Digging a Hole 

These days, “roots rock” can mean any number of things—but it doesn’t exactly guarantee thrilling music

These days, “roots rock” can mean any number of things—but it doesn’t exactly guarantee thrilling music

By Noel Murray

It’s not that Eric Clapton sucks, goodness knows. Clapton is not only one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll guitarists of all time, he’s also one of his generation’s best songwriters, penning timeless ballads and mellow stomps that express longing and loneliness in a distinctly personal manner. So why does each new album by Clapton lately feel like a congressional report, to be scanned, gotten the gist of, and then filed away? Why does Reptile (Reprise), his latest, sound so warmed-over?

Maybe it’s that Clapton tends to work in a genre that has restrictive parameters. He’s a roots-rocker, steeped in the blues. In his early days, the idea of a British Caucasian worshiping at the altar of John Lee Hooker and B.B. King was a novelty, and the passion and majesty with which Clapton (and Jimmy Page and a smattering of other proto-hard-rockers) ripped into their guitars made the blues sound like the only music worth playing. These days, digging up the roots of rock ’n’ roll is less radical; using blues, country, rockabilly, or even psychedelic jamming (a variant of the blues) as a model for one’s music is almost like choosing between learning guitar or drums. It’s what an artist does with this foundation that matters—how fiercely he plays something that’s been played many times before, or how he builds on it, or how he uses it to express something uniquely poetic.

Because of Clapton’s sleepy vocals and his yen for polish, his post-middle-age take on the blues has tended to be pleasant but unexciting. The best songs on Reptile take advantage of his natural gravitation toward the laid-back; on “Travelin’ Light” and “Believe in Life,” he choogles lightly in sunny-day arrangements that never push toward the grave, the raucous, or the drippily sincere. But on a traditional 12-bar blues like the organ-and-piano-laden “Come Back Baby” or a creaky throwback like “Find Myself,” there’s little distinguishing the legend from the hundreds of no-name bar bands that play at blues clubs in cities all over the world on any given night. Clapton’s voice is blander and his fretwork is a little more assured—that’s about it. Nowhere are his limitations plainer than on a cover of James Taylor’s wispy ballad “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” which Clapton converts into an unbearably heavy blues weeper, with strings and the generic skittery guitar solo that turns every other Clapton song into “The Thrill Is Gone.” At this point, an actual cover of “The Thrill Is Gone” would be appropriate.

Like Clapton in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the Dave Matthews Band have been at the crest of a wave of revivalists in the late ’90s and early ’00s. The DMB were hardly the first to bring the freeform jamming of The Grateful Dead into a new era, but they’ve been one of the few groups to match their avid live following with a consistent string of hit records. And with the more recent addition of world-beat rhythms and jazzy horns, Matthews and his bandmates have given neo-hippies further roots to explore, to diversify their musical portfolios.

Matthews’ new album, Everyday (RCA), finds the Virginian admirably attempting to move beyond his tried-and-true formula of circular riffing, casual virtuosity, and good-vibe melodies. Everyday was produced by hard rock guru Glen Ballard, who toughens up the DMB sound and allows the bandleader to get dark on breathless, paranoid songs like “If I Had It All” and “What You Are.” The new record is less Johnny Clegg and Savuka and more Jim Kerr and Simple Minds, full of grandiose arrangements. Unfortunately, that oppressive atmosphere also chokes lighter ballads like “Angel” and “When the World Ends,” which lose focus as the volume rises and the instrumentation intensifies. Matthews has always tended toward cacophony, packing his songs with verses, bridges, and solos that are almost more muscular than his central hooks; now, coupled with Ballard’s metallic sheen, that tendency makes Everyday unlistenably busy at times.

It’s hip to run down the Dave Matthews Band because they’re so popular with an affluent audience and because their songs tend to vaporize on contact with the brain. But they have their lyrical moments—a sax line here, a chorus there, Matthews’ sweet, halting vocal delivery—that demonstrate the vivid talent beneath the guy that’s working too hard to impress. Even if they never get it together for a full album, a well-chosen “best of” collection a few years from now might reward the effort of distinguishing one danceable DMB rock mash from another.

On the other hand, it’s equally hip to sing the praises of Old 97’s, a Texas-based bunch of recovering alt-country ravers who’ve developed into a flat-out rock band with roots in the garage rather than the dusty plains. On their 1998 album Fight Songs, the quartet stumbled upon a succession of melodies that were dazzlingly bright, and they played them at a galloping pace that left most critics (myself included) sporting a slap-happy grin. But prior to Fight Songs, Old 97’s were a fairly undistinguished roots-rock outfit with a couple of memorable songs and a reputation for giving the rest of their fairly generic country-rock a spirited performance.

“Spirited” also describes Old 97’s new album, Satellite Rides (Elektra). Unfortunately, so does “generic.” The record blows by like a warm breeze—it’s tightly played and up-tempo, and makes for toe-tapping background music. Listen to Satellite Rides intently, though, and it reveals itself to be so slick that it’s almost impossible to seize. The unshakable hooks of Fight Songs have given way to unspectacular riffs and conventional rock songs—now essentially country-free—that are noteworthy only for the passion with which they’re played. As on the pre-Fight Songs recordings, the band pulls out a couple of unassailable originals (“Rollerskate Skinny,” “Buick City Complex”) and at least one energetic retro blast (“Am I Too Late?”), but the rest of the album sounds like the Texans are paralyzed, unable to try anything new. Without the sing-along kicks of Fight Songs, Old 97’s have become distressingly unremarkable.

With roots-rock—whatever the root—the problem is that there are too many examples to follow: If you’re playing rockabilly, there are likely two or three other bands in your very own city who are doing the same, and maybe better. Clapton inspired countless white-boy blues shouters who can now perform as competently as their idol, and The Dave Matthews Band work in a genre so crowded that a nightclub could easily book poppy jam bands every night and still have to say no to some acts. In the case of Old 97’s, they did themselves a favor by moving out of the competitive alt-country field, but they’ve moved into a genre that reached its apex in the early- to mid-’80s heyday of Mellencamp and Springsteen; it’s hard to do much better than that.

That was a heady time, when young men with guitars and a repertoire drawn from folk music and classic Top 40 (the folk music of the ’50s and ’60s) got record contracts and worked hard to get beyond their regional success. Out of that era comes Steve Forbert’s Young, Guitar Days (Madacy/Relentless)—a collection of outtakes from the raspy rocker’s fertile early period, from 1978 to 1981. These 20 tastefully arranged, simmering folk-rock numbers are graced by Forbert’s Dylan-esque imagery, his distinctive voice, and guitar-and-piano background duels that recall the Dire Straits’ albums of the same era. There’s grace in the restrained way that Forbert withholds the guitar riff on “Poor Boy,” or in the insistent rattle of “Steve Forbert’s Moon River.”

The songs on Young, Guitar Days have been in the can for a long time, but they still sound as fresh as anything rootsy released this year or the last. To be sure, they’re more inventive and more original than most anything on Satellite Rides, more in tune with the ways that traditional styles can evoke a sense of timelessness, and therefore be used to express something universal about the anxieties of contemporary life. Forbert—the guy who did it first—gets the nod here, if only because his music has the excitement of someone discovering something, not the desperation of someone trying to recapture it.

Platters that matter

Recent releases of note:

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Live in New York City (Columbia) The Boss’ triumphant one-week stand at Madison Square Garden that capped his 2000 US tour is about to be an HBO special and a DVD (with footage shot by Jonathan Demme). Before all that hits, whet your whistle with this two-CD set of new songs (“Land of Hope and Dreams,” “American Skin”) and rarely performed classics (“Lost in the Flood,” “Jungleland”) that found their way into the set list during those final shows.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, B.R.M.C. (Virgin) This heavily hyped debut album from the L.A. power trio features dreamy, forceful guitar-drenched rock that has reminded many of early Jesus & Mary Chain. Likely to be one of the most talked-about records of the year, whether it’s actually any good or not.

Run-DMC, Crown Royal (Profile-Arista) Long delayed—because not all of the featured guest stars could get clearance from their respective labels—this seven-years-in-the-making comeback disc from two of the original B-boys finally arrives, with surviving appearances by Kid Rock, Fred Durst, Everlast, and Sugar Ray. Hardly an impressive array.

Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT) Robert Pollard makes another stab at the mainstream with this follow-up to the straight-rock Do the Collapse. A cursory listen reveals the new record to be more raucous and tuneful than its predecessor, albeit with the same commitment to conventional pop songwriting.

Guided By Voices, Isolation Drills (TVT) Robert Pollard makes another stab at the mainstream with this follow-up to the straight-rock Do the Collapse. A cursory listen reveals the new record to be more raucous and tuneful than its predecessor, albeit with the same commitment to conventional pop songwriting.

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