Rock breaking its way out of the mainstream doldrums

July 18, 2002|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

LOS ANGELES - It's just past midnight, and the capacity crowd at the El Rey Theatre is ecstatic as the White Stripes head into the final encore of a series of stirring shows around town. This Detroit duo plays rock 'n' roll as it was meant to be: urgent, witty, sensual, inspiring and defiant.

Jack White, the Stripes' singer-guitarist who combines the primal power of the Delta blues with a solid sense of songwriting craft and rock dynamics, is ripping through a song with explosive force. The Stripes follow with a gentle love song whose lyrics convey a nursery rhyme innocence. The audience sings along.

Then there was a gig by the Hives a week earlier at the Roxy, as refreshing as two episodes of The Osbournes. The Swedish quintet's high-spirited music celebrates the rawness and economy of classic garage rock and punk, with a wonderfully entertaining persona.

"People have called me smug," lead singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist declares on stage. "But we just believe in giving credit where credit is due."

A month earlier, the Mars Volta put on a galvanizing performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, and maybe three weeks before a band by the burdensome name ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead mixed a punk-aligned independence and traditional rock sensibilities in a way that would have made the group an ally of the '70s Clash or Nirvana in the '90s.

Sense a pattern here?

More than any time since the arrival of Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins a decade ago, mainstream rock has a renewed passion and creativity.

This flurry of exciting new guitar-driven bands - which also includes such groups as the Strokes from New York, the Vines from Australia and the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club from Los Angeles - is too new and the musical styles too diverse for the slogan-happy rock world to even give it a name.

And no one is bold enough to claim it is the Next Big Thing commercially. Its mere presence, however, is a welcome break from the dreary state of mainstream U.S. rock of the late '90s.

Gloomy record company execs complain publicly about piracy and competition from video games as reasons record sales are down 10 percent this year. But they fret privately about musical staleness.

"I think there is absolutely something exciting going on," says Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records, home of Eminem, U2 and Nine Inch Nails. "These young musicians are not shying away from the showmanship of rock music. They are extraordinarily exciting live and pushing as hard as they can."

"There was a time when I thought rock 'n' roll was dying or certainly being watered down," White said before one of the Stripes' recent shows, "so I tried to sit down in my bedroom and write songs that I wanted to hear on the radio. It's great now to have people come up after shows and tell me the music makes them care about rock again."

When you talk to members of these bands, the thing you hear again and again is how bored they were with mainstream rock. Whether it was the Hives experimenting with garage rock in Sweden or the Stripes exploring the blues in Detroit or Trail of Dead testing its punk instincts in Austin, Texas, these musicians couldn't imagine being popular, because nothing they liked was popular.

"I just felt like there was too much emphasis on people trying to make money and be famous," says the Strokes' Albert Hammond Jr. "It definitely surprised me when we broke through. We certainly didn't think we were taking an easy path."

"We always assumed that no one would ever care, so we were free to do whatever we wanted," adds the Hives' Almqvist. "We were so bored by what everyone else was listening to that we made up a bunch of rules about things we didn't like in music. We ended up with like 28 things - things like no harmony singing or saxophones. We wanted to eliminate everything except raw energy."

The Hives were just into their teens eight years ago when they started playing together in a small town west of Stockholm.

The group radiates with a primitive, souped-up, '60s-rooted mix of the young Rolling Stones and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels. It's fast and furious, a throwback to the spirit of the '60s and '70s garage-rock bands.

However, it's far from mindless energy. There is an underlying slap at social conformity and political corruption in some Hives songs. But the themes never slow down the music.

The White Stripes' search for inspiration led them back even farther - to the Delta blues of Robert Johnson, the so-called father of the blues who died in 1938. In the music of Johnson and such other landmark figures as Son House and Blind Willie McTell, White saw the "raw dirt" of rock 'n' roll, and he aimed for the primitiveness of those old records.

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