Archive forSeptember, 2005

INSTINCT BLUES

    Two back-to-back White Stripes concerts suggest that Jack White is getting a little cuddlier, and affirmed that Meg White is more than window-dressing.

Last week I imitated David Letterman, and this week I’ll reference Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? So here’s our qualifying round – place the following second bananas of famous rock duos in order, from most important to least important:


    A. John Oates of Hall & Oates
    B. Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!
    C. Meg White of the White Stripes
    D. Curt Smith of Tears for Fears

Okay, time’s up: the correct answers are C, A, D, B.

Moving from the rear of the pack, Ridgeley is clearly one of the most useless band members in rock history, the Johnny Drama to George Michael’s Vincent Chase. Smith had a decent new-wave singing voice but was clearly in TFF at Roland Orzabal’s pleasure. Oates – he of the unfortunate ’80s perm and chili-dog mustache – is actually an undeserving punchline and a bit underrated: his guitar playing and harmony vocals are a key part of the H&O sound, and he’s a respected producer. But within H&O, Oates wasn’t really the force behind the power of Daryl Hall, who cowrote most of the duo’s hits, released perfectly good solo albums away from Oates, and was the group’s clear focal point both onstage and on MTV.

By a hair – Oates almost wins this one – the most indispensible second banana here is Meg White. Yes, primitive-drumming, offkey-warbling Meg. (To be fair, this isn’t an all-time list, and Meg would pale in comparison to other second bananas: you can’t have Simon and Garfunkel without ol’ Artie’s soaring voice; OutKast’s Big Boi is as good a rapper as Andre 3000, even if he’s not as interesting or creative; and Fabrice Morvan was no less essential to Milli Vanilli than Rob Pilatus – they were equally talentless.)

The only way to appreciate Meg’s role in the White Stripes – a group conceived, fronted, produced, designed and given the very breath of life by her ex-husband and “brother” Jack White – is to see them live. Which is just what I did last weekend – twice.

I’ve never seen a band live on consecutive nights. (No Deadhead, I.) Over the years I’ve seen several acts as many as four or five times – Beck, Ben Folds – but I guess I’ve never been obsessive enough about any group to want to see them live multiple times in a row. Or the acts I’ve loved have either been too popular (Prince, the Pixies) or too broken up (the Beatles) to make this even possible.

The White Stripes were my first double-show band, thanks entirely to my mother-in-law, , who is still a teenager at heart. A fan of blues-rock in the ’60s and alt-rock since the ’90s, Sara has been obsessed with Jack White’s output since White Blood Cells in ‘01 and now has total recall of everything he’s done since the Stripes’ self-titled 1999 debut. She BitTorrents WS concert bootlegs and can’t wait to hear Jack’s upcoming side project, the Raconteurs, with Brendan Benson.

When Sara heard the Stripes were not only coming to New York but playing in our home borough of Brooklyn, she immediately cajoled us into getting tickets and hosting her for the weekend (which was fine; she was due a visit). Weeks later, when they added a second date, she got excited, because the folks on her fansite told tales of wildly varying set lists and Jack’s random outbursts. A bit sheepishly, she called us back and asked if one of us would mind seeing the second show, too. Stripes fan and loyal son-in-law, I agreed.

The first night, we had a small crowd with us: , my college friend Matt, my friend and former Billboard editor Brian, his girlfriend Sharon. The second night, it was just my mother-in-law and me ( and her beau were at the show, but we couldn’t mingle with them because they were in a different section). The Shins opened both nights – in fine form, I might add – and Brendan Benson was the pre-opener on Saturday; we didn’t bother with pre-opener M. Ward on Sunday.

Sara, a relative newbie to LiveJournal, posted her very own, very good review of the shows the other day. I agree with her assessment pretty much across the board. Night one was frat-boy night, full of drunken, “when are they gonna play ‘Seven Nation Army’?” types, and Jack put on a polished but still awe-inspiring show. Contrary to his enfent terrible reputation, Jack seemed to accept that he was there to entertain – even with all the drunken yahoos in the crowd, he seemed almost cuddly. Night two was closer to the diehard night Sara was hoping for – less overtly crowd-pleasing and a bit quirkier. Jack was still friendly but a little more focused on his work, as it were. Oddly, on night two, the set was shorter: when Jack gets quirky, he doesn’t play longer; he plays bits of more songs, crashing one electric bit into another in a see if-you-can-spot-this-one game. It’s as if he’s sampling himself.

Anyway, back to Meg: the simplest way to describe the White Stripes’ stage presence is to call Jack a hyperactive moon and Meg the Earth. He flits around the stage, switching instruments on virtually every song (electric guitar, then acoustic, then mandolin, piano, marimba), while quite literally orbiting around her drum kit. Her kit always faces sideways, so they can watch each other while she’s thumping away; truthfully, he watches her more than she does him. Jack has microphones set up both in front of the stage and right near her kit, so they can sing eye-to-eye if the moment warrants a bit of drama. He draws near her for a verse, then flits off to some other part of the stage, but not for more than a song, sometimes a half-song. Her gravitational pull on him – even years after the end of their romantic life together – is constant.

This stage setup can be seen as an act of generosity and chivalry on Jack’s part, a way to make Meg feel like the center of attention. (Not like she needs it: every horny indie-rock fanboy knows that Meg is cute, capable and has huge…tracts of land.) It can be viewed as Jack showing off, proving that the White Stripes are a true duo who need no embellishment – thought it’s pretty obvious that they get offstage backing on occasion – and proving to his critics that Meg is as important onstage as he is.

Or it could simply be a reflection of Jack’s sense of reality: for whatever reason, he needs Meg. There’s a bit of Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers going on there (quoth Katherine Hepburn: “He gives her class, she gives him sex”), but that’s not it. Meg has become, in her own modest way, not only a decent and reliable drummer but also an integral part of the White Stripes’ sound. I’ve poked fun at Meg’s workmanlike bash-bash-bash before, and some critics have said worse; not since Ringo Starr has a drummer been so tarred as outclassed by her company. But watching them live, it all makes sense: Meg’s baby–John Bonham thump provides all the bottom that Jack White’s songs need, giving him plenty of space to play around but a rock-solid foundation. Sure, he could be playing with Jim Keltner or Dave Grohl, but who needs that much drumming? For the White Stripes to work, Jack needs symbiosis. In his ex-wife, he has just what he needs.

The first time I saw the Stripes live, it was the summer of 2002, in a double-bill with the Strokes at Radio City Music Hall. White Blood Cells had just been re-released on a major label, Elephant wasn’t even a gleam in Jack’s eye, and the twosome were out to prove that their newfound MTV exposure and rock-press hype hadn’t spoiled them. They were technically the show opener, and some of the crowd eager for the Strokes clearly weren’t into it, in no small part because Jack wasn’t trying to please anybody: he stomped and squealed and pealed off unflinching blues riffs, rarely finishing a song and barely acknowledging the crowd. I, for one, loved it.

The only person Jack seemed even aware of in that cavernous hall that night was Meg. At that point, all the details about their complicated relationship weren’t out yet; the press was still digging around for evidence of their brief marriage and taunting Jack for the whole brother-sister charade. Onstage, Jack looked impassioned but self-absorbed, a large chip clearly on his shoulder. His interaction with Meg seemed one of swimmer-escaping-sharks to piece-of-handy-driftwood. They were focused on each other, but for all their bravado, they looked like they were clinging to each other out of necessity.

The Jack we saw last weekend was older, newly married, a platinum journeyman, a bit more settled (in my mother-in-law’s opinion, perhaps too settled; she wanted to see a little more freakout at the show!) – a guy confident enough to entertain the crowd in his own peculiar idiom. Yet his devotion to Meg remains undimmed. Meg’s never going to be fool enough to try to go solo, but she’s matured and gotten more confident, too. Her drumming was natural and unforced, and her vocal on “In the Cold, Cold Night,” after a couple of bum notes, bordered on flawless. (She’s still gotta work on singing Get Behind Me Satan’s “Passive Manipulation” in key, though.) Even after observing all of Jack’s dalliances with celebrity – dating Renée Zellweger, marrying a model, producing Loretta Lynn – she looks more unfazed to be sharing a stage with him than ever.

So, final trivia question: When is Meg White going to record a drum solo?

Answer: On the final White Stripes album, the next-to-last song – just like Ringo. It will last 15 seconds, and, defying expectations, it will kick ass.

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GO ‘HEAD, GET DOWN

    Top 10 reasons why Kanye West, at this particular moment in history, is the man. (But not The Man.)

[Cue David Letterman:] From the home office on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois – let’s do this….

10. Kanye released the hip-hop album of the year – the only thing it pales in comparison with is his own work. Sure, a few critics have gone a little crazy overpraising Late Registration. It’s too soon to call it a five-star record, and probably wishful thinking. I understand the people saying it’s a disappointment after the high expectations set by his 2004 work. But it’s still the best hip-hop record since, um…well, The College Dropout, which had better singles but also weaker flow. Oh, and by the way? It’s a grower: by around the 10th listen, you’ll start thinking it might be a classic, too.

9. Kanye ejected Mariah Carey from the top of the Billboard charts, and he did it in style. Carey’s “We Belong Together” was #1 on the Hot 100 singles chart for four months – so damn long that she had enough time to put a second song in the Top 10. Three weeks ago, Carey was getting set to replace herself at #1 with the followup single, “Shake It Off,” which had climbed to #2, right behind “Belong.” Chart-watchers were already talking it up: it would be her 17th #1 single, tying her with Elvis Presley on the all-time list; and she’d join an elite club of acts that replaced themselves at #1…and then West stormed in and fucked it all up, jumping from #19 to #1 in one fell swoop, one of the biggest upsets the singles charts have ever seen. For West, it was the fifth-largest jump to #1 in Billboard history. For Carey: DENIED!

8. Kanye went to #1 the week of my birthday. Wow, screwing up Mariah’s victory party the week ending 10 September? Thanks, Kanye!

7. Kanye looks better in all-white than Sean Combs ever will. At the MTV awards, host Doody (is that his name now? I forget) tried to exude that end-of-summer cool, but West made it look effortless.

6. Kanye followed up the iPod nano. Steve Jobs’s tastes run more toward Dylan and the Eagles than hip-hop, but he needed somebody young and indisputably cool to follow up the launch of the nano in San Francisco the week after Labor Day. Who’d he call? Duh. You try rapping in front of a room full of honky geeks who want to go fondle a new gadget; that’s a tougher room than Eminem faced in 8 Mile.

5. Kanye has pretty good skits on his album. There are only a few of them, they’re short, and they’re funny: a series about a fraternity of broke-ass brothers called Broke Phi Broke. A sample of their step-show chant:

    How many cars do we own? (None!)
    HOW MANY CARS DO WE OWN?! (NONE, SIR!)
    Should we let our woman go and be with the cat in the car?
    (Yes, we will!)
    Why? Because we can’t afford gas. Say it with me!
    (We can’t afford no gas!)
    Say it!
    (We can’t afford no gas!)
    So we ain’t drivin’!

Okay, well, I think it’s funny. Actually, the best part is the skit where Kanye says (this is a quote), “I was – you crazy, I wasn’t…I didn’t, um…I was just um…I was….”

4. Kanye is secretly a nerd: looks comfortable next to Harkness Tower, awkward next to hos. The photography for Late Registration was taken at Yale, including shots inside my old residential college dining hall, the building where I took English classes, and the school’s landmark Harkness Tower. The fact that West looks self-assured next to the trappings of academia/geekdom is a reflection of his natural confidence (to say nothing of his ego). Yet in his video for “Gold Digger,” he looks strangely out of place next to scantily-clad models – and the sly-but-sheepish look on his face suggests he knows it.

3. Kanye, supposed egomaniac, works well with others. Late Registration has the most interesting cast of performers and co-producers on any album since Lauryn Hill’s. Jon Brion, the producer of high-functioning L.A. neurotics like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann? Check. Paul Wall, the “chopped-n-screwed” Houston MC whose idea of a party is a bottle of cough syrup? Check. Jay-Z, label president and reputed retiree? Check. Jamie Foxx, the smoothest loverman of the aughts, and Adam Levine of Maroon 5, the dweebiest loverman? Check, check. He even lets Common take the best rhymes at the beginning of “My Way Home.”

2. Kanye said what everyone was thinking about the president, and on live TV. You know what happened. And goddamn, I don’t care what anyone says – for a guy in the middle of a label-sanctioned promotional tour, appearing on a live, make-nice telethon, it was selfless and brave. Nearly a month later, it’s starting to feel like the cultural turning point of the Katrina madness. Kanye West called Bush The Man, which, not incidentally, made Kanye the man.

And the number one reason Kanye is the man….

1. After dissing the president, Kanye’s sales went UP. Remember Natalie Maines? Lead Dixie Chick disses president live onstage; press, Nashville and red states go apeshit; Dixie Chicks single plummets from #1 to off the Country chart in two weeks flat. Two and a half years later, Kanye says something even nastier about Bush, to an exponentially larger crowd, and his single shoots from #19 to #1. And stays there – now in its third week atop the Hot 100, “Gold Digger” keeps selling more copies at iTunes and picking up more radio airplay every week. It’s even inspired an admiring parody record, “George Bush Don’t Like Black People,” and a hilarious accompaying video. Get down, indeed.

So talk all you want about the guy’s ego, his contradictory nature, the merits of his overhyped album, the size of his bling: right now, Kanye West is just bigger than you and me.

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FREAK LIKE ME

    A quick recap of this year’s Song Of Summer sweepstakes, before the leaves start turning. I think the winner might just be the song by a bunch of PG13–rated strippers.

So last night over drinks my friend Brian – a senior writer at Billboard – asked me what, in my opinion, ended up being the winning song of Summer 2005. Obviously Brian knows how things turned out on the Billboard charts, but since I tend to obsess over this topic, he figured I’d be good for an opinion. He’d also recently gotten into a debate with another friend over this.

I couldn’t pick a clear winner. I was trying to be objective, not just pick a summer song I liked.

Brian proposed Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl,” but his other friend had disagreed. I wanted to agree with Brian because “Hollaback” has all the hallmarks of a Song Of Summer – huge hit, cultural resonance, really dopey, irresistibly catchy – but I had to agree with his buddy: “Hollaback” peaked last spring. “Hollaback” was actually a graduation song; if you were leaving high school or college as part of the Class of ‘05, and you’re of the female persuasion, “Hollaback Girl” was clearly your song. But by the 4th of July, “Hollaback” was over.

Kelefa Sanneh at The New York Times ran an article several weeks ago proclaiming Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” the winner, and purely in terms of chart stats, he’s basically right: it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 huge weeks, from early June right through Labor Day (Kanye West finally ejected Mariah two weeks ago; I’ll get to that another day). But Brian argued – and I think he’s got a point – that it’s hard to look back on a ballad as the quintessential Song Of Summer. I tend to agree. “We Belong Together” was the Aural Wallpaper Of Summer.

As a fallback pick, I proposed Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.,” which is summery, topped the modern rock charts in August after climbing all summer, and has generally been ubiquitous. But that was kind of wishful thinking on my part as a rock-loving white guy. I mean, De La Soul’s guest rap notwithstanding, do we really think urban teenagers, black or white, really give a damn about Gorillaz? A Song Of Summer has to sound tailor-made for both car radios and ghetto blasters. “Feel Good” was the Summer Song of Suburbia.

One day later, we have yet another proposal, this time from a writer at Slate: the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha.” In his well-written article, Troy Patterson makes a pretty airtight case.

I think we may have a winner here. I mean, “Don’t Cha” is catchy, uptempo, disposable, hip-hop-savvy without actually being a rap song, very radio-friendly, stupid (Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was HOT like me?/Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was a FREAK like me?/Don’t cha?), ubiquitous, and massively popular. If that’s not a summer song, what is? Plus, it was recorded by a working burlesque troupe! So it even implicitly celebrates the removal of clothing!

More seriously, it did have serious chart prowess during the Dog Days of ‘05: though Mariah’s single topped the all-genre Hot 100, “Don’t Cha” was #1 throughout July and August on Billboard’s other big singles chart, the Top 40–centric Pop 100; and it sold as many or more copies on iTunes. So a case can be made that the Pussycat Dolls and Mariah had equally popular summer singles.

Patterson’s Slate article is a great read, because he not only makes a case for the song, he delves into the entire postmodern burlesque scene that birthed the Dolls as a pop-culture phenomenon, years before they set foot in a studio.

(About the only detail Patterson leaves out of his article is the controversy over the song itself, which was previously recorded by a different singer, the ill-fated Tori Alamaze. Her version racked up some sales and airplay on the West Coast in 2004 before being pulled over a dispute with her label, Universal. The Dolls’ producers subsequently picked up the song to be their leadoff single, leaving poor Alamaze in the lurch.)

I was too embarrassed to put “Don’t Cha” on my official CD release of Summer 2005, but I did give it to Emily on her iPod as a Summer bonus track, prompting to poke fun at me (or seek solidarilty with me for having trashy taste, or something). But I gotta admit, I liked “Don’t Cha” pretty much from the moment I first heard it. In his review of the Dolls’ just-released album in last week’s Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield praised the song’s sonic homage to the early ’90s, before Nirvana broke: the age of Gerardo’s “Rico Suave” and Cathy Dennis’s “Touch Me (All Night Long).”

But the sound of “Don’t Cha” takes me back a little further than that – with its horns and conga beat, it’s got a real mid-’80s sheen. What Busta Rhymes is to the Pussycat Dolls on “Don’t Cha”, Rick James was to the Mary Jane Girls on “In My House” back in ‘85: the R&B veteran who gives them cred. Only in ‘85, the entire Mary Jane concept was actually invented by James; in 2005, with the Pussycat Dolls, we have an example of salacious pop tarts who invent themselves.

It’s a celebration, bitches.

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