Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Rock for Relevance

Soundscan reports that in its first week the Smashing Pumpkins reunion (that's Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin) album Zeitgeist sold 149,000 copies. It's number 2 on the US chart after TI. The Pumpkins are number 1 in Canada, because many Canadians are strangely confused by urban pop music, and the logging industry inspires people to want to rock.

This is a band that's a decade past its heyday, and goes in and out of fashion with record critics with regularity. Album sales are half of what they were 10 years ago, except for country music (presumably because its listeners are less prone to use computers, but I'm not going there.) Number 2 seems pretty good. But MTV news is calling the sales a disappointment. And the reviews have been harsh. I think Zeitgeist is fairly solid, and unselfconscious about how a new Smashing Pumpkins is supposed to sound.

I have a theory about SP albums that I haven't heard from anyone else. It's that they're each about a different age.

Gish doesn't count, since it's just the band releasing its first material. Siamese Dream is an album about
childhood. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is about adolescence. More specifically, it's about high school. And frankly, I can barely say how important that CD was to me in grades 11 and 12. Everybody had it too. Adore is set during a person's mid to late 20s, after the hardest most soul-defining break up of their life. Machina I and II are next about man's relationship to God.

Zeitgeist is about the person trying to remain true to himself when ideals like country, government and God have all come to mean something that he opposes. If anything, it's about reclaiming those terms. The adult is brought back to a state of adolescent idealism and rebellion. That's why the line in "Doomsday Clock" that goes "These lonely days, will they ever stop?" has pertinence. It's an adult character frustrated that he's still plagued by teenage feelings.

The same goes for "7 Shades of Black." There's a 90s feel to these first 2 songs, and I think that's in the way their sentiment reaches out to listeners. It's angsty, but more poetically phrased than Linkin Park. This track would be killer if the guitars were louder. It's not quite "Bodies."

The really good songs on Zeitgeist are "Doomsday Clock," "That's the Way (My Love Is)," "Tarantula," "Starz," "Neverlost" and "For God and Country." I first thought the album hit a slump after midpoint "United States." But then I was listening to "Neverlost" in my car the other night and really liked it. Maybe because it was the first time I understood it. It's the kind of song you need to hear when you're driving alone at night. The only really weak track is "Bring the Light."

Does Zeitgeist come close to being the new Mellon Collie? Of course not. It's not that good. What albums are?

So yeah, I think it's a solid CD. It had the potential to be great, but for some reason 3 key tracks were left as B-sides, each separately available on special editions of the album. The solution is to purchase the album, download the songs "Death From Above," "Stellar" and "Zeitgeist" and then make an expanded version (based on where each appear on their special editions the songs should be placed respectively as tracks 9, 12 and 15.) Without them, Zeitgeist has thematic coherence, but plays like so many albums this year as a collection of potential singles. In the iPod generation, record labels assume nobody listens to CDs from start to end anymore. These songs give Zeitgeist its shape and texture. It becomes epic and pretentious, like great Pumpkins albums should be. "Stellar" even contains some of the most heartfelt lyrics of the album. Corgan asks, "Is it wrong to say / There's God and then there's faith? / Is it wrong to say so?" -- a plea for freedom of expression in a world with strict tabs on what constitutes acceptable thoughts.

The summer of 07 has found a surplus of 90s rock stars vying for a share of the new marketplace. Many of them seem out of place in the American Idol, High School Musical and faceless indie rock climate. Sales and reviews have reflected this.

It probably shouldn't be too surprising that Chris Cornell's second solo CD Carry On hasn't fared too well commercially. But that doesn't excuse the way music critics misread Cornell's efforts and intentions against past totems. Let's be honest with ourselves, and all agree that Soundgarden's Superunknown is the best rock album of the 90s. Great. Now let's also admit that we'd be laughing at Cornell if he was trying to make his present work sound like Soundgarden.

Carry On's song structures are often too simple, and its tone sometimes misjudged. It should also be noted that the final song, Casino Royale theme "You Know My Name," does not fit here. But what's right about it outweighs what's wrong. I sometimes think Cornell is the most misunderstood major rock vocalist. I'd probably place him as one of the top 5 writers who have influenced my own writing. He's made a record about the strains of aging with regret. Its the pop sensibilities critics harp on. But it's Cornell's faith in pop that makes it matter.

The single "No Such Thing" recalls the danger of youthful nihilism, with experience. The lesson "there's no such thing as nothing" communicates that the wish for invisibility is impossible. "Laughed at love / It was a big mistake / In the absence of / I filled it with hate."

If Carry On disappoints, it's in the same way the summer's other rock star returns do. Those of us who were in their adolescence when they were at their height want them to return to that place where they can take over the world. Part of it is the musicians, and the listeners, getting older. While the music can still have pertinence, it will be a different pertinence. We can never look at rock stars the same way we did at 17. If we do, we're in trouble. Cornell's on the right track by not trying to recapture past glory.

Mike Patton has never stopped keeping at it. His new project with outfit Tomahawk, titled Anonymous, is an album of electric renditions of Native American tribal chants from the late 1800s. The music succeeds as atmospheric pop, although Patton's ritual chanting can be silly. I like most albums the guy puts out, but I'm still waiting for one to occupy my mind and time since the last Mr. Bungle release. Mike Patton has become the master of new ideas that end up sort of like all his other ideas. How often do you listen to, for instance, the third Fantomas album? He's a genius whose music, now more than ever, needs to find its soul. For a challenging artist, that will be the real challenge for his fanbase.

I don't know what I wanted from the new Marilyn Manson. His first CD in 4 years Eat Me, Drink Me uses imagery of Lewis Carroll and Armin Melwes (the German cannibal who met his willing victim through a website), but evolved from Manson's breakup with burlesque dancer Dita von Treese. This has been the hardest Manson album for me to form an opinion on. It's his catchiest and most personal. But it's also the first that isn't larger than life. It's been interesting that 2007 saw Trent Reznor making Year Zero, a world weary Marilyn Manson album, while Manson makes Eat Me, Drink Me, an inward-reflective Nine Inch Nails album. This one also shares a lot with the new Pumpkins. It feels like a collection of potential theme-based singles which should be about 3 songs longer (though I told you how to make Zeitgeist more complete). I like every song on it but one (in this case that's "The Red Carpet Grave"). There are only 2 musicians who play on it. And Manson once said that Billy Corgan should wear a yellow shirt with a black zigzag and he'd look just like Charlie Brown.

Music critics have not been kind to Manson, or Cornell, or the Pumpkins this year. They'll take Patton, I suspect because they're afraid of his listeners. Music criticism is even more fashion-centric than movie criticism. Basically, it works like this: If your band is in vogue, you're cool. If you're last week's news, sorry. If, however, you're last week's news but can now be seen as ironic or heavily nostalgic (worthy of some renaissance), you're in luck. The monopoly of opinion from music reviews infiltrates to serious music buyers. Pitchfork ( is the worst for this. Beyond the site's predictability, elitism, and extreme whiteness, it became a giant force in indie music as soon as it got rid of its Reader Mail page--a very calculated move. Now there's no way for readers to respond, except in blogs and unrelated sites. Pitchfork is accepted as the unchallenged voice of authority.

Fashionability informs critics too much (it happens with movie critics as well, but in a different way), because the new CDs by Queens of the Stone Age, The White Stripes and Bad Brains aren't really that interesting.

I don't have much to say about Queens' Era Vulgaris. I've heard it. I'm fine with it. So I'll start with the Stripes album Icky Thump. It's good. But it's exactly as good as you expect it to be before you hear it. It's 13 new songs by The White Stripes. Because this is an extremely likeable rock band, the title track, "Rag and Bone," "Catch Hell Blues" and "I'm Slowly Turning Into You" know how to kick it without watering down their gut crunching heavy joy. But it's less interesting a collection than 2005's minimalist Get Behind Me Satan, and the CD mastering is awful.

The White Stripes are becoming a reliable confort band like The Ramones. The world turns thousands of times, and they're still the same White Stripes. I hope they don't die like The Ramones, though--they broke their fan contract when that happened. Jack and Meg White have real stage presence too. I like how when Meg plays drums she wears an expression like she's drifting to a far off place while thinking about Tori Amos lyrics.

It's saying something though that The White Stripes best song, "We're Going to Be Friends" off White Blood Cells is one of their least typical. The simplicity of that song belies its genius. It's a song about school and friendship without a trace of cynicism, told from the perspective of a kid. Not a teenager, 12, or 10 year-old, but a 5 year-old! Think about how fucking ambitious that is in a song intended for adult listeners. It's at once the band's happiest and saddest song, because it puts our own jaded views in perspective. Without being sappy, it's purely emotional--a connective feeling to a part of life we've all lived, that's inherently a part of us, but few of us ever think about in any detail. That's the eye-opening feeling I'd like to get from The White Stripes again before rushing to call each of their records their best in years.

People are obviously so excited there's a new Bad Brains out that they're happy to call it the best since 1986's I Against I. Hardly. I wouldn't even necessarily proclaim the new Build a Nation better than God of Love.

Too many of the lyrics consist of a song title repeated ad-infinitum, though the album is quite addictive once you've pressed play. Between listens, I tend to forget how great these guys sound musically here. There's a weak shift in the band's focus on more recent releases that can't be ignored. What makes Bad Brains songs of yore important is that, like Fishbone, they acknowledge the world at its most unjust and then refuse to let it stand in their way. It's an attitude of optimism as a state of defiance. Bad Brains penetrated that with innovative hardcore. The songs on Build a Nation will never affect anyone like "Banned in DC," "Sailin' On," "Pay to Cum," or the rebellious cry of "Never give in" in "At the Movies." Now that vocalist H.R. is only about Jah, so are the songs. Bad Brains must realize, though, that it's a tiny fraction of their audience that seriously gives a shit about Rastafarianism in any major capacity. They speak what they believe, but they don't translate it like they used to.

Music is in some ways more personal than movies. You walk around with a song in your head more intimately than how you walk around with a movie in your head. It's purely emotional, in a way where I sometimes find discussing music about as futile as trying to find an intellectual reason for falling in love. But when music I like becomes relevant to others, that's special. It's the connective potential of pop, which is the reason why it's worth caring when bands are "relevant." But they lose that relevance. Something they pick it up again. It's not only the rock stars actions that decide it. It's them, or it's us, or it's the music media telling us what to think.


alex said...

The Pumpkins record would be a lot more listenable if Corgan would have indulged himself more. That's right, more. Dude used to do all kinds of stuff, ballads, electronic pieces etc. This one sounds like he set out to make an album of 'Zero' style songs and thus it has no real ebb or flow. Like you said, a collection of potential singles, album craft is hella weak.

I haven't heard Cornell's record, but the single is inexcusably boring. Dude, needs other people to play off of to make anything tolerable, he just isn't that interesting as a solo artist.

Once again, haven't heard the Fantomas record, but you're on the money. He's a conceptual artist whose ideas all end up sounding the same somehow.

I've mellowed on Manson, in that I can appreciate his pop sensibility, or at least the pop sensibilities of his various collaborators. Turns out he can't do shit when the only dude he has to work with is Tim fucking Skold, who's work isn't even on par with the garbage his former bandmates in KMFDM are churning out at an alarming album a year rate.

The White Stripes do the White Stripes better than anything else, so how much you like them depends on how tolerant of their schtick you are. I usually fall in the area where I enjoy their songs when I hear them but can't imagine sitting through one of their albums.

Haven't heard the Bad Brains record. I want it to be good though, just because I love the idea of the all black hardcore band with overtly religious lyrics so much. Probably better that I never hear it.

God Mark, you make me hate my music writing.

Jesse Dangerously said...

I think Manson's new single and video serve as evidence of how spoiled he's been... he doesn't even have to pretend to be gay anymore, or exploit deformities... he's going for the pedestrian shock of being devoted to a pretty girl that's too wild to live.

He can basically fuck off with that. I liked the track fine musically until I saw the video, now I just can't exorcise the imagery, the self-pity or the... I don't know, disappointment. This is not what I hoped for from Brian Warner cleaned up.

Mark Palermo said...

The Pumpkins - I definitely agree that the album lacks an indulgent rock grandeur. I can't really see it being as important to any kid today as the band's really great albums were, or can still be. But you should listen to the expanded version. It really illustrates what this project might have been. I definitely think it's very listenable, in either case.

Cornell - He's a great lyricist. The orchestration on "No Such Thing" is overdone, and robs the song of its singer-songwriter value. There's some complex and pure feelings in there that I think get overlooked in the arrangement. The intimacy of tracks like "Disappearing Act" is where I wish more of the album was pitched. Euphoria Morning is the superior record, but this one's better than it at first lets on.

Patton - Absolutely. I was listening to "Pink Cigarette" this morning. It had been ages. Holy shit.

Manson - I appreciate his willingness to reinvent himself so often. But this time it isn't bold enough. One of the things that makes Manson exciting to me is that he's an over-the-top mainstream teenage property. The vast, culturally satiric, angst-ridden sci fi visions of past albums get compressed into too small a package. I don't think it's more "human" than previous albums, just "human" in a different way. Like Zeitgeist, the sound is lacking in grand gestures.

That said, I find it an enjoyable listen.

Jesse is right about the hermetic annoyance of the "Heart-Shaped Glasses" video. Musicians should rarely direct their own videos.

Bad Brains - It's fine, but compared to past work, it's barely a blip on the radar. The final track "Peace Be Unto Thee" is, however, quite lovely.

alex said...

Manson is really starting to remind me of Madonna, in that they are both malleable pop artists, and both have seemingly become unable to reinvent themselves in a way which captures the public's imagination. This newest incarnation (which to my mind is intended to be a "Man Behind the Curtain" sort of thing) lacks impact specifically because Brian Warner isn't as interesting as Marilyn Manson is. For an artist who hides behind a larger than life image to emerge from behind it, who he really is has to be compelling in some way. As far as I can tell he's just some depressed dude who isn't sure where his life is going. Join the club dude.

Mark Palermo said...

There's a bit of a Kiss-without-makeup thing going on with this album for sure. But the theatrical, monstrous aspect of Marilyn Manson was never holding him back. It's part of what made the act so impassioned. Manson needs to be an amplification, not cut down to the size of his listeners.