Tony Bennett, For the News Tribune
In the basically perfect rock 'n' roll comedy film "This is Spinal Tap," characters David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel decide at one point that there is a fine line between stupid and clever. It's a moment that has become famous and accepted as a truism. In the film, the band frequently crosses that line, and that's the source of a lot of the laughs.
Sometimes, music reviewers are presented with recordings that are not readily slotted into "good" or "bad" categories, where the positive points are many, but there remains something about the collection of songs as a whole that is wanting. On "St. John's Dance," the latest album from the Iron Range band The Slamming Doors, there's a moment right after the song "Be Cool, Little Girl" and a few bars into the track "Lucy" where this reviewer realized that the record, while impressive in so many ways, just wasn't his thing.
Consider the supergroup: a musical entity comprised of key members from other successful outfits. On paper, they usually look great. In reality, though, they are often reminders that chemistry, not talent or skill, is the most important factor in any band. More often than not, a supergroup disappoints with underwhelming songwriting or lazy playing or a preponderance of bad ideas that get chased down just because they're different from what the principals are used to. Usually, supergroups just ain't that super.
EPs are big nowadays. It seems that many musicians are choosing to address what they see as shortening attention spans on the part of music listeners by releasing small batches of songs. Maybe they're right — maybe there's just too much in the way of distractions currently, and a modest meal is more palatable than a buffet.
Against all odds, The Flaming Lips are still here and still relevant. Once upon a time, they were mostly known as a mid-'90s one-hit-wonder due to a song about someone who preferred petroleum jelly on their toast over other more reasonable food-based options ("She Don't Use Jelly"), but their 1999 album "The Soft Bulletin" made the band a critical darling and their chaotic, hyper-colorful live performances made them fan favorites on the festival circuit.
There's a thing that musicians and their press agents do a lot these days: they turn their new album into an opportunity to spin a narrative. Sure, the press is all too happy to transmit that narrative, as it's always nice to have a framing device in which to write a review or an article, but it seems to mostly be something that the musicians are willfully putting out there. Call it the Bon Iver Effect — back when Justin Vernon's first album came out, the story of a sad guy all alone in a cabin making his art became a story that people loved to tell, a hook to grab people.
Some people say that Republican administrations are good for music. The idea is that a conservative in the White House gives typically liberal musicians something to rage against, a target to criticize. Conversely, a Democratic president is seen as being bad for music, as it causes musicians to get complacent. Now that Barack Obama is on his way out and Donald Trump is on his way in, a lot of folks have been voicing the hope that music will "get good" over the next four (or more) years.