New York City, very self-mocking about their street smarts, very anguished about the street, and utterly expert in a way that hides all craft. Guys come hunching down the sidewalk in their leather jackets: “Let’s hear it for America,” says the singer, sarcastic and completely straight. As a heartfelt adolescent plea for parental forbearance, “Hey World” has the defiant lift of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Our Time” and the regret of the Clash’s “This Is England”–you can imagine it coming out of Claire on Six Feet Under, and it’s stirring. “You’re either part of the problem,” you hear as the band sets you up to ignore its clichés, “or you’re part of the fucking miserable solution we call life.”
2. The Kills, Keep on Your Mean Side (Rough Trade)
The US/UK duo starring in a very hot version of their song “Fuck the People“–and very casually. And not so casually on a primitive punk rewrite of Lead Belly’s “Don’t You Leave Me Here.”* There’s a cold bravado: “Don’t you leave me here/Got my name stitched on your lips so you won’t dare.” But the performance collapses now into a then. You’re back in a time and place where someone left might never get out–no trains, no cars, no busses, no horses, no maps.
3. Bob Dylan for Victoria’s Secret (Fox, March 4)
“Only two things in this world worth botherin’ your head about and them’s sex and death,” says a “debauched Midwestern businessman” in Michael O’Donoghue and Frank Springer’s 1968 comic serial “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeitgeist.” That’s the only explanation for the commercial that uses B.D.’s suicidal 1997 “Love Sick” to orchestrate a montage of underwear models looking dour under their hooded eyes. But it’s a better Dylan setting than the nearly four-hours-long God-blessed-the-Confederacy film Gods and Generals, which features his “‘Cross the Green Mountain.” I haven’t seen the picture, but I have seen the TV trailer featuring Robert Duvall sitting in a chair as Robert E. Lee and opining through a mouthful of molasses, “‘s in Gawd’s han’s naw,” as if to say, “Hey, don’t blame me.” On the other hand, “Love Sick” is an actual song. At more than eight dying minutes, “‘Cross the Green Mountain” might as well be the movie.
4. Randy Newman for Ford (Fox, February 18)
For the first time in recent memory, a Newman tune was not nominated for an Oscar, and Randy must be feeling the pinch–or decided Fuck it, once and for all. Instead of merely licensing, say, “I Love to See You Smile” to McDonald’s to rewrite and rerecord into eternity, he’s writing from the ground up and selling his own voice. “It’s right there in front of your eyes,” he sings with exuberance and shame. “If you haven’t looked at a Ford lately–lookin’ good.”
5. David Lynch and John Neff, BlueBob (Solitude/Ryko)
Lynch on words, drums, guitar, Neff on guitar, drums, vocals: Link Wray opening for Père Ubu. “I Cannot Do That” is the musical equivalent of an outtake from Lost Highway, furiously sustained; out of the all-directions-at-once noise of “In the Pink Western Range” comes a dog, “barking like Robert Johnson.” But the hit is “Thank You, Judge,” an R&B divorce-court novelty.
6. The Raveonettes, Whip It On (The Orchard)
Forget the Danish twosome’s advertised Buddy Holly homage. In moments–“Chains,” “Cops on Our Tail” “Beat City”–they make it into the film noir they’re watching. Gun Crazy, probably.
7. AFI, Sing the Sorrow (Dreamworks)
San Francisco goths with a cast of thousands don’t know the meaning of pretentious, but you wish they did.
8. Eva Cassidy, “Fields of Gold,” from Songbird (Blix Street)
You hear this slow cover and you want to know who it was who made the Sting song feel as if it were hundreds of years old; that the singer has been dead since 1996, the year she recorded it, has nothing to do with it at all.
9. New Orleans, March 9
All sorts of music comes out of the doors in New Orleans: Bob Seger and disco in souvenir shops, the Drifters and the Young Rascals in the big, high-ceiling Rue de la Course coffeehouse at 3128 Magazine Street, Billie Holiday’s greatest hits one day and Sisters of Mercy the next in CC’s Community Coffee on Royal. It’s rare to find music so quiet you have to be still to notice it–and when you do, it sticks. In what was previously the morning madhouse of Mothers at 401 Poydras, Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Ramblin’ on My Mind” now got lost in the dim light of the new, half-empty backroom–and in Luigi’s muffaletta joint at 915 Decatur, in the middle of the sleaziest block on the sleaziest tourist street in town, you could barely make out a plinking banjo and a hesitating vocal in a crude version of “Spoonful.” At first I was sure I’d heard it before–the feel and the style of the piece were somehow implied by the song. But there was too much space between the notes, too much air in the sound. “Do you know who’s singing?” I asked the counterman. “It’s WWOZ! 90.7!” he said. “It’s Will Slayden, recorded in 1952,” said the WWOZ DJ a few minutes later. “It’s new: African-American Banjo Songs from Western Tennessee. Do you want the address? It was put out by the Tennessee Folklore Society, MTSU Box 201, Murfreesboro, TN 37132. Isn’t it great?”
10. Associated Press, March 14: “Dixie Chicks singer criticized for anti-Bush comments”
For the record, Natalie Maines, on stage, London, March 10: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Maines was born in Texas–in Lubbock, Buddy Holly’s hometown. George W. Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut, and to run for office adopted a tough-guy version of what he took to be a Texas accent. On September 21, 2001, in New York City, for the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” broadcast, Maines introduced the Dixie Chicks’ “I Believe in Love” in a deep performance; Bush posed at Ground Zero with his arm around a New York City worker, promising aid he later withheld.
* A.k.a. “I’m Alabama Bound”
City Pages, April 9, 2003