Thursday, March 31, 2005


Everyone knows about Lynyrd Skynyrd's Street Survivors (with the band pictured in flames just before the tragic plane crash) and many also know about the Who's Who Are You cover (with Keith Moon sitting in a chair bearing the words "not to be taken away" on the last album before death did in fact take him away). But these are curious ironies, not tasteless marketing. Both albums preceded the tragedies that make them ironic.

Here are a couple more examples of ironic albums, but these don't have the benefit of being prophetic, they're just uncouth.

  • Great White's Burning House of Love:

    This is some Italian release or something, so I dunno how much Great White actually had to do with it. Even so, it did come out after their big fireworks show gone awry and the only way they could have been more tasteless would have been to call it Burning House of Love in Rhode Island.

  • Motley Crue's Music to Crash Your Car To:

    This one is even more brazen. At least Great White's disaster was an accident (even if they should have known better). Vince Neil is just a pig who puts his own good times ahead of the well-being of others. Despite how appalled I am at drunk driving, I could forgive Vince if there was some indication that he'd learned something and was sorry. Instead, his bandmates join in his guilt by laughing about years later. Good ol' Vince killed one guy and seriously injured two others. Now he's capitalizing on it. It's so disgusting that I even have a hard time stomaching Too Fast for Love and Shout at the Devil anymore. Maybe I should look at the bright side. After 15 years of lousy music, at least they can still laugh at themselves. Or maybe they'd rather draw attention to the car wreck to divert it from the train wreck that their discography has become.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

I've Heard It Before (Don't Wanna Hear It Again)

While I don't think Black Flag had derivitive music in mind when they wrote that line, the rage easily be applied. Chuck recently asked me to listen to a few tracks off of Anberlin's Blueprints for the Black Market. Having little background in punk and emo, he wasn't sure if it was really good (just like I'm usually not sure if a particular techno album that sounds good to me is actually good). I, on the other hand, was sure. It sucked. It didn't suck because it was utterly awful. It sucked because it was utterly average. Perhaps if I'd heard Anberlin five years ago, I could stomach them, but not now after a seemingly interminable parade of emo pretenders. Even their positivity (I read about it, because I couldn't get through enough of them to discover it for myself), couldn't save them. Positivity is usually worth a few points in my book, but it wasn't working for Anberlin. Emo was a great idea as a reaction to the stupid machismo of 80s hardcore. It was cool that bands could write misfit songs that didn't revolve around hate and simpleton anger. But by the time Anberlin got to emo, it was just a structure within which a band could be sappy and maudlin and sell it as honesty. It almost makes me miss the old days of macho stupidity.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

...And You'll Know Us By the Trail of Dead

The new And You'll Know Us By the Trail of Dead album, Worlds Apart, is pretty much incredible. The first track came on and it was like a post-hardcore Queen. The following track was more like straightforward emo and I started thinking that this might be a transitional album where they try some new things, but aren't quite ready to fly. It piqued my interest, but I wasn't prepared for what followed. The album proceeds to unleash travels down many different musical roads that nonetheless lead to one rather ambitious destination. Over the course of the album, they touch on piano pieces, classical, emo, post-hardcore, rootsy punk and others. Even the more mainstream songs have subtley quirky rhythms or peculiar instrumentations with strings and even timpani (it sure sounded like kettledrums) that make this album big, like arena big without compromising it's hardcore roots. While Mars Volta moved beyond post-hardcore (does that make them post-post-hardcore?) into prog (progcore as Chuck astutely observed), And You'll Know Us By the Trail of Dead simply takes the post-hardcore thing they'd done well previously and makes it big and expansive. There's no compromise here, just an expansion of boundaries.

Monday, March 28, 2005

50 Cent

50 Cent is really just a Britney Spears who's been shot nine times. The whole idea of him as a credible artist is based on him getting shot and not his contribution to the music released under his name. He must be real if he's been shot, right? Seriously, when you boil it down, he's no more talented a rapper than Britney is a singer. Everything that makes his material listenable is the part that he doesn't touch. They've both put style over substance and lack any real talent.

Oh yeah, and they both have great abs. Does that count for something other than marketing?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

This Bike is a Pipe Bomb

Three Way Tie for Last is like a punk rock "O Brother Where Art Thou." It made sense to put the two together. The everyman genuineness of good punk has a certain commonality with the everyman genuineness of old-time country and bluegrass. This Bike is a Pipe Bomb packages it all up in an album about the struggles of the imperfect heroes of boxing (among other things). If you want to construct your own reality and pretend that everything is effortlessly nice and happy, go listen to new age. If you want to listen to the real trials and tribulations of being human, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb is a good dose of just that.

By the way, Chuck will hate it for other reasons.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Kills

The new Kills album, No Wow, is like an album of love songs with all the romance of a seedy strip club. W's sensuous, almost bluesy vocals have the allure and raw sex of an erotic dancer while Hotel's mechanical neo-new wave beats are a reminder that you can't touch. Hotel's fuzzy garage guitar is just enough edge to make the whole thing even more dark and unsettling. "Murdermile" and "Dead Road 7" are particularly dark, but the whole set makes you feel like your brain is, to borrow from Jim Morrison, "squirming like a toad."

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Mars Volta, Part 2

In a previous post, I suggested that Mars Volta may be on the verge of becoming the next Pink Floyd and releasing an album on par with Dark Side of the Moon. Tonight, while driving home and thinking of what to post, I wondered, "What if they don't release something on the level of Dark Side?" A few seconds later, it occurred to me: They become the next King Crimson. And that might be even better.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Greatest Hits?!?!?

I just noticed today that Rhapsody has added Better Than Ezra's Greatest Hits. Greatest hits? Should that really be plural? I remember "Good" being a decent song at a time when most things on the radio were decent. I vaguely remember that they had another single (from the next album?) that charted, but didn't get that much play. Maybe I'm being too harsh then. Maybe their Greatest Hits is a short EP. Nope. I went back to check and there's 16 tracks on it. I guess their standard for "great" is just pretty low. And their standard for "hit" must be as well. Maybe they think "hit" actually means "released" or maybe only "recorded." I'd suggest that it's a marketing ploy, but who would buy it? Please tell me no one would buy it.

This reminds of reading that Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a greatest hits album back in 1994 (Bang!...The Greatest Hits of Frankie Goes to Hollywood). I remember thinking to myself at the time that it must be a single with "Relax" on one side and "Two Tribes" on the other. Nope, it was 13 tracks (including a Gerry and the Pacemakers cover, no less). I know they didn't have 13 hits! They had two albums, Welcome to the Pleasuredome (16 tracks) and Liverpool (8 tracks), with a grand total of 24 tracks. If 13 were hits, why did they stop after only two albums? The odds aren't that good for U2. They weren't even that good for the Beatles!

Those are just two examples, 11 years apart, but this happens all the time. A band has a big hit and maybe a few minor hits in the years that follow and then all of the sudden there's a Greatest Hits album full of songs that are neither great nor hits. Who buys this? Is it an attempt to sell to people who remember the song and can't remember what album it was on? A quick browse at and a trip to the used bin of the local record store would save them some money. And it would keep a little money out of the pockets of labels and bands who want to repackage and resell stuff that wasn't all that good the first time around.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Cool Labels

Awhile back, I posted about No Idea Records. Here's a few more cool labels to check out:

  • Turn Records - Turn is a great little indie rock label. The catalog is small in size, but big in coolness. Jeff, who runs the label, takes a personal interest in the music too, which probably accounts for the quality of the releases. There's always some good free stuff in the package too. Check out: Dying Californian, the Candies, the Contrail, Rum Diary/Desert City Soundtrack split 7".

  • Pehr Records - Pehr is another cool indie label. Their catalog has a lot of very low-key stuff. It's not something to listen to all the time, but there's nothing like it when you're in the mood for something mellow yet slightly off-kilter. Check out: Timonium, Divided Body, Windsor for the Derby. They have a sampler for 1 cent, so you can't go wrong.

  • Slowdance Records - Slowdance Records has one thing that makes them really stand out: Velvet Teen. The rest of the catalog is pretty good too. Check out Kissing Tigers if you like the new wave revival thing. The last time I ordered from them, they sent a free sampler. They also have a $9 sampler that's a few years old, but is still worth the $$$.

  • Insound - Insound is a distro, not a label, but they might be the best source of what's cool in indie rock. Like the best labels, they usually send some cool freebies with your order. They can be a little pricey, but at least get on their email list. It's entertaining and informative.

  • Revelation Records - Revelation is both a label and a distro. They have a huge selection of punk and hardcore and a whole section of colored vinyl. Of course, they usually throw in some free stuff too.

  • Saddle Creek Records - Saddle Creek may be the center of the indie rock world right now. Unfortunately, there's no sampler, but you can't go wrong with Bright Eyes, Cursive or Rilo Kiley. The latest Faint album sounds like it could be pretty good too, but I haven't bought it yet.

  • Interpunk - Interpunk is problem the biggest punk distro out there. The prices are good and the selection is huge. They carry a lot of merch beyond just records and CDs too. Check out their local music section for stuff by bands in your area.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Screw the great albums...

Great albums are often great for fairly obvious reasons. Who can honestly question Sgt Peppers or Dark Side of the Moon or a Night at the Opera? Does anyone need me to explain why these albums stand head and shoulders above so many others? I doubt it, so I'm not going to waste anyone's time with it. What I don't think is obvious is that, in a certain sense, the albums that led up to these are just as great if not greater. These are the albums where the bands really stretched. They had all the energy and excitement of experimentation. There was no pressure for perfection, just the endless possibilities that spread out before them.

While Sgt Peppers set a new standard for rock, it was the refined culmination of new ground that the Beatles broke on Revolver. While "Taxman" or even "Tomorrow Never Knows" aren't as polished as "Sgt Peppers" or "Within You Without You," they are fresh and new and eye-opening in a way that nothing on Sgt Peppers is. True, Revolver doesn't have anything quite on par with "A Day in the Life," but Sgt Peppers never approaches the unadulterated joy of "Good Day Sunshine" and never rocks like "Got to Get You Into My Life." Revolver is not a perfect album. It's an album of becoming, an album of creative spirit. Sgt Peppers is just the fruit of Revolver's labors.

Dark Side is clearly Pink Floyd's masterpiece, but its (near) perfection required patience and calculation that also limits it. The crisp syncopations of "Time" or the ethereal atmosphere of "Us and Them" could not be achieved without incredible attention to detail. Meddle on the other hand, is an album bursting at the seams with the energy of wild experiementation. "One of These Days" and "Echoes" are manic rides teetering on the edge of insanity. Even the more inocuous tracks like "Fearless" and "San Tropez" have a powerful emotional current. Meddle is the id to Dark Side's superego. It flies off the handle where Dark Side ponders. Without any knock on Dark Side, it simply lacks the freedom of Meddle.

Likewise, all of Queen's experiements (especially with classical music and opera) come together on a Night at the Opera. It's most evident in "Bohemian Rhapsody," but the whole albums is a polished and cohesive mix of the rather broad musical landscape upon which Queen draws. They switch almost effortlessly from hard rock to soul to folk-rock to cabaret back to rock to opera etc, sometimes
even within the same song. The same genre-jumping occurs on the earlier albums, but the transitions are sometimes rough. On Opera, they pull it off seemlessly, but in smoothing things out, they never quite break out the way they do on "Stone Cold Crazy" or "Father to Son" (from Sheer Heart Attack and Queen II, respectively). Even the cabaret stuff on Opera is a bit subdued compared to the free and fun "Bring Back That Leroy Brown" from Sheer Heart Attack. Like Sgt Peppers' "A Day in the Life," Opera's "Bohemian Rhapsody" is unparalelled on Queen's earlier records, but while it has no match in sheer theatrics, it is often equalled and perhaps even exceeded in sheer rock.

This makes me think that perhaps there are no perfect albums in rock. The freedom and abandon that fits so well with rock both musically and philosophically (philosophy of rock, good one, huh?) doesn't play nicely with the care and precision that's required to perfect an album from songwriting through production. Maybe that's what makes these bands so great; they could pull off both reckless experimentation and cool perfection (or near perfection). And maybe that's what makes rock great; like all of us, it's never quite perfect.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Bad Lyrics

Occaisionally, rock lyrics are poetry, but most often, they're just words that are really only moving in conjunction with music. That's perfectly fine, because the lyrics don't have to stand on their own. How often do you sit around reading the lyrics to songs you aren't listening to? The words are part of a larger whole that (hopefully) moves us in some way. Lyrics that could truly stand on their own could even be disruptive to the cohesion of a song. That's not to say that all lyrics should be dummied down so as not to outshine the music. It's just to say that lyrics have to work within the song. But writing lyrics that are too good is typically the least of the rock songwriter's worries. At least as often as we get real poetry, we get real crap. I mean crap so bad that you can't even remember what the music is like, because you can't hear it over your own laughter.

Chuck and I had the good fortune of running across a prime example earlier today. What compelled us to listen to Alaska's "School Girl" escapes me now. Based on the title alone, I know we should have seen a lyric disaster barrelling toward us like a freight train. They hit us with this fine example of the worst rock has to offer first:

"Innocent smile, a tender touch,
I have to know if it's real girl.
To get your lovin' that I need so much,
I'd beg, borrow or steal, girl."

Forget that it's about underage girls and the lyrics are still rotten. Add the endorsement of statutory rape and it's appalling. When we thought it couldn't get worse, they just took it to the next level with this little gem that immediately followed:

"(unintelligible) showing, I can't get enough,
You've got me running for cover.
So don't refuse me, stop making it tough,
Because if I can't have you, I'll have your mother."

Brilliant, gentlemen. You're a regular bunch of geniuses. What is this obsession with underage girls anyway? Maybe that's a rock n roll embarrassment for another post. Right now, I have to go listen to something that has a point (or at least is so cryptic that I don't know it's as dumb as Alaska).

Thursday, March 17, 2005

I'll never visit the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame...

Earlier this week, U2, the Pretenders and a few others were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I had the same reaction I do whenever I hear anything about it: So what. The whole idea of a Hall of Fame for rock n roll is ridiculous. If nothing else, rock n roll celebrates the freedom of youth. Even the most commercial rock n roll has an anti-institutional undercurrent to it. Even fake rock n roll (every generation has a Limp Bizkit, you know) tries to appear to thumb its nose at the "establishment." And then we have the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame standing as a monument, not to the artists inside, but to the forces that are killing what made them great. It's absurd. Music isn't sports. It shouldn't be competitive. And it's not just about the big artists. It would dry up and die without kids starting bands in garages the world over. The Hall of Fame ignores that and instead celebrates the celebrity of the elite few, at least some of whom have surely forgotten why they started playing in the first place.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

7 Seconds Show Part 4: You're never too old to be young...

"A lot of times I still feel like a kid. I guess we're all kids..." Kevin Seconds said that at one point during the show, but he didn't have to. Everything about 7 Seconds' performance said it for him. Before they even got on stage, I noticed drummer Troy Mowatt limbering up for the set, jumping up and down like he couldn't contain himself. Once they hit the stage, they unleashed with a fervor unmatched by any of the openers, some of whom were 15+ years their junior. Guitarist Bobby Adams tore into the songs with all the angst of...well, youth. Speaking of youth, I'd forgotten how good a bass player Steve Youth is. His lines were driving and intricate, especially for a hardcore band. Kevin Seconds was engaging, clearly excited to be playing, clearly having as good a time as any kid there. They did two or three from their latest, Take It Back, Take It On, Take It Over, and two from 2000's Good to Go, but the rest of the hour-or-so set was devoted to the old stuff, mostly from the Crew and Walk Together, Rock Together along with one from 1989's Soulforce Revolution (the self-described U2-era) and a cover of Sham 69's "If the Kids Are United." Typically, I wouldn't be very impressed by a band who focuses on material from 20 years ago in lieu of an album that just came out, but looking around, I noticed that the youngest kids there knew the words better than I did. The stuff 7 Seconds did 20 years ago still resonates with kids who are outside of the mainstream and looking for someone else to validate their belief in being positive and straightedge. The fact that 7 Seconds could reach out to them, even now with the band in their late 30s/early 40s, meant that they can play the old stuff or the new and they'll still be young until they die. And judging by the show, they're not gonna be dying anytime soon!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

7 Seconds Show Part 3: Kill Your Preconceptions

The third band on the bill was one I was somewhat familiar with, Kill Your Idols. I bought their Funeral for a Feeling album a few years ago and gave it a few listens. It's one of those albums that falls into the "okay" category, because while there's no reason to really knock it, there's no reason to really love it either. It's good, and only good, through and through. Based on that, I expected KYI to put on a decent show, but nothing that would bring me out to see them headline if they came around on their own.

Well, it wasn't the first time I've been wrong and it probably won't be the last. KYI came out and played hard and honest, no frills punk rock. There was some talk, but unlike Champion, singer Andy West actually had something to say about the songs he was singing or about politics. Sometimes, he was just funny. I particularly liked that he pointed out that getting your politics from Michael Moore is no different than getting your politics from Bill O'Reilly. I'd love to see him go a few rounds with Fat Mike and his Punk Voter brainwashing (I'm pretty much to the left of they're half-baked fake liberalism). If punk has a defined political position, it really is dead, so Andy's words were very reassuring. But it wasn't a spoken word performance, so the talk didn't sustain their set, it just enhanced it.

KYI's set was so strong, that it really made me go back and re-evaluate the album I have. It still didn't excite me the way they did live, so maybe they're just a live band that doesn't translate to the studio. Or maybe I just have a weak album. I ordered the new one From Companionship to Competition, so I'll let you know how that goes when it gets here. Even if it's no better than Funeral for a Feeling, I'd still say KYI is an awfully good band. They were tight, engaging and powerful. They let loose in a very natural way that stood in stark contrast to Champion. So sometimes my preconceptions get in the way and sometimes they're just blown away. Thanks Kill Your Idols for killing my preconceptions about you.

Monday, March 14, 2005

7 Seconds Show Part 2: There is such a thing as trying too hard...

My second post about the 7 Seconds show is (big surprise) about the second band, Champion. They're a straightedge band out of Seattle and they're pretty tight, when they're playing. The biggest problem with their set wasn't their music at all, it was that they spent way too much time between songs. I don't mind a little banter from a singer, but this guy spent a lot of time either asking if the audience is having fun (couldn't he tell?) or spouting some canned "we're all punks, isn't it great that we can get along" jibber-jabber. Don't get me wrong, I love going to these shows with several generations of punk rockers, some who are strightedge like me and some who aren't, and everyone just has a good time and no one fights and no one gets hurt. That's cool. But I don't need all the commentary on it. Anyone who's spent even five minutes at a good punk show can recognize how cool that is. No one needs to tell them. We're all punks, right? Why do we need to talk about it? Just play some songs! I bet they could have gotten two or three additional songs into a 30 minute set if they had just cut the chatter a bit and, to be honest, I'd like to have heard a few more.

The other problem with Champion was a similar kind of posturing. The Ottobar has a pretty small stage and Champion is a five-piece, so it was pretty cramped up there. Now Champion, being a hardcore band, wants to do a lot of jumping around and that's cool, but they had the appearence that they knew the space was small and they came across as being very restrained. They were going for reckless abandon, but that's really something you can't fake. I wouldn't say that ruined their performance, but there was a little bit of an undercurrent that said they were trying too hard. Of course, that's a lot better than not trying hard enough. Champion did put on a tight hardcore show with just the right dose of melody, but I think they wanted to be a little more unrestrained than they really were.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

7 Seconds Show Part 1: How mediocrity makes punk exceptional...

I hadn't seen a show since the Subhumans back on Election Day, so I was pretty psyched to see 7 Seconds at the Ottobar last night. After all, they were a really important band to me for years (I bought the Crew 20 years ago). Kill Your Idols, Champion and the Sparks also played and while I wasn't as excited about seeing them, each made me think of something to blog about, so I'll take the next few days and cover the whole thing.

I'll start with the opener, a Baltmore hardcore band called the Spark. They were same old hardcore that has been pounding audiences for 25 years, but it still sounds fresh live, especially coming from young musicians who might not even have been born when this music made it's first rumblings. There was nothing particularly special about the Spark, except the honest conviction with which they played. The singer was particularly animated and engaging, but both the bass and guitar players may have done well to face the audience occaisionally. They put on a good show nonetheless, even if they're probably never gonna get out of the local Baltimore scene, because every town has at least a few bands just like them. An interesting thing about punk is that it not only makes this kind of mediocrity okay, it's actually a good thing. Punk wears the DIY ethic like a badge and part of what makes punk scenes so cool is that anyone can be in a band. It all but eliminates the divide between audience and performer and that is as true for small bands as it is for larger ones. Last night, it was as true for the Spark as it was for 7 Seconds, but it wouldn't be possible without bands like the Spark who make us all realize that there's no difference between the kids in the audience and the kids on the stage and we're kids no matter what our age.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Nirvana, the one-hit wonder...

Okay, so it wasn't just one hit, but you get the point. Nirvana released three studio albums before Kurt Cobain was killed (yeah, they say he committed suicide, but I like to leave the conspiracy possibilities open). The first, Bleach, was a solid, raw and immature punk-leaning grunge album. Tracks like "Blew" and "Negative Creep" are good examples of grunge, unadorned by major label money and production and pressure. For what it is, it's a really good album and it shows the promise that would explode into the mainstream with the next album. Nevermind is Nirvana at the peak of their short career. It borrowed enough pop from from punk and enough money from DGC to break out of a local underground scene and into the CD players of all of Gen X. The singles and most of the album tracks were pretty much good enough to stand alone. This album is the one hit to which I refer. But their last album is the one that I really want to discuss.

In Utero is a rotten album. Sure it was commerically successful, but it certainly wasn't the first record to ride on the coattails of huge critical and commercial success like Nevermind, so sales don't mean it was good. The singles were okay and "Rape Me" was kinda shocking even if it was a pretty lousy song. "Dumb" had a nice appeal for self-loathing Xers even if the song was only mediocre. But who wants to listen to "Frances Farmer..." or "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter"? Not me. I'm pretty sure that I've never even listened to the whole album in one sitting to this day. The bulk of the album was filler. After that, Kurt died and there were no new Nirvana albums, so the question is, "Was In Utero just a weak followup to Nevermind or was Nevermind the only great album they had in them?" Considering that even the singles from In Utero sound like B-sides to Nevermind singles, that Cobain seemed to be quickly folding under the pressures of fame and that Nevermind's greatness stems at least in part from being in the right place at the right time, I tend to believe that Nirvana was really done, that Kurt Cobain was largely out of songs. Other than the strong Unplugged performance, I don't see any real indication that there was much left in the tank. In dying, Kurt Cobain became a legend (which is dumb, but that's another post) and also protected his legacy from coming under more scrutiny. More importantly, he never had to prove that he still had it. I don't think he did, but not even time will tell if I'm right or if I'm wrong.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Green Day are just "Shoplifters"...

Rhapsody has a new non-album Green Day track called "Shoplifter." I checked it out the other day, because I've been fairly pleased with what I've heard of American Idiot. I was listening casually and I noticed something familiar about it. It sounds a lot like the Clash's "Bankrobber." I listened more closely to see if they had really ripped the Clash or if they had simply used part of it for effect. I think it was the latter. They lifted the feel of the verse, added a bit of a shuffle and called it their own. While the subtle point of comparing the shoplifter to the bankrobber simply by borrowing a little music from the Clash is pretty cool, it was a little bit lost on me, because I drew another conclusion (one that I doubt Green Day intended). The conclusion is simply this: shoplifters are to bankrobbers as Green Day is to the Clash. On American Idiot, Green Day tries to be a bit more serious and take on social and political issues, but they come off as amateurs next to the Clash who were social and political to their very core.

Take that as a knock on Green Day or praise for the Clash or both. Either way, it shouldn't discourage you from checking out American Idiot or "Shoplifter." They might not hold a candle to a Clash album, but they're fine recordings by a band I have every reason to believe had sold out except for the fact that they still make good punk records that sure make it seem like success hasn't really changed them. They'll never be the Clash, but that's okay, because they do a pretty good job of being Green Day.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Styx is one thing, but...

Maybe there are limits to even the guilty pleasure. I think American Idol probably steps over the line. Is that really music? Probably no more so than Milli Vanilli.

Everyone has a Styx in their closet

Chuck likes Styx.

Originally, I was going to post that line as a joke, taking a cheap, but friendly, shot at him for something his son outed him on. But I changed my mind. Instead, I'm going to use it as an example of something we all have to some extent in our musical tastes, the guilty pleasure.

We all have our Styx (or likely several of them). These are bands that we like for some reason that has little to do with whether they're really good or not. Maybe we have a sentimental attachment that associates a song with a particular time in our lives. Maybe a song touches us in some way that it doesn't touch others for some reason we can't even explain. But there's a big difference between having a few guilty pleasures and pretending these guilty pleasures are really great

Hi, my name is Bob and I like America. I even saw America. I know they're just a poor man's Crosby Stills & Nash, but I like them anyway. Linda listened to them when I first met her. They remind me of that time. But I'm not going to argue that they're great or important, because they're not. If you don't like America, you're right. I admit it. You're right and I'm wrong. But I like them anyway.

So, here's the deal with guilty pleasures: There's nothing wrong with having a few so long as you don't try to pass them off as something they're not. Just admit you're wrong and go right on liking them. And willingly accept the mockery from your elitist friends. And dish out the mockery over your friends' guilty pleasures. In the end, that might really be the larger purpose behind liking crap.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


For anyone who hasn't checked it out, Rhapsody is well worth the $9.95 a month. They have over 50,000 albums from over 30,000 artists (with new stuff added almost daily) all at the beck and call of your internet connection. Their collection is eclectic, ranging from classical to salsa to jazz to rock to pop to punk to metal to showtunes to lo-fi to americana to techno get the picture. Of course, I've stumbled onto some rotten stuff, but at least it only cost me time. More often, I've found some really great stuff that I might never have found otherwise, like Fela Kuti or Charles Wright. There are a few problems. First, some albums are missing a track or two (for copyright reasons, I assume) and that can be annoying when you find something that is truly an album versus just a collection of songs. Second, the songs stream and you have to pay to download them (unless you can figure out how to record the stream which isn't hard, but is tedious). These are minor concerns considering how much musical adventure you get for under $10. The bottom line is it's a big world of music out there and Rhapsody is a great tool to explore it.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The best country music is made for rock fans...

Over the past few years, I've developed an increasing interest in country music. Not the stuff coming out of Nashville these days. Not Faith Hill or Shania Twain or any of the the other big Nashville names that amount to little more than pop with a twang. I went back to when country music was really country. The Carter Family and Roy Acuff to Bob Wills (who mixed elements of jazz into his Texas swing without being anything short of a true country artist) to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell (the man with a voice like a slide guitar) and even to some of the rockabilly crossover of Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

But beginning in the early 60s, country music takes a bad artistic turn. Nashville acts trade a lot of the stripped down honesty that makes the music resonate with people across genres and generations for a slicker pop approach. It didn't happen all at once. There was still good country music coming out of Nashville (Dolly Parton's Just Because I'm a Woman, for example), but from that point it began to slip slowly away from its roots. Even solid albums by Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard appealed at least as much to rock audiences as to country audiences. But something else happened in the late 60s: Rock artists started dabbling more in country music. Of course rock always had country roots, but the British Invasion and Motown had put the country elements on the back-burner. In the 60s, there was a return to roots music among rock musicians though. Country, blues and folk all found themselves reworked into a rock context. While blues and folk have always seemed to maintain their own identity apart from how rock used them, country was losing its identity at this time. Dylan, the Dead, and the Byrds were all putting out more credible country than Nashville. Gram Parsons might have recorded the best country music of the 70s, but it wasn't coming out of Nashville and selling to the typical country music demographic. It was coming out of southern California and selling to rock fans. In the 80s, Dwight Yoakum was playing punk clubs regularly, but was a Nashville outsider.

This trend continues today. Americana and No Depression albums from Son Volt and the Jayhawks are being sold to and bought by rock fans. The same is true Johnny Cash's American Recordings albums. Lesser known artists like the Be Good Tanyas (their Chinatown album is the best country album I've heard in a long time) have a similar audience. Loretta Lynn's most vital album in years was a collaboration with the White Stripes' Jack White. Since the 60s, the best country music really is made for rock fans.

Why is this? I think the simple explanation is this: Country music, as its known today, has lost sight of its roots. The stuff coming out of Nashville is really no different than the stuff being written for Britney Spears or N Sync. Sure the arrangements are different and the lyrics appeal to the typical "America, love it or leave it"/Bible Belt mentality of the target audience, but the music is just pop with country accents. There's not much Hank Williams or Roy Acuff in Nashville today. On the other hand, rock has often at least had sub-genres that explore roots music. Maybe that's because rock is an amalgamation of other music and it can't lose sight of its roots. Or maybe there just hasn't been enough time for that to occur. Afterall, it took country 30+ years to really begin it's decline and even then it didn't just collapse all at once. If the country model holds true, it should be happening to rock now, so we better watch out!

Note: This whole thing came out of a conversation I had with Chuck some time ago. I think the point about the best country music being made for rock fans was first articulated by him, so to be fair, I thought I should give him some credit.

Monday, March 07, 2005

What happened to hip-hop?

First of all, I gotta say, "Amen, Chuck!" I'm totally with you. The advent of West Coast rap in the late 80s/early 90s brought about a much more laid back style and while it seemed cool for awhile, the long term effects are abundantly evident now that the same tired R&B and funk samples have been rehashed over and over by "artists" who've pobably never even heard the originals. Now, it's clear that most rappers can't rap anymore. They talk rather than using the cadence of their voice as an instument. Anyone can talk, but is that really rap? It seems these days that hip-hop is too long on the hip and too short on the hop.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Kimya Dawson

I love Kimya Dawson. I know, in a technical sense, she has almost no talent. She's a simple songwriter and a terrible singer. But she's charming. And she's honest. She doesn't try to be too deep or too serious, but she achieves a level of seriousness even through silliness. She taps something with her amateurish little songs that often escapes even the best artists. Perhaps there are hundereds of Kimyas out there, but so few of them actually get heard. Perhaps their music just doesn't seem like a "hit" to the bigger labels, but I think they're missing something crucial: Music is so much more than music. It touches us in ways we can't explain. On the surface, I wouldn't think Kimya Dawson has any song that would make it as a single, but then I come away touched in a way that few songs touch me. I think that's what a lot of people who evaluate music for its hit potential just fail to see. Another thing that's interesting is that I make a CD of the best stuff I hear each year and give it to friends. Last year (and this year), there was a Kimya Dawson song on there. I found myself apologizing for the qaulity of the song in the liner notes I wrote last year. As it turns out, that song got the most positive remarks out of 19 tracks. This year, I didn't bother apologizing, because I think other people see the same thing I do. Too bad record execs are blind though.

Check out "Heroes 2002" from Kimya's site. It makes me laugh and cry more often than not. More importantly, it reassures me.

Friday, March 04, 2005


The day before yesterday, I listened to the new Judas Priest album, Angel of Retribution. As far as reunion albums go, it's okay. It's clearly a Priest album, but it doesn't break new ground and it pales in comparison to their output between Hell Bent for Leather and Defenders of the Faith (to be sure, I stopped in the middle for a classic Priest break, making sure that I wasn't just jaded by time). Occasionally, it offers a reminder of their heyday, but most often it just seems like a nod to the past by guys too tired to relive it, let alone take a step forward.

After listening to it, it had me thinking about other reunions and how they fared. Some have been fairly good, others dismal and others, Like the Priest reunion I just listened to, fair. But none, not a single one that I can think of, have been really important. I really liked Jane's Addiction's Strays album. It was solid. It was worth doing. But it didn't stand alone. It was good enough that it might have generated interest in Nothing's Shocking with a younger generation. Deep Purple's Perfect Strangers was good enough that it got me interested, at 13, in the real Deep Purple albums. But it wouldn't stand up if it hadn't been built on a foundation that included Fireball, In Rock and Machine Head. Other things, like the Sex Pistols reunion, are so bad that they call the original body of work into question. How legitimate were the Pistols if they pull that Filthy Lucre thing? I guess renting a barge and playing "God Save the Queen" for the Queen's Silver Jubilee speaks for itself, but I wouldn't even question it without that Filthy Lucre nonsense.

The closest thing to greatness in a reunion that I've witnessed was last summer's MC5 tour. The songs were still relevent and the three original members were hungry to play and to rock again, but maybe the biggest factor was that there were three new guys in the band and they were so well-chosen that it was the new MC5. Old songs, new energy. Still, the bottom line is that it wouldn't stand up without the foundation.

Maybe this isn't even related to reunions, but more broadly to bands continuing on beyond their days of artistic vitality. Everything I said about the reunions could be just as easily applied to the Stones. Maybe it could even be applied to (gasp) the Ramones. Did anything really matter after End of the Century?

Some artists can continuously reinvent themselves like Bowie and U2 and that keeps them from becoming stale (even when the experiment doesn't work), but a lot of times, it doesn't work that way. Bands either stick to the same outdated sound or they try to superimpose themselves into something new and take the process out of change.

This leads me to the real question: Are they wrong because they don't know when to stop playing or are we wrong because we don't when to stop buying?

Thursday, March 03, 2005


The recent Academy Awards made me think about the Grammys and that made me think about how ridiculous awards shows for artstic endeavors are. I haven't paid attention to the Grammys in years (I think they happened fairly recently, didn't they?), because the judging always seems flawed. They snub a band one year in favor of some token artist and then the next year that same band who was snubbed becomes the token to make up for the year before. After years of stupidity, I just gave up. But I've come to realize that the flawed process of picking winners isn't the biggest problem. There are two bigger ones. First, it's picking winners in something where there is no winner or loser that's measurable or even reasonably knowable. Second, and most importantly, it promotes a cult of celebrity by rewarding an individual for something that is much bigger than themselves.

Tom Petty once said something to the effect of, "I don't think there's such a thing as best in music, but thanks for thinking I'm one of the best," when accepting some kind of award. He's right, there's no "best." It's kind of like voting. Just because we elected him, doesn't make the President the best person for the job (if you disagree, just look at the presidents we've elected, the current president in particular!). So the idea of "Best Rock Album" or "Best Vocal Performance" is a misnomer. What they really mean is "favorite," not "best." There's nothing to measure. As a matter of fact, trying to measure music is harmful.

The second problem is that it promotes the cult of celebrity rather than a celebration of music. It focuses on the performer or writer or producer rather than the songs themselves. And the songs are what's important. The artist is just a channel. They participate in the art of music much in the same way we participate as listeners at the other end. The Grammy doesn't go to the song or the album, it goes to the singer or writer. But the song is what matters. The song is what we share. The singer is just another person that we or may not connect with if we met him or her. The singer (or writer or whoever) isn't what we connect with. We connect with the song.

So, because I love music, I hate the Grammys. I don't care who won Best Album. Last year, my favorite album was Death Cab for Cutie's Transatlanticism and I'm pretty sure it wasn't nominated. The year before, it was Velvet Teen's Out fo the Fierce Parade. I'm pretty sure that went even more unnoticed than the Death Cab album. I have my favorites, because I listen to and care about music. I don't need any award show to validate my choices with the artificial title of Best. And I definitely don't care what any of the musicians are wearing.