Pop-music critics are lucky bastards: We get a lot of free CD’s in the mail. We’re also cursed, for the very same reason. The discs quickly pile up all over the place, a constant, painful reminder of how much of our lives we’ve frittered away listening to a lot of mostly mediocre music for mostly crappy pay.
For the swamped reviewer, used-record stores are a salvation. By unloading excess albums, we render our walls visible once again, and salve our existential despair with some extra cash.
Like so many pleasurable experiences, however, the selling of unwanted promo CD’s isn’t lawful.
Strictly speaking, the discs are the property of the record company that sent them, and are only lent to the critics for the purpose of a review. But since the labels don’t really want their CD’s back-I’ve never been asked to return one-they’ve generally turned a blind eye to the mutually remunerative trade between music journalists and used-record stores.
Now, ensconced as they are in the world of file-sharing and Internet piracy, record labels are surmising that mailing out hundreds of promotional CD’s to relative strangers may no longer be in their best interest. The lost revenue from a few illicitly sold albums can be absorbed, but the post-Napster reality is that, if just one of those CD’s is converted into computer sound files and placed online for all comers, it’s conceivable that no one in the world would ever have to pay for the thing.
A disturbing prospect, to be sure, and so the labels are taking action. More and more, writers are receiving advance copies of albums with their names inscribed on the disc, or with a special electronic code embedded in its programming. This “watermark” automatically transfers itself onto any digital copy that might be made of the music, allowing labels to track bootleg sound files to their source.
There are other, more ham-handed methods of deterring piracy as well. Epic Records recently raised eyebrows by sending journalists advances of the new Pearl Jam album glued into portable CD players to discourage song theft.
Some folks have gotten so paranoid that they won’t let advances out to the press at all. That’s why, when I wanted to review the new Foo Fighters release, One by One (RCA), for this column, I had to traipse downtown to a publicist’s office to hear it.
I listened to the album three times, enough to store it in my memory, and I took extensive notes. But I wasn’t allowed to take the music home, spend some time with it and reach a more educated judgment – because the record company has deemed rock critics untrustworthy.
To which I say, “Physician, heal thyself.” Yes, most music writers will cop to selling promo CD’s. But we-or at least those of us with any kind of reputation we wish to keep-are not to blame for the spread of online thievery. After reading the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 13, I am dying to know, like every other critic in the business, which as-yet-unnamed writer is being held responsible for leaking Faith Hill’s new record to the Internet, as the artist’s label, Warner Bros., alleged in the article. But I’d almost be willing to bet that the perp was looking for trouble-the kind that makes a statement about this whole messy issue.
If Warner is going to make an example of the alleged culprit (as they already seem to be doing), then they, not to mention all the labels, should also look inside their own ranks. Practically everyone in the business knows the people most responsible for unplanned Internet leaking are employees-usually in the A&R and radio-promotions departments-of the very same record companies that decry piracy. And yet the labels maddeningly persist in scapegoating the press. They apparently haven’t realized that annoying journalists won’t further their cause.
This concludes my grand pronouncement for the week. So what about the Foo Fighters record? Well, it’s damn catchy and proudly unashamed of sounding commercial, even though the band’s attack is heavier than on its last release, 1999’s There Is Nothing Left to Lose . With their ominous, weirdly accented guitar riffs, album centerpieces “Burn Away” and “Times Like These” initially seem off-putting, but they soon blossom into anthemic choruses perfect for stadium sing-alongs.
The seesawing chord progression of “Lonely As You” and the buttery vocal harmonies on “Have It All” also show that the Foos’ principal singer, songwriter and guitarist, Dave Grohl, believes in pleasant surprises. Mr. Grohl, of course, is famous for being the drummer in that epochal Seattle band of the late 80’s and early 90’s, Nirvana. But the clever melodic twists of several songs here more closely resemble the work of another group from the same city and time: those underrated champions of power pop, the Posies.
Devotees of Nirvana’s deceased leader Kurt Cobain may protest, but to these ears, the Foo Fighters’ quartet of albums reveal Mr. Grohl developing into a more sophisticated-and more interesting-songwriter than Cobain ever was. Mr. Grohl no longer shares his late colleague’s fondness for mind-numbing melodic repetition. The structures of his songs are more complex, with frequent unexpected turns. His lyrics have become sharper, too, and he rarely takes refuge in gibberish -“A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido,” anyone?-the way Cobain sometimes did.
And despite the formative years he spent raging in hard-core punk bands-not to mention his recent stint playing drums for hard-rock titans Queens of the Stone Age- One by One offers more evidence that Mr. Grohl, at heart, is a softie. When Kurt Cobain howled out “Rape Me,” his angst was undeniable. Mr. Grohl screams a lot, too, especially when the subject is dissatisfaction (“All My Life”) or romantic anguish (“Disenchanted Lullaby”). But his many shrieks on One by One don’t sound like the exorcising of some personal demon; they sound like someone making a racket because it’s fun.
If you’re in the mood for less abrasiveness, I recommend Cobblestone Runway (Nettwerk), the newest album by Canadian singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Hailed by fellow musicians for years, Mr. Sexsmith remains an unknown quantity to most ordinary people. It’s a shame, because ordinary people are whom Mr. Sexsmith writes about, and the empathy with which he details their predicaments leaves little doubt that he cares deeply for his subjects. In these cynical times, naming a song “God Loves Everyone” invites listeners to expect a joke. But if any Randy Newman–style irony is present in Mr. Sexsmith’s lyrics, it’s skillfully concealed. As far as I can determine, he really means that God loves everyone.
These are hopeful songs-Mr. Sexsmith is always on the lookout for the silver lining-but they’re also bittersweet. The tension between future hope and present disillusionment is right there in Mr. Sexsmith’s voice. A humble instrument, it has a tendency to go flat and to smear the ends of notes with a vibrato that seems beyond the singer’s control. Just like life.
So, for example, during the touching solo-piano ballad “Gold in Them Hills,” when Mr. Sexsmith sings about the potential for growth amid adversity and urges us not to lose heart, the tremor in his delivery is all the reminder we need of how far we are from where we wish to be. Occasional clattering samples by Claes Bjirklund spoil the atmosphere of a few numbers, but on the whole, Cobblestone Runway is remarkably poignant folk-rock for grown-up ears.
You couldn’t possibly use the word “grown-up” to describe Spend the Night (Atlantic), the latest opus from the Donnas, and thank heavens for that. This band of Northern California rock chicks started making records in high school; they’re now well over 21, but their music has lost none of its gleeful adolescence. Titles like “Take It Off,” “Please Don’t Tease,” “I Don’t Care (So There)” and the instant classic “Take Me to the Backseat” offer good clues as to what’s on the gals’ minds, and the accompanying songs prove worthy of their names: utterly teenage and uniformly hilarious.
I’m particularly fond of “All Messed Up” and its opening couplet: “Well I must’ve had too many Diet Cokes / ‘Cause I’m laughing at all your stupid jokes.”
Still, the Donnas have grown in at least one way: They’ve turned into great rock ‘n’ roll musicians. The playing of guitarist Donna R. (née Allison Robertson), bassist Donna F. (Maya Ford) and drummer Donna C. (Torry Castellano) has all the hormone-pumping panache of their obvious idols-AC/DC, Kiss, Van Halen-and the gutsy snarl of lead singer Donna A. (Brett Anderson) is an ideal match for such a swaggering display of prowess. It seems the older the Donnas get, the better they can express their inner sophomore.
Finally, honorable mention to Röyksopp, an electronic duo from Norway famed in certain circles for its “chill-out” music (i.e., music aimed at clubbers who are too tired to keep dancing).
Not that the group’s new album, Melody A.M. (Astralwerks), warrants the buzz currently surrounding it. For much of its duration, pure aesthetic appeal is undermined by emotional emptiness. As Johnny Rotten might say, it’s pretty-pretty vacant. Yet a few cuts, most notably “So Easy” and “Remind Me,” stand out for the way they combine a serious mien with an endearing lightness of touch. They’re distinctive enough that I won’t be selling this CD to the used-record store anytime soon. I won’t put any of it up on the Web, either. I promise.