Sunday, November 17, 2013

Five Signs a Band is out of Ideas

You never know when a band is going to run out of gas, but if you pay attention it is easy to spot the warning signs.

"We're returning to our influences."

No one "returns to their influences" when they're breezily penning pop gems. What "returning to our influences" means is we've hit a wall, so we're going to release an album of lazy, tuneless flops with either a blues or jazz tinge. Deferring to blues and jazz is smart, because you have built-in excuses for uninspired music. You can always say: Hey man, blues is supposed to be simple. It's all about the feeling! or Hey man, jazz isn't about three-minute pop songs. It's about improvisation (read: unstructured messes).

WE GET IT, you're dad owned a Howlin' Wolf LP and you spun it once or twice yourself. That's no excuse for playing the same three notes over and over and adopting the blue singer technique of scrunching your face like you just got tear gassed. If I wanted to experience your inspirations, I'd buy a Muddy Waters album and an eight ball from your coke dealer. At least have the decency to name the album Writer's Block Blues.

Unnecessary Gospel Choir

Like your girlfriend telling you she "needs more space," a gospel choir means the end is near.

Here's what happens: You're working on your next single. You can't seem to write a catchy chorus. What do you do instead? Employ 73 fat women to gratuitously repeat a random phrase. Who needs a bridge when you're backed by enough musical girth to sink a cruise ship?

And like blues or jazz, you can cop out by saying "Hey man, I grew up listening to gospel, so I've always dreamed of doing a song with a gospel choir." Sorry, but I don't accept childhood nostalgia as a "GET OUT OF CREATIVITY FREE" card. Have that church choir pray for your talent to return from the dead.

Cover Albums

It seems almost any band that makes it past four albums tries some version of this; either a full cover album or a cover EP. It never goes well. Cover albums are always presented as a stopgap between real albums, usually released just in time for the Christmas shopping season. No band has ever done a cover album and then gone on to do their best work. You don't autopilot your way through a bunch Dylan covers when you've got a Sergeant Pepper inside you. I have purchased just one cover album: Guns N' Roses' The Spaghetti Incident? (all cover albums should have the word incident in the title). It was bad enough to scare me away from ever buying a cover album again. I should probably thank Axl for that lesson in tough love.

Covering a song that was already a big hit without really changing it

This warning sign is so blatant elaborating on it almost seems redundant. So you've got nothing in the tank and you need a hit. Quick, cover a song that is already market tested! Notice they never cover an obscure song. No, it is always the band's biggest hit. Limp Bizkit didn't cover a deep album cut from The Who. They went straight to "Behind Blue Eyes". Covering an established radio staple is a clever move, because through sheer habit fans will toss a few clams in your direction for reminding them of a song they liked much better the first time around. It is like picking up a woman at a bar simply because you remind her of an ex she wants to get back together with. Hopefully, he doesn't look like Fred Durst.

Going Country

Today going country seems the preferred method for an emergency grab at continued relevance. Once your regular fans start to realize the well has run dry you can always reel in some new suckers with a country duet.

Makes sense. The standards for a country hit are even lower than they are for rock hits, so people probably won't even notice how lackluster your "crossover" attempt is. It is akin to going from playing for the LA Lakers to playing for the LA Sparks. And unlike trying an acting career or a hip-hop duet, there is virtually no risk to your credibility. It is impossible to parody an artform that celebrates songs called "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy".

The best part is if your country crossover is a pair of twos, the country world is so siloed from the real world your fans will never know about your embarrassing excursion into the world of ten-gallon hats and tenth-grade reading levels.

My Twitter feed still has 3/4 of a tank:

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