Pop Will Eat Itself

"Hey hey, my my/rock 'n' roll will never die" -- Neil YoungWith the pull of a shotgun trigger to his head, Kurt Cobain killed alternative rock.Thank god.Well, he at least killed the label. Poisoned by its own success, alternative rock as a marketing concept was already rotting toward its demise. There were a thousand second-rate bands who wanted to sound like Nirvana. A thousand second-rate talent scouts listening for the next "Smells Like Teen Spirit." A thousand second-rate radio stations pumping out anything over their airwaves that remotely resembled the four-piece, grungy verse/chorus alternative rock formula. From [insert own examples] to [insert own examples], you couldn't flip the dial without hearing about the new "alternative format."Actually, KWOD and the Zone still try to paint themselves as the "alternative," and the music industry is loathe to bury the term just yet -- there are still a few more record sales to be eked out.Discerning consumers willing to look beyond the hoopla, however, will realize that among the crop of new music making its way to the stores in recent months are some of the most exciting records to be released in years.It's unfortunate that Cobain chose to commit suicide, but in a morose, twisted way, his death allowed us to slowly break away from the alt-rock label and its limitations. Existing as a symbol of all that is wrong in the music industry, it's served as an outlet for us to manifest our rage, provided us with an official grieving period, and then let us move ahead.Not that the mainstream media itself ever learns. Electronica's the new buzzword these days; you can't pick up a music publication without reading about how it's the future of music.Three-and-a-half years after his death, the music making its way to the masses is becoming decidedly harder to categorize. Since January, we've been treated to a slew of wonderfully undefinable music from artists ranging from Yo La Tengo to the Sneaker Pimps, Lori Carson to the Dandy Warhols, Jamiroquai and Chemical Brothers, to Sleater-Kinney and Whiskeytown. Sure, they all get lumped into various categories -- pop, electronica, R&B, alt. country, punk, whatever -- but all have revived, rallied or downright reinvented the medium.New releases are even more promising, but you'll have to look in less-than-obvious places to find your best bets, as well as the newest, choicest acts.In fact, just skimming over the mainstream surface, it's clear we're looking to the past for inspiration. CDs that have garnered the most interest so far this season have been from two of rock's enduring icons, the Rolling Stones ("Bridges to Babylon") and Bob Dylan ("Time Out of My Mind "). It's hard not to pay attention when the genre's founding fathers spit out something new.Slightly overshadowed but still stimulating the rock critic salivary glands are pop mainstays such as Mariah Carey ("Butterfly") and Janet Jackson ("Velvet Rope"), as well as new releases from alterna-rock icon's Everclear ("So Much for the Afterglow"), Green Day (Nimrod) and Oasis ("Be Here Be Now").The biggest trend this fall, however, is to bebop down Memory Lane. It started with all those reunion tours (Kiss, Journey, etc.), but now the industry's got us waxing nostalgic in full force with repackaged "greatest hits"-styled releases from the Pixies ("Death to the Pixies"), X ("Beyond and Back"), the Replacements ("All For Nothing and Nothing For All") and Jimi Hendrix ("South Saturn Delta"). Jane's Addiction has even re-formed with two of the band's original members and included two new singles on its disc. The retro-crazy onslaught continues with reissues or box sets from Mission of Burma, Wire, the Residents, Pink Floyd, Galaxy 500, the Cure, Cream, Television Personalities, the Blasters and the Doors.Throw in a few new discs from artists whose careers you thought (or wished) were dead and buried (Morrissey: "Maladjusted" the Sundays: "Static and Silence"; et al.), and you might be confused as to whether this is the late '90s or the late '80s.While it's crucial for any music lover to be well-versed in the medium's history, it's important not to get mired in the past by declaring the current state of rock 'n' roll dead in comparison.Dig as deep as your pocketbook allows. Turn off your radio. Skim the more serious music magazines (Option, Magnet, CMJ). You'll discover a wealth of new discs that point the way toward the future of music. The record industry might complain otherwise (ignore their whining about record sales and moving units), but we're living in one of the most exciting musical periods ever.Forty-some years after its birth, rock 'n' roll has diversified to the point of losing its original meaning, and thus, it now means so much more. American pop has finally become a melting pot that reflects this country's diversity. Today, the most exciting new music defies categorization and shatters preconceived notions about genres before reassembling them into something entirely new, yet familiar. Blending everything from hillbilly and Indian folk music to the blues, jazz, hip-hop, metal, pop and classical, music is revitalized every day.It can get a little daunting when rock critics attempt to label the new sounds, and it's hard to keep up with the jargon (twang-core, trip-pop, acid house, etc.). When DJ Shadow layers classical, jazz and hip-hop grooves with pop and funk, how can you come up with one term that appropriately defines it? The best in new music exists beyond -- or in spite of -- labels.Such examples of genre-busting are best exemplified in new releases by Portishead, Bjork, Stereolab, Cornershop and Greg Garing.As Elektra unveils a Sugarcubes retrospective, Bjork, the band's pixiesh Icelandic chanteuse, releases her third solo album (not counting last year's disc record, "Telegram"). Sinking deeper into a warm ocean of electronica loops, Bjork's trademark voice moves easily between chirps and growls. There are settings of lush strings, video game-like beeps and shrieks, and roughly trodden, abrasive marches. The result is breathtakingly beautiful. She is easily one of the era's most intriguing singers.The musicians in Stereolab are another example of artists who make unconventionally beautiful choices when constructing songs. The English band has only enjoyed moderate, underground success in the States, but one day its records, including its ninth and most recent, "Dots and Loops "(Elektra), will be awarded a noteworthy role in rock history. With dreamy, breathy vocals, sugary-pop beats and rich horns offsetting techno grooves, Stereolab manages to create a peerless sound."Subversion isn't doing something totally new that no one listens to," explains Stereolab vocalist Laetitia Sadler. "It's about taking a bit of the old and putting something underneath it that goes against all that's been done before."Also hailing from England, Cornershop will likewise one day be looked upon as a truly innovative band. Cornershop's sophomore record, "When I Was Born For the 7th Time "(Luaka Bop), freely appropriates singer Tjinder Singh's Indian heritage with spacy sitars, fusing them into a seductive, smoky haze of jazz, electronica and infectious Beatlesque pop melodies. Catchy, smart and charming, "Brimful of Asha" is arguably the best single of the season.With its 1994 debut album "Dummy", England's Portishead practically invented the term trip-hop with its woozy amalgamation of hip-hop, jazz grooves and Beth Gibbons' darkly prodigious. Billie Holiday-styled vocals. The band's new self-titled record (London) continues that sound with a slightly harder edge. Mixing in gritty electronica riffs, sharp percussive beats and fuzzy distortion, the album's first single, "All Mine," carries on Portishead's promise to be one of music's freshest, most significant voices.Similarly, Greg Garing's debut "Alone" (Revolution) has already earned its place in pop-culture history as an album that's redefined musical boundaries. Garing got his start playing guitar with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, and once had Nashville drooling over his own country band. But he called it quits to stop the comparisons to Monroe and Hank Williams.Garing spent the following year exploring various music genres, and his resulting repertoire is an astonishing array of bluegrass and electronica, trip-hop and honky-tonk all set againt Garing's evocative, lonesome wail. It's an almost inconceivably new sound, and further proof that rock is what you make of it.Retrospective albums by the Pixies, Mission of Burma and Wire are important as reference points -- to examine rock's evolution -- but 10 years from now we'll be looking at today's artists (and most likely witnessing reissues from) such as Portishead, Cornershop and Greg Garing as important figures that reconfigured rock 'n' roll's very existence.Rock 'n' roll will never die. Much like the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes, it is in a perpetual, creatively fueled state of demise and resurrection.


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