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?


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