Two Fingers to the Man
The music industry is diseased. This seems to be a common diagnosis. Sales are down, quality music is nowhere to be found at your local Sam Goody, and record companies keep trying to force-feed the world with the latest teen-pop sex-tart or “really, like, rebellious” teen-pop anger-whore. In general, it’s probably safe to say that the geniuses who believe they are steering this ship of fools are totally out of ideas.
The whole situation even has Don Henley pissed off. Now here’s a guy I don’t exactly associate with the words “righteous fury,” but he lays it all out here. And for the most part, he’s right. Deregulation and consolidation have killed the idea of artists and replaced it with “content providers,” a phrase I found particularly chilling. It’s all about the money, all about shoving more product down our throats, and who can blame music fans for heading online in disgust?
The thing is, the music industry’s demise will not kill the music. Digital recording software is incredibly affordable, and online distribution is becoming more and more viable. It likely won’t be long before the whole commercial aspect of the music biz is handled online, from the discovery of new bands to the purchase of their music, whether that be in CD or MP3 form, or in some other medium we haven’t yet created. It’s coming, folks, and perhaps the best part of that for music fans is that the focus will be on the music, not the company-created image or the slick music video or the product tie-ins.
If you want to talk about artists who keep finding new ways to draw in listeners and create relationships with them, then near the top of the list has to be Mike Peters of the Alarm. For his entire career, Peters has been about circumventing that big business model that Henley’s talking about, and forging partnerships between himself and his fans. Visitors to his website can buy dozens of exclusive CDs, including the full 54-song version of In the Poppy Fields, the Alarm’s new album. Not only that, but fans were invited to vote for their favorite songs, determining the track listing of the 12-song retail version of the album.
The condensed album is out in April, but Peters has preceded its release with one of the most audacious hoodwinks in music history, and that’s what I want to talk about. Maybe you heard about this. The Alarm came out with their first single in 15 years last month – “45 RPM,” a nifty little punk raveup. Only they didn’t call themselves the Alarm. The single was released under the name The Poppy Fields, and Peters went so far as to hire a bunch of teenagers to mime the song for the video. His point, of course, is that the same music released under the Alarm name and played by four guys in their 40s wouldn’t have much of a shot.
And guess what? The move was a huge success. Music reviewers gushed on and on about this new band, this great new find. The Poppy Fields cracked the UK Top 40, a feat the Alarm no doubt could never have accomplished under their own name. Peters has now come clean, and the publicity has been massive. He’s appeared on dozens of news programs from around the world (Dan Rather even did a bit on him), engaging what he hopes will be a fruitful debate about the image-focused music industry.
Was it a stunt? Sure. People are certainly talking about the Alarm now, but what that might mean for the sales and success of the new record is still up in the air. By and large, people don’t like being fooled, but if anyone can bring people in on a joke like this, it’s Mike Peters. The question is, is it a valid point? And is it a point worth making?
In my mind, absolutely, on both counts. The music hasn’t changed – “45 RPM” is still a kickass song, no matter who’s playing it, and that’s the point. The rest, the trappings that record companies hope you’ll cling to and identify with so they can move more product, is all media manipulation. Hopefully this grand-scale satire will be an eye-opener, and the labels’ target markets will start watching MTV with newfound clarity, asking, “Would I listen to this if it were being sung by 45-year-old men?” The point is this: music is music, and image is nothing.
I’m glad I mentioned this today, as well, because it’s Mike Peters’ birthday. He’s 45, and still doing what he does, God bless him. Happy birthday, Mike.
The Don Henley link is courtesy of Dr. Tony Shore, who also gave me and this site a nice plug on his blog. Dr. Shore works with Silent Planet Records, a label that is the antithesis of the soulless corporate machine. They’ve released Aaron Sprinkle’s work and Terry Taylor’s Avocado Faultline, among others, and they were the guiding force behind the great tribute to Brian Wilson, Making God Smile. Check out the good doctor’s blog here and Silent Planet here.
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I very rarely do this, and I’d like to think it’s because I’m rarely this wrong, but I have to retract a review from earlier this year. It’s odd, because often I will get half a dozen emails taking me to task for a certain opinion, and I politely stand by it, but this time, only one reader grabbed me by the lapels and shook me (metaphorically speaking), and that was Lucas Beeley. And he was right.
When I first spun the new Phantom Planet album, I was hoping for The Guest, their excellent second release. When I didn’t get it – in fact, when I got what seemed to be its opposite, all snarling guitars and shouted vocals – I reacted negatively. My previous review was all about what isn’t there – namely, the sweet Beatlesque pop and delightful melodies they gave me last time out. For an admitted melody addict like myself, the jump from the hummable hooks of “Lonely Day” to the slam-bang riffing of “Big Brat” was hard to take.
But here’s the funny thing. I’ve been listening to Phantom Planet pretty consistently since then. I don’t know how, but it always finds its way into my CD player, and repeated listens have helped me take the blinders off. This is a great little record, loud and fun and yet still marvelously musical. The melodies are still there, and I don’t know how I missed the good stuff the first time – the slashing guitar lines in “1st Things 1st,” the feedback-saturated anguish that laces “You’re Not Welcome Here,” the updated ’80s pop of “Knowitall.” It’s all good.
One thing I said the first time still stands: this is not The Guest, and it’s not trying to be. But give it a few spins, Guest fans, and Phantom Planet will seep in, and then one day, when you’re not expecting it, the album will knock you out. Honest.
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For a lot of you reading this, nothing more beyond those two words is needed. Dada is a band with a phenomenal cult following, and that following has waited six long years for new stuff. The band is unfortunately still best known amongst the general public for “Dizz Knee Land,” their quirky novelty song from 1992, which just reinforces one of the cardinal rules of career longevity: never lead with a novelty song. Dada never did another tune like it, and four unjustly ignored albums later, they broke up. But they left those four albums, and every one of them is worth tracking down and owning, particularly Puzzle and El Subliminoso.
After the split, guitarist Michael Gurley and drummer Phil Leavitt formed Butterfly Jones, a very-nearly-Dada band that made one swell album, Napalm Springs. (Bassist Joie Calio made a solo album as well, The Complications of Glitter.) Dada fans ate it up, but wouldn’t let the band be, and in 2003 they got back together, released a live record, and got to work on How to Be Found, the just-released fifth Dada album.
And let me say this right up front. I liked Butterfly Jones, and I liked Calio’s solo record, but when these three guys get together in a room and play, they produce sounds that, individually, they simply can’t match. It’s like magic. The parts are all great on their own – Michael Gurley remains one of a mere handful of guitarists with a signature sound, for example – but together, there’s something else, some binding, unseen Dada-force that creates an audible synergy. Napalm Springs was a nifty pop record with some great guitar work. How to Be Found is a Dada record, and there’s just no comparison.
At its core, Dada is a three-piece rock band, and their best work has always arisen from a stripped-down, jam-style feel. But there’s more, always – Gurley and Calio harmonize just about everything, like the blues-rock Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell, and their melodies are often sweetly surprising. Gurley uses his guitar like a paintbrush, jumping from the crunch of “Nothing Like You” to the clean, blissful sound of “Guitar Girl.” Some of these songs are propelled by stomping rock riffs, like “It’s All Mine,” and some waft along on smoky atmosphere, like the title track.
But the real attraction of How to Be Found is something that can’t be put into words. It’s indefinable, but it happens every time these three guys play together. No matter how trite and cliched the songs are – and some, like “I Wish You Were Here Now,” are pretty trite and cliched – the trio makes them sound glittering and fresh. I can’t understand it, but I’ve heard Dada together and members of Dada separately, and it’s the collective band energy, no doubt. In other hands, this would be a good-to-very-good rock and roll album, but in these six hands, it’s somehow more. Even a southern rock number like “Blue Girl” just takes flight when played by these guys.
I guess destiny is a difficult thing to understand, but when it stares you in the face, you just have to give in. Gurley, Calio and Leavitt were born to play together, and this new Dada album makes that perfectly clear. Just listen to the guitar lines and harmonies on “My Life Could Be Different.” It’s better than it has any right to be – what would have been a decent Butterfly Jones song is a mesmerizing Dada one. Perhaps these three will never find a musical situation to equal this one, and perhaps they had to split up for a few years to become certain of that. And maybe they don’t get it any more than I do. Like most things directed by fate, you just have to accept it and enjoy it.
So, in summary, Dada’s back. Get the new album here.
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Next week, Jonatha Brooke and Peter Mulvey. After that, my long-gestating review of the Cure box set.
See you in line Tuesday morning.