And then there is the new disc from Queens of the Stone Age, Lullabies to Paralyze. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near the mindblowing ride offered by the band’s last, Songs for the Deaf. The disc isn’t suffering critically, (a 79 on Metacritic compared to an 89 for Songs), but it sure seems to have fallen off the cultural radar. Even an appearance last week on “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t seem to have re-ignited the buzz. Perhaps the lack of a truly transcendent single like “No One Knows” has been enough to keep people from checking this out. Or, it might be that the second half of the disc is full of duds. Things coast along nicely for the first seven songs, but the rest is a turgid mess that offers few memorable moments.
Maybe those who feared that the allure of Josh Homme wouldn’t be enough without the usual sidekick punch offered by Nick Oliveri were right. Oliveri, who played a freaky, tattooed Andy Richter to Homme’s sweet-voiced, 6′ 5″ redheaded Conan O’Brien (to offer a tortured analogy) seems to have done more for the band than hold down the bottom end with his bass. This disc lacks the spark of old, and Homme would do well to worry less about his scuzz-rock side project, Eagles of Death Metal (though that is admittedly the more exciting of the two bands, currently, and is, I suppose, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog in the preceding analogy) and more about his main meal ticket. Perhaps a reconciliation is in order. It’s a surefire Rolling Stone cover no matter the music that results. Seriously, just do it.
Well put. Though I must admit that I came to James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux books and John Sandford’s Prey series when both were well along because the din of fawning reviews became too much to ignore. Still, with all of the undiscovered talent out there, it is likely that the ink spilled in praise of Connelly et al would be better used in highlighting one of those heretofore unknown gems.
Elsewhere in the world of letters, the New York Times has announced that it will begin charging a premium for access to its opinion columnists and other content. A strange announcement coming on the heels of the recent decision by the Los Angeles Times to stop charging for access to it’s CalendarLive section. Many have argued that papers like the Wall Street Journal flirt with irrelevance because the blogosphere swirls around them without touching down long enough to take a look. Does the Times run the same risk? Well, a look at the paper’s popular “Most E-mailed” section on any given day finds columns by Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman among the most circulated pieces on the web each day (Krugman’s current column tops the list as I type), and that will go away if those columns are suddenly hidden behind a pay-to-see-them wall.
Until now. Though they may not be the first, Razor & Tie Records is certainly one of the most high profile record labels to jump into podcasting. The label announced today that it is creating a series of podcasts that will feature new music from its artists. It is launching a podcast featuring the band Danko Jones. Other than hearing the name, I’ve no clue about the band or its sound. If I care enough to check it out, however, than can change. It also will feature “songs from up-and-coming Razor & Tie rock bands, including New York City’s indie guitar-rockers Sam Champion, Brooklyn’s enigmatic metal band, the Giraffes, and Temecula, CA pop-rockers, The Chemistry, with more to come. The site will continuously be updated with exclusive tracks, song debuts, tour diaries and more.”
Now, they’ll need to do more than promise songs from “enigmatic metal bands” and “indie guitar-rockers” to hook me, but it’s a start, and one that other labels would be wise to follow.
When not listening to Spoon, I have been reading Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The book is the Blink of the spring, a fascinating collection of linked essays that offer a different way to look at the world. Where Malcolm Gladwell wrote about “thin slicing” and decisions made in the blink of an eye, economist Levitt and journalist Dubner share stories about how economic theory can be used to explain odd circumstances and situations. That may sound dry, but the chapters that propose that abortion, and not the many other oft-cited factors, accounts for the rapid drop in the crime rate in the 1990s, or that teachers cheat on behalf of their students to keep standardized test scores high, will offer much conversation fodder and help you to view the world a bit differently. The book is short and surprisingly easy to read. Levitt’s theories are controversial but never boring.
The criticism thus far has been pointed and without restraint. Some simply call it boring, lazy or uninspiring, while others, such as City Pages‘ Steve Perry, point out the problems with what seem to be recycled lyrical themes and unambitious song structures. The truth of the disc is somewhere in between. It’s nowhere near Springsteen’s best (Perry rightly lumps it in with Human Touch and Lucky Town, two discs that, while certainly his worst still contain enough good tracks that one would be silly to completely avoid them), yet it does contain enough of what Springsteen does best to guardedly recommend it (that falsetto he uncorks a couple of times is revelation enough for now).
Spoon’s Gimme Fiction is a different thing entirely. Having come late to that party thanks to a well-placed promo copy of Kill the Moonlight in advance of the band’s show in Iowa City a few years back, this is the first Spoon disc I come to with expectations. Not able to remember that initial response to KTM – save for the fact that it hit quickly enough that I turned around a rave review in a couple of days and was familiar enough with the material to recognize it at the show that weekend — I find myself wondering how long it will take for these songs to hit me with similar force, assuming that will happen at all. Where KTM was so stripped-down and immediate that the songs’ hooks were quick to sink in, Gimme Fiction seems more fleshed out and involved, a seeming return of sorts to the band’s earlier, more obtuse work.
Both Spoon and Springsteen will stay in heavy rotation for a while, fighting for airtime with Brendan Benson (both Addicted to Love and the One Mississippi reissue), Elvis Costello (King of America reissued, finally), Ryan Adams, LCD Soundsystem and the, well, torrent of bitTorrent stuff I’ve acquired of late. But as competition from other new discs grows, it’s going to take more than listener loyalty to keep them there.
One imagines Marcus behind a lecturn, delivering this graniloquent oratory. This isn’t just a gay pop duo having fun with a light disco tune recorded by a forerunner in the gay/disco pop genre, but a rallying cry for the wronged and oppressed: “‘GO WEST,’ sang the chorus,” he writes. “‘This is our destiny,’ Tennant sang, the enormous idea small but undeniable in his mouth. Flags unfurled; the wind blew them straight. The sound was like the sun, the disco beat stirring, the drum machine a twentieth-century Yankee Doodle.” Later, the chorus singing behind Tennant is not just a backing track to add texture to the song, but a choir that “stood for all the voices of the dead” in a grand statement about the AIDS crisis. Perhaps. Or maybe it’s just a pop song that does carry a bit of sentiment about the treatment of gays and the losses incurred due to AIDS. Academics for years have been derided for their distorted view from the ivory tower, turning what could be lively topics into moribund drags thanks to their over-analytical approach. Induct Professor Marcus into the academy, then, because he has surely sucked the life out of a trivial pop song by looking for something that probably was never never there.
Still, for those who know what they’re getting into, for those who are familiar with Marcus’ overheated prose (has anyone ever posited the theory that Marcus is the original hypertextualist, his works reading like the transcript of a furious web surfing session where a few casually clicked links can take one far across the cyber-landscape toward an unintended and only loosely related destination? If not, let me be the first) he does open up some intriguing lines of thought that will expand — if not explode — the way you think about Bob Dylan and his work. If nothing else, this will make you pull out not just Highway 61 Revisited and Bootleg Series IV: Live 1966, but all of your bootlegs that feature performances of “Like a Rolling Stone.” In fact, the most interesting part of the book may well be the track-by-track analysis of the recording session that serves as the epilogue. Reading it, I was amazed that the song came off at all; and having read this book, I was glad it did.
He opened with a song that made reference to “G.W.,” Houston and Texas. I quickly realized he was singing about George Bush. Then came other political songs, with lyrics such as “I want to punch George Bush…” and “your parents killed my parents” (with petrochemicals, if memory serves). As he moved from bass to guitar to dulcimer to keyboard, Olson led this rag-tag group through several pointed songs about the Bush presidency. They were funny in a slightly uncomfortable way. It lacked punch, however, because his side lost. Heard last fall, maybe these would seem powerful, like Steve Earle’s “The Revolution Starts… Now.” But like Earle’s disc, Olson’s music just seemed stale. I’d be as likely to cue up Earle’s disc now as a Yankee fan would be to pop in a tape of last fall’s ALCS against the Red Sox — why relive the miserable defeat?
Still, as my friend Jim said, Olson has “that voice,” and last night there certainly were flashes of what made his music so special. The performance, however, was akin to hearing a friend’s band practice in the garage — you’d tell them they sounded pretty good while knowing they’d never make it anywhere.
It seemed strange that Olson would do so much of this new material without talking about it. Did he have a new disc? In fact, he does. And, when it came out, these songs were much more timely. Though there’s no mention of it on the Creekdippers website, his latest disc is Political Manifest, which includes songs like “Portrait of a Sick America” and “The End of the Highway, Rumsfeld.” It’s a strange little project, taking the time to record a record that is almost instantly out of date. Stranger yet is selling it through an obscure website that all but guarantees that you’ll still have a dusty box of them shoved in the back of your closet long after Jenna Bush leaves office.
The more savvy among you may have seen either or both of these in the pages of Chunkletmagazine #17. I’m sure that’s the reason these weren’t included in last year’s paperback best-of from the McSweeney’s “humor category.”