Archive forJuly, 2003

SOUNDS OF SUMMER

    It was tougher than usual coming up with 20 worthwhile songs for my annual summer-singles compilation, but I managed. Here they are.

Summer 2003, CMM Records

Earlier this week, I gave Emily her copy of my annual Summer CD compilation. I’ve been putting these collections together for about a half-decade now. The idea is to collect about 20 singles and create my dream top 40 station for the summer, one blind to genre or the actual popularity of the songs. But I don’t pick obscurities – all of the songs should have had some impact on the Zeitgeist in the past six months or so, whether it’s as a chart-topping smash or as a critically acclaimed indie-pop masterpiece. Basically, it’s a NOW! That’s What I Call Music! compilation with songs Emily and I might actually like.

For whatever reason, I struggled a bit more than usual putting together Summer 2003. Some reliable pop stars let me down with mediocre releases (Madonna, Liz Phair), this year’s hip-hop releases have been a little dour, and for some reason there are fewer fun one-shot smashes out there right now – a paucity of Fatboy Slims, Jimmy Eat Worlds or Gorillaz’s.

Anyway, here’s what I picked this year, and why:

  • The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” – A no-brainer, this song has ended up a far bigger hit than I predicted it would be. In fact, it’s the number one Modern Rock track in Billboard this week, more than 20 weeks after its release. That killer bassline (actually Jack White playing super-low on his Strat) is a great way to lead off.
  • Beyoncé, “Crazy in Love” – The Number One single, period, in America for the past three weeks, Ms. Knowles’s brassy solo jam is fairly irresistible, although I hear it’s the only great song on her ballad-heavy debut album. Well, that’s what a Summer compilation is for. “Crazy” is a bit repetitive, but that horn-chart hook is unstoppable.
  • Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell and Uncle Charlie Wilson, “Beautiful” – Snoop plays second fiddle, and I don’t even know what Uncle Wilson does; the key credit is Pharrell Williams, of Neptunes and N*E*R*D* fame, who serves up one of his pimptastic falsettos. “Beautiful” fills the slot taken by the Neptunes-produced “Hot in Herre” last year and “Shake Ya Ass” the year before. As long as Pharrell & co. keep coming up with jammin’ odes to female pulchritude, I’ll keep popping them on my mixes.
  • Caesars, “Jerk It Out” – This year’s Euro-garage contribution (picking up with the Hives left off), Sweden’s Caesars haven’t actually hit many charts yet. But “Jerk It Out” is featured prominently in a heavily aired commercial for Michelob, which is how I first heard it. The Farfisa organ makes this quite possibly the most slavish “96 Tears” impression of the neo-garage boomlet – and I’m a sucker for that sound.
  • Wayne Wonder, “No Letting Go”The beat of 2003 is clearly the diwali hand-clap rhythm that has appeared on no less than four hits this year: Sean Paul’s “Get Busy,” Panjabi MC/Jay-Z’s “Beware of the Boys,” Lumidee’s “Never Leave You (Uh-Oh!!)” and this Wayne Wonder midtempo ballad. Wonder’s “No Letting Go” is the most conventional of the four, but it’s the best all-around pop song, and I’ve been loving it since the spring.
  • Coldplay, “Clocks” – Okay, I’m cheating: Coldplay’s album came out last August, and “Clocks” was pegged as the second single around Christmas. But the song built so slowly on the charts, peaking just a couple of months ago, that some stations are still playing it instead of Coldplay’s summer single, “The Scientist.” I like “Clocks” better than “Scientist,” and as far as I’m concerned it’s one of the best singles of 2003, period. Plus, I needed a tempo shift here.
  • Radiohead, “There There” – The first single off Hail to the Thief, “There There” marks Radiohead’s first truly radio-friendly song in a half-decade. It’s pretty much the only such song on Thief, an album I have yet to fully penetrate despite listening to it for weeks. But I love “There There.” As with the White Stripes, the bassline is the kicker; you really don’t care what Thom Yorke’s moaning about.
  • Ms. Dynamite, “It Takes More” – Interscope hasn’t succeeded in breaking this U.K. new-millennium Lauryn Hill in the States yet, but I was seduced by this song’s Italianite hook months ago. I was discussing Ms. D with Emily’s friend Jamsheed the other night, and he pegged “Dy-Na-Mi-Tee” as the great song on the album; I agreed that it was phat, but I’m still in love with “It Takes More.”
  • Jack Johnson with G Love, “Rodeo Clowns” – I don’t really get this year’s Jack Johnson phenomenon – did the world need an even more laid-back Dave Matthews? – but I like this song, which appears in a solo version on Johnson’s 2003 album. But I’m cheating: this version is from G Love’s 1999 album, Philadelphonic, and pairs Johnson’s pleasant surf-strumming guitar with G’s wacked-out pseudo-rapping flava. Actually, I mostly included this because I thought Emily might enjoy G Love’s intro: “…comin’ at you live out here from California, even though I’m Philly born and bred.”
  • The Roots featuring Cody Chestnutt, “The Seed (2.0)” – Speaking of Philly, here’s the center of the Philadelphonic universe, the irrepressible Roots. A surprise MTV hit this spring, this hip-hop-meets-Sly-rock ditty is a nice showcase for Chestnutt, who has been much-buzzed about since the non-release of his debut album last fall. (He self-released it but is reportedly signing to a major label.) Cody’s strummy guitar has the sun-drenched flava of a Stevie Wonder classic, so this really belongs in a summer mix.

[Pause, as if the “tape” were flipping over.]

  • Fountains of Wayne, “Stacy’s Mom” – Jumping the gun a bit, I’m including this even though it’s just beginning to get the big push from FoW’s label. Plus, Emily and I both love it. The forthcoming video reportedly features ex-model (and ex-Mrs. Rod Stewart) Rachel Hunter, who, at 40something, is really the perfect person to play the MILF in Adam Schlesinger’s fantasy. Not since “Hot for Teacher” has lusting for someone twice (thrice?) your age been so well depicted.

  • New Pornographers, “The Laws Have Changed” – In the parallel universe of indie-pop lovers, rock critics and urban hipsters, this is the single of the year, from the most acclaimed indie album. A couple of weeks ago, thanks to Matador’s website, I finally caught the video, an homage/parody of ’60s nouvelle vague cinema, featuring a close-cropped Neko Case doing the twist in a mini-dress. Yum.
  • Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” – I knew months ago that this was the only song worth a damn on Xtina’s latest ho-fest, but after she turned the stomachs of me and half of America with “Dirrty,” I basically ignored her. Then Emily and I saw Ben Lee cover this at the Fountains of Wayne concert last week, and I finally appreciated it for the genius piece of writing it is. Of course, Aguilera’s version features her trademark oversinging, but you can’t keep a great, Beatles-quality melody down. Mad props.
  • Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dosed” – The fourth single from the album the Peppers released last summer, the languid, dreamy “Dosed” is my favorite since the first one, “By the Way” – which, by the way, made my Summer 2002 comp. The Peppers come full circle. I basically love any single of theirs that prominently features John Frusciante’s soaring harmony vocals. What were they thinking, letting him leave the band in the mid-’90s?
  • Foo Fighters, “Times Like These” (acoustic) – The most brain-sticking song from Mr. Grohl’s latest, “Times Like These” works nicely as an unplugged ditty. I discovered this alternate version watching MTV2 one night and managed to download it. Good thing I found it via Gnutella, ‘cuz it hasn’t been released anywhere. (Insert anti-RIAA treatise here.)
  • Queens of the Stone Age, “No One Knows” – More Grohl! Indeed, his best drumming performance, like, virtually ever is on this single. There’s actually a second single from QotSA climbing the Modern Rock charts right now, but “No One Knows” just won’t quit as far as I’m concerned. Or as far as the country is concerned – it took all winter and spring to top the rock charts.
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Maps” – Another hipster “hit,” this is that rockish ballad I was praising in my review of the YYYs’ stellar album last month. Am pleased to discover the song stands up on its own, in the midst of all this radio-pop. Now if only the radio would actually play it.
  • AFI, “Girl’s Not Grey” – The only new emo-metal band I’ve enjoyed lately, AFI (A Fire Inside) have an interesting Cure-goth-meets-Oz-shred sound, and I wish their latest album, Sing the Sorrow were just a little better. It’s kinda turgid, but a couple of songs, especially this fist-thrusting anthem, just burst out.
  • Nas, “I Can” – So simple and reptitive it could either be annoying or irresistible – and it’s both, actually. I thought Emily might get a kick out of the prevalent “Fur Elise” sample that grounds this one, and Nas’s messages (stay in school, don’t grow up too fast, music class is good for you) are as positive as rap gets these days. Plus, this is the best use of children in a hip-hop song since Soul II Soul’s “Get a Life” in 1990.
  • Liam Lynch, “My United States of Whatever” – I always close the Summer compilation with a joke song. Last year’s was Tenacious D’s “Fuck Her Gently.” This year’s selection was even easier to pick. Emily, my sister and I have been randomly inserting “Whutevah!” into our dialogue for months now, and somehow, this song never stops being funny. Plus, the video is a scream – the bit where Lynch is “on the corner, wearin’ [his] leatha” and rocking out on headphones when “some dude” bugs him to call him a punk; Lynch lifts one ‘phone, barks “Yeah, whatevah…,” then goes back to popping and locking. So cool.

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LIVE! TONIGHT! SOLD OUT! WHO CARES!

    Recapping a month of concert-going, I reflect on what makes live rock worthwhile. I’m not always sure that it is.

This story hasn’t gotten a ton of coverage, but apparently the concert industry staged a comeback in the first half of 2003 – according to HITS magazine, grosses were up 26% over the first half of ‘02.

You’d think a lot of publications would cover this story as a counterbalance to the depressing story about hemorrhaging CD sales. Maybe no one’s crowing about live music’s 2003 comeback because the concert industry is notoriously, often randomly cyclical. Or maybe it’s just hard for reporters to muster much enthusiasm about live music. God knows I can’t.

In the month I have been absent from LiveJournal (apologies; I’ve been super-busy, and anything non-work-related has been nicely recapped by ), I’ve attended several concerts, at venues ranging from a medium-size club to Madison Square Garden. I’ve had a pleasant time at all of them, but I feel I overpaid for at least a couple: Neil Young at the Garden ($85, thankyouverymuch) and Wilco/Sonic Youth ($35, a steal unless you consider that it was an outdoor show and the acoustics kind of sucked). Maybe, at 32, I’m getting a little too old to still feel the rush of excitement at seeing a certified Rock Star perform for me in person. Which is kind of ironic if you think about it, because as I age, I’m becoming the concert industry’s bread-and-butter.

As the HITS article points out, a big reason for live music’s ‘03 comeback is a surfeit of graying acts on the road: Elton John and Billy Joel, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Cher and the Eagles command pretty much all of the top 20 show grosses. The graying of the rock concert biz has been a topic of worry for the music industry for years, but it’s reaching crisis proportions. The only ’90s rock act that can consistently sell out large venues, on its own, has been the Dave Matthews Band; Phish do tremendous business, too, but I’d argue that they’ve picked up the Dead’s mantle, and only one band can fill that gap, at that scale, at a time (the other jam bands have to package themselves together to sell out big arenas or festivals). As long as the record industry continues to rely on acts that can “make the quarter” for them – sell big for a few months to pump up corporate earnings – instead of bands that grow over time gradually and tour consistently, the concert biz is going to continue to rely on acts pushing AARP age.

This is all, no pun intended, old news. But none of this hand-wringing over the fate of live-music sales gets at the real reason I find concert-going so tiresome: It’s a hassle. Whether it’s an arena show in suburbia that requires long drives and parking, or a club show in New York City in which you stand around for two hours after the doors open waiting for the headliner to deign to perform, concert-going is an expensive, all-night-and-then-some, wearying time commitment.

Last week, Emily and I went to see Fountains of Wayne at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza, a midsize club with good acoustics and so-so sight lines. As Emily reported, we had a good time – it was a rare show with strong performances from both the headliner and the opener, Ben Lee. But it took Lee nearly an hour to get to the stage; no opening act likes to play to a half-empty room, but Lee would’ve had a sizeable crowd to play to if he’d started at 8:30. By the time FoW finally took the stage, at about 10:15, Emily and I were ready to rock but also ready to sit; standing in a club for four hours total is nearly as tiring as an hour on a treadmill. I know I sound old, but after years of club gigs, I still don’t understand what’s so rock-n-roll about a band starting hours late. We left the show more than satisfied by the music we’d heard but weary and ultimately sleep-deprived. And that was after a show we really enjoyed.

I saw the Neil Young and Crazy Horse gig with my uncle at the Garden in late June. “Gig” might be too loose a term for a show this carefully choreographed: Young is on the road supporting Greendale, his forthcoming album and would-be Americana-rock opera, and the band is joined onstage by a troupe of actors who – no joke – perform the songs, which serve as a sort of loosely plotted script. An array of thespians lip-synch lines from the songs as Neil sings them, while acting them out on a stage toward the back of the auditorium that depicts a front porch, a jail cell, a car. (Good thing we had seats fairly near the stage.) It’s one of the more pleasantly bizarre spectacles I’ve seen at a concert…well, ever – too rough-hewn for Broadway, but way more meticulous than the average rock show. As if acknowledging the strangeness of the enterprise and the patience he was demanding of his audience, Neil kept politely assuring us that after spending an hour-plus on Greendale, he and the band would be surveying “some of the old songs,” which they finally did (”Like a Hurricane,” “Hey, Hey, My, My” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” rocked hard). But I actually enjoyed Greendale – not all the songs connected, but those that did were vintage Neil; and I appreciated the sizeable artistic risk Young was taking after four decades in the business.

Still, I would have felt a lot better about Neil’s shambling proto-Broadway exercise if I hadn’t paid more than the price of Hairspray to see it, in a venue far less intimate than a theater. For 85 bucks, I should either be seeing a critically acclaimed, fully choreographed Broadway show, or an exhaustive greatest-hits package by an established rock act. Instead, I got a fun, memorable hybrid that really should have been 50 bucks, tops. The concert industry prices shows for what the name can draw, rather than the content presented. Neil doing three decades of classics is maybe, maybe worth nearly a C-note.

Am I the only person who thinks the entire live industry is utterly out of whack? Let’s leave the stomach-turning duopoly of TicketMaster and Clear Channel out of the equation: do concerts, either artistically or on a cost-benefit basis, do much more than meet our baseline expectations? Big-time concert-going usually means either seeing a modern act recreate its small selection of material in an uncomfortable venue, or seeing a long-established act play a wealth of much-loved material for the price of a small rent check. When did live music events become anything but discretionary? Must a concert demand a cost equal to a quarter-year of cable TV, or a time commitment one and a half times as long as Lord of the Rings? Is seeing an act “in the flesh” (or on the JumboTron) worth this much to us?

As a devoted rock fan, I’ll continue to see bands live. I am still pleasantly surprised often enough, by acts great and small, to keep coming back. But a guy like me should be enticed into going weekly, not once or twice a month; I’m sure I see far fewer shows in a year than other music critics or diehard rock fans. That’s because I’ve largely concluded that most rock concerts are a sucker’s game.

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