The Year in Music

Going for the Big Try
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 19 2002 3:49 PM

The Year in Music

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Morning Gerry,

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I felt pretty foolish after sending off my missive yesterday. I instantly wanted to delete the big question I asked at the end—what, am I living in a dorm room, smoking too many clove cigarettes, itching for some kind of pop Rapture? I set things up pretty well for your neat takedown of agit-prop protest music. It's happened to me before—I'm by nature rather earnest, addicted to the Big Try, especially when it goes against the odds. It's not a quality most of the critics I respect share or even tolerate well. Nor is it much supported by my generation, nee X, which despite hitting the age of regular backaches can still claim many of the top contenders for Top Rock Album this year—Wilco, Flaming Lips, Sonic Youth, and that old trickster Beck (sure, he's a little bit younger, but tell me he's not an indie rocker at heart! I mean, even when he wears suits, he's still dressing thrift-store styleee). It's one way I've always felt out of step—except for when I'm in a crowd of actual music fans who, like me, yearn for that divine/erotic concordance established most effectively through the medium of hugely vibrating sound. Yes, such moments can lead to horrible violence—no need to go to Eastern Europe for that, we can just recall the rapes at Woodstock 1999. That's exactly why I crave the Big Try from people whose values I share and one reason why, though I know more sophisticated palates find his work overstated, I still thank Steve Earle for making Jerusalem. Also I prefer the word "dissent" to the word "protest" because it's a bit more humble, suitable to our times.

God loves our longing. That's something my pal, the wonderful novelist Darcey Steinke, wrote to me this year, and though (in the words of Nick Cave) I don't believe in an interventionist God, I philosophically agree. Longing, the heart-straining reach beyond what seems inevitable, is the animating quality and the bane, of human existence. It's also the most potent ingredient in much pop music, including your favorite, Beck's Sea Change. I loved your review in Slate because it countered the misconception I heard way too often from critics and fans that this was the "personal" Beck, the real brokenhearted boy. You recognized the project's theatricality, its distance. Distance, which in life is painful but in art becomes longing's very useful tool. I like that Beck found such a convincing way to convey that. Still, I prefer his uneven but mind-blowing danceable work, and when I saw him live recently he seemed slightly bored by the new material. He put more juice into reshaping older tunes with the Flaming Lips, covering that band's own exquisite "Do You Realize?" and horsing around with Wayne Coyne on a duet medley of "I've Got You Babe" and the Velvets' "Who Loves the Sun."

Back to longing. It was everywhere this year, as always, but only occasionally does it become such a focus of our listening. For a depressive guy like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, the goal is to learn how to yearn, and the creative tension on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes from him trying to figure out what a Big Try could mean. I admit for a long time I resisted the hype around that record (full disclosure: EMP Films is a producer of Sam Jones' Wilco film, I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and the band is generally revered around here), thinking what the heck? It's a decent bunch of songs, but Tweedy's no Timbaland. When I finally forced myself to spend some time, though, I grew to admire way Tweedy and his collaborators found a sound for that old Gen X irony as it implodes. The relationship between Tweedy's tunefulness and his mumble, and between the catchy core of these songs and the mind-buzz of the production, reminds me of our iconic X-er Kurt Cobain. Except Tweedy's survived, he has a family; he's got to figure out how to keep afloat.

I could go on here about how Wilco's story shows just how idiotic music corporations can be and let that lead me in to some polite jabs at your slight defense of the biz, but besides saying that, except for 10 or so big stars, the amount of power young and/or nonwhite major-label artists have is almost entirely illusory—read a standard record contract—I'll just refer you to my pals at www.futureofmusic.org for the facts. Instead, I'll end today's entry on a happy note, a new record I ran across accidentally that's starting next year off fine. Failer, by twentysomething Ottowan Kathleen Edwards, who is a roots-rock striver ready to challenge her clear inspiration, Lucinda Williams, as queen of the juke joint trouble tale. Edwards has enough Liz Phair in her to shake the respectfulness that brings down a lot of alt-country, and she writes like Anne Tyler looking to kick some ass. Her solution to longing is to take it for a joyride, and that works too.

XX

akp

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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