Wednesday, June 29, 2005
But the guy is always funny, and his talk-show bit professing his love for Katie Holmes is a masterpiece. In most comedians' hands, a bit like this would die out after the initial joke. Dane makes it funnier as it goes on. Seriously -- I was chuckling a little at the beginning and howling by the end.
Listen for the more subtle gags, like "she's so many words in my vernacular."
Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Is this happening because we're asking kids to grow up so fast these days? That's something strange I've noticed more since I became a parent. On one end of childhood, we're extending baby status -- kids are potty-training later and basically holding their parents' hands until age 10 or so. Of course, by that point, TV and radio have sexualized them to the point of overload.
If this continues, we're going to have kids losing their virginity in their booster seats.
And we'll get back to Spin's Top 100 list. Quick thought: Automatic for the People is a good legit choice, a strong, sweetly sentimental R.E.M. effort. Soundgarden deserves a nod, but the overrating of Beck has gone on long enough.
Oh ... and Tom Cruise? Just shut up. You're getting refuted in Entertainment Weekly, dude -- that's gotta convince you that you've made a bad choice at the spiritual-philosophical buffet. And as the close relative of someone who has suffered through mental illness, don't fucking tell me there's "no such thing as a chemical imbalance," OK? As Lewis Black just said on the Daily Show, you're walking proof.
Is it too late for Katie Holmes to marry someone else? Maybe she could go from Chris Klein, the actor, to Chris Klein, the wing midfielder for the Wizards? Even Rod Stewart and Billy Joel would be preferable.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
I'll play ball and comment on each 15. That means I can think about my response to naming OK Computer No. 1 for a little while.
Quick comments on Nos. 86-100: Basically, this is the dumping ground for a few critics' favorites that can't reasonably be ranked higher. I haven't heard enough of Slint, Neutral Milk Hotel (who?) and a few others here to get worked up about them. They can't be ranked higher because no one else heard them, either. It's nice to see a bit of respect for the Pogues, the witty and energetic Elastica debut would stand up even better today if they hadn't faded into oblivion at a pace that even Behind the Music couldn't chart, and I'll forgive them the nod to Sonic Youth as long as that intriguing but overrated band isn't represented elsewhere on the chart. I can't quite forgive them the Stereolab inclusion, and I say that as someone who owns a Stereolab CD and even saw them live once (at a festival, so it might not count). Quirky minimalism only goes so far.
Here's the problem that leaps off the page -- what is Pearl Jam's Ten doing at No. 93? Along with Nirvana's Nevermind, which is in the top 10, this is one of the most-imitated albums of the past 20 years. And I'd say it stands up a little better than Nevermind. Listen to In Bloom today, and it sounds like a relic. But Alive and Jeremy are every bit as powerful as they were back in the day.
If you're ranking the top 100 albums of the past 20 years, Ten should be no lower than its title.
To get a sense of how out of whack concert pricing has become these days, take a look at the listings for the Birchmere, a hip venue in the D.C. area.
Colin Hay, whose solo career has received a well-deserved boost from Scrubs, is an affordable $19.50. The bluegrass folks who embrace the venue are in the reasonable $20-25 range.
The doublebill of Pure Prairie League and Poco is $35. That's stretching things a bit, but those band undoubtedly have a few fans. Of course, Pure Prairie League ran through personnel in a hurry during their heyday, and I can't tell from Poco's Web site who exactly claims to be a band member these days.
"Norman Brown's Summer Storm 2005" is $49.50, but hey, they have Peabo. (Personally, I'd pay to see Peabo and Poco. Check that -- I'd pay for the T-shirt.)
"An Acoustic Evening With Liz Phair," on the other hand, is only $20. Little wonder they've added a second date. (And if I were single, I'd consider it very flattering to get a second date with Liz.) One day, I'll rant in defense of Liz Phair's recent "selling out," but I'd imagine these evenings will focus on older stuff that should sound pretty good in this setting. I'd love to hear Polyester Bride.
I have no idea what Bea Arthur does that's worth $55, but what the heck.
But America for $55? No. They have another of those Web sites that cleverly hide who's in the "band" and who's not.
But the worst offender here? Clearly -- Creedence Clearwater Revisited. For $75, I'd better see John Fogerty walk out on stage, and we know that ain't happening.
Sunday, June 19, 2005
2. I see something that would make good blog fodder, but it's past my bedtime, so I'll have to get to it tomorrow. That's if I manage to get the yard fertilized in time. I was supposed to do that today, but Father's Day festivities got in the way.
So three reminders for me tomorrow:
1. Find more of Spin's Top 100 albums of the last 20 years and blog about the inexplicable decision to rank Radiohead's OK Computer No. 1.
2. Call Dad.
3. Fertilize the yard.
Friday, June 17, 2005
That's a dangerous admission for those of us who want our opinions on music to be taken seriously. Most critical appraisals of Joni Mitchell begin like this: "When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century." So arguing that Mitchell's music isn't all that great is like telling an NBA writer that Michael Jordan was overrated.
I'll have to grant that I haven't heard Mitchell at her most experimental, though I think I have the right to be a little skeptical of the folk-jazz fusion the critics describe. Besides, when critics talk about the influence Mitchell had on music, they list a bunch of female artists who wouldn't have the slightest inclination to call up a Marsalis brother to play on their latest releases. That was Sting, not Madonna, playing with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland.
It's safe to say the Mitchell music that influenced others was her early work, from which the most lasting song is Big Yellow Taxi, from which everyone remember the "paved paradise and put up a parking lot" line.
And there's the problem. Maybe it's not fair to blame Mitchell for all the abuse and misuse this song and this line have taken over the years -- Counting Crows' typically self-impressed version leads the list of offenders. The AllMusic.com reviewer insists that this is "atypical of her work in general."
But atypical or not, this is what people think when they think of Joni Mitchell. Again, the people who followed in her wake didn't do jazz odysseys. (Yes, that's a gratuitous Spinal Tap reference to illustrate the fact that adding "jazz" doesn't make music more sophisticated.) When everyone got up on the stage toward the end of a Lilith Fair stop to do their tribute to Joni Mitchell, which song do you suppose they picked?
Given that, you can't argue that Mitchell is influential and yet dismiss Big Yellow Taxi as "atypical." (To be fair, the AllMusic links above are from different reviewers, but they seem representative of rock critics' views that I've distilled over the years.) That's the song that inspired a lot of artists that followed.
And it's not very good. The "paved paradise" line reeks of the smug self-righteousness that makes 51 percent of the country hate "liberals." (I'm not saying that's fair -- I'm saying it's true.) And maybe I'm being too literal, but how do you put "up" a parking lot? Wouldn't you put "up" a parking garage and lay down a parking lot?
I have heard other Mitchell music in the early-to-mid-80s, when everyone who made a video got a spin on MTV. It was dreary stuff. Between the video, interviews I read and pictures I saw, the main thing I remember is that she seemed obsessed with smoking. The tobacco industry hadn't had product placement that good since Hollywood's first few decades featured suave movie stars who were always ready to help the helpless damsel light up.
None of this means I don't respect Mitchell. She clearly influenced a lot of my favorite artists, including a lot of the people who were sharing the mike at the Lilith Fair. But is it possible to be influential without being all that good?
Find out next week when we write about the Velvet Underground.
(I'm kidding. I'm not doing all this on the Velvet Underground.)
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
But the genre has given us some great music, from Allman Brothers jams to songs belted out by a guy who tips the scale at about 250 pounds, 300 if you include the hair and the belt buckle.
Some of the highlights:
Flirtin' With Disaster, Molly Hatchet: The great underrated Southern rock epic, with the rhythm guitar laying down a heavy groove that backs away to let the drums take over between verses. Can't beat the vocal, a snarled tribute to pointless risk-taking complete with an impeccably timed whistle smack in the middle of the guitar solo.
Fire on the Mountain, Marshall Tucker Band: Southerners are supposed to be great storytellers. I'm not, which is why I envy this well-spun tale in which the chase of gold turns out to be a fools' pursuit. The slide guitar is evocative rather than irritating, and the understated vocal burns with the injustice of it all.
I'm Keeping Your Poop, Hayseed Dixie: I've listened a bit to XM's bluegrass channel, and I can't quite get into it. It's generally fun music until someone opens his mouth and starts singing. Too many bluegrass song titles are just permutations of the following words: hills, moon, Kentucky, grass, Mississippi, mountain, green, blue, Tennessee. And then there are the gospel songs with names like I'm Using My Bible As a Roadmap. (Seriously. And check out the freakish cover to Satan is Real, which poses all sorts of theological problems.) It's like going to a jazz club to hear Branford Marsalis, only to have him put down the sax and start ranting about an oversimplification of Buddhism or the sidewalk in his old neighborhood.
Fortunately, Hayseed Dixie realized and rectified the problem. For a good time with a bunch of guitars, banjos and fiddles, just sing a bunch of AC/DC, Kiss, Spinal Tap and J. Geils Band covers, then make sure one of only two originals in your first three albums includes the word "poop" in the title. They sing with all the sincerity of every other bluegrass artist you've heard, a deadpan performance worthy of the original Airplane cast.
Monday, June 13, 2005
More Human Than Human, White Zombie: Not only is this the only decent song that will fall out of Rob Zombie's addled mind, but the studio version is the only decent version you'll ever hear. I saw them attempt to play this on one of those MTV award shows and they ... were ... horrible. You could pick four random guys off the street, spend an hour teaching them basics of how to play their instruments, and they'd sound roughly the same. If they had any sense of rhythm (or were sober), they might sound better.
But it's a great song, isn't it?
Mirror in the Bathroom, English Beat: It's not really fair to call the English Beat a "mediocre" band, and they have other worthwhile songs -- Stand Down Margaret is a nice bit of righteous anger to a danceable beat, and we all love Save It for Later. But did they ever do anything quite like this? The compelling minor-key riff fits into a backdrop much tighter than the usual laid-back ska settings that drag down some of their other efforts, and the driving beat fits perfectly with the lyrics' tone of paranoia and alienation.
I suppose I'd go with Olbermann because it's a long-term deal and because a broadcaster-network relationship isn't unique. ESPN could sign other guys and Olbermann could sign with other networks, so there's less reason to get back together. Pink Floyd always faced questions of whether David Gilmour and Roger Waters would ever speak to each other again -- not true for Olbermann and ESPN.
Still, the thought of seeing two guys on stage after couple of decades trashing each other is pretty strange. Wonder how they'll pick a set list?
If I were Waters, I'd walk into rehearsal and say, "OK, gentlemen, let's play five songs from The Final Cut. No matter that you guys barely played on it -- it WAS the last album we did together, after all." Then I'd pause, then I'd break out laughing and say I was kidding. That'd break the ice. Just don't make that pause too long.
The blogosphere would have something to say about it if any non-political bloggers in the world were over 25. I wonder how many kids are thinking, "I like Pink, but who's this Floyd guy?"
Friday, June 10, 2005
I click, and then I'm back on UPop again listening to the great bass line, later echoed by the vocals in the chorus.
All together now: Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh bwow bwuh-bwuh bwow bwuh-bwow duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh bwow bwuh-bwuh bwow bwuh-bwow
(Hmmm ... that's not a very good representation. Now I know why podcasting is catching on.)
Anyway, it got me thinking about great bass lines.
In my younger days, I actually was a decent bass player. I sometimes had to carry a string bass on a campus bus, which usually meant people would demand to hear something. The standbys were the crowd-pleasers: Stand By Me and Pink Floyd's Money. If I was feeling adventurous, I might give The Police's Demolition Man a run, but that wasn't as instantly recognizable, even in those days (late '80s-early '90s).
A few other great bass lines:
Anything by Rush: Yes, I'm weaseling out of the prospect of picking just one Geddy Lee work.
Roundabout, Yes: But I will single out one Chris Squire line, though the bass showcase Does It Really Happen? from the transitional CD Drama is equally good. The difference in Roundabout is that his Squire's active bass provides the glue between the gentle classical guitar and the flashy synthesizer fills.
(By the way, I did hear the acoustic shuffle-time version of Roundabout the other day. It's actually not that bad, though it's too much of a novelty for me to rush out and download it. It's better than Big Country's similar re-working of In a Big Country, which made me think Stuart Adamson had spent too much time in Nashville.)
Radio Free Europe, R.E.M.: I'm sure the guitar magazines could have polls for years and never mention anyone from R.E.M., and I can recall a bit of anti-R.E.M. sentiment from the guys who thought Peter Buck's guitar work was a little too elementary. If they'd been paying attention, they would've noticed that what makes a lot of R.E.M. songs so listenable is that they sound a bit different in ways that are more subtle that your typical art-student crap bands. I'm not the first to notice that Mike Mills' bass lines often took the role usually filled by the guitarist, giving the counterpoint to the vocals while the guitar chimed in accompaniment -- I think I first read it in Musician, which noted that The Who operated along the same lines.
My City Was Gone, The Pretenders: Speaking of Big Country, this classic line was a contribution from Tony Butler, who was filling in for the Pretenders as they sorted out their personnel after losing half of the original lineup.
(If I had a time machine, one of my first destinations would be a late-80s Big Country show. I've heard a couple of clips, and they ... sound ... amazing.)
A Sort of Homecoming, U2: Simplicity isn't such a bad thing. This Adam Clayton effort is straight out of the Mike Mills school of providing a melodic contrast to a chiming guitar line.
Shark, Throwing Muses: I can't tell you how happy I am that Bernard Georges has his own Wikipedia entry. He was the perfect bassist for the years in which the Muses were a power trio.
Wynona's Big Brown Beaver, Primus: In retrospect, it's a good thing Les Claypool flunked his Metallica audition. This is the high point of Claypool's skittering bass style, though Tommy the Cat has its moments.
That should be enough to get the conversation started.
Less convincing is the review at The Washington Post, which seems to suggest that Coldplay has left behind its British melancholy, and that's too bad:
Somebody should have warned Coldplay's Chris Martin about the uplifting perils of parenthood. Once one of Brit-pop's great introspective brooders, the new papa has apparently learned that there just isn't time anymore for mopey-dopey woes about society's inherent loneliness and related existential misery. Not when there's one diaper left and Target closes in 10 minutes.
Speaking as a parent, I can tell you that few things can induce existential misery more effectively than a diaper emergency. You spend 20 years in school getting all kinds of degrees, and suddenly you start to think of yourself as a failure because you haven't adequately coped with your offspring's poop.
Wednesday, June 08, 2005
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Well, yes, they're Welsh, but Stereophonics happen to sing in English, without song titles like Glynywwywyw.
Here? Well .
I don't envy the British in all regards - as much as I love the BBC as an institution, their pop offerings veer heavily toward the same sounds you'd hear in a club, and the beautifully bittersweet Dakota probably isn't pushing nicely dressed London professionals onto the dance floor these days. But it's a little sad that we in the Colonies can't pick up on a perfectly crafted pop song like this. Between my Launch player, XM's UPop channel and my iPod, I've heard it many, many times now, and I'm not the least bit tired of it. They lay down a relaxing minimalist groove (no small feat in itself - most pulsing backbeats have the same effect as Chinese water torture) under a wistful melody that perfectly suits the verses, then the chorus howls and breaks up the tranquility. It's not angry, and it's not despondent, so it's not like 99 percent of the relationship songs that Gen X and Gen Y have produced. Yet the lyrics convey the sense that the guy will always wish things hadn't ended.
Maybe it only appeals to older guys like me. I can't relate directly through any old relationship, but I appreciate that happy memories are often tied to sad farewells.
Then again, it's not as if everyone downloading this song in the U.K. is a sentimental 30something parent like me.
So go to iTunes, plunk down your 99 cents and get this song. I guarantee that you'll like it. *
* - guarantee void in the United States and all countries that can access American Web sites.
Monday, June 06, 2005
(For the record -- Pareles isn't the reviewer who memorably dissed Jimi Hendrix in the '60s. That was future Bruce Springsteen manager Jon Landau.)
Coldplay has two songs I'd rank among the best of the past 10 years -- Clocks and The Scientist, and I enjoy Yellow and God Put a Smile Upon Your Face. But Pareles has a point. It is odd that a band as mopey as Coldplay is so huge, and they are a bit predictable. God Put a Smile Upon Your Face is about as close as they come to a change of pace.
Great bands can mix it up a bit. R.E.M.'s early releases had a few songs that complemented but didn't mimick their basic jangle-pop song, and they re-invented their sound for Fables of the Reconstruction and the next few albums. U2's classic The Joshua Tree built on the sound of their earlier work.
That means bands have to take risks that sometimes don't pay off. R.E.M. hasn't done much of note since Bill Berry left. U2 was headed downhill for a while but bounced back. Radiohead ... well, they just got weird.
Back in our CD buying days (1987-2003), we picked up a couple of Coldplay CDs. But I never really got into them. Sure, many bands have a couple of hit singles and some filler, but this was a different problem -- I just can't devote that much time to moping. In high school, I did, but the depressing Husker Du music in my tape deck wasn't quite as one-note as Coldplay.
I've only heard Speed of Sound from the new one, but I hope my expectations -- and Pareles' -- are offbase.
Friday, June 03, 2005
The other frustrating aspect of Nine Inch Nails was that Reznor always strained to be saying something really important. Can you actually remember the message of any Nine Inch Nails song other than Closer? Even that's a stretch, unless you count wanting to have sex in a bad way as a "message." Other than that, it's the same vague nihilism that dragged down a lot of alt-rock's various subgenres for the next decade.
The redeeming qualities -- first of all, Reznor didn't always take himself too seriously. The video for March of the Pigs was a clever bit of deadpan self-parody in which he threw an amusing tantrum. (Classic Beavis & Butt-head: They see Reznor toss away his mike at the end, then quip "Thank you very much, we're Nine Inch Nails.")
And best of all, they had a handful of good songs. They seemed to spend the rest of their time trying to replicate those songs, but that's OK.
They're back after a few years off, which is a bit of a surprise. They were such a product of their time that a Frankie Goes To Hollywood reunion would make more sense somehow.
Yet they're somehow welcome. Maybe The Hand That Feeds sounds exactly like Nine Inch Nails circa 1994, as if nothing else has happened. Fine. More power to them.
Sometimes, though, you have to look beyond your preferences and recognize that occasional songs and musicians are all that.
Case in point: I read a couple of reviews of last night's summer reality filler, Hit Me Baby One More Time.
The show was disappointing in so many respects. Any time someone asks, "What was the inspiration for Working for the Weekend?" you know you're not watching great television. And as I feared, they assumed no one had been watching VH1's Bands Reunited and therefore wouldn't notice that the other three members of A Flock of Seagulls weren't the other three members of A Flock of Seagulls. ("Will they have their distinctive hairdos?" "NO! Because they aren't the same guys! Except for the lead singer, whose hairstyle now consists of covering up whatever isn't covered by hair.")
The problem I have with the reviews, especially on the "Foxes on Idol" site, is that people aren't looking past their preferred genres.
I'm no fan of hip-hop, and I'm generally suspicious of manufactured corporate pop. But there are a few things that simply can't be denied:
- Arrested Development's Tennessee is one of those songs, like Eminem's Stan, that transcends the "hip-hop" tag. Maybe that's because it's not quite hip-hop, maybe it's because it has a melody, or maybe it's because it has something to say. Maybe all three.
- Kelly Clarkson can sing, and Breakaway is a half-decent pop song. Being meaningful to 13-year-olds isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'll have a 13-year-old in 11 years and change, and I could actually deal with hearing stuff like this.
- Tiffany, to my surprise, sang Breakaway pretty well. Not as well as Clarkson, but not bad at all.
None of this is all that important -- I don't really care who wins this show, and I'm not going to run out and get Tiffany's version of Breakaway. (Yes, "run out and get" is an outdated phrase, but it sounds better than "flip on the laptop and download.")
But keeping an open mind on music can pay off. Back in the Lilith Fair days, I hung around at my friendly neighborhood festival amphitheater to see Emmylou Harris out of curiosity while a friend of mine sniffed that she didn't like country and wandered off. Her loss. Emmylou, who was then in her Daniel Lanois-influenced atmospheric phase, was one of the highlights. That led me to get her Wrecking Ball, a beautiful fusion of introspective country and laid-back spiritual rock, and Red Dirt Girl, which was a little more traditional but sometimes interesting.
Sometimes, you have to listen to the music. Reading the label isn't enough.
It's mostly modern in the sense that I'm not writing about classical. I have a music degree, so I'm excused from writing any more about the rise of romanticism or trying to explain what happened to the whole genre in the 20th century. I might reach back to the Beatles' early albums, but that's about it.
But it's also "modern" in the sense that it's not "postmodern." I won't get all academic here, so I'll put it like this -- I think some music is better than other music, and I'm going to say so.
It's important to think about these things these days because we're overwhelmed with choices, and most of them aren't good. Radio programmers went down a dull road of conformity and marched right off the cliff like the lemmings they are. (Case in point: The death of the once-mighty Washington-Baltimore alternative station WHFS, which lost its soul as it chased the skateboarder demographic. They did reinvent themselves by taking a few hours on a corporate brother in Baltimore, going back to their roots and putting together an impressive bill for the HFStival, which has happily survived.) Satellite radio beats you over the head with its giant playlists, carefully categorized, but it takes only a few hours of listening to realize that tossing aside the gatekeeper means you're going to drown in a flood of mediocre music. If you've ever made a mad dash through 100 or so channels on a poorly mounted satellite radio receiver at a traffic light, you know what I mean.
And now we're all getting iPods and downloading whatever we like. (Judging by the iTunes "Top Songs" list, we all like Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl, but that's another rant.) That's great in a lot of ways, but it's going to make it harder for us to discern what's truly good.
And I worry that it's going to be harder for bands to develop. That's heresy to those who think this great new "democratic" era will free us from record company shackles. But the trouble is this -- the 99-cent-per-play, 200-radio-channel universe makes music even more disposable than it has been in the past, and that'll make it harder for bands to have the U2-R.E.M. career path in which they build up an audience and find their artistic vision over time.
Sound pretentious? OK, maybe it is. I respect Gene Simmons' realistic view of his own career, but some people did, in fact, get into music for reasons other than picking up women. (For some, that's a welcome fringe benefit but still not the main reason -- why am I picturing Bart Simpson in the Spinal Tap episode?)
So if I've lost you, I've lost you. For the rest of you, I've given you some idea of what this blog will be about. Enjoy.