The Little Ones, Sing Song (Branches Recording Collective) This L.A. band’s six-song, self-released EP is pure sugar, reminding me of twee, ’80s indie pop and the Shins’ jangly folk sound. Both bands utilize cover illustrator Jesse LeDoux, though the Little Ones indulge in extra helpings of Mellotron and Rhodes. In this era of blog buzz, I view a band like the Little Ones with a combination of wonder and terror. Wonder at the Interweb’s ability to pinpoint a modest band so early in its lifespan; terror that the blogosphere’s attentions may wander once the season has passed. The Little Ones play Spaceland every Monday in August; Belly Up in Solana Beach on the 17th; the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on the 18th; and the Sunset Junction Street Fair on the 26th.
Justin Timberlake,“SexyBack” (Jive/Zomba) Whoever thought it was a good idea to make Justin sound like a genderless space alien on his comeback single ought to be fired. High expectations greeted the announcement that Timberlake’s forthcoming album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, utilized both hip-hop superproducer Timbaland and Rick Rubin, Svengali to Jay-Z and Johnny Cash. Sadly, the first single from the Voltron-like creature I call TimbaLake sounds like iterative but anonymous Eurotechno. The brutally efficient dance-floor banger doesn’t give Timberlake enough space to channel Michael Jackson, nor does it take advantage of Timberland’s gift for making Top 40 songs weird enough to file in the experimental section.
Kenny Chesney, “Summertime” (BMG Music) When this country star performed his first NYC concert last month — at Madison Square Garden! — it sold out in less than an hour. He has appeared on the cover of People three times, and was 2005’s third-largest concert draw behind U2 and the Rolling Stones. Still, when he wed and quickly split with Renée Zellweger last year, many of us were like, “Kenny Whosney it is!” He’s like Garth Brooks or Jimmy Buffett — a hugely successful/under-the-radar pop phenomenon. Chesney’s tales about working stiffs and simple pleasures are as trend-resistant as a geriatric retiree who only shops at Wal-Mart. Chesney’s most recent single is the definition of middle-of-the-road, but his canny use of nostalgic images (nice cold swimming holes, bikini bottoms, feet on the dashboard, a bottle of Yoo-Hoo) set the stage for a chorus that could transport even a Sudanese child soldier to Never-Never Land: “Her pick song on the radio/Sing along because it’s what we know/It’s a smile, it’s a kiss/It’s a sip of wine, it’s summertime.”
Bob Dylan, Modern Times (Sony BMG) Last month a “sampler” of 10 melancholy snippets from Dylan’s first album in five years hit the Web. In the first recognizable lyric, he sings, “I’m wondering where in the world Alicia Keys / Could be?” Yup, allusions to the leopard-skin pillbox hat have given way to name-checking Where’s Waldo and contemporary R&B. Later he complains, “Some young lazy slut has charmed away my brains.” I think he’s been hanging out with R. Kelly. Early reports nonetheless call Modern Times a masterpiece, and I’ll probably agree when I hear the whole thing, but what would it take for Dylan to dash his reputation — licensing “The Times They Are A-Changin’?” to creepy Kaiser Permanente? Photographs of him at a Wailing Wall bar mitzvah? An appearance in a Victoria’s Secret commercial? Oh, wait, all of those have already happened.
Jessica Simpson, “A Public Affair” (Epic)In 1987, my adolescent wet dreams looked and sounded like this video: a roller rink, lots of feathered hair, a dance beat so synthetic it would shame Gloria Estefan, and a cameo by Married With Children vixen Christina Applegate. As they say, some fantasies are best left as fantasies. Though Simpson takes pains to show she’s in on the ’80s joke, this is more tribute than parody.
Microsoft’s Zune (http://www.comingzune.com) A fat bald guy strokes a fuzzy bunny. Then a pintsize guy hugs the bunny. Regina Spektor’s wonderful song “Us” plays in the background. So begins the viral ad campaign for Zune, a combo music-download service and digital music player that is Microsoft’s attempt to kill the iPod. One rumor is that MS will compete with Apple by replacing every song you’ve already bought from iTunes — minus the programming (a.k.a. DRM) that limits playback to Apple-branded devices. For more announcements, check the official blogs MadisonAndPine.com and ZuneInsider.com or, better yet, the baseless claims and blurry photos at Engadget.com.
The Power of PitchforkIn June, Austin band Sound Team released Movie Monster. Their affiliation with a major label (Capitol) clashed badly with a PR campaign that emphasized blogger cred (i.e., one NYC gig opening for Arcade Fire). That doesn’t make Pitchfork Media’s treatment of the band acceptable. In early July, they “reamed” the album with a career-ending 3.7 rating. Gossip says the band actually discussed breaking up afterward, and the site’s founder, Ryan Schrieber, kinda bragged about the trashing in a news post that appeared a few days later. That item was about Sound Team’s “visual depiction of Pitchfork’s review” posted to YouTube: A rag doll representing the band is stabbed by a pitchfork, then burned in effigy. This disturbing inversion of a hipster circle jerk is upsetting. When music criticism becomes the main attraction, it’s like a parasite that takes over. The organism —music — dies. (To be fair, MovieMonster is unremarkable.)
Majors vs. Indies vs. DIY Last month the president of a well-respected indie label sent me a fearful IM. To paraphrase: “After Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Arctic Monkeys, and Tapes ’n Tapes, a band can’t be cool unless they put out their own music.” He wondered where his 15-year-old indie label fits in this new equation. Ex-Pitchfork writer Chris Ott pursues this line of thought to its logical conclusion in a post to his Shallow Rewards blog: “Indie rock’s lost its mystique . . . I can see a future where . . . [b]ands on labels will be viewed as lazy, or greedy, or too stupid to do it themselves, regardless of what their music sounds like, and the DIY bands will be these little autonomous cults of cool . . .” Ott ignores the fact that blogs and indie rock are still invisible compared to television and other mass media, and that none of these bands have proven they’re more than flavors of the month. Still, he makes some great points.