Friday, February 26, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round 5

The New Pornographers, "Your Hands (Together)"
AM: I never saw the New Pornos, Canada's preeminent eight-person jitter-pop collective, as a band concerned much with progressing. "Your Hands (Together)" bears my theory out, and sounds like an amped-up take on the power melodies of their finest, Mass Romantic. 4/5

NS: Jaunty as always, and utilizing the sort of rolling dynamic changes that only the New Pornos can pull of with such zeal, this song would at first glance seem to be very much the equal of some of their earlier, classic singles. The very end may not reach those ecstatic heights, but I'd say this would maybe be two hooks short of a perfect song. 4/5

Die Antwoord, "Enter the Ninja"

AM: If only American rappers, whose efforts are not conceptual art projects, were making music this idiosyncratic and intense. The beat could've come from Houston, but unmistakably South African rapper Ninja spits like a man possessed (as well as obsessed with video games and ninjas, global signifiers of coolness). You need to watch this video. 5/5

NS: I would hate to judge the surely-fecund domain of South African rap based on this song alone, and the rapper Ninja certainly sounds capable of spitting for spitting's sake, but this is otherwise a pretty dull song, especially in the sonics department. I especially do not like singer Yo-Landi Vi$$er's vocal contributions, or her name for that matter. I will admit that I am curious to hear more. 2/5

The Thermals, "Canada"
AM: An important milestone in The Thermals' gradual evolution from lo-fi punk to shouty power-pop. Last year's Now We Can See was a slight disappointment, and "Canada" responds by packing in more hooks than even NWCS's rousing title track. Alas, it's not quite as good, but a new Thermals single is always welcome. 3.5/5

NS: The one band around today that could probably rival the New Pornographers in terms of sheer, overwhelming peppiness, the Thermals nevertheless contribute what is possibly the best song ever written about our northerly neighbors. I've always found their propensity for ebullience to be endearing as well as (usually) rocking, and this song follows a formula that will never be beaten. 5/5

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, "Good Enough"

AM: I like what Petty and the Heartbreakers were aiming for--there's nothing wrong with caustic blues jams, per se--but the end result here is too Grand Funk-y for comfort. Still, if I were hightailing it out of town in my pickup, leaving my entire life behind, I might put this on. 2.5/5

NS: When Tom Petty is on point, and the majority of the time he is, he can write songs of effortless greatness, usually one after the other, and his '00s material in particular has yielded lot of great stuff that tends to be criminally ignored. However, this slow blues jam showcases Tom Petty's rare generic side, in an overlong song that fails to distinguish itself save for Petty's vocals. Mike Campbell's guitar work is also not his best. 2/5

Robin Thicke Feat. Nicki Minaj, "Shakin' It For Daddy"

AM: Whereas "Enter The Ninja" hijacks pop trends for its freakishly weird vision, this song slavishly imitates Top 40 productions to annoying effect. Thicke gets overshadowed by Minaj, who sounds like Fergie. 1.5/5

NS: While Robin Thicke strikes me as basically Justin Timberlake with an even more whispery voice, Nicki Minaj demonstrates an ability for I will call "beat-riding," in lieu of a more technical term, in which Ms. Minaj manages to basically prattle on about nothing but still sound commanding and rhythmically unpredictable. It's kind of a thrilling showcase that gives this otherwise interminable corporate R&B-swill a few points in my book. 2.5/5

Prince, "Cause and Effect"
AM: I'm reminded of The Love Symbol Album's proggy "Three Chains Of Gold." And like that song, this is actually exciting. I could do without the crowd noise, but there's much tossed-off brilliance to be found here. Prince restlessly transitions from light funk to arena rock, new wave groove to a wild solo, and it works. 4/5

NS: I haven't been this blown away by a Prince song since "Fury" off 3121. It combines the rhythmic sparseness of Dirty Mind, the adventurousness of Sign 'O' The Times, and the heavy rock anthem elements of a lot of his stuff with the New Power Generation. Like his best 80's output, this song is dense with ideas, most of which work, and they lead into a guitar solo worth the time of any serious Prince scholar. 4.5/5

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Next month is March, and I've decided to try an experiment in blogging. For the month of March, I hope to make one substantive post per week, not counting Critical Beatdowns. I've long meant to post here more often, and since spontaneous inspiration isn't striking often enough, I've decided to submit myself to creativity's best friend, the iron-clad deadline.

The deadline will be Sunday night at midnight. That gives me 11 days to come up with the first post, which is a long lead-in, but then I hope keep myself busy next month, aside from blogging.

At this point, you are surely asking, with no small degree of selfishness, "Aaron, where do I fit in to this?" To answer your question, I've come up with an acronym: March At Rocaliser Content Help. Get it? I want you to suggest topics, just like real music journalist Maura Johnston answers questions on her tumblr. I've got a couple ideas, but I welcome yours in the comments or, if your the sheepish type, in my inbox (email is I'd gladly do four reader-suggested topics, or even debate you, just don't disappoint me with no suggestions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hey Guys, Catholics Can Drink the Kool-Aid Too!

L'Osservatore Romano, the Holy See's inside source for all things Pope-related, has been doing its part in recent months to rehabilitate the Catholic Church's public image, particularly when it comes to the Church's history of opposing adult themes in popular media such as music, film and literature. As we know, though, even Bishops have to eat occasionally. What do do when you're a Catholic newspaper that wants more blog traffic? Well, the first thing you do is write an article calling Avatar overrated. And, like that other magazine catering to the whims and prejudices of those who have let modern culture pass them by, they know that nothing redirects web traffic like a numbered list.

In this case, L'Osservatore has determined the ten best pop albums of all time. The resulting list is way more interesting than Rolling Stone's. But are these really the sort of jams Pope Benedict should be kicking out to while going through his morning prayer-and-hat-shopping routine? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the newly installed eighth sacrament of the Catholic Church: Rock music!

1. The Beatles, Revolver. It makes sense that the Catholic Church would be about ten years behind VH1 in choosing the exact same contender for best album ever. Of course, Revolver ranks among the four or five greatest Beatles albums (I have always slightly favored the White Album over the rest), and therefore belongs somewhere on this list. As far as Catholic bona fides go, George Harrison's "Taxman" rejects government taxation without explicitly calling for the Church as an alternative; "Eleanor Rigby" could be used as an unofficial theme song for Catholic liberalism, which doesn't really gibe with the Reign of Benedict; "I'm Only Sleeping" subtly illustrates the Catholic work ethic; "Tomorrow Never Knows" is about drugs, and how awesome they are. Lennon's vocals for "Tomorrow Never Knows" would work well as a Gregorian chant, though.

2. Pink Floyd, Dark Side Of The Moon. L'Osservatore was wise not to choose the explicitly anti-authoritian and anti-organized religion albums The Wall and Animals; similarly, the narrative of Wish You Were Here includes songs lauding acid burnouts and condemning capitalism. Piper is too schizophrenic, and has songs about Lucifer, and Meddle is too bass-heavy. Dark Side is the safe choice by comparison, and it tackles some big, religious subjects. But does anyone in the Church have the gall to support songs calling money the "root of all evil today?" This is probably the pet favorite of Vatican astronomers.

3. Oasis, What's The Story (Morning Glory?). Apparently the Catholic Church has finally taken sides in the Britpop wars. I'm fully prepared to begrudge this, picking a middling album from a band whose reputation for childish antics far exceeding their songwriting. Perhaps they like Oasis because their lyrics are so confused, lacking any remote form or subject, that there's no way one could cull any sort of anti-religious message, or any message at all. Britpop fans and Catholics are alike in that respect.

4. Michael Jackson, Thriller. This makes sense. The title track, and its accompanying video, serve as an amusing throwback to the Hollywood reign of Father Daniel Lord and Hays Code horror movies (where no one is brutally murdered, except offscreen, and monsters tend to run around looking terrifying as opposed to dishing out wanton slaughter and gore). L'Osservatore says that they like the "illuminating simplicity and musical thrust" of the album, and they might as well be right: if they wanted to get away with a pop album that was as sexless as it is ubiquitous, they made the right choice.

5. U2, Achtung Baby. U2 was a sure shot for this list, but what do we make of their choosing Achtung Baby over The Joshua Tree? Only that they're interchangeable, for the purposes of staking out one's dubious claim of being a fan of alternative rock. It's worth noting that Bono, the Edge, and Larry Mullen, Jr. were (are?) all evangelical Christians.

6. Fleetwood Mac, Rumours. This is basically an album about how infuriating adultery can be, and how insufferable it can make you when you decide to write songs about the people you work with. The Vatican understands that Fleetwood Mac were no paragons of virtue, but ranting about infidelity, when accompanied by smooth grooves, surely rings of condemnation. I'm one of those people that prefers them with Peter Green, but I realize that Rumours better fits a narrative at once popular and moral-ish.

7. Donald Fagen, The Nightfly. My personal favorite choice here, mainly because I love imagining the conversation that went into it. What I think happened was that the Vatican has some major Steely Dan fans that nevertheless may have had problems with their dark sarcastic lyrics, so they decided to look further into the oeuvre of Dan and found this classic to be less dark and sarcastic by comparison. The Nightfly may have the first (and last) instance of an unabashed love song in the Dan catalog, "Walk Between Raindrops," and some of the other songs ("I.G.Y.," "New Frontier") could, at first glance, be less sarcastic than their predecessors. In any case, any person or group that lists this album at No. 7 is automatically cool in my book, no matter how they choose to pad the rest of it. Even Santana.

8. Santana, Supernatural. Others may find this appalling, when Abraxas is so clearly the superior choice. Is it, though? I find myself unable to care, but color me disappointed that the Vatican adds itself to the list of institutions propagating this myth that Carlos Santana is the world's preeminent guitar legend. Not an egregious sin, but a sin nonetheless.

9. Paul Simon, Graceland. Of all the articles I have ever written on the Internet, none have caused so much continual negative feedback as this particular post I wrote on Paul Simon. I will still get an email or so every couple of months admonishing me for my obvious jealousy, lack of talent, ignorance, etc. So I don't have much more to say about Paul Simon. While I still can't see what some people get about Graceland, at least the Vatican didn't choose Still Crazy After All These Years.

10. David Crosby, If I Could Only Remember My Name. My theory: The Magisterium contains many a closet CSNY fan, but if you only have one slot left, which do you choose? Stephen Stills is a rockin' multi-instrumentalist, but he was also a Democratic delegate for Florida during the 2000 election; Graham Nash has been in many great bands, but he's also a complete fruitcake, and he's been know to collaborate with a-ha; Neil Young is a Canadian lefty who sometimes distorts his electric guitar. Crosby is, by elimination, the safe choice.

Many thanks to the Vatican for inspiring me to listen to my first David Crosby solo album. Will we see more lists of its like? That depends on whether the Church continues to take its cues from the Pope and use its power for censorship, or whether it comes to see that there's nothing wrong with a religion that embraces culture of New, rather than trying to regulate it. I hope it won't be the former, because that would be some papal BULLSHIT.

UPDATE: Apologies to Greg for probably misrepresenting the church he used to attend before he grew up and came to know better. Happy Ash Wednesday!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Still Unlistenable After All These Years

There are great songs that stand the test of time. Then there are those terrible songs that refuse to die. I give you..."We Are the World 25 for Haiti" (which I think is the correct title), directed by Paul "Crash" Haggis:

Things to watch for in this video:
-The 12-year old boy who somebody decided would be an obvious choice to kick off the proceedings (1:28-1:40).
-The ghost of Michael Jackson, never one to miss an opportunity to piggyback on previous success, dueting with still-living sister Janet (2:20-2:32).
-Wyclef Jean warbling between keys like a prepubescent boy (3:14-3:22)
-Brian Wilson comes out of his hole (4:31). You will notice that Brian Wilson appears to be very confused throughout this whole video, and he never seems to be singing.
-Akon, T-Pain and Lil Wayne being autotuned--with Weezy appropriately taking Bob Dylan's part (and doing a fairly faithful job) (4:46-4:57)
-Unfortunately, someone decided that Lil Wayne's part was the best time to let out...Carlos Santana, because apparently he is the only guitarist in the world with enough celebrity cachet (why God why is this the case?)
-Jeff Bridges (4:55)
-Jamie Foxx, who I guess defaults into Ray Charles impressions for no appropriate reason (5:38-5:48)
-LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, Busta Rhymes and others busting out a wall-of-unlistenable group rap that reminds us why these sorts of things rarely work (5:51-6:30).
-Kanye's verse, which includes the lines "Like Katrina, Africa and Indonesia/And now Haiti needs us/they need us, they need us" (7:07-7:26).

I'll never understand the impulse behind something like this. I realize that it's obviously a worthy cause, and musicians have a lot of pull where politicians and nonprofits may not, but what kind of person is inspired to donate based on pap like this? What does it say about America, that we are so stingy about giving money to other countries until Swizz Beatz shows up and somehow validates the cause? And these types of videos--the hugging, the clapping, the palling about in the studio, the self-congratulatory vibe--always give me the creeps.

I know I've previously talked some smack about "Do They Know It's Christmas?", but I'll take Geldof and Midge Ure over this, always.

Now, if someone made a video of the Brian Wilson/Lil Wayne afterparty, that I would pay money for.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Blog Dreck

A half-baked Guardian Music Blog post asserts that "blog rock lacks a political edge." And then takes it back! Rockaliser has some issues:

•What the fuck is "blog rock"? Musicdom has some pretty lame genre designations--coining a genre post-anything is lazy, even if the music's often pretty neat, and don't get me started on cringe-inducing neologisms like shitgaze and glo-fi. I even remember people discussing blog house in the recent past, and that seemed pretty dumb. "Blog rock" seems like a backhanded attempt to saddle indie with stereotypes about internet users and sweatpants. And since the term is used interchangeably with "indie," it's semantically useless. We don't call the Kings Of Leon "glossy page rock," even though they feature in magazine fashion spreads.

•The post notes the popularity of lo-fi sounds. In our ProTools era (the liner notes to Fucked Up's Couple Tracks note that the band has never recorded on anything but ProTools) no song needs to sound like "Poldeo" ever again, but many still do. The post refers to lo-fi as "anti-corporate," and implies that it no longer is. But has lo-fi ever really been co-opted? I can't think of an instance. Lo-fi had remained outside the mainstream in ways that most elements of punk and indie haven't. And while I'm no partisan of neo-lo-fi, I ask those who disparage it: what makes lo-fi production values an inferior aesthetic choice, or any less of an aesthetic choice, than hi-fi production?

•Finally: let's set aside bands that make explicitly political music. Might there be something oppositional in the brainy music of Grizzly Bear or The Dirty Projectors? Michael Azerrad thinks so, and he's worth quoting at length:
A lot of people sneer at so-called "NPR rock" for being wimpy or something, but it's a hoary cliché that underground music has to be loud, fast, and out of control. Once upon a time, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied—look at the Velvet Underground droning about heroin while America tried to paste a fluorescent smiley-face over Vietnam; look at the Sex Pistols railing that "England's dreaming" in '77 while the Queen's silver jubilee distracted from rampant unemployment and racial unrest. But in 2010, mainstream culture isn't complacent; it's stupid and angry. So underground culture has become smart and serene. That's not wimpy—it's powerful and constructive, a blueprint for kicking against the pricks. (link)
I've been thinking about Azerrad's argument for weeks now. It's compelling and highly original, but I'm not sure I agree 100%. I'm still digesting it, but I welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Does Humor Belong In Music?

The question above, first asked by Frank Zappa, is serious. Zappa was one of the first to consider the question of whether humor could really coexist with music, or if it only succeeds in cheapening the quality of either. And for a long time, I've felt as if rock music in particular and humor have had a hard time negotiating with each other--so many musicians would take it the wrong way if their lyrics were to laughed at. In the last decade, though, I've noticed a series of developments that suggest that humor can have place in popular music, in a way that won't seem to cheapen those supposedly ineffable qualities that make music so powerful for so many.

First, let's start with what used to be the standard bearer of musical humor, a Zappa acolyte named Weird Al Yankovic. I happened to like Weird Al when I was in elementary school, but I grew out of him fast when I realized that most of the jokes were juvenile attempts at mimicking (as opposed to challenging or elaborating upon) whatever was successful in pop culture. If you'll recall, about half of his shtick was lifting the melody and vocal lines from popular tunes, and replacing the lyrics with more offbeat and specific topics (which most of the time happened to rhyme). So "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" becomes "I Love Rocky Road"--about the ice cream--and "Like A Virgin" becomes "Like A Surgeon." In my opinion, Weird Al ceases to be funny once you find that most of his work banks on a fairly consistent formula, usually involving rote pop culture phrases and statements. But for a while, in the 80s and 90s, he was about the best example of "humor" in music that I can think of, and he was hailed in at least some circles, like Spike Jones before him, as a brilliant music parodist.

The problem with Weird Al's stuff was that, most of the time, it wasn't funny. "Eat It" might seem like a funny riff on "Beat It" for ten seconds, but an entire 4-minute song constructed around making someone try to eat something isn't as funny once you have to figure out the rest of the words to fill time. Weird Al songs are generally highly specific and repetitive in this regard. For example, his take on Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" (itself a take on Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise") is called "Amish Paradise," and it includes lines like "I've been milking and plowing so long/even Ezekiel thinks like my mind is gone." The joke, I guess, is that some Amish people are named Ezekiel, but that doesn't by itself make a particularly good joke. Some humor can be derived from Weird Al's appropriation of Coolio's flow, but the limits of the subject matter basically kill whatever humor is left.

Now that it is 2010, I look back on the last decade and see that there have been many significant advances in humor and quality music. Off the top of my head, I can think of the following bands that are both legitimately good and uniquely funny:

Electric Six: Though the band has yet to replicate the laughs of their album Danger! High Voltage, there was a time when Electric Six was writing ridiculously funny songs like "Gay Bar" and "Naked Pictures Of Your Mother." In this band's case, most of the humor was derived from the insane overdrive of their instrumental performances, coupled with subject matter that didn't necessarily seem to match up with all screams, cowbells, and guitar riffs. And of course, having the wailing Dick Valentine inexplicably reveal that it is a girl he wants to take to a gay bar. That, and he wants to start a nuclear war at a gay bar. Most of the humor of Electric Six comes from the sheer conviction of Dick Valentine saying the most absurd things, coupled with music that wouldn't sound too out of step with 70s classic rock. And with "Danger! High Voltage," the humor basically lies in Jack White trying to sound even more excited than Valentine. He kind of succeeds.

Eagles Of Death Metal: Similar to Electric Six, Eagles of Death Metal appropriate the irresponsible hedonism and sexism of a lot of blues-based rock 'n' roll, and amp it to such extremes that it is difficult to take seriously. Jesse "The Devil" Hughes is lucky enough to have a hilarious voice to begin with--it's like a high-pitched, crooning Elvis that contradicts his mustachioed, muscular image. Most of what I find funny about Eagles of Death Metal is in the way they deliberately misunderstand the point of music as a vehicle to get girls, blowing one of the key rules, which is that you shouldn't be blindingly obvious about who you look at as a potential conquest. Another funny, more musical trope of Eagles of Death Metal is that basically every song on their first album ends falsely, pauses for a few seconds, and then comes back into the chorus yet again. So, what seems odd and repetitive at first becomes more and more funny, and basically unique in the annals of popular music.

The Hives: In this case, it's perhaps not so much the content of the music as it is the persona of Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, another irrepressible showboat who is incapable of censoring himself or his love for his own music. The Hives were never as great as many of their contemporaries, but the band seemed to realize that, and they instead developed a public persona that poked fun at the wackiness of musicians who really think they are the greatest band in the world. Then there were their name, like the bassist Dr. Matt Destruction (who once said he could perform medical procedures "with his bass guitar") and Nicholaus Arson. Plus, they're Swedish and deliberately talk in broken English, which is always kind of funny anyway.

The Darkness: I will admit that not much of the Darkness' music is that great, but for sheer absurdity, they're really hard to beat. Indulging in every metal cliche, and possibly adding some new ones, they were like a bottomless repository of jokes, ranging from just general histrionics to extended metaphors about venereal diseases. This didn't last long, although their song "One Way Ticket To Hell...And Back!" always makes me laugh for good reasons.

These are four bands that I really think did positive things with humor in music over this last decade. I would also add McLusky as a band that I generally find to be pretty hilarious. I look at McLusky as more of a niche, though, as I don't know if lines like "I'm fearful of flying, and flying is fearful of me" or "we've got more songs than a song convention" are really funny to anyone but me.

On the flip side of this revolution in music is a similar revolution in comedians who are actually successful in producing good music, and I'm thinking primarily of two groups: Flight of the Conchords and The Lonely Island. Both of them manage to circumvent the Weird Al problem by producing songs that sound like particular artists or genres without actually copying specific melodies.

Flight of the Conchords' comedic worth was only exacerbated by the fact that they had a TV show where they were basically given carte blanche to construct a narrative around their songs. You can tell this is particularly needed in the second season of their HBO series, where there are notably more songs that are meant to advance the narrative, as opposed to the other way around. In any case, I think Flight of the Conchords' strength really comes from their genre parodies, particularly in how they subvert or undermine the subject matter that would normally accompany songs of certain genres. "The Humans Are Dead" purports to be a techno-futurist song set in a world where robots take over, but the narrator seems most hung up about whether or not all the humans are actually dead, or if they look dead. "The Hip-Hopopotamus Vs. The Rhymenoceros," meanwhile, takes a rather dead trope--white people and attempting to rap--and invests it with a removed sense of anxiety about being not being confident enough to freestyle. This always works better, I think, then when multiple songs in a row seem to all revolve around whatever the show's theme happens to be.

The Lonely Island, meanwhile, are primarily hip-hop heads who almost exclusively bank on the same white people/hip-hop trope. Again, there is incredible potential to not be funny, but the Lonely Island, at their best, marry such ridiculously high concepts to their raps that the humor comes from the methods by which they happen to stay on topic--how much can one really talk about being on a boat, or being a boss? Inverting hip-hop cliches has always been grounds for a lot of great comedy, and the Lonely Island does some of they appropriate certain cliches and act as if they are facts of existence. My favorite song of theirs is "Santana DVX," a song about how the group exclusively drinks sparkling wine made by Carlos Santana. The idea of a bunch of rappers sipping on sparkling wine is funny enough, but the humor is only exacerbated by their outsized love for Santana's music, proclaiming that "he teamed with Rob Thomas for a music revolution" and he "got laid all the time by 70s chicks." It also has the definitive Bay Area Hyphy rapper E-40 playing the role of Santana, without any attempt to sound like Santana in any way. It takes a music fan to enjoy the concept of Santana telling a group of admirers that "I see you bitches is enjoying my sparkling careful cause that shit will get you FUCKED UP." I laugh even writing these words.

Humor has made enormous strides (think of how Apatow has changed the game in a lot of ways), and I think we have an increasingly self-reflexive musical culture to thank for that. For the first time, people are seeing that subject matter isn't sufficiently funny in itself, except when wedded to a similar flaunting of musical convention--it's when people understand that they should have confidence in the strength of their melodies as well as their one-liners, that great comedic art can be made. I look forward to the next decade's unexpected marriages of humor and music.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Critical Beatdown Round 4

Besnard Lakes, "Albatross"
NS: I've said before that I have a hard time arguing with effective wooze, but the saturated flange of the first three minutes of this track doesn't really go anywhere. Since this is a 4 1/2 minute song, the arrangement does end up going somewhere cool eventually, but overall I find this to be a less-than-impressive example of the genre. 2/5

AM: Their last album sounded like Low with a touch of the Beach Boys, but "Albatross" adds Bilinda Butcher vocals and nicks, subtly, the rubbery guitar of "Needles In The Camel's Eye." Whatever the equation, this is lovely music, well-worn yet fresh. 4/5

"BedRock," Young Money
NS: Group songs like these basically beg the fair-minded critic to evaluate what he or she likes best, and then slowly move his or her way down the like/dislike continuum. The absolute best thing about this song is the hook, and the way Lloyd's chorus line sort of dances around it. So the production is irresistable--but of the rappers, I'd put Drake and Nicki Minaj at the top, Lil Wayne's deeply unimpressive verse near the middle, and everyone else (especially Tyga) basically doesn't need to exist. 4/5

AM: What explains Lil Wayne's continuing credibility? If Rick Ross guested on "Let It Rock," or Jay-Z put out a terrible nu-emo album, would we still respect them? I have no answers, but I would like to point you to the insufferable pap-rap of the Wayne-curated Young Money crew and their "BedRock." Such triviality would eviscerate the street cred of any lesser rapper. Drake's verse is OK, and I can't deny a certain charm, but what is the deal with Nicki Minaj? 2.5/5

"Hide It Away," Retribution Gospel Choir
NS: Confession time: I kind of prefer Alan Sparhawk's amped-up side band to Low, in terms of listening to music for pleasure. In many ways, the difference is purely instrumental. Sparhawk's voice carries the day on this one, and there's a feverish intensity that really marks this performance as something different in the Sparhawk canon. Everything about it is anxious and heartfelt. 3.5/5

AM: Inaugurates Alan Sparhawk's difficult "muttonchops period." Like anyone with muttonchops in 2010, he's not interested in pushing boundaries so much as old fashioned good times, and "Hide It Away" has dour rock attitude to spare. Mimi Parker is missed, but that's some pretty badass drumming. 4/5

Jay-Z, Bono, The Edge, and Rihanna "Haiti (Mon Amour)"
NS: What is it about the best intentions of others that brings out the worst in me as a critic? I swear that this charity collab single would be horrendous no matter what cause it was shilling for. Everybody seems to be at their worst: the Edge's one guitar line is one of his lamest and most reverby, Jay-Z's cornball verse is technically a complete dud, and Bono and Rihanna aren't exactly a great vocal pair. Add that fetid Dido beat, and you have a song that simply sucks. 0/5

AM: Star power and good intentions combine for another turgid charity single. "Empire" aside, Jay-Z has never been one for uplift, and I can barely even hear Rihanna here. You knew U2 would appear, and Bono actually sounds the best of the participants. The absence of Haitian musicians is regrettable. 2/5

Hot Chip, "Take It In"

NS: Among their dancepunk brethren, Hot Chip have stood out as a band that really knows how to write coherent, complex pop songs. "Take It In" definitely ranks up there with their best songwriting efforts. The vocals uncannily manage to sound both detached and menacing, and the keyboard line is Passion Pit-level sweet. So is the chorus, when the menace temporarily bottoms out. 5/5

AM: Well-constructed, as all their efforts seem to be, but I still prefer Wye Oak's song of the same name. This shade of UK grey has never been my cuppa, but there's some menace hiding in the verses. 3/5

Editor's Note: Hot Chip are insanely menacing

Surfer Blood, "Swim"
NS: When you need a reminder that great punk songs are still being created on a daily basis, I would suggest giving this song a listen, if you can get over an inordinate amount of echo at the beginning (you get used to it after a while). I'm not sure Surfer Blood can sustain this kind of energy and ingenuity for a whole album, but this does just fine. 3.5/5

AM: When I saw Surfer Blood (opening for the great Art Brut), I got the impression of a talented young band not quite in control of its songs. On record, things sound a bit different: wild melodies make "Swim," an unhinged number with plenty of good vibes. 4/5

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Where is the Nuge?

Perhaps you watched the Who play a medley of their old hits during the Superbowl Halftime Show earlier this evening. If you're anything like me, you probably didn't, given that you can hardly stand watching Townshend and Daltrey continue to dilute the live power of a once-great band, one of the greatest really, by piling on the auxiliary musicians at the expense of their now entirely dead rhythm section.

Unlike me, you probably don't read National Review's "The Corner" blog, so you probably didn't see a post written by John J. Miller referring to a list he created a few years ago of the "50 greatest conservative rock songs of all time." I remember reading the list at the time it came out and noting that several of the inclusions seemed dubious at best. Looking back at the list now, I was inspired to point out where Miller happens to go wrong, and offer my own far superior suggestions for future lists.

The list:

1. The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again." This choice for #1 is actually pretty legitimate. Although the sentiments expressed within hardly match up with those of the tea party crowd, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between classical conservatism (of which National Review once served as an intellectual hub) and the song's attitude of "revolution, whatever."

2. The Beatles, "Taxman." Legitimate, I guess. I don't feel as if complaining about taxes is solely the domain of conservatives, and it's true that Harrison's complaints are pretty general and say nothing about his general belief about the redistribution of wealth (to which I am absolutely positive he is less than conservative).

3. The Rolling Stones, "Sympathy For The Devil." Specious. Miller's argument is that Jagger makes the devil into " the sinister inspiration for the cruelties of Bolshevism" based on those lines about "kill[ing] the czars and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain." One can find any number of lines that conservatives wouldn't find agreeable at all: the Devil personified as an a general during the Blitzkrieg raids, claiming that "you and me" are responsible for the deaths of the Kennedys, etc. Could easily make the case for this (and many other Stones songs) as classic "liberal" songs based on Miller's logic.

4. Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Sweet Home Alabama." Miller's reasoning is that it's a "tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe," which is a stupid generality that by itself doesn't merit any inclusion. BUT, I do believe a case can be made based on the line in this song about George Wallace, and the rumored boos that accompany it. If they are indeed boos (and given their friendship with Neil Young there is a good chance they are) then I don't think Miller has much of a case.

5. The Beach Boys, "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Oh come on. I did a quick lyric check again just to be sure, and it'd would take an awful lot of meaningless extrapolating to call this anything other than a completely apolitical song (Miller sez: "Pro-Abstinence and Pro-Marriage"--wrong on both counts).

6. U2, "Gloria." Spurious reasoning: "Just because a rock song is about faith doesn’t mean that it’s conservative. But what about a rock song that’s about faith and whose chorus is in Latin?" Don't see many conservatives breaking out any Latin in public discourse lately.

The really sad thing is that this song, of all songs on the list, is probably the most bass-heavy. You'll find that 80s production is always preferred in our most patriotic music (and that has just given me an idea for a dissertation).

7. The Beatles, "Revolution." Legitimate. I don't buy Miller's argument that its shots at Mao make it solely the province of the right (he seems to be unable to comprehend a left critique of Communism, but whatever), but like #1, any song that proves itself skeptical of revolutionary politics is at least some kind of conservative.

8. The Sex Pistols, "Bodies." Surely this is the most interesting choice in the top 10, and I love the idea of William F. Buckley at the National Review office cranking this tune as the one punk song that conservatives can find mildly acceptable (Miller admits it is "violent and vulgar," suggesting even more strongly that this is a token pick). In my mind, this placement seems legitimate, if only because Johnny Rotten is surprisingly reactionary on the subject of abortion.

9. Metallica, "Don't Tread On Me." This counts as legitimate--James Hetfield is apparently a Republican, one of the few actual ones on this list (Lars Ulrich, meanwhile, has revealed himself as a flaming San Francisco liberal). This would be a perfect gateway tea party song if any of the tea partiers ever wanted to branch into metal for inspiration (which I'll admit is unlikely).

10. The Kinks, "20th Century Man." I guess this is legitimate, again if you think nostalgia for the 19th century is an overriding concern of the right. There are plenty of other Kinks songs that might have worked better--most of Arthur, for instance.

Some Other Notable Inclusions

11. Rush, "The Trees."
I guess this could count as the "Ron Paul inclusion"....

18. Living Colour, "Cult Of Personality." Specious. The right is just as guilty, if not significantly more so, of numerous "cults of personality," many of which are described in the song itself (Jonah Goldberg aside, Mussolini is usually thought of as a right-wing figurehead).

20. The Clash, "Rock The Casbah." Complete bullshit. Miller tries some fake narrative about how the title of the song is anti-Muslim and is played by British forces in Iraq. So is "B.O.B.," but that does not a conservative song make. The Clash expressed not one legitimate conservative sentiment that I would consider convincing. How do you get on this list calling an album Sandinista!?

21. David Bowie, "'Heroes'." Also complete nonsense. By the same token, merely mentioning the Berlin wall does not a conservative song make, either.

25. Led Zeppelin, "The Battle of Evermore." What?? It seems that Tolkien, like Orwell, is constantly having his politics misconstrued by partisans of both ends. Robert Plant's lyrics are complete nonsense, and there's nothing possible here one can glean about conservatism unless one is really grasping for straws.

29. Iron Maiden, "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner." The reasoning continues to get worse: this time, apparently, only conservatives really get Samuel T. Coleridge.

34. Blue Oyster Cult, "Godzilla." Completely specious, unless one takes it to be a metaphor about how awesome it was that we bombed Hiroshima/Nagasaki.

35. Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Who'll Stop The Rain." It takes a severe lack of common sense to even consider Fogerty in this company. Again, serious levels of straw-grasping.

37. The Band, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." Legitimate, although I don't think Robertson was really endorsing the views of the Civil War South...

46. The Scorpions, "Winds Of Change." From my liberal vantage point, "Winds Of Change" is indeed a hilariously appropriate song for the current American conservative mentality.

47. Creed, "One." Don't remember hearing the song, but I'll let Miller win this one for the conservatives.

What are songs that you know of that you think legitimately present a mainstream conservative point-of-view? Hard to think of, right? (And hippie-bashing by punks doesn't count.) I'll provide a few of my own suggestions later in the comments.