We lost Grant Hart this week.
For those old enough to remember, like me, Hart was one of the most influential musicians of his day. As the drummer and one of the creative powerhouses in Husker Du, Hart helped revitalize punk in the ‘80s and then launch a whole army of loud alternative rock bands. They were the missing link between Black Flag and R.E.M., between punk and the more hummable rock emerging from college stations around the country, and were tireless champions of both melody and fire. It’s safe to say that the ‘90s wouldn’t have happened the way they did without Husker Du.
While Bob Mould tends to get the lion’s share of the credit for Husker Du, Hart’s songs were easily the equal of Mould’s, and were often the more melodically rich ones, and his voice often the more interesting one. Following the band’s breakup, Hart worked with a new band called Nova Mob and put out some great yet forgotten solo records, including 2013’s conceptual piece The Argument. Recently, Hart joined his bandmates for the first time since the ‘80s to put together a collection of early work called Savage Young Du, which comes out next month.
Sadly, that will be the last project the three members collaborate on. Hart died on Sept. 13 after a bout with liver cancer. He was 56 years old.
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And good lord, did I once think of 56 as old? I did. The idea of only having 13 more years to live is terrifying to me. The truth, of course, is that no one knows how long we will have. Each one of us could be taken tomorrow, or told that we have mere months, instead of the decades we imagine. (I did just start watching Breaking Bad, which might be influencing these thoughts.) I once laughed at the idea of dying young instead of growing old, but now I am firmly on the side of growing as old as possible.
Rock and roll seems to be growing old with me, which is nice in one way, but sad in another. I’m not the guy to make bold pronouncements about styles of music dying out, but if you can name a truly outstanding rock and roll band from the last 15 years, please let me know. I mean real rock, like freight-train-roaring-down-the-track-with-its-brake-lines-cut rock. I honestly can’t name any.
It’s telling, I think, that the best rock band in the world right now might be Pearl Jam, a group rapidly rounding the bases toward its 30th year. (Why yes, I am listening to their live album from Wrigley Field, why do you ask?) It’s also telling that when I suggest that Pearl Jam is the best rock band in the world right now, the one act fired back as a counter-argument is usually Foo Fighters. They formed in 1994, and Dave Grohl, their mastermind and leader, is 48.
I do find it delightful that two generations of kids now only know of Nirvana as Grohl’s old band. Foo Fighters has rightly taken center stage in Grohl’s career arc, and for all of the band’s existence, they’ve been plying the same trade – guitar-centric melodic rock, like a steak dinner with a beer to wash it down. And if their ninth album, Concrete and Gold, is any indication, that sound is wearing thin.
Everything about Concrete and Gold screams “here’s another Foo Fighters album.” They’ve long since passed the AC/DC barrier – everything they do sounds the same. If you like that sound, and find new things in it whenever it’s presented to you, you’ll probably like Concrete and Gold. There’s a sense of the epic about it, and Greg Kurstin, producer to the stars, does a fine job of gussying these songs up. The slithering riff of “Make It Right” and the expansive feel of “The Sky is a Neighborhood” are appealing, but as the record goes on, it’s clear that there aren’t too many ideas here, and Kurstin is working overtime to shape something out of this.
By the time you get to the pretty lame “Happy Ever After (Zero Hour),” the album becomes more of a chore to get through than anything else. On this evidence, it would be hard for me to consider Foo Fighters a great rock band, let alone one of the best in the world. I don’t want to suggest that Concrete and Gold is terrible. But it is pretty average, merely here to extend the life of the band, not to justify it.
But what’s an aging musician to do when the kids don’t flock to you anymore? I guess they form supergroups, like Prophets of Rage. But they really shouldn’t.
Prophets of Rage features the three instrumentalists from Rage Against the Machine – inventive guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk – with Chuck D of Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill. Chuck D is 57 years old, Morello is 53, and the rest of the band is in their late 40s. So expecting them to recapture their glory days is perhaps a bit unfair.
That said, Prophets of Rage, the band’s debut, sounds pretty much exactly like you’d expect it to. The Rage-style one-riff rockers are firmly in place, Chuck D’s rhymes are energetic and on point, and even B-Real sounds 100 percent into this. The lyrics lash out at Trump and his America, and man, do we need some resistance music. I’m pretty fond of “Unfuck the World,” and “Hail to the Chief” is exactly as biting as you’d hope.
I just wish this didn’t all sound like 1993. Rage Against the Machine was a one-of-a-kind band, a brief burst of youthful political energy. Public Enemy’s run of records in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s are untouchable, some of the finest angry hip-hop ever made. It may not be fair to rank this album next to the finest achievements of the Prophets themselves, but they’re the reason I bought this. The band is even named after a Public Enemy classic. This should feel vital and new, like an explosive combination, and instead it sounds like a tribute to years gone by.
I certainly don’t want to make it sound like older musicians just can’t rock, and only have two choices: acoustic folk music, or the retirement home. I don’t believe that, and I have a great example that proves it: Living Colour. The band’s been around since 1984, and its four members have clocked 225 years between them. And yet, they rock like you wouldn’t believe.
If you’d like to believe it, you just need to pick up their new album, Shade. This thing is a goddamn powerhouse. It’s only their sixth in 30-plus years as a band, and it comes eight years after their last one, but they haven’t lost an ounce of their presence and force. Sometime in those eight years, they developed a love for the blues, and Shade adds a generous helping of the Delta to an already potent sound. But this is no old-school record, either – there’s a smattering of electronic percussion, and a full dose of holy-hell rock.
Can we talk for a second about how amazing Corey Glover is? His voice is still so powerful, his range so extraordinary. His vocals push Shade forward at every opportunity – they’re huge and soulful and confident. And they’d have to be, to lead a band this immense. Vernon Reid has long been one of the best rock guitarists alive, blistering yet dexterous, with a jazz edge. And nothing bad can be said about Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish, a rhythm section many bands would kill for. They’re the whole package, and when it comes together on stunners like “Pattern in Time” and “Glass Teeth,” it’s wonderful.
The three covers on Shade show off the band’s range of influences, which they work to connect on this record. They deliver a pummeling take on Robert Johnson’s “Preachin’ Blues,” a simmering version of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” and then, out of nowhere, an amazing knock-down run through Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya.” Throughout this record the band leavens in blues, soul and rap, never forgetting the pure rock foundation.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Living Colour emerged with the instant classic “Cult of Personality,” and they’ve only gotten better with age. If, by some chance, a new generation of rock bands decide to pull themselves out of the muck and carry the torch, it’s good to know that Living Colour will be here to show them how it’s done.
Next week, the Third Quarter Report, and probably a review or two. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.