The WTF Awards
Music That Makes You Go "Hmm..."

Most music just floats right by me without making any impact. Some music makes me sit up and take notice, and a very small percentage of that is good enough to make me more in love with life.

But some… Some music just leaves me bewildered, scratching my head and wondering just what its authors were thinking. This isn’t a bad thing – I hear a lot of music, and nearly all of it fits neatly into categories and formulas, so the songs and records that step outside those boundaries and do something truly different are rare thrills.

I have to confess, though – the bewildering records are much more difficult to assess. Part of my process includes trying to figure out just what an artist was aiming for, and then determining for myself just how close I think they came. If the intention remains elusive, it’s much harder, and the review becomes much more about whether or not I like what’s going on. If I can’t figure out why you’ve fused death metal, polka and Tuvan throat singing, all I can do is say whether I like your polka-metal-throat-singing thing, and admit my confusion.

I’m sure this peek behind the curtain is interesting to no one but me, but it leads into this week’s main event, which I’ve called The WTF Awards. (As in, “What the fuck?!?”) This is all about music that makes you go “hmm,” musical ideas that, on the face of them, make no sense. I expect to get a couple of them every year. I’ve bought three in the last two weeks.

Let me just say up front that the gold standard, the WTF Lifetime Achievement Award, is Texas musician Jandek. Nothing here is as baffling (or as interesting, frankly) as his 30-plus-year career as the most outside of outsider musicians, and I promise I will do a whole column on him someday. The three contestants this week just get plain old vanilla WTF Awards, and as you may expect, once I wrapped my brain around them, I ended up liking some more than others.

Without further ado, the first ever WTF Awards.

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The ‘90s alternative explosion was the soundtrack to my college years. Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, even shameless copycats like Stone Temple Pilots – I can’t hear those songs without thinking about my years as a student. But at the top of the heap for me was Soundgarden.

They were among the originals – their first major-label album, Louder than Love, came out in 1989, two years before Nirvana’s Nevermind opened the floodgates. None of the Seattle bands mixed melody and flat-out superb musicianship the way Soundgarden did. Just listen to “Rusty Cage,” one of the singles from 1991’s Batmotorfinger: the multiple choruses are as much of a surprise as the explosive riffing in the verses. Technical, difficult, heavy-as-hell music that just plain rocked – that was Soundgarden, and they remained consistent through two more terrific albums before imploding in 1997.

Since then, frontman Chris Cornell has seemed directionless, which is a shame. He has one of the most versatile, compelling voices in rock, but he wasted years fronting Audioslave, trying to fit that melody-rich voice into the mindless pounding of Rage Against the Machine’s rhythm section. Cornell’s solo debut, Euphoria Morning, was a sweet, low-key affair, but the less said about his second, Carry On, and especially his godawful cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the better. Oh, and he wrote a crappy song for a crappy James Bond movie too.

And now, there is this. Cornell’s third solo album is called Scream, and it’s… I don’t even know.

We can start with the basic facts. Cornell plays not a single note on this record. Scream was produced by Timbaland – yes, that Timbaland – and the music on it inhabits this strange middle ground between dance-pop and electro-rock. Programmed beats thump away while string samples fill in the corners, buzzing synth bass lines percolate under studio-sweetened choruses just drowned in backing vocals. And on top of all this, there’s Cornell and his rock-god voice.

You’d think it would be an odder fit, but here’s the thing – Scream is much more baffling on paper than it is coming out of your speakers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still weird to hear the guy who shouted “Big Dumb Sex” and “Spoonman” crooning over funky dancefloor beats, and when the album turns more towards the rump-shakers, it stumbles. But you’ll be surprised how well this combination works.

It took me several confused listens to figure out why. Most of the negative reviews (and there have been a lot of them) focus on which personality should be dominant here – some complain it’s not rock enough (or at all), and some complain it’s not danceable R&B, the kind that has become Timbaland’s stock-in-trade. The secret they seem to be missing is that Scream represents an equal partnership. Both Cornell and Timbaland made a genuine effort to come to a middle ground, and purists on either side won’t like the results, but I have to give them credit.

Does it work? Sometimes. Opener “Part of Me” might be the most uncomfortable, with its opening synth fanfare, Justin Timberlake-ready beat and bass line, and a chorus that finds Cornell repeating the line “That bitch ain’t a part of me.” The song is about rubbing up against a girl in a club, and then explaining yourself to your lady – prime material for most of Timbaland’s clients, but sort of embarrassing for a 44-year-old rocker from Seattle.

Thankfully, it gets better, and pretty quickly. “Time,” “Sweet Revenge,” “Get Up” and “Ground Zero” all swagger pretty convincingly, and the segues between each song keep the momentum going, turning Scream into an hour-long suite of sorts. The best part of this album is the return of Cornell’s melodic gift. Slow burners like “Long Gone” and “Never Far Away” stand out the most – these are Chris Cornell songs, underneath it all.

Without a doubt, this is the most interesting record Cornell has made since Soundgarden broke up. You’ll listen through to the whole thing – it’s never boring, and Timbaland is constantly throwing new things at you. But will you like it? The meet-in-the-middle approach here has served to alienate fans of both Cornell and Timbaland, despite the fact that this isn’t a throwaway project for either one. It’s clear that some serious work went into making this album sound exactly like this.

And I’ve kind of been feeling protective of it lately, like it’s an ugly, handicapped baby or something. I feel like wrapping it up in my arms and telling everyone to stop being mean, to leave it alone. “It’s not the baby’s fault it’s ugly, and has club feet! It’s trying!” The simple fact is that Scream is an experiment, one that sometimes fails. But you can’t fault Cornell and Timbaland for their commitment to it, and the more I listen, the more I think they’re on to something.

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Sometime this week, I’m going to participate in my first podcast. I feel so hip, so not old at all.

My friend in music, Derek Wright, has asked me to join him for his seventh Liner Notes podcast, and I’m a little nervous. I enjoy listening to Derek’s opinions, and I’m not sure what I’m going to be able to add. Nevertheless, I’ve been given homework – Derek discusses a wide variety of music, much of it relatively obscure, and he sent me a list of records I need to hear before we sit down and talk about them.

And that, dear reader, is how I heard Wavves. Believe me, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have come near this for all the money in the world. I understand the irony in reviewing something to say that no one should be reviewing it, but this record is so bad, and on so many critics’ good lists, that I feel the need to say something.

Wavves is Nathan Williams, a one-man noise factory from San Diego. His music is shit. I don’t want to spend too long discussing it, because it’s not worth much space. Somehow, this guy convinced a fairly well-known indie label, Fat Possum, to release his stuff – his second album, Wavvves (note that third “v”), comes six months after his first. And what baffles me as much as this terrible music is the fawning acclaim it’s been getting. Wavves has become one of those indie-cool buzz bands, and I can’t figure out why.

We can start with what’s actually on the CD, because I get the feeling that the music has little to do with the acclaim.

Now, listen, you all know I love studio production. I’m a Brian Wilson fan, I love the Beatles, Roger Manning makes me jump for joy. But I also like the raw stuff, the recorded-in-a-basement type of thing, as long as the songs are good. It takes a lot for thin production to turn me off. So I say this as someone who owns every Misfits album, including that live record with the tape squeal running all the way through it. I say this as someone who owns and enjoys PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos, and early June Panic, and all kinds of cheaply-made efforts by local bands.

Wavvves is one of the shittiest-sounding things I’ve ever heard.

No, honestly. It’s actively annoying. Not only does it sound like it was recorded with a 50-year-old tape deck and all levels pushed into the red, but the mixing is ridiculously bad. Backing vocals are louder than lead vocals, drums are buried, and everything is covered in a fuzzy layer of ear-splitting distortion. This isn’t a matter of the music being too loud for my aging ears, it’s honestly just horribly made. It’s either the most amateur thing you’ve ever heard, or it’s purposely crafted to sound like dogshit.

So grading this thing is a matter of listening through the muck to find the songs. And it turns out, it’s not worth the effort. Track two, “Beach Demon,” has a nice riff. Everything else is either boring or boneheaded, repetitive or random. “Sun Opens My Eyes” is two notes repeated while Williams moans over them, except for the “guitar solo,” placed in quotes because it honestly sounds like something a six-year-old fumbling around on a guitar for the first time might play. Five of these songs have the word “goth” in the title, and I almost wish I could make out the lyrics so I could tell you why.

Wavvves is absolutely terrible, a chore to listen to even at 36 minutes. Every single unsigned musician I know is better at making actual music than this guy. And yet, the Onion A.V. Club gave it an A. Pitchfork placed this in its “Best New Music” section. ABC News did a piece on it. People are talking about Nathan Williams as if he were some kind of… musician or something.

Actually, that’s not true. One of the selling points I’ve seen in multiple reviews is that Williams is not a musician. This is usually written as if it were something refreshing, a breath of fresh air. Who wants to listen to those elitist musicians, acting like they’re all better than people who can’t sing, play or write songs? Honestly, lack of skill is becoming something to be proud of now, a banner to fly high. It’s more genuine, more real somehow, I guess.

All I can figure is that Wavves somehow represents this new indie-cool philosophy. It’s obscure, it is objectively terrible, and by praising it to the skies you’ll drive those “mainstream critics,” the ones who want to hear “songs” and “melodies” and “actual talent,” insane. It’s all about how cool you can look, how ahead of the wave you can be as a reviewer.

The bottom line is this. One of two things is happening here – either Nathan Williams is a terrible musician with a good publicist, or he is actually a good musician making himself sound terrible on purpose for some kind of critical credibility. Either way, why the hell would I listen to this? Wavves gets the WTF Award in the worst possible way. It is beyond my understanding why it was made, why it was released, and why anyone is talking about it.

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Like any good music fan, a big chunk of the V section of my CD collection is taken up by various artists compilations.

I love these things, even though, quality-wise, they’re often a mixed bag. I’m often impressed with the themes the producers (I guess they’re called curators now, for this kind of thing, but that’s just too pretentious for me) come up with to tie the hodgepodge of tracks together. F’rinstance, War Child’s latest benefit collection is called Heroes, and features veteran artists (Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Brian Wilson) picking younger ones (The Hold Steady, The Like, Rufus Wainwright) to cover their songs. That’s just neat.

But every once in a while, I’ll get one of these that just… makes… no… sense. That’s the case with the awkwardly-titled Covered, a Revolution in Sound: Warner Bros. Records. The concept is fine – this is current Warner Bros. artists covering songs from the label’s vast catalog. But if these 12 songs are supposed to hang together in any other way, well, they don’t.

Still, I’ve got to say, this disc is thrilling. Various artists collections like this allow bands to really stretch out, pulling off things they’d never even attempt on their own records. The opening track here, for example, is ZZ Top’s “Just Got Paid,” as covered by Mastodon. That’s right, Mastodon, the terrifying metal band responsible for Leviathan and Blood Mountain, two of the most punishing and progressive heavy albums of the past decade. That band, doing ZZ Top. All southern-boogie style. With Billy Gibbons sitting in. It’s pretty great.

The songs on Covered are grouped into informal sections – it starts with the blues rockers, including the Black Keys’ stomping take on Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles,” but shortly segues into the acoustic folk numbers. Many of these are about what you’d expect – Michelle Branch does a capable job with Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” while James Otto pulls off a note-for-note rendition of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”

The curve balls are Against Me’s take on “Here Comes a Regular,” one of the most emotional Replacements songs – they do it just like Westerberg did, with one acoustic guitar and vocal – and Adam Sandler (!) doing a very good Neil Young impression on “Like a Hurricane.” Sandler plays this absolutely straight, and also chokes out some mean lead guitar, Crazy Horse style. Why would Sandler do this? Is this the start of a serious music career, or just a weird one-off? I don’t get it, but I like it.

The angsty bands are next, and the absolute best of them is electro-metal outfit The Used, who slash their way through the Talking Heads classic “Burning Down the House.” Also awesome is Disturbed’s take on Faith No More’s “Midlife Crisis’ – though not quite as great as Disturbed’s explosive version of Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” from a few years ago, it’s quite good, and reminds me what a terrific band Faith No More was.

But it’s the last track that seals this record’s place in this column. Get this: The Flaming Lips, doing Madonna’s “Borderline,” with the help of nephew Dennis Coyne’s band, Stardeath and White Dwarfs. Honest to God, they do “Borderline.” They turn it into a six-minute spacerock dirge, but somehow, they preserve every single element of the original. It’s brilliant, it’s silly, it’s out of nowhere, and I have no idea how the hell it came to be. I listen to this, and all I can do is shake my head in bewildered admiration.

If the intention here was to create a disjointed, crazy, utterly confusing mix tape, well, they did it. I don’t know what to make of Covered as a whole, and though it is uncommonly successful track by track, it makes no sense as a collection. And then there is “Borderline,” which turns the rest of the record inside out – it’s impossibly good, and utterly perplexing. Perhaps there is no rhyme, no reason, no meaning. Either way, this one gets a WTF Award just for existing.

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I was planning on including the Decemberists’ new mad-as-hatters rock opera The Hazards of Love in this week’s piece, but I think it will work better next week, paired with the new Mastodon. The theme, of course, will be bugfuck insane concept albums. Come back in seven days for that.

See you in line Tuesday morning.