“I’m never gonna break your heart, not unless I have to,” Richard Edwards howls over the booming guitars and drums of “New York City Hotel Blues,” one of Buzzards’ highest moments. Clearly Mr. Edwards and the rest of the Indianapolis gang he calls “Margot & The Nuclear So and Sos” has decided he has to, as many tracks throughout Buzzards will split your heart with the fine blade of their chamber pop hooks and blunt one-liners. Some of these songs will scratch your eyes out; others will cry them dry.
The second track, “Let’s Paint our Teeth Green,” sounds like The White Stripes banged heads with R.E.M. somewhere in the halls of the studio it was recorded in. It’s a bruising crunch of guitars and hissing percussion that drips with pop hooks. The whole gorgeous mess drives Edwards’s screeching vocals to the end of the song like a truck crash on an icy road at night, accompanied along the way by backup vocals that sound like a chorus of blackbirds.
It is only fitting that on the first line of the next track, the aforementioned “New York City Hotel Blues,” Edwards declares that it “seems like the only way out’s through the back.” By then you’re three songs deep in an album that’s dug its claws so deep into your imagination you might never get them out, and it does start to feel as if you just paid to enter a black light ballroom where the guy stamping hands at the door will only let you out for a drop of your blood. But what else would you expect of an album whose song titles span a range from hilarity to horror—“Let’s Paint out Teeth Green,” ‘Tiny Vampire Robot,” “Earth to Aliens: What Do You Want?”
An adrenaline that calls to mind Bloc Party or The Long Winters ignites the appropriately titled “Freak Flight Speed,” while “Tiny Vampire Robot” dims the lights with an ethereal little ballad that brings to mind something from a Mazzy Star album you haven’t thought about since you were15 and pissed at your parents for making you take that stud out of your tongue. Other tracks, like “Claws” or “Earth to Aliens” channel the raw and aching beauty of Magnolia Electric Co.’s finest moments (think Songs Ohia).
But the star of the baroque production that is Buzzards happens to be its quietest moment, a spare and harrowing track called “I Do” that brings the album to a close. The stripped-bare ballad offers no more than one man’s dusty vocals and his guitar drowned in the dark matter of the song and resembles Radiohead’s devastating “Exit Music (For a Film)” from OK Computer. Although Edwards’s anguished delivery comes closer to the fragile and lowdown vocals of Jeff Tweedy than it does to the demon that Thom Yorke tickles on “Exit Music.” (And no, Richard Edwards doesn’t hope that you choke.)
Margot and friends are striking while the iron is hot, already prepared to drop their next record, an acoustic EP called Happy Hour at Sprigg’s, on January 14th.
Of course, this is the Grammies, and so the 53rd annual awards show will feature, as usual, one of the most bizarre crossroads the music industry can possibly assemble. Grizzled warhorses like Neil Young will share the same billing as Drake and Jay-Z and the utterly insufferable Jewel will inhabit the same edifice as Win Butler. But that’s how it is at the Grammy Awards, where Lady Gaga lavishes Elton John in a rain of adoration from across her piano, Brittney Spears locks tongues with Madonna, and Soy Bomb gets more pub than Dylan the day after the latter brings home the first Album of the Year award of his life at the tender young age of 56 (an incident remembered fondly in the sublime Eels track, “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”).
Top40-charts.com reports that the Grammies honored no less than 273 indie artists with nominations this year–more than half of all nominations. The story then goes on to completely discredit itself with a quote alleging that Taylor Swift is an indie artist. But given the embarrassing legacy that the Grammies have developed over the years, mere tastelessness is better than the baffling indifference afforded The Strokes and The White Stripes back in 2002, when both White Blood Cells and Is This It? earned a combined total of zero nominations despite their standing as easily the two most interesting and superior rock albums of the year. Instead, the “Best new Artist” category that year gave the Strokes the “talk to the hand” treatment in favor of acts like Michelle Branch. Right, enough said.
The Stripes got the shaft in favor of “artists” such as Avril Lavigne (who? That skater-chick from Canada who did that teeny-bopper anthem for Dawson’s Creek, you mean?) while The Neptunes, The Vines, and The Hives also got hosed. But if getting ignored by the Grammies is a sure way to demonstrate your creative integrity (hint: It is), The Strokes, Stripes and friends are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much. As for who should win this year and, of course, who will win instead, here are Culturespill’s picks in a handful of the major categories:
Record of the Year: With a slate of nominees such as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Jay-Z, and something called “Cee Lo Green,” which I think is a kind of environmentally friendly glass cleaner, does anyone really give a shit who wins here? With ten nods going to Eminem in total, this one is almost certain to go to Mr. Shady. The Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind,” a song that basically amounts to a musical grocery list of all the neat things that the rich and famous appreciate about NYC, is a possible sleeper here–if for no other reason than to offer Alicia a baby gift in light of the recent birth of her son, Egypt Daoud Dean (Can you say “Apple Blythe Alison Martin“?).
Album of the Year: It is just as obvious that Arcade Fire is by far the more deserving winner here as it is that the Grammy folks don’t have the balls to go there. The only genuinely daring winner of this category in recent memory was Steely Dan’s horrendous Two Against Nature, and maybe Dylan’s win for the brilliant and career-resurrecting Time out of Mind in 1998. Other than that, this one almost always goes to the pop trash celebrity of the moment, and that distinction, clearly, goes to Katy Perry for Teenage Dream, a sure-fire winner this year. Other nominees: Eminem, Recovery; Lady Antebellum, Need You Now; Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster. A good year for ladies named “Lady.”
Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance: Surely Apple has paid off the Grammy folks by now to the tune of whatever it takes to ensure that McCartney wins for his delivery of “Helter Skelter” on Good Evening New York City, a live CD released this year on–wait for it–the Starbucks record label Hear Music. Whatever amount of payola the Grammy folks received from Apple to use this as further advertising fodder for their announcement that Beatles music is now available on iTunes will probably be enough to bring it home. It’s a crowded category this year, including used-up former gods such as Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, whose continued laurel-resting inspired perhaps the most notorious exchange in Culturespill history in the comments below our review of Clapton’s Robert Johnson covers album. If there was a true God, though, the good deity would ensure that this year’s award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance goes to its rightful winner, and that has to be Neil Young for “Angry World,” easily one of the man’s most inspired rock performances since the night he damn-near burned down the building with his terrifying performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on SNL in 1989. Le Noise is the most engaging record Neil has done in at least 15 years and earned him three nominations this year. Other nominees in this category: John Mayer, “Crossroads.” Yes, John Mayer. You are now free to throw up in your own mouth.
Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals: It should come as no surprise that the track nominated in this category from the Black Keys’s brilliant new record Brothers happens to rank among the least interesting moments on the entire album. It is equally unsurprising that “Tighten Up” was also the first single that Nonesuch tagged for promos when the record hit the streets earlier this year. Had the Grammy shills bothered to actually listen to the record before choosing a track to nominate under this category, they might have considered “The Next Girl,” “Howlin’ For You” or “She’s Long Gone.” Since they failed to do so, the winner here has to be Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Other nominees in this category: Jeff Beck & Joss Stone, “I Put a Spell on You“; Kings of Leon, “Radioactive“; Muse, “Resistance.”
Best Rock Album: Funny how the more cluttered the scene becomes with young bands vying for a spare slice of the glory pie their forebears baked so long ago, the more those forebears remind us that they know best how to rock. Three of the five nominees in this category have roamed the earth for a combined 180+ years: Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and Tom Petty. Others, the boy-band-as-rock-‘n-rollers concept group Muse and grunge priests Pearl Jam, ought to have no chance whatsoever in winning over any of the other three. Here again, Young’s “Le Noise” is by far the ballsiest record of the five nominees, with Beck’s “Emotion & Commotion” a clear runner-up only because Petty’s Mojo turned out to be running a little lower than he realized (forgettable toss-offs like “Candy” and “No Reason to Cry” cramp the style of rock ‘n roll stunners like “I Should Have Known it” and “Running Man’s Bible“). But, as always, most likely this one will go to the shittiest of the five nominees, namely Muse.
Click here for the full list of nominees for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. If you prefer the PDF version, go here.
Browse any number of music forums and message boards around the web sometime and search for threads related to The White Stripes. Invariably you will find a growing chorus of fans who fell in love with the post-punk sublimity of De Stijl and, to a lesser extent, the breakthrough White Blood Cells, only to be almost entirely alienated by the rotten egg they laid in 2003 with the muddled catastrophe of Elephant. Now with Icky Thump living up only to the first word of its title with the occasional exception (the title track among them), it seems as if the momentary streak of brilliance they offered on Get Behind Me Satan–a wild and stunningly successful departure from the tired recipe of previous albums–was merely a passing tease.
It’s surely no surprise that their major-label debut–Icky Thump–interrupted what Satan foreshadowed: a stretching of the band’s creative boundaries that left them to explore as broad a range of possibilities as ever before. In keeping with the kind of anxieties that accompany major-label debuts by established bands (as in Death Cab’s pitiful Plans, their first LP for Atlantic), Icky Thump sounded like the timid product of sessions in which the band tried their damnedest to sound like the band their label wanted–and so the album went in two different directions at once, with one foot on the beaten path of all the band had done before and the other in the more eccentric arrangements Jack White showcased on Get Behind Me Satan.
Satan qualifies as a rock ‘n roll landmark and is at once the band’s most daring and accessible piece of work–and if you think that’s an easy balance to strike, you try it, tough guy. But of all the band’s 6 albums, one stands alone as the turning point that we didn’t have the hindsight to see for what it was at the time: 2003’s Elephant, a total crapper of an album from start to finish that rivals only the more recent Icky Thump in indulgence and unlistenability.
After firmly establishing themselves as the undisputed rock ‘n roll resurrection by 2003, The White Stripes answered their growing frenzy of devotees with one dud of an album. A band that, just a year prior, was universally hailed as a much-welcome throwback to a sound long dead, the stripped down guitar/drums duo from Detroit seemed about as interested in fanning the flames of their growing fame as a 25-year-old Neil Young. “That album put me in the middle of the road, so I headed for the ditch,” Young, who followed up 1972’s monumental Harvest with the deliberately inaccessible Time Fades Away in 1973, explained years later. Young has since called it his worst album and, to this day, has refused to release it on CD (it remains a vinyl-only collector’s gem.) It seems that the White Stripes are up to much of the same thing on the careless, uninspired and puerile albums Elephant and Icky Thump.
The White Stripes: “Blue Orchid,” Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
What were addictive and delightfully anachronistic rockers on De Stijl and White Blood Cells have given way to a drab collections of clunkers that sound more like sloppy, half-baked demos and outtakes. Taut, muscular collections doused in blues and grit such as De Stijl demonstrated a mammoth potential, rekindling the hopes of long-time subscribers to the “rock is dead” mantra. The orgasmic cacophony that emerged from Meg White’s sizzling drums and Jack White’s guitar and uncanny wail produced a sound that resounded with improbable richness and fervor. It was hardly unfamiliar but still, somehow, distinctive. From gorgeous rock ballads like “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” to raucous jams like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or the brain-searing “Let’s Build A Home,” Meg and Jack White, knowingly or not, had taken the fate of rock ‘n roll into their hands.
Beginning with an unlikely bass line complimented by Meg’s angry, thumping drums, Elephant serves as a mighty tease. Just as it seems that The Stripes had at last discovered a sound of even deeper texture and richness without compromising their essential minimalism, the album unfolds into so much noise and nonsense. Song after song rings hollow, as Jack’s lazy guitar simply mimes old motions while the downright irreverent snap of Meg’s drumming is conspicuously dormant. A shrieking, murky chorus ruins the aimless “There’s Just No Home For You Here,” while “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” sounds, at best, like an anemic stepchild to superior ballads from past albums, such as “Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.”
Perhaps Elephant‘s most egregious moment comes on the pseudo-poetic “In The Cold Cold Night,” on which Meg White sounds entirely foolish, lending a self-conscious and timid croon to lines so juvenile as to be the stuff of bad teen angst poetry:
I saw you standing on the corner,On the edge of a burning light,
I saw you standing on the corner,
Come to me again in the cold cold night…
“I don’t care what other people say, I’m gonna love you anyway,” she continues to the plucking of a guitar lick that sounds like a ragged attempt at nailing down a Harry Mancini riff.
The White Stripes: “Well it’s True That We Love One Another,” Elephant (2003)
As with most rock ‘n roll mishaps, though, a few gems emerge from the rubble of an unfortunate album. The explosive “Seven Nation Army” resounds with such energy and purpose as to seem like the work of another band altogether. The mean-eyed “The Hardest Button to Button” would crack an indulgent smile from the mouth of any AC/DC die-hard, and a flicker of soul ignites the piano-drenched “I Want To Be The Boy”–a sound the band would extend to such astonishing effect on Get Behind Me Satan.
Overall, however, the once formidable White Stripes seem to have morphed into a joke that few others are cool enough to get. “Just say Jack do you adore me,” Meg slurs on the silly, throwaway tune recorded with punk-rocker Holly Golightly, “It’s True That We Love One Another.” “Well I really would Holly but love really bores me” Jack answers. Judging from the remarkably listless Elephant, one wonders whether the music, too, bores poor Jack.
Icky Thump and Elephant are the modern-day equivalents of Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, two underwhelming albums the Stones slapped together in the stunned aftermath of Exile on Main Street, that enduring masterpiece they released in 1972. Only fleeting glimpses of The Stones’ genius emerged from that point on–a tight tune somewhere on Tattoo You or a surprising sign of grit on more recent rock-outs like “Gunface” or “Dangerous Beauty.” If it’s true that history repeats itself, it’s a safe bet to expect only fleeting glimpses of brilliance from The Stripes going forward, yet another now-legendary rock band we once so trustingly relied on for an escape from the mindless doldrums of FM radio.
The Rolling Stones: “Gunface,” Bridges to Babylon (1997)
I once found myself the pained victim of a “Punk Rock Charity Event” at an established venue in lovely Tampa, FL. Washing down a basket of blazing hot hush puppies with many gulps of Guinness, my friend, a very wise man and professor of good taste, warned me of the agonies that awaited as a 7-piece band crowded the stage with Wurlizters, triangles, musical saws, synths, dobros, guitars, bicycle bells, bass, drums, and, yes–an Electro-Theremin (No, I am not shitting you.) “I am of the opinion that a four-piece band is one piece too many,” he said, a less-is-more aesthetic philosophy proven true by bands like The Gossip, The Black Keys, The White Stripes, and, as you’ll see below, a band called The Boxing Lesson. He was right, of course: the band sounded like the musical equivalent of gastroenteritis.
I promptly began scrolling the venue for the nearest emergency exit to no avail, gripping a beer with one hand and holding my head together with the other in full anticipation that it would split in three any minute. I somehow made it through the evening, but not without fleeing home to a stack of early Stones albums in the hope that they would make the world comprehensible to me once again. So imagine my euphoria upon discovering a band that relishes the deceptively boundless possibilities inherent in the three-piece concept. An up-and-coming threesome out of Austin, Texas, The Boxing Lesson betray a rather thinly veiled affinity for Pink Floyd on their new LP, Wild Streaks and Windy Days; but they roughen the edges of that influence with an open-armed embrace of Spacemen 3, The Cure, Radiohead and Broken Social Scene.
The Boxing Lesson: Dance With Meow, Wild Streaks and Windy Days (2008)
Little is left to the imagination when an album opens with a title like “Dark Side of the Moog“–just in case you questioned the veracity of comparisons to Pink Floyd–a smoking-hot and brooding intro to the brand of neo-psychedelic space rock they so proudly peddle (what the fuck is a “moog,” you’re asking–OK. Here.) “Lead Boxer, Paul Waclawsky, flexes his songwriting muscles and his space echoes like never before on this ageless recording inspired by the Austin indie music scene and radio transmissions from outer space,” they explain (in keeping with the theme, the static of those “transmissions” is heard in the fade of “Dark Side”–these guys are on top of things.) “Paul’s voice shows maturity and his epic sonic guitar textures are psychedelic and lush, like Cassiopeia A, the birthplace of the stars,” they continue. Even between the lines of the band’s own copy, you can hear vague echoes of Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun.” Consider their influences established.
And they’re not kidding–the trippy title track, which evokes vivid memories of waiting in line for another ride on Disney’s Space Mountain–really does give you the feeling that you’ve just been strapped to a rocket and sent through the sky to probe some intergalactic snowstorm. Gushing with synths that leave you wondering if this is the lost Part 10 of Floyd’s epic “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” the song undulates through some zero-gravity dream in a shining silver space suit while sending transmissions to rumored lifeforms on the 57th moon of Saturn. Paul Waclawsky–self-described “songwriter and astronaut”–lends his feathery vocals to cloak the tune in a distinctly airy robe of sound, a gorgeous contrast to the feedback-laden pop mastery of other tracks like the chiseled “Brighter“–the easiest pick for a summer road trip mix that we’ve heard all year.
The Boxing Lesson: “Brighter,” Live in Austin, TX (Feb. 2008)
As if any further proof was needed, Wild Streaks and Windy Days confirms once again that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” The Boxing Lesson take us somewhere genuinely new with Wild Streaks and Windy Days; and if they have to fumble through a jewel chest of prior eras to get there, they never look back so long as to undermine a vision of their own.