Let us now compare and contrast the Dave Matthews Band and Aerosmith. The two groups released albums within a week of each other and now, at press time, both sit at the top of the Billboard album chart. The Dave Matthews Band’s album, Everyday (RCA), which resides at the top of the heap, has already sold more units than all of their previous albums combined. No less an accomplishment is the No. 2 berth of Aerosmith’s Just Push Play (Sony/Columbia), an album by a group of guys whose sell-by date passed a good 20 years ago.
If you were looking for other similarities between these two bands, you could say that both are formidable live groups whose first records involved little more than recording what they had been playing onstage, but that both now avail themselves of hit doctors, which makes them immediately suspect in the eyes of the hip-oisie . You could also say that both bands’ new records are very deliberate, machine-shined affairs.
Other than that, you would be right to conclude there’s not much else in common between the Dave Matthews Band and Aerosmith. The former appeals to lots of people because their music reminds them of dancing to Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986; the latter, because their music recalls that first experience with a beer bong and the drunken hook-up that resulted.
The Dave Matthews Band, while a post-frat party band nonpareil, has an earnest, responsible patina: They’re a virtuosic, multicultural outfit led by their namesake, a pudgy chap who would not embarrass his date in front of her mom and dad. Aerosmith, meanwhile, is composed of ravaged fiftysomething rock dudes who refuse to go away and continue to make the same kind of leering rock candy that was last in vogue in 1989. Front man Steven Tyler, a guy who’s never been mistaken for a Beau Brummel type, now resembles a decomposed Gloria Steinem with collagen-enhanced lips.
So is it some physics-defying miracle that the old rock dudes in question sound better than the band that, just by virtue of their youth and their world-pop sound, would seem better equipped to succeed in this new world without borders? No. It’s just that Aerosmith are intuitively more comfortable with the business of songcraft than the Dave Matthews Band.
Everyday finds the D.M.B. under the aegis of Glen Ballard, the producer-therapist who transformed Alanis Morrisette into 1995’s preeminent harridan. Out are the improvisational “turn on the mikes, we’re fiddling around with this groove and lyrical catch phrase we came up with at the club last night” tendencies that marked their previous records. In is a concerted effort to make a more song-based record.
But that proves to be an ill-advised strategy, given that Mr. Matthews & Co. are essentially ceding some of their originality (which is, admittedly, considerable) in an effort to sound more conventional. For instance, when Mr. Matthews puts down his instrument of choice, the acoustic guitar, to noodle around with an electric version, the results sound as if his hands were first encased in concrete. On “I Did It,” his efforts to sound lascivious are sabotaged by his clunky chording.
I should mention at this time that I’ve long found Mr. Matthews’ voice one of the more irritating of our age. So when he
uses it to baldly evoke Peter Gabriel on “The Space Between,” and then to make idiotically pious pronouncements of the why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along variety on “Mother Father,” it’s all I can do not to take my Louisville Slugger to the CD player.
Occasionally, the D.M.B. stumbles in the right direction on Everyday : “Dreams of Our Fathers,” “Fool to Think” and “So Right” all establish a nice tension between an anxious verse and a spacious chorus. But Mr. Matthews’ uneasy relationship with involved melodies–along with the sense that his band is champing at the bit when it’s constricted by the more conventional framework of shorter songs–makes the album frustrating.
That’s not the case with Aerosmith’s latest. This is a band that knows exactly what its strengths are, and with Just Push Play , Aerosmith has eluded the joke status that is the curse of any band that manages to last as long as they have. Every record the Boston-based rock codgers have put out since 1989 has further entrenched them as the greatest power-ballad practitioners in history (c’mon, you know “What It Takes,” “Cryin'” and the Diane Warren-penned “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” are blue-chip, heart-on-sleeve masterpieces). Just Push Play finds the band rediscovering their cojones .
Where the riff-based tunes of the band’s last album, 1997’s Nine Lives, were uniformly pitiful, Play boasts at least five worthy tunes that only occasionally detour into problematic Beatles-esque interludes. The title cut revisits the “Walk This Way” hook in its outro, which is suitable since the tune boasts Aerosmith’s best groove since that classic. “Light Inside” seethes so feverishly that it’s hard to believe a group of ancients could have anything to do with the song. And listening to the riff for “Under My Skin” is like getting whacked in the gut with the broad side of a shovel.
But it’s in two other tunes that Aerosmith reaches the peak of its abilities. “Luv Lies” uses pre-choruses and glistening key changes to convey a stately ache. The single “Jaded” is as faultlessly structured as the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and as potent and eloquent a lament as you are likely to hear this year. It’s the best up-tempo Aerosmith song in years–and proof that, when it comes to this group of geezers, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Los Super Seven: Bueno Disco Social Club
Two years ago, Los Super Seven won a Grammy (for Best Mexican-American Music Performance, but a Grammy all the same). The band’s debut album–a magnificent, roiling mixture of Tejano standards, squeezebox numbers and country tunes–was one of the best discs of 1998, on a par with Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Willie Nelson’s Teatro . The album even sold well compared to the sales of core members David Hidalgo’s and Cesar Rosas’ other band, Los Lobos.
This time around, Messrs. Hidalgo and Rosas give the distinct impression that they want to do better than fine. Spurred, perhaps, by the breakout success of The Buena Vista Social Club , Los Super Seven’s second album, Canto (Columbia/Legacy), moves away from the Mexican and country-tinged arrangements of their eponymous debut and into a more full-throated, and varied, celebration of Latin music. As a result, Messrs. Hidalgo and Rosas have changed the lineup of their side project. Tex-Mex rocker Joe Ely and crooner Freddie Fender are out; Mavericks lead singer Raul Malo, Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca and Brazilian star Caetano Veloso are in, along with some other returning members.
The languid brushed percussion of the opening track telegraphs Canto ‘s bold intentions from the get-go. Before any more instruments join in, Mr. Malo, who possesses a sulfurously rich voice, murmurs one word and carries it for seven beats: “Siboney.” Yanquis will be excused for not recognizing the significance contained in this word. The transcendent singer Xiomara Alfaro, a Cuban Ella Fitzgerald, all but trademarked Ernesta Lecuona’s “Siboney” 40 years ago; her rendition of this torch classic has the same weight and resonance as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” But Los Super Seven own the song here, with Mr. Malo’s deliciously pained vocals murmuring above that lonely percussion, a plodding bass line and mournful piano chords.
Like “Siboney,” eight more of the 12 songs on Canto are Latino classics with either Cuban, Colombian or Brazilian pedigrees. (Messrs. Hidalgo and Rosas are the authors of the album’s three originals, and Mr. Hidalgo’s “Teresa,” Canto ‘s only English-language song, has already been released as a single.) But Los Super Seven manage to put their own stamp on each of the songs, usually by avoiding the ramped-up, hyperkinetic pace of much Latin music.
Canto takes its time, and as a result it’s an excellent album for newcomers to Latin music (especially those who somehow missed the whole Buena Vista craze.) After all, it’s easier to be introduced to jazz through Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue than Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come . But just as Kind of Blue is one of the best jazz albums ever made, Canto will go down as a durable document of Latin, and American, music.
Tortoise: Stuck in the Middle
Back in the late 90’s, Tortoise, the jazzy, ambient, Chicago-based rock band with no singer, found cult fame by taking the “rock” out of alternative rock and replacing it with something a whole lot comfier. They didn’t scream and yell. Hell, they had a vibraphone player. You could put a Tortoise album on at a party and hear yourself talk over the music.
Thanks to Tortoise, a whole generation of somewhat disaffected, college-educated white adults in their 20’s could participate in the alternative-music scene without having to buy into the anger and alienation that dominated the rock ‘n’ roll of that moment. The Tortoise sound, a skillfully rendered blend of jazzy drums, live and looped guitar riffs, synthesizer bleeps and bloops and the occasional angular vibraphone line, was very subdued and extremely cool.
So cool, in fact, that literally hundreds of bands during the late 90’s tried to copy the Tortoise sound, which entails veering away from traditional song structure, emphasizing improvisation and borrowing from obscure European electronic-music movements of the 70’s.
Tortoise’s fourth album, Standards (Thrill Jockey), finds the band still making the well-crafted background music they put out on their first three albums. The CD falls somewhere between the beat-driven Millions Now Living Will Never Die and the jazzier TNT . The beats are a tad more funky and the licks are more angular. Which is to say, nothing much has changed. Current fans will not be disappointed by the interesting sounds and general moodiness that producer and drummer John McEntire and guitarist Jeff Parker come up with. But they also won’t be challenged.
For me, there will always be something missing in Tortoise’s music–namely, a point. Their best moment came as the backing band for the brilliant, quirky Brazilian songwriter Tom Zé during his 1999 world tour. In that capacity, the band was absolutely sublime as Mr. Zé sang his flipped-out songs and Tortoise provided a beautiful ambient backdrop. You can check out Mr. Zé on Postmodern Platos (Luaka Bop), a highly influential collection of remixes of Mr. Zé’s work by a crack group of producers, including Mr. McEntire.
The most fulfilling tracks on Standards are “Eros” and “Blackjack,” which capture instrumentally the fervor that Mr. Zé evokes lyrically. They have strong, well-developed harmonic ideas and moments of real exhilaration when the layers of drum, bass, guitar, synthesizer and vibraphone coalesce.
The less successful songs on Standards include “Monica,” which prompts the same kind of weariness that that name does in today’s culture. The song rambles on without purpose or direction, although I imagine that if I were to bring this complaint to the band and its admirers, they’d tell me that I was missing the point; that Tortoise intends to subvert traditional song structure and emphasize the interaction of the band through improvisation.
To be sure, Tortoise’s main members–Mr. McEntire, Mr. Parker and bassist Douglas McCombs–are capable musicians, but aside from some cool sounds, the songs don’t really have enough going on in them, improvisation- or composition-wise, to keep the listener’s interest. The big payoff of the vaunted “freejam,” where every musician in the band goes nuts at the same time–whether it’s Ornette Coleman or the Grateful Dead–almost always accrues to the performers rather than the listeners.
The result, I think, is that Standards tends to succeed not as a collection of songs but as a collection of sounds. There are moments of real originality, such as the crescendo of guitar distortion, vibraphones, drum-and-bass bass lines and jazzy drumming in the middle of the final track, “Speakeasy.” On the other hand, virtually every song on the album is missing any sense of development or resolution, which means there is very little at stake for the listener. The beginnings and endings of the songs on Standards are not a function of their internal logic, because there is none. Rather, it’s simply a matter of when the producer decides to press stop.
Through this aimlessness–songs without hooks or words, melodies without harmonic direction, improvisation without lyrical urgency–Tortoise reproduces in musical terms a shell-shocked, withdrawn attitude toward the world. Put on Standards and you’re quickly transported to a dimly lit lounge, packed with poker-faced hipsters smoking cigarettes and not talking. It’s a glum scene and a glum album, but Tortoise pursues this laid-back moment with real vigor and some musicianship. In doing so, they turn what is essentially a retreat from the demands of Western music into a small virtue.