Hips Don’t Matter: If James Brown was the godfather of soul, Prince is certainly his successor. If he needs hip-replacement surgery, though — as was reported prior to his gig at Super Bowl XLI — the question beckons: Who’s next in line? Uh, Justin Timberlake? I’d worry more if it weren’t for Prince’s outstanding Miami performance, where he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt — pun intended — that hips don’t just lie, they’re unnecessary. All you need is a phallus-shaped guitar, and a spotlight projecting your image on a large sheet. Yes, it looked like he was jacking off during his performance of “Purple Rain,” but I’m uncertain it was intentional — especially given his alleged status as a Jehovah’s Witness. Either way, he deserves a round of applause for keeping mystery alive. After Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, Fall Out Boy Pete Wentz’s leaked cock pics, Paris Hilton’s entire career and Timberlake’s dick-in-a-box, we need artists who understand that banal, bare-it-all provocation is less compelling than subtler forms of sexy.
Caetano Veloso: Cê (Nonesuch): Sixty-four-year-old Caetano Veloso is the closest thing Brazil has to Bob Dylan — though some might retort that Dylan is America’s answer to Veloso. Both men spoke truth to power in the mid-’60s — though only Veloso was actually exiled for it. Both published erudite memoirs in recent years — Dylan’s elliptical, poetic Chronicles and Veloso’s intellectual, academic Tropical Truth. Both have made humanizing stumbles — Dylan throughout the ’80s, Veloso when he resorts to overly schmaltzy arrangements and smooth jazz vox.
Still, most agree Veloso’s art has aged like fine wine. (For a prime example of his mature delivery, download his 1996 live take on “CuCurrucucú Paloma.” Witness how the bossa nova rhythms that his music builds on benefit from the poise of middle age.) This is what makes the youthful energy of Cê (translation: “You”) so unexpected. Produced by Caetano’s son, Moreno, it’s a dignified, South American take on indie rock: dry production, farting bass lines, and a garage-y sonic nakedness that would shame Jack White. But there’s also an unleashed sexuality (sample lyric: “I only envy longevity/and multiple orgasms”) and a shuffling rhythmic complexity absent from the music of more demure, melody-focused American indie rockers. There’s no standout track, and, honestly, some of it’s just bizarre (“Rocks” reminds me of the Strokes), but for late-career cojones (I know, Brazilians actually speak Portuguese), Cê is unmatched.
The Shins: Wincing the Night Away (Sub Pop): Unfortunately, the Shins’ newest rates no better than a solid B. Bandleader James Mercer’s distinctive melodic gifts remain intact, but therein lies the problem. Try as they might to build upon their well-honed formula, their experiments mostly fail (e.g., a short fuzz-bomb “Pam Berry”; the Morrissey-meets-trip-hop of “Sea Legs”). More interesting are smaller efforts at tweaking their sound — the bleeps and bloops of “Red Rabbits”; the lyrical clarity of “Turn on Me”; the modern rock-radio feel of “Split Needles.” But even those aren’t entirely successful. The album goes down smooth, which is to say, it doesn’t really stick with you like their earlier material or, for that matter, other key records in the yindie “canon” — Postal Service’s Give Up, Death Cab for Cutie’s Plans, Iron & Wine’s Our Endless Numbered Days, Sufjan Steven’s Illinois.
The music business has fun with problems: The most impressive thing about the Shins’ new album was its blockbuster first-week sales — 119,000 copies, an indicator that today’s indie renaissance runs deeper than previously thought. More profoundly, it showed that Mainstream Popular Culture is no longer quite so mainstream. In the weeks before the Shins’ debut, the Dreamgirls soundtrack sat atop the charts, but its weekly sales hovered at around 60,000 — the lowest for a No. 1 album in the SoundScan era (1991 to present). In our fractured moment, indie hype and props in a Natalie Portman movie (Garden State) carry more influence than Oscar buzz.
But Dreamgirls’ sales demonstrate a deeper phenomenon. At press time, sales in January and February are down 15 percent from the same period last year. It's a precipitous drop compared to the single-digit declines of recent years, and it now appears that physical sales are truly beginning their death spiral. Blame the iPod: Apple sold 22 million of them in 2005, 39 million in 2006 — an increase of about 75 percent. Add in the 21 million sold over the holidays and it would appear consumers kicked off 2007 by trying to fill their new devices — then quickly discovered that ripping individual CDs is like trying to drink the ocean with a straw. Downloading songs or borrowing a friend’s hard drive simply works better.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs heightened this tempestuous climate by posting his “Thoughts on Music” on his company’s Web site. In the memo, he essentially blames the major labels for iTunes’ proprietary file format, a system that’s been subject to recent legal challenges in both France and Norway. Jobs’ manifesto positions itself as a reformatory tract in the tradition of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” or MLK Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” Only, you know, he’s talking about how Apple is going to make buttloads of money.
I’ll readily champion Jobs as the only visionary effectively tackling the music/technology conundrum, but his open letter is clearly insincere. Presented as a populist manifesto for open standards, his “thoughts” are actually a strategic document — single-handedly parrying Apple’s European legal challenges, dismissing the possibility of Apple sharing its digital rights management system with competitors, and putting more stress on already embattled major labels. Nice move, Steve, but kind of sneaky.
The Death of Rock Criticism: Music critics haven’t been tastemakers for a long time, and what relevance they do have now seems destined to fade entirely (a point I’ve been making since 2002). For more proof, note the recent jousting match between two year-end critics’ polls — The Village Voice’s long-running Pazz & Jop and Gawker Media’s derivative and lamely named Jackin’ Pop. Each poll had a similar number of voters (around 500) and a similar number of voters exclusive to each poll (around 300). Even though Pazz & Jop skewed slightly older and more traditional, eight of the same artists were featured in each poll’s “individual” Top 10 list — for both singles and albums. This critical alignment tells us that consensus reigns like never before, and that critics’ “picks” are largely determined by forces they don’t acknowledge (blogs, radio, other critics) or understand (advertising and marketing campaigns). Personally, I didn’t bother creating a Top 10 this year, and didn’t submit to either poll. I urge others to join me — not so much in protest, but to point out that the value of criticism is explanatory, not masturbatory or competitive.