Why Men Fail (Parasol)
Playing 7:30 p.m. May 20 at 3rd & Lindsley
Right now, seemingly every post-grunge band with a vague gift for melody calls itself “power pop.” The kindest thing you can do for Neilson Hubbard is not call his music power pop. Ever since his well-received solo album The Slide Project came out in 1997, the Mississippi-based singer has resisted the termnot because he dislikes it, but because he doesn’t think it describes his music.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with power pop,” Hubbard says. “But no matter what you do, people are going to throw [a label on you], and I don’t really like that necessarily. If they’re gonna do that, I want it to be what I’m about. Whatever it is, it is.”
Perhaps that’s why reviewers have invented terms ranging from “mope-rock” to “tortured pop” to describe the sound of Hubbard’s new album, Why Men Fail. Gone, for the most part, are the guitar-powered punch and ebullient rock ’n’ roll of the debut. In its place is a languid, mournful sound, a fog of cellos and echo-laden pianos and acoustic guitars that sometimes recalls the baroque poignancy of late-’60s/early-’70s pop groups like The Left Banke and Big Star. Comparisons to the latter are heightened by Hubbard’s Alex Chilton-esque quaver, which fills the songs with romantic anguish.
“Musically, this is a much better representation of who I am,” Hubbard says. The record’s lush melodies, for instance, sometimes resemble the sugary AM-radio sweets he grew up with in his hometown of Jackson, Miss. “One of my first memories of music is standing up in my grandmother’s front seat,” he recalls, “driving around screaming ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ when I was 3 years old.”
His interest in music jelled while he was studying at Ole Miss in the early ’90s. There he met his longtime friends and collaborators Garrison Starr and Clay Jones, with whom he formed a band called this living hand. He majored in English before switching to social work, but the band quickly became his focus of attentionespecially when a friend got a tape to the Counting Crows’ E Pluribus Unum label imprint. The Slide Project ultimately came out on E Pluribus, and Why Men Fail was initially scheduled for release on the label last year. But the consolidation of Interscope and Geffen Records ended E Pluribus just as Hubbard was gearing up to promote the record.
“It was really hard,” he says. “I know music has always been a moneymaking thing, and artists know that and sign their lives away. But everything’s so corporate now.” Why Men Fail was ultimately released by the indie label Parasol, home to artists such as singer-songwriter Jenifer Jackson, with whom Hubbard performs at 3rd & Lindsley Sunday night.
The irony is that the upbeat sound of Slide Project masked a lot of Hubbard’s unhappiness about his dealings with the music industry. Why Men Fail, on the other hand, is the kind of exquisitely miserable record only a happy man could make. “I have that light and dark side,” he says shyly. Songs like “The Girl Who Killed September” were inspired by his wife, Cameron, to whom he’s been happily married for four years. And he’s surrounded on the project by friends such as producer Jones, vocalist Starr, and bassist Jason Moon Wilkins, with help from guests such as Peter Holsapple, Will Kimbrough, and Cracker’s David Lowery.
“I had a lot more control over this record,” Hubbard says. “I think this record is a lot about me taking on those responsibilities in all aspects. I don’t like confrontation, but I’m having to learn to be better at it. Even confronting myselfdeciding what I want to be, what I want to do.”
Edward Stevenson’s Kijiji Coffeehouse has become a vibrant meeting spot for West Nashville’s contemporary urban and Afrocentric cultures. Bright and inviting, the coffee shop regularly features performances by jazz, hip-hop, and spoken-word artists. But one night this spring, it became the site of some contentious discussion. During a March 24 freestyle hip-hop battle, Franklin-based rapper Gravitee, who is white, periodically used the term “nigga” while on the mic. Although most in attendance were unfazed by Gravitee’s languagehe eventually won the contestenough people were genuinely troubled. Did he, they wondered, have the right to use the “N” word?
Several people, including co-performer Sha Green, confronted the rapper after the show. An article in the April 9 edition of Urban Flavor Magazine followed, in which writer/poet Keisha Rucker questioned Gravitee’s right to use the term. In response, Stevenson decided to stage a forum on May 5 as a way of “dealing positively” with the question at hand. Entitled “Hip-Hop: Where Do We Draw the Line? Using the ‘N’ Word,” the event brought out a crowd of 30 or more to Kijiji.
Both Rucker and Gravitee served on the forum’s panel, along with rapper and impresario Sleep of No Sleep Productionz, Ras Sulyman of the Fisk University Race Relations Institute, and hip-hop artist/producer Cookie Monster. As the discussion began, a clear yet polite division emerged between those who continued to use the word in their rhymes and those who wished to strike it from everyone’s vocabulary. “I grew up with it,” said a somewhat embarrassed Sleep, “but now that I’m older, I have the choice to use it.... I consider it a term of endearment.”
It soon became apparent that the issue driving the evening’s debate was more than just discontent with a white rapper’s use of the “N” word. (For the record, Gravitee has eliminated the word from his work.) Rather, the question involves the right of anyone, black or white, to use an epithet historically associated with such extreme oppression as “a term of endearment.”
Sulyman, a psychologist, took the mic to dispute the claim that use of the word is appropriate in hip-hop because it reflects the reality of African American experience. “For us to accept this as part of a culture that’s sold to us is nonsense,” he observed. “I mean, crack sells too.”
It is possible, however, to turn a very negative term into a term of endearment or empowerment. One need only look at how the homosexual community’s embracing of the term “queer,” for example, has served to deny the word its oppressive power. Professor Lucius Outlaw, director of African American Studies at Vanderbilt University, notes that “there was once a time when calling a person black was equivalent to calling them a nigger. It took substantial reworking for the term to be revalued as ‘black power.’ ” Such appropriation, he says, “is part of human creativityit transforms real power. Of course, it then becomes a question of who now has the authority to use the term.”
By the forum’s end, the question remained unanswered, as participants instead issued a series of final challenges from the floor: “What’s next?” “Why is it we don’t know how we want to present ourselves?” “Who should we be fighting?” But even if the matter was far from settled, one thing was certain: The dialogue remained open and respectful, and Edward Stevenson should be applauded for allowing it to happen.
Fighting the good fight
This Thursday, May 17, Hard Rock Cafe hosts two Memphis bands, Bad Apple and Sammy’s Good Eye, who were both finalists in the Memphis Hard Rock’s recent “Battle of the Bands” contest. Bad Apple actually bested Sammy’s Good Eye in the quarterfinals on March 9 and went on to win the title at the finals on March 29, earning a trip to Orlando and a gig at the Hard Rock Cafe there.
A perpetual champion of various Battles of the Bands since forming in ’99they’ve won at least three of the thingsBad Apple play basic, power-trio-plus- vocalist hard rock, full of muscle and swagger. Although their recorded outputavailable on MP3.com and on their self-titled, self-released CDis indistinguishable from any not-quite-metal bar band of the past 20 years, they’ve apparently got quite a stage show.
Sammy’s Good Eye have a little more flow. The quintet play a tight, up-tempo brand of edgy rock, buoyed by soulful, rhythmic undercurrents, crunchy riffs, and the ability to crank up the speed when necessary. As with Bad Apple, there’s nothing especially fresh or remarkable about Sammy’s Good Eye, but they do have energy and attitude.
Both bands will follow Thursday’s show with a Friday and Saturday engagement at Graham Central Station. There’s no indication of whether they’ll be battling each other down I-40, or battling to see who gets the motel room overlooking the pool, but the battle will surely continue onstage. And if our city had any guts, we’d put our own rock bands up there and battle them right back.
How about it, Nashville Hard Rock Cafe? Let’s send our boys to state!
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