Phil Keaggy Has Two New Albums
And You Still Don't Know Who He Is

So what does it mean when the guy who hired you says, “Keep in touch”?

I got one or two angry e-mails (okay, one) about not sending a column last week. You’d figure, what with the holidays and all, people would have more interesting and important things to think about than my silly opinion column, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I should have mentioned that I’d be taking the week off. In fact, you can count on my taking the week between Christmas and New Year’s off every year, and the week of my birthday (June 5) as well. Oh, don’t cry, that’s still 50 of these things per annum, and if that’s not enough of my blather for you, I’d like to ask you to marry me.

Christmas was okay, the traditional parental tug-of-war notwithstanding. My best gift was a complete set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I loved ‘em when I was 11, and so far, I love ‘em now as well. (Thanks, G.P.) I also got to see a few people that I won’t get to be around until July, which was great. Of more general interest, I caught Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, one of my favorite films of the year. It has everything the American moviegoing public could possibly want, except the English language, and that’ll probably be its undoing. I hope the Academy is warming up that fifth Best Picture slot for it, though.

So, happy new year. I’m still playing catch-up on the Year that Was, but considering the flood of new stuff doesn’t pass beyond a trickle until March or so, I feel okay with that. I have two new albums this time, and with them, I hope to plead the case of one of America’s greatest undiscovered treasures.

I don’t recommend you actually try this, but if you walk down any random street (even Beale Street) and find 10 random people and ask them to name some great guitarists, and you do that 10 times, I’d wager my sister’s life that none of the resulting 100 will come up with Phil Keaggy. Those that do know him, mostly in guitar player circles, consider him one of the best to ever hold the instrument. His career spans more than 30 years, and his two new releases are his 24th and 25th. So how come you’ve never heard of him?

Beats the hell out of me.

I’ve been a Keaggy booster since 1991, more than 20 years into his career, when I picked up the stunning acoustic instrumental album Beyond Nature. I wish I could go back and hear him play an acoustic for the first time again, ‘cause it felt like magic. There’s a certain miniscule school of players who can make full use of the 12-string guitar, and Keaggy numbers among them. The fact that he also composes intricate and yet hummable pieces for that instrument and then casts them in lights that even non-guitarists (like me) can fall in love with is a terrific gift.

If acoustic instrumentals were all Keaggy could do, that might still be enough, but his career has been amazingly varied. He’s done beautiful folk (Way Back Home, 1986), Beatlesque pop (Sunday’s Child, 1988), thundering blues (Crimson and Blue, 1992), electric instrumentals that would make Satriani weep (220, 1995) and full concerto music (Majesty and Wonder, 1998). After his unfortunately failed attempt at mainstream success (Phil Keaggy, 1997), Keaggy’s been concentrating on strange and beautiful concept projects. 1998’s Acoustic Sketches gave us a view of his process, and that same year he released On the Fly, perhaps his most complex instrumental piece. In 1999, he concentrated his efforts on Music to Paint By, a four-CD set of glorious moods and colors.

His pair of new discs follows that same experimental vein, which is pretty astonishing, actually. How many 50-something artists do you know who continually push at the accepted boundaries of their careers? Neither of these two discs are like anything Keaggy’s released before, and that alone gets him high marks.

The first is Keaggy’s first vocal project since his self-titled release. Originally conceived as a 22-track, two-CD set, Inseparable has been released by Word Artisan Records as a 15-track single disc. (The full album is available at philkeaggy.com.) Except for some drums on two tracks and a smattering of backing vocals, Inseparable was performed entirely by Keaggy. A lot of it is an experiment in electronic percussion and synth beds, choosing mood over structure, but thankfully never to the extent of Kid A. The first few tracks seem to meander, and it’s not until the title song that a real indelible melody sets in.

Inseparable, in fact, takes a few listens to really appreciate. It’s a long album (73 minutes) and its uneven nature makes it almost impenetrable. Still, there are gems to reward those who stick with it, especially “Contemplate the Moon” and “The Seeing Eye.” Plus, crammed amidst the instrumental interludes, reggae experiments and moody techno is an obscure Paul McCartney cover (“Motor of Love,” from his 1987 album Flowers in the Dirt).

I’ve glanced at the track listing for the 22-song version, and oddly enough, it might flow a little better than the single disc does. That’s not to say that those folks hunting down the 15-song version won’t be rewarded, though. Inseparable is an overlong, messy collection, true enough, but it sparkles with innovation and, of course, great guitar playing. Keaggy stretches his voice here like he never has before, and matches it with bizarre instrumentation the likes of which have never been heard on one of his records. Still, it’s so uneven that if it were his only new release of the year, I’d wonder why it took him so long.

Ah, but Lights of Madrid is the real keeper here. An instrumental cornucopia that was once called A Touch of Spain, this album finds Keaggy back on the acoustic and in wonderful Latin mode. This isn’t just some dabblings with rhythm and flamenco flourishes, though. It’s a fully formed work that just happens to bounce to a Spanish beat more often than not.

Every Spanish guitar cliche you can think of is explored in the title track, which leads off the album, and then they’re all thrown out as Keaggy demonstrates that no genre is foreign to him. When backed by percussion sections and violins, Keaggy’s compositions spring to rhythmic life, but it’s when he’s playing solo (or accompanied by another guitarist, as on “Corazon de Fuego”) that you can hear just how good this guy is. It’s a further testament that he makes a style in which he’s never recorded seem effortless for him.

There’s a version of “Praise Dance” (electrified on On the Fly) here, as well as one lone cover – the minute-long “Canarios” by Gasper Sanz. The whole thing reaches an electrifying climax with a 10-minute overture for guitar and orchestra that he’s cleverly titled “Overture for Guitar and Orchestra.” Lights of Madrid, despite its radical departure in tone and style for the guitarist, is Phil Keaggy’s most complete instrumental project since Beyond Nature. If you like the guitar at all, get them both. As for Inseparable, you might want to try some older works first, but it ain’t half bad.

Phil Keaggy’s never going to get in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame (that takes fame first), and MTV is never going to put his middle-aged face in your living room. However, if you’re interested in a great musician with a towering catalog, I encourage you to hunt his stuff down. Incidentally, if you hadn’t gathered this already, he records at a prodigious rate – his third album of 2000, Uncle Duke, is now out as well. Keep ‘em coming, I say.

Next, well, who can tell. Hope I have a steady paycheck by then…

See you in line Tuesday morning.

The 2000 Top 10 List
And Why I Hate Myself For It

So Kramer was describing Newman on Seinfeld the other night, and he used a phrase that I think I want on my tombstone: “Portly, yes, but smart as a whip.”

As promised, this column contains my Top 10 List for the year 2000. I originally said I wasn’t going to do one, and even as I type these words I’m reconsidering, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment. First, though, I’d like to point out that even though my readership has dropped by 95 percent or so, I still take this list very (almost painfully) seriously. I agonized over these choices, this year more than any in recent memory, not because I think people take my little opinion seriously, but because I love these lists. I love rankings and orders and pitting one artist’s merits against another’s. Believe me, I’d do the Top 10 List every year even if no one paid any attention to it. (In fact, I did it for many years before anyone paid any attention to it.)

There are rules, of course, and this year those rules kept out a few albums that should be here. The regulations are:

1) Only new studio albums are eligible. Cover albums, live albums and best-of packages need not apply. This first rule kept out Rage Against the Machine’s stunning Renegades, which would have been high on the list if not for the fact that it’s entirely cover songs. That album is still highly recommended.

2) Only discs that are widely available in the U.S. are eligible. If you can’t get it, there’s no point in my recommending it. I have, in the past, made exceptions to this rule for local artists, but they were extreme cases, and in both instances (Cerberus Shoal’s Homb and Say Zuzu’s Bull), not including them would have been a crime. Plus, my entire readership at that time could walk to the local CD store and get both discs.

3) While I can’t hear everything, I’ll at least try. That’s my own personal rule, just for me. I’m always disappointed by the Grammy Awards because the Academy doesn’t seem to keep track of the best music in a given year. It’s not that hard, honestly, and if I were a paid member of the Academy, I’d think I would try a bit more than those folks do.

Two albums caused me a great deal of consternation over their inclusion this year. The first is, reluctantly, not on the list. I chose not to include Peter Gabriel’s OVO, quite simply the best non-soundtrack work he’s done in 18 years, because it’s not available in the U.S. It’s only been released in Europe, and I got mine through a stroke of dumb luck. Plans for a U.S. release have, at this writing, been put on hold, which is a shame. The album is a great piece of work, thematically and musically, and it’s worth the import price to hear it. Should it be released stateside, it’ll get a proper review here, and will most likely end up on that year’s list. Until then, I can’t include it.

The other troubling disc sits at Number One, a decision that has found me arguing with myself, out loud, for a few weeks. I’m most likely going to eat up a ton of column inches discussing and defending its inclusion and placement, so I’d like to save it for the end and get to the honorable mentions first. There are, in fact, five of them, which surprised me quite a bit, considering how bad the year was.

And I’ll touch on this later, I’m sure, but the list you’re about to read only exists because 2000 was so awful. In no case here (except for Number One) is the album represented on this list the artist’s best work. The top five on this year’s list feel like the honorable mentions in years past. You’ll find nothing as striking as Radiohead’s OK Computer (and if I had a category for Biggest Disappointment, their follow-up, Kid A, would be a shoo-in), or Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, or even previous entries from some of the names on the list. It’s with that disheartening grading curve that this year’s top pick ascended the heap. It was the best partly because everything else was so lousy. In fact, you might say that the Top 10 and the honorable mentions comprise the only 15 discs really worth listening to in the last 12 months. It’s sad.

Honorable mentions for 2000:

Hip-hop emerged as the biggest musical force of the year, accounting for five of the 15, a full third of the list. Both Wu-Tang Clan’s The W and OutKast’s Stankonia came really close to the list, and both are pretty cool. Wu-Tang’s third is shorter, spookier and more artfully crafted than their double-disc from 1998, Wu-Tang Forever, and OutKast’s fourth is an out-and-out booty shaker, sort of like a long-lost P-Funk album.

I reluctantly bumped Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor from my list, but that’s not because it wasn’t good enough. Unfortunately, this haunting, surprising effort never saw a wide release. It’s only available through his website, kipwinger.com. I finally realized that if I had to reject Gabriel, I had to reject Winger as well, even though putting his name on the list would have been a thrill. Winger has made a remarkable transformation over three solo albums from ‘80s hair band frontman to serious, talented singer/songwriter. His stuff is also worth hunting down.

Michael Penn made a decent album early in the year with MP4, and while it’s not his best work, it’s still downright sparkly. Rounding out the honorables is Travis, whose lovely The Man Who made its sad, sweet mark this year. Call it Number 11, and again a special thanks to Joel for getting me into them.

God, look at how I’ve run on. It’s neat to have no space restrictions.

Here’s the list:

#10. Deltron 3030.

The most sonically original hip-hop album of the year, bar none. It’s a collaboration between Del tha Funkee Homosapien, Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, with of course a cast of thousands. It sends its layered beats and rhymes into the future and enacts a sci-fi world of wonders. After hearing this, you won’t chuckle at the term “progressive hip-hop.” It’s a neat trip. (Special thanks to Chad Verrill, without whom I might not have tried this disc.)

#9. Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2, or The Last Remains of the Dodo.

As she has her whole solo career, Mann clocks ahead of her husband Michael Penn with this long-awaited slab of bitterness wrapped in sweet melodies. Every song reminds Mann’s admirers (which I count myself among) why they waited so long, and the album as a whole may be the most vitriolic letter ever written from an artist to her record company. It’s also melodically beautiful, and while it’s nowhere near the heights she ascended with 1993’s Whatever, it’s still a soft caress with a venomous bite beneath its surface.

#8. Paul Simon, You’re the One.

After his disastrous Broadway experiment The Capeman (the soundtrack of which made this list two years ago), Simon hunkered down and produced this little record of smaller tunes that’s as heartbreakingly elegant as The Capeman was dramatic. These songs are about growing old and looking back upon life, and it may be the most upbeat mid-life crisis ever committed to tape. The songs are also about playing the guitar, and it’s the lovely and understated work in this area that really makes the album stand out. It’s a testament to Simon’s skill that an album that followed his greatest failure doesn’t come off as a defiant pout or a groveling apology. It’s just a simple record of great songs.

#7. Dead Prez, Let’s Get Free.

I seem to owe thanks in spades this time, so a quick acknowledgement here goes to Mike Moore and Josh Douglas, who ganged up on me and made me listen to this. I stated earlier that only one artist placed his/her best work on this list. This one doesn’t apply, since Let’s Get Free is Dead Prez’ debut. And what a debut it is. This might be the finest political hip-hop album since Fear of a Black Planet. It’s single-minded in purpose, tone and style, and it retains that hit-with-a-battering-ram effect that the best of Public Enemy’s work engendered. Hopefully, this is just the opening salvo in a long, focused career.

#6. Elliott Smith, Figure 8.

Smith’s follow-up to his dazzling Dreamworks debut, XO, isn’t as immediately brilliant. In fact, it takes a few listens to sink in. That’s odd, though, because Smith hasn’t really changed a thing here – he’s just gone a bit bigger. Figure 8 gives Smith the biggest budget he’s ever worked with, and he spins a web of sound that sometimes hides, sometimes accentuates how angry and bitter he is. Smith’s greatest gift is as a melodicist, sending his tunes everywhere but where you’d expect them to go. By the third listen, though, they sound exactly right.

#5. Morphine, The Night.

It’s a shame that Morphine’s final album was so transitional. The late Mark Sandman was obviously bringing the group’s sound someplace new, and The Night was the first step there. It’s still a decent piece of work, layering in more sonic flourishes than any other in their catalog. The experiments here tend toward the spooky side, but then, Morphine always dwelled in the seedier areas of traditional rock. It was great while it lasted, and The Night is a fine farewell from a band that will be truly missed.

#4. U2, All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

There’s no mistaking the sound of a re-energized U2. Their first truly grand album since 1988’s Rattle and Hum (okay, Achtung Baby was pretty good, too) is a sustained skyward shout, the exhilarating sound of a great band rediscovering what made them so great. The Edge plays his little heart out, and Bono, God bless him, takes his aged, cracking voice and really sings for the first time in far too long. There’s no weak link here – the band even sells the occasional trite lyric with conviction and fire. Welcome back, boys.

#3. The Cure, Bloodflowers.

If Robert Smith plays guitar on Bloodflowers like he might never play again, well, that might be the case. Smith has proclaimed this album the band’s last, and it completes a trilogy begun with 1984’s Pornography and continued with 1989’s Disintegration. The trilogy stands as the best work of the Cure’s career, three benchmarks capped off with this year’s ode to resignation and release. The songs are cathartic, powerful and sad, and yes, Smith plays and sings like he might never get the chance again. What better way to end than with a great album all about endings.

#2. Bjork, Selmasongs.

Bjork may just be the most innovative performer around, a title she more than earns on this tiny album of songs from Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark, in which the elfin songstress stars. These seven pieces take the technorchestral elements from her last album, Homogenic, to the next level. Sweeping orchestrations rest atop bizarre, atonal electronic beds, and yet somehow the disparate elements result in letter-perfect pop songs. While this EP is maddeningly short (27 minutes), Bjork’s perfecting a style here, a style no one else is even trying. When she comes back with her fourth full-length project next year, it’ll no doubt be stunning. For now, this is an excellent little morsel.

And that brings us to Number One. I’m sure you guessed it by now:

#1. Eminem, The Marshall Mathers LP.

It’s true. There wasn’t anything released this year that topped Marshall Mathers in conception and execution. From first beat to last, it’s a perfect pop album, social satire and grand experiment. In a year weighed down by ballast, no one tried to do more with music than Marshall Mathers.

And I pretty much hate myself for saying so.

I’m heartened by the fact that other critics (especially Larry Katz from the Boston Herald) had similar thoughts this year. Katz wrote a lengthy explanation of his decision not to include Mathers on his list, even though it was the best record of 2000. Doing so, he said, would be an endorsement of the artist’s viewpoint, and since this artist’s viewpoint includes violent death, rampant homophobia and raping his own mother, I can see his point. I just happen to disagree with it.

Eminem’s conducting a social experiment in fame, free speech and this country’s misplaced role models. His alter ego, Slim Shady, is a pathological liar, a sublime parody of the modern gangsta rapper. With Shady, Eminem captures the fascination that modern white youth have with black culture and lampoons it. He’s “suburban white rage” personified, if there is such a thing, telling increasingly taller tales of his gang-banging exploits. He’s like a mirror held up to the “keep it real” Comptonites of gangsta, saying, “Yeah, my stories aren’t real, but if you buy theirs, why not mine?”

The superb irony of The Marshall Mathers LP is that people did buy his stories. His debut, The Slim Shady LP, sold through the roof, and people began to dress like him, talk like him and act like him. In a bold master stroke, Mathers used his second album to explain the joke while perpetuating it. He knows his place in the culture. He knows his influence. There’s no denying responsibility for his actions this time, and yet Mathers goes even further than its predecessor.

If you can think of a single more haunting musical moment this year than “Stan,” the story of an extreme Slim Shady fan, I’d like to hear it. In five minutes, Eminem delivers a stunning thesis on a culture that worships pop stars, and the perils of taking that too far. It’s a cautionary tale, and one with real bite. Counterpointing that on the album is “Kim,” a vicious, brutal, explicit drama in which Mathers kills his girlfriend. It’s bone-numbing in its directness and unbridled rage.

If that were all Mathers had going for him, his album might be a footnote, but he also strings together the most irresistible pop hooks on any album this year, and his skill as a rapper is currently untouchable. His internal rhyming structure sometimes approaches the mad genius level. His biggest asset is his ability to change his voice, often mid-word, into an entirely different animal. His three personalities (Mathers, Shady and Eminem) all have distinct voices, and demand different interpretations of the words they’re spewing. If you take “Kill You” seriously, for instance, you’re a lunatic, but you should believe every word in “The Way I Am.” Or should you? Like Edgar Allen Poe’s unreliable narrators, the threesome dart back and forth across this record, contradicting each other over and over. In the end, though, the master has complete control, and he does what any good rapper should do – he takes your hand and navigates you through the music with his words. In this case, though, you might want to pay attention to whose hand you’re holding, and which grin he’s wearing.

Yes, many of his sentiments are indefensible. In the same vein, putting him atop a list of the year’s best may seem equally indefensible. Here’s my standard analogy: D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is widely considered one of the greatest achievements in early filmmaking. He pioneered techniques that are still used today. It’s largely considered the best film of 1915. It’s also filled with abhorrent images and pungent racism, telling in graphic and jingoistic detail of the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t what he said, it was the dramatic new ways he found of saying it.

The Marshall Mathers LP fits the same mold. No one has this effectively satirized the culture they’re contributing to, ever. Eminem’s techniques are all new. The Marshall Mathers LP will be remembered most not for what it said, although that will probably be remembered as well, but for the jaw-dropping ways it said it. With great reluctance, I must call it what it is: the best album of the year. Nothing else was scary enough to best it.

If you have any thoughts on this (and where Eminem’s concerned, almost everyone has an opinion), I’d like to hear them. Write me – sourcil74@hotmail.com. Also, in keeping with tradition, I’d love to see your Top 10 Lists, if you have them.

Next time, whatever I get for Christmas. Have a merry.

See you in line Tuesday morning… and to all a good night.

Rage Against the Machine’s Renegades
Leading the Zeitgeist By the Nose

I’m pissed.

Angry. Frustrated. Spitting venom.

I’m in job limbo right now because the people who have ALREADY HIRED ME won’t return my calls. I reported for my first day on the job and was told to go home and wait for my editor/boss to call me. That was yesterday. I’ve left two messages that haven’t been followed up on, and I’m not even sure I want to work for these people any more.

On top of all that, Bush is president.

I am, you might say, enraged.

Which puts me in an excellent frame of mind to review the latest (and probably last) Rage Against the Machine album, Renegades.

I’m never angrier than when I’m angry at myself, especially when I’ve misjudged something, and here comes another old wound. In 1997 I lambasted Rage’s second album, Evil Empire, and went so far as to call their political stance “bullshit to make them seem relevant.” What can I say now but, oops? Rage have had the last laugh on me by remaining one of the most staunchly political bands this side of Midnight Oil, taking on cause after cause and staging some of the most effective protests in recent years. Band members have been jailed and beaten for their political ideas. They’re the real deal, and I can’t apologize enough for my rashness.

Another thing I responded to harshly was the band’s musical style, calling loud rap-rock their “one trick” and wishing for a Rage album full of acoustic guitars and flowers. What the fuck was wrong with me? Admittedly, this was when I still hadn’t developed a sense of hip-hop as a genre all its own, with a unique language both verbal and sonic that influenced other performers. I was into certain rap artists, Public Enemy chief among them, but I didn’t imagine beats and rhymes as a style others might try to emulate, especially if those others could play instruments.

Rage Against the Machine was several years ahead of me, and of the cultural curve. They took the basic elements of hip-hop and translated them to the Led Zeppelin lineup of guitar-bass-drums-vocals. They proudly proclaimed on each of their records that all sounds therein were made with those instruments, because at times it was difficult to believe it. Guitarist Tom Morello and bassist Brad Wilk were just as diverse in their sonic palette as the best DJs working in hip-hop, layering their songs with scratches, swoops, whistles and deep, heavy grooves.

Their best album, 1999’s The Battle of Los Angeles, changed my mind, but the sound had been there all along. I had just been too myopic to hear it. Behind Zach de la Rocha’s blistering vocals were one of the tightest and most original rock outfits of the time. They channeled the energy of one of rap’s true masterpieces, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, and fueled it with the full-on power of 30 years of thundering rock bands. Rage were a true zeitgeist band. They grabbed hold of the musical climate they saw around them and forced it to change direction, and at the same time reflected our constantly merging culture by bringing disparate musics (and their fans) together.

What’s that old saying about not knowing what you have?

Two bombs have dropped in the last 30 days. The first is that Zach de la Rocha has left Rage. Who knows if they’ll continue, but they probably shouldn’t continue as Rage Against the Machine. The second is the final album by the original lineup, Renegades. I mean “bomb” in the hip-hop sense, not the sales chart sense. You know, as in “Renegades is the bomb.” (Quoth the white guy, nevermore.)

Renegades is a covers album, and therefore ineligible for the Top 10 List, but it’d probably be there if not for my pesky rule. It tackles the question of covering hip-hop tracks without doing unintentional send-ups (or intentional ones, like Dynamite Hack’s “Boyz In the Hood”). Since the production of a rap track basically is the music, how does one cover it? Well, if you’re a true fan of the genre, you realize that the words are what’s important and you throw out the music entirely.

Rage has crafted, in essence, a cover album of originals by writing their own music to the words of their influences. In every case, they’ve claimed these songs as their own in ways that other bands who’ve attempted similar things have not. The whole album is one surprise after another, even in the band’s choices of source material, and it creates an exciting sort of suspense as you wonder at what they’ll do to the next song.

Rage’s influences are no mystery, so starting off this album with Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” and Volume 10’s “Pistol Grip Pump” seems almost mandatory. Both songs are injected with new grooves and new power. The surprises hit when they tackle MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” (in a slow, thunderous rendition) and Devo’s (!) “Beautiful World.” The latter track is stripped of its ironic brightness and performed sparsely, so that the true pain of the lyrics can be heard. One might argue that this robs the song of its subtle venom, and one would be right, but Rage Against the Machine have never even pretended to be subtle. This rendition suits them better.

Rage trots out their punk chops with Minor Threat’s great “In My Eyes” and the Stooges’ “Down On the Street,” but it’s in the album’s least likely second half that the group shines brightest. After an amazing take on Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (a definite highlight), Rage tackles Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Followers of the band have heard this version before. While the Boss’ original is spare and acoustic, Rage’s rewrite hits like an army of jackhammers.

The last two selections seem to define Rage Against the Machine. They pulverize the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” by emulating, down to the last perfectly placed element, a throbbing techno track. The sonic range here is jaw-dropping, and Mick’s lyrics have never had a better foundation. They close with a slow-motion powerhouse rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” that highlights the anger hidden in the original. On both of these tunes, Rage has knowingly connected the musical fabric of the last 30 years. In fact, all of Renegades accomplishes a similar feat. It pays respect to three decades of political songwriters and wraps them up in a sound that crosses genres. Like it or not, Rage Against the Machine is the sound of the now, like almost no other band. More than that, though, they’re the sound of the future, pushing relevant, powerful music to new places while making sure that the past is not forgotten.

Renegades is one of the best albums of the year, and if it turns out to be the last to bear the band’s name, it’s a hell of a way to go out.

Okay, one last piece of music news before I go. On March 6, Amy Ray will become the first Indigo Girl to release a solo album. You know what she called it?

Stag.

That’s just beautiful.

Next time, the Top 10 List. I have the feeling it’ll be twice this length.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood
Censors, Start Your Engines

I can be such a grouch sometimes.

Last time, you may remember, I announced that there probably wouldn’t be a Top 10 List this year, due to the overall shabbiness of the past 12 months in music. Well, after much consideration, I’ve put one together after all. I even have a couple of honorable mentions. True, this is the worst list in years, and it’s capped off by an album that I’m still not sure belongs anywhere near such a list, but it exists, and you’ll get it on December 19.

To fill the space between here and there, I’m going to discuss some decent recent releases that didn’t make the cut, starting with your parents’ worst nightmare, Marilyn Manson.

In many ways, Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) is the most important album of Manson’s career. It’s only his fourth, which is amazing to me. It seems, like evil itself, that he’s been around forever, but then, I get Manson and Alice Cooper mixed up sometimes. His last one, Mechanical Animals, was specifically designed to show that Mr. Manson could exist away from his mentor (and, some said, his musical brain), Trent Reznor. The answer was a resounding yes, even though he seemed to trade one mentor for another. (In this case, Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie. With fake breasts.)

For all his detractors, Manson seems to be striking a chord with his audience. It’s true, he isn’t giving us anything we haven’t seen before, but despite many widely held beliefs, he’s extremely literate and has a lot to say. Brian Warner conceived Marilyn Manson as a scapegoat, someone people could blame the state of the world on. In turn, Manson would use his influence to point towards what he felt were the world’s true evils. You’d think, considering his “go ahead, blame me” stance, that Manson would be prepared for a major tragedy to happen, and for him to be singled out as the root cause.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Columbine High School? Two kids, two guns, lots of death, and suddenly everyone’s looking at the media again, like they always do. This time, the finger of blame landed squarely on Marilyn Manson, even though future reports showed neither gun-toter even listened to his stuff. Manson had painted himself into this corner. The question became, now that the whole world was listening, what would he say in his defense?

Holy Wood takes terrifying aim at a media system that breeds people like him, and people like the Columbine kids. It’s the culmination of everything he’s ever tried to get across. Along the way, he invokes Kennedy and Christ, both killed on television (metaphorically in Christ’s case, literally in Kennedy’s) as a popular event. He asks what we’re teaching our children when death seems the easiest path to fame, and when we seem not to notice them unless and until they commit some unspeakable act. God is still in the T.V., Holy Wood seems to say, and if you want to be just like him, you have to be on T.V. too.

“Lamb of God” is the most direct (and musically lovely) of the condemnations here: “If you die when there’s no one watching, then your ratings drop and you’re forgotten, but if they kill you on their T.V. then you’re a martyr and a lamb of God.” Whatever else you might say about Dylan Harris and Eric Klebold, no one will ever forget them. Our media culture made them famous. What, Manson asks, does that say to our kids? Their parents watch T.V. more than they watch them, so logically, if they get on television…

Or, put another way, “Let’s hear it for the kids, but nothing they say.” That’s from “Burning Flag,” another righteous condemnation. “Multiply your death, divide by sex, add up your violence and what do you get? We’re all stars on your burning flag…”

Is this what people want? Ironically, the reactions to (and stunning popularity of) Marilyn Manson himself would seem to suggest this. Manson reflects the most deplorable aspects of popular culture to see if people will pay attention to him, and they do. Often, though, we take the wrong messages from people like Manson. We certainly took the wrong ones from Columbine, and Holy Wood is a concerted attempt to correct that.

In “The Nobodies,” Manson seems to address Columbine directly: “We are the nobodies, we want to be somebodies, when we’re dead they’ll know just who we are.” The most damning line goes like this: “Some children died the other day, we fed machines and then we prayed, puked up and down in morbid faith, you should have seen the ratings that day…”

The smartest thing Manson has done with Holy Wood is make it part of his autobiographical trilogy. (Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals are the other two.) As a whole, it’s about being famous for the wrong reasons, a concept Manson could only undertake if he were famous for the wrong reasons. Holy Wood, to Manson’s eternal credit, doesn’t exclude its author. Rather, he says that the same distorted system that created Columbine also created Marilyn Manson. I am everything you fear, he says, now understand me.

Holy Wood is such a thesis that it’s easy to forget it’s also an album of songs. How are they? Passable. Manson has tried to combine the styles he’s worked with in the past. Hence we get the crunching power of Antichrist Superstar on half the tracks, and the fragility of Mechanical Animals on the other half. Musically, it almost feels like he’s run out of ideas. “Disposable Teens,” the first single, is “Beautiful People.” Many of the other songs stay within that format. When he expands the sonic range, that’s when the album springs to creepy life. If the closing song, “Count to Six and Die,” doesn’t raise the hair on the back of your neck, I’d be surprised.

The music is, in the end, a secondary concern for Manson. Holy Wood is about his message, and it’s never been stated clearer or with more stunning power than here. I’m not sure where he can go after this. The well, both lyrically and musically, might be dry. Holy Wood, and the trilogy as a whole, certainly offers a viewpoint that’s worth considering, however. Manson has made himself impossible to ignore, especially to those who most need to hear what he has to say. In that way, his work has been a resounding success.

Next time, another also-ran. Again, e-mail me with comments, complaints, concerns or other random feedback – sourcil74@hotmail.com. I’d love to hear from you.

See you in line Tuesday morning.

Everclear’s Songs From an American Movie
The Only Modern Rock Album You'll Ever Need

Hi, honey. I’m home. Did you miss me?

For anyone who writes to live (as opposed to for a living), two months is an awfully long time to stop. I didn’t intend for my extended hiatus to last this long, but after living compound-sentence-free for the whole of October (which I cheekily referred to as the October Project), I kept putting off the dive back in. At first I gave myself time frames. You know, this week I’ll write an outline for a story. Or, this week I’ll write Sentence One of my Great American Novel that I’ll probably never finish. One of my ideas was to plunge back into writing as soon as we’d picked a President, but that’s a whole other column.

And here’s a snippet of it: At first, I was fascinated by the election mess, but now it’s completely absurd. It doesn’t matter which little boy in the sandbox gets to play with the big truck. It really doesn’t. An election this close means only one thing, and that’s that whoever wins is okay with roughly half of the country. For fuck’s sake, stop arguing over who got the bigger half, flip a coin and move on. You’ve both destroyed your political careers completely anyway.

I’m fine. Really. Deep breaths.

So it became obvious to me that if I didn’t just start writing again, I never would, and I’d probably be dead within a year. So here it is – weekly life support for me, weekly musical (and various and sundry) commentary for you. Let me start, then, with a qualified announcement for long time readers of this column in its original incarnation.

There won’t be a Top 10 List this year.

I’ll qualify that – there probably won’t be a Top 10 List this year.

You wanna know why? Because 2000 sucked. There hasn’t been a year this bad since I started writing this column. I start thinking about the Top 10 List as early as February every year, keeping track of albums that are good enough to rate special attention. Come September or so, I make a list of those contenders, and the number is usually up around 25. My Year 2000 list has seven. There are some genuine surprises on it, like Kip Winger’s Songs From the Ocean Floor, but there are some truly unworthy records on there as well. Simply said, nobody knocked me on my ass this year. I knew I was going to make this announcement when I found myself entertaining the possibility of including Radiohead’s self-indulgent mess of a follow-up, Kid A, just for its sheer audacity.

Just to show how far it’s fallen this year, I’m about to give Everclear a favorable review. Watch this.

I fully expected Songs From an American Movie to be among the lamest things I heard in 2000. Why did I buy it? Well, I’m a sucker for big, bold, massive artistic statements. Magnolia was one of my favorite films of ‘99, The Fragile got the top spot last year, etc. I always buy double albums because the idea of stretching creativity to its breaking point intrigues me. A double album is a huge statement of purpose, something that demands attention. It’s also, unfortunately, often just twice as much crap from a lesser artist. (R. Kelly comes to mind.)

It’s surprising, then, to find that Songs From an American Movie doesn’t fit that mold. Everclear’s a radio-ready modern rock band, and their double album is nothing less than the ultimate radio-ready modern rock record.

In many ways, the album’s two-disc concept works against it. Songs was released separately in two volumes, Learning How to Smile and Good Time for a Bad Attitude. True to its pre-release hype, the first volume is the pop stuff, and the second rocks much harder. It’s really just a matter of production, though. Smile layers on the drum patterns, horn and string sections, but each of the songs on it could be performed like the stripped-down Attitude, and vice versa. Everclear’s mastermind, Art Alexakis, tries to unify the discs by bookending the title track (“Song From an American Movie”) in two parts, at the start of Volume One and the end of Volume Two. That’s the only concession he makes to a double-disc record, though. Otherwise, Songs is two distinct parts that would have added up to a whole quite a bit better had he integrated the styles.

That’s all I’m willing to criticize, though, and the fact that I like this so much strikes me as odd. Isn’t this the same three-chord pap that I hate so righteously most of the time? Doesn’t a trifle like “Unemployed Boyfriend” usually make me cringe? Why do I dig this?

It’s because Everclear obviously digs it as much as I do. Alexakis puts so much energy into his playing, singing, songwriting and production that it transcends mediocre material. To be fair, as well, some of the Songs are quite good as well, like the lovely “Otis Redding” on volume one, and the sung-spoken “Babytalk” on volume two. Hardly any of it sounds calculated or forced, which is my biggest problem with a lot of similar bands.

No, Alexakis and the boys (bassist Craig Montoya and drummer Greg Eklund) are obviously into what they’re doing, regardless of demographics and marketing. From the first witty strains of “AM Radio,” the third track on volume one and my (ignored) choice for a single, they’ve got you, and resistance is futile. Hell, they even made me kind of like their version of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” a song I never, ever have to hear again. Learning How to Smile is a pure pop delight, even when Alexakis is singing about separation, abuse and death.

The rawer sounds of Good Time for a Bad Attitude are more conducive to the somewhat dark lyrics, and although I don’t need yet another punk-rock raveup called “All Fucked Up,” the rest of the album delivers. It’s just as pop-based as volume one, but without the sometimes intrusive extra instruments. It’s here that we can observe Everclear for what they are: a halfway decent three-piece rock group.

Taken as a whole, Songs From an American Movie encapsulates the recent modern rock trend with nimbleness to spare. It’s really the only modern rock album you’ll ever need to buy, and even though it takes a screaming left turn halfway through, it exemplifies the push-and-pull of the music’s pop gloss and rock crunch sides quite well. Last year, I’d have panned this to death, but a two-disc effort this certain of its purpose and of its creators’ abilities to pull it off stands out this year like a gleaming jewel in a sea of excrement.

Or something like that.

I’ll be playing catch-up a lot over the following weeks, because (a) I have a bit of a backlog and (b) the new releases don’t start hitting in earnest until next February. That’s okay, because I still have albums from Marilyn Manson, Fatboy Slim, Outkast, U2, Insane Clown Posse (really) and Nine Inch Nails to get to. I may even reverse my decision and come up with a Top 10 List after all. Who knows.

Since this is the start of my e-mailed version of this column (the website will be up in a month or two), I’d appreciate feedback. Write me at sourcil74@hotmail.com with thoughts, death threats and general weirdness.

Thanks for reading. All I can say is, it feels great to type this again:

See you in line Tuesday morning.

a column by andre salles