Brandon’s Tips: May 15, 2007

Has it been a week already?

I’m pleased to report that this little exercise is succeeding brilliantly in its mission, which is to introduce A (and whomever else among you is brave enough to follow along) to an exploding universe of great music, new and old alike. As we continue sitting shivah for the industry (at least as we know it right now), watching album sales plummet, watching stores devote less and less space to compact discs (yeah, is it just me, or are the new Best Buy floor plans gut-wrenchingly atrocious?), it’s important and comforting to understand that vital, interesting music is still being created. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the delivery systems will change dramatically in the not-so-distant future, but that doesn’t diminish the product and should, in actual fact, serve to enhance it. (I read a fascinating interview last year with the incredible Paul Simon — whose latest album, the infectious Surprise, is a criminally underrated goldmine of splendid songs — in which he espoused the view that the internet, and the act of downloading music specifically, is actually opening things up rather than closing them off, because it’s putting the power back in the hands of the consumer (where it belongs, yeah?) and snapping the stranglehold of the antiquated models (especially top 40 radio, whose tightly-controlled, freshness-free playlists are at least as responsible for the industry’s current crisis as how Generation iPod chose to rebel against same). Simon’s thesis is that downloading has made peoples’ music tastes much more eclectic — because every style of music can be accessed with one mouse-click — and that radio, television, etc. will eventually have to loosen up just to compete.

Myself, I’m of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I’m not — even by half — a fan of the downloading revolution. I like holding an actual product, an actual item, in my hands. (Now, it’s the CD, but once upon a lifetime ago it was the cassette tape, and I can still clearly remember buying vinyl LPs and 45s.) I like the process of music shopping at least as much as I do that of music listening. Every time I go on a CD hunt — my most recent one was just two nights ago at Waterloo — I have this flash of being seven years old again, and how every Tuesday night my dad would come pick me up and take me to T G & Y in Borger, Texas and let me pick out a tape, and how some weeks there would be two or three things I wanted (based on whatever Rick Dees had played the previous Sunday on his top 40 countdown, usually), and how he’d make me choose one — oh, the delicious torture of trying to decide between, say, Culture Club or Barbara Mandrell, between, say, Billy Ocean and Michael Jackson. I have this flash, every time I step toward the counter with an armful of new discs, that I was taught how to be a music fan the right way, that more than half the fun of owning the music is having searched for it, having gone through the bins, having researched the discographies, having had an actual transaction with another human being in order to procure what you sought with such verve and aplomb. It pains me greatly to recognize that an entire generation of children is being raised who won’t ever know or appreciate the ecstatic, tumescent thrill inherent in such a pilgramage. (A true story: when I visited A in Los Angeles in January, I walked down the street from his loft to the Rite-Aid to get a Coke, and while inside I happened upon a locked glass case full of CDs that were literally begging my fingertips to caress and my eyes to peruse their cellophane-enshrined bodies. I managed to track down the teenage girl who held the case’s key, and I asked her if she would kindly open it for me. She shot me a bizarre glance and said, “The CD case?” I said yes, and she said, “On aisle three?” I said yes, and she — honest to God, this is the truth — looked at me as if I were fresh off the spacecraft from Neptune. As if nobody had ever asked her before to do this, and she was entirely unsure what exactly was expected of her. Can you imagine?!)

On the other hand, who in the hell can resist the treasure that is iTunes? Minor quibbles about key omissions and label politicking notwithstanding, I find it to be the greatest record store in the history of the world. It’s all there, at your immediate disposal, pretty much any damn thing you can think to type in the search box! It’s fabulous! (Just this past week alone, I bought nineteen tracks (owing mostly to an Etta James kick I found myself on Friday morning, which led naturally to a Shirley Bassey kick on Friday evening). And eleven the week before that.) What I think is terrific about iTunes is, it levels the playing field for everyone, on both sides of the equation. Supply side, it’s just as easy to pull up the new Fall Out Boy single as it is any of Bonnie Raitt’s long-out-of-print ’70s albums as it is Devotchka (btw, loved “The Last Beat of My Heart”!). Demand side, it allows disparate consumers — to name two, take me and A: one, a music fiend in his bones, and the other, who’d rather amble through the ninth circle of hell barefoot than spend more than fifteen minutes looking around in Amoeba Records (no foolin’ here: I’m just getting warmed up and he’s already casing the joint for the most easily accessible exit) — to become equal participants in the shopping process (one for the awesome ease of use, the other for the breathtaking breadth of selection).

In mentally preparing for this week’s tipsheet, I’ve been listening to last week’s music purchases and pondering (with, no doubt, much more energy and concentration than it would ever reasonably require) the way other people accept and embrace music in their lives versus the way I do. Take A, again. (Think he’s getting tired of seeing his name invoked yet?) Last week’s playlist contained five of my favorite songs from the spring of 1990 (and, indeed, of my favorite songs ever), and at the very top of that list was Lisa Stansfield’s incomparably brilliant smash “All Around the World.” I was just certain that he would hear a piece of that terrific song and fall as madly in love with it as I did all those years ago. True story, again: Saturday night, he sent me an email in which he revealed that the Aerosmith track was rejected instantly (I half-expected that, because if you mention the words “Aerosmtih” or “R.E.M.” or “Tori Amos” to him, he almost always develops instant hives.) and that, of the remaining four, he would be buying the Erasure track for sure, and the Sinead O’Connor track probably. He went on to put Jane Child in third place, and poor Ms. Stansfield dead last. Last place, I’m telling you! My heart just sank. I was just crushed. Now, the deal was that he could buy what he wanted, and I’ve already promised I’m going to try to be better about masking my emotions on his choices, but in that moment, I was utterly flummoxed. I couldn’t believe that his reaction to that landmark in popular music could be so opposed to mine.

I’ve been listening with great interest to Paula Abdul’s newly-released best-of collection, and wondering most seriously if, supposing she were a new artist in today’s climate, a record company, any company, would roll the dice on her. She wasn’t that great a singer in retrospect (although “Rush, Rush” isn’t nearly as bad a song as I believed back then, and “Blowing Kisses in the Wind” holds up remarkably well), but she could dance her ass off and knew — the exact same way Duran Duran and Boy George knew, honey — how to use the artform of the music video to her best advantage. (A was laughing at the “Opposites Attract” clip last week after catching it on YouTube, having utterly no clue that we as a nation were all about that in the fall of 1989.) Would any of the classics of my childhood, from “Bette Davis Eyes” to “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma” to “Karma Chameleon” to “The Reflex” to “All Around the World,” be hits today? Would any of it fly?

Take a look at Linkin Park and Gretchen Wilson, two of the artists releasing new records this week. God bless ’em, they seem to have stumbled on formulas that will work with today’s standards — and they did it with stunning precision, by recognizing untapped niches and exploiting the holy hell out of ’em. But sweet Jesus, they are two of our most cloying musical superstars, aren’t they? Between them, they have four albums, and not one of them contains a single song that I can stand to hear more than ten seconds of. (Even my old nemeses the Black Eyed Peas have a better track record than that!)

Linkin Park is back with Minutes to Midnight, and I’ve read several articles and reviews which state that they’re ditching that irritating, intolerable faux-metal thing they do and “evolving” toward a more melodic, poppish sound. If that’s true, I’ll shout a hearty hallelujah from every rooftop. (I’ve always contended that their biggest hit, the unavoidable — and unlistenable, natch — “In the End” — might have worked as a piano ballad, because if you strip away all the guitar-crunching and drumkit-smashing and use your imagination a bit, that song has a decent, solid melody.) The first single, “What I’ve Done,” admittedly is their catchiest effort ever (whatever that’s worth), but I’ll still believe they’ve made this seismic stylistic shift when I hear it. Minutes to Midnight is on sale for $8.99 this week at Circuit City.

As for Miss Gretchen… can anybody explain to me her appeal? I mean, seriously? I hit more notes in the shower last night than she has in four years of being a megastar, and yet she’s amassed more hit singles at country radio than almost anybody in that time frame. Her signature song, the completely ridonk “Redneck Woman,” is basically an anthem about how much she luuuuuuuvs to shop at Wal-Mart, and we as a nation ate that crap up by the ladleful! And while it’s quite true that she single-handedly succeeded in putting women back on country radio after a painful, mind-numbing drought, and that she kicked down the door that the miraculous Sugarland and Miranda Lambert would later blow through on two wheels, she did it with such hackneyed glee (and with such trite product) that it was impossible to endorse. Half a decade on, she still totally mystifies me.

The week’s two marquee releases also come from artists whose attraction tends to escape me at times; the difference is their base talent is always on display and never in doubt, even when their execution falls short. Jeff Tweedy and Wilco are back with their sixth studio album this week, Sky Blue Sky. Myself, I’ve always preferred Jay Farrar and Son Volt over these guys. Tweedy and Farrar were bandmates in one of the seminal indie bands of the ’90s, Uncle Tupelo, and their rivalry has evolved into the stuff of legend, so you have to be careful when you’re taking sides because, in certain company, Wilco is like the second coming. I’m perfectly willing to admit that they’ve produced some wondrous music in their decade-plus existence, but they tend to be a bit too esoteric for my tastes (and that’s quite a feat, because as an undying Tori Amos fan, I can stomach a load of out-there material), and while all the critics were falling all over themselves pronouncing the band’s 2002 record Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as pretty much the best album ever, I was scratching my head in utter confusion, because I found their ’99 release Summerteeth to be three times more riveting and enjoyable than Foxtrot ever was. (I still feel that way, five years later.)

Also on tap this week (and on sale at Best Buy for ten bucks) is Release the Stars, the latest from Rufus Wainwright, a singer who misses every bit as often as he hits. When he’s on his game, you can’t beat him for pop music with a purpose. And when he’s not, wow, that boy can stink up the place like nobody’s business. This child has a very healthy ego, and I’m pretty sure he’s not half as good a singer or songwriter as he seems to believe he is, but his talent is fierce and undeniable, and he’s never boring, win or lose.

Let’s stay in the win column for this week’s playlist, shall we? To get you ready and acclimated for this week’s new efforts, let’s dip into history and check out past triumphs — three apiece — from Misters Tweedy and Wainwright.

1. Wilco — “She’s a Jar” (from Summerteeth) — without question, my favorite-ever Wilco song. Languid, dreamlike, and that harmonica at the climax gets me every single time.

2. Wilco — “Jesus, etc. (Sad Sad Songs)” (from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) — a sad rumination on sad ruminations. Brilliant, catchy, uplifting and heartbreaking simultaneously.

3. Wilco & Billy Bragg — “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” (from Mermaid Avenue) — Wilco played the music, Bragg supplied the vocals (helped out on this track by the invaluable Natalie Merchant) in a album-form love letter to Woody Guthrie.

4. Rufus Wainwright — “April Fools” (from Rufus Wainwright) — his very first single, and still his best. If you wonder why none of the rest of his music has this giddy, delirious quality to it, trust me when I tell you: you’re not alone.

5. Rufus Wainwright — “I Don’t Know What It Is” (from Want One) — “…is there anyone else / who wears slightly mysterious bruises?” Don’t ask me what it’s about, but the track’s bizarre, chorus-less structure (and that string section, oy!) is riveting.

6. Rufus Wainwright — “Across the Universe” (from the I Am Sam soundtrack) — yes, Fiona Apple still has the best cover of this Beatles classic ever put to record. But Wainwright finds a deep, beautiful yearning in the refrain that nobody else has. He makes you come at these words from a totally different angle. (Bonus points for that gorgeous video, with that iconic red balloon floating toward heaven.)