Robbie Williams is, the considerable hype goes, as complicated as any pop persona worth your time should be. The back story, which you could trace from Brit-tab headlines alone, is compelling— teenybopper escapes boy band (Take That), hangs out with Oasis, gets loaded, gets fat, releases string of flops, sobers up, slims down, releases weepy megawatt ballad, is instantly transformed into demographic-busting superstar. Apparently, the reinvented, contradiction-flaunting Robbie is sexy enough, cuddly enough, butch enough, camp enough, committed enough, and ironic enough to appeal to you, whoever you are. Musically, he’s Elton John meets George Michael meets Noel Gallagher; and even if MOR bombast isn’t quite your thing, that’s OK, because Robbie is, you see, just having a laugh— note literally arched eyebrow and wink-wink lyrics (“Early morning when I wake up/I look like Kiss but without the make-up/And that’s a good line to take it to the bridge”).
Williams’s first U.S. show, last Tuesday at the Bowery Ballroom, was ecstatically received— but how could it not be, with mostly media types, expats, and Anglophiles in attendance, all disproportionately responsive to cheap pomo thrills. Introduced by the Star Wars fanfare, Robbie was ruthlessly, cheesily showbiz from the get-go— but in a knowing, within-quotation-marks fashion. He did an endearingly terrible Eminem bit (“My name is . . . Robbie Williams”). He changed lyrics to flatter the locals, never mind that “Your cool New York sun” makes little sense. He got everyone to sing along to, apropos of nothing, “Hey Jude.” And for “Angels,” the aforementioned sledgehammer sob song, he left the chorus to the crowd, and whipped out a cigarette lighter.
It’s not as much fun without Robbie in the room. His first American release, The Ego Has Landed (which samples his two multiplatinum European LPs), is easy-enough listening, a big, brash, tuneful pastiche, the best stuff being the most smartly derivative. “No Regrets” has the tart eloquence and lush melancholy of a Pet Shop Boys ballad (in fact, Neil Tennant sings backup). “Let Me Entertain You” is a glammy, hammy, rock-operatic monster that, even on record, neatly embodies his chest-out-cocky/hands-on-hips-effete dialectic.
And yet, for all Williams’s calculated archness, it’s a primal imperative that takes over live. His nominal statement of intent, “Let Me Entertain You” (which invariably opens his shows), is the tip-off. The sentiment isn’t cordial, but frantic and imploring. It’s really as simple— and as touching— as this: Robbie Williams just wants to be loved. —Dennis Lim
“Are you all having fun? Because fun’s what it’s all about!” the male MC-DJ from Z-100 assured the crowd of hopeful fronted-by-a-woman acts and their supporters at the Lilith Fair Acoustic Talent Search in Westbeth Theater last Wednesday. But as the auditions began this information didn’t seem to fit with the Sarah McLachlanesque parsing of inner emotional states and broken relationships that was the content of most of the entries.
Since each of the 20 acts got to audition with just one song, and “acoustic” here appeared to mean “any instrument onstage except a drum kit or a turntable,” there was a lot of setup time, and hence a need for a lot of the “Are you having fun?” patter and flinging of free hats and T-shirts into the crowd. As the evening settled into a rhythm of psychic pain and commerce, the modulation that might have been provided with a funny song, a novelty tune, or an unpredicted cover came only from those acts far off the beaten path of internal-parsing-accompanied-by-guitar-etc. So as the night progressed I found myself relieved by the acts that didn’t fit— the a cappellaites, the acoustic rapper, and the loungey trio. Until I caught myself and remembered the gaps of age and gender that separated me from audience and auditioners.
Sure enough, although I had only noted two sisterhood acknowledgments from the stage (“It’s great to be here with all these amazing women”), the crowd was nodding thoughtfully to each other’s songs. Not bored, they were paying attention, encouraged and encouraging. And that included the rather large contingent of male backups. For the record, there were, in fact, no backup women musicians, although there were female duos, trios, and quintets. There were very few eccentric but lovable eyeglasses, hairdos, or clothes, and only one nod to c&w, but there were two cellists. The winners were Amy Fairchild, Rachel Sase, and Jenny Bruce, and I think one of them gets to open the acoustic stage at the two area Lilith shows this summer but all three won that new best friend of a struggling singer-songwriter: their own Web site!
After the winners were announced the good-natured crowd bubbled out onto Bank Street. I may have begun by finding the mixture of partying and introspection peculiar. But when I thought about it later, I had to admit that being allowed to pursue the dream, if only for a night, that probing your inner life and personal relationships could make you rich and famous, is . . . well, fun. —Tom Smucker
Hating the Obvious
The Delgados are trying to escape the clichés of British indie-rock by aiming for nonobviousness in sound and form. Their stylistic contortions work on their second album, Peloton (Beggars Banquet), but they hit some snags onstage. At Fez last Monday, the Glasgow quartet-plus-friends guided fluffy little tunes on their way with the aid of a couple of auxiliary string players and a flautist, then let their very electric core group claw and snap through the softer timbres. The extra instruments thicken and flavor the guitar tone on the record; here, they simply got drowned out.
Noble as it is for the Delgados to avoid ostentatious rock gestures, it sometimes gets in the way of their songs. Singer-guitarists Emma Pollock (compact, intense, tuneful) and Alun Woodward (tall, scattered, reedy) struck sparks when they flexed their stage presence and let their voices clash, but they mostly kept to their own sides and their own songs. “Pull the Wires From the Wall” (No. 1 on John Peel’s Festive 50 last year!) could be Pollock’s big ballad if it were allowed to: its melody curls around fragrantly, and the band holds back to let her dry, sturdy voice ring. Just when it’s starting to promise a dramatic climax, though, it simply halts. The biggest trap of overfamiliarity the Delgados face is the one they stumble straight into. Their precise arrangements reward close attention on record; played note-for-note live, they take the edge off songs that could be more obvious, but also more dramatic. —Douglas Wolk
Crossing Atlantic It may lack the flash of feuds like Puff Daddy vs. Steve Stoute or Marilyn Manson against . . . well, just about everyone, but the internecine squabble between Atlantic Records and Entertainment Weekly looks to have more far-reaching repercussions.
For several weeks, the media Goliaths— both of which fall under the Time-Warner corporate umbrella— have been waging a war that has seen the label cut off all relations with EW. Allegedly at the direction of CEO Val Azzoli, Atlantic has been refusing to grant interviews or provide promotional CDs, and even declined to verify information for fact-checkers.
Entertainment Weekly insiders insist an unflattering profile of Atlantic cash cow Jewel that depicted her as a self-absorbed prima donna precipitated the trouble. But a source close to the label says, “That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and cites a litany of acts (including Brandy and Sugar Ray) that Atlantic feels were treated unscrupulously by EW.
“They’re basically using the names of these artists to sell magazines and then simply fucking them,” says the source. “Atlantic isn’t asking for any sort of favorable treatment, just a fair shake for the artists— something we get from other publications.” Several Atlantic employees grant that the label has tried to throw its weight around in the past, strongly “suggesting” that certain writers not be used on stories, but none remembers an effort as concentrated as the current one. “Nothing has been written in black and white, but we’ve all been told exactly what can and can’t be done,” says one.
At the EW offices, a “what, me worry?” attitude prevails. Senior editor John McAlley, who declines to discuss the spat, simply insists that he and his fellow editors “stand by the Jewel story as it was written.” That story, which appeared several weeks after Rolling Stone‘s soft-porn lionizing of the Alaskan yodeler, was the last major feature on an Atlantic artist to appear in the mag’s pages.
According to a nonaligned Time-Warner observer, an uneasy peace accord is likely. “When EW slams a Warner Bros. film,” he says, “they go ballistic on the West Coast, thinking that the studio will lose millions, but it blows over before long. If they know what’s good for them, these people will do the same.” —David Sprague
Taking a Peep
You probably don’t associate portable toilets with positive sensory stimulation, but that shouldn’t stop you from spelunking through an interactive multimedia exhibit that opened last weekend at Long Island City’s P.S. 1. The show (credited to Low Flame, a partnership between Adria Petty, Ana Gabriel, and Thin Lizard Dawn’s Howie Statland), contains a maze of Mylar-lined porto-potties, outfitted with peepshow-style video projections that trawl the psychosexual subconscious of a blue-collar everyman. Proud papas Peter Gabriel (with camcorder in tow) and Tom Petty hung in the back room, where Statland and DJ Stress provided live accompaniment to the installation’s film centerpiece. Both found time to peep at the porn reels— presumably out of parental duty. —D.S.