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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

There’s a periodic discussion re garding “rock-critic clichés” on the Velvet Rope, a Web site that claims to be the gathering place for music-industry insiders. Apparently such terms as “Beatlesque” and “jangly guitars” (among a gazillion others) are overused in reviews to the point where they offend some music nerds’ sensibilities.

The bottom line is that if you try to follow these snobbery guidelines, you’re pretty much left with nothing (certainly no adjectives); you might as well not even get out of bed. Just wire back a few stripped-down, Hemingway-esque cables from the front and hope for the best. (“The sound from Kelly Clarkson’s mouth was not good, but it was not bad either. It was simultaneously good and bad—and yet neither. And many people bought her music, not so much in stores, but by plugging small devices into their computers.”) Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Recently, however, amid this discussion, someone made a really clever point, noticing that some scribes use “literally” when they mean “figuratively.” For example: “The band literally tore the house down.” It got me thinking that our perception of music often becomes unknowingly figurative once it is absorbed and passed through the great mainstream hall of mirrors.

Take Modest Mouse, for example. How many records do bands have to sell on a major label before they are no longer designated “indie rock”? It doesn’t matter: Indie rock is no longer a literal designation—it’s now a highly marketable aesthetic. It also has no definable parameters; like Congress’ take on pornography, we simply know it when we see it.

So what literally happens now that Modest Mouse have debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts with We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank? It doesn’t matter: They may have lost a few of the old fans, but now even the occasional fun-loving frat brother is wearing one of those green, short-brimmed commie hats that leader Isaac Brock sports (very “indie rock”).

And this is a pretty good album, though it doesn’t leave the starkly original, uncanny impression that much of the group’s previous work did. The lead single, “Dashboard”—with its synth washes, shimmying guitars, horn flourishes and mindless repetition—actually fits into the great ’80s recovery project that bands like Franz Ferdinand and the Killers have been engaged in during recent years. Surprisingly, it’s a stylish album from a band who once were lauded more for uniqueness and credibility than style.

And maybe bands such as Modest Mouse have less to fear from the Internet and a declining industry than, say, Daughtry. For theirs was an altogether more organic ascent than the snap-together-kit idols that have dominated charts in recent months. If hubris strikes Modest Mouse, then I imagine that, much like Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould before him, Isaac Brock can safely lead his troops back to the vans, critical respect and midsized venues that spawned them (back toward a more literal indie rockdom).

Modest Mouse managed to sell nearly 129,000 copies of their album in the first week (this despite an Internet leak), pulling the industry slightly up out of a sheer nosedive. CD sales were down 20 percent from a year ago during the first three months of 2007. By comparison, Daughtry recently topped the charts by moving only 60,000 CDs.

The most popular press angle on Modest Mouse is that they have enlisted former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr into their ranks. I personally believe it’s a non-story; he makes for an interesting, inter-generational band photo, but Marr has made a post-Smiths career out of leaving only grazing impressions on anything he touches (Electronic? the The? the Healers?), and this is a far cry from the seismic cowrites and ungodly guitar statements he made with Morrissey back when the opening guitar shudder of “How Soon Is Now” made the sky open and your blood gurgle (figuratively).

As to the album: Beyond the trademark, quirky yelps of “Dashboard” and “Fly Trapped in a Jar,” there is a great evolution here—Brock as writer of quietly stirring songs with pseudo-epic shifts. “March Into the Sea” and “Parting of the Sensory” are moving in a less jaggedly mathematical manner than a lot of his work.

Fountains of Wayne are a similarly critically acclaimed band whose credibility as a major alt-pop band was hurt by the smash novelty hit “Stacy’s Mom” (which, based on the crowd at their Empire State Plaza show a couple of years back, made them huge with the 13-and-under crowd). Or that’s their story and their sticking to it. But Weather and Traffic simply reinforces for me the fact that Fountains of Wayne record cleverly poppy, but ultimately inconsequential, songs with little heart in them.

The single “Someone to Love” is hooky but forgettable, and some of the other songs on this album remind me of the kind of music performed in a cheesy movie by actors who are pretending to be in a pop band. (Suitably, leader Adam Schlesinger has a side career penning just that kind of material.) Numerous lesser-known bands do the sugar-sweet guitar-pop thing much better. Philadelphia’s late Bigger Lovers and Pittsfield, Mass., locals Hector on Stilts come immediately to mind.

Houston rapper Paul Wall serves his respective genre about as well on Get Money, Stay True, a strikingly unoriginal and unchallenging hip-hop album in an era when many artists are shaking up convention both lyrically and production-wise. The simple, drag-tempo beats and lyrical braggartry set hip-hop back to a time before Timbaland. “Bangin’ Screw” is the lone standout, riding a dizzy synth line and basking in Euro-dance-club ephemera while paying tribute to Wall’s mentor, the much more innovative DJ Screw. But frankly, at the end of the day the opaque Wall makes fellow Caucasian Eminem look like Phillip Glass.

Speaking of Timbaland, he has released an album under his own nom de plume, and it is packed with guests, some expected (Justin Timberlake, 50 Cent) and some surprising (Elton John, the Hives).

His wily and unpredictable syncopation has become so pervasive in the R&B and hip-hop worlds that one wonders whether he has much left to say via beats or production. He really does: “Oh Timbaland” is a wild, kaleidoscopic, blaxploitation groove, and this and the other rap tracks are predictably great, but I was interested to see what he would do on the rock side of things, as he’s made lots of overtures about expanding his horizons (he’s working with Coldplay), but the track with the Hives, “Throw It on Me,” simply sounds like one of his hip-hop tracks. Timbaland, who’s usually so good at facilitating others’ muses, seems to falter with rock bands at times, trying to jam them into his own context. The opposite happens with the Fall Out Boy song, which simply sounds like . . . a Fall Out Boy song. Nevertheless, there is still plenty to recommend on Shock Value.

The best album in this crop comes from Kings of Leon. Because of the Times is a surprisingly thorny, layered and complex work from a group many assume are simply Southern-fried alt-rockers. Those hallmarks are here: guitar lines that will scald you if you get too close, etc. But KOL always have had a choppy, almost Mission of Burma-like danger and otherness beneath the surface. Here, they go even further afield; sometimes it seems like they’re acquiring a new musical language. The album is brooding, intense and challenging—and beautiful in parts too.

“McFearless” has the martial drum rolls and barbed attack of And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, while “Knocked Up” and “On Call” are contemplative, intense and pretty. There’s a good chance they’ll alienate old fans and acquire some new ones (me, for one). Occasionally they fall back to the ragged rock gestures they rode in on, but they also push themselves out of their comfort zone a lot, particularly in the guitar accents. There are no “jangly guitars” here, but a few that cascade and even one that cries like a whale.


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