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‘Rocks Off Concert Cruise Presents Ryan Cabrera’

“Each affair is a new and exciting trip through the joys of jubilation.” No, that isn’t Ryan Cabrera on his latest dalliance with the D-listed and vajazzled. It’s Rocks Off Cruises describing their booze-fueled jaunts. Cabrera has always been known more for his relationships and Yahoo Serious-like hair than his music. His chart pinnacle was in 2004 with the syrupy pop Hot AC hit “On the Way Down,” and while his ’08 effort went the indie route, his product still sounds like Jesse McCartney in a tug-off Thunderdome with Lifehouse. Still, if the Temptress, the Jewel, or the Paddlewheel Queen have anything to say about it, this gig won’t be pure water torture. Those are boats, btw, not Cabrera’s starlet ex-girlfriends.

Fri., April 23, 8 p.m., 2010

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Rome & Jewel’s Soapy, Contemporary Take On Shakespeare Not As Good As Baz Luhrmann’s

A dozen years before Baz Luhrmann shared his epic new recipe for Australian fondue, his Romeo + Juliet distilled the essence of Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers for the MTV Generation, hyperactive production design bulldozing any remnants of iambic pentameter. But for all its literary sacrilege, Luhrmann’s version still proves more valuable than Rome & Jewel, writer-director Charles T. Kanganis’s soapy, contemporary L.A.-set adaptation, which reworks the dialogue entirely into an interracial hip-hop musical. Son of a preacher man, tender-tough Compton teen Rome (Nate Parker) is scolded by his pop to stay away from them rich white girls, but he can’t stop aching for the mayor’s daughter, Jewel (Lindsey Haun), after crashing her sweet-16 soiree. It’s lust at first sight, or so say his simplistic, sanitized rhymes: “Don’t mean to treat you like a piece of meat/I’m like a dog in heat/Everyone sees you bring out the animal/cannibal/in me.” The song-and-verse gimmick wears thin, as does the film’s naive, black-or-white take on black and white (one of Jewel’s spoiled Abercrombie douchebag friends actually wears a shirt imprinted with “Honky”). Most irksome is the post-tragic ending: After the couple off themselves, their fathers unite at the funeral to discover their newfound color-blindness. And that’s how racism was solved, kids.

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Dan Kennedy’s Gonna Scrawl

In 2002, Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records gave frustrated-musician -turned-marketing
guy (and childhood Led Zep fanatic) Dan Kennedy his first full-time job. Initially, Kennedy envisioned himself on the “front lines of rock ‘n’ roll,” raging against the Man like it’s 1968. Unfortunately, he arrived at Led Zeppelin’s record label just in time to observe what the end of an era looks like. No all-day coke parties; Jimmy Page and Robert Plant never drop by the office. Kennedy’s stuck producing Fat Joe promo videos and masterminding Jewel commercials.

Noting the author’s McSweeney’s pedigree, one would expect his music-biz memoir Rock On to read like 200 pages worth of Pavement lyrics. Plenty of stylistic bells and whistles do crop up: loose-cannon narrative voice, runaway similes, direct-address chumminess with the reader that’s as charming as it is annoying. Between-chapter digressions are a favorite gimmick: At one point, he explains how the music industry works—by telling a two-page lightbulb joke.

But Rock On is much more effective as a playfully sarcastic coroner’s report on the music business. Kennedy manically dissects his dying company’s rotting innards and exposes the remains of a once-great institution felled by a past it can’t live up to and a future it’s unwilling to embrace. Just as Kennedy gets used to buying $675 Windbreakers, the Hammer of the Gods falls: The heir to a booze fortune buys Warner Music for a cool couple billion. Not surprisingly, it’s soon raining pink slips in Atlantic’s hallowed halls.

The bleaker his situation gets, the more Kennedy’s Starbucks-fueled observational hysterics begin settling into a cool, clear-eyed sobriety. From his boardroom-level view, it becomes clear that upper management, while perfectly capable of adapting to mp3 culture, is just stubbornly resistant to it. After all, selling off the company’s stock to Wall Street is simpler than selling music to iPod Nation’s CD-averse whippersnappers. After Warner has its $750 million IPO yard sale ($50 million of it earmarked for the new CEO), Kennedy submits a long-overdue question to the general public: “Have the executives become the rock stars?”

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She Pop

Under Acme is the kind of club most likely to feature your friend’s younger brother’s college band. The lighting is low; the tendency to jam is high. Shaggy boys in quintets named Smokin Buddha or Gravity Galaxy hunch over their instruments and fill the room with muddy guitar rock. So on a recent Thursday night, everyone’s taken aback when Lava Baby—three girls in crop tops and two guys, one in white baggy pants with a white furry Kangol cap—bounce onto the stage. They play Arlene Grocery this Saturday night.

“Get ready for the return of rock!” Robyn Celia, the bottle-blond lead singer, screams. Then, after a sparkly riff, she lets loose a girly wail that could make Susanna Hoffs jealous. “It’s a lie/Baby, it’s untrue,” she chants like a pissed-off cheerleader, “I would die if I didn’t have you!” “Start dancing!” she yells. “Pretend this isn’t New York!” The crowd, now that it’s awake, is trying to process everything. A couple of guys in plaid shirts and long hair look a little freaked out. Up front are a few die-hard fans—all women. The leader of the small pack twirls wildly around like a groupie. She knows every word. The lyrics float by—something about tossing and turning, something about a “straight-to-video jam.” The lead singer and the keyboard player have a transfixing chemistry, a formalistic dance of glancing and winking. All of a sudden the music stops dead, and the band chant in perfect unison, “Time out!! Get down, Miss Brown!!” and the drummer, who looks like she could fix Joan Jett’s transmission, takes a mini-solo. They’re like Josie and the Pussycats—the choreographed way they smile at each other and make jokes between songs. Very squeaky-clean ’50s, but with a sexy girlpower twist. Whenever the male bassist tries to steal the spotlight, he gets taunted until he stops. “What-ever, LL Cool J,” Robyn smirks, after he attempts a particularly macho riff. These chicks probably have their own van, and it’s probably pink—the guys are just along for the ride.

Cartoonish, girl-fueled powerpop in a basement club is kind of a waste. Especially for Lava Baby, whose typical fan is about 15, from Kansas, and sends them e-mails like “You guys, you’re so hot I can’t believe it your even better than brittany spears.” After the band won the most audience votes in VH1’s Undiscovered Artist search last year, teens from the Midwest started getting waaay into them. “We sent them personal e-mails back,” Robyn says, “and they think we’re, like, Christina Aguilera.” Soon they were getting thousands of requests through lavababy.com for their self-recorded 1999 debut CD, In the Right Place. “We got so many e-mails that we decided to give our CDs out for free,” Robyn says.

So far, that’s the only way they’ve been able to distribute their music. They’ve got a van, but they don’t have a manager. Or a booking agent, or a record deal, or a guest spot on TRL. They’ve been courted by labels and talent agencies, but to no avail. “ICM approaches us,” Robyn explains, “and they’re like, ‘You guys are amazing, you’re the Go-Go’s of the millennium, call us next week.’ I called the next week—great conversation with the guy—he went to school with Jewel, we had this whole joke about Jewel. We never heard from him again. And that happens a lot.”

“Whatever,” Miss Brown adds, angrily. “The industry can kiss my ass.” Lava Baby might be frustrated partly because they’ve never considered themselves indie; they’ve always been a pop band. When an oddly sycophantic Billboard article trumpeted, “This is a no-brainer for a record label in search of something that’s truly fresh and marketable,” they took it as a compliment. Still, for a “no-brainer,” they have had surprisingly bad luck with record companies.

The main reason may be that girls playing instruments haven’t been on the radio in a while. At least new girls. The “Hot Adult Contemporary” format that’s taken over so many playlists doesn’t allow for it. Hot AC is that “no rap/no hard stuff” formula stations like New York’s 95.5 WPLJ use, mixing up new music with hits from the last few decades. WPLJ wants to attract women in their twenties, who—the rationale goes—can’t get enough of that ’80s music. So, interspersed in the lineup of modern rocking boys, Faith Hill, and the occasional Nirvana song, you get Power Station, Blondie, the Bangles, Cyndi Lauper. People are so used to listening to the same girls rocking over and over again that the Bangles have become practically canonical. ” ‘In Your Room’—I wish I wrote that song,” Miss Brown says reverently. “We belong in the ’80s,” Robyn sighs. Lava Baby would make perfect sense on Hot AC, but strangely they’re losing out to music from two decades ago.

Although WPLJ is supposed to appeal to women, they hardly ever play new female bands—the contemporary rock part of their equation is Third Eye Blind with a twist of Everclear. The other rock radio format du jour, stations devoted to Fred Durst and his angry little minions, is also a no-girls-allowed clubhouse. It’s a rough time for power ballads and tearjerking rock lullabies.

Out of necessity or nostalgia, Lava Baby have become the best thing they could be—a radio playlist come to life. Eighties bands that you can hear Saturday nights on WPLJ—Survivor, Bangles, Scorpions—show up in their set. They take up the dead air between songs by doing live samples—a spoken-word recital of Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded,” for instance, or breathing life into the odd forgotten C&C Music Factory hit. Any other band covering this music might attach a genre to it, but with the Lava Babies, it’s just obvious they flat out love rocking like a hurricane. Robyn, Miss Brown, and Jen, Robyn’s sister who used to play bass, grew up together in the Rome of the High Eighties, suburban New Jersey. Jen now and then still gets up and sings, but she basically quit the band when she got married, to be a teacher and “worry about her mortgage,” as Robyn puts it. They’ve replaced her with a keyboard-playing cutie with a predilection for pigtails, also named Jen. But the core of the band, Miss Brown and Robyn, has always rocked at heart (and to Heart). In high school they were kind of bad girls who drove around, got drunk, and cut class, like the heroines of a John Hughes movie. They took ’80s music seriously then, and they still identify more with the Go-Go’s and Blondie and early Madonna they grew up on than with today’s grrrl progeny. To Lava Baby, girls back then wanted to have fun more than they do now. “I went to see Mazzy Star,” Robyn says. “Someone talks in the middle of the first song, and she’s like, ‘I’m out of here.’ And Cat Power—what’s the deal there?”

There’s little danger of Lava Baby pulling a Chan Marshall. They’re like a really good prom band; they show up on time, and they don’t sing about Cassavetes. They don’t really have a niche right now, and they may never be signed because of it. But if there’s a contradiction inherent in being an unsigned commercial pop band, Lava Baby are choosing to ignore it. They’re backstage slathering on glitter for their next show.

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Hell’s Angel

Somewhere along the line, brothers and sisters, we all had the same thought. Maybe we muttered it to ourselves after hearing the suspiciously open-ended question, “Who Will Save Your Soul?” Maybe we panicked after the $2 million book deal struck for her gooey poetry and the octuple-platinum sales of her first album, the hellish Pieces of You. Maybe we trembled in fear when we first heard the twangy whine of that Jewel Kilcher, the fresh and airy embodiment of a breeze from Alaska— just a girl with a guitar, a whole lot of annoyingly earnest notions, and bone structure that could shoe a horse. Maybe some of y’all gasped in sudden revelation when she told Lauren Hutton, “I don’t have any strict belief system. I believe in charm. I believe in magic.” Perhaps you prayed for redemption when you discovered that she, like the Heaven’s Gate cult, makes her home in San Diego. Never mind when, brothers and sisters, we all thought it: Jewel is the Devil.

Well now, what I’m about to say may shock you, but I spent an afternoon with that pious and bubbly Jewel Kilcher in front of a Mormon church just as her first record was breaking, and sure as I’m standing here, didn’t nothing happen. Jewel ain’t no demon. But the devil has possessed her. Miss Kilcher was forged in the muck of unchecked hippie idealism, pop psychology, New Age spirituality, frontier-country cults, self-obsession disguised as self-help, antidepressants, and the culture of recovery, all places where contrary thoughts or honest criticism can brand someone a “negative” person. Her music is therefore the acoustic equivalent of air freshener. It makes you think of neutral public environments. Hotel lobbies. “Safe spaces.” Satan works in Jewel’s change-your-life music the same way he works in Oprah’s wicked television show— by massaging our complacency.

It’s our fault that Satan’s plan worked so efficiently. We confused moneymaking potential with artistic merit. We referred to anything we wanted to hype as “genius.” Forgive us, Father. Jewel was phenomenally attractive, Satan knew we prized that in our pop stars. And lo, he made her teeth crooked, for no one loves perfection absolutely. He gave her a lovely and powerful voice like a cross between Dolly Parton and Crystal Gayle, and told her to strain it to sound cloying and melodramatic. He wrote Jewel’s lyrics with a Gump-like hapless do-gooder quality masquerading as a social conscience. Most cleverly, he gave her one of the more bizarre and fascinating life stories in recent rock history— poverty in Alaska, under the wing of parents Atz and Nedra, who told folktales during their lounge act; living in her station wagon and washing her hair in fast-food restaurants. You didn’t think Old Gooseberry wouldn’t chuck a bone to the rock journalists, did you? Repent!

Take a bowl of holy water to the nearest record shop and flick it on Spirit, Jewel’s newest CD. If you thought 1995’s Pieces of You soft, wait until you hear how much softer Jewel can be, brothers and sisters. Erstwhile Madonna producer Patrick Leonard has gently supported Miss Kilcher’s guitar with ethereal synths and a padding rhythm section, and Jude Cole lends his bland guitar to every track. If this album were a food, it would be plain, runny, nonfat, tofu-based yogurt. Satan has even pureed Jewel’s heart, and sprinkled religious overtones on top. “Come on you unbelievers, move out of the way/There is a new army coming and we are armed with faith,” she declares. In this lyric, Satan cleverly does not reveal in whom that faith must be placed. But sometimes he’s more overt. “Kiss the flame,” he implores, “Embrace the faceless/The unnamed!” The Evil One is grooming us to be as mushy and “open” as Jewel, to loosen our judgment, using her as a conduit to drive the sword of unrestrained market capitalism through the heart of the world’s culture. Just think: we laughed at Rod McKuen and Leonard Nimoy’s poetry, but Satan’s Lamb has become too powerful to ignore. “In the end,” sings Lucifer through Jewel, “only kindness matters.” To that I say, No, Jewel. No, Devil. It is only the harsh tonic of lasting, universal, complex human truth which will set us free. I cast you out!

This is the year of false prophets, brothers and sisters, when twentyish kids like Alanis and Duncan are releasing their first postsuccess LPs, as fascinated by their own navels as they are cowed by the responsibility brought on by having the world’s ear. They don’t think they’re Christ, or Buddha, they think we all are, and that they must repay a spiritual debt to their flock, their “Everyday Angels” (as Jewel’s fancult refers to itself), by informing us of the good news. Do not listen! See both Alanis and Jewel in their new videos, walking obliviously through the world. Alanis, like Eve, cannot comprehend her own nakedness— she would have you believe she has not sinned! Jewel appears as an otherworldly apparition, leading rescuers to victims. She would have you believe she is divine! Brothers and sisters, in the words of Christ, “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing . . . inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

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Urgency Emergency

Was it possible? Could the tall blond under the Madison Square Garden spots be responsible for unleashing Jewel, Sarah, Paula, Alanis, Shawn, and a couple of Natalies on us? Funny, she didn’t look cruel. She actually looked pleasant, not at all the soured sibyl who sulks through interviews, grousing about whiny white kids and her pantheon niche. Speaking briefly between songs and graciously accepting applause, she betrayed none of the wounded grandeur of one who painted herself as the earless Van Gogh for an album cover. She played chummy with a band that included her ex-husband, bassist Larry Klein. She even honored top-billed Bob Dylan by mimicking his phrasing for a verse of her ecological anthem.

For that matter, Joni Mitchell’s decorum November 1 wasn’t so very different from the title and mood of her new Taming the Tiger. Saskatoon, we have a problem: contentment, spreading its sly placation. Sure, the album has vitriol— toward lawyers and military callousness in the Japanese rape case, or that ever-reliable Great Satan, the biz. But when Mitchell intends to be angry she ends up sounding perturbed. Where’s the outrage? Her reunion with the daughter she gave up for adoption over 30 years ago has brought a sense of belonging (and a five-year-old grandson) that seems to have not only given pause to a staunch serial monogamist but also blunted her passion’s urgency. On the new record, when she starts a song shrieking “Kiss my ass,” the effect is nowhere near as startling as the gentle intrusion of “fuck your strangers” into 1972’s haunting “Woman of Heart and Mind.” As Mitchell forgot long ago, odd chording or dense arrangements do not automatically result in toughness and sophistication. You can get remarkable mileage from just solo voice, acoustic guitar, and a soul full of fury.

At the Garden, Mitchell avoided everything preceding 1974’s jazzy renaissance, Court and Spark, except for two worn Earthshoes from Ladies of the Canyon, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Woodstock.” What infuriates her now is her inability to elude the long shadow cast by her early albums, especially the back-to-back hippie twilight masterworks, Blue and For the Roses. I understand wanting to forget emotional misery, especially if James Taylor’s to blame. Yet Blue and For the Roses remain remarkable for the way boy-dumps-girl becomes a ravishingly detailed journey into and back from heartbreak, with a parallel subtext of even deeper sorrow: the slow estrangement from a generation’s utopian ideals.

Taming the Tiger certainly displays Mitchell’s trademark sharp observations and sure sense of melody. However the issue, again, is not that Joni hasn’t changed with the times, but that she has. Acoustic guitar and piano are replaced by overly grand, knee-jerk electronica. Having lost its crystal upper register, her voice parades a rich, dusky timbre through scat maneuvers. Sometimes this works. Were their rococo production swells trimmed back, cuts like “Man From Mars” and “The Crazy Cries of Love” could elbow into the territory Anita Baker left unattended. At other points, Taming the Tiger‘s themes recall the past at the present’s expense. The Yuletide numbness on “Face Lift” can’t touch the regret suffusing Blue‘s ineffable “River.” Likewise, the title cut’s denunciation of current pop culture was more powerful on “For the Roses,” with the chain association of rustling arbutus, press parties, and gowned women evoking the distance between bloated corporate rock and its back-to-nature clientele. In 1998, saying corporate pop sucks is the equivalent of calling water wet.

For someone so dismissive of the contemporary scene, Mitchell seems oddly bent on keeping history at arm’s length. When she ended her Garden set with “Woodstock,” I hoped for a fond elegy spiked with admonition. No way. She gave a matter-of-fact rendering, as though any wisp of feeling might associate her with the spacey hippie chicks parodied by sitcoms. Come on, Joni. Flowers are better than bullets, and with the right genius, dulcimers can blow away a Roland
VG-8 any old time.

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Fair Maidens

“Adia,” Sarah McLachlan’s new single, is not a very good song. But it’s almost called “Aria” and spells Aida backward, as if to remind us that Sarah’s an opera diva in reverse: a vocal exercise made flesh, but staged for the peasants, or at least the peasant skirts. She’s Jessye Normal. The triumph of “Adia” lies exactly in its thin obviousness, the way it invites copycats onto the playlists and lets them sound better than the original–kitties Sarah will need more than another hit single when the summer grows long and Lilith’s second stages yawn.

According to my car radio, the best Sarah McLachlan song of the year is “Surrounded.” It’s by Chantal Kreviazuk–“I was there when they dropped the bomb, I remember the bomb, and I still hear the bomb,” she says, warming like the good mentee she is into an octave slide precisely a la McLachlan, even as she drops the social science. This being Fair play, there must follow a beautiful, neurasthenically romantic (and completely unrelated) chorus: “Now it’s all around me, all around me, you surround me like a circle.” Hey, it’s not supposed to make sense. This is not your mother’s feminism, and you don’t need Ms. to know the personal is the political. They share the same melody, and isn’t that enough?

Supporting one’s simulators (and having them support you) isn’t exactly revolutionary, but the trick of conjuring copy after copy also forces us to think of Sarah McLachlan as an original. Future ethnomusicologists will tag Sarah lead auteur of the Lilith Lilt, flanked on one side by Jewel and on the other by Sheryl Crow. Patty Griffin probably dreams of drinking whiskey with Bonnie Raitt, but on her debut single “One Big Love” she’s Crow’s tequila mockingbird. This is a little confusing, since one of the cool things about Sheryl is how she can’t even imitate herself; she can’t read her own handwriting. But Patty Griffin can, from the martial rhythm pattern to the hoarsely wise-before-her-time winsomeness of the vocal. She can’t cry anymore, and when she borrows on Crow’s account, nothing moves but the money.

Jewel’s vanilla daughter-of-a-preacher-man vibe is effortlessly scooped by Rebekah, who timed her prosex/proguilt strummer “Sin So Well” just right: made from 100 per cent recycled materials, it sounds like microlite timeless pop. “Timeless” is the lie pop music keeps telling us. That is, songs seem to have no historical markers because they’re perfectly timebound; “timeless” is so similar to the surrounding atmosphere that hearing it’s like having no experience at all. Or maybe like sitting in a warm bathtub drinking a glass of water. “Pop” is sort of another name for “room temperature.”

That’s also why Natalie Imbruglia can lie naked on the floor without catching a cold–she’s the exact temperature of 1998. “Torn” has already been a single four times for three bands in five years, all without selling a single copy. The song remains the same; it’s the times that changed. For any given year there’s only one certain song you can get over with, if you’re an Australian daytime-TV actress with the fever for the flavor of a single: in 1975 you’d be Olivia, pushing tender buttons with “Have You Never Been Mellow.” In 1987, you’d be Kylie, getting lucky, lucky, lucky with Stock/Aitken/Waterman–produced blue-eyed house. This year you’re Natalie, pouting ironically about your own simulation even while cooking the Lilith sound down to its purest pop potion and shooting it without hesitation–the new queen of Aussie Soap Diva Swing.

While Lilith owes its look and feel to Sarah McLachlan, it’s got an unpaid debt to Alanis Morissette, who mainstreamed troublegirls into the mightiest demographic on Planet Pop. Now comes the first new single from Alanis since NAFTA took effect. Isn’t that what’s called the return of the repressed? Yikes, it’s even named “Uninvited.” The song is basically the hidden a cappella track from Jagged Little Pill, reset in “Kashmir” as a gothesque crawl, with Alanis the stalked rather than the stalker. Or it’s the hardest Top 40 radio song to describe, for which I love her–no bridge and barely a chorus, fibrillating trauma vocals. Three and a half minutes in she suddenly announces, “I need a moment to deliberate,” and walks right off the radio as the music falls apart behind her. Meanwhile, she’s still thinking.

It’s easy to mistrust singles that keep promising they’ll matter later, that take themselves as seriously as these; you know they do from that minor chord the melody flashes like a wistful card trick whenever someone says the word “feel.” And the songs will matter–removed from their moment, they’ll glow with pure historicity. The first million times I heard Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha” I didn’t get it at all. I was just waiting for Norman Cook’s “Brighton” remix–how the opening breaks down the guitar part to primitive jangle and speeds it up to faster miles an hour, until you can hear that it’s “Roadrunner,” substituting Bollywood for American Top 40, accelerating endlessly around its own history, held in orbit only by nostalgia’s gravity.

The sound these singles make transmutes into that gravity later–as we drive past the Stop & Shop one night in the future, they’ll remind us that this is how the world sounded one summer: from the morning past the evening to the end of the light. And we’ll forget the distracting spectacle of the Fair itself, the pretty maids all in a row exchanging Grammy photos.