2002: The Year of the Shrug
Four More Records You May Sorta Like

Some of you may have noticed my interest waning a little bit.

Yeah, I know you’ve noticed. Some of you have told me so. You’ve said that you can tell when I’m just going through the motions on this column, and it shows in my writing when I’m not overly thrilled about the prospect of hammering one of these babies out. (Suddenly, my mind is filled with ghastly images of someone taking a hammer to a baby – sorry, won’t use that phrase again.) And yes, I will admit to it, but I’d like to point out there are some very good reasons for this.

One of them is my lousy working situation, which will all be sorted out in three weeks when I leave for the east coast. My life is in a strange limbo land right now, complicated by my full-to-bursting work schedule. (At least I’m doing something I enjoy… oh, wait, I’m totally not.) Expect a brighter, sunnier me come mid-December.

Or at least, come January, because another factor contributing to my growing apathy is the fact that 2002 has pretty well sucked for music and for art in general. Much as this may surprise some folks, I don’t like trashing records in this column, especially records by artists I’ve formerly enjoyed. See the most recent Tori Amos review for a clear example. I love music, so naturally I want to like everything I hear. I never understood those reviewers who seem to want to despise every song that comes across their desks. Why would you even want to discuss music if you hate it so much?

I’d much prefer being able to mercilessly thrash terrible albums than what I’ve had to do throughout this year – wade through and formulate thoughts on dozens of records that haven’t moved me in the slightest. Most of what I heard in 2002 left me with an overwhelming sense of… whatever. I want my music to affect me, to nudge its way into my life and redefine everything else around it. My Top 10 List, which is only three columns away, has a bunch of good records on it, but very few great ones, and I’m trying to be excited about it, but it’s no use.

And when my life is devoid of great new music, it’s almost paralyzing. It’s an empty, deadening feeling that is only partially assuaged by digging out great old records and remembering the first time I heard them. I remember spinning the self-titled Ben Folds Five album for the first time, for instance, and jumping all over the room by the time “Jackson Cannery” was done. Or my first bone-chilling run through Tori’s Little Earthquakes, or the Choir’s Circle Slide, or even Duncan Sheik’s Phantom Moon. Little has moved me like this during the past year.

Just to illustrate, I have four full-sized reviews this time of albums that have left me with little or no real feeling towards them. They’re all good albums, and they all make me smile, but none made me dance around the room like the spazzy white guy I am, arms flailing about my air guitar. Likewise, none (well, maybe one) compelled me to sit in silent astonishment while waves of gorgeous sound broke over me. At the end of my first play-through of each of these, I noted that I liked what I’d heard, and then promptly moved on to something else.

And that’s just not what music ought to do. Great music ought to completely change your life, imprint itself upon your experiences, dig in to your central nervous system and not let go. At the very least, great music ought to fill you with the desire to hear it again, right away. As I type this, I’m on my third-ever run through of these albums, and rather than sitting back and letting the response flow through me in words, I’m brainstorming frantically for interesting things to say.

Let’s see how well I do.

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Whatever else you can say about Audioslave, it’s comforting to note that there’s no way their music could be as bad as their name.

I mean, come on. What the hell does that even mean?

It’s even more disconcerting a moniker when you realize that between them, the four members of Audioslave have released 11 albums, most of them hits. The name doesn’t bode well for a combination of musicians that’s already being met with cynicism and skepticism. You see, the interesting thing about Audioslave, besides which mentally delayed third grader gave them their name, is that the group itself just shouldn’t work.

Audioslave is the much-touted “supergroup” that mixes three parts Rage Against the Machine and one part Soundgarden. Ignoring for the moment the ideological differences between the two, one could charitably describe their approaches to music as polar opposites. Sure, they both worked within the same framework of guitars-bass-drums, but Soundgarden was all about the melody, even when it came to tricky guitar and bass countermelodies, and Rage was always about the rhythm.

So why would the three musical members of Rage (guitarist Tom Morello, bassist Tim Commerford and drummer Brad Wilk) think they could replace their lead rapper Zach de la Rocha with Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell? I mean, Cornell’s solo album, the poor-selling yet beautiful Euphoria Morning, was easily the most melodic, acoustic thing to ever come out of Seattle, and it even made some concessions to lite-FM radio. You know, radio? Remember de la Rocha’s thoughts on radio? “Fuck it, turn it off,” if I recall correctly.

To make a hip-hop analogy, which the Rage boys might appreciate, Audioslave on paper sounds very much like booting Chuck D. from Public Enemy and replacing him with Rob Base. It shouldn’t work. It should me more oil and water than chocolate and peanut butter. What a surprise, then, that it does work, and occasionally it works very well.

First, it’s important to note that this is not the Chris Cornell of Euphoria Morning. This is the Chris Cornell of Louder Than Love, and it’s great to hear his full-throated yowl again, especially over music this muscular. The Rage boys are still the Rage boys, but this time out they’ve discovered subtlety and texture instead of just smashing you in the face with a sledgehammer. Audioslave does exactly what I’d hoped it would do – it takes strengths from both its disparate elements. Cornell needed a band this powerful to re-amplify his terrific voice, and the Ragers needed a Beatles nut like Cornell to teach them about melody.

Admittedly, Audioslave doesn’t quite measure up to either Rage or Soundgarden at full throttle, but it sounds like a good first step. The Rage trio is obviously just learning about pop songwriting, which explains semi-banal numbers like “Like a Stone” and “I Am the Highway,” which use chords we’ve all heard in this combination before. Very occasionally, though, the band hits upon something that combines their strengths beautifully, like the closing anthem “The Last Remaining Light.”

The sound takes some getting used to, especially if you’re familiar with Rage’s work. Opener “Cochise” sounds so much like Rage that it’s almost unsettling to hear Cornell actually sing over the riff. To his credit, Cornell is not trying to be de la Rocha – the lyrics on Audioslave are more spiritual than political, especially “Light My Way,” which I hope Cornell won’t mind me calling the most Christian song released into the mainstream since the last U2 album. Cornell is typically vague throughout, but he’s got the soulful rock star thing down pat. Everything he sings sounds deep, even when it’s utter tripe.

Blessedly, Tom Morello is still Tom Morello as well. Easily the most sonically inventive guitar player to emerge in the ’90s, Morello can make his six-string sound like virtually anything. He rarely takes a solo on Audioslave, preferring to fill his sections with bizarre screeches or imitations of slide whistles. When he takes the band along on his rides, it’s impressive, especially when the trio imitates electronic instruments perfectly. Observe “Hypnotize,” one of the best tracks, which sounds so much like Depeche Mode that they could release it to radio under their name and no one would blink. Not that they’d want to do that, of course.

Overall, though, Audioslave is merely a good start, and considering how easy it would be for the members to let their agendas clash, the band may not be around long enough to fulfill its own promise. If they continue in the spirit of musical cooperation that they’ve shown here, however, then I have high hopes for future projects.

But only if they get a new name.

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Also in need of a new name is Ours, but really, these guys actually need a complete makeover.

Just look at the front cover of their second album, Precious. It’s a hoary, gothic mix of shadows, angel feathers and pseudo-dangerous-yet-sexy imagery that just looks cheap and artificial. Seriously, you’d think Ours was some Sisters of Mercy-style goth-industrial act, and the cover of their debut, Distorted Lullabies, wasn’t much better. You’d never guess that inside awaited some intelligent, emotional songs written and sung by a true talent.

That talent is named Jimmy Gnecco, and while I guess Ours is technically a band, it’s really a showcase for Gnecco’s songs, guitar and amazing voice. Everyone remembers the first time they heard Jeff Buckley sing, and likewise, everyone who’s experienced it remembers the first time they heard Gnecco sing and thought it was Jeff Buckley. This guy’s pipes are extraordinary, and even if all he offers is a note-perfect Buckley impersonation, that alone takes more talent than is offered by a legion of MTV darlings.

Only thing is, this time out, we know what to expect from Gnecco, and Precious offers us nothing new. The effect is slightly diminished because of this, and because of a few poor numbers at the beginning of the disc. Still, I can’t overestimate the thrill of hearing Gnecco really tear into his high vocal lines – this guy has an incredible range, and impressive lung power behind it. He composes songs like Buckley did as well, making dramatic use of melody and voice. While there’s nothing really original on Precious, there’s nothing here that’s being offered anywhere else at the moment, either.

Once you get past the ill-advised cover of Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale,” though, the disc just takes off and doesn’t come down until the end. The inarguable highlight is “If Flowers Turn,” but “Disaster In a Halo” comes very close to eclipsing it. Both these songs find Gnecco wrapping his voice around tricky yet hummable melodies, and they both have a sense of dynamic missing from most rock music these days. (In fact, missing from almost everything except Jeff Buckley’s Grace.) Closer “Red Colored Stars” is a sweet farewell, and proof that Precious was rushed together. A few more songs like the three at the end and the disc as a whole might stand up better.

Much as I want to, I can’t fault Gnecco for taking on Buckley’s sound, but the only reason I’ve mentioned it so many times in this review is that the similarities, both in sound and style, are uncanny. Still, this isn’t a skill one can develop overnight, and Gnecco is phenomenally talented. Someday he’ll develop his own style, but for now, I find that I don’t enjoy Ours less because Buckley did it first. These are very good songs, for the most part, and of course there’s that voice. Where Gnecco takes this is up to him – let’s hope that Precious is not a sign of stagnation.

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It’s something of an international crime that the Levellers are not more well-known in the States, but what can you do. We Americans hold on to some of our best-kept secrets (Michael Roe, Peter Mulvey, Jonatha Brooke) as well, and it serves as a source of simultaneous frustration and comfort for the small group of fans that know about them.

The last three Levellers albums have been unavailable in the U.S., so the precious few stateside who’ve heard of them probably only know the Waterboys-gone-punk style of their most popular record, Levelling the Land. No doubt, that’s an amazing album, but the Levs have moved on. In 2000, they released their masterpiece, a glittering document of Beatlesque pop and stunning orchestration called Hello Pig. Some liked it, some hated it, but everyone agreed that the band had made great strides away from their fiddle-driven past.

So what do they do for an encore but erase the entire evolution and return to their roots? The recently released Green Blade Rising can best be described as a classic Levellers album – the songs are short, political and loaded with soaring fiddle lines. The whole thing almost sounds like a live recording – gone are the studio tricks of the past few records, and here again is a superb live band just bursting with energy. It’s everything everyone who hated Hello Pig would want.

But dammit, I liked where they were going. Erase-the-slate albums have never sat well with me – see R.E.M.’s Monster, for example – and the rare exception, like U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, is refreshing largely in contrast to the crap that came before, like Zooropa and Pop. I’ve always had a problem with cutting off genuine musical growth at the roots, so to speak, and as much as I like the old Levellers albums, I really like the most recent excursions.

But whatever, you have to take what you’re given. Green Blade Rising is the best possible kind of slate-eraser – one that hearkens back to the old stuff without suffering in comparison. This album could have come out after their debut, A Weapon Called the Word, and fit nicely into the catalog. It contains a nice mix of acoustic and electric guitars, and shows off the classic Levs mix of folk and rock nicely. Best of all for old-time fans, the fiddle is back in force, up front and melodically arranged.

And the songs are pretty good, too. I dare you to get the “ba-ba-ba-ba” opening of “Wild as Angels” out of your head, and ditto for the chorus of “Aspects of Spirit.” Mark Chadwick and Simon Friend trade off on lead vocals, as usual, and Friend’s songs are haunting and subdued, especially the great “Believers.” There are two problems, however: the songs are short and slight, and there’s only 11 of them. Green Blade Rising, the band’s shortest work, clocks in at a featherweight 37 minutes, and it’s over before you know it.

Actually, that’s not true. The band made sure you know it by closing with a stunner called “Wake the World.” The title and lyrics certainly lend themselves to a trademark Levellers rave-up, but the song is performed with a hushed minimalism the band has rarely exhibited. Over little more than a simple bass line and an electric piano, Chadwick’s plaintive lyrics (“When are we going to wake the world?”) take on great depth and power. You keep expecting the song to kick in, and the genius of it is that it never does.

Bands usually only make albums like this one in hopes of recapturing their old audience, but here in the States, that’s not going to be a problem – they never had an audience to begin with. I can’t recommend Green Blade Rising as your first purchase if you’ve never heard this band, but I can’t stress enough how much this band deserves to be heard. I’m in a bit of a bind, because pound for pound, Levelling the Land is a better deal and a better introduction, and Hello Pig is a perfect indication of how much they’ve grown since. You’ve got to get those two first. Support the band by going to www.levellers.co.uk.

Despite the mild disappointment that accompanies it, Green Blade Rising is a fine effort. Its 11 songs contain not a clunker in the bunch, and more than a few sparklers. I just wish they’d quelled whatever impulse it was that influenced them to make their seventh album just like their first. Those that loved their first few records are going to love this one, too, but for those of us that admired them for pushing themselves to evolve will have to wait until album eight, I guess.

* * * * *

Which brings us to Sigur Ros, who have made the oddest and most praiseworthy of these four records. It’s also the most difficult one to intelligently discuss, since the band has effectively dismantled the reviewer’s stock stable of tricks. The band’s second album is untitled, though they swear up and down that it’s not self-titled. Most everyone is latching onto the cover design and calling it ( ). It consists of eight songs with no titles, and the booklet contains exactly one word: sigurros.com, the band’s web address. The songs are not instrumentals, but they may as well be. The band sings in Icelandic, which isn’t exactly true either: they made up their own bastardized version of Icelandic that they call Hopelandic. The only people that understand it are the band members.

So here I am, with no production credits to point out, no lyrics to analyze, and no easy way to get a handle on critiquing this work. The band obviously wants the focus on the music, not the packaging, but most reviewers I’ve checked out since buying this have focused on the fact that the band has not made it easy for them. (You know, like I’m doing now.) The choice is simple: we can talk about the bizarre choices the band made regarding song and album titles, or we can talk about the music.

The music is unlike anything you have ever heard, unless you bought Sigur Ros’ debut album. The songs are very long – none shorter than six minutes, some longer than 10, and adding up to 72 minutes all together. The album is really one shifting, beautiful song, though, and it ebbs and flows through a series of immaculately produced dirges that sound like transmissions from another world. Pianos, finely textured guitars and strange, alien voices weave together to make what could possibly be described as music in its purest form.

I say you’ve never heard anything like it, but chances are good that you’ve actually heard Sigur Ros before, because waiting at track four like a sweet surprise is the beautiful music Cameron Crowe used for the rooftop scene at the end of Vanilla Sky. That track is perhaps the most structured of the eight, and it effectively signals a transformation in the album-length song – from here on, what had previously been lighter-than-air dirges turn into increasingly more propulsive atmospheres. The sense of menace gets turned up through the powerful last track, until it sounds like someone has dumped poison into a formerly placid lake, and it’s killing everything slowly.

Of course, “slowly” is the key word here. ( ) (or whatever you want to call it, I’m sure the band doesn’t care) stays within a funereal tempo throughout, and as much as I’ve always wished a band would make an album like this, I find myself drifting by the end. The problem, I think, is that this album is a pure musical experience, and we’re all trained by years of exposure to pop radio to look for the hooks. In a culture whose motto is “don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” an album which contains no choruses at all is a bold move. It’s odd, though, that music so colorful can seem so monochromatic after more than an hour of it.

Still, if you can manage to not be intimidated by it, Sigur Ros’ new album offers an experience unlike any I’m currently aware of. This is music that bypasses all the usual ways of appreciating, and aims for a deeper level of emotional impact. And often, it hits the mark, especially on the fourth and eighth tracks. Sigur Ros is trying to achieve a certain celestial beauty, and while they may not quite get there with these lengthy soundscapes, they get high marks for even attempting a sound this unique and alien. I recommend turning off your lights and playing it at high volume, and then letting the sound linger in the air for a while when it’s over. It’s almost like coming out of sensory deprivation, fresh and alive.

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As I mentioned, the Year-End Top 10 List is only three columns away. I’ll be filling the space in between with thoughts on local band the Bedheads, the final George Harrison album and the first studio disc from the reunited Phish. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

See you in line Tuesday morning.