Wednesday, February 26, 2003

The most laughable consequence of the Nirvana revolution was the birth of the fake indie label. Eager to capitalize on Nirvana's success, the major record labels signed lots of independent label bands, causing some purists to lament the indie labels being used as farm teams. The majors bought ownership stakes in other indie labels, causing some purists to wonder whether, say, Sub Pop was still really an indie label if Warner Brothers controlled a big chunk of their stock. When there was nothing left to buy, some major labels resorting to manufacturing indie credibility by setting up new imprints that were designed to resemble indie labels. They used intentionally amateurish graphics and minimized to logos of the real corporate behemoths that were the ultimate owners.

The scheme fizzled. Anyone who really cared about indie cred, who had brand loyalty to SST or the indie ethos in general saw through such chicanery. Anyone who didn't care about indie cred didn't pay enough attention to labels to make the scheme worth the effort. The trend died long before the majors realized that Babes in Toyland and their ilk were never going to have multi-platinum albums and before the cool, marginal bands broke up or retreated to the indies.

I was reminded of this because I just received a mailing from one of the satellite radio companies. Rather like the products on the fake indie labels, it was too conspicuously devoid of corporate logos, too conspicuously "badly" printed to look like a zine on newsprint. The corporate behemoth was trying painfully hard to look like a renegade outsider while also, eventually, promoting that they have ESPN radio, i.e. part of the Disney empire.

I can see the value of satellite radio, rather like cable TV, in the ability to narrowcast. On a recent vacation, my parents really enjoyed the "best of Broadway" station on their rental car's satellite radio; it's a musical taste to which broadcast radio stations can't afford to cater. But the companies shouldn't try to imply their indie cred to the few people who are informed enough to know better. I'm guessing I'll still need to tune in to my favorite college station if I want to hear both Gang of Four and Radio 4.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Concert Recommendations for Friday, Feb. 28:
Detroit Cobras with the Greenhornes and the Drapes, 10 p.m., Double Door, 1572 N Milwaukee, Chicago, 773.489.3160
Ladytron with Simian and Out Hud, 10 p.m., Metro, 3730 N. Clark, Chicago, 773.549.0203

Friday is a good night for concerts in Chicago. The Detroit Cobras ply old soul covers but make them their own. Singer Rachel Nagy's presence comes across even in recording, and the rest of the band takes a garage/rockabilly approach rather than a strictly historical recreation. The Greenhornes are getting press as part of the neo-garage movement, which bodes well for the Double Door line-up.

Meanwhile, Ladytron are at the Metro doing vaguely kitschy synth pop, not until Stereo Total.

BTW, the Double Door does have a web site but I refuse to link to it in principle. The Metro site is annoying with its Flash splash page, but at least it doesn't force you to listen to music like the Double Door site does.

Monday, February 24, 2003

I didn't really go out of my way to watch the Grammy Awards, missing the first hour.  Particularly in the rock/pop realm, the Academy has too much of a tendency to reward what sells well over what has genuine artistic merit, then realize their errors by rewarding late-career works by artists who are past their creative peak, if they get around to it.

But especially after Ricky Martin's career-making performance 1999, it's been worth it if only for the occasionally inspired live act. If nothing else, this would seem to be the one television performance where the audience can be assured that no one will lip synch.

The Bee Gees were awarded for their best work back in the '70s; they got an uninspired live tribute. *N Sync sucked the soul out of the Bee Gee's blue eyed soul. The Clash never won a Grammy, so the Academy did their belated best to memorialize Joe Strummer. Well, not quite their best. Rather than recruiting the most appropriate musicians to play a tribute, they roped in the most appropriate musicians who were going to be at the show anyway. So rather than a real all-star tribute, you got two big stars, a guy in the same band as one of the stars but not quite a star in his own right, and a guy whose second-string band wouldn't get nearly as much attention if the lead singer hadn't been in one of rock's most important bands ever. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven and Dave Grohl.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

On one hand, I really like urban documentary songwriting on the Streets' debut, Original Pirate Material. It's more hip-hop than punk, but the occasionally reggae-influenced beats suggest an update on Clash motifs. But it's really hard to take sole Street Mike Skinner's toughness seriously when he sounds like someone I could beat up.

I'll get the chance to size him up in person on Monday, March 17 at the Metro. Tickets go on sale this Saturday.

Monday, February 17, 2003

WZZN-FM 94.7's previous incarnation as "The Eighties Channel" reminded me of the stupidest public statements by radio executives. In touting the concept to the press, some high muckety muck from the station told a Chicago Tribune reporter that the '80s was the last time everybody listened to the same music. To avoid using a cruder expression such as, "He had his head up his own ass," I'll just say that the guy clearly had blinders on if he believes that. To put it one way, in the '80s I listened to Hüsker Dü, but I was subjected to Bryan Adams. To put it another way, I didn't hear Neil Diamond, the Chills or Dazz Band on "The Eighties Channel." There was a lot more to the music of that decade than what they played on that station, and the listen audience was already segmented back then.

But obliviousness about '80s radio doesn't just happen in hindsight. In 1989, the New Music Seminar was the most important event in the industry. A panel originally entitled "Does Radio Suck?" was renamed "Why Does Radio Suck?" because, as the moderator pointed out, otherwise everyone would answer the initial question "Yes," and we'd be done in five minutes. So in pondering why radio sucks, a high muckety muck from a Top 40 -- excuse me, Contemporary Hit Radio station bragged that only his format played new artists. Someone from Beggars Banquet quickly challenged this dubious claim, "thanking" him for playing the "new" band Love & Rockets since no one had ever played them before. At the time, L&R were enjoying their first mainstream success with "So Alive" after three albums worth of airplay on college radio.

Most recently, stupidity surfaced in Entertainment Weekly. In response to an article on satellite radio and particularly how it allows DJs more creative freedom than the tightly controlled, market research driven broadcast radio stations, Steve Smith, Production Director/Imagining Director of Clear Channel wrote in. "If you are actually looking for a station that will play Norah Jones, B-Tribe, Ned Otter, etc., then look for you closest college radio station. Give them a good listen. I guarantee you that after 30 minutes of pure hell, you will switch back to a Clear Channel station because we play the hits." Pure hell? Then why do I regularly leave my radio on WLUW, Loyala's station, and only listen to Clear Channel in my car with lots of presets so that I can get away from that "pure hell" after a song or two?

As long as radio is in the business of selling advertising rather than music, commercial radio will, on the whole, suck. It's laughable that radio executives try to pretend otherwise. I've certainly heard good songs on commercial stations, but that's just something squeezed in between the ads.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Concert review: Paul Weller, Saturday Feb. 15, The Vic

I gotta stop spending so much time reading British music magazines. In England, Paul Weller is a deity, and I was infected by the worship. I'd always liked the Jam and Style Council, but certainly never loved them. I got a promo copy of his 1995 solo album Stanley Road, and while I've enjoyed, it never took up semi-permanent residence in the CD player. But his new album Illumination and its first single "It's Written in the Stars" have been getting good press. So I went into the show hoping to be converted from someone who respected him to an actual fan. He certainly did his best, with an energized, enthusiastic performance. Despite his forgetting to remove his backstage pass, the guy still radiates coolness. But I was never transformed.

Still, I'm glad I gave it shot rather than going to see the Pretenders coast on their past glories yet again. And his cover of "What's Going On?" was especially timely and poignant, especially with the line, "War is not the answer."

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Chicago's WZZN, 94.7, has gone through a circular evolution.  Initially they called themselves "the '80s station" but soon discovered that the format was a novelty that wore off quickly for listeners. So they became "The Zone." The implied pitch was, "We play alternative, but not that really noisy stuff they play on Q101." Then they gave up on that, and the only discernible difference was that the Zone actively courted a female audience while Q101 is indifferent to that half of the population.

And I thought they had happily carved out that niche until I was listening today. They claim it's "today's new music first," but it's really just a trip back to Altera-'80s. They played American Hi-Fi's "The Art of Losing" which lifts the drum pattern from the Adam Ant theme song "Antmusic" and quotes the chorus of "Kids in America." Next up was the guitar riff from the Cult's "Fire Woman." Yeah, it was part of some Foo Fighters song, but the back-to-back '80s references, coupled with their being the only commercial station to play Interpol suggests they are reverting to the original game plan.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Concert Recommendation: Apples in Stereo, Friday Feb. 14, Abbey Pub

As with last week's Luna shows, I'm halfhearted in touting this one. At least Luna had a history of greatness, but Apples in Stereo has a limited track record for me. I've only seen them once and found them disappointing, but it was also the same day I was turned down for a job I was really excited about, so their failure to move me may not have been their fault. In their favor: several great albums. Tone Soul Evolution was one of my favorite discs of 1997. I've only heard Discovery of a World Inside the Moone once or twice, but it continued their streak of wonderful indie pop. It's like '60s bubblegum music but with an air of sophistication.

So they're probably best avoided if you're really bummed about Valentine's Day, but worth a shot otherwise.

Alejandro Escovedo is also in town that night and is always mesmerizing, but both his shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music is already sold out.

Friday, February 07, 2003

Concert Review:  Luna, Thursday Feb. 6, Abbey Pub

Clearly Luna were having an off night when I saw them two years ago because they were back on form last night at the Abbey Pub. During "Friendly Advice," Dean Wareham and Sean Eden made a strong case for the electric guitar being the greatest invention of the 20th century.  "23 Minutes in Brussels" has to be the sexiest song ever to reference Belgium.

When I interviewed Palmyra Delran of the Friggs a few years ago, we talked about her Pink Slip Daddy bandmate Mick Cancer becoming so engrossed in performing that it was like he was off in another place. Luna went there and brought along passengers.

The same could not be said for openers Slumber Party. They generated some good fuzzy drone and droning fuzz with occasional Jesus & Mary Chain-worthy feedback, but they were lifeless. The drummer for the all-female quartet was especially Stepford Wife-like. Call me an old-school punk, but what you lack in technique you should make up for in passion. And the biggest shortcoming of the Pavement school of indie rock is too many bands with neither technique nor passion. My college art professor who used Brian Eno's "Needle in the Camel's Eye" to illustrate negative space also declared that there is a big difference between painting, writing or making music because it's a nice thing to do and needing to create. Slumber Party were playing because it was nice. Luna need to do it.

Luna play the Abbey Pub again tonight, but it is sold out.

Thursday, February 06, 2003

I was reading a magazine recently with a photo of the White Stripes and was suddenly struck by how much Meg White and I look alike. I don't mean in the way that my friend with really long blonde hair who went to concerts frequented by Smashing Pumpkins fan was mistaken for D'Arcy in the early '90s; that was the product of a generic distinctive trait. No, in the sense that if I were to shun makeup, severely pluck my eyebrows and wear my hair in long pigtails (three things I am highly unlikely to do), I probably wouldn't even need to don the White Stripes team colors for hipsters to assume that I were she. Especially in England, I could really have lots of fun exploiting someone else's fame. Just think of the false rumors of celebrity sightings I could instigate. Or the free drinks I could score. Good thing I'm an ethical person. Or that I'm not willing to pluck my eyebrows that thin.

Or maybe it was just the camera angle in that particular photo.

Anyway, if there's a chance of being mistaken for a famous person, I could do far worse. She's not someone I aspire to emulate, but it's cooler than when someone repeatedly yelled "Spice Girls!" out a car window at me because of the dress I was wearing.

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

If you enjoy hearing music on the radio that they don't play on commercial radio, then please consider volunteering for the WLUW pledge drive from February 12 to 22.  If you don't have the time, then tune in during the pledge drive and donate money.

The only down side: you'll also be supporting having the wire service news read in a monotone and with numerous mispronunciations (my only pet peeve about the station). I haven't decided if that's better or worse than WNUR, the home of squawky saxophone music. Their phoneathon starts February 20.

Tuesday, February 04, 2003

The only good thing about the Columbia tragedy is that would-be space traveler Lance Bass wasn't aboard. It's not that I think he deserves to live more than the seven brave astronauts. But this way *N Sync can continue their gradual descent into obscurity unfettered rather than having their status propped up by martyrdom. Say what you will about the acting careers of various New Kids on the Block, but at least we no longer have to hear them sing.

Monday, February 03, 2003

Concert Recommendation:  Luna, Thursday Feb. 6 and Friday Feb. 7, Abbey Pub

Gotta admit I'm a little hesitant to give a full-on recommendation for this show. In the mid 90s, Luna had been a reliably mesmerizing live act, and their second album, 1994's Bewitched, is still quite bewitching. But the last time I saw them, about two years ago at the Double Door, they were just so-so. On the other hand, one of the members, most likely leader Dean Wareham, was suffering from the flu, so there's good reason to hope it was just an off night. Plus, at the February 2000 show, one member was wearing a Strokes t-shirt, the first I'd heard of that band; I'd noticed the graphic style and assumed it was some obscure '70s band, and then I heard both the hype and the hype-justifying music, so clearly the Luna folks have good taste beyond their obvious Velvet Underground influence. They also scored coolness points for not playing "Slash Your Tires," the closest thing they ever had to a hit record.