Stone Temple Pilots: The Talented Mr. Ripoff

The new Stone Temple Pilots album, Shangri-LA DEE DA (Atlantic), begs the question: Can you teach an old dog to rip off new tricks? Once the subject of venomous rants by every self-righteous indiebot trying to keep it real in the post-Nirvana gold rush, S.T.P., like the radon in your basement, have somehow endured. Someday they may even supplant Aerosmith as the grand old poseurs of hard rock. By then, all but a bitter few will have forgotten how despised the band was in its style-copping prime, when lead singer Scott Weiland’s Eddie Vedder impersonation had Rich Little hearing footsteps, and there wasn’t a note, lyric, glance or gesture these fellows proffered that didn’t seem entirely, horribly derivative.

Older, wiser, possibly detoxified, S.T.P. have at least widened their appropriative horizons. Kicking dope and expanding your record collection doesn’t guarantee your band longevity, but Shangri-LA DEE DA is a promising start. Though some of the songs, including “Dumb Love,” are, as Mr. Weiland has put it, vintage S.T.P. (meaning, maybe, vintage Alice in Chains), the band has clearly benefited from a Virgin Megastore binge. The list of influences–from the Beatles to Zeppelin to Todd Rundgren to, according to the album’s press release, bossa-nova pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim–illustrates once again the fine line between eclecticism and hedging one’s bets.

After several listens, this album has a strange effect. Revulsion may recede slightly, and a certain appreciation for its adept manipulation of familiar sounds may occur. Pregnant women may even safely handle “A Song for Sleeping,” Weiland’s ode to his newborn son, and “Vasoline”-era diehards might find midlife-crisis relief in the hatchet job performed on rock-boy whipping-girl Courtney Love in “Too Cool Queenie ” (“She got real famous/And made lots of money/And some of his, too”). Disingenuous Kurt Cobain hagiography (“He wasn’t half-bad/At saving the world”) isn’t the only false move in this song. “Days of the Week , ” a sort of Friends -theme reject, is catchy only in the manner of a nail poking out of a door frame. But Shangri-LA DEE DA, sappy and grating as it can be, possesses some genuine pop-rock moments, best evinced in “Wonderful” and “Bi-Polar Bear.” S.T.P. never had integrity, but perhaps they’ve gained some dignity by still trying to make a go of it at all, now that even the poseurs have stopped whining about all the poseurs out there.

– Sam Lipsyte

Nuggets II : Garage Sale

First, some facts regarding Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts From the British Empire and Beyond (Rhino). Like its predecessor–itself an expanded version of the epochal 1972 double album of early American psychedelia compiled by Lenny Kaye–it’s a four-disc excavation of scores of rare singles from what are ostensibly known as garage-rock bands from 1964-69. The task here is to highlight international analogues to the likes of the Standells. The only tunes included on these discs that hit the charts here are Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men” and the Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind.” The opening tune, the Creation’s “Making Time,” is best known as the keynote of Rushmore . And that’s about it for stateside recognition.

Even more than the nascent punk rock collected on Nuggets I (which was expanded in 1998), singles from British, European, South American and Asian garage-rock bands are fetishized by the type of malcontents you see hanging around at the WFMU Record Fair. I suspect that this has to do with how the corpus of Nuggets I is no longer wholly theirs: The unwashed (or, with respect to the hygienic habits of this species of record collectors, the washed) can know what’s up with L.A.’s Music Machine, so it’s on to Auckland’s La De Da’s and Amsterdam’s the Zipps. Now, with the release of Nuggets II , they’ll have to start hitting the swap meets in Micronesia.

The odd thing about Nuggets II is how similar the songs sound. It’s de rigueur to bemoan how countries’ cultural differences are being flattened by capitalism. But the evidence presented here suggests that, in the never-to-be-besmirched 1960’s, the immediate musical legacy of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks and Yardbirds was largely not one that encouraged heterogeneity, but homogeneity.

There are a ton of great tunes within, including the Syndicats’ “Crawdaddy Simone” and “I Am Just a Mops” from Japan’s the Mops–two of the more demented songs of the age. The Move’s “I Can Hear the Grass Grow,” the Small Faces’ “My Mind’s Eye” and the Jury’s “Who Dat” are sure-footed. Any one of these four discs of pure, nasty rock action would sound terrific at a roof party: Garage rock is more fun to drink to than, say, intelligent dance music.

But it makes one wonder why more of these bands didn’t incorporate local influences, like Brazil’s Os Mutantes did via “Bat Macuma.” Believe me, four discs of wall-to-wall Neanderthal R&B and psychedelia is a fine thing. But only a nearly certifiable60’s-musicsupremacist wouldn’t find Nuggets II slightly numbing.

– Rob Kemp

Thelonious Monk: Straight, With Chaser

Because they rarely have the rights to a jazz immortal’s entire recorded oeuvre , record labels like to repackage what they’ve got and claim, even if only implicitly, that this is the essential epoch of the artist’s career. In the case of the new three-CD Thelonious Monk box set, The Columbia Years: 1962-1968 , that would be some claim. The earlier Monk boxes–the four-CD Blue Note , which includes his first recordings from 1947-1952, and the 15-CD Riverside box, which covers 1955 to 1962–are the mother lode of his formally ingenious compositions, showcases for his prickly, percussive and utterly sui generis approach to the piano. (Those who aren’t familiar with his music might try to imagine something between Erik Satie and the folk blues.)

Owing to the lag between genius and recognition, Monk worked in relative obscurity on the early masterpieces. The contract with Columbia signaled his arrival to the big time and, conversely, his imminent fall from critical grace. He was still playing wonderfully, but, in contrast to the varied musical settings of past years, he had settled into a comfortable and occasionally predictable quartet groove with his tenor saxophonist, Charlie Rouse. He was, we appreciate in retrospect, headed for a complete withdrawal from musical life, the silent 70’s that preceded his death in 1982. In an arty touch, the reissue’s first disc begins with a four-second fragment of Monk mumbling, “I’m famous. Isn’t that a bitch?”

What makes the set so surprisingly satisfying–as both a work of historical revisionism and a collection of brilliant music–is what’s been subtracted, not added. By compressing Monk’s sprawling Columbia output into three discs, Orrin Keepnews, the reissue producer and Monk’s original producer at Riverside, has elided the repetitions and longueurs that made 60’s-era Monk so problematic. Variety has been successfully retrofit. Monk sounds wily and beguiling on the quartet cuts on disc 1 (try “Ugly Beauty”); burning on “Blue Monk,” one of the big-band pieces on disc 2; and relaxed and expansive with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell on a concert performance of “Nutty,” from the final “live” disc.

Still, the Columbia reissue seems destined to live in the shadow of the Blue Note and Riverside boxes. But that, for a jazz album, is a very honorable place to be.

– Joseph Hooper

The Ramones: Jive Talkin’

Some bands take an entire career to round out a sound, but not the Ramones. Like Neu!, they had it down by the first couple of drumbeats in 1976. As shown by Rhino Records’ recent reissue of their first four LP’s ( Ramones , Leave Home , Rocket to Russia and Road to Ruin , which include sundry demos, singles and, in one instance, an entire concert), the rest of their career was all about finesse–not a term oft-associated with punk. That they were tolerated for another 25 years is evidence of the goodwill the cartoon-like band engendered, despite the infighting and Nazi iconography.

Much has been written of the band’s buffoonish persona, but one has to consider what it was born of: a lovingly ironic acceptance of the American Graffiti culture of their youths, which had been reduced to the kiddie Kustom Kar Kommando that was the Fonz. So all their talk of sedation and shock treatments had little to do with the anger of the punk culture they engendered; rather, it was their nostalgia for “Creature Double Features” and Phil Spector. The briefness of the songs, the Searchers covers, the movie-monster-wrestling images on their album covers: all pointed to a curmudgeonly belief that not only had the hippies screwed up the greatest period of music, they also got to write the official history–one that would treat all that the Ramones valued as mere prelude to a 14-minute Richie Blackmore guitar solo.

In the early 70’s, rock had embraced the blues as a form of authenticity, transforming the field holler into a soundtrack for decadent white boys slithering in Stevie Nicks’ fringe. But the Ramones were early anti-wiggers, born of the New York City art-band tradition of denigrating what might be considered a Caucasian genuflection toward “soul music” (to which Nelly Furtado responds, “Meep meep!”). In fact, with their leather jackets, bowl haircuts and Joey Ramone’s glue-sniffing enunciation, the Ramones were really minstrels of whiteness. When he sings, “Sitting here in Queens/Eating refried beans/We’re in all the magazines/Gulpin’ down Thorazines” in “We’re a Happy Family,” from Rocket to Russia (their strongest album), they’re a pale-faced Coasters for the Lower East Side, choosing mook bravado over monkey suits.

The Coasters were the Bamboozled of their day–African-Americans fronting the lyrics of a couple of white wise-asses. But not only were the Ramones playing the joke on themselves; the punk rock they invented was the only musical genre to have been born ironic, which is why their fan base remained equal parts cretins who didn’t get the joke and critics who thought they made it up. While the punk community showed its closeness following Joey Ramone’s death in May, I suspect that anyone who saw the world as a bunch of lobotomized pinheads would feel somewhat separate from any faction that celebrated him. And so “1-2-3-4!” remain the loneliest numbers that we’ll ever know.

– D. Strauss