SECOND WAVE Part 5: 2004

2004

 

 

 

AMERICAN IDIOT | THE GREY ALBUM | MADVILLAINY | THE NEW DANGER | REJOICING IN THE HANDS | RUBBER FACTORY | SUNG TONGS 

 

 

AMERICAN IDIOT – Green Day [American idiots]

(Reprise)

****

AMERICA, F**K YEAH!

Holiday\Boulevard Of Broken Dreams\Whatsername

St. Jimmy

 

INTRODUCTION

I’m not certain what American Idiot is getting at with its convoluted, schizophrenic, contradictory concept, but I am absolutely positive about one thing: Green Day isn’t confident about what exactly they’re trying to do here either. The three possible conceptual approaches (all of them slightly awkward and ham-handed) that haphazardly litter the record make it hard to judge how successfully they accomplish their goal, since they were trying for three incongruent outcomes.

In the spirit of this rhetorically messy, musically divided, thematically conflicted album, I will roughly group my reactions to these three possible paradigms from here on out, also touching on things like the poetry of the lyrics themselves and the quality of the melodies. Hold on tight, here we go!

American Idiot could potentially be:

A political record!

…But Green Day are uninformed celebrity sloganeers who never really get at the root of anything meaningful, sensible, or substantial.

A rock opera!

…But Green Day have made a typically labyrinthine, vague, clichéd and goofy story album (albeit possibly the best one of the decade, musically speaking).

Or a teen angst statement!

…But Green Day are pathetic phonies and worse salesmen, catering obnoxiously and condescendingly to apathetic teenagers who don’t know any better.

Well, I guess I’ll just start wherever and I’ll touch on everything eventually.

 

POLITICS AND PUBLIC IMAGE

First of all, I agree with Green Day’s political stance (hint: they don’t care for our forty-third President) given the context of the times, but I have a huge problem with the piss-poor way they direct their rage, the means they use to do so, and the eventual goals I suspect they wanted to achieve.

But their secret agenda, one that is far more artistically troubling, is the unnecessary and complete deification of the counterculture youth – or should I say, the youth who think they’re the counterculture. First of all, of course everyone fancies themselves a radical and iconoclast when they’re a teenager because they’re too self-centered to know better and consider the implications of their actions. So naturally, ignorant, deluded misfits with big plans for the future would buy this album since it essentially worships and panders to them in the cheapest, most patronizing way (in a shrewd, creatively reprehensible ploy on Green Day’s part). But the very fact that they’re reinforcing that whole “defiant and unique” image is insulting, especially when their fanbase consists partially of self-righteous kids who are really just following another mass trend. (I certainly don’t mean to slander fans of the band or suggest that they’re like this. But I’m sure that even you Billie Joe devotees saw a couple people more obsessive than you in 2004 that were really deluded and thought they were more independent and punk than anyone else, even thought the genre had been around for years and eaten itself multiple times. Not only did I find that annoying, necessitating this rant, but it was a very cynical move for Green Day to prey on their ignorance. Plus, the reductive stereotype they cater to with this album’s safe edginess probably doesn’t even exist!)

Basically, it bothers me that the band acts like they’re punks, even though they’re an institution. You don’t have to smash a guitar to be rebellious, and just because you wear a suit, it doesn’t mean you’re a corporate drone. That’s just the kind of too-easy, worn-out symbolism the group enjoys so much.

I mean, what’s the deal with Green Day suddenly becoming the U2 of punk while promoting this album? There is a way to promote yourselves without seeming hollow, petty and self-aggrandizing, and these dudes haven’t found it. Also, it’s a bitter irony that they commercially whored a record that was so virulently antiestablishment. Or was it? That’s exactly my point. If they had no qualms about merchandising it to hell and back and shattering their integrity, then it seems even more likely that their archetypal caricature of dissent and angst was carefully manufactured to be bland and palatable to the mainstream. Now, I’m fine with Bono’s school of brand awareness and image construction, but when it’s applied to punk such as this which aspires to be a countercultural document, well, that’s just uncomfortable and disingenuous.

The group even went overboard with the marketing and aesthetic of the LP, implementing a leather-and-black-eyeliner look that was both completely overdramatic and suspiciously Wal-Mart friendly. (It bears mentioning that like the musicians themselves, that street urchin fashion aesthetic was actually branded, integrated and accepted by the public years ago.) They went all out to look like punks in style but forgot the key ingredient – volatility.

Okay, that’s enough of that. It was getting a little too tangential and vindictive even for me. I was just establishing my position on the band’s politics and ethics so I could then examine how they fit into this work. As it turns out, Green Day’s barebones social discourse is ill-fitting among the story-songs that advance American Idiot’s narrative.

I have no doubt that they actually live by the simplistic, childish political ideology presented in their songs. The problem is that this stance is so primitive it would be hard for even a true poet to lyrically expand on; plus, they have the added difficulty of writing a standard-issue, angsty rock opera around it. Actually, the political content of this LP was greatly exaggerated by critics and fans, though there is some social commentary to be found. From that perspective, the whole album reads like knee-jerk, “power to the people” rhetoric. Every line sounds like the beginning of a rant, glossing over the meat of the issue (whether social, political or economic) and resorting to mere sloganeering. That’s fine once in a while, but damn near every passage here continues the exact same way, showboating in a fit of histrionics rather than bothering to say something of merit on the topic. Not settling for sensationalism, Armstrong unimaginatively pulls out a veritable truckload of “misunderstood”, “edgy” buzzwords, phrases and modifiers that have since been co-opted so much by lesser bands and even corporations that they have basically lost any meaning and force they once had.

In all fairness, I can’t tell if Billie Joe is preaching to dramatize and glamorize, or alternatively, to satirize and parody. That sort of conflict is typical of AI. Additionally, it splits its focus between brain-dead political criticism and the lifestyle of the wasteful, self-destructive American teenager, despite already being thinly stretched in several directions. When all is said and done, it’s a bit on the nose, probably because that’s the only way the group could have covered this much convoluted territory in one disc. But no matter what they intended their message to be, I’m pretty sure it was perverted and misinterpreted by some fans for their own agendas and emotional needs (I’m referring to that minority of overzealous goons I mentioned earlier). Not to say that using the sentiments of songs in the context of your own life is bad in any way. It’s just that in this case, the band’s proponents got a little crazy with things, leading to those overexaggerated misconceptions that this is an anticapitalist screed, or whatever. I can’t say I blame them for their confusion, since this is such a scattered work.

In fact, since the true aim of this record is so vague, I think I’ll join the conspiracy theorists in some blind guessing. (Don’t fault me for it; if anything, applying my favored interpretation makes me appreciate the music more.) Perhaps Green Day’s point was to illustrate how every white kid in America was becoming the kind of dumb stereotype they create here, and then warning against that kind of ignorance and conformity by making his story a tragic one. But even if that’s what they were aiming for, idealizing that kind of lifestyle definitely isn’t the way to make it seem undesirable. It’s really reaching to claim they had any huge psychological effect on the public at large, so it’s not my place to say whether I think they did or not. However, I can undermine the efficacy of that goal.

American Idiot’s cheap characterization and values are too heavily glorified to be successful as satire. In a world where youngsters were already woefully undereducated about global politics, merely denouncing them, raising a ruckus, and never getting to the root of the problem wasn’t a good idea for Green Day to propagate. In the past, the best punk bands had always been specific with their message, and spoken out about social inequality with righteousness and precision. Green Day simply says “This stuff sucks right now!” for an hour, encourages you to nod along, and basically fuels an attitude of apathy and nihilism rather than education and action. Although, I suppose getting kids worked up about a criminal Presidential administration was ultimately a beneficial thing to do, no matter how informed they were about it or how many times I saw someone wearing the same faux-individualistic American Idiot T-shirt. Plus, it might have engaged and encouraged a few in their civic responsibilities for the rest of their lives, so I’ll give them credit for that.

I suppose I should go easy on them, since it is hard to competently write a huge “message” song, and these guys had the balls to write a whole “message” record. In fact, compared to my favored lyricists who compose more abstract things, the risk of artistic ineptitude and failure is far higher for a political rant, and it’s admirable that Green Day succeeds as much as they do.

But I digress. Hugely. As I’ve said, politics aren’t even the main aspect of American Idiot. For the sake of a comprehensive review, I will now analyze the angsty story album behind all the promotional bluster.

 

ROCK OPERA

That uncertainty between sarcasm and honesty applies to the narrative as well. This birthed the realization that’s the key to the interpretation of the story that I find the most unusual and artistically rewarding: this record isn’t really an attack on dumb Republicans. It’s an attack on dumb Democrats. There are certainly upstanding, dignified members of both parties, but instead of preaching to the Bush-hating choir, Green Day (arguably) decry the ignorance of those who want change, but don’t know or care what that change should be. They even set up a straw man (Jimmy) to pin all this stupidity on. Since the LP centers on him, I thought that he was supposed to be the rebellious hero. Instead, he’s an aimless schmuck. The title smacks you over the head with the conceit of the record and it took me two listens to realize it: this is an album about an idiot. Okay, I guess it’s a little far-fetched, but aside from that crackpot theory, the story is pretty pedestrian.

Whether the tale is winking or sneering, I find it depressing how much it rips off The Who’s Quadrophenia wholesale without inserting any interesting details or personal angles to it at all (oh, and “Extraordinary Girl” is an obvious lift from the Clash’s “Spanish Bombs” as well). American Idiot’s narrative is just a boring, cookie-cutter tragic love story. I guess the bright side of that is that the plot is wondrously straightforward and uncluttered, though it is a bit silly and overblown, as rock operas are wont to be.

On a conceptual level, Billie Joe overstates and emphasizes the story elements and themes to an absurd degree, which, to be fair, happens pretty commonly with all suite-length compositions. The Messianic imagery and metaphors in particular are so blatant and overused it’s ridiculous. The tortured lyrics don’t portray a damaged soul so much as carefully construct an acceptably “alternative” figure.

In fact, this project inherited yet another common gripe against rock operas: there are a few main melodic motifs here that just get shuffled around and modified, so a lot of the record sounds sort of similar. To be fair, the band disguises that inherent repetition well, trying their hardest to assert the uniqueness of each tune. I could forgive the musical similarities if they were enforced by the idea of the musical theme, but the fact is that these same barren barre chords were used in similar patterns by Green Day themselves tons of times before they even decided to make this behemoth. So plagiarism is sort of a problem on AI, though it’s one that can be ignored.

It’s kind of lame how these guys can’t just do their own thing, especially since they’re ostensibly a radical punk band. But honestly, they try so desperately to be the bastard child of the Who and the Clash here (sort of like how Coldplay desperately tries to be the bastard child of U2 and Radiohead). However, I will give them points for their ambition, and for at least succeeding partially. Plus, after I pondered what seemed at the time like a desperate grab for critical acclaim, I realized that guitar bands don’t put out rock operas as frequently anymore. Consequently, our generation needed a good one, and though it’s not perfect, this is probably the best.

Here’s why: Armstrong’s major gambit and artistic risks are the two elaborate multipart suites, once again in the grand tradition of the Who. The first is quite good, but the second is truly superb. He cleverly avoids bloating and dragging out the record by cushioning these prog-rock epics with a bunch of shorter, breezier songs. In fact, the structure of this album is impeccable – rather than have a slow, interminable middle section, the majority of the LP goes by quickly. It’s bookended by the two marathon tracks, with preceding and ending tunes that make it neatly symmetrical.

Actually, disregarding the lyrics and the self-ripoffs of riffs, this may well be the most consistently audience-appealing and exciting rock opera of any era.

Commendably, American Idiot avoids another misstep concept albums commit: overextending songs ad nauseum. Not a single cut here overstays its welcome. They flirt occasionally with bombast and overproduction, but remain on the tasteful side for the most part. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” sounds a little too pompous, but the track itself is great, so that saves it. The last segment of “Homecoming” is a bit overblown too, but that’s about it.

It’s too bad – if Green Day had put a little more effort and imagination into this record’s plot, it might have been the ultimate story album. All in all, since the band bravely tried to revive a bloated old format, and partially succeeded, while making a modest artistic success into an earth-shattering blockbuster, their combination of relevance and creativity earns my respect. What really floors me, however, is the sheer power and conviction these compositions have, despite their noticeable imperfections.

 

MUSICAL COMPONENTS

At worst, the cognitive dissonance between the band’s vying musical ambitions can be just as blatant and inappropriate as their conceptual and thematic inconsistency. In some ways, AI is very dependably entertaining. However, its flaws lie imbedded in its concept and cast a shadow over every potentially incredible song. The record never stops being engaging and melodic simply to relay some plot or delve into symbolism, which is awesome. Then again, it periodically quits being engaging and melodic for other reasons, so it’s one step forward, two steps back, really.

While the middle stretch may be clunky on the lyrical front as it deals with the uneventful story, the music complementing it is excellent and very well developed.

For example, the applause-worthy “Letterbomb” delivers like the title implies: it has creative instrumental parts, another great vocal melody, disguises whatever redundant musical elements it contains, has a pretty good set of words, and on top of that, manages to gracefully advance the asinine narrative. What an achievement. It’s the album’s quintessential song if you want to know what it sounds like at its absolute best; “Holiday” is more indicative if you want to hear what it’s realistically capable of. Oh, and strictly on the “teen angst” tip, “Whatsername” is easily the album’s triumph. It shows restraint for once, is modestly inventive and well performed, and nails the melancholy solipsism I presume the whole LP was going for.

Other than those few, the quality of the music and lyrics tend to interact inversely on this set, so in general, when one is great, the other is forgettable or downright bad. This dichotomy complicates my feelings toward a lot of the tracks. “Give Me Novacaine” is a beautiful departure for Armstrong… that’s marred by trite, retarded lyrics. The aforementioned “Holiday” actually has some decent prose… as well as some of the most annoying riff recycling on the record.

Essentially, Green Day basically negates all their bold ideas with pandering to the lowest common denominator, as evidenced by “Extraordinary Girl”. A tantalizing tabla beat opens the song, broadening the possibilities for what this band can do. And then…? They ditch it completely and launch into a pretty normal sounding punk song. Why did they even bother hinting at something different if they weren’t going to pursue it? There are lots of dead ends like that on this LP, and I guess I’ll just have to enjoy the small, unfertilized seeds of innovation where I can find them.

The experimental segments are the best things here, because the group bravely ventures out of their three-chord rock comfort zone. By the same token, it’s even more frustrating when they vacillate between the two because they’re not confident enough to just leave an interesting acoustic song alone without inserting a generic “Rock out!” dynamic shift every few measures. The thing is, they needn’t have worried about boring their audience – the surprising parts are what make rock operas great. Here’s a clearer illustration of what I mean: rather than write a better, more captivating melody for the chorus of “Novacaine”, which had started excellently with an out-of-character balladeering verse, the band relies on volume and distortion as a crutch. I believe that Billie Joe has the talent to create something better than that, but he steps back and lets blunt, bland, overpolished riffs mar the song once it really gets going. There’s a time and place for everything, and things are rarely placed sensibly on American Idiot. I was enjoying the tune before they injected that needless spasm in there as if it were a nervous tic. They underestimate their fan base, thinking they need a headbanging break every three minutes. The loud parts are already there in the actual uptempo tracks! These dynamic shifts are so pointless and predictable sometimes, but I guess the result is better than if they’d gone to the opposite extreme, resulting in something boring and turgid.

On a positive note, when they commit to it, the band is surprisingly skillful and sophisticated at incorporating slightly different styles and instruments into the songs without making them too jarring or gimmicky. In fact, some of those departures are quite lovely and effective. But they’ve lost none of their vigor, which could explain the unnecessary roughing-up of the ballads. On the other hand, the intentionally upbeat songs really recall the group’s hyperactive early days. When they do spruce up old material, it’s some of the best self-plagiarism this side of AC/DC.

This music isn’t really pure punk either, another piece of false advertising on the group’s part. Sure, sometimes it’s fast paced and minimalistic, but it gives in to orchestral strains, acoustic guitars, double tracked vocals, and overdubs too much to be classified as such. Friends, what we have here is slick, predictable, anthemic FM rock in the vein of Bad Company or Foreigner. That’s not bad in and of itself, but it did strike me on the second listen how formulaic the structures of these songs are. Although punk is remembered as a rigidly structured genre, as far as I’ve heard it really isn’t. The Clash had crazy guitar interjections, weird surprise breakdowns, and vocals that raggedly approached the actual melody of the song. The Ramones’ compositions were, structurally speaking, quite hectic and complex! They’d take something like five different sections (I’m thinking specifically of “Chainsaw” here), and interchange them in a totally unpredictable way. And don’t even get me started on Wire! Holy crap, what an awesome band! Anyway, all this is to those groups’ credit – they took what was initially a very limited format, and made it breathe, opening it to creative possibilities.

Therefore, while true punk is unpredictable and on the verge of chaos, American Idiot is glossy and obvious. For the purposes of this release, that’s totally fine, but in relation to some of the more ingenious songwriters out there, these tunes pale in comparison. The whole record sounds excessively polished, but I’ve learned to appreciate it. The material works best as fun stadium rock, hence its impressive emotional power.

I guess I should say my piece about the musicians involved, while I’m on the subject. Drummer Tre Cool has always been talented, tossing off spastic fills in a not-quite-Keith-Moon way, but here, he only shines on a few tracks. Must have been on sedatives. Similarly, while the melodies are great in their own right, taken in context of the entire music world, some are really faceless, bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping hooks. Likewise, for large portions of the album, Billie Joe and Mike Dirnt play their instruments so mechanically, it seems like they’re not even trying. All three members only get memorable, distinctive parts for maybe half of the LP each. Armstrong’s faux-Cockney accent, which he really should abandon at his age and level of notoriety, is occasionally irritating and completely nonsensical, given the storyline. However, the vocal melodies and arrangements here are stellar, for the most part. Now that I’ve covered the assorted odds and ends, it’s time to discuss possibly the biggest problem American Idiot faces.

 

LYRICS

I am absolutely confident in this opinion: the words on this record are often simply abominable.

The lyrics are a series of overgeneralizations both metaphorical and political, just a bunch of easily recognizable tropes that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. In fact, they’re so bald-faced it’s a really thin line between the decent ones and the awful ones.

Even if some of the lines are purposely supposed to be bad, as I’ve proposed, it doesn’t quite excuse Billie Joe for having written them. I mean, the band’s goal is first and foremost to entertain, and the lyrics prove to be a stumbling block for my personal enjoyment.

First of all, Armstrong sacrifices the pleasure of a deftly written verse to awkwardly “fix” everything so it rhymes to a tee. Thus, his prose is disjointed, incoherent, nonlinear and sometimes grammatically incorrect to the extreme (“I’m the patron saint of the denial/With an angel face and a taste for suicidal” sounds like it was translated to Chinese and back, for God’s sake). A good chunk of the LP is a mish-mash of blunt, bungled statements not unlike those of the President they were excoriating. Clarity and conventional sentence fluency are neglected just to throw in another lame pun; to pick one off the top of my head, “I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies”. Stuff like that is inept and unprofessional, and distracts me from the sometimes-great music.

Pick three random lines from this record. I can damn near guarantee you that one of them will be a legitimate statement of political discourse, however simplistic. The other two, in stark contrast, will merely be threadbare, nonsensical similes or phrases to establish just how dangerous these guys are, man, for realz! I mean, they fight the establishment and include an awkward reference to it in every stanza! Who’s ever done anything like that? Especially when all this talk about how socially radical they are takes up all the space so that they barely have room to actually say anything socially radical. Convenient, isn’t it? It’s fitting that although this is supposedly a narrative told from some fictional character’s perspective, it seems like Billie Joe himself is making all these blunt, airheaded first-person observations.

The text of this LP comes across like the uninformed ramblings of belligerent brats who think they’re being geniuses of prose. Predictable rhyme after predictable rhyme uses clumsy, boring symbolism and stock metaphors that are forced and contrived. Also, they get shoehorned in so frequently at inopportune times that some don’t make literal sense when you decipher them. “Sitting on my crucifix”? “Holy scriptures of a shopping mall”? A “hurricane of f**king lies”? “To live and not to breathe is to die”? Well, that one’s just stupid. And, pray tell, what the hell is the “light of masochist”? That’s a muddled metaphor if I’ve ever heard one. “Falling rain coming down like an Armageddon flame”? They don’t know what words mean, do they? Oh! Here’s one I’ve always been particularly pestered by: “My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating.” WHAT THE HELL ELSE ON A HUMAN BEING WOULD BE BEATING? Could you please learn how to speak English and/or comprehend basic biology?!? Jeez! 

Hahahaha, okay, this one slays me. I never noticed this until now. It’s doesn’t even seem like a poor decision made by an adult; it’s more like a well-intentioned verse written by a clueless seven-year-old. By that I mean it’s hard to fault him for this particular stanza – it’s so dumb, it goes from regrettable to just pitiful. “I walk a lonely road…” “I walk alone.” Thanks, but I think you clarified that already. “I’m the only one and I walk alone.” Wow. Just wow. So you say you’re the only one and you’re alone? You just blew my mind. Actually, go read the lyrics to “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”. Apart from a brief second verse segment with more banal “nobody understands me” crap, that sentiment of being alone is THE ONLY THING HE MANAGES TO CONVEY IN THE WHOLE SONG. Seriously, that’s just so bad I can’t even be mad at him. It’s hilarious.

There’s even a nihilistic section in “I Don’t Care” where Armstrong endlessly repeats “I don’t care if you don’t care” to the extent that it’s no longer meaningful or pointed. And it’s true: at that point, neither the writer nor the listener gives a flying you-know-what about the words. It’s an accidentally profound case of self-actualizing prose.

Sometimes the lyrics are serviceable (and on occasion they’re very good), but as you can see, they’re a very mixed bag that frequently mars the proceedings. Well, I’ve examined every angle I can think of, and I’m still not any closer to deciphering this ramshackle behemoth. I guess I should just wrap things up.

 

CONCLUSION

Since I’m predisposed to like white-guy rock (rock operas in particular), I have additional reason to forgive American Idiot some of its shortcomings. I’ll admit that it was a watershed in 2000s pop, even though that status was undeserved. Half of the lyrics, the occasionally boring melodies and the periodic mood of overblown posturing make this record hard for me to enjoy, even though it’s probably the freshest, most accessible story album ever. And then there’s the whole plagiarism factor to consider. I could go back and forth on its merits all day and I’d still be indecisive about just how much I like it. It’s definitely affecting and fun in all its brazen, schizophrenic, big, dumb glory, but you’d have to tune out a lot of stupid mistakes to really get the most out of it.

Hopefully, this unnecessarily long review helped you see that there are many ways to judge a record. Frankly, I’m quite torn on what to give this one. You could consider it in the context of its forebears, and in that sense, it only gets a ***. In relation to the rest of the band’s oeuvre, it gets a *****, because it’s that much better in comparison. In terms of how it works as a standalone LP, it would get a **** from me. And yet, I desperately want to give American Idiot a high grade; not to conform, but because beneath all its irritating missteps, this is a genuinely entertaining work. So I’ll be kind and give it a **** overall, if only out of admiration for all the ambitious ideas they half-heartedly tossed in here. But before they release another arrogant, focus-grouped mess like 21st Century Breakdown appears to be, Green Day needs to take a step back and seriously ask themselves one question:

Does a band with integrity wear eyeliner?

 

 

THE GREY ALBUM – I don’t have any idea who the heck to credit this to; Danger Mouse, I guess.

(Self-released)

**

There’s something about this that’s so grey, it’s like, how much more grey could this be? And the answer is none. None more grey.

What More Can I Say\99 Problems\My 1st Song

Public Service Announcement

 

This record has all the same weaknesses and strengths as Night Ripper (I realize that review comes later, but read it then and you’ll understand). Especially since they both came out around the same time, they were sort of equally historically important for introducing mashups to the public. In a move that can be crassly described as a copyright attorney’s wet dream, Danger Mouse used unauthorized samples from the Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album, intermixed with his own unimpeachable flair, to create a technically new piece of work. I guess The Grey Album was primarily made to highlight the universality of music and establish a new legend among old ones, but it only works sporadically. The samples are so minimal and repetitive that it’s hard to justify their use completely. This album has an uphill battle to fight to validate its existence, beyond merely proving something like this could be done.

Thankfully, Danger Mouse brings more than a modicum of his own artistic ambition to the project. I’ll give him one thing – his production work here is infinitely more than just playing an instrumental version of a Beatles song in the background of a cappella verses. At his best, he chops and screws the Fab Four’s classics so that they uncannily resemble hip-hop beats. Then again, sometimes he gets lazy and doesn’t do much to them. I appreciate that at least the loops aren’t from the obvious huge hits that everyone knows; there are some obscure tunes used here. Brian Burton (Danger Mouse’s real name) mercifully clips and trims Carter’s rhymes down as well, shortening tracks and sticking with some of their best parts.

It’s not quite exclusively Beatles music – two other samples from the original Black Album remain. Speaking of which, I find it hard to believe these sonic elements are all culled from the songs credited. For example, even though the pieces of “Julia” are manipulated here so as to be almost unrecognizable, there were no drums on that song, yet they’re present in Burton’s version. Violating your own parameters already, Danger Mouse? That’s unfortunate.

It honestly is pretty interesting to hear how the Liverpudlian originals have been stripped. This would have gotten The Grey Album ** 1/2, if not for one serious problem. Normally, rap utilizes other musicians’ samples. No matter how ingeniously they’re used, this removes the performer themselves from half of what comprises the composition. On this album, Danger Mouse thought of an “innovation” that wasn’t welcome or needed – he eliminated the artist’s influence from the other side of the equation as well.

Final tally: Half a star for its theoretical originality. Half a star for the novelty of listening to it once and once only. Half a star out of sympathy for the talented Danger Mouse and the effort he put into deconstructing these tunes. Half a star for the songs’ quality when considered separately (no matter that they’re worse when combined).

Long story short, Paul’s Boutique is still the jaw-dropping last word on how samples can be intelligently used to make art of their own (although I hear Endtroducing….. does that pretty well too). Burton still needs to beef up his résumé before he can measure up to those titans, and I wish him luck in doing so. The practice of sampling as a creative outlet, however, has an even longer way to go before it reaches respectability.

 

 

 

MADVILLAINY – Madvillain

(Stones Throw)

**** 1/2

No more heroes.

Meat Grinder\Money Folder\Figaro

Other than the instrumentals and intro, Shadows Of Tomorrow

 

With two artists like MF DOOM and Madlib, Madvillainy couldn’t be anything but an extraordinary record. In a move even the most progressive rappers dare not try, this entire LP was produced by one individual. Although there are four or five guests here, those two are the predominant musicians.

Their album is lyrically and narratively dense. There’s no need for clumsy, foolish refrains here, so they dispense with them. This is certainly an artistic statement rather than a commercial one. It starts with an indulgent mythologizing track using a sample to explain the group’s back story. Then the voice of the duo is heard.

MF DOOM is a total original, which is what rap desperately needs. He’s not afraid to speak as an individual, warts and all. He can also be a dedicated storyteller who’s uncompromising, but not overly dark and serious. The guy is laid back and insistent, delivering everything in a mannered monotone because he’s certain that the words will impress nonetheless. His mind-bending rhymes upon rhymes are almost song enough by themselves.

DOOM’s lyrics are sort of related to common hip-hop tropes, in a roundabout way, but he avoids any and all clichés involved with those themes, constructing a surreal, intriguing worldview with his loquacious, authoritative voice. It’s really quite laudable, as even Outkast is given to the occasional name brand drop or bragging song. Not to be outdone, he goes far beyond those topics, stringing together more mature musings in his stream of consciousness.

There are tons of references packed into each track that give it character and add to the detail of its story, and the Masked MC is always balancing a delicate, ever-changing rhyme scheme. He packs in mad wordplay and the odd joke as well. Even for my highest-rated rap albums, I wouldn’t think of listening to most of them without a lyrics sheet. But his flow is so insane, it’s impressive and noticeable even if you’re playing it as background music. (The same goes for The Mouse And the Mask, and in the review for that record I’ll probably repeat some of these points.)

But let’s not forget about the man (mostly) supporting this poet: hip-hop veteran Madlib. His style sounds exactly like Danger Mouse, except more rustic and with a lot of interesting dialogue samples. But I won’t complain or claim that he’s ripping off his peers, because as long as musically intricate rap like this gets made, I’m happy. The more, the better. (In fact, I’m pretty sure Lib predates Mouse, so yeah.)

Yet his music is dry and understated and becomes too predictable after a while. Beyond the samples he uses, he puts a lot of white noise and small percussion effects in each song, but that doesn’t help to differentiate them. Although his clips are unusual and crisp, there’s not quite enough supporting them. Despite this, every track has a distinct identity and mood that owes as much to the melody as it does to the structure.

Lib finds some obscure loops, which are always preferable to samples from already omnipresent songs. To his credit, there are a striking number of dialogue samples on this album, but they’re never extraneous or self-aggrandizing; they’re usually relevant to the subject at hand and placed at the end of a tune so as not to get in the way.

There are interstitial intros to some tracks which are quite musical, but that unfortunately doesn’t always carry over to the song itself. That said, the group’s really old-school music still wins me over. It’s very reminiscent of the loping, understated, throwback beats of early Nineties hip-hop. Moving Madvillain even further into the realm of auteur theory, there are a few instrumental tracks here, meant to promote the primacy and importance of the backing music. Needless to say, this is a forward-thinking move. Ultimately, Madvillainy’s saving grace is that its tunes are all extremely short and almost all of them work in the moment. So there’s the fact that in comparison to the rest of the genre, this slightly flawed experiment is still an outstanding achievement.

“Bistro” pokes fun at and validates the jumbled ensemble nature of rap records by presenting the album as an upper-class cabaret show while introducing the night’s talent. “America’s Most Blunted” is well done, but regrettably insists that the duo’s creativity was entirely due to marijuana. “Accordion” has the most distinct arrangement here, and “Figaro” has especially superlative lyrics. I won’t go track-by-track, but rest assured that each one has its own cool touches.

Madvillainy’s structure is unpredictable and dynamic. Songs go off in radical new directions for the genre, have some tightly focused and cleverly delivered ideas, and end precisely when they need to. With an average of just over two breathless minutes per tune, they cover a lot of ground in a reasonable forty-six minutes (since I’m fond of analogies, I guess they’d be the Pixies of rap). Other ambitious MCs make skits that have the same length as songs; Madvillain makes songs that are as short and frenetic as skits. They’re hectic and spontaneous, but only in the service of a larger, more artful purpose. It feels like free-form futzing and carefully constructed collage all at once. There are some really awesome compositional ideas here and there that I don’t want to spoil for you. I can see what the duo was going for with this project, and even though they didn’t quite reach it, the fact that they tried and came so close deserves a **** 1/2 (with the hip-hop handicap, that is).

 

 

THE NEW DANGER – Mos Def

(Geffen)

*** 1/2

…With the old sound.

Ghetto Rock\Close Edge\The Panties

Bedstuy Parade & Funeral March or Modern Marvel

 

Pardon me if this is pedantic or obvious, but it’s time for a history lesson. Back in the day, the electric guitar and the blues music it produced was the domain of African Americans. That style belonged to them, and white people bastardized and capitalized upon it, just like they did with a lot of Afrocentric culture. Eventually, blacks moved on and claimed hip-hop as their territory, and of course white people had to have in on that too.

After fifty years of white-dominated rock, Mos Def aimed to take the mantle back, assembling an all-African-American, honest-to-goodness rock band named Black Jack Johnson. It was ostensibly a bunch of black dudes who wanted to righteously jam their way into history. This was a surprisingly original move, even though you’d think someone would have come up with the idea by that point. Now, crossing rock with rap was nothing new. But mixing traditional blues music and rap had rarely, if ever, been attempted before to this degree, and it produces some distinctive results. Def seems like he’s actively experimenting with the concept as the record goes on. The brilliance behind the album’s premise is enough to compensate for some of its weaker material.

Because I’ll warn you now, The New Danger is one of those sprawling, indulgent affairs. It fills all the parameters of the archetypal expansive, encyclopedic LP: it’s a varied work, covering a ton of moods, perspectives and styles. The auteur theory (look it up or wait for me to explain it in my review of The Ecstatic) is in nearly full effect here, with Mos assuming control over the songs’ focus, music and message. All his excesses and extremes pull in opposite directions and cancel each other out. For every long-winded epic, there’s a punchy, lightning-quick fragment. Every moment of somewhat ill-fitting anger has an equal and opposite moment of sorta perplexing romanticism. There are random, inane verbal interjections before and after the verses, as well as a charming and disarming deference of any success to Mos’ deity of choice at record’s end. Rootsy, basic rhythms exist alongside lush, baroque ballads. Out of all the rappers I’ve ever heard trying to sing, Mos Def is the best. He also covers the emotional palette better than almost any other MC. He truly sounds and writes like a spokesperson of the lower classes, the urban lifestyle, and the black experience (without getting too self-righteous about it, of course).

If The New Danger’s overindulgences are defensible in any sense, it’s because they support the aforementioned auteur theory: studios or other parties manipulating these songs for their needs wouldn’t stretch them out nearly this much. Mos does because he’s in control and doesn’t give a crap. He does whatever he feels like; this is a stream-of-consciousness recording.

The main problem here is repetition rather than pretension. A good guitar line will get lengthened too much, or a dull chorus might get sung too many times. It’s easy to tell when Def does filler. He’ll pad a track with flat, uninteresting, conversational clichés, and then out of nowhere, deliver an excellent observation that could only have come from him. The music will be a thin groove with the occasional riff, then the next composition will be really intelligent and rich, and the previous song’s deficiency becomes even more obvious. Yet it paradoxically works so much better as a full record – just taking one random tune by itself out of context would probably be unremarkable. They all accumulate, making a surprisingly solid overall experience. Sure, Danger has its flaws, but possibly its most praiseworthy success is that it has no skits or interludes of any kind. That seems like such a small thing, but it does wonders for the merit of the artwork as a whole.

Everything here is organic and constructed from the ground up, which I appreciate. I never thought it would be that nice to hear a no-frills hip-hop drum part played by a real person until it actually happened, and then it was just one more thing to like about this LP. Although the band is skilled, they sometimes aren’t given enough to do. Instead, their live performance ends up sounding like any other hook being sampled and looped by a DJ. Additionally, the hard rock parts can be a little ham-handed, but it’s a far more natural and seamless combination of rock and rap than Linkin Park and their kin.

The New Danger is more like a Funkadelic or Sly And the Family Stone record than a modern hip-hop release – black culture is a key ingredient to it, but the music isn’t race-exclusive. Genre matters less than expression. Since rap was created, that sort of communal music has fallen by the wayside and it’s incredibly inspiring that Mos has taken up its cause again. It’s a ponderous, groove-centric album that doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself or which direction to go, but the thrill of being in unfamiliar territory is part of the fun. Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele probably has more content and complexity second-by-second than this confounding disc, but that one basically sticks to hip-hop’s formula and prototypes. The New Danger makes a point of breaking free from virtually every one of them, which is just as laudable, in my eyes.

There’s no shortage of entertainment value here, to be sure: “The Rape Over” is a statement of audacity and bravery the likes of which has rarely been attempted since Plastic Ono Band. It condemns everyone and everything in the rap industry in a brutal and completely honest ninety seconds. “Blue Black Jack” is a traditional blues jam, “The Panties” is a stunning soul ballad, and “The Beggar” is a shocking primal scream at the end of the marathon. My thoughts on the album’s freakishly long epic “Modern Marvel” could probably be applied to the record at large: although it may not be totally satisfactory, its scope, ambition and singularity make it something really intriguing and cool that you should probably listen to. I mean, the song is just Mos singing melancholy lyrics for three minutes with no beat or anything, and then a basic rhythm comes in for another three minutes while he recites a list with more harmonizing on top, and finally the actual hip-hop part unfolds and it’s quite melodic. Mos Def is determined to be out of the ordinary, and although his music isn’t always top-notch, that attitude is hard to hate.

 

 

REJOICING IN THE HANDS – Devendra Banhart

(Young God)

* 1/2

I’ve heard demo CDs from high-school bands that are more sonically awe-inspiring than this.

This Is the Way\A Sight To Behold\This Beard Is For Siobhan

See Saw

 

Though their aesthetic and style is similar, there are some key factors that make Devendra Banhart more endearing to me than Sufjan Stevens:

1. He’s not as pretentious.

2. He’s more diverse.

3. He’s less stoically serious.

4. His stuff is catchier and generally more uptempo.

5. His quirky mannerisms seem more natural than Stevens’ forced, artificial cutesiness.

6. He writes generally better melodies than Sufjan.

Numbers 2, 3, 4, and 6 go out the window on Rejoicing In the Hands. This is coffeehouse singer-songwriter music at its most homogenous, stripped-down and banal. There’s almost nothing to this album. It’s emaciated and provides precious little to get excited about; its soundscapes are unadorned and dull, for the most part. There’s nothing striking or memorably dense like the stylistic experiments of Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, but at least there aren’t any blatant failures or overbearing conceits. If I gleaned anything from this release, it’s that Devendra’s vocalizations and tics sometimes get downright annoying and they’re totally unnecessary.

More than perhaps any record I’ve listened to for this project, every track on Rejoicing sounds exactly the same. They’re inseparable and indistinguishable, and the instrumentation is almost entirely acoustic. Thankfully, it’s a very humble, manageable album, good for a quick listen (if you’re into boring songs, that is). The tunes are lightweight, brisk and not anything like the thick, towering compositions of Thunder Canyon. This LP has some very faintly tropical elements, but overall, it’s the auditory equivalent of oatmeal.

On Thunder Canyon, Banhart sounds like a wise hippie; here, he sounds like a hallucinating crackpot. (It’s a fine line, really.) He’s up to his usual romantic and mystical metaphors, suggesting a general theme of yearning and spirituality. He doesn’t forget his penchant for surreal imagery, either! “This Beard Is For Siobhan” is the most lyrically indulgent and awkwardly silly tune here, with his trademark warbly singing style (see “downright annoying, unnecessary vocals”, above), but it has a memorable music hall melody and turns slightly upbeat at the end, which distinguishes and redeems it completely.

Meh. Rejoicing In the Hands taught me that bad albums aren’t just the result of the presence of negative qualities; they can be caused by the total absence of good ones as well.

 

 

RUBBER FACTORY – the Black Keys

(Fat Possum)

****

[Joke about a condom assembly line]

Aeroplane Blues\10 A.M. Automatic\‘Till I Get My Way

Girl Is On My Mind

 

In 2004, the Black Keys’ career was representative of most garage and indie bands, from a certain perspective: even though they’re frequently quite good, they’re almost never transcendent or important; it’s perfectly okay to enjoy them on their own terms, but compared to the all-time greats, they look positively wimpy; and they’re reliable, yet never put forth a statement of purpose.

On Rubber Factory, their music is also mostly unambitious – this record’s linearity is a far cry from the busy, skewed blues of Attack And Release. Sure, there’s enough melody in each track to sustain it, but again I have to stress that this sounds like a one-off band formed by two guys to entertain themselves on the weekend. These are humble, thrown-together tunes in the played-out blues tradition to which they bring just enough life to make it worth your time. I guess the word I’m looking for is inauspicious… very inauspicious. That in and of itself isn’t a demerit against any work, but it does make it harder to differentiate from the crowd and tougher to recommend. If Factory were bolder and more intricate, it would easily place higher on my list, since it’s certainly entertaining enough to warrant a top score. But I’m judging it as is, so I must describe its flaws for a bit longer.

The regrettable thing about the Keys’ soul-revival sound is that they recreate that genre’s formulaic, repetitive and sparse writing style, resulting in prose that’s less than incredible. In other words, the lyrics are perfunctory here. But with those low expectations, it’s hard to be disappointed in them, especially since they’re perfectly competent and modest.

With such an archetypal format, it’s no surprise that the Black Keys blaze through a few unoriginal melodies. “10 A.M. Automatic”, for example, has an extremely derivative main riff whose origin I can’t quite place. However, though they use the same blues changes and sounds you’ve heard before, they commendably broaden those elements, including surprisingly solid vocal melodies, constantly changing drum work and distinctive, lively guitar playing with plenty of flair. Their songs are filled with character, and they have such a knack for playing off of and complimenting each other that all the tracks sound like exciting, raw live performances by two pros (yeah, I said earlier that they sound like two random guys in a one-off band, but let’s assume those two undevoted dudes are surprisingly talented).

Rubber Factory is a bit too samey, with some songs ripping off parts from earlier tunes. It has a similar problem to Blacklisted, in that it sounds like a rousing collection of covers without a distinct personality behind it. But it’s also undemanding, approachable and catchy, which are three key attributes good rock records have. Furthermore, unlike Nick Cave, the Decemberists, and a few others, the Black Keys are modern practitioners of an antiquated style who have no problem fitting into the current era and incorporating it into their work.

There’s a surprisingly clever use of material on “The Lengths” when the rootsy duo turn what could have been a standard blues pattern into a weepy, textured ballad. On “Stack Shot Billy”, they come up with a riff I shouldn’t especially like considering it’s probably another stolen cliché, but I’m impressed nonetheless. They continue to shape up on the second half of the LP with a really awesome Kinks cover (“Act Nice And Gentle”). Their escalating improvement is noticeable, almost as if you’re witnessing the band maturing and learning as they go, or just trying to match the greatness of the cover with their own compositions. The last song, “’Till I Get My Way”, is one that stands up and demands to be noticed. It’s not just a soulful homage conducted in admiration of their idols; it’s a tune with purpose and drive, as well as a killer guitar part. It helps that it’s also a bit more rocking and nuanced than a lot of the offerings here. By the end of the album, these Akron journeymen finally find their voice.

The degree to which the Black Keys succeed on Rubber Factory depends entirely on context – if you saw them performing in a bar on a whim, they would seem relatively awesome and talented. But placed against the artistically ambitious world of modern rock musicians who actually care about innovation, they’re only a footnote (at least, at this stage of their career they were). Even though it’s ultimately pretty unremarkable in today’s climate, if listened to in a cultural vacuum, Factory is an excellent record. As it is, it’s totally benign and lots of fun, so I’ll give it a generous ****. The blues are dead… long live the blues.

 

 

SUNG TONGS – Animal Collective

(Fat Cat)

**

Dude, Animal Collective just needs to stop. Seriously.

College\Who Could Win A Rabbit\Kids On Holiday

Visiting Friends

 

Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. You have to have some sort of reason. In the context of morality, this principle is what keeps you from urinating on your pet’s face, plucking out your parent’s eyes and dancing naked through the streets reciting King Lear backwards. In music, this principle is what keeps you from writing songs the way Animal Collective does.

Upon listening to Sung Tongs, I felt the need to stop almost thirty seconds into the first song and enumerate all the sins of tastelessness these morons had already committed. First off, there’s a distractingly artificial and digital clipped guitar loop being cycled over some faceless beat. But why? Because that’s something expressive and unique that’s never been done before? No, that can’t be. I’ve heard a similarly modified riff used to infinitely more artful and catchy effect in the Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” two years earlier. Then, the vocalist draws out and again digitally manipulates the end of every line in the track. Why? Is this so the tune is distinct and memorable? Well, I’ll sure remember it afterward for sounding forced, unnatural, trite and generally asinine. Mission accomplished. Very soon afterward, the snobs behind this sonic abortion felt their grating, affected and useless harmonies (which are digitally manipulated and dumb-sounding, as if you couldn’t guess) deserved more attention and time in the composition. So they drop out the beat and continue them uninterrupted, fruitlessly spinning their wheels and wasting your time as a listener. Why? To make bracing, challenging art that redefines one’s preconceived notions? Probably not, and if that was their goal, they could have accomplished it in a far more tolerable manner. Even though those irritating pitch-altered voices sound profoundly retarded, once the listener recognizes they’ve begun, we can write them off and wait for the next promising idea. Unfortunately, the arrogant artistes of AC placed too much stock in their own stupid foppery, and thought it wise to continue the harmonies for an insulting amount of time. Why? To establish a hook or rhythm? No, it establishes nothing other than the fact that Animal Collective are clueless nimrods. The motive behind all the “Why?”s is this: these artistically bankrupt fools try to use goofy noises to compensate for good melodies, which they couldn’t possibly write.

Sung Tongs isn’t as robotic and psychedelic as Merriweather Post Pavilion, but it’s paradoxically far less inviting, and its slightly organic nature makes these despicable stunts all the more noticeable. The “twelve minutes of your life wasted” epic song here is so subtle and innocuous in its utter putridness that I almost failed to notice how bad it actually was because I had already stopped paying attention. Oh, did I mention that AC’s lyrics are as insipid and pointless as their music? At least they were consistent on that front.

Okay, so the album is a passably diverting listen the first time through if only for its ridiculous, senseless showboating qualities. But there’s nothing here that holds up as an actual composition except for “Kids On Holiday”. That one’s pretty good for some reason, perhaps because it has an actual melody and it tones things the hell down for once.

Sung Tongs (and Animal Collective’s work in general) is songwriting as a disgusting, last-ditch attempt at notoriety coming from a hacky group without any dignity or idea what they’re doing. It will sonically piss on your face to get your attention. Why? Because iouw89t4dfijrueghfjk oitelpyoijrwfosdiurjwkflsdopk, that’s why.

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