Where the Action Isn’t

Alt-rock may be alive and well, but not so's bashing it is much fun right now. Though many alt bands were considered for Turkey Shoot 2000, only one proved offensive enough to decapitate. Even artistically, the rock action is mostly on the pop charts, almost always flawed whether or not it comes with some positives. And the charts were where this year's exercise in regurgitation usually ended up.

BÉLA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES
Outbound (Columbia)
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I'd long since slotted the banjo whiz's genre hop as one more piece of harmlessly irrelevant bluegrass virtuosity, but a simple check of his Warners best-of reveals that he kept getting worse. Between the workaday saxophonist, the omnipresent bassist, the drummer named Future Man, the leader pursuing chord changes to new frontiers of musical forethought, and guests from such exotic climes as Tuva and Eire, how could we expect any less than bluegrass speed for speed's sake, world music meditation for meditation's sake, Phishy keybs, and fusion stop-and-go? All rolled into one? C

THE FUCKING CHAMPS
IV(Drag City)
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"Now you remember that this is why you loved music in the first place, a love that was without irony, pretense, or posing," declare the postpostrockers as they pursue their lost youths—youths they spent writing the names of hair bands on homeroom desks. This is the essence of those bands, they claim, re-created "with taste, competence, and as kick-assedly as can be." No singers, songs, or blooze to speak of. No solos either. Compositions! And intros aplenty—nay, fanfares, overtures. In short, the true metal—classical music for dummies. I knew it. I always knew it. C

HANSON
This Time Around(Island)
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If you thought they were bad when they were cute, or even that they were cute when they were good, believe me, you don't want to hear them mature. Self-made arena-pop that's done so much time in the weight room it's got 98º scoring steroids on the street, this meaningless, overstated, three-years-aborning follow-up gutted its way to gold and disappeared. Bye. C MINUS

EMMYLOU HARRIS
Red Dirt Girl(Nonesuch)
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What a weird (dishonest? ironic? clueless?) name for a record that's all literature and arty sound effects. Even the title song, while indeed describing the white South of the artist's putative roots, balances on the fulcrum of a four-syllable word: Meridian, which joins allelujah, sanctuary, Antonia, and great big Michelangeloin reminding us that Harris has put away childish things. Instead we get a record worthy of her (to mush up review gush) "celestial" and "eminent" voice, one that "shimmers with poetic imagery and soul." Mortality, redemption, angels, all the important stuff, adorned with Daniel Lanois-once-removed soundscape. Nary an antiwar song, yet you know Joan Baez is proud. C

DON HENLEY
Inside Job(Warner Bros.)
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On his last album, in CD-cusp 1989, six out of 10 tracks ran over five minutes; on this one, it's nine out of 13, with two others clocking in at 4:49 and 4:50. Since my own suspicions have been on record since the Eagles conquered the air, believe my formerly sympathetic California buddy Greil Marcus in Salon: "While it's well known that as one gets older, one tends to find changes in the world at large unsettling, confusing, fucking irritating, a rebuke to one's very existence, it's generally not a good idea to make a career out of saying so." C MINUS

ICE CUBE
War and Peace, Vol. 2 (The Peace Disc)(Priority)
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Good ol' Cube, taking time off from his busy schedule as Hollywood honcho and Backstreet Boys stablemate to produce an unimaginative if not notably hateful marker in the "Keep it gangsta, dog" game while preparing a complex rhyme for Eminem's ass: "I'm still comin' with that underground gangsta shit/No matter how many niggas say we ain't the shit." In a year when hards from Cam'ron to Trick Daddy illed with enough self-critical ambivalence and sly style to keep moralists off balance, Cube's boasts and threats are as utilitarian as Chucky Thompson's e-mailed-in beats. With faking the gat life no longer a realistic possibility, he's down to pretending his penis is a lethal weapon. And lest you hold his nonexistent sense of humor against him, the honcho orders up a Chris Rock cameo. C PLUS

KITTIE
Spit(Artemis)
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Proof that Korn fans aren't sexist—they were just waiting for four cute teenage girls to come out bellowing, "Get Off (You Can Eat a Dick)." Waiting so eagerly, in fact, that whether the girls bellowed loud enough was beside the point. C PLUS

MARAH
Kids in Philly(Artemis)
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Though the press kit just barely mentions Springsteen, anyone intrigued by their reviews should be aware that these young adults from Philly flatter Bruce sincerely enough to make a grown man wince. Just as banjos and mandolins overshadow synths and samples along their E Street revisited, so old-fashioned urban-sentimentalist local color like "Reet Petite," Rocky Balboa, and watches that need winding warm their hearts, while indications that they still keep their eyes open—modern stuff like hazmats, Members Only menswear, ghettos "teeming with beats that reverberate fear"—chill their very souls. They deserve a Big Man of their own. B MINUS

NO DOUBT
Return of Saturn(Interscope)
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Gwen Stefani is forced to battle the perception that she's shallow because shallow is what she is. Like any human being, she has real feelings, but they run about as deep as her hair color and her commitment to ska, and wasn't it polite of me not to bring up her gift for the pithy phrase and the catchy tune? Occasionally her pushing-30 doubts about the single life are touching, like when she imagines Gavin Rossdale would make a good dad. But after five years, two producers, one Spincover, and one lead review in Rolling Stone, the single Interscope sent her back to the salt mines for is the best thing on her automatic-platinum follow-up. So maybe marriage wouldn't be such a bad idea. No no no, not to Gavin—better she should land a really nice accountant. They have feelings too. C PLUS

PUMPADELIC
Southern Evil(Gray Boy)
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Right, I didn't spell their name right—that would be aiding and abetting these been-and-gone scumbags, whose slogan is "Why wear one if you are one?" That the term they prefer is "dirtbag" says everything we need know about how creamy they cum. I hope the repo man is already on whatever dumb shit they bought with their Kid Rock-wannabe, David Allan Coe-nephew, ooh-now-I'm-really-impressed advance, which I also hope cost some a&r fool his job. Another slogan: "Abuse chicks, smell like hell, and drink Mad Dog." Yet another: "Give this record a spin and don't take it too seriously." Oh, I get it—they were Only Joking. D PLUS

3 DOORS DOWN
The Better Life(Republic)
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Those who whine that there are no new rock bands are too square to know where to find them—on commercial radio, they're as hot as teenpop right now. But although many of those that surface come complete with a winner like the sad-versed, jaunty-chorused "Kryptonite," a sure shot for the Y2K'd and Confusedremake Steve Case's boy will bankroll in 2020, goodnew rock bands are admittedly hard to come by. Avoiding the rest of this triple-platinum Mississippi swamp-rock is what Napster is for. "Album track" my ass. Burn yourself a "Kryptonite" now. C PLUS

THE TRAGICALLY HIP
Music @ Work(Sire)
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Blame Canada, which gulls citizens into subsidizing local culture with the lure of universal health care. Fifteen years on, that northern nation's favorite rock band—led by deep thinker Gordon Downie, who ungratefully notes, "If I do believe in a country, it's the country of me"—has progressed from a passable "blues-based" literacy (imbued with the natural sense of rhythm for which Canadians are renowned, of course) to candidly ornate and obscure art-rock. "Why haven't The Hip sold millions in the States?" demands one loyal fan. His first hypothesis: "Lyrics don't translate into ebonics." So let's set Big Daddy Kane on this quatrain: "I loaded the variables like masterpieces from under the germ-led advance/I saw your compass on a sea of frayed cable and aspects of vision afloat/in a glance/and outside the train overnight floodlights on the inexorable sights." C

TRAVIS
The Man Who(Columbia)
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You don't have to be an 'N Sync fan to prefer a world in which the young and the gormless swallow a song called "God Must Have Spent a Little More Time on You" to one in which their pablum of choice is a little something entitled "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" But are there really adults who find sustenance in folk-pop that blurs all distinctions between the lyrical and the moony? Of course. Have been since Donovan. B MINUS

THE WALLFLOWERS
Breach(Interscope)
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Don't envy Jakob Dylan his dilemma, but don't underestimate his privilege. He's no Julian Lennon, but he's also no Rufus Wainwright, and though he comes up with strong melodies, he's hardly a match for Ben Folds or Elliott Smith, both of whom frame their catchy stuff more idiosyncratically and neither of whom is terribly interesting even so. Dylan's lyrics competently explore the metaphor-laden broken-narrative mode his father invented and loosed on the world, just as his band concept does the flat-bottomed strophic folk-rock his father ditto. Nothing in his singing, his wordplay, or—a few lucky strikes aside—his tunecraft will tempt anyone who isn't stuck on his dad to parse those lyrics, to care what they mean. So he should praise the Lord for his cheekbones, which come from his mom. B MINUS

NEIL YOUNG
Silver and Gold(Reprise)
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Previously, Young's bad records have always had the mark of weirdness on them—impossible songs, twisted politics, stupid clothes. These 10 well-culled copyrights, two from the '80s and only four from 2000, are something new and ominous, because they're dull. They smell of equine methane: the old-fart hegemony that fuels alt-country, AC radio, and literary anthologies canonizing Ry Cooder, Ernie K-Doe, and Spooner Oldham. So though Duck Dunn and Jim Keltner get more beats going than Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina ever will, their mild funk is just another species of roots politesse, and Neil's self-indulgently halting vocals open the dismaying possibility that he takes Will Oldham seriously. True love isn't this boring, Young must know that. Hell, the Buffalo Springfield weren't this boring either. But they are now. C PLUS


PRIZE TURKEY

JESSICA SIMPSON
Sweet Kisses(Columbia)
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Simpson is a blonde who got out of cheerleading early to prepare herself for whatever show business offered—game-show sidekick, R-rated remake of Debbie Does Dallas, bond trader seeking trophy wife. What she got was a John Cougar sample and the hard-earned ability to carry a tune. We know teenpop is rarely as vapid, prefab, and faux-wholesome as gatekeepers who've barely listened to it claim. So let's not tell them about this "refreshing blend of pop, R&B and [note copywriter getting desperate] gospel-flavored sounds." D

PRIZE TURKEY

ORGY
Vapor Transmission(Elementree/Reprise)
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Aiming to fill the Queenhole by injecting video-game sci-fi and radio-head sonics into a pop-metal base, the Korn protégés forge a "startling vision of a future world in which communications technology has been turned against us, becoming a tool for government surveillance rather than personal convenience." Gosh, how'd they think of that? Heavy is a mission with them, I guess. Glam too, you should see their costumes—Bowie does Star Trek, 1974. When it gets this silly it can be fun sometimes. So who's laughing? C

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