Brothers Gonna Work It Out
Family Style With the Robinsons and the Finns

So I made myself watch most of the Republican convention.

Those are some angry, angry people, huh? You’d almost think that they’re the ones who just spent four years being lied to and manipulated. It’s weird. The tone of the whole affair seemed defensive to me, as if they’ve forgotten that their candidate is the sitting president. Guys, listen, “Take America Back” is the motto of Kerry’s campaign, not yours. You’re ahead in the polls, your approval rating is high, and everything is going your way. You’ve successfully hoodwinked half the country into believing that you’re out for their best interests. You will probably win in November, and you likely won’t even have to resort to your underhanded tricks to do it this time, either.

So why are you acting like the cornered tiger? Why are you so afraid?

Is it because you know that your whole platform, your whole image, is a lie? Is it because trotting out every single minority Republican with any kind of political office (including Maryland’s very own Lieutenant Governor) on “Compassion Day” is the most flimsy and crass attempt at faking diversity I have ever seen? Is it because you know that your ubiquitous mantras of national security and decisive leadership would fall apart under the slightest inspection?

You know what? Don’t worry so much. It’s working. Despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary, people actually believe that your administration has been good for this country, that we were justified in our unprovoked attack on Iraq, that the fat reconstruction contracts for your buddies in big business are coincidences, and that you really care about the jobless and homeless and oppressed in this country. (Except for the gays, ‘cause they’re icky.) More than half the people in America agree with you, and think you’re doing a good job.

Which kind of explains why I don’t go out much anymore.

Personally, I’m voting for John Kerry, and the reason is very simple. The distinctions between Kerry and Bush are small (if significant), but all things being equal, I’m going to vote for the guy who didn’t lie to me for a year so that hundreds of American troops could die for his oil interests. That’s really it. Your justifications for this war have changed so many times that it’s hard to keep track, and they keep changing, and people keep dying.

Kerry may turn out to be just as bad, and from the looks of things we may never know, but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt more than you do. You had your chance, not just with me, but with the world after 9/11, and you lied and schemed instead of leading. I’m taking my vote elsewhere, and because of our damn two-party system, I can only take it one other place and have it matter.

But really, don’t worry about it. Seriously, relax. You’re driving this bus off a cliff, it’s true, but you’ve all but advertised the destination, and most people have bought their tickets anyway. You’re winning. You’re absolute proof that a government by, of and for the people is only as good as the people it is by, of and for. You’ve also proved that scared people will believe anything as long as you keep them scared, a maxim I’m sure you will test to its limits in the second term you’ll probably have. You’ve done well. You win the Liars Club Award for the decade. Put your feet up. Take another vacation.

* * * * *

For those of us who still care, the election is on November 2. If you don’t like being lied to so that rich people can get richer and poor people can go die in other countries for no reason, then register and vote for John Kerry. Please. I’d like to think that the polls are wrong, and that most people can see through the Republican subterfuge. I’m begging you to prove me right.

* * * * *

A president who got elected with the help of his brother seems like a fitting segue into a column about brothers, don’t you think? There seems to be no riskier proposition in music than starting a band with members of your family, but the rewards seem to be just as magical – look at the Wilson brothers for a great example. No one fights quite like siblings, because they know all the right buttons to push. But in some cases, that explosive fire can make for some great musical alchemy.

Lord knows that’s the truth when it came to the Black Crowes. The best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world might not have been quite so rock ‘n’ roll without the spitting love/hate relationship between the Robinson brothers. Singer Chris and guitarist Rich openly feuded, and less openly used that friction as an impetus to write bigger and better songs. They also competed on stage, Chris running his voice ragged just to outdo Rich. It was all very… well, very rock ‘n’ roll.

That this relationship eventually imploded was no surprise. In fact, the surprise may have been just how long they lasted. Their final album, Lions, was in retrospect a messy battleground, with Chris’ more sensitive balladry fighting valiantly against Rich’s buzzing, viscous guitar noise. The tension made it a fascinating record, and that spilled over into the subsequent tour and its live album. But no band could maintain such a struggle for long.

Thing is, that friction, that sibling rivalry, if you will, provided an essential component to the band’s sound, and separately, the brothers have found it impossible to replicate that energy. Chris was first out of the gate with New Earth Mud, a tepid slog of sentimentality and mush that wallowed in intolerable blandness. (Was that harsh enough?) Chris Robinson is too good a singer to warble tripe like “Katie Dear.” The absence of Rich’s attitude, as well as his distorted guitar tone, left the album adrift on little more than good vibes.

Chris has rebounded somewhat with the release of his second album, This Magnificent Distance, but that may be because of his band. He’s named his new assemblage of musicians after his first album – it’s credited to Chris Robinson and the New Earth Mud. I kind of hope he keeps that tradition going, because Chris Robinson and the Magnificent Distance is a great name for a band. But I digress…

This group, which coincidentally includes two brothers in drummer Jeremy and guitarist Paul Stacey, has pushed Robinson to expand his sound. This is an epic ‘70s rock album, the kind you would expect to have burned up the charts 30 years ago, and even though it’s slower and more ponderous than anything the Crowes ever put out, it infuses those slower songs with a sense of ambition completely missing from New Earth Mud.

Opener “40 Days” finds Robinson singing like the rock god he is, for the first time since leaving the Crowes. Really, this guy has one of the best rough-and-tumble voices to hit the scene since the glory days of bar rock. It’s a voice that’s able to rise above whatever is accompanying it, be it the sweeping power of something like “Girl on the Mountain” or the explosive riffage of closer “Piece of Wind.” The songs here suit that voice, in ways that the sappy piffle on his solo debut simply didn’t. If you have to hear only one, make it “If You See California,” perhaps the most beautiful number Robinson has done since “Wiser Time.”

This Magnificent Distance is a huge leap forward for Chris Robinson’s solo career, but it still falls far short of his work with the Crowes, mostly because that fire is missing. The songs are slow and lovely, but there’s no urgency to them – the album just languorously meanders until the end. Robinson did save the two punchiest rockers for the conclusion, though, so it goes out with more of a bang. Still, it’s obvious what’s missing here – Rich Robinson.

And the same can be said for the guitar-playing brother, in fact. Rich’s solo album, Paper, is a loud, frenetic, riff-happy rock festival. There are moments of acoustic pleasure, but mostly Rich has chosen to stick with the Stones-y vibe he always brought to the band. The problem is, that’s all he brings here. Sure, his familiar guitar buzz is all over this thing, and the swagger is present, but the songs are lacking, and Paper just drags on way too long.

Rich takes lead vocals on all 14 of these songs, too, which only exacerbates the problem. Charging leadoff track “Yesterday I Saw You” opens with a typically Crowes start-stop riff and a thundering drum entrance, but Rich’s merely passable voice all but sinks it. He mixed his voice low here, too, perhaps to draw attention away from it. In reality, though, the murky mix only accentuates what’s missing here – Chris Robinson.

Compared with their work together, the Robinsons’ solo albums find them at roughly 50% power, and that’s unfortunate, since it costs 100% more to follow their careers now. Hopefully they will either grow into their solo careers, or they will realize that what they need is each other’s influence. I would be front row center for a Black Crowes reunion, and I would hope that any reconciliation between the Robinsons would be fraught with hard feelings and unspoken rage that gets funneled into the most kick-ass rock music they’ve yet made.

* * * * *

The thing with brothers is, sometimes, they get along personally a lot better than they do musically. There’s never been a time when New Zealenders Neil and Tim Finn have been at each other’s throats, for example, and they have made some fine music together. Neil and Tim fronted Split Enz for years before Neil split off to form Crowded House, but Tim tagged along for that band’s finest album, Woodface. Following the demise of Crowded House, Neil and Tim made their own record, called Finn Brothers. Both then went on to solo careers before re-convening, nine years later, to make the second Finn Brothers album, Everyone is Here.

Given that their careers have been so entwined, it’s interesting to me that I have such different reactions to their work. I love Neil Finn, whether he’s in Split Enz or Crowded House or on his own. I think Neil is one of the world’s best living songwriters, and he proved it again two years ago with the positively astonishing One Nil. Conversely, I haven’t liked a Tim Finn album in… well, ever. He writes average songs and sings them in a croaky, almost-hit-the-note voice that has never done it for me.

In both the Enz and the House, Tim’s voice played backup to Neil’s, which is where it should be, but even then, the tones didn’t mesh as well as they could have. The weakest moments on Everyone is Here find Tim taking lead, and the rest of the moments find him loosely harmonizing with his perfect-pitch brother. Luckily, the whole record is a loose affair, recorded with a homespun feel that makes the ramshackle vocals work. It’s obvious that the Finns enjoy working together, and who could begrudge them such a pleasant musical environment?

I just kind of wish the results were a little less ordinary. I like this record, in the same way that I like most melodic pop records, but at this point, I expect brilliance from Neil Finn, and when I get songs that are good instead of amazing, I’m disappointed. And I can’t help blaming his less-talented brother. It’s awful of me, I know, especially considering that Everyone is Here is amiable and well-made. Opener “Won’t Give In” is a sweet song, with a catchy chorus. That chorus is, unfortunately, built on the most overused chord sequence in all of pop music – the one in U2’s “With or Without You.”

Elsewhere, the Finns get more engaging, but the songs never move out of the simple pop vein. There’s nothing as surprising and sweeping as Neil’s “Human Kindness” or “Hole in the Ice.” Of the more upbeat numbers, “Anything Can Happen” is the most winning, though Tim sullies the momentum one song later with his treacly “Luckiest Man Alive.” “Edible Flowers” finally makes its studio appearance – it was performed by the Finns on Neil’s live album 7 Worlds Collide – and it provides a moment of minor-key depth.

As for depth of the lyrical variety, the best you’re going to get here is “All God’s Children,” which asks this musical question: If we’re all God’s children, and God is a woman, then who’s the father? The rest of Everyone is Here is largely concerned with love, and mostly of the familial type. This record is a celebration of the Finn Brothers’ joy at reuniting their musical connection, and it takes a certain kind of mean-spirited prick to poke holes in such a good-hearted confection. I’m trying really hard not to be that prick, because I do like this record, just not as much as I expected to.

It’s odd that the Robinsons need each other to achieve musical greatness, but Neil Finn manages it on his own so often that Tim must feel he’s along for the ride. And in a very real sense, he is, but Neil is kind enough to give him the wheel once in a while, even if the result is less brilliant than it could be. You could call Everyone is Here a triumph of humanity over art, and as such, it’s merely enjoyable where Neil’s work is usually breathtaking. You can’t help but feel good for the Finns for rekindling their familial bond through music, but personally, I can’t help hoping for a new Neil Finn solo record soon.

Next week, Bjork. And let me just say, whoa.

See you in line Tuesday morning.