The Outbreak: I’m comin’ like Lebanon and givin’ the people what they want

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

I’m comin’ like Lebanon and givin’ the people what they want

I truly did not intend to start a music blog. And this isn’t going to become a music blog. But I am going to be doing some music blogging, and probably more than I otherwise might thanks to the positive reinforcement I’ve been getting from the likes of Dave, Bill, Eve, and Dorian. That’s why I’m easy.

With the help of my trusty TiVo programming guide, I decided to put a theory to the test a month or so ago and flipped through a week’s worth of shows to determine how many hours per week MTV (“Music Television”) dedicates to playing actual music videos. The answer was eight. This is a shockingly low number, even to someone like me who expected my most cynical guesses to be met, but certainly not surpassed. I suppose I could have been more generous and granted them Making the Video, which after all does culminate in the playing of one whole music video per episode. However, the bulk of that show is just more of the same celebfotainment what-have-you that fills up the rest of the network’s program hours. Moreover, I was already being fairly generous by counting TRL, which if you’re lucky plays maybe the equivalent of a full music video during its hour-long parade of 30-second vid-snippets.

It seems almost unnecessary to say that all the good music videos have been hounded right off the network’s schedule. 120 Minutes is gone, though it outlived its more mainstream-friendly kid brother Alternative Nation. Amp, the net’s mid-‘90s sop to “electronica” (yuck--do they call rock, country, and blues “guitarica”?) died out around the time the third Chemical Brothers record tanked in the States. Headbanger’s Ball is around in some incarnation or other, but without Riki Rachtman? Please. (Gotta love how they can take something they completely fucked up, like Riki and the Ball, make a special about how badly they fucked it up, and somehow weave that into their tapestry of the Wild History of MTV and come out looking better than ever. Hideous.) And everything that was great about Yo! MTV Raps disappeared somewhere along the line as the show was shitcanned and the network coopted hip-hop as its lingua franca. (On a peripheral note, I can’t even remember the last entertaining VJ. There was something sort of entertaining about the bald hardcore kid who held all the music he was forced to talk about in such obvious contempt, but Kurt “I’m above it all, yet I still enjoy sucking Madonna’s dick every two years or so” Loder wore that schtick thin years ago. I guess there was that Jesse dude a while back, but Jesse, you are no Randy of the Redwoods. You aren’t even the Wiez. In fact, as it turns out, Beavis and Butt-Head, with their almost unerring ability to separate the wheat from the chaff, were probably the best VJs MTV had this side of Martha Quinn.)

So boy oh boy were the Missus and I excited when we stumbled across The Dive, a show on rival music-vid channel Fuse. Airing at 10pm on Saturdays, which is nice because we are borderline hermits, this show plays honest-to-God alternative music. Until very recently it was literally the only place on television I’d ever seen videos by Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie, the Postal Service, the Walkmen, Electric Six, Elefant, TV on the Radio, Handsome Boy Modeling School, and more that I’m probably missing. We soon discovered that it’s immediately followed by a show called Tower Records’ Next Big Thing, which I guess runs slightly closer to a Warped Tour aesthetic but otherwise seems no different, except that the videos you see one week on The Dive play on NBT about three weeks later. So in the space of one hour on Fuse, you’ll see more good videos than you would in a full week--or more likely a full month--of watching MTV.

Does the Old Gray Lady of Madonna-Rolling-Around-in-a-Wedding-Dress Clips have anything to counter with? Well, sorta. Remember its sister network, MTV2? You know, the thing that started off as all music videos, no commercials, no reality shows, no behind-the-scenes shows, no cartoons, stuff from the vaults, commercials starring Devo and Biz Markie, wasn’t even called MTV2 (it was M2 until someone remembered that lecture on branding from b-school)? How the mighty have fallen, man. (If you ever have the chance, flip through the first dozen issues or so of Brian Bendis’s Powers and see how hard he humped this station in the letter columns, back when it was everything MTV watchers had dreamed of. How many future Bendis-Boarders are ruing ever following that advice? That is, if they can tear themselves away from the latest self-congratulatory train-wreck MTV autodocumentary, perhaps one in which the suits pat themselves on the back for breaking down racist barriers by playing “Billie Jean,” racist barriers that they themselves erected. As an angry orc would say, “Garn.”)

But anyway, MTV2 does have its own alt/indie show, a little number called, with typical imagination and subtlety, Subterranean. (Actually, I'm guessing that this show predates The Dive, since Fuse has only been "Fuse" for a relatively short period of time, before which it was MuchMusic USA. But I'm still giving more credit to The Dive, because if I were Desi and MTV were Lucy and my day at work was the last two and a half decades or so, MTV would have some 'splainin' to do.) So for the last few weeks the Missus and I have been TiVoing it, along with the two Fuse shows. It took us a while to get the kinks out--for some reason you can’t get a Season Pass to either The Dive or NBT, while Subterranean was always losing out to the higher-priority Sealab 2021 in our To Do List, until I bit the bullet, rejiggered the Season Pass Manager and kissed Debbie, Marco et al goodbye for the sake of the rock--but this evening we were finally able to sit down and watch two hours of non-Usher videos in a row. Well, less than two hours, since we can fast-forward through the commercials. (I’ve taken to shouting “We are not barbarians here!” at the ads as we zip past them, all civilized and shit.)

One thing I noticed right off the bat is that, when you combine The Dive and NBT (each is half an hour long) and stack them up against Subterranean, the former hour contains at least three more videos than the latter. In part this is because Sub features segment intros from host Jim Shearer, who also does a couple of brief interview spots per ep with a guest band. But we’re not talking Charlie Rose here--we’re not talking Joe Scarborough for that matter--so I think we’d be better off losing all that jive, and oh yeah, THE METRIC TON OF COMMERCIALS, and playing more music.

But the music is the real point. Since I no longer get sent comp copies of albums as I did back at my old gig, radio is basically a lost cause, and standard music television is a joke, I pretty much rely on these shows to get a taste of what’s out there--hence the TiVoing. Each time, there’s some interesting new stuff, some favorites, and some “eh.” Here’s how I’ve handicapped this past weekend’s efforts.

Subterranean (MTV, 12am Mon. (or midnight Sun., whatever you want to call it); most recent playlist here, past playlists here; MTV's official site doesn't even have a homepage for the thing)
This is only the second episode of this show that I’ve seen. Last time around it kicked off with videos by Saul Williams and the Chemical Brothers, so I thought it was going more in an electronic direction than the indie/retro-dance-rock Dive typically travels. But if this week’s ep is any indication, that’s merely how they get started before settling into that same groove. (Warning: You will have to put up with the giant opaque two-headed-dog MTV2 logo in the corner, as well as giant opaque bars that appear right in the middle of the fucking screen to tell you what video you're watching and, in the middle of the video, what show you're watching. What can you even say about that?)

LCD Soundsystem - Daft Punk Is Playing At My House
LCD Soundsystem is to Rapture producers DFA as N.E.R.D. is to the Neptunes, and this is the terrifically funky lead single off their debut full-length. Lyrically it’s a clever little boast about how cool this dude and his party are, vocally it gets interesting with the “a-whoo-hoo, yeah”s, musically you are going to shake your ass, and visually, despite the homages to different Daft Punk videos (and “Sledgehammer”!), it’s kinda boring. Oh well.

Phoenix - Run, Run, Run
This band had a marvelously nostalgic song on the Lost in Translation soundtrack, “Too Young,” which with its crystal-clear production and happy-sad New Wave-isms recalled for me Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out.” On the strength of that track I gave a listen to a comp copy of their album United that we had lying around the office, and I remember being disappointed and not even bothering to take it home, though in retrospect I’ve questioned that decision because “Too Young” is so good. Watching this video, I can take comfort in the knowledge that I made the right decision. At one point they just keep saying “Run, Run, Run”--what they need to do is run, run, run to the Rock Store and by theyselfs some ROCK. (Tangential aside: Apparently, Phoenix used to be Air’s back-up band. Learning this prompted me to stage an impromptu reenactment of what I thought Air’s dismissal of the Phoenix personnel must have been like. It turns out that in my mind, Air sound a lot like Batroc ze Leepair.)

Doves - Black And White Town
I’m already on record as saying that this is my favorite song of recent weeks, and I feel like it gets better every timeI hear it, from that insistent yet contemplative piano line to the liberatory noodled-out guitar solo. And the video is perfect--a gaggle of awkward, homely, malnourished British adolescents make trouble for themselves, like Kids but without being stupid.

Interpol – Evil
Another great song from another great band, with an incredibly perplexing video that’s been growing on me. It involves a car accident and a puppet, and I think it deliberately dances on that thin line between funny and serious, a line called “unsettling.” Same for the puppet itself, which we’d be comfortable with as viewers if it went in either direction along the realistic-cartoony axis--if they gave it a nose, say, or took away those teeth. Instead, we’re in (not to be blogosphere-hackneyed about it, but what can I do) Uncanny Valley, pop. Interpol. This is actually an excellent match for the song, which like the rest of the second Interpol record is an attempt to wed the very very dark stuff they get compared to all the time with the major-key rock they apparently enjoy. A successful wedding indeed.

The Good Life - Lovers Need Lawyers
So, apparently, do Squeeze and the Shins. I suppose this is the Saddle Creek label’s leap upon the indie-rockers-with-beards bandwagon. This is not for me.

Pinback – AFK
Neither is this, though I am sorry he’s upset.

The Music - Breakin'
Started off promising, but then the lead singer showed up. I’m trying to put my finger on who he sounds like, but whoever it is he’s not pleasant. And I know he thinks he’s movin’ and groovin’ like Robert Plant, but trust me, sir, no one comes to mind so much as the guy from the Spin Doctors. I certainly admire their passion for the Madchester scene, right down to The One Guy In The Band With The Normal Haircut, but I’m sorry, no.

Tegan and Sara - Speak Slow
This is what Beavis and Butt-Head would refer to as “college music.” I made this observation to Amy, who recalled the bit from the time the boys were watching that Helium video where they theorized that the lead singer had just woken up and was still really sleepy, but she’d probably take a late lunch and then commence rocking. I think it was awfully nice of them to give her the benefit of the doubt in this regard. Anyway, this is also what I call “Amy music,” which is to say female-fronted indie rock that kinda rocks you in an unassuming, sweater-wearing way, though their vocals are obviously slightly indebted to the sassier, Joan Jett-derived school. They don’t appear to be very good, though, and the almost confrontationally hipster haircuts are a little much, as Amy observed. Seriously, if Williamsburg, Brooklyn were the United States Marine Corps, these girls would be sporting the haircuts they’d dole out during the opening credits of Full Metal Jacket. My first instinct was to say “their hipster hairdos are makin’ me feel ill,” but then I realized the line was “Hitler hairdos,” and to the best of my knowledge Hitler never did lines in the bathroom of North Six, so nevermind.

Death From Above 1979 - Romantic Rights
If you never learn anything else about me, learn that band names like Death From Above 1979 are right the fuck up my fuckkin’ alley. (Didja know?: LCD Soundsystem alter egos DFA got their name by abbreviating “Death From Above”!) This is one of them two-person listen-to-how-much-low-end-I-can-get-out-of-my-guitar bands, a la the Kills, the Black Keys, the Raveonettes and the mighty White Stripes. They, too, do not appear to be very good. The riff the song centers on, for example, is not nearly as good as they think it is, which is sad because there is a really good riff that they end up wasting on what I think was the bridge. All they had to do was come see Sean, the Rock Professor, during his office hours, and he coulda told them whether they was getting’ a passin’ grade. Also, get your hair out of your faces, it’s driving me crazy.

The Dive (Fuse, 10pm Sat., 3am Mon. (or 2am Sun.--it varies); recent playlists here)
This is my favorite of the three shows, perhaps for sentimental reasons but mainly because it truly does have the highest quality selection of videos, in my experience. This week was a pretty representative sample. Sadly, a gander at those time slots can probably tell you all you need to know about Fuse’s faith in this show, so get it while it’s hot.

Eisley - Telescope Eyes
I think Amy put it best when she said, “Calm. Down.” (She was being facetious.) I appreciate that they’re all related and that they named their band after the wretched hive of scum and villainy from Episode IV, or at least tried to before Lucas sicced his lawyers on them, but c’mon, folks, call me when you get back from the Rock Store, or when your Xanax prescription runs out. They make *CALLBACK ALERT*the girl from Helium*END CALLBACK ALERT* look like Susan Powter.

The Postal Service - We Will Become Silhouettes
Now that’s more like it. The Dive is an almost guaranteed fount of Ben Gibbardy goodness every week, and this go-round it’s his electro-pop side project’s apocalyptic opus. The video is a scream, with Ben decked out in flawless late-‘80s normal-guy attire (stonewashed jeans with no belt = gawjuss) and singing to his family (including wife Jenny Lee (we think) and teenage son Jimmy Tamborello) before they all don sci-fi-circa-1973 tunics and ride off into a stony desert to drink fruit juice and gaze into the sunset. This song is one of the strongest on a very strong album. It was also one of my favorite science-fiction works of the year 2003, and the video is pretty boss too. There’s a look Ben gives his younger son when he hands him a cookie that’s just to die for if you know this type of fellow (Amy’s brother-in-law fits the bill), and Jenny Lee, if that's who that is, is lovely, though I’ve got a bone to pick with her, as you’ll see later. (Dun-dun-DUNNNNN!)

Futureheads - First Day
When I first heard this song I was like, “I guess they listen to a lot of Gang of Four.” As it turns out a member of Gang of Four produced their album, so put one in the win column for Sean. This is a short, tight, neat little number that in addition to the G4 influence reminds me quite a bit of Talking Heads circa “Don’t Worry About the Government” in terms of lyric and a sort of merry, mathematical chaos to the instrumentation. The video has just the right amount of creep to it, with artificial limbs and taking-a-photo-of-your-cat flashed-out eyeballs popping up at odd moments. (Same with the guy who spits out his food as he sings.) The song is a tribute to a new employee’s first day on the job--a tongue-in-cheek one, predictably, as we all know it’s just awful that we all have to work at relatively uninteresting jobs, isn’t it. But the thing is, despite the fact that this has been a lyrical target of slightly-too-easy leftist rock songs since at least the Clash’s “Lost in the Supermarket” (to say nothing of Gang of Four’s entire debut album)--well, it’s kinda true, isn’t it? I for one am finding the prospect of a lifetime of day jobs just this side of horrifying. At any rate, as Amy pointed out, you really don’t hear songs sung about this sort of thing very often, as nearly everyone in rock and pop is still singing about their junior proms in one way or another. This is a very well-done song and video and I’d like to hear more.

Kaiser Chiefs - I Predict A Riot
I first heard this song on a business trip out to Los Angeles a month and a half ago, where KROQ played it incessantly. (This blew my mind, because New York City’s K-Rock, to put it as politely as possible, does not break new music EVER.) Everything that the Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” apparently did for everyone else in the blogosphere, this did for me. Hoo, did it ever. It’s tough to think of a single more Tailor-Made For Sean To Like It this side of the Hives’ “Walk Idiot Walk.” Holy God, that chorus! That accent! That rhyme of “leery” with “tell thee”! The video has a mildly clever conceit--the “riot” ends up being a massive pillowfight--and tons of footage of a lead singer who reminds me of The State’s Thomas Lennon doing a parody of a cool early-‘80s rock band’s lead singer. (I just keep picturing his impersonation of Fred Schneider in a dream sequence from the show they did with Jon Stewart, You Wrote It, You Watch It: “It’s a par-ty line, and the party’s goin’ fine!” “Everybody’s takin’ a poo-poo!”) This was another case of downloading a whole bunch of tracks from the album and being left flat--it sounded to me like warmed-over Kinks, which means it probably sounds to people with a slightly more extensive power-pop education than mine own like warmed-over Jam. But they can’t take “I Predict a Riot” away from me.

UNKLE featuring Ian Brown – Reign
We all like that first UNKLE record, from back when DJ Shadow might still have been the future of music and people were still holding out hope that Tricky would record something worth listening to again one day. And this is nice. But man, it is nothing to write home about. The symphonic electronic/trip-hop thing has been done so many times since Massive Attack invented it with “Unfinished Sympathy,” and the faceless-electronic-musician-recruits-Mancunian-singer-with-shaggy-haircut-to-sing-on-the-single schtick--well, it’s been almost as long since “Setting Sun” as it has since “Unfinished Sympathy.” Even the video feels like I Love the ‘90s as Represented in the Music Review Section of the Campus Daily: Some ectomorph who looks like the grown-up version of the kid from Deliverance writhes around in a glass tank while submerged underwater, and believe it or not I just described this video rather than (or more accurately, in addition to) the one for Radiohead’s “No Surprises.” I feel for James Lavelle, who’s soldiering on gamely in the absence of Shadow and in the wake of Timbaland, Pharrell et al; and everyone owes Ian Brown a hearty handshake for “This Is the One” if nothing else; but I can’t help but think that this is 2005, and this video isn’t. And unlike the case with every other band I listen to these days, this isn't a good thing here.

Rilo Kiley - It's A Hit
The song is more Amy Music, which is fine, but that is not the important thing when talking about this video. The important thing is that this is the meanest video I have ever seen, and I am not going to watch it ever again. George Lucas famously remarked that any idiot can work an audience’s emotional hot button--just get a kitten and wring its neck. (This is actually done in Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws, by the way, and it works.) In this case what Jenny Lee and company did was create a cartoon about a couple of hedgehog-type creatures who are in love with each other, then brutally kill one of them toward the end of the video, then have the survivor become superpowerful in its grief and zap all the bad guys, and isn’t it so sensitive because gee that sure is the way the big bad world works, and all we emo types have are our earnest love songs and our lo-fi cartooning and BLEEECCCCCCCHHHHH!!!!! Ugh, this is the crassest, most emotionally manipulative video ever. If you want something to compare it to, compare it to milk-cartons-in-love clip for Blur’s “Coffee & TV,” but strip away all the humor, cleverness, jauntiness, originality, and humanity. Also the happy ending. Ugh, fecch, terrible. When I first saw this video I literally burst into tears because it upset me so much--not just killing the cute cartoon animal, but the fact that anyone could see this as an acceptable aesthetic strategy. OhmyGod I HATE this video. (Mildly political aside, offered without comment: Amy has since informed me that the song, and one would imagine, by extension, the video, is some sort of commentary on the Bush Administration.)

Tower Records’ Next Big Thing (Fuse, 10:30pm Sat., 3:30am Mon. (or 2:30am Sun.--it varies))
Or, Where Dive Videos Go to Get Played Every Single Week for Like a Month. Here you will see bands that seem to stand a greater chance of actually making the jump to music-television-dom proper, though the distinction is nearly nonexistent, and nearly all of these videos start out on the other show and flip here without much apparent justification. It’s often seemed that one week’s NBT is identical to the next’s, except perhaps for one video. I’ve since discovered that this may well be the case, because the show is technically a platform for some sort of “Next Big Thing Award,” where viewers can vote from the month’s batch of in-rotation videos, and the winner gets declared the Next Big Thing or something. So if you don’t like any of the following bands and don’t feel like taking the crap shoot on the remaining two or three videos available for play this month--well hey, it probably don’t matter, since March has just started and I’m guessing the playlist will get a shake-up! (Just thank whatever god you pray to that you dodged January's Zutons bullet.)

The Bravery – Unconditional
At first I wasn’t sure if I liked this song or not. Then I decided that I was pretty damn sure I did. I’d literally never heard, indeed never heard of, this band of NYC-based sharp-dressed retro-dance-rockers before seeing this video on The Dive, and I’ve since voraciously downloaded whatever stuff of theirs I could find--finally, this pays off with a band that actually does do it for me! I really like their rinky-dink homemade keyboard sound, used to great effect on the intro for this tune (and even better effect on the intro to future-single-I-hope-I-hope-I-hope “Fearless”). Lots of sexy hipster girls in the video, probably too many for it to be good for the band’s ego, but other than that, it’s a hit.

Razorlight--Golden Touch
When will this song start rocking? The answer, as Amy and I have discovered to our chagrin, is never. Don’t be fooled, because it sounds like at some point it’s gonna start rocking, but it doesn’t. Rock, damn you, because you’re really not that cute.

Kasabian--Club Foot
This song does rock, in theory. But it doesn’t rock nearly as hard as it thinks it does--or for that matter as hard as the Primal Scream records it thinks it’s not ripping off because we’ve grown beyond that, man. Nope. The Spring of ‘68/Eastern Bloc video, the obscure Manson reference in the band name, the metallic distortion on the guitars and vocals--since I’m sure you’ll appreciate an extremely obscure Python reference, we done them.

The Honorary Title--Bridge & Tunnel
Nothing happens in this video except that we follow around some tattooed bohemian behind the scenes as he sets up for his video, and fella, you are just not cute enough to make this worth anyone’s while.

Head Automatica--Beating Heart Baby
Wasn’t impressed by this at first, but it grew on me. The screamy emo stuff wasn’t completely overblown My Chemical Romance style, which I appreciated. They all look fabulous and sweaty in blazers (not suit jackets!) and ties, and the lead singer is kind of fey, which I also appreciate. Turns out Dan the Automator was somehow involved in this project, which is probably a good sign, even though everything he’s done since the first Handsome Boy record has been extremely hit or miss. I’ll give ‘em the benefit of the doubt.

The Mars Volta--The Widow
This is the band that evolved out of At the Drive-In--the good one, I mean. (Sparta: eh.) Amy doesn’t like this video for some reason. You will like it if you like Palomar. I love this band, and no one to whom I recommend them (Alan, Ken) seems to agree with me. You all are nuts. What amazes me is that critics honestly felt that this band was inaccessible. Clearly today’s critics do not listen to enough King Crimson. Anyway, this song has modern-rock-radio hit written on it in giant block letters that glow in the dark. Good for them.

And there you have it! Tomorrow: More blogging, as I have a snow day. (At least I hope I do, since I’m now up way past my bedtime. My poor cat is so confused.)


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