Robin Williams, Suicide, Depression, and Evil Spirits

My latest at RedState.
Robin Williams What Dreams May ComePeople are talking about depression and suicide in the wake of the shocking death of Robin Williams. That’s mostly a good thing – the lives and deaths of celebrities are a common language, and we can use it to discuss the world we live in. But these conversations seem to me to end up oversimplifying the issue in a way that creates pointless conflict and obscures what we really need to understand about depression and suicide.

Continue reading Robin Williams, Suicide, Depression, and Evil Spirits

The 2013 American Music Awards

My wife and I recorded last weekend’s American Music Awards and watched them with the kids this weekend. A few observations about the 2013 AMAs:
The Performances
This was one of the worst performance lineups for a music awards show I’ve ever seen, even in the context of today’s music scene, although that may also be a symptom of ongoing shifts in the music landscape from as recently as a year or two ago. Imagine Dragons was the only act that could even halfway plausibly be described as “rock,” and the “pop” acts were so overrun with rap interludes (close to half the performances had a rapper involved, even including one of the two country acts) that I actually missed people like Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift (Swift was there to pick up trophies but didn’t perform). From my perspective as a fan of both rock and pop-rock, the best performances were by Imagine Dragons, Luke Bryan and Ariana Grande, none of whom are exactly my cup of tea.
As to Bryan, it’s the first time I’d seen him perform, and it’s not hard to see why the man is a country music superstar; he’s got stage presence to burn. The 20-year-old Grande, by contrast, has a lovely voice (although one that produced no comprehensible lyrics) but looked petrified, performing with her eyes closed and using up about half her speaking time – when she accepted the “New Artist of the Year” award – just navigating the steps to the stage in high heels and a tight gown without faceplanting. And the overwhelming impression left by Imagine Dragons was that the lead singer really, really, really likes hitting very large drums.
The weakness of the roster was largely driven by the absence of veteran performers, only a few of whom – Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Pitbull (who hosted the show), R. Kelly, a TLC reunion – took the stage. Besides Imagine Dragons, there were no bands, not even bands like Kings of Leon that are currently promoting new albums (Dave Grohl was on hand only as a presenter; the bizarre piano duo of A Great Big World doesn’t count as a band). No rap warhorses like Jay-Z, Kanye or Eminem. Besides Aguilera, who contributed an uncharacteristically understated featured vocal to A Great Big World’s performance, the veteran pop divas – Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Britney, Avril, Alicia Keys – stayed home. Even Carrie Underwood, customarily ubiquitous at music awards shows, wasn’t in the house; Bryan and Florida Georgia Line were the sole country representatives. Nearly everyone left onstage debuted within the past 5-6 years, many of them more recently than that.
Timberlake, who performed a horn section-laden number called “Drink You Away,” seems ready at last to embrace his Memphis roots, but his voice and personality are still too smooth and boyish to sing the blues. Meanwhile, speaking of boys, the British talent-show package One Direction performed with the careful stagecraft of a group that knows their fans want screen time for each of the five heartthrobs. They’re slightly more talented and no less harmless than the recently-disbanded Jonas Brothers (the core One Direction demographic is girls too young to know who the Jones Brothers were), and still a few years from figuring out if there’s a future Timberlake (or Michael Jackson or Frank Sinatra or Brian Wilson – boy bands have a richer history than you’d think) in their midst.
As for the rappers, they did their level best to showcase their embrace of musical styles that involve actual music. Pitbull did a Cotton-Eye-Joe-style square-dance type number with Ke$ha, who appeared to have showered for the occasion, while Macklemore spat inaudible verses over a catchy horn section-powered groove.
R. Kelly’s performance as…John F. Kennedy?…accompanying Lady Gaga only served to answer the question “how can we make a Lady Gaga appearance even creepier?” Given that Gaga’s latest album looks primed to lose her label $25 million, maybe her ambitions will be scaled back in the future.
The Crowd
One of the fun people-watching aspects of a music awards show is watching the crowd, including their peers, react to the musicians (or just be themselves, like Jay-Z sitting in the front row at the Grammys with a snifter of brandy looking like he owned the joint). Taylor Swift got into just about every performance; Lady Gaga looked distinctly nervous and wound up waiting for her turn to go onstage. During Luke Bryan’s performance of “That’s My Kinda Night,” it was painfully obvious that only a fraction of the crowd actually knew any of the words to his song, despite it being a huge hit.
But all that changed when Miley Cyrus took the stage for another bizarre, howling rendition of “Wrecking Ball,” dressed in what can best be described as two-thirds of a leotard covered in kittens and performing with a psychedelic floating cat graphic twice her size. Not once in the entire performance, nor its immediate aftermath, did the cameras pan to the crowd to see how they were reacting (they finally cut into the crowd briefly before going to commercial, catching one guy with a skeptical look on his face). I was left wondering whether, after the viral “audience reacts to Miley and Thicke” buzz following the VMAs, one of the conditions of her performance had been to demand that the network not show any crowd shots while she was onstage.
The Clothes
Is modesty making a (slight) comeback? Probably not, but it had a better night than usual. Katy Perry opened the show in a sort of mock kimono as part of a Japanese-themed number; her dress contained enough material for about five typical Katy Perry dresses. Lady Gaga’s Marilyn Monroe-themed dress was, basically, just a short skirt, while Rihanna – who was there with her mother – wore a long, classy gown. And Grande brought the old-school class. The men, meanwhile, were mostly on better behavior than Robin Thicke’s notorious antics with Miley Cyrus at the VMAs, while Timberlake and Pitbull set the tuxedo tone. Cyrus, of course, was the exception as far as clothing, but even her outfit looked more like she was dressed for a 1981 aerobics session with Olivia Newton-John than for a stripper’s pole.
The Awards
The AMAs are a fan-voted awards show, so the awards themselves were dominated by the kinds of acts – Swift, Grande, One Direction, and the boy-band granddaddy Timberlake – who appeal most strongly to the kind of teen and preteen girls who are the most devoted “early and often” voters for this kind of thing. Swift has finally abandoned the patented and increasingly unconvincing “Taylor Swift shocked at winning an award” face, but her acceptance speech for “Artist of the Year” showed why she commands the loyalty of “Taylor Nation,” as she tells her fans that she and they are still “on the same page” in what matters to them, what affects them, and how they feel:

Faith and Politics
Speaking of reaction shots, one of the show’s more vivid moments of frisson was generated when Rihanna’s mother – presenting her daughter with an “Icon” award after being introduced by Bill Maher – prefaced her remarks by saying, “First of all, all praises and honor be to God Almighty through Jesus” while Maher rolled his eyes looking like a teenager embarrassed by his square older relatives:

America has perhaps no nastier public “atheist” (I put the word in quotes because a man that angry at God can’t really claim not to believe in him) than Maher, so naturally watching a proud mother from Barbados discomfit him merely by sincerely witnessing her faith without embarrassment. But the evening’s other more explicitly political moment was more cringe-inducing, as pasty Irish Seattle rapper Macklemore (who may or may not have cribbed his nom de rap from Mark McLemore) offered up a ham-fisted sermonette on the Trayvon Martin case from Miami, where he had a scheduled show:

Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And due to the fact that we are in Florida tonight accepting this award, I want to acknowledge Trayvon Martin and the hundreds and hundreds of kids each year that are dying due to racial profiling and the violence that follows it.
This is really happening. These are our friends, our neighbors, our peers, and our fans, and it’s time that we look out for the youth and fight against racism and the laws that protect it.”

This is nonsense, junk law and junk statistics of the worst kind – and what’s more, obvious pandering by a white guy trying to polish his street cred – but a decidedly subpar evening for the music business wouldn’t be complete without some subpar political posturing.
For once, I actually ended the evening thinking, “well, the Grammys have to be better than this.”

Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13

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Sunday night, my wife & I went to see a double-billed concert, Kelly Clarkson and Maroon 5 at the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach (in a fit of corporate sponsorship, this is billed as the “Honda Civic Tour”). As far as current pop music goes, this is about as good as it gets: Clarkson is, in my oft-stated view, the best thing in pop today, and Maroon 5 has for some years now been the best pop band that’s still played regularly on mainstream pop radio, notwithstanding my disappointment with the direction of their recent releases. On the whole, it was a good show – but not as good as it could have been.
The Setting
Jones Beach is easily the most beautiful concert venue I’ve seen, and is a convenient place to see a show, with good acoustics for an outdoor venue. It’s a good size, as well, providing seating for a sizeable crowd without any bad seats or the impersonal feel of a stadium show. (The picture above is spliced together from two shots I took during the show, giving a sense of how each side of the stage looks before sunset).
The crowd was…really pretty terrible, one of the worst crowds in which I’ve seen a show. Maybe worse because it was a Sunday night. There was clearly a mixture of longtime Maroon 5 fans, a smaller but vocal contingent of Clarkson fans, and a chunk of people who seemed only familiar with Maroon 5’s most recent radio hits. Demographically, I wasn’t nose-counting that much but it was a varied crowd by age, almost all white, and I was able to waltz past acres of empty urinals in the men’s room while the lines for the ladies’ room looked like the last helicopter out of Saigon.
What bothered me, mainly during Clarkson’s set, was that nobody but a small coterie on one side of the stage seemed to be standing up. Sitting down is no way to enjoy a concert unless you’re 90 years old or in a wheelchair, but at my age (41) I’m not bold enough to stand up alone if everybody in my section is resolutely sitting, which they were (you need the front row up or nobody else budges). It was seriously lifeless and embarrassing to be a part of. The crowd got up sporadically during Maroon 5’s set, mainly during the more recent radio hits, but there were still people sitting down or bolting for the exits during the encores. To say nothing of people walking to the bathrooms in the middle of songs.
We arrived too late to see the opening act, Rozzie Crane, although she did come back onstage to sing with Maroon 5 on “Wake Up Call” (a really odd choice of song to add a female voice to, plus like most female singers her voice is deeper than Adam Levine’s falsetto), and thus while I can’t judge her material, she does have a good voice and a lively stage presence.
Kelly Clarkson
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This is the third time I’ve seen Clarkson in concert – she joins Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and the Saw Doctors as the only acts I’ve seen three times – and I wrote up previous reviews after seeing her at the Hammerstein Ballroom in October 2009 and at Radio City Music Hall in January 2012.
When I saw Clarkson at Radio City, she was touring in support of her fifth and arguably best studio album, Stronger (the album won a Grammy and the title track was a ubiquitous hit single), and coming off yet another of her periodic controversies for saying she liked Ron Paul. She has kept busy since then, singing at the 2012 Super Bowl and President Obama’s second inaugural, starring as a judge in Duets, ABC’s ill-fated Summer 2012 entry into the singing-show sweepstakes, doing a joint tour with The Fray, releasing a Greatest Hits album, a pair of country singles (one a duet with Vince Gill), and a Dallas Cowboys ‘theme song’, recording a big-band/country/blues/rock Christmas album due out late this fall, and getting engaged. Her upcoming wedding will marry her into country music royalty: her fiancee is the son of her manager, the stepson of Reba McEntire, and is himself the manager for Blake Shelton.
Clarkson, now a veteran touring act at 31, particularly made a name on her last few tours by doing “fan requests” – songs requested by fans on Twitter. She’s not the only artist to do something like this; Bruce Springsteen, for example, plays songs from his back catalogue requested by sign-holding fans at his shows, sometimes even songs he hasn’t played in decades or has never played live. But in Clarkson’s case, only a handful of the fan requests have been her own songs; it’s been the covers of other people’s songs, generally only rehearsed the day of the show, that have cemented her reputation as a one-woman walking iTunes. She’s covered everyone from the classic rock gods (the Beatles, the Stones, Springsteen, Dylan) to modern rock (the Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Kings of Leon, Florence and the Machine) to 90s-to-present pop-rock (the Goo Goo Dolls, No Doubt, Gavin DeGraw, .fun) to country (Tammy Wynette, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack) to the big-voiced pop/R&B divas (Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston) to the little-voiced pop tarts (Madonna, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Rihanna) to the blues (Etta James) and the pop standards and show tunes (songs from Funny Girl and Grease) to even a respectable hoodie-and-all stab at rap (Eminem; the cover met with the approval of Eminem’s brother who was in the audience). Entertainment Weekly collected fan-shot YouTubes of the whole tour’s worth of covers here and here. The fan request covers offer something unique about each show and showcase the versatility as an interpreter of songs across genres that made Clarkson a star on American Idol in the first place.
The setup for this tour, with Maroon 5 as the de facto headliner, called for Clarkson to go on first, with just an hourlong set compared to her usual 90 minutes. Given her breadth of material (Clarkson didn’t even have room for all her top-10 singles on her Greatest Hits album) and need to promote her current singles while making room for at least one cover, that left a lot on the cutting room floor, including – unfortunately – the fan requests. She played a series of her biggest signature hits, from the opening “(What Doesn’t Kill You) Stronger” to the closing “Since U Been Gone” to her first really big pop hit, “Miss Independent,” but also worked in her most recent pop single, the Lady Gaga-ish “People Like Us,” a solo version of her hit country duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her wedding-themed current country single “Tie It Up,” and a cover of Aretha’s “Never Loved A Man.”
The planning of her set was well-designed: she brought a 3-man horn section, a highlight of her 2009 tour, and presented a number of her songs (particularly live favorite “Walk Away”) with new instrumental arrangements heavy on the horns. “People Like Us,” the next to last song, featured some of the visual effects and costume changes Clarkson has eschewed with past tours, including fluorescent outfits for her and her band. But the execution had one flaw.
Clarkson’s voice in concert is ordinarily such a marvel, and coming from such a tiny person, I’ve compared it to watching Pedro Martinez pitch. But the analogy holds up further, because Sunday night her voice was in such rough shape it was like watching an ace pitcher take the mound when he doesn’t have his A+ fastball: she was straining and falling short of a lot of the big notes and booming volume she customarily produces with ease. Like an ace pitcher, though, she knows how to compensate: she dialed up the soul on the Aretha cover, relied more heavily on her backup singers, was even punchier than usual in her goofy in-between songs banter, and constantly urged on the crowd to sing along with her, trying to get audience participation to step in where she couldn’t go. You can see this from the closing number, “Since U Been Gone”:

The reason why Clarkson sounded so ragged was obvious: when she tours on her own, she insists on not scheduling back-to-back shows to reduce the strain on her voice. But the Jones Beach show was the joint tour’s third straight night in three different cities, and she was audibly out of gas. Still, she gamely soldiered on, and even at partial strength is still an entertaining and energetic performer and a master interpreter of songs (if you’d never heard what she sounds like live you might not have realized this was not her best). Clarkson’s a trouper; last summer she badly sprained her ankle but refused to cancel a July 4 show at Fort Hood, at which she performed some of her more uptempo hits while bouncing on one foot with the other in a cast.
But she was engaging as always. Clarkson commented on how well Jones Beach had been rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy (it was not as hard-hit as Coney Island or the Jersey Shore). She also waved around her engagement ring and gushed about being engaged and the importance of finding someone who lets you be yourself; for someone whose public persona and musical personality was built over the past 9 years around breakup songs and loneliness, it’s a sharp turnabout that she clearly relishes.
Maroon 5
This was the second time I’ve seen Maroon 5 live, the first being a Jones Beach show on the same day in August 2010. Like Clarkson, Maroon 5 has seen its share of ups and downs in a decade-long career in pop music. There’s been personnel turnover – they replaced their drummer in 2006, and one of the keyboard players has been on leave from the band this year. Their first two albums, 2002’s Songs About Jane (which hit it big in 2003-04) and 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, were both great successes, selling millions of albums and launching #1 singles, but they waited three more years to release their third album, Hands All Over, and it launched poorly after the modest success of the lead single, “Misery.” It sold badly out of the gate, and the other singles disappeared without a trace. Hands All Over was a good album, mostly in the vein of their first two albums but with some Def Leppard-ish touches added by veteran producer “Mutt” Lange (best known for producing the best-selling albums by AC/DC, Def Leppard and his then-wife Shania Twain). Unfortunately for Maroon 5, their old sound was out of step with what radio stations were playing by 2010, and a pop band can’t really get away with releasing an album every three years. They looked like they might be yesterday’s news – but then lead singer Adam Levine joined The Voice, the hugely successful NBC singing show, and teamed up with equally flagging co-star Christina Aguilera to record “Moves Like Jagger,” an insipid piece of fluff that replaced Maroon 5’s signature “pop/rock with a touch of disco” sound with “disco/disco with a glob of more disco.” “Moves Like Jagger” was a colossal worldwide hit, the band’s career was saved (Hands All Over was re-released with it added and went platinum) and a monster was created. Later in 2011, Levine had another #1 hit appearing on the Gym Class Heroes’ “Stereo Hearts,” lending a melodic chorus to an otherwise fairly dreary hip-hop song.
That brings us to 2012’s Overexposed, which sent its first three singles to #1 on the Top 40 chart, starting with “Payphone,” another catchy, frothy melody weighed down by the appearance of rapper Wiz Khalifa. Overexposed featured a lot less rock, even the light rock of the band’s earlier albums – you can barely hear a guitar until well into the second half of the album, not coincidentally the point where guitarist James Valentine gets his first writing credit in place of hitmaking producers like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder (both of whom have also worked with Clarkson in the past). A few of the songs are good but several are terrible, and most are more like “Moves Like Jagger” than like the band’s first three albums: overproduced machine-made goo with few real instruments. The best track is the last one on the deluxe version of the album, a 7-minute long cover of Prince’s “Kiss” done in the style of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Few of the new fans flocking to Maroon 5 these days would recognize the musical reference.
Valentine is a legitimately outstanding guitarist, and he’s also Levine’s musical anchor, what keeps the band from floating away into a sea of mechanized pop fluff; just as Clarkson often presents her songs live as more ‘rock’ than the studio versions, Valentine’s guitar was a distinct improvement on the Overexposed tracks, which if performed in their studio arrangements would have entailed Levine singing while the rest of the band just twiddled their thumbs. (This Billboard puff piece on the show runs through the various covers and part-covers that dotted the show, most of them just quick musical interludes).
The band came out bouncing; Levine sweated clear through most of his shirt within 20 minutes of taking the stage (it’s an accomplishment to outdo Clarkson, a famously sweaty live performer, in this regard), leading to screaming demands from women in the crowd to strip off his shirt (he eventually got down to a tank top). He nodded as well to the difficulty of getting a Sunday night crowd to participate when he raised a sing-along to “She Will Be Loved.” In a clever touch, they released glowing beachballs into the crowd for “Lucky Strike,” at least one of which ended up in the drink:

Levine is aslo recently engaged (Clarkson cracked on Twitter that they should call it the “Off the Market tour”) and is typically a little funny and a lot full of himself; I used to follow him on Twitter until I tired of his politics. Between songs at this show, he was much less of a wiseass than at the previous show; he went on about how grateful he was to the fans, how much the tradition of Jones Beach shows has meant to him over the years, and how the band’s first appearance there was playing in the parking lot before a Sheryl Crow show in 2002. Perhaps at 34, settling down and having bounced back from the commercial low point of Hands All Over, Levine was in more of a mood to contemplate the limits to how long his band would remain near the pinnacle of the pop music scene.
In a way, that meshed well with Maroon 5’s set. Stripped of some of the studio production, the emotional core of songs like “Daylight” and “Payphone” as well as older Maroon 5 songs like “Won’t Go Home Without You” – the lyrics, the music and even the technology references in “Payphone” and “Stereo Hearts” – is a nostalgic wistfulness for relationships slipping away. That’s where Levine is at his best. I actually got a little bit of chills from the opening of “Daylight,” which naturally closed the show (it’s one of the few songs off Overexposed I really like, and its theme of holding on until the morning and then slipping away makes it a perfect show closer):

Conclusion
If you enjoy quality pop music, or what remains of it circa 2013, I heartily recommend seeing this tour or either of these acts while you can – but ideally, not on a night when they’ve been going a few days straight without a day of rest.

Continue reading Concert Review: Kelly Clarkson & Maroon 5 at Jones Beach, 8/11/13

Songs of Steel

Since everybody’s arguing about the new Superman movie Man of Steel, how about another argument: the best songs about, or referencing, the Man of Steel?
There’s a surprisingly large number of them (albeit not as many as Seinfeld episodes referencing Jerry’s favorite superhero). You can review some of the lists here, here, and here.
My top five?
1. The Kinks, “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman” – the live version on One for the Road is by far the best version of this song, here’s a live version from the same era in the same arrangement, but slightly less crisp audio:

“Superman” comes from the Low Budget album, a sort of perfect period piece if you want to go back to capture the zeitgeist of pre-Thatcher England and pre-Reagan America, One for the Road is one of the best live albums ever recorded, and the match of the Ray Davies’ lyrics and Dave Davies’ blazing guitar solo brings vividly to life the ache of that era for simple, old-fashioned heroism to shake the malaise of the late 70s.
2. 3 Doors Down, “Kryptonite”

“Kryptonite” remains 3 Doors Down’s signature song, a catchy, driving rock song that’s just plain fun. It uses Superman more as a motif than a storyline.
3. Spin Doctors, “Jimmy Olsen’s Blues”

The Spin Doctors didn’t have a long run, but their debut album Pocket Full of Kryptonite had some fun, bouncy guitar pop-rock, and the thematic signature track that catches you from the opening guitar and tells the mournful story of Jimmy Olsen trying to compete for Lois Lane’s heart with the Man of Steel.
4. Donovan, “Sunshine Superman”

It’s Donovan’s backwards guitar riff, accompanied by a solo by Jimmy Page on electric guitar, that makes this oddball bit of Sixties pop shine. It would be number one if this was a list of songs about Green Lantern, who is playing over his head being listed in the same breath with Superman.

Continue reading Songs of Steel

Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden

Checking off the top act remaining on my current “gotta see live” list, I went with my wife to see The Killers in concert at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night. While there were a few bumps in the road, on the whole the show was a reminder of why they are possibly the best rock band still in their prime today.
The Setting
I’ve previously described The Killers as “[t]he best young (under-40) rock band, period” – the main competition right now being Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – and their 2006 album Sam’s Town is arguably the best album of the last 15 years, so I was eager to get to see them live while they’re still at the top of their game, ten years into their career and touring in support of their fourth studio album. Lead singer Brandon Flowers is 31, and the rest of the band is in their mid-30s; Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci released solo projects before their latest album came out, Flowers with a solo album (Flamingo) and Vannucci with his own band, Big Talk (Big Talk). The concert had originally been scheduled for a Friday night in December, but was cancelled when Flowers came down with laryngitis, so our wait for this show had been a long one.
MSG is generally regarded as a great arena to see a show – it’s not as scenic as Jones Beach, as perfect acoustically as Radio City or as impressive as a stadium show, and it’s very loud, but for its size it’s a good venue. And, of course, given the proximity to Penn Station it’s about the easiest concert venue there is to access by mass transit.
I would estimate that the bulk of the crowd was in the mid-20s to early 30s range, which would be people who were in high school or college when the band hit it big almost a decade ago; there were a fair number of people around my age (41) or a little older, but few of the fifty/sixtysomethings you’d see at, say, a Bruce Springsteen concert. There were clearly some college kids but I did not see a whole lot of teenagers, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the band’s current album, Battle Born – their only studio album since 2008 – hasn’t sold especially well in the U.S. compared to their prior albums or received a ton of radio attention. Every single person I saw at the show was white, a fact that speaks to rock’s demographic problem going forward. There was a fair amount of singing along, and the first few rows of general admission in front of the stage were a fist-pumping lot, but otherwise it was your basic crowd of adults on a Tuesday night. A number of people near us bailed out during the last song to head downstairs, presumably to catch trains at Penn Station. On the other hand, this was the first show I’ve been to in a while where there was really a lot of noticeable pot smoke around us, and on the way out two guys near us started jawing and came to blows.
The opening act – originally planned to be Tegan and Sara when the show was first scheduled – ended up being a New York-based band called The Virgins, and their opening set must have been short; the official start time was 8, my wife and I arrived at 8:30 from an event at my son’s high school and they’d finished their set already. The Killers went on at 9:10, and played until a little after 11pm.
The Show
The show opened with an unusual twist compared to most of the concerts I’ve seen: The Killers just walked onstage without fanfare with the house lights still on and launched right into an energetic rendition of ‘Mr. Brightside’, their biggest radio hit and still arguably their best-known song. Playing with the house lights on made the Garden feel less like The World’s Most Famous Arena and more like an oversized high school gym, all the better to foster a little less distance between the band and the fans.
The second song was ‘Spaceman’, and that was one of two songs on the night – the other being ‘Somebody Told Me’, much later in the set – that had real audio problems, as there was a lot of rumbling feedback that made it difficult to hear Flowers’ vocals. ‘Spaceman’ has a lot of electronic background production on the album, and I suspect perhaps there was a backing track playing along with the band on those two songs that didn’t work all that well. But the sound problems wouldn’t be an issue for the rest of the show, as vocals and instruments were both crisply audible.
The set also seemed a bit minimalist at first for a band that’s always put a lot of thought into its music videos and other visuals, aside from the band’s lightning-bolt logo front and center; the one video screen was mounted behind the stage and a bit hard to see from further up. But the laser light show worked well for ‘Shadowplay’ and the fireworks and confetti as the show reached its conclusion were good visual touches.
Flowers talks less between songs than most frontmen; after an early apology for cancelling the original concert date, it was pretty late in the show before there was a break between songs at all, although he did introduce the extremely Springsteenish ‘Dustland Fairytale’ with a little talk about growing up in Vegas and ‘When You Were Young’ by talking about being nervous recording a followup to Hot Fuss. There were two other musicians besides the 4-man band onstage, and he completely failed to mention them when introducing the band midway through the show, and ended up re-introducing everybody during the last song.
Flowers’ quavery, emotional voice isn’t really the type that you’d expect to hold up well in concert, but after a bit of a rushed start over the first two songs, he was solid and about 95% of how he sounds in the studio. He’s exceptionally skinny – the man has the lower body of a 15 year old – and his stage presence is that of a teenager performing alone in his room with the stereo cranked to 11; rather than try to control his nervous energy, he just channels it into his performance, hopping on and off the risers at the end of the stage and exhorting everybody to clap and sing along with him. He demanded that the fans forget it’s Tuesday and put on their dancing shoes for ‘From Here On Out’, a rockabilly number from the latest album that is fun but not really something you could dance to.
Musically, there were not a lot of departures in how the band played their songs, unlike a band like Grace Potter & the Nocturnals that leaves a lot of room in the setlist for extended jams; seeing how sharply executed their songs were and how closely they hewed to the studio versions was a reminder of quite how tightly constructed The Killlers’ songs really are. They just seem to have put too much thought into every note of the melodies already to mess with them. Vannucci’s drums are the real driving force behind most of their songs, but Dave Keuning’s guitar work is just remarkably precise. (Bassist Mark Stoermer has the low-key role, as bassists usually do).
Overall, the 20-song setlist was pretty evenly divided and reflected the astonishing depth of quality music for a band with 4 studio albums: 5 songs from their 2004 debut Hot Fuss, 4 from Sam’s Town, 3 from 2008’s Day & Age, and 5 from Battle Born, plus their cover of Joy Division’s ‘Shadowplay’ from the 2007 Sawdust compilation and 2 covers. They couldn’t hit every single one of their good songs (‘Bones’, for example, really requires a horn section), but they got close; my only real gripe with the setlist was the omission of the best song on Battle Born, the driving uptempo anthem rocker ‘The Rising Tide,’ while playing the less inspiring title track as a show-closer and the somewhat disappointing ‘The Way It Was’ as the third song of the show.
The more fun of the covers, which the band has been doing this tour, is one of my favorite guilty-pleasure pop hits of the 1980s, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’, originally by Tommy James and the Shondelles but more famously covered by Tiffany in 1987 – it’s a pop song that resonates for my generation (I had just turned 16 when the song hit the airwaves, and it was sung by a 16-year-old singer, and they played it in such heavy rotation on Z100 at the time that you could hear it 3 times in an hourlong school bus ride), but I’m not sure how well-recognized it is by younger rock fans, let alone the Tommy James original (Flowers, with a nod to his own band’s pervasive U2 influences, introduced the song by saying, “Tiffany stole this song from Tommy James and the Shondells. Tonight, we’re stealing it back.”).
The other cover was ‘New York, New York,’ which Flowers delivered well enough in the traditional tempo and arrangement. Which brings up an odd point about The Killers. Some of my favorite musicians – from Bruce Springsteen to the Irish band The Saw Doctors to pop star Kelly Clarkson – give off a strong sense of geographical rootedness, of being from and of a particular place (respectively the Jersey Shore, Galway and Mayo Counties in the West of Ireland, and Texas). The Killers are from Las Vegas, Nevada, and since Flowers discovered Springsteen before recording Sam’s Town (named after a Vegas casino) he’s made a point of making a lot of references to the band’s home town, from the desert motifs of ‘Dustland Fairytale’ and ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa Claus’ to ‘Battle Born’ (named for the Nevada state motto) to his solo track ‘Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas’. In the intro to ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Dustland Fairytale,’ Flowers seemed intent on talking up New York (partly, no doubt, in an effort to flatter the local audience) and about how “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” is a lot more inspiring than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Something in that echoed one of the (fair) criticisms I’ve seen of Flowers’ recent writing: that he may be from Vegas but he’s not really of Vegas and doesn’t really get the city’s gamblers-and-stale-booze culture. He is, after all, a Mormon family man, and his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys, an influence you can hear in Hot Fuss, an album that sounds more English than American and has no references at all to Vegas or Nevada. As earnest as they are, Flowers’ efforts to claim his home town always seem a little forced, forced in the same way as singing ‘New York, New York’ just because you’re in New York.
With a touring hiatus and half the band making solo albums before they reuinted for Battle Born, and then the less smashing commercial performance of the album, fans of The Killers can be excused for worrying if their future as a band may be a little uncertain. Battle Born itself might have benefitted if a few of the weaker songs had been replaced by the best songs on Flowers’ and Vannucci’s solo albums. Even the crowd did not seem all that into the new material beyond the two singles, ‘Runaways’ and ‘Miss Atomic Bomb’ (the latter is a ballad, and while it’s grown on me, we saw in the ballads on Battle Born why The Killers have rarely recorded ballads). But for now, in concert, they remain at the peak of their game, playing both the old and new material with enthusiasm and skill. It’s a very fun show and very much worth seeing if you care about rock & roll.

Continue reading Concert Review: The Killers at Madison Square Garden

BASEBALL/42

Over the weekend, I went to see 42, the Jackie Robinson movie. A few thoughts, with spoilers for those of you who do not already know the story by heart (I can’t say my take here is that radically different from a number of other reviews I’ve read from other baseball writers):
1. The movie is a snapshot – not the full story of either Robinson’s life and career or the integration of baseball. It starts with Branch Rickey’s decision to bring a black player to the Dodgers in 1945, and ends with the Dodgers winning the 1947 NL pennant. Even within that snapshot, once Jackie makes the Dodgers’ minor league team in Montreal, almost nothing is shown of his 1946 season, and some other events are compressed (the Cardinals get off easy, as the film focuses on the Phillies as the main villians who threatened not to take the field against an integrated team). That keeps the plot and pacing relatively tight (even though the endpoint is no surprise), but it necessarily leaves off a lot of background and detail as well as the other storied chapters of Robinson’s career. And relatedly, the film is intended mainly to tell Robinson’s story to a generation of moviegoers who don’t know all the details, so there’s a bit of broad exposition that would not be necessary for people like me who are already steeped in the whole story.
2. The performances are everything they needed to be. Harrison Ford – while still recognizably Harrison Ford – steals every scene he’s in as Branch Rickey, and captures “Mr. Rickey’s” character and style (complete with his trademarks – his sermonizing speaking style and outrageously bushy eyebrows). Similarly, Christopher Meloni and John C. McGinley look, act and sound like the real Leo Durocher and Red Barber, other than Meloni being a lot bigger and bulkier than the diminutive Lip.
Chadwick Boseman has the unenviable task for a young actor of having to carry the film while competing with Ford and other more experienced actors, but while he doesn’t mimic Robinson’s high-pitched voice, he captures the man’s fierce competitive drive and hatred of segregation, and perhaps even more importantly he’s truly believable at bat and on the basepaths, where Jackie worked his memorable magic. More broadly, the baseball in the movie is really well-done: the players, the game and the parks all look like 1940s baseball. Brad Beyer as Kirby Higbe, for example, looks very much the part of your typical Sourthern farm boy turned power pitcher of that era.
In some ways, Jackie Robinson’s challenge in holding his temper in check and channeling it into the game reminds me of what I’ve written about George Washington; neither was the kind of man to meet adversity with Zen-like calm, but both managed to become complete masters of their own powerful emotional currents – anger, rage, despair – and present to the world a stoic face. That’s an incredibly impressive skill, for such a strong personality to remain so contained. The film captures that challenge, and takes some dramatic license to illustrate it with a scene (which almost certainly did not happen) of Robinson breaking down in the tunnel behind the dugout and requiring a pep talk from Rickey.
(Nicole Beharie is elegant as the still-elegant Rachel Robinson, but doesn’t really have much of a role to work with beyond the standard baseball-wife scenes. The film does spend some time with the Robinsons as newlyweds, which reminds me of an interesting question that I think I asked on Twitter a while back to not much satisfactory response: what is cinema’s most compelling black romantic couple? We can all name lots of famous onscreen romances, but it’s only much more recent films that have really developed those relationships between a black man and a black woman, and I can’t think of one that stands out as iconic. But there has to be one I’m not thinking of.)
3. The dialogue is frequently terrible, windy and too self-aware, and there’s a handful of scenes that are anachronistic in the way the characters speak and interact (men in the late 40s didn’t talk with each other about their feelings a lot, for example). While the usual rule in biographical films is to avoid mimicry, the best dialogue is actually characters like Rickey, Barber, Durocher and Happy Chandler speaking the way those men actually spoke (I sat through all approximately 478 hours of Chandler’s Hall of Fame induction speech in 1982). Branch Rickey really did talk as if he was orating for the history books; most of his players did not.
4. The movie’s inaccuracies were irritating but few and minor. Leo Durocher’s suspension for the 1947 season is portrayed as solely the result of his scandalous affair with Laraine Day, when in fact the stated reason for the suspension was over Durocher consorting with gamblers (Happy Chandler also cited “the accumulated unpleasant incidents in which he has been involved,” which also covered the affair and a variety of Leo’s other feuds). (I’ll forgive the filmmakers for sneaking into a night-time phone conversation Leo’s iconic “Nice guys finish last” line). Pee Wee Reese is given Gene Hermanski’s famous clubhouse wisecrack about how the Dodgers should all wear 42 when Jackie gets a death threat, so nobody could tell which one was him. Fritz Ostermuller’s family claims that the film inaccurately portrays him as a racist who beaned Robinson in a game. (The family of Ben Chapman, who eventually repented of his racist torments of Robinson late in life, could make no such claim). The film ignores Dan Bankhead, the second black Dodger who joined the team in late August. But on the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the attention to getting details right that historians of the game would notice. The movie captured both the essential truths of Robinson’s battle against the color line and the twists along the way. Particularly interesting and mostly accurate was the differing motivations of the players who rallied around Robinson, from Reese’s reluctant solidarity (as a son of Kentucky) to the scrappy Eddie Stanky, who like his mentor Durocher would walk over fire for you if you were on his team and could help him win a ballgame.
Every generation learns history anew, and Jackie Robinson’s corner of history is one worth retelling. If you haven’t seen 42 yet, you should.

Oz

A few weeks back, I took my family to see Oz, the Great and Powerful, the Disney reboot that has drawn – from reviewers and people whose opinions I trust – wildly divergent reviews, some people liking it and others loathing. (This review’s a little late, but I had written about half of it shortly after seeing the film). We hadn’t planned in advance on seeing the movie and had paid only modest attention in advance to reviews and the massive promotional campaign (which included a yellow brick road installed in the middle of Penn Station), so perhaps I was spared the expectations that a lot of others brought to the film. It won’t go down anywhere in movie history next to the original – parts probably won’t hold up that well on repeated viewing – but there was enough movie magic to make it well worth our while.
A few quick disclaimers. First, we saw the film in 3-D, so your mileage may vary if you skipped the 3-D or watch it at home.
Second, I’m a sucker for fantasy or sci-fi as long as it’s at all competently done. I enjoyed, more or less, the Star Wars prequels, even if they were not what they should have been. I enjoyed reading the Eragon books, derivative as they were, to my kids. Heck, I actually re-watched The Black Hole with my kids not long ago. Just give me something to work with.
Third, I regard the original Wizard of Oz as the greatest movie of all time. Not my personal favorite (that would be Star Wars, followed by The Untouchables), but certainly a movie I’ve seen more times than I could count. While you can make the case on pure artistic merits for competitors like Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, the Wizard of Oz stands out among the all-time great movies as having the broadest appeal across ages, genders, generations, and genres; a classic story that long since transcended its original political allegory; scores of memorable and quotable lines appropriate to many situations; breathtaking, groundbreaking and still-fresh-today cinematography that is woven into the plot; lots of songs that range from the memorable to the classic; and some vivid performances, from the star-making turn for Judy Garland (the best female vocalist of the first half of the twentieth century) to the iconic roles of Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West and a slippery-limbed Ray Bolger as the Scarecrow.
Tampering with the original movie would be borderline heretical. But I had no real objection to doing an Oz prequel – Frank Baum wrote more than a dozen other Oz stories himself. And in fact, not only did the original film take some liberties with Baum’s classic, Baum himself had previously done so when adapting it to the stage. (The Broadway show Wicked, which I have not seen, covers the same time period as the Disney film, albeit – from what I understand – with a radically different story). What matters is whether the adaptation is done well.
With those preliminaries out of the way, my review – spoilers included – below the fold.

Continue reading Oz

Death at Downton

Like a lot of its more recent viewers, I was originally skeptical of the Downton Abbey phenomenon, somewhat grudgingly agreed to watch it with my wife, and got completely hooked by the end of the first episode. The show is a really excellent example of both historical fiction and character drama. Some have complained that Downton is something of a glorified soap opera, but of course that’s true of any drama, especially an episodic TV drama – the line between Shakespeare and the soaps is often one of degree, not kind. I was particularly sucked in by the World War I storylines that dominated the second season.
That said, I think the show will face a serious problem as it enters its fourth season.
NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN ALL THREE SEASONS

Continue reading Death at Downton

The Glade Hander

One of the TV shows my wife and I are now in the habit of watching regularly is The Glades on A&E. It’s not Shakespeare, but I’m basically a sucker for crime shows, and South Florida is a wonderful place to set one, something Dexter and CSI:Miami have also exploited (Dexter is a great show; we gave up on CSI:Miami a few years and several hundred removals of Horatio’s sunglasses ago).
Which brings me to my rant: Jim Longworth, the main character, is the worst TV detective I have ever seen at questioning witnesses.
Longworth, if you haven’t watched the show, is a transplanted Chicago detective turned FDLE homicide investigator. He’s cocky, good-looking, wise-cracking, irreverent…he has a shtick. Which is a double-edged sword: a detective with a shtick can become a self-parody like Horatio, but at least it’s more entertaining than the colorless parade of no-character characters that a lot of the network police procedurals have turned out over the past decade, while the cable nets like USA have focused on more character-driven shows.
Anyway, it’s not Longworth’s personality that’s an issue, but how it gets in the way of his job. Week after week, he’s faced with the whole menagerie of suspects Florida can serve up: UFO freaks, snake handlers, gun and moonshine runners, stock car racers, high school football boosters, drug kingpins, Ernest Hemingway impersonators, you name it. And he can’t stop himself from sneering judgementally at them – their lifestyles, careers, hobbies, love lives, what have you. While he is questioning them. Which, even when questioning fictional characters, tends to cause them to get their backs up instead of winning their trust. And then he walks off instead of completing his interrogations. In last night’s episode, he literally walked out of an interrogation room while a suspect was shouting, “That’s not how it happened!” Any reasonably competent cop would have sat back down at that point and demanded to know, really, how it did happen.
The predictable result of this – which, granted, helps stretch out the episodes to an hour and keep the viewers guessing – is that everybody lies to him. Just about every witness he questions on the show has to be questioned two, three, four times before he gets their full and honest story. He can occasionally be effective in intimidating people he’s locked up (he generally locks up 1-2 suspects per episode who turn out not to have done it), but not in the spectacular fashion of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Detective Goren or Andre Braugher’s Frank Pembleton. He’s just a guy who has you locked up and maybe has a case against you.
(I’m leaving aside the political content that sometimes creeps in when Longworth is railing against gun shows and the like, which is a separate issue; it’s at least not out of character for a guy from Chicago to have a different, more Jack McCoy view of the world than Floridians)
Now, some TV detectives are interesting because they have character flaws. We used to watch Monk, which at times was an excellent show, and the writers made no bones about the fact that, while Monk was a genius, his various phobias and obsessions sometimes got in the way of doing his job. But the writers of The Glades never give you the impression that they realize that Longworth is doing anything wrong; after all, he does eventually solve all his cases. Sooner or later, they should realize that their main character is bad at one of the principal aspects of his job.

On, Yes, Kelly Clarkson and Ron Paul

Sometimes you write the stories, and sometimes they write you. I awoke this morning to a big, blazing Drudge headline about Texan pop starlet and American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson having endorsed Ron Paul for president. As it happens, I’m probably the only conservative political writer in America who has taken Clarkson seriously at some length (see here, here and here; I still follow her on Twitter and Facebook and the like), while at the same time following my RedState colleague Leon Wolf’s magnificant series on the lunacy of Ron Paul and his campaign (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for lots of gory details), and for that matter I’ve written about the intersection of music and politics with an exhaustive look at the culture and politics of my favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, so this story has my name written all over it. There’s actually some lessons to be drawn here, whether or not you have any interest in Clarkson per se.
The first point up is how Clarkson’s tweets about Paul are revealing of the mindset of a lot of ‘soft’ Ron Paul supporters. Those of us who write about politics on the internet tend to assume that all of Paul’s support comes from hard-core Ronulans, of the sort who will swarm you on the web with the kinds of barrages of talking points and – often – ALL CAPS and hate speech (or just rambling email manifestos) that carry an overpowering stench of political fanatacism. (This is a major reason why RedState has banned the Paul supporters for years; en masse, they make reasoned discourse impossible).* Even the more polite, otherwise reasonable people who support Paul in web discussions tend to be absolutely immovable in their support, to the point where there’s no realistic chance they could support any other Republican.
But when you do polling and casual discussions with people not following politics all that closely, you discover a fair number of people who have gotten the whitewashed version of Paul and aren’t aware of the full depth of his crazy – people I have to believe are still persuadable that Paul is toxic. And that’s exactly what Clarkson sounds like here. It started with this tweet

I love Ron Paul. I liked him a lot during the last republican nomination and no one gave him a chance. If he wins the nomination for the Republican party in 2012 he’s got my vote. Too bad he probably won’t.

Then:

we shouldn’t try & help/tell other countries how to solve their issues w/the poor when we can’t even solve our own.

and

I am about progress. Ron Paul is about letting people decide, not the government. I am for this.

All of which sounds reasonable enough; Paul is certainly in favor of more liberty at home and a less vigorous American role abroad, and while I regard his brand of isolationism as deeply dangerous, the general concept of getting out of the UN and the ‘world policeman’ role is attractive to an awful lot of people who are not crazy. This is the sort of thing why I run into people – friends, family – who tell me “you know, Ron Paul has a lot of good ideas.” It’s also why some of the saner people in the GOP who have some overlap with Paul’s ideas – from the more conservative types like Mike Lee, to Paul’s son Rand, to the more libertarian types like Gary Johnson – might be better spokesmen for some of those ideas.
Unfortunately, you buy Ron Paul, you buy the whole batty package: the flirtations with 9/11 Trutherism and other conspiracy theories, the “we had it coming” view of anti-American terrorism, the anti-Semitism and pro-Palestinian bias, the racist newsletters, and whatnot, all of which you can find at length in Leon’s posts. And Clarkson, with nearly a million Twitter followers and nearly 3 million Facebook fans and a prior record of trying to keep herself out of political controversies, got inundated with hostility she clearly wasn’t expecting for backing Paul, ultimately complaining about the volume of “hateful” attacks. Thus, the backtracks:

I have never heard that he’s a racist? I definitely don’t agree with racism, that’s ignorant.

I love all people and could care less if you like men or women. I have never heard that Ron Paul is a racist or homophobe?


I have never seen or heard Ron Paul say anything against gay people?


I am really sorry if I have offended anyone. Obviously that was not my intent. I do not support racism. I support gay rights, straight rights, women’s rights, men’s rights, white/black/purple/orange rights. I like Ron Paul because he believes in less government and letting the people (all of us) make the decisions and mold our country. That is all. Out of all of the Republican nominees, he’s my favorite.


(There’s a longer story here, which Dave Weigel has covered, as to why Paul still has apologists among gay liberals despite the content of his newsletters)
Most entertainers tend towards knee-jerk leftism, and even the more thoughtful ones – like Springsteen, who as I’ve discussed is in some ways a culturally conservative figure in his music despite his leftism – are often hard-core liberals or leftists. And the exceptions are sometimes no better; John Mayer came out as a vocal, hard-shell Paul supporter in 2008, and in Mayer’s case that seemed to dovetail with some of his own more unsavory characteristics. One of the reasons I like Clarkson, aside from her music, is that she thinks for herself and is frequently a lonely voice for sanity in the insane world of pop music. Her words on the death of Amy Winehouse was one example of this:

Sometimes I think this job will be the death of us all, or at least the emotional death of us all. Maybe that is why as a little kid in sunday school I learned that God didn’t want false gods or idols. I thought it was terribly selfish of God as a child but I think I get it now. He didn’t want us following people or things that are imperfect and not so much for the followers but for the gods and/or idols who will never be what everyone wishes or needs them to be because we are made imperfect. He knew we wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure, the shame, the glory, or the power the spotlight brings.

Her background ought to make her the kind of swing voter the GOP can reach: raised poor among strict Christian Texas Democrats, Clarkson is something of a stubborn holdout for decency and modesty in pop music, refuses to describe herself as a feminist, owns 9 guns and sleeps with a Colt .45 for protection, and is a self-described Republican but one who voted Obama four years ago:

I just want someone that’s about change, and that’s what [Barack Obama] campaigned on, and that’s what I’m hoping happens. I’m very much a Barack fan.
How’d you celebrate the inauguration?
I was actually with two of my friends here in Texas — we were in my kitchen watching it on TV. We were crying — all three of us. Seeing Aretha Franklin — who in her lifetime has seen oppression and now seeing a black man become President — sing … that in itself is such a beautiful message to the rest of the world.

A lot of people felt that way about Obama in January 2009, but the thrill is long gone, even in Hollywood.
Political coalitions, of course, inevitably involve picking and choosing positions that alienate some people you might otherwise reach. Ron Paul, now 76 years old, will be gone from the stage after this election, but the challenge of how to appeal to people who like some of the themes he projects but aren’t fans of more conventional Republican ideas – people like Kelly Clarkson – will persist.

Continue reading On, Yes, Kelly Clarkson and Ron Paul

BUSINESS: Negotiating Through The Media

There are many species of bad journalism, most of which involve too much opinion by the writer, but sometimes the opposite is true and a writer gives you the apparent facts without the context needed to make sense of them. Let me use an article from the NY Times about 30 Rock to illustrate a common type of bad journalism that I find to be equally amusing and annoying: reporting negotiating positions without bothering to explain to the reader to take negotiating positions with a grain of salt, let alone how to interpret statements made in the course of negotiations. This has been a common thread in scores of articles these past few months about – among other topics – the debt ceiling negotiations, the Libya war, the perpetual Israel-Palestine ‘peace process,’ the NFL and NBA labor negotiations, the Mets’ legal dispute with the Madoff trustee and other business machinations and their efforts to re-sign Jose Reyes, and the legal imbroglio surrounding the Dodgers. I’ve read more articles on all these topics than I could count that failed to give the reader the guidance to put the parties’ statements in the context of the underlying negotiating dynamics.
The Times tells us, first, that Alec Baldwin has said he’s leaving 30 Rock after next season, a departure that of course would be a terrible blow to a show built around the tensions between his (awesome) character, Jack Donaghy, and Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon. It may well be true that Baldwin sincerely has other things on his mind, maybe even a run for public office, and/or that he’s feeling he’s done all he could with the character. But it’s at least equally likely that he could be persuaded to stay on if NBC offers money or other contractual concessions to make it worth his while.
Then we get the response from NBC brass and from Lorne Michaels, the show’s executive producer:

Executives from the show and NBC aren’t sure, but they made it clear in interviews here this week that his departure would not mean an automatic end to the award-winning comedy.
NBC’s new entertainment chairman, Bob Greenblatt, said: “I’d love nothing more than to have Alec for the duration of the show. That’s my goal. Let’s see what we get.”
NBC’s interest in keeping “30 Rock” around for at least one more year after the coming season can be explained by the need for more episodes to enhance the show’s resale value in syndication.
The executive producer of “30 Rock,” Lorne Michaels, was more definitive about a future for the comedy, even if Mr. Baldwin turns down all blandishments to continue. “I would hope he would want to go on,” Mr. Michaels said on Monday. “But we’re going to keep doing the show.”

Again: I don’t doubt that NBC would very much like to extend the show’s run one extra season for syndication purposes; many a sitcom past has been kept on past its proverbial shark-jumping point for that reason. If 30 Rock is still making money at that point, the network would probably try to soldier on without Baldwin. And Lorne Michaels has never been a guy who thought any of his cast members were indispensable (to put it mildly). But this all smacks strongly of a negotiating posture: the network and Michaels are doing interviews here precisely to send Baldwin the message that he’s not holding all the cards. And the reporter, Bill Carter, doesn’t breathe a word of that, probably because he knows full well why they are giving him these interviews.
Of course, Greenblatt and Michaels have their own competing agendas:

Mr. Greenblatt did open the door to a possible disagreement with Mr. Michaels over the re-entry of “30 Rock” onto NBC’s schedule. The show’s sixth-season premiere has been postponed until midseason because of the pregnancy of its star, Tina Fey.
Asked if “30 Rock” was ensured a spot back on NBC’s successful Thursday night comedy lineup, Mr. Greenblatt said, “That is a good question, and I really don’t have an answer for it.” He added, “Nothing’s written in stone.”
But as far as Mr. Michaels is concerned, it is. “The show will be back on Thursdays,” he said confidently.

Of course, if Baldwin’s future with the show is in doubt, that’s one reason the network would not want to commit valuable Thursday night prime-time space, plus Greenblatt is taking charge of a fourth-place network and probably should keep his options open. But NBC has to keep Michaels happy, too; as the creator of Saturday Night Live, he remains a vital part of the network’s brand image. Michaels’ certainty here is obviously intended to send an unsubtle message that he will not be a happy camper if the network moves his prime-time baby out of its Thursday night sinecure.
I don’t mean to pick on Carter, who in this article has at least offered us enough quotes from each of the participants that a skeptical reader can piece together what is really being said here; that’s not always the case with this sort of journalism. But in general, reporters aren’t doing their jobs if they don’t report how someone involved in negotiations could stand to gain from taking a particular position in public, and worse still if they straight-facedly claim that someone will never make a particular concession (e.g., Jose Reyes won’t talk about a new contract during the season), when in fact they might well do so for the right price. The dynamics of negotiations and how they are handled through the media can differ across situations, but there are a finite number of basic underlying approaches to negotiating, and they crop up across many different fields of endeavor.
Consider the debt ceiling debate – surely many Republicans would have preferred to pass ‘cut, cap and balance,’ and some were genuinely opposed to raising the debt ceiling at all. But for many people involved in the fight, pushing for the ideal policy, even if it was the policy they wanted, was also a matter of getting leverage to extract a better deal when the time came to compromise. Similarly, many Republicans sincerely opposed any deal that would raise any taxes at all; others may have been willing to trade some revenue-raisers for something better, but found it convenient to stay in line with the ATR pledge against tax hikes as a posture unless and until that better offer materialized. None of this is insincere; it’s just good bargaining.
Learn to look for the signs of negotiating postures between the lines of news articles, and they will surface again and again in every section of the paper.

RIP Big Man

BigMan.jpg
RIP Clarence Clemons. Bruce will undoubtedly tour again, but it really is an end of an era, the end of a whole, long period of my life and the lives of so many other fans of the E Street Band, to think we’ll never see the Big Man on stage again.
UPDATE: Read Joe Posnanski on Clarence. Just do.
I offered up some video memories here. A few more below the fold.

Continue reading RIP Big Man

The Big Man

Terrible news:

Clarence Clemons, hospitalized in Florida after a stroke, has had two brain surgeries but is “responsive and in stable condition,” according the authoritative Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fan website, backstreets.com.
Also, Carolyn Gusoff of Fox 5 News has reported that Clemons is paralyzed on the left side of his body, though backstreets.com quotes a “close friend” of Clemons as saying: “He was paralyzed on his left side, but now he’s squeezing with his left hand.”

Prayers and best wishes for the Big Man, one of rock’s greatest performers in his own right. I could offer you a thousand words on his impact on Bruce Springsteen’s music as well as his other projects, but instead, here’s a collection of great memories on video:

Continue reading The Big Man

Concert Review: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals at Irving Plaza, 3/10/11

My wife and I braved the heavy rains and high winds last night to see Grace Potter and the Nocturnals at Irving Plaza. It was a vintage rock show that transported us back, for one evening, to the golden age of classic rock.
Background
I’ve written previously about Potter & Co. and their album, for my money the best album of 2010, in the rock section of my “State of Rock and Pop” essay. As a vocalist, Potter is basically Janis Joplin with a little Stevie Nicks thrown in, and with an exceptionally powerful voice (on occasion, she takes this just a bit far in showing off her ability to drag out really big notes, like on the studio version of ‘Tiny Light,’ but on the whole she’s a remarkable, soulful vocalist). The band is, oddly, co-ed since adding bassist Catherine Popper in 2009 (most female-fronted bands tend to be either all-girl like the Go-Gos or male-backed like Blondie, although Fleetwood Mac would be the most notable exception and a bit of a cautionary tale in this regard), and features two guitarists (including excellent lead guitarist Scott Tournet), a drummer, and Potter on either keyboards, guitar or tamborine as the song demands. Musically, they’re also very much in line with Joplin, the Allman Brothers and other roots/soul rock acts of the late 60s and early 70s. Potter, however, insists she didn’t listen to Janis growing up and was more into the Kinks.
The Venue, The Crowd and The Opening Act
I said my bit on Irving Plaza after seeing the Saw Doctors there last May (they’re playing the venue again this weekend). On the one hand, it’s a wonderfully intimate place to see a show, and positively scandalous – when you consider some of the acts that play stadiums and big arenas these days – that a band as talented, charismatic and musically mainstream as Potter and the Nocturnals are still doing shows for a few hundred people, three albums into their career. And seeing such a great show for $28.50 a ticket is an incredible steal. On the other hand, I have really come to hate General Admission – my wife and I had good position in the center of the crowd until some taller people just forced themselves in front of us about three songs into the set, after which we had to flee to the side (where we had to make way every few minutes for a waitress carrying beers) to see the stage (I’m a shade under 5’10” but my wife is only about 5’4″).
As for the crowd, it was almost entirely white (as you expect with a rock act) but otherwise pretty diverse in age, with probably the bulk of attendees in their 20s and 30s. It was also one of the lamest crowds I’ve seen, rivaling the Billy Joel show I attended at the Nassau Coliseum in 1993 or 94 (described here), really lacking in visible enthusiasm. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was being a work night in Manhattan, maybe it was how densely the sold-out audience was packed that prevented people from moving or raising their hands much, and maybe in part my earplugs drowned out some of the crowd noise, but the audience really did not seem to react all that much compared to shows I’ve seen in the past. I suppose I was spoiled by some of the recent shows I’ve been to in that regard, ranging from the raucous Saw Doctors crowd to the outpouring of emotion at the Kelly Clarkson show. It was also the first time in a while I’ve been at a show with really noticeable pot smoke.
The opening act was a brother-sister fronted pop-rock band called Belle Brigade (as with the Saw Doctors show, no opening act was listed when I bought the tickets, so I only found out the day before who it would be). You can hear one of their songs here, they are apparently releasing their first album next month. We came in about halfway through their set, so I can’t really offer much of an evaluation – I think I liked the song they were playing when I arrived better than the last two.
The Show
Potter and the band played 17 songs in a set that lasted for about two hours, including a two-song encore; the setlist, courtesy of Potter’s twitter feed, is here, featuring seven songs off the band’s latest album. If you’re keeping score at home, that clocks in at an average song length somewhere around seven minutes. My wife complained that the set contained too many slow songs and too many long instrumentals and preferred the shorter tracks like ‘One Short Night,’ but of course that’s the band’s jam-band style (in most cases the band didn’t actually stop playing between songs, just slowing down to a segue; as a result, Potter didn’t do that much talking between songs). With a nod to the weather, Potter opened up with my personal favorite off the latest album, the rollicking rocker ‘Hot Summer Night,’ and played a particularly extended and borderline-psychedelic version of ‘Oasis.’ The band also played a couple of covers (including as part of the encore Heart’s ‘Crazy On You,’ which Potter had performed with Ann Wilson on VH1 a few months ago) and some songs I didn’t recognize from any of their albums, which may or may not have been covers. At the inevitable request for ‘Free Bird’ when Potter mentioned they’d be doing some covers, Potter sang the opening line and then quipped that “you’ll have to slip a lot more dollar bills in my panties to get the rest of that one.”
Here’s video from last night of the blues-stomp number ‘Joey,’ off their first album; the video quality is better than the audio but should give a sense of the stage setup and the shaggy, white-suited band:

Continue reading Concert Review: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals at Irving Plaza, 3/10/11

Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part I of IV – Overview)

Much as I love music, I basically went into hibernation on the current-music scene beginning in the years between 1995 and 1997, when – in the span of little more than two years – I got married, finished law school, started a full-time-and-then-some job and became a father. Oh, I kept up with new Springsteen and U2 releases and occasionally noticed things going on here and there, and I got majorly into the Irish pop/rock band the Saw Doctors, but for the most part I didn’t listen to the radio, didn’t get into new artists, didn’t buy new releases by even some of my favorite veteran artists, and generally got left behind by the march of new music. For a long time, I assumed I hadn’t really missed anything, but of course somebody’s always making good music somewhere, and as fractured and degraded as the current music scene is, there is still good stuff out there if you look hard and have some help and advice.
I finally got an iPod for Christmas in 2007, and after spending a year loading CDs and buying up a lot of the stuff on iTunes that I’d been living without for years, I started exploring the music world again in earnest in the first half of 2009. Since then, I’ve dug hither and yon for “new” music, i.e., things released in the past decade or so. I’ve scoured iTunes, plowed through YouTube videos, music blogs, Twitter and message boards, hit up my wife’s CD collection, begged help from siblings, friends and this blog’s readers, scanned the pop charts, looked at everything – new releases by veteran rockers, the alt rock scene, the adult contemporary pop market, the American Idol and Disney pop factories, you name it. Ben Domenech was particularly helpful, and Keith Law’s alt-influenced list of the top 40 songs of the decade of the 2000s was a valuable resource – I listened to all of them. And I should acknowledge as well that following Kelly Clarkson on Twitter and elsewhere was also very useful – other than Steve Van Zandt, there’s probably not another major recording artist who spends as much time and enthusiasm promoting the work of such a varied collection of other musicians.
On to the results, broken broadly in two groups: rock and alternative, on the one hand, and pop and other radio formats on the other. Come with me as I emerge, squinting, into the light of today’s rock and pop scenes.
Rock and Alternative: Overview
We live in an age without new rock giants, and there is a reason for this. Rock had its heyday, its period of riotous creative ferment, in the mid/late 60s and into the 1970s, and the format in a sense grew up and came of age in the 80s, with the maturation of the first generation of musicians weaned on rock and with perhaps the period of rock’s greatest commercial success. But the pipeline of new artists and new, great music has been running ever drier since about 1990. There’s still good stuff out there, but there’s nothing and nobody as great as the best of classic rock.
This is the way of music. We won’t have another Springsteen or another Beatles or Rolling Stones for the same reason we won’t have another Mozart or Beethoven, another Gershwin, another Sinatra – when a genre of music starts being mined, a whole scene of talented people develops that’s dedicated to tapping every available vein. But after a generation or so, they’ve run through most of the best ideas, and the really pathbreaking types of people are looking somewhere else. Look at the kinds of people who were session players, sidemen, studio whizzes and the like in the late 60s and early 70s, both the ones who went on to major stardom in their own right and the ones who stayed in supporting roles – Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Leon Russell, Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Steve Winwood, Al Kooper, Phil Spector, Billy Preston, Chuck Leavell, etc. (one of my favorite factoids of that era: The Eagles were originally hired as Linda Ronstadt’s backup band). But that time is over. Rock is not dead, but it is past its prime, and we shouldn’t cling to the illusion that it’s ever going to be 1969 or even 1987 again. Think: how many songs recorded since 2000 would earn a place in the canon of great rock songs that includes so many songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s? I can only think of three that would draw broad support – ‘Beautiful Day’ (U2), ‘The Rising’ (Springsteen) and ‘Seven Nation Army’ (the White Stripes). Probably a few others would make the list, but it’s a short list, and you’d get very little consensus on its contents.
Is there an alternative source of great new rock? The “alt-rock” genre is something of a hybrid these days. On the one hand, I generally don’t buy the argument that being an alternative or indie artist makes you somehow better or more noble (everybody’s trying to make a living in the business) or musically superior, and specifically I very much doubt that the very best musicians ever go undiscovered or unsigned by major labels, at least not in the US or the UK. You were never going to find a guy singing clubs in Jersey who was better than Sinatra, or a garage band better than the Stones. Good acts can miss their chance at the margins, but you’d have a hard time convincing anyone that the very best music of the past century wasn’t almost entirely made by artists signed to major labels.
And alternative music is usually alternative for a reason. Alt-rock bands often eschew the very things that make music musical – melodies, choruses, bridges, the basic building blocks of song structure. And in particular, alt rock is plagued with terrible vocals, either due to bad singers or what I think of as the alt-rock disease: mixing/mastering the recordings to submerge the vocals to the point of being barely audible over the music. This isn’t a rock thing – guys like Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler were always front and center and crisply audible on most of their records – it’s a deliberate decision to make the listener choose between working to hear the singer and the lyrics and just giving up on them. There’s rarely a justification for that unless you’re just going to go all-instrumental. And indeed, a clearly-mixed and produced record should also have crisply audible instruments that you can pick out each on their own.
As for the vocalists themselves, listen to enough alt-rock and indie bands, and you gain a new appreciation for Sammy Hagar, Replacement Level Rock Singer. Hagar’s uncool and unglamorous and he’ll never win you over on a song all by himself, but every time out, he gives you eight strong innings and gives the band a chance to win. So many bands out there fail for the lack of a replacement-level vocalist. A band with Sammy Hagar will never have that problem. (I put Ringo Starr in the same general class with Hagar as a singer, but Ringo was the fourth-best singer in the Beatles).
Tied to the alt-rock disease is the alt-rock worldview, the cloying attitude of fans who don’t want their favorite artists to be commercially successful (see this handy chart from Cracked). I don’t get this at all – I’ll listen to music from people who are famous and obscure, cool and uncool, but all things being equal, I like seeing my favorite artists succeed and be recognized, have their music heard by other people and influence other artists. It heartens my faith in the music business, and it encourages imitation; if the Saw Doctors had the kind of success in the US as Nickelback or the Black Eyed Peas, we’d have a much better chance of seeing more bands with a similar sound.
For all of alt-rock’s problems, there are nonetheless a lot of good bands working in the alt-rock or indie scene that really are just quality mainstream rock acts left orphaned by the contraction of the mainstream rock universe. There’s no musical sense in which The Killers or Muse or the White Stripes or – of all people – Coldplay are alternative bands, any more than Pink Floyd or Rush or U2 or Led Zeppelin were alternative just because they were doing something musically a little different than the bands that immediately preceded them.
Pop and Other Current Radio Formats: Overview
What about pop, and the other styles of music that compete for airplay on today’s current radio formats? Pop music is in a bad way these days, overrun by soulless machines, assembly-line corporate hip-hop and “singers” better suited for careers in silent films, but for all the failings of current pop, I still believe in pop music. Specifically, I believe in the idea, the goal of pop music as it’s been since the dawn of the mass record-selling market in the 1940s: music that’s fun, catchy, immediately accessible, and enduringly memorable. Whether it’s traditional Big Band/pop, Beatles-style pop/rock, Motown-style R&B, 80s pop, or even styles like disco that I personally have little use for, a good pop song jumps off the radio and sticks in your head, to the point where you can sing along to it even if you haven’t heard it in years. Good pop can be smart or emotionally powerful, can be uplifting or profound, can be danceable, but it doesn’t have to be any of those things; it just has to be catchy and tuneful. But what’s missing from so much of modern pop is the human element: real human voices, human beings playing real instruments, lyrics that speak to us on a human level. Instead we get machine-processed “voices” backed by machine-made “music” mass-produced by the same handful of paid corporate professionals, none of whom will ever have to present their creations to a live audience.
But all is not lost. The few remaining practitioners of quality pop music aren’t all played on pop radio, but some of them are still soldiering on in those trenches. If you look hard enough, you can find them.
Part II of this essay is my look at the people still trying to make relevant rock in today’s market, whether they’re aging rock legends or young bands on the make, and whether or not they are considered “alternative” or “indie”; rock is rock. I also take a whack at a few of the acts that disappointed me, as well as some who are unique and off the beaten path. I’ll pass over, however, artists like the Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, the Who, Bob Seger and others who – however much I like them – simply aren’t producing new music of note anymore. Part III is my overview of pop and other current radio formats: the good, the bad, the interesting and the disposable, the mass-marketed and the relative unknowns. Part IV wraps up with a look at the best albums of the past three years, a quick run through the artists I haven’t covered here, and a few other odds and ends.
Pull up a chair.
Part II: The State of Rock and Alternative (the Artists)
Part III: The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats (the Artists)
Part IV: The Rest, and the Best Albums of 2009 and 2010

Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part II of IV – Rock and Alternative)

Part I – Overview
The State of Rock and Alternative
Let’s take a look at the surviving rock scene, one artist at a time. In addition to a thumbnail of my impressions of each artist, for those who have some songs worth checking out, I’m offering my list of their best songs since 2000 or so, so you can check them out for yourself if you’re unfamiliar.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – I start, as always, with Springsteen, about whom I’ve written more than I could hope to summarize or even link here (see here, here, here, here, and here). As I’ve noted previously, Bruce has had a good decade or so since turning 50 in 1999; following 1998’s Tracks box set of three decades of unreleased recordings, he got the E Street band back together in 1999, released the definitive post-9/11 album in The Rising in 2002, and has put out three other original studio albums (2005’s Devils & Dust, 2007’s Magic and 2009’s Working On A Dream), an album of covers of classic American folk songs (2006’s The Seeger Sessions), a classic concert album/DVD (the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon show in London, his first overseas concert), two new live albums (2001’s Live in New York City and 2007’s Live in Dublin) and, most recently in the fall of 2010 opened the vaults again for The Promise, a 2-CD set of previously unreleased tracks from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions. And, through it all, keeping up a punishing touring schedule that would wear down a man half his age.
The production of good studio albums isn’t as effortless as it once was – a man who would once leave whole abums worth of great stuff unreleased has at least a few dull filler tracks on each of his last three studio albums – but Bruce is still making quality rock, and Working on a Dream was better and, oddly, more pop-oriented than its two predecessors, with many tracks reflecting, at last, his contentment at a stable marriage and desire to hang on to those days of relative youth that remain. Now into his 60s, Bruce is very much aware of his own musical mortality. I recent read Big Man, Clarence Clemons’ quirky, impressionistic look back at his life and career with Bruce, and that’s one of the core recurring themes of the book – Bruce’s voice just keeps getting more gravelly, Danny Federici is dead, Clarence has a battery of problems with his knees, back and heart, Max Weinberg has a bad back, Nils Lofgren’s had hip replacement…the band’s days are numbered, and true to form, the only way Bruce knows how to deal with that reality is to keep playing show after show like each one could be his last. And as the Live in Dublin album attests, to this day, Bruce is putting new spins and reinventions even on some of his oldest songs.
As for The Promise, it’s not really new music (although Bruce has been promoting it with the full-tilt enthusiasm of a man with new songs and something to prove) but it clearly illustrates how the track selection for Darkness worked. There are nearly no hard-rocking songs left in the vault, as those all made the album. There are a number of fun pop songs; of the songs on the album only ‘Prove It All Night’ was remotely pop, whereas poppier tracks like ‘Fire,’ ‘Because the Night’ and ‘Talk To Me’ are well-known songs by now because Bruce gave them to other artists. As for the slower, mopier songs that fill out the rest of the 2-CD set, those were clearly lesser songs than others in the same vein that filled out the album (I include the title track, and I know I’m a heretical Bruce fan for not liking it much; Joe Posnanski offers the majority view).
Best Tracks (since The Rising): ‘Working on a Dream,’ ‘Radio Nowhere,’ ‘Save My Love,’ ‘Surprise, Surprise,’ ‘Gotta Get That Feeling,’ ‘Maria’s Bed,’ ‘Ain’t Good Enough For You,’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’
U2 – They may be younger than Springsteen, but age has caught up with the best rock band of the past three decades. Bono, now 50, no longer has the effortless powerhouse voice that seemed to fill stadiums by itself, and the band had to cancel the US leg of its summer 2010 tour after he suffered a back injury requiring surgery. Their most recent album, No Line on The Horizon, is a good listen all the way through but is clearly their worst album since their earliest days, lacking any one standout song; it’s like the second side of The Unforgettable Fire stretched to a whole album. Even the Spider-Man Broadway musical they scored has been beset by production delays. Meanwhile, Bono has taken up another sideline as an occasional NY Times columnist; he comes off as a smarter, less China-toadying Tom Friedman.
U2 is promising they’re not done, with as many as three albums in production (including a new rock album, an album of the Spider-Man songs and, reportedly, a “dance” album with hot electro-dance producer David Guetta and – gag – Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas). They may be down, but I wouldn’t count them out just yet. Here’s a taste of some of the new stuff.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Walk On,’ ‘Beautiful Day,’ ‘Love and Peace or Else.’
The Saw Doctors – Longtime readers know I never pass up a chance to talk up The Saw Doctors, the great Irish pop-rock band about which I’ve written repeatedly (and have a longer profile piece still in the works). With their Beatles-style pop-rock with its twinges of Irish folk influences and their rollicking live shows, the boys from Tuam in County Galway are still going strong, and released their seventh studio album and third of the decade, Further Adventures of…the Saw Doctors, in 2010, following on the heels of a greatest-hits compilation (To Win Just Once) in 2009, a compilation of unreleased songs and live recordings (That Takes The Biscuit!) in 2007, and three live albums since 2004 (2004’s Live in Galway, 2008’s Live at the Melody Tent and 2005’s rare but awesome tsunami-charity release Live on New Year’s Day), plus a single recorded for charity (a cover version of the Sugababes’ ‘About You Now’) that hit #1 on the Irish pop charts in 2008. They were last in the news playing the inaugural ball for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
The new album has a bunch of good songs, the standout tracks being the distinctive guitar riff and wistful lyrics of the lead single, ‘Taking the Train’ and the hard-rocking ‘Hazared’ (in which Davy Carton boldly declares “me, I’m back on the rock and roll”), but it does have two weaknesses: first, two corny, clunker ballads (‘Be Yourself’ and ‘Somebody Loves You’) that lack the usual Saw Doctors touch, and second, no songs by Leo Moran, the band’s other frontman.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Taking the Train,’ ‘About You Now,’ ‘Villains,’ “Hazared.’
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – I most recently wrote about Petty, Florida’s gift to rock, here. Following on the heels of a really excellent 4-CD live anthology, Petty and his band were back in 2010 with a new studio album, Mojo, his first since 2002. Petty’s voice hasn’t changed in 35 years and his band’s only gotten better (they recorded all the songs from this album in live studio sessions). There’s nothing here as catchy as ‘Refugee’ or ‘Runnin Down a Dream’ or ‘American Girl’, but this is a quality vintage Petty album from beginning to end, rock with blues influences and tempered by Petty’s general mellowness. Tom Petty’s still in this for the long haul.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Running Man’s Bible,’ ‘The Last DJ,’ ‘High in the Morning.’
The Killers – The best young (under-40) rock band, period. After they were recommended by a whole bunch of different people, I only had to sit through three or four of their songs to decide I’d go out and buy all their albums and wonder how I’d missed them before. With massive success in the UK in particular, over 15 million albums sold since their 2004 debut, and a sound that would fit comfortably on Top 40 radio if Top 40 radio still played rock, The Killers are the closest thing going to a logical successor to U2 as the world’s best rock band.
You might be forgiven, especially if you were introduced to them by watching their music videos, for assuming that 29-year-old frontman Brandon Flowers is a gay Englishman who came up through the clubs (unsurprisingly, his favorite band growing up was the Pet Shop Boys), rather than a married Mormon father of three from Nevada, the band’s home base. In fact, The Killers’ blending and shifting of musical and visual styles is a big part of what makes them a compelling and evolving band (their videos are actually quite good, unlike much of what’s done in that medium these days), but they remain unmistakably rooted in rock. The second and best of their three studio albums, Sam’s Town, shows the repeated influence of Bruce Springsteen after Flowers went on a huge Springsteen kick between their first two albums; the lyrics to ‘Read My Mind,’ their best song, are sprinkled with little Bruce touches, and ‘A Dustland Fairytale,’ off their third album, Day & Age, could not possibly be a more obvious homage to Bruce. Flowers’ crisp vocals stand in stark contrast to so much of the current trend in ‘alternative’ rock, and make the band’s music immediately identifiable and accessible. If anything, his recent solo effort, Flamingo, was even more lyrically Springsteenish, but nonetheless a little weaker – as is often the case for solo debuts by band frontmen – for the lack of the musical backbone provided by the band. Fortunately, the band will end its hiatus with a return to live performance in April.
The Killers are slightly crotchety and prone to feuds with other bands, such as when Flowers blasted Green Day for filming a DVD of the America-bashing American Idiot before a UK audience, horrifying some left-wing music fans with what was really nothing more than simple patriotism (the band played a 2010 campaign rally for Harry Reid, so they’re not exactly a right-wing outfit). They also put out an annual Christmas song, the best of which was 2007’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Don’t Shoot Me Santa.’
Best Killers Tracks: ‘Read My Mind,’ ‘When You Were Young,’ ‘All These Things That I’ve Done,’ ‘Mr. Brightside,’ ‘For Reasons Unknown,’ ‘Spaceman,’ ‘Human.’
Best Brandon Flowers Solo Tracks: ‘Magdalena,’ ‘Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts.’
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – If rock-fan readers of this post come away with nothing else, I hope you all go out and listen to the work of this Vermont-based throwback rock band, fronted by a tall, leggy 27-year-old with a serious Janis Joplin vibe and a powerful set of lungs (Potter is basically Janis if she was prettier and not wacked-out on drugs; in fact, while the music scene will always have its junkies and burnout cases, my sense is that relatively speaking there are fewer people on drugs in the rock and pop worlds than there have been for a very long time). My wife and I are going to see Potter in March at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza, a tiny venue where I’ve seen the Saw Doctors twice. One major booster of the band is Peter Gammons, who has been a devoted fan since their appearance at the 2006 Boston Music Awards.
For my money, the band’s self-titled third album is the best album released in 2010, with essentially no filler. It shows their continuing growth, as each album has had progressively more strong songs. You can definitely tell that the band is making a major push to break through commercially; they’ve followed a tireless promotional schedule (everything from the VH1 Divas “Salute to the Troops” to performing at the Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on Christmas Day), Potter did a duet with country superstar Kenny Chesney, and she has clearly made an effort to glam up her image, with blonder hair and shorter skirts standing in contrast to the slightly frumpier, more bohemian look you can see in older concert clips.
Potter and her band revel in their old-school influences, doing classic rock tunes with the likes of Gov’t Mule and Joe Satriani (they recorded a cover of ‘White Rabbit,’ a staple of their live set, for the recent Alice in Wonderland film). Potter can also write catchy pop when she wants to; she recently recorded a straight-up pop song, ‘Something That I Want’ (the song, full of bouncy organ riffs which could easily have been a Monkees tune) for Disney’s animated Rapunzel film “Tangled.” Potter might seem an odd choice to get picked for the soundtrack of a Disney movie (most of the other songs on the soundtrack were by Mandy Moore) until you realize that she and the band are signed to Hollywood Records, the Radio Disney house label that promotes the likes of Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, and Hillary Duff. Potter’s other big passion is cooking; she has her own brand of chocolates, makes her own maple syrup from trees in her back yard (it’s a Vermont thing), and incorporated the recipe framework in the powerhouse chorus of one of their best songs, ‘Mastermind’:

One part sugar/Two parts feeling…
Three cups full of bottled lightning…
Four parts water/Five parts believing…
Mix it all together and put both feet in

Best Tracks – ‘Hot Summer Night,’ ‘Mastermind,’ ‘Medicine,’ ‘Colors’.
Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam should be the best rock band in the business today, but even if they’re something less than that now, they’re still worth seeking out. I always liked them better than Nirvana, and their first three albums in the early to mid-90s were outstanding. If Kurt Cobain had somehow mastered his demons and lived on to 2011, Nirvana might well be where Pearl Jam stands today, a popular and successful touring act but generally considered past their prime and largely left behind by the music-listening public outside their fan base. Of course, to get from there to here, Pearl Jam had to wage a long series of self-destructive battles, from their war with Ticketmaster to ultimately striking out on their own independent label to pettier decisions like refusing to make music videos for more than a decade. Much as I enjoyed those first three records and their backing of Neil Young on 1995’s Mirrorball, the last Pearl Jam album I bought was 1996’s No Code, and other than the Eddie Vedder-less ‘Mankind’ (a very underrated song) I didn’t bother replacing that album or any of the songs on it when I lost the CD in the fall of the Trade Center. It doesn’t help that Eddie Vedder, while he has a great and powerful voice, so often sounds as if he’s singing while eating a sandwich.
But their 2009 release, Backspacer, seems to signal a comeback to more listener-friendly music. After checking out a bunch of the songs I keep meaning to buy it (I can never find it in stores and there’s like 12 different versions of the thing for sale on Amazon, but I’ll get there eventually).
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘The Fixer’
Sheryl Crow – The female Tom Petty, in terms of being an artist who’s churned out quality music year in and year out with a minimum of fuss (not that she’s lacked her own personal dramas, between a battle with breast cancer and a relationship with Lance Armstrong, and as with Pearl Jam, the less said of her politics, the better) and wears her Southern heritage lightly (she’s from Missouri). Her sound’s softer than Petty’s and even at age 48 she’s only been releasing albums half as long, but she’s built up a considerable catalog of hits since 1992’s breakthrough ‘All I Wanna Do.’ Crow’s latest album, 2010’s 100 Miles From Memphis, sees her back to her Motown roots (she got her start as a backup singer for Michael Jackson in the late 80s), with a record heavy on the horn sections. It’s a good, mostly mellow listen, even if you aren’t in the mood to sit through ‘Say What You Want To,’ a catchy but not very thinly veiled diatribe aimed at Sarah Palin and plunked down in the middle of the album.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Soak Up The Sun,’ ‘Peaceful Feeling,’ ‘Summer Day,’ ‘C’mon C’mon’
Jack White – Imagine a 2-person band consisting of a singer/guitarist and a drummer, in which the singer isn’t especially good at singing and the drummer’s not that good at drumming. You might expect a failure of a band, but instead the Detroit-based White Stripes made some of the best, most uncompromising rock of the past decade, and 35-year-old Jack White’s guitar magic, eclectic influences and relationships with other artists have made him and his various bands vital figures in the rock world. The White Stripes officially announced their breakup yesterday, perhaps an inevitable development given (1) Jack and Meg White’s divorce and Meg’s remarriage (which finally put to bed the longstanding air of mystery they’d cultivated over whether they were husband and wife or brother and sister) and (2) the fact that Meg was really never musically necessary to the band and was never entirely comfortable with the limelight.
The White Stripes never reached the heights of the great rock bands of the 60s and 70s, in large part because of Jack White’s limitations as a vocalist; while White, like Bob Dylan, could do more with his voice than you’d guess at first glance, he was never an accessible vocalist, and an even worse vocalist live (White’s reputation as a live act rests instead on his guitar wizardry). But his musical virtuosity made the vocals take a back seat anyway. The band was also masterful in its use of iconography – the red-black-and-white motif of their outfits, equipment and album covers, the hypnotic video to ‘Seven Nation Army’ – one element of their success that is unlikely to be carried over as Jack White moves on to other projects.
I still need to check out more of Jack White’s music across his many ventures, including his other bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. His most recent project, since relocating to Nashville and starting his own studio there, is backing an album by septuagenarian rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson, following on the heels of a prior effort for country legend Loretta Lynn, and with the White Stripes going the way of Cream, more collaborations are undoubtedly in the works.
Best White Stripes Tracks: ‘Seven Nation Army,’ ‘The Denial Twist,’ ‘Icky Thump,’ ‘The Hardest Button to Button,’ ‘Catch Hell Blues,’ ‘Ball and Biscuit.’
Kings of Leon – In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and so it is with the Kings of Leon, a conventional, straight-up no-frills hard rock band that places in the top tier of young rock bands today. A Tennessee-based brother act fronted by 28-year-old Caleb Followill that originally hit it big in the UK, the Kings were on their fourth studio album when they had their crossover commercial breakthrough in mid-2009 with the success of ‘Use Somebody’ on the pop charts (it hit #1 on top 40 radio, an extremely rare accomplishment for a rock band these days). As Clarkson – a fan since seeing them open for U2 earlier in the decade – described the band to the New York Times on the eve of their breakout, “The rock category is not rock anymore, so I love that they’re a rock band. Nothing about them is not rock.” And indeed, Only By The Night, their 2008 breakout album, is a good rock album from stem to stern, without a weak song in the bunch, and I’d recommend it to anyone; the 2010 followup, Come Around Sundown, lacks the distinctive tracks that made Only By The Night a hit, but it’s likewise a worthwhile listen.
But realistically, if the Kings of Leon had come out in the mid-70s, they’d have been ranked closer to Foghat, Golden Earring and Bachman-Turner Overdrive than Aerosmith or Zeppelin; it’s only the weakness of today’s rock scene that puts them near the head of the class. In a generation that would regard the second coming of Foghat as a blessing, it’s good to be the Kings.
Best Tracks – ‘Use Somebody,’ ‘Sex on Fire,’ ‘Crawl.’
Muse – Muse is a cross between pre-Joshua Tree U2 and Rush. A trio like Rush, with a reputation as a spectacular touring act, their sound is distinguished by the powerhouse vocals of 32-year-old frontman Matthew Bellamy, probably the most strongly Bono-influenced vocalist in rock (even more so than Flowers or Coldplay’s Chris Martin), and they too have opened for U2. Musically, Muse is is even more synthesized and electronic than Rush, but unmistakably still guitar-driven rock. They’re an intensely political British band; Bellamy is something of a 9/11 Truther and prone to pronouncements like “[t]he one thing religion has got right is that usury is a fundamental problem with the worldwide banking system.” Originally successful in France and scorned at first in their native UK, they’ve backed into a lot of free publicity on account of Twilight author Stephenie Meyer being a fan and insisting on their music being used in the soundtracks of her massively successful film franchise. Bellamy is reportedly romantically involved with Kate Hudson, one of those useless bits of gossip-mag celebrity trivia I can somehow never avoid absorbing.
Best Tracks: ‘Resistance,’ ‘Uprising,’ ‘Knights of Cyclonia,’ ‘Starlight.’
Nickelback – I really tried to give Nickelback’s music a fair hearing, honestly I did, but their songs were so forgettable I sometimes forgot what they sounded like while they were still playing. There’s nothing actively offensive about Nickelback other than that they take up airplay that could be given to good rock bands; they’re by far and away the most-played rock act on radio over the past decade, which may have helped convince the public that rock is well and truly out of ideas. The only song of theirs I own is ‘Into the Night,’ the single Chad Kroeger recorded with Santana, suggesting that Kroeger’s bland voice isn’t the entire problem with Nickelback’s music.
Coldplay – Like Nickelback, I worked hard to come to Coldplay with an open mind, knowing that both bands were hugely popular yet frequently derided. I didn’t have an auspicious start: my initial reaction to the song ‘Viva La Vida’ was that it sounded like it was building up to really go somewhere, and never did. But eventually I was sold, not on Coldplay generally as a band, but on a handful of their songs. Given the narrow range of their style, I can’t really imagine listening to an entire Coldplay album at one sitting, but they make a good change of pace on my iPod.
Best Tracks: ‘Viva La Vida,’ ‘Clocks,’ ‘Speed of Sound,’ ‘Low.’
Slash – Back in the day, I was a very big Guns ‘n Roses fan, and still listen a good deal to their best stuff from Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion albums, as well as more offbeat stuff like their superior but hard to locate cover of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Probably no other band has disappointed me as badly as Guns ‘n Roses without the death of one of the key members of the band, to the point where I’ve never even mustered the desire to listen to The Spaghetti Incident and only just finally listened to the long-delayed, Slash-less Chinese Democracy after finding a copy of it in my older brother’s car amidst the other possessions of his we ended up with after his death.
I’m probably overdue to catch up on Slash’s work with Velvet Revolver, but I did pick up the 45-year-old London native’s self-titled solo debut released in 2010, and it’s very, very much worth it. The album features collaborations with a variety of vocalists ranging from Ozzy to Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to Chris Cornell, Iggy Pop and Lemmy from Motorhead. Slash also appeared on a recent single, ‘Rock Star,’ by Rihanna, about which I can only say I hope he was paid in cash.
Contrasting Slash with Chinese Democracy, which is in effect an Axl solo album and has maybe two good songs (‘There Was A Time’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’), you can definitely see that Slash – like Keith Richards and Pete Townsend – was the more important member of the band (in fact, Izzy Stradlin’s 1992 solo debut Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds is also a vastly better album than Chinese Democracy, with hardly a weak track on the record).
Best Tracks: ‘I Hold On’ (with Kid Rock), ‘Beautiful Dangerous’ (with Fergie), ‘Starlight’ (with Myles Kennedy, who provides some of the album’s best vocals and has toured as the vocalist for Slash’s band).
Chickenfoot – Supergroups have a checkered history in rock, but Chickenfoot is a perfect situation for a supergroup: three low-key guys who know how to play in a band (two Van Halen veterans – Hagar and bassist Michael Anthony – and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith) unite with a spectacular talent who’s never played in one (guitar god Joe Satriani). The result is a solid debut album that flat-out rocks, and more impressively, sounds like the work of guys who have been playing together for years.
Best Tracks: ‘Future In The Past,’ ‘Soap on a Rope.’
Them Crooked Vultures – If Chickenfoot’s album was a success for rock supergroups, I have to class Them Crooked Vultures as a failure. I really wanted to like this band, built around Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. But as I went through track after track on YouTube, I heard way too much jam and not enough song. It kept sounding like they were giving us the studio sessions instead of the album. A real missed opportunity.
Gov’t Mule – An Allman-Brothers style classic rock jam band, and the Allman Brothers sound isn’t coincidental, as 50-year-old frontman Warren Haynes spent almost a decade as a member of the reformulated Allman Brothers starting in 1989 (he’s also toured with the surviving members of the Grateful Dead after the death of Jerry Garcia). Gov’t Mule is more of a live act whose studio albums are just excuses to tour, so while the band’s catalog of songs is solid, it features little in the way of standout signature songs other than ‘Soulshine,’ a good studio track that really shines in any number of live performances.
Best Track: ‘Soulshine’
Arcade Fire – Arcade Fire was another band I genuinely wanted to like, given their reputation as a quality, rising rock band, and I gave the indie darlings fronted by a husband and wife duo from Montreal a couple of looks, even going back after seeing a clip of them performing with Bruce (maybe it’s just me, but the song – ‘Keep the Car Running’ – reminded me of John Cafferty’s ‘On the Dark Side’). I did like one of their songs, ‘Rebellion (Lies),’ and found a second, ‘Intervention,’ to be adequate, and might have been a good song with better sound quality. But the band fronted by a husband and wife duo from Quebec just suffers too badly from the alt-rock disease of murky production and barely-audible vocals, and seeing one of the members of the band laud “that amateur sheen, that nonprofessional sheen that I treasure,” suggests that perhaps the poor production values on their recordings is a deliberate way of keeping the listener at arms’ length.
Best Track: ‘Rebellion (Lies)’
Ben Harper – I’ll refer you to my essay on the Lost Black Voice of Rock if by now you’re thinking that this list is a little too white. Anyway, there’s always somebody to provide the exception to the rule, and for now that’s Ben Harper, a 41-year-old Californian who combines guitar theatrics with a distinctive, gritty voice. Whichever of his various backup bands he’s playing with at any given time, Ben Harper rocks.
Best Tracks: ‘Shimmer & Shine,’ ‘Why Must You Always Dress In Black,’ ‘Burn to Shine.’
Spoon – One of the poppier “indie” rock bands (the horn riffs on ‘The Underdog’ remind me of the old Motown classic ‘Build Me Up Buttercup,’ but maybe that’s just me), featuring the slightly gravelly voice of 39-year-old frontman Britt Daniel, Austin, Texas-based Spoon has built a steady following with seven albums dating back to the mid-90s and a fairly consistent, listener-friendly sound.
Best Tracks: ‘The Underdog’, ‘You Got Your Cherry Bomb,’ ‘My Mathematical Mind,’ ‘I Turn My Camera On,’ ‘Got Nuffin.’
The Black Keys – An Akron, Ohio-based blues-rock duo that loves fuzzy guitar and throaty vocals but sometimes loves the fuzz a little too much in both, the Black Keys sound like a throwback to 50s bluesmen, but with modern technology. Like Coldplay – a very musically different band – I find them better suited as a change of pace than a band I really have a hankering to hear ten songs in a row by. The one album of theirs I own is 2010’s Brothers. Their videos are often darkly witty.
Oh, and this is just concentrated awesome.
Best Tracks – ‘Tighten Up,’ ‘Howlin’ For You,’ ‘Unknown Brother.’
Dave Matthews Band – The 1990s jam band isn’t just still going; it’s coming off its most critically acclaimed album in 2009 (following the death of saxophonist Leroi Moore) and is one of the biggest touring acts of the past decade. I have two Matthews albums (Crash and Busted Stuff), one of which I got as a gift, and I still have mixed reactions to the band – I like a handful of songs on each album, but I really don’t get into them.
Best Track (since 2000) – ‘Grey Street’
Elton John – Some people hang it up when they’re done as pop stars, some keep soldiering on in obscurity. Elton John instead headed for a natural field for his talents in middle age, finding a profitable second career writing for Broadway and Disney movies. (At last check, he was working on, of all things, an Animal Farm stage musical, when he wasn’t performing at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding – like Bono, Sir Elton is savvy about the virtues of entertainers being civil to their political opposite numbers).
But in late 2010, Elton John went all the way back to his earliest musical roots, recording a new album, The Union, with that other early-70s piano legend, Leon Russell. (The Oklahoman Russell, now 68 and white-bearded, was last seen performing at the 2010 Grammys with the Zac Brown Band, a young country group that looks like they got lost on their way to the Lonely Mountain). The result? I went through on iTunes and found too many slow songs to be worth buying the whole album (the last thing I need in my life is nine new Elton John ballads), but the remaining tracks are really good stuff, as the gruff, flinty Russell curbs Elton John’s maudlin side and brings out the best of his old time rock n’ roll side.
Best Tracks – ‘Hey Ahab,’ ‘My Kind of Hell,’ ‘Jimmie Rodgers’ Dream,’ ‘If It Wasn’t For Bad,’ ‘Hearts Have Turned To Stone.’
Kid Rock – I would never have predicted, a decade ago, that I would grow to like Kid Rock, but he has gradually been winning my respect. He’s always been a guy who defied genre boundaries, and is now firmly established as a rock-country-rapper, not necessarily in that order. He’s a gritty vocalist and a devotee of the sound of his fellow Michigander Bob Seger, especially his latest, the 80s-esque anthem ‘Born Free.’ I hated ‘All Summer Long’ at first for its utterly shameless use of those 70s classics ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Werewolves of London,’ but it like Kid Rock himself, it grew on me.
He’s also one of the few open Republicans in rock (he’s campaigned with Sarah Palin), which is worth some good will with me but not enough that I’d listen to a Ted Nugent album voluntarily.
Best Tracks – ‘All Summer Long,’ ‘Born Free,’ ‘I Hold On’ (with Slash), ‘Rockin’ My Life Away’ (with Jerry Lee Lewis and Slash).
Daughtry – Kind of a junior Nickelback, to the point where Daughtry even opened for Nickelback on a recent world tour, but Chris Daughtry does have a much better voice than Chad Kroeger, and occasionally that comes through on his songs. The 31-year-old North Carolina native also seems like a really likeable guy. I still find the band’s music boring and disposable and have yet to buy any of it, but a couple of the songs are at least listenable, and I haven’t ruled out Daughtry the way I have with Nickelback.
Green Day – Most of this list consists of artists who range from politically liberal to hard-shell leftist, but usually the politics is off center stage just enough to sit back and enjoy the music. Not so with Green Day, a once-juvenile punk band that must have read a few mimeographed pamphlets somewhere and decided to declare themselves public policy solons. Now, they’ve sent American Idiot and its Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-bashing message to Broadway. Dude: even Neil Young got over Nixon eventually.
Bon Jovi – I have to say, speaking of defying expectations, I never imagined, back in 1987 or so when I was in high school in North Jersey and listening to their albums (few of my favorite artists of that era have aged worse, besides Def Leppard, although I do still love ‘Runaway’), that Bon Jovi would still be trucking along in 2011, still putting out records that get played on the radio in addition to Jon Bon Jovi’s Lifetime Movie acting career; the band’s put out five studio albums since 2000, and according to Wikipedia, each has sold between 3 million and 11 million copies worldwide. They’re less hair band, less New Jersey and less obviously Van Halen-meets-Springsteen these days, but still very much Bon Jovi.
Best Track (since 2000): ‘Who Says You Can’t Go Home’ (with Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland; I was astonished, after hearing the song, to discover that Nettles was a skinny white girl), ‘It’s My Life.’
John Mellencamp – The fifth pillar of American roots rock, along with Springsteen, Petty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bob Seger, the 59-year-old Indianan produced a lot of good pop-oriented rock in the 80s, and two of my favorites of his (the hypnotic ‘Human Wheels’ and a cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Wild Night’) were recorded in the early 90s. The last Mellencamp album I own (or rather that my wife owns) is 2001’s Cutting Heads, although I also liked his 2005 anthem ‘Our Country’ even after it was beaten into the ground by Chevy truck ads. Unfortunately, Mellencamp’s latest album went the folk/acoustic route, so I’ve taken a pass.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Our Country’, ‘Peaceful World’.
Paul McCartney – True story: the first album I ever purchased, in vinyl, was 1982’s Tug of War (don’t judge: I was 10. ‘Take It Away’ is the only song from that album I still listen to). I basically stopped listening to his stuff after that, even when he drew good reviews for 1989’s Flowers in the Dirt and 2007’s Memory Almost Full, two of the eleven solo albums Sir Paul has turned out since then.
After my older brother died in November, we’ve been cleaning out his apartment and dividing his stuff, always a grim duty, but that means carving up his extensive CD collection. I made off with a huge amount of Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead, a bunch of Hendrix and Janis Joplin CDs, and a variety of other stuff, one of which was Memory Almost Full. And it’s pretty good. A McCartney album inevitably disappoints on the first listen – for all his pop gifts, you have to listen more than once to stop expecting a Beatles record – but with only a few exceptions (the hideous ‘Gratitude’) it’s an album you can hear through without skipping (including a number of songs in the album’s second half that run together, not as a single composition like the Abbey Road medley but more like Sgt. Pepper). McCartney’s voice is well-preserved for 65 (he’s 68 now); you can hear the age on some songs, but not the miles. ‘That Was Me’ is the one track that sounds like it could have been recorded by the 1970 version of McCartney.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘That Was Me,’ ‘Ever Present Past,’ ‘Dance Tonight.’
Santana – No, I didn’t expect Carlos Santana to become a pop radio star in his 50s either, and anybody who predicted that in the early 70s could only have done so by imagining a pop music landscape totally unlike the one that welcomed Santana with open arms beginning with 1999’s Supernatural. His guitar style remains as distinctive as ever.
Best Tracks (since 1999): ‘Smooth’ (with Rob Thomas), ‘The Game of Love’ (with Michelle Branch), ‘Into the Night’ (with Chad Kroeger).
Aerosmith – To be honest, I haven’t heard any Aerosmith songs other than horrible pop ballads since 1989’s Pump album, and if I never heard another of those post-1990 ballads again it will be too soon. From what I can tell, Joe Perry feels the same way. For all of that, for all the band’s hard-living history and threatened breakups as recently as the spring of 2010 and recent injuries (Steven Tyler’s fall from a stage, Perry getting rear-ended while driving his motorcycle), they’ve endured remarkably well – Tyler’s vocal range seems undiminished after 35 years of wailing, and they’re still touring and promising new studio work, and of course Tyler is now a judge on American Idol.
Fountains of Wayne – I mentioned the Saw Doctors above as a modern heir to the Beatles’ sound, but the New York City-based alternative band Fountains of Wayne qualifies as well (bassist and songwriter Adam Schlesinger wrote three songs, including the title track, for the early-60s-pop-homage Tom Hanks-written film That Thing You Do! and is also in the band Tinted Windows with members of Hanson, Smashing Pumpkins and Cheap Trick). Some of their best songs aren’t entirely appropriate for mainstream radio for content or language reasons (although this didn’t prevent their signature song ‘Stacy’s Mom’ from being a hit of sorts).
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Bright Future in Sales,’ ‘Traffic & Weather’
The Strokes and Franz Ferdinand – Two highly similar alt-rock bands other than their geographic roots (The Strokes are from New York City, Franz Ferdinand from Scotland), both of which alternate between (1) good songs that rock over a solid grounding in pop melody and (2) songs that succumb to the alt-rock disease of unnecessarily submerged vocals. (The Killers, with the addition of a superior vocalist, are sort of the evolutionary, mainstream version of these bands, to the point where Entertainment Weekly’s review of their first album quipped, “isn’t it a little too early for a Strokes tribute band?“).
If you’ve heard the Rolling Stones’ ‘Dance No. 1,’ you have heard the roots of every Strokes guitar riff ever.
Best Tracks (The Strokes): ‘Last Nite,’ ‘Someday,’ ‘You Only Live Once’
Best Tracks (Franz Ferdinand): ‘Take Me Out,’ ‘No You Girls’
Razorlight and The Jayhawks – Two pop-rock-oriented “indie” bands with a few catchy tunes, Razorlight from England, The Jayhawks from Minnesota.
Best Tracks (Razorlight): ‘Who Needs Love,’ ‘America,’ ‘Golden Touch.’
Best Tracks (The Jayhawks): ‘Save It For A Rainy Day,’ ‘I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.’
The Wallflowers/Jakob Dylan – It’s debatable who is rock’s most disappointing band of the past two decades; the competition from acts like Guns n Roses, Nirvana and Living Colour, and to some extent Oasis and the Black Crowes, is stiff. But The Wallflowers are definitely on the list, a band that showed a lot of promise (and of course the Dylan pedigree) as a breakout mainstream rock band with 1996’s Bringing Down The Horse. But their second album, Breach, was a step backwards and they’ve deteriorated ever since. I listened to a sample of each song from Dylan’s last project, 2010’s Women + Country, and couldn’t turn it off fast enough.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Letters from the Wasteland,’ ‘Sleepwalker’
Radiohead – I listened through about six Radiohead songs recommended by friends and they were all slow, whiny and turgid, at which point I gave up. I know Thom Yorke has a reputation for having a great voice, and at least you can hear him loud and clear on their songs, but I ran out of patience with Radiohead before I found anything that would impress me with his vocals. They’ve recently made a splash in the record industry by announcing that they’re abandoning albums and focusing entirely on selling individual digital song downloads.
The Ben Folds Five – I listened to a song by this band (I forget which song) and I came away thinking they were a pretty talented act that made catchy, poppy music, but that the song made me want to punch Ben Folds in the face. Fair enough, a lot of artists record something like that, so I tried another one, and another, and another – maybe about five songs. And each time, I kind of liked the music, but I still wanted to punch Ben Folds in the face. I couldn’t even exactly put my finger on it, the way I can with Green Day’s politics. But eventually I decided that, whatever the reason, Ben Folds’ smug, hipster face would be safer if I gave up trying to enjoy his music.
Susan Tedeschi – Another female blues-rocker with a fantastic, gritty voice; I need to dig further into her music.
Best Tracks: ‘Evidence,’ ‘Tired of My Tears’
The Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly – Given my enthusiastic following of the Saw Doctors and enjoyment of another local NY Irish band with a national following (Black 47, although I only have the one album, 1999’s Live in New York City), I gave a look at some other distinctively Irish bands. Now, the Irish are probably second only to African-Americans in their impact on American music; besides Irish imports like U2, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and the Pogues, the roster of musicians of Irish or significantly part-Irish descent includes John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, John and Tom Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Harry Connick, Mariah Carey, Kelly Clarkson, Tim McGraw, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Rosemary Clooney.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of Irish music: the kind you listen to after three beers at a party, and the kind you listen to after twelve beers at a wake. Your mileage may vary, but my own preference is for the former. (After one of my freshman roommates in college bombarded me with their music for a year, the only Pogues song I came away liking is ‘Blue Heaven,’ which not coincidentally is not gargled by Shane McGowan). The Dropkick Murphys, at least, have some upbeat songs worth a listen – I love their guitars-and-bagpipes instrumental version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ and ‘Tessie’ is an enormously fun song, plus you cannot possibly stop me from loving a song about the 1903 Red Sox that takes reasonable care to know its history (with shoutouts to Cy Young, Chick Stahl, Bill Dineen, ‘Nuf Ced McGreevey and his Royal Rooters). It’s maybe the best baseball rock song ever written, surpassing even John Fogerty’s ‘Centerfield.’ They’re also Springsteen fans – Bruce will appear on their next album on a new version of the nearly century-old standard Peg O’My Heart, and guitarist Tim Brennan even proposed to his girlfriend from the stage of a 2009 joint appearance with The Boss.
I’m less enamored with Flogging Molly, no doubt to the consternation of my RedState colleague Moe Lane – they’re more the latter type of Irish music – but Moe has at least sold me on their song ‘Float.’
OK Go – An alternative band with faintly catchy music and irritating vocals, I have to list them here because they make the best music videos ever, videos so good they landed the band’s lead singer a lengthy spread in the Wall Street Journal on rethinking the economics of the music business. Really, go here and here if you’ve never seen one of their videos. Go now. I’ll wait.
Jars of Clay – Few phrases frighten true rock fans away more quickly than “Christian rock,” which conjures up images of cheesy, overly-earnest hair bands singing ham-fisted lyrics about Jesus. Yet, as I alluded to in my most recent Springsteen essay, Christian spirituality infuses the work of many of rock’s giants (Bruce, U2, Van Morrison, for a time Bob Dylan) and even the occasional classic song by ordinarily non-religious artists (see The Who’s ‘Who Are You’). Questions of faith are too profound, and faith is too huge a part of human life, for popular music to ignore it. The difference is that artists pigeonholed as “Christian rock” acts tend to try too hard to squeeze explicit Christian witness into song rather than letting the pervasive influence of their faith flow naturally.
On the recommendation of Steve Dillard, I have recently started checking out the Christian band Jars of Clay, which has more in common in terms of sound and in terms of the more abstract, poetic lyrical style with bands like U2, The Killers and Muse than they do with Stryper, and thus far I’m positively impressed, but haven’t delved far into their catalog.
Best Tracks: ‘Work,’ ‘Good Monsters.’
Gogol Bordello – A band that mixes punk rock with Romanian folk music and sounds pretty much exactly like what you’d expect from that description. They were recommended by a reader; not my speed, but worth a look on YouTube if you’re in the mood for something very different and think that might be to yours.
Wasted TapePatterico pointed me to HUTT, a free-for-download collection by this LA-based indie band that makes quality rock, at least some of it pop-friendly to my ears (not pop-rock, but more the kind of stuff you get from, say, the Kings of Leon if they were fronted by the Gin Blossoms’ Jesse Valenzuela). I haven’t explored the rest of their stuff but it’s a good album.
Best Tracks: ”Too Far Gone,’ ‘The Bean King,’ ‘Friend The Monster.’
Part III: The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats (the Artists)
Part IV: The Rest, and the Best Albums of 2009 and 2010

Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part III of IV – Pop and Other Current Radio Formats)

Part I – Overview
Part II: The State of Rock and Alternative (the Artists)
The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats
Kelly Clarkson – The best thing going in current pop, and an interesting personality to boot, for reasons I explained at exhaustive length in this essay and this concert review, is the original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, now in her creative prime at age 28.
Among Clarkson’s virtues is that she’s the best balladeer in current music. As should be clear from some of my comments in Part II of this essay and below, I’m fairly picky about ballads (defining ballads broadly to include any sort of slow or quiet song); I love a good one, but not everybody’s cut out for them, and the presence of a whole bunch of them on an album is as often as not a sign of creative failure. Instead, too many artists seem to think that doing slower, quieter or acoustic songs is some sort of statement of artistic credibility rather than a failure to properly practice their craft. (There’s a reason why I prefer the live versions of virtually every song on Springsteen albums like Nebraska and Ghost of Tom Joad). As a rule of thumb, if you have more than two ballads on an album, you better have a very good reason, and few do. Even the greatest balladeer of all, Frank Sinatra, really needed to have about half the songs on any given album be more uptempo or risk inducing the snooze. Clarkson’s last album had, depending how you count them, four or five ballads, and even for her that’s getting close to the limit.
Clarkson doesn’t seem to be done with her famously acrimonious relationship with her record label; it appears that she’s back in record-company limbo, unable to release her followup to 2009’s excellent All I Ever Wanted, possibly due to a management shakeup at her label. Since I last wrote about her in 2009, however, she has managed to keep doing the things she does best. She’s produced more impressive live covers; I was particularly taken with her cover of When in Rome’s ‘The Promise,’ which took a classic 80s pop song and replaced its mournful tone with a decidedly Springsteenish edge of desperate commitment (it reminded me of ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down.’) She lent her voice to ‘Don’t You Wanna Stay,’ a power-ballad duet with country star Jason Aldean. She performed the National Anthem at Game 3 of the World Series in Texas, raving afterwards about meeting Nolan Ryan (aside from current and former owners like Ryan and George W. Bush, Clarkson is about all the Rangers have in terms of celebrity fans). She’s continued to find herself in controversies sought and unsought, from a broadside against the head of Taylor Swift’s record label for dissing American Idol to finding herself caught in the crosshairs of a coalition of left-wing anti-smoking zealots and fatwah-waving mullahs after the promoters of her Asian tour lined up a cigarette company as a sponsor for her show in Jakarta (Clarkson complained about being “used as some kind of political pawn,” but the sponsorship was ultimately pulled). Clarkson also got a bunch of her unreleased demos stolen by German hackers who apparently had a fairly sophisticated scam to hack the computers of a bunch of pop stars; while others, like Ke$ha and possibly Lady Gaga, seem to have paid the Dane-geld when threatened by the hackers with blackmail, Clarkson went to the FBI after receiving a tip from her German fan club, leading to the hackers’ arrest by the German authorities. Clarkson joined Twitter about a year ago, and characteristically alternated between touting other artists, indulging her goofy sense of humor, sharing pictures of her farm animals, sniping back at random nutjobs bashing her on the internet, and indulging her music-industry-curmudgeon streak with tweets bemoaning lip-syncing, pantsless pop stars, and the poor quality of current radio hits. Typical of her relationship with her fans, on one occasion she announced on Twitter that she was headed to a bar in Nashville to do karaoke with whoever showed up off the street (you can see her in the middle doing her best Axl Rose impression here).
Best Tracks – ‘Addicted,’ ‘How I Feel,’ ‘All I Ever Wanted,’ ‘Walk Away,’ ‘Never Again,’ ‘Since U Been Gone,’ ‘Close Your Eyes.’
Maroon 5 – I covered Maroon 5, the best pop band that still gets played on the radio today (which says maybe more about the state of pop bands today) and a 21st century answer to The Cars, in this summer concert review. Since then, the band has released its third studio album, Hands All Over, continuing their run of deep-in-quality records.
Best Tracks – ‘Won’t Go Home Without You,’ ‘Little of Your Time,’ ‘Wake Up Call,’ ‘The Sun,’ ‘Stutter.’
HansonI’ve written previously about the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based 1990s boy band’s single ‘Thinkin’ Bout Something’ (and its Blues Brothers homage video), which for my money is the best pop song of 2010. Hanson is all grown up now, ranging in age from 25-30 (oldest brother Isaac on the brothers all being married with kids: “I actually don’t think that we’re off the majority of this country’s standards. I think it’s mostly a coastal thing”). Despite clever viral promotion, the band’s residual name recognition and high-profile TV appearances on shows like Letterman and the Today Show, as well as the simple fact that it’s a better song than their worldwide hits of 13 years ago, ‘Thinkin’ Bout Something’ got essentially ignored by Top 40 radio, a tribute to the difficulty of getting played on the radio without the support of a major record label.
Going beyond one song, let me now sing the praises of the entire album, Shout it Out – it’s basically a Southside Johnny album (note: this is a high compliment), like Sheryl Crow’s latest a deliberate homage to the Motown/Stax sound with vintage Motown horn arrangements and Ray Charles style keyboards. The band takes its influences seriously, saying the album “harkens back to the type of music they listened to as kids – ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, Motown and R&B, like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin.” (And more contemporary throwbacks as well – on one recent tour, they regularly did a passable cover of Gov’t Mule’s ‘Soulshine’). Granted, Taylor Hanson (the middle brother and primary vocalist) doesn’t have Southside Johnny’s thick, soulful voice, but he and his brothers do fine with the album’s numerous upbeat tracks; the only downside is that they all lack the voice to pull off ballads, of which the album has two (‘Use Me Up,’ sung by drummer Zac, is especially excruciating, and ‘Make It Through Today,’ sung by guitarist Isaac, is also a dud), but that’s a small price to pay for a talented band that’s making good, fun, lively new music in a genre that’s lain fallow for far too long, and doing it their way after going the indie route following a bitter and draining war with their record label.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Thinkin Bout Something,’ ‘And I Waited,’ ‘Make it Out Alive,’ ‘This Time Around’.
She & Him – She & Him is, as you may know, the indie-pop band that grew from Zooey Deschanel deciding to branch out into music as a recording artist rather than just an occasional on-film singer, culminating in the release of the band’s first album, Volume One, in 2008. Surprisingly, not only does Deschanel have a gorgeous voice, she’s also the band’s principal songwriter and keyboard player, with guitarist M. Ward handling most of the rest of the musical arranging.
Katy vs Zooey
Basically, Zooey Deschanel is Katy Perry if Katy Perry had talent and class instead of big breasts. I’m not sure if Perry would take that trade. Yet despite the fact that Deschanel was a winsome, famous movie star for years before Perry arrived on the music scene in the same year (2008) and has more musical talent and makes incredibly catchy pop, She & Him remains a niche music act unknown to pop radio audiences. Granted, pop songs don’t market themselves and the rollout for She & Him was deliberately low-key, but it’s still an indictment of the current pop scene that the Top 40 radio stations that once gave Eddie Murphy a hit record wouldn’t try their hand at She & Him’s songs.
2010’s Volume Two is in the same style as Volume One, but not quite as good; continuing my complaint about ballads there are a few many slow/quiet tunes. Still, enough good stuff to be worth buying if you enjoyed the first go-round.
Oddly for a successful actress, Deschanel’s stage presence has tended to be rather wooden and disconnected from the audience (her voice is still great in clips of her live performances); or maybe not so oddly, since her stock in trade as an actress has been her deadpan, monotone expressionlessness. Either way, more recent appearances promoting Volume Two have seen her get a lot livelier and more comfortable as a live performer.
Best Tracks: ‘Sweet Darlin,’ ‘Black Hole,’ ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,’ ‘I Was Made For You,’ ‘In the Sun,’ ‘Don’t Look Back.’
Gin Blossoms – One of the very best pop bands of the 1990s reunited after breaking up in 1997, and put out a new album, Major Lodge Victory, in 2006, and a second, No Chocolate Cake, in the fall of 2010. Both had the old Gin Blossoms sound – the new stuff isn’t on par with their earlier albums, but it’s listenable and each had a few good songs. Odds on them recording another ‘Hey Jealousy’ are slim. The Arizona-based band has been on the road visiting the troops overseas and performed a free concert after the memorial in Tuscon following the recent shootings.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Come on Hard,’ ‘Wave Bye Bye’.
David Cook – The winner of the seventh season of American Idol in 2008, Cook has the vocal chops to be the next Bob Seger (I admit I’m sort of arbitrarily listing him with the pop artists and Daughtry with the rock artists, but Cook is still establishing himself). The question mark is his material, which on his first album leaned far too heavily on ballads. Don’t get me wrong: I liked the album and Cook can deliver a good ballad, but it dragged in spots and could have used some crisper uptempo numbers. Judging from early clips of his next album, there seem to be some tracks with a Police influence. I’d love to see Cook have some pop hits, if only to prove that a non-rapper who sounds like a grown man can still get played on the Top 40.
Cook has suffered family tragedy – the death of his older brother to a brain tumor – and on a lighter note, the 28-year-old Missouri native is also a dedicated Kansas City Royals fan, which should give him plenty of blues to sing for the foreseeable future.
Best Track: ‘Light On’
Harry Connick; Brian Setzer Orchestra – I covered these two veteran crooners here. I’m still hoping for something livelier from Connick.
Best Tracks (since 2000): Connick: ‘Your Song,’ ‘Jambalaya (On the Bayou).’ Setzer: ‘Americano,’ ‘Mack the Knife,’ and a couple of tracks off his Christmas albums.
Michael Buble – A fantastic Big Band singer like Connick and Setzer, albeit with fewer original songs or arrangements; the 35-year-old Canadian crooner mostly sticks to singing the standards, which he does quite well. Unlike Connick, he shows no signs of departing from the formula that serves his talents best. Buble can sometimes overdose on the bombast, as with his version of ‘Cry Me A River’.
Best Tracks: ‘Haven’t Met You Yet,’ ‘At This Moment.’
Melody Gardot – Traditional if quirky torch singer with a compelling, unique voice.
Best Track: ‘Baby, I’m A Fool’
(I could add a writeup here on Norah Jones, who has one or two songs worth a spin, but Ravi Shankar’s daughter is way more well known than there is anything interesting to say about her).
Pink – Pink (or, if you must, P!nk) is one of those artists with a decidedly schizophrenic body of work. On the one hand, the 31-year-old from Doylestown, Pennsylvania made her name singing what amounts to club music, which I can’t stand, and her public image always seemed deliberately obnoxious. On the other hand, she’s got a fantastic voice, with that Joan Jett/Joplin style throaty rasp, and since she started recording more pop-rock type tracks with hitmaker Max Martin, she’s won me over on a few songs, especially ‘Who Knew,’ one of the best pop songs written on the subject of grief. The Funhouse album also has some good bluesy-rock-ish album tracks behind the singles. And from what I’ve seen of her in interviews, she’s blunt (eg, her assessment of Kanye West) but otherwise fairly laid-back. She’s also made a name for herself with her acrobatic live performances, like singing while suspended upside-down from a trapeze. Strangely for someone with her vocal talents, however, Pink’s ballads are just awful, dull and lifeless; she needs somebody to get her a ballad worthy of her voice. Pink is presently on something of a hiatus while expecting her first child, but still spinning pop hits off her recently-released Greatest Hits album.
Best Tracks: ‘Who Knew,’ ‘Please Don’t Leave Me,’ ‘One Foot Wrong.’
Rob Thomas – The former Matchbox 20 frontman grew up as an Army brat; now 38 and with solo albums released in 2005 and 2009, he’s one of the most reliable producers of mid-tempo pop-rock in the business, the most successful artist in modern ‘adult contemporary’ radio, occupying roughly the musical space inhabited by Phil Collins in the 80s.
Best Tracks: ‘Smooth,’ ‘Her Diamonds.’
Colbie Caillat – An understated singer; as a vocalist, Caillat is a female James Taylor, though she’s obviously not his match as a songwriter. The 25-year-old Californian actually auditioned for American Idol and failed to get out of the auditions, which is maybe unsurprising given her anemic reputation as a live performer, but her records are pleasant and mellow, good filler for a large iTunes playlist.
Best Tracks – ‘Midnight Bottle,’ ‘Don’t Hold Me Down,’ ‘Never Let You Go.’
The Black Eyed Peas – I hate the Black Eyed Peas, and all their works, and all their empty promises. The band’s brand of mechanized hip-hop combines so many different forms of awfulness, from its repetitiousness to its artificiality to the near-complete absence of any human emotion, that it’s almost impossible to list them all. It’s easier to note what’s missing: melodies, good vocals, instruments, and lyrics that connect with either head or heart. Their only redeeming feature was when their manager punched out Perez Hilton, who may be the most awful person on the entire internet (a crowded field). I am halfway tempted to boycott Sunday’s Super Bowl rather than have to see even a promo for their halftime show.
It gets worse: listening to Fergie’s song ‘Beautiful Dangerous’ on Slash’s album and a few of her other live performances of rock songs (see here and here) only made me hate the Peas all the more for the fact that she’s wasting real talent as a rock singer on this band’s crimes against music (as well as her own heinous solo work). If the Peas traded Fergie to Nickelback for Chad Kroeger, both bands would be improved immeasurably (tell me you could picture Chad Kroeger singing ‘My Humps’ and not crack a smile).
Fun fact: Fergie got her start doing the voice of Sally on some Peanuts specials in the 80s.
Taylor Swift – I’m not a teenage girl, never was one and frankly never understood one, so Taylor Swift is not on my playlist, but through my wife and older daughter I’ve been bombarded with her three albums. The gangly, elfin 21-year-old pop/country singer’s talent as a crafter of pop music is undeniable – you can’t teach the ability to write a melody like ‘You Belong With Me’ (which Swift wrote with a writing partner who’s collaborated on a number of her hits), to say nothing of her ability to write lyrics that capture the fairytale princess world that girls cling to as their last defense against the freighteningly cynical and responsible world of adulthood. Unusually for a country artist, Swift is from Eastern Pennsylvania, but then her monster hit record Fearless is more a pop than a country album, and its successor, 2010’s Speak Now, is really not that much more country. As a vocalist, she’s basically Avril Lavigne without the permanent sneer.
Swift is a pleasant, appealing personality who seems like a good role model and has good sense of herself. Parents of preteen and teen daughters agree: the world could use more like her. One hopes she’ll remain relatively unspoiled by her early and enormous success, although a long string of Hollywood boyfriends is probably not the way I’d recommend for her to do that. It remains to be seen if she can seamlessly navigate the tricky transition to adulthood, musically, commercially and emotionally.
Maybe it’s just me, but the tune and pacing of ‘The Story of Us,’ from Speak Now, sounds a lot like the Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside.’
Best Tracks – ‘You Belong With Me,’ ‘Love Story,’ ‘I’m Only Me When I’m With You’
Lady Gaga – Comedy, tragedy, or all just an act? Nothing about the 24-year-old Manhattanite is certain; performance art is the name of the game, so it’s always an iffy proposition to take her statements, or much of anything in her biography or carefully crafted public image, at face value. The onetime Stefani Germanotta has a good voice – when she’s not burying it with mechanical effects – and is a talented pianist, and she apparently started off as more of a rock artist (her stage name comes from the Queen song Radio GaGa, and she’s a professed Springsteen fan), although the extent to which she moved into electronic dance music as a natural musical development, an effort to get noticed, or a marketing strategy handed her by others is subject to some debate. (She does, however, write her own stuff; the talent is genuine, just as her impact on the rest of the pop music scene is undeniable). Judging by her appearance on this MTV show from 2005 (she’s the one in black), she was also once a fairly normal-looking Italian girl, not the walking freakshow in a suit of meat or Kermit the Frog heads she is today.
Gaga’s mechanical music pretends to be ambitious, but that’s not the same as saying there’s any real content to it, as hilariously illustrated by Christopher Walken’s dramatic reading of the lyrics to ‘Poker Face.’ She has a knack for writing memorable choruses – I even confess to liking the anthemic, ABBA-style chorus to ‘Bad Romance’ – but they’re just brief respites from the throbbing monotony of the rest of her songs.
If Katy Perry is – as discussed below – all about the joy of lust, Gaga is her opposite. As Camille Paglia has noted, Gaga may present herself as drenched in sex, but her image and music are full of sex without fun, sex without passion, sex without genuine emotion, and of course her image is that of a sickly drag queen, devoid of even an attempt to appeal to heterosexual men. (Her marketing to, and bond with, gay men is another subject in its entirety, and certainly central to her career). Taken seriously, ‘Poker Face’ is nothing if not a renunciation of intimacy. In that context, her declaration of celibacy – again, if taken at face value – seems less the useful caution it might appear, and more a symptom of emotional dysfunction. “I have this weird thing that if I sleep with someone, they’re going to take my creativity from me through my vagina,” she contends.
What makes Gaga a potentially tragic figure is the possibility that some of this isn’t an act, that like Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, she has demons that are inseparable from her talents and driving her to an inevitable doom. She’s confessed to using cocaine, and of course no cocaine user can ever really be trusted to accurately describe the extent to which they have it under control. Her weight has fluctuated and at times plunged dangerously, and she’s collapsed a few times on stage, possibly for real (there are recurrent rumors of her record label worrying about her health). Her video and stage imagery is full of what might be cries for help, as she’s frequently shown injured or bathed in blood. As dissimilar as they are, artists like Clarkson, Perry and Beyonce give off a certain zest for living; Gaga seems as if she might well prefer to be a martyr, to be hung on dorm room walls with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix.
Or maybe she just wants you to buy the poster.
Katy Perry – Practically the dictionary definition of an “It Girl,” the shapely, bug-eyed 26-year-old Californian has mastered the art of being ogled; listening to Katy Perry on the radio makes about as much sense as watching Joe Cocker with the sound off. She’s the worst live vocalist I have ever seen, completely lacking in singing talent of any kind; even her studio recordings can only do so much to mask this. She can’t dance or play an instrument, either, and while she’s playful and occasionally witty, it’s never not about her sex appeal. Even her controversial appearance on Sesame Street ended up being nixed because she insisted on wearing a low-cut dress completely inappropriate to the occasion. Her husband, chronically disreputable British actor Russell Brand (his bio reads like his life has been scripted by Ricky Gervais), won the UK Sun’s “Shagger of the Year” award so many times they renamed the thing after him.
Like Lady Gaga, Perry isn’t entirely what her public persona makes her out to be; her real name is Katy Hudson (discarded for obvious reasons), and she was raised by Christian preacher parents and started her career as a gospel singer, the residue of which was briefly on display when she griped in the aftermath of one of Lady Gaga’s Madonna-esque videos that “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke”. (Anyone familiar with Perry’s Twitter feed will notice that she has nothing against fart jokes, lots and lots and lots of them). But Perry is all about selling records these days, so she swiftly issued an unclarification. God forbid the girl should have any principles.
Perry’s verbal wit makes her an occasionally clever songwriter – the two songs she wrote for Clarkson’s last album were good pop songs, and at least ‘Hot n Cold’ had a memorable chorus – but as long as she’s limited by her own voice and hemmed in by the need to sell sex with every syllable, she’ll remain a blight on radio.
Beyonce – Diana Ross 2.0, upgraded and fully armed and operational, the New York Yankees of pop. The 29-year-old from Houston is an unstoppable commercial and entertainment juggernaut, probably the most commercially successful musician since Michael Jackson and Madonna. Even if – like me – you don’t like her style of music, you can’t help but respect her beauty, her tremendous voice, her dancing skills and her all-around work ethic; her success is comforting if you want to think of pop music as a meritocracy that rewards talent, effort and discipline. On the other hand, she also comes off as cold, imperious and ruthless (she’s been sued multiple times for copyright infringement), and that can’t help but be projected in her music; she’s no more capable than Madonna of conveying real emotional vulnerability, no more a likeable underdog than Derek Jeter.
John Mayer – Mayer, a 33-year-old from Fairfield, Connecticut, is living proof that being an interesting and talented guy is not the same as making interesting music. Mayer is certainly good copy – he’s smart, good-looking, independent-minded, a near-legendary Lothario with a long string of celebrity conquests, and can be wickedly funny, as illustrated by his once-frenetic Twitter feed (since discontinued; the highlight was his savage and thoroughly deserved mocking of Perez Hilton after the Black Eyed Peas incident, but some reports blamed his excessive tweeting for his breakup with Jennifer Aniston), his broadside against the Huffington Post, and his self-satirical FunnyorDie video. None of that is the same as saying he’s an admirable guy, as he’s courted controversy for interviews where he used racial slurs and talked wayyyy too much out of school about the famous women in his sex life. And that’s before we get to his oddball politics, such as his mouthy support for Ron Paul for President.
Mayer is reputedly a very talented guitarist in concert, but his languid singing style seems to lack even the energy and ambition to finish a sentence without trailing off, and his musical ambitions seem limited to whatever can get him into the next bed. Which seems unnecessary; the man’s a rock star. It’s not as if, say, the members of Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones ever had trouble with the ladies. But Mayer simply won’t try to be anything more.
Jack Johnson – If you found John Mayer asleep and nursing a wicked hangover and shot him full of elephant tranquilizers, he’d be Jack Johnson, a singer so mellow he makes Fred Rogers sound like Motorhead. You might not hear John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and think, “this song is way too hard core and needs to be slowed down significantly,” but that’s why you’re not Jack Johnson. Suitable only for lullabies.
Jason Mraz – 33-year-old former tobacco-store operator from Mechanicsville, Virginia, Mraz is a light-pop singer but jauntier and more energetic than Mayer’s ilk, and enjoyed colossal success with the 2007 hit ‘I’m Yours,’ which is kind of overrated but still a fun song. Mraz is living proof that if you take a goofy-looking guy and have him wear a porkpie hat everywhere, all anyone will remember is the porkpie hat.
Best Tracks: ‘I’m Yours,’ ‘Butterfly,’ ‘Make It Mine.’
The Fray and The Script – Honestly, it took me a while to be convinced that these were two different bands (The Script are the ones from Ireland). I may eventually be won over to a couple of The Fray’s songs, but it will take some persuading.
Mariah Carey – Has anybody ever wasted as much talent on as much terrible music as Mariah Carey? The 40-something from Huntington, Long Island is a beautiful woman with a gorgeous, almost unbelievable voice, but nearly all of her music is awful, and on top of that she’s gotten progressively loopier over time. The only good stuff she’s ever produced is the Motown-style tunes on her 1994 Christmas album. Presently expecting twins. It seems too late in her long and inarguably lucrative career for her to come to her musical senses.
Christina Aguilera – Same story as Mariah Carey, and despite her obvious gifts the 30-year-old ex-Mouseketeer from Staten Island seems to be sputtering commercially due to her persistently awful material and charmless public persona. Then again, her performance with the Rolling Stones suggests that maybe despite her natural vocal talents, Aguilera’s not really that skilled a vocalist; given the chance to sing a rock classic, she didn’t do much more than growl. (I love the sax solo in that video, by the way). You can confirm the same impression by going here to hear her do to ‘Imagine’ what Mark David Chapman did to its composer. She has her sights next on the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.
Whitney Houston – Drugs are bad, hmmkay? Hard living and age seem to have destroyed her once-beautiful voice.
Britney Spears – Lament all you will Britney Spears’ dolorous impact on our culture and on the pop music world over the past 13 years and I will join you in every note. The Louisianan ex-Mouseketeer long symbolized the oversexualization of underage girls, needed all sorts of studio help with her voice to produce acres of terrible music, and has a rap sheet of stupid or provocative behavior a mile wide. (Clarkson, yet again, had the definitive reaction when Britney shaved her head).
But I’ll give her this: Britney Spears is a survivor. Nobody thought she’d still be a major music star at age 29 (around 1999 I’d have made book on the big-voiced Aguilera outlasting her), and earlier in this past decade you’d have had even odds she’d be dead, in jail or in a mental ward by now. Instead, even with her meager vocal gifts, she’s still cranking out top-10 singles, is still a first-name-basis household name, seems to have passed over the worst of her acting-out-and-possibly-mentally-ill stage, and is virtually the only under-40 artist on the annual lists of best-selling tours even though she lip-syncs her live act. Maybe the self-destructive three-ring circus of her personal life is only on a temporary lull – there are still signs of that – but for now, given the limitations of her talents and personality, she’s had the last laugh.
Justin Timberlake – I knew Justin Timberlake for his comedy (he’s the funniest man in music and could legitimately make a living as a sketch comic), his tabloid romances, his stylish image (three piece suits are always classy) and his involvement in the infamous Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction,” but I’d never actually listened to any of his music. Turns out I’d missed nothing. Comparing his whiny hit ‘Cry Me a River’ to the Joe Cocker version of the classic of the same name is enough to make you weep not only for the state of music but of manhood itself. Stick to the funnies, Boo Boo.
Ke$ha – Just when you thought pop starlets could not possibly get any worse, along comes Ke$ha, the 23-year-old icon of poor hygiene and faux rap. Other pop starlets have some redeeming quality – they have a good singing voice, or are good writers, or are good dancers, or are pleasant to look at, or play an instrument, or if all else fails seem like reasonably wholesome characters or compelling personalities. Ke$ha (I believe the dollar sign is supposed to be stupidly ironic instead of just stupid) strikes out on all counts – she’s basically just postured ‘attitude’ and marketing. Maybe this explains how she got that way.
The chorus to her hit ‘Your Love is My Drug’ owes a major debt to Hall & Oates’ ‘Your Kiss Is On My List.’
Orianthi – Picture Joe Satriani or Stevie Vai as a slim, exotic-looking twentysomething blonde woman, and you have Orianthi, a guitar hero badly miscast as a pop starlet on account of her gender, age and looks. She can axe but she sure can’t sing, and hopefully will move on to a role better suited to her gifts. Like Sheryl Crow, she got her big break working for Michael Jackson, as a guitarist in his final tour (she was hired after playing the Eddie Van Halen solo for the Gloved One, once).
Avril Lavigne – I admit a few guilty pleasures among the earlier works by the diminutive, sneering black-eyed Canadian pop-rocker, who amazingly enough is still only 26.
Best Tracks: ‘Complicated,’ ‘My Happy Ending,’ ‘Sk8ter Boi.’
Sara Bareilles – A similar kind of female singer-songwriter to Caillat who’d been talked up by a number of people, but while I gave her a listen, none of Bareilles’ songs really had a catchy melody (too many stops and starts), and in combination with her too-precious-by-a-half lyrics, I gave up after about three or four songs.
Train – I admit it: I liked Train’s earlier hits, stuff like ‘Drops of Jupiter’ and ‘Calling All Angels’ and even ‘Meet Virginia.’ They seem like they aspire to be Huey Lewis & the News for the 21st century. But their comeback has been utterly insipid, fueled by the trying-too-hard ‘Hey Soul Sister’. A band with this little soul to start with shouldn’t sell what was left. (This assault on that song is over the top but good for a few laughs.)
Owl City – I had the misfortune of seeing Owl City live this past summer, opening for Maroon 5; I wrote up the experience here, and hope not to relive it.
Carrie Underwood – If you were to set out to create the perfect female country star in a laboratory, you’d end up with something very closely resembling the winner of American Idol‘s fourth season in 2005: a pretty, blonde Oklahoma farm girl with a relatively demure personality with no rough edges and a powerhouse voice. My country collection is pretty slender, so I can’t say I’ve heard anything from her I’d listen to voluntarily, but Underwood is precisely what Idol needs to find more of if the show wants to survive.
Jordin Sparks – Besides Clarkson, the only American Idol winner to make her home on Top 40 radio, and do so with some measure of success. Sparks seems like a sweet, wholesome kid with a good voice, but her music is bland and unmemorable. Physically, she’s enormous, almost certainly the only female pop star I can recall who’s built more like a WNBA center. She’s also co-chairing a project with Nick Jonas to raise youth awareness of Ronald Reagan in time for the Gipper’s 100th birthday this weekend.
Leona Lewis – In the category of Most Boring Ballad Ever Recorded, nobody’s scored more entries than Leona Lewis, the best-known winner of the X Factor, the UK’s version of American Idol. Last seen doing underwear commercials; she’s probably the only female pop star who could make underwear boring. Her more upbeat pop track ‘Bleeding Love’ is listenable.
Best Track: ‘Bleeding Love’
The Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber – Yesterday’s and today’s pop stars du jour for teenyboppers. The Jonas Brothers are, in the classic Disney tradition, inoffensive and seemingly squeaky-clean, and their watered-down pop-rock, while without any real appeal, at least doesn’t make me immediately feel the need to flee to another station. They are what they are.
As for Bieber, the 16-year-old Canadian (he was a month old when Kurt Cobain shot himself, if you want to feel old) makes the Jonas Brothers sound like Otis Redding by comparison; even his hairdo, which Tom Brady appropriated in an effort to determine what it takes for a supermodel-dating, Super Bowl winning NFL quarterback to overdraw his Man Card, is more annoying than the Jo Bros’ malt-shop pompadours. That said, I do admire the kid’s pluck for making his own career path; he basically marketed himself over the internet to get famous.
Best Tracks: No, really, you didn’t ask me that.
Miley Cyrus – If you enjoyed the Lindsay Lohan Experience the first time, fear not, you’ll get to watch it again! A completely predictable train wreck, still in the relatively early stages.
Unfortunately, what Cyrus didn’t inherit from her father Billy Ray is a good singing voice.
Bruno Mars – No, I couldn’t pick his music out of a police lineup from that of Jason DeRulo, Taio Cruz, Jay Sean, Enrique Iglesias, or about fifteen other of these guys that seem to come out of a factory somewhere, singing prefabricated machine-driven corporate hip-hop that sounds as if it was designed by a committee and produced by a focus group. (I at least know who Jamie Foxx is from his movies, but his music is in the same vein). The whole lot of them should be locked in a room somewhere for a month with a turntable and a stack of Wilson Pickett, Four Tops and Temptations records and told not to come out until they know what soul sounds like.
Amy Winehouse – Musicians are famous for their dissolute lifestyles, but only occasionally are they so comprehensively messed-up that it becomes impossible to enjoy their music; I like the style Winehouse works in, but she’s so repellent – and her singing style so idiocyncratic – that I just can’t get into any of it. A shame.
Jewel – The best, or at least most tolerable to my ears, of her generation of Lillith Fair female folk singers (Sarah McLachlan has a lovely voice but bores me to tears; Alanis Morrissette’s sneering is unlistenable), the 36-year-old yodeling Alaskan is still trucking along, now married to a prominent rodeo cowboy and expecting her first child. Jewel hit it big in 1995, but she’s put out five studio albums since 2000, two since moving to a small label. Her preening pretentiousness can be tiresome at times, but at others she pulls off some decent songs, especially on the pop-oriented 0304, released in 2003. She’s also got a sense of humor, as seen in this FunnyorDie video of her doing karaoke undercover, and was a rare dissenting voice of sanity in the 2009 flap over Roman Polanski.
Best Tracks (since 2000): ‘Standing Still,’ ‘Run 2 U,’ ‘Sweet Temptation,’ ‘Yes U Can.’
KT Tunstall, Duffy, and Natasha Bedingfield – Three female singers from the UK who seem to have had trouble following up their hits. Tunstall, a 35-year-old Scottish folk/pop singer who hit it big with 2004’s Eye to the Telescope, has effectively disappeared from popular consciousness without a trace despite releasing two subsequent albums, in 2007 and 2010. Duffy, an odd-looking 26-year-old Welsh pop singer, had huge success with 2008’s Rockferry, but from my early listen to her followup, I don’t hear anything worth a second look. The same goes for Bedingfield, a 29-year-old English R&B singer, who had a couple decent enough tracks off 2008’s Pocketful of Sunshine.
Best Tracks: Tunstall – ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,’ ‘Suddenly I See,’; Duffy – ‘Mercy,’ ‘Rain on Your Parade’; Bedingfield, ‘Pocketful of Sunshine,’ ‘Put Your Arms Around Me.’
Kris Allen & Lee DeWyze – While I’ve never watched American Idol, as you can see from this list, I do give the show credit for doing a decent job as a gatekeeper in identifying talented singers. But nothing emblemizes the decline of Idol as a talent pipeline more than the show’s last two winners, both of whom are basically in the John Mayer mold of low-wattage male singer, too light and mellow either for rock or for Top 40 radio. I can’t see either of these guys having any significant upside as recording artists, which is what a show like Idol is supposed to promise. Maybe the judge the show really needs is Bluto.
Jay-Z – I’m no rap guy and never will be – I own just a few rap songs, mostly pop-rap from my college days. But there are a few things about Jay-Z that I can at least respect. First, the man legitimately cares about music; unlike a number of his rap colleagues, he seems to make an effort to incorporate actual instruments and women with singing talent into his songs, and even went so far as to record an anti-Auto-Tune song, ‘DOA (Death of Auto-Tune).’ And second, he’s a fantastically successful businessman, arguably far more successful as a mogul than a musician. The 41-year-old from Bed-Stuy is also pushing the limits of age in a field where the leading rappers have tended to be dead by his age. His marriage to Beyonce made them music’s ultimate power couple, all the way to the White House Situation Room.
Part IV: The Rest, and the Best Albums of 2009 and 2010

Music To My Ears: A 50,000 Foot Review Of The Current Rock and Pop Scenes (Part IV of IV)

Part I – Overview
Part II: The State of Rock and Alternative (the Artists)
Part III: The State of Pop and Other Current Radio Formats (the Artists)
The Best Albums of the Last Three Years
Top Ten Albums of 2010:
1. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
2. Slash, Slash
3. Hanson, Shout It Out
4. Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Mojo
5. Maroon 5, Hands All Over
6. Brandon Flowers, Flamingo
7. Sheryl Crow, 100 Miles From Memphis
8. The Saw Doctors, Further Adventures of…The Saw Doctors
9. The Black Keys, Brothers
10. She & Him, Volume Two
Honorable Mention – Kings of Leon, Come Around Sundown; Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake.
Top Ten Albums of 2008-09:
1. Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted
2. The Killers, Day & Age
3. Bruce Springsteen, Working on a Dream
4. She & Him, Volume One
5. Kings of Leon, Only By The Night
6. Chickenfoot, Chickenfoot
7. U2, No Line on the Horizon
8. David Cook, David Cook
9. Brian Setzer, Songs From Lonely Avenue
10. Muse, Resistance
Honorable mention: Pink, Funhouse; Michael Buble, Crazy Love
The Remainders
That concludes my look at the people I’ve had enough exposure to to have something worth saying about them. Here’s a quick look at the rest.
Not Worth My Time
There are a bunch of other recently active acts I’ve sampled or been exposed to and come away unimpressed, but who weren’t really worth a full writeup:
Linkin Park
Phoenix
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Vampire Weekend
Mumford & Sons
My Morning Jacket
Limp Bizkit
MGMT
Florence and the Machine
Rihanna
Band of Horses
Susan Boyle
JoJo
Shinedown
Alicia Keys
OneRepublic
The Plain White Ts
The All-American Rejects
Adam Lambert
Wolfmother
Pomplamoose
Josh Groban
Lily Allen
The Goo Goo Dolls
Lil’ Wayne (his “rock” effort; obviously I’m not interested in rap)
Rage Against the Machine (Tom Morello has a good voice and unique guitar skills, but I’m not into Stalinism)
Grades Incomplete
I’m not done; there are definitely a host of other artists I know I need to give a longer listen to, including:
-Wilco, which I’m hesitant to judge on a quick first impression.
-Most of Weezer’s catalog (I only know ‘Buddy Holly,’ which is a really good song and a better video, and ‘Island in the Sun’; I’m assured that there’s more good stuff out there – they’ve put out nine studio albums – and Rivers Cuomo has a good pop music voice).
-Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, an old-school R&B act.
-Airborne Toxic Event (I’ve liked what I’ve heard so far, especially ‘Gasoline’ and ‘Sometime Around Midnight,’ I just haven’t gone far enough to figure out how many good songs they have).
-Josh Ritter (I like ‘Rumor’ and ‘Mind’s Eye’)
-Alter Bridge (Myles Kennedy, the lead singer, did a couple of solid turns on Slash’s album)
-The Toadies
-AC/DC’s output since 1981’s For Those About To Rock, especially 2008’s Black Ice.
-Bob Dylan’s output since 1990’s Under the Red Sky; I have a few of his later CDs now from my brother’s collection.
-Rush’s albums since 1991’s Roll the Bones.
-Paramore, which has a couple decent-sounding songs, although I suspect I won’t like enough of their stuff to buy more than a song or two.
-Tinted Windows.
-The rest of Black47’s output besides 1998’s outstanding Live in New York City.
-I need to give a fair hearing to Creed, but I seem to recall checking them out at one point and not being impressed. They seem to be hated by most of the same people who hate Nickelback, which should tell me something.
-Metallica’s post-Black Album output (I did check out their album of covers, and didn’t like most of them other than their cover of Bob Seger’s ‘Turn the Page,’ which – this being neither here nor there – was used as Adam Dunn’s music at Nationals Park).
-Possibly a few more of the suggestions from the comments to this post.
One Song Only
Other artists I’ve picked up just one post-2000 song by, but haven’t yet heard anything suggesting I should dig deeper:
The Fratellis – ‘Chelsea Dagger’ (now that is a pop song).
Rock Kills Kid – ‘Paralyzed’
Outkast – ‘Hey Ya’
Cage the Elephant – ‘Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked’
Robert Francis – ‘Junebug’ (hat tip to Joe Posnanski on Francis, who bears watching)
The Dandy Warhols – ‘Bohemian Like You’
Cee-Lo Green – ‘F*** You’
Adele – ‘Rolling in the Deep’
Cake – ‘Comfort Eagle’
Snow Patrol – ‘Take Back the City’
Macy Gray – ‘Kissed It’ (with Velvet Revolver – also her 1999 hit ‘I Try’)
Bedouin Soundclash – ‘Until We Burn’
James Blunt – ‘Stay The Night’
Chester French – ‘She Loves Everybody’
Lena – ‘Satellite’
Interpol – ‘Slow Hands’
The Stills – ‘Still In Love Song’
Matthew Sweet – ‘Byrdgirl’ (although 1990’s ‘Girlfriend’ remains a power-pop standard)
Eric Hutchinson – ‘OK It’s Alright With Me’
Silversun Pickups – ‘Lazy Eye’
Michael Franti & Spearhead – ‘Sey Hey (I Love You)’
The Music – ‘Freedom Fighters’
Sister Hazel – ‘Hello It’s Me’
Kaiser Chiefs – ‘Ruby’
Soundtrack of Our Lives – ‘Sister Surround’
Conclusion
The music scene is more fragmented than ever, and the golden age of mainstream mass-market rock, pop-rock and rock-influenced R&B will never return. But fans of Sixties pop, old time rock n’ roll, Motown and Big Band shouldn’t give up entirely on today’s music world. If you look hard enough, there’s still good music being made, interesting careers to follow, and good live shows to be attended.

Bruce Springsteen and the Right

When New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, was sworn into office, he chose to celebrate at his inauguration by joining a Bruce Springsteen cover band in singing the Boss’ signature anthem, ‘Born to Run’. Governor Christie hails from Bruce’s home state of New Jersey, and his zealous Springsteen fandom is perhaps unusually dedicated for a politician. But it also symbolizes a paradox: while Springsteen has long been open about his left-wing political views and has hit the campaign trail for the last two Democratic presidential candidates, he remains enduringly popular with a broad segment of conservatives and Republicans. In part, that’s for the obvious reason: Bruce is a rock legend with a ton of fans, so we should be unsurprised that he would have fans of every political persuasion. It’s also partly demographic; Bruce’s fans tend to be disproportionately white and, increasingly, older, and those are more conservative groups than the population at large. But my own anecdotal sense is that Bruce’s fanbase is – if anything – more conservative-leaning than you would explain by those factors alone, and certainly not markedly more liberal. Speaking as a conservative and a longtime Springsteen diehard, let me offer some theories as to why that is. This is not an essay dedicated to claiming Springsteen for the Right, or arguing that he’s unwittingly some sort of crypto-conservative, although I do note at a few points conservative themes in his writing and his life. Rather, my argument is that the things that appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen and his music are, quite logically, most appealing to conservatives.
Generally, we conservatives have pretty low expectations, politically, for our pop-culture icons. We understand that most of them don’t agree with us on politics or policy. So, what we look for are artists who have some tolerance and respect for us, some themes in common with our worldview, and sometimes being one of the good guys on something. Bruce delivers on all counts.

Continue reading Bruce Springsteen and the Right

The Lost Black Voice of Rock

Race is only skin deep, but so is voice; it’s one attribute that is indelibly intertwined with racial identity. Let us consider the tragic loss of the black voice in rock n’ roll.
Rise
Listen with me to the voice of Chester Arthur Burnett, a/k/a Howlin’ Wolf*:


The birth of rock n’ roll is usually traced back to the early African-American bluesmen, from Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s to Muddy Waters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If you listen to those artists, you can see why; their vocal and guitar stylings are quite different from the prevailing Big Band, jazz and country/bluegrass sounds of their era, and you can hear echoes of the rock artists that have covered their songs and built on their foundation. But Johnson and Waters are not, themselves, rock; you would not confuse them with rock recordings. It’s listening to the more raucous and powerful voice of Howlin’ Wolf that you can hear, for the first time, the blues become something that would become rock. And Howlin’ Wolf, even moreso than his predecessors, did so with a voice no white man could quite duplicate. It’s why he was such a big influence on early rockers, especially the Rolling Stones, who – while they took their name almost by accident from a Muddy Waters song – not only imitated Howlin’ Wolf but opened doors for him to perform with them on white television (which in the early 60s was the only kind of television there was):

Rock, from the time of its inception, was predominantly black music. Never solely so; for example, one of the genre’s most important forefathers was electric guitar inventor Les Paul. Rock’s early days included a lot of people like Jerry Lee Lewis who brought country influences into what became rockabilly (Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly, drew more obviously on both sources). And even Elvis, who famously got his big break because he was seen as a white man who could sing rock in the style of a black man, still drew a lot of his sound as a crooner from the Bing Crosby school of smooth singing. But many of the most dynamic, influential and oft-imitated early rockers – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino – were African-American. As those early stars faded and the first generation of great rock bands arrived, the influences of the black pioneers were obvious – the Beatles covered songs by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys just openly stole his riffs, and the Stones recorded standards by the bluesmen. Yet, as white bands built on what they’d started, the voice of black singers was still something distinctive and irreplaceable.
Peak
That voice had moved by the early 60s to early R&B and soul, personified first and foremost by Ray Charles and James Brown in the late 1950s, but followed over the next decade by a long series of artists on the Motown and Stax Records labels: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, and many others. Ray Charles, James Brown and the Motown/Stax artists were commercially anchored in black radio and live performances to black audiences, but they crossed over repeatedly to white radio, and their work was frequently covered or influential on white artists. The instruments, the beats, the styles of production – both black and white artists of that era had a lot in common. And the relationship wasn’t entirely one-way, either; the Motown/Stax sound was influenced by white writers and producers like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Phil Spector, and leading black artists would also cover songs by white artists. Consider Wilson Pickett’s version of Hey Jude, written by Paul McCartney and featuring the guitar stylings of Duane Allman.
The point of the foregoing is to emphasize that the 1960s were a high watermark for the cross-pollination of the most popular genres white and black music, and that a major component of that was the mainstream white rock audience’s acceptance of black artists and the unique sounds of black vocalists. True, African-American influences have always been a part of the American musical scene, from the influence of the old ‘Negro’ spirituals on American folk music to the influence of black jazz on the Big Band era; there’s really no dispute that no other racial, ethnic or religious group has had as much influence on American music. And true, too, music’s audiences were still basically segregated in the 60s – white listeners listened mainly to Top 40 and the newly-emerging FM rock radio, while black audiences generally listened to R&B and Soul stations. And true as well that while black artists influenced and were influenced by white artists, and white audiences embraced black artists, it seems that black audiences still mostly listened only to black artists. Musical integration was never truly symmetrical. But the musical ferment of that era was nonetheless the product of remarkable talents of both races feeding off one another’s sounds.
Jimi
At the apex of this era, in 1967, rock got its first true black superstar. Jimi Hendrix wasn’t an R&B musician crossing over to rock; he was straight-up rock n’ roll, the archetypical guitar god. He was also his own lead vocalist, and while vocals were never Hendrix’s forte, there was no confusing him with a white man.
Did Hendrix bring a lot of black fans into rock, or even into his own music? I can’t answer that question, and I’m not sure the data is really out there to study the question in a systematic way, but it’s hard to detect any real signs of a cultural shift among black audiences (check out the sea of white faces in the crowd shots at any Hendrix show). I do know that his career lasted only four short years after Monterey, and that he died at age 27, probably leaving more great music on the table than anybody in rock history (only Duane Allman and Otis Redding could really compete). Hendrix had his share of problems handling success and more than his share of drug issues, but unlike, say, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, there’s nothing in Hendrix’s life that makes it that hard to imagine him surviving, as Clapton and Keith Richards did, and prospering to this day as a 68 year old creative genius carrying the blues not as a pursuing demon but as an old companion, his self-designed studio still attracting younger artists. If that had happened, I have to believe that somewhere along the line, Hendrix would eventually have attracted a following both of black fans and black imitators, and maybe helped keep a bridge open from the rock world to the African-American audience.
It was not to be. There were other black rockers (e.g. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), and eventually in the late 80s there were a few who tried to step into Hendrix’s shoes (Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Slash – Slash’s mother is African-American), but times had changed, and the moment could not be recaptured. There was never another time when you could find a black face among the handful of rock’s biggest stars. Hendrix had come along at a moment in rock history when it was possible to imagine a genuine integration of black music and the rock world that owed so much to its black forbears. That possibility would evaporate within half a decade.
The Breakup
The world didn’t change overnight when Jimi Hendrix died; it never does. But the trends started moving in different directions. Motown and Stax suffered a series of reversals between 1967 and 1972 – Otis Redding died, Sam & Dave broke up (as, later, would the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, as well as Sly & the Family Stone, which wasn’t a Motown or Stax act but shared a similar sound), the Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team left Motown, and eventually Motown left Detroit in 1972, around the time Stax went into irreversible decline. Many of the signature artists of that era – the Four Tops, the Temptations – never found the same success after the early 1970s, while others (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles) went into slower decline.
At first, the next generation of Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, recorded in something like the old style, and by the early to mid 70s, Stevie’s various experiments included funkier rock (Superstition, his best song, remains the high watermark of his rock influences). But by around 1976, tastes and trends were changing quickly. R&B and Soul moved more in the direction of crooners like Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass who had little in common with anything being done by the rock bands of the era, and then the disco craze hit, propelling stars like Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Gladys Knight to success that left the old Motown sound in the dustbin. Some mainstream rock acts (the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart) tried their hands at disco as well, but unlike the blues, disco had no lasting imprint on the rock world.
It’s debatable, given the complex racial politics of the 70s, what drove white and black audiences in divergent musical directions from the mid-70s on, but the trends away from the Motown and blues sounds were evident on both sides. Led Zeppelin drew openly on the blues roots that traced back to Jimmy Page’s Yardbirds days, but the success of Zeppelin ushered in a whole era of metal that would be almost entirely white, as were the glam rock of acts like David Bowie and Queen, the ethereal sounds of the likes of Yes, Styx, Supertramp and eventually Journey, the mellow California rock of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and most of all punk, which rose and fell in parallel with disco (neither the prime years of Sex Pistols, the Clash, nor even the Ramones lasted much longer than those of the Bee Gees). (I’m simplifying here by skipping the rise of reggae, which had only a modest impact on the rock world.) The keepers of the flame of the integrated musical heritage of the mid-60s – Springsteen, Southside Johnny, even the Blues Brothers (backed by essentially the old Stax house band) – were audibly out of step with their times. And when the waters of disco and punk receded, the nascent genre of rap began to emerge.
The Aftermath
And that, for the most part, is where we stand today: despite its black roots, rock is made by and for white people, abandoned by African-American performers and audiences alike. Oh, every few years we get a black-fronted rock act – Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ben Harper. But they don’t represent a significant movement, anymore than Grant Fuhr represented a significant movement in the NHL. Michael Jackson’s Beat It aside, the leading black performers popular with black audiences haven’t set more than a toe in the rock world in the past 30 years; the lone exception would be Prince, who in his 80s heyday melded electric guitars with current funk. And Prince has been over the hill for almost 20 years. Black women have been even more absent in the ranks of rock vocalists – any list of the best straight-up rock acts of all time will get down in the hundreds before you locate a black female lead vocalist, even though the pool of talented black female singers is perennially deep, and their voices unique (as one can see by the number of major rock acts that have drawn on black women for backing vocals).
This doesn’t mean that the music world is wholly segregated today – there’s still crossover in other formats (like Elvis back in the day, arguably the biggest star in rap is a white man, Eminem), although surely the gulf between rock and other formats contributes to a more generally heightened level of segregation in radio and live entertainment. But the loss of black influence and interest in rock is surely a loss for rock, and a contributing cause in the fragmentation of the nation’s musical culture. Some voices can never be entirely replaced.

Continue reading The Lost Black Voice of Rock

I Knew Tron. Tron Was A Friend of Mine. You, Sir, Are No Tron.

A guest post from Leon Wolf, who sent this mostly spoiler-free movie review along after seeing Tron: Legacy last night. And if it’s not harsh enough for you, may I recommend this Fark review of Little Fockers.
So at the outset, I should note that as a young boy in Valdez, Alaska, there was not really a whole lot to do to occupy your time. My parents were not well off (although not fairly called poor), but we did have a VCR. However, we did not own movies as in those days it was prohibitively expensive to actually own them. The local library, however, had some that you could check out for a day at a time, and it was within easy walking distance. However, the only things they really had that interested me were the Walter Cronkite World War II collection, and Tron. Day after day after day I would make the trek to the library to renew the Tron I had checked out the previous day. It is no exaggeration to say that I watched that movie over 150 times. In other words, I had a real connection to that movie even though as an adult I have no delusions that it was Citizen Kane or something. SO I was prepared to overlook an awful lot in the sequel for the sake of reconnecting with a movie that was a meaningful part of my childhood. I even paid for the 3D and the EXTRA FEE for the “Big D 3D” – it was $28.50 for my son and I to see the movie (!!!!!!). I wanted the whole Tron experience, baby.
With all that out of the way: this movie sucked.

Continue reading I Knew Tron. Tron Was A Friend of Mine. You, Sir, Are No Tron.

Jagger on Richards

Slate has a fantastic essay purporting to be Mick Jagger responding to Keith Richards’ new book (which is supposedly really good). I’m told this is the parody section of Slate – which implies that some of Slate is not intended as parody – and there are other signs as well that this isn’t really a straight essay by Jagger himself, but the essay captures so many truths about the band that it doesn’t really matter that it’s a parody. Worth reading for the gratuitous cheap shots at Jann Wenner alone. There are too many good parts to excerpt them all, but this should give you a flavor:

And yet I was surprised when it happened. I take the point that professionalism, one’s word, rock ‘n’ roll merriment … these are fungible things in our world. It is a fair charge that I have become less tolerant in these matters over the decades. In our organization, inside this rather unusual floating circus we call home, I am forced into the role of martinet, the one who gets blamed for silly arbitrary rules. (Like, for a show in front of 60,000 people for which we are being paid some $6 or $7 million for a few hours’ work, I like to suggest to everyone that we start on time, and that we each have in place a personal plan, in whatever way suits us best, to stay conscious for the duration of the show.)
So I will take that point. All of the forgoing was just … a little outre behavior on tour. Let’s go to the next tier – again, of matters one is informed of with some regularity, this not over months, not years, but entire decades. Keith’s been arrested with a mason jar full of heroin and a shopping bag full of other drugs and drug paraphernalia and is charged with drug trafficking. That was his baggage for a weekend in Toronto.

And this really sums up in two sentences an entire era:

Society could have effectively halted the upheavals of the 1960s simply by requiring all of us to “intervene” with one another. In any event, considering half our circle was on heroin and the rest were coke fiends, I think it wouldn’t have efficacious in our circumstances.

Go read the whole thing.

35 Years Ago Today

The famous 1975 TIME Magazine profile of Bruce Springsteen, which I’d heard about but never sat down and read before. Some things haven’t changed: even then, the media talked about “the scuzzy Jersey shore.” Funny to read back now that Bruce’s manager tried to get him booked to perform at the Super Bowl…in 1973, more than three decades before he finally did the halftime show. It’s a good read to go with the upcoming release of The Promise, the making-of-Darkness on the Edge of Town album and DVD, which catches Bruce at the next step down the road from this profile of him as a 26 year old still finding his way.

The Curse of the Cardboard Case

Allow me to vent against the latest scourge of the failing music industry: the cardboard CD case. Yes, I know: it’s supposed to be some sort of enviro-friendly packaging. It’s supposed to ease the conscience of wealthy musicians. But let’s count the problems:
(1) It’s not a standard package. No two musicians seem to put these things out in the same shape or size, or with the CD removable from the same angle. Some have the CD falling out the sides, others require you to hold the package just so in a straight line to shimmy the CD out the middle. And in nearly all cases it’s impossible to take CDs out of the package or put them back in with one hand while at a stoplight, as one often does in the car. And they can be hard to store: Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy album, an early pioneer in this area, simply doesn’t fit in any standard CD case.
(2) It’s not voluntary or discounted. I pay extra for recyclable soda cans, not by choice but at least you can get the deposit back. If you’re buying substandard packaging they should at least charge you less.
(3) It’s not waterproof. My wife, in particular, listens to a lot of CDs in the kitchen while doing dishes and the like. Kitchens are wet places, and this is not a problem for plastic CD cases; for cardboard, it’s a death sentence.
Plastic exists for a reason. It’s durable, it’s convenient. If I wanted a cardboard CD case, I’d ask for one.

Concert Review: Maroon 5 at Jones Beach

My wife and I had an early celebration of our 15th wedding anniversary yesterday, spending the day at Jones Beach capped by seeing Maroon 5 in concert at Jones Beach Theater. My review:
The Band
Maroon 5 is the best pop band that still gets played on the radio today, which says maybe more about the state of pop bands today, but they are a good band. It may not have seemed it at the time, but the 1990s and the very early 2000s were actually a great time for pop bands – among others, the Gin Blossoms, Fastball, the Counting Crows, the Spin Doctors, Matchbox 20, the Foo Fighters (I count them as a pop band), Sugar Ray, 3 Doors Down, even jam bands like Blues Traveler and the Dave Mathews Band that had their pop moments. Few of those bands are still on the pop music scene, although some of them are still recording in one form or another (I got the Gin Blossoms’ last album and will probably eventually buy the one they’re putting out next month; Dave Mathews is obviously still a big star).
Maroon 5 is basically a 21st century answer to The Cars, a pop music machine that manages to turn out consistently good stuff even if a lot of it sounds alike. Granted, they’d be a better band if frontman Adam Levine sounded more like Ric Ocasik or – better yet – Michael Hutchence of INXS, but Levine’s voice does have its own character, and the softness of his vocals undoubtedly helps the band continue to get airplay in today’s increasingly feminized pop radio market. Their first two albums, 2003’s Songs About Jane and 2007’s It Won’t Be Soon Before Long, were both about 8-10 deep in quality songs, which is a sign of people who know what they’re doing. I also liked Gotten, Levine’s song on Slash’s new album, although it’s not one of the very best songs on that album.
The Venue
Of all the places I’ve seen concerts (full list here), the Nikon Theater at Jones Beach is unquestionably the best, a gorgeous outdoor waterfront amphitheater with good acoustics (this helped make up for the fact that the tickets cost as much as the last two shows we saw – the Saw Doctors and Kelly Clarkson – combined, but we had seats this time instead of general admission). This was the second show we’ve seen there, the first being Harry Connick about 15 years ago. The crowd was pretty varied – a lot of girls in their teens and twenties, but also a fair number of gray-haired types (my wife thought this was unusual, but hey, Billy Joel is 60 now and Ringo Starr is 70; there’s a whole generation in there) and even, bizarrely, some families with small children. The show appeared to be sold out or very close to it.
I finally gave in this time and joined my wife in wearing earplugs to the concert, which turned out to be a great decision. We knew the show would be really loud when we heard the band doing sound check from the beach parking lot in the afternoon, and while the earplugs were uncomfortable and made conversation difficult, they really didn’t interfere with hearing the show (even the banter from the stage) with crystal clarity, yet unlike other recent shows I didn’t have ringing in my ears and difficulty hearing for days afterwards. Recommended.
The Opening Acts
While it was still daylight, the show started with an unbilled opening act named VV Brown, a woman with an English accent in a skintight catsuit. She was energetic and had some decent pop-rock songs (she also did a passable cover of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida), but it was pretty clear that most of the audience had no idea who she was, an especially serious hazard for an opening act when you don’t tell people in advance she’ll be performing. I was wondering if maybe she was some sort of house band, playing to a half-empty theater.
Next up was Owl City, which is sort of a one-man recording artist (a guy named Adam Young who started making music in his parents’ basement in Minnesota and, well, looks the part) under the name of a band. Owl City has to be the wierdest act I have ever seen live. His band opened with (counting him) three keyboardists, a drummer, a violinist and a cellist, although he and one of the other keyboardists then switched to holding guitars (there was, however, little in the way of audible guitar-playing sounds). Impossibly skinny, with a scraggly beard and dressed like Han Solo from the original Star Wars, Young seemed to be carrying on an extended Emo Phillips imitation with his helium voice, spastic dance moves, precious lyrics and – near as I could tell – performing his entire 10-song set with his eyes closed. (Quote from the stage between songs: “Hey, there are a lot of pretty girls here! I get really nervous around pretty girls.”) He did have kind of a cool light show. The crowd roared its approval when he finally got to Fireflies, his big pop-radio hit, which I don’t like but at least it was finally something familiar, and to Young’s credit he sounded live pretty much like he does on record. I wouldn’t rank Owl City with the most excruciating opening acts I’ve seen (those would be the 1-2 punch of Primus and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy opening for U2 in 1992), but it was definitely the most surreal.
The Main Event
Maroon 5 went on around 9:30 and played a little under 2 hours, cruising through all their singles as well as a number of songs from Songs About Jane as well as a cover of an Alicia Keys song I’d never heard (that was the only cover, although in the middle of Secret, Levine broke into a few verses of What’s Love Got To Do With It) and, if I recall correctly, three songs from their upcoming album, including their current single Misery (which they opened the show with) and a song called Stutter that I liked – here’s a live version from last week:

(It’s a sign of a good live act that they can sell a song the crowd hasn’t heard).
My wife and I were happy that they played our favorite song by the band (Won’t Go Home Without You, which has an opening and rhythm reminiscent of Fastball’s pop classic The Way) but each missed one song from the last album – I’d have liked to hear Little of Your Time, she wanted to hear Goodnight Goodnight. The show closed with a two-song encore of Makes Me Wonder and Sunday Morning. The band was obviously eager to show off their rock chops on a couple of songs (Harder to Breathe, Wake Up Call and The Sun all featured more guitar theatrics and a heavier rhythm section than you might have expected from the record), but balanced with the ballads and the more bouncy pop tunes, for which the band lowered a giant disco ball (the stage setting was otherwise a large curtain painted to look like a street in the band’s native Los Angeles).
Levine’s voice was mostly as on the records. He’s kind of a wiseass and a little full of himself (the ladies love him, and he knows it, basking in the oohs and ahs when he tossed his shirt into the crowd to play the rest of his set in a tank top), but funny at times and not without some self-deprecating humor (after the Alicia Keys cover: “this next song is one of ours, if you can’t tell because I sometimes sound like a girl.”) He did one routine about handing out Maroon 5 condoms that drew some dirty looks from the crowd, and when he split the audience into a sing-along for She Will Be Loved, had a funny riff about the reaction of men in the crowd to being asked to sing (including the guys who were “like dude, I’m here because my girlfriend likes you, let’s just get this show moving along.”).
As I’ve noted before, I’ve mostly seen really good concerts, so I can’t rank these guys with the top tier of shows I’ve seen, but it was a good concert and well worth seeing if you like Maroon 5’s music.

Reapplying For The Job

Good news: U2 is back on tour following Bono’s back surgery (after cancelling a battery of shows that had already permanently messed up the 2010 schedules for a bunch of MLB teams), and debuted two new songs at their return show Friday. This one, Glastonbury, sounds like it might be pretty good with better audio quality, and requires Bono to wail harder than he usually does these days:

The other, North Star, is below the fold:

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Concert Review: The Saw Doctors at Irving Plaza, 5/14/10

So, among the many half-written or written-in-my-head posts is an overdue concert review of one of my favorite bands, the Saw Doctors, at Irving Plaza May 14. Here we go.
This was the third time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Irish pop-rockers in concert, the first two being in 2003 at Irving Plaza and 2004 at the Hammerstein Ballroom, both small indoor venues in Manhattan. The band was very much in their prime then; six years later the lineup has changed and they’re just beginning to show the cracks of age (lead singer Davy Carton recently turned 50, the same age as his countryman Bono; he and Leo Moran are a little grayer now, but then so am I), but it’s still a tremendous show, and the band debuted some excellent new material from their soon-to-be released album, unimaginatively titled The Further Adventures of The Saw Doctors, including my personal favorite, lead single Takin’ the Train:

Opening Act
When I bought the tickets, there was no opening act listed. The day of the show, I was checking the Irving Plaza website for things like when the doors opened, and saw that the opening act was a guy named Pat Dinizio. Some readers will doubtless recognize the name, but I didn’t; I thought maybe it would be some obscure young local artist or something. Instead, out on stage comes a heavyset, balding middle-aged guy in a T-shirt and a baseball cap and introduces himself as the lead singer of The Smithereens. It was just Dinizio and his guitar, but it turned out to be a good opener, as it dawned on the crowd that a lot of people knew more Smithereens songs than they thought. Dinizio was affable, telling stories about his best-known songs (how A Girl Like You was originally written for the film Say Anything and how the band was basically able to bank a year’s earnings when a snippet of Blood and Roses got used for a Nissan commercial) and closing with a fine sing-along cover of Behind Blue Eyes.
The Venue
From the first two Saw Doctors shows, I recalled liking Irving Plaza better, but my tastes have obviously changed. The Hammerstein (more on that here) may be kind of a dump, but Irving Plaza is so tiny and intimate, with what has to be a capacity of well under a thousand people – a good thing, you might think – that my ears couldn’t handle the sound. I enjoyed the show, but I couldn’t hear a thing for two days. For the next concert we’re seeing (I’m taking my wife to see Maroon 5 at Jones Beach in August for, roughly, our 15th wedding anniversary), I may finally give in and try the earplugs my wife wears to shows.
The Show
Here’s the set list; the band played 5 of the new songs (Takin’ the Train, Addicted, Last Call, Indian Summer, and Hazard), all of which sounded good and allayed my fears that the new album might be too mellow (older rock bands are in trouble when they start heading in that direction); Takin’ the Train in particular is a really good song, power pop as it was meant to be. One of the things that really marks the Saw Doctors as a great live act is their ability to sell songs you are hearing live for the first time. There were also four other songs that had been released since I last saw them – they opened with Last Summer In New York and also played Out for a Smoke, both off the 2006 album The Cure (their last studio album) and the 2008 singles About You Now and She Loves Me. I’ve blogged previously here about their cover of About You Now; it’s one of the things I’d hoped to hear for the first time live and didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, that squeezed out room for some of the band’s classics, like Joyce Country Ceili Band and the achingly beautiful World of Good, but that’s live shows for you and the perils of recording too much good music. Anyway, after a protracted six-song encore including Hay Wrap (featuring a guest appearance by Carton’s son) and a segue of Hope You Meet Again into the outtro from Hey Jude, it was hard to complain that the band hadn’t gone on long enough.
If you ever get the chance to see the Saw Doctors live, don’t think twice, get the tickets. It’s truly a tremendous rock n’ roll show.

Wonder

With a hat tip to the surprisingly entertaining Sesame Street Twitter feed, in honor of Stevie Wonder’s 60th birthday, here he is doing a tremendous live version of Superstition in front of Mr. Hooper’s store. Check the kid rocking out around 4:10:

Stevie kind of got away from this sort of funk-rock after the mid-70s or so, but this clip is a reminder of what an excellent musician he was at his peak.

Quick Links 4/20/10

*The Mets have had some questionable decisions already this year. We saw Fernando Tatis try to score on a wild pitch with two outs, the bases loaded, down 3 and David Wright at the plate against a pitcher having trouble throwing strikes. We saw Jerry Manuel pinch run Tatis for Mike Jacobs and then have to use Alex Cora to pinch hit in the same inning. We saw Manuel play for one run on the road with Joe Mather pitching and Jose Reyes on first base, asking Luis Castillo to bunt before Mather had proven the ability to get anybody out. But perhaps none worse than Manuel on Saturday having K-Rod staying warmed up for 12 innings and possibly as many as 125 pitches in the bullpen before coming in tired to blow the save. Let’s hope that doesn’t linger. That’s why you use the closer as soon as you hit extra innings on the road.
*Craig Calcaterra looks at the curious suspension of Ednison Volquez.
*Joe Posnanski’s all-time NBA top 10. His mini-essays on Wilt, Kareem and Jordan are all spot-on, and in Jordan’s case reminded me of his obvious, though smiling, irritation earlier this year when Jay Leno asked if he could still dunk. This, about Wilt, is an excellent point:

You know, if you think about Wilt Chamberlain’s career – it really is staggering to think that he has through the years been labeled as a guy who did not win enough. I mean, Jim Kelly or Dan Marino or Charles Barkley or Barry Bonds – fair or unfair, it is true they didn’t win championships. Chamberlain won TWO. What’s more, he led his team to the Finals four other times. What’s more than that, his teams were beaten by the Celtics six times in those years, and while so many would like to make that a Russell vs. Chamberlain thing, the truth is those Celtics teams had 10 Hall of Famers. TEN HALL OF FAMERS! Two starting lineups of Hall of Famers. Those teams at various times had Havlicek and Sam Jones and Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman and Tommy Heinsohn and K.C. Jones and so on and so on … all in addition to Russell. They also were coached by Red Auerbach and Bill Russell.
To believe that Wilt Chamberlain – with the help of a Hal Greer here or a Tom Meschery or Paul Arizin there, guided by an Alex Hannum or Dolph Schayes – somehow SHOULD have beaten those Celtics teams is to believe that there has never been a more dominant presence in basketball than Wilt.

*Ronald Reagan and James Dean, together on film.

The White Brothers

So, right after I wrote about the Blues Brothers, up pops a new music video from Hanson doing a homage to the Ray Charles music store scene from the film (keep your eyes peeled for Wierd Al Yankovic on the tamborine):

Thinking ‘Bout Somethin’

HANSON | MySpace Music Videos

Yes, that Hanson. No, it’s not 1997 again. I didn’t like their boy-band hits back then, but I always thought they were talented enough musicians that they’d eventually grow up to make good music once they outgrew the Tiger Beat scene and got some maturity under their belts. I actually have on my iPod two songs they did around 2000 (If Only and This Time Around – the harmonica work on If Only is done by the incomparable John Popper of Blues Traveler), but unfortunately just when they seemed to be getting pretty good, they dropped off the face of the earth, and have apparently been putting out obscure independent records in recent years that I haven’t paid any attention to.
I really like the song they do in this video, which is apparently off a new record; it’s the kind of Motown-throwback pop we don’t get nearly enough of these days (it’s not coincidental that you get good pop music from people who respect their musical heritage), with a horn section and vintage Ray Charles-style keyboard work. That’s apparently the plan for their new album, featuring Motown veteran arrangers and session players. They’ll never be confused with Wilson Pickett – whichever Hanson brother it is who sings still kind of has a boy-band voice – but compared to most of what passes for pop music these days, it’s a breath of fresh air.
All of that said: after watching this video, I would not recommend they dance again in public.

A Bluesy New Year, 1979

In the annals of unusual but awesome concert bills, this one has to be up there: the last show at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, on New Year’s Eve 1978-79, headlined by Winterland habitues the Grateful Dead, and featuring, as one of their opening acts, the Blues Brothers.
The Blues Brothers remain one of music’s most improbable success stories, a band fronted by two comedians, including a lead singer (John Belushi) who was actually a latecomer to the blues (Wikipedia says that he started listening to blues records in 1977 while filming Animal House), and both visually and sonically completely out of step with the prevailing disco trend of 1978. While Belushi and Aykroyd were already TV and film superstars (Animal House was released in the summer of 1978), this performance was just at the point where the Blues Brothers were taking off as a genuine music phenomenon – they debuted on Saturday Night Live in April 1978, Briefcase Full of Blues had been recorded live in September 1978 and was released in late November 1978 and would hit #1 on the Billboard album chart in February 1979, and Soul Man would be released as a single in January 1979 and peak at #4 on the pop charts in February 1979. The movie and a concert tour would follow in the summer of 1980. Belushi died in 1982, and while Aykroyd and the band have had other projects since, some of them musically productive, it’s never been the same. They weren’t just a comic novelty – the band, largely assembled by Paul Shaffer (then Saturday Night Live’s musical director) was astonishingly talented, Belushi turned out to be a remarkable vocalist, and Aykroyd even contributed some impressive harmonica work. Their version of Jailhouse Rock may be the best Elvis cover ever, and arguably tops the original.
Anyway, the video clips are below the fold – it appears that this performance was televised and these were recorded off the TV.

Continue reading A Bluesy New Year, 1979

Harry Connick, Brian Setzer and the State of Swing

In the fall of 2009, Harry Connick Jr. and the Brian Setzer Orchestra both came out with new albums – Connick’s Your Songs, and Setzer’s Songs from Lonely Avenue. Both are professionally done albums, and neither will place among the best, or worst, recordings these mature, mid-career artists have made. But the contrast between the two illustrates how Connick’s recording career has gone astray after a great beginning, while Setzer gives his fans what they want.
Once upon a time, Harry Connick was not just an exciting musician, but a nearly unique one. A child-prodigy jazz pianist since age six, the son of the New Orleans DA burst on the national scene in the late 1980s, gaining national stature at age 22 with the double-platinum, Grammy-winning soundtrack for the romantic comedy classic When Harry Met Sally… At the time, the world of traditional pop/Big Band/swing music had largely atrophied – there was still a mostly-aging audience for then-veteran traveling performers like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Perry Como, etc., and that style of music was still vibrant on Broadway, but suddenly here we had a young crooner breathing new life and energy into the standards and – on albums like 1990’s We Are In Love and 1991’s Blue Light, Red Light – writing some new ones of his own.
Connick’s talent and flair helped sell the form to new generations of music fans. Lots of people still listened to Sinatra even if they didn’t otherwise go for the traditional pop sound. Others, like me, had grown up listening to that kind of music – it’s what my parents listened to, and was really all the music I knew until my older brother got me into rock around age 9 – and had a lingering affection for it. Connick proved that a young artist making new music in the old style, with his brassy Big Band sound and retro-cool pompadour, could still sell records and make a name for himself.
Then, on the heels of his successful 1993 Christmas album When My Heart Finds Christmas, Connick decided to take an unexpected turn. Ditching the big band, he put out a New Orleans funk-rock album, 1994’s She. Not all his fans appreciated – I was him tour for the album at Jones Beach, and there were older fans who walked out when they heard the new material. But matching Connick’s vocals and piano with the funk-rock sound worked, and made its own distinctive and different sound. He followed up with 1996’s Star Turtle, a solid album if not as outstanding as She. Approaching his 30th birthday, Connick had mastered three genres – the third being jazz piano – all of which tend to reward their masters with long careers.
Unfortunately, it’s been mostly downhill since then. Connick’s output since Star Turtle has been steady – two more Christmas albums, seven other vocal albums, plus instrumental albums, show scores – but he has never matched his promise either as a Big Band act or a funk-rock act. Albums like 1999’s Come By Me and 2004’s Only You were dull and barely-listenable slow jazz. He’s spread himself thin, dividing his time with feature film and TV-series acting, raising a family, disaster-relief work after Katrina, even hosting a series on the Weather Channel.
Your Songs was supposed to be a return to a more mainstream sound for Connick, and at first glance, its 14 songs fit the bill, running the gamut from Sinatra standards like “All the Way” and “The Way You Look Tonight” to 70s pop like “Just the Way You Are,” “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” and “Your Song.” The album was the brainchild of legendary record executive and co-producer Clive Davis, who explains how they picked the songs:

We embarked on this project together. Over a five- or six-month period, we’d meet every Wednesday afternoon for five or six hours and just listen to music, looking for the right songs. I felt it shouldn’t just be old classic songs but also more recent composers, and that’s why we included Billy Joel’s “Just The Way You Are” and Elton John’s “Your Song.”

Well, relatively recent. The good news is that the finished product is polished and pleasant to listen to – the songs are all professionally rendered with loving care, and Connick glides through standard after standard with good-natured ease. It’s Easy Listening at its easiest, and there’s a place for that – I pop it on in the background while I work.
The bad news is that Your Songs is yet another wasted opportunity. Not one of Connick’s renditions is likely to make anybody forget the previously definitive versions, or even place him on equal footing as a vocalist with Billy Joel or Elton John or Sinatra or Karen Carpenter or Roberta Flack. He’s just treading water, and he’s not even doing it because he wanted to follow some artistic muse – it’s an essentially commercial record.
Part of the miscalculation in the album is Connick’s singing style. There remain two schools of crooning, the Frank Sinatra school and the Bing Crosby school. Sinatra, at least once he matured as an adult artist, was legendary as an emotional interpreter of songs, the guy who could climb into the lyrics and make you feel them. When you listened to the older Sinatra, you felt the miles in his voice. That wasn’t all his appeal – he also had that swaggering cool and of course the great voice – but the ability to mine the words of a song was the distinctive feature of his style of singing, and one reason why he remained popular even with the rock generation.
Bing Crosby represented the apex of the opposite style, the smooth crooner who focused on making beautiful music to listen to. You could get an emotional wallop from a Bing song as well, if it hit you right – his Christmas songs do that, the warmth of Crosby’s voice being all the song needs – but the focus was on the smooth sound.
Whatever doubt there may have been in his youth about whether Connick would ever develop into a Sinatra-style interpreter of songs, it’s clear by now that he’s remaining firmly in the Crosby camp. There’s no heartache or heartbreak in Your Songs, no sense of emotional vulnerability – Connick still sounds like a guy singing to impress on a first date, not a man baring his soul. On the Big Band and funk-rock albums, that didn’t matter much; the invigorating swing and the infectious groove were all he needed to set his sound apart and make great music. But singing ballads, Connick exposes his limitations.
An album of this sort is doubly frustrating because it’s so unnecessary – anybody can sing these songs, or we could just listen to the originals. By contrast, Connick, Setzer and Canadian singer Michael Buble are about the only male vocalists in the business with the chops to do justice to new Big Band albums and the major-label platform to get them heard. Maybe he’s just running out of ideas, but we can only hope that Connick does more with his talent on his next record.
Setzer’s Songs from Lonely Avenue goes in the opposite direction. The 50-year-old Setzer, of course, started as a throwback 50s rockabilly artist in the early 80s with the Stray Cats, and reinvented himself in the mid-90s through a novel fusing of that sound with Big Band/swing music on albums like 1998’s The Dirty Boogie and 2000’s Vavoom! Setzer, too, has been away from making new music in his signature sound for a while – the past decade has been largely consumed with making Christmas records as well as 2007’s Wolfgang’s Big Night Out, a mostly instrumental record reworking classical tunes – but Songs from Lonely Avenue is a return to his wheelhouse, and the first album in which he wrote all original songs.
The focus on original music means that Songs from Lonely Avenue faces the opposite challenge from Your Songs’ excessive familiarity; it has none of the instantly recognizable classics that powered earlier Setzer albums, songs like Jump Jive an’ Wail or Mack the Knife. But in their place, it has a consistent film-noir-ish mood and fresh quality music all the way through. The only questionable decision is putting two instrumentals – Mr. Jazzer Goes Surfin and Mr. Surfer Goes Jazzin – back-to-back in the middle of the album rather than separating them as thematic bookends. Probably the best song on the album is the slightly bluesy, hard-luck saga Dimes in The Jar, and while Setzer’s not really any more of a bluesy vocalist than Connick is, he brings his best Tin Pan Alley sound to the track. And unlike Your Songs, which gives Connick only minimal opportunity to match his dazzling piano to his vocals, Songs from Lonely Avenue gives us plenty of Setzer’s signature guitar work.
Harry Connick Jr. could learn a few lessons from Brian Setzer – like not making records that don’t mean a thing ’cause they ain’t got that swing.

Beatlemania!

46 years ago today, the Beatles took the stage on the Ed Sullivan Show here in NY for a 5-song set that changed the world of music forever:


It’s tempting to chalk up this performance to a more innocent age in rock, and it was, but if you’re familiar with the Beatles’ live performances before February 1964, you know it’s more a reflection of a more innocent age in television; they were usually not this tame.
Three things stuck out at me watching this. One is how young George Harrison was. A second is how heavily they leaned on songs featuring Paul McCartney; you’d almost not know John Lennon was a major figure in the band. And the third was the graphic reminding the ladies that, sorry, John was already married.

Oedipus, Go Home

ST Karnick notes one of the things that makes “24” and its characters more compelling than so many other TV shows, even in its 8th season : the shows characters may have suffered onscreen or recent offscreen traumas they have to grapple with, but few of them, at least on the good-guys side of the ledger, are driven by some canned backstory about their relationship with their parents (Kim Bauer is obviously an exception, but we’ve been given ample evidence of the sources of strains between Kim and Jack, including Kim’s tendency to get kidnapped by Jack’s enemies and her boyfriends’ tendency to lose limbs).

Good To Be The King

In honor of Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, Jake Tapper tweeted the video below the fold, which contains so many different wonderful things in under two minutes I lost count.
There’s a fair debate over who is the greatest male rock vocalist of all time (more on which below – the women are hard to rank for distinct reasons, although Janis Joplin would probably win most polls). But there’s really no debate over who the most influential rock vocalist and stage performer of all time was – everyone who came after was inspired by or reacting to Elvis.
I’d thought of someday doing a longer essay on the best male rock singers of all time, but I have so many other essay ideas unwritten and so little time to write, let me offer here for now my quick top-10 ranking and a few thoughts:
1. Bono. Just an unbelievably rich, powerful, compelling, distinctive and expressive voice, and until the last few years sounded as good or better live in a huge stadium as in a studio.
2. Roger Daltrey. Nobody else could put as much into a scream as Daltrey. An absolutely primal force.
3. Jim Morrison. Would rate ahead of Daltrey except he was such an inconsistent live performer and had such a short career – his voice was already much rougher by the time of the LA Woman album. But Morrison at his best was unreal.
4. Mick Jagger. Mick’s voice has been shot for almost 30 years, and it was always idiosyncratic, but for the first two decades of his career, nobody could purr like Jagger (think of Sympathy for the Devil).
5. Elvis. I don’t love his Heartbreak Hotel style, but Jailhouse Rock pretty much defines rock n’ roll. Interestingly, on many his slow songs Elvis was more of a traditional crooner of the Bing Crosby school.
6. Steven Tyler. Maybe controversial to rank over Plant, but the man has incredible range (and still does to this day) without being stuck in the high end of the scale. Tremendous swagger.
7. Paul McCartney. Who still sounds pretty good even today. Paul’s voice is the most melodious on this list, but he could always rock out as well.
8. Van Morrison. In some ways more a crooner and bluesman than a rocker. Notice the heavy prominence of singers of Irish nationality or descent on this list.
9. Rod Stewart. OK, Rod Stewart can be a little cheesy at times (not that McCartney or Steven Tyler can’t) – Van Morrison’s version of Have I Told You Lately That I Love You makes Stewart’s sound like a block of Velveeta – but he’s still a master at that world-weary sound.
10. Robert Plant. I know some people would rate him higher, and certainly Plant has been massively influential, but too much of Plant’s work was too ethereal and not emotional enough for my tastes, at least.
Honorable mentions: Roy Orbison; Springsteen, who has never had a pretty voice but until recently had as emotionally expressive vocals, even live, as anybody; Billy Joel; John Fogerty, who has a truly unique sound; Eddie Vedder; Bob Seger; Michael Hutchence; David Lee Roth; Eric Clapton. (With the possible exception of Little Richard, we’ve never had a black rock singer who had the kind of great voice that the R&B masters like Wilson Pickett had). UPDATE: I should have mentioned Meatloaf as an honorable mention. Fantastic voice.
Anyway, that digression aside, the Elvis clip is below the fold.

Continue reading Good To Be The King