this is a column about the mainstream music industry, I’d
like to debut by pointing out that one of the greatest, most
poetically just moments in the history of the business recently
went by largely unnoticed. Some of you may be aware that,
due to continued media concentration in the United States,
there are now only four major record companies (with numerous
imprints under them).
Some may also be aware that Eliot Spitzer had been investigating
these four behemoths to see if the way which they promoted
their records at radio amounted to payola. Short story: In
the face of subpoenas, the companies settled to the tune of
millions, all of which was funneled into a trust and doled
out to music-education and appreciation programs in New York
state. Such Robin Hoodery has rarely been seen, but it was
a drop in the bucket for a $40- billion-a-year medium.
And even the heroic Spitzer can’t solve the big problem: the
anemic quality of the music (a major by-product of consolidation).
There have been a few bright spots among recent releases from
the majors, but also lots of the usual subpar fare—which seems
like a natural segue into the new Diddy album, Press
Say what you want, but the Did is an entrepreneur par excellence:
He’s the Rupert Murdoch of bad taste. To understand the Diddy
artistic process, put on a song you like, then say “yeah,
yeah” over top of it. Then rhapsodize about your own talent
or a friend who died. Then go back to creating a perfume or
clothing line or reality show.
Diddy opens the album with an ad- nauseum loop of the piano
line from Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels” beneath his trademark
marble-mouthed rhyming. The usually creative Timbaland sounds
for most of the album like he’s fallen asleep at the console
during one of Diddy’s inexplicable rhyming sessions. (To wit:
“America, fall back, you can’t stop me/Got a thing for pigeon-toed
chicks who walk knock-kneed.”)
Diddy’s is a career remarkably unblemished by irony, humor
or self-effacement, and this album can’t be saved by guest
spots from more credible folks like Big Boi, Nas and Mary
J. Blige. The appealing, house-music-sounding “Wanna Move”
is the sole bright spot.
A few notches up the R&B food chain is Justin Timberlake,
who in my mind has enjoyed an unwarranted degree of credibility
in recent years. His solo efforts truly are better and more
sophisticated than N’Sync—but what are we really saying
Timberlake has been aiming toward the Prince model and is
admittedly more funky and creative than you’d ever think,
but beyond the hip-hop gestures, FutureSex/ Love Sounds
(the biggest album in the country) smacks more of latter-day
George Michael, and the über-sexual overtones become too much
by the album’s midpoint. The falsetto also gets comical on
“My Love” (which has a great Timbaland techno backing). The
parable “Losing My Way” speaks for itself: “Hi my name is
Bob, and I work at my job/But now I got a problem with that
little white rock/See I can’t put down the pipe.”
On the rock side of the tracks, My Chemical Romance’s
Gerard Way is simultaneously the Tim Curry, Freddie Mercury
and Liza Minnelli of emo punk-pop. The Black Parade sounds
more Rent than Thursday or Saves the Day, but is nonetheless
an impressively wrought effort if you think of it as high
theater rather than punk: This band could write a better musical
than Elton John, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon put together.
The uncanny “Mama” simply won’t leave my head. (Imagine a
With Friendly Fire, Sean Lennon, a young
man on a whole other path, has released one of the
best albums of the fall. This is intricately produced, melancholy
pop with lineage rooted in Elliot Smith and Brian Wilson.
Lennon’s effete voice comes off thin at times, and some tracks
struggle vainly toward Bacharach-like grandiosity while coming
up short, but the title track (admittedly a bit too Elliot
Smith-sounding) is a particular highlight. “Spectacle,” on
the other hand, is one of the most infectious tracks I’ve
heard this year. Nevertheless, the fact that tacky fringe-kid
scenester Bijou Phillips (Lennon’s unfaithful ex-girlfriend)
could inspire a whole song cycle has to be symptomatic of
a sheltered, iconic childhood.
An icon of a different stripe, Barry Manilow, found
himself with an unsuspecting hit earlier this year when he
released an album of ’50s cover songs. The natural fiscal
progression was this: The Greatest Songs of the Sixties.
(A dangerous trend: One more decade and Manilow will be
covering himself . . . and Peter Frampton.) Here, Manilow
(an artist I actually enjoy without a tinge of irony) does
soporific versions of already soporific songs. “Blue Velvet,”
“Cherish” and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” are not
the greatest songs of the ’60s. Manilow is wasted on this
plush karaoke session.
In an altogether other world, underground phenoms the Decemberists
are now a major-label band. But it’s not for me to question
the wisdom of Capitol Records, who apparently see an
alternative-rock version of Fairport Convention and smell
“hit.” Nevertheless, beyond the willful folk weirdness, bouzouki
playing and arcane references, this group pack some real melodic
power into The Crane Wife, a set of songs based on
a Japanese folk tale. This is moody, tuneful and subversive—and
For more predictable weirdness, turn to Scientologist Beck.
His new album, like most of his work, is pretty good and predictably
jam-packed with errant, funky scraps of modernistic detritus.
But frankly, it’s hard to evaluate a Beck album after you’ve
heard a few. It’s got ’80s video-game bleeps and unique samples,
cleverly funky shifts in feel, sunny pop lilts and smoothly
clever rapping. Everyone says it’s great, so it must be, right?
The key word with Beck is “clever”—no more, no less.
Less clever: Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas. One of
the hollower paths to stardom has to be that from kiddie-show
star to potty-mouthed, soft-porn-ish pop star (Britney, etc.).
To that end, Fergie’s Fergalicious is one of the most
ridiculous albums in recent memory. (See the title track,
which sets the hip-hop clock back three decades.) Her asinine,
profane, whiny, narcissistic “rapping” on the single “London
Bridge” represents a vocal nadir in a genre that has seen
“Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” was one of the great garage-rock
songs of the new millennium, and three years later the Australians
are back with Shine On, which offers more paint-peeling,
banana-in-the-jeans hard rock. There’s nothing here as immediately
likable as their 2003 hit, but there’s plenty of testosterone,
muscle and songs that would sound great blaring from the windows
of a black GTO. The dewey-eyed ballad “King’s Horses” is saccharine
and goofy. But the Oasis-meets-Black Crowes anthem “Skin and
Bones” is dead perfect. A strong, enjoyable album that will
more than likely be forgotten by February.
balls to ball-less: Meat Loaf has released Bat Out
of Hell III, which is a bad idea based on anyone’s standards
(even the accountant’s). Loaf went ahead and did this without
invaluable collaborator Jim Steinman (after their court battle
over rights to the Bat Out of Hell “franchise”). So
30 years after the last BOOH, comes this effort, produced
by cheese-rock baron Desmond Child. The opener, “The Monster
Is Loose,” is a confounding burst of ’90s rap-metal, featuring
Marilyn Manson’s guitarist and Nikki Sixx, that will leave
you aghast. The Steinman-composed ballad “It’s All Coming
Back to Me Now” is at the other end of the spectrum of bad
taste: It was originally recorded by Celine Dion—and sounds
like it. These are apparently the hard and soft sides of Meat
Loaf. May this Bat go back to the inexplicable hell
that spawned it.
If there’s been a theme here, it’s the push-and-pull on the
charts between the worlds of R&B and rock, so let’s end
on a high note for each, with new releases from John Legend
and the Who.
Legend was a piano prodigy who tapped keys for Lauryn Hill
then industriously built his own sound over the years in New
York City nightclubs. There are lots of star producers here
(Kanye West, etc.), and Legend is a strange performer: Teddy
Pendergrass one moment then Harry Connick Jr. the next. But
this is a smooth, chilled-out and enjoyable album that you
can slide into as comfortably as red satin PJs and a tumbler
The Endless Wire is the Who’s first studio album since
1982. Pete Townshend has a history of stretching himself so
far conceptually and creatively that it’s sometimes at the
detriment of the music, and this album is imperfect, true.
But it also shows a band who, more than 40 years later, still
are ranging about in a raw manner—and who still have something
creative to say, unlike other groups of their ilk. (Mick,
put your shirt on; Keith, stay out of the coconut tree.) Townshend
even tosses in an ambitious mini-opera that works well. The
burnished groove of the title track lacks Who bombast, but
its lovely melodic simplicity and reflective sentiments are
also stunning in their own way. If this is the band’s coda,
consider it worthy.