Muse: Under Review

Sexy Intellectual temporarily abandons mining rock’s storied past to put one of the biggest bands in the world under the microscope for their latest “Under Review” title, and goodness knows they picked a good subject. “Muse: Under Review” contains some raw early footage of a group of bored teenagers from Devon who had to travel to America to get the press in their own country to take notice, only to have their second album refused by their initial champions. (It has since been reissued.) The band’s former manager explains the initial business dealings involving the hiring of John Leckie to produce their debut Showbiz (with Leckie himself appearing to talk at length about the album), while writers and biographers break down the evolution of the band’s sound. Since this is an unauthorized biography, the band does not contribute except in the form of a couple interviews with a third party early in their career, so the piece is fleshed out with the help of music videos by the band and artists like the Strokes. It’s all perfectly nice, but you can only hear someone call someone “fantastic” so many times before it loses all meaning, and with a running time of 106 minutes, it tends to wear out its welcome right when they get to discussing the band’s biggest album, 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations. Still, this DVD contains some interesting stories about the band’s early years that even their biggest fans may not know. (Sexy Intellectual 2010)

Click to buy Muse Under Review from Amazon

  

21st Century Breakdown: David Medsker’s Top 10 Albums of the Decade

There has been much speculation about the real reason for the dramatic decline in record sales. I am here to give you the answer.

It’s my fault.

The first rumblings that all was not well in Musicland began right as my wife and I were planning our big move from Chicago (Rock Records, R.I.P.) to Columbus. I was traveling a lot, either to Ohio to look for houses or for the last few media boondoggles that my wife was invited to. (The trip to Orlando to meet the Atlanta Braves and take BP in the batting cages was the best.) Then I took a consulting gig, flying to Baltimore and back every week. Long story short, this cut greatly into my record shopping time.

In the spring, after we had settled into a house, I walked away from the world of finance and took the Bullz-Eye job. Pretty soon, I didn’t have to buy anything anymore. I was awash in a sea of free music. My first act as senior editor was to bring in Will Harris, one of only two people I knew who bought more music than I did. So then he stopped buying music, too.

And that, my friends, is when the shit hit the proverbial fan. My bad.

All kidding aside, I’m having a hard time trying to put the decade in music into words. The ’90s were so easy by comparison. There was 1990, one of the worst years for music EVER. (Hammer, Vanilla Ice, Wilson Phillips. End of story.) Then there was grunge, and then industrial (or, if you were an Anglophile like me, this is when you got into Brit pop), and then ska (or Big Beat), and then teen pop. It was pretty easy, really.

The ’00s, by comparison, were a complete clustercuss of styles. Punk pop and nu metal ruled the early years. The pop landscape turned into a hip hop free-for-all (and still is to this day). Modern rock suffered a bit of an identity crisis, as stations had to decide between the Evanescence/Linkin Park branch of the tree and the Franz Ferdinand/Yeah Yeah Yeahs branch. Classic rock artists were renamed “heritage” acts – a word that got one hell of a response from Lindsey Buckingham when the aforementioned Will Harris interviewed him – and pop songwriting became as faceless and boring as it has ever been. I personally blame Rob Thomas for that last one.

MySpace was huge in getting music into people’s hands and promoting up and coming talent. And almost as quickly, people devised ways to register fake hits on their site in order to make them seem more popular than they really were. Recording equipment got really cheap, and believe it or not, that actually made things worse; suddenly everyone was an artist, and the already crowded market was now three times more crowded. Band names, meanwhile, went to complete and utter shit.

And somehow, some way, after sorting through the wreckage – which led me to completely give up on popular music made by anyone not named Madonna – I found some damn fine albums. Some were by old friends, others from newcomers. Most of them, as is my tendency, were British. Here are my ten favorite albums of the decade, the second in our series of our writers’ recaps of the wacky aughts. Let’s hear your faves of the year in the comment section.

10. The Feeling: Twelve Stops and Home
Never in a million years did I think a group like this would appear after the power pop bubble burst in 1997, never mind sell millions of records (in England, anyway). “Sewn” and “Never Be Lonely” are the finest songs Supertramp never wrote. And just when you least expect it, they will completely rock out. Will wrote me before the album even came out in the States and simply said, “You need to hear this right now.” Man, how right he was.

9. The Silver Seas: High Society
Props to staff writer Mike Farley for hipping me to these guys. Many artists received accolades for their AM radio-inspired pop, but for my money, no one did it better than the Silver Seas. I’d bet dollars to donuts that Brian Wilson is trying to buy the rights to “Miss November” right now, the song is such a dead ringer for his glory days with the Beach Boys. The only bad thing I can say about them is that one of our writers did some graphic work for the band, and was never paid for it. It’s never too late to make amends, guys.

8. Attic Lights: Friday Night Lights
The tale of how I found this band is pure serendipity. I wrote a piece about Teenage Fanclub, and I get an email from a UK publicist, who says, “Hey, if you like Teenage Fanclub, check out this band that’s managed by TFC member Francis MacDonald.” Every publicist compares their client to a band that they couldn’t hope of duplicating on their best day, so I was understandably skeptical. Watched their video “Wendy,” couldn’t get the song (or video) out of my head. He sent me the record. And here it is. Gorgeous guitar pop, with a healthy dose of alt.country when the guitarist sings lead. It’s a travesty that this album didn’t sell better.

7. Green Day: American Idiot
Quite possibly the last Event Record. This album sent shockwaves through the industry, outselling all of the bands other albums at a time when punk pop was considered passe and, considering the lackluster performance of the band’s previous album, 2000’s Warning (which I quite like, for the record), Green Day was very much in a make-or-break scenario. They made, and then they broke. Two monster song suites, a song that Cheap Trick would kill for, and that title track, a surefire candidate for Single of the Decade.

6. Kirsty MacColl: Tropical Brainstorm
I still get misty thinking about the fact that Kirsty’s gone (killed in a boating accident in 2000, right in front of her children), and right after she made one of her best albums. This blend of bone-dry British wit and Cuban rhythms is irresistibly good, not to mention funny. Who else would sing about stalking one of her fans, or having online chats with a guy that works in a porno shop? I still put the one-two punch of “Alegria” and “Us Amazonians” on mix discs to this day.

5. Kaiser Chiefs: Employment
Man, would I like to have a do-over on this review. This fast became one of the most-played albums around the house, and their live performances at Lollapalooza in 2005 and 2009, well, ask anyone lucky enough to have seen them, and they will tell you that they were awesome with a zillion exclamation points. It is not a coincidence that they are my two-year-old son’s favorite band. “This is ‘I Predict a Riot’!” Damn right it is.

4. Muse: Black Holes and Revelations
It would have been very easy for Muse to play it safe on this album, after achieving some breakthrough success with 2003’s Absolution. Instead, they let it all hang out, ramping up the rock choruses – “No one’s gonna taaaaaaake meeeeee aliiiiiiiiive!” – and dabbling in electronic stylings, funk, and Pink Floyd-esque grandeur. This is a hard album to top, and those of you who bought their 2009 album The Resistance know exactly what I mean.

3. Daft Punk: Discovery
I remember seeing the five-star review for this in Q Magazine and thinking, “They’re nuts.” Sure, “Da Funk” was a badass track, but were they really capable of making a five-star album? Hell yes, they were. It served as both a flawless dance album and a great pop record at the same time, and even included prog-esque keytar elements. My single biggest regret of the decade was deciding to go home early the first night of Lolla in 2007 when Daft Punk were the headliners, and missing what people would later tell me was the single greatest live performance they’ve ever seen in their lives.

2. Jon Brion: Meaningless
Despite the fact that he’s scored a dozen major motion pictures and produced a dozen major label artists (Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Fiona Apple, Keane, even the Crystal Method), Jon Brion remains one of the best kept secrets in music. This is all sorts of wrong. Dude’s a pop genius, and this album, which was supposed to be released by Atlantic in 1997 but never saw the light of day until Brion released it himself in 2001, is the proof. The drum track to “I Believe She’s Lying,” recorded at half speed like the piano solo to “In My Life,” is brilliantly low-tech studio wizardry, while “Ruin My Day” explained my feelings for an ex-girlfriend better than I could explain them myself. Jon, you’re welcome to record a follow-up album any time now.

1. New Pornographers: Twin Cinema
It doesn’t hurt that they have one of those singers that can make the phone book sound like the sweetest, sexiest thing ever said. (Neko Case, *swoon*) But what separates Twin Cinema from the rest of the New Pornographers’ outstanding body of work is both its incredible depth of style – Zulu chants, surf drums, wordless choruses, songs modeled after Charles Manson tunes – and the quality of each and every song. Fans of the band are not unlike “Twilight” followers; odds are, you’re in Team Carl or Team Dan. Twin Cinema was the one album where Carl Newman and Dan Bejar met in the middle, and in the process created their most focused, consistent album to date.

  

Muse: The Resistance

Muse has always been careful to balance their lyrical paranoia with a vast arsenal of sonic weaponry, turning the negativity of songs like “Map of the Problematique” and “Stockholm Syndrome” into lighter-waving anthems for the dance floor or the mosh pit. They came close to tipping the balance on 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations – surprise, singer and lyricist Matthew Bellamy was angry about the Iraq War – but fortunately for them they had cooked up their best batch of songs to go with those anti-war tirades and ‘die with your boots on’ battle cries. The album became the band’s first US Top Ten hit and vaulted the British trio into the rock’s upper echelon. If you need more proof of the band’s growing status among rock aficionados, look no further than the inclusion of Bellamy as an unlockable guitarist in “Guitar Hero 5.”

After a hellacious tour schedule – which produced the stopgap live album H.A.A.R.P. – the band finally settled down long enough to enter the studio and prepare for the follow-up album. It was here that they decided to do what no prog band should ever be allowed to do: produce the album themselves. Any band as musically gifted as Muse needs an outside voice of reason, someone to reign them in when they’re tempted to go even more over the top than they already go. More importantly, the band could have used someone to tell them that they’re repeating themselves far too frequently. Granted, the main musical thrust behind The Resistance may be unique in that this album is more symphonic than their previous efforts, but several of these songs echo the band’s earlier work, sometimes lazily so.


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