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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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
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.