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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

With Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends having sold the most downloads ever (after only three weeks) and sitting comfortably at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, it’s easy to forget that Coldplay loped out of the gates on the tails of the aging Britpop phenomenon in 2000 as a sort of Radiohead Lite. (Back to those download numbers: That’s significant, as it’s the one area of growth in a wilting industry.)

Now, four albums in—and with three years elapsed since their last—it seems they’ve come back with grander intentions and ambitions: becoming the biggest band in the world. And EMI, the band’s label, needs that to happen or the recently purchased company will collapse. (Cue the Sex Pistols’ “EMI.”) Such world-dominating ambition once crippled R.E.M. into hubris and gutted the finances of Warner Bros., who, thinking they had the next U2, stupidly signed the band to an $80 million deal in the mid-’90s.

Coldplay leader Chris Martin has spent the intervening years spawning children whose names mark Old Testament events (Apple, Moses) with Gwyneth Paltrow, growing his hair out a bit from its monkish crop, and perhaps planning the band’s current Les Miserables-alt-chic wardrobe. (They apparently were too young to recall those jackets on Adam Ant.)

To aid their conquest, the band enlisted producer Brian Eno, who, despite having aided U2’s rise, has a bent for experimentation. (The other producer here, Markus Dravs, also has a bent for nontraditional ephemera, having knob-twiddled Arcade Fire’s vastly overestimated Neon Bible.)

Much hoopla has surrounded the album’s launch, including Bill O’Reilly terming Martin a “pinhead” for subtly slamming Fox News on the single “Violet Hill.” A hipster Brooklyn band also recently tried to increase their MySpace traffic by accusing Martin of plagiarizing Coldplay’s monster current hit “Viva La Vida” from them. (1: I listened—he didn’t. 2: Your band doesn’t get promo in this column. 3: I’m really not listening to any more indie-rock bands from Brooklyn, Montreal, or Portland, Ore., until well after the next zeitgeist. Please leave a message after the tone.)

But enough dancing around it: The album is magnificent and the sweeping, strings-driven anthem “Viva La Vida” is likely one of the best singles you’ll hear this year. Regardless of whether they’re trying to reach U2 status, they’ve made some great music along the way.

Thanks to Eno and Dravs, the album is more textured and complicated than previous outings—adding Middle Eastern percussion and wobbly dissonance—without curveballing the stock Coldplay gestures (ringing, emotional guitar patterns, piano-twinkly ruminations, the delicate honk in Martin’s voice).

“Violet Hill” is darker and more openly declamatory than a lot of the band’s previous work. “Lovers in Japan/Reign of Love” should be the next single, despite its length. Here, the band bury a My Bloody Valentine-style guitar drone in the bright tumult of aching, anthemic stadium pop. Sure, this is a bit of an experimental album for Coldplay, but they seamlessly integrate all that into the band’s essence. And, Johnny Buckland’s guitar work is still just as striking as it was on 2000’s “Yellow”; he worries out sonic textures like a shy but essential secret weapon.

Over in the hip-hop universe, Rolling Stone has rolled out some Wenner-styled hyperbole by deeming Lil Wayne the best rapper alive. (Based on what criteria?) Wayne has given his record company fits by pumping out mixtapes and other such noncommissioned ventures in the three years since Tha Carter II. (Record corporations don’t get it: You have to give some to take some—Wayne was the wiser and holds the No. 2 spot on the album charts.)

With Tha Carter III, he shows the world that the jury is out on “best rapper alive,” but that he’s a good candidate for most unusual; he simply doesn’t sound like other rappers. On “3 Peat,” he nerdily overenunciates. The effect is unnerving, the rhythm off-kilter, and the rhymes harsh and clever (“swallow my words, taste my thoughts/and if it’s too nasty spit it back at me”). In other places, he lapses into a stoned croak or into bastardized Island patois. The musical beds and samples are often so minimal and weird that Lil Wayne’s voice has to carry the day. And carry it, it does, into an unusual realm. This is some imaginative stuff, for sure.

Far from Wayne’s profane wordplay, the Camp Rock soundtrack shows that Disney has another High School Musical -sized hit up their sleeve. (This album is at No. 3; yes, I decided to actually prepare a theme.) This is not nearly as smarmy as a lot of the kid music out there—and certainly no more offensive than the crap that American Idol has foisted upon us. I think the song “We Rock” is a bit presumptuous, but I’d rather have my daughter listen to this than some singer airing her very adult dirty laundry. Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, despite their protestations, still sell most of their music to kids.

Hopefully Mötley Crüe aren’t selling too much music to kids, but damn if the Crüe aren’t back in a big way with Saints of Los Angeles, which is this week’s No. 4—yes, you heard right. (The fact that I’m 39 and remember standing on the chairs at Glens Falls Civic Center as a teen while Tommy Lee’s drumset levitated gives one an idea of this band’s endurance.) The band haven’t had a serious hit since Dr. Feelgood in 1989. (There will be no Tommy Lee sex-tape jokes here; I’m better than that.)

Furthermore, the original lineup hasn’t been together on a record since 1997. And there’s something truly beatific about 47-year-old Vince Neil singing “I don’t wanna go to school/I don’t wanna get a real job” over the same old guitar pummel. Age seems to have elevated the band’s sense of irony, however, and I nearly spat coffee when I first heard “White Trash Circus.” (Oh no, you didn’t.) “The Animal in Me” has those cringeworthy lyrics that happen whenever Neil tries to, like, you know, really say something, but “Mutherfucker of the Year” shows that rock swings on a continuum: Mötley Crüe at this end and Coldplay at the other.

 


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