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Cut The Crap

CL dispels the hype

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Every week, I receive an armload of promo CDs and press releases and record company bios. I surf the Net. I listen to online radio stations, and download music. I read fanzines, and I read the usual rock mags -- Spin, Rolling Stone, and all the Brit rags. Do all this, and, at some point, it becomes increasingly obvious how the whole hype machine (the phrase "critical mass" is a particularly good fit here) gets rolling on a particular act. First, the hacks regurgitate the bios. The "serious" critics (those with a friend in NY, or those especially young and good looking, in the case of most of the "big" American mags) print big huzzahs about how artist "A" interacts with society "B," thus producing record (and story, and cultural observation) "C." After the big magazines have their turn, then it begins to seep back down to the smaller publications and outlets again, usually in the form of a re-write of whatever bigshot critics like Greg Kot or Greil Marcus say.

All of which makes it especially fun to listen with new ears every now and again, in an attempt to get behind the hype a bit. As time permits, we're going to check in on a semi-regular basis with our rants and raves (and our raving rants).

To sharpen our swing, we shall warm up with a few softballs.

Carlos Santana Granted, the man was a classic rock monster pre-1970, ripping off tonal rainbows of guitar notes that brightened the sky of popular music at the time. Then something happened, some shift in the primordial ooze, and he became a dinosaur -- and then some. He became a Sellosaurus Rex, and now plays sideman to whatever shit radio's forcing down our throats this week. Yes, the (black) magic is once and forever gone, lost in a cloud of dollars.

Getting Shot Multiple Times as a Marketing Tool We're gonna need a whole slew of Alan Lomaxes if this trend develops, with A&R scouts setting up shop at San Quentin and Rikers Island to catch the latest Street-Credible Next Big Thing. Oh, and Fifty: Nice touch with the bulletproof vests on your kids. Teach the children well!

Radiohead Certainly not the next Beatles. Maybe the next Can or Kraftwerk. Their latest, Hail To The Thief, is not the return to the "Radio" part of their name. No, it's a further journey into the "Head," which, depending on your take on the issue, is either exhilarating news or further reason to put your faith in someone like the Super Furry Animals. At what point does Thom Yorke and company's "no-formula" become formula? Benefit of the doubt given, however, for trying to keep a little mystery in rock (see doubling up on song titles, etc.).

Yeah Yeah Yeahs Good? Sure. A fun listen? You betcha. Karen O certainly brings a lot of sexual tension to the table, which, as we all know, is a big part of the rock equation. Something doesn't add up, however. As mix tape material, the music retains its freshness rather nicely. However -- after about 30 minutes, say -- the hermetic seal is broken, and what seemed sexy at one point almost comes across as coyly gratuitous. Oh, and Wendy O. Williams wants her name and look back.

Soul Music Bryan McKnight ain't it, and neither is Craig David. Ashanti? Blu Cantrell? Sorry. Certainly Mary J. Blige. Lauren Hill I'll grant you, and India.Arie and a few others. There's The Roots, certainly. But does anyone think there's anyone that even approaches The Temptations these days? Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes? Classic "Lutha?" For God's sake, even the Ohio Players? Note to hip-hop/soul artists: the key is to open your heart to the listener, not close it off. Too much of what passes for soul music nowadays concerns lifestyle and such that the average listener can't identify with. When Teddy Pendergrass cooed to his lady (or his city, or his people), you heard a guy talking to the common man and woman, speaking the language of the heart. "Wake Up Everybody," indeed.

Cat Power You hate the press, and their stupid questions, and little things like playing live shows? You hate that people recognize some of your songs and ask for them? You hate that people mention Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder, who you asked to appear on your album and printed it in the press release? You've got the Power to make it all stop, Chan baby.

Eminem If anyone thinks Eminem will be making any serious art 10 years from now, they're kidding themselves -- at least at the rate he's going now. While his records are certainly worthy of acclaim for their up-to-the-minute commentaries on celebrity culture, he's in danger of "Weird Al" territory if he doesn't steer the ship back to songs like "The Way I Am" and "Stan."

Things are by necessity four and five months old by the time they get commented on in an album. They say now that the great novelists can't imagine as fast as real life unfolds these days. I guess the same goes for great rappers. People like "The Dean of Rock Journalists" Robert Christgau love trying to see Everything Our Society Is in Slim Shady's music, forgetting for a second (maybe actually going to places that aren't a record store or nightclub or hanging with other critics might help here) that he's also equally everything we're not. While his linguistic skills are unquestioned, someone like the always-enthralling OutKast does a much better job of describing the richness -- the fullness, not just the foolness -- of life as most of us know it. Eminem's no doubt a musical hall of mirrors; he's wacky, he's out there, and he's a hell of a lot of fun. However, his reflection, it must be remembered, is still distorted, no matter how "real" he claims to be.

Bright Eyes/Saddle Creek Records Conor Oberst is not the new Dylan -- Bob, Thomas, or McKay. I'm not even sure he's the new Billy Corgan, another guy who couldn't contain his "bountiful youthful energy and songwriting aplomb." (Check out his Desaparecidos record if you don't believe me. That said, I heartily recommend the Creek's Rilo Kelly and The Faint, as well as much of Cursive's output.)

He is a good songwriter, however. For a guy in his early 20s, he's certainly a hell of a lot further along than I was at his age as far as getting in touch with his feelings. That said, not every emotional ebb or flow necessarily means a song is needed -- after all, most of us listeners have had them already, which makes about half of Oberst's oeuvre seem sort of quaint at best, and downright hard to listen to at worst.

And even though it has nothing to do with the music: Winona Ryder?

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