Is "Yeah!" the best single of the year? Did "Super Size Me" deserve its Sundance hype? And how soon until Maroon 5 disappear?
Leery of Van Helsing and the Friends finale, I welcome the approaching summer with great music. Oh, and a better-than-you've-heard indie film.
Usher with Ludacris, "Yeah!" (on Saturday Night Live, NBC, May 1)
There exists a theory that music means to challenge, enlighten, and provoke us. That we are to question our basic humanity while relishing the melodic accomplishments and structural complexities of chord structures and vocal inflections. But then there is this song, and, frankly, who needs anything more significant? A hook so simple, a chorus so spartan, a beat that drives directly to your soul — Janet Jackson deserved to get shoved aside on the charts by such perfection. Saturday Night Live's musical guests usually break up the monotony of Jimmy Fallon, but with a moment like this, it captures popular music's zeitgeist when the best popular artist performs the best popular song at just the right moment. Usher's not really the best popular artist, of course, but the moment makes you believe it's at least possible. Dance moves inspired and controlled, Ludacris showing up to make the party even better — all I ask is that, if they were lip-synching, nobody ruins the fun by telling me.
Beatle mashes permeate the Web, but this is the greatest of the bunch. (If it's not, please tell me, because I'd love to hear the one that tops it.) The Grey Album showed its seams too often, but here John Lennon's voice with Thom Yorke's piano feels like two great songs transforming into one impressive, viable alternative. Sgt. Pepper celebrated the mystery of life while OK Computer celebrated the misery of life, each equally resonant for their era. By merging their data, DJ and remixer Mark Vidler imagines what the Beatles might have sounded like now and proves once again how damn universal they are. But not a sentimental nostalgic either, Vidler argues that Radiohead's existential dread could power any intelligent wordslinger's artistic vision of a life less ordinary. Who knew we needed more proof that these two groups were Britain's best ever?
Lonepigeon, Schoozzzmmii (Cargo Records)
Despite the Syd Barrett ink his publicists throw at you, Gordon Anderson appears saner than that particular crazy diamond ever did. But that doesn't mean he can't take you for a weird ride. Booted from the Beta Band as his mental illness took over, Anderson continues to make beguiling psychedelic music that High Fidelity's record store employees would exalt. Folk rock with witty digressions. Eastern mysticism. Song snippets that evoke mood and personality. Late-era Beatles without preening about it. Sure, a tedious moment here and there, too. An oddball he may be, but a songwriter he remains.
David Banner, Mississippi: The Album (Universal Records)
Yeah, I missed this record last year, but you probably did too. Hip-hop this grungy and rugged scares white folks — no character development, no safe fantasy, no clever lyrics to adopt as a mantra. In their place, David Banner throws in all the elements that compel parental warning — he pimps, he beats up guys, he calls black folks the N-word, he doesn't give a fuck. And though like most every rap album it's too long, he also turns his joints into actual songs, knee-deep in aggravated hooks and stirring chants. Before the Wu-Tang became a joke, their insular ferocity got close to Banner's angry, unsympathetic turf war, but now it's up to this cat to carry the torch. Lots of MCs hate everybody and everything — it's why they sound so bitter. In sharp contrast, Banner loves his home state of Mississippi, and so he concocts a fictionalized, functional, balanced look of the South as real as Drive-By Truckers' stab at it. Rarely has a huge chip on one's shoulder turned into music so snarling and yet so personal and genuine.
Beastie Boys, "Ch-Check It Out" (from To the 5 Boroughs, Capitol Records)
Like Tom Waits, the longer these gents stay away, the larger their legend grows. We don't require them to top their past; we merely request that they come back once and again, goofing and rhyming in their inimitable way, so beyond street or backpacker or gangsta or bling-bling that it's become its own genre. So their main job on the lead single is to rally the troops, which they do. Smart party fun, silly lines that are instant classics — the album can deal with sociopolitical consciousness and new stabs at visionary backbeats. It's summer 2004, and your driving music has arrived.
Maroon 5, "This Love" (from Songs about Jane, Octone Records)
So sue me. "Harder to Breathe" softened me up sufficiently for this follow-up, the sort of fun-lovin', mindless sing-along you hum along to while shopping at IKEA. Words, vocals, and melodies all congeal into pleasant whiffs of sound: easy in, easy out. Every year, we get a new, young white band that blows up on VH1 but makes no sizable impression on anyone else anywhere. These groups aren't interesting enough to get ripped on by indie rags, and their bland features might make females look twice if they knew the guys were moderately famous. Gin Blossoms, Barenaked Ladies, a whole bunch I can't even remember. Where do they go? Would they do it all over again if they knew they'd go pfffttt after 12 months? Thankfully, consumers don't have to worry over the specifics of performers' real lives. We just get to suck off their marginal inspiration, discard them, and wait for the next band to supply us with ring tones and gym-workout music. Why anyone wants to be in the business is beyond me.
Lenny Kravitz, "Where Are We Runnin'?" (from Baptism, Virgin Records)
As always, shamelessly geared toward radio consumption (or, even better, TV commercials for shiny, loud, expensive products). But no rocker outside of Steven Tyler devotes himself entirely to your pleasure center. Keepin' on keepin' on, this single works its hooks with bold capital letters so that there will be no confusion: Guitar Guitar Guitar Solo Guitar Guitar. Not an artist, just a huckster, his worth to this planet rests in the number of non-offending singles he produces per record. And, loath as I am to admit it, the huckster has something here. Toxic and needless as always, but, hey, Guitar Guitar Guitar Solo still speaks to me.
Super Size Me (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
His ambitions modestly sized, Morgan Spurlock never pushes too hard in this lightly muckraking documentary. One groans to think how Michael Moore would have hustled this attack on the fast-food nation — when it wasn't self-serving and smug, it would have just preached to the converted. Generating copious likeability, Spurlock knows his 30-day diet of McDonald's serves mostly as a great gimmick to get people into the theater. Once in our seats, we discover a breezy but well-done overview of American consumption gone wrong. Spurlock doesn't fancy himself an avenging angel or moral crusader, so his comedy never falls into the tired bleating that Moore confuses with being right. Instead, our narrator makes his points, puts on a good show, treats his subject fairly and honestly, and gets outta the way. His documentary's refusal to take itself seriously is one of its most effective weapons of social change.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.