most people, my worldview is imperfect, and I constantly try
to wrestle down my own biases. For example, having been born
in 1969 and raised in the crucible of hippie counterculture—communal
living, being dragged hitchhiking across the country as a
toddler, being around adults on drugs—I developed a lifelong
aversion to things such as Crosby, Stills, and Nash; the Grateful
Dead; potheads; and the smell of patchouli oil (to name a
few). My own personal experience with the golden age of hippiedom
was unhappy, to say the least. So my favorite music of that
era tends to be the stuff that cuts against the grain a bit:
Creedence Clearwater Revival, James Brown, and the Stooges.
But beyond my own private little psychodrama, the thing that
still bugs me is that generation’s endless self-defining.
Musically that era seems to garner far too much historical
bandwidth, as if it was the only cultural revolution our country
has ever had and as if all the movements that preceded or
followed were less significant. (The idea that no good music
came between 1959 and 1963 is particularly irksome to me.)
My own generation might have gone too far in the other direction,
though. Maybe we should have been more self-referential. What
defines the late ’80s? U2’s The Joshua Tree came out
in 1987, when I was a senior in high school, but Guns N’
Roses just might have released the most historically potent
album that year in the form of Appetite for Destruction.
I saw them in 1988 at Texas Stadium on a bill with the
Smithereens, Iggy Pop, Ziggy Marley, and INXS. The latter
group headlined, and Axl Rose, in a white leather police outfit,
provided a lowlight when he ended the GNR set prematurely
by cursing the sound quality, proclaiming INXS “faggots,”
and slamming his mic stand to the ground with a cavernous
pop before walking offstage. It was ugly, but that was kind
of how GNR came into our lives: as unrepentant dirtbags who
nonetheless carved out a powerfully distinct brand of music.
I never thought I’d still be talking about Axl Rose all these
years later, but here, finally—after over a decade of rumors,
toil, and lord-knows-how-many Internet leaks—is Chinese
Democracy, the album that finds Axl the sole remaining
original member and the obsessive architect of his own grandiose
hard-rock vision. What’s most surprising about the album is
how unsurprising it is at times. The Use Your Illusion
albums, released way back in 1991, already showed that Axl
was more interested in David Lean-sized cinematic ambition
than the tough, taut hard rock that the band rode in on. And
this album resumes that vision 17 years later.
Certainly, you can hear the years of agonizing in the thick
guitar layers piled on by the players who have moved through
the turnstiles (Robin Finck, Buckethead, Bumblefoot) and in
the generally fulsome musical beds, but there are striking
and unusual elements here as well. “Sorry” is a spacey, drawn-out
ballad that builds into impressive emotional proportions over
buzzsaw guitar and shredding leads. The overwrought but intriguing
“Street of Dreams” reminds us what a genuinely strange singer
Axl is, as he flips between a warped clown-sob and his trademark
Curly Stooge-in-a-beartrap screech. “Catcher in the Rye” has
an infectious, bouncy levity that one doesn’t associate with
the GNR brand, while “Madagascar”—one of the album’s truly
great achievements—moves through shades that are alternately
stately and orchestral and beat-driven and soulful, before
tossing in spoken snippets of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
and Cool Hand Luke. What makes Chinese Democracy
a success is that it is ambitious but rarely overreaching.
(OK, “Riad N’ the Bedouins” might be a bit much, marrying
“Paradise City” city tumult to rapid and dizzying shifts of
feel.) All of those who had sharpened their knives in anticipation
of this album can put the utensils away. It might not be a
classic, but it’s certainly great.
Joy also have released a great album that might be a nice
palate-cleanser after the pomp of Axl Rose. Strokes drummer
Fab Moretti hooked up with Brazilian alt-rocker Rodrigo Amarante
(of Los Hermanos) and L.A. musician Binki Shapiro. The alignment
makes cultural sense, as Moretti was born in Brazil and is
fluent in Portugese, but it also makes lots of musical sense
as well. It certainly outshines other Strokes side projects,
including two albums from guitarist Albert Hammond, Jr. and
Nickel Eye, the side project of bassist Nikolai Fraiture.
The group’s self-titled album is primarily rooted in romantic
acoustic pop, with tinges of samba, bossa nova, and reggae.
Often the melodies are antiquarian and strikingly pretty,
like Serge Gainsbourg hammered out around a campfire. “The
Next Time Around” feels like a romantic Caribbean vacation
without a care in the world, while the bright dispatch “Brand
New Start” is a Brill Building-styled sing-along. There’s
something ageless and refreshing about Little Joy that seems
leagues away from the poised hipness of the Strokes, and here
Moretti pens some impressive cowrites.
The most surprising album in recent memory is The Fireman’s
Electric Arguments. The Fireman is a collaboration
between Paul McCartney and experimental producer Youth that
has been an occasional, low-profile outlet for McCartney’s
more avant-garde, ambient, and sometimes electronica tendencies.
This particular album is a wonderful mixed bag: the firebombing,
Zeppelinesque blues loops of “Nothing Too Much Just Out of
Sight”; the keening freak-folk of “Two Magpies”; the pulsing,
trippy dance-throb of “Lovers in a Dream”; the Phil Spector
rush of “Dance ’Til We’re High.” Forget everything you knew
about Paul McCartney and slip into this beautiful, euphoric
riot of sounds and styles.