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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

In the mid-’90s, legendary reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, who makes Cormac McCarthy seem downright social (and J.D. Salinger seem only a bit shy), penned the liner notes to a CD by the New York City band Lotion, a good (not great) indie-rock band who soon dissolved into some obscure back annals of alt-rock history.

The idea of Pynchon, nearly 60 years of age at the time, getting excited enough by an unremarkable rock group to pen some golden prose in their CD sleeve absolutely fascinates me. I think it says less about Thomas Pynchon and more about the effect of rock music on the individual. Is it somehow undignified for such a reclusive giant of literature to come out of hiding, excited by a soon-to-be-forgotten rock band? (He allegedly even hung out with them in the studio.) I’m not so sure.

A couple of months back, I signed on to write a book about the writer Cormac McCarthy. After writing about music for so long it seemed a somehow “mature” move—and it has turned out to be a rich project. But I can’t stop thinking about Pynchon and those liner notes. And I wonder what tunes Cormac McCarthy listens to in his flatbed pickup in those private moments when the air-guitar case snaps open and the hands patter out Neil Peart drum volleys on the thighs. (I envision McCarthy rockin’ some Merle Haggard and hope that Salinger pops Ella Fitzgerald on the old Victrola.) I’ll bet even T.S. Eliot ponced around air-conducting in between the creative fits that produced “The Waste Land.”

Popular music is not high art; it hits us in the viscera, tickles our excitement cortex like no other form and makes us behave downright undignified at times. Which brings me to AC/DC, because here is a band who rule the viscera and who can rock over any ivory tower. In fact, I think Angus Young is every bit as much the master of a distinct style as Pynchon and McCarthy.

Just as you can spot one of those antiquarian and powerful Cormac McCarthy sentences five miles off, there is no mistaking “Rock ’N Roll Train,” the opening track of Black Ice. This is the discrete language of AC/DC cast across four decades: An unfussy drumbeat like someone pounding in a steel rail; clotted, ass-shaking guitar brawn; and that undeniable harpy-from-purgatory screech. AC/DC have made some pretty crummy albums in recent decades, but Black Ice recaptures their power through a bit of self-plagiarism, often slightly scrambling famous gestures from the past. It’s a romp through the id locked in the band’s typical paradoxical tangle of pugilism and sex. This is the best AC/DC album in a long time—and undignified as hell, thank you. My pick here is “Stormy May Day,” where something borrowed is tagged to something new in the form of a burning slide-guitar skirmish.

With songs from his back canon such as “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper)” and “I’m So High,” T-Pain is also the architect of a distinct style, though you shouldn’t expect anything terribly enduring from Thr33 Ringz. This is the usual R&B/hip-hop traffic jam of guest appearances, with Lil Wayne, Ludacris, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Akon and many others showing up. As a singer, T-Pain relies to the point of distraction on that auto-tune electronic voice-filter that Cher made famous in 1998, and this album moves from uninspired (“Can’t Believe It,” on which Lil Wayne is forced to rap through that voice device) to pretty bad (“Change,” featuring Diddy, Mary J. Blige and Akon, sounds like a boy-band demo). How this manages to be crude and sappy at the same time is the true accomplishment, and the only excitement here comes from the Ludacris spot “Chopped N Skrewed,” with its experimental, loosely staggering beats. This whole “guesting” phenomenon has spiraled way out of control in the R&B/hip-hop universe. In fact, it’s an affront these days not to have every single acquaintance in the studio.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the fiercely individualistic path of Morrissey, who holds the key to a Smiths reunion but won’t allow it to happen at any price. His ex-cohort, guitarist Johnny Marr, has long endured a series of ill fits for his talents in the meantime (except his noble, low-profile work with Modest Mouse). But the two did come together to choose songs for the new Smiths compilation, The Sound of the Smiths. This has been preceded by many other compilations (based on just four studio albums), but for a new generation, the disc is a perfect collection. Longtime fans should buy the two-disc deluxe version, which is padded out with 20-plus rarities and live cuts. Most poignant for me this time around is the instrumental “Oscillate Wildly,” with its dark, dancehall piano, low cello throb, and all of those glistening Marr guitar strings.

In a Brit-pop equation of diminishing returns you would have the Smiths, then James, then Travis. The latter, Scottish group never really built upon the promise of their late-’90s hit “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” But they’ve stuck around in a quiet way while colleagues like Coldplay took on the world. Ode to J. Smith finds the typically mellow, poppy band reveling in deeper guitar bite. “J. Smith” is the best example, marrying a rock-opera-like character sketch to some ripping guitar and wild changes. But while the dynamics generate great excitement, the songwriting doesn’t hold up. The titular track is noteworthy; the rest, not so much.

Back in America, rockers Hinder have released Take It to the Limit. This growly, I-feel-it-so-much, “Today’s Rock” radio stuff is always lost on me. On 2006’s “Lips of an Angel,” the herniated vocal intensity of Austin Winkler made Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger sound simply uncommitted. I’ll ignore the Eagles platitude of the album title and try to describe the music: Imagine that a B-Level Hollywood movie calls for a party where a there’s a hair-metal band playing. Now imagine that some B-Level songwriters are brought in to quickly pen some “hair- metallish” tracks for said faux band. Voila.







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