The Music Club

In Defense of Axl Rose
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 19 2008 6:22 PM

The Music Club

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Hey, guys,

I feel like an idiot. I'm sorry. The mournful tone of my first missive was inappropriate, and motivated by personal issues—namely, the dissolution of my own internal monoculture during the frenzy of year-end musical cramming—and I totally accept both Jody's admonition that unifying forces in pop still dominate as much as they ever have and Bob's reminder that when we don't have anyone close to hug, we can look to the music itself to help us imagine our way toward one another. And if you hopeful scolders weren't enough, I had the whole fist-pumping, moshing, bellowing crowd at Metallica's Forum show last night to prove that unity in homage to rhythm and noise is far from dead.

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Inspired by Bob's reminder that the songs and sounds we love can shore up our dreams even when life chips away at them, I'm taking another look at my lists (the first of which is here; there'll be more at the same spot soon) and thinking about what succor I found in my favorite offerings. There's plenty. Let's start with New York DJ Andy Butler's project Hercules and Love Affair, because disco always makes me feel mighty and real.

I first heard "Blind" while playing the real-life video game of driving around Los Angeles. A tense experience, always, but this music took me somewhere else. Guest angel Antony Hegarty's ethereal croon drew me in, of course, but what really caught me was the track's eclecticism. The beat recalls early house, while swirling strings take us back to Eurodisco and some punchy horns hint at acid jazz. Then there's the song inside the swirl, a romantic tale of spiritual loss straight out of Goethe.

And "Blind" wasn't a fluke—the entire album, which retells the story of the ancient strongman's love for and loss of a young soldier, unfolds in swells of giddiness and sorrow, rage and resolution. I often find today's indie-rock-associated dance music to be somewhat callous and superficial, but here is an album that goes deep into history and into the heart.

I expect Antony and the Johnsons' next album, The Crying Light, to be my first major obsession of 2009. (The band gave one of my favorite performances of 2008, accompanied by strings at Disney Hall.) The one that claimed me in 2008 was the work of a beast, not a bird like Antony. A sexy beast, though, and elegant, too. And damn hilarious, down to that handlebar moustache. Nick Cave remains in his prime at 50, and Dig!! Lazarus!! Dig!! is the best Bad Seeds album since 1986's Tender Prey. In 20 years, Cave has thoroughly pondered his place in history, and here he addresses it head-on, paying tribute to Dylan and the Velvets, Leonard Cohen and John Berryman without showing any need to top them. The songs are as dirty and overblown as ever, pondering violent sex, mystical love, the meaning of manliness, and the weight of the Judeo-Christian mythos.

But the humor that runs through them—and the pleasure, and in many cases, wrenching beauty—makes them richer than the rants of Cave's younger days. And the utter on-pointness of the Bad Seeds, a band as seasoned as Metallica but far less showy about it, gives Cave the sturdiest of bully pulpits from which to declaim. Plus, in the literary manifesto "We Call Upon the Author," he has what may be my favorite advice to writers ever: "Prolix!" he bellows. "Nothing a pair of scissors can't fix!" That's as good as rhyming mansion with Wiscansin.

Cave's album was my favorite "rock" album of the year, I guess, though TV on the Radio and Santogold are both "rock" by any other name, and in certain lights I'd even put Kanye, whom I love on Auto-tune, in that box. I don't want to get into a tedious argument about semantics, and I now know I really need to spend more time with that latest Truckers disc. But I will say that "rock," in its heroic aspect, really seems to be on the skids, despite the fact that monster bands keep releasing albums and some fans keep vitriolically defending them.

Metallica may still be mighty live, but Death Magnetic was, to my ears, a somewhat airless exercise, more technically impressive than emotionally galvanizing. AC/DC ruled commercially by producing the musical equivalent of a decent diner meal: Black Ice is satisfying on a gut level, but resolutely uninventive. Coldplay, the year's other big rock seller, has turned banality into an art. And then there was Chinese Democracy.

I'm one of those nutty critics who actually gives credence to Axl's project (he's a person of ongoing interest around our house—the hubby even wrote a book on the Use Your Illusion albums), and I've spent enough time with Chinese Democracy to tell you there's some pretty cool stuff in there. But could its release have produced any reaction but a giant sucking sound?

Axl was never that concerned with unifying his audience—he seems to have enjoyed adulation and the power it gave him over certain people, but his complexes have nothing to do with messiahs. He did, however, believe that rock's forcefulness and grandeur could make his voice undeniable. If the commercial disappointment of his long-awaited epic signals anything beyond some bad marketing decisions, it's that classic rock's sometimes inspiring, often exclusionary notion that an ordinary (white, male) striver can serve as prophet and sacrificial god has little traction in a time of a million avatars.

But lest you think I'm growing grim again, let me tell you about one voice that makes no such presumptions and that I love beyond all reason. Martha Wainwright has always been the little sister in a family of daunting extroverts, coming through now and then with an amazing song of her own but often simply simmering in the background. Her second album, the charmingly titled I Know You're Married but I've Got Feelings Too, is all about inappropriate emotions and ambitions and what happens to a woman when she refuses to stay in "her place," even in these liberated times.

Too musically polished to catch the fancy of hipsters and too overflowing to attract Norah Jones fans, I Know You're Married hasn't found its audience. I wish I could give it to every woman who got caught up in the drama of Hillary C. and Sarah P., or who worries that Britney really will go over the edge, or who wonders if her daughter should be so obsessed with Twilight. If anxiety is to become the great theme of the new Depression, women like Wainwright can show us how to approach it. They've been coming to terms with it, and making it into something beautiful, for years.

Ann

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Veteran rock critic Robert Christgau's "Consumer Guide" column appears monthly on Microsoft Networks. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a contributing critic for "All Things Considered" and is archived at Robertchristgau.com and Rhapsody.com. Ann Powers is the chief pop-music critic of the Los Angeles Times. Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He lives in New York City and can be reached at slatemusic@gmail.com. 

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