Mission: Ambition

Embarrassing but true: I first heard my two favorite recent records on NPR. Time for a comb-over and a copy of There Goes Rhymin' Simon: I am officially middle-aged.

What's more, the Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera and 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields belong on NPR. (And yeah, the fact that “recent” has come to mean “only four years old” isn't lost on this codger.) This is ambitious postmodern pop for middlebrows, music about music, designed for audiences who know their history (without getting sappily nostalgic about it) and keep up with what's new (without getting excited by much of it). They're records with roots — classic rock, '70's vintage, on the one hand, and Tin Pan Alley as reconceived by ukulele-wielding Erasure fans on the other — and they both require a little footnoting for maximum impact. Pure pop for then people. Which is to say, for me.

Southern Rock OperaWhat these records share has nothing to do with style and everything to do with ambition. They're albums in the classic sense, song cycles that are cannily programmed so that one song flows naturally from the next and the stronger numbers shore up the weaker ones. (1) CD bloat has made 75 minutes the requisite running length, though 45 minutes still seems to be where inspiration taps out. A full half- hour of B-sides, near-misses and just plain crap swamp even the best new discs, which can only be survived with a remote in hand. These two records ought to be 2/3 filler - 69 Love Songs is three hours long, after all, and Southern Rock Opera nearly two - but instead they're models of concision. Even the weakest songs belong here.

Both records were conceived as stage plays, which might help explain their programmatic intelligence even as it begs the question of what the hell rock records have to do with theater.(2) Theatrical song cycles made punk rock necessary, right? One week in early 1980, I bought London Calling and taped a buddy's copy of The Wall. The Clash had pretensions, of course - London Calling declares their determination to conquer the world through sheer force of will and mastery of a dozen new styles. Like Exile On Main Street, it's of a piece not because of its conceptual rigor but because the songs are united by an overriding emotional color: it's a two record set so concentrated and intense that it connects like a single. The Wall, on the other hand, was locked into its narrative, forcing the listener to passively absorb the story rather than the musical thrills. The sound effects and interludes turned it into a badly-plotted movie that delivered less on every revisit. It was impressive but boring, meant to be admired at a distance rather than enjoyed viscerally.

Both 69 Love Songs and Southern Rock Opera look back at the unfashionable recent past with affection and just enough distance. These are interventionist records, striving to resuscitate discredited forms: rock opera, mid-tempo Southern boogie, the twinky sputter of analog synthesizers. Skynyrd and the New Romantic haircut bands of early MTV have been punch lines for years now - the easiest way to get a laugh at any club in America is to yell “Free Bird!” as this month's Great White Rock 'n' Roll Hope tunes up for their encore.(3)

“These are interventionist records, striving to resuscitate discredited forms: rock opera, mid-tempo Southern boogie, the twinky sputter of analog synthesizers.”

The title Southern Rock Opera is both a great joke and exactly what the record delivers: a fiercely unironic two act fantasia about “the whole Skynyrd thing in its misunderstood glory,” with spoken interludes, printed libretto and a stomping three-guitar climax.(4) Patterson Hood uses the Lynyrd Skynyrd story to illuminate his own autobiography (if “Let There Be Rock” isn't Hood's high school life, I hope he's working on a novel) and the complexities of race and politics in the modern South. That a band best known for draping a Stars and Bars behind their drum kit and smashing an airplane into a tree at their commercial peak should provide a platform for such big topics is the droll paradox at the heart of the album. A lot of people who should have known better let Ronnie Van Zandt's drawl convince them that Skynyrd was a band of crackers. Brawling drunks, yes; racists, no.
Of course, ruminations on Lynyrd Skynyrd would have never gotten The Drive-By Truckers on NPR. “Wallace,” in which the Devil greets George in hell and explains the subtle difference between racism and its political exploitation, announces their intentions here in a way that anyone can understand - even folks who can't get past the Confederate flag to hear what Skynyrd actually accomplished. It's a good enough song, though it looks back to
Pizza Deliverance, their jokey debut album, which featured the likes of “The President's Penis Is Missing” and played like a hillbilly Too Much Joy. Compared to “Life in the Factory,” “The Southern Thing,” or “Greenville and Baton Rouge,” where Hood pins down vernacular details with a short story writer’'s economy and music so muscular that it lives up to the Skynyrd comparison, this is broad, easy satire.

Southern Rock Opera is a deadly serious record, an act of atonement from a musician who “came of age rebelling against the music of my high school parking lot.” 69 Love Songs is something else entirely: cheeky, parodic, a genre clusterfuck that plays like a mix tape by someone with a very eccentric record collection. It's The White Album with jokes instead of acid. Stephin Merritt claims that these songs were originally intended for a drag revue, but whatever hints remain of that conception (I'd guess the deliberate gender confusions in the lyrics and vocals shared among five non-singers), the impact is mainly organizational, providing a pretext for the profusion of styles and experiments. The dilettantish spectacle is unified by the wit of the lyrics, the stark, peculiar arrangements and the wry, joking lyrics.

Like Cole Porter or Bob Dylan, Merritt writes words so brilliantly it's easy to overlook the music. The melodies here are simple, pungent and elemental, indelible after a single listen. The dedication to peculiar combinations of instruments (Merritt favors cheesy synthesizers, ukulele and cello) and homely vocals force the listener to hear the songs as songs rather than performances, stripped to their essence and displayed, in effect, as objects. Given a straight reading by a less idiosyncratic singer, “The Way You Say Goodnight” would sound like the pop standard it deserves to be; with the genders changed and fiddles in the background, “Papa Was a Rodeo” could be a country hit. The oddball attack is an ingenious gambit, aimed at listeners who love pop songs but distrust pop singing: it's punk rock cabaret.

Sincere, rockin' and proudly traditionalist; ironic, campy and all over the map - these are two records that couldn't sound less alike. Beyond brains, what they share is respect for the audience. This is music that dares to make arguments (not just in the lyrics, but in the very sound of the records), to allude (Merritt doesn't just name drop Ferdinand de Saussure, Ganesh, Busby Berkeley, and Holland-Dozier-Holland, he builds elaborate jokes or whole songs around them), to presume an understanding of history. “Rock for readers” sounds less like fun than punishment, but I intend a compliment: you need something in the background when you read this week's New Yorker, after all.


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