Archive forApril, 2003


    Does anybody still care about music videos? I do – and I’m not alone. But the modern media universe doesn’t give you any good place to see them.

I didn’t want to believe it. A couple of years ago, Last Plane to Jakarta, a web journal I enjoy reading, posted an article ranting about MTV2. It warned that MTV’s sister channel was on a downslide, gradually abandoning its original mission. It was a simple mission: play music videos 24 hours a day, free of format, regardless of genre. Launched quietly in 1996, MTV2 played rap videos next to rock videos, oldies next to current clips, and even juxtaposed videos to let them comment on each other in unexpected ways: clips with prominent pianos, say, or clips by the same director. In short, it did what regular MTV used to do. It was paradise.

But the Last Plane blogger argued that, just a few years into its experiment, MTV was taking the worst tendencies of the main channel and applying them to its younger sibling: grouping videos by genre (e.g., an all hip-hop hour) and “scheduling” the channel in digestible half-hour blocks. At the time I read this, I had just gotten DirecTV, largely because I wanted MTV2. I wanted to see music videos any time of day, the way I did in the ’80s, when MTV and VH1 started. I didn’t want to believe MTV was wrecking their all-music channel just as I finally had access to it.

Sadly, the blogger was right, and a couple of years later, it’s getting worse. Though MTV2 is still music-themed, there are many stretches of the day when they’re not showing music videos at all. MTV2 is now clogged with biography shows about “a day in the life of” some pop star, or “making-of” shows about the MTV Awards or an MTV tour. Gradually, MTV2 is becoming what MTV became about a decade ago – still music-based but with fewer videos, more “programming,” more lifestyle.

Music videos, I believe, are becoming an endangered species. This may sound implausible, given all the TV channels that play them and their importance to record labels’ marketing plans, but I think they’re going the way of the 45-RPM single: virtually extinct, except in small pockets. Labels have begun to determine that videos are too costly, especially given the limited exposure they are likely to get from MTV. Many music fans wouldn’t mourn this loss; indeed, given all the detrimental effects videos have had upon popular music – the increased emphasis on image over songwriting or musicianship – they might cheer this news.

I am not among them.

Truth be told, I love music videos. Or at least, I used to. In a music column I wrote in college, I once called videos “cartoons for the post-pubescent,” and I still think that’s an accurate description. The best creators and stars of music videos move beyond interpretation of song lyrics or fashion-obsessed preening to get at a larger pop-art truth. Directors find ever more inventive ways to translate sound into movement, to represent moods and abstract concepts through visuals. The smartest pop stars know how to present themselves in music videos. In some cases (coughMadonnacough), the only good acting they do is in video clips. Some music-video stars have deepened our understanding of them through their clips – think back to David Byrne’s wide-eyed freakouts, Michael Jackson’s exhilarating dance routines, Kurt Cobain’s fever dreams, Missy Elliott’s coy ghetto fantasias. In short, I truly believe that at their best, music videos are art.

I am happy to learn I am not alone. For the past two weeks, I’ve become reacquainted with the art of music video, thanks to the Museum of Modern Art’s series, “Golden Oldies of Music Video.” MoMA maintains an enormous film archive, and over the last two decades they’ve been building a small collection of music videos as well. In a theatre normally reserved for its film programs, MoMA is screening music videos from its collection over three weeks. As userinfoSmily noted in her Friday LiveJournal post, she joined me for week two, which focused exclusively on the early-mid-’80s. The previous week, which I attended by myself, focused on the pre-MTV early days.

Those who dismiss the music video as a post-Baby Boom cultural travesty would do well to explore its history. MoMA traced it back to the 1940s, when the first prototypes of video jukeboxes made their appearances in America and Europe. But the modern videoclip – a filmed, carefully edited pastiche of pop-star images married to a song – was basically pioneered by the Beatles. After two years of dragging their asses around the globe for live appearances, the Fabs decided that something had to give, and that television would be it. As good as Ed Sullivan had been to them, they couldn’t schlep back to New York twice a year to do his show amid a hectic touring and recording schedule. So starting in 1966, they offered Ed “short films” made especially for him and his enormous U.S. audience.

That’s where MoMA picked up the story. Week one of their showcase began with short films for 1967’s “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (not the Beatles’ first videos, but the first really interesting ones). I had seen these clips before, but it was fascinating to watch them with a modern audience in a movie theatre – things that would seem charmingly dated to me at home became hilarious in front of a savvy crowd. Later in the showcase, MoMA traced the video’s evolution through rock-star pomp (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”), pop art (Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen”), even actual storytelling (David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”). The most stunning find for me was Suicide’s 10-minute clip for the utterly terrifying song “Frankie Teardrop.” This post-punk oddity, in which Alan Vega lets out the most bloodcurdling screams in rock history, is accompanied by an impressionistic video that looks like a collection of camcorder shots from the gloomiest imaginable ’70s urban landscape. The video was discomforting, at times strangely beautiful, and unforgettable.

What was a little disappointing about MoMA’s week two, the ’80s segment for which Emily joined me, was the sterile collection of clips. Here was the most fertile period in music video’s history, and MoMA would have you believe most clips were effete art-school projects. It was a selection suffocated by good taste. Yes, it’s interesting that Miles Davis and Philip Glass made videos, but that doesn’t mean we had to see them. Yes, it’s historic that Andy Warhol made a clip for the Cars just three years before his death, but just because he’s Andy Warhol doesn’t make the video any good. Thankfully, MoMA remembered to include a better Cars clip, “You Might Think,” and Michael Jackson’s West Side Story-manqué masterpiece “Beat It.” But by and large, this was a collection of videos clearly chosen by pretentious, art-damaged New Yorkers. Largely left out were the populist classics, the “Hungry Like the Wolf”s, “Every Breath You Take”s and “Take on Me”s that kept the form vital through the Reagan years. They didn’t even include anything by Madonna, which is like doing a 20th Century art show and leaving out Picasso.

That’s a shame, because what excited me about MoMA’s series was that someone was finally taking this mass-appeal art form seriously. The power of music video derives, in part, from the fact that they are designed not to be appreciated but consumed. From the Beatles on down, videos were designed to move product, and there’s no shame in that; the fascination lies in the ways directors and rock artists used the form’s limitations (length, acting talent, budget, artistic freedom) to their advantage.

If films can be protected, restored and lovingly remastered for public appreciation, why can’t music videos? I am probably one of the few people on the planet worried about the preservation of short films made by record labels to sell product. But the fact is, videos have been treated shabbily, both by the low-rent profiteers who rely on them and the high-art gatekeepers who should be protecting them. Most were made cheaply and are probably rotting on aging videotape. I’m sure a call to the average music conglomerate to ask about their efforts to preserve their music videos would result in loud laughter before the label rep dropped the phone.

I remain thankful that MoMA appreciates videos enough to protect even a handful of them. The only other high-end organization that showed similar respect and love for the form was the DVD company Criterion, who produced the utterly stellar two-disc Beastie Boys DVD Video Anthology in 2000. Criterion pioneered the restoration of films for home consumption – back in the laserdisc era, they literally invented DVD bonus features like director commentaries. They showed the same care for the videos on Beastie Boys they show to Francois Truffaut films, surrounding the clips with background material and even supplementing certain ones with alternate song mixes and camera footage.

I thought Beastie Boys would herald a new era in video presentation, that other artists would demand that their clips receive similar treatment, but I was wrong. Music on home video remains dominated by warmed-over concerts and quick-buck compilations of current acts. I have long had a dream that someone would compile a multi-label, best-videos-of-all-time compilation – price it at $50–75, give it some prime-time exposure, count them down like Casey Kasem. It’s something MTV could put together in its sleep. But then, MTV doesn’t really care about videos anymore, as they’re hard to package for Nielsen ratings. It’s so ironic: if I want to see an hour of music videos from more than one genre, I have to trek to a New York City arthouse movie theater and depend on the tastes of a bunch of museum curators. It’s enough to make me rethink the meaning of the age-old chant, ‘I want my MTV!’”

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    Why I won’t be buying Madonna’s new album. It’s about empathy, about contempt and, of course, about the music.

In 1995, Rob Sheffield wrote the following about Madonna in SPIN Magazine’s Record Guide. He was summing up her two most current albums at the time, Erotica and Bedtime Stories:

    Both these albums debuted high on the charts before dropping abruptly once word got around that they sucked, giving the lie to the media impression that Madonna had lost her audience. What Madonna has lost is her sound, and while she still has a huge audience, what this audience wants is music that sounds like Madonna, not product that alludes to the Madonna phenomenon. She’ll be back as soon as she remembers how to write catchy songs.

Come back she did, three years later, with Ray of Light, her best album in nearly a decade. Sheffield was the first to praise her, giving the album four stars in Rolling Stone. The public liked it, too: Ray of Light became Madonna’s best-seller of the ’90s (not counting The Immaculate Collection). It was a vulnerable, personal album, the kind we hadn’t heard since Like a Prayer (1989); but like that album, it also had a smart pop jones and knew to use it. Madonna came back in exactly the way Rob had proscribed: remembering the core elements of her sound, rather than letting the phenomenon of Being Madonna drive the material.

Five years and two albums’ worth of material have come and gone since then – here it is 2003, and Maddie is back with another album. Unfortunately, when it comes to musical inspiration, she seems to be falling back on Being Madonna again. I have actually debated with myself whether I’m obligated – as a pop critic, a Madonna fan and a consumer – to buy American Life, her new CD. I have finally decided (for now, anyway) to skip it. Here’s why.

For all her talents as provocateur, shocking people isn’t Madonna’s real talent. I’m going to use a word to describe it that, probably, few would use: empathy. At her best, Madonna gets us. She knows our deepest, boldest desires and then writes them large. Her lyrics about S&M and abortion and Catholicism get all the ink, but the bulk of Madonna’s songs are about love, or about the self. The thing is, the best songs aren’t just about herself – these are subtly empathetic songs. She sings about a “me” that could be any of us: “Open your heart to me,” “Give yourself to me,” “You’ve got to prove your love to me.” People relate to her confidence because they see a more confident version of themselves in it. For a star who’s so bracingly arrogant, Madonna inspires warm feelings in people. Like the hottest pop star of the moment, fellow Detroit native Eminem, Madonna exudes unapproachable bravado while, underneath, signaling a deep kinship with the listener. Her best songs invite listeners to be stars along with her.

As Sheffield suggested in 1995, Madonna has an enviable built-in fan base that turns up anytime she releases a CD. It cuts across gender and even age lines; I remain stunned at how often I meet teenagers and young 20somethings who love Madonna. Her fan base also cuts across genre lines – Madonna records still sell to rock fans who wouldn’t touch a pop album. (About the only lines it doesn’t cross are U.S. regional lines: her albums still sell better in urban areas than in the “heartland.” But then, so does Destiny’s Child.) It is the most bankable record-buying fan base in existence – other current pop acts sell better, but they won’t in five years; other rock acts do better on the road, but even Bruce Springsteen has occasional weak-selling albums. When it comes to buying product, Madonna fans are incredibly loyal. Even her weaker-selling albums (I’m Breathless, Erotica) have moved an easy 2 million copies.

You’d think Maddie would appreciate this loyalty, but her demeanour suggests that she doesn’t. For somebody so empathetic with the archetypal, average fan, she has little patience for the actual fan. I caught an MTV special trumpeting Madonna’s new album last night. Its main gimmick was the presence, in the MTV studios with her, of 250 diehard fans – people who’d camped out for more than a day to be on the show. The fans were vocal but well-behaved, asking their heroine thoughtful questions and squealing for the new songs on-cue. In the between-song interview segments, Ms. M made appreciative noises back to them, but the look on her face said it all: perceptual squeamishness. When she complimented a fan, she did it with metaphorical rubber gloves on. There was a drag queen in the MTV studios who claims to be Madonna’s biggest fan – s/he shows up at her concerts and events clad in imitations of her outfits. After 20 years of fame, you’d think Maddie would be unphased by such displays, but – while acknowledging the industrious diva – she seemed genuinely creeped out.

The contempt Madonna frequently shows her audience stopped being cute a long time ago. My favorite example was her mega-grossing, much-ballyhooed 2001 Drowned World tour. Never mind the businesslike scowl she wore on her face while performing. Let’s really talk business. Madonna priced tickets at up to $200-plus a pop, all but guaranteeing a well-heeled, yuppie (read: older) audience. What Madonna songs would these concert-goers want to hear? If they’re old enough to afford $200 seats, probably the greatest hits. Even the younger fans who scraped together their pennies to see their beloved Maddie probably want to hear “Borderline,” “Holiday” and “Open Your Heart.” What did Madonna deign to perform for her loyal concert-going fans? Nothing that came out before 1995. I appreciate that Madonna is easily bored and isn’t content to flog old hits, but then why price a concert at more than twice a Broadway show and monkey with a crowd’s expectations? If U2 charged $200 a seat and didn’t play “With or Without You,” they’d get lynched.

Of course, the argument goes, Madonna is a diva – people want her to be a little regal. I do, too, but I don’t want her regal bearing to take a toll on the songs. If the ones I’ve heard so far and the reviews I’ve read are any indication, American Life is so self-absorbed and tossed-off as to be pointless. There’s the title track and first single, whose oft-quoted rap section (!) has Madonna holding forth about her Pilates classes, army of bodyguards and ample household staff with neither bling-bling wit nor much self-deprecating irony. But then there’s also “Hollywood,” a probable follow-up single, which talks about how so many go to the sunny, dirty city to realize their dreams. Does Maddie take these dear souls by the hand and tell them to hold onto their dreams or, conversely, give them a wink and warn them find paradise elsewhere? No. Within a couple of verses, she’s talking about herself again. And not in a useful, I’ve-been-there-so-let-me-school-you way, either. As for the music, Madonna appears to be exhausting her partnership with French electronica-dance producer Mirwais, who produced 2000’s Music and is still churning out interchangeable, blippy late-’90s beats for her like the dot-com crash never happened. Finally, the singing: if the MTV showcase is any indication, Madge hasn’t exactly kept her wobbly voice well-trained while she’s been off the road.

The fact is, Madonna produces her greatest art when she mixes her bravado with a little vulnerability. Marriage to Sean Penn breaks up? Out comes Like a Prayer. Gives birth to first child, causing her to question What It All Means? Here’s Ray of Light. Even her trancey 2000 album, Music, owes its best moments to the artist’s soul-baring, which spawned the greatest trio of singles since her ’80s heyday: the populist anthem “Music,” the twangy lament “Don’t Tell Me,” and the jaw-droppingly beautiful “What It Feels Like for a Girl.”

A Madonna with issues is a Madonna with something to prove – as with a prizefighter, a bit of hunger better fuels the rippling muscles. What we have right now is the Madonna of the expensive tour, the Fleet Street–approved marriage, the life in repose. She is self-absorbed, not self-confident – well-fed and boring. She’s the Madonna of the “Justify My Love” video (great song, pointless video), the Madonna of Erotica, getting high on the fumes of her ascendant chattering-class currency. (Remember the early ’90s, when Camille Paglia devoted long essays to Madonna and college professors deconstructed her videos? God, did that get tired.) It was the last time she became dull, and it took her a half-decade, plus Evita, to get it out of her system.

Let’s hope she gets past the dull phase faster this time. Madonna is out of touch right now not because she’s old, but because she’s lost her empathy, the thing that makes her sound work. The flare-up over her aborted “American Life” video was the most discouraging sign. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that Madonna thought an oblique antiwar video was a good idea (whether you’re prowar or antiwar, the video is kind of a mess), or the way she pulled it because she didn’t want to be “misunderstood.” Madonna shouldn’t know the meaning of that word. The mind-meld she usually has with her fans means she is instantly understood: burning crosses, gay voguers, incongruous cowboy outfits – on the surface these images confound logic, but millions of fans got them.

Unlike some pundits, I can see Madonna scoring hits well into her fifties; she’s easily smarter than Aerosmith, and twice as iconic as Cher. But if she ever wants to sell more than her baseline 2 million (Like a Prayer and Ray of Light each did twice that), she’s going to have to connect with people again. That means bravado and smarts but also humility. To cut her a break: There were moments on the MTV showcase when Madonna seemed genuinely charmed by all the attention she was getting – when she seemed turned on by the hundreds of eyes on her, when you could feel her vibing on the energy in the room. This was the Madonna who cracked jokes, who laughed with her fans rather than at them, who danced un-selfconsciously for a few brief moments. She wasn’t humble, exactly, just human-sized; a diva with a heart. This is the world-beating Madonna, the one her fans love, the one I admire. We want her back.

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    Memo to Apple: Mac-friendly music service? Great idea. Buying Universal Music? Ermmmmmmm….

If you’re both a music fan and a Apple fan, like me, the past few weeks no doubt have made your head spin.

Announcing its quarterly earnings today, Apple denied – or sort of denied – the rumor that it was close to bidding for Universal Music. The L.A. Times broke the story last week, and their story today has Steve Jobs claiming they’re not bidding but not denying that they could bid. Here’s the meat of the story, if you don’t feel like registering with the L.A. Times:

    Chief Executive Steve Jobs broke his conspicuous silence with a cryptic statement that amounted to a non-denial denial of reports that Apple is mulling over a bid for Universal Music Group, the world’s largest music company.

    “Apple has never made any offer to invest in or acquire a major music company,” he said.

    But Jobs didn’t dispute the reports that Apple and Vivendi have been discussing a deal since December. Apple has reviewed Universal’s books, and sources said it was considering offering $5 billion to $6 billion.

Take a good look at that figure: $6 billion. That’s not chump change for a PC company that commands less than 5% of its own market. Even Microsoft would pause before sinking that kind of money into an acquisition.

But then, Steve Jobs has never been entirely about logic. The man who coined the phrase “insanely great” to describe the Macintosh upon its launch in 1984 follows his ever-wandering muse wherever it leads, and he’s rewarded often enough for his dalliances (read: Pixar) that people treat him like a visionary. There’s also no denying that he single-handedly saved Apple from the dustbin of history upon his return to the company in 1997. So he can be a shrewd, hard-nosed businessman when he needs to be.

“Shrewd” is definitely the word I’d use to describe Jobs’s other major foray into the music business, still just a rumor but widely reported in the media. Apple is days away from launching a Mac-only music service. Amazing News Item #1: He’s gotten all five major labels to participate, and pretty much all of the songs will be available a la carte (reportedly 99 cents a track, sometimes less). This is excellent, but it would have been bigger news a year ago; the furious deal-making that’s been taking place between the labels for the past year has made cross-content availability standard on a number of download services (Rhapsody, PressPlay, MusicNet).

But then there’s Amazing News Item #2: Apple’s service reportedly will be the easiest, most user-friendly ever, making downloading legal music like buying a book from Amazon. This is big news, given how lousy all of the download services have been so far; even savvy PC users have found navigating the sites to be like root canal. Apple’s service promises songs in a minimal number of clicks. And if you own Apple’s iPod, you’re going to be in hog heaven — songs will fly into your device like it’s a toaster for tunes.

Hardcore download fiends are probably saying, “So what?” Legal music means songs you pay for, and nothing beats the free wares at Kazaa. The service will only work with Macs, excluding 95% of the world’s PCs. And any downloader worth his salt knows how to stock up his MP3 player with songs until it cries uncle.

To which I say, this service is not for you. It’s for the great unwashed masses, who still don’t get the MP3-download thing and won’t dip their toe in the water until it’s as easy as an e-mail to grandma.

Just last week, I was at the gym, and a fire drill was conducted. As I and the other workout patrons stood by the entrance, a male racquetballer, on the younger side of middle-aged, noticed my iPod and struck up conversation: “So how is that thing?” I explained how and why I loved it, trying to make it relevant to him (”It’s ideal for workouts”). He seemed intrigued but then followed with, “I thought the whole MP3 thing was dead.” Again I explained that Napster was dead, but there were other free services, and that you could rip your legal CDs to the iPod anyway. He nodded in a way that said, “Wow, that looks cool, but this guy is obviously more technically savvy than I am. I’m not ready to buy that gizmo.”

If Apple found a way to make this fellow comfortable with buying albums and songs, he would pay for it – both the iPod and the songs. When a service is path-breaking, even if the “technology” behind it is not all that innovative, word gets around. Witness Netflix, which is a simple concept, really – DVD rental by mail – that has attracted thousands of older customers who can handle listing their movie picks on a website.

As for us gearheads, the Apple music service should give us reason to cheer, too. Jobs has long been a proponent of consumer-friendly digital rights management (DRM) on music and video content, even before he launched the iPod. Undoubtedly the Apple music service would use DRM as minimal as that used on the iPod: songs transferred directly to an iPod can’t be transferred easily to another PC, discouraging copying, but once the song is on your Mac, it’s yours to back up (read: copy) as you like. Finally, unlike most gearheads, I am cheering because there’ll finally be a music service friendly to my Mac; most of the big services, from the illegal ones like Kazaa to the Rhapsodys and PressPlays, don’t work with Macs at all.

To get back to the Universal rumor: I so want this music service idea of Jobs’s to succeed that it’s making me wary of his other foray into the business. If the Universal acquisition goes through, I have to imagine that, after carefully negotiating with all five labels to get their cooperation, the four non-Universal labels will feel funny supplying content to Apple’s service. After all, it will then own the market-leading label. Maybe not now, but at some point in the future, Apple’s ownership of Universal and its running a music service is going to look like a conflict of interest to Universal’s competitors. It’s the same conflict that’s making it hard for AOL Time Warner to get non-Warner content on its fledgling music service.

Surprisingly, rival label heads interviewed for this other L.A. Times story express tentative enthusiasm for the rumored Apple deal, expressing “optimism that a technological visionary such as Jobs would be interested in buying into the music business. They view that as a ringing endorsement for the industry, underscoring the importance of music as a valuable resource on the Internet.” I guess the music business has been in the shithouse for so long that these label guys are grateful somebody still thinks it’s worth a damn. Moreover, there are plenty of analysts and pundits who applaud the deal, saying the only way to save the music business is for someone imaginitive, from outside music, to come in and blow up the business model.

On the other hand, that same L.A. Times story reports Apple’s shares have sunk noticeably since the rumor emerged. The market is down on the deal, and with good reason. If there’s one thing I learned from eight years of working on Wall Street, it’s that companies acquiring outside of their core competencies are almost certainly doomed to post-acquisition failure. There are those who’d argue that content is a core competency of Steve Jobs’s, not only because of Pixar but also because Apple’s computer sales are largely predicated on content – their consumer-friendly software. Then again, there are those who argue that music and PCs are two industries equally in the doldrums. Does anyone really think linking them up will solve either one’s problems?

As for me, I’d like Apple to succeed no matter what, but I hope Jobs knows what he’s getting into. Just as I root for U.S. troops even when they take part in a war I’m against, on a smaller, far less important scale, I root for Apple even when they try something stupid. But with the Universal acquisition, we’re talking about the makings of a potentially colossal blunder – unlike the music service, which at worst would be a quiet failure and a quick writeoff.

When it comes to Apple and the music business, I hope they give themselves time to walk before they run.

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    This week on the CD carousel: the Stripes seek greatness; D4 are stoopid-fresh; Band of Bees bring in the sunshine; 50 Cent pops a cap in my ass; and the Kills burn and howl.

I’m trying to restart this long-dormant feature of my blog but make it easier for everybody: easier for me to write, easier for you to read. So if I go above 200 words for any of these mini-reviews, somebody shoot me.

To refresh everyone’s memory: These are literally the five discs that are in “rotation” on my CD changer right now. Sometimes an old favorite or two is mixed in with current stuff. This week, I happen to be listening to five 2003 releases.

White Stripes, Elephant

The White Stripes, Elephant – What makes an album great? Great albums have great singles. Elephant doesn’t have any, but it has a few aces: “Seven Nation Army,” “Hypnotize.” Great albums have coherence beyond the songs. Elephant at times seems sequenced by a computer, but repeated listens bring out its sweep, and Jack White’s sonic purism unites the album even when the songs don’t. Great albums have variety, breadth. Mostly a raw-blues basher, Elephant isn’t exactly wide-ranging, but “I Want to Be the Boy to Warm Your Mother’s Heart” may be the best ballad White’s ever written, and the “Creeque Alley”–like album-closer, teasing us about Meg and Jack White’s subrosa marriage, is a gas. In short, on all counts, Elephant is just shy of being a great album. It may not even be as great as the White Stripes’ last two albums. But the mere fact that we measure it against albums for the ages, the Neverminds, London Callings and Zosos, and it compares respectably, is praise enough. Besides, let’s be fair: Elephant is operating with one hand tied behind its back – Meg’s still in the band, and she’s only starting to figure out how to play. Go Meg!

D4, 6Twenty

The D4, 6Twenty– Anyone looking for a fast fix of rock energy (and a cheap one: I picked this up, new, for seven bucks), look no further. If Andrew W.K. decided to rip off the Strokes, this is what it might sound like. Big, dumb, riffy, New Zealand’s the D4 do for 21st Century garage rock what AC/DC did for ‘70s pomp-metal: give it a libido. Song titles include “Get Loose,” “Come On!” “Ladies Man” and – thank you, Mr. Wilkes-Krier – “Party” (sample lyric: “Party!! Paaaaaaaaaaaar-tay!!!!”) These boys may be stoopid, but they’re not stupid – the band is tight, and they’ve got chops; though they clearly owe a debt to ‘70s punk, the D4 isn’t DIY-amateurish so much as ADD-simple. At 45 minutes, the album could stand to be shorter, but 6Twenty is mixed with a flat, smack-on-face immediacy that propels the D4’s sound with jet fuel.

Band of Bees, Sunshine Hit Me

A Band of Bees, Sunshine Hit Me – With the temperature approaching 80 here in New York today, this disc sounds just right. Thing is, I was loving it during our freak snowstorm last week, too – Sunshine Hit Me comes complete with its own vernal equinox. Not since Air’s Moon Safari has an alterna-lounge album had so much luster. Packed with bright, strummy pop, sexy reggae and tropicalia, and spacey synth noodlings, this CD should come free with the purchase of patio furniture. A Band of Bees hail from the Isle of Wight (…if it’s not too dear), which puts them both geographically and sonically near the Beta Band. Like those brilliant Scotsmen, the Bees weave electronic sounds seamlessly and subtly into their songs, but that’s where the similarities end; where the Betas lean toward moody darkness, the Bees are all daylight. Credit the Brazil influences, notable for a bunch of pasty Brits; they even offer a credible cover of Os Mutantes’ “A Minha Menina.” With their neo-psychedelic airiness, A Band of Bees remind me of the late-’90s Elephant Six movement, but they’ve removed the twee insularity of those bands and replaced it with easy vibes. Pick it up before grill season starts.

50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin'

50 Cent, Get Rich or Die Tryin’ – Gangsta refuses to die. Here we are, six years after the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, and 50 Cent’s gats-and-Benjamins opus owns the charts. Get Rich is permanently lodged in the top 10, and “In Da Club” is already the jam of the year, months before booming-jeep season has even begun. How’s 50 printing money like the U.S. Mint? It’s a Jam Master Jay thing, an Eminem thing, a Dre thing – all those famous friends don’t hurt. But give 50 his props: Get Rich is an album of mad hooks, insinuating its way into your brain like a bassline seeping through your walls; at first you hate it, then your head bobs along. The mush-mouthed Curtis Jackson may not have the acuity of his mentor Mr. Mathers, but he’s an original, making the aging growl of DMX and Ja Rule and the twittery drawl of Nelly irrelevant on impact. Where Eminem is tongue-twisting and dazzling, 50 is sly, conversational. And it never hurts sales when the conversation is all about busting ass.

Kills, Mean Side

The Kills, Keep on Your Mean Side – Tired of waiting for the next PJ Harvey album? The Kills may not have the starmaking bravado of Polly Jean. But lead vocalist Alison Mosshart, aka V.V., has a voice that’s a dead ringer for Harvey’s, and the twosome’s album brings back that Steve Albini-era indie-blues sound with a kick. Indeed, there’s never been a better time for the Kills, now that the White Stripes have made electric blues hip. But lest I suggest the Kills are inveterate bandwagon-jumpers, let’s talk about what sets Keep on Your Mean Side apart: excellent harmony vocals, especially on the haunting “Long Time Coming”; towering, gothic production, which makes the whole record sound like it was recorded in an abandoned church; and an amazingly thick, chunky sound for such a small combo. At times, the sound borders on twang, crossed with a Velvet Undergound drone: the city meets the roadhouse. This polyglot vibe makes sense. The Kills are a transatlantic duo – V.V.’s from Florida, and multi-instrumentalist Jamie “House” Hince is based in London. The songs are not uniformly great – some sound like first drafts or extrapolated riffs. But the Kills are on to something, and there’s a good chance that even when Polly Jean Harvey reemerges, they’ll be on their own tip.

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    What’s the problem with ballads these days? Are we just too cynical, or are they just lousier than ever? My thesis, along with a list of five tolerable/underrated slow-dancers.

Family will make you do some embarrassing things. My latest indignity was suffered at the hands of my cousin Jennifer. She needed me to compile an all-schlock CD for her. Worse, I had to make 50 copies of this thing. I do love Jennifer a lot, but I’m very grateful this queasy project is over.

If you’ve attended a bridal shower or fussy wedding reception recently, perhaps you’ve received a CD of love songs as a party favor. It’s one of those emerging American wedding “traditions” – like the garter toss or the pre-dinner buffet – that we now think we can’t do without but is, of course, a recent invention. Anyway, Jennifer was a co-organizer of a friend’s bridal shower, and she promised to ask her music-and-tech-savvy cousin – i.e., me – to make a Love Songs CD to pass out at the shower. This is what I get for giving Christmas CDs to my relatives; I’m Mr. CD Compiler to them now. My aunt had me do one of these for my cousin Joellen’s shower a couple of years ago.

The Joellen CD was pretty tacky; if possible, Jennifer’s was worse. The earlier disc mixed current devotional schlock with a handful of indelible classics like “As Time Goes By” and “When a Man Loves a Woman,” making it bearable. But for her friend’s disc, Jennifer had settled on a mix of songs no older than 1986. It was an avalanche of schlock, all Jessica Simpson and Mariah and 98 Degrees. She actually had to decide between two Kelly Clarkson songs. When she came to my apartment a few weeks ago to compile the mix, she came armed with a stack of CDs – other than a Sade song and “That’s What Friends Are For,” I owned none of her selections. At one point, listening to a Babyface-Kenny G duet I had downloaded, she spontaneously commented, “Wow, listen to that sax – Kenny G’s so good!” When I related this story to my girlfriend Emily later, she commented, “That’s the modern-day equivalent of saying, ‘Satan is my master.’”

What’s wrong with modern-day ballads? I am a self-proclaimed sap, and even I can’t stand them. To some, the ballad form is decidedly antirock, but it’s not like slow songs disappeared after Elvis broke through. Indeed, right through the ’70s and ’80s, affirmed rockers willingly did ballads, not just because they became hits but because they demonstrated an artist’s versatility. Call it modern-day cynicism, but now the ballad is viewed with deeper suspicion by rock artists and especially rock fans – it’s an instant credibility-killer. “Time of Your Life” may have been a radio smash for Green Day, but it definitely put the final nail in the coffin of their punk status; and some R.E.M. fans have never forgiven Michael Stipe for “Everybody Hurts.”

I would argue that this rock vs. ballads split is the source of the problem with modern-day ballads, and it’s hurting rock, too. Ballads have basically been left for pop divas and hokey crooners to do, and that’s why so many are so flimsy or so histrionic. When Percy Sledge sang “When a Man Loves a Woman” in 1965, he wasn’t just competing with other soul singers; he was competing with “Yesterday” and “As Tears Go By,” and that added a rock gutsiness to his performance. Now, ballad singers are just competing with other ballad singers. Celine Dion doesn’t have to be better than Pearl Jam or Alanis Morrissette. Celine just has to be better than Mariah Carey, two loudmouths out-yelling each other in the melodrama ghetto. And speaking of ghettos, rock acts are ghettoizing themselves by shying away from slow numbers. Fewer legitimate rock acts willing to survey ballads means fewer legit rock acts getting on the radio. God knows the radio could use them. Interestingly, Jack White of the White Stripes does his share of tender acoustic numbers, and I wouldn’t mind if one of them became a hit. The key is not to let love ballads become one’s stock in trade, lest one become Phil Collins or Sting. Or, more recently, the Goo Goo Dolls.

Back in 1994, I was asked by a friend to compile a tape of non-schlocky ballads for a romantic weekend with her boyfriend. It was tough, but I managed to pull together a collection of dewy-eyed songs that either weren’t overly familiar or hopelessly sappy – tunes from Sarah McLachlan, the Cure and even Uncle Tupelo made the cut. Nine years later, I’d be hard-pressed to do it again. But, to prove (if only to myself) that it could still be possible, herewith I offer a short list of Five Good Modern Ballads – “modern” being after 1994.

  • Everything But the Girl, “Mirrorball” (1996) – I’m still mystified that this gorgeous slow jam, appearing just a year after EBTG’s big dance-ballad “Missing,” didn’t find a wider audience. Wistful, heartbroken, gently torchy, “Mirrorball” is an elegy for a love lost to misspent youth. As such, it’s probably too lyrically complex for the radio. (Their earlier hit’s “I miss you like the deserts miss the rain” is more FM-digestible.) Also possibly confusing is the lyric, “Come on, girl/It’s all right,” sung by Tracey Thorn; she’s talking to herself, but at first listen it seems vaguely lesbian, which is actually interesting but also probably a tough sell.

  • Mary J. Blige, “Everything” (1997) – This doesn’t really count as a hip-hop ballad, as it’s all-sung, but it does borrow from rap the idea of sampling and reinterpreting. It’s a rethink of the ’70s slow jam by the Stylistics, “You Are Everything.” It’s not lazy – there’s an entirely new set of lyrics (not brilliant, but not bad), and the Stylistics’ melody has been interpolated. Blige even withholds the original song’s main hook – “You are everything, and everything is you” – until the end of her completely reimagined chorus. It’s beautiful and an original composition in its own right; it plays with your vague memories of this elevator-music staple, like something familiar from the womb, and then rewards you. I admire Ms. Blige, and she’s had her share of hit ballads, but this to me is her most underrated. It wasn’t even that big a hit.
  • Shania Twain, “You’re Still the One” (1998) – This, of course, was a massive hit, and even I succumbed to its charms eventually. It’s not only completely distinct from all of Twain’s oeuvre (including her insufferable smash “From This Moment On”), it didn’t really sound like anything else on the radio at the time. Its cascading melody foils any attempt at histrionics – you can’t belt this song, you can only croon it, like a lullaby, and that’s its genius. The lyric is also fairly creative. Don Henley once crafted one of my favorite cynical love couplets ever: “I’m not easy to live with, I know that it’s true/You’re no picnic either, baby/That’s one of the things I love about you.” Shania’s “You’re Still the One” is basically a song-length meditation on that sentiment – i.e., “No one understands why we put up with each other, but screw ‘em, here we are.” I still have my suspicions about the Twains, but I offer unstinting praise for “You’re Still the One.”
  • Savage Garden, “I Knew I Loved You” (1999) – Ewwwwwwww! That voice! Darren Hayes must have the most goopy-fey voice of the last 20 years. Emily reacted with horror when she discovered a Savage Garden CD on my shelf. The thing is, Hayes writes good ballads – good as in original, distinct. I’m as sick of “Truly, Madly, Deeply” as you are, but when that ethereal song appeared in early ‘98, nothing on the radio sounded quite like it. The lyric on “I Knew I Loved You” is beyond sappy, but I related to it instantly because it was an original sentiment: “I knew I loved you before I met you/I think I dreamed you into life.” It’s the 2 millionth declaration of love at first sight, but it sounds like the first. In a way, it expresses something that’s less romantic than matter-of-fact: your true love isn’t the person who confounds you with his/her beauty but the person why looks instantly, strangely familiar to you.
  • Robbie Williams, “She’s the One” (1999) – I know I kind of trashed Robbie the other day, but this song is a credit to its writer as much as its singer. Karl Wallinger of quirky new-wave popsters World Party buried this track on his poor-selling 1996 album Egyptology (guess it didn’t fit the concept). It took the mega-popular Robbie covering it to make “She’s the One” a hit, at least in the U.K. It’s a stately piano ballad of the McCartney variety – Beatle-era, not Wings-era. The lyrics are pretty dopey (”I was her, She was me/We were one, we were free”), but the melody is so good, complete with a baroque sort of bridge melody. Robbie’s lowly status in the States means it’s still an undiscovered, would-be hit here. But just you wait – someday someone else will cover it, and it’ll be booming at proms nationwide.

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    Fans of left-of-center rock everywhere have a lot riding on the White Stripes, and the record industry is watching their sales carefully. The new album is indeed phat, but I worry that an awful lot is being placed on Jack and Meg White’s shoulders.

My jaw dropped when I read the headline on the news site: “White Stripes May Face Suit: Band could pay for Citizen Kane-inspired song.” It turns out that Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Orson Welles’s classic film, were weighing a lawsuit against the Stripes’ “The Union Forever,” one of my favorite songs from 2001’s White Blood Cells, because all of its lyrics come from Citizen Kane.

Never mind that a suit would be counterproductive and prone to failure. (An early-’90s Supreme Court case involving the 2 Live Crew probably protects the Stripes’ Kane parody/homage.) Here’s the real message of the lawsuit: Jack and Meg White have truly arrived. A multinational conglomerate actually thinks the little electric blues band is worth suing.

The lawsuit news is just one more eddy in the vortex of hype surrounding Detriot’s rock avatars this week. Their fourth album, Elephant – their first major-label-only release – hit record stores on Tuesday. Accompanying the album: countless magazine profiles, a five-star review from Rolling Stone, and lots of industry speculation about what a formerly-indie band with little radio play but tons of new fans could sell. The latest prediction has the duo selling over 100K in week one, which would drop them into Billboard’s top 10 right behind Linkin Park, Celine Dion and 50 Cent. The other night over drinks with my friend/Billboard editor Brian, the Stripes hype was practically all we could talk about.

There’s indeed something exciting and rare about a genuinely good, indie-credible band going mainstream. Jack White certainly takes his rock purism seriously: All review copies came out on vinyl only, and he claims to have restricted the instrumentation on the new album to instruments circa 1960 or older (electric guitars/fuzzbox amps: yea; keyboards, multitrack recording: nay). The idea of such a raw record selling six figures in a single week gives me more hope in America than I’ve had in months. As for the album itself: it rocks. Go buy it this week, it’s on sale everywhere – I picked up Elephant for $9.99. (I’ll offer a fuller review later.)

Still, I can’t help but feel wary about all this hope and hype. The media seems to believe our beloved White Stripes can…yawn…Save Rock. No one’s saying it openly, but it’s the Elephant in the room (sorry) in all of these Stripes profiles: Can there finally be a chart-topping band we respect? Can rock be saved?

Plenty of respectable, formerly left-field bands have had surprisingly solid record sales in the last couple of years – Radiohead, the Strokes, Wilco, Queens of the Stone Age – but that doesn’t mean you’re hearing them constantly on the radio. (Queens’ slow-building hit “No One Knows” is the exception that proves the rule.) Add the White Stripes to the list; their new album doesn’t even have a single as radio-friendly as “Fell in Love with a Girl” on it. But that’s okay. It’s now possible to be an acclaimed, seemingly high-profile magazine-cover kind of band without ever breaking to a Nirvana level of fame. In the hip-hop-fueled multichannel metaverse, it seems unfair to expect any of these bands to dominate the culture anymore.

Anyway, for real Rock(TM) – none of that rap-metal or nü crap – to become a meaningful part of the pop mainstream again, there’s going to have to be systemic change in the record industry, whereby more bands like the Stripes can be allowed to sell at sub-gold levels for a few records before becoming radio and arena superstars. A rock band is an organic beast. Unlike rap or pop acts, which tend to blow up quickly or not at all, guitar-based combos age like wine and usually need time before being uncorked. The Stripes themselves got a leg up, because the indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry released their first couple of records and let them grow organically. The Strokes don’t have that luxury – they went from baby-band to RCA Records immediately; if their second album doesn’t go platinum, will they be branded failures? Can their label wait out a Give ‘em Enough Rope or October before the Strokes deliver their London Calling or their War?

I’m kind of a hypocrite, because I’m watching Elephant’s reception by the marketplace as avidly as anyone. But I’m also trying to keep my expectations realistic. I only hope the executives and managers guiding the White Stripes’ career – and their indie-to-major peers – are doing the same.