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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

I often argue that pop music is the most influential mass medium, particularly when it comes to role models. Consider the fact that you can sometimes tell what kind of music a person listens to simply by their appearance, whether they be an emo kid, a heavy-metal head, or simply a middle-aged guy in a loud-print Jimmy Buffett shirt. I don’t think there is a comparable phenomenon in other media. Can you ever tell what kind of movies or TV shows or video games a person consumes simply from the way they present themselves? (Yes, this discussion of “role models” is going somewhere; I realize we’re on shaky ground here.)

I think the influence also stems from pop music’s muddling of fiction and reality. I know that Bruce Willis is not a cop on the edge, and if I admire him it probably has little to do with who he really is. But when Pete Townshend says he “woke up in a Soho doorway,” I’m pretty sure it’s coming from some deeply personal place. And when rappers tell listeners to “Stop Snitchin’,” one can be sure that many are going to take that imperative seriously. (Conversely, I know that when Billy Joel sings about the life of a Long Island fisherman, he probably doesn’t know the stern from . . . the other end.)

Pop stars slip in and out of reality and fiction, and it’s often hard to find the line between them and the “roles” they play; the line is clearer with actors. Along with all of this come the personal mythologies: It’s hard to listen to Exile on Main Street without thinking of whiskey and narcotics and, by association, Keith Richards. I can’t listen to “Good Vibrations” without thinking of the bad vibrations in Brian Wilson’s psyche. And I can’t listen to Velvet Revolver’s sophomore album, Libertad, without thinking of Duff McKagan’s pancreas and the depths of alcohol and rock & roll excess it must have taken for it to (as Duff will tell any interviewer) “explode” back in 1994.

Guns N’ Roses, more than any other group, were able to take the mythology and lessons of the hard-rock past and create a compelling new chapter. But Velvet Revolver, more so than Axl Rose’s current Guns N’ Roses (whose Chinese Democracy LP has been hung up in creative limbo for over a decade), are clearly the next—albeit more sober—chapter in GNR lore. And if there’s a reason for their existence, it’s to bring Slash’s dirty, guitar-boogie pummel back to the world. Scott Weiland doesn’t have the constitution or distinct weirdness to pit himself against Slash in equal measure, not the way that Axl did with his rangy coven howl. So Slash becomes the frontman, with Weiland essentially a texture deeper in the mix (undoubtedly a decision of producer Brendan O’Brien, who understands big guitars like few others).

I didn’t find the band’s debut striking at all, and I like Libertad just a bit more simply because it’s a more apt showcase for Slash’s guitar meat. Lyrically, everything is lost in the mix or simply wasted on simplistic, L.A.-sleaze platitudes (e.g., “Sister keep her motor clean”). Even “For a Brother,” an ode to Weiland’s late sibling (who met the fate that many had predicted for Scott) lapses into obtuseness. So we’re left with Slash, and Sorum and McKagan—his Guns rhythm section—who couch his ballsy scrum in their mighty artillery swing.

And Slash delivers: He revs it in a midrange wallop you can feel in your chest on the opener “Let It Roll,” he follows that up with the low monolithic clobber of “She Mine” and “Get Out the Door,” he deals up those brief lashing leads (often augmented by wah-wah) and peaks out with the fuzz-bomb groove of the first single, “She Builds Quick Machines.” Surprisingly, the group also earnestly covers ELO’s “Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” which gets a bit overwhelmed by Slash’s big stormy rolls of guitar. (You can sense cross-purposes here: Weiland wants to play it sweeter, Slash wants to pummel and wail.) This is not a bad album, but it only whets the appetite for something else—perhaps a genuine GNR reunion. Who knows? Other hopelessly bitter rock rifts have surmounted those walls of attrition for a payday.

Sum 41 take an opposite tack on Underclass Hero: After only seven years in the game, they shoot for relevancy and maturity. Their rock vision is not the libidinous muscle of Velvet Revolver; rather, they decide to push their pop-punk toward “big statements,” and while they still sound like Blink-182, they seem to be having a whole lot less fun than either band were having a few years back. The title track holds out hope with its punk batteries, but the passages of troubled romanticism and pensiveness in tracks like “Walking Disaster,” “Count Your Last Blessings” and (yikes) “Confusion and Frustration in Modern Times” undercut a lot of what was bratty, playful and fun about this band.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals’ major-label debut This Is Somewhere is another case of a not-so-jammy band from the jam-band circuit building a grassroots fan base. (The Vermont-based band started at St. Lawrence University in 2002.) The group sound best when Potter’s vocals can settle in on long, slow soulful stretches. She’s a classic, bluesy rock crooner, and she settles perfectly against her Hammond organ and the dogged soul arrangement of “Apologies.” “Big White Gate” swings things in an Americana direction, coming off like power-ballad country. This is a rock band in the truest, most indefinable sense, pulling in strains of blues, country and roots music, like the band in the bar who unexpectedly creep into your consciousness in a good way.

Talib Kweli’s Ear Drum is a powerful new addition to the hip-hop canon. In a strikingly original move, “In the Mood” blends cinematic, nearly Cole Porter-like flourishes with Kanye West’s rapping. And that’s the hallmark of this album: slamming hard-edged hip-hop against classy, nearly symphonic, pseudo-jazzy strains. It’s a mind-boggling blend, especially on the threatening, profanity-laced “Say Something.” It’s like black-tie meets gangsta, and the album is compelling listening. The track also features the striking homage “Kicking niggas out the club like Michael Richards.”

The latest export from the bubbling Houston rap scene is UGK’s Underground Kingz, which pales in comparison to Kweli with uncreative, offensively lumpen tributes like “Two Type [sic] of Bitches,” featuring Dizzee Rascal. (“You got bitches that do and bitches that don’t.” Did you spend all night on that, Shakespeare?) This group has actually been around for a couple of decades and were put on ice for three years while Pimp C did some time. So while they have street credibility, they don’t have much artistic merit based on this album.

Luke Bryan is the latest heartthrob country singer on Capitol Records. There are a lot of “all hat, no cowboy” singers in the genre, but Bryan comes off a bit more genuine on I’ll Stay Me. He’s a true songwriter for one, having had songs cut by Travis Tritt, among others. “All My Friends Say” has an appealingly good-time honky-tonk gallop and avoids the attempts at cornpone humor or sentimental hogwash that define the genre lately. Even the one song that skirts idealized rural sentimentality, “We Rode in Trucks” (Luke’s “where I grew up” song), is solid and well-arranged, if a bit lyrically obvious. It’s like a nonliterary version of Gram Parson’s “Hickory Wind.”

Since this is a column about the major labels, I’d like to finish with a little food for thought: Warner Music now has an arm called the Independent Label Group. This means that numerous already successful indie labels will maintain their name but use Warner’s promotion and distribution. (This, they call “relative autonomy.”) Warner gets a percentage of sales and can option an artist for their larger labels if the artist does well on the charts. I cast no judgment, but that’s a whole lot to think about, isn’t it? Could this be a case of the Leviathan becoming the parasite?

 

 

 

 

 

 


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