Biggest gap between the best and the rest
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What artists have the biggest gulf between their best work and the rest of their work? I think my pick would be The Appleseed Cast with Low Level Owl Volume 1 and 2, which are fantastic, but the rest of their albums don’t even begin to compare. Another pick could be Nas with Illmatic. What do you guys think? —Mychal Stanley
The advantage to being the person who curates AVQ&A is that I generally get to answer these questions first, so I get to pick off the low-hanging fruit before anyone else gets there. And is anyone’s fruit really hanging lower than Liz Phair’s? I’m not one of those super-haters who thinks everything she did after Exile In Guyville is complete pandering commercial crap—that attitude strikes me as just short of “I used to love her before everyone else discovered her and she got popular.” Besides, I still find a lot of whitechocolatespaceegg really catchy, particularly “Johnny Feelgood” and, yeah, “Polyester Bride.” But it still feels like her entire career has been one long slide from the raw anger and energy of youth to the studio polish and calculation of someone who really wants to be a bigger star, no matter how many times she has to re-market or reconceptualize herself, and I’ve found everything since Guyville to be increasingly anonymous and uninteresting. Getting into categories outside music, has a film director who started with a couple of textured, ambitious pieces ever fallen further than George Lucas? Whatever happened to the man behind American Graffiti and the weird but absorbing THX 1138? Where did he disappear to after directing Star Wars, besides head-first into an immense, immense stack of money?
There’s so much low-hanging fruit, it’s hard to know where to start. I’ve given Tim Burton the business in a previous AVQ&A, and David Caruso’s acting on CSI: Miami is so mind-bogglingly dreadful that I can’t discount the possibility that he’s engaged in an extended Andy Kaufman-esque quest to deliver the worst performance in the history of visual media, rather than simply disgracing the memory of NYPD Blue with each nasal “Fraaaank.” Everyone says Jay Leno used to be great before he glued his lips to the tailpipe of mediocrity, but who wants to go back and check? So let’s focus on a group whose unchecked slide into Shitsville has been nothing short of an upside-down miracle: Metallica. If, back in 1983, you’d told some junior-high kid with a fuzzy half-’stache and a sore neck from head-banging to Kill ‘Em All that his favorite band would one day be churning out generic hard-rock anthems with whiny psychobabble for lyrics—that they’d do an album with a symphony orchestra, for fuck’s sake—you’d have wound up out in the parking lot after school with your head in his armpit. There are many reasons to admire Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s brilliant documentary Some Kind Of Monster, but among its more overlooked accomplishments is that it makes the titular album actually seem worth listening to. (It isn’t.) The band’s most recent album, 2008’s Death Magnetic, was noteworthy mainly for its insane overuse of compression, a vain attempt to make every track sound kick-ass by flattening the songs into a dynamic pancake. They were loud at any volume, and unlistenable at all of them.
It’s hard to blame a band for undergoing a tragedy, but Ricky Wilson’s death in 1985 signaled the transformation of The B-52’s from one of the most memorable bands of the new wave to a glorified, overexposed joke. On their first two albums, and to a lesser extent, their third, the band had a dark, sinister edge largely attributable to Wilson’s complex songwriting and killer guitar licks (delivered on a vintage Mosrite, which he fixed up with his own unique tunings); songs like “52 Girls,” “Rock Lobster,” and “Private Idaho” bore signs of his particular manic energy and produced some of the era’s most danceable post-punk. But by Whammy!, the band was beginning to edge him out, replacing that aspect of its sound with more of the canned drums and synth-pop keyboards that were in vogue at the time. When Bouncing Off The Satellites came out, he was gone, and the band completely lost its edge; the influence of Keith Strickland and Fred Schneider began to dominate, and before long, they were a completely different group, a dreadful party band driven by tired-sounding synthesizers and boring beats. The snaky, nasty guitars vanished, the sharpness was blunted, and kitsch stopped being an element of the music and became its primary quality. The distance between The B-52’s and Wild Planet or Good Stuff and Cosmic Thing is the difference between the Earth and Planet Claire.
I don’t think success always follows that Trainspotting-popularized first-you-have-it, then-you-don’t pattern. You can come back. It happens… well, not all the time. But it happens. Bob Dylan released the generally awful Down In The Groove a year before the transcendent Oh Mercy. Then he relapsed into mediocrity with Under The Red Sky before coming back again. And so on. The gap between his truly great stuff and his lesser material can be pretty shocking. But I wasn’t even thinking of Dylan when I started writing this. I was thinking of Woody Allen, whose late career has been characterized by pleasantly forgettable efforts several notches below his best work in the 1970s and ‘80s, and truly icky stuff like Anything Else. But it’s also produced remarkable efforts like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film that felt as fresh as the effort of an ambitious first-timer. You could get the bends going from his best films to his worst, but his good stuff makes it worth the effort.
Two examples that jump out at me are Rod Stewart and Ice Cube. As the leader singer of Small Faces and as a solo artist at the beginning of his career, Stewart wrote instant standards like “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well,” beautiful, melancholy story-songs. Then somewhere, he went horribly awry and began chasing trends, most notoriously when he foolhardily embraced both disco and tiger-print Spandex pants in the video for “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Stewart’s first solo album was called An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. Stewart, on the other hand, let down his early fans repeatedly. As the main lyrical and songwriting voice behind NWA, Ice Cube started a gangsta-rap revolution with Straight Outta Compton, writing incendiary raps for himself and Eazy E. After parting ways with NWA, Ice Cube released a series of controversial, provocative, and sometimes hateful and bigoted solo projects: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, Kill At Will, Death Certificate, The Predator, and Lethal Injection. Cube was bold, uncompromising, and impossible to ignore or dismiss. Then he went Hollywood and forgot about music for four years. When he returned with War And Peace Volume 1, he was an entirely new artist: lazy, arbitrary, and simplistic, a veteran content to recycle the same clichés, even after his unexpected success as a family icon made his gangsta posturing look more than a little ridiculous.
Hey guys, did you listen to the recent Sound Opinions episode where Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis talked about artists who have “gone off the rails”? Because if you didn’t, you’re reading their minds. They covered Liz Phair, Ice Cube, Rod Stewart, Metallica, and others. The one that comes to my mind is a bit tricky, because this group was never especially great, but it became staggeringly terrible. I’m talking, of course, about Black Eyed Peas. (Though DeRo has defended them in other shows.) Sure, 1998’s Behind The Front and 2000’s Bridging The Gap weren’t terribly memorable, but they showed the potential to carry the conscious-rap torch lit by legends like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. But at some point, frontman Will.I.Am realized how much money those groups made, and said, “Fuck it, I’m gonna write a song about tits.” To be fair, “My Humps” didn’t come until 2005’s Monkey Business, following the course set by its similarly brainless, Fergie-debuting predecessor, Elephunk. (“Elephunk”—there’s a title that tells you all you need to know.) The Peas’ past three albums make Bridging The Gap look like Midnight Marauders by comparison. Each time I’m flipping through one of my CD sleeves and see Bridging The Gap, it startles me, like, “What the hell are the Black Eyed Peas doing here?!” But that was a whole different group, and not just because Fergie wasn’t yet a member. As terrible as the Peas are, I’m still not inclined to listen to their old stuff, either.
Tricky’s first album, Maxinquaye, seemed to sum up 1995 before it had barely begun. Not simply in that it was, hands down, the best trip-hop album ever made, but in the way Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird’s twined vocals were as full of dread imprecation as the lyrics and music—a bad-trip album that felt like summer. Tricky made a couple more good albums after that, but he only came near the sustained high of his debut in spots (“Poems” on Nearly God, “Makes Me Wanna Die” on Pre-Millennium Tension, both in 1996). And from 1999 forward, not even the alleged comebacks (2008’s largely yawnsome Knowle West Boy) have been worth the bother. Similarly, Cypress Hill’s 1991 self-titled debut was so close to perfect, and filled out the group’s persona (lyrics about, and music that evoked, weed-fueled menace) so thoroughly that everything since then has seemed superfluous. Not to mention that most everything the group has done since 1993’s Black Sunday has simply been uninspired—especially compared to Cypress Hill.
Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz is in serious danger of turning into a guy who made one terrific show, then a bunch of middling crap. Arrested Development is three seasons of TV perfection, every episode building on every other one until it reaches comedic peaks that few other shows even dreamed of. But since then, Hurwitz has bombed around Hollywood, getting his name attached to all manner of awful shows as a producer (including Fox’s short-lived Michael Strahan sitcom vehicle, Brothers) and coming up with pilots that don’t sell, including an American remake of The Thick Of It, which just seems like a terrible idea. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Hurwitz was able to deliver on new shows he actually created (getting your name on a fledgling pilot as a producer is a classic way to make some easy money in the TV business), but the two he’s been responsible for since Arrested are both deeply troubled. Sit Down, Shut Up improved after a shaky pilot, but it never escaped that initial shakiness. The mixture of broad comedy and sophisticated deconstruction that marked AD mostly turned into a bunch of broad comedy that was politically incorrect for the sake of being so. It felt like a weird leftover from the initial WB sitcom lineup of 1995. Even more troubling is Running Wilde, his new show with a fantastic cast—Will Arnett and Keri Russell!—that’s borderline abysmal in its original pilot. The show has time to turn itself around (it’s reportedly under constant retooling from both producers and the network), but Wilde is falling into a fairly common problem for artists who struggle with an early high: It’s trying so, so damn hard to be Arrested Development, and it’s failing. It could be a funny show in its own right if it just settled down and let Arnett and Russell do their things, but it constantly gets in its own way, creating a sense of chaos. Then again, Fox will likely send out a new pilot, and hopefully that will be improved enough that I’ll eat my words. But I’m worried.
This piece can’t possibly go live without mentioning both James Cameron and M. Night Shyamalan. Could there be a bigger quality gap between the icy cool of The Terminator and the pandering kiddie-bullshit of Avatar? Oh yes, there could. The Sixth Sense holds up remarkably well, and everything from there looks like a cartoon graph from a ’50s TV commercial, just down down down until you need to tape extra paper on the bottom.