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The Major Lift

By Erik Hage

Like 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.

Honestly, 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.

Little 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.

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