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Still Got Licks? The Search for Modern Relevance Amongst Yesterday’s Artists

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Rock music as we know it is relatively young compared to the distinct genres that classify any number of nation around the world. Even compared to that of basic American jazz and blues it finds itself a younger sibling, stemming from a later seed, which finds itself further down the musical food chain. It’s humorous to hear those who say that rock ‘n roll is dead because at this point in time rock music is so heavily fused with all modern genres that it cannot bear to pass. Its middle aged sibling classic rock, on the other hand, has seen better days, leaving its listener to question the worth of its artist’s increasingly inconsistent live performances and recordings.

In a strange case of events the past year has proven a well endowed market of musicians that chose to defy modern trend and attempted to reconcile their history through the release of fresh material. For some it came as a shocking return to the spotlight after decades of soul searching and for others it was simply another year with another recording. With this list I’ve attempted to analyze eleven of the highest profile releases from a select group of musician who have aged past what some might consider their prime, that being the classic rock artist.

11) Meat Loaf Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose

Following litigation over the use of the Bat out of Hell trademark between Meat Loaf and longtime collaborator Jim Steinman the final installment of the Bat trilogy found itself released to immediate critical dismissal this year. Steinman, who wrote and produced the tracks on the first two Bat out of Hell albums, finds remnants from other projects he had written contributed to (including a Batman musical which didn’t fully materialize and the previously mentioned “It’s All Coming Back to me Now”) popping up amongst the rest of the Desmond Child-produced confusion throughout The Monster is Loose.

One of the stimulating thoughts that surrounds the album is that of “what if…?” What if the Child-influence on the grossly overdramatic nü-metal “The Monster is Loose” and “If It Ain’t Broke Break It” weren’t on the album? (It might be tolerable as opposed to sounding like Zach Wylde playing at his worst) What if Steinman chosen to contribute to the album, penning even the most under-developed throwbacks to the dimmest of original Bat songs? (The album might hold a candle to the duo’s longstanding legacy instead of reminding many of why Meat Loaf is no longer relevant) And more importantly, what would have happened if Meat hadn’t accepted the role of Robert Paulson in 1999’s Fight Club? (We would probably of had to complain about how blatantly mediocre the majority of the third installment in the cherished Bat out of Hell series was about 6 years earlier)

10) Peter Frampton Fingerprints

Frampton’s return to A&M after leaving the label in 1982 marks somewhat of a homecoming for him as he spent his entire solo career, until that point, with the company. The instrumental album comes as something that questions the last two decades of Frampton’s work as it is the literal peak of where Frampton explains he has wanted to be for years, “the album I’ve been waiting my entire life to make.” With that, his decision to play with the laundry list of celebrity musician that he has met through his years helps in that is adds a level of depth to Frampton’s glossy guitar exterior. In addition to the previously mentioned collaborators are The Shadows’ Hank Marvin and Brian Bennett and Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready and Matt Cameron among others, who all lend their historical sounds to Frampton’s modern interpretation.

On the surface tracks such as the Soundgarden cover “Black Hole Sun” raise the level of craftsmanship of the entire album, with Frampton acting as vocalist by means of lead guitar with both McCready and Cameron by his side. However the deeper one dives into the album, after peeling away its colorful layers, the more one finds who is really at the heart of Fingerprints. Frampton, the man, has been playing guitar for almost fifty years, and in doing so has not only had the means to acquire a broad repertoire, but a taste for it. Frampton, the idol, however still lives within the man. Now more than ever does it feel as though he is attempting to find balance between his Humble Pie days and his Comes Alive days, but all the while it appears as though there is still a hope of retrieving a greater level of stardom. Not something easily done, and not something that is done successfully throughout the course of the album. Fingerprints sways too often, teasing world music sensibilities, circling around Frampton’s key assets while he attempts to prove his broadened abilities. The instrumental album is something that puts Frampton back on course for what could be a positive re-establishment of his career, but for the time being, Fingerprints simply isn’t that.

9) The Who Endless Wire

What’s the difference between The New Cars, The Doors of the 21st Century, or even Blondie’s latest adaptation and that of The Who? To some degree it comes down to questionable intent, that which I don’t perceive to be a problem when considering Endless Wire as a full blown Who album. Daltrey and Townshend don’t have the energy they once did, given, but now they have a lifetime of achievements and experiences yet to sing about; for better or worse that is exactly what comes out in Endless Wire. There’s an essence about the music that both explicitly steals from the band’s history (“Fragments”) and adds another credit to The Who’s catalogue full of amazing contributions (“Mirror Door”). But even at its highest moments there are questionable holes that give cynics’ criticism validity.

Daltrey sounds tired, and expounds far less in the youthful capacity that he did during his prime. Townshend’s modern relevance as a songwriter comes into question as he no longer expels society’s shackles through song, but now instead finds himself writing a lyrical response to Passion of the Christ and an ode to his favorite country singer. Moon and Entwistle’s absence creates a distinct leverage against the band and without condemning their replacements too harshly they in no way match the former band’s pulse and vigor. Had Endless Wire been released a decade ago, it would have met an audience decrying it as cashing in on lost fame, but despite its flaws it now it comes across as one last shot at creating something the tests the limits of age and jaded celebrity.

8) Cheap Trick Rockford

I’m reminded of a lyric by NOFX’s Fat Mike, “When your band has been a band longer than the Ramones, and critics coin you ‘the punk Rolling Stones’ that’s when you know this is for life.” Along those lines I don’t think it would be out of line to classify Cheap Trick the power-pop Rolling Stones. As a band Cheap Trick has continually been together, touring and recording since its first studio recording in the late 1970s, guitarist Rock Nielsen, vocalist Robin Zander, bassist Tom Petersson and drummer Bun. E. Carlos have been honing their collective licks since 1968 where they started in Illinois.

With the album Rockford the group simply continues to keep on keepin’ on, which is miraculous considering its unwavering recording and touring consistency. Unlike some of the bands on this list, and in today’s rock landscape in general, Cheap Trick isn’t a modern vehicle for an expired sum of artists but rather a lifestyle; Cheap Trick is simply how its members have lived for close to forty years. When the modern generation of music fan may only know of your band by a theme song from a retro TV show or as “The Dream Police” guys, it’s hard to say what keeps Cheap Trick writing and living rock ‘n roll in today’s musical environment. All consideration aside, however, Rockford is as genuine and inspired as anything in modern rock and it’s fairly safe to say that for the band’s members, this is for life.

7) Bob Seger Face the Promise

On a recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman Seger discussed his relationship with his family, and how it is the most important thing in his life. Subsequently that’s the exact reason that he hadn’t released an album since 1995’s It’s A Mystery; Seger wanted to maintain his family and watch his children grow. Now returning to music as a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer with a family that supports him Seger continued the conversation by explaining that he has recorded many multiple albums worth of material in preparation for Face the Promise.

Face the Promise sounds like Seger in every way. There are horns where you would expect horns and gritty vocals where you’d expect gritty vocals. Time has taken its toll on Seger’s voice which claws and scratches to grasp for high notes that were once common place in his songs. One of the historical downfalls of Seger’s music is the man’s willingness to play to his audience in spit of his audience. ZZ Top and AC/DC do it too, they play their sounds and their songs over and over, recording after recording. Not to say that playing far within your capabilities is a bad thing, but when attempting to invigorate a recording career with a recycled sound that has been sitting on the shelf for more than a decade, doing so just doesn’t make sense.

6) Elton John The Captain and the Kid

The Captain’s second track “Just Like Noah’s Ark,” with its silky gospel overtones and marching tempo, works for a number of reasons: organs wailing, pounding piano, and a slightly hushed guitar solo. To me, the song is classic rock in its fullest sense, and that’s exactly what John and his partner in crime (songwriting) Bernie Taupin were hoping for when writing The Captain and the Kid. It’s the antithesis of Meat Loaf’s Bat out of Hell III, it’s a team joining and completing something that still has modern relevance; that being a group of friends looking to complete a story they started some thirty years ago with Captain Fantastic…

Elton John has made a conscious effort to work towards a commercial audience the past few years but I remember a change around the time of his 1995 release Made in England, specifically with the title track. The song included words that started a roaming emotion of personal vindication for John, something that now finds itself perpetuating his outspoken appreciation for minority rights and religious condemnation. Through all that, however, is music, and half of The Captain tells a story as much entertaining lyrically as it is musically. It’s just a shame that for the other half of the album, it’s lyrically foggy and lethargic.

5) Yusef Islam An Other Cup

Marking the 40th Anniversary of his debut release I Love My Dog, Islam attempts to record an album of attempting to reconcile with his pop music past. Releasing some ten albums of religious-based world music since his last Cat Stevens album some twenty eight years ago doesn’t appear to cause any conflicting agenda in An Other Cup. The sound is oh so familiar and Ste…Islam’s voice is as warm and inviting as ever.

“One Day at a Time” is a flowing, quiet song that beautifully elaborates on daily reverence, though unfortunately it is quickly followed by “When Butterflies Leave,” a brief spoken statement concluding “those who worked for tomorrow will not miss the dreams of yesterday.” Islam is sincere in his message with that statement, and likewise throughout the entire album he finds a balance between his pop sensibilities and his modern living. This is no more apparent than in “The Beloved” which calmly finds balance between traditional African music and Islam’s soothing vocals. Commenting on the album Islam noted “I feel right about making music and singing about life in this fragile world again.” As his current contribution shows, it is sometimes allowing ones self the freedom to start over that truly sets a contribution above that of others.

4) Bruce Springsteen We Shall Overcome

As masturbatory as it is for a bloated group of musicians lead by a multi-millionaire to sing and play an album’s worth of protest songs is, The Seeger Sessions band have made an honestly enjoyable album. The spellbinding live show that included a stage literally packed with musicians that many have gawked over throughout the course of the year is a direct result of the original sessions that make up We Shall Overcome. When Springsteen began his voice meant something, he sung songs of heartache, the kind that love cannot redeem; the worker’s heart that was never full because it belonged to someone else for some fifty hours a week. But Springsteen’s through time and fame critics focused their jaded opinions on how a man of his stature could release music for the working man.

But his fans never for one minute succeeded in giving up on the man and held tightly to his words over the course of his long career. With We Shall OvercomeSpringsteen somehow manages to reconcile this working man’s voice in an age that cries for help. Lobbyists and corporations control the government, unionization is corrupted by outsourcing and growing disconnect between those who run the country and the country’s workers. And yet a group of the lesser known musicians fronted by the a member of the country’s financial elite reinterpreting songs made famous by one of the country’s most outspoken voices seems to alleviate this struggle, even if only it is a momentary superficial relief.

3) Bob Dylan Modern Times

Whether it be harmonically flirting with Alicia Keys, appearing as a shadowed figure promoting his new album in connection with Apple’s iPod or honoring the Sexiest Woman Alive© in video Bob Dylan has not only stepped towards staying hip but fulfilled the plea of his album’s title, Modern Times. Even at the slowest parts of the album where the songs seem to move like cold molasses, Dylan maintains the listeners’ attention by breathing his aged words through his lips giving everyone an impromptu history lesson and proving his consideration for the modern listener.

What sparks the most interest in the album’s release besides its remarkable music is its cross generational acceptance. Dylan is by far not a typical classic rock artist but he has done more than any classic rock artist ever has. Not simply in terms of his earlier work, but rather that of shifting his image and sound through time to where he still sits atop the Kingdom of Relevance at age sixty five. Dylan now finds himself at a stage in his career where he is broadly considered to have released his third straight masterpiece, an astounding accomplishment considering Modern Times is his thirty-first release. It’s no longer even fashionable to give mere respect to Dylan, but rather one must now have a deeper sense for who he is. In the movie High Fidelity, Jack Black’s character Barry accosted a customer for not owning one of Dylan’s finest; “Don’t tell anyone you don’t own Blonde on Blonde,” and on TV ESPN analyst Tony Kornheiser has preached the worth of Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home to the sports nation. Dylan is no longer a musician, no longer a celebrity, but a figure whose music will outlive the passion and reference that lead him to create it. Modern Times is not excluded from that sentiment.

2) Tom Petty Highway Companion

Tom Petty is nothing if not a rock legend and in his most recent effort he steps outside of The Heartbreakers and proves that once again his command and presence is at a musical high. When first released, his single “Saving Grace” proved to be a tricky step towards a choppier, harder Petty; one that hasn’t had a lot of face time on his albums, but a Petty that many immediately fell in love with. The song helped Petty find a niche that had yet to really be filled by any other classic rock star, that being space within modern hipster-dom; fulfilling the label as he would perform on Saturday Night Live, play the Bonnaroo Festival and grace AOL Sessions with a remarkable set.

But what sets Petty apart from his contemporaries? Whether it be the slight drizzle of organ that finds its way into “Night Driver,” the youthful twang of “Jack,” or even the optimistic slide “Big Weekend,” it becomes clear that the answer is Petty’s honesty. As a musician and lyricist he is honest with his listener. As a musician and singer has limits but will still occasionally test them, unafraid of the risk as he knows his fans will accept his choices. And while he continually grows, he keeps just enough of his last album in his mental queue so as to not forget what direction he was headed. “Flirting with Time” doesn’t carry the same lyrical context as “The Last DJ” but could most definitely be found on the same album without question. Tom Petty is an original and with Highway Companion he has continued his sickeningly consistent string of solid rock albums.

1) Neil Young Living With War

Seconds into the lead track on Young’s Living with War, “After The Garden” overtakes its listener, sonically overcoming any hurtles that either time or the media have created. It’s not a plea for liberalism, nor does it serve as a blatant statement condemning the country’s current administration (that comes mere minutes later), but rather a question of realism in our nation. It questions sustainability and substance, both of which are important and critical to not only our world’s future existence but our present existence. What follows in the album’s second track, “Living with War” is a statement that not only expounds on Young’s philosophy, but serves as a mission statement for the global artist, “I join the multitudes, I raise my hand in peace, I never bow to the laws of the thought police.”

In a time when corporate America is attempting to further whitewash the independent media through bullying net neutrality into a corner it is vital that these words be heard. Living with War takes each track, fitting its message into a few mere minutes, and finds more substance buried within than anything else that has been released this year by musician both old and young. The album should not raise question as to whether or not Neil Young is right or wrong but rather serve as an example of anti-authoritative rhetoric, expelling the mainstream media’s bloated apathy and give hope to those who want to explore what is behind the surface of the matter. If questioning Young’s intention and logic is your agenda his premeditated response comes in the form of the song “Let’s Impeach the President.” It is a song that would silence doubters, presenting the inconsistencies of the Bush Administration through evidence served straight from Bush himself. Never would I have imagined that it would take an old farm boy from Winnipeg singing a few songs of political dissent would enlighten and create this great of a plea for a confessional democracy. But I am most certainly glad it did.