Troubling New Events

Maybe it’s something to do with the harmonies, maybe it’s the way it just makes you feel good. You might not want to admit it, but your toes are definitely tapping.

My ongoing vigilance over signs of aging has unearthed a handful of troubling new events:

1) Several weeks ago, on a Wednesday at 10:30 p.m., I called in a noise complaint on my upstairs neighbors. Yes, I had already gone to sleep. Yes, the ‘party’ was more like a gathering of ten or so seventeen-year-olds who were taking advantage of the absence of the apartment-dweller’s mother to have a few ‘brew-ha-ha’s’ Yes, the worst they were doing was bopping around to Limp Bizkit’s ‘Nookie’ and having heartfelt conversations on the balcony above my bedroom that involved overuse of the word, ‘dude.’ Indeed, I almost went up there myself dressed in white undershirt, plaid boxers, and dark socks with flip-flops until (thankfully) my wife told me to ‘take a look at yourself.’

But seriously, I was tired and I never would have gotten to sleep thanks to all that racket and those rotten kids.

2) I have a six-pack of non-alcoholic beer in my refrigerator. One day last week, I popped one open, took a sip, and declared it ‘tasty.’

3) Lastly, and lord help me: I’ve started listening to country music.

Let’s be clear on this. I’m not talking alt-country like Ryan Adams, Jay Farrar, or The Blacks, though I own albums by them and other artists like them. That music is cool. I’m not talking about Johnny Cash, or Willie Nelson (somewhat cliché, but still cool), or Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette (a bit kitschy, but cool). I’m not talking, even, about the Dixie Chicks (not particularly cool, but catchy).

No, I’m talking about Rascal Flatts. Glassine production, studio-massaged, neo-Nashville to the core, there’s nothing remotely hip or cool about Rascal Flatts. They’re no secret either, at least not to mainstream country-music fans, as the band had one of the highest selling debut albums by a country artist ever (just behind those sassy chicks). I suspect, judging from the gender distribution of the concert audience for their CMT TV special, Rascal Flatts Melts on the Beach, that their fans are primarily women, who are perhaps attracted to the cheesecake good looks of guitarist Joe Don Rooney, who apparently prefers shirts without sleeves.

But it’s not entirely clear what attracts me to Rascal Flats. After watching the CMT special twice in the same night, I went out and bought their current album, Melt, and still find myself plunking it into the CD player with some regularity. The vast majority of the tracks are uptempo pop (big, sing-along choruses) countrified via instrumentation (banjo, fiddle, etc…) and lead singer Gary Levox’s signature nasal belting accompanied by grit-free harmonies from Joe Don and bassist Jay DeMarcus.

It’s slick, empty crap. I love it and not in an ironic, detached way, more like, I’m smiling and singing along in the car.

In addition, most every song centers around the subject of love or desire, usually crunched down to loin-aching longing of the most obvious kind. Typical album lyrics drawn from the title track go like this:

I melt every time you look at me that way
It never fails, anytime, any place
This burn in me is the coolest thing I’ve ever felt
I melt

My favorite song on the album, ‘Mayberry,’ is a paean to simpler times:

(Well) I miss Mayberry
Sitting on the porch drinking ice-cold Cherry Coke
Where everything is black and white
Picking on a six string
Where people pass by and you call them by their first name
Watching the clouds roll by
Bye, bye

And it’s performed with such winning conviction that I’m completely unbothered by the oversimplified, reactionary message. God is invoked many times throughout the album, and copiously thanked and given credit for all successes, artistic and otherwise, in the liner notes, a sentiment for which I normally hold only derision.

The only way I can describe the vast majority of the album is that it is totally and completely ‘cheesy.’ You see, I’m from Chicago. I own REM’s first EP, Chronic Town, on vinyl. As I type, I’m listening to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee. (Malkmus is no Gary Levox.) I’ve written for McSweeney’s. I played drums in an indie-rock band. I have cred, dammit!

But I’ve also always had a weakness for a certain type of popular music. I own CDs by both Tears for Fears and Phil Collins (Su-Su-Sudio!) and other acts that are too embarrassing to admit in print. (I know: What’s worse than Tears for Fears?) But as pop music has increasingly moved toward rap or rap-rock, or whatever it is that those bands like Linkin Park do, I’ve failed to have that guilty-pleasure-center tickled. (Another sign of aging: When listening to that ubiquitous Evanescence song in the car, I remarked to my wife that ‘every chord sounds the same, it’s just noise.’) And now this has manifested itself in an actual, honest-to-goodness enjoyment of (some) country music. It has taken me almost three months to admit this, but by god, I’m doing it. Next thing you know, I’ll be eyeing the Kenny Chesney or Brad Paisley albums at Wal-Mart.

In conclusion, though, lest you think I’ve lost it completely, I believe that the new Radiohead album is their best work since OK Computer.

Which makes me wonder how Melt stacks up to Rascal Flatts’ 2000 self-titled debut album??!? Maybe I should head down to Wal-Mart and find out…though I should probably listen to the new White Stripes on the way there.


TMN contributing writer John Warner’s first novel, The Funny Man was recently published by Soho Press. He teaches at the College of Charleston and is co-color commentator for The Morning News Tournament of Books. More by John Warner