Featured Music: Thursday, February 25, 2004
Killer or Filler?

A hypothesis on the surge in sales of sleep-inducing c.d.’s and a look at our own Triple-A players.

By Anthony Mariani

A good friend of mine — let’s call him “Elvis” — tells me that when he was illegally downloading music regularly, he’d spend about 10 to 15 minutes tops on the technical stuff — rebooting, dialing up, locating a title or two, and then hitting “Enter.” And not only was it fast, he said, no heavy lifting was required. He could steal music in his jammies and leave his stacks of black AmEx cards in the shoebox beneath the mattress where they belonged. (Unlike stealth downloading, legal downloading required him to lug out all of his secret numbers and then key them in ... repeatedly.) Yeah, Elvis donned his dress sweats for that occasional jaunt to browse the brick-and-mortar record store, and he did enjoy the sight of a nicely packaged c.d. But Big E found that file-sharing sites like Kazaa and Grokster united him with so much music — unadorned by slick marketing gimmickry or critical schmatter — that he felt bound by a weird sense of duty to continue his covert consumerism.

But it was through all his free file-sharing that Elvis ultimately made a huge decision, one with reverberations throughout the biz — to go back to doing most of his business with our beloved music industry the old-fashioned legal way. His story, I believe, is reflective of a lot of others.

Our hero started downloading illegally not too long ago, after he regularly found himself being cornered by a friend and being told magical tales of buried treasure in cyberspace. For as long as the two had known each other, their conversations had always involved the music from the Jurassic Period in which they both had grown up. Their conversations also always ended the same, with one or both saying, “Damn, I wish I could hear that shit again.” The friend’s discovery of Kazaa was, as you could imagine, revelatory.

Elvis’ original intentions were purely innocent. He planned on downloading only music he already owned in other formats, mostly vinyl and cassette, mostly stuff from the Jurassic Period.

But it didn’t take long for him to begin rationalizing his other downloads, Jurassic music he loved but didn’t technically “own.” (“Well,” he’d say to himself, “I would have bought this Buccaneer c.d. over the counter, but I couldn’t find it at K-Mart 20 years ago, so ... .”)

A piece of silver lining for all you millionaire artists out there whose yacht decks went unswabbed last week because of Elvis’ dirty on-line deeds was that our hero amassed a decent “Greatest Hits” collection in little time. After that, he scoured the free file-sharing sites only when hit by occasional nuclear blasts from the past. What this meant was that his time on-line decreased. To nearly zero.

And, by all recent indications, it may very well stay that way.

It all goes back to Elvis’ background. I bet that his life probably resembles those of other folks his age and older, similarly raised. Our hero grew up blue-collar in the lean ’70s and was taught to treasure every penny as if it were his last. So when folks like him bought a record, they savored it. Even if it sucked, they listened to it repeatedly — just to get their money’s worth. Then when the internet came along, and these folks realized they could get their hands on music for free, they began gobbling up as much as they could. Mostly on principle. Like when you were starving and your moms served you peas and carrots instead of Boston cream pie, and because you were starving you ate those goddamn peas and carrots with ravenous abandon? Same with file-sharing. Sure, Elvis would rather have downloaded old Genesis or Moby Grape, but since their songs were hard to find and Twisted Sister’s were everywhere, he took what he could and — this is the important part — liked it. Remember: Nothing tastes better than free.

And because Gen-X’ers and Baby Boomers like Elvis were having a hard time dealing with the realization that they might be worse off than their parents, they began trying desperately to weasel their ways back into the womb, back to that metaphoric locale where they’d be taken care of, not the other way around, and their responsibilities would consist merely of homework, practice, chores, and fridge raiding. They knew that one sure-fire way to revisit yesteryear, easily and painlessly, was by re-experiencing yesteryear’s pop culture, especially the music. Listening to songs they had grown up with and loved (because these folks couldn’t afford not to love those tunes, ’member?) was like hanging out with the people they were back then. It was sometimes sad, sometimes beautiful, but always where it was supposed to be — firmly in the past. Comfortably numb, indeed.

Listening to old faves — courtesy of Kazaa and Grokster — gave a lot of old heads the confidence to go out and face the cruel present tense again. (No matter how bad things got, these folks had their virtual security blankets to curl up in, ya know?) But something strange began happening: Using free file-sharing sites to reacquaint themselves with their former selves got a lot of them interested in listening to music again — music from this century — and, more importantly, acquiring music the way they used to when they were younger ... by paying for it.

Last week, the very adult-oriented sophomore c.d. from Norah Jones, Feels Like Home, sold 1,022,000 copies during its first week in stores, helping make this past Valentine’s Day the biggest since SoundScan began tracking record sales, in 1991. Other new c.d.’s — by the soporific likes of Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow, former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, and Sinatra rip-off Harry Connick, Jr. — have also been flying off shelves. “Artists who appeal to music-buying baby boomers,” said The New York Times recently, “contribute a significant portion to overall sales.”

Granted, Elvis’ tastes are still pretty mellow, but at least he’s moved away from his computer, left his house, and gone back out into the real world. For getting old-timers like him interested in music again, free file-sharing sites like Kazaa and Grokster should be getting thank-yous from major record labels. Not subpoenas.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

Swingers is probably the movie in which modern-day grown-ups, armed with the code and patois they’ve copped from dusty black-and-white flicks, make it cool to behave the way grown-ups did, like, 50 years ago. OK, most of Swingers’ backward-looking adults are men, but who’s keeping score? I mean, is it really beyond anyone these days to adopt a retro ’tude? I actually know women my age who want to get married and — gulp! — pump out 2.5 kids.

One foot in the past, though, can be deadly. This is especially true for pop stars. Yeah, throwback artist Norah Jones may have the field to herself now, but it’s only a matter of time before her fans graduate to Billie Holliday, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, and the rest of Jones’ aesthetic touchstones. The old dictum still stands true: Don’t listen to an impersonator when the real deal him- or herself is still out there (even if he or she is only on vinyl ... or Kazaa).

Still, it’s not Jones’ fault. She’s just doing her thing. (Of course, if she had had any foresight back in the day, she would’ve realized that allowing herself to be marketed to the TRL crowd would eventually hurt her jazz “cred.”) How do I know she’s genuine? Because her music doesn’t suck. Same with local gal Lauren Gifford. Her love for ’70s-era female singer-songwriter pop is big like sky and mountain, even if it is a little disingenuous.

Gifford tries to be hip by being square. First, her image. In most of the photos that are strategically situated throughout her latest c.d., Sitting Pretty, the handsome, athletically built Gifford — in vintage jeans, boots, and tank tops — looks alternately visionary and coy. What comes across clearly is that shopworn cowgirl-poet persona we’ve seen a million times before. For some reason, Gifford’s isn’t so much reverential as clichéd. In the words of Norah: I don’t know why.

Second, her sound. Everything coalesces around a linear though hyper-traditional arrangement of stunning vocalismo, ersatz lounge, and saccharine sentiment (though, foreign words and a reference to Stanley Kubrick aside, Gifford can dash off an expressionist lyric better than most artists trafficking in this particular style of music). Her immense voice simply seems built for bigger, more contextualized, more variegated vessels.

Admirably, the six-song Sitting Pretty is straightforward. The title track’s smooth chorus, in which Gifford finds herself in the certainly disturbing position of looking at her heart dangling in front of her (metaphorically, that is), is a nice partner to the chorus in the following song, “Sleepwalker.” There, Gifford lets loose her breathy, sexy voice on an ex-lover who would apparently rather commit hara-kiri than smile at the singer when crossing her on the street. Then, as soon as it seems Gifford wants to “rock” as only a pretty woman can (“Ouch! My nails!”), she dusts off the piano for a ballad that, with its soft cymbal work and steady Steely-Dan-ish electric guitar accompaniment, comes closer to adventurous than any of the other songs. It’s not better or worse, just more expressive. A good thing.

Throughout the disc, Gifford proves herself a precise, fluid pianist. The solo on “Never Look Back,” an uptempo swinger with a weepy chorus couched in catchiness, is full of all the right somber notes. And the last track, “Temptation,” is simply a 2:49 piano solo that achieves boppish heights, rolling and rumbling through a colorful sonic landscape like the A-train through a Manhattan autumn at dusk. Through her playing, Gifford elevates mid-life angst to levels of catharsis as powerfully as any sensitive male counterpart or fellow she-rocker. Check her out at www.laurengifford.com. Grade: B+

Glenny, Be Good ... Please!

Now blues: That’s the stuff all the codgers dig. Glenn Goodspeed would qualify as a worthy blues artist — if he could write a song that’s not embarrassingly clichéd or just plain awful. One thing Goodspeed can do, however, is play guitar. His tone is sweet, and his licks, though mostly recycled, are tasty. For more info on his nine-song c.d. Piecework, go to mp3.com/glenn_goodspeed. Grade: D

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