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Rock tries to reach Nirvana


If popular music renaissances have a patron saint, it's Dave Grohl. There was the whole drumming with Nirvana thing, of course. A little less recognized was the role he took in fashioning the melodic post-grunge that now gives us most of the melodic mush played on alternative radio. And then there's his latest project, one that he's already bailed out of. Grohl manned the drums for the latest Queens of the Stone Age album, Songs For The Deaf, a record that has critics everywhere hyperventilating trying to remember the name of that band that had the husband and wife or brother and sister (cousins, maybe?) that wear red and white. Something "Stripes." White Stripes. Yes, that's it.

Of course, the Stripes could be thrown into this latest of trends that QOTSA is helping to lead, which we'll refer to hereafter as GROHL (Garage Rock On Humongous Labels). As could loads of other bands, most with names beginning with "the": The Strokes, The Hives, and The Vines. Granted, QOTSA are more on the heavy end of the spectrum, but they and the others are all indie in spirit even whilst on a major label (Nirvana), loud as hell (Nirvana), and intelligent, even while acting the fool more often than not (uh, Nirvana).

Yet, even Nirvana didn't make their splash without a few planets colliding along the way. So what are the common denominators that explain why the above bands are getting all this media and consumer attention? After some thought, I've come to the following conclusions to explain the phenomenon, which I will explain forthwith:

1. Hair. Meticulously unkempt hair. Hair that would make Ryan Adams and Frederic Fekkai shed a tear. OK, so I'm sorta kidding about this one. But not a whole lot.

2. British Press. After The Strokes, American marketing muscle once again believes in the power of the Tory pen (unless our overseas neighbors are talking about their own bands, mind you). Semi-clueless American music fans read these rags, as well they should. Hell, Rolling Stone is now aping them shamelessly. Or shamefully? I'm not sure which. Our friends QOTSA made the cover of Britain's famous NME two months in a row, proving that limeys love good old American GROHL. Or perhaps that American labels, sensing a "buzz," love a buck. Both, likely.

3. The woeful state of "big" music magazines like Rolling Stone and Blender and Spin. Desperately trying to hang on with lagging sales (Rolling Stone and Spin) and desperately trying to stay cool six issues into their press run (Blender), you're damn right they're gonna feature QOTSA and the Hivinestrokestripes. TRL viewers are too busy with Teen Beat and Teen People, and the decrepit slimebag old men viewers are too busy with Barely Legal. Urban and hip hop music fans buy XXL and The Source. Dance music fans buy URB. Left with a fan base of bastardized Aerosmith and not-quite hardcore indie fans, they all try to deftly walk the tightrope between hip and homey, enlightening the inner frat boy in us all without scaring him too bad with lists of Thurston Moore's favorite alternate tunings.

4. The woeful-isn't-a-strong-enough-word state of American "alternative" radio. It's shite, as we all know. All the Nickelbacks and Creeds and Defaults and Bushes of the world, thank Dave Grohl and Seattleite pals like Soundgarden for leading the way for your de-tuned, polished grunge. That said, at the time Soundgarden was putting out Superunknown, it still sounded relatively fresh. Nickelback doesn't. Older alternative radio listeners who grew up in the early 90s want to hear music as fresh as Nirvana and The Breeders. Younger listeners raised on the Warp Tour and emo, well, they want their first Nirvana. Enter GROHL. The radio stations? They get to drop in a White Stripes song once or twice a day and kid themselves into thinking they have their finger on the pulse of music.

5. They play power chords, which, from the beginning of time (Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran) to now, establish revolt and mutiny in the loins of the young and young at heart. Remember when you were young and your square parents would throw on an old Stones or Eagles record and your dad would knowingly wink at your mom? Well, me either. But it did happen, and still does. Rock and Roll is still slang for the nasty, and the rawer the better. The music, that is.

6. They're cute. Mostly. Even if you're an indie rocker, you can still look Indie Cute, which explains why most of these guys have the same mop and six-pack stomach. It's no coincidence that Frank Black and Pere Ubu's David Thomas aren't leading this charge. They have real six-pack stomachs. The sponsored-by-Anheiser-Busch kind.

7. They're young. See above. Little Meghann and Avril and Jordan ain't gonna buy tickets to go see Paul Westerburg.

8. They play along. The bands, that is. Kurt Cobain loved the Major Star/Punk Rock dichotomy. Loved it so much it killed him. So do the Strokes, who expect sellouts at arenas everywhere and date models and actresses but inevitably always act surprised when people clap: "Oh, wow. You really like us?" Yeah, but you better get a new album out posthaste. (Aside: Strokes mouthpiece Julian Casablancas may want to heed the latter part of Number Six, above.)

9. The kids can play along. Literally. Most GROHL songs are relatively simple, at least on rhythm guitar. Lots of people learn to love and play music that way. (See the slew of alternative radio acts today that weaned themselves off copying Bush, themselves a second rate wannabe Nirvana/Pearl Jam hybrid.) Bands like QOTSA and the Hivinestrokestripes went direct to the source: The Velvet Underground, The MC5, and The Stooges.

10. The music sounds alive. It blows the angst out of its listeners with feedback and vodka shots. It soars, rather than dirges. It doesn't sound like a funeral march, though it is helping to bury some very deserving dead.

And as such, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, the new Nirvana comes not with a bang, but a whimper. No single band has come along like the Seattle trio to cut through the morass of popular music on a popular level. Rather, much like our society, it's in a number of bands, each possessing a few essential ingredients (and personal stylists), coming together and forming like Voltron on magazine covers everywhere, each with their own sound and take on good old fashioned rock and roll. Like the NBA, they're even coming from countries like Sweden (The Hives) and Australia (The Vines). This, of course, might be the best sign yet for the resurrection of radio rock. If record companies can't tie a trend to a sound or a place, they can't marginalize it and sign and market it into the ground (see Seattle, circa "93). Indeed, with all the hair flying and beer guzzling and guitar smashing and youthful abandon these bands possess, this is likely their most revolutionary contribution. And it's already being televised.

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