Jan 31, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Bulletin from Rolling Stone: Bruce back in top rock and roll form!

Stephen Colbert was always interested in looking at both sides of an issue. Discussing our last president, he always presented the issue fairly: “George Bush: Great president… or greatest president?”

You get the feeling that, around the editorial offices of Rolling Stone, discussions of artistic quality are similar.

David Fricke’s profile of Springsteen in the new issue (RS doesn’t post all of its stuff online) tells us, again, that Bruce is rockin’ at his best once more:

Springsteen … is at a new peak in his career. Working on a Dream is Springsteen’s third great album with the E Street Band in a decade.

Well, fine—nothing wrong with giving a rock warhorse a little slack in a cover story. Turn to the review section, though and you find that reviewer Brian Hiatt, apparently having been swappin’ thoughts with Fricke by the Coke machine, is happy to restate his colleague’s thesis:

Working on a Dream is the richest of the three great rock albums Springsteen has made this decade with the E Street Band — and moment for moment, song for song, there are more musical surprises than on any Bruce album you could name,

It’s unanimous!

If you actually listen to the album, you will instead hear what you’ve been hearing for too many years from Springsteen. That his once-magisterial songwriting skills have deserted him—that his lyrics are labored and melodies are strained. He and his latter-day producer (Brendan O’Brien) try to cover that up by weighing the songs down with various studio experimentations, which just make for jarring tonal  inconsistencies across the tracks.

Working on a Dream is no different. “The Wrestler,” the Springsteen song that plays over the credits of the Mickey Rourke movie of the same name, is Springsteen’s least-bad songwriting effort in 15 years or more.* That is billed here as a bonus track for some reason. Leaving that aside, the rest of the album is just like his previous two, only less interesting, more strained, and equally forgettable.

The reviews don’t say, for example, that the leadoff track, the ponderous, interminable “Outlaw Pete,” is a meandering mess. Why, for example, does Pete keep wailing, for a eight full minutes, “I’m Outlaw Pete”? Isn’t that kind of a stupid name? He also keeps intoning, for no reason I can discern, “Can you hear me?” It’s not an exact repetition, but it’s more than vaguely reminiscent of the recurring line in the opening track of Springsteen’s last album, “Radio Nowhere”: “Is there anybody alive out there?” Both are trafficking in some crude existential angst, but in neither song does the singer make it sound anything but received.

There’s a song here that’s supposed to be a tribute to the late Danny Federici; that’s heavy-handed and forgettable as well. The worst thing about the album is the odd processed croon that O’Brien has been crafting for Springsteen. On songs here like “Surprise Surprise” or “Kingdom of Days” it sounds thin and inappropriate. The Rolling Stone reviewer compares them to Roy Orbison, but bel canto isn’t exactly the phrase that springs to mind as you hear Springsteen, rather than just attacking out-of-range melodies and deriving a little drama from the process, attempt to actually sing them. He doesn’t have power as a traditional singer (Orbison’s unstoppable voice, of course, came at your body full force, from head to toe), and—how to put this nicely—it doesn’t really sound like Springsteen is pitching correctly.

So, okay, it’s Orbison-like—minus the multi-octave range, the preternatural impact of it, and the actual singing proficiency.

Those are a few of the reasons his E Street band records have become unlistenable. (Don’t get me started on The Seeger Sessions.) At Rolling Stone, it’s a five star review. (His record last year, Magic, got a five-star review as well.) (So did The Rising**.)

* Says Fricke: “[Springsteen] has already started the new year with a Golden Globe for his theme song to The Wrestler and is assured an Academy Award nomination as well.” Not so much.

** If you want to look up the review of The Rising on Rolling Stone’s alphabetical list of reviews, remember that in Wenner World, it’s filed under “T.”

Jun 12, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

San Antonio’s Ramiro Burr: How’d he get away with that?

The San Antonio Express-News has a long story about how one of its music writers, Ramiro Burr, had been using a ghost writer to crank out stories for him. Burr quit this week as the paper was finishing up an investigation:

Burr, 52, covered the local and international music scene for the past 25 years. He worked for the San Antonio Light from 1983 until the Light folded in 1993 and has been with the Express-News since. He is also a local correspondent for Billboard magazine and in 1999 wrote a book, the “Billboard Guide to Tejano and regional Mexican music.”

“Ramiro caused the Express-News to unknowingly publish work under his name that was not, in fact, his own work,” said Robert Rivard, editor of the Express-News.

“It was the work of at least one other writer who did not receive credit and who we did not know about. Ramiro decided on his own to resign just as our investigation was concluding and we were preparing to take appropriate action. We have a zero-tolerance policy whenever someone on our staff presents work as their own that is not their own.”

(Link via Romenesko.) His unorthodox arrangement began to unravel when the writer he’d been paying to ghostwrite stories and columns started clamoring for credit. The irony—a journalist unclear on the nature of his job getting burned by a ghostwriter unclear on the nature of his—is small but worth noting. Barr had hired a lawyer and had apparently at least started to muster a defense but eventually gave up. As the paper notes, his apology fell a little short.

Burr’s resignation came 24 hours after his lawyer, Glenn D. Levy, sent Rivard a letter contending that Burr is a syndicated columnist and the Express-News “never questioned” how he performed his duties.

“The San Antonio Express-News has openly approved of his work and even promoted his syndicated columns,” Levy wrote, citing language from Burr’s biography on MySA.com, the newspaper’s Web site.

However, calling it a “difficult situation,” Burr threw in the towel Tuesday. In a brief statement, he was somewhat contrite, but stuck to the claim that he was governed by a different set of rules than other Express-News journalists.

“I may have been a little overzealous, or overreached in trying to be the best reporter/syndicated columnist I could be,” he said. “I sincerely apologize for breaking any rules.

“Like all the other publications and online sites I write and have written for, the San Antonio Express-News has been good to me. I wish them all the best.”

The story also charges that Burr had an unusual relationship with a local PR firm, saying that he had his own computer at its offices and that the ghost writer, Douglas Shannon, worked out of the firm as Burr’s quote-unquote intern. The story says Shannon formally asked for credit for the stories; presumably, he had already been bugging Burr for it and finally went public.

The paper in the lede says that the problem involved more than 100 stories since 2001, which averages out to about 15 a year, but read down and it turns out that they were concentrated in a period of about 18 months, starting at the end of 2001. Most of these were a weekly “Latin Notes” music column, but it seems Burr also farmed out a feature once a month or so.

The Express-News is owned by Hearst; San Antonio doesn’t get paid much attention to nationally, but its now the seventh-largest city in the U.S. Seems odd Burr’s editors at the paper never got a whiff that he hadn’t written the things, or that he had his own intern working out of another building.

Jun 09, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

The return of Joe Carducci!

carducci coverThe Daily Swarm caught this: Joe Carducci, author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic, Ur-text for everyone who, way back when, thought Henry Rollins was a deep thinker, is back, with a new book of fiction. Ann Powers in the LA Times pricelessly captures Carducci’s point of view:

In 1991, Joe Carducci published a massive, brilliant, stupid, exhaustive, exhausting book called “Rock and the Pop Narcotic,” which set out a theory of what mattered in rock music that inspired many and infuriated more. Since he was office manager/utility infielder at SST, one of the key labels defining American punk, Carducci had more right than most to spout on about the importance of bands like Husker Du and Black Flag.

I hated that book: Carducci came off as a macho libertarian in love with some romantic idea of the working class, who thought male bonding was the key ingredient in music-making, that establishment rock critics were namby-pamby liberals and that anything aimed at the marketplace (i.e., at girls) was hopelessly corrupt.

May 27, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Rolling Stone is so weird

eagles rs coverIt’s time for the summer-touring-season package, fine. So the magazine puts on the cover … the Eagles, fine. The cover hedline is “Bitter Feud, Big Comeback.” Ordinarily I wouldn’t care about the Eagles, but I didn’t know that the band had had a new internal feud.

The group has of course had a famously long internal feud, which ended when the members got back together for the successful “Hell Freezes Over” Tour. That was in the mid-1990s. Then the group got into a fight with Don Felder—the guy who co-wrote “Hotel California”—but he left years and years ago.

I thought it would be funny to read about the latest feud. Except … there wasn’t one. It was just a rehash of the old feuds. The band tours a lot, these days, too, so here’s no big “comeback,” either. (They finally put out another studio album, Long Road Out of Eden, but that was last year.)

So anyway, I was about to toss the thing aside when I noticed it was kind of a good story. Then I noticed it was written by Charles M. Young. Young was one of the greatest Rolling Stone writers in the 1970s, which is to say he was one of the greatest magazine writers of all time. Fearless and hilarious, he was possessed of an unshakable rectitude and bottomless self-doubt; if nothing else, his writing on the Ramones and the Sex Pistols helped keep the magazine relevant when the punk generation threatened the mag’s old standbys.

Anyway, the story, though entirely lacking a news peg, is a pretty good look back at how the Eagles functioned as a band during its glory years. The band’s leaders, Don Henley and Glen Frey, are of course greedy, hypocritical assholes. But they also displayed a work ethic and a pretty steely discipline during a chaotic era, and for their troubles can still lay claim to the best-selling album of all time, their greatest hits set. But it’s fun to read Felder and the rest talk about what jerks they were.

Unlike most of the magazine’s cover stories, the writing isn’t attitudinal, flatulent or vaporous in its assessments. Young has a story to tell and some judgments to make and does it well. For example, he lets Henley gas on about not having had enough time to complete Eden, which was a 20 (!)-track double-album … and then lets Joe Walsh tell the real story: If Henley had had more time “We would have had a triple album!”

The story also reveals the details about the group’s cheap-ass deal with Wal-Mart. (You’ll recall they released the album exclusively through it: They made four bucks on each $12 CD sold.) And it has this quote from their longtime manager, Irving Azoff, about the gilt financial realities of the heritage touring act: “We make more money in 45 minutes of one show in Kansas City than our entire iTunes royalty.”

Unfortunately, there’s but a grubby little excerpt from the story at rollingstone.com here.

May 05, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

I wonder if the new Elvis Costello album is any good…

costello190.jpgIf you have to review a bad album, but you’re not the type of critic who actually tells readers that an album sucks, it’s convenient when you have some publicity talking-points at hand to vouchsafe to readers, which is what this writer spends most of the first three grafs of a six-graf review doing:

Verifiable news about “Momofuku” first surfaced on Mr. Costello’s Web site, elviscostello.com, the day of the album’s release on vinyl two weeks ago. (It comes out on CD this week.) The album started, Mr. Costello wrote in his post, when he contributed vocals to Jenny Lewis’s next record, which also included Davey Faragher, Mr. Costello’s regular bass player.

Mr. Costello then brought his drummer, Pete Thomas, into the picture and made his own record in a week, finishing the job less than three months ago. It involved a few other helpers, including Ms. Lewis, the singer-songwriter Johnathan Rice (Ms. Lewis’s boyfriend) and Mr. Thomas’s daughter Tennessee Thomas (also a drummer). Steve Nieve, another member of the Imposters, joined them on keyboards.

How … scintillating a tale! Still, there’s another three grafs to go. What to do? First, scramble around for something, anything, that can be quoted, lyricswise. Odds are they will be cringeworthy, but hey—it’s Elvis Costello, and if you say they display some of his “wit” and “ill-humor,” folks might just buy it, even if you realize they are actually rather lame. (“You can say anything you want to in your fetching cloak of anonymity/Are you feeling out of breath now, in your desperate pursuit of infamy?”)

Then, with the flop sweat about to hit, you reach for comparison to some earlier glories: “The Vox organ suffusing American Gangster Time,’ and its drum rhythm, recalls ‘Radio Radio,’ from Mr. Costello’s 1978 album ‘This Year’s Model’; the ‘In the Midnight Hour’ bass line in ‘Go Away’ sounds like something from ‘Get Happy!!’ from 1980.”

You don’t say the songs are as good as those classics, but the references make everyone involved feel good.

OK, we’re to the end now, but we’re worried about one last thing. Can we encode, somehow, obliquely, backhandedly, the fact that this isn’t a very good album?

How about a gnomic little aperçu that will float by most folks’ heads? How about:

It’s effortfully tossed off; it’s a middling record battling against his built-in high standards.

… And we finish with a reference to those “high Elvis Costello standards.” Those who pay attention know that those standards now consist largely of doing commercials for Lexus and putting out about 19 bad albums in a row, with nary a significant song among them. Hitsville hasn’t heard the new album, but would bet lunch that if there were a significant song on the new album, there would have been more in the review about that, and a little less about Jenny Lewis’s boyfriend’s drummer’s daughter.