Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Nickelback, "Here and Now"

Here and Now

Nickelback songs have always been the clarion call of the American douchebag, the soundtrack for endless armies of male suburbanites pretending that their anger at their ex-girlfriend -- or more likely, the woman they wish was their ex-girlfriend --somehow elevated them to the level of existential angst. It was a canny move, too, retooling the sound of more serious, artistic postgrunge angst merchants into simple, effective anthems that were loud enough to sound dangerous but pop enough to not actually be dangerous. The rock world howled as it always does when this trick is pulled, knowing that Nickelback wasn't hard but rather try-hard. Yet they've sold more albums in the past decade than almost any other rock band -- 21 million -- and the only explanation for moving that many discs in the Naughties is the strip-club theory: until recently, titty bars and NFL stadium booths and the like usually relied on physical music for their playlists. This is not the kind of music you listen to on an iPod while jogging.

So now that Nickelback hate has reached critical mass, culminating in Detroit fans petitioning to not have the band play a halftime show at Ford Field, what to do? Go pop, of course -- but without sacrificing any of the "virtues" that makes the brand so marketable. 2008's Dark Horse went a bit too far in that direction: calling in veteran producer "Mutt" Lange made them sound a little like a modern version of Def Leppard's Hysteria. Which also meant it was their biggest seller, but their frat-boy base started to look at them a little funny, as if they were starting to appreciate women as human beings or something. So out came the public announcement that Here and Now would be a "return to form," when in reality it's just a compromise between the two extremes. They didn't didn't get this huge by being stupid, bro.

Of course, being stupid and acting that way are two different things. Singer-songwriter Chad Kroeger still has lots of shamelessly dumb and offensive things to say about women, lines that are the polar opposite of clever: "She's a scene from a Baywatch rerun / Hotter than the barrel on a squeeze machine gun." "She's gonna climb all over me. I'm like a pony in my own rodeo." "You and me sitting in a tree / F-U-C-K-I-N-G." (That last one is also real.) The difference this time is that the band, like the dbags, have stuck around long enough to become a bonafide subset of society, which means they're free to sell out now: the band's flair for the giant stadium hook and thirst for porno-soundtrack level aggression have finally merged perfectly. Production is the only thing separating "Midnight Queen" from Warrant's "Cherry Pie," but it's also the only thing separating meaningful, socially-aware (!) ballads like "When We Stand Together" from a Coldplay track.

So Nickelback isn't quite as laughable now that they're not pretending to be tortured; as long as they keep making aggressive postures, they can get away with being shiny. After all, this is a band that has always been content to stare dumbly at the sleaze around it, like a drunk at 3 am, neither reveling in it like Guns N' Roses when they were feral street urchins or romanticizing it like Limp Bizkit when they decided they wanted to be taken seriously. They just want to look at the strippers and go home, which is not unlike the kind of carefully orchestrated, emotionally suspect experience you get from their music. Their recent conversion to semi-respectability, however, does make their ear candy a little more attractive. Looks like somebody went up a cup size over the weekend.

Graded using the Third Eye Method:

Impact: 38. Not quite as hard as their earlier stuff, but just as sleazy.
Invention: 28. The lyrics are worse than ever, but there's less posturing, which is a good trade-off.
Integrity: 44. Chad does not really hate strippers or care about the planet. But you don't come to this hole in the wall for the single-malt, anyway.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Loaded Question: Exploiting Occupy

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Review: The Black Keys, "El Camino"

El Camino
The Black Keys

Recently, myself, my younger sister, and a mutual friend had one of those "blind men identifying an elephant" discussions where we all realized we saw the Black Keys in a different light. Our friend identified them as blues-rock, I saw them as a garage rock outfit, and my sister considered them a blue-eyed soul group.

We were all correct, of course. Certainly Akron's answer to Detroit's White Stripes is all those things and more: they both know how to combine epic blues tropes with low-fi grit and a classicist pop sensibility. The difference is that the Blacks, perhaps owing to their respective areas of formation, are a little sweeter and churchier than the Whites, the steady Blind Willie Johnson to Jack White's dark, declamatory Blind Willie McTell. 

So it was absolutely no surprise that Danger Mouse, a producer who knows all about bridging the unbridgeable chasm between indie rock and modern R&B, was able to help transform these critical darlings into Grammy gold with last year's "Tighten Up" from the album Brothers. Now DM is back full-time, and the duo's recorded the follow-up in that modern-day mecca for hipster roots authenticity, Nashville. The result is a record as unprepossessing, yet as gaudy and fun, as the white trash chariot it's named after. Not to mention the equally cheesy cover which houses it.

It'd be tempting to say that the Keys were retreating on El Camino, downplaying their bid at pop gold to reinforce their indie cred. And to a certain extent it's true: there's no crossgenre jumping like "Everlasting Light" or the single which broke them big, "Tighten Up," nothing as immediately arresting and emotionally resonant as "Ten Cent Pistol" or "The Go-Getter." The crunch is definitely back, a more subtle (but no less loud) variant on the glitter sludge of everything from The Big Come Up to Rubber Factory. The subtleties are there, though, mostly in the mix -- the airbrushed bells and whistles adding ghostly menace to "Dead and Gone," or the slightly psych-bubblegum shiver that runs up the leg of the best thing here, "Sister," and the slick ironic go-go feel of "Stop Stop."

Those touches are unfortunately in short supply, overall, so while it's not a full march back into the cave, it's hard not to feel like the Black Keys are trying to reconnect with roots they never really had. Ironists they are not, but they also don't have the personality of their fellow indie kids who suddenly got popular -- their romanticism isn't strong enough to ground them like Kings of Leon, and they don't possess Jack White's blood-on-the-floor vision of personal relationships. They're great, rootsy ear candy, but that's all they are, and while there's enough lingering essence of Brothers to sweeten the deal and suggest they haven't forgotten everything they've learned, El Camino often feels like the most unnecessary of respectability bids, the kind that makes a group more anonymous rather than more real. Which means they may end up getting classified as garage rockers after all: their default move is to rock out.

Graded using the Third Eye Method:

Impact: 62. Fun to go out and get drunk with, but you wouldn't fall in love with it.
Invention: 53. Not as trippy as Attack and Release, not as radio-ready as Brothers, not as adventurous as the Blackroc project. And not much of an identity beyond what it isn't.
Integrity: 68. The BKs never trade visceral punch for indie cred. Even when they maybe should.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Loaded Question: The War on Christmas

Friday, November 25, 2011

A public apology.

I called you all here for this press conference to apologize. I want to apologize specifically to my true fans, the fans that let me do whatever I want because I'm famous, and who realize that because I'm famous, there's a reason for everything I do. I know that some of you in the media want to take me down, accusing me of setting that children's hospital on fire, and then shooting those blind kids in the face as they hobbled down the steps in fear. But that's what the media does, you know? They build you up and then they take you down. In fact, I helped them build me up, which makes them even more to blame, because them making me famous was obviously just another excuse for them to try and make me not famous. That's how the system works, you know? It's a crazy world.

You saw the tape. You can judge for yourself. I won't hide from this so-called scandal; I will be a man and be accountable and apologize, from the bottom of my heart, for some people taking what I did out of context and not realizing it was a joke. I'm here to burn down children's hospitals and shoot fleeing kids in the head. That's what I'm paid to do. It's my job.

Excuse me. I'm being told it is not my job. So I apologize. I'm sorry that people misunderstand what happened, especially people who are trying to destroy me. If I could take it back, though, I'd like to let everybody know that I would do it all over again. Because I have integrity. I'm honest. Who I am is who I am. I ain't gonna change for nobody. This is just like when I beat my wife up. Y'all didn't even ask why. Y'all all out to get me. But that's cool. I'm stronger than you are. I can take it.

I have been told that my boss is very angry at me for being caught. And for that, I also apologize to him, for he's the one paying me. If certain people wanna make something out of nothing by deliberately misrepresenting something I did, well, that hurts my boss and his company. And eventually, that hurts me. So I'm sorry for that. I don't like to be hurt.

I'm out there every night, trying to protect myself. People don't understand, this is a hard job. You probably have a really easy job at a gas station or something. When you're finished work, you get to go home. And go right to sleep, so you can go right back to work. Nobody's out to get you, at least not in the media. You don't know what it's like. This has been very hard on my family, but they are standing by me, because they need my money. That's right, I'm providing for my family. And I'm the bad guy? Whatever.

I also want to apologize to the victims for being there when I did what I had to do. I was just trying to protect myself. Y'all saw the tape. Them kids was running. What was I supposed to do? Let them live? I just trusted in God to guide me. I won't apologize for loving Jesus. Or for telling the truth. If you don't like the truth, that's your problem. The truth can't be stopped.

Speaking of the truth, I also want to come clean and say that I don't remember any of that other stuff that people say happened. If people wanna fling wild accusations, well, bring it on. I was made famous in order to do things, and I did things. Those other things have nothing to do with anything, which is probably why I don't remember them. Why would I spend time remembering things people can't prove? Does that make sense? I'm a busy man.

So, in conclusion, I just wanna say again, that I'm sorry that everybody took this wrong when they were trying to destroy me. I guess it's what you get for being better than most people, but I won't let it stop me from doing whatever I have to do. I just want to keep being famous, and rich, for doing whatever y'all wanna make me rich and famous for doing. If some kids get killed, I'm sorry. But to those who want me to apologize: fuck you. I'm sorry y'all want me to apologize, and I deeply regret that I have to say fuck you. We should just all put this behind us, starting right now.

I'm not taking questions.