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Thursday, Nov 19, 2009
A growing list of bands unpopular with critics, but genre-defining nevertheless, is impatiently awaiting their admittance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

As the years progress, the process of getting into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beginning to look a lot like the process of earning a letter for a high school letter jacket: The superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Aerosmith) are awarded just for showing up, as are the academic overachievers who are still social enough to get a seat on student council (U2, The Police, Talking Heads). However, the nerds who create the science fiction clubs and painstakingly put together the yearbook (Rush, Genesis, Yes, Kraftwerk) face a much steeper battle for recognition.  And while you can’t really letter in smoking, there’s no way to recognize the smokers and the class-skippers (Slayer, The Replacements), those folks who are just as essential as the jocks and student council presidents in defining the experience that is Rock and Roll High School.


Perhaps by coincidence, the same year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame turns 25, KISS may finally get their due as inductees. They have been eligible for almost a decade. And while I’ll be the first to praise Hall of Famer Jackson Browne, there’s no question who has been more influential in rock. Alice Cooper may have been first, but KISS made makeup and pyrotechnics almost essential in a big-time rock show. KISS was one of those bands that inspired thousands of teenagers to want to form a band to get to that level—the stage explosions, the groupies, the outfits. But the Hall of Fame is like a selection committee for a state dinner: you want to invite the people who’ll make you proud, not ones that will embarrass you. But sometimes you have to acknowledge those very folks (which is one possible reason why the Sex Pistols took a great deal longer to get into the Hall of Fame than the Clash).


Fans, and even non-KISS fans, have been screaming to let KISS into the Hall of Fame. But now that their work is done, people have started to raise a ruckus about why progressive rock has not been represented. As for speed metal fans, a Metallica nod won’t be enough to keep people from demanding a Slayer induction as well.


The nomination of Genesis is a decent start for progressive rock, but King Crimson, Yes, and Rush are still patiently waiting for nomination. One problem for progressive rock is that, in general, it’s not a genre adored by rock critics. But regardless of whether you think 2112 or Relayer is a masterpiece, progressive rock’s most notable characteristics (the odd time signature shifts, full albums broken into “acts” or “suites”) are everywhere in rock. If a song by a rock band exceeds eight minutes, chances are high that there’s going to be a Yes comparison. Even a band as critically adored as the Decemberists has garnered plenty of prog rock comparisons.


At least Rush or King Crimson will put on a polite show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert if and when they get inducted. What the hell would a Slayer performance be like? Don’t think that doesn’t cross a voter’s mind when he or she is filling out their ballot. As most rock historians should know, rock was never intended to be pretty or suitable for an awards banquet. And the exclusion of the geeks, nerds, and troublemakers—who not only contributed significantly to rock, but helped build foundations for an entire genre of music—is inexcusable.


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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
Some artists are more than merely great. There are some artists that for a period of years, a period that is finite, consistently produced music that, it can be argued, far exceeded the work of their peers. For that brief period of time they were definitely Masters of the Form.

“Yeah people come up.”
—Rage Against the Machine, “People of the Sun”


It’s an unlikely invitation from an unlikely source. 


In 1992, Rage Against the Machine had stormed onto the music scene with the finesse of a class five hurricane.  Their self-titled debut album played like a musical version of blunt head trauma, and displayed so much honest anger in its fusion of rap and metal that it clearly wasn’t the work of an average rock band.  Rage Against the Machine was the work of true Masters of the Form.  This mastery continued with the 1996 release of their amazing follow-up, Evil Empire


Throughout their debut, Rage Against the Machine grabbed listeners by the throat, refusing to let go, with music that was vital and stirring, but rarely inviting.  Often, the lesson the band was trying to teach was lost in the midst of the bludgeoning volume they used to ensure it would be heard.  By 1996, people were already listening, and in its new volume of lessons, the band displayed how much they themselves had learned.  The opening notes of Evil Empire’s first track, “People of the Sun”, were easily the most subtle the band had ever recorded.  Rage Against the Machine had chased listeners down; Evil Empire invited them in to learn about things like the Mexican Zapatista Movement and “face the funk now blastin’ out ya’ speaker…”.  It was an easy invitation to accept.


“Turn on tha radio, nah fuck it turn it off…”
—Rage Against the Machine, “Vietnow”


Once you accepted the album’s initial invitation, it was difficult to turn Evil Empire off.  The album is an improvement over the group’s debut in virtually every respect.  The songs are more tightly structured, each one rooted just as firmly in hip-hop as heavy metal, each finding an explosive groove and sticking to it like audio napalm.  The rhymes are more compact, and Zach de la Rocha never sounds as though he’s trying feverishly to squeeze in more words than the songs have room for. More than anything, though, Evil Empire is the first great “rap-metal” album, even more so than its predecessor, because it is a much better hip-hop album than Rage Against the Machine.


Evil Empire sounds forceful without ever sounding forced.  Zach de la Rocha is a vastly improved MC, an angry, booming-voiced rapper rather than a metal screamer trying to rap.  Tom Morello is a far more musical DJ, routinely transforming his guitar into a six-stringed turntable that scratches as often as it solos.  In fact, the “Guilty Parties”, as the band is once again credited in the album’s liner notes, perform explosive hip-hop throughout, and that’s what sets Rage apart from the bands that tried to follow in their “rap-metal” footsteps, and Evil Empire apart from the albums that such bands released.  At their core, Rage Against the Machine are a hip-hop band playing metal, not a metal band fronted by a rapper that has somebody scratch a record a couple of times on each track.  Even a quick listen to Evil Empire reveals a legit MC, a fantastic DJ (who was aware that if you need to scratch a record on a metallic song, you should figure out a way to play it on guitar), and a tight, funky rhythm section—the foundation of all good hip-hop.  And, of course, it brought the Rage.  After all, Evil Empire was more than an album, it was an invitation to . . .


“Rally round tha’ family with a pocket full of shells.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Bulls on Parade”


“Bulls on Parade” is a snarling beast of a rap song, coaxing listeners to slither back and forth with the rhythm that snakes its way through the verses, as it criticizes America for having a greater love for the military than education. “Down Rodeo” is a scathing indictment of racial and class politics that boldly proclaims, “So now I’m rolling down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain’t seen a brown skin man since their grandparents bought one”, over some of the most infectious riffs the album offers, while Morello’s guitar whistles like rapidly fired shots.  “Vietnow” is blatant finger-pointing at the fear mongering of right-wing radio.  de la Rocha raps, “Well I’m a truth addict, oh shit I gotta head rush”.  “Rush”?  Limbaugh, perhaps?  The audio texture continues in “Roll Right”, which uses volume as an additional instrument and displays more than a little irony when the album’s loudest scream bellows, “Now we’re alright, we’re all calm”.


“And now it’s upon you.”
– Rage Against the Machine, “Year of tha Boomerang”


Evil Empire is a masterwork that challenges its listeners to act upon what they hear—words that are just as topical today as they were in 1996, over music that is so far beyond what is being released today it sounds as though it hasn’t even been written yet.  And Rage Against the Machine?  They were Masters of the Form who conquered the Evil Empire and then charged head first into The Battle of Los Angeles.


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Tuesday, Nov 17, 2009
Aerosmith’s Joe Perry goes solo. Armed with a new album and tour, Perry talks with PopMatters 20 Questions about why nothing tops Hendrix, Master and Commander, or coffee.

The soap opera that is Aerosmith continues unabated. First, we got word from lead guitarist Joe Perry that Steven Tyler “quit as far as I could tell”. Then guitarist Brad Whitford spoke openly about possibly replacing Tyler with another singer. But, before you could say “Journey”, there was Steven Tyler making a surprise appearance at a recent Joe Perry Project show in New York.


So are they or aren’t they? The answer is still unclear as it seems Joe Perry and Steven Tyler have become the musical equivalent of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Perhaps Aerosmith has become too big for its own good.


Which brings us to the Joe Perry Project. Bringing it all back home to the basics that originally formed his style, Perry recently released Have Guitar, Will Travel, an ode to hard rock that proves the guitarist from Boston still has a few tricks up his sleeve, with or without Aerosmith.
 
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
Frankly, I can’t think of one.


2. The fictional character most like you?
I’m a big fan of historical fiction. There’s a series of books by an author called Patrick O’Brian—the Aubrey-Maturin series that includes Master and Commander. I kind of identify with Captain Aubrey.


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Monday, Nov 16, 2009
Artist/producer PC Muñoz mines for gems and grills the greats.

“There’s the me you see, there’s the me I see, there’s the me that I really am…”
—“Pushed Aside, Pulled Apart”, Lyrics Born


Though he swaggers with the best of ‘em and has bangin’ beats to spare, indie boom-bap pioneer and Quannum Projects co-founder Lyrics Born has always been a man apart in the hip-hop world. This is both by design, and by default: as a producer and artist, Lyrics Born adamantly blazes his own trail with each new record, refusing to cynically regurgitate trends or tone down his crackling technicolor vision of what hip-hop can be.  As a lyricist, he has long been known for a stellar word-stash and multi-layered rhymes that go deeper than the first listen. As a hapa/multi-racial (self-described as Japanese-Italian/Jewish) MC, Lyrics Born has also, for the past 16 years, grappled with the pros and cons of being one of the first Asian-American rappers to make a significant impact on the hip-hop scene.


For my money, however, it is not his daredevil artistic choices, nor the particular mix in his double helix that really sets Lyrics Born apart. It’s that voice. Lyrics Born’s voice, a unique instrument that can shout, soothe, and sing with equal effectiveness, is, in my opinion, an exceptionally more versatile musical tool than what the majority of contemporary MCs are packing. He’s got a sexed-up low register, a sassy, swinging shout, a rapid-fire show-off mode, a new-wave tinged melodic mellow tone, and a bunch more vocal versions of himself tucked up his hoodie sleeves, all of which coalesce into an electrifying and distinct sound on record and on stage.


In the above-quoted song “Pushed Aside, Pulled Apart”, from his upcoming album As U Were, Lyrics Born raps passionately and reflectively about being “pulled apart”, and several lines in past lyrics also acknowledge his chosen path as a road-less-travelled hip-hop maverick. Though in “Pushed Aside, Pulled Apart” he makes a compelling case for being a tortured artist who is painfully self-conscious about every choice he makes, the truth is, Lyrics Born has taken the multi-faceted influences of his personal and professional life and fashioned an unparalleled aesthetic which no one but he can claim. And there’s nothing more cohesive than that.


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Friday, Nov 13, 2009
The task at hand: as accurately and with as much integrity as possible, identify the six songs that best define rock and roll. Pretty simple, huh? Simple and impossible.

Back in 2006, I recall reading many intriguing reviews of Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music. It’s been on my Amazon wish list ever since, and writing about music as much as I do, I occasionally have friends ask me if I’ve read it, or tell me I should read it. The latest reminder came from a friend who wrote the following email to me and a few of our mutual (music loving) friends:


In his brilliant book… Levitin relates the tale of how an elderly colleague and he used to dine every Wednesday and discuss music. During one of these dinners the colleague, an octogenarian, confessed that he did not understand rock music, but wanted to be able to. He asked Levitin to choose six songs that would capture “all that was important to know about rock and roll music.” Levitin chose the following songs:


“Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Roll Over Beethoven” (The Beatles), “All Along The Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix), “Wonderful Tonight” (Eric Clapton), “Little Red Corvette” (Prince), “Anarchy in the UK” (Sex Pistols).


What would you guys choose, and why?



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