Just in case you're curious, the music press often strikes me as an elitist institution, too. Not that I think critics should use popularity to determine who is deserving of coverage; on page 73 of this week's issue is a piece I wrote about a pair of cult acts, Tortoise and Isotope 217, and I don't feel even slightly guilty that I did so. But at the same time, I find it ridiculous that mainstream scribes tend to cover country music superficially when they bother to consider it at all. Country continues to be enormously successful, and while not everything being made under its umbrella is artistically intriguing, the genre is as worthy of examination as any musical style. And sociologically, it's a fascinating phenomenon, as the May 24 George Strait fest at Mile High Stadium demonstrated.
While most other kinds of music are currently struggling to draw fans, country is having a field day. The Mile High date attracted approximately 50,000 people--a throng much larger than the one that turned out for the heavily hyped U2 concert at the same venue last year. Moreover, the mix of ticket-buyers was far from homogeneous. Granted, there were plenty of stereotypical shit-kickers: A rather unkempt dude in front of me wore a black hat decorated with a tiny badge that sported the rhyme "Born on a mountain/Raised in a cave/Trucken and fucken/Is all I crave." But he wasn't typical of the crowd, which was marked by a huge age range (from children to senior citizens) and a racial mix more varied than at most rock concerts. Thousands of Hispanics were in attendance, and quite a few African-Americans showed up as well--on a percentage basis, far more than attended a Bruce Cockburn date I saw at the Paramount Theatre several years back.
Given this comparative diversity and the non-controversial nature of country music in general, it's no surprise that corporate America has wrapped its tentacles around the format. Banners on either side of the stage read "Nokia Presents the George Strait Chevy Truck Country Music Festival, Brought to You by Wrangler," and numerous other companies also served as sponsors, including GPC cigarettes, Jack Daniel's whiskey and a hat company called Resistol. (That last name sounds like an antidote to Viagra: "Not in the mood, but he is? Try Resistol.")
The bill itself also reflected family values. Asleep at the Wheel is a little shaggy, but it's been around long enough to seem merely eccentric; Lila McCann is a teenager every bit as wholesome as LeAnn Rimes; Lee Ann Womack isn't anyone's idea of a floozy; John Michael Montgomery is pudgy and inoffensive in the Garth Brooks tradition; and Strait himself is cut from Gary Cooper's cloth. And while Faith Hill is a hot number, she took the stage looking very pregnant--and since the man who contributed to her condition, husband Tim McGraw, was a part of the lineup, no one objected. Far from it: When Hill and McGraw dueted on "It's Your Love," the ahhh factor was very much in play.
What's frustrating about tunes like "It's Your Love," however, is that they have precious little to do with country music; rather, they're watered-down pop with a little country window-dressing. The proof is on Hill's latest full-length, Faith. Some of the songwriters represented on the project, such as Keith Brown, have country credentials, but many others, like Sheryl Crow, shlockmeister Diane Warren and all-but-forgotten hard-rock dolt Aldo Nova, probably think that a pedal-steel guitar comes complete with handlebars. Southern rock is also part of the equation: For instance, Montgomery concluded his set with a version of "Sweet Home Alabama" that was appropriately lengthy but bloodless (wouldn't want to shock the oldsters in attendance), and his up-tempo offerings sounded like Marshall Tucker castoffs minus the flute.
McGraw also made loads of concessions to the pop audience. Instead of referencing classic country, his supporting musicians tossed out snippets of Paul Revere's "Indian Reservation" and War's "Low Rider"--and they seemed far happier rocking than twanging. McGraw, meanwhile, strutted around the stage like a male model or the somewhat rustic new love interest on a soap opera, delivering his lines with a studied cool that didn't get in the way of his favorite pastime, posing. The lyrics throughout his dance numbers sounded like bad Westword headlines ("Messed up in Mexico/ Living on refried dreams" was probably the dumbest), and weepers like "Everywhere" had more to do with Sammy Johns (of "Chevy Van" fame) than Merle Haggard. My wife likened "Don't Take the Girl," in which the protagonist's beloved perishes after giving birth, to Bobby Goldsboro's "Honey," which is rightly regarded as being one of the most lachrymose tunes of all time. That it also contains more than a smidgen of Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" only makes matters worse.
But all was not lost. At Mile High, Strait showed why he's seen as the most solid performer on the C&W circuit--and better yet, he actually played country music. His band was short on bombast and long on alternately lively and mournful fiddle; his singing echoed with authenticity; and his songs came across as heartfelt and honest in the ways that the best country has always been. Some of his material was a bit bland, but it seldom stooped to McGraw-like exploitation. Just as important, Strait proved that he still has an ear for strong songs: "I Just Want to Dance With You" and "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This," both from One Step at a Time, his new LP, are likely to last as long as his previous smashes. The audience stood through two hours of rain to hear him render these ditties, which was clearly a good sign. After hours of faux-country, it was wonderful to hear the real thing.
The local album's rush.
How behind am I in getting to the local discs that have been stacking up around here? Only now have I gotten the chance to spin Miami to Vegas, by '76 Pinto, an act that's gone through significant changes since the offering's release. For what it's worth, the rock songs here, which are mainly the work of Chris DePinto and Jason Mannell, are of workmanlike variety: solid, compact, sincere and pretty darn typical. The guitars grind energetically on "Lousy Little Shit," and if the lyrics to cuts like "Raymond's Going Down" occasionally overreach, at least they're about something. You won't be stunned by the recording's originality, but neither will you be repelled by its banality (Broken Records, 301B Arapahoe, Boulder, CO 80302). On Reservation Blues, bluesman Ben Stevens continues in the tradition of his previous group, Bleecker Street. Producer Charles Sawtelle, who plays mandolin on "Grandfather's Banjo," gets a clean sound that Stevens and guests such as Kenny Passarelli and Tony Furtado use to their advantage; the playing is invariably crisp. But you gutbucket fans should know that the disc's tone is extremely light, as is Stevens's singing. (On a rendition of Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail," he sounds more like Livingston Taylor than Muddy Waters.) Pleasant, professional, pale (available in area record stores).
Sometimes after listening to an especially bizarre album submitted for review, even the most loquacious critic can find himself shaking his head and saying to himself, "What the hell was that?" The stack of cassettes I received from Andy Polt, who records under the moniker Acapulco, provoked just such a response. Polt has issued six (yes, six) volumes of a series dubbed Hard Choir Gospel, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the package as a whole is one of the strangest to ever cross my desk. On each album, Polt yelps out poem-songs accompanied by virtually nothing; there's occasional thumping in the background that sounds like either a hand rapping on a cardboard box or feet stomping against a hardwood floor. (Each cover is labeled "Bathroom Recordings," and I believe it.) Polt's themes are frequently dour--random titles include "Junkie's Hole" and "Box of Hate"--and his dedication to singing pretty much the same melody for each is simultaneously disturbing and heroic. Listening to the tapes is like burrowing into the head of the oddest ball to ever bounce down the court (Polt Records Underground, 845 Lincoln Street, Suite 101, Denver, CO 80203).
Heard after Polt's extravaganzas, anything would sound distressingly normal, so it's to be expected that Gone Fission's self-titled CD seems a bit staid by comparison. Unfortunately, the group, led by vocalist/keyboardist Brian Leven and bassist Greg Whitesides, exacerbates this effect by closely mimicking the most overplayed musical style in Colorado during this decade: post-Dead jamming. "Witness," "Lemon" and "Screaming in Pleasure" aren't inept, but they're so commonplace that it's difficult to care about them one way or the other (Gone Fission, P.O. Box 27513, Denver, CO 80227). Nobodaddy, from Greeley, surveys another crowded genre, skacore, on a four-song demo, but the players' wildness helps compensate for this drawback. "El Gato" trots out a bullfighter trumpet and a Sam the Sham Spanish countdown before kicking into high gear, and the live "I.H.O.P." skanks with aplomb. A frat party you can put in your back pocket (Dilapidated Shack of Fun, 1810 1/2 11th Avenue #1, Greeley, CO 80631).
In the July 24, 1997, edition of this column, L.K.G., one of the men behind the hardcore rap act Fuck Yo Punk Ass, didn't soft-pedal his beliefs: "Our style is political gangsta music," he explained. "We're anti-government, anti-police and anti-white." On the group's latest disc, DK Returns, L.K.G. and his partner, Governor Dog, aren't backing down. "T.N.W.T.G.D.F.", the lead track here, stands for "The (motherfucking) Nigga With the Goddamn Flow" and features the inspirational couplet "You come in my 'hood with your cops in sight/Fucking peckerwood, I'll have you pushing up violets." The twelve other cuts do their share of violence glorification and cracker-baiting, too, but what's most interesting about them is their music. The production is raw, spare and somewhat samey--too many songs share similar beats and arrangements. The melodies, though, are stronger than ever: "All in the Life of a G" and "Ain't No Fiends" are packed with hooks, and "DK Party," sparked by Suga-T's cameo, is a funky throwdown capable of inducing Caucasians to boogie to their own destruction ("DK" is shorthand for "devil killers"--as in white devil killers). A mixed bag--and a thoroughly nasty one (Hobo Records, P.O. Box 3034, Denver, CO 80205). Get Up/Get Off It, by the Freddi-Henchi Band, is chock-full of grooves, too, but whereas Fuck Yo Punk Ass has a political and social agenda, Freddi-Henchi frontmen Fred Gowdy and Marvin Graves are interested only in keeping the good times rolling--and roll they do. The CD is a flashback to the Seventies thanks to monster rhythms and practically nonstop danceability. Smooch ballads such as "It's Magic" are a bit drippy, but "Booty Check" and "Get Off the Funk" are shake-your-tailfeather thumpers that do their jobs and do them well (available in area record stores).
The Samples' Transmissions From the Sea of Tranquility, a semi-live double-CD set made for Boulder's W.A.R.? imprint, is the first effort by the group's new lineup, with keyboardist Alex Matson, guitarist Rob Somers and Yber-drummer Kenny James supplementing longtimers Sean Kelly and Andy Sheldon. The focus is on straightahead versions of catalogue favorites, with a few new items thrown in for spice--mostly notably "Watching the Wheels," a cover of the John Lennon ditty that features departed Samples Al Laughlin and Jeep MacNichol. How much you like the disc will depend on how much you liked the band's previous work--which in my case means that I found about 30 percent of this fairly tolerable and the rest a bit tedious. But the package probably won't shake the loyalty of the previously committed (available in area record stores). A more enjoyable W.A.R.? release from where I sit is Glass Cockpit, by Iowa's House of Large Sizes. The trio, made up of vocalist/guitarist Dave Deibler, bassist/guitarist Barb Schilf and drummer/vocalist Mark Munn, cranks out elliptical slabs o' mayhem that put me in mind of the Pixies: "Carpool Lung," in particular, shows off the sort of familiar but cockeyed melody for which Black Francis became known. The words to tunes such as "School Is a Drag" are as witty as the music, and if the resulting blend is extremely reminiscent of the no-longer-chic indie-rock thang, so be it. A new tangent for W.A.R.?, and a welcome one (available in area record stores).
The liner notes of Throw It In Dry, by Blister, contain the statement "This CD was recorded live to DAT in 24 hours, so take it for what it is worth." True to this confession, the disc's sound is muddy and a bit muted, and the high end is largely absent. But the patient among you should still be able to get a sense of the group, whose music is a minor variation on the rap-metal-industrial hybrid. "You Fuck," "I Did Your Mom," "World of Shit" and "Sick Little Mind" are driving and noisy but a bit routine, and "Intolerance," an attempt to deal with social ills (Martin Luther King is sampled), doesn't portend the second coming of Rage Against the Machine. Still, Dry won't bore you, and it might even inspire you to bang your head a time or two. Enjoy yourself (Blister, P.O. Box 101686, Denver, CO 80250-1686). Also on the industrial tip is Society Burning, another onetime guest in these pages ("Burn, Baby, Burn," November 13, 1997). On Tactiq (issued by a branch of San Diego's Cargo Music), synthesists/vocalists Dave Creadeau and Boom Christopher Paige use gruff singing and pounding rhythms a la plenty of their peers, but the sonic backdrops are more propulsive and imaginative than most; I was impressed by "Dead Man," "Less Than Zero" and "Merciful Release." When the tempos dip, as they do on "Awaken" and "Michelle Ascends From Hell," among other tunes, your interest may as well. But when these guys (supplemented by keyboardist Tracey) mash the gas pedal into the floorboards, they make a righteous racket (available in area record stores).
Here's a trio of local recordings being marketed by Denver's USA One Stop firm. Hustla's and the G's is a single by a Westminster rapper who's dubbed himself Fatal Instinct. The title song, which appears in a remixed version, sports music that borrows liberally from (I think) an old Gary Wright track, but it's pretty good anyhow: Fatal's flow is smooth, and he gets nice support from vocalists Hazel Miller and CoCo Brown. "Wild, Wild West" also benefits from strong production values. Unfortunately, the rhymes that dominate both songs are stereotypical street fodder that quickly become monotonous. But if Fatal Instinct can come up with something to say, he could become a player. Drift, by, uh, Drift, comes with a CD jacket peppered with type so ornate that it can hardly be read. As near as I can tell, the lead singer is named Anahma Saito, and her shtick can be likened to the one favored by Natalie Merchant. On occasion, a fresh melody surfaces ("Tomorrow" is catchy), but most of the other ditties have a positively fatal been-there-done-that feel. Either you like a group's influences or you don't. In this case, I don't. The young men of Monkey Train, from Aspen, wear their inspirations on their sleeve, too. "Acapulco," the first track on their latest disc, Harvest Train, draws heavily from the Grateful Dead, the second lifts from early-Seventies Santana, the third is a gentler version of the Allman Brothers, and so on. Jesus Christ, can't anyone steal from a source that hasn't been entirely played out? And if not, why not? What I wouldn't give right now for a good ripoff of, say, Captain Beefheart (USA One Stop, 691-3306).
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Showtime. On Thursday, May 28, Medeski, Martin & Wood play for the first of two nights at the Boulder Theater; My Blind Alley leads to the Little Bear; Wailer & Axiom have a reggae party at 'Round Midnight; and Gary Bragg premieres a rock opera called Before I Wake at the Black Box Theater on the Auraria campus (call 469-8754 for details). On Friday, May 29, Alice 106 radio personalities Jamie White, Frank Kramer and Frosty Stillwell return to Denver long enough to host the World's Largest Indoor Beach Party at the Hyatt Regency Tech Center; buzz band And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead takes no prisoners at the 15th Street Tavern, with Hell's Half Acre and Wretch Like Me; A.J. Love spreads some at the Bug; Skull Flux heads to Cricket on the Hill, with decanonizeD; Abdomen rumbles at the Bluebird Theater, with Boss 302; and Mike Watt lights up the Fox Theatre. On Saturday, May 30, Small Room and Universal Class are part of a hip-hop bill at the Bug. On Sunday, May 31, Boa and the Constrictors coil at the Soiled Dove; the Czars and the Sealegs have Worm Trouble at the Acoma Center; and singer-songwriter Lisa St. Ann visits the Borders location in Englewood. On Tuesday, June 2, the Amazing Royal Crowns rule at the Bluebird. And on Wednesday, June 3, the Snake Pit is the place to find Today Is the Day. When else would it be?
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.