Real Life Rock Top 10 (04/14/04)

1. Salon, “Letters,” regarding the pending removal of Bob Edwards as host of NPR’s Morning Edition (March 30)
The bemusement Edwards has for 25 years offered ordinary important events is of a piece with the What seems to be the problem? tone he adopts for absolute catastrophes. Neither is more than a genteel version of standard D.C. cynicism. But familiarity with anything on the air breeds resistance to change—that is, it breeds “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds”—far more readily than it does contempt. “For me,” one Edwards follower wrote Salon, “Bob Edwards has become the Mister Rogers of my adult life. His ability to report and explain all facets of news stories in an even-keeled, compassionate manner has allowed me to accept and understand even the most difficult and horrific events of the world with a sense of optimism.”

2. TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (Touch and Go)
This New York experimental pop band—credited as Tunde Adebimpe, vocals and loops; Kyp Malone, vocals, guitars, and loops; David Andrew Sitek, music—is never obvious. Some songs are too vague to notice, and they hide the ones that aren’t—until a slowly building storm (“Dreams”) or a dragging but determined walk home in the middle of the night (“Wear You Out”) makes it clear this music comes out of a real city: an invisible city. Getting there is easier than reporting back, but these people are inventing a new language to pull it off.

3. Tom Perrotta, Little Children (St. Martin’s)
The New York Times is pumping this diverting, evaporating novel about young couples with children in suburbia—probably because some Times writers who still think John Cheever and John Updike had something to say are thrilled to have their own suburbs reauthenticated in fiction. But this book doesn’t touch Perrotta’s high school novel, Election, which is nothing like the every-punch-telegraphed movie version, or for that matter Joe College, Perrotta’s college novel. The new book is just like a movie, and you can hardly read a page without seeing Eric Stoltz and Maura Tierney as the leads.
4. Beyoncé, Baaba Maal, et al., 46664: Part 1—African Prayer (46664)
The first of three albums collecting performances from the November 29, 2003 Cape Town concert that inaugurated Nelson Mandela’s “46664” campaign against AIDS. “46664 was my prison number,” Mandela said in his speech that day. “For the 18 years that I was imprisoned on Robben Island I was known as just a number.” Highlight: Bob Geldof, “Redemption Song.” Perhaps done as badly as Bob Marley’s greatest composition can be, but that melody can keep any singer alive.

5. Queen, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, et al. 46664: Part 2—Long Walk to Freedom (46664)
Highlight: Corrs, “Breathless.” Even if they act as if what makes the song wonderful is that it’s supposed to be taken seriously.6. Eurythmics, Ms. Dynamite, et al. 46664: Part 3—Amandla (46664)
Highlight: Bono and the Edge, “One”/”Unchained Melody.” The great thing about U2’s “One” is that if they hadn’t recorded it, Johnny Cash would not have sung it. The good thing about Bono’s version of “Unchained Melody” is that it can remind you of Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers, who last November dropped dead just before he was to go onstage and sing the song one more time. Still, when you hear Mandela say, “46664 was my prison number,” you might wonder why the Maytals weren’t there to perform Toots Hibberts’s song about his own time in prison: two years for marijuana possession. As he first sang more than 30 years ago, on the indelible Jamaican chant “54-46 Was My Number”: “Right now someone else has that number.” The song was recently redone with Jeff Beck on the stars-galore Toots and the Maytals self-tribute album True Love—yet another example of this terrible new craze for repetition as a first principle of modern life.

7) The Sopranos (HBO, March 28)
Tony and Carmella are at a conference about their fuck-up son with his school counselor, played by David Strathairn. “So, he called the English teacher Daddy-O?” Tony says, quoting the Coasters’ 1959 “Charlie Brown.” The counselor doesn’t get it, which is a mistake—Strathairn’s characters always get it.

Later, at a high-stakes poker game, David Lee Roth is playing himself, looking a few hundred years past his Van Halen days, and also looking human. The mobster played by Robert Loggia tells a joke about the first Jewish CPA in heaven; “I used to be able to write off condoms,” Roth says wistfully. But anyone who knows Roth’s autobiography will have trouble believing he didn’t ask the director to give him a chance to throw the joke back in Loggia’s face. “Every step I took on that stage was smashing some Jew-hating, lousy punk ever deeper into the deck,” Roth wrote in Crazy from the Heat. “Every step. I jumped higher ’cause I knew there was going to be more impact when I hit those boards. And if you were even vaguely anti-Semitic, you were under my wheels, motherfucker. That’s where the lyrics came from, that’s where the body language came from, that’s where the humor came from, and that’s where the fuck you came from.”

8. Iron and Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop)
Sam Beam’s version of folk music has received enormous praise. Is that because he combines Gothic lyrics with a voice that insists he long ago saw through all their mysteries? Or because his beard looks like it weighs 10 pounds?

9. Spam e-mail from jaysonblair_ (March 20)
“The only solution to Penis Enlargement.” No, his book isn’t selling, but who knew he’d fallen this far?

10. The Doors, Boot Yer Butt!–The Doors Bootlegs (Rhino Handmade)
This four-CD box of 1967-70 live performances is not drawn from soundboards or well-made audience tapes, but from absolutely horrible recordings made with damaged equipment and originally pressed onto illegal vinyl that warped and splintered as soon as you tried to play it. Here, Jim Morrison can sound miles and miles away from the little handheld microphone that’s picking up his messages–messages that feel like they’re coming from a void, because you may not be able to make out a single instrument behind Morrison’s voice. The band can emerge and disappear, as if it’s playing a séance, not a show. But if you’re willing to crawl through the black caves of this set, the result is a treasure chest.

Strange things happen on these discs, and especially strange things seem to have happened at the April 18, 1970 show at the Honolulu Convention Center. “Mystery Train” starts out as “This Train” (you know: “You don’t need no ticket, just get on board”). After a buildup, the vocal sound overwhelms everything around it, and Morrison seems lost in the possibilities of the song, inventing words, ignoring the band’s rhythm, erasing it with a huge scream. “Light My Fire” unfolds over 20 minutes. Guitarist Robbie Krieger starts it off as “My Favorite Things”; Morrison finds “Fever” hiding inside the big hit. “Love comes when you least expect it,” he says as the music slows almost to a stop—but after that everything is harsh, wild, rough, unforgiving.

Throughout there is the sense that anything can happen, that the songs are less pieces to perform than opportunities for vision—usually banal visions of other songs, occasionally visions of music made with intent and found only by chance.

City Pages, April 14, 2004

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