JANUARY 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 1


CURRENT

FEATURE
The State of the Music Industry

ALSO THIS MONTH
80's Music Trivia Answers

REVIEWS | Surprising Fred

LAST | U2 - The Best Of 1980-1990

ARCHIVES | Music




Sound Bites
Grading from A-F


SURPRISING FRED
Good Morning, Who Are You?:
This independently released disc by a Canadian/American songwriting duo could very easily find a home as soundtrack material on the acoustic guitar favoring WB network. Jeff Nicholson and Chris Fuller wrote and performed all of the songs on this impressive first effort in the style of lyric intensive, melody driven artists like Love Spit Love and Barenaked Ladies with shadings of James Taylors sense of mood.

Their mid-tempo tracks such as "Way of the World" and "Step On Up" (the disc's best track) are both radio friendly yet meaningful. Intentionally or not, the style of these songs is quite the rage on the popular WB dramas "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity." Television dramas are featuring and showcasing music that captures the program's theme and mood without overpowering the dialogue or action. The same description could just as easily be written of Surprising Fred.

The disc's song selection and themes form a slice of time soundtrack. Nicholson and Fuller have managed to capture their emotions and convey them to the listener - not an easy task on a first release.

Best of all, Surprising Fred isn't an emotional one trick pony. They mix the melancholy "Not Tonight" with the comical and upbeat "Captain Kirk", which closes out the disc.

The only, almost unforgiveable, mistake the duo makes is utilizing a drum machine rather than a real drummer. At times, the tempo is too perfect, which can affect the feel of the songs. On top of that, electronic cymbals sound too polished and clean, lacking the true warmth that can be felt if not always consciuosly heard. B+

Buy It (this album is only available online)

- Kevin Ridolfi


 


The State of the Music Industry

KEVIN RIDOLFI

As we hurtle towards the next millennium, the music industry is preparing itself for yet another great shift in trends that borrows from the past while still looking to the future.

In the eighties, music and the recording industry in the United States was a totally different animal than it is today. Actually the industry bore closer resemblance to a machine. A machine that would conceptualize a hit act (Milli Vanilli, New Kids On the Block), release record after record, saturate the airwaves with countless "glam" videos and tour in arenas that could hold hordes of fans. This assembly line spit the meaningless products out like clock work, and seemingly without thought or artistic designs, until the acts grew stale. Then like a cancelled sitcom the artists became answers to trivia questions, destined only for an eventual feature on VH-1's "Behind the Music".

The nineties - and I suspect the new millennium will be no different - evolved totally and consciously into a phenomenon beyond compare. Never before in American musical history has music been as faceless, genre crossing and multicultural as it is today. This evolution was originally forced by the heavy, unhappy hands of Seattle. In the early 90's, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and their rain-soaked peers recognized a homogenized musical landscape and championed a much needed revolution.

Now eight years later, the seedlings they planted are bearing fruit but in smaller and more cross pollinated yields than expected. Grunge, for lack of a better term, is for the most part dead. Nirvana shattered by a suicidal recluse. Soundgarden dead of internal problems. Blind Melon destroyed by a drug-craving demon. As much as the media tried, Smashing Pumpkins never fit the grunge mold anyway. Pearl Jam, the now veteran vanguard, still releases albums, but only to a decreasing core audience of faithfuls. Alice In Chains remains in a constant game of wait and see. Stone Temple Pilots broke the grunge mold on their second release and now plays out a constant cops and druggy scenario.

Grunge died for reasons almost too numerous to count. Neurotic egos and drug temptations certainly played their part, but for the most part look no further than simple lack of interest and disdain. The CD buying public grew tired of the angst act of immature superstars. They let it be known that they were no longer interested in paying for Layne Staley's musical therapy and for Eddie Vedder's bitching and moaning and holier-than-thou attitude. Pissed off rants only hold appeal - not to mention attention - for so long as most teenagers learn through progressive growth. Most of these bands were forced to learn the hard way.

This foundational desire for something to grow from the distorted speakers of grunge led to even more musical experimentation and exploration. These were uncharted waters, far away from the comfortable clean guitar, teased hair, lite rock of the eighties. These were territories without names - that defied names. The use of electronics as an additional instrument sprung from the ashes of Night Ranger's and Bon Jovi's synthesizers. Keyboards are now being used for effects and punctuation not for cheesy melodic runs and chord changes. Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Filter and others carried the "industrial" mantle. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones lead a revolution of Latin American influenced, horn heavy "ska" that would later open the door for No Doubt among others. Rap and rock began to blend; their once well defined borders - except for a notable turn by Run DMC and Aerosmith - blurred with the formation of bands like 311 and Rage Against the Machine, who easily messed styles into one cohesive organism. World music influences and traditional jazz instrumentation appeared on popular albums by the Dave Matthews Band, helping to pave the way for a revitalization of swing music.

In 1998 the music world saw rap and R&B dominate the charts for the first time leading experts, most notably MTV, to question the pulse of rock. Could rock be dead? Had the rock star flat-lined? The obvious signs say yes. We are back to a time of one hit, faceless artists from Sponge to Tonic to Matchbox 20. We can pass these stars in a theater lobby and not give them a second glance. More correctly, and buried a little deeper, rock has completed a decade long transformation. As has always been the way with rock. The British Invasion of the 1960's shattered Chuck Berry's poodle skirt 50's rock ideals. A similar and just as necessary revolutions followed, marking periods in history. Recording pockets of time. The arena rock and album oriented rock in the 70's. Glam rock in the 80's. Now rock has simply evolved again. The only difference is that this time there is no catchy phrase or convenient marketing category. And perhaps, to trend happy MTV and pop radio, this is disturbing. But rock certainly isn't dead.

Rap and R&B is doing better in terms of sales because it's categories have remained more consistent over the last ten years, not to mention that music is thankfully becoming more multicultural. Wutang Clan sells as many albums to rich white kids as they do to poor African Americans kids, breaking the old stereotype that rap is just "black, ghetto music". Music, like all forms of communication, should be cross cultural. And this boosts sales. In addition, retailers and "Billboard" know that Puff Daddy and friends produce rap albums - even when he's performing "Kashmir" with Jimmy Page - yet where do they categorize bands with blurred styles like Limp Bizkit or Korn. Not to mention the original musical blenders the Beastie Boys. Rather than place these bands under the rock header, marketing execs and the media create new, absurd labels thus creating the false impression that rock is dead and music is dying.

Where, then, does music stand today, on the brink of the 21st century? Because of the increasingly wide variety of sounds and styles, album sales and concert attendance is slipping. No longer are there many albums receiving platnum status ten time over or bands selling out stadiums for three straight days. Fans today are more selective, yet more loyal. They would rather watch their favorite artists perform in smaller venues where the experience is more intimate. Watch for more and more "super tours" - full day events like Lollapolooza that feature multitudes of extremely diverse acts - these help promote diversity and avoid the problem of pigeon-holing. As a result of continuing trends, the next few years will continue to be marked by some of the most creative experiments and collaborations that the music industry has seen.

Beck, Korn and Rage Against the Machine are only the tips of the iceberg. Rap and rock will continue to cross-pollinate, producing a hybrid sound that may pigeon hole music sales, yet simultaneously will raise the bar for musical creativity. Music isn't dead, it's shifting gears.

TOP


KEVIN RIDOLFI of Pawtucket, RI, is the creator and editor of Renaissance Online Magazine. He can be reached at kridolfi@renaissancemag.com



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