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Music: Too cool for God

Mission accomplished: King's X most recent work confirms it's no "Christian band"

Christian musicians tend to mistake mainstream acceptance for divine confirmation that they're on the right path. As a result, they often engage in questionable behavior in order to appear "cool," the better to keep those mainstream rewards coming. Few acts have descended this slippery slope like the heavy-metal trio King's X. Since being featured in Rolling Stone eight years ago, the group has wasted considerable energy and credibility insisting that it's a band of Christians and not a "Christian band." Now, in interviews and on record, the group's frontman, Doug Pinnick, has redefined "Christian cool" by renouncing his faith altogether. "A new religion called my own," he sings on "Darker." "It helps relieve the strain. / Yesterday a light blew out. / I've had a change of pain." The song appears on Massive Grooves from the Electric Church of Psychofunkadelic Grungelism Rock Music, Mr. Pinnick's solo debut. Recorded under the name Poundhound in King's X trademark arty heavy-metal style, the album includes contributions from King's X's other members and sounds a lot like King's X latest group effort, Tape Head. Together, the two LPs find the band sending mixed messages. Tape Head's "Groove Machine" begins with the spiritually resonant line, "Lay down your burdens by the riverside," but instead of inviting the listener to repent, the song merely invites him to enjoy the band. "Music, oh music, such a funky thing," sings Mr. Pinnick. "The closer you get, the deeper it means." The idea of music as salvation recurs in Massive Grooves's "Jangle" ("Let the funky music take you higher ... something to believe in") and "Music" ("Let your soul come taste the music"). Ironically, Tape Head's "World" finds God himself-from whom all good gifts, including music, come-insufficient to the task of saving either the soul or the day: "Religion, fascism, Armageddon time / Doomsdayin', God savin', everybody dies." That lyrics this sodden and simplistic should accompany music that's crisp and complex is, in a sense, almost as sad as Mr. Pinnick's apostasy. Hope surfaces briefly in Tape Head's "Ocean." Sung by Ty Tabor, the group's guitarist and least publicly disgruntled Christian, the song ends with the image of a flower "standing alone ... in the desert" and Mr. Tabor believing that "faith, hope, and love will carry [him] home." Perhaps it's no surprise that when moonlighting as the singer, guitarist, and lyricist of Platypus--a quartet composed of members of Dixie Dregs, Winger, and Dream Theater-- Mr. Tabor sounds like a child at play. Free of King's X gloom, he performs with a virtuosic abandon that characterizes the group's music as a whole. Platypus's debut album bears a bad title-visually, the "platypus" pun of When Pus Comes to Shove falls flat-but is still an entertaining, well-played example of that most unjustly vilified of genres: progressive rock. Significantly, it's in Platypus's liner notes and not in King's X's that Mr. Tabor thanks God.

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Music

Music: Before the music died

Popular music has gone from Fats Domino and Johnny Cash to Cradle of Filth

Recently, the promoters of the Milwaukee Metalfest-"North America's Premiere Heavy Metal Festival"-announced the bands for this year's edition of the weekend-long event: Morbid Angel, Cradle of Filth, Rotting Christ, Twin Obscenity, Impaler, Dying Fetus, Myself Am Hell, Internal Bleeding, Deaden, Jungle Rot, Immolation, Bludgeon to Death, and several dozen other graduates of the Dale Carnegie School of Nomenclature. It was enough to make one nostalgic for Marilyn Manson. Exactly when the blend of country, gospel, and rhythm-and-blues that once was rock 'n' roll turned ugly is hard to say, but one thing's for sure: It wasn't always. Those who want proof need only consult Fats Is Back and Johnny 99, two long-unavailable but recently reissued albums by rock- 'n' rollers who were there from the start. Fats Is Back is the comeback album that Fats Domino recorded for Warner Bros. in 1968. Coming as it did five years after his last top-40 hit and eight years after his last top-10, years during which rock 'n' roll had become thoroughly hippiefied, the album faced an uphill climb. (It eventually yielded a minor hit, Mr. Domino's version of the Beatles' "Lady Madonna.") Rather than adapt his rollicking, piano-based sound to current trends, Mr. Domino and his producer Richard Perry, who would go on to success with the Pointer Sisters and Leo Sayer, stuck with the patented Fats formula. Even with Beatles songs (the album also includes a version of "Lovely Rita"), the material was catchy and concise, the stuff not of revolution but of sock hops. Today, in the era of Morbid Angel and Cradle of Filth, Fats Is Back sounds positively quaint. The very titles of "So Swell When You're Well" and "Honest Papas Love Their Mamas Better" are cherishable anachronisms. The 30-minute album is cherishable for its form as well as for its content: Rock 'n' roll albums weren't always the metaphors for self-overindulgence that they've become in the age of the 80-minute CD. Equally cherishable-and, at 37 minutes, brief-is Johnny 99, the album that Johnny Cash recorded in 1983 at the commercial nadir of his career. Out of step with both rock and country fashion at the time of its release, it now seems to have foreshadowed American Recordings and Unchained, the albums that would rejuvenate Mr. Cash's career a decade later. Like them, Johnny 99 combines songs from eclectic sources, establishing a context in which the songs take on subtle but meaningful connotations. The Bruce Springsteen compositions-for instance, "Highway Patrolman" and the title cut-don't so much modernize the country and folk songs that surround them as turn into country and folk songs themselves. Unlike Mr. Cash's mid-'90s albums, Johnny 99 boasts no cameos by young scenemakers. Instead, a cast of backing musicians with credentials going back to Mr. Cash's days at Sun Records provides support that's as sober, spare, and effective as the singer's voice. The result? An album that speaks more loudly than the entire Milwaukee Metalfest roster put together.

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Music: The aging divas of rock

Musicians Cher and Deborah Harry hit middle age and still have very little wisdom to offer

At 52 and 53 respectively, Cher and Blondie's Deborah Harry are currently the oldest women to adorn pop radio since rock 'n' roll made an idol of eternal youth more than 40 years ago. Yet, like the agelessness of Oscar Wilde's Dorian Grey, the agelessness of both Cher's and Miss Harry's music has been purchased with a price. In the case of Cher, the price would seem to be artistic maturity. Having conceived of herself long ago as being only as good as her latest hit, she's made a career of discarding musical styles as soon as they stop making cents. The result is music as narrow as the youthful demographic at which it's aimed. Combined with the narrowness of Cher's vocal range, such music takes on a claustrophobic feel. Believe is Cher's biggest selling album in a decade, but whether it's selling because it dispels the claustrophobia or reinforces it is unclear. The overriding style is latter-day disco, the throbbing, electronically enhanced kind that serves as the pulse to metropolitan night life at its most hedonistic. Even the album's most buoyant melodies are shackled to rhythms designed to keep the dance floors frenzied. In small doses, the formula is fun, and fun shouldn't be demeaned. The tissue-thin nature of the lyrics, however, leaves no room for Cher the actress to come to the aid of Cher the singer. Those who'd like to know what she can do with more substantial songs are directed to It's a Man's World, her 1996 album of songs made famous by men that, because it yielded no hits, can now be found in bargain bins. Deborah Harry's case differs from Cher's in several ways. Unlike Cher, who since the 1960s has seldom been out of the limelight, Miss Harry has been in the shadows for some time now. The success of her comeback, therefore, depends to a large extent on her ability to reinvigorate the image with which she was identified in her heyday, that of a new-wave Marilyn Monroe as envisioned by Andy Warhol. In songs such as "Boom Boom in the Zoom Zoom Room" and "Dig Up the Conjo," songs that sound like excerpts from a better-than-average B-movie soundtrack, she recaptures her mystique with only a hint of self-parody, no mean trick coming from a woman old enough to be a grandmother. In fact, with the exception of "Screaming Skin" (in which Miss Harry and her co-lyricist Romy Ashby stretch an epidermal metaphor beyond the breaking point) and the title song (in which Miss Harry engages the rapper Coolio in a rap duel that has all the elegance of a mud-wrestling match), the songs on No Exit are as catchy as anything Blondie recorded during its first go-'round. What's missing is any sense that the group's experience of making music is deeper than it used to be. In other words, while catchy choruses and rhythms abound, the wisdom-the appreciation of mystery-that one would like to think comes with middle age is in short supply.

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