We lost Ray Charles this week.
I don’t have a lot to say about this one. If you need me to tell you why Brother Ray’s death is a tragic loss to music, then you need to hear his work and read about his life. I have been thinking, though, about the great ones, and about how there aren’t that many left, and about who from the current generation can stand alongside them. How many musicians from the last 20 years will be mourned like Ray Charles, or Johnny Cash?
If anyone can come up with any, let me know.
* * * * *
In the spirit of equal time, I thought I would let my negative side out for a spin this week.
I said last week that I’m always looking for records like Keane’s Hopes and Fears, perfect little marvels that make all the unremarkable sludge I wade through on a weekly basis worth it. Thing is, I often just don’t write about the vast majority of records I buy, because they’re almost all bland and boring and not worth the words. Most of the music I hear makes no impression on me one way or the other, and I would rather spit bile all over a truly awful album than try to find something to say about one that is just painfully average.
Just to show you what that would be like, though, I have a couple shining pillars of tepid mediocrity this time, and all of them are from artists that have previously impressed me, so there’s a tinge of disappointment mixed in with the boredom. That should make it more interesting, at least.
Perhaps the most predictable disappointment to me is Bad Religion’s new one, The Empire Strikes First, mainly because I love the title. I want the t-shirt. It’s brilliant. The album itself, though, is just another Bad Religion album, which may be good enough for longtime fans, but just isn’t cutting it for me anymore. I like this album, but I don’t love it, and I don’t remember it 10 minutes after it’s done playing, and I certainly can’t make the distinction between this and virtually any of Bad Religion’s other 11 albums.
The Bad Religion boys have only twice tried to shake up their formula. Their second album was called Into the Unknown, and contained elements of Pink Floyd-esque space-rock. It was so poorly received that they immediately jumped into the studio to record Back to the Known, an EP of four-chord power-punk, and they haven’t significantly changed since. Their one attempt to spin a new tale was The New America, a disastrous collaboration with Todd Rundgren that made the absence of guitarist Brett Gurewitz achingly apparent.
Gurewitz is back now – he rejoined for 2002’s The Process of Belief, another interchangeable 30-minute slab of the classic sound. I feel like a schmuck for picking on this sound, because it’s swell in small doses. Bad Religion writes some of the coolest lightning-fast guitar-pop songs going, and Greg Graffin has an awesome voice, insistent and melodic. This band also utilizes three-part backing vocal harmony like no other punk band. Their lyrics are consistently intelligent and political as well, tackling the big issues that seem to elude the younger generation.
The Empire Strikes First is no exception, in any of the above departments. Lyrically, in fact, this brought a big liberal smile to my face many times. “Let Them Eat War” is the most striking indictment of the current administration’s policies I have heard in lyric form, wrapping just about all the reasons to vote against Bush in November into two catchy minutes. “Boot Stamping on a Human Face Forever” uses George Orwell’s famous quote about the future as a starting point for further vitriol: “With good books and looks on their side, and hearts bursting with national pride, they sang songs and went along for the ride, and the other side complied.” It’s not all politics, either: “God’s Love” takes aim at an uncaring deity who allows suffering to continue unabated, and “Atheist Peace” sets fire to the notion of faith-based war.
This is good stuff, and it’s too bad that the music is so typical. There’s very little on here that we haven’t heard from Bad Religion before, and after 12 albums, that’s unfortunate. If you liked Bad Religion before, you will like this album, too. I like it. I do. It’s just that with such a lengthy history, you would think this band would exhibit some growth, but they haven’t. The unchanging sound even wears thin over these 40 minutes, let alone 12 albums. At this point, you know what you’re going to get when you buy a BR album. For some, that’s a comfort, but for me, that’s a bit boring.
Suffering from the opposite problem, in a way, is Lenny Kravitz. He sounded like he’d finally found his groove on 2002’s Lenny, another album of Kravitz-style nostalgia-rock that somehow managed to feel fresh and individual. As much as I liked 5, his slightly overlong funk record, I thought Lenny left it in the dust, which is why his new one, Baptism, is such a letdown.
Baptism is another retro-rock-funk record, but instead of sounding inspired this time, Kravitz sounds exhausted. Opening shout-fest “Minister of Rock ‘n’ Roll” is unintentionally funny, the kind of brain-damaged anthem at which even Jack Black’s character from The School of Rock would chuckle. Sadly, it’s probably the best song – it’s certainly the only one that possesses much conviction.
Baptism is largely a conceptual piece about fame and its rigors, but done in such a cliched and trite manner that it’s pretty much unenjoyable. By the time you hit the second song, “I Don’t Want to Be a Star,” the realization dawns: you’ve just signed on for 54 minutes of a rich and famous guy bitching about being rich and famous. Lyrically the album is a joke – “Calling All Angels” is just as blah as you’d expect, as is “Sistamamalover,” and “confessional” verses like those on “What Did I Do With My Life” and “Destiny” are embarrassing.
Kravitz has always had a way of selling unoriginal lyrics, but here even his musical gifts fail him. On “Lady” he actually trots out this old warhorse: “She makes me feel good like a real woman should.” And he screams it over a boring repetitive piano pound, putting the focus on the words, and failing to rise above them. Much of Baptism is a slog – Kravitz has mistaken ponderousness for reflection, and on songs like “Calling All Angels,” with its unchanging quarter-notes, you will find yourself fidgeting and perhaps yelling at Kravitz, via your stereo, to do something interesting.
He occasionally does, thankfully. “California” is a cool rave-up, and “Where Are We Runnin’” is fun as well. But that’s about it, and those high points are balanced off by Jay-Z’s awful appearance on “Storm.” The closing track, “Destiny,” is just Lenny and his acoustic, playing the diary-reading folkie, and it’s a role he cannot inhabit. If this boring, slow, seemingly endless record proves anything, it’s that no matter what he says, Kravitz is most comfortable playing a rock star. He may mean this album more, but he’s failed to convince here. Even his voice sounds worn out, like he’s unable to draw up any energy for this material.
And still, I have to say that Kravitz’ problem is, as I noted, different from Bad Religion’s. That band has sounded the same for more than 15 years, give or take, whereas Kravitz has experimented and moved around within his chosen field. Baptism is the sound of an experiment gone wrong, but it certainly can’t be faulted for sounding like his last one, or the one before that. As a whole, his collection is an interesting ride. It’s just this album that bores.
As a quick aside, I was originally going to include the new Fastball, Keep Your Wig On, in this column of disappointments, but as I was giving it a final once-over before writing, I discovered something: it’s great. I don’t know why I found it so unremarkable the first couple of times, but this morning’s spin through it has completely reversed my original opinion. This is their best work, fun and intelligent and inventive and scrappy. Sorry for this unplanned moment of positivity. Won’t happen again.
Next week, the Beastie Boys.
See you in line Tuesday morning.