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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

2003 Pazz & Jop: Reasons to Bother

How laughable, cracked wiseacres in re the 30th or 31st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, for hopefuls in this nation’s other flawed, fragmented democratic exercise to claim hip-hop — Howard Dean enlisting Wyclef Jean, Dennis Kucinich employing a campaign rap called “Go Go Dennis” (sounds great, huh?), and, drop the bomb, Wesley Clark quoting “Hey Ya!” before assuring young supporters that breakups needn’t be permanent, just look at him and Bill. But it doesn’t seem so funny to me; not much does these days. Why shouldn’t they claim hip-hop, and mean it as much as they mean anything? In 2003, hip-hop became America’s official pop music. If it’s no surprise that John Kerry’s theme remains “Born in the U.S.A.” (as classic as “Hey Ya!” plus the Vietnam thing) and King George’s “Wake Up Little Susie” (progressive as of 1957), well, tastes differ. Anyway, Wyclef Jean ain’t Lil Jon any more than OutKast are 50 Cent.

I give you our 2003 champion, and hell ya, I’m down. As in 2000, Atlanta duo-for-life OutKast swept both our competitions, with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’s three-to-two edge matching Stankonia’s, and “Hey Ya!” ’s three-to-two dwarfing “Ms. Jackson” ’s. There’s never been a one-artist album-and-single combo like it. But though OutKast thrashed the White Stripes — aptly, given Jack White’s stated belief that rap is a low form stuck in 1986 — they were far from our biggest winner ever. Nirvana, Hole, Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft,” and, most dominant of all, Beck’s Odelay (over the Fugees’ The Score, take your pick) each won by at least 1.80-1. As I hope you noticed, these are all white artists; the strongest black finish came in 1987, when Prince’s Sign ’O’ the Times defeated Bruce Springsteen’s indelible Tunnel of Love 1.63-1. Racist? Us? Can’t be. It’s just that Euro-Americans make more aesthetically commanding popular music than African Americans, year in and year out. History shows that, right?

I’ve bewailed Pazz & Jop’s institutional racism before, and except to say that I don’t exempt myself I won’t excavate it now; should another periodical choose to devote dead trees or living megabytes to the question, I’ll sit for an interview. The numbers are always there, and in 2003 the poll put bells on them. Not that hip-hop albums finished so strong: the four in the top 15, including foreign interloper Dizzee Rascal, were tailed only by female principle Missy Elliott and white Southerner Bubba Sparxxx. Nor were the six black top-10 singles unprecedented. The difference was the commentary, where voters couldn’t stop raving about “Hey Ya!” and other beat treats but rarely waxed evangelical about albums. This undercut my custom of letting respondents speak up for their fave longforms in “Top 10 Plus,” where I settled for a meta-ironic Radiohead squib and had to solicit the arguments the Shins’ Chutes Too Narrow and the New Pornographers’ Electric Version deserved. So this year, “Plus” means singles.

As fans of the downloading wars know, this shift is poetic and hip. From utopians feeding slugs to the heavenly jukebox to suits letting the MasterCard/broadband equipped purchase music online, it is agreed that people want songs, not albums — in our archaic parlance, singles. But it’s one thing to plug in the jukebox, another to select 10 among millions of selections: BMG666, TH5446, BE45789? So though some 1,461 different singles were cited by the 508 voters (out of 732, up from 2002’s 695, hubba hubba) who listed singles, the consensus naturally favored songs that had gotten through gates narrower than Google’s or Kazaa’s. And though radio remains basic, its alternative/college/public/Internet version didn’t exert much clout on our singles chart. Beyond Johnny Cash’s video-driven “Hurt,” a sentimental favorite that came hauling a fine death album and an outtake box, these were radio/TV hits that with only two partial exceptions going down to No. 16 — focus cuts from the year’s Nos. 2 and 3 albums — got goosed on the dance-club cum singles-bar circuit. This went for white artists as well as black — Junior Senior and Electric Six are groovesters, and Justin Timberlake is a wannabe no longer.

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Although I don’t barhop like I ought to, this trend suits me fine if that’s what it is. I always hear music differently at the hop or in da club than in my lonely room — “Get Low,” hidden at the end of an album whose importance (and offensiveness) my daughter had flagged, blindsided me at a Halloween bash — and I cherish that difference. Nor is beatmastery the main reason. Our singles list is a token of sociability in a hermetic subculture, and something positive in a year when my political pessimism, which has never been deeper, has fed on my fears for the future of music, which are new — an infrastructure unlikely to strengthen in an economy based on overwork and the planned destruction of social-service jobs produced the shortest Dean’s List since 1996. A year ago the bad war I’d seen coming the minute the second plane hit made the woe-are-we at the major labels seem trivial even if it was true. But as we acclimate to long-haul horror, we look around for reasons to bother, and Tower has gotten pretty depressing. Though the death of the majors won’t equal the death of the record business, much less popular music, I’d rather they stay solvent, properly chastened. The singles that got the voters excited sounded rich-and-famous. And with Naderites, Chomskyites, and Strokes fans alike ready to vote for any ambitious glad-hander the Democratics deem electable, let me mention this — the profiteering vulgarians who run record companies are rarely Republicans.

As usual, our album chart could care less. Independent labels bankrolled some 15 of our top 40, maintaining the high level of recent years, and an unprecedented four of our top 10. But that doesn’t mean the quality album is now an indie specialty. In a revived farm-team model, the top-five White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs cracked the poll indie and then panned for gold; the Drive-By Truckers mixed it up, putting their DIY Southern Rock Opera on consignment at Universal’s Lost Highway Quilt Shoppe before bolting to Austin upstart New West for Decoration Day. But beyond Warren Zevon we register no exodus of superannuated status symbols following Tom Waits to Anti- and such. And of course, our charts aren’t Billboard’s, or even CMJ’s. Less so than ever.

Precisely two of our rock finishers went platinum. One of them, duh, is Led Zeppelin. But the other, hey, is the White Stripes, who garnered not only sales but notoriety — Jack insulted rappers, courted movie directors, and punched no-talents just like that other Detroit White. Two more broke their labels’ venal little hearts by stopping at gold: the Strokes, whose low-affect-high-IQ TRL run was clearly a misunderstanding, and Radiohead, whose hot-ticket tour failed to generate the sales levels of Kid A. If anyone might save Pazz & Jop’s prognosticating license with a late surge, it’s third-place Fountains of Wayne, who once “Stacy’s Mom” proved Collingwood & Schlesinger pop as well as “pop” were ready to surpass 1999’s 19th-place Utopia Parkway. They were up for two Grammys — including, NARAS does love a joke, best new artist — and though they got shut out, let’s hope the EMI mafia follow the sly “Mexican Wine” down the road to “Hackensack” and “Fire Island.” This is conceivable because, as our voters want to tell the world, Welcome Interstate Managers is through-crafted, one bittersweet tune after another as humane and unsappy as the rest of its vision of premarital suburbia. But FOW’s “single” was a teen novelty that downloaded up there with OutKast and Beyoncé‚ and their album never broke 115 Billboard.

Chart peaks aren’t sales totals, and by now Fountains of Wayne have surely moved more units than Grandaddy, Belle & Sebastian, or the Shins, all of whom, remarkably, did break 100 in Billboard. But with Radiohead less meaningful than rumoured, the Strokes not worth the covers they’re plastered on, Liz Phair a disgraced hussy among Adult Top 40 Recurrents, and the White Stripes getting on people’s nerves, it would help me feel better about next month if not next year were this deserving critics’ record to transcend its fluke renown and make a bunch of bizzers a load of loot. Because though 2003 was hip-hop’s year in many ways, not least how many partisans believe it’s fallen into enemy hands, I’d appreciate a market-based correlative to another story evident in comments and results, one sure to bore futurists even more than hip-hop: rock and roll revival.

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Some will scoff. Revival is so 2001 — neoclassicist Strokes/Stripes guff, swept away by the DOR swank of Interpol and the Rapture. The latter surrounded their epochal 10-word single with a literally sensational 2003 album joined on our chart by all manner of consumer electronics: the jolly Danes of Junior Senior, the tame tunes of converted selbstaendigrockers the Notwist, the multilayered, multireferential pop-funk-soul-techno post-house of Basement Jaxx, the eccentric retrotech of Four Tet, and — speaking of through-crafted — what-him-emo Ben Gibbard topping his 34th-place Death Cab for Cutie album with the Postal Service’s sweet synth-pop one-off, which floated out of the ether to finish 17th. That makes six — are you impressed yet?

These are estimable records, Europeans notwithstanding; Rapture-good Interpol-bad, Basement Jaxx and Postal Service highly kraftwerked, and I’ll take “post-rock” Four Tet over not just Sigur Rós but My Morning Jacket, the Mars Volta, Kings of Leon, and — right now, as of this possibly anomalous and certainly slight record — the bulk of the indie-rock boys-boys-boys elbowing onto our chart. But no matter what the now people dig in Ibiza and Indonesia, P&J’s self-made aesthetes still favor aggregations of misfits making physical contact with guitars. It’s a Yank thing — with a boost from Britain, home of my two favorite young bands: punk-as-a-drunk-junkie Libertines, a solid 23rd, and beat-shrieking femme-fronted Kaito, riffle-riffle-riffle, here we are, page eight, tied for 252nd. Call them pop, call them slop, call them behind the times. But from Grandaddy to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they’re all rock and roll and you know it. And you also know they’re not going away.

Is Pazz & Jop the world? The nation? Rock criticism? Of course not. Hell, maybe we’re part of the problem by now. Maybe we’re the American arrogance that bombed Iraq, or the alt myopia that frustrates managers into mandating a makeover and leaves my paper looking like Britney Spears on her wedding night. I plead innocent, but I can see why some might make such cheap charges. Obviously the poll’s imperfect. We never get out the hip-hop press. Our rolls are larded with part-timers who buy many records and miss many more. And they’re joined annually by newbies who learned to write from literary theorists and honed their opinionizing skills in the dog-eat-dog cenacles of college radio. These latter tend to festoon their ballots with arcane faves — mostly negligible song-crafters or art bands, or so I infer from artist-title-label, hearsay, and their more familiar choices. But most voters still like songs, obscurities rarely rise to the top, and with a partial exception or three — say Postal Service, Rapture, Broken Social Scene — a decent smattering of over-40s supported even our freshest-faced finishers. Furthermore, though the boundary between rumor and fashion is never what it should be, unlikely records like Four Tet’s Rounds do emerge from the depths. No songs on that one — just instruments or their simulacra clashing and converging playfully and prettily as they shuffle tune and beat. Without Pazz & Jop, I wouldn’t have given it a chance.

If I’ve strayed from loose talk about rock and roll to articulated ambivalence about indie-rock, well, the two are obviously connected. But they aren’t identical. Not all or most indie records are indie-rock records, and some that are barely achieve the synergy/energy that for rock and rollers is manna and chocolate-chip ice cream. The synergy half is crucial, and tricky. Broken Social Scene, for instance, are a collective held together by a bass player, not a band — only that isn’t such a bad definition of a band, and you can hear how their cohesion-in-disarray might be a paradigm for a post-youth bohemia where friends are always screwing around and moving away. More typical are Belle & Sebastian, always static on principle, but with a flow, only this time Trevor Horn revved them up and they rocked even less. Similarly, Cat Power’s chart debut is merely the most interactive of Chan Marshall’s misleadingly labeled singer-with-backup albums, and Death Cab wear their origins as a solo project on their arrangements. And then there are the Pernice Brothers, who are just slow. None of these moderns rocked with nearly the commitment of putative singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who translated roadhouse raunch from metaphor into music, or Warren Zevon, who recorded his cancer-fueled farewell in his living room so he could save what life he had left for the important things, like getting the guitar solo of the year out of Bruce Springsteen.

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In general, though, indie-rock happens in bars, and bargoers are noisy. So unless you’re Chan Marshall telling Kurt he was right to cut and run because nobody understood him, you try and drown them out — even if you’re Fountains of Wayne or the Shins, although maybe not Grandaddy. And once we get to the soi-disant pop of the New Pornographers, or the soi-disant dance music of the Rapture, we’re boogieing, one might say. Though one record is fulla songs and the other fulla synth, both bands put their backs into forward motion. Of course, so do several finishers I have doubts or worse about, from floor-dragging My Morning Jacket to leaping Ted Leo to molten Fiery Furnaces, although not certifiably Latino Mars Volta, so enamored of melodrama and its shifting rhythmic accoutrements that they could have learned clave from Kansas.

Me, I found 2003 longer on intricately propulsive song than fiercely clamorous beat: Fountains of Wayne tightening up, Yo La Tengo slacking off, Shins bearing in, Drive-By Truckers hiring Jason Isbell as if Patterson Hood wasn’t writer enough, and Wrens fusing heart, soul, tune, harmony, and artificially massed guitars in a Sisyphean labor whose near miss is poetry. (41–50, viewable online along with 1,952 other albums: endlessly circling Jayhawks, dull Thrills, refulgent Wrens, NAACP Image Award nominee R. Kelly, born vocalist Lyrics Born, Can’t-Catch-a-Break Timberlake, Joe Strummer R.I.W., Irish folksingers Ryan Adams and Damien Rice, and Electric Six, who do not exist in real life, thank God.) But born-againers aren’t raving about songs (much less singers, who beyond Rufus Wainwright and an ailing Johnny Cash got shut out). They’re raving about grooves, half a dozen strong: White Stripes and Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Libertines, Kings of Leon and the Darkness. Without these bands’ variously formalist, fecund, facile, clever, and stuck-in-the-mud songwriting, their grooves would go nowhere fast, and sometimes they do anyway; sometimes that’s the idea. Sometimes, too, they boogie only conceptually — they’re not friendly enough. But within a recognizable rubric that isn’t hip-hop, each moves in a distinct way that moves its crowd. Call them old-fashioned, but try to pin down exactly which punk or blues-rock or metal they echo and you’ll end up claiming the Strokes are Television.

For these bands, irony is a bigger nonissue than emo, which despite its three albums in Spin’s preemptive top 40 topped out at 130 Pazz & Jop (Thursday, who deeply regret to inform themselves that politics is anguish), unless you count the outrageous nu-hair-metal of the Darkness, the funniest thing-yet-not-the-thing since the Pet Shop Boys (but remember, it is the thing), or believe the Strokes are lying about their insincerity (which they never would). All these bands seem to feel whatever it is they feel, and though as with emo it’s often painful, instead of wallowing they do their best to run it over — usually, strange to tell, without benefit of much musicianship, and in two cases without a bassist. Virtuosity comes with the Darkness’s concept, and after that the best band-qua-band here is the Strokes. If the Libertines have a model it’s the Heartbreakers not the Ramones, if Kings of Leon have a forerunner it’s the Uniques not the Stones, and though Brian Chase plays a lot more drums than Meg White, the groove of each band is left to a protean guitarist — plus such old reliables as speed, swagger, abandon, and shards of noise indicating that you just don’t give a fuck. For the Stripes and Strokes to take such a groove pop is a tribute to Jack White’s talent and the Strokes’ good looks. I doubt the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will follow, and I’m certain the Libertines won’t. The Darkness are huge in England and making their stateside move as I write. Which leaves Kings of Leon, a band so ordinary I tried to ignore them.

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Kings of Leon excite fans of the Southern, the primitive, the trad, the blues-based, and their backstory, in which the home-schooled sons of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher are saved from a life of virtue by rock and roll. This is rock’s starter myth, irresistible for anyone oppressed firsthand by the culture of rectitude. But a thousand bad bands with their dicks in their hands have made millions turning it into organized irreligion, and Kings of Leon didn’t reinvent its clichés. Even early on the Drive-By Truckers delved so much further into Southern low life, and rocked harder too. Yet what hurts in a year when Pazz & Jop takes a backseat to another democratic exercise (if by some miracle the big one goes well, the music business can take care of itself) is that I need what Kings of Leon represent: the South, some effective portion of its rectitude-ridden, home-schooled-or-worse, class-consciously anti-intellectual masses-yearning-to-be-free. If they don’t speak to me, hell, I don’t speak to them either. Yet we have to get together somehow. That’s one reason John Edwards has been my glad-hander of choice.

Anyone expecting me to claim that our Georgia-based winners resolve this dilemma should get serious. But the metaphors are there. My hot year in hip-hop wasn’t like the critics’ because it was more critical. Only four of the 13 hip-hop albums on the Dean’s List are mainstream, and though both of my undie-rap top-10s are by nonblacks, all but two of the others are African American — unlike most undie-rap fans, and also unlike most name undie-rappers. Give it up to Britbeat original Dizzee Rascal, but to me it’s pathetic that voters should pump 50 Cent and Jay-Z here and Ted Leo and Grandaddy there, yet ignore the indie-rock resourcefulness of the differingly devout Lifesavas and Brother Ali, or at least bohos for life Mr. Lif and Jean Grae. It’s inconvenient for my argument that I can’t add North Carolina’s 80th-place Little Brother, Native Tongues surrogates with a bad case of Arrested Development. But I’ll shore up my pretensions to objectivity by noting that Jean Grae was the only New York rapper her homeboy A-listed this year. S. Carter took an album’s worth of guest shots (just wait) and killed with most, but compare the casual vanity of his Beyoncé to the casual avuncularity of his Missy and the casual geopolitics of his Panjabi MC and you’ll hear why the mulitplatinum Black Album seemed puffed up to me. As for the multiplatinum F. Cent, he could slur the most infectious Drebeats this side of M. Mathers and I’d still wish crime did not play. Same goes for Neptunebeats — but maybe not Timbobeats. I leave it conditional because Timbaland didn’t altogether convert me to Bubba Sparxxx, who for all his class-conscious good-heartedness declines personal responsibility for the post-racist future he’s clearly committed to — in that fatalistic Southern way, he just declares it inevitable. I don’t hold it against him, an American dilemma is an American dilemma, but his people better be talking to Russell Simmons’s people.

Timbaland was also the genius of two of my mainstream rap picks. But he was the auteur of only one, as Missy Elliott abandoned dreams of a singles threepeat to through-craft the first true album of her hitcentric career — a show of confidence whose eccentricities were so decent professional insomniacs slept on them. But though OutKast’s beats were less thrilling, which isn’t to say Prince and P-Funk won’t grace any inaugural ball I DJ, their eccentricities were impossible to miss, and sleeping on them proved impractical. OutKast’s Janus move is uneven, as I’d figured. What I didn’t figure was that Big Boi’s Clintonisms would flag a bit while Andre 3000’s skits and falsetto showpieces jawed at me all night. With all flaws and flat spots assumed, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below means to prophesy structurally: Big Boi is the self-created positivity of the gangsta culture both rappers long ago moved beyond, Andre the national aspirations they make so much more of than Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. They’re defiant yet reliable, rooted yet progressive, male yet female they wish, hip-hop yet pop yet something like indie-rock, for God’s sake.

As music, as good as we could have hoped, human error included. Nevertheless, what it portends about the immediate future of the South, new or dirty or pivotal or yearning to be free, isn’t what we’d wish. Lil Jon with his blindsiding single, he’s Atlanta, all the way to the back of the strip joint. OutKast are black consciousness, with prevailing influences from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Plainfield, New Jersey — the black consciousness that almost every American institution still underrepresents, yet that itself addresses only a subset of the war on the nonrich now being waged in King George’s name by both Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. They’re a reason to bother, the best music could hold out the promise of in 2003. All I can say to anyone who was hoping for more of a happy ending than that is that I’m hoping for one too.

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Top 10 Albums of 2003

1. OutKast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (Arista)

2. The White Stripes: Elephant (V2)

3. Fountains of Wayne: Welcome Interstate Managers (S-Curve)

4. Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Fever to Tell (Interscope)

6. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow (Sub Pop)

7. New Pornographers: Electric Version (Matador)

8. Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash (Astralwerks)

9. Drive-By Truckers: Decoration Day (New West)

10. Dizzee Rascal: Boy in Da Corner (XL Import)

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Top 10 Singles of 2003

1. OutKast: “Hey Ya!” (Arista)

2. Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z: “Crazy in Love” (Columbia)

3. The White Stripes: “Seven Nation Army” (Third Man/V2)

4. Kelis: “Milkshake” (Star Trak/Arista)

5. 50 Cent: “In Da Club” (G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath/Interscope)

6. Johnny Cash: “Hurt” (American)

7. Fountains of Wayne: “Stacy’s Mom” (S-Curve/Virgin)

8. R. Kelly: “Ignition — Remix” (Jive)

9. Junior Senior: “Move Your Feet” (Atlantic)

10. Panjabi MC featuring Jay-Z: “Beware of the Boys (Mundian To Bach Ke)” (Sequence)

—From the February 11–17, 2004, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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Basement Jaxx (DJ Set)

The British dance-pop behemoths Basement Jaxx have been revived in 2014, teasing their forthcoming LP Junto with three piano-driven tracks that highlight the sugariest of their typical capabilities. The duo of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Burton are now known for sprawling, hyperactive shows featuring numerous live vocalists, but considering their name was originally derived from a club night, hopefully they still remember how to heat up a smaller room when they DJ at Verboten.

Wed., July 16, 10 p.m., 2014

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CUPID SHUFFLES

Quiz time: What do Basement Jaxx’s Scars, Florence and the Machine’s Lungs, Solange’s “True” EP, and the film MacGruber have in common? All feature contributions from Dev Hynes, the producer-singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who once went by Lightspeed Champion but these days is better known for Cupid Deluxe, the new album he recorded under his new alias, Blood Orange. If that’s a lot of names for you, cue up your streaming-music service of choice and listen to “Chamakay,” the minor-key album opener that picks up right where, say, Solange’s “Losing You” left off.

Thu., Feb. 6, 7 p.m., 2014

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SCARRED, BUT NOT DEFEATED

Crazy Itch Radio, the lukewarm 2006 effort from English dance-music duo Basement Jaxx, cost them a good deal of momentum here in the States among all but their most devout fans. But buoyed by killer lead single “Raindrops,” their latest full-length, Scars, should please those still enamored of the aggressively omnivorous approach Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe cultivated in their early-’00s glory days: It’s got a sexy-bleepy Santigold track, a pair of Prince-ly electro-soul collaborations with Sam Sparro and Eli “Paperboy” Reed, and even a decent folk-pop track featuring Lightspeed Champion, of all people. This Santos’ Party House gig is a DJ date, not the full Jaxx live experience. Provided they play “Raindrops,” though, you’re all good.

Sat., Nov. 7, 10 p.m., 2009

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Stuff You Need To Know This Week To Avoid Cultural Ostracism

SPORTING TRIFLES
Yankee Stadium blaring Basement Jaxx’s “Where’s Your Head At?” during JumboTron blooper reels.
Consider it the electro-house version of “Yakety Sax.”

MACHO ANTICS
Burger King announces a new “Start a fistfight at a Ben Folds/Boston Pops concert and get a free Whopper” promotion.
Have some onion rings while you’re at it, you choad.

TRANSCENDENT CONCERT EXPERIENCE
Watching a roomful of complete strangers go absolutely apeshit to the almost violently joyful noise-rock stylings of Dan Deacon.
The phrase “happy hardcore” actually makes sense for the first time ever.

ALBUM OF THE YEAR THIS WEEK
Wishing you had access to technology that could digitally remove all the hokey vocals from Apparat’s majestic Walls.
No talking during the movie, jerkoff.

HILARIOUS ROCK-CRITIC JARGON
The very existence of the phrase “blog house.”
“It used to be Shithouse!”

OBSCURE CINEMATIC REFERENCES
That’s right, two shout-outs to the same Robin Hood: Men in Tights joke in six months.
Look up Men in Tights and Latrine on YouTube; it’ll make sense, honest.

WAYWARD REMIXES
Mims unveils “This Is Why I Rock.”
It may technically rock, but it sure as hell ain’t hot.

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And the Winner Is . . .

It’s awards season and club people like to pat themselves on the back, too. Dance music’s Golden Globes are the DanceStar USA Awards (announced in a few weeks at the Winter Music Conference in Miami), and the nominees are for the most part worse than the Grammys and the Oscars combined, since the organization continues to reward the stale and traditional. For example, in the Best Act category, judges are forced to choose between banalities such as BT, Deborah Cox, and the Crystal Method. For Best International Act, the choice is between Kraftwerk, Underworld, Basement Jaxx, Benny Benassi, and the Jethro Tull of techno, the Chemical Brothers. What year is it—1994?

And for Best Album we have records by Paul Van Dyk, BT, Basement Jaxx, the Crystal Method, and . . . OutKast? (Anyone remember that game from Sesame Street, you know, the one that goes, “One of these things is not like the others”?) Finally, competing for the Best Celebrity DJ: Rosanna Arquette, Cameron Douglas, Danny Masterson, Voice royalty Adrien Brody (please stick to acting in movies as emaciated, starving characters), and Paris Hilton (please stick to acting in movies as emaciated, sex-starved characters). What! No Paul Sevigny? This is an outrage!

On the other hand, the first-ever nominees for the Dance Music Hall of Fame might seem old hat, but they’re supposed to since it’s all about history. The nominees for 2004 read like a who’s who of dance music: Barry White, the Bee Gees, Chic, Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, and New Yorkers David Mancuso, Larry Levan, and Nicky Siano are just some of the nominees. Unfortunately, we’re not really in suspense about who’ll get inducted because we know they’ll all get their due in due time. At least this bunch doesn’t make you embarrassed for your industry.

They’re huge in Europe: The Scissor Sisters, the fivesome who were once satisfied with playing the bar at the Cock, are now bona fide stars in the U.K., thanks to their redo of “Comfortably Numb.” The Brits, who have better musical taste than their U.S. counterparts, sent the single straight to the Top 10 upon its release three weeks ago, and sent the band to appear on Top of the Pops. Confession: singer Jake Shears and I go way back. I used to serve him coffee in Seattle when he was a young buck.

Another young buck and his missus leave the city. Angus Andrews of the Liars is hightailing it to Berlin while his lovely lass, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, moves to L.A., land of sunshine and silicone. We heard they’d broken up but that turned out not to be true. Damn! I mean, oh good for them. Stalker of Miss O’s that I am, I may just have to move there, too.

Recaps: Arc is closing just like I told you a few weeks back, despite the club’s denials. The club goes out with a bang in April and becomes luxury apartments. Also, Armand Van Helden‘s hip-hop collaboration with Wu-Tang isn’t the only thing he has up his sleeve. He’s been shopping a mix disc around to labels that my source says has a track listing “straight out of the ’80s.” Someone may want to give him the memo that while he was away from clubland, the ’80s came back and left already. For proof: Luxx, the venue that ushered in that ’80s revival two years ago, is shuttered again after only a few months as Toybox.

And finally, Halcyon, the café-slash-restaurant- slash-record store, is shutting its doors in April. Until then, there’ll be killer deals on cool antique mid-century furniture, as well as quality vinyl. With the best sound system outside of Twilo, the café attracted great DJs: Over the years, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth of the Talking Heads, electro-funk producer Arthur Baker, house legend Tony Humphries, and U.K. junglist DJ Storm graced the wheels.

Do not fret, however. If you are still able to read this between your tears, the Halcyon kids are regrouping by the end of the year and reopening. The new as-yet-undiscovered space, somewhere in Brooklyn, “will be everything that Halcyon is, on steroids,” says co-owner Shawn Schwartz. “We’ll be going from a café to a restaurant, and going from a lounge to a club.” Which means, of course, that one of the cabaret law’s most active opponents will now be looking for a cabaret-friendly space and dealing with the miles of paperwork necessary to get a license. “With everything I’ve done in fighting the law, if I am not prepared to actually go out and get one of these fucking things, then who is?”


tromano@villagevoice.com

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Hard To Be Human Again

It’s probably wrong to call Luomo’s Vocalcity (2000) and Kylie Minogue’s Fever (2001) the two best disco albums of the Aughts thus far. That’s a fool’s game, not least because of Daft Punk’s Discovery and the Avalanches’ Since I Left You and Triple R’s Friends and Basement Jaxx and Perlon Records, etc. But the pair do map the terrain out something

nice. In this corner, the jiffy-poppiest record of the current epoch, Daft Punk with star appeal, every bit as dazzled by its own machinery and dizzy with its own grace, and— in case you missed its world-beating singles and videos—Fever is really, really, really catchy. In that corner, the debut of Finnish dub-techno artiste Vladislav Delay’s deep-house guise, which isn’t catchy at all, at least not in the snappy, immediate sense. Its surface is cool, but the jitteriness just under the surface, and the sense of dread beneath that, call the album’s pleasures (and house music’s generally) into question.

There are stretches (not a word I’m using lightly) when Vocalcity seems like the great yawning chasm of house music, pleasure as bottomless pit, the dream and lie of clubland staring back at you. Kylie’s emotions are big and clear: She’s exuberant, she’s coy, she’s electrically charged, she’s really horny. Luomo’s are confused, buried beneath layers of murk, surfacing willfully, almost mournfully. “Because you move/The way you move/I’ve got to keep on moving with you,” goes “Synkro,” transforming from mantra to plea and back with every iteration, as dub-house bass and slow-mo synth shudders rise and decay in and out of the blipstream.

It’s probably wrong to say Kylie’s and Luomo’s new albums switch places: Body Language is only as “arty” as the electroclash it borrows liberally from, and old-fashioned pop fans will still find The Present Lover unmoored. But both do move tentatively toward the middle. Body Language is an album only partly suited to a goddess—Madonna inhabited similar beats far more securely on Music, and unlike her American semi-counterpart, Kylie doesn’t appear to have any vocal training to show off. That’s great when she’s being an icon, which is what she spent all of Fever doing. Language tackles the more problematic issue of figuring out what to do when iconhood is not enough. There’s something rote and antiseptic about the album’s party mood—the electro-beats’ clean squelch, the undercooked hooks, the odd primness of Kylie’s singing. She sounds hemmed in by bleh material; when she dispatches a fine young thing because she’s feeling like a “Red Blooded Woman” (as opposed to what, blue?), both the song and the blood seem a little thin.

The part of the review where I suggest that Kylie should hook up with Luomo will have to remain on the cutting-room floor. Vladislav Delay is nobody’s idea of a songwriter; vocalists are grist for his sampler, and so are words. But what he makes of them can be startling. The Present Lover is a more finely shaped album than Vocalcity—10 discrete tracks that run overture-crest-comedown, between four and 10 minutes each, as opposed to a half-dozen that ooze amorphously for 79 total. But where Vocalcity turns its emotional confusion into a coat of arms (cf. There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Metal Box, Maxinquaye), The Present Lover sometimes just feels confused: The opening diptych tries too hard to swoon (“Visitor” with its stupid lines about “boiling in your cold,” “Talk in a Danger” with its simpering chorus), “Cold Lately” meanders more than any random 4:44 of Vocalcity, and the remake of that album’s great “Tessio” introduces an acoustic guitar and not much else.

This matters less than it should; the slow-burn stuff helps the pace along, setting the tone for the disc’s real reason for being: It’s the site of the most voracious desire-matrices Luomo has concocted. The plodding foursquare keyboard hook of “So You” rubs against a simple plea (“Do I want too much?”) until Delay ruptures the lines into even more desireful babble (“Do I—do too much?”), cracking the song wide open. The title cut is breathless like early New Order crossed with early doo-wop, topped by a Robert Fripp solo played on underwater snake keytar. “What Good” features a charmingly nattering Prince soundalike, but lifts off the planet at minute three, with the greatest and probably only key change in post-rave history. And “Shelter” sounds like a State of the House Nation address, even if that nation isn’t paying attention. The female singer falters, stammers, rights herself, squares her shoulders, and looks you in the eye: “I’m trying/To stand/With you/Together.” Its measured internal steeliness is more pragmatic than iconic, but there’s nothing confused about it.

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Love Is All

Luke Jenner of Brooklynites the Rapture may sing a lot about love over loud disco beats, but something tells me that if he got stuck in a Basement Jaxx song he’d have a panic attack. Jenner’s vocal style suggests he’s having one already, so I’m not saying that to be mean. And since, when you first hear them, most Basement Jaxx songs sound like they’re coming at you from 10 directions at once anyway, it’s not as if Jenner would be alone—most likely you’d panic, too. So would I.

In Jaxxworld, everything jumps, everything squiggles, everything’s up for grabs. There are exceptions—”If I Ever Recover” on Kish Kash tips its hat to Chicago house smoothie Fingers Inc.—but those are there to restore us to reality before the next plunge, or to take us out and/or down. “Recover” cushions the album’s headiest moment, “Plug It In,” in which the Prince of “U Got the Look” up and devours the Prince of “Erotic City,” just before “Cish Cash” rolls over the Luxx playlist like an 18-wheeler with a sense of entitlement.

Maybe “Plug It In” vocalist J.C. Chasez (*NSync) and Siouxsie Sioux (Banshees), who sings “Cish Cash,” are more used to the spotlight than Jenner was when the Rapture made Echoes a year ago, and therefore sound more at ease on their respective single-of-the-year candidates than he would. And maybe the unknowns who take center stage when a Big Name Guest Star doesn’t are too unselfconscious to know any better. When Jaxx-men Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe invite a Brixton homegirl called Emily to pipe “It makes no sense at all to me!” atop static-horn-synth twee-rave riffs and skippy 2step beats, she sounds giddy, unable to contain herself, like making no sense at all is the secret of life. Jenner wouldn’t; he’d sing it the way he sings everything on Echoes, as if he’s lost in a maze of possibilities and is wary of most of them.

Echoes is as self-conscious as Elephant or Kid A or God Loves Ugly, except it follows a subculture-landmark single, not album. “House of Jealous Lovers” may have finished ninth in last year’s Pazz & Jop on the strength of its New York vote, but reliable sources note that its disco pulse and postpunk guitar are currently being ripped off by lessers from Olympia to Chapel Hill. Good—anything but another fucking Modest Mouse clone. What makes Echoes more than the sum of its inspirations (the title cut directly rips PiL’s “Careering,” “Olio” sounds exactly like the Cure, with Jenner a shameless Robert Smith doppelgänger wherever) is that the band audibly, valiantly struggle to create something bigger than they are. That’s one reason the album has been engendering backlash for the near year it’s been floating around on promos and P2Ps.

But Echoes‘ attempt to morph disco feels less like postpunk than like the reverse negative of an album from a different dance-rock era: Primal Scream’s 1991 Screamadelica. Both are as much producers’ albums as band ones (take a bow, DFA). The difference is context: Screamadelica blisses out, goes too far, comes up shorter than you want. Echoes is constrained; it shudders, not slinks, out of its shell, struggling hard against the current. So the grooves are life preservers rather than immersion tanks, as hyper-aware as the rock songs (a major difference between Primal Scream and the Rapture: The latter are American, meaning when they pick up guitars they actually rock) and, shockingly, the ballads. “Open Up Your Heart” is a crack in the album’s surface that threatens to swallow everything in its path (on the third song!) but instead illuminates it, while “Love Is All” is straight-up classic rock. In both, you can hear Jenner not entirely convincing himself that he can will himself to swoon. One eye open as his head tilts back, he makes sure he doesn’t fall down, and you want to catch him if he does.

Ratcliffe and Buxton, in contrast, have their belief down cold, which is easier when you’re baptized in rave than after-the-fact postpunk. They don’t have to struggle; in dance music, release is a given. But at this point it’s probably misleading to refer to Basement Jaxx as “dance”: They’ve now spent three albums (four, counting the 1998 12-inch compendium Atlantic Jaxx Recordings) upending house music. Still, they came up in rave, and are still going to be filed in the “dance” section of your local mom-and-pop. But it’s not stretching to suggest that they’ve complicated house music’s ease so effectively that Kish Kash often resembles, well, postpunk. Partly this is cosmetic: Why imitate Lydon-Levene-Wobble when you can hire Siouxsie Sioux? But Kish Kash‘s idea surfeit, its loosey-goosey denseness, its bric-a-brac wooziness, its squelches and squeals and microriffs and background vocals contorting themselves and then snapping back into place, is as spiritually generous as the Rapture’s formal breakouts. Buxton and Ratcliffe’s pleasure-first principles (engage, engage, engage, ruthlessly and at all costs) make them the thing rather than simply the idea. Let’s hope the Rapture get there, too.


The Rapture play Roseland October 24.

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Computer Blue

Not only have I heard three different DJs (electro, house, and techno) drop “Controversy” in the past few months, recent albums by Basement Jaxx, Playgroup, Bilal, and Kelis all make clear that Prince’s sonic DNA continues to breed like crazy. In this climate, you’d figure If I Was Prince—10 new covers by Euro-identified electro-identified artists—to be even more irrelevant than that horrid Rainbow Children thing the real guy foisted on the faithful last fall. But If I Was Prince picks up on one of the great overlooked aspects of Prince’s appeal: a guy sitting alone in his room, singing to himself, and who sounded like it a lot of the time, however libidinal or itchy-footed or world-conqueringhis constructs may have been.

This doesn’t make If I Was Prince any better than your average tribute disc, but it does make it more interesting; just compare the all-star karaoke of the I Am Sam soundtrack’s Beatles remakes. Misty Dixon or Bronze Age Fox might ruin “The Beautiful Ones” or “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” by equating whispering with intimacy, but there are moments when the artists sound like they’ve almost figured out, if not how to be Prince, what it must be like to be him: the echoed guitar and vocal on Capitol K’s otherwise useless “Dance On,” Jeb Loy Nichols murmuring “Dorothy Parker was cool” on Broadway Project’s Tricky-esque “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker.” Hefner turns “Controversy” into a great lost Morcheeba single—if you think Prince sounded solipsistic singing “Some people want to die/So they can be free,” wait’ll you hear Josee Hurlock croon it over downtempo lounge-funk. And 7 Hurts with Peaches and Bitch Lap Lap improve “Sexy Dancer” by turning it into—what else?—a Prince tribute. The lyrics become a telegram from the man himself, inviting the singers to his club to get a closer look at their moves, over one of the shamefully few nu-electro tracks worthy of, well, Prince himself.

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Mash Culture

Here are some things Basement Jaxx’s new album, Rooty, makes me think of: the long-range viability of classic song form; hip-hop’s aesthetic hegemony and how it contributed to the divorce of beat from song and the idea that dancing is for girls; local culture; global capital; Daft Punk’s new album; the tapes I made in 1984 for my high school senior dance; and the Euro (the currency, not the guy who wears sandals and sunglasses to the cafeteria).

Here are the things you want to know about Basement Jaxx’s new album, Rooty: Yes, it’s as good as the last one, maybe better. Yes, there’s a single to accompany your behind, “Romeo,” their deepest epiphany yet. No, it’s not the 2step album people said it would be, not if I hear 2step correctly, though it’s certainly high-spirited and of the moment. Let’s do one of those Euro (yes to the sandals guy this time) magazine micro-blurbs that summarize mini-reviews: “Underground house kings revive Prince for the disco-tech queens!” Young guns of Brixton Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe stake their claim to newness by curating a slide show of the past they think is missing from the now—Earth, Wind and Fire; Chic; the Selecter; castanets; Gary Numan; Dominatrix; Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson—all without violating Talmudic BPM rules.

Begin as they begin, with “Romeo,” one of those songs that you hear once and like, and then you fall over flat (in a good way) the second time. “Romeo” is to dance music what “Teen Spirit” was to a certain rock formalism—all the good bits strung together and exaggerated by the knowledge that they are actually the good bits and hey, why didn’t we do this before? You will be a house apostate if you actually enjoy “Sexy Feline Machine,” not because of the conceptual Prince nod and the P-Funk ya-ya-ya background vocals, but because it’s not strictly in 4/4 time. Big whoop, but that’s the kind of thing that earned Basement Jaxx (and Daft Punk, woo ha) an early “punk disco” tag. Disco being the big fat yes of pleasure, and punk being the multi-colored no of bloody-mindedness, it never made much sense to me, so I reckon it’s just some schoolyard shit: B-Jaxx are punks because they’re different. It indicates how uptight house is that Jaxx got called (or called themselves) punks simply for using what their neighbors wouldn’t: sounds borrowed from U.S. pop and rock, juicier chord changes than the economy demands, lyrics that go beyond football chants, and anonymous singers who sound like they might not stay that way forever. Which list makes the Basement Jaxx sound like pop, but their promo sticker is running out of room. (Tiny CD real estate, damn you!)

But in “Freakalude,” they advertise themselves like this: “What is freaky? Freaky is a whole lot of magic holed up into one little space that just needs to escape. But u know what? I don’t call it freaky. I call it funky.” U know what? That’s the moment when I started thinking of my high school dance tapes. Tape Two, side B goes, partially, like this: the Jam, Disco 3, the Fresh 3, Malcolm McLaren, Siouxsie’s version of “Supernatural Thing,” then Killing Joke, then Grace Jones. You get the idea. It’s variety, or the collision of not obviously compatible magic, that links Rooty and these tapes. But after 90 minutes, the difference is obvious. Back in 1984, the Fun Boy Three didn’t know from Masterdon Committee nor did they know about Killing Joke. There is pleasure in the friction of the old, local ways poking though the new world playlist, and vulnerability in the baby steps of an all-for-one culture. As with Remain in Light and Sign ‘o’ the Times (nostalgia overload!), the old is visible right next to a new that never came. Or forget culture and go formal; it’s the difference between a mix and a melt, a group of distinct ingredients or a new mash.

There’s very little pop now that hasn’t been melted under the heat lamps of either disco/house or hip-hop, the two beat structures that took over the world. In the U.S., hip-hop turned on the lamps, and in Europe it was disco. If you had told me 17 years ago I’d be envious of a Eurodisco state of mind, I would have asked you to get off my premises. But things turned out a bit different than when I was imagining the Treacherous Three taking over the world. Though I’d be thrilled to reach the Emerald City with OutKast, or stay here and bitch in dystopia with Cannibal Ox, hip-hop’s takeover has displaced many of the things that made the New York state of mind so sweet: dancing to songs, verse-to-chorus bridges, clave rhythms, straight guys who dance well, gay record store clerks, chord changes, string sections, harmony, assertive female pleasure, dancing dogs, harmonic dogs, dogs of the world unite.

Ah, but disco had room at the inn, and this is where Basement Jaxx (and Daft Punk, holler on me!) laid their robot heads as children. And when they awoke with visions of Cerrone dancing in their heads, they were smart enough to know hip-hop and Timbaland had raised the bar on sonics but sensitive enough to notice global hop had left a lot of other things behind. So they both jacked up the pleasure (see the disco yes) and, within bounds, brought in some feel-good exiles. (Most Americans will be more comfortable with B-Jaxx’s canon of missing heroes than Daft Punk’s, as the former does not include either metal solos from country songs or Michael McDonald.)

But no, I’m not saying Rooty will be Sign ‘o’ the Times for anybody but the wishful or kids who’ve grown up listening to Autechre. Disco is a heat lamp, inclusive or no, and there’s no pop album right now with the internal edges of a great mix tape. Rooty‘s BPMs stay within a DJ’s idea of reason and there’s not, like, a live band breakdown or an ode to Dorothy Parker here. Nor is there always an individual personality driving or deforming the music, but the Jaxx can find one when they need to. “Romeo” singer Kele le Roc’s needs sound a lot more immediate than J.Lo’s, and the female chorus on “Get Me Off” demands “fuck me, trust me, get me off,” without sounding too much like some guy asked them to do it. Some guys did, though, and I’ve got no proof they were more interested in the lyrics than in the nasty square wave synth bassline. I still get a feeling the Jaxx aren’t puppeteers. At least the “trust me” bit acknowledges the fact that folks have lives after the dance ends.

Though I accept Basement Jaxx as a viable Now Version of culture mash, I still miss the edges, vive la différence and all that. That makes me sound like one of those Brits who don’t like the Euro because it’s, well, different and not British, and that’s not a good enough reason to resist the future. Forget what it isn’tRooty‘s bring-it-on disco attitude feels pretty rock and roll next to the woe-is-me slow dance that rock has become, whether you’re rocking Sigur Rós or Creed. Put “Romeo” in between the Creation’s “Making Time” and “Crosseyed and Painless” and you’ve got a vigorous hat trick. That’s exactly where it is on our current family mix tape. And though my wife thinks the Beatles need to go because they’re too well known and my eldest son doesn’t like the Gal Costa tune, everything’s gonna be all right. Yesterday’s gone. Let it all go.