By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The Last DJ is Tom Petty's latest stab at exposing the less savory aspects of the recording industry and trying to force it to mend its ways. With every other musician in the business stepping up to take a crack at the topic, Tom's complaints are, by now, pretty familiar: CDs cost too much; record labels only care about the bottom line and will use any excuse not to pay artists; concerts are less about music these days than about beer, T-shirts, and hyper-inflated prices; and, worst of all, music today is mediocre and sterile. Basically, asserts Petty, the industry has driven the life out of music by fostering a flavor-of-the-week mentality that makes it virtually impossible for any act to make an impact beyond first-album hype, since by the time that hype has passed, the record label has already given up and moved on to the next hopefully big thing. Such complaints have been echoed by everyone from Aimee Mann to Steve Albini, Courtney Love to Don Henley. And Petty, too, feels something should be done about it.
It's a role he's performed before. Twenty-one years ago, when a fresh-faced Petty found himself one of MCA's biggest stars, the label tried to bump his fourth album up to a premium $9.98 price. Petty fought back by threatening to name the album $8.98; MCA relented. Good for him. But his latest approach to the matter is problematic: While questioning the wisdom of having virtually every radio station in the country under the control of one master playlist, he manages to insult a lot people he should be trying to win as allies. By referring to people who "celebrate mediocrity," he immediately throws up a wall between those who have taste and those who don't, and you can bet your amp which side Petty believes he's on. Petty's never made it any secret that he doesn't much care for some of the new music that's come down the pike since he was at his commercial peak, and there's a certain lovable-curmudgeon quality about him that somehow makes his anti-urban-music stance somewhat tolerable.
In the new album's title cut, a DJ who doesn't "want to change what don't need to change" is followed by some saber-rattling about the celebration of mediocrity. Sentimentality aside, it's actually not too bad a songclassic Petty, with ringing guitars and a message clear enough to make the point but subtle enough that we don't feel we're being bludgeoned. Sadly, there's more. And Tom's not quite so lovable when he's preaching his anti-non-Petty doctrine in a series of songs that often don't rise above the level of mediocrity themselves.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor
"Money Becomes King" waves the biggest flag; here, looking at the concertgoing experience from the perspective of a longtime fan, Petty spells out loud and clear which side of the taste divide he fancies himself on: "As the crowd arrives/As far as I could see/The faces were all different/There was no one there like me." It's a plodding number with clumsy, rambling lyrics, and Petty seems incapable of hitting the notes at the end of each line without sliding gracelessly around them. After the metallic crunch of "Joe," which clobbers you over the head with a simplistic message about how the CEOs of major labels are only interested in exploiting young artists, Petty seems to run out of steamthe rest of the album is dedicated to the type of material that he's famous for, basic rock tales of love, loss, and losers. Not bad; just barely any passion. Petty seems content with waving his fist in the air, muttering some generalities about corporate weasels and those damned kids, then going back to business as usual. Why bother truly fighting a system that's made it possible for him to work with George Harrison and Bob Dylan, not to mention fill up his house with guitars and stuff?
On the other side of the equation are the Montreal collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor (note recent repositioning of the exclamation point, trivia fans), who recently decided that they would rather release records on their own label, Constellation, than continue to farm out the North American CD-manufacturing and distribution rights to another independent, Kranky. Some have pointed their fingers at Godspeed for this seemingly more-militant-than-thou action, claiming that they're taking their anti-commercial shtick just a bit too farit's an easy impression to get if you take a look at the back of the band's latest release, Yanqui U.X.O., which features a corporate flowchart detailing the (perhaps tenuous) interrelations between all of the major record labels and the military-industrial complex.
It's the kind of maneuver you'd expect from Godspeed, who have a reputation for grandstanding. Further, this album was recorded by Steve Albininot exactly known for subtlety himselfand has a title that refers to the American war machine (U.X.O.stands for "UneXploded Ordnance," like bombs or land mines). But Yanqui U.X.O.is actually restrained compared to previous outings; while Godspeed retain their old symphonic swells, there's far more quiet exploration, and obviously provocative stuff (like the previously de rigueur ranting guy) is gone. If it's not as immediately captivating, it does show a more confident band willing to let the music do the hard work.