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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

I have long thought of Metallica as a band for people who don’t really like music—or at least “music” in the traditional, aesthetic sense of the word. The band’s most successful stuff has always seemed aimed more toward agitated catharsis than anything else. I think of Metallica fans as people who like guns, just for fun, or as sullen video-gamers with moms that act like Sarah Palin. My own misguided stereotype is perhaps a tribute to the timelessness of Metallica, as the band’s first teen fans are well into their 40s by now. Sure, Metallica themselves have become jet-setting sophisticates, but they know who buys their albums and still dish out those empty platitudes of inarticulate teen frustration and nihilism. It keeps the doors of the Metallica franchise open, and there are always going to be enough angry, “misunderstood” young men out there.

The worst part for me came when Metallica started airing their therapeutic laundry, trying to get in touch with their feelings in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster. If James Hetfield was gross as a hyper-verbose, delinquent manchild with an intermittent rage problem, he was even grosser when trying to nurture his inner child. (Sample revelation: “I’m afraid to get close to people . . . ’cuz I don’t know how to do it.” Or, Lars Ulrich, pleading to James, “I don’t understand who you are!”) Keep it behind closed doors, I say.

Nevertheless, my narrow view of Metallica is clearly not shared by the larger public, which has kept Death Magnetic atop the Billboard album chart for three weeks in a row. Some of those fans are less than grateful, however: There is a petition going around the Internet asking for a remix of the album, complaining that it is too loud, compressed and distorted (since when did Metallica fans become Eno-like auteurs of sonics?). But maybe that move toward rawness is a good thing; the band’s last album, St. Anger, was a swing and miss in that direction. With longtime producer Bob Rock, the band had pushed toward becoming a sort of U2 of metal, opting for big statements and gratuitous dynamics. No more of that here: Metallica have re-embraced their earlier days, prompted by zen producer Rick Rubin, whose patented move with musicians is toward old roots and unfussiness.

The party line was that this was a return to the speedy, pulverizing riffology of Master of Puppets (1986), and it is in parts, such as in the antic battery of the impressive “All Nightmare Long.” Elsewhere, though, the slower, bracing indulgences arise, as in “The Day That Never Comes,” which is Metallica at their surprisingly most melodic and a return to the atmosphere of “One” (the Grammy award-winning track from 1988). And that’s really the rub: Death Magnetic is not simply a return to Master of Puppets, but more a variety of shades from the earlier days (through the late ‘80s) filtered through the sensibilities of a more sophisticated band. Not bad, all in all.

All of which transitions us nicely into the new New Kids on the Block album, The Block. This reunion makes sense to me (really). NKOTB lost their boy-band punchline status years ago, as attention shifted toward predecessors such as the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync. And then Justin Timberlake went and got embraced as a legit artist, opening a door for this. But how does a man-band of near-40-year-olds pull this off with dignity? They confront this by steeping their songs in futuristic R&B ephemera that nods to Timberlake himself. They also keep to steamy and sultry adult themes, and haul in guests like hip-hopper Akon, electro dance-popper Lady GaGa, and R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo. Despite all of this, though, nothing leaps out at you, either in a really good or really bad way. I suppose I wanted this to either fail interestingly on the back of risk or succeed miserably. Even “Full Service,” a collaboration with even more ancient b-band New Edition (sans Bobby Brown), fails to spark anything at all. Safe just ain’t going to do it.

Young Demi Lovato is a singer in the greater Jonas Brothers universe, and the Jonas Brothers were once a band in the greater Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana universe. Which means she’s another singer from the Disney oligarchy. In an atmosphere of media consolidation, Disney heads have taken the quite natural route of grooming pop stars via their TV programming. Soon they will create their own chart system to rival Billboard. Anyways, as the young folks put it, Demi was in the TV movie Camp Rock with the Jonases, who also cowrote a bunch of tracks here.

I find it hard to get offended by the Jonas Brothers in the manner I’m supposed to. For one, the music, as specious as it sometimes may be, occupies a realm that is sort of power pop, much like Hanson in the ’90s or the Bay City Rollers in the ’70s. (And, hey, they write songs.) I am no more put off by them than I am by the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” But the album in question is Lovato’s Don’t Forget, which has a similar appeal to the Jonas clan, with power-chorded guitars and plenty of pop snap. In fact, “La La Land” is a genuinely appealing single with plenty of guitar crunch, Brian May-like guitar leads, and a powerful vocal performance from Lovato, who clearly has real chops. Your kids could do a lot worse.

Finally, to end on a low note, we turn to James Taylor, the prep-school educated, mental-institution weaned avatar of flaccid folk-rock for baby boomers who have simply given up on music. Suitably released by Starbucks, Covers is just what you think it is: Taylor rendering lifeless such excellent songs as the R&B classic “(I’m A) Roadrunner,” Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” and “Hound Dog” (popularized by Elvis Presley and before that, Big Mama Thornton). This is pallid, toothless nonsense, and the execution, fleshed out in a nearly big-band style, is crass. I’d rather listen to a mash-up of Sarah Palin endlessly intoning “you betcha” and “dontcha know” over Lee Greenwood. Or even a therapy-session recording of Lars and James trying to recapture the old magic of their friendship.


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