19 May 2005 Uncategorized

Not-so-killer Queens

Spring brings a deluge of new releases as record companies hope to squeeze one last bit of cash from kids headed off on a summer of competing economic interests and a world where word-of-mouth dries up… or so goes the thinking. That has meant a wealth of new music for this eternal kid, most of it surprisingly good.

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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
17 May 2005 Uncategorized

Bandwagon jumping

An interesting discussion is going on over at Sarah Weinman’s litblog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, revolving around the spate of reviews of Michael Connelly’s new book, The Closers. Do reviews of the latest entries in a wildly popular series do any good? It’s certainly debatable. As Sarah writes, “Those who read the series — and since it sells so well, many do — will buy the book in hardcover the minute it’s out (or at least get their hands on it in a timely manner.) Those who don’t are not very likely to pay attention to yet another review. And those who’ve never heard of Michael Connelly and want to start are better served to pick up an earlier installment anyway.”

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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
16 May 2005 Uncategorized

The future is now

Gimmick or wave of the future? Only time will tell, of course, but the tide definitely seems to be turning. No more is the iPod seen as an industry killer. Finally, record labels are waking up to the fact that these devices are part of the solution, not the problem. It isn’t that people are stealing all of that great music rather than pay for it, it’s that the music stinks and consumers don’t feel as if they are doing anything wrong when they go about getting by other means. They’d feel ripped off if made to pay to check out something only to find that it’s horrible. And, with radio essentially a wasteland dedicated to playing the same 10 bland songs over and over, there are few legal options for those actually interested in hearing new music.

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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
11 May 2005 Uncategorized

Freak-tastic, perhaps?

OK, the new one from Spoon is growing on me. A second full listen is beginning to reveal the hooks, and while it seems like a step back for the band in terms of where it seemed to be headed and where it has been, there is little wrong with that given how good the past has been for this band. In that view, I find company in the likes of Pitchfork, whose review made similar points. We diverge, however, on this one: “I Turn My Camera On” is a Prince-tastic masterpiece hearkening back to the Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”, but with a show-stopping grandeur that beats them both at their own game.” Say what? With all due respect to Britt Daniel, this sounds like a Beck demo circa Midnight Vultures, and while I like the phrase “Prince-tastic,” this ain’t it. Daniel has said he had hoped this would be a dance record and that, obviously, it isn’t. At times, as on “I Turn My Camera On” or “Was it You?” (which is little more than drummer Jim Eno replicating a drum machine-like beat over which Daniel sings a handful of effects-laden lines), the band does seem to nod toward dance, with results that are satisfying on the former and disappointingly mundane on the latter.

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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
9 May 2005 Uncategorized

Boss sounds

Two highly anticipated new discs are leaving me ambivalent of late; I find the need to convince myself I should listen more than I find I want to listen. But, these new discs, Bruce Springsteen’s Devil’s and Dust and Spoon’s Gimme Fiction, both seem like potential growers. I’ve spent the most time with the Springsteen disc, and it has revealed a few subtle charms thus far. Hearing a recent NPR review from Fresh Air correspondent Ken Tucker helped to highlight some of the more rewarding quiet moments on the disc. Springsteen helpfully alternates uptempo tracks and ballads, and I’ve thus far found that I want to skip past the more ruminative stretches to find songs with a beat. But Tucker points out some of Springsteen’s best wordplay in years, lending clarity that reveals a depth that escaped me on those first few listens.

The criticism thus far has been pointed and without restraint. Some simply call it boring, lazy or uninspiring, while others, such as City PagesSteve 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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
6 May 2005 Uncategorized

What's beyond hyperbole?

Greil Marcus is always an interesting read, never more so than when he is waxing on about his favorite topic, Bob Dylan. I just finished his latest book, Like a Rolling Stone, and found it to be an enlightened look at one of the best, most-important songs of the rock era. Still, Marcus gets a bit wound up at times, and it leads to some highly amusing tangents. He has built a career on finding what must surely be unintended depth in the most banal circumstances. It’s OK when he’s writing about Dylan, because one expects that there is at least the possibility the singer actually intended some of what Marcus reads into his lyrics and performances. As Marcus winds up Rolling Stone, however, he seems to go off the deep end in search of grand statements where there are none. He somehow finds a way to equate the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s “Go West” with “Like a Rolling Stone,” saying the former “take(s) place in the country ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ opens up — that follow(s) the trail left by the way of life the song calls for, that it demands, the cutting of all ties, the refusal of all comforts, even your own name.”

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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
22 April 2005 Uncategorized

Strange days, indeed

Last night brought one of the strangest shows in recent memory courtesy of Mark Olson and the Creekdippers in Iowa City. After establishing that Victoria Williams would not be lending her Edith to Mark’s Archie, we headed down to catch the show. There were only about 20 people in the club when the show began. As the opening act left the stage, the five strangest looking people from the crowd climbed onto the stage to assemble as the Creekdippers. I’ve seen Olson enough to know that this would be no Jayhawks revue; he’s doing his own thing now and good for him, right? Well, this made his past shows positively normal by comparison.

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.

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
22 April 2005 Uncategorized

More archival digging

Getting something into (onto?) McSweeney’s seems to be quite the badge of honor, and so I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my own modest successes there. The one “real” piece I’ve had posted on the site was a bit of humor about how AC/DC really does business. A second piece was my contribution to their ever-growing log of lists, this one of suggested band names found on the Associated Press wire.

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.”

Posted by John Kenyon Comments Off
 Page 91 of 92  « First  ... « 88  89  90  91  92 »