Reunited And it Feels So Good
The '80s Are Back in Style

I promise, no politics this time. Honest.

Okay, just one little bit. Leave it to The Onion to get this election exactly right.

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I had an interesting morning on the treadmill.

I know that is exactly the kind of sentence that is usually followed by a story that is not at all interesting, but bear with me. I lost roughly 40 pounds in 2003, and gained roughly 20 of it back in 2004, and I have to be in a wedding in less than a month (Hey Gary, hey Lee!), so… treadmill. This morning I decided on VH-1 for my exercise entertainment – that channel has very capably slipped into its role as MTV for old people, by the way – and caught up on the pop landscape.

First up was Gwen Stefani’s debut solo single, “What You Waiting For.” And honestly, all I could think was, “I don’t know about you, Gwen, but I’m waiting for a chorus.” She never delivered one. The video, by the by, concerns a company that cures writer’s block, and considering that this song sounds like the product of an idea shortage, she should probably get her money back.

From the inexplicable corner of my mind department, I absolutely love Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move.” Don’t know why – it’s just the kind of mid-tempo alterna-pop I usually can’t stand, but something clicks here. I can’t understand it, but the song makes me want to sing along every time I hear it. I can’t intellectually tell you the difference between this and most Matchbox 20 or Collective Soul songs, so don’t ask, but this one just does it for me.

Then came John Mellencamp’s new video for “Walk Tall.” The song is Mellencamp on autopilot, and to tell you the truth, I can’t even remember it, but the video is mesmerizing. It stars 4’6” actor Peter Dinklage (from The Station Agent and Elf, among other films) and takes place in an alternate deep south where racism doesn’t exist, but the same level of racial hatred is reserved for short people. It’s a lot better than it sounds, and it’s beautifully shot, and its final act is jolting. One of the best conceptual videos I have seen in ages.

Quick update – I have been informed that it’s not Peter Dinklage at all, but Poncho Moler who appears in the Walk Tall video. Thanks to Christine Herndon for bringing this to my attention, and apologies to Peter and Poncho.

Most interestingly, I caught Sarah McLachlan’s “World on Fire.” If you haven’t heard about this clip, here’s the story: McLachlan was given $150,000 to make a video. She actually spent $15 on the video (so she says), using a single camera and stock footage. The rest of the money was sent to charitable causes in the third world, and the video details where it all went. (She set up a webpage to document it as well here.)

I think this is all well and good, despite the obvious soapboxing, but I do have one little problem with it: now that she’s made this statement, McLachlan can’t make any more $150,000 videos. If she does (and she will – her label will likely only allow a stunt like this once), she’s guilty of the same excesses and lack of caring of which her video accuses others. Now that she’s opened these floodgates, she’s ripe for criticism every time she mounts a huge tour, or takes three years crafting an album. Because of this video, we’ll be thinking of how much each of her future promotional endeavors costs, and the snarkier among us will probably figure out how much relief she is not sending to the needy.

Here’s the thing. I think this is a great gesture, a terrific way to help out, and if she had just donated the cash and turned in a cheap $15 video, that would have been fine. The implicit message of the clip, however, is that everyone who spends extravagantly on music videos (or any artistic project) is not doing enough to help the poor. This is true, of course – I can’t help thinking of all the money thrown away on crap like The Day After Tomorrow, for instance – but now that she’s made this point, she has to live it. Otherwise, the statement is hopelessly diminished. And that’s why entertainers don’t make statements like that very often.

Still, great video.

The last chunk of my workout was accompanied by MTV2’s Rock Countdown, since by that time I needed a jolt of adrenalin. I didn’t get it. What I did get was a slab of sad, same-sounding videos from the likes of Good Charlotte, the Used, Jay-Z and Linkin Park (Look! Rap and rock together! Why didn’t someone think of this before?), and Yellowcard. Okay, Yellowcard gets points for their violin player, but the same demerits for lazy songwriting. The whole sequence of videos was ungodly boring, and served to make me feel incredibly old.

I can scarcely believe I have become the type of music fan that is more at home on VH-1 than on MTV, but there you go. I don’t think it’s a matter of being unable to identify with the seething teenage anger that permeates the newer stuff, though – I’m still pretty angry a lot of the time, and the Cure’s Disintegration aside, I never really looked to music for personal identification anyway. No, I really think the songwriting has just gotten worse since the ‘80s, when even pop fluff was well-constructed and usually unique. Modern pop and rock just blends together in a sludgy pool of blandness, for the most part.

As if to test my theory that bands from the ‘80s were just better songwriters, we’re seeing a virtual renaissance of reunion projects these days. Bands who hit the charts two decades ago are burying the hatchet and dropping new discs left and right, and you know what? Call me ancient, biased and subjective all you want, but mostly, these records are just better than the works of their modern counterparts.

Take Duran Duran, for example. During their early-‘80s heyday, Duran was constantly accused of plasticity, of shallow fakery, despite the fact that they could outplay most of the folks they outsold. In contrast to the hollowed-out puppets topping the pop charts these days – hello, Ashlee Simpson! – Duran Duran was a band, with real songs and genuine musicianship. Ignore “Rio” and hear “The Chauffer,” skip “Girls on Film” and check out “Tel Aviv.” These guys knew how to write and play.

Hell, they still do. It would be tempting to call Astronaut, their new album, a comeback record, but Duran Duran never went away. They’ve consistently released an album every two or three years since 1981, and while some have been hit or miss, most are terrific, and none evidence the shallowness with which they’ve been associated. If Astronaut is a comeback, it arrives just a decade after their last comeback, fueled by an extraordinary single called “Ordinary World,” and if viewed as a whole, their output starts to look like a bold and idiosyncratic career, as opposed to a few stabs at pop stardom.

Astronaut is indisputably a reunion album, though – it marks the first time since 1983 that Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes and all three Taylors (Andy, John and Roger) have been in the same studio together. If you’re expecting a return to the bass-heavy synth-pop of Rio, though, forget it. This is a much more satisfying record than that. It hearkens back to ‘93’s Wedding Album, and even ‘90’s Liberty, and while it unfortunately leaves the psychedelic touches of Medazzaland and Pop Trash behind, it delivers a nifty pop record with hooks and depth.

Leadoff track “(Reach Up For the) Sunrise” is certainly a classic Duran Duran single, with its sky-high melody, and songs like “Taste the Summer” and the big beat “Want You More” are crafted for radio play. (Or at least, late-‘80s radio play.) And “Bedroom Toys” fulfills their apparently contractually obligated one-per-album embarrassment. But the real meat of the album lies in the lovely guitar ballads that grace its second half. “Finest Hour” is the kind of song that just can’t be written by pop twits with no instrumental skill, and the seven-minute “Still Breathing” ends the disc on a melancholy, melodic note.

This is not the best Duran Duran album – there’s an emphasis here on production craft, sometimes over songcraft, and Le Bon’s voice has been compressed and processed a bit much. Still, it’s a fine pop record, and further proof that the Durans have always been more than their image. I, for one, am hoping for another blissful fade from popularity, another decade of quirky, nifty albums, and a third comeback in 2015.

It would be difficult to characterize American Music Club’s reunion as a comeback, since they never cracked the charts to begin with. Still, for six albums and nearly 10 years, they were critically lauded, and they made some great music. Their peak, arguably, was 1991’s Everclear, but every record of theirs is worth hearing.

And they’re important for another reason – AMC launched the career of Mark Eitzel, their charismatically sad lead singer. Eitzel is the quintessential hard-luck hero in the bowler hat, and his solo career has been one long melancholy high. Given that Eitzel’s last two solo records, Music for Courage and Confidence and The Ugly American, contained no new songs – one had covers, the other re-arrangements – fans of Eitzel’s gift for storytelling have been waiting for three years to hear new material from him.

But few expected that new material would come in the form of a new American Music Club record, and fewer still could have predicted that the album would be excellent. Love Songs for Patriots is AMC’s first record in 10 years, but it picks right up where they left off. Still, the hallmark of Eitzel’s solo work has been unpredictability – a jazz ballad here, a techno-mope there, a stellar rock tune over there – so the thought of him returning to AMC’s relatively standard instrumentation didn’t inspire excitement either. But surprise – Eitzel stepped up with a great batch of songs, and the band found new ways to accentuate them.

No one does hangdog like Mark Eitzel. On this record, he even makes a phrase like “I’ve been so lucky” sound worthy of pity. Love Songs for Patriots is louder and more energetic than anything Eitzel has done away from the band, with guitarist Vudi’s swirling walls of feedback, but most will still find it slow and depressing. I find it captivating – this is the kind of record that casts a spell on its environment. It takes its time, slowly unspooling, but when you arrive at an emotional catharsis like the chorus of “Home,” it’s genuinely powerful.

Who knows whether this is a new beginning or a final bow-out for American Music Club, but I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing a new one of these every two years or so. Love Songs for Patriots is a reunion record done right, a great example of musicians growing apart and then fitting back together beautifully.

They can’t all be like that, though. Sometimes when the musicians grow apart artistically and then try to make the puzzle pieces fit again, the result is a new hybrid that probably should have been called something else. That’s the case with the new Camper Van Beethoven album, but hell, if I had one of the three or four best band names in history, I’d want to use it, too. They came up with another winning pun for the album title, too: New Roman Times.

Unless you’re a fan, you probably only remember Camper Van Beethoven for their hit, a cover of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” If that seems an odd choice for a cover, then you really don’t remember Camper Van. Their five studio albums are all nearly random in their glorious quirkiness, from the anything-can-be-ska instrumentals of Telephone Free Landslide Victory to the near-prog stylings of their self-titled record to the moody fragility of “All Her Favorite Fruit” on their swan song, 1989’s Key Lime Pie. Camper Van Beethoven never did what anyone might expect.

So I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that their first album in 15 years is this fascinating mess. New Roman Times is a 67-minute political rock opera about the making of a suicide bomber. Its 20 tracks veer from psychedelia to country to prog and even to disco. It’s just as all-over-the-place as their first few records, tied together by a newly found weight and pretension. This is an exhausting listen, even with such early Camper-style gems as “Militia Song” sprinkled in. And it isn’t very much fun – the playfulness that used to be a CVB hallmark is all but gone.

If you’re wondering why, I have one word for you: Cracker. In the decade and a half since Key Lime Pie, leader David Lowery found (and lost) success with his other band, and the ‘70s rock that Lowery grew to embrace is all over this album. It is the loudest, most abrasive CVB disc, and in fact it often sounds like late-period Cracker with a violin. Sometimes the synthesis works, and sometimes it leads to repetitive fuzziness with little else to direct it.

So it sounds nothing like the other CVB albums, but that doesn’t mean it should have stayed on the shelf. When New Roman Times works, it’s terrific, especially on instrumentals like “Discotheque CVB” and “The Poppies of Balmorhea.” It’s obvious that this album is intended to be listened to back to front, but what the concept ties together, the random nature of the music rips apart. You’ll find yourself jumping styles too often to consider this a unified work, but that doesn’t render the enjoyable parts less enjoyable. In fact, by the time of the story’s distasteful conclusion, you’ll probably have decided to ignore it anyway.

Lowery and company clearly worked hard on New Roman Times, and it stands as the CVB album with the widest reach. But if you remember Camper Van Beethoven from the ‘80s as that goofy “Take the Skinheads Bowling” band, you’re in for a surprise here, and I can’t guarantee it will be a pleasant one. But take the time to dig into this album, and it will reward you. If this is the start of a new CVB renaissance, then bring it on, because if New Roman Times proves anything, it’s that this is a band without borders. You never know what you’re going to get next.

But you know it will be better than anything on MTV.

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Well, that was a stream of consciousness. Anyway, I have been so wrapped up in the election that I forgot to congratulate the Boston Red Sox on their first World Series victory in 86 years. Needless to say, this is the biggest event to hit Boston in decades, and as an expat Bostonian, I couldn’t be happier. The series itself was anticlimactic after our near-miraculous trouncing of the hated New York Yankees, but the victory is sweet, and best of all, Red Sox fans never have to hear that damn “1918” chant again.

Good job, guys. At least I got one of the two pictures I wanted.

Next week, Rufus Wainwright, and then U2 and Eminem.

See you in line Tuesday morning.