The Totally Not Brief History of Awesome American Music Pt. 7: Modern Times

Chances are, if you read Bollocks!, you are somewhat aware of American music history through the first part of the 21st century. And if you’re a ten-year-old reading this blog, well, you’ve learned some new words, haven’t you? Anyway, to conclude my less-brief-than-intended history of awesome American music, I’m just gonna sum up the decade in things I think are awesome.

And one thing I think is stupid. In the first part of the decade, Metallica got embroiled in a legal battle with Napster over the peer-to-peer sharing of Metallica’s catalogue of unintentionally hilarious songs about darkness, blackness, death, and so on. That doesn’t bother me one way or the other, but Lars Ulrich, Metallica’s shitty drummer, wrote an editorial for Newsweek in which he stated that Metallica didn’t make music for their fans. This comment has stuck in my craw for the better part of ten years because it smacks of the sort of fuck-you-I’ve-made-my-money ingratitude that deserves repeated face punchings. Ulrich basically said that Metallica doesn’t make music for the people who made them millionaires. Well, Lars, I’ve never really been of the opinion that your band made music at all. Fuck you, sir, and good day.

Wilco did two very awesome things in the last decade that are worth mentioning. First, they turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to Reprise, a record label owned by AOL/Time-Warner. The label didn’t hear a single on the album (“Heavy Metal Drummer”, motherfuckers! But also, why would you sign a band like Wilco if you want radio hits?) and rejected it. Wilco left the label and, after streaming the whole thing on their website (for free, Metallica. And they’re poorer than you!) and building some buzz around it, they got snapped up by Nonesuch records and here’s the punchline: Nonesuch is a subsidiary of AOL/Time-Warner. So the Warner Music Group fired and rehired Wilco and looked like complete idiots in the process. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was released to well-deserved critical acclaim. The second awesome thing Wilco did this decade has to do with file-sharing. When they were set to release A Ghost is Born, a dude brazenly emailed Jeff Tweedy to make sure he’d downloaded the properly sequenced version of the album. In response to this, rather than getting all litigious, Wilco set up a link to Doctors Without Borders on their website, allowing people to assuage their piratey guilt by donating to charity. They ended up raising a shitload of money for Doctors Without Borders and also issued a statement about how they don’t just exist to make records but to – gasp! – play music for their fans. So to recap, Wilco is awesome and Metallica is pretty much wrong about everything.

The 21st century has been all about revivalism so far, for good and ill. Bands like the White Stripes and the Black Keys have done a pretty good job of keeping the blues vital, even while idiots like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and John Mayer seek to destroy them. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have almost single-handedly attempted to rescue soul and R&B music from auto-tuning and over-production, doing for that genre pretty much the exact opposite of what Brian Setzer did for swing in the late 1990s (well, to swing. Rape is something you do to people, not for them). And my beloved Hold Steady have taken classic rock out of your alcoholic stepdad’s hands and put it in the hands of people who read books (some of which don’t even have pictures).

There’s even hope for punk music, Green Day notwithstanding. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, whose Brutalist Bricks may be their best album yet (and that’s saying something) is probably leading the charge, with fellow New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyians? Whatever) Titus Andronicus not far behind him. And the Thermals, who hail from my old stomping ground of Portland, Oregon, have been kicking ass for a few years now too. There’s also The Old Haunts, who should probably make another album now.

I started really paying attention to hip-hop in the last few years, even going back and listening to the old school stuff I’ve mentioned previously. Sage Francis was good when he was with Non-Prophets, and he should go back to that. Atmosphere might be the most bang for your hip-hop buck right now, as their last two albums have been nothing short of stellar. And since we’re talking about Minnesotans, you should know about Brother Ali as well. But if you want your hip-hop shit on the level of Coltrane, consider DOOM (formerly MF Doom) the hip-hop version of Interstellar Space. DOOM’s work is of a consistently higher quality than, well, pretty much everyone else’s. The dude even sampled a Bukowski poem on his last record. Of course, there are a couple of hip-hop producers of note, the two big ones being Madlib and Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse, of course, rose to fame by making the Gray Album, a mashup of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album. Jay-Z got his panties in a twist over it and the album was litigated into its grave. Hey, Jay-Z: what the fuck do you expect people to do when you release an a cappella version of your album? Do you really think people like your voice that much? Asshole. Anyway, Danger Mouse went on to form half of Gnarls Barkley, produce an awesome Black Keys record, and cocreate Dark Night of the Soul with Sparklehorse (the late, totally underrated Mark Linkous).

I want to wrap up by talking about some women who I think are vital to American music right now…

I could have mentioned Ani DiFranco in the 1990s section, but she’s been going strong in the last decade as well, standing out as one of the most fiercely independent artists in American music right now. Dudes who can shed their ego enough to actually listen to her work will find that she writes very compelling songs and is one of the most unique acoustic guitarists I’ve ever heard.

Neko Case, as I believe I’ve mentioned before, is a goddess. End of story. If you’ve read this blog at all and don’t own Middle Cyclone, I don’t really understand your priorities. It’s like you’re striving to make your life less awesome.

I am secure enough in my whatever to admit that I like Alicia Keys, but I will like her a lot better when she fires her current producers, gets a lot more jaded, and becomes our next Aretha Franklin. I’m thinking this could happen by about 2030 (I know what I said about making predictions, but I reserve the right to contradict myself).

Bettye LaVette has been one of  the best-kept secrets in American music, and that’s really too bad. As a younger woman, she toured with Otis Redding. Later, she did a stint on Broadway with Cab Calloway. Her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic records until 2000, when Gilles Petard released it as Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label. Eventually, LaVette was picked up by Anti-, the label that puts out Neko Case and Tom Waits records (that’s one helluva roster) and released I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005. Since then, she’s enjoyed some renewed and deserved interest. I’ll be reviewing her album of British songs later this year.

So that’s pretty much everything I could think of to tell you about awesome American music. I know I missed some stuff and I know I deliberately skipped some stuff, but so be it. I’m compiling a page of essential American tracks that should be up soon, so you can look for that if you want. In the meantime, though, don’t be a musical xenophobe. There’s amazing music all over the world and you’ll probably like some of it if you give it a shot. Some time in the future, I’ll get back to regular reviews, but I’m getting married in 30 days and that’s gonna have an effect on the ol’ updating schedule. We’ll be in touch.

Chinese Democracy: A Review of A Review (or, Where the Fuck is My Free Fucking Dr. Pepper?)

All right. The first issue I have with Chinese Democracy is that the folks at Dr. Pepper made a promise and then were not technologically equipped to deliver on this promise. The window for getting the free Dr. Pepper has closed with me on the wrong side of it, despite two solid hours of attempting to get the fucking site to work. See, I was gonna review that Dr. Pepper on this site today because I’m sure as hell not gonna give Axl Rose my money so I can tell you what you already know about Chinese Democracy. But we’ll deal with that later.

In the meantime, the Los Angeles Times has come to my rescue – their “pop critic”, Ann Powers, wrote a huge story on Axl Rose’s magnum dopus and I have chosen to critique her critique in lieu of actually paying money to listen to an album I know will be of less artistic quality than Death Magnetic. Probably.

But first, I wanna tackle this “exclusively at Best Buy” deal that Axl made. I know Guns ‘n’ Roses is not the only band that has gone the exclusive release route (AC/DC originally put their new album out exclusively through Wal-Mart and Smashing Pumpkins released a special Target-exclusive version of their last shitty record). But, by releasing an album exclusively through a store that does not exclusively sell music, Axl Rose has helped put a nail in the coffin not just of independent record stores but in the experience of buying albums. Now look, I know we’re all digital nowadays and I’ve certainly got an expansive mp3 collection (don’t worry Axl and Lars, I didn’t steal your shitty records), so you may be thinking, “Matt, who gives a shit about the record buying experience?” Well, motherfucker, I do. When I walk into a music store and see the rows and rows of discs, aisles of musical wonder, usually sorted by genre, I get a thrill unmatched by any other feeling. It’s like Jacques Cousteau must’ve felt before jumping in the ocean. I don’t know what the fuck I’m gonna find in there most of the time, but I’m usually gonna walk away with a treasure (I even, on my last trip to Amoeba Music, scored a $7 used copy of Redemption Song, the excellent and definitive biography of Joe Strummer). Or, more precisely, a pile of treasures. When I ask the flunky at Target about a band I like, I get a blank stare, as if I’ve switched a light off in his brain or spoken in some long dead, dark language. Sure, I can get Smashing Pumpkins and Kanye “Self-Declared Voice of His Generation” West at Target but, like all thinking people, I don’t give a shit about those two particular artists. Target, Wal-Mart, and Best Buy can sell albums cheap because they make money by selling a lot of other products. Amoeba Music sells music, books, and DVDs while still managing to donate some of their proceeds to preserve the rain forest (I shit you not); so who’s exclusively releasing through them? Well, everyone who releases a Live at Amoeba EP, such as TV on the Radio did. Or The Hold Steady, who released a live acoustic EP exclusively through members of the Independent Music Retailer network (not sure I got the name of the organization right, but Amoeba is part of it; basically, it’s a large group of independent music stores across  the nation). Bands that are exclusively releasing through Wal-Mart and companies like them are making the implicit argument that they care about making the most money possible. Obviously, that’s their right and obviously, if you took 14 fucking years and millions of dollars to make your shitty little record, you might be a little bit more concerned with your profit margins. But the fact is, I reward bands that want to make music, not bands that want to make money (Honestly, who wouldn’t want to make money playing rock ‘n’ roll? But there are bands that are focused on their music first – bands like Wilco who have gone so far as to say that they don’t exist to make CDs per se but to create music. Bands that put music ahead of money make better music and thus, deserve my money. Bands that simply want my money – like Kiss, who can definitely go fuck themselves – do not deserve it and never get it). TV on the Radio and The Hold Steady make their livings off of their music. I’ve read that Matt Berninger from The National didn’t quit his day job until right before they started work on Boxer. I guess what I’m driving at here is a question of hunger. Young, hungry, independent acts do what they have to do to make music, including hanging on to the day job a little longer (I work two jobs so that I can pull my weight launching my little band). Old, tired, washed up acts, apparently ink exclusive deals to pump out their crap through giant chain retailers and then have the gall to blame the death of the record industry solely on downloading.

One of the (many) flawed arguments of the no-downloading crowd is that every downloaded album is money out of the artist’s pocket. This assumes that everyone who heard the album for free would have purchased it if only they couldn’t get it for free. Slash, one of Axl Rose’s former pals, lamented that Axl would lose a lot of money on Chinese Democracy because some jackass streamed seven or nine leaked tracks on his blog. Of course, at the time, there was no guarantee that those were finished tracks from a finished album, no guarantee that those tracks would appear on a finished album, and no guarantee that people who downloaded those leaked tracks would automatically skip out on buying Chinese Democracy. Unless, of course, they discovered from those tracks what I intuitively understand – that this album, like its creator, is a bloated mess. Smart bands adapt to the downloading phenomenon in various ways – Bloc Party offered a 10 dollar download of Intimacy a month before it came out and then gave me a total of four bonus tracks for free later. Radiohead famously let people decide what to pay for In Rainbows. The Hold Steady (I love those guys, but you knew that) streamed Stay Positive in its entirety on their MySpace page and then slapped three bonus tracks on the physical release. The Flaming Lips have released the coolest deluxe version of a movie or CD I’ve ever seen – the Christmas on Mars deluxe release includes a T-Shirt and a bag of popcorn!

So anyway, Ann Powers apparently went to the Best Buy and got a copy of Chinese Democracy. She went on to not only compare the album to Citizen Kane but also to compare Rose to Orson Welles (in personality, not physical stature). She later credits Rose with “Brian Wilson-style beautiful weirdness.” You might get the feeling that Powers really fucking loved Chinese Democracy, but, at the end of the day, Rose’s “lyrics, like the songs’ musical twists, are hard to praise”. So after a long article that makes an interesting attempt to capture the magnitude of Chinese Democracy’s release (many writers have already focused on how much of a fucking farce the whole process has been; genuine kudos to Powers for trying to give it more of a fan perspective. The problem is, the farce crowd is right on this one), Powers is forced to admit that the actual music, the thing people have been waiting 14 years for is hard to like. That’s not exactly album-of-the-year material.

Now, I will admit that I have not listened to the final product. And I’m not going to download it either. I will, however, give Chinese Democracy a fair hearing on Bollocks! as long as I don’t have to pay for it. If you bought the album and will let me borrow it or if I get it for Christmas (by some strange magic), I will give it an honest musical critique. I am, at the end of the day, a music lover and I’m willing to have my mind changed – I used to hate hip-hop until I found some artists that opened my eyes to the potential of that genre. So I’ll make a promise to those of you out there who pre-hate me for pre-hating Chinese Democracy: if a copy of this album, a legitimate copy, falls into my hands in some manner that keeps me from putting money in Axl Rose’s pocket, I will:

1) listen to the album and judge it on the music, keeping my hatred of Axl Rose separate from my appraisal of the music he makes

2) render that verdict on this blog with my usual literary zest

And

3) if Chinese Democracy manages to please me more than it displeases me, I will purchase a copy of it and a copy of Metallica’s Death Magnetic and give them away to the first two people who can convince me they deserve them. I’ll find some fun way of determining that.

The odds that a) a copy of Chinese Democracy will come to me for free and b) I will like it more than not are about 1 billion to 1 against. But I’m willing to keep an open mind, despite the fact that I have no free Dr. Pepper to enjoy while I do it.