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

2003 Pazz & Jop: Reasons to Bother

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Top 10 Albums of 2003

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

2. The White Stripes: Elephant (V2)

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

4. Radiohead: Hail to the Thief (Capitol)

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

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

7. New Pornographers: Electric Version (Matador)

8. Basement Jaxx: Kish Kash (Astralwerks)

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

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

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Top 10 Singles of 2003

1. OutKast: “Hey Ya!” (Arista)

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

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

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

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

6. Johnny Cash: “Hurt” (American)

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

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

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

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

—From the February 11–17, 2004, issue

 

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

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GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME

As her run of great solo records continues with this month’s The Worse Things Get, it’s possible that Tacoma’s Neko Case will soon be able to remove the line about being “best known as a former member of the New Pornographers” from all her artist bios and encyclopedia entries. If Middle Cyclone was her masterpiece, The Worse is a worthy follow-up, a record where the lyrics are filled with self-doubt but the music couldn’t sound more confident. If you’re looking for a chance to play a little air guitar, check out the hard-rocking “Man,” and if you want to hear some a capella harmonies that will stop you in your tracks, go directly to “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu.” Oh, and don’t forget your lighter—there won’t be any hands-in-the-air anthems, but you’ll want to smoke a cigarette as soon as you leave the theater.

Thu., Sept. 26, 8 p.m., 2013

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A.C. Newman

Removed from indie rockers the New Pornographers, singer-songwriter A.C. Newman writes delicate, shimmery, nuanced pop songs that sound like more introspective versions of their X-rated cousins. His recently released third solo album, Shut Down the Streets, is no exception (and several songs feature fellow Pornographer Neko Case), though the music does lean slightly more toward classic psychedelic tambourines and organ swirls. With percussion-heavy, wall-of-noise-loving indie rockers the Mynabirds.

Mon., Oct. 22, 9 p.m., 2012

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Destroyer

In the New Pornographers, Dan Bejar wrote the group’s most passionate and perturbing songs. His hyper-literate eclectic solo catalogue could warrant graduate studies. But on this year’s Kaput, his Destroyer vamps on the last-call glamour of Roxy Music’s Avalon to create seething drama from New Romantic synth solos and sexy saxophones, and the result is his artistic triumph. A warm, if sarcastic, live performer, Bejar and Co.’s showcase tonight should illustrate his softer side. With the War on Drugs.

Sun., April 3, 8 p.m., 2011

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Neko Case

A few days after this concert, which supports alt-country crooner Neko Case’s excellent Middle Cyclone album, the singer is auctioning off the 1967 Mercury Cougar featured on the Cyclone album cover through her website. (Other prizes include a drum head signed by her and her bandmates in the New Pornographers and dinner for 10 at Chipotle.) While this act is charitable–as proceeds benefit the 826 National organization, which helps grade-school students with creative writing–this auction could mean she’s finally ready to move on from Cyclone, her most successful album, which charted at No. 3. With Lost in the Trees.

Sun., Feb. 6, 8 p.m., 2011

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NEWMAN’S OWN

Country music fans/defeatists love to moan that New Pornographers songbird Neko Case was born in the wrong generation. And it’s true: The coppertop singer has a knockout Nashville croon, one that seems sadly underappreciated in this era but would’ve blown Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette sideways in the ’70s. Turns out, her bandmate A.C. Newman‘s psychedelic-pop solo stuff is equally adrift from the present, in the best way: The Slow Wonder (2004) was as bright and blissed out as a ’60s bonfire, and this year’s Get Guilty is somehow more intimate and more lush. Bowery Ballroom is the best venue imaginable for his kind o’ love-in. And as for his adorable folk-pop opener, Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele, well . . . just know that while the last words in his name are not yet redundant in our culture, they will be.
Sun., March 15, 8 p.m., 2009

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Sun Kil Moon’s April

On indie rock’s color wheel, Mark Kozelek is a stubborn gray. Amid the poppy reds of the New Pornographers, the quirky greens of Grizzly Bear, and the fervent purples of the Arcade Fire, he’s the hoary bard of rainy mornings and smoky bars—the cloud over your Sunday picnic. With the Red House Painters, as a solo artist, and now with his third record as Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek has cast himself as the archetype of introspection, the Singer-Songwriter.

On April, Kozelek appears more immersed in his somber persona than ever before. It’s a massive record: a full 74 minutes of soft finger-picking, half-time tempos, and his barrel-aged tenor. In other words, April feels like twice its length. Its 11 tracks are a study in dynamic uniformity: a sunset in slow motion. April hits its stride with the languid 12-string guitar that introduces opener “Lost Verses” and never lets off. Whether Kozelek is looking for forgiveness or not, nine-minute folk dirges weren’t the way to make up for 2005’s Tiny Cities, Sun Kil Moon’s much-maligned 30-minute album of Modest Mouse covers.

Of course, there’s a reason why Kozelek became one of sad-folk’s premier character actors, and there are certainly occasions on April where he nails the role. Not only is “Moorestown” under five minutes long, it’s also gut-wrenchingly beautiful: a lost-love tale told through chiming guitar and pliant strings. See also “Harper Road” and “Tonight in Bilboa” for the singer’s endearing affinity for geography, autobiography, and gymnastic fretwork.

Koz (as he is known to the initiated) is a master of the cozy ballad—a claim his latest record gives no cause to dispute. A song or two will keep you warm and contented, but take in the full album and April will smother you worse than a down comforter in July.

Mark Kozelek plays the Highline Ballroom June 13, highlineballroom.com.

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Michael McDonald: Mystery White Boy

Michael McDonald was the Akon of the ’80s. Ubiquitous, inescapable. The consummate guest star, backing vocalist, and duet partner, trading lines with everyone from James Ingram to Patti LaBelle to Kenny Loggins to his own sister. Like top-shelf vodka, his bubbly, mush-mouthed yodel (wherein murdered consonants ascend to heaven and are awarded 72 virgin vowels) enhanced and intoxicated whatever you mixed it with. Consider Steely Dan’s “Peg,” his note-perfect bleats finely chopped like pristine lines of cocaine, a sublimely OCD mingling of the perfectionist and the populist, the alien and the instantly familiar. Only one fate can befall a voice so memorable, so distinct: Nowadays, he’s a bit of a joke.

A joke Mike’s in on, though, at least to an extent. In 2008, he has evolved into a slightly less athletic Chuck Norris. A kitschy pop-culture punchline masterfully wielded by The 40-Year-Old Virgin (“Ya mo burn this place to the ground”), The Family Guy (“Faaaaart!”), the brilliant Internet serial Yacht Rock (“California vagina sailors”), and even power-pop stars the New Pornographers, who held a YouTube contest in which fans submitted videos of themselves singing NP tunes in the inimitable Michael McDonald style. (Some guy with an atrocious beard won for warbling “It’s Only Divine Right.”) The Family Guy joke is most instructive: Mike is hired to sing backup vocals to everything anyone says, because it all just sounds better—sweeter, smoother, more soulful—when issued from his lips. Not a bad rep. It wouldn’t be quite so bothersome, though, if these days he didn’t mostly sing old Motown songs.

We’re live last Wednesday night at the Blue Note for the sold-out Michael McDonald show. That is not a typo. Aside from the sax guy briefly evoking A Love Supreme during the intro vamp to “I Keep Forgettin’ ” (that’ll probably cost you a few virgins, pal), this is no hackneyed jazz crossover plea—before a euphoric crowd, Mike instead grinds through 90 minutes unifying the two halves of his estimable career: the cheerily smooth r&b on which he built his fortune (“What a Fool Believes” triggers mass hysteria), and the cheerily smooth renditions of classic, often not traditionally smooth r&b songs that’ve dominated his last several albums (a superfluous take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” triggers significantly less hysteria). His new Soul Speak, third in a trilogy that includes the instructively titled Motown and Motown Two, tosses in a couple of flaccid originals and a few bewildering tributes from farther afield: Mike’s take on “Hallelujah” can’t match the profundity of that American Idol dude’s version, let alone Jeff Buckley’s. His backing band tonight hails from the to-save-the-song-we-must-destroy-it Vietnam school, unnecessarily bombastic solos and all. For protection and companionship, I have brought along three martini-swilling associates, and we struggle mightily as to the degree of irony with which we are enjoying ourselves, or not. Nearby Blue Note patrons are visibly alarmed by our (relative) youth; that not every last person in the joint is bone-white befuddles us in turn.

It’s complicated.

Anyway, “Oh, you’re gonna pay, guitar!” howls one of my martini-swilling associates as the lead guitarist’s face contorts violently while searching for that perfect, sweet, climactic note. For convenience’s sake, we assign every side player to a bygone TV star: Beau Bridges on guitar, Wilford Brimley on sax, etc. Mike’s drummer is evidently nicknamed “Baby Girl.” As for the man himself, he remains middle management incarnate, his hair and Brillo-pad goatee a resplendent shock of white; the spit starts flying by the middle of the towering opener “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” and the sweat is pouring freely just a few songs later, coating his cheeks to almost strategically suggest that Mike is crying. He pounds his electric keyboard and yodels his ass off. “I know what’s good for you, baby,” he violently coos, and you get to thinking that maybe he does.

You watch a guy like this close his set with a triumphant double-shot of Stevie Wonder songs, and you can’t help but think it: Pat Boone. But does the elated throng here actually prefer Mike’s version of, say, “Walk On By” to the original? Doubt it. Hope not. He avoids any outright debacles, though, and his mercifully solo reading of “You Don’t Know Me”—the Ray Charles version—is the killer tonight, a Lifetime movie tearjerker that earns its pathos, even if it’s borrowed. My martini-swilling associates are right to point out the grueling irony of covering “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” but ah, screw it. The oldies album is the official baby-boomer exit strategy. It’s not his fault. And it’s heartening that “Takin’ It to the Streets,” from Mike’s original meal ticket, the mighty Doobie Brothers, inspires the most crowd rapture tonight, folks leaping to their feet and clapping awkwardly but endearingly as our hero’s sweat pours forth. He’s got his own canon, thank you very much.

But Michael McDonald remains a truly confusing notion in 2008, an ironic mustache of a man, alternately appalling and appealing, but bewildering throughout. Before he rips into “What’s Goin’ On,” Mike deigns to make a political statement that I, in my vertiginous state, completely misread. He announces that we stand at the threshold of what could be a great time, and praises “the one guy” who could lead us to that promised land. The gender specificity of this statement is immediately obvious, but what follows somehow is not. “I love when politicians talk about how they can’t wait to get into office and cut all that wasteful spending,” Mike chortles. “We know what that means, right? It means they take all the money from us hard-working people, and they line the pockets of their friends.” Huge audience whoops, including from the nice lady next to me who, as the lights had gone down, had been telling her neighbor about how “Giuliani is a great man.”

I thereby read Mike’s monologue as a direct endorsement of a) McCain, and b) Bush’s tax cuts. My martini-swilling associates, however, insist he was backing Obama. In the cold light of reason, their take seems much more feasible; the man himself remains as unfeasible as ever. We stagger out into the East Village night, quotation marks spinning around our heads; we may be fools, but we believe nonetheless.

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Cred Sheet

Poor Graphic Design
The New Pornographers’ titanic struggle to come up with a halfway-decent album cover.
At least this one isn’t bright green and yellow.

This song will change your life
The New Pornographers’ “Myriad Harbour.”
Garish visuals aside, behold this slightly-less-cryptic-than-usual anthem from the wacky/beautiful Dan Bejar.

Sporting Trifles
Cleveland Cavaliers not named Lebron James.
Straight-up, fuck you guys.

Transcendent Concert Experience
John Doe at the Living Room Thursday night.
Splendid, but he really oughta give some thought to whipping up a solo acoustic version of “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.”

Coif Medicine
The similarity between Rihanna’s hairdo while singing “Umbrella” on The Tonight Show and that picture of a pissed-off cat involuntarily wearing a cut-up lime as a helmet.
Enough with the bangs.

Wistful Reminisces
Revisiting Peppers and Eggs, the two-disc comp of music from The Sopranos, while in mourning.
Alas, no Defiler.

Great Moments in Fake Bands
Defiler.
Funniest fake band in history, Spinal Tap excepted.

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The Purposeless Pleasantness of Pure Pop Per Se

I dig pop as a prefix: an inclusive, accessible spirit introduced to outsider genres; an aspiration to wider attention (pop-punk, pop-metal, pop-rock). Pop as a style’s root noun is less intriguing, though—it connotes an exclusive, subcultural take on MOR. A.C. Newman’s Slow Wonder, the solo debut from New Pornographers mastermind Carl Newman, is loaded with indie-pop, retro-pop, “power”-pop (let’s be honest), avant-pop, and Brit-pop.

Without those terms of preface, the album’s limp-wristed, purposeless, offhand ditties would reek of failure. If there’s more to the lyrics than “scrambled eggs, baby how I love your legs,” Newman’s voice isn’t strong enough to make it known (or he’s not bothering). Though there’s little of the powerpuff zoom associated with the New P’s here, uptempo grins like “On the Table” make denying the pleasantness of it all impossible. Calling Newman’s forefathers superior is a moot point, too; ’60s classics and off-kilter ’80s cult dweebs like the dB’s and Game Theory would probably be too distracting for hardworking grad students, what with their energetic arrangements and refusal to fade into the background. Since people are always claiming radio is just something to zone out too, maybe Slow Wonder is pop after all.


A.C. Newman plays the Bowery Ballroom August 12.