Archive forNovember, 2003

WANNA BE RESTARTIN’ SOMETHIN’

    Lost amid the past week’s Michael Jackson media whirlwind: a new recording arrangement that would put him at the forefront of a reimagined music industry – if he ever emerges from his self-made hell.

In a drugstore today, I heard a Michael Jackson song. The fact that the King of Perps was on the radio wasn’t what jarred me. It was the song – a forgotten single from 1991’s Dangerous called “Who Is It.” You’d expect ratings-hungry radio stations to draw heat off the current Jacko scandal in one of two ways: playing an old hit for cheap, recontextualized thrills (imagine “Beat It” or “Off the Wall” now – snicker, snicker), or playing a more recent single as a show of innocent-until-proven-guilty, we-still-love-you-Michael support. This was neither.

“Who Is It” wasn’t a big hit. It’s one of Jackson’s more contemplative songs, if one can use that word to describe anything in his latter-day canon. Clearly the radio programmer heard something in its lyrics that’s newly resonant. Even so, a fairly close reading is required to interpret the lyrics. Jackson sings, ostensibly but not convincingly, about a spurned lover:

    And it doesn’t seem to matter
    And it doesn’t seem right
    ‘Cause the will has brought no fortune
    Still I cry alone at night
    Don’t you judge of my composure
    ‘Cause I’m lying to myself…

    (Who Is It?)
    Is it a friend of mine?
    (Who Is It?)
    Is it my brother?
    (Who Is It?)
    Somebody hurt my soul, now
    (Who Is It?)
    I can’t take this stuff no more

Interestingly, the lyrics of “Who Is It” aren’t veiled allusions to any of Jackson’s major legal scandals. Its recording predates even the 1993 allegations that Jackson molested a minor, which he settled out of court. In a sense, the song is a fascinating artifact of Michael Jackson’s more innocent, pre-litigation paranoia – the days when the worst things he had to worry about were overzealous female fans, squabbles with his brothers and early plastic surgery rumors. Jackson is probably wistful for those kinds of teapot-tempests now.

“Who Is It” was the umpteenth single released from Dangerous, but it should have been the first – it’s Michael’s best single of the 1990s. It was so far down the priority list for the Sony Music promotions team that it didn’t make the charts until 1993, literally eighteen months and a half-dozen songs after the album’s first single, the schlocky “Black or White.” Tense, sinuous and haunting, “Who Is It” was a kind of new-jack sequel to “Billie Jean,” not so much a masterpiece as an elegant return to form. No other track on the overstuffed, self-aggrandizing Dangerous album could hold a candle to it. It made you think Jackson would do well to eschew the album format and, instead, pour all his best moves into a few well-conceived singles.

With his life in turmoil and his recording career in tatters, Jackson may finally be forced to pursue that strategy. Buried amid last week’s headlines of Jackson’s arrest for renewed pedophilia charges was the comparatively minor news of the end of his major-label recording career. Epic Records, the division of Sony for which Michael has recorded for a quarter-century, finally cut him loose. The release last Tuesday of a half-hearted hits compilation, Number Ones, fulfilled the label’s contract to Jackson. It allowed Sony to walk away, obligation-free, from Jacko – the man who recently, in one of his most bizarre fits, called the company’s executives racists for not selling enough of his albums. Jackson’s days as a recording star for a multinational comglomerate are over.

Make no mistake: This is a relief, and not just for Sony. The days of whipped-up major-label publicity for Michael Jackson albums – perennial attempts to conjure up the orgasmic frenzy of his Thriller days – are, mercifully, over. Never again will we have to endure breathless premieres of “historic” new music videos costing $X million, absurd TV campaigns to make us love Michael again the way we did when he first moonwalked into our living rooms, or glitzy, overpriced tours. Never again will we be implored to help Sony recoup tens of millions of dollars in recording and publicity expenses for its highest-profile superstar. (They can focus entirely on making us sick of J.Lo now.) Most important, we will be spared the embarrassing spectacle of Jackson working into his fifties to remain relevant, cool – excuse me, “bad” – to kids one-third his age. Seriously, and without sarcasm: phew.

Jackson does not plan to stay idle. Some months before his Sony deal was set to terminate, he signed a management contract with music industry veteran Charles Koppelman, who has led several large labels but is now unaffiliated with the majors. According to Variety

    Koppelman has a long history of creating stars via singles rather than albums and Jackson, if he does choose to release new material, may well need to go the singles route.

I don’t know if Variety was just being quippy, but this is a fantastic idea. Jackson should have been focusing on singles, not albums, a long time ago. In his career, he has produced only two truly great albums, Off the Wall and Thriller (plus one half-good one, Bad); and these aren’t so much albums as mind-boggling collections of great radio songs. Jackson’s albums have always risen or fallen on the strength of the hits they contain, an increasingly dicey prospect for a aging pop star.

There’s never been a better, or more viable, time for a major pop artist to consider a career based around singles. With the legal music-download services finally up and running, artists have channels through which smaller amounts of music can be released quickly, upending the standard two- to four-year major-label album publicity cycle.

Actually, a couple of major-label artists, albeit not superstars, are already experimenting with bite-size release schedules. Jackson’s former Sony labelmate Ben Folds released a very successful five-song mini-album in July, Speed Graphic, initially as a download on Apple’s iTunes. Fans could download any or all of the five tracks – led by Folds’s cover of the Cure’s “InBetween Days” – and each song’s sales was tracked independently of the others; for a couple of weeks, all five songs dominated Billboard’s relatively new Top Download Tracks chart. Folds says he expects the virtual EP to be the first of a trilogy; just two years ago, he probably would have been forced by his label to amass the material into an unwieldy album.

More recently, a download-friendly EP release settled a simmering feud between an artist and his label. Prolific Americana-rocker Ryan Adams couldn’t get Lost Highway Records to issue his aching Love Is Hell as an album, as the label feared alienating Adams’s fan base. Just as it looked like artist and label were at an impasse, they agreed to issue a more uptempo album, RockNRoll, on CD while simultaneously releasing Love Is Hell as a pair of downloadable EPs (Part 1 came out last week; Part 2 is out in December). Even the term “EP” is a misnomer for the two Love Is Hell projects; each contains up to eight songs, practically the length of an album. This strategy – releasing a huge amount of music in a short span, but parceling it out into various-size chunks – would, again, have been unthinkable before the advent of the download business model.

The Folds and Adams experiments are interesting as far as they go, but they still rely on an “EP” model that dates back to the days of vinyl. I await the day when a major artist feels bold enough to parcel out material in the form of singles – an “A” and “B” side, tops. It’s like the ’90s alt-rock release strategy – remember the plethora of colorful indie 45s? – migrated to the majors.

He’s not known for his boldness or cutting-edge artistry, but wouldn’t it be fascinating if Michael Jackson became the first such artist? He’s only had one great single per album for more than a decade now. What if he focused on one single at a time – scored a hit, and then moved onto the next one?

Of course, this idea requires that Jackson get past the far larger…um, issues in his life, which dwarf any problems he might have with record-releasing. I suspect Jackson’s music career may soon resemble O.J. Simpson’s sportscasting career: permanently sidelined, regardless of legal status.

Still, over the past year, R. Kelly has barrelled through his stomach-turning (and probably deserved) legal woes by churning out irresistible singles (”Ignition,” “Thoia Thoing”). There’s no reason Jackson can’t keep himself in the game, at least temporarily, by doing the same. I find Jackson’s lifestyle appalling and sad, no matter what I think of his guilt or innocence. But he’s in such a desperate position, he should be willing to try anything. I think he could earn back a smidge of the public’s respect by trying a pathbreaking approach to music-making: song by song, hit by hit, plea by plea.

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BOOKSTORE-FRIENDLY UNIT SHIFTER

    Kurt Cobain’s writings make it to paperback, and get a little longer.

Sometimes when people ask me, “What inspired you to write a book about Kurt Cobain?” I want to answer, candidly, “Well, his Journals came out as a book last year, and it sold really well.”

That may not have been my inspiration, but it clearly was the spur for Barnes & Noble. They figured, rather shrewdly, that if a $30 coffee-table book by Cobain could top the bestseller list, a $10 coffee-table book about Cobain would probably sell decently. They were right – my book hasn’t topped any charts, and I don’t have specific sales figures or anything, but my editor keeps telling me the book’s selling well. In fact, on Barnes & Noble’s website, it’s even listed as “sold out.” (I have been assured this is likely a temporary state of affairs, caused by a shipping bottleneck between B&N’s warehouses and its dot-com division. Whatever – I’m bragging to friends that my book’s sold out.)

Anyway, the book that indirectly led to my becoming a published author has just been issued in paperback. Kurt Cobain: Journals is now $10 cheaper, but interestingly, it’s also a few pages longer. Fourteen pages, to be exact, according to a story on Billboard.com.

A portion of the new pages were available last year to the publishers, Riverhead (a division of my girlfriend’s old company, Penguin Putnam). But they were withheld – and one can speculate why. Billboard calls it “an extended narrative about a semi-fictional serial killer,” something the young Cobain may have made up, or that he may have adapted from news of an actual serial killer. Julie Grau, an editorial director at Riverhead, herself admits the section is “disturbing and bizarre.”

Riverhead had enough controversy on its hands last year in selling Cobain’s journals in book form at all. Fans and critics, quite understandably, pointed fingers at both the publisher and Courtney Love for soaking Cobain’s private writings for profit. A year later, fans are still writing reviews at Amazon decrying the decision to release this material to the public.

The publishers probably figured that the last thing they needed, as they were gearing up the promotional machine and soliciting book reviews, was any probing analysis on Cobain’s budding fascination with serial killers. Critics have had enough of a field day analyzing Cobain’s well documented but seemingly incongruous fascination with guns. Similar treatises on his early obsession with serial killers could have over-dominated coverage of Journals, much the way a tiny mention of Jessica Lynch’s possible rape by Iraqi captors in I Am a Soldier Too smothered all discussion of that book’s release last week.

A year after the hardcover release of Journals, with virtually no new reviews expected and the controversy over the material’s release having died down, the folks at Riverhead (and, no doubt, Love) feel comfortable sharing the serial-killer material with the public. Grau is, to her credit, honest: “I think the first time, we thought it would skew the appreciation of all the material that was in here. Now…we thought people could handle it.”

Personally, I wish Riverhead, whatever the consequences, had included the material in the first place. I sympathize with publishers who are just trying to prevent the chattering classes from getting distracted by a sideshow. But that sideshow is part of the weirdness that was Kurt. I find myself chuckling, not gasping, at the news that Kurt wrote fantasias in his spiral-bound notebooks about serial killers – it’s just another of his manias, something to keep him from dealing with the more mundane reality surrounding him, another good excuse to let his fertile imagination run wild.

I’ve also been asked what I learned about Cobain while writing my own book, and my frank answer is usually, “What a pain in the ass he was.” Kurt was a full-on genius, but he sowed the seeds of his own demise in so many ways – not just the obvious stuff, hoarding guns and abusing drugs, but also pushing away people who could have helped him, isolating himself from any and all emotional outpouring, divorcing himself from reality. So Kurt also liked to write sick stories about serial killers? Go figure.

Anyway, what’s more exciting to me in the paperback Journals is the other new addition, a list Cobain scrawled of his favorite albums. Unsurprisngly, Kurt name-checks a bunch of indie-anointed non-pop records, from acts like Sonic Youth, the Pixies, the Butthole Surfers and Rites of Spring. There’s no doubt in my mind Kurt genuinely loved these bands, but the fact that he needed to itemize them in a greatest-albums list shows his self-consciousness; budding indie-punk Kurt was trying so hard – and so earnestly – to like the right records. As a critic who also tries to like the right records (and rarely admits when he’s listening to Kylie Minogue), I totally relate.

Gotta hand it to Courtney – sometimes she’s right. She saw Kurt’s list and scrawled her own note next to it: “Do you really want to intimidate and alienate people this much? This is the most characterless indie rock snob list I have ever seen.”

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THE LOVE BOXXX

    Like most double albums, OutKast’s latest could have been condensed into a pretty great single disc. I should know – I tried condensing it. The only question is whether Dre ever wants his music integrated with Big Boi’s again.

I’ve been off my blog for just over a month. Where did the time go? And what the hell have I been doing? Well – besides signing books, buying an apartment and celebrating my engagement to bradamant – the same thing every music fan in America’s been doing since October: listening to OutKast, over and over and over again.

Unless you’ve been even more out of touch than me lately, you know that OutKast has released an album that’s actually two discrete albums packaged together – a pair of solo discs, one by each MC: Antwan “Big Boi” Patton’s Speakerboxxx, and André “Dre 3000″ Benjamin’s The Love Below.

It’s a lot of music to consume, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s shaping up as OutKast’s biggest pop success to date. As of this writing, the double album is in its seventh week in the top 10 of the Billboard album chart, having spent two of those weeks at #1. The album was preceded by a “two-sided” single (a throwback to the old days of vinyl 45s), and both songs – Big Boi’s “The Way You Move” and Dre’s “Hey Ya!” – are in the top 10 of the pop chart simultaneously. Big Boi’s groovy slow jam climbed the charts faster, thanks to early R&B airplay, but it is starting to peak. Dre’s bouncy homage to new-wave pop took longer to catch on but is emerging as the bigger hit, shooting past “The Way You Move” this week. The positively infectious “Hey Ya!” is an across-the-board smash, appearing not only on the R&B list but also the adult contemporary chart and even the guitars-, grunge- and white-people-heavy Modern Rock chart. “Hey Ya!” is widely predicted to top the Billboard Hot 100 by December.

It’s a bit unfair of me to treat these two songs’ chart moves as a horserace. All that does is add heat to the simmering debate of the fall: Are Dre and Boi recharging their batteries with a little healthy competition, or is OutKast, the best hip-hop group of the post-gangsta era, about to break up? It’s hard not to speculate. Hell, even Democratic hopeful Wesley Clark has an opinion.

In a series of interviews, Dre and Boi have taken pains to demur on breakup questions, refraining from even the hint of trash-talking and professing ongoing, if muted, love for each other. But they also aren’t hiding the emotions at the root of their current dilemma: Dre, a fan of Prince, guitar rock and jazz, is generally bored with hip-hop, and Big Boi, a more old-school MC, can’t convince his partner to collaborate with him much anymore. As a recent Rolling Stone interview makes clear, Boi’s Speakerboxxx would have been the bones of the new OutKast record if Dre hadn’t wanted to do a solo album. Releasing two solo albums together has forestalled the what-next? questions, by positing that two discrete projects could add up to one coherent album under the OutKast brand.

Unfortunately, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is too unwieldy for its own good. On the whole, it’s better than most double albums – both Dre and Boi have risen to the challenge of making their respective discs coherent and integrated. The Love Below, Dre’s disc, is mostly amazing, the first great Prince album in 15 years. Speakerboxxx is a subtly surprising record that marks Big Boi as the most underrated MC of our time.

But like virtually all double albums, there’s a damned good single album lurking within these two discs, and that’s the tragedy of it – it’s a potentially great novel that’s become a solid two-part epic. You feel like several subplots and even a character or two could have been dumped.

I have taken a stab at condensing the two records. Here, I present my first pass at The Love Boxxx – I’ve gotten it down to an hour and a half:


1 The Love Below (intro) 1:27 (The Love Below)
2 GhettoMusick 3:56 (Speakerboxxx)
3 A Life in the Day of Benjamin André 5:11 (The Love Below)
4 The Way You Move 3:54 (Speakerboxxx)
5 Hey Ya! 3:55 (The Love Below)
6 Unhappy 3:19 (Speakerboxxx)
7 Prototype 5:26 (The Love Below)
8 God (Interlude) 2:20 (The Love Below)
9 Love Hater 2:49 (The Love Below)
10 The Rooster 3:57 (Speakerboxxx)
11 Spread 3:51 (The Love Below)
12 Bowtie 3:56 (Speakerboxxx)
13 She Lives in My Lap 4:27 (The Love Below)
14 Church 3:27 (Speakerboxxx)
15 Roses 6:09 (The Love Below)
16 Love in War 3:25 (The Love Below)
17 War 2:43 (Speakerboxxx)
18 Bust 3:08 (Speakerboxxx)
19 Dracula’s Wedding (feat. Kelis) 2:32 (The Love Below)
20 Bamboo 2:09 (Speakerboxxx)
21 My Favorite Things 5:14 (The Love Below)
22 Good Day, Good Sir 1:24 (The Love Below)
23 Take off Your Cool (feat. Norah Jones) 2:38 (The Love Below)
24 Flip Flop Rock 4:35 (Speakerboxxx)
25 Reset 4:35 (Speakerboxxx)
26 She’s Alive 4:06 (The Love Below)

It’s a testament to how strong the two records are that I didn’t dump that many songs – mostly I dumped the skits (some of which are actually really funny) as well as some of Big Boi’s more monotonous joints. I lost fewer of Dre’s songs, because his album is just all-around more varied, but a few of his more meandering tracks (e.g., the droning “Happy Valentine’s Day”) didn’t make the cut. Still, out of 39 tracks, I dumped only 13 – exactly one-third. Some double albums can afford to lose even more than that.

I would argue that the rock era has produced only two great double albums: The Beatles’ eponymous “White Album” and Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times. Even the former is debatable: the White Album is only first-rate if you drop John Lennon’s infamous “Revolution 9″ from it. Contrary to popular belief, though, pruning that one track produces an elegant, filler-free album; The Beatles collects virtual solo songs by each of the then-warring Beatles (even Ringo), but its sonic breadth is its strength, not a weakness. Sign ‘O’ the Times, even with the inclusion of the long live jam “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” is a near-perfect album, which proves…well, simply put, Prince was once a god.

The very definition of a double album has gotten murky, given changes in format length since the LP era. Thanks to the CD’s 80-minute running time, former “doubles” such as Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and the Clash’s London Calling fit comfortably on a single disc. Those three records are high-water marks for each act, and the fact that they work artistically says to me that they were always, spiritually, single albums waiting for technology to catch up.

So here’s the rule: Any album that still needs two platters in the CD era is a true double album – and there’s a 99% chance it will be an artistic failure.

I mean, have you tried listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life lately? Wonder’s biggest seller, with a half-dozen of his best songs on it, this 1976 opus regularly shows up on greatest-albums-of-all-time lists but is, as a complete work, interminable; I defy anyone to plow through it in one sitting. Same goes for Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which sold better than its single-disc predecessor Siamese Dream but is not half as sharp. And the less said about the late-’90s era of gangsta-rap double albums, the better; the only thing that makes me grateful for Tupac’s and Biggie’s deaths is not having to sit through another of their Godfather-length albums again.

(I’ll take on defenders of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street another day; bottom line, I think it too could use some pruning. You fans of The Wall can just sit back down now.)

OutKast aren’t trying for a Songs in the Key of Life or an All Eyez on Me, a kitchen-sink space-filler. Some critics have compared OutKast’s diffuse opus to the White Album, but conceptually that’s not quite right – it’s not like The Beatles was released as a Paul disc and a John disc. No, whatever their intentions, Dre and Boi have ended up with a Use Your Illusion.

That 1991 Guns n’ Roses epic – released as two separate albums, Use Your Illusion I and II - was a cutting-edge concept at the time, so much so that Bruce Springsteen duplicated the idea six months later with the dual releases Human Touch and Lucky Town. The idea never really caught on: releasing two separate albums simultaneously is both self-indulgent and artistically indecisive, and few listeners could detect that, say, Illusion I was a conceptually different album from Illusion II – they still sounded like two halves of an overlong double album. Besides, both the Guns and Boss albums underperformed past releases, sales-wise. So with the exception of a couple of Insane Clown Posse albums, no major act has tried the dual-album stunt since. Until OutKast, that is; the only difference is, unlike Guns, the Boss or even KISS, OutKast isn’t requiring you to buy separate albums, pricing the whole package like a single CD. No wonder it’s selling so well.

My arrangement of The Love Boxxx is a work in progress – I’d love to get it down around 75–80 minutes, so it could fit on a single CD. (Suggestions of what else I should prune are welcome.) But a couple of listens have already convinced me I’ve created a better album. And it’s amazing, almost infuriating, how easily Boi’s songs and Dre’s songs work together. They really could have had their very own White Album, a pastiche of Boi songs and Dre songs complementing and commenting on each other. The strategy they chose instead shows, at worst, a failure of courage, or at best that they didn’t realize what they had.

Much as McCartney and Lennon are wrongly oversimplified as “the melodic one” and “the rockin’ one,” Dre and Boi are more complex – and closer to each other – than casual fans or even they themselves might suspect. True, André has almost no traditional hip-hop on The Love Below, but he’s still an excellent MC; if, as seems obvious, he wanted to create a great Prince album, he’s also solved the conundrum that brought Prince down in the ’90s: how to integrate rap (Prince is a terrible rapper) with first-rate electro-funk. For his part, Big Boi is no slouch in the melody-and-funk department, either: you have to pull out the jewel case to realize that the synth-heavy “Unhappy” and the jazzy “Bowtie” are on Speakerboxxx, not Dre’s disc.

You end up mystified that OutKast didn’t take an extra weekend, throw their two works-in-progress together and try to make them fit. True, you have to admire that each record works as a standalone: Speakerboxxx is a B-plus OutKast record by itself, and The Love Below is at least as good as Prince’s Lovesexy. Moreover, you have to credit Boi and Dre for their bravery, for exposing their creative differences to the world (unlike the Beatles in ‘68), making lemonade out of lemons.

Clearly, whether OutKast will continue to be a going concern is entirely up to the soul-searching André. The explosive response to his rap-free hit “Hey Ya!” may only embolden him to go his own way. I would implore him, before he decides anything, to throw the two discs of Speakerboxxx and The Love Below into a CD changer and hit “Shuffle.” Perhaps then he’ll realize all that he and Big Boi can continue to do for each other.

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