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

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

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But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

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Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

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Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

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Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

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With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

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Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

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Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, 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.



Girls With The Most Pie

Inside her new CD cover, Lisa Loeb is stroking her tongue with a cream-smeared finger, and looking sideways. Raunchy? Potentially: The picture alongside is of an upright straw soaking in a pool of milk. Then she’s contemplating her creamed finger, her lips poised in a smooch. Cake and Pie is the title.

On the front of Natalie Imbruglia’s new release, the gooey-eyed wonder is sprawled in a white tutu across crisp pillows. Her head is on her shoulder. Elvis is crumpled across her chest. Pretty hip.

The two women at hand are known as one-hit wonders. They have brains, lovely faces, and caramel hearts. One of them went to an Ivy League school. Her thick glasses are chic enough to prove it. The other dropped out before any of it mattered—to explore her inner performer, as it were.

There are tracks on Cake and Pie that suggest Loeb might have been a badass had she realized herself when boofy bangs and women with lightning-bolt guitars were defining pop. “Too Fast Driving” and “Payback” have enough electric energy to conjure the gut muscles the Bangles brought to life when it was cool to be femme and fatal in the same sentence. She’s got the Zappa boy on guitar, which is a start (Dweezil, son of Frank and lover of Loeb), but she could do with some of the Bangles’ drum-perm power to wrench the rhythms. “Don’t want to think about the limit and I am in it,” goes “Too Fast Driving.” Loeb lets loose here. But these days, she knows, it’s not the black-eyed, red-lipped girls that get the goods.

For the most part, this, her third full concoction, plays like the soundtrack that Dawson and such creekdippers should be coming of age to. She’s a brainy cookie and surely she intended this. Her music is confectionary. In 1993 Loeb was the girl neighbor who made apartment living sweet for Ethan Hawke. He discovered her in the soundtrack for Reality Bites, one of the last decade’s most dubious cultural landmarks. This album’s “We Could Still Belong Together” was picked up for Legally Blonde, last year’s biggest good/bad girl movie. Loeb started out softening the bite of reality with “Stay (I Missed You)” in a world ready for economic and urban change. Years later, she’s playing the same tune.

The problem with both these lovelies is exemplified in Loeb’s first line: “I kept talking to myself/I had to get the words out of my head (so I did).” Too many stream-of-consciousness lessons can ruin a career. The saving grace may be the words in Imbruglia’s head, instead: “Didn’t want to leave you with the wrong impression/Didn’t want to leave you with my last confession/Yeah.”

Imbruglia’s last confession was not quite her own, and it is how the world remembers her. Since 1997’s “Torn,” she’s been partying with Brits and working out how to top the single that topped her. Her introduction to the chart world, borrowed from the L.A. band Ednaswap, had her writhing and bare. She followed fellow Aussie Kylie from the soap streets of suburban Melbourne to the post-soap lanes of rainy London, where anything bright and bouncy from Down Under can feed. She bought a mansion, moved to White Lilies Island, wrote 64 songs, trashed them, and wrote 64 more. The 12 on White Lilies Island are apparently the best of that five-year bunch.

In what’s becoming an Imbruglia pattern, the album starts out well enough. “That Day” is a fast song that chews everything to the bone. There’s shrieking and breathing. The words come in and out and move around the circle. “That day, what a marvelous mess/I’m tired, and I’m right, and I’m wrong, and it’s beautiful.” There are guitar crunches and low thuds. As for the rest of the record, if a marvelous mess it was, she’d have achieved something. But there’s an overwhelming tinny ring that starts on the second track, “Beauty on the Fire,” and ends with the last track—it’s this young possum’s voice.

Imbruglia got big quick. She was the love of Daniel Johns (from Silverchair)’s life—and that can’t be an easy feat, tied to his guitar and his surfboard as he is. White Lilies Island comes now because her label would have fined her $1 million otherwise. She hasn’t walked the paths of DiFranco or PJ Harvey, and it’s a pity because she needs to learn from their kind. She’s so much more cheesy than them, but so much less cheesy than the world wants her to be. There are hints of a rocker in this too gorgeous girl, a couple of guitar stanzas and drum embraces that may even have required a little face-scrunching, a little tendon tension. In 1997 she did well lying naked on the floor. But White Lilies Island smells cheap, and it will stain her.

Sex, food, and Elvis. The pop world. Loeb anticipating an empty fork on the front of Cake and Pie. The word change in illuminous blue on the inside of Imbruglia’s cover. Raunchy? Raunchy enough to suggest a good time. Loeb has put on a pleasant enough spread, but she’d have more on her fork with a little more beating, a little less slurping. Imbruglia on the other hand has just gotta get out of bed—she’s been stroking that inner self too softly, too long. Ms. Clever and Ms. Demure know the game good and well. Time for Ms. Cheeky to lick the bowl.


The Ghost of Bruce Springsteen

The Boss has been downsized. You can’t tell it by the four-CD box set Tracks and the coffee-table-size lyrics and photograph book Songs, but Bruce Springsteen has been rendered expendable. Given the ascendancy of digitized music—techno, hiphop, Natalie Imbruglia—you could even say he’s been replaced in the pop economy by machines. Tracks and Songs are high-ticket items in the way antiques or hand-carved furniture are: arcane relics from a romanticized past, when human craft was valued.

Being relegated to Christmas-gifts-for-yuppies status won’t do much for Springsteen’s populist image. That’s too bad, because at its admittedly inconsistent best, Tracks confirms his longtime critical rep. From the faded heroine of “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” to the desperate, laid-off provider in the remarkable “Roulette,” to Vietnam vet after Vietnam vet, Springsteen has sung more intelligently and emotionally about economic issues—about the class structure that divides this country as surely as Du Bois’s and Wu-Tang’s color line—than any popular artist since Woody Guthrie. That may be precisely his problem: in these bull-market days of information and lei sure, who wants to hear about factory workers? When we can watch ghetto superstars flash ice daily on MTV, aren’t lyrics about failed American dreams as corny as the guitars
and horn sections that surround them? Isn’t class déclassé?

Springsteen is at least partially to blame for his own unplanned obsolescence. After purposefully veering away from big studio production with the street-punk masterpiece Darkness on the Edge of Town, he zagged back on The River and began writing for radio. At the time, he
balanced throw aways like “Hungry Heart” with devastated tales of redemption lost, like “Stolen Car.” But eventually, dumbing down his craft to reach some common ear undermined his own vision. By setting one of his most scathingly critical lyrics to a ridiculously punchy chorus, the only popular artist who actively contradicted Reagan’s sunny-morning-in-America routine became part and parcel of it. With “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen became a symbol of megastardom, of ’80s success excess, the rock concert turned Super Bowl. On Tracks he plays the song like he should have released it: as a haunting, unforgiving ballad.

Less acknowledged by Springsteen and his supporters is the way he betrayed himself by overromanticizing his working-class heroes, reducing them to mythic clichés. On the 1983 version of the previously unreleased song “Brothers Under the Bridges,” Springsteen sings about boys sneaking off to watch men parade cars on the edge of town. Springsteen had already plumbed this theme as a metaphor for trapped escapism on “Racing in the Streets”; here, it comes across as an indulgence in dangerous nostalgia. Disc 3 of Tracks—the ’80s songs—is full of cuts like this: at best, they’re comic send-ups (“TV Movie”); at worst, they’re genre exercises, mere pantomimes at meaning.

There are several distinct albums to be wrought out of Tracks: one full of rockers tracing back to his bar-band roots, one gathering the country-inspired stories he began spinning on Nebraska, one that’s nothing but love songs. Mine would focus on the period from Born To Run through Nebraska, when Springsteen excelled at cinematic epics and heart-drenched ballads. It would show an artist, a person, struggling to rescue dreams from reality—to wrestle control of both. Born during the consumer promise of the Eisenhower era, then raised during the onset of the collapse of northeastern industrialism, the racial riots of the ’60s, and the demoralization of the Vietnam War, in a house where these were things happening to his friends, his neighbors, and his family, not strangers in the news, Springsteen has always sympathized with lost souls, with people who counted on the American dream be cause it worked in the ’50s, and be cause it was all they had.

The box set closes with a second version of “Brothers Under the Bridge.” This one is from 1995, when Springsteen released the dark, distinctly un-radiogenic The Ghost of Tom Joad, his best album in 13 years. This “Brothers” is about homeless vets hiding in the hills of California; like Tom Joad, it shows Springsteen abandoning escapism for empathy, applying the lessons of his past to con temporary lives far from his own: illegal immigrants, Vietnamese fishermen in Texas, hoboes. They’re not the denim-clad Everyman Springsteen has too frequently catered to, but they know where to pick up his tracks.


If You Build It

What do the blueprints of musical slam dunks look like? Preconceived or spontaneous, soberly drafted at noon or snatched out of the charged air of midnight sessions: what is the level of detail, dimension, length? On “Young Hearts” (from Cappadonna’s recent The Pillage), producer RZA and Cappadonna design a synth line, loosed at the beginning of the track, that parades around the perimeter of the drumbeat, which in turn reaches up through the rap at rhythmic junctures to pound neon nails in the ceiling. When Bill Laswell, operating at symphonic duration, re-splices Miles Davis tapes on Panthalassa, he red-pencils any plans that fail to add strength and vibrancy to the main building; he sternly directs his gaze beyond interesting guest houses on the Davis property. And when producer Phil Thornalley arranges 1998’s most sublime pop groove on Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” it’s all about the facades: for the opening verses and choruses, he keeps the basses felt and murmuring, then has them wave up and punch Imbruglia’s bridge, like brightly painted new shutters mounted on old stone.

Even talking about the architectural foundations of sonic material is a slightly naughty thing. After all, go the hoary old lines, rockers communicate with distinguished lyrics, pop producers are always just well-compensated facilitators, audiences crave hominess and heart as desperately as they recoil from calculation and math–and say, didn’t serialist nerds empty concert music auditoriums after Schoenberg? Nevertheless, on Mezzanine, Bristol, England’s Massive Attack intentionally blur the blueprints and the juicy effects of musical slam dunks, achieving the current pinnacle of advanced sonic design. Here is a record actually grounded in architectural concepts applied to the funk, the symphonicism, the dub, even the trip-hop that people associate with Bristol’s unique beat magicians. The album scoffs at the notion that its compositional plans aren’t part and parcel of its messages or emotions or kicks. The work of a beat band who since 1988 have only rarely functioned as an ordinary band, preferring instead to remix and figure out their own ravishing contributions to ’90s pop and rock and hip-hop in studios, Massive Attack’s new music is so blindingly realized it refuses to be heard as hypothesis; the result is post-experiment jams pulled off with plush mentalism by DJ/musician/ producers ready for love.

Here is what does happen on Mezzanine: opening the album, veteran reggae king Horace Andy identifies a woman as his “Angel,” someone who can “neutralize every man in sight.” He croons to this effect, carefully and sensuously, as guitars from a drastically slowed-down Motorhead session rage around him, rhythms snap and break up and consolidate and suavely fade in and out, until this particular presentation basically has succeeded in making a humble bedroom seem like a cavernous airport. Andy, a civilized man ready to tear someone’s clothes off, repeats the words “love you” over and over, and the music turns it into a wind-tunnel of desire.

The next song, while without guitar, is nonetheless a variation on this eerie dance. “Risingson”–featuring only the alternating voices of Massive Attack’s Daddy Gee, 3D, and Mushroom–chronicles a party in a club from the point of view of an unappreciative guest. After various complaints get lodged against an awful moving glaze of fuzz and metal, everything breaks down into a high-contrast harmony-group voicing of the words “dream on.” This appears like an iron wrecking ball covered in velvet, swinging through the halls of the jam.

A gorgeously straight-singing Liz Fraser, casting off the Appalachian-Bulgarian affectations of her former Cocteau Twins affiliation, voices “Teardrop.” The song, with a midtempo groove reminiscent of poor television reception elaborately twisted, is about emotional responses you can see–like, as Fraser sings, teardrops falling on fire and feathers held afloat by breath. Her melody has a sad-toned medieval lift and sprightliness to it, but the way Massive Attack encase it conjures up a suit of armor displayed in the lobby of a postmodern office tower.

It’s these kinds of architectural contrasts that Massive Attack substitute on Mezzanine for the more unwavering concentration on regular groove and melody of Blue Lines (1991) and, in a slightly less direct way, Protection (1994), their great albums to which the world imputes the genesis of trip-hop. But as Massive Attack’s new music easily demonstrates, the trio’s modernist tone and ’70s-bred progressive ambitions were always more cool-headed than Tricky’s mad-genius skronk, more intelligently laid-back than Portishead’s hyperinformed dummy cabaret. As much as for their oddly toned beats and ’70s rock and punk borrowings floating in the still waters of dub, the trio have been known for aloof string arrangements, in front of which singers like Shara Nelson or Tracey Thorn testified with sweet tension. Now, with guitars instead of violins, Massive Attack argue that it’s not the elements of pop that matter, but the way one constructs them to arrive at fantasy and tragedy, dance and eros. Practitioners who choose not to hand over their visions and plans to outside contractors are known as “design and build” architects; although Massive Attack’s business cards would put it more elegantly, they’ve always been more like design-and-fuck architects.

A mezzanine, don’t forget, is a partial floor nestled between other full-standing stories in a building. That’s what Massive Attack’s third album is all about: creating the perfect impression of coherent stability and utter completion and existential trust, all of which a mezzanine accomplishes, when in fact a wall has been omitted. For example, the almost unbelievable title track here–a domestic tirade scored to sub-Indian motifs and Middle Eastern echoes–could not be any more effective had Massive Attack included a melody as detailed as “Exchange Part 2,” the Bacharachesque beauty that is their album’s hypnotic finale. On “Mezzanine,” when they finally chant, “I could be yours/We can unwind/All these other flaws,” they’ve built a house of attempted seduction and unbridled desire as convincing and undeniable as any traditional soul singer’s. It’s just that, with pop vanguardists, the blueprints remain part of the show.