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

1997 Pazz & Jop: The Year of No Next Big Thing

Because the 24th or 25th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the biggest-and-bestest ever, it tempted me to come out shilling for our big fat turnout and shiny new machines. Because the winner was in doubt well into the computerized tally, his margin of victory the smallest since…Blood on the Tracks? — no no no, Born in the U.S.A. — it beckoned the frustrated sportswriter in me. But I run this thing because I like being a rock critic. My boyish delight in the charts doesn’t do as much for my cardiovascular tone as my adult pleasure in the kid music I call rock and roll. And this year, its kiddie and grown-up quotients soared in parallel, with confusing consequences for the art-in-itself critics supposedly monitor.

If one generalization can apply, which it never can, try this: a terrible year for the rock “vanguard.” Yet though nobody this side of MTV would mistake a grizzled popcult booster like me for an avant-gardist, I wasn’t wild about the myriad shapes the tried-and-true assumed. An admirer of our winner, Bob Dylan’s darkly traditionalist Time Out of Mind, I nevertheless prefer Blood on the Tracks and seven or eight of its predecessors. I am underwhelmed by second-place Radiohead, an arena-rock band that could do with smaller gigs on its touring schedule and fewer on its hard drive, as well as most of the electronica-flecked hedgers and retro-fretting folkies-in-disguise waving guitars further down the list. Topping a platter of pop-’em-in-your-mouth singles, meanwhile, is a teenybopping bonbon said to be as addictive as “I Want You Back,” but though I’ll certainly take Hanson’s milk-fed cheer over Radiohead’s bulimic paranoia of convenience, I still like my chocolate bittersweet (and my symphonies not at all). Only in hip hop, saved from self-destruction by a song and dance man rather than the wizards of Shaolin, are the year’s old-fashioned pleasures big enough fun, and that’s ignoring a consumerism so corporate it inspires nostalgia for dookie gold.

If anything summed up rock’s foreshortened horizons, however, it was the twin pop events of the year, the more undeniable of which was the resurgent singles chart, where in 1996 a mere 34 voters (out of 236) made the Quad City DJ’s our winners. In 1997, as the electorate exploded to 441 (previous high: 308), the Middle American “MMMBop” attracted a much healthier 96 full-time fans, followed by the Brit-hits “Tubthumping” and “Bitter Sweet Symphony” — the first time black artists have ever been shut out of the top three. But the renewed respectability of pop evanescence peaked with the Spice Girls. Grown from the DNA of En Vogue, Elastica, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they got a free ride from Alanis-haters turned Fionaphobes by making no attempt to conceal their inauthenticity, thus rendering it moot. Though I think “Wannabe” is a great record, I have my reservations about how eagerly pop intellectuals suck up this amusing pseudofeminist scam. The problem isn’t politics, even if their movie defines girl power as bearing a baby — a female baby with her dad on the lam. It’s that they’re not good enough. Since none of them (including my favorite, Baby) dazzles as a singer or comedienne, and since the run of their material is bland Eurovision crapola, their deepest pleasures are ipso facto convolutional: femme-friendly respite from feminist puritanism along with people-friendly respite from rockist puritanism. And if in the end they ain’t all that, well, what else you got?

The answer many critics embraced was an overwhelmingly male-defined imaginary world somehow untainted by political incorrectness. Declaring it a pop event may seem cheeky. But at its distribution level it enjoyed phenomenal exposure and spin control, and it was named by more Pazz & Joppers than “MMMBop” itself, only the second time a No. 1 reissue has outdrawn a No. 1 single (the first was Robert Johnson over Deee-Lite, 1990). Just as the Spice Girls address a pop present that assumes no pop future, asserting the significance of the trivial more fiercely and playfully than any academic culture vulture, Harry Smith’s dazzlingly repackaged Anthology of American Folk Music addresses a pop present that has longed for permanence since at least 1823, when the obscure Brit songwriting team of Henry M. Bishop and John Howard Payne penned the 19th century’s greatest hit, “Home Sweet Home.”

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I love the Anthology myself — it’s not all as transcendent as is hoped, but it keeps opening up. As everyone should know by now, the old songs it canonized in 1952 are hardly unbesmirched by commerce. They were recorded for sale to subcultural markets circa 1930, not unlike indie-rock today. Nor are they especially homey, or sweet. Selected by one of the signal bohemians of our era, they’re the opposite of parlor music, many of them surreal, dislocated, and/or violent tales of what this year’s winner summed up in the title of his 23rd-place 1993 album: a World Gone Wrong. And so, while inspiring the so-called folk revival, they also presaged rock and roll, which first revved up their social utility and then claimed their themes. In 1997, many rock and rollers — seeking formal solace in a world gone wrong and around too long to take techno-utopianism literally — felt a need to access their ingrained knowledge.

As it happened, Bob Dylan — who has now put 15 albums on our charts since Pazz & Jop began in 1974 or 1971, more even than Neil Young (14) or Prince (13) — had been on this trail all decade, certainly since his folk albums of 1992 and 1993. In 1997, he not only got it right but scored his greatest PR coup since he fell off that motorcycle. I don’t mean to belittle an illness we’re blessed he survived, but I’m convinced that Time Out of Mind is in no intrinsic way “about death.” Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated — even if “The end of time has just begun” reminds me all too acutely of how the minutes crawl when the love connection is broken. The mortality admirers hear in it is their own, mirrored in a vocal mask half sage and half codger, in the nakedness of the one-syllable words the artist affects and the weary music that backs them. The timelessness people hear in it, on the other hand, is what Dylan has long aimed for — simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received. In a year when the rock “vanguard,” in both its struggling electronica and barely breathing post-rock cough cough modes, vowed to break the bonds of lyrics and verse-chorus-verse, only callow ideologues could simply ignore Harry Smith’s and Bob Dylan’s arguments for history. And many felt the Spice Girls and Hanson were an evolutionary outcome of this history.

Of course, only naive zealots believed songs, singing, and the four-four were actually on their way out. But with Nirvanamania grinding into schlock as Britain’s acid house fissure spread in all directions, it did seem as if the infinite palette of computerized sound was about to work some permanent changes on the collective ear, not just of critics but of workaday consumers. And pollwise, at least, the failure of “electronica” stops with the term itself. Despite no-shows by Tricky and DJ Shadow, both certain to return in 1998, the Chemical Brothers plus Roni Size plus Prodigy plus Daft Punk add up to the largest number of techno artists ever to chart, with Björk and Portishead and Stereolab and Primal Scream and Radiohead down with the program. But while our 16 U.K. finishers (counting Björk and Stereolab but not full-time Frenchmen Daft Punk), the most since 1980 and the second most ever, include all of the above, they also include, in descending order of technophilia, U2, Cornershop, Spiritualized, the slackly electronica-associated Beth Orton, the Verve, Supergrass, Blur-not-53rd-place-Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian.

In short, as we should have known from Blur-versus-Oasis as well as common sense and casual observation, Britain’s techno revolution was, gee, less than total. Not only did it leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by a high-concept readymade, but it produced numerous partial converts and the usual complement of rebels, skeptics, and go-it-aloners, including guitar bands aplenty. So Brits took over a new-blood function that Pazz & Jop has long vouchsafed Amerindies. This year adds to a U.S. honor roll that includes X, R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sleater-Kinney two minor bands on major labels: Ryan Adams’s Whiskeytown, led by a dulcet young hook merchant with “left to pursue a solo career” embroidered on the seat of his jeans, and Doug Martsch’s much meatier Built To Spill, a stubbornly domestic project of no discernible commercial potential. And although the four U.S. quasifolkie chart debuts include tuneful if depressive Elliott Smith and expressive if depressive Richard Buckner, the other two are showbiz hopefuls: Fiona Apple, Lilith Fair’s answer to Alanis, and Ron Sexsmith, a thoughtful cutie-pie who wants to give Tim Hardin his shot at the brass ring.

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The real change, however, is that excepting genius-from-nowhere miniaturists Belle and Sebastian and in their peculiar way Blur, who elected to escape the shadow of Oasis and the Kinks by aping Pavement, the British newcomers don’t truck with Amerindie’s antistar niceties. They’ve been in the papers too long. Back when Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce was Spaceman 2 or the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft wandered lonely as a cloud or Cornershop’s Tjinder Singh thought music was just a hobby for him, they could pretend they were ordinary chaps who didn’t care how many records they sold. But these days they’ve all joined the pop race, where they seem no less at home than U2 or Radiohead — there’s little sense of strain in the ambitious sprawl all achieve. Where Amerindie’s musical commitments are conceived as means to counterculturalism, in Britain the children of acid house control the radical rhetoric. So no matter how stoned or alienated or hedonistic these guitar bands are, they respect rock tradition and accept a pop system they’re dedicated to beating. For them, vanguard is barely a concept anymore.

And the way our electorate heard the year, it wasn’t much of a concept stateside either. Among the fanzine rumors and local heroes who placed down to 120 or so last year, a feat requiring the support of some half dozen voting weirdos, were five newly anointed cult bands: Tortoise (post-rock hack-hack), Smog (dim solipsism), Cat Power (anti-chauvinist low-affect), the Lilys (amplified watercolors), and the Sun City Girls (postskronk imperialism). But my disdain isn’t the point — the point is that a few people who think critically about music credited their obscurantism. This year, although Ben Folds continued to pump out puddle-deep ironies as the putatively country-rock Geraldine Fibbers abstract-expressed themselves all over creation, the only newcomers with the slightest insurgent vibe were two sets of well-schooled L.A. popsters: star-crossed biz babies That Dog and up-and-coming self-promoters the Negro Problem. There were also below-40 repeaters both avant (Smog, Helium, Sea and Cake) and neoclassicist (Flaming Lips, Luna, Waco Brothers, Superchunk), as well as new solo artists (Jim White and Edith Frost the not-very-strangest, Ben Harper and Robbie Fulks most likely to succeed). But for the nonce the wellspring of out-there young American bands has dried to a trickle.

These disparities were so abrupt — not just the Amerindie falloff, but the 16 Brits, way up from five in 1996 and eight in 1995 — that I suspected some demographic anomaly. Since we’d not only computerized but greatly expanded and updated our rolls from dailies, weeklies, and magazines nationwide, we added 259 voters who hadn’t participated in 1996. (Note that every record with a mention, every critic’s ballot, and an extra comments file are posted at www.villagevoice.com.) It seemed conceivable that the new voters would gravitate toward major-label mailings and hence the U.K. But when we tallied up a minipoll of the 182 repeaters, the U.S.-U.K. distribution remained stable. The most meaningful differences involved hip hop, where — despite much improved representation from name writers at the hip hop mags, which now constitute the fastest-growing segment of the music press — we failed to attract the kind of second-string reviewers who in the alt world flock to Pazz & Jop. So in an even better poll the Notorious B.I.G. would have finished top 10 and the top 40 would have made room for Common, the thinking B-person’s cherce, and most likely Rakim, the elder statesman returned. Such other high hip hop also-rans as Timbaland and Magoo, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, the fast-spinning Return of the D.J., Vol. II, and New York turntablists X-Ecutioners might also have contended. (In the real world, 41-50 went: Octagon, Foo Fighters, Common, Arto Lindsay, Return of the D.J., Chumbawamba, Timbaland, Paul Simon, Mike Watt, Rakim.)

But otherwise our results compute. Redoubling our electorate certainly wouldn’t change the collective opinion of America’s rock critics in re the indie/alternative scene long identified as rock’s avant-garde, which is that it is at best in the doldrums — a finding I report with no outrage and little regret. What else could anyone have expected? Lo-fi to low-affect, abstinent to self-abusing, withdrawal has been the Alternian strategy since whenever the gatekeepers concluded that the wages of Nirvana was Smashing Pumpkins. That’s why Sleater-Kinney is such a miracle — loyal citizens of Alternia’s most Olympian stronghold, on Kill Rock Stars yet, they’re nonetheless possessed by the need to hammer out music that explodes its own boundaries and everyone else’s. But putting aside your favorite exception (I have mine), they’re alone. No Alternians remotely like them combine the guts and the talent to come down from the mountain or up from the basement. You think Smog or Cat Power want to be — hell, are willing to be — loved like Sleater-Kinney? Much less Oasis? They don’t even want to be loved like Pavement or Yo La Tengo.

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If there’s no point whining about this logical turn of events, there’s also no reason to worry it’s a life sentence. In pop, there are no life sentences; we’re lucky there are two-year bids. Within months, at least in theory, Courtney or Madonna could redefine the game, and so could someone we don’t know exists, someone of any race, gender, creed, or nation of origin. But let me put it this way — it won’t be Liz Phair, it won’t be Polly Jean Harvey, and barring miracles on top of miracles it won’t be Sleater-Kinney. Nor will it be Pavement or Yo La Tango, who peaked artistically with their 1997 albums and were rewarded with, wow, critical acclaim, as well as, holy moley, viable careers, neither guaranteed permanent — old masters now, they’ve already reached out with as much common touch as they’ll ever have at their command. I’ll reserve some stray hope for Cornershop, whose formally pop collection of sublimely simple multicultural jingles just poked its nose into Billboard’s album chart. But the dream of an alt nirvana where aesthetes take over rock and roll, which like most nirvanas always seemed a little dull anyway, has played itself out.

My own favorite albums of the year, easy, were by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, and — my heart’s prize, a fragile, lyrical, sly, beatwise, embarrassingly beautiful cross-cultural appropriation — Arto Lindsay. Bohos all, New Yorkers and Olympians, every one on an indie even if Matador’s sleeping with Capitol, and who was I trying to kid? Could I really argue that the average record buyer was crucially poorer for his or her indifference to these distinct and exquisite fellow spirits of mine? Well, maybe Sleater-Kinney, but not the others — they’re too specialized, too rarefied, even if Alternians regard them as gauchely obvious by now. And although except for Arto all these bands continue to command broad critical respect, the Brits who trailed and in the case of Radiohead led them represent, well, an alternative.

U2 have always put on too many airs to suit me, guvnor. Through studied hip and good intentions, through stylistic permutations that barely inflect their deliberate tempos, careful riffs, and tortured magniloquence, they epitomize a crucial strain of rock pretension — working-class strivers bent on proving they’re not common. Pseudoironic title aside, Pop was a disappointment bizwise, moving a paltry 1.3 million after Achtung Baby and Zooropa totaled over 7, and also pollwise, where it scraped in at 31 after the albums just named charted top 10. But these shortfalls are relative. Pop was also the 50th biggest album of 1997 — in the U.S., which is not U2’s major market — and outsold all but six Pazz & Jop finishers (Notorious, Badu, Prodigy, Wu-Tang, and Apple, plus 1996’s late-breaking Sublime). As for Pazz & Jop, I had hoped the wan, overworked, serious-as-taxes contraption wouldn’t chart at all. But eventually I figured why fight poetic justice. Except for Cornershop, all the U.K. guitar bands to crash our top 20 — the Verve, Spiritualized, and above all Radiohead — take their cues from U2.

It’s not as if grandiosity has been monopolized by the quondam British Isles in our poll — after all, one of the dozen things that made Nirvana great was the pretensions they fulfilled. But these bands are more seignorial about their angst than any Yanks of consequence except Smashing Pumpkins — strictly in U2 mold. In fact, I just thought of this, maybe that‘s the mold dumber-than-mashed Richard Ashcroft can’t break out of in “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” as inane a single as ever has snared the voters’ ears — that symphony is just like life only catchier, you see, catchier than any damn U2 hit too, as is my own proud pleasure by this asinine band, “The Drugs Don’t Work.” Although Jason Pierce’s drugs worked so swimmingly for so long that some applaud him for discovering love L-O-V-E, Spiritualized retain more functioning cerebral tissue. They’re also the least U2-like of the three, superimposing the droning circle games of Spacemen 3 onto rock melodrama, and for all their ex-junkiedom are refreshingly short on the fatalism pawned off as wisdom by the Verve and depressive if impressive Radiohead.

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Admittedly, few crits lie down for Thom Yorke’s pained critiques of conformist humans and unmanageable machines. The band’s brains, they agree, are in its sonics, which achieve what U2 brags about — an electronically textured, augmented, and otherwise fucked-with guitar sound that occasionally even I find gripping, as on “Electioneering,” which has the shortest lyric on the album. But in addition to the words I take exception to Yorke, who is a better singer than Stephen Malkmus the way Mariah Carey is a better singer than Mary J. Blige. Good pipes are the refuge of fools, the kind of fools the critics mean to speak for if not be this year — better the broad gestures deployed by high-handed rockers, they’ve decided, than the straitened circumstances affected by lo-fi snobs. But though I accept the principle, I can’t get with the fact, and this is probably generational. The specious notion that punk was ’50s rock and roll revisited does contain a kernel — like punk, the music I grew up loving was fast, short, lively, and good for a laugh. The music many critics in their thirties grew up loving, however, wasn’t punk, not at first — it was AOR, which was slow, long, turgid, and somber. U2 made their mark on late AOR because they shared its penchant for the grand aural trademark, and to anyone weaned on AOR they and their progeny sound natural in a way they can’t to me. Maybe being old ain’t so bad after all.

Since Pazz & Jop often has predictive power, I’m warning you to watch out for the Verve, tuneful saps who in their escapist-murk phase were counted arty enough for Lollapalooza’s second stage; they will certainly outsell Radiohead as well as Spiritualized and may surpass U2. I only wish I could see how this will make the world a better place. For some reason, human beings need tunes — they order time, yoke beauty and logic, trigger the smile reflex, help you buy stuff, something. But tunes are also the refuge of fools. While classical folk believe they’re only worthy when “developed,” I ask merely that mine pack some extra charge. Whatever gets you high, but for me that didn’t happen to be “MMMBop,” an ebullient piece of product without the, I’m sorry, social vision of “Tubthumping,” which finally triggered my hum reflex the day after we voted, and would now be my No. 3 single.

Nos. 1 and 2 were nonfinishers — Puff Daddy Inc.’s “I’ll Be Missing You” and B-Rock & the Bizz’s “MyBabyDaddy,” both of which access ingrained knowledge too shamelessly to suit Pazz & Joppers. “Missing You” you know — the B.I.G. tribute is the r&b “Candle in the Wind” at over 3 million sales, and didn’t hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November. “MyBabyDaddy” sold 700,000 without approaching the same level of ubiquity, and I loved its nutty deep-South hook before I had any idea what the song was about, which — as in Spice World, of all things — is raising a baby (female, but that’s muffled and incidental) with its dad on the lam. Thus it transforms a supposed national tragedy into a wild joke, a fact of life, and a party-shaking Miami bass track. And although the sample isn’t the hook, which is all in Kittie Thomas’s “Ghetto Gul” drawl, it’s as dependent on the Emotions’ “Best of My Love” as “Missing You” is on the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” Well, big deal. Puffy’s sample is a recontextualization as humane as MC Hammer’s with “Super Freak” in 1990, when I voted for “U Can’t Touch This,” which also rescued a tune human beings can use from a mean-spirited blowhard (a feat attempted less warmly and boldly on John Waite’s 1984 “Missing You,” which jacks Sting’s cadence but not his exact notes). And though the main thing both producers want to do is amass bills in large amounts, a side effect is to connect kids who think “Rapper’s Delight” is a Redman song to a vast tradition every music lover should take pride in.

So with the Verve getting respect, I must second Carol Cooper’s “It’s Nation Time!” As you might expect in a year when singles rooled, 1997 gave up massive black pop. From turntablist magicianship to Puffy’s steals (which aren’t always that blatant, not unless you’re a bigger fan of Bill Conti and Eddie Holman than I am), from Timbaland’s Tidewater dub to the sonic overkill of the Wu (who can only benefit from the artistic competition), hip hop has survived gangsta without disrespecting its downpressed defiance. The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more “Tyrone”s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants, and I’m a total convert to down diva Mary J. Blige (85th) and very-round-the-way girl Missy Elliott. While such counterparts as Maxwell and D’Angelo have yet to produce a “Tyrone” of their own, the sheer quantity of male singing talent is enough to make a choir director try A&R. Janet Jackson gave better content than superstars with far deeper throats. And if I were to name a 1997 album with the reach and grab and surprise of true vanguard pop, I’d go along with Spin, which challenged its alt-identified readership by putting the Notorious B.I.G. on its year-end cover. Life After Death is poetic, brutal, realistic, catchy, and forward-looking, and I very much doubt Bob Dylan has ever heard it — although Thom Yorke is working on ripping it off right now.

Tolerance lectures get us no further than pleasure lectures, and I’m not delivering any. You want to hum “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” I can’t stop you — sometimes I can’t even stop myself. Until the rules are changed by Courtney or Missy or Tjinder or Ben Kweller or some now anonymous kid whose dad just lost his kurta in Jakarta, my special favorites in the pop race will probably flow out of the same ingrained African American tried-and-true I’ve been quaffing from since doowop and Fats Domino. That doesn’t mean, however, that I have any intention of abandoning a single tendril of the many-fingered eclecticism that put a record 78 albums on my A list this year. Art-in-itself doesn’t equal culture in the hungriest and most daring of times, and this is neither. But it can keep you going till the game changes. And if the game never changes, then it will just have to keep you going anyway.

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Top 10 Albums of 1997

1. Bob Dylan: Time Out of Mind (Columbia)

2. Radiohead: OK Computer (Capitol)

3. Cornershop: When I Was Born for the 7th Time (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

4. Sleater-Kinney: Dig Me Out (Kill Rock Stars)

5. Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador)

6. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: Supa Dupa Fly (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

7. Erykah Badu: Baduizm (Universal)

8. Belle and Sebastian: If You’re Feeling Sinister (The Enclave)

9. Björk: Homogenic (Elektra)

10. Pavement: Brighten the Corners (Matador)

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Top 10 Singles of 1997

1. Hanson: “MMMBop” (Mercury)

2. Chumbawamba: “Tubthumping” (Republic/Universal)

3. The Verve: “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (Virgin)

4. Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott: “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (The Gold Mind, Inc./EastWest)

5. Blur: “Song 2” (Virgin)

6. Cornershop: “Brimful of Asha” (Luaka Bop/Warner Bros.)

7. The Chemical Brothers: “Block Rockin’ Beats” (Astralwerks)

8. (Tie) Erykah Badu: “On and On” (Universal)
Smash Mouth: “Walkin’ on the Sun” (Interscope)

10. The Notorious B.I.G. (Featuring Puff Daddy and Mase): “Mo Money Mo Problems” (Bad Boy)

—From the February 24, 1998, 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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Damon Albarn

The hard-rock whiplash of “Song #2” and “Stylo” aside, a melancholy, particularly English wistfulness has always been Damon Albarn’s wheelhouse. So it’s starting that reviews of Everyday Robots uniformly fault the Blur/Gorillaz auteur for essentially being himself on his debut solo album, a collection of moody pastiche blues that’s nobody’s ideal of party-starting pop. Live or on wax, these are low-impact, wind-down grooves best experienced with a whiskey and water in hand.

Sun., June 8, 9:30 p.m., 2014

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Eagulls

As high-octane debuts go, Eagulls’s Eagulls is a doozy, an able re-invigoration of post-punk potency without minimalist baggage that isn’t above (or below) a melodically-sound hook, or twenty. (There’s certainly some Blur and Smiths buried in their plucky clangor, some shoegaze as well.) Sometimes the bass hauls the water, but the guitars do their fair share. That this Leeds-based group isn’t afraid to abuse its equipment helps, and in singer George Mitchell they have the perfect pitchman for a raw, disaffected fury. Get ready to hear the chorus of “Tough Luck” bellowed outside of pubs a lot this spring by belligerent, aspiring hooligans.

Wed., Jan. 29, 6:30 p.m., 2014

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Those Darlins

Feminist rockabilly sounds like an oxymoron, but these darlins pull it off with a brash combination of sass, sex appeal, and the unvarnished truth of their experience. On Blur the Line, their self-consciously titled third studio album, they ironically ask whether the subaltern can truly speak, vacillating between telling it like it is on the wistful “Oh God” and having some tongue-in-cheek fun on girl power anthem “Optimist.” The video for the latter apes “Blurred Lines,” but as a feminist reclamation of Thicke’s misogynistic tropes, depicting a series of dancing torsos, cropped at the head, in a satirical and effective attempt at reverse commodification.

Mon., Oct. 14, 6:30 p.m., 2013

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GOING BANANAS

You shouldn’t confuse monkeys and gorillas. Gorillas are larger and stronger. Monkeys are often longer-lived and some have tails. But what’s a little taxonomical difference? Clearly, Damon Albarn, 
erstwhile Blur frontman and relentless musical innovator, believes all primates can get along. With his Gorillaz collaborator Jamie Hewlett, Albarn has crafted Monkey: Journey to the West, a 90-minute pop opera written in Mandarin and featuring more than 50 singers, dancers, acrobats, contortionists, and trapeze artists. This production, which kicks off the Lincoln Center Festival, concerns an irrepressible monkey who teams up with a Buddhist monk, a sand monster, and a pig on a kick-ass quest for immortality—and the occasional banana.

Mondays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Starts: July 6. Continues through July 28, 2013

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When Now Wasn’t Soon Enough

Nowadays, anybody can become an armchair Anglophile. Scan the charts, YouTube the videos, study the Wikipedia entries, and any insomniac with a computer might make a better anthology than Rhino’s 16-year-spanning 78-track shrine to emphatically English guitar bands, The Brit Box. But when most of this stuff was new, you had to be self-sacrificing and insane enough to make your fixation more important than square meals or sensible housing or drugs or babies. It’s disconcerting to see a good chunk of one’s life reduced to an unduly democratic track listing bound to be P2P’d for free.

Like most genre anthologies, The Brit Box telescopes much of the distance between superstars and common people: Blur and Babybird alike get one track each. Some U.K. smashes are omitted in favor of U.S.-college-radio also-rans (hello Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Rodney Bingenheimer faves Birdland), while jangly guitar bands crowd out most dance-rock crossovers. This and the usual licensing complications means no Jesus Jones, EMF, or the Soup Dragons at the beginning, and no Beta Band, Robbie Williams, or Radiohead at the end. For every major band that epitomized an era or minor act with a brilliant moment (Rialto’s Spector-esque “Untouchable,” Silver Seas’ harmony-drenched “Service”), many others included here achieved U.K. credibility for reasons not audibly apparent: As former Select scribe Andrew Perry admits in his liner notes, Brits favor signifiers over chops. Between My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub on the shoegazer-heavy disc two, there’s rarely a melody, riff, or lyric worth remembering. Bleach, Five Thirty, Moose, and the Family Cat deluded themselves that the right sustain pedal could revitalize any tired Velvet Underground or Byrds rip. Certainly none of this lot could compete with Nirvana. Even the British press knew this: They embraced our grunge before we did. The subsequent Britpop avalanche—like punk before it—had to happen.

Or not. Whether it was synth-pop, hi-NRG, house, or the other club permutations that occurred between 1984 and 1999, U.K. dance music eclipsed the popularity and cultural significance of all but the supernovas included here. With Anglophilia once again a hip indie option and most electronica now in decline, it’s easy to forget how feeble much of this sounded back then next to the dance hits that typically outsold Brit Box fare like Cast, Marion, Kula Shaker, and other retrograde cash-ins. If the compilers dared to include just one British rave hit on the level of Rozalla’s “Everybody’s Free (to Feel Good),” they would’ve blown away this crazy idea still maintained by the British music press that their serious rock is categorically more compelling or enduring than their scintillating pop. Sugababes and Girls Aloud have far better tunes than Pete Doherty, but you can’t find their CDs in our stores.

Given their hunger to hype, trash, and replace, the Brit media routinely serves as accomplices in the destruction of countless bands. While Oasis, represented by the admittedly sublime early single “Live Forever,” believed their headlines, Suede, Echobelly, Blur, Elastica, Pulp, Spiritualized, and Mansun—all of them far more clever—soon imploded in the spotlight. Ambitious American bands from My Chemical Romance to Modest Mouse now want to sound like Mansun’s 1998 prog-glam-psych-punk-metal extravaganza Six, but it’s likely that they never even heard of Mansun, because the British press typically shredded this willfully mercurial quartet before it could find a stateside audience. Britpop wasn’t built to last.

But memories will endure. The time I spent swooning over the Smiths, New Order, and their children will make up for the lack of my own, even if asserting this now seems as embarrassing as it is absurd. Obsession remains its own reward.

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Nickelback U.K.

Fact: Denizens of the U.K. are completely inept at gauging the artistic merit of their pop groups. A band can’t just be the Biggest—it also has to be the Best. In America, we don’t have this problem. Nickelback, though Canadian, is the biggest band in the States, and everyone knows they suck.

Which brings us to Arctic Monkeys’ Favourite Worst Nightmare, the follow-up to last year’s chart-splattering, word-count-shattering debut. For the Brits, Arctic Monkeys are the Greatest Rock Band of All Time Right Now, the latest in an esteemed lineage that includes the Beatles, the Clash, the Jam, Joy Division, the Smiths, Stone Roses, Blur, Oasis, and finally, [The New Band, a/k/a Futureheads, Bloc Party, Babyshambles, so on and so forth]. Do they ever remember that for every Oasis there’s about a dozen Menswears and Bluetones and Sleepers? No, they do not.

So, Nightmare: A perfectly decent rock record. “This House Is a Circus” does in three minutes what Trainspotting did in two hours, as the band’s trustworthy herky-jerky guitars underscore frontman Alex Turner’s daft (ha!) observation that “We’re forever unfulfilled/And can’t think why/Like a search for murder clues/In a dead man’s eyes.” The basslines? Why yes, they do sound nicked (zing!) from the Jam. And those drums? He surely does drum fast and furious, like every Brit rock drummer before him. What this album isn’t: All Mod Cons, Meat Is Murder, etc. What this album is, and should be perfectly comfortable with being: Supergrass’
I Should Coco. There’s nothing wrong with singing witty lyrics fast and loud; there’s just nothing very special about it.

But since NME is practically insisting on it, let’s compare these blokes to a truly great U.K. band: Blur, which followed up its hugely successful debut with 1993’s
Modern Life Is Rubbish, one of the best Britrock LPs of all time. Blur was a versatile band that could drop punk, disco, and all other kinds of weirdness into its sound, a band that could rule the dance floor, then step outside to examine a back alley or a country house. Arctic Monkeys have yet to show a smidgen of that kind of versatility. They’re playing at being rock stars, and doing a helluva a job at it, but a band for the ages? Bollocks.

Arctic Monkeys play Hammerstein Ballroom May 15, livenation.com.

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Through Being Cool

Were Oasis ever cool? Even in their mid-’90s heyday, when their skill at bashing out killer rock songs was actually rewarded by a worldwide fan base eager to receive them, it’s hard to remember any wide-eyed American critics frantically waving the Union Jack in support of Manchester’s finest. Pundits here were always more comfortable lauding the considerable but decidedly less immediate pleasures of the safely hip, moderately popular crews of the Blur and Pulp stripe.

For that reason, it’s kind of hard to stomach the glee with which some critics have twisted the knife into Don’t Believe the Truth, Oasis’s sixth record of new material. It’s rightly described as a continuation of the rapidly deteriorating creativity the band has exhibited since 2000’s Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, but where was the peak they were supposedly sliding away from? For all we’ve been told, this is their sixth bummer in a row rather than the culmination of some grand artistic collapse.

Truth be told, Oasis were making some of the best no-frills rock music around all the way through the B sides of 1997’s bloated but unfairly maligned Be Here Now. Their dedication to two-sided singles, harking back to the Smiths in spirit if not sound, meant there were all sorts of would-be hits floating around, from the enormity of “My Sister Lover” to the lazy charm of “Alive,” that didn’t make it to the albums—which, therefore, even in the beginning, weren’t the end-all distillations of Oasis’s talent.

What was then a bounty of shiny, instantly accessible songs turned to crumbs with Giants, and the drought continued through 2002’s dismal Heathen Chemistry. The only bright spots were the Noel Gallagher–penned-and-performed stompers “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and “Force of Nature.” On the former, Noel bared his fangs at all the plastic people around him while trying his best to fashion the question in the song’s title as an accusatory lash rather than a paranoid lament. On the latter, he reads the riot act to the would-be pillagers of his cocaine and money with all of the “stop feeding off me!” disgust of Cool Hand Luke.

So wouldn’t you know that the best moments on Don’t Believe the Truth, wherein Noel’s iron grasp on songwriting is loosened to include not just Liam Gallagher but faceless bassist Andy Bell and rhythm guitarist Gem Archer, are his alone. “Mucky Fingers” rides the “I’m Waiting for the Man” guitar riff for all its worth as Noel berates no one in particular, and the harmonica freak-out toward the end brings the whole ordeal just one jug-blower short of a proper hoedown. “Part of the Queue” is a dark, dusty dark number that builds more tension with an acoustic guitar and a piano than any Oasis song ever has, while “The Importance of Being Idle” is a flashback to the focused bombast of the band’s 1998 B sides.

Elsewhere on the album, things are only marginally brighter for the Liam-sung material than they have been for the past five years. “Love Like a Bomb” and “Turn Up the Sun” are the half-assed filler we’ve become accustomed to, weighted down by clumsy rhymes (“You turn me on/Love’s like a bomb/Blowing my mind”) and an utter lack of momentum. “Lyla” is the same sort of flailing attempt at an anthem as “The Hindu Times” from Heathen Chemistry, and only gets props for a winning, but wasted, vocal from Liam.

In the end, it’s Oasis’s attempts to capture former pinnacles, from trying to re-create the simple sunny-side-up pleasures of “Live Forever” to trying for another album-ending mountain like “Champagne Supernova,” that keep their latter-day output so entirely forgettable. Those were singular glories, and five years of mostly lifeless retreads does a number on an audience’s tolerance as the band continue its slooow ride to the end of the tunnel.

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So This Guy Walks Into a Bar . . .

Lifter Puller’s Fiestas + Fiascos probably designates as “emo” for sounding simultaneously bulky and flouncy. (“Emo” is short for “emology”: “The study of music that’s simultaneously bulky and flouncy.”) The vocals come across as spiels overheard in bars: come-ons, scams, scores, threats, boasts. The singing isn’t singing so much as it’s ranting (and declaiming, boasting, enticing). And the ranting has a barroom feel of struggling upward: up through the noise and up through the spieler’s own emotions, like it’s struggling to be heard and struggling to be believed. The milieu reminds me of the Springsteen of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle—except that Bruce had a literariness that put the stories off in the distance, whereas this guy, singer Craig Finn, pushes his spiels right against your nose.

Taylor M. Clark at www.pitchforkmedia.com says, “You know that guy nobody likes who absolutely has to chatter for hours about the wild, crazy-ass party he went to the other night? The very same guy who was always totally getting checked out by this hot chick but he couldn’t talk to her because they totally had to bounce right away to go to this other intense party? He’s the lead singer in Lifter Puller now.” Clark finds the whole thing repellent, but I really like it, and I’d say simply that the words succeed in pretending not to be poetry, hence their immediacy. The music is grindingly melodic guitar, heave-up-the-Hefty-bag bass, etc. My favorite song here has a ’60s organ—a Paul Revere style of riff—and in the din you hear Craig raving away: “I want everybody who’s been eyeing my girl to slowly close their eyes and think about what you’ve got, compare it to what I’ve got, and ask yourself what do you think my girl wants.”

My friend Charles says that Lifter Puller remind him more of the “verbose babbling of the Fall” than of Springsteen, though (he also says) it’s not as if the Fall babblement and the early Springsteen babblement have nothing in common. I wasn’t initially referring to the sounds of Craig’s/Bruce’s voices but to subject matter: local boys trying to be someone who cou-ou-ounts in the hick-city night. But I do hear a similar sound in Springsteen and Lifter Puller: Both are passionately oververbose, as opposed to the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, who’s pugnaciously oververbose. Anyway, both Bruce and Craig write dialogue songs. Craig: “We mixed the Ripple and the champagne, and then things got kinda strange. She said, ‘My name is Juanita, but the guys call me L.L. Cool J, ’cause I’ve been here for years. And you can’t call it a comeback if you never even been away, and I ain’t ever been no place.” That reminds me of Springsteen: the conversation, the young woman with the Spanish name, the setting (seaside town after Labor Day).

The band name “Lifter Puller” makes me think it’s from the punch line of some joke—like “Dead Milkmen”—except no one’s told me the joke. The statement “Lifter, puller, throw ‘er on the floor” keeps popping up in my brain, I don’t know from where. (Well, from my brain, obviously . . . ) I like the promo sheet, too. “The City Pages also recently quoted Joe Strummer as saying ‘It’s Lifter Puller’s world . . . We just live in it,’ in a story about the Clash. Of course, that same evening he was overheard saying to Craig, ‘You guys are going to be bigger than Blur, or Pavement . . . [pause] . . . or Blur,’ so take that in mind. With Fiestas + Fiascos I fully expect to get more press than Blur or Pavement. Or even Blur!” Well, I’m trying to do my part. (The rock critic came out of the bar, walking carefully. Everything was a blur. He rubbed his eyes, looked down at the pavement. The pavement was a blur.)

The promo sheet for the Distillers’ first album says, “Don’t try to make the pigeon hole for the Distillers smaller than ‘punk.’ ” They’re asking for it, aren’t they? OK: There’s more variety in 30 seconds of the first Pere Ubu album than in all of The Distillers. Blondie, the Contortions, the MC5, the Raincoats—they represented an ocean of possibilities, while this, this, this little barnacle, this seaweed, this discarded shell, this straitjacketed pigeon . . . actually, I like this record a lot. It’s a sliver of a flake of a stereotyped version of a sound that was born a decade before lead singer Brody Armstrong was, but she’s good, being young enough to do this old thing as if it had spit forth from her cranium this morning. As if she didn’t know she was singing a closed world. (And maybe that means it’s not a closed world.) A nice, tuneful screamer. “Hey, ah-ah-yeah! Hey. Fuck you. And I’ll fuck you. Fuck you.” But tunefully. Hey, big guy, want a nice tuneful fuck? Want some nice Jett-Courtney throat-retch? I’m functional, like a wall-bed (what are they called?) clanking down on your skull. (Not really; I just felt the need for a simile.) Squalling vocals. Stormy vocals? That seems so quaint, to have vocals that one could describe as “stormy.” His beautiful but stormy wife, Isabella . . .

Track 10, “Red Carpet and Rebellion,” has the lyric “colossally mistaken,” which is a great lyric to have, though I don’t know what it’s about. Bloodshed, puritanic shit, ain’t no money ain’t no time, I’m out of my mind. St. Petersburg 1905—Yeah yeah yeah, and after that a shock of pogroms and my great-grandparents and their children fleeing for their lives. (The Distillers’ actual lyrics seem not to coalesce into anything colossal, or even understandable. “Oh Serena, I know what they’re saying about you. It’s not true.” But what are they saying about her? That she’s a ditz, a frivolous airhead? Whereas we know that she’s really Sailor Moon, the girl who will protect humankind from the evil forces of the Negaverse? But the song says nothing of the sort. The song says, “night irreverential, the time, carneleby is a bit of you.” I’m not making this up.) “Gypsy Rose Lee”: A pretty song. Brody Armstrong is scratching at the cracks in her voice, like Patti Smith, like Joe Strummer. She’s not as brilliant as Joe, but like him she finds beauty amidst the ruin of her vocal cords. The joy of anguish.

Leatherface’s Horsebox is yet another roar of beauty. Or beauty of roar, except it’s a barely implied beauty of a would-be roar. I’m not sure how much I like it, but I keep listening out of curious fascination. The singing (by Frankie Stubbs) has scratch and ruin all right, but when you dig into it for a voice you get nothing. It’s like listening to someone with laryngitis. Yet somehow it lifts itself—lifts its nothing—into melody, into a kind of sketchy transcendence. Two or three of the songs, anyway, could rank with “Suspect Device” and “Alternative Ulster,” by Stiff Little Fingers. Which is pretty damn good, though with phlegm in place of the Stiffies’ little screech. So I do like this album. “This is the spilt milk stench of wretch, an average cold walk home, avoiding sunspots, soundbites like snowstorms.” That’s telling ’em.


The Self-Starter Foundation, PO Box 422, New York, NY 10276; BYO Records.

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Tender Mercies

It may not surface in a Nike ad anytime soon, but Blur’s new single, “Tender,” is the real bittersweet symphony. Floating in on a brittle folksy twang, given maximum Appalachian resonance by guitarist Graham Coxon, it evolves into a gospelized eight-minute elegy, somewhere between a hymn and hoedown. Throughout, singer Damon Albarn tosses off self-help bromides (“Come on, come on, come on/Get through it”), and at first it makes you cringe. What gets to you is how he’s singing— wistful but direct, veering off into helpless falsetto, more sincere and urgent than ever before. “Tender is the touch,” he cautions, “of someone that you love too much,” and it’s all too clear he means tender as in bruised. Killer moment: as the choir chimes in, Albarn’s voice abruptly dips, and an improbably rich, goosepimply baritone delivers the song’s cruel punch line: “Love’s the greatest thing.”

It’s a loaded sentiment in the context of Blur’s new album, 13, which has been widely presold as Albarn’s breakup album (he and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann ended their eight-year relationship last year). And context counts double with this band, always Britpop’s savviest and most emblematic players. Sure, Oasis exemplified yob rock, but Blur, a concept band that made and still make concept albums, were largely responsible for perpetuating ’90s Britpop’s stubborn insularity. Yet it was partly thanks to Blur and their natural bent for pushing too far too fast that Britpop devolved into farce.

On balance, Blur have always been easy to like— tuneful, thoughtful, boy-band cute, and just perverse enough to be interesting. You could begrudge them their upper-middle-class art-school background— they were the ones who wanted to live like common people, or at least write affectionately mocking songs about them— but Damon wore his wiseass pretensions with disarming pride. Still, even he must have known his reflexive cleverness was a dead end— what do you do for an encore after you’ve rhymed Balzac with Prozac?

Their last album, 1997’s Blur, was widely interpreted as ground zero for Blur Mk II, part calculated bid for the U.S. alt-rock market, part genuine attempt at atonement for all those chirpy, knees-up, music-hall piss-takes. But gnarled and lo-fi as it was, the album came off like a studied pastiche. 13 is a far less forced sort of reinvention: it’s their first response to a real-life crisis (not just the Damon-Justine situation, but souring intraband relationships), where in the past their gear-shifting has mostly been solipsistic, in reaction to their own back catalogue, or to the vagaries of a popscene they helped define.

Having effectively renounced almost all their pre-Blur material, Blur’s options at last Tuesday’s Roseland show, billed as their only New York appearance of the year, were severely limited. In another potentially alienating move, they played 13 in its entirety, and in order. A sense of ritual clung to the set, which, drained of all suspense, was mainly about a need to, well, “get through it.” They say they won’t be touring 13 extensively— a reasonable decision. It may be the nature of breakup songs that they don’t hold up well, not for the person who wrote them anyway.

There was a certain logic in preserving the track listing. 13 isn’t overarchingly conceptual, but it has its own particular trajectory. Unmistakably a coming-to-terms record, it opens with “Tender” (declamation, or maybe denial) then coughs up a couple of sputtering fuzz-blanketed freakouts (distraction, and more denial, perhaps) before settling into resigned, deceptively becalmed mode for the second half.

Somewhat free-form yet amazingly textured, 13 is supposedly a jam session that superproducer William Orbit layered and edited into shape in the studio. Live, necessarily forsaking Orbit’s detail-oriented approach, Blur attacked the new songs head-on. “Tender,” despite spirited spiritualizing from the Harlem Boys Choir, was a letdown, with Albarn lapsing into bad evangelical shtick. Coxon ensured that the hard-rocking songs, especially the glam explosion “Bugman,” were more muscular and to-the-point than on the album. But slower songs depended on the problematic replication of musique concrète.

Tuesday’s encores— including two 1992 favorites, the baggy classic “There’s No Other Way” and the flailing Ritalin-rock of “Popscene”— proved how much fun Blur can still be when they let themselves. Relatively sedate and polite till then, Damon finally unleashed his demented, thrashing Iggy-isms. With the opening drumbeats of “Song 2” (still miraculously unblemished by its numerous brand-name associations, from Intel to the NHL to Starship Troopers), the crowd went ballistic. And really, could you blame them for preferring the woo-hoo to the boo-hoo?