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Diversion Enthusiast Society, est. 2007

Music Marathon 2008, Part 6 (The Gutter Twins – Jonas Brothers)

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The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia
Ah, the burden of expectations.  Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, Twilight Singers) and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, etc.) have been working on this project for a good chunk of this decade and only now do we have an official document of the collaboration.  And how is it?  Well, pretty underwhelming.  In some ways, it’s exactly what one would expect – Moody rock songs with the soul influences that Dulli’s been incorporating since late-period Afghan Whigs with Lanegan’s rich baritone and Dulli’s emotive howl mixing pretty well.  The problem is that this stuff was all pretty much expected, and it’s not nearly enough. The songs sound underwritten and just don’t stick.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive
The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America was an instant classic, raising the stakes for any other rock band hoping to fly the flag of Springsteen-style sincerity, storytelling, and hooks and raising our expectations for future releases of the band, themselves.  The staggering quality of their last release doesn’t do Stay Positive any favors, but much to the band’s credit, Stay Positive is still far too good to be considered a real disappointment.

Starting with “Constructive Summer,” the band makes it clear that their never-deserved rep as some bar band who just rehashes classic-rock riffs is a crock.  The overt references are Iggy Pop and the Clash (and how great those references are – “Me and my friends are like the drums on “Lust for Life/We pound it out on floor toms/Our songs are sing-along songs” and “Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer/He may have been our only decent teacher”), but the great only obliquely-acknowledged comparison point is Husker Du, from whose “Celebrated Summer” the title seems derived, and whose Flip Your Wig-era sound is the obvious musical comparison point.

But, while pre-Boys and Girls in America, the band may have occasionally outright lifted riffs, they’ve learned to incorporate their influences into a distinctive personal style that’s less and less reliant on Craig Finn’s speak-singing (which gets wonderfully singier with every album) to distinguish itself.  Backup vocals have become more prevalent and keyboardist Franz Nicolay adds everything from 80s synth to harpsichord.

At their best, though, Finn’s lyrics still provide the high points, and the prominent theme here is aging.  On the glorious title track, he distills the essence of growing older gracefully as an indie rock musician to less than three minutes of guarded optimism.  “Joke About Jamaica” takes on the issue from the local rock groupie perspective.  As Raina can tell you, hanging out with music-obsessed musicians (and trust me – that’s not redundant) has its challenges and one of them is keeping up with the near-constant barrage of trivial references – the titular Zeppelin reference is a perfect example.  If you can’t keep up (or pretend to keep up), things can get pretty baffling pretty fast.  Add to that the transitory nature of any music scene, and you’ve got the crisis of the song’s protagonist, a hanger-on who’s gotten a little too long in the tooth for hipster-dom.  But Finn, ever the humane narrator, never makes her the butt of the joke.  She’s just trying to get by like the rest of us.

So weaknesses?  Primarily the slow songs.  The band set a dangerous precedent for themselves on Boys and Girls with “First Night,” a multi-section masterpiece of a rock ballad, and the similar “Lord, I’m Discouraged” doesn’t quite measure up.  Similarly, “Both Crosses” is sort of a slog, coming between the snappy, if unsubstantial “Yeah Sapphire” and the title track.  Also, “One for the Cutters,” a weird cautionary tale about college girls hanging out with townies, kind of works, but not quite as well as anything on Boys and Girls.  It’s a little frustrating, too, because two of three songs relegated to bonus status (unlabeled and not split into separate tracks), “Ask Her for Adderall” and “Two Handed Handshake” are better than a few of the songs on the album proper.

Overall, though, the great moments win out – the chorus on “Stay Positive,” Drive-By Truckers’ Pattersoon Hood backup part on “Navy Sheets,” the songwriter-as-maverick film director motif on “Slapped Actress,” the horns on “Sequestered in Memphis.”  This is a terrific album that could only be considered disappointing in comparison with its predecessor.

Hot Chip – Made in the Dark
Know this about me – I am, generally speaking, an unwilling dancer.  As such, I’m a little more immune than most to the charms of dance-y indie rock.  I think some of this stuff gets a pass on musical quality on the basis of pure danceability, and, let’s face it, achieving danceability just ain’t that hard.  Put an appropriately thumpy beat behind something and you’ve got a dance track.  So I’ve been reluctant to check out some bands championed more for their danceability than melodic or lyrical sensibility, including Hot Chip.

So imagine my surprise to find out that Hot Chip is pretty great.  These songs aren’t mere drapery for beats at all, but constructed creatively and with an ear toward hooks.  “Ready for the Floor” is the big (relatively speaking) single and standout.  If the sound isn’t exactly New Order, the aesthetic seems to be the same.  A song with a strong lyrical and melodic center can readily be embellished with offbeat electronic noises and stretched out as needed.  Hot Chip are also versatile, not relying entirely on up-tempo tracks that might sound good in a club.  “We’re Looking for a Lot of Love” and the title track are pretty, unadorned ballads, and “Wrestlers” is a cute love-as-professional wrestling metaphor driven by spare electronic claps and piano with recurring hip-hop cadences.  While probably not a surprise to people more up on this niche of indie rock, it’s one of my more pleasant surprises of the year.

Jonas Brothers – A Little Bit Longer
Oh, yeah, I went there.

Like I said at the beginning of the marathon, I wanted to keep this interesting for myself, and I figured there are few things more out of my comfort zone than the Jonas Brothers’ brand of harmless, pre-pube girl-adored pop (incidentally, I hope this entry doesn’t result in an uncomfortable number of hits from this audience*).

Or so I thought.

As it turns out, most of it’s just power-pop and not really that different sonically from, say, Marvelous 3 (which makes sense, since Marvelous 3’s Butch Walker spends a lot of time writing radio-ready rock for pop stars these days, although not for the Jonas Brothers, who apparently write and play their own songs).  Some of the side trips into other genres, like the 80s Michael Jackson pop with guitars of “Burnin’ Up” (which would be year-end mix material minus an atrocious “rap” section) are actually pretty solid, although the further they stray from the guitar-pop, the less satisfying the results.  It’s insubstantial, fluffy stuff, but it’s nowhere near as bad as you’d probably expect.

Anyway, I’m going to digress here for a moment.  I was caught in a loop last night.  As I was listening to this (an album for which I am not the primary audience – pre-teen girls), I was reading a copy of Bitch (a magazine for which I am not the primary audience – women)**, and talking to Raina about an article in it which was, in part, about the fact that male critics felt the need, to point out the fact that Sex and the City was a movie for which they were not the primary audience.

What exactly does it mean to craft something for a specific audience?  Is it based more in the artist’s intent or in an unfair preconception on the part of the audience?  If the former, can it be considered an artistic shortcoming?  If the latter, what does it mean that the people most insecure about delving into art not produced “for us” tend to be men (one exception – men seemingly have no problem consuming entertainment intended for young boys, if it involves robots that turn into cars, etc.).  That’s not to say I don’t have a kneejerk “ew” reaction while listening to songs like “Video Girl” and “Lovebug,” but I’m not sure why.

Anyway, maybe I’ll devote a blog post to this phenomenon some other time, but listening to this basically innocuous pop album led to some pretty interesting questions about intent and taste.  In the meantime, here’s a thought experiment for you – listen to something from the new Weezer album, a release ostensibly aimed at adults; then listen to one of the more rock-oriented tracks, like “Shelf,” “One Man Show,” or “Got Me Goin’ Crazy”, from A Little Bit Longer.  Now be honest with yourself – what’s really the difference?  (I mean this only partially as a slam on the new Weezer album, which is mostly irredeemable shit, but I’ll get to that later.)

*  Speaking of hits, I’m always surprised to see the number of people who find this blog while searching for a particular 90s alternative rock singer-guitarist.  I’m not using his name (he’s the guy who wrote “Unsung” and “In the Meantime”), because I always suspect that these searchers are surprised and disappointed to discover that I made one fairly inconsequential reference to the guy months ago (and tagged him, as I do all musical figures) and don’t offer much in the way of actual content; I don’t want to further distract them with another reference, since he’s apparently much-researched.  Who knew?

** For the more pop culture-aware folks out there, male or female, you should really check out Bitch.  The slant may be feminist, but the subject matter is all over the board with a heavy emphasis on movies, music, art, and literature (this issue covered the evolution of rape-revenge cinema, the problematic abstinence-driven politics of the Twilight series, and the legacy of Jane Eyre), and the analysis is typically thought-provoking.

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Written by Dave

December 20, 2008 at 7:18 pm

9 Responses

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  1. I’m giving Hot Chip a try, based on you and LD’s thoughts on it. Though, if you liked Hot Chip, you should try out Hercules and Love Affair, which is a pretty fun album in all honesty.

    Euge

    December 21, 2008 at 10:48 am

  2. Speaking of that guy from the band named for head protection…I dunno if you’ve ever picked up some of the Band of Susans stuff he played on but it’s pretty good. I got BoS “Peel Sessions” from the library and it’s pretty apparent he was a major part of their sound.

    Chavez

    December 21, 2008 at 3:27 pm

  3. Very interesting and fair assessments…I would love to see you explore the intended-audience thing. I really think, as you’ve begun to deduce, it is more the realm of the marketing department than the band itself. And men have the hardest time crossing the boundaries. Well…American ones do, anyway.

    It’s rather offensive how the seal of approval from women (young especially, but all ages) is often the kiss of death for a band’s credibility, or at least a serious obstacle. Outrageous.

    I have to be honest, as a 29 year old woman with deep and varied taste in music (tending rock and “indie” but all over the place, with a strong anti-pop bent in my now-distant past), I became VERY burnt out on the hipster indie monotony over the past number of years…and long story short, the Jonas Brothers were far and away my favorite band this year, and my first favorite band after a dry spell of several. I dare say they come off better in person. It is a shame their audience is largely too young to appreciate this and others are put off by the many superficial aspects of the band getting them labelled creepy.

    Not to say there are never moments in their music that make me cringe (tho as a girl I am less averse to some of the sappier stuff – love Lovebug) but there is little music about which I can say that, and the rocked up bits more than make up for it. I would even argue they’re not always that fluffy – just not describing terribly negative behavior or the irreperable emotional damage to which modern indie lovers have become accustomed. Just another POV on life…not a less substantial one, per se.

    I find visiting with their niceboy worldview a bit more fresh and interesting than ever more disaffected drug addicts or other bored and/or self-destructive types musing about that old condition. It’s good stuff!

    lizlemon79

    December 22, 2008 at 12:21 am

  4. I think the most telling thing is just how much the Jonas Brothers sound like Marvelous 3 (possibly not by design – both use pretty standard power-pop conventions that could have been picked up independently), a band that was never marketed specifically to a particular gender or age group; although the lyrics might be a tad too racy for the ‘tween audience. Minus that niche marketing, they were embraced pretty readily by power-pop lovers.

    On the other hand, the niche marketing has probably helped the Jonas Brothers, popularity-wise, far more than the lack thereof ever helped Marvelous 3.

    A lot of the same concerns arise when you consider the success of Twilight, which was, coincidentally, the subject of another article in that issue of Bitch, and, not so coincidentally, an aspect of the conversation Raina and I were having about this whole issue of intended audience.

    Dave

    December 22, 2008 at 12:18 pm

  5. I’m absolutely NOT a dancer (I think the closest I’ve come to actually doing so was getting electrocuted while wiring an electric fence to keep the cattle out of a giant ditch back home), but I love that Hot Chip album.

    And also, while I love me some Dulli and Lanegan, I have to agree that Saturnalia was way underwhelming. I think I preferred Lanegan’s second album with Isobel Campbell more than Saturnalia.

    I’m still pretty weird about the Bros. Jonas and I have absolutely NO IDEA WHY. I guess it’s due to hearing my friends/coworkers constantly harp about how much their kids absolutely adore them.

    Thanks for the heads-up on Bitch, too. I’ll check it out…and maybe that Jonas Brothers joint, too.

    Jake

    December 22, 2008 at 1:19 pm

  6. I really hate that Joe Strummer line. I might like it if it was sung by a less Springsteen-ish singer, and thus given less BIG EPIC ROCK feeling. I’ve been trying to figure out why I like DBT so much more than the Hold Steady, when they have the same basic influences, and I think it must come down to how much I hate Bruce Springsteen.

    Chris Oliver

    December 22, 2008 at 2:08 pm

  7. Note to self: Jake is human, not dancer.

    Bitch should be right up your alley, based on what I know of your tastes.

    I was similarly wary about Jonas Brothers, but I decided that it was disingenuous to write them off strictly because of relatability and the social terrain being explored in the lyrics. Even if relatability were a good reason to listen or not to listen to music, I should technically be able to relate to the romantic problems of middle-class adolescents (having been one) more than, say, the recurring problems of the duality of “The Southern Thing” (Drive-By Truckers), the crises of conscience of a black gangster (Jay-Z), or the oft-confusing gender issues of being a repeat-transvestite ex-funk star sex addict (Of Montreal, at least on the new one).

    Dave

    December 22, 2008 at 2:21 pm

  8. Yeah, I think taste for Springsteen is a pretty clear indicator as to how much anyone would like The Hold Steady.

    I tend to think of The Clash as being just as epic rock as Springsteen in their own way, though.

    Dave

    December 22, 2008 at 2:27 pm

  9. They totally are. But that “in their own way” part is key. I just don’t like Springsteen’s way. But yeah, I was struggling to find the right words to get that idea across, and I couldn’t really find them.

    Chris Oliver

    December 22, 2008 at 4:02 pm


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