Wednesday, September 23, 2020

You’re Not Alone | Lefsetz Letter



You can’t be old in rock and roll. It’s against the ethos. Aren’t you supposed to die before you get old?

But in country and rap age is not a barrier. I won’t quite say it gives you gravitas, but it doesn’t make your new music a nonstarter.

Then again, rock blew itself apart.

Today I’ve been going through the various radio playlists. The funny thing about radio is it means less than ever but it still means the most to the major labels that manipulate it for success. And have no doubt, the major labels rule these radio stations, your odds of getting traction if you’re an independent… Then again, most independents live in the new world and focus on the internet, on streaming services to build their audience. But few of these acts break into the Spotify Top 50.

But before I hit the charts, I listened to one of the playlists of those whom I trust. It contained a lot of names you’re aware of. Like Phoebe Bridgers, owner of the scorched earth publicity campaign of the year. Sure, they reached everybody but no one could live up to the hype, and Bridgers does not. But I will say “Kyoto” is one of her more listenable cuts.

The best song on this playlist was probably a remaster of the Blue Nile’s “Big Town.” The Blue Nile stopped delivering when they got mindshare. They’d paid all their dues and then…nothing.

But “Old Soul” was a surprise.

I’d read the hype on “Old Soul.” Somebody I did not know working with Sheryl Crow. It stuck in my brain but when I heard the cut it was different from the rest, ethereal, almost as if it was not looking for mainstream success, nearly classical in feel. And then Sheryl started to sing and she sounded different from before, almost akin to Sarah Brightman, whose pop album “Dive” was unjustly ignored. And the funny thing is Sheryl and Sarah were both on A&M.

And having heard “Old Soul” once, I had the desire to hear it again. And I looked up the lyrics. They’re as basic as a midsixties pop hit whose words were dashed off in minutes.

And then I went to All Access to see the Mediabase charts. For some reason, the default is AC, where Harry Styles was #1, with “Adore You.” Then came Post Malone’s “Circles” and…the overplayed Maren Morris’s “The Bones” and Maroon 5’s ” Memories.”

I looked up the Spotify playlist counts. They’re huge. “The Bones” has 207 million, but “Memories” has 909 million. And I’m not a fan of Maroon 5 and I like “Memories” more than what has come before but if this is hit music…then hit music is not what it used to be, because “Memories” is not undeniable.

Then I went to Top 40, which is headed by Lewis Capaldi’s “Before You Go,” which Lenny Beer labeled a breakthrough of radio promotion since the cut was the antithesis of the format in sound but I can’t say I heard it. I can understand if it’s driven into your brain through overplay you might come to like it but this #1 is so far from a one listen smash, and isn’t that what a true hit is? As a matter of fact, I far preferred the next Capaldi cut on Spotify, “Bruises,” I got that, but that’s not the track that made it in the U.S. as opposed to the rest of the world, it only got as far as #22 on Bubbling Under. Maybe the label will work “Bruises” next. Sure, it’s further from the Top 40 but it’s more magical than “Before You Go” but never forget Top 40 is a calculation, with campaigns prepped like a military attack…you work what you think will succeed, not what’s best. Now “Bruises” at the top of the Top 40 chart, that would truly be a breakthrough.

And the rest of the Top 40 was familiar and uninteresting so I switched to the Triple A chart, too often a backwater of the not quite good enough.

And #1 is by an act I’ve never heard of, Matt Maeson, “Hallucinogenics.” It’s got a good chorus, but that’s it. Close, but no cigar, just like the Killers cut behind it.

And the other acts without worldwide fame, like Dermot Kennedy, were reasonable, but not hits. But the Tame Impala track “Is It True,’ it contained a magic absent from everything else I’d listened to on the Triple A chart. It lived in its own world, not worrying about anything else but itself, the sixties and seventies ethos. It was poppy but left of center, but I can’t say I was enamored of the percussion.

“Is It True” has 24 million streams. “Hallucinogenics” 46 million. Lewis Capaldi 585 million. I can’t say that streams reflect quality, but they do reflect revenue. How do these acts with a fraction of the mindshare, a fraction of the impact of the huge hit acts, expect to make big bread on streaming? Most people are not listening to them.

Now I’m getting burned out. I’m scanning the rest of the Triple A chart to see what is interesting before I sign off. And I’m always interested in Elle King, she’s quite a performer and I still can’t believe she’s Rob Schneider’s daughter. But what strikes me is the Semisonic song. SEMISONIC?

I know Dan Wilson. He’s put out some solo work since the demise of the band, but he makes his living as a songwriter these days, with the likes of Adele. And I know he’s always creating, and I knew he had new material coming, but I forgot it was coming out under the Semisonic moniker.

“You’re Not Alone” starts off quiet, bedroom material. But the lyrics are right up front and they resonate. “Everybody knows the world is wrong.” Ain’t that the truth.

So I go to look up the lyrics and while I’m doing this the song hits the chorus. And I’m positively stunned, there’s the riff, the crunchy guitar sound that’s the underpinning of rock and roll but is absent from seemingly everything on Active Rock, a true backwater where acts try to imitate Metallica, usually poorly. But this riff, this power chord, from this supposedly wimpy band Semisonic, has almost as much impact as one from Angus Young of AC/DC. If you know your rock and roll it goes straight to your heart, gets your body moving.

And then back to that intimate melodic verse.

And I’m reading the lyrics, and there’s more depth in one verse than there is in the entirety of “Old Soul.” And “You’re Not Alone” has more changes than all the other supposed hit cuts.

And the track accelerates and is running high on energy. And it’s clear “You’re Not Alone” is closer to a hit than all the stuff I’ve listened to earlier. It’s nearly akin to Eric Carmen and the Raspberries, who packed four songs’ worth of hooks into one track.

Not that I’m saying “You’re Not Alone” will close everybody. Unfortunately, sans that riff the chorus isn’t quite there. But the point is I’m judging on an absolute scale, and on an absolute scale nothing I’d listened to previously was a true hit. They’d been worked by the labels but you could live quite comfortably without ever hearing them and if you happened to chances are you’d push the button for another station, assuming you’re listening at all. Proving once again what is being purveyed, what is being pushed by the majors, is substandard, maybe good, but not good enough. This business was built on innovation, one listen roller coaster rides delivering an experience you could not get anywhere else. When listening to “You’re Not Alone” your brain and body stay focused, this is not background, this is the elixir of life, the essence of music, something you cannot label but changes your entire life, makes you feel good, stuff you want to hear over and over and over again until the feeling finally evaporates and you look for a new hit to deliver that feeling. Yes, that’s right, we were all addicted, and we needed a new fix. Believe me, you don’t need a new fix from Lewis Capaldi or Maroon 5. That’s commerce, not art.

Gaze in my eyes and tell me I’ll be all right
Even if I don’t get what I need tonight

Isn’t that what we’re all looking for, what we all want, someone to tell us it’s going to be ALL RIGHT?

But other times it’s easy as baking a pie
Falling off a log and living till you die
What would even be the point if we knew what comes next

Isn’t that exactly the point, the surprise of the future? It drives us crazy, especially since there are so many potholes, too many bad accidents, but when it all works the natural high blows your mind, it’s so great to be alive!

Semisonic’s major label days are far behind the band. Their new music is put out on their own label, Pleasuresonic, via Megaforce and distributed by RED. Better than doing it all by yourself, but no match for the behemoths working the Top 40 product.

Now “You’re Not Alone” is not new. It came out back in June. I’d say it was like a tree falling in the forest, but with all the forests burning up a single match gets no notice, has no meaning.

And now “You’re Not Alone” is getting a smidge of radio airplay. But that video put out back in July has 38,000 streams. As for Spotify there’s a grand total of 229,000. Demonstrating the relative power of Triple A compared to Top 40 and its cousins AC/Hot AC.

But Triple A does support new bands and it does drive live business. Kudos. But it’s dependent upon what is delivered. The stations don’t make the music. But then they get and expose something like “You’re Not Alone.” Made by a group whose members are pushing sixty.

Maybe “You’re Not Alone” is for boomers. Who remember saving their pennies to buy albums, whose taste was deeper than it was broad but was open to singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell and modified popsters like Todd Rundgren in addition to the Eagles and the Rolling Stones. You see all these acts delivered an essence, something actually more than the music, a depth, a feeling. And no one is better than Joni Mitchell, except maybe the Beatles. And Todd Rundgren was and still is a wizard, a true star.

So send yourself back to the seventies. Before the internet. When you bought most music on faith, without even hearing it first. Imagine dropping the needle on “You’re Not Alone,” the sound would fill your room, you’d get a smile on your face, and you would be happy that you had not wasted your cash and you’d look forward to playing it again and again in your own little bubble.

Like me.


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