Matt Suggs’ Golden Ache
If the Kinks’ Ray Davies sired a son with a dusky Mexican sorceress and raised him in a house filled with Day of the Dead icons and Ennio Morricone soundtracks, that boy would probably sound a lot like Matt Suggs does on his fine debut solo album, Golden Days Before They End (Merge).
In reality, Mr. Suggs is a guy from Visalia, Calif., who, with Debby Vander Wall, comprised the lo-fi pop duo Butterglory, a band name that I hope was inspired by Last Tango in Paris .
Mr. Suggs’ solo album sounds so different from the two Butterglory albums I’ve heard, Crumble and Are You Building a Temple in Heaven? , that the only pertinent comparison to make is that solo-dom becomes Mr. Suggs.
Golden Days , which takes its title from the lyrics of a Roy Orbison song, is a sinewy, cinematic album that takes a good number of listens to uncloak all of its pleasures. Mr. Suggs and his band make visceral music that incorporates honky-tonk piano with elements of spaghetti-western scores: taut, twangy electric guitars, mandolins, snare drums, castanets and the mournful howl of Mr. Suggs’ lap steel guitar that makes “The Ramble vs. The Vulture/Devils Dance” one of the more memorable songs on the album.
Adding to the melancholy is Mr. Suggs’ voice, which calls to mind the cadence and crooning of the Kinks’ Mr. Davies (think “Celluloid Heroes”), and which softens somewhat the themes of anger and disillusionment that run through the word-puzzle lyrics of Golden Days .
Mr. Suggs populates his songs with skeletons, vultures, devils, hearses and other spectral representations of death, but here he seems to be preoccupied not with mortality, but with the demise of love and trust. “On Monday I was widowed / I left a flower where she laid / By Friday it had withered / For she had risen from her grave,” Mr. Suggs sings over a ghostly guitar and organ on “Western Zephyr.” “I left the front door open / On the mantle a candle burned / Like a fool I was only hoping / For I knew she would not return.” By the way, the name of the Orbison song from which Golden Days gets its name: “It’s Over.”
If the golden days have ended for Mr. Suggs, I suspect it may have something to do with the breakup of Butterglory. Mr. Suggs and Ms. Vander Wall were a couple as well as a band, and when their relationship went kerblooey approximately three years ago, so did Butterglory. Although it’s unclear how much of Golden Days is inspired by that breakup, Mr. Suggs certainly seems to be addressing Ms. Vander Wall, who played drums in Butterglory, on “She Kept Time to the Teardrops.” The subject of the song is a woman drummer, and after referring to “the flicker and the fork of her tongue” in the first verse, Mr. Suggs sings in the second: “As the drum fills played softly she muttered out loud / I’ve been building a temple for you and it’s under the ground.” It’s a deft bit of writing, in which Mr. Suggs takes part of the title of the Butterglory album Are You Building a Temple in Heaven? and turns it into a mausoleum for himself.
Golden Days is full of pungent songs like that: songs that capture that weird window of pain-induced clarity that inevitably follows a relationship meltdown. You can hear it in Ranjit Arab’s fierce, surging piano playing in “Soon the Moon Will Glow” and in the Judgment Day undertones of the album’s penultimate track, “Walk with Him.” In the chorus, Mr. Suggs wonders: “When he offers his hand / Will you push through the damned? / And walk with him.” With Golden Days Before They End , Mr. Suggs has pushed through.
Eminem, Dre, Snoop Inhale That Teen Spirit
The Up in Smoke tour lived up to its name when it rolled into the Nassau Coliseum on July 19. Not even Bill Clinton could have avoided inhaling ambrosial clouds of secondhand marijuana smoke–what one of the tour’s performers, Snoop Dogg, calls “the sticky-ickey-ickey” –that had been expelled from pink young lungs.
Make no mistake, few in this racially mixed crowd of glowstick-waving teenagers seemed old enough to vote. Some were younger. And, in my section at least, they all seemed high.
Riding the Long Island Railroad to the show, I made a point of asking the twenty-somethings on board if they were also off to see this latest in the line of rap super-package tours, featuring Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, among others. The answers were resoundingly negative, except for one guy who wanted to know if I was going to see Cypress Hill.
As it turned out, I spent the evening with their blunt-loving kid sisters. The reason for this was Eminem (né Marshall Mathers), the peroxide-domed Detroit rapper whose sophomore CD, The Marshall Mathers LP , has sold 5 million units and counting.
Eminem derides teenpop, but he’s a Total Request Live perennial–the Rosie Grier head on host Carson Daly’s Ray Milland body. And why not? At 27, he’s younger than most of the Backstreet Boys.
Of course, TRL isn’t the only television program to concern itself with Eminem of late. The cable news channels are filled with baby boomer spokespeople who have appointed themselves to drone on about the homophobic and misogynistic elements of Eminem’s work, which doesn’t seem to be much of a controversy once you turn off the TV. Adults don’t seem to get this Eminem thing at all, but still they blather on, their concern admirable but clueless.
Fortunately, most of the bad vibes emanating from the Nassau Coliseum show were of the Grand Guignol variety. Despite being the main attraction, Eminem was relegated to a short early set, though he came out later to perform the raps he contributed to Dr. Dre’s 2001 album. During his set, he was flanked by two giant inflatable middle fingers, which pretty much said it all. Vocally, he wasn’t always on the beat, and the twisting precision of his raps lost focus in a live situation. At one point he brought onstage some additional inflatables–a couple of sex dolls. He told the crowd the dolls represented the rap group Insane Clown Posse, and then he held one of them to his crotch in a simulation of fellatio. Earlier in the tour, the dolls had represented his estranged wife, Kim, who recently attempted suicide. Perhaps because of that, Eminem didn’t seem to approach the gag with much enthusiasm.
For the Ice Cube portion of the evening, the rapper emerged from a coffin that descended onto a stage set straight out of a Dentyne Ice commercial. His backup crew, the Wessidas–which I believe included his demoted former N.W.A. mate M.C. Ren–were dressed right out of the Ice Capades, in matching white sweat suits and headbands. They had even worked out some choreography: swooping “I’m-a-Little-Teapot” arm motions that they repeated throughout the set. I doubt Eminem was hanging with them after the show. Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre’s stageset, which cost $2 million according to MTV, consisted of a giant skull suspended from the ceiling, a wall covered with graffiti, two giant illuminated marijuana leaves (which during certain numbers were increased to four) and a liquor-store facade. It was all artifice–the West Coast hip-hop equivalent of the Rent set.
When Dr. Dre made his grand entrance by emerging from a bouncing lowrider to the strains of “Let Me Ride,” it was in the grand tradition of Judas Priest taking the stage on motorcycles or Prince lolling about on a giant bed. When he swigged half a bottle of Hennessey onstage, he was almost certainly drinking prop iced tea or some other caramel-colored beverage.
And when Snoop’s pixilated face blew clouds of smoke at the crowd via the giant video screens that hung above the stage, it was no doubt of the legal variety–as opposed to the stuff that the audience was blowing back at him. At one point, the skull descended to request some marijuana as well.
One could nitpick at the calculation of this ghoulish joie de vivre . But the audience knew exactly what it was getting, and this is where those boomer types opposed to gangsta rap on moral grounds lose their bearings. The boomers’ molten sensibilities hardened at a time in the 60’s and early 70’s when pop music–be it Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin or Chicago–simulated righteousness and honesty, and that is the prism through which they have filtered all subsequent Billboard -charting trends. When glam and Alice Cooper-style shock rock sprung up in the early 70’s, they could accept that deviation from their reality baseline because it was based on Roger Corman-style horror-film theatrics. Nobody kept a loaded guillotine in the house.
But pass gangsta rap through the boomer frame of reference and the warning sensors go off. The references have changed, and it’s the boomers, not the teenagers, who lack the yardstick to gauge what is real and what is not. They know the words but don’t speak the language. Teen art today is mostly about ultra-heightened reality. It is silly and broad and outrageous, just like the neon pot leaves and the love dolls that were in evidence at the Nassau Coliseum on July 19.
If anything, the teens at the Nassau Coliseum seemed to be able to discern between the phony and authentic moments of the evening. The perfunctory, show-closing N.W.A. “reunion” performance, in which Snoop Dogg filled in for the late Eazy-E, was much discussed by ticket holders as they flowed out the doors. When Snoop Dogg brought the original human beatbox, Doug E. Fresh, onstage so that he could cover Slick Rick’s rap on “La-Di-Da-Di,” the teenage audience warmly recognized him, even if he was before their time.
The man who grabbed the most stage time of all the Up in Smoke performers was a comedian and actor named Alex Thomas, whose job it was to keep the audience from sagging between acts. Mr. Thomas did this mostly by repeatedly plugging The Players Club , a 1998 movie in which he appeared with Ice Cube, by noting the differences between enthusiastic black (fill in the blank) and pinch-nosed white (fill in the blank) and by dividing the crowd into competing cheer sections: “Roll That Shit” vs. “Light That Shit” vs. “Smoke That Shit.” Mr. Thomas also periodically asked the crowd to appraise various hip-hop heroes via applause.
When Mr. Thomas said, “How many of you like the Wu-Tang Clan?” or “How many of you listen to Jay-Z?” cheering followed. But when he asked, “How you all like Puffy Combs?” he was showered with a torrent of boos.
“You don’t like Puffy?” Mr. Thomas said, sounding nonplused. “Uh, what do you all think about Dr. Dre?” The cheers resumed.
See, the little girls understand–at least enough of them. And their fondness for the sticky-ickey-ickey? Well, that’s one thing they have in common with their parents.
– D. Strauss