28 Random Thoughts on Rock N’Roll

BY JEFF LEVEN

I’ve been thinking about what to do with this, my last teary-eyed spot in The Record for some time now. After three full years of writing almost-weekly 10,000 word monsters on all manner of esoteric bands with recklessly self-indulgent allusions in almost every paragraph, it frankly is hard to know how to outdo myself by way of closure. Thanks in large part to the editorial patience of folks like Jonas Blank and Clinton Dick, my ride at The Record has been, at least for me, a tremendously fun one, and for those of you who liked a column or two, well, as the old wine commercials used to go, thank you for your support. Before I turn this into too much of a maudlin farewell address, I should let y’all know that I’m moving on to new venues- going pro as a matter of fact. This summer/next fall, at least before I have to start billing real hours, you’ll be able to find my stuff in Paste, DIW, and possibly a few other music magazines. At any rate, so with that bright, better-paying (by the word sometimes- woohoo!) future in mind, I’ll leave you with one last Record outpouring of stream-of-consciousness, random thoughts on all things music:

As tempting as it is to reject the received notion of which trendy new bands are “buzzworthy” out of hand, after a few rounds of increasingly palatable but nonetheless derivative hackery (read: the Strokes, Jet, etc.), the major label world has finally produced a garage rock band that’s worth losing sleep and hearing capacity over: Scotland’s Franz Ferdinand. If you haven’t caught the early wave of breathless critical praise and subtle but relentless marketing, fear not- you will. In this case, though, that’s a really good thing. Their self-titled new release is all the things that a hot new release is supposed to be: conscious of the musical past, clever, aggressive, but most of all fun. Songs like “Tell Her Tonight,” with its relentless disco beats and Beach Boys harmonies, are just dazzling, and by the time they get to the closer “40′” it’s pretty hard to stop the all but involuntary dancing this album provokes.

Did you know George Michael’s real name is Yorgos Kyriatou Panayioutou? I ain’t joking.

If you like American roots music (broadly defined) and you haven’t heard any of Taj Mahal’s first three albums for Columbia, you owe it to yourself to check them out. Not only are Taj’s performances amazing, but these discs also feature sensational musicians like Ry Cooder, Al Kooper, and Jesse Ed Davis. A gritty, loving mix of classic rock, blues, country, soul, and Caribbean rhythm, Mahal’s early work is an example of why there are genuine musical reasons to miss the late 1960s.

There are a lot of pretty good bands coming out now that sound like some mix of the Cure, Joy Division, Ride, and/or the Cars. Such bands include Ambulance Ltd., British Sea Power, Stellastar, Crimea and Elkland. I suspect the music of the late 80s will be making a limited comeback and then recede again, perhaps to the benefit of a revived interest in things that smack of hair metal (of which the Darkness might be a prodigal harbinger).

Speaking of the Darkness- I can’t decide whether to love or loathe them, but I can’t help but be truly impressed by that dude’s falsetto!!!

Andre 3000 will do a great job playing Jimi Hendrix on the silver screen, but the soundtrack will be deeply disappointing in part because it’s one thing to look like Jimi but quite another to sound like him.

The likely gigantic success of Velvet Revolver (featuring Slash, Duff, Matt Sorum, and erstwhile STP lead Scott Weiland) will prompt Axl Rose to hastily churn out a new Guns N’ Roses album that will stiff embarrassingly, causing him to do something stupid and provocative in public, and then forever fade away from his once-adoring but now puzzled and pitying fans.

I for one cannot wait to see Morrissey on Lollapalooza, and while I acknowledge that this is on some level pathetic, there just aren’t many others like him, unless of course Stephin Merritt (Magnetic Fields) were to lose his gentle sense of humor, develop a ginormous ego, develop a dark sense of humor, and take to whirling bouquets around in demogogic fury onstage.

Electronica is the new classical music. Think about it: a compositional art form that relies of the manipulation of musical motifs in tandem with dynamic shifts in volume and instrumentation. Mathy, elegant, and complex, pieces are designed to fit together into a coherent extended form best captured either in concert or on a long album. The lines between the two can get particularly blurry in the musical academic world, where computer-assisted composition has become more common. Does this mean that BT gets to be the new Mozart? Maybe not, but Haydn perhaps.

DJ culture will continue to evolve into a greater role in hip hop, as well it should. Think about it, many of the groups that put together the best full albums- Blackalicious, Aesop Rock, Jurassic 5, the Streets, etc. have really been as much about turntable/production pyrotechnics as anything else, and with guys like DJ Shadow, RJD2, and Madlib about, the future of the collagist DJ in hip hop will only offer more limelight.

The new Wilco album is streaming on their website and it’s just amazing. I don’t know how they do it, but every new album just builds perfectly on the one before and the writing is so elegant and the performance is great and the details are always immaculate and I suspect they’ll remain the gold standard until they feel like quitting, which, I hope is a long, long time from now.

Deep down I enjoy U2’s music and in the scheme of things their overall impact on humanity may turn out to be greater than R.E.M.’s although I suspect that R.E.M.’s later albums will be remembered more fondly- after all, in my opinion, Adventures in Hi-Fi might quietly be the moment where all the elements of R.E.M.’s career gelled into a single statement, whereas for U2 that moment remains Joshua Tree all those years ago. Stipe is way cooler than Bono, too, but I’m not sure if Peter Buck has a solo in him that can match the Edge’s on the Rattle and Hum version of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” Peter Buck gets some points back from playing on the Replacement’s Let It Be album, though.

There are so many great bands in the 60s that almost no one listens to anymore: Moby Grape, Nirvana (the English 60s band), Love, Spirit, Quicksilver Messenger Service, just to name a few. The same is true of the late 80s- Antarctica, House of Love, Ride, the Gigolo Aunts, Gene Loves Jezebelle, etc.

It’s hard to know where to start with world music sometimes, but African funk can be super-easy to get excited about (stuff like Fela Kuti), the Cuban jazz stuff is totally accessible, bhangra is increasingly popular by way of a couple soundtracks (i.e. Bend It Like Beckham), and there’s tons of great Brazilian stuff (Caetano Veloso for one), not to mention some awesome young Latin groups like Ozomatli or Café Tacuba. Good record labels include Nonesuch (which has an awesome Ethiopian series), Putomayo (the packaging can be a little silly, but their African stuff is great), the Rough Guide series, and even Soul Jazz or Rhino now and again.

If you like dance music or classical music or electronic music or just arty music, find cellist/singer/composer/keyboardist Arthur Russell. A lost NYC genius, his dazzlingly beautiful stuff is best packaged on the recent collection Calling out of Context.

Regional heroes (old and new) worth researching: Texas- Doug Sahm, North Carolina- Doc Watson, NYC- Afrika Bambaata, Memphis- Big Star, Los Angeles- Jon Brion, San Francisco- American Music Club, Detroit- Mitch Ryder, Chicago- Vance Kelly, New Orleans- Snooks Eaglin, Philadelphia- Marah, Florida- Mofro, Cleveland- Rocket from the Tombs, Arizona- Giant Sand, Georgia- Drivin’ and Cryin’, Minneapolis- Husker Du and the Replacements, of course, Seattle- Mudhoney, you know the others, New Jersey- Dave Grushecky, Boston- the Lyres.

Does anyone other than me really miss the Black Crowes? About time we had another really Stonesy So
uthern rock band that wasn’t afraid to sport bell bottoms and spill whiskey all over their Telecasters.

The beards in ZZ Top are real. Which, when you think about it, is beyond incredible commitment to a schtick. One has to wonder how many mornings they got up, looked in the mirror, and thought about cutting the damn thing off. I bet it was a lot. The fact that it didn’t happen as a tour bus prank or a freak gardening accident still amazes.

It’s about time for Eminem to come out with a really, really good new album that makes people stop talking about 50 Cent again.

This boggles me when I think about it, but I think it’s an index of how open the music world can really be. Scandinavian death metal band Dimmu Borgir is playing on Ozzfest. Now this is a band that is stylistically similar to some of the darkest, most deadly-serious Satanic bands on the planet (the type of bands that burn Norwegian churches), it plays at ear-splitting volume with garbled vocals, and a few million casual metal fans are going to hear forty minutes of them at stages around America this summer. Given that death metal of this kind is actually genuinely orchestral, it may also be the closest thing to Stravinsky most Ozzy fans ever hear. Strange how our culture works.

Both the Ramones and the MC5 are in the midst of controversies surrounding the release of documentary films portraying the band in question, in both cases due to individual complaints about either the contracts involved or the way they are portrayed. It’s weird to me that two of history’s most influential punk bands suffer from this kind of complicated infighting. Just goes to show that even the most populist rock bands sometimes have a hard time getting along.

Some songs are so bad they are good: “Freeway of Love,” by Aretha Franklin, “Adult Education,” by Hall & Oates, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” by Rick Astley, “Take Me Home Tonight,” by Eddie Money, and pretty much everything by Billy Ocean.

Nine Inch Nails: talk about a band that had so much momentum and then… didn’t.

Satellite radio is going to heavily splinter American musical taste. While you tune in to your dub n’ bass station and your mom gets the doo-wop channel and your little brother listens to round-the-clock machine noise, I can curl up into the cozy cocoon of some twenty-four hour Clash station and be done with it. I fear the day and yet know that I’ll someday have a car equipped as such.

You can never really let go of the stuff you loved when you were sixteen.

Playing guitar is pretty easy. Selling it is very, very hard.

In today’s music industry, where most bands get one or maybe two albums to prove themselves, people like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and the Doors wouldn’t have record deals (none of whom were instant sensations, particularly measured in album sales), at least not on major labels.

Harvard has been a surprisingly easy place to continue to love music. I hope it stays that way after I’m gone.

Comments