To be a lifelong music fan, holding out hope for the major
record industry is to weather the constant tides of disgust
and renewal. It’s like being a heavy smoker who doesn’t want
to breathe his own secondhand smoke—or like Yeats’ Tibetan
monk, who dreams he is eaten by a wild beast only to realize
in a waking vision that he is both eater and eaten.
We culturally glow and bask in pop music’s epiphanies (the
Beatles, whose new joint I will get to) yet also gain a certain
inverse pleasure out of our collective dyspepsia (Celine Dion,
Pop music is one of the great glues of our culture and fills
our dialogues, whether it’s in the spirit of love or hate.
We joyfully stretch our vocabularies toward new aphorisms
for “sucks.” We love the punchlines (disco, cheesy ’80s fare),
and revere, perhaps too solemnly, the cultural flashpoints
From 1981 to 1983, when I was entering my teens, the Police
(the rock band) were my world. It was the one time in my own
life that my personal musical obsession completely shored
up the rest of the masses (and the Billboard charts).
I guess you could call it synchronicity (ba-dum-dum).
as I near the bell lap toward 40, Andy Summers, the
guitarist for that band, has just released a memoir, One
Train Later, that is one of the best books I’ve ever read
about the industry. The book is about much more than the Police’s
ascent; Summers, a journeyman quite older than Sting or Stewart
Copeland, was briefly a member of a latter-day version of
the Animals and also the Soft Machine in the ’60s.
I read that eloquently written book with bittersweet relish,
learning that the brilliant guitarist who slathered diminished
sixths, flattened ninths and bright harmonics over the Police’s
deceivingly complex and crafted pop spent his off hours doing
’shrooms in Bali with John Belushi, snuffling moraines of
coke, ignoring his wife and kid, and fantasizing about giving
Sting that momentous cock-punch that we all know he richly
Summers’ chapters on the Animals also have me contemplating
the brand-new Cat Stevens album (or, the first album by Yusuf
Islam), An Other Cup. Stevens does a symphonic, moody
version of the old Animals hit “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
This has to be some industry knucklehead’s idea of the perfect
cover song for the controversial artist’s comeback (after
28 years of Muslim piety).
But it comes off heavy-handed and inappropriate—and as Yu-Cat’s
silky, baroque croak wraps around the lines “sometimes, I
get so edgy,” it’s hard not to stifle a guffaw and
to imagine Salman Rushdie, still in semi-hiding, slowly raising
his middle finger in Yusuf’s general direction. (“Yeah, Cat,
you were a little, um . . . ‘edgy’ when you endorsed that
bloody fatwa against me!”)
the singer probably is “just a soul whose intentions
are good,” and in truth, everything is still there—the voice,
songwriting, etc.—preserved by piously healthy living. An
Other Cup runneth over with the realization that Cat still
has it in spades. Nevertheless, many will greet this revelation
with the same indifference they would greet the successful
renaissance of Don McLean, or “Seasons in the Sun” maestro
Under any name or religion, Yusuf was of a time and place,
and not an artist for the ages. There is nothing “long-awaited”
about this comeback, and beyond a small first-week sales-spike
of curious baby boomers without DSL, this will fade quickly.
I’ll stick to late-night viewings of Harold & Maude,
where Cat remains relevant for me.
Gwen Stefani, on the other hand, has successfully scuttled
the ska-pop/new wave of No Doubt to emerge as a dance-club
auteur and strong solo artist. On her second, excellent solo
album, The Sweet Escape, she combines all kinds of
dance-floor flourishes, never forgetting the sugar-coated
melodies that she rode in on. “Wind It Up” is the big club
hit; the ’80s pop of the title track and gorgeously sophisticated
“Early Winter” are even better.
Senegal-born Akon has collaborated with Stefani in the past,
and now has a new album out of his own (Konvicted).
His high-pitched, nimble, and patois-laden rap singing is
appealing, especially on the Eminem collaboration “Smack That,”
which doesn’t come off as lumpen and aggressive as the title
Snoop Dogg collaboration “I Wanna Love You” (appearing originally
as “I Wanna Fuck You” on Snoop’s album) points to Akon’s central
struggle between real pop smarts and his more adolescent inclinations.
Outside of all the alpha-male chest-beating and obtuse lyrics,
musically, this is top-notch. I wish there was a function
to turn off the goofy lyrics, though.
Among the glut of bands who plowed various hard-rock mutations
in the ’90s, Incubus often got lumped in and not appreciated
for the powerful, innovative group they were . . . and still
are. Lead singer Brandon Boyd’s more operatic tendencies on
“A Kiss to Send us Off” (from their Light Grenades
disc) land flat, but the chiming harmonics and deep, ponderous
grooves of “Dig,” and the urgent, complex drive of “Anna Molly”
(which has echoes of the Police in the verses), show that
Incubus understand song dynamics like few other bands of their
Within the latter track are enough stirring passages to give
less-talented groups half an album. This is my favorite guitar
album in recent memory, with Mike Einzeiger’s creative approach
constantly sidestepping all the potential guitar clichés.
My love for the Beatles has evolved to a point where I appreciate
them mostly at their rawest, with punk-young George Harrison
feeling out Chet Atkins and Carl Perkins runs on his Gretsch
and the four working themselves up into a rockabilly lather
in some rathskeller. The guilelessness and daring of their
first two albums still moves me like none of the more expansive
George Martin stuff. Their talent-in-the-raw was what exploded
like a Big Bang around the world in the early ’60s.
hinted toward recapturing that on the White Album, and Lennon
spent the last decade of his life often leaning toward that
true, stripped-down pulse of rock & roll. That said, Giles
(son of George) Martin has been given genetic license on LOVE
to do a mash-up of Beatles masters to provide a soundtrack
to weird, cavorting French clowns at a Vegas show. Leave your
Beatles memories intact and don’t bother with this
fact, I’d even rather listen to Keith Urban’s Cuisinart-processed
pop-country instead. We all know that mainstream country has
mutated to the point where its relationship to what was once
understood as country is pretty tenuous. My wish for country
music: that all of its blue-collar fans will one day rise
up against the idea of cheese-wad millionaires singing sappy
songs about hard-knock lives that try to show that they’re
“just like everyone else.”
listened to Mr. Nicole Kidman’s Love, Pain & the Whole
Crazy Thing seven times, and I am not sure how to distinguish
it from a whole lot of other nausea-inducing mainstream country
albums. (And I actually like country music.) I think I’ll
put on the Beatles’ version of Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally”
and let Ringo serenade away my dyspepsia.