I’m so excited to have something that I can unconditionally crap all over that I’m going to lead with it: Did anyone watch that MTV Icon thing this week?
If you’re not aware, the Icon series is an excuse for MTV to kiss mighty ass on a regular basis. Each show focuses on one artist that has made MTV money, and takes the form of a tribute concert featuring (unsurprisingly) artists that are currently making MTV money. Also, the icon in question usually has a new album that the record companies who program MTV would like to see made popular, so the icon takes the stage to play the new single and push the product. It’s all a big consumer-screwing festival disguised as an honor of some sort.
Anyway, the delightfully ironic recipient of this year’s Icon treatment is Metallica – ironic because, for the first six years of their existence, Metallica steadfastly resisted MTV and its new form of marketing. They sold platinum numbers of their first three albums (which many contend are and always will be their best), sold out every show they played, and did it all without radio or video to help. When they finally cracked and made a clip for one of their songs, they chose “One,” a seven-minute dirge, and set it to black and white clips of Jason Robards’ performance in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Not exactly “In Da Club.”
True, the floodgates opened with the dreaded black album, but for a long time, Metallica raised middle fingers to MTV, preferring to do things the old fashioned way. As much as I make fun of them for it, I believe it was that same resistance to new ways of marketing themselves that led to them suing their fans during Napster’s heyday, rather than figuring out ways to make file swapping work for them. Metallica has always been a working class band, and the farthest thing from an icon in their own minds as possible.
So here’s James, Lars, Kirk and new bassist Rob Trujilo sitting there and listening to the parade of shit MTV has decided to “honor” them with, and gamely pretending that they’re into it, which made me even more sad. It was hard for me to listen to Limp Bizkit, for example, slashing and burning their way through “Sanitarium,” so it must have been kind of difficult for the guys who wrote the song to hear it desecrated. But no, the short-haired, middle-aged version of Metallica just seemed to love it.
And then there’s Avril Lavigne. This is the first and last time I will ever mention the latest Canadian pop tart in this space, but I need to point out just how ridiculous marketing really is. Avril, you see, has a carefully crafted image of a “punk rock chick” to live up to, even though she herself has never heard the Clash, the Sex Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers, or, really, any punk band at all, ever. Her marketing force must have surmised that appearing at a Metallica tribute show would be oh so very punk, even though Metallica has never even approximated punk in music or attitude.
So here’s Avril, who admitted in interviews to never having heard Metallica before either, pseudo-emoting her way through “Fuel,” and just sucking at it. She described “Fuel” as “a really long song,” because four and a half minutes is just huge, I guess. Good thing she didn’t try for “And Justice For All,” or “Creeping Death.” (Actually, that’s a very good thing.)
The kicker is, the Metallica boys totally loved it. This leads to one of two conclusions: a), the band resisted the same urge to vomit repeatedly that I did, and pretended to go along so as not to ruin their big promotional push and jeopardize their label stock options, or b), the band really liked Avril’s rendition. Either way, the news is bad. They’re just not the same band anymore, which is sad. They’ve followed Dave Mustaine up Suck Mountain, and nothing’s going to bring them back now.
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From Metallica to Fleetwood Mac. How’s that for range?
I find Fleetwood Mac endlessly interesting, mostly because they never really were what people think they were. For one thing, the group of five musicians that most people consider Fleetwood Mac is really only responsible for five of their 15 albums. They were a gritty blues band first and a dazzling pop act second, but even the dazzling pop was a facade hiding an emotional tempest and a seething bitterness. Lite FM radio will try to convince you that Fleetwood Mac put out nothing but variations on “Rhiannon” and “Landslide,” and such an assumption couldn’t be more wrong.
For one thing, the most popular incarnation of Fleetwood Mac had (and has) a secret weapon that no Lite FM act could touch, and his name is Lindsey Buckingham. This guy is seriously underrated in every respect – as a songwriter, a guitarist and a producer, he’s pretty astonishing. Just check out most of the similarly underrated and ignored Tusk album and you’ll see what I mean. Lindsey owns that show, and his carefully crafted chaos was unjustly reviled as bloated and excessive. By today’s standards, it’s fairly tame, and at 68 minutes, it’s not even all that long.
No, if you want to talk bloated and excessive, you need to hear the new Fleetwood Mac album, Say You Will. This thing has 18 songs that cover 76 minutes, and even though it’s this incarnation’s first album together (sans Christine McVie) in 16 years, the album has a bit too much of a good thing. It’s a shame, because what’s good here is outstanding.
It’s helpful to think of Say You Will as two albums jammed together, or played on shuffle. Roughly half of these songs were originally slated for Buckingham’s aborted fourth solo album, titled Gift of Screws, which should give you some indication of the tone. The other half are Stevie Nicks songs, and although all of them are decent, Nicks hasn’t noticeably changed her style in decades. The result is a bit of a mish-mash, and the album feels like a collection of songs rather than a cohesive piece. (Tusk, for all its supposed excess, flows beautifully.)
So not only is some editing needed here, but the random quality of the album makes it easier to jettison some dead weight. If it were up to me, though, we’d be hearing Gift of Screws, since Buckingham’s songs are all standouts. “What’s the World Coming To” opens the record on a Byrds-ish note, featuring the jauntiest reading of the title phrase in recent memory, but soon we’re off to the races. “Murrow Turning Over in His Grave” is a powerhouse, and Buckingham does things with a guitar in the second half that would send his Lite FM fans screaming. “Red Rover” is a tricky finger-picked piece that sounds impossible to play, and “Come” is the most dynamic thing here, slipping from reverbed acoustic to slamming electric and another amazing solo.
Buckingham’s production really deserves special mention. It’s incredibly precise and clean, yet fully human and organic as well. Say You Will flits from full-sounding chamber pop to unaccompanied acoustic to screaming ’70s rock solos, and each sound is perfect in and of itself. That the songs don’t mesh well is unfortunate – Buckingham worked so hard to make each song as good as possible, but failed to provide a through-line for the album.
There really aren’t any bad songs on Say You Will, though there are a few blandly pleasant ones. In total, though, it’s an exhausting listen – there’s just too much here, in too random a pattern, to properly absorb. It’s good to hear this band again, especially when they recapture the classic sound only this group of musicians makes, but I wish Say You Will didn’t sound like they treated it as the last record they’ll ever make. Although, considering how long Buckingham takes to get things up to his exacting standards, it very well might be their swan song, especially since it ends with two songs whose titles contain the word “goodbye.”
If Say You Will turns out to be the last album Buckingham, Nicks, Fleetwood and McVie make together, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go out. The band has remained true to itself, releasing an album of songs only they could have made this way, and they refused to pepper it with hit singles. (Strongest of all in that vein may be Nicks’ luminous title track, however.) Taken in small pieces, it’s a good album, but swallowed whole, it’s just too much. If they decide to do this again in another 16 years, they should learn from this and rein in their prolific tendencies. Or make two albums. But if they’re going to do that, they should probably just stick with their solo careers.
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I’m having trouble with this week’s Buffy, mostly because the story didn’t move in any of the ways I thought it would after last week’s emotional wringer. I’m disappointed in the boneheadedly literal chosen one metaphor as well, though on second viewing, there’s a lot that I admire about the episode. Still, with only two to go before the end, don’t you think it’s time the writers start letting us in on some things? The longer they draw out these mysteries, the more I’m convinced they just don’t have good answers for us.
But Angel‘s season finale was amazing, perfectly setting up either the end or a new beginning for Buffy‘s still-unrenewed little brother. I’m particularly impressed at how Tim Minear (writer and director) gave us an overwhelmingly positive and emotional episode that cleverly disguised the fact that the bad guys just utterly won. Astounding. I hope Buffy‘s finale is that good.
Anyway, next week, some of the ones I mentioned last week. For sure.
See you in line Tuesday morning.