Bulletin: Record companies are out to make money. It’s a reality so taken for granted that it long has been incorporated into the process of creating the music itself. But few acts straddle the gulf between art and commerce as effortlessly as, say, the Beatles or the Motown roster in its prime. For too many musicians, record companies function more like brick walls against
which they are compelled to bang their heads. MTV to the contrary, headbanging is not a ball.
Major labels have little use for the recording-industry equivalent of publishing’s “midlist author” respected recording artists who can reliably sell 150,000 to 500,000 copies of each album release. More and more, these labels reserve their considerable promotional resources for that next potential blockbuster hit.
When they want to play hardball, the industry suits can bring a lot of pressure to bear on their artists to get with the program. They may make practical demands dictating the use of specific producers or songwriters, for example, or, more insidiously, they may manipulate a musician’s inherent vanities and insecurities until total artistic disorientation results.
The irony here is that crafting a hit song is an almost mystical pursuit rather than an exact science. If there existed a foolproof formula, everyone would use it and 99 out of 100 bands would not be commercial busts.
Under these conditions, even the most gifted and iconoclastic musicians can become hopelessly lost, wandering aimlessly into commercial or artistic wastelands.
Thankfully, some niches may be emerging for these midlist recording artists. Adored cult figures or rock stars past their commercial peaks (and beyond caring about it) are finding new opportunities to regain their artistic balance, thanks to new technologies and the rise of specialized independent record labels, among other factors.
All of these musicians the quirky, the stubborn, the naive and those just too tired to play the game anymore are realistic enough to know that making music is a job as well as an artistic calling.
All they want is the opportunity to continue working without having to leave some of their brains behind on that brick wall.
Lost in Space
Aimee Mann’s epic battles with record companies are legendary, like Ali-Frazier prizefights, and for a while, they seemed to constitute her primary vocation.
From her first band, ‘Til Tuesday (which scored with the 1985 smash “Voices Carry”), through two brilliant ‘90s solo albums filled with extravagant, heart-wrenching, Beatles-esque pop songs, chronic label problems prevented her recording career from gaining any real momentum. Miss Mann didn’t help matters with her outspoken critiques of the music business and her own near-bitterness (both of which often found their way into her songs).
Equilibrium finally came when her soundtrack to Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed movie “Magnolia” earned Miss Mann an Oscar nomination (and sold half a million units), giving her the breathing room she needed to sever her major-label ties once and for all. With Michael Hausman, her business manager (and ex-‘Til Tuesday drummer), she formed her own label, SuperEgo records, and started releasing her own material. With hindsight, it’s easy to see that her prickly intelligence and sophisticated pop formalism were never suited for Britney-style superstardom in the first place.
“Lost in Space,” Miss Mann’s second self released CD, is ostensibly a concept album about addiction and dysfunction, and its coherence lies in its aural atmosphere as much as its lyrical themes. Virtually all of the album’s songs unfold around the kind of midtempo, keyboard- and acoustic-guitar-driven, kaleidoscopic chord progressions that Miss Mann perfected on the “Magnolia” soundtrack. On the first few spins, it might seem that she is cruising on autopilot, but the sustained mood gradually seeps into you, much as your eyes take a moment to adjust after entering a darkened room.
Miss Mann and longtime collaborator Michael Lockwood (who picks up the production reins from departed kitchen-sink wizard Jon Brion) embroider the basic grooves with strings, electronic effects and Mr. Lockwood’s own George-Harrison-in-zero-gravity guitar work. The result is a thematically apt narcotic dreamscape that yields its subtle dynamic shifts in measured doses.
This formula is put to best use on tracks such as “Pavlov’s Bell,” with its churning-seas chorus, which Miss Mann rides with her usual proud unflappability, and “Invisible Ink,” which slowly climbs from somber chamber-folk to the dizzying heights of lusty strings and a falling-teardrop slide-guitar hook.
Throughout, Miss Mann’s vocals command our sympathy and identification. Even when singing her most cynical lyrics, she cannot conceal the bewildered sadness that lies behind them. Such vulnerability indicates a corresponding excess of faith, and there is bravery in her willingness to go on believing in things she fully expects to disappoint her.
While Miss Mann may feel betrayed by ex-lovers, record companies and a world that just hasn’t measured up, most of all she feels betrayed by her own imperfections. This self-interrogating artist never shies away from fixing her suspiciously dry eyes on herself. As she sings in the closing lines of “It’s Not,” the album’s achingly honest final song: “I believe it’s you who could make it better, though it’s not, no it’s not.”
The Pretenders was one of those rare bands that are both unimpeachably cool and monstrously successful. Chrissie Hynde, the London-based quartet’s leader, singer and principal songwriter, was unlike anyone seen or heard before, and it didn’t hurt that she had a voice that could melt the polar ice caps.
After death and then restlessness ended the original Pretenders’ reign in the mid-‘80s, Miss Hynde turned to a revolving lineup of session men, with ever-diminishing artistic and commercial returns. Characteristically unfazed, she went off to look after her children, fall in and out of love a few times, crusade for animal rights and down a couple of well-earned cocktails.
When comeback time rolled around with the “Last of the Independents” album in 1994, Miss Hynde was still using session men. More surprisingly, given her portfolio, she was for the first time writing with high-profile song doctors (Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly).
Still, that album did the trick, giving Miss Hynde a chart hit with the lush devotional ballad “I’ll Stand by You” and, in bassist Andy Hobson and indispensable lead guitar foil Adam Seymour, the seeds of her new Pretenders. Founding drummer Martin Chambers was invited back soon after, and the new quartet, in that sneaky, new-edition way, has been together longer than the original group. It’s the Ron Wood effect.
“Loose Screw” is just the musicians’ second studio album together and their first with the independent label Artemis records. That’s deceptive, though. They are road-seasoned and have a tightness exemplified in the album’s alternating displays of rock ‘n’ roll brute force and reggae-rhythmic finesse.
In promotional interviews, Miss Hynde has been touting the quick and spontaneous generation of the songs on “Loose Screw” (written mostly in collaboration with Mr. Seymour), as if that were a wonderful thing. Well, yes and no.
There are definite pleasures in the wide range of embellishments available to such a crack band. When you can throw your voice around with Miss Hynde’s virtuosity, what material wouldn’t raise goose bumps in the practice room?
Many of the songs, however, don’t hold up under close scrutiny. There are just too many rote chord patterns and lazy, undeveloped lyrics. The band gets away with it here about half the time.
“I Should Of” practically throbs with regret (“I should have tried a little harder, I should have cried a little louder”), and “You Know Who Your Friends Are” paints a stark picture of urban disloyalty, but “Fools Must Die” (“Don’t ask me when, don’t ask me why”),”Clean Up Woman” and “The Losing” resort to cliche in a way that boggles the mind.
You find yourself asking, “Why?” This is Chrissie Hynde, the woman who all by herself crafted some of rock’s most diamond-perfect pop songs. Her overwhelming cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” (from the live “unplugged” CD “Isle of View”) may provide one clue: With her vocal prowess, why bother writing songs anymore when she can just commandeer the ones she wishes she had written?
“Loose Screw” is a very satisfying album in its way (it’s always a “we are not worthy” honor for a songwriter to spend time with Miss Hynde) but something’s missing.
In one of those diamond-perfect classics, the almost impossibly wistful “Talk of the Town,” she sings, “Back in my room, I wonder, then I sit on the bed and look at the sky.” Maybe what’s missing is that woman writing songs, alone on her bed.
Here’s hoping that next time around she sets aside a little more time for wondering and looking at the sky, guitar and notebook close at hand.
If you’re Chrissie Hynde, a little alone time is a wonderful thing.