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Aural Pleasure 

Minutes to Midnight
Linkin Park
(Machine Shop)

‘Midnight’ Confessions

In 1982, Rolling Stone magazine devoted a cover story to the popular emergence of “faceless bands” such as REO Speedwagon, Journey, Styx, and Foreigner. The piece implied that the sales dominance of bands with no perceptible charisma was a signal that rock was in seriously bad health.

A full generation later, Linkin Park wields its facelessness like a knight’s armor. The group’s utter lack of personality has worked to its benefit, creating the perception that it’s beyond glamour and celebrity. To Linkin Park fans, the band represents undiluted musical substance.

At a time when the music industry is staggering and sales are plummeting faster than George W. Bush’s approval ratings, Linkin Park stands above the pack as the biggest band in America. Trying to figure out how they’ve done it is harder than trying to figure out how Carson Daly has managed to find sustained employment. To be sure, the rap-rock bandwagon the group rode in on is now a mere historical artifact. And while the band has reduced its hip-hop quotient by limiting the superfluous interjections from MC Mike Shinoda, that move has only served to expose the generic, polite roar of LP’s brand of hard-rock.

On Minutes to Midnight, Rick Rubin’s production is sharp and focused, particularly on driving tracks such as “What I’ve Done,” but Chester Bennington is a seriously wimpy vocalist and his apocalyptic gloominess hasn’t become any less hokey with time. And if Bono and Co. didn’t have such fat bank accounts, Bennington would probably be looking at a plagiarism suit for the slow-burning “Shadow of the Day,” which shamelessly rewrites U2’s “With Or Without You.”

In the end, Linkin Park is deserving of only the most backhanded compliments. While not exactly tuneful, LP is more tuneful than most of its big-riffing competition. And while they’re not exactly enlightened, the band is much more enlightened than the nu-rock lunkheads (such as Fred Durst) with whom it once shared chart space. Finally, the group seems to be at peace with its own facelessness, and doesn’t have any illusions about its star power. But the same thing could be said 25 years ago about REO Speedwagon.

— Gilbert Garcia

One of the Boys
Gretchen Wilson

Country Credibility Move 

Gretchen Wilson’s third album does a whole mess of window shopping before the cheesecake queen of New Nashville cuts the shit and makes it simple: She sings, “I’ll show you what a mother I can be” with the rapier wit of a Jeff Foxworthy punch line.

With its straightforward gait, said tune (titled “If You Want a Mother”) offers more than just lessons in trailer-park Oedipus complexes.  Within the record’s context, the singer seems to suddenly identify more with the outlaw stomp and rhinestone crooners of her mama’s generation than the rocked-up soda-fizz of her own. And on much of the album, the SUV cowgirl from Illinois is “dang near” neo-traditionalist territory.

And there’s plenty of Chevy-fixin’ rock ‘n’ roll wearing a superficial Nashville dress too. “You Don’t Have To Go Home” might not be as catchy as her first big DUI anthem “All Jacked Up,” but it still implies a dedication to Coyote Ugly barmaids. The ZZ Top chug “There’s a Place in the Whiskey” supports the argument that all it takes these days to differentiate Nashville from Nickelback is to add a fiddle player to the smoothly distorted guitar. “Place in the Whiskey” is the pool-hustlin’ kissin’ cousin of Wilson’s signature hit “Redneck Woman” and, even though it’s a soggy tater tot by comparison, it’s a solid bet for a CMT hit.

So even if Wilson plays to the cheap seats with crappy rocker fare about whiskey, white trash and commercial goods,  many tunes here — from the opener “The Girl I Am” to the title track, “One of the Boys” — find Wilson looking for country vocalist cred through a number of traditional ballads and gently trotting album tracks. It’s too soon to say if this signals a New Nashville sea change, but Wilson is showing us that she’s more than some trailer-court queen.

The problem with Gretchen-the-redneck-rocker maturing into Gretchen-the-country-crooner is a simple one: It takes pipes to pull off show-stopping choruses and, well, Gretchen can’t really sing. On “The Girl I Am” — a tune perfectly crafted for the showy fireworks of a stylist like Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood — Wilson sounds like the well-meaning neighborhood karaoke star. When she opens “Pain Killer,” a brilliantly written ballad about life’s sundry vices, with the declaration that she’s “been pouring whiskey on your memory,” the classic cliché is hollow. Even “There Goes The Neighborhood” — a hillbilly proud honky-tonk about moving to the burbs that would’ve suited Wilson well on her debut — seems counterfeit next to so much cooing. At least when the “Redneck Woman” was hollering a big “Hell Yeah” it sounded honest.

— Nate Cavalieri


Plague Park
Handsome Furs
(Sub Pop)

‘Park’ Life 

Fans of Dan Boekner’s other band, the comparably cheerier and poppier Wolf Parade, might initially be thrown for a loop by the minimal, stark, low-fi landscape he constructs here with fiancée Alexei Perry. But Plague Park is no less melodic and a lot more subversive.

Employing the same squiggly synths and antiquated drum boxes (and little else) you hear on Wolf Parade’s Apologies to the Queen Mary, the pair plays at being moody malcontents with a post-modern poker face. To hear them complain about urban living (there’s a song called “Handsome Furs Hate This City” that also gives rural communities a hard time) and that “trash from the parking lot floats up to the sky,” and then sing it over what sounds like the greatest sing-along sea chantey in the world, it’s hard not to feel like you’re listening in on some twisted celebration.

No matter how icy the musical setting is, Handsome Furs offer warmth. Come in from the cold already!

— Serene Dominic


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