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The Major Lift

 

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, etc.).

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 (punk, hip-hop).

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).

Now, 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 deserves.

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!”)

But 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 Terry Jacks.

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 suggests.

The 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 idiom.

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.

They 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 inappropriate exhumation.

In 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.”

I’ve 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.

—Erik Hage


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