Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Unfaves 2004 (quickly since it’s a new year, I had a great Christmas and NYE, thanks for asking, and am over being sick this weekend and feeling bullish and forward-moving, 2005 ahoy):

The New Beard America
Yes I mean Devendra and Joanna and all that lot; I saw those two in Minneapolis during the summer, and while Devendra was actually pretty charming and clearly talented, the rapture he inspires in people who wouldn’t look at him sideways if he was spare-changing them on Capitol Hill feels more than a little suspicious. Plus the preciousness grates, though nowhere near as much as with Newsom, who sounds like (Lily Tomlin’s) Edith Ann with a head cold and a harp and a few 50-cent words. (Though it would be interesting to hear her cover a 50 Cent song, now that I think of it . . . .) But mostly it was boring, plus the sanctimony emanating from the room (not the performers, who whatever my reservations seemed to be trying, but their fans, who were clearly on the verge of breaking their arms from patting themselves on the back for having avoided the big bad mainstream and/or forsworn hair care products) made me immediately want to wear plastic clothes and dance to rave music--even more so than usual, I mean. What is it with the preponderance of back-to-the-land talking-to-toads willful weirdo whimsy lately, anyway? Maybe it’s some variation on the Pavement-esque “If people can get successful actually trying to be good at this then we’ll just be as daft as we can and act like if you don’t get the joke you’re just not hip, maaaan” thing that overran indie rock in the ’90s, only minus anyone actually getting successful and Pavement actually being good. Are people really so desperate for “something ‘real’” that the closer it feels to hearing someone having a nervous breakdown the less artificial it must therefore be? Are people really still falling for that? (Answer: Yes, now and forever.) Best line on this topic goes to Rod Smith, who when I told him where I’d been the night before gasped and said, “Those poor door people! You know most of those kids paid in coin.” (Accusations of rank classism can be addressed to the raised-on-welfare author of this screed via the email link on the right.)

Animal Collective and its spawn
See much of the above, and add flailing-in-the-dark mutterings about AC being a “pop band.” What is this “pop” you speak of, kemo sabe?

Scream Club, Don’t Bite Your Sister (Tiny Sensational)
The hands-down worst piece of shit I encountered in 2004, in any category. At first I thought it was fascinating, in a traffic-accident kind of way; maybe it would grow on me, particularly the first song, “And You Belong,” which maybe I could overlook the extreme clunkiness of because it was Righteous--hey, we probably need a song for gay teenagers to rally round more than we need another, oh, “Ridin’ Big.” But as the thing kept going, the room began to shrink, and my taste for camp was overwhelmed by my inability to cope with deliberate ineptitude and the smugness that carries it across the speakers. But when I reached the CD’s penultimate song, “Go Pee Pee in the Potty,” whose sound is even twerpier than its title, I admitted defeat.

Ray (director: Taylor Hackford)
Jamie Foxx’s impersonation of Ray Charles might have actually been turned into something resembling a performance had the makers of this botch actually been able to do something with it. Low point: the scene that “spawns” 1961’s “Hit the Road Jack.” And you'd hoped music was the only thing they stopped making like that in the ’60s.

The Arcade Fire
First listen uncovered a not unpretty but largely generic indie rock band (excuse me, “collective” or whatever they’re calling clumps of people playing instruments together at the same time up in Canada these days). Second listen intwoduced me to their feewings. Deep, deep feewings, expwessed wif uninhibited emoting. Gawd.

Here’s where I eat crow (for now, at least, because I’m sure to change my mind about Devendra eventually, oh well), because this is my fault as much as anyone’s---I kept talking about it long after anyone cared, and kept going after everyone started to. After three years of arguing about it on ILM and having written about it in the Sign book, it went mega this year, and I swallowed the bait just like everyone else. Well, sometimes you regret things. Anyhow, I hereby swear never to write about this topic on my blog, or on ILM (which I’m not especially active on these days, as some of you may have noticed) again, ever. Or at least have the decency to wait a few years before I do it.

The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows (Record Collection)
The Strokes? Puh-leeeze. If you want an overhyped, underachieving bunch of nouveau-riche N.Y.C. guitar bores, this band not only fits the bill, they’ve got a pedigree—eight years ago, keyboardist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick, and guitarist Paul Maroon were in Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the most notable marketing disasters of the alt-rock era’s twilight. Now that they have an Actual Scene to latch onto, their will to power has been unleashed, and anyone who outgrew emo before they hit puberty is advised to run for cover. On their second album, awesomely self-pitying vocalist Hamilton Leithauser makes the dude from Interpol sound like Missy Elliott in comparison. (Interpol sound like Timbaland in relation to these guys, too. And I won’t bother with Interpol here because what there is to say about them is so damn obvious I’d feel even more redundant than usual spelling it outthirdratejoydivision.) So how do you explain the feral blast that is “The Rat,” in which Maroon riffs like he’s holding onto his guitar for dear life in the middle of a hurricane and Leithauser evokes (and induces) real terror? Maybe someone threatened to make ’em get real jobs.

TV on the Radio
Superpitcher: “Fever” + Pass Into Silence: Calm Like a Millipond (both Kompakt)

Dullness can come from anywhere, kids! Just look at these four items. One’s a person who stoppedcaringaboutmakinghimselfinterestinganymorebutwhatcanyoudowiththosedull-assbeats,thoughyou’dthinkmaybehe’dstopsoundingsonarcolepticandmumblyzzzzzzzzzzz. One’s a band that’s “original,” because most people who write songs finish them, and because most people who produce records ensure that something is actually happening on them. And one’s the dregs of a label that, even at my most fervent, I’m all too aware of the drawbacks of, i.e. they’re effing BORING, mate. Usually, though, there’s something (lots of things sometimes) to grab onto. None of that for (note acronym) P.I.S., and ditto for the second half of Here Comes Love, which takes the subtlety to unimagined levels of tedium. Then again, rockist (sorry) that I am, I’ve always been more of a fan of the label at its most clicky-popping than for its smooth/gliding. Still, the utter defensiveness I’ve seen in relation to HCL just reaffirms my suspicions--that, and the fact that his cover of the Peggy Lee standard “Fever” really is just fucking horrible, and not even in a this-will-be-fun-in-ten-years way.

Fatboy Slim: Palookaville (Astralwerks)
Prodigy: Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned (Maverick/XL)

Big beat went bust ages ago, in terms of ideas (which it never really had, which isn't a complaint), and in terms of the fun generated-to-fun promised ratio, and no two albums demonstrated it better than those of two of its biggest kahunas. The Fatboy just sounds clueless--is there a worse hook on earth than the one on "Slash Dot Com"? A more embarrassing, what-the-fuck-are-we-doing-anyway? guest spot than Bootsy singing "The Joker"? (There's something telling about Norm's ongoing partnership w/Collins; reminds me of the way Prince's music began being sapped of basic vital juices when he started working with his childhood idols. Nothing makes a party-at-all-costs kind of person seem less interesting than watching them gush over the folks they used to look up to, at least in musical terms, it would seem.) The Prodigy aren't quite at that level of slapped-together exhaustion--Always Outnumbered feels nothing if not consummately pofessional. But even as someone who doesn't require their faves to reinvent the wheel every time out, it still reminds me of Portishead or Black Sunday--follow-ups that hew so close to their predecessors they might as well be carbon copies, complete with fainter definition and far less interesting songs. (Though I do like "Memphis Bells" and won't discredit the folks who dig "Girls.") But both albums are mostly tiresome, like the guy who's still looking for the party after everyone else has gone to bed. Mostly, they prove that there's a fine line between stupid and stupid-fresh.

The Clash: London Calling: 25th Anniversary Edition (Epic)
For the most part, demos come in two categories: those intended to teach performers new tunes, and those performers make to remind themselves of their own ideas. Sometimes, the former can be inspired performances in themselves--see Bob Dylan and the Band’s The Basement Tapes--while the latter tend to be best left alone. Who really want to hear the tape Keith Richards made of himself playing the “Satisfaction” riff for a minute, then snoring until the tape stops?

“The Vanilla Tapes,” the demos that form the second disc of Epic’s expanded edition of the Clash’s 1979 masterpiece London Calling, belong firmly in the second category. Calling this one of the most unlistenable CDs ever released on a major label is no knock on the band; not only were these slopped-together performances never meant to be released, they weren’t even meant to be listened to for purposes other than figuring out the chord changes of “Clampdown,” or where to put the horns in “The Right Profile.” Comparing them with the finished album is like choosing between dinner at Babbo and the Twinkie you accidentally sat on. There's also a half-assed DVD with a couple amusing images of Guy Stevens throwing chairs.

Nirvana: With the Lights Out (Geffen)
The primary thing you will learn from this three-CD, one-DVD rag-and-bone banquet isn’t that litigation makes the world go round, or that Kurt Cobain’s genius couldn’t be contained by his band’s official albums, or that there’s a cultist born every minute. No, what you learn is that Nirvana used to suck. Not in the peanut-gallery sense, either--now that they’re gone forever, they’ll stay frozen in time as the great band they became--but in the sense that almost nothing on disc one of this box would make you ever care about hearing them again were you unaware of the performers’ identity.

That, and it mostly sounds like shit, for which you can blame the source material (cassettes, mostly) and the fairly indifferent remastering job done here. The primary difference between the bulk of disc one of and “The Vanilla Tapes” is that the Clash were just trying to figure out how to play the damn songs they’d written and made some cassettes to guide them. Nirvana, by contrast, were giving it their all; at that point, they were just too unformed to make much of it.

Which is fine in itself--flailing around in search of an identity is what young bands do. And some of that identity is already clear here: “If You Must” would have buoyed the spotty Bleach, “Clean Up Before She Comes” could have been finished into something worthwhile. But the only thing most of these alternate takes, demos, live cuts (a lousy version of of Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” recorded at the band’s first show in 1987 opens the box), and experiments (“Beans” sounds like a Ween reject) prove is that Nevermind was, for the band that made them, an unimaginable world away.

There’s a reason that album and In Utero are so indelible: they skimmed the cream of Cobain’s songbook. Point blank, almost none of the previously unissued songs on discs two and three of With the Lights Out would have markedly improved those albums. That might be more damning if so much of these discs weren’t given over to not-too-interesting demos (Cobain apparently had a precariously wobbly four-track), alternate takes (“Polly” and “Rape Me” each appear twice, both negligibly compared to the final versions), and great songs in barely-there rehearsal versions. The rotten-sounding debut recording of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” just about defines the phrase “for historians only.” Even the versions of “Sappy” (retitled “Verse Chorus Verse” for 1993’s No Alternative) and “I Hate Myself and Want to Die” here are bested by the ones that were released on compilations (the latter on The Beavis and Butt-Head Experience).

Which is why the set’s DVD comes as a shock: despite the generally poor audio/visual quality (homemade tapes again), the band’s goofiness and giddiness, not to mention the sight of Cobain singing to a wall in bassist Krist Novoselic’s parents’ rec room, almost make up for the indifference of the rest of the box. It’s not a crime to hawk most of this uninteresting collection as forgotten or incipient or unheard genius. But it is like buying a fake Rolex from a licensed jeweler.

And obviously the election et al but I'll leave it at that for now and wish you all a very happy 2005.