Most articles on music this summer did not trumpet ambitious musical endeavors — musicians and marketers alike seem to reserve their meteoric success stories for spring — but rather the continued floundering of tour and album sales. Amid this (largely perceived) capitalistic rubble arose a handful of surprising comebacks. Like the movie industry, this season was set apart by sequels and unexpected sophomore successes.
As sales drop, the industry tends to recapitulate and remix until there’s nothing left but a derivative musical facsimile of a Michael Bay film. Recapitulation isn’t necessarily bad, though. Re-mastered and re-released b-side material from the Clash, the Stooges, Belle and Sebastian and De La Soul were spectacular. Still, it’s sort of depressing when they prove the most auspicious releases of the summer.
The overlap of television and music, as marked by the MTV/OC-driven cultural phenomenon of the 5-second music video clip sandwiched comfortably between the episode credits and next week’s highlights, has suddenly placed indie-pop veterans in the limelight.
This horizontal incorporation drove music to an indie-pop middle ground. Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse says “Thanks Josh Schwartz for supporting my habit!”; MTV News hails the arrival of Norwegian princess Annie and Surfjan Stevens, records I’d bought earlier in the week. Even if MTV, Apple and internet junkies deflated my indie geekdom by taking early notice, the bilious, shameless sexcapades and earnest song-writing of a few bands got my rocks off once again.
Cutting through the contenders lead by the peculiarly Japanese (why didn’t we see it before?), Gwen Stefani and a slough of syrupy, dirty-souf jamz epitomized by Mike Jones, Mariah Carey and R. Kelly reigned as king and queen of summer. No glitter jokes required: everyone knew Mariah Carey was not in a good place. Her PR meltdown made her a diva-cum-pariah. I liked to imagine her squirreled away in her shoe closet crying over fan letters in a technicolor tiara, which can’t be that far from the truth after seen her Cribs episode.
And there was no better way to pull herself out of the mud than an album titled after the bizarre psychological liberation of her inner-child, “The Emancipation of Mimi.” The single, “We Belong Together” won hearts and minds with its inoffensive, bordering on bland R&B composition, becoming the most played radio single of the summer. We’ve not seen Mariah in such good form since “Always be my Baby.”
The song stood out for its simplicity in a genre now plagued by gimmicky hooks, showcasing Mariah’s voice better than even her Honey days, her restraint building up and finally spilling over in the final cadenza.
Mariah’s Glittertastic self-immolation looked piddling when compared to R. Kelly. The dude peed on a fourteen-year old girl – and had sex with her. Try to really wrap your mind around that. In an age of buggering Catholic priests it seems almost novel that he actually choose to piss on a girl. When the awe-shucks recovery tactic of his thousand-watt smile, hand-holding double album “Happy People/U Saved Me,” the musical equivalent of Michael Jackson’s baby-dangling incident, R. Kelly went with what he does best: sex. Don’t argue with it.. Even as his over-the-top libido threatened to implode his career – manifest in a pending civil suit with a fourteen-year-old girl – only his freak-nasty, raw-dawg lyrical gymnastics could end the career slump originally dug out by his phallus.
The introduction to “In The Kitchen” contains the absurd disclaimer that he only wants to “Make y’all feel good, that’s all I’m trying to do, let the R do that, will ya?” From there “R” sexes up the counter, the cabinets, the laundry room and just about everything else he can reach. The song’s unabashedly lusty aura is both blush-inducing sex romp and a family-friendly peel-the-potatoes jam.
This same bizarro-world logic carries over to Kelly’s operetta “Trapped In the Closet.” The banal strings of the five-part, fifteen minute song cycle leave R. Kelly ample room to sing about every conceivable permutation of sex. Still, in the end it proves likable only because it doesn’t completely suck. Against all the odds – whether he knows it or not – R. Kelly receives this summer’s Ironic Genius award.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, earnest Midwestern crooner and neo-folkster Sufjan Stevens won praise on the lyceum circuit and on NPR alike. In short: Michigan native Sufjan released the second album in his ambitious 50 state album project (a soft-spoken state by state attempt to chronicle and penetrate the American psyche), Come Feel the Illinoise. Stevens awed NPR pundits by writing the song “The Lord God Bird” over three days following an on-air challenge to document life in Brinkley, a small Arkansas town he’d never visited. Crafting subtle orchestrations –Sufjan’s familiarity with dozens of instruments imparts a rigorous control to the songs – around devastatingly plaintive lyrics, Stevens personalizes even the most grotesque undercurrents of American life, as with the melancholy “William H. Gacy.”
Like two of my other favorite Stephen’s (Merritt of The Magnetic Fields and Malkmus of Pavement), Sufjan has a knack for brevity. The simplicity of the pop ideas and his easy confidence lends itself to comparisons. Part Rivers Cuomo and part Al Green, the most suitable comparison is to Conner Oberst, the other doe-eyed boy wonder from the Midwest.
Two veteran bands, Sleater-Kinney and Spoon, also found themselves in the public eye, surfacing briefly above the indie horizon to slay small-scale sets all summer. In the past, I remained dubious of the punk trio Sleater-Kinney. There’s a reason that a poster in the WPRB office of their musically accomplished 2002 release, One Beat, has a pink construction paper penis strapped onto singer Corin Tucker.
Listeners ten to love or hate Tucker’s quivering operatics, but the relentless onslaught of Janet Weiss’ drumming here balances and tempers, always pushing forward without treading on the toes of Carrie Brownstein’s lean guitar licks. While the instrumentation drives the record, the band shows a newfound patience in developing the acid-washed Aesop’s Fables that seamlessly blend tongue-in-cheek lyrics with the (proverbial) swinging-dick bravado of Ozzie biting a bat’s head off onstage. For the first time, Sleater-Kinney stakes out an aggressive, full girl-rock sound in without any self-conscious concern for gender.
Spoon leans towards rock minimalism, defined as much by the notes that aren’t there as the ones that are. Opposite of all other things Texan, Spoon create their music by deconstruction, sort of like a Jenga tower, emptying an already bare musical canvas. This approach carries over on their fourth full album, Gimme Fiction, and as the title suggest, the lyrics and the music both have a certain cinematic quality. The guitars chug along, the snare clatters emphatically behind whimsical vocals, and the songs fully embody the mechanics of their delivery.
Spoon deserves whatever award there is for best summer album. The steady, spare rock is the perfect soundtrack for a Corona commercial, an O.C. episode or the final credits of the latest blockbuster.