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The Death of Cool and Grand Royal

By Phil Wise

Why does everything suck? You may ask yourself that question as you stop into your local Starbucks and pick up a Grande Latte, but you know the answer. Because cool doesn’t sell and this is the United Statistics of Americorp. Last week’s closing of Grand Royal is the latest casualty in this corporate-dominated, zip-locked world where it’s hip to be square.

Founded in 1992 by arbiters of hip, The Beastie Boys, Grand Royal records set out to be the modern day equivalent of the Beatles’ Apple Records—a safe haven for artists to create and market their work. The B-Boys are insanely successful and have truly earned the crown of cool with their impact on music, fashion and progressive politics in the early- and mid-90s. The excitement surrounding 1992’s Check Your Head was genuine and deserved. It was a slight departure from their classic Paul’s Boutique, yet in line with their appreciation of old school hip-hop and funk, 80s hard rock and their burgeoning talents for “world music.” Released at the dawn of the alternative age, Check Your Head was the ever-present soundtrack for millions of B-Boy wannabes who would do almost anything to emulate their Brooklyn heroes.

Real B-Boy, Mike D., started out just designing some phat gear. His subsequent clothing line was an immediate sensation with skater kids and New York hipsters, but it was never gonna hit the malls. Combine that stunted promise with the creation of Grand Royal Magazine in 1993 and you’ve got the seeds sown for world domination.

Over the past nine years Grand Royal has grown to be a magazine, clothing designer and outlet and, of course, record label. As a label it stood out in its almost pathological sense of diversity among acts. Not to be pigeonholed, Grand Royal signed some of the 90s most unique, fresh and sometimes downright unmarketable bands around. Their roster posted such acts as Scapegoat Wax, Astounded, Nullset, Sean Lennon, Ben Lee and their top selling groups: Luscious Jackson and At the Drive-in. All but the last two groups were marginal sellers at best and that may be where the crack in the glass began.

The breakup of their two top selling acts (the latter, ATDI, on the eve of their tour to promote the million selling Relationship of Command) can’t have been good for business. As a label, I think Grand Royal was doomed from the get go. Why? Because cool doesn’t sell, dumbass. Niche groups are just that and appeal to select audiences, which despite the flood of alternia in the 90s, remains relatively small.

But I think Grand Royal could have been saved if, in the 90s when the Beasties and their Mothership were at their height, they could have established Grand Royal as a brand. A concerted effort to parlay the Beastie Boys authority on hipness to a full line of clothing and related accessories could have given Grand Royal a brand promise, to use marketing-speak, that would rival McDonalds or Coca-Cola. Then, those legions of B-Boys and B-Girls may have accepted these fringe groups that GR, the record label, was promoting. But that would have spoiled Grand Royal and reduced it to the same level of celebrity vanity labels as Bad Boy, Maverick, or Fred Durst’s new day job, Interscope (all relatively successful, by the way).

Grand Royal was original and promoted groups that displayed the same sense of originality and diversity that makes its founders’ music so influential and vital in this pop-washed world. The fate of its acts is yet to be determined but I would say there’s little chance of picking up the Buffalo Daughter or Sukpatch singles at your local Best Buy. Better get to Grand Royal now while you still can pick these gems up—Better late than never.


The 2001 VMAs Get Boring With the Cheez Whiz

Johnny Loftus

The 2001 MTV Video Music Awards made it perfectly clear that Pop is dead. For a show that has always offered at least a few bright spots, nothing in the performances, appearances, or posturing of the celebrities chosen to appear was remotely controversial, artistic, or even funny. The entire show was like Technicolor Malt-O Meal. And you know what that’ll look like when it comes out the other end. Like watching the final talent show at a summer camp you didn’t go to, the VMAs played out as a series of product placements masquerading as some celebrities playing charades in an elevator where the cable just snapped. Laugh it up, popstars: That was your fourteenth minute.

Sure, Britney’s not going anywhere for awhile. She’s too entrenched. Shit, if Virgin gives that old bag Whitney Houston a hundred million dollars for SIX albums, when all we’ve heard out of her for the past 4 years is “It’s not my pot!”, then it’s a good bet that Britney will survive the Poplife shitstorm that’s on the horizon. But what about Dream, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Willa Ford, Eve’s Crush, or even Christina? Sorry girls. I think Branson’s hiring, though. They should have known when they read the production notes for the VMAs that required the lot of them to arrive on stage at once, en masse, like a police lineup. (“Alright Mr Jenkins, can you pick out the diva that did this to you?”). MTV knows that they need to find a fatter cash cow toot suite, but they probably figured, “Hell, what’s one more awards show where we wring out the last of whatever saleable assets these galoops had in the first place?”

And that’s what happened.

All the popstars, thugs, and moan-rockers threw themselves and their record labels a big party, and hopped around on the platform in silly hats, yapping about their upcoming albums. After all, platinum football fields and wrist ice don’t come cheap. While Macy Gray took the product hawking to QVC-like levels, wearing a dress that proclaimed the release date of her forthcoming LP, no one else was any better, or less subtle. P.Diddy and his crew of Cosby kids opted to arrive at the VMAs not in a limo, but on the flatbed of a Peterbilt, slip-sliding about on the back end, rapping – no, pleading – “We ain’t goin’ nowhere.” I’m sure that Sean Combs/Puffy/P.Diddy/Puff Daddy/Diddy Pop would like to believe that, but nothing in his new material, or that of like-minded NYC rapper Jay-Z makes me think anything other than “Where’s the remote? Maybe I can catch the last few minutes of an old ‘Law & Order’ episode…”

That’s the anthem. Get your damn hands up.

The event began with the inevitable pre-show, which was about as exciting as Kurt Loder’s new haircut. Kid Rock showed up giving props out to the D with his vintage Bob Seger tour shirt. Sitting next to the Detroit player was some west coast pussy, Ms Pam Anderson, who seems to be giving Michael Jackson a run for his money in the surgery department. Poor Pammy looks like a cross between a blow up doll and a ‘Slippery when wet’ road sign. Next to take the stand in the court of Kurt was Britney and – I shit you not – Mick Jagger. While it wasn’t clear whether he was impersonating Austin Powers or vice versa, Jagger was definitely eyeing up Justin’s lady. “Aye Kurt, Oi seemply laawwve Britney’s work. Oi believe she perfawmed one of our sawngs, did she not?”, all the while wishing he had mirrors on the tops of his loafers. While the dichotomy of Jagger and Spears sharing space together was mildly interesting, the effect wore off after the 20th mention of their November album releases. Mick, next time just buy a billboard.

So the nizight went izon, with appearances by Snoop, DMX, Mark Whalberg, and — ? – Tizim Robbins. U2 smiled wanly through their interviews and a performance of “Elevation” that featured more technical glitches than a Soviet Internet cafĂ©. Pizza Hut pitchman Carson Daly, bestowing upon the bewildered band a “Video Vanguard” award, referred to their work as “a fist in the air, a kick in the balls, and 2 hearts beating as one.” Well, that’s true, but for all that dope and his network know about Rock and Roll, they’ll christen Smashmouth as the progenitors of the “next big thing.” After a series of ill-timed bits and an appearance by Will Ferrell that just made you feel bad for him, the Remaining Ramones were trotted out as icons, and then promptly denied speaking time. J Lo and Ja Rule failed at being sexy. Alicia Keys, a bright spot in the Lauryn Hill Fallout Sweepstakes (Macy Gray, Nikka Costa, Jill Scott, etc.), blew up the arrangement of “Fallin'” into a groaning, teetering beast that devoured the simple pleasure of the song’s studio version. Oh well, I guess she’s just trying to be remembered in the midst of MTV Babylon.

The Lindsey Wagner movie airing opposite the 2001 VMAs on Lifetime was more edgy and controversial than MTV’s big event. In an evening dominated by Hip Hop and R&B, concessions were made to that other fading trend, Nu Metal. Staind moaned about something or other; Linkin Park’s squeaky clean lead singers won’t make anyone wasn’t to stay out past curfew (11:30pm) in Dad’s car. Aren’t these guys supposed to be scary looking? MuDvAyNe, the Eve’s Crush of the Moan-Core world, accepted their award with glittering mohawks and bullethole makeup. Ooh, I’m so scared. Jeez.

MTV won’t change. Its soulless programming of artists it chooses will continue unabated until a pop music movement comes along to either change or destroy it. Though the commemorative articles currently circulating think otherwise, Nirvana and their grunge brethren didn’t change the station. They were absorbed and compromised by it. Maybe Radiohead, Wilco, Ron Sexsmith, Bjork, Superchunk, Edith Frost, Smog, Lucinda Williams, and Ryan Adams will get together, form a summit, and change the musical lives of everyone out there thinking that MTV is a requirement on our cultural radar. But probably not. Britney Spears will release her new album in November, and it will most likely do very well. Even though her performance of “Slave 4 U” resembled a tribute to Scandal’s video for “The Warrior,” even though the song was the biggest piece of trash since her boyfriend’s performance of “Pop” 20 minutes before her, there’s no question that Britney will continue to sell records, at least until she becomes a full time actress. And MTV will be right there to analyze it, package it, and re-broadcast it until it’s time for them to give her a Video Vanguard award down the road in her career. She should be ready for that in about, oh, 3 years?

That’s the deal with this Pop life, and that’s why it’ll fade out.


GRAND ROYAL, RIP 1993-2001

“Our intentions were always simply to create a home for exciting music and the people who were passionate about it,” Diamond said. “It really sucks that we can’t continue to do that.”

That’s Mike D of the Beastie Boys in the press release regarding his Grand Royal record label going out of business today. You can read it in it’s entirety here, and sound off on their board.

[More on this coming up soon… – ed.]

Continue reading GRAND ROYAL, RIP 1993-2001

Sex, Drugs, and Well. . .

Sex, Drugs, and Well. . .

One of the ways that music—not always rock and roll, but for many of us, it or some variant—can change your life is when it works as a catalyst: There is a certain someone, you, and the music. At the point when these are mixed together, it doesn’t matter if you are in a concert hall or the back seat of a borrowed Buick: It is all that matters.

Throughout time—yes, I’m guessing that our Neolithic forbearers and firebearers were rhythmically beating sticks or rocks or blowing through marrow less bones and bopping around the flat dirt outside the cave—this has been the case. Although there is probably a tendency nowadays to think of music/dancing/sex in the context of today (I suspect that many of us are time-ists, thinking ours is the pinnacle while a minority believes “they don’t make ’em like they used to”—regardless of what “’em” may be), one of the wonderful aspects of the film Amadeus (1984) is when Constanze, played by Elizabeth Berridge, is chasing Tom Hulce’s Wolfgang around: his music may be mannered, but the catalyst still kicks in. There has always been a whole lot of shakin’ going on.

Back in the late 1970s, one of the bands that many a dance bar DJ played when they wanted to “slow things down”—which is not to overlook this band’s up-tempo numbers—is Earth, Wind & Fire. Which, like many bands that wore clothes that looked funny then and which continue to look funny now, pretty much dropped off the screen (and turntable). Maybe it had something to do with the Phil Collins/Philip Bailey collaboration.

But like many things from then, they are back in now. Earth, Wind & Fire is touring.

The band, of course, has a sponsor. Viagra. Apparently, Pfizer isn’t merely going to put up banners, but will actually have booths at the venues so that guys can get their, er, health checked.

Imagine: “Excuse me, honey, I have to go see a health paraprofessional about my, ah, about some, umm, equipment. . . . Want me to get you a wine cooler on my way back?”

Maybe this gives EW&F’s “After the Love Is Gone” a whole new meaning.

The latest problem with music

It’s really a shame that Steve Albini’s famous article from 1994, The Problem with Music, is now more applicable than ever. I’d love to read an updated version of this article with sections dealing with how studio engineers, producers and label executives convince bands to “fix” all their mistakes with computer programs such as ProTools, thereby removing any trace of “soul” from the recordings. Check out this handy feature of the latest version of ProTools:

Automatic Tempo Detection and Conforming
The new Beat Detective™ feature saves hours of editing time by analyzing a performance, intelligently correcting timing, then automatically smoothing the edits.

Isn’t that nifty? No longer does your drummer need to keep a beat! He can be all over the place and the computer program will “intelligently correct” it. Never mind the fact that the occasional, subtle change of tempo can add to the emotional atmosphere of a recording. Just ask Ringo Starr. To quote Beatles producer, George Martin: “…[A]lthough Ringo does not keep time with a metronome accuracy, he has unrivaled feel for a song. If his timing fluctuates, it invariably does so in the right place at the right time, keep the right atmosphere going on the track and give it a rock solid foundation.”

And how about the Pitch Doctor plug-in, also known as the Pitch Bitch? “When an out-of-tune performance is a problem, PitchDoctor is nothing less than a session-saving miracle. Simply enter the desired key and scale, and Pitch Doctor automatically adjusts the intonation of any out-of-tune notes.” This of course is how the WB channel can take four obviously talentless girls and turn them into Popstars. If you watched any of that show, you could tell from the finalists’ auditions that it was going to take a great deal of studio trickery to make these gals sound slick.

Slick. Polished. Professional. That’s what these new tools can make your band sound like. I would be willing to bet that the Beat Detective and the Pitch Bitch were used on the new Weezer album, stripping it of the soul and charm that the Blue Album — whose formula the new album copied to the letter — had by the boatload. And they’re used by every major label band out there. And by a lot of indies too. Slick. Polished. Professional. Isn’t that great! Isn’t that what rock and roll is all about?

33 vs. 45

So I’m torn here. I’ve always been an album guy. Raised on AOR Classic Rock. Among my favorite records are concept albums like Quadraphenia and The Wall. Never bought too many “singles,” even when they were disguised as 12″ records. Still use the term “LP” on occasion. Yet I’ve always loved that one great song from the one hit wonder. And due to a rather serious habit of making mixes for friends in college, I even got hooked on the idea of a single: One great piece of music that can be taken totally out of context of the artist’s larger body of work.

All this leaves me pondering the future. Now that we’ve got CD burners and MP3s, what’s going to happen to the album? We’re left trading, ripping, uploading, and burning singles; will there be any room for anything else? Increasingly, I find myself not even using my album or CD collection anymore—it’s easier to fire up the MP3 player and listen to an endless random selection of my music. But this does not come without a price.

As I continue to rip everything I own, the dilemma becomes how do I categorize it? Do I keep the album information intact on my hard drive? Do I just lump every Wilco song together in the same directory? Do I even remember the track order for Summerteeth anymore?

The answer to that last rhetorical question is, unfortunately, “No.” The other day I realized that I had accidentally deleted one of the tracks from that album from my hard drive, probably over a year ago. Or maybe I just never finished ripping the disc. I don’t really know, but amidst the other dozens of Wilco tunes, the song got overlooked.

This is a serious issue, and not just because the new way we collect music runs the risk of omitting odious album filler, reducing all of music listening to the lowest common denominator that is (was?) Top 40 radio. Content and form are more than just casual bedmates; if we leave out the less than stellar, we’re left with little context for evaluation, thereby forgoing much of the joy of listening.

There’s a reason we’re music lovers and collectors, rather than just casual radio listeners, and a lot of it has to do with albums. Albums breed a comprehensive approach to listening, not just to artists, but to entire genres of music. How can one appreciate “The End” if they haven’t listened to the first 15 songs on Abbey Road? How can you see the greatness of early 70s Stones without having heard Hank Williams Sr. and John Lee Hooker?

What would Tommy be without “Tommy’s Holiday Camp?”

The Strokes: I Heard They Suck Live

They’re cooler than Keith Richards. Their music will save your life. And their haircuts will make your girlfriend leave you. They are The Strokes, and they’re coming to a truck-stop shower stall near you.

If you ask the nice folks in Lake Edna what they think of Fabrizio Moretti’s drumming skills, or Albert Hammond, Jr’s coif of impossibly unwashed hair, they might use responses similar to those uttered by the good people listening to “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” in John McRea’s docu-video for Cake’s new single. In the clip, no one cares that McRea’s band is “hep” and features a trumpet. His snide, proto-Malkmus lyricisms get about as far as the left bra strap before the hearty souls listening on headphones hold up a pink hand and say “WOAH! Outta the car, longhair!” Cake’s inability to get to third base with the average American who doesn’t wear odd eyewear or sport a homemade Kahimi Karie T-shirt illustrates the humor behind The Strokes’ campaign of guerilla chic. Even though every critic from London to Los Angeles has taken their moniker literally, Dot down at the LeSabre Diner probably wouldn’t seat Moretti, Hammond, Nikolai Fraiture, Nick Valensi, or Julian Casablancas if they stumbled through her door looking for a round of blintzes. “They looked homeless,” she would remark later.

The Strokes are an NYC product, built out of showcases at the Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge. They wear leather. They’re pretty. And none of them can rent a car legally. Is that why this quintet of fabulously wasted youths have made like Jimi Hendrix, storming the UK press before anyone in the US even bums them a Marlboro? No. It’s because the Strokes’ full-length RCA debut (slated for September) will move more units if a few pricey Rough Trade singles have already spread the word amongst the funny shoes set. For you everydayers, those are the freakishly pale youngsters on the subway who look like they stepped out of the couture section in your copy of British GQ. For this truly is the demographic that this sort of marketing works on. Just like Jessica Simpson and City High touring your local supermall (“SEE the STARS! BUY their RECORD!”), a band of the Strokes’ pedigree sells records anyway it can. And if a million media outlets (including NME, Top of the Pops, The Face, Blender, and Sonic Net) buy into their New York state of mind and unwashed groove, then that’s more blowjobs for Julian Casablancas and his mates. And I don’t mean from the critics.

So what’s up? Are they a Flock of Seagulls tribute act, or what? Nah, but those guys had nice haircuts, too. No, the Strokes’ ju ju, based on two EPs and a brief domestic stint with Guided by Voices, seems to revolve around the musical heart of — surprise – New York City. After all, they are children of Manhattan, and Julian’s daddy is John Casablancas, brains behind Elite Modeling. In the chiming, gritty guitars of “The Modern Age” EP lie echoes of The Velvets, and Julian’s faux crooning goes a long way toward conjuring Lou Reed. Their simplistic, yet tuneful songs could suggest the No-Wave of Television. Or they could just be amateurs. Either way, their hair is perfect…

The boys grace the latest Rolling Stone’s “Random Notes” column with a photo that seems boilerplate Strokes: As half-drank Budweisers add color, the lads stare into and away from the camera’s flash, reveling in their complete wasteosity. Bassist Fraiture seems to be pointing at Hammond’s crotch. “No, you put that in the model’s growler.” As this shot is basically identical to every other Strokes publicity snap, one can only assume that, even if their music doesn’t make any waves with Joe Heartland, at least the elegant boys from New York’ll deflower his daughter.

And if that isn’t as cool as Keith Richards, what is?


Cult of Personality: Jeff Tweedy vs. Alt-Country

Cult of Personality

Jeff Tweedy’s family feud with

By Phil Wise

Obsession is a funny thing. It can be as powerful as a smoking habit and as enveloping as the priesthood. It often elicits behavior as extreme as the lifetime smoker stuffing cigarette butts into his tracheal hole or a monk protesting injustice by dousing himself with gas and setting himself ablaze. Obsession can show you the way to enlightenment through discipline or mask you with blinders that block out your mania. When that obsession turns on its muse, you’ve got the makings of a stalker and they are a dangerous breed.

No Depression fans, as the group of people who love all things “” (from out of tune fiddles to overalls) are commonly called, are a rabid bunch and not to be taken lightly. They take sides. They’re more polarized than Cubs and Sox fans, Democrats and Republicans, or Sammy and Diamond Dave disciples. The most ardent of them are a proud group who revel in their cult status and the fact that they’re the only people in the world who know who Gillian Welch is. They’re not exclusionary though and welcome newbies with a zeal that rivals that of a born again Christian or Amway distributor. To join their ranks is a warm experience shared over tasty beers and homespun music. But eventually you’ll be called upon to state your allegiance and your answer will forever mark you in their yellow eyes.

It may come up at a hip party in Chicago’s Logan Square, Wicker Park having fallen from grace with the invasion of Starbucks and MTV. Or perhaps at the fantastic Hideout on Wabansia, the scene of some of the best shows in the city and host to the Bloodshot Records 5th Anniversary Block Party. You may see someone wearing a Whiskeytown shirt and strike up a conversation. You’ll both agree that former Whiskeytown front man Ryan Adams’ solo debut Heartbreaker is genius. You’ll affably debate the merits of Lucinda William’s recently released Essence, but agree that Car Wheels on a Dirt Road was your favorite. You’ll dazzle him with your fervent love of the Outlaws and agree that Gram Parsons was not only “the shit,” but also the architect of the modern alternative country movement, with ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith garnering an honorable mention.

You’re getting along famously and promising to burn stacks of Doug Sahm and Will Oldham boots for each other when the question comes: What do you think of Summer Teeth?

This is it. The equivalent of the pro-life/pro-choice question. The division in the world is wide, insipid and sometimes violent. I’ve seen No Depressioners come to blows more than once over this album and its creators Wilco.

Hard-liners are vehement in their rejection of Wilco singer/songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s departure from the ranks and often heckle him at solo shows, trying to incite the diminutive singer to react. He sometimes does with biting humor that always finds its way to No Depression magazine and various Wilco/Uncle Tupelo chat rooms. The verbal fencing sometimes gets ugly and often just serves to further alienate Tweedy’s wayward flock.

It wasn’t always this way

Tweedy’s first group, Uncle Tupelo, had a deeply committed fan base who reeled in disbelief upon the group’s breakup in 1994. But they took the release of Wilco’s debut A.M. (and former Uncle Tupelo co-songwriter Jay Farrar’s Trace under the Son Volt moniker) as confirmation that Tweedy would stay the course and promote their rallying cry against modern “Nashville” country and the despised pop music clogging the airwaves. They even tolerated Tweedy’s experimentation on the group’s follow-up Being There, mainly because of the soft pedal steel touches like those found on the heartbreaking “Far Far Away” or the raucous roadhouse stomp like “Dreamer of my Dreams.” But they sent warnings through bulletin boards and listservs that any more diversion would not be tolerated.

The warnings seemed to be heeded with Wilco’s work on the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with British folky and protest singer Billy Bragg. There was a return to folk arrangements and the back porch, beer-drinking gaiety Wilco perfected on A.M. It was most notably found on the breakout single from the first Mermaid Avenue with the lilting “California Stars.” The defiant Tweedy still dabbled in pop with “Hoodoo Voodoo” and “Secret of the Sea,” but for the most part followed Bragg’s lead. This may be due to the fact that Wilco was called in on the project some time after Bragg had initiated it.

Push comes to shove

Then came the release of 1998’s Summer Teeth, which cast aside all but the subtlest country influences. Awash in keyboards, kettledrums and Brian Wilson-esque arrangements, Summer Teeth stood in stark contrast to what had become the “Wilco sound,” or rather that of the insurgent country stalwarts.

Tweedy’s solo shows, which had grown considerably on the success of the Mermaid Avenue projects and Wilco’s increasing profile, also started to attract boisterous heckles from the disenchanted. The most ardent No Depressioners turned on Tweedy with shouts of “Judas!” just as Bob Dylan’s fans had with his turn to electric guitars some 30 years before. In chatrooms, bulletin boards, listservs and fans sites, Tweedy was put on trial for crimes against God and

Compatriots in a Yankee Hotel

The alienation of Tweedy’s original fan base has done little to dissuade him from further experimentation. The heckles and attempts to pigeonhole hole him have actually done nothing to bring him back into the insurgent country fold. In fact, it may have driven him over the edge and into the arms of noise-pop vanguard Jim O’Rourke, who produced mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco’s anxiously anticipated fourth album. A partnership like this likely sends chills down the spine of No Depressioners as they imagine an album devoid of song structure and brimming with buzzes, whistles and pops.

But they might be surprised when (and if) they hear the album when it (and if) finally comes out. While it’s by no means a return to Wilco’s simple country-rock beginnings, it does have more of the elements that put Tweedy and Co. on the map: beautiful violins, subtle pedal steel and stark acoustic accompaniment. It remains to be seen whether this new album will win back those O.T.’s (Original Tweedy-heads), but they’d be doing themselves a favor by dropping their criteria and listening to the music. It beats a restraining order and 200 hours of community service.

Rock and roll can change your life.