When Good Artists Go Bad (or, Enough is Enough!)

“It’s like when you clean the bathroom,” my boss told us. “It doesn’t matter how well you make the porcelain shine if you leave that one, squiggly black hair.”

Well put.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a feature that focused on the “greatest albums by artists I despise” or something to that effect. This week, I’m going to do a little twist on that concept, and cover “When Good Bands Go Bad (or, Enough Is Enough!)”. Let me explain. I love music. I like to follow the bands I love and discover new artists. However, it’s been proven time and again that at some point, there is a good probability that these artists are going to produce a morsel so absolutely awful that I will either sell it back and/or swear to never again purchase an album by them. I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well. Your faith in the artist plummets to the basement and you hope that their next release is a “return to form” which, of course, it never is.

I didn’t include Radiohead, an obvious entry, on this list, simply because I’m attributing their current phase to be just that…a phase. It’s not a genuine stumble, but an experimental period, which I hope ends soon. I didn’t include Weezer or Smashing Pumpkins either, since theirs was more of a gradual decline, not a showstopper. All of the groups/artists on this list are ones I really, genuinely like(d). Nah, I still like them. I just try to remember them for their quality output, not for these tarnations.

Also, this list only includes albums released in the last ten years, my relative “era of potential disappointment.”

Ok. Enough caveats. Without further ado:

10) Aerosmith – Nine Lives

There comes a time when you hear a certain call, when the world must come together as one. There also comes a time when you hear a band that’s already past its prime, made a comeback, and couldn’t sustain it for more than two albums. And that band is Aerosmith. Along with Living Colour, The Black Crowes and Faith No More, Aerosmith was one of the first “real” bands I got into back in Jr. High. But this is not the Aerosmith of yore. Nor is it the Aerosmith of “back in the day”. This is not just not-your-father’s-Aerosmith, it’s not-your-older-brother’s-Aerosmith. Not one of these songs was written without the aid of an outside songwriter. It speaks volumes when a band starts working with Glen Ballard, and then stops in order to work with Kevin Shirley, of Silverchair and Journey fame(?). That’s desperation. Pink might be your favorite color, Steven, but this one’s DOA. Almost-redeeming value: “Hole In My Soul”, a ballad which kind of duplicates “Pump”-era greatness.

9) Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth

There’s been a lot of talk about Trent around these parts lately. But little has been said about this, and I’ll take the first crack: Trent, you’re almost 40. You can’t still be complaining about the same things that you did ten years ago, can you? Wait, that was only ’95. Make that 15 years ago. This album should have been titled “The Day the Trent Went Away”. I liked “The Fragile”. I thought it was a logical “next step” from his masterpiece. But this is a retread, and an uncomfortable one at that. This is the first album that actively made me depressingly self-conscious of my impending return of Saturn. NIN has always been downer music, but that wasn’t the kind of downer I was expecting, Trent. Almost-redeeming value: The single, “The Hand That Feeds” has a good beat, and you can dance to it, and makes for a nice remix with “Ghostbusters”.

8) Lou Reed – Ecstasy

Now Lou’s an interesting character. I briefly met him at a book signing in Prague. Trying to make small talk, I said, “Hey, it’s good to see a fellow New Yorker over here” to which he drolly responded, “Oh? Congratulations” as he made the three loops that constituted an autograph. Yes, Lou, you WERE in one of the most influential bands of all time. Yes, Lou, you have written some spectacular albums. But Lou, you wrote an EIGHTEEN MINUTE SONG ABOUT WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A POSSUM. The sad thing is, I’m not making this up. I’m being generous when I say half of Reed’s catalog could fill a list like this, but this one was “it” for me. Almost-redeeming value – The tremendous closer, “Big Sky”, a four to the floor rocker that keeps this from being cut-out bin fodder. Maybe not.

7) Red Hot Chili Peppers – One Hot Minute

RHCP had all the love in the world. Coming off a smoking album (1991’s “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”) and a great show at Woodstock ’94, the only place they had to go was up. Boy were we wrong! Hiring Dave Navarro looked good on paper, but when your songs suck, it really doesn’t matter who your hired gun is. “Music is my aeroplane”? “I’m a pea”? “Do the Walkabout”? “Meet me at the coffee shop – We can dance like Iggy Pop”? What? And I paid for this? Almost-redeeming values: Unlike some of the others on this list, there are a couple. “My Friends” and “Tearjerker” are fantastic ballads. That and “Californication”, this album’s follow-up, was actually pretty darn good.

6) Liz Phair – Liz Phair

Why, Liz? Why?
“Whip Smart”…..great.
“Whitechocolatespaceegg”……pretty good.
This? Crapola. I’ll say it: you sold out.

This album was released roughly the same time that Jewel released her latest, and people went so far as to compare these two, how they changed their image, etc. But that’s not the best comparison to draw, since Jewel was always a pop star. Liz Phair was the indie rock QUEEN. Now she’s the mall-core MILF. She had all the goodwill of her fans, and gave it up for this soft-porn affair. And it looks as though it’s not stopping any time soon. There was little to indicate that this was the direction she wanted to go. But when the influencers start sounding like the influenced (Avril Lavigne? C’mon!), it’s time to bail. Almost-redeeming value: None.

5) R.E.M. – Around the Sun

These guys had been swimming on thin ice since 1998’s “Up”. Beginning with the departure of drummer Bill Berry, this band, MY FAVORITE BAND, began its recording decline. Sure, there are “Shiny Happy People” and “Stand” haters, but the post-Berry affairs (“Up”, “Reveal” and this mess) are not R.E.M.’s proudest moments. While I still find redeeming value in some of the songs on the over-long “Up” and the attempted return-to-form “Reveal”, this one is just inexcusable. I could actually hear my heart breaking while listening to the first single from this album, and not from Stipe’s lyrics or delivery. R.E.M. has been riding the edge of the median strip down the MOR highway for over a decade, but they’ve finally crashed into the divider. Oh how the mighty have fallen. Almost-redeeming value: the aptly titled “The Final Straw,” a good (not great) protest song.

4) King Crimson – The ConstruKction of Light

For a long time, King Crimson was the most amazing live act I’d seen. The double-trio formation with such high-caliber musicians blew everyone’s minds. Adrian Belew’s lyrics were never overwhelmingly poetic, but the power and magnificence of The Crim more than made up for it. Yet when drummer Bill Bruford and bassist Tony Levin jumped ship, the uniqueness was lost, and no one thought to prevent Belew from writing some of his scariest lyrics to date. Without exaggeration, every non-instrumental track has at least one line that turns even the ugliest, most devout Crimhead squeamish. For example, the title song:

And if Warhol’s a genius, what am I,
a speck of lint on the penis of an alien
buried in gelatin beneath the sands of Venus

or in “The World’s My Oyster Soup Kitchen Floor Wax Museum”:

Cannibal dog house plan B happy as a lark’s tongue in cheekbone china doll
the world’s my oyster soup kitchen floor wax museum don’t ask Y2 cake and eat it too
nothing lasts for evergreen thumbscrew the world’s my oyster soup kitchen door frame by frame

Annoyingly self-referential, this new KC doesn’t cut it. Almost-redeeming value: “Into the Frying Pan”, which kicks it olde sKchool.

3) Madonna – American Life

MC Madonna Skat Kat. Who said you should rap? We don’t want rap! Or politics! Released in the middle of global conflict, with a French producer. Yeah, that’ll score you points with the Wal-Mart crew. How DIDN’T “American Pie” make it onto this mess? Sure, “Music” wasn’t poetry, but it was still quality. There’s a reason why these songs don’t get radio play. This is an unfortunate blunder. Almost-redeeming value: “Nothing Fails”, because it was co-written by Jem.

2) LIVE – Secret Samadhi

I liked LIVE. I thought they were great. A little pretentious, sure. Ed Kowalczyk had his “Bono” on, and it worked. But the reason WHY it worked was a man named Jerry Harrison. Jerry Harrison was the guitarist/keyboardist for Talking Heads, and a fine producer in his own right. This guy knew quality control. He’d have reeled in the lads from York, PA and said “you know, this is crap.” But LIVE, for some reason or another, wanted to try something new and abandoned Harrison. As a result, the first words we hear are these:

Let’s go hang out in a mall, or a morgue, a smorgasbord
Let’s go hang out in a church we’ll go find lurch
Then we’ll haul ass down through the abbey

Then on “Century”:

Everybody’s here; puke stinks like beer
This could be a city, this could be a graveyard
You stole my idea

I tried pawning this off to a college friend, another LIVE fan, on the day I bought it. He asked me why I was selling it, and after hearing the first song said, “Nah, you can keep it.” Needless to say, Harrison was brought back for their follow-up, “The Distance to Here,” but by that time, fans had lost interest. Almost-redeeming value: “Lakini’s Juice”.

1) Dave Matthews Band – Everyday

I got into Dave Matthews about the same time everyone else did – when “Under the Table and Dreaming” came out. I said to myself, ‘wow, this is kind of Peter Gabriel/Paul Simon-ish, but in a fun way!’ And that goodwill continued for the next two albums. Working with Steve Lillywhite was a boon to this group, and they had a SOUND that was musical, melodic, arguably mystical.

But then this…thing…happened. Everyone knows the back-story: Steve Lillywhite was at the helm for the next DMB release, which was shelved, deemed too “dark”. DMB split with Steve, hired hack (Glen Ballard) to produce commercial tripe. And what tripe it is! Over-sleek, emotionless, “Everyday” managed to unintentially accomplish what Nirvana’s “In Utero” failed to: alienate its fanbase. DMB has jumped the shark. It’s proper follow-up, “Stand Up”, is equally terrible (“Busted Stuff” doesn’t count, as it was written prior to this drivel). Dave should rename his ensemble “The Dave Matthews Bad”. For shame. Almost-redeeming value: “The Space Between”. Good ballard.
I mean ballad

And that’s the list.

I’d love to get feedback from any readers out there.

****Big Pimpin’****

Still not quite sure what a ‘gloomchen’ is, but she writes great columns, and you should read them.

When not writing Broadway musicals, Jeff Fernandez writes, well, Broadway musicals. But the good kind. Not “Cats”.

Mall-core maven KDP already got a plug (see Liz Phair blurb above), but he could use another.

Alex Lucard mixes up some MEAN Turbot Sashimi Salad with Wasabi.

Finally, there’s Eric S., whose last name I still have problem pronouncing, but whose Daily Pulse columns I always enjoy.

Rock over London, Rock on Chicago.
Wheaties…Breakfast of Champions.

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