by carl wilson

A Dozen Hits & Misses from the Pazz & Jop Comments Pages

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Not exactly.

1. Arcade Fire are an outsize collective of Canuck multi-instrumentalists advertising the superiority of on top of everything else their country's music education system. - Will Hermes, Saugerties, New York

Thanks, Will - although, to be fair, some of the main Arcade Fires didn't actually grow up in this northern Shangri-La. Don't worry, though, music education is falling apart here, too, right on schedule, under the standard pressures of tax-slashing American economic competition.

2. SMiLE made end-times feel sunny and bright. The bootlegs were hopelessly fractured, soaked in lysergic despair and permanent midnight, muffled with generational white noise. That it was supposed to be about laughter and dumb angels was never quite clear until Wilson and medics (and lackeys) put Humpty Dumpty together again. - Andy Beta, Brooklyn, New York

Since when do "laughter and dumb angels" make better music than "lysergic despair and ... generational white noise"? Allow me to add a coda to the nursery rhyme: "We liked Humpty's visions when he was smashed to bits/ More than his old-aged symphonies for new-age twits."

3. [...] TV on the Radio keep the rage at a slow simmer as they cast an evil eye upon the hypocritical stars who make bank from pop based in hip-hop and soul while they flaunt diamonds mined by African slave labor and traded with terrorists. - A.S. Van Dorston, Chicago, Illinois

TV on the Radio apparently have a hate-on for Paul Simon.

4. How did we think popular music was going to undermine Bush's emotional appeal to the macho bluster at the core of our national identity when it's popular music that's always reinforced the macho bluster at the core of our national identity? -Rob Tannenbaum, Manhattan

Yeah, that's what I hate most about them Dixie Chicks.

5. I'm pretty sure that how one feels about Big & Rich is how one feels about America. Me, I kind of like them a lot, but more for their potential and what they represent (expansiveness! generosity! inclusiveness!) than for their actuality (too many stereotypes! too many damn songs about Jesus!). - Matt Cibula, Madison, Wisconsin

I think I actually prefer Big & Rich to America - for instance, it would be kind of fun if Big & Rich started setting up puppet states within other bands. They could start slow by invading Brooks & Dunn and then make a pre-emptive strike on Death Cab for Cutie.

6. All of my favorite records this year seem to be about exile: the Fiery Furnaces' narrator dragooned into the Bombay army, the Thermals praying for a new state, M.I.A. captive somewhere in the Amazon, Arthur Russell's big gay heart calling out of context, the Homosexuals' big gray hearts in exile. This does not mean I'm moving to Canada. - Douglas Wolk, Portland, Oregon

But why, Douglas? We would appreciate you more here! We've been keeping an igloo fat-insulated for you, with the complete Dog-Faced Hermans discography on the sound system.

7. A band of Boulder, Colorado, high schoolers called Coalition of the Willing raised a stink with their version of "Masters of War." A local right-wing radio show claimed that Dylan's lyrics constituted a threat on the president's life. Thus the Secret Service swooped in to interview the principal, who, despite the pressure, allowed the Coalition to play the song at the school talent show. - Steve Terrell, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Uh, holy shit. Is this the first time a high-school principal has ever stood up for free expression?

8. Gretchen Wilson is just like the gangsta rappers: still proud of her roots. Even if she isn't what she sings of anymore, she can still strike a nerve. - Jason Gross, Manhattan

In a few short words, Jason blows Christgau's snooty authenticist remarks about Wilson in his P&J; intro essay outta the water. ("Authenticist" is the first draft of my efforts to come up with a better alternative to "rockist" in 2005. Not catchy enough yet, obviously. "Real-ist" is better but doesn't work out loud. I'll let you know. Xgau's essay is, by the way, a laboratory case of nostalgia-in-denial.)

9. Mr. Jones has recognized that there is no greater subject than the psyche of a man at the moment he realizes he is one. - Nelson George, Brooklyn, New York

The "Mr. Jones" in question is Nasir Jones, aka Nas. Somethin's happenin' here, and the venerable Mr. George nails it more than he realizes: That's what's good about the album but also what's awful about it - its lionization of the psyche of a man rather than a human being, and a man whose self-realization includes fantasies of stitching dead women together into "a perfect bitch."

10. Like Social Security, "the album" is always in a phony state of near-death crisis, and in both cases prognoses are generally delivered by parties who can barely contain their glee. Well, call me a crank, but I don't want to figure out how to weave my own personal old-age safety net, and I don't want to spend an hour every day downloading music onto my iPod. - Keith Harris, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Yeah, of course you don't, you're a music critic. You want to get your free music in the mail with a flattering letter. For most music buyers, downloading is more like a social service, and buying music is more like workfare - you have to spend your own money getting there and back, and at the end of the day you've usually just been picking up other people's garbage.

11. Iris DeMent's Lifeline is the missing chapter of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? Her desperate take on white gospel hymns matches R.H. Harris or Aretha and advances Frank's argument safely past his recycled version of the old left false-consciousness theory. - Tom Smucker, Manhattan

I made a similar parallel between Frank's book and the Drive-By Truckers (and Allison Moorer, and Big & Rich, among others), though Smucker smacks the false-consciousness ball out of the theme park. Later I discussed DeMent in a similar context, but I think the political book to compare LifeLines to wouldn't be by Thomas Frank but by George Lakoff or Jim Wallis.

12. Kanye West created a space where Common and Jay-Z could both exist without sacrificing values or flow. West is willfully working-class and, wisely, spends much of his record exploring the desperation that underlies hip-hop's vigorous materialism. So Common can be his cool, preachy self and Jigga can rap his own glittering praises, and both are in sync with Kanye. This more than his religiosity separates West from the pack of more agile MCs. No one else in hip-hop seems to want to admit they ever had a real 9-to-5. - Nelson George, Brooklyn, New York

Now that's why Nelson George is a hero. (If he'd had more space I'm sure he'd have added that that's working-class as opposed to the standard rap out-caste/lumpen/underclass. He means working class, that is, in the sense of what North Americans euphemistically and deceptively refer to as "middle class.")

Britney bonus round:

"Toxic" is the last great Britney song before she loses that taut stomach and puts out her collection of Louisiana-kissed baby lullabies. It was fun, girl, er, woman. - Caryn Brooks, Brooklyn, New York

I can't remember if I came/When I read about her latest flame/Britney up and changed her name/The day the music died/So bye-bye, Mrs. Kevin Federline/Our libidos and our Cheetos will forever be thine/And Cameron was choppin' Justin a line/Singin', Hit me baby, one more time/Hit me baby, one more time. - Rob Sheffield, Brooklyn, New York

Alt-country's red-state blues

By CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
Saturday, September 11, 2004
The Globe & Mail

It's the bitter kind of twist you'd expect at the end of a country song, where a guy finally gets sober, only to watch his wife take off with his best friend: "Alt-country" music got its biggest endorsement ever this week, but the source made the genre look as redundant as an auto worker whose job has taken a swift boat to China.

Republican image czar Mark McKinnon told The New York Times that George W. Bush's official campaign soundtrack is "heavy on alternative country . . . 'a little rockier, a little jazzier, a little funkier' than traditional country."

The news left alt-country fans in a funk of their own. After all, the particular fusion of sizzle and twang called alt-country was forged in the early-1990s recession that sank Dubya's dad.

Critic David Cantwell called bands such as the Bottle Rockets, the Old 97s, Son Volt and Wilco "children of Detroit City" -- rust-belt kids vexed at how Middle America was battered by Bush Sr.'s New World Order. They intuited that when the factory shuts, the family splits, you live in a cancer cluster and only Wal-Mart is hiring, it's not so different than when the farm goes bust in a classic country song: Hearts spring leaks and whisky stanches the wounds.

These days you could call it the Red State Blues. The Republicans' vampire kiss to alt-country is part of their dumbfounding claim to be the party of heartland values, even as they help corporations cut off the heartland's blood supply.

Thomas Frank addresses this paradox in his controversial book, What's the Matter with Kansas?: Why does his working-class home state keep voting for candidates who cut taxes for the rich instead of fixing health care? He blames Democrats for failing to answer a right-wing "values" strategy that rails about gay marriage or school prayer to bind voters' loyalties against their own class interests.

In that context, Republican alt-country is as odd as conservative punk -- as The Daily Show put it, "raging for the machine."

Alt-country used to prompt amazing discussions: Where was the line between appropriating tradition and mocking it? How far could hybrids go before a culture lost its identity? What about race, or populism? It seems so Clinton-era now -- all that empathy, dialogue and synthesis. After the terrorist attacks, fans began retreating to their preferred sides of the hyphen, back to indie rock or deeper into country. Like the U.S. electorate, they became polarized.

The genre's ironic juxtapositions of past and postmodern Americana now seemed all too relevant. You had to be with America or against it. Alt-country was both. How could it survive when even the Dixie Chicks were too ambivalent to tolerate? As Nashville refugee Allison Moorer laments in her song All Aboard, "Some restrictions do apply/ Watch your mouth and close your eyes."

Moorer is one of several performers with alt-country connections marking this Sept. 11 north of the border. She opens for the Drive-By Truckers at the Horseshoe in Toronto tonight; tomorrow at Lee's Palace, it's the Old 97s and Chuck Prophet.

Call them dinosaurs, but this year a funny thing happened on the way to the tar pits: Something a lot like alt-country surfaced in the mainstream, from names as big as Brooks & Dunn and Kid Rock -- who both played last week's Republican convention. Rock, a genuine son of Detroit who headlines at the Molson Amphitheatre tonight, adapted his rap-metal 'tude to a country mood. He even partnered with Moorer on the country-radio version of his hit, Picture.

Fresher still are Gretchen Wilson's No. 1 single Redneck Woman and Big & Rich's debut album, Horse of a Different Color, which has just gone gold in Canada. Like many 1990s alt-country bands, they draw on Southern-rock stalwarts like Lynyrd Skynyrd, and are more blunt and sarcastic than Nashville usually allows.

Big & Rich offer up goofy summer jams that could flow equally smoothly into classic rock, Outkast and other "dirty South" hip-hop or the latest four-square country by Tim McGraw - who toured with them this summer, along with their six-foot-four, black rapper Cowboy Troy. They fly under the banner of "country music without prejudice" or, more playfully, "expandilism."

Country and hip-hop today are both reliant on big beats, gruff machismo, sass-talking ladies, partying and wordplay, while respecting God and the old school, and most of all representing where they come from - often the same, deep-Southern place. Yet there persists a knee-jerk assumption that there is a Hip-Hop America and a Country America and they hate each other.

Tastemakers are comfortable with such demographic divides - black versus white, or blue versus red, giving everybody someone to resent. It helps them overlook the real colour line, the one described by Democrat John Edwards's "two Americas" - access to green.

If alt-country never caught the have-nots' ears, perhaps it wasn't eclectic enough. Big & Rich's success shows how many people are out there wearing Snoop Dogg shirts and Charlie Daniels caps, smoking blunts and blasting Zeppelin. You won't sense any of that on the first album in three years by alt-country's one-time great pop hopes, Texas's Old 97s.

Reviewers have called Drag It Up a homecoming, but it sounds as if home was gone when the band got there. In fact, Rhett Miller and his wife had to flee their downtown New York apartment on 9/11, yet nothing but a certain weariness testifies to that experience here, as Miller makes a half-hearted return to his smart-aleck "serial lady-killer" persona.

He's a better writer than that, and the alt-country example he should look to is Georgia's Drive-By Truckers, whose new album - cleverly titled The Dirty South - is an illustrated guidebook to John Edwards's and Thomas Frank's two Americas. Performed in high-octane, triple-axe Skynyrd mode, it's a sequence of story-songs about moonshiners and moon launches, Reagan and railway men, demanding to know "why the ones who have so much make the ones who don't go mad."

When the DBTs depict characters who must choose between pious, dutiful penury and living high and hard outside the law, they evoke Tupac Shakur as much as Johnny Cash. As they titled a previous album, it's Gangstabilly.

The DBTs see a lot more grey than Big and Rich do in the redneck rainbow, but they're shouting out to the same America, one that after three years of narrowing is yearning for a little expandilism. Despite all his phony yee-haws, that's bad news for G-Dub: Americans may not listen to much alternative country, but a lot of them seem eager to live in one.

Read More | The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, February 09 at 4:22 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

Dog-Faced Hermans -- nice. I miss them.

Posted by Lee Henderson on February 9, 2005 3:53 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson