Manhattan Music

Kiss: The Yankees Of Rock?

My friend Bill hates the Yankees. Always has. But he respects them. He cannot deny their sheer tenacity. Something similar is at work with Kiss. Although greatness has never been purely a statistical matter in popular culture, it’s clear that Kiss is the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band New York City has ever produced.

You may object to the band’s P.T.-Barnum-presents-Kabuki appearance. You may not much care for their crude odes to their penises, anal sex with groupies, etc. You may gag at bassist Gene Simmons’ single-minded kapitalist krassness-the Kiss Kasket, in which members of the Kiss Army may spend eternity, is only the most recent example.

But in the final analysis, you can’t fuck with Kiss. Two Jews from Queens, the former Chaim Witz and Stanley Eisen (better known as Mr. Simmons and guitarist Paul Stanley), have written wonderful, catchy rock ‘n’ roll songs for nigh on 30 years. And this is what their new boxed set-prosaically titled Kiss (Universal)-stresses, forever and ever.

Those two guys rounded up two street goyim from the Bronx and Brooklyn (guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, respectively) and concocted a complete package that, around 1977-when the Yankees won their first World Series of the decade-became the definitive rock experience for kids around the world. It takes outer-borough New Yorkers to truly connect to people in Eugene, Ore.

Sure, tromping around a stage dressed like Godzilla while things explode isn’t terribly subtle. But George Steinbrenner spares no expense for the spectacle that is a home game, and nobody questions the Yankees’ heart. Consequently, if you have no place in your soul for “Rock & Roll All Night,” “Deuce,” “Shout It Out Loud,” “I Want You” or even “Lick It Up,” then I feel sorry for you. The band’s return to makeup and Madison Square Garden in 1996 felt a lot like the Yanks’ World Series win that same year.

The Kiss boxed set obviously charts the kareer arc of Kiss (who are still immersed in an interminable farewell tour). Included herein are solo teenage recordings by Mr. Simmons and Mr. Stanley, demos of such standards as “Love Gun” and “Strutter,” and many live recordings. The liner notes detail the sometimes harsh decisions that Messrs. Simmons and Stanley have made for the greater good of their franchise-for one, firing and rehiring Mr. Frehley and Mr. Criss, as well as the various men who replaced them. It brings to mind Billy Martin’s many tangles with Mr. Steinbrenner.

From a punkish post-glam band to a cross-cultural phenomenon to the elder statesmen of hair metal to a quartet of 50-plus longhairs attempting, with varying degrees of success, to squeeze into studded leather jumpsuits, Kiss is an essential part of the New York diaspora.

Divine Comedy: Radiohead Redux

In the mid-90’s, Irishman Neil Hannon-who amounts to the Divine Comedy-made his name by fashioning homages to Scott Walker, the Anglo-American orchestral-pop mastermind of the 60’s. Mr. Hannon became something of a pop star for his trouble, while his contemporaries proffered less elegant, lager-fueled pub rock. (You do remember Oasis, yes?) So why would Mr. Hannon wish to do what all of his guitar-wielding countrymen-like Travis, Coldplay and Starsailor-essentially do and re-record Radiohead’s O.K. Computer ? This is more or less what he has done. He even ditched his smartly tailored suits for T-shirts and jeans.

With Regeneration (Parlophone), the first full-length Divine Comedy record since 1998, Mr. Hannon does precisely this, but accomplishes a bit more than the above-mentioned bands, all of whom dole out listless, defanged versions of the music Radiohead recorded before the band decided that straightforward songcraft wasn’t ambitious enough.

Truth be told, Mr. Hannon does not entirely abandon his initial modus operandi. “Bad Ambassador,” for instance, is punctuated by a sweeping string arrangement and the heroic arcs of his own rich baritone, both serving to offset a great debt to Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” But as Regeneration progresses, a sense of dread, accentuated by some ambient effects, seeps in. As he mopes about the yawning soundscape of “Eye of the Needle,” one pines for the rollicking come-on of 1996’s “Something for the Weekend.”

If there is some kind of deep need among the British public for variations on songs from O.K. Computer , then that need is best served by Mr. Hannon. I must say that I liked him better when he played the decadent sharpie-the chap could wear a suit!

Shelby Lynne: Alanis-ized

“Anything he says to do, I am there,” Shelby Lynne said of Glen Ballard, her current producer, in a recent interview. “I totally trust him, on any level.” But surrendering to Mr. Ballard, the producer- cum -therapist behind Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Wilson Phillips’ “You Won’t See Me Cry,” can be perilous.

It certainly seems like a bad idea in the context of Love, Shelby (Island). The follow-up to last year’s magnificent I Am Shelby Lynne (her sixth record, for which she famously won the 2001 Grammy for Best New Artist) is an undistinguished Adult Contemporary ready-made. Ms. Lynne’s voice can still convey bottomless hurt and dignity, but Mr. Ballard tends to encourage banality. Hence the dreadful bluster of “Jesus on a Greyhound,” the dull “Wall in Your Heart” (“I feel your pain”-uughh). Only “Tarpoleon Napoleon,” a torchy ballad in the style of Owen Bradley’s productions in 1960’s Nashville, indicates the promise of her previous record.

Mr. Ballard bragged in the aforementioned article that he knows how to make records that connect to as many people as possible. That’s inarguable, but I can’t imagine that anyone could form a lasting attachment to Love, Shelby .

(International) Noise Conspiracy: Garage Theory

Two years ago, a smartly coifed Swede named Dennis Lyxzén put an end to Refused, a quartet that seemed bent on broadening the narrow parameters of rap-metal (see: Rage Against the Machine). This amounted to adding a smattering of melody, the odd techno and drum-and-bass affectation and, courtesy of a lengthy manifesto touching on the agitprop of Guy Debord, a much more thoughtful take on radical-left politics.

Now Mr. Lyxzén attempts a similar, yet much more challenging, trick. With the (International) Noise Conspiracy, he takes the stylistic and theoretical preoccupations of Ian Svenonious, the leader of worthless indie R&B bands Nation of Ulysses and the Make Up, and renders them worthwhile. A New Morning, Changing Weather (Epitaph) works up an impressive head of steam via nimble garage-soul anthems like “Bigger Cages, Longer Chains,” “New Empire Blues” and “Born Into a Mess” and furious, heady potboilers like “A Northwest Passage,” “Last Century Promise” and “Capitalism Stole My Virginity.”

It’s a popular tactic for hipsters to strip-mine Nuggets, the garage-rock Rosetta stone, for source material, but the (International) Noise Conspiracy is more inventive and accomplished than the typical game of connect-the-dots played between a bunch of bowl-haircut-sporting nincompoops.

The (International) Noise Conspiracy, who will appear at Maxwell’s Nov. 16 and the Knitting Factory Nov. 17, succeed simply by giving extremely hot and purposeful performances. All the best-intentioned proselytizing ain’t worth a good goddamn unless there’s something cookin’ in the rhythm section.

Manhattan Music