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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

This month marks the first full year of the Major Lift’s existence, and analyzing the releases of the major labels has often seemed like having a front-row seat during the fall of ancient Rome. OK—not exactly, but it is a shaky time. The digital-music era is decimating the economics of the major record companies, rending a hole in a multi-billion-dollar industry dominated by an oligarchy engaged in often-corrupt practices.

But let’s be clear: The music industry is not in trouble, only the stake that the major labels have in it. Music will continue to sell, and artists and labels are trying to find new ways around an old equation. (As an example: Rolling Stone currently has a story about the majors setting up deals wherein the labels get a percentage of touring, merchandise and publishing profits.)

The Eagles have taken one of the more interesting paths around the majors. And, with the top-selling U.S. album of all time under their belts (Greatest Hits 1971-1975), they know a thing or two about selling records. They self-released their new double album, Long Road Out of Eden, and are offering it exclusively through Wal-Mart. Free from the majors, the band stand to take a higher percentage of revenue and have Wal-Mart shoulder the burden of advertising. The result is a No. 1 spot on the Billboard album charts.

So what about the music? Surprisingly, despite the 28 years that have elapsed since the band’s last full album of new songs (1994’s Hell Freezes Over only had a few new cuts), there is no evolution. Lead single “How Long” sounds like “Take It Easy” (with the exception of having Frey and Henley share lead vocal duties to assure universal fan appeal), “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture” sounds like “Life in the Fast Lane,” etc.

Put simply, with catalog albums that still sell, and with bloated, high-priced reunion tours that pack them in, the Eagles aren’t looking to break new ground or expand their audience. Much like Fox News isn’t looking to appeal to liberal viewers, neither are the Eagles looking to do anything but offer up the same stuff to the same huge core of listeners—both the classic-rock oldsters and the line dancers who discovered the Eagles via Nashville.

The Eagles’ joke on the critics has always been rampant commercial success. In truth, I don’t like this album at all, but I wasn’t keen on the old stuff either. And that doesn’t mean I can’t declare this album a success for what it is: good business.

Turning from one of the most critically reviled acts of all time to the one of the most universally reviled: If the Eagles represent a kind of ’70s soft-rock country that spawned a whole legacy of mediocrity, then Britney Spears represents the complete cheapening of contemporary dance-pop.

Nevertheless, November spawned another monster, and there she sits at No. 2, right below the Eagles. (Do you think it’s a coincidence that her public meltdowns and trashy family-court dealings directly preceded the release of her album? Based on contemporary PR standards, Mackenzie Phillips would have been A-list in her day.)

The overwhelming impression on Blackout is of an album trying to sound both forward-thinking and lusty, but coming up short on both counts. There are lots of bleepy and squelchy techno touches: “Radar” has a musical bed that could have come off of a Postal Service album, and the first single, “Gimme More,” has a Euro- electronica drive straight out of Ibiza clubs. (And it’s charming how she exclaims “It’s Britney, bitch” in that distinctive chipmunk voice to kick off the album.)

The powers that be are clearly trying to ape the path of fellow Mouseketeer Justin Timberlake by taking an unconventional, Prince- and Timbaland-influenced approach to production. But ultimately, Spears’ strangeness gets in the way. Minus her dancing image, one is forced to focus on her voice, a peculiar little instrument that calls to mind the tiny old woman from Poltergeist. When she purrs dirty lyrics, it sounds . . . well, creepy. But all of this is not to disparage the fact that Spears has released a surprisingly cohesive album (for her, anyway). And of all of those moments when you hear Britney’s voice get all electronic-sounding and vocoder-like? Well, that’s just Pro Tools doing its thang, bitch.

To take up yet another frequent target of derision, the Backstreet Boys have returned as a foursome, minus Kevin Richardson. (I’m reminded here of Tennyson’s penultimate lines from “Ulysses”: “Though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are.”) I once made a heated argument for “I Want It That Way” as one of the great songs of the late ’90s, and I once sat through a Backstreet performance at SPAC with perverse, albeit painful, allegiance. (And in truth I miss the days when boy bands didn’t wear guitars and play emo songs.)

So, depending on your tolerance for this type of thing, Unbreakable is actually pretty likeable. What you won’t find is the futuristic or “mature” sounds that herald “artistic evolution” for other former teeny-boppers. This is a pop album, plain and simple, and well-executed at that. “Everything but Mine” is almost new-wavey in intention, with hooks to hang a hat on; “Inconsolable” is the straight-ahead, weeper love ballad; and “Any Other Way” has an almost Duran Duran-like synth drive. That which they are, they are: Great singers choosing good songs, backed by solid production.

One of these is not like the other, and David Gray has quietly become one of the more compelling songwriters of the last decade, a distinction overshadowed by his one-hit-wonderdom via “Babylon.” Greatest Hits offers the perfect opportunity to catch up with Gray’s unique artistry, from the euphoric, drop-dead gorgeous “The One I Love” to the downtrodden but hopeful “This Year’s Love” to the haunting but breezy “Sail Away.”

Gray is a songwriter so distinct that he seems impervious to influence, and his high, wavering tenor sounds as if it could never carry a false sentiment. This collection should serve less as a recap and more as an opportunity for discovery among new listeners who missed (or dismissed) Gray the first time around.


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