett will walk away with Album of the Year (as happened in 1995, which reportedly prompted the switch). There are some deserving small artists in the mix, and the big artists up for prizes are predictable but not infuriating.

Best of all, Michael Greene is now gone as president of NARAS, so we hopefully won’t have to suffer through a scolding lecture about the evils of file-sharing at this year’s ceremony.

So much for the good news. What does annoy me is the persistence of some bad Grammy habits. They are much in evidence this year:

  • Recognizing an artist too late – Bruce Springsteen is, well…a national treasure and all, but he should have won an Album of the Year Grammy by now. It would be less galling if his good albums had lost to better ones in prior years, but in 1984, Born in the U.S.A. lost to Lionel Richie; in 1975, Born to Run lost to one of Paul Simon’s lesser albums. Even more galling is that this year, he’s probably going to win, but for good intentions, not quality; his fine-but-overrated The Rising is the favorite. It’s like Bob Dylan finally winning for 1997’s somnolent Time Out of Mind, Santana finally winning for 1999’s schlocky Supernatural, or Steely Dan finally winning for 2000’s drab Two Against Nature.
  • Recognizing an artist too early – Norah Jones is a talented young lady with a lovely, slightly dull album under her belt. (I love the single.) But brace yourself – she might well sweep the top awards (Record, Song and Album), if Springsteen doesn’t stop her. The lite-jazz Come Away With Me might as well be sold with a sticker on it reading, “Warning: Grammy bait.” What annoys me about manufactured Grammy sweeps by new artists is that the act usually deserves some recognition, but not that much: I like Sheryl Crow, but the armloads of gold gramophones she carted away in 1994 were a bit overmuch for the chirping single “All I Wanna Do” and her spotty debut album. (That was definitely a case of Grammy-too-early: Crow’s second album, two years later, was widely acclaimed as an improvement on her debut.) Worse, a Grammy sweep for a new artist can be a career albatross – just ask Christopher Cross, who swept in 1980, or Bobby McFerrin, who won a boatload of prizes in 1988.
  • Ghettoizing or ignoring left-of-center artists – The constant complaint about the Grammys is that they largely recognize big-selling stuff, but I’m at peace with the idea that NARAS focuses on big-impact records; it’s pointless to bitch about how Fugazi never wins Grammys. But when a smart, left-of-pop record sells decently and is acclaimed everywhere, it’s utterly mystifying when NARAS ignores it or shunts it to the genre categories. I’m under no delusion that Wilco or Coldplay could ever have won Album of the Year, but they should have been nominated. And we’re not talking about low sellers here – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Rush of Blood to the Head were Top 20 albums that are certified gold and platinum, respectively. Unconscionably, Wilco got blown off entirely. (Payback from the industry after all of the bitching by the group about their label?) And Coldplay had to settle for nods in “Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal” and the eternally motley category “Best Alternative Music Album.” Speaking of which…
  • Ringers in the small categories – It drives me crazy when NARAS sticks a 10-ton pop gorilla in a category with middleweights, all but guaranteeing that the better-known artist will win. Among the “Alternative” artists nominated in the aforementioned category are Beck and Elvis Costello; the former is best-selling enough by now to compete with the big boys, and the latter has too many Grammys to be taking them away from the deserving likes of Clinic and The Soundtrack of Our Lives.

    This annoyance doesn’t just afflict the rock categories, either. The dance-music columnist at Billboard complains, quite rightly, that every year some hit pop recording steals the Best Dance prize from a deserving producer/mixer/DJ with deep roots in the club scene. One year, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” – any disco that played this has to be the lamest club ever – won the Grammy over deserving remixes by the likes of Masters at Work. This year, No Doubt’s excellent, but not very dancey, single “Hella Good” is nominated alongside the likes of club stalwarts Groove Armada and Daniel Bedingfield. One guess who wins.

  • Emphasis on number of nominations – The press makes a big deal out of who scored the most nominations, which makes for easy headlines. But coverage over the last two days has been scattershot, because no one artist pulled a plurality of nominations; in fact, no less than eight artists tied for first place, with five nods each. Some reporters have tried to spin this into a trend – “Grammy nods show industry all over the map,” etc. You can sense the frustration of Arts-section editors nationwide. But I’ve always found that the number-of-nominations benchmark is either useless or, worse, destructive. Useless, because an act with a surfeit of nominations can still go home empty-handed – witness last year’s seven-time-nominee, no-time-winner India.Arie. Destructive, because it can skew expectations: I swear that on last year’s telecast, I saw India.Arie crying backstage when she lost her final award of the night. (It’s rough at the Oscars, too; The Color Purple got a dozen nominations for 1985 and went home empty-handed, tarnishing the film’s reputation – “biggest Oscar-loser ever.”) What makes the credential especially useless for music is that artists are rarely remembered as Grammy nominees. In film, you can be “Oscar nominee James Woods” for life, but no one ever refers to “Grammy nominee Indie.Arie” – there are too many Grammy categories for that credit to be useful. You’re either “Grammy winner Lauryn Hill” or you’re one of the 200 people who lost that night.

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ROTATIONS: ALSO-RANS

    This week on the CD carousel: Springsteen’s heart is pure but his production is dull; Missy Elliott comes closer to capturing the madness; I finally give Weezer its due; I try to explain why Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess moves me; and Musiq produces the ur-neo-soul.

Among the CDs on my carousel this week are a few that have been praised as among the best of 2002 but probably won’t make my own year-end top 10. They join a couple of old albums, one from the mid-‘90s and another from the mid-‘50s. First, I’ll start with a disc that’s probably going to win Album of the Year from the Grammys and the critics.

Bruce Springsteen, The Rising

Bruce Springsteen, The Rising – I agree with the chorus of pundits who have praised this for being the most heartfelt 9/11 statement by any rock artist. Frankly, it was more an act of duty than a work of art – the people who lost loved ones in the disaster are so overwhelmingly Springsteen fans that him recording this album is like Frank Capra directing the wartime Why We Fight series. Bruce heard the call, and bless him, he answered it. All that said, I respectfully disagree with those giving the album five stars or ranking it among his best. At this point, Bruce is like the dancing bear – the wonder is that he dances at all; fans are so happy to have him back that they reflexively praise his latest regardless of quality. It’s not that The Rising is suffocated by good intentions – there’s nothing heavy-handed about it. Springsteen’s sense of purpose inspires some admirably fiery lyrics. The trouble is with the music. The Rising is stuck in a middling netherworld between the big rock of Born in the U.S.A. and the personal reflections of Tunnel of Love, with neither album’s focus. Bruce has written his best – no shame in this – pop hooks in a generation (”Lonesome Day,” “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” “Further on (Up the Road)”) but the album buries them in plodding, arid Americana arrangements that don’t bring the rock. The big-rock sound only emerges on the album’s most rote tracks (e.g., “Mary’s Place,” which is “Rosalita” redux). The rest of the record is like a PBS telethon about an album instead of the album. It’s notable that the CD isn’t co-credited to the E Street Band. Springsteen reformed them for most of the recording and a tour, but there’s scant evidence of their booming sonic stamp here, and the album could use it. Some critics and fans have quietly grumbled that it sounds strangely like a mid-’80s John Mellencamp album, but that period in Mellencamp’s career was, musically, much fiercer than The Rising. I truly love many of the songs here – can’t get “You’re Missing” or “My City of Ruins” out of my head. I only wish the album as a whole were as memorable.

Missy Elliott, Under Construction

Missy Elliott, Under Construction– Someday, Missy Elliott will release a greatest-hits disc, and it will be the best party record since Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. In the meantime, we’ll make do with her intermittently brilliant albums. The leadoff single on each of her CDs has been such a stunner (”The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It”) that critics approach the CD like it’s just got be as good. It never is, but Under Construction comes as close as she ever has to matching, at album length, the mad creativity of her amazing hits. By now, you’ve no doubt heard “Work It,” Missy’s biggest pop hit to date, a song so vigorous, brave and insane, you find yourself slack-jawed as it ends. How do she and producer Timbaland do it? It’s the equal, the flip side, of last year’s path-breaking “Get Ur Freak On” – where “Freak” made everything else that year sound old, “Work It” is all-embracing, enlivening. Happily, the album containing “Work It” is a vast improvement over Miss E…So Addictive, the slack CD that housed “Freak.” Missy wants Construction to be her old-school rap/break-beat homage, but that idea is about as useful to her as the Sgt. Pepper conceit was to the Beatles – the album packaging is slick, and a couple of tracks touch on the old school, but it’s more inspiration than actual theme. Still, it gives the album a focal point her previous albums have lacked, and it probably improved the material. Missy and Tim have a solid follow-up single in “Gossip Folks,” a quirky, tongue-tripping jam featuring Ludacris, that deals directly with rumors surrounding Missy’s recent weight loss; and a clever slow jam, “Pussycats,” that’s as delightfully raunchy as anything Marvin Gaye or Prince dreamed up. If the record still seems to meander, it’s because Missy needs to self-edit – her between-song introductions and monologues are charming, often hilarious, but they wear upon repeated listens. Still, while that perfect album that eludes her, she keeps getting closer.

Weezer,  Pinkerton

Weezer, Pinkerton – I liked Weezer well enough when they broke out in 1994, but in December 1996, reviewing an album by a crappy band called Nerf Herder for CMJ, I wrote: “Who’d have thought bands like Weezer would become a trend? An annoying trend, at that. Call it sillyrock or ironypop.” I felt confident dismissing Weezer at that moment because the public already had: Pinkerton, their second album, had crashed, dissed by critics and dropping off the charts in less than four months. I thought the only habits other bands had picked up from Weezer were a too-clever irony and a grunge-lite sound. Little did I know that grunge lite would one day sound much, much worse; and that an entire generation of college kids were rediscovering Weezer as emo godfathers. As the first band that, upon their 2001 comeback, made me feel old, Weezer deserved a reappraisal from me – especially Pinkerton, which I had all but ignored in 1996. The biggest change-up in pop since the Beastie Boys followed up Licensed to Ill with Paul’s Boutique, this album was shunned on arrival mainly because it wasn’t as catchy as its predecessor. Pinkerton is actually not as left-field an album as it once seemed, just better. Maybe we weren’t ready for singer-songwriter Rivers Cuomo to get so dark and self-flagellating; the band’s debut had been so sunny. But in fact, Pinkerton does exactly what Weezer needed to do at that moment: grow up, by going deeper. It’s a strange thing to say about a band so beloved by people under 21, and to be sure, Cuomo’s lyrical concerns on the album (romantic longing, self-abuse, tons of sexual frustration) are as adolescent as they come. But it’s rare to hear music this raw, lyrics this naked (“My girl’s a liar/But I’ll stand beside her/She’s all I’ve got and I don’t want to be alone”) from a platinum band, at least after Kurt Cobain’s death. To Weezer’s credit, the fairly tortured lyrics are accompanied by music as propulsive and succinct as that of their debut. The rawness of the lyrics probably explains why Cuomo refuses ever to play these songs again. I am not a big enough Weezer fan to care one way or another, but he should start getting over it now. I can predict already the tour where Weezer, like Kiss bringing back their makeup, begins playing Pinkerton again. Anyway, it would be the right move. This so-called aberration of an album is probably the truest Weezer have ever been to themselves.

Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess

Miles Davis, Porgy and Bess – Moving from music that made me feel old to music that makes me feel young, this undisputed jazz classic has been on my stereo since well before Christmas, providing a needed corrective to all that Jolly Music I was hearing. I’m gratified that something so beautiful can still sound so vital after 45 years. My knowledge of jazz is limited enough that I feel ill equipped to provide in-depth commentary on why this album, a predecessor to the landmark Kind of Blue, moves me so. Perhaps it’s the fact that I grew up with so many of these songs. I have never seen Porgy and Bess, but my mother sang “Summertime” to me constantly when I was a tot, and many of the other songs are well canonized enough that most of us have a passing familiarity with them. I guess what amazes me about this Gil Evans production (I am equally a fan of his collaborations with Astrud Gilberto) is how fresh, potent and pleasantly unfamiliar these familiar songs sound.

Musiq, Juslisen

Musiq, Juslisen – I want to love Musiq, because he’s trying so hard to make neo-soul viable. Probably the only artist who wouldn’t object to the label, the erstwhile Musiq Soulchild has unimpeachable soul credentials. Born Talib Johnson, he grew up in Philadelphia, hometown of fellow hip-hop/soul leading lights The Roots, where he earned his stripes at open-mike nights at hardcore Philly soul clubs. More important than all that is Musiq’s generous gift with a melody, so much more welcoming than fellow neo-soul heartthrob D’Angelo, who lately has become a deep-fried belter you respect more than enjoy. Musiq’s songs are not only nicely composed, they’re easy to love: the graceful “halfcrazy” (Musiq loves his titles in alllowercaselettersthatruntogether) floats on a cushion of fluttering guitars and a gentle, bossa nova–like beat. The question is, Is Musiq the heir apparent to Stevie Wonder or the alter ego of Smoove B? Juslisen, his second album, doesn’t fully answer the question, but it shows Musiq to be a fairly versatile songwriter and a not-bad rapper who will may one day be as compelling as Wonder was in his heyday. Musiq’s voice is buttery-smooth and remarkably controlled, not overly afflicted by that evil that has ruined modern soul singing, melismata. (Stevie Wonder is unfortunately probably to blame for the melismata curse, but that’s a discussion for another day.) I hate to damn Juslisen with faint praise, as it’s a fine record – you can play it easily in the middle of the day while getting work done, or at night, for lovin’ your lady friend, all that. But “Break You Off,” the song Musiq sings on the Roots’ latest album, is catchier than anything here, and it more effectively incorporates hip-hop, too. For Musiq to go from impressively competent to truly brilliant, he’s going to have to bust out of his niche, find a way to make his skillful melodicism and ample vocal talents work in a wider range of contexts. There’s a decent cover of George Harrison’s “Something” tacked on near the end of Juslisen, but Musiq doesn’t need to “cross over” in the tradional (R&B-to-pop) sense; he needs to go deeper into soul, get a little crazier, like his fellow Philadelphian Common, while keeping the tunes coming. It’s a tall order, but I only propose it because I think Musiq’s up to it.

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EASY LISTENING?

    A family emergency this past week got me thinking about the times and places when no music is appropriate.

I had occasion to spend several hours in a couple of hospitals earlier this week. More on why later. I tend to notice the music in any environment, even under circumstances as charged as those I was facing. And being in these hospitals, both on Staten Island, got me thinking about how difficult – perhaps impossible – it is to provide appropriate music in certain public spaces.

At the first hospital, St. Vincent’s (not to be confused with the much larger St. Vincent’s in Manhattan), I spent several hours in the emergency waiting room. The final morning I was there, the 20something clerks behind the check-in counter were listening to some fairly pushy rock music. Actually, to use my own definition, they were listening to Volvo Rock: Puddle of Mudd, Hoobastank, Creed. I never heard a DJ between the songs, so it may not have been a radio station but rather a mix tape; in short, they actively, not passively, wanted to listen to this music. The clerks – two male, one female – were singing along to every word, quietly but visibly, shutting out the waiting room’s tension and sadness through the magic of post-grunge. They were also listening to a couple of tunes I liked, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By the Way” and System of a Down’s “Aerials,” but even those songs felt unwelcome to me at that moment. I was pretty testy. My Mom and I had been on a wild goose chase all morning between this hospital and the other one, and no one – particularly the aforementioned female clerk – had given us any useful information yet. So the sound of Puddle of Mudd whining their way through “Blurry” (”Can you take it all away-hay/When you shoved it in my face…”) did nothing but incense me further.

Not two hours later, we were having lunch in the cafeteria at the other facility, the better-appointed Staten Island University Hospital. If possible, the music they were playing there was even louder. But it wasn’t rock – they had on “Lite-FM,” which was remarkably un-light. I never thought I’d miss the days of elevator music and Barry Manilow, but lite-music stations have decided that they need to be hip now, which means their songs have a beat – the beat of a wedding DJ: lots of Cher, Santana and Christina Aguilera. I think it was in the middle of Gloria Estefan’s pulsing, hi-NRG cover of “Everlasting Love” when my put-upon mother looked at me and asked, “Does it have to be so loud?”

I told Mom that, it seemed to me, the music they played in the hospital seemed to be for the employees more than the patients or visitors. I meant it to be a neutral, don’t-ask-me sort of comment, but the more I reflect on it, the more it encapsulates the problematic dichotomy of a hospital. Much like a doctor for whom quadruple-bypass surgery is a day’s routine to be accompanied by sports chat, any hospital employee is so inured to what’s going on in their place of business that no music sounds as inappropriate to them as it does to their customers. People have a right, I guess, not to be bored at the office, especially at such a potentially depressing one. But even the emptiest of pop song lyrics take on unfortunate meanings when the bulk of people hearing them are in worrying or even dire circumstances. And less peppy songs wouldn’t have been any more appropriate: It’s a good thing my mother had left the cafeteria when Lite-FM played Bonnie Raitt’s somber “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

My mood wasn’t helped by all the time I had to ruminate. My Dad suffered a near-heart attack on New Year’s Eve – emphasis on “near.” To make a long story short, Dad had the medical equivalent of getting off with a warning: blockage in one artery, reparable through quick surgery and the insertion of a stent; the other two arteries, and his heart, were amazingly fine. I call it amazing because my Dad has been a ticking time bomb for at least a decade or two: smoking two-plus packs a day of Pall Malls, having that extra egg or slab of butter or midnight snack. So even after we got the miraculous news that he would be all right, the unspoken worry was whether he would get the message and make some long-overdue changes in his daily habits. As I sat in that cafeteria, already knowing the surgery would probably turn out fine and we’d probably have Dad home by the weekend, I was still on edge, pondering the inevitable dicussions to follow. I started making up new lyrics to the Bonnie Raitt song in my head: “I can’t make you love you if you don’t/We can’t make your heart heal/Some way it won’t.” See? Dreadful, treacly, tacky. This is what radio listening in a hospital does to you.

Our story has a happy ending. Dad indeed came home on Friday, and with no prodding from us, he was spooked enough by his experience to watch his diet a little and go on the patch. (No cigarettes so far in 2003!) I have managed to put the frustrations of the emergency ward, and the ruminations of the cafeteria, out of my head. But not the songs – “Everlasting Love” has been polluting my brain for days.

As someone who lives his life with a soundtrack, it’s strange for me not to want music at a pivotal life moment. Emily, my silence-loving girlfriend (who, by the way, was a comfort through all this), occasionally admonishes me for wanting to put music on in any situation, even one in which it would be distracting. I wish she were in charge of the waiting rooms at our city’s hospitals. She wouldn’t be shy about telling her employees that there are places and times when music just feels wrong.

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MY NAME IS CHRIS, AND I AM A CHART GEEK

    Stumbling across a fellow chart geek’s website took me back to the headiest days of my own Top 40 obsessions. The truth? Chart geeks don’t just want a date to the prom – they want to DJ the prom.

While browsing around filmmaker Kevin Smith’s culture-geek website, MoviePoopShoot, I happened to click on the music page, simply titled “Pop Chart News.” It was like stumbling across a 15-years-younger version of myself. At the risk of sounding condescending – especially since my blog here is no less geeky – I found it kind of sweet.

Kevin Smith, director of the most beloved slacker-fanboy films (e.g., Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which gave MoviePoopShoot its name) proudly surrounds himself with unabashed pop geeks – total polymath Rain Men who can sling Marvel Comics trivia at 10 paces. Roger Nead, the author of “Pop Chart News,” is as unironic a geek as you’re bound to find on the web, and that’s saying a lot. Nead uses his page to run down the top singles and albums on Billboard’s charts, recount chart data from yesteryear and ask trivia questions. He also includes features, like “my favorite albums [from] THE SEVENTIES!” – apparently, Nead is as big a fan of Genesis and Pink Floyd as he is of the exclamation point. Again, his ramblings are fundamentally similar to what I or any other music blogger does on her website; but Nead’s association with Smith gives him a somewhat bigger forum.

Also included on Nead’s page are – please stifle your guffaws – his own charts. These are not year-end best-album lists, as every rock critic is issuing right about now; this guy compiles his own charts of current songs and lists them alongside the Billboard charts. The #1 single in America this week, according to Billboard, is Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”; Nead’s #1 single this week is “Brand New Love” by Deadsy.

Nead’s hobby isn’t that unusual. Lots of hardcore Billboard chart geeks compile their own weekly top 10s, top 20s, top 40s, even Hot 100s. As Fred Bronson, the chart columnist at Billboard, discovered when he launched the magazine’s first chart-geek Q&A website a few years back, chart-compilers are a quiet, trash-pop-loving, non-prom-attending army: one week a couple of years ago, Bronson confessed on the website that he used to compile his own chart as a teenager; he then spent weeks – months – answering letters from readers who did the same.

I myself briefly compiled a personal singles chart, around 1984, when I had an early home computer and was in the first flush of my obsession with pop music. Chris’s Top 10 Singles was basically a rearranging of current chart hits to better suit my tastes. So in a week when, say, Billy Ocean or Wham! would be #1 on the Billboard chart, I might coronate a lower-charting Julian Lennon or Cars song. I’d like to say I picked better, hipper songs than Billboard did, but I was really just rearranging the songs I’d heard on my Top 40 radio station to place my favorite ones higher; I seem to recall that for several weeks, my #1 song was by Rod Stewart. (Say what you will about Nead – at least he’s picking current songs that are not burned-out Top 40 fodder.) By 1985, I got distracted by my family’s move to Connecticut and the onset of high school, and the chart-keeping hobby dropped off. The chart-following hobby followed me into adulthood, however.

The more you observe chart geeks, the more you understand what makes them – us – tick. The geek becomes interested in charts when he observes enough similarity between his tastes and those of chart fodder; or at least, he learns that his favorite bands sometime in the past racked up impressive chart statistics. He likes the idea of chart feats as awards, as credentials, as validation. As he grows older – by which I mean, over 20 – he becomes increasingly disenchanted with what is currently charting, leaving little or no room for his favorite act(s). But he keeps following the charts and comparing them to his old chart stats – can recall, with pinpoint accuracy, how Stevie Wonder used to score hits with the same frequncy that P. Diddy racks them up now. Most important, the reason he’s a geek isn’t that he’s a math-quant type or that he can’t get a date; it’s that he turns to the charts to find a community. By rooting for a song to climb to #1, he seeks communion with other fans of the song, identifying not with the artist who recorded it but the people who loved it so much they all requested it on the radio. He doesn’t want to be Eminem or Fred Durst or Justin Timberlake; he wants to be friends with the millions of fans of that guy’s latest hit. Like the serious scholar of baseball statistics, the chart geek wants to be a professional fan.

The unreconstructed chart geek tends to have centrist tastes, and in Nead, I recognize the archetype. Nead likes his share of both black and white pop, of both R&B and rock. But he doesn’t seem interested in too much heavy rock or hip-hop. (A track from semi-obscure West Coast rapper Shade Sheist does make an appearance on Nead’s chart, but that’s not a guy that’s going to be out-thugging Eminem anytime soon.) The chart geek imagines a perfect world in which his favorite songs really could be pop hits, and so Nead is not a secret fan of out-there indie rock or musique concrete. As for old music, he lavishes praise almost exclusively on big-selling records; Nead’s feature on his favorite ’70s albums ignores low-selling forefathers like Big Star and Brian Eno, instead offering encomiums on usual suspects Fleetwood Mac, Simon & Garfunkel and Badfinger.

The thing is, I love those records too. And I’m not so far removed from my geekdom that I can’t remember when hearing Rumors was still a revelation. I shudder a bit at Roger Nead – there but for my New York life go I – but I respect him for being true to himself, not being too cool to talk about what he loves. There’s a reason why certain records were hits and have been overpraised: they’re still good. Just last night, at Emily’s little New Year’s party, I threw on a mix of festive music I had compiled on my iPod. Our fellow revelers seemed to enjoy it, but I’ll be damned if there was a hip, left-of-center song in the bunch – it was all party hip-hop, old new-wave, Beatles, Zeppelin…even a little Hall & Oates. In short, it was my dream top 40 station, packed almost exclusively with hits, hits, hits, fully in touch with the community-building chart geek I once was and probably always will be.

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