I don’t care much for nostalgia. Don’t care much for Patti Smith, either, but when she said, “I don’t fuck much with the past, but I fuck plenty with the future,” she got it dead right.
So what am I to make of New York-based popsmith Matt Keating, who’s hellbent on reviving the loathsome ’70s singer-songwriter stylings of Harry Chapin, James Taylor, and Dan Fogelberg? Or Outrageous Cherry, the buzz band from Detroit that seems intent on forever rehashing the psychedelic ’60s? Or the disturbing fact that both of these acts have put out CDs at the same time and on the same label?
This is what rock’s constant self-cannibalization has come to. Having picked clean the bones of the Beatles and the Stonesnot to mention those of such lesser lights as Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, and Nick Drakerock’s carrion feeders have been reduced to scavenging from music that sucked the first time around. You think the Burt Bacharach revival is scary? Just wait ’til you get a load of Three Dog Night worship.
Singer-guitarist Keating makes music so low-key and unassuming that it’s a mystery how anybody ever figured out he was making it in the first place. Nowadays, of course, lack of charismaor even a discernible personalityneedn’t be an impediment to achieving superstardom. Just look at Dave Matthews. But there’s such a thing as setting your expectations too low, and such is the case with Keating, who is apparently satisfied playing little Livingston Taylor to Elliott Smith’s Sweet Baby James.
On Tiltawhirl, Keating unfurls simple musical backdrops (often just an acoustic guitar, though on some songs he uses a full band and in one case even a drum machine) for his lyrical reflections, which tend to be clever if somewhat ho-hum. The result is an album’s worth of songs that are as modest in their ambition as they are easy to listen to. At last, Earth shoes for your ears. Nonetheless, Tiltawhirl’s sly melodies have a way of sneaking up on you, and I suspect that some critics aren’t going to be able to resist branding it a minor masterpiece. Which it is, I suppose, if you consider the albums of Matthew Sweet to be major masterpieces.
Tiltawhirl contains one perfect gem, a couple of very good songs, and another dozen tracks that range from not too bad to borderline dreadful. Keating’s biggest problem is that, like his blah-decade predecessors, he seems to have very little of interest to say and even less passion invested in saying it. Which suggests that his failings are usually spiritual rather than musical. “Jacksonville” is a seemingly pointless meditation on Florida’s dog days that doesn’t hold a candle to Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” “Window Booth” tells the supposed-to-be-poignant story of a guy who has to “smoke his way to heaven”just like the stoned cabbie in Chapin’s “Taxi”because he’s discovered his ex-girlfriend sitting with another guy in the window booth of the local Ground Round. “Not Today” is a blues so lily-white that it left me hankering for something by somebody rootsiersay, Andrew Gold. And “Executioner” is a quiet and oh-so-precious Elliott Smith sound-alike with lyrics that are too clever for their own good (“She tied herself up in a knot/To keep me at loose ends”).
However, when Keating rouses himself into some semblance of commitment, as he does on the vituperative “Successful,” you begin to suspect that he might just be the real thing. Opening with a blazing guitar riff and adopting a tone of sneering cynicism, “Successful” is the closest thing to a rocker on the disc. Keating attacks the lyrics like an idealist scorned: “Now that you’re sick-sick-sick-cessful,” he spits on the catchy, taunting chorus, guaranteeing the song’s inclusion in the stutter-rock pantheon, right next to David Bowie’s “Changes,” the Who’s “My Generation,” and B-B-B-Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.”
Keating also shows that he knows his way around perky power pop (“Man Overboard”) and can do that “Loser”-era Beck spoken-word-over-drum-machine thing (“Believe It”). And he even manages to get all slinky and seductive on “On Closer Inspection,” which couples some clever wordplay with funky percussion to Harry Nilsson-like effect. But nothing else on Tiltawhirl comes close to “Successful”which is why Keating ultimately reminds me of the fellow Robert De Niro played in Awakenings, who comes around just long enough to break your heart before slipping back into somnolence.
If Keating seems intent on lingering in a musical coma, on The Book of Spectral Projections, Outrageous Cherry seems equally determined to bury its often impressive songwriting beneath anachronistic piles of vanilla sludge. Indeed, the most amazing thing about the album is how many of its melodies manage to transcend their Day-Glo trappings. Strip away the layers of wah, delay, and reverbnot to mention the tambourines, sitars, and silly acid-induced song titlesand what you’re left with are some damn good tunes. Sure, they’re derivative of every freakadelic ’60s journey-to-the-center-of-your-gourd mantra you’ve ever heard, but isn’t that the point?
“Here Where the Stars Are Cracking Up” is a wonderful, uncharacteristic blast of grandiose guitar pop that is more Oasis than orange sunshine, and the garage anthem “Wide Awake in the Spirit World” comes complete with the best thump-thump drumming since Maureen Tucker did it standing up for the Velvet Underground. Even the pure pastiche “Electric Child of Witchcraft Rising” has a chorus so pretty you’ll wish you could hug it. And the balladic “When You Emerge” recalls the Verve at its saccharine-beautiful best, with the vocals echoing and soaring over a strummed acoustic guitar and keyboards that swell and heave like the bosom of a romantic heroine or, in the case of Outrageous Cherry, one of those naked hippie chicks freaking freely in the summer sun at Woodstock.
Still, there are enough hackneyed psychedelic stinkers here to give even a furry freak brother a case of acid indigestion. These include the title cut, which sounds like a choir of gargling Benedictine monks sinking in a swamp of supercheesy Amboy Dukes guitar effects, and “My Demon Friend,” a grayish “Paint It Black” imitation that actually makes Mick Jagger’s ridiculous late-’60s flirtation with the dark side seem convincing by comparison. (Advice to the band: There has to be a better way to hide utter vacuousness than behind the shake of a tambourine.) Then there’s the spacey “Through Parallel Dimensions,” which unwisely pairs a cool Detroit-rock guitar riff with some of the most ethereally empty vocal harmonies you’ve ever heard. And don’t even get me started on “It’s So Nice to Be Here,” a tune so full of Turtles/Herman’s Hermits bounce that it might just put your eye out.
Face it: Any self-respecting palooka living in the year 2001 who isn’t playing the sounds of 1968 for laughs has a serious irony deficiency. So I can only assume that Outrageous Cherry has its tongue planted firmly in cheek and that the whole psychedelic schtick is a put-on. Which is a pity, because by hiding its songwriting light under a brown-acid bushel, the band consigns itself to the status of a novelty act. Let’s hope that next time around these folks opt to come out from behind the paisley curtain and let us glimpse what they really look like, because if The Book of Spectral Projections is any indication, they have some excellent music to show off. CP