VW: Very White

There’s an oddity sitting in my CD player right now. It’s a promotional CD from Volkswagen that they give you when you buy a new car. I snagged it out of a press evaluation car because I figured it might have some decent tunes on it, you know, stuff from their commercials: “Mr. Roboto” or that Da-Dah-Dah-Dah song. Or some cool mainstream techno like Daft Punk or Chemical Bros. Well, no dice; with the exception of a yet another cover of The Smiths’ “How Soon is Now” (soon to rival even “Yesterday” as the most covered song of all time), it pretty much sucks. But I’m not surprised, and that’s not what this piece is about because no one needs to read my explanation of why the Bare Naked Ladies blow. You already know that. (Unless, of course, you’re the type of person who discovered the bad club music of Submarine by buying a Passat, in which case you’re just pathetic and the point herein will be lost on you.)

(Okay, while I’m being parenthetical I’ve got to admit to liking that one Bare Naked Ladies song about the old apartment, but that’s just because I’m always a sucker for any song about heartache. Yeah, I know that makes me pathetic, but all anyone has to do is sing “I want her/him back” or “And I miss her/him/you/etc.” and I’m hooked. Call it Hank Williams syndrome. But, I digress.)

So my issue is not with the music on the CD sucking, as much as what the music on the CD reflects what VW thinks about its customers. Now I’m not naive enough to think that my local dealership is going to hook me up with the new Outkast disc or give me my choice between the International Submarine Band and P-Funk’s greatest hits. But a disc that’s entirely full of forgettable white pop toe tappers that one might hear on any corporate “alternative” radio station is unconscionable. Do the dumb fucks in Auburn Hills (VW of America, Hamlin Rd., 48326) really think that their customer base is as cookie-cutter homogenous as that? Or do they just really want the customer base to be that way? Is there not enough room on the sampler for a single hip-hop track or one pop-ified country crossover? What about a nice easy listening smooth jazz cut? I mean, the disc could still be as banal and inoffensive and awful, but at least try for a little more variety!

I’ve got no problem with VW’s cars. I’ve got no problem with VW’s advertising. But the marketing fool who put together this compilation for them needs to be kicked repeatedly.

I once owned an Oldsmobile, given to me by my grandmother appropriately enough. And with it came a sampler cassette (yes, this was pre-CD) that contained music that Olds, correctly, figured its customers might like to listen to. And it was good; this coming from someone who, at age 21, was a good 34 years too young to be part of the Olds demographic. Sure, I didn’t like all of the music on it, but there was enough variety (even some classical cuts—those being the ones that I used to fast forward through) to keep it interesting. And yes, it was lacking the heavy metal and the rap that I was into at the time, but I recall there was one catchy R&B song and a nice female country crooner whose name escapes me, but whose song did make it onto a few of my mix tapes from the era.

The point is that diversity is good. It spreads ideas and styles and creates understanding. And it might even help you sell a few more cars.

Hanson: It’s Just Good

It sounds like the Hanson boys are getting hip on us now. Check out this quote from an article on rollingstone.com: “There’s more reckless abandon on this record,” says Taylor [Hanson]. “A sense that we’re not gonna over-think things. I wanna leave space for people to hear the parts, the grit of the guitar or the driving rhythms. Not to say it’s not gonna be tight and that the songs won’t be pop . . . I love writing songs with that hook, that’s what I enjoy, like every Big Star song. But I want people to feel it. I want people to instantaneously be drawn in and go, ‘I don’t know why I like it. I don’t care if it’s Hanson or Black Sabbath, it’s just good.'”

Could their next album be good? They’re working with Matthew Sweet on a song. Who knows?

JOSIE & THE PUSSYCATS

The consensus: girls playing Rock is hot, even if they aren’t really playing rock.

The latest in a continuing line of candy cigarette movies that play out like extended advertisements for Clearasil, cutting-edge fashion, and Herbal Essences, Josie & The Pussycats should be commended for realizing that it is exactly that. The film addresses the overt consumerism inherent in teen-oriented cinema, but then kicks its own ass for being a part of the problem. Brilliant. But no one’s seeing Josie for the plot. It’s all about the girls themselves, and their Rock band, The Pussycats.

It would have been so simple to re-formulate Josie & The Pussycats as a trio of Britneys, spouting Simon Fuller-penned dance fantasies while wearing galactic silver lingerie and hot pants. Wisely, the creative team of Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont (Can’t Hardly Wait) used a different model. Instead of pixie stick popstars, the reincarnated Pussycats are a guitar-slinging power trio with equal parts Runaways, Go-Gos, and Blink-182. When we first meet them, they’re performing their single “3 Small Words.” Legs planted, hair blowing back, Josie (Rachel Leigh Cook) hits power chords on her black Gibson and really makes you wish Joan Jett was still young. Bassist Val (Rosario Dawson) nods along, and Mel (Tara Reid) hits her crash cymbal with appropriate Debbi Peterson flair. In an online interview, songwriter Kenneth “Babyface” Edmunds described the sound that the braintrust desired for their new Pussycats. “The music started punk, but we ended up with something more pop-flavored, almost Go-Go-ish.” While the well-fed songsmith is known more for pulling heart strings than guitar strings, the tight, Hole-like harmonies and distortion crunch he created for the new tunes proves his cross-genre ability. (Who knows? Maybe he’ll persuade R.Kelly to do an album of Stiff Little Fingers covers?)

The soundtrack album promises all of the songs therein are performed by Josie and the girls. Don’t believe the hype. While the three actresses are certainly the hot tamales about town, they might have spent a little more time practicing their fake stage moves. Tara Reid’s tangled blonde main goes a long way toward heroin chic fantasy, but it can’t hide the fact that her hands are hitting cymbals while a drum fill plays on the soundtrack. They could have taken cues from the recent Almost Famous, which did a great job of making Sweetwater look like a real band up on the stage. Or the producers could have hired The Donnas, if they wanted looks and chops. Instead, we’ll settle for a few more close-ups of Cook’s to-die-for doe eyes and cool Pat Benatar 2K1 brush cut. But that’s the thing about these new Pussycats. They’re hot, yeah. But in a nails-for-breakfast sort of way. We don’t worry about the technical stuff, because just like Prince and Sheena Easton said, these girls Got The Look. In an early scene, Josie’s bent over the engine of her sometime boyfriend, fixing his alternator as he strums badly on her guitar. Whew. What a way to switch up those gender roles. I’ll be outside the theatre cooling off.

In a genius move, the film makes Josie and the girls heirs to the rock star throne only after evil record company geek Wyatt (Alan Cummings) murders the hilarious boy band send-up Du Jour. While making fun of the N Syncs and Backstreet Boys of the world is easier than pouring piss out of a boot, an opening scene featuring a Du Jour public appearance is spot-on, and hilarious. Sporting a feather boa and a top hat, the always reliable Seth Green (Scott Evil in Austin Powers series) cops the earnest face and head tilt-leg slide combo move favored by so many of our high cheekbone’d friends. It only makes the Rock more powerful when Du Jour’s sickeningly funny performance is followed by Josie and the girls strapping on their instruments and turning things up to 11.

So that’s what it comes down to. While Josie & The Pussycats has its “Believe in Yourself!” afterschool special-isms and too much of a rickety plot involving the curse of disposable income, it still has three gorgeous girls doing their damndest to rock the house (even if the girls we see on celluloid aren’t really the ones rocking us). It’s like my man Jeff said after seeing Detroit girl rockers Stroker Ace:

…[S]ometimes it’s nice to be exactly like the little 12-year-old girls who swoon over the Backstreet Boys. It feels good to embrace the kind of love/lust that you know is totally without merit, because dammit, we all want to bed a musician after we’ve seen him/her on stage. Didn’t you read/see High Fidelity?

(Aside to Rachel Leigh Cook: I’m single.)

JTL

Malkmus on Letterman, 4/10

In yesterday’s article about Stephen Malkmus, I suggested that Indie Rock’s golden child will never be accepted as a mainstream rocker, despite his label’s attempts to position him as some kind of Thinking Man’s Duncan Sheik.

Proving my point, Malkmus appeared last night (with his band, The Jicks) on The Late Show. Somehow, I don’t think your average Casual Music Buyer is at Tower right now, lining up to purchase the album.

Performing “Jennifer & The Ess-Dog” from his self-titled solo debut, Malkmus was his normal, apathetic self. You could chalk it up to nervousness, if he wasn’t in the middle of a tour that has seen venues much larger than The Late Show studio audience. So that’s not it. What it comes down to is Malkmus own persistance in holding down the ‘Slacker Genius’ tag. “Jennifer & The Ess-Dog” is a gorgeous song, with a sunny disposition and a cool vocal hook. It has the potential to sell a few records to those who can’t argue about which is better, Westing & Musket or Butterglory’s Crumble.

Instead, his charmingly detached performance even illicited a smirk from Dave, who post-song snidely asked “So, how’s Portland?” It was seemingly all Letterman could muster from a pleasant enough, yet forgettable performance from the Northwest quartet modeling the latest in thrift-store chic.

Steve Malkmus: Slack Motherfucker.

JTL

Stephen Malkmus on The Late Show with Letterman

(Update: 15 years later, we added video of the performance! – ed. 4/11/2016)

KEEP MUSIC EVIL

KEEP MUSIC EVIL

Oh my goodness! I can’t believe this is finally available online: Angels?, by Jack Chick. This story about how there’s no such thing as a Christian rock band has been out of print for a long time. But thanks to Jack Chick’s embrace of the internet, there it is. Wow. It’s just as good as I remember. Beware, kids! To quote Lew Siffer: “My music pushes murder, drugs, free sex, suicide, to destroy country, home and education… And man… is it doing it!

The Art of the Mix

Making mixes for people is a grossly underrated medium of expression. I know people who have put more thought into compiling a mix tape than they put in almost anything else they have ever done. My poor wife has gotten more mix tapes than love letters by a ratio of about 30:1. That’s not an exaggeration.

The Art of the Mix website has been around since 1997, gathering people’s mixes and allowing others to comment on them. They’ve got over 10,000 mixes up on the site right now. It’s a great idea. Our own Sab came up with a similar idea a while ago, but didn’t get too far with it. It’s still a great idea. I just uploaded my latest mix to Art of the Mix, and I plan on uploading the rest of them from now. You should too. I wish I had known about this since 1997.

And yes, there is a category for “Break Up” mixes. You can search for them by category and feel relieved that you didn’t know about this site the last time you had your heart broken. But at least you weren’t as sappy as some people, ha ha. Or maybe you were. I hope nobody ever finds the track lists for the mixes I made when I was 18…

Stephen Malkmus: Hanging Out With The Coolest Kid In School

Stephen Malkmus Just Can’t Apply Himself

Stephen Malkmus is one quirky motherfucker.

The quirky charm has always been his calling card, ever since Pavement’s emergence in the early 1990s. His shit-eating grin and know-it-all-ness seeped into ever corner of the band’s music, making him the understood frontman in a group known for its members’ shambling individuality. Pavement made sardonic, witty little songs that never seemed finished, but always had plenty of ideas lying about in the margins. Sometimes, it was as if the band cared little if anyone liked them or not. They were immediately adored.

1992’s Slanted & Enchanted (Matador) was slacker heaven. Flashes of Malkmus brilliance (“Summer Babe,” “Loretta’s Scars”) shared space with abbreviated nonsense that made more than a few people toss the thing in the used bin. But patience would prove to highlight the album and the group’s considerable ability, even if their smart-aleck, winking approach to Indie was at times annoying. Slanted’s momentum and Malkmus’ emerging dreamboat status made Pavement a household name by 1994 and the Matador release of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Er, at least in Indie households. While “Cut Your Hair” was the first song on way too many mix tapes that year, its Orange Whip goodness didn’t translate into mainstream acceptance for the band of hipster doofuses. Which wasn’t surprising. Even though Malkmus was now considered This Year’s Evan Dando, and had obvious and considerable talent, the output was just too damn, well, quirky.

Fast forward to 2000. Pavement had been dissolved since 1999. By this point, everyone knew that Malkmus had pretty much been the id, ego, and super-ego of that group, making his announcement of solo plans all the more exciting for aging Indie Rockers everywhere. Guys who hung up the big glasses and threw out the band T shirts years ago were salivating at the thought of Stephen Malkmus – the Pope of Indie Rock – releasing new material. Because Indie just wasn’t the same anymore. The subdivisions of math rock, stoner rock, slo-core, lo-fi, no-fi, and of course the ever-ambiguous Emo had diluted a formula that had once been so strong with The Force. Back in the Good Old Days (1997), things were just simpler, with less labels, less bands, and less shit to remember about who had released its limited edition clear 7″ on Nowhere Records out of Budapest. Malkmus’ return was almost as good as a Pixies reunion tour.

Recorded in Portland as The Jicks with John Moen (drums) and bassist Joanna Bolme, the long-awaited solo debut from Indie’s golden child was – drum roll, please – quirky. It was also all Malkmus, all the time. Originally rumored to be named Swedish Reggae, Matador released the record as a self-titled affair with Our Kid’s good lookin’ mug plastered all over the cover like some kind of post-Indie Leif Garrett. One was surprised when there were no layouts in Tiger Beat or action-figure tie-ins with Hasbro. Because Stephen Malkmus really is the coolest kid in class. Indie girls love his sunlit hair, ambling frame and earnest vocals. Indie guys envy his offhandedly genius guitar playing and – let’s face it – his status. He’s on top of the Indie world, and he seems to have achieved this effortlessly.

In grade school, there was a kid named John Dubiski. And he had a boom box. It wasn’t your average Radio Shack hack job. Oh no, it was a full-on, Radio Rahib special with all the fixin’s. Of course, John Dubiski was the most popular guy in the schoolyard. Not only did he possess the boom box; his easygoing confidence and utter lack of meanness made him impossible to dislike. At Park Day, when he sat with your group and turned up the radio on his rig, it was like being granted an audience with The Pope of the Fifth Grade. Girls chattered and swooned; the boys stood silent, reveling in his aura. We kissed the ring of cool, to feel a little cooler ourselves.

On Friday night, the John Dubiski of Indie Rock showed off his new ghetto blaster.

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks at Metro, 4/5

Upon taking the stage, Malkmus and his incredible hair were instantly recognizable. Launching into “Jennifer And The Ess-Dog,” a driving number from the album that tells the sad story of a Kasey Kasem-like long distance love affair, The Jicks proved adept at propelling songs along in a manner that Pavement didn’t employ enough. While his old band was too often sidetracked into meandering absurdity like Rock and Roll A.D.D. sufferers, the solo material is all meat, no gristle. Gorgeous ballads like “Church on White” showcase Malkmus’ sparkling songwriting talent, while hook-y numbers like “Discretion Grove” and the redundantly titled “Hook” build a sunlit groove. The new Bakersfield Sound? Maybe. Pavement always had a distinctly west-coast vibe, but it was usually shit-canned in favor of off-kilter shenanigans and inside jokes. Malkmus’ solo work is more focused, but it retains that — here we go again – quirkiness that Our Favorite Indie Kid just can’t seem to outgrow. Songs like “Black Book” and “Troubbble” are finely rendered, but with a bleary-eyed laziness that betrays the songwriter’s lethargy. It’s music for sleepyheads.

On stage, Malkmus’ fueled his tunes with fiery, psychedelic guitar work that really amp’d up the material. Mixing with driving percussion and the odd keyboard flourish, there were points during the set where The Jicks were a real Rock and Roll band, and not simply another showcase for Malkmus’ sidelong wit. During an encore that featured covers including CCR’s “Lodi,” the band reached for heights not even suggested on record, and achieved them resoundingly. Playing guitar behind his head, through his legs, and on his back, Stephen Malkmus may have showed his true colors as a (drop the Indie) Rocker. If only his sense of humor would let him do that all the time.

It’s interesting to return to his studio material after watching him onstage. The songs’ joke-y lyrics mix well with the focused arrangements and crystalline production. But despite Matador Records’ attempts at marketing Stephen Malkmus as the alternative Robbie Williams, the actual music will still not appeal to anyone outside of The Indie Universe. Even though his muse has led him far enough away from Pavement’s silliness to create a solid solo effort, it’s not exactly Top 40 material. And the funniest thing about it is that no one (besides maybe the bean counters at Matador) really cares. At 35, Malkmus has made a career out of being a slacker genius. He has conquered the Indie world, with literally hundreds of adoring fans in every club in every city. Those same fans don’t want to see Their Man on TRL; indeed, that would ruin his “Indie Cred,” and then they’d have to move on to Scott Kannberg’s Pavement solo project. And that’s no fun. Malkmus and The Jicks sold out two shows in Chicago. The crowd was a mixture of aging Indie Rockers and young kids hip to the scene. And everyone there was in love with Malkmus’ moves, because he’s the coolest damn kid in Indie. Always was; still is.

The summer after fifth grade, John Dubiski’s family moved, and no one ever saw him again. But we all remembered him and his boom box at Park Day, shuffling along with his bright eyes and easygoing demeanor. And for that period in time, we had John Dubiski, his coolness, and his ghetto blaster all to ourselves. And we felt cooler.

JTL

Hope

“As a pop music critic, I’ve had fun diving into the role of a crank: lonely protector of the true text. It’s a ridiculous role—and it’s amazing how much work it offers.”

—Greil Marcus

“Myth and Misquotation”

The Dustbin of History

Musical Maturity?

Bill Flanagan really must have some juice. Encomia on his novel A&R are provided by Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Peter Buck, and Tom Petty. Someone more cynical than I might say that this constitutes a large portion of the literate throng among the rock community. I’m not saying that.

Flanagan, according to the dust jacket, is senior vp and editorial director of VH1. Evidently, he knows intimately about the business he is telling a tale about. And make no mistake: It is a business.

A&R could be turned into a movie (of the week) in short order, a roman a’ clef always makes for the who-is-it? fascination.. There is the requisite number of interlocking and tangential narrative threads as it follows Jim Cantone, A&R man who, in order to get some bigger coin, leaves behind a smaller label to move to the modestly named WorldWide Music, where his belief in himself—and his music—is sorely tested. There is the head of WorldWide, “Wild Bill” DeGaul, who has done everything with everybody as he has created his musical empire. Musicians Lily Rope and Jerusalem. . . .Sex. Drugs. Travel. Rock and roll. And, oh yes, financial machinations.

OK. So it’s a potboiler.

But Flanagan raises an interesting point. A financial guy takes control of the company and does a reorg of the WorldWide staff. And he says, “I think we have to address the reality that pop music now is R&B. That’s not good or bad, it’s just the truth. . . .I listen to what’s getting played on Top Forty radio, it’s pretty clear that rock and roll is no longer the center of the universe. Rock and pop are moving away from each other. . . Why should pop be a subdivision of rock?”

He goes on to say, “Rock and roll doesn’t have to carry the bottom line anymore.” (Remember: we’re talking business here.) “It doesn’t have to pay for everything else. Let hip-hop take that financial burden and you let rock flourish as an art form. It’s a mature style now, like jazz.”

So I ask all of you: Is this correct? Is pop R&B? Is rock mature? Does it matter?

Rock and roll can change your life.