Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene By the Numbers

Wanna know what's wrong with modern rock? Here are two examples

By Noel Murray

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  Last summer, I had to drive across the country in a vehicle with no tape deck or CD player, which left the open road, my own thoughts, and whatever I could punch up on the radio. Mostly I found "new country" and "modern rock" stations; but who can really tell those formats apart? Both are dominated by mid-tempo songs overstuffed with production frills and virtually free of personality or unshakable melodies. Say what you will about the contemporary urban sound, with its generic hip-hop backdrop and passionless grunting, at least it's a distinctive genre. The current modern rock and new country radio formats are reminiscent of the adult contemporary of the '80s--aside from a few stylistic nods to the roots of their respective styles, the chief product is innocuous, inoffensive, unaffecting music.

It's understandable (to an extent) that such a fate would befall country music in the wake of a decade-long economic boom. Mainstream country has always been eager to follow the money, especially if it means shedding a small-town, bumpkinized image. But rock 'n' roll has generally followed the youthful urge for something new and preferably troubling; yet aside from the nastier bits of formulaic rap-rock hybrids like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, the playlist of most modern rock stations wouldn't rouse a napping parent, let alone angry up the blood of this nation's future leaders.

The biggest non-offenders are the "number bands": 3 Doors Down, matchbox 20, Blink 182, SR-71, and Nine Days (along with unnumbered but equally unexceptional fellow travelers like Sister Hazel, Vertical Horizon, The Verve Pipe, and Marcy Playground). Each of these bands has its virtues--a well-realized hit single, or a moment of lyrical or melodic grace in an otherwise clunky tune--but the cumulative effect of so much line-toeing is indifference or, worse, tedium.

Exhibit 1 in the case against number bands is Eve 6--a bratty-looking, marketing-friendly trio of Los Angelenos whose two LPs offer smooth, hard-ish rock with surface appeal and little that sticks in the soul. Eve 6 have a theoretical edge. Their short, spiky hair, visible tattoos, and guitar-driven sound mark them as punks--not to mention references to Jessica Rabbit and gratuitous use of the word "shit"--but their booming, echoing sound is designed to fill big rooms, not cramped clubs.

On the band's sophomore release Horrorscope, a production team led by Don Gilmore infuses the L.A. power trio's crunchy rock with dollops of synthesizer and digital trickery to give the songs a Y2K vibe and to bury the featureless vocals of Max Collins. Meanwhile, the songs themselves never get too loud or too fast, and the arrangements lean heavily on rapidly sung monotone verses that break for punchy, harmonic choruses. It's a simple dynamic, and the three members of Eve 6--all 20-year-old Third Eye Blind fans, according to their bio--indulge it over and over for 12 tracks.

Let's break down one song, as an example. The third track on Horrorscope, "On the Roof Again"--the one right after the mediocre first single, "Promise"--opens with a two-note, on-the-beat guitar riff that carries throughout the first verse, accompanied by a barely audible two-note bass-line and a straightforward 4/4 drum part. Over this, Collins sings a detail-free lyric about a young man who gets married and leaves home. Then the chorus kicks in, the song's protagonist is caught cheating with another woman, and as he heads to the roof to threaten suicide, the music changes a bit. Drummer Tony Ferguson hits his cymbal, bassist Jon Siebels sings along with Collins in a sound-alike shout, and the cadence of the words goes from pounding forward to swaying back and forth in a sing-song. After the second appearance of the chorus, there's an arresting, Tubes-like synthesizer break, but then the song returns to form, only with a tad more volume. There's nothing to hum along to, the lyrics tell an uninteresting story of an unlikable guy, and though the song is performed with energy, it never breaks out into crazy, frenetic territory. It's like Third Eye Blind without the killer hooks--strictly by the numbers.

The second album by the Manhattan, Kan., trio Ultimate Fakebook appears on first glance more promising. The Midwesterners sport a plain, less trendy look in the photos that appear on This Will Be Laughing Week, and the record's packaging is a goofy spoof of high-school yearbooks. Then there's the band's bio, which points out that the three members of Ultimate Fakebook are in their mid- to late 20s and consider their primary influences to be The Replacements and The Kinks.

But when the disc starts spinning, it becomes clear that Ultimate Fakebook's primary influence is whatever's landing on modern rock playlists. There's a lot of Foo Fighters in the Kansans' full-steam-ahead rock racket, but again, like Eve 6, Ultimate Fakebook shy away from really cutting loose, making eardrums bleed, or working up an involuntary sweat in the listener. (The same can't be said for Foo Fighters, who often make a powerful noise.) The first four tracks on This Will Be Laughing Week feature the same mid-tempo rhythmic bash, the same riff-less guitar distortion, the same Elvis-Costello-without-the-bile vocals of Bill McShane, and the same brief-silence-before-the-chorus arrangement. The fifth track is a ballad and is ostensibly structured just as its predecessors, only quieter and a beat slower. Then the pattern repeats for the rest of the 14 songs.

I've no doubt that Ultimate Fakebook's hearts are in the right place--and to their credit, they don't sound as slick as the number bands that dominate modern rock radio. But the fact that they're a slightly rawer version of the same old thing doesn't change the fact that they are the same old thing. It's as though no one in the band even considered that there might be a more novel way to present these words, or to invigorate these melodies, or to change up these rhythms. It's one, two, three, go, and if you've heard it all before, maybe you'll at least think that they do it a little better.

Granted, the group never claimed to be pushing any boundaries. In fact, on Ultimate Fakebook's Web site, the band claims, "If rock and roll is dead, somebody forgot to tell Ultimate Fakebook. Not rap-metal, or dance-pop, or alt-country--but rock and roll." That's the other trend that pervades contemporary music, especially on the radio: On my hot interstate trek last summer, I noted the preponderance of stations advertising what they're "not"--no twangy stuff, no hard stuff, no doo-wop, no rap. Just good music, right?

Right?


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