Tuesday, September 24

Critic’s dilemma: to know hype from rock


Critic’s dilemma: to know hype from rock

Rock critics like to think that they’re on the cutting edge of
what’s important in popular music. And a few geniuses ­ Robert
Christgau, Greil Marcus ­ truly are. But most give in to the
temptation of championing the tried and true, succumb to the Power
of the Press Release, and rally around the latest product from a
sacred cow, despite its obvious inferiority.

When this happens to a dubious product from a band like U2,
which has more than a decade’s worth of albums behind it, critics
and fans at least have an excuse for being so gullible. But when it
comes to bands with only one record under their belts, with only a
few songs and a whole lot of hype to show for it, pundits have no
reason to start trotting out the Beatles analogies, other than peer
pressure.

This holds especially true for the almost always overrated U.K.
Next Big Things, one of which is forced upon our shores every year.
In the past few months, we’ve had two: Oasis and the Stone
Roses.

Oasis’ debut record, Definitely Maybe, has to be one of the most
aptly titled albums in the history of rock and roll. I first had my
suspicions about this band when I encountered them on the front
page of Billboard, where one of the band members explained the
failure of Suede (U.K. Next Big Thing, Circa 1993) to conquer
America as they had their native Britain: they were too
serious."

In truth, Suede, one of the only groups of the recent U.K. pack
to live up to their press clippings, probably got pushed under the
rug in this country because of the homosexual undertones of their
lyrics, which in open minded old America went down about as easily
as broken glass. And perhaps in light of the band’s current record,
the largely bombastic Dog Man Star, Liam Gallagher’s observation
might hold a kernel of truth.

But nevertheless, Gallagher’s criticism made the bullshit
detector in my head go off regardless: often when an artist charges
that another is "too serious" or "too cynical," it usually
functions as a euphemistic smoke screen, designed to obscure the
former artist’s own failings. And starting with lead singer
Gallagher, who sounds like he’s opening his mouth far too wide for
far too long for the words he’s singing, Oasis has a lot of
them.

Other than the falsetto hook of "Live Forever," there’s not a
memorable song to be had on this record. Like too many bands on the
U.K. scene today, Oasis are sorely lacking in the songwriting
department. Personally, I get cheesed off when rock bands are
stingy with the juicy pop hooks.

On Definitely Maybe, those hooks are few are far between. The
annoying "Shakermaker" for example, steals its meager melody from
"I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke," and then compounds the sin by
recasting it in a beat that recalls nothing so much as slam dancing
in molasses.

"Rock And Roll Star" upsets me the most ­ although it
literally steals nothing from Mott The Hoople’s song of the same
name other than its title, it’s plagiarism regardless. Granted, a
court would never convict Oasis, which makes their robbery all the
more infuriating: they’re pilfering a sound, a feeling, without
putting their own individual stamp on it.

Derivativeness is a given in popular music, but most worthy
bands do more than just rip off their sources, they recontextualize
them in an exciting new way. Unlike Suede, who did their David
Bowie/ Smiths borrowings justice, Oasis take more from the music
than they give back. And that’s why their mediocre record earns
more than just my ambivalence.

But while Oasis’s murk at least shores up the occasional melodic
interest, the murmur of the Stone Roses’ pretentiously titled
Second Coming has to be the biggest put-on of 1995. The band’s
overrated first record, released in 1989, channeled mid-’60s Byrds
through the patented Manchester sound. This record does the same
for early ’70s Zeppelin, with the same ho-hum results.

But unlike Oasis, who have yet to fully break out stateside, The
Stone Roses have a tremendous cult following in L.A., which leads
me to believe that the drug problem in this city is worse than I
thought. Has anyone who has bought this record done so because they
actually liked it?

All this record proves is that the Stone Roses are dramatically
inferior to their far worthier sources: singer Ian Brown drones
where Robert Plant makes his presence felt, guitarist John Squire
doesn’t come up with one riff that rivals any of Jimmy Page’s, etc.
And Led Zep, unless I’m mistaken, wrote songs. The first Stone
Roses album may have had "She Bangs The Drums" and "I Want To Be
Adored," but any song this album might contain is buried under
trance-like, you’re-swimming-in-it mix, which sounds like it would
evaporate if you could reach out and touch it.

It’s not that I’m an anti-U.K. yankee rockist, even though this
is the best time for American rock since the rise of indie-label
bands of the mid-’80s. But using hype as a means to justify
artistic achievement is ridiculous ­ I mean, does anybody
really remember Frankie Goes to Hollywood? If you must invest in
Anglophile-identified music to satisfy your white boy rock jones,
put your hard-earned bucks into something reliable – like Sgt.
Pepper.

Tatum wishes he could have been the fifth Beatle.

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