NINE INCH NAILS
Nine Inch Nails' second and most successful record, The Downward Spiral, arrived in record stores one month before Kurt Cobain killed himself, a bleak opus brimming with malice and misery and enough pig references to tip off high-school juniors who had just finished reading Lord of the Flies that Satan was somehow involved. But while Spiral provided easy-bake catharsis for depressed theater students, it was also drive-time music for the weekend dominatrix, people who thought handcuffs were fun but were also into Friends. That first group was mostly responsible for the million units sold of overblown follow-up The Fragile, and it was the latter group's absence that made that number a commercial disappointment. And so Trent slithered off to sober up and, to borrow a phrase from Bono, "dream it all up again."
That dream is With Teeth, a record that's half as long as The Fragile but just as plodding and mummified. The Bono reference is not accidental, because Reznor, for all intents and purposes, is his photo negative; where Bono sings bluntly about big, vague ideas like love and faith and hope, Trent sings bluntly about pain and hate and rage. The difference is that you can only pull off one of these noun sets after you hit age 35, and—hint, hint—it ain't the one Trent's working with. In the past he compensated for this lyrical artlessness with a crafty sonic breadth. The critical shorthand for Spiral may be "paean to rage," but that record's best moments are actually the quiet ones: the jazzbo bass thunk of "Piggy," the Vince Guaraldi breakdown on the chorus of "March of the Pigs," "Closer"'s Atari porno aesthetic. With Teeth is all pain-by-numbers with no topography or relief—just one angry distorted chord after another.
Volume just boxes Reznor in. Who knew a fondness for light bondage could get you tangled in a Gordian knot? This creatined misery plays just fine in the live setting, as the group proved during two jaw-dropping and frighteningly kinetic shows at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom a few months back. But when you're sitting alone with them in your car or on the subway or in your apartment—well, it's a problem. A braver man might have realized this and decided to rebuild from the foundation, but Reznor just clings more desperately to formula, keeping his few ballads shapeless and pillaging Broken for the rest. It's no wonder: To embrace change means to risk failure, and in these shaky days, one more Fragile gets you crickets in the concert hall and a three-album deal with Sanctuary. (Here's Al Jourgensen to tell you all about it.) In the end, Trent's biggest problem ends up being exactly what he always said it was: He just wants to be loved. J. EDWARD KEYES
Nine Inch Nails play KeyArena with Queens of the Stone Age and Autolux at 7:30 p.m. Fri, Sept. 23. $35–$45 adv.
Apologies to the Queen Mary
A copy of Michael Lewis' Moneyball must rest on every desk in the Sub Pop offices, where roster reshuffling, free-agent signings, and minor-league call-ups have transformed the label into the Oakland A's of indie rock. There's a bit of Liar's Poker at play here, too: The postmillennial Sub Pop bands are a self-reflexive lot, ready to help you identify their influences by tipping their hands early on and eager to dispense with that nonsense as quickly as possible. There's no surprise in discovering that Wolf Parade's "You Are a Runner and I Am My Father's Son" sounds more like Modest Mouse than the Kidz Bop version of "Float On"—the song's producer, Isaac Brock, never met a record he couldn't turn into Interstate 8. The whiff of Pacific Northwest nostalgia more or less ends there, which is great because we wouldn't want anything else to confuse anyone eager to crown Wolf Parade the next Arcade Fire. "Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts" owes much more to Bowie-in-Berlin than to any of Wolf Parade's Montreal peers. And the echo chamber vocals on "I'll Believe in Anything" would be enough to bar the group from attending Win Butler's fancy-dress tea parties. Diehards may favor some of the ramshackle treatments contained on a series of earlier EPs, though this record offers a wonderful study in contrasts. Apologies to the Queen Mary boasts some of the best hooks and grungiest production to be kissed with the Sub Pop seal of approval. This time around, Montreal is the new Dirty South. NICK GREEN
Wolf Parade play the Paramount Theatre with the Arcade Fire and Belle Orchestra at 8 p.m. Wed., Sept. 21. $22.50. They also headline Crocodile Cafe with the Vells and Dante Decaro at 9 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 22. $10.
Time Well Wasted
Brad Paisley sidles so casually up to his material, you could easily mistake his subtlety for anonymity. His voice is ideal for neither the bedroom nor the barroom, and on "Out in the Parking Lot," duet partner Alan Jackson—the very definition of the unprepossessing country star—sounds uncharacteristically resonant by comparison. But Paisley's reserve is a hidden strength, and his plainspoken folksiness allows him to get away with humor or sentimentality that less canny singers would reduce to cheap gags or unbearable schlock. His current hit, "Alcohol," may soon become a sing-along annoyance around closing time, but his performance is a syllable-by-syllable case study in how to invest a lyric with wisdom. Whether in homiletic or romantic mode, Paisley relentlessly humanizes the clichés found on coffee mugs, in comic strips, and throughout family sitcoms. When he suggests decorating tips on "You Need a Man Around Here" ("I ain't been in a room this clean since they took my appendix out") or eulogizes the unfortunate roses his ex trashes on "Flowers" ("How many flowers have to die/Before you give this love another try"), he captures the particular dynamics of flirtation and seduction. And as Paleolithic as "Waiting on a Woman" (about how long it takes the ladies to get ready) or "The World" ("To the world, you may be just another girl/But to me, you are the world") might read, Paisley has a definite bead on how the patronizing can become endearing. KEITH HARRIS
Brad Paisley plays the Puyallup Fair (110 Ninth Ave. S.W., Puyallup, 206-628-0888) at 7 p.m. Sat., Sept. 24. $33.50. Sugarland opens.
Portastatic's new album comes at an interesting moment for indie rock. The circular arguments about "selling out" that permeated indie culture in the '90s seem to have disappeared, along with many of leader Mac McCaughan's earliest contemporaries, and people now acknowledge that artists need to eat, especially in the downloading era. McCaughan's better-known band, Superchunk, was once courted by major labels, but the staunchly independent attitude of its members ensured their creative freedom—and relative obscurity. Now McCaughan elevates his bands' peers (most notably the Arcade Fire) to unapologetic fame via Merge. Bright Ideas may keep Portastatic's celebrity level intact, though it builds room for McCaughan's buoyant pop to expand. American Music Club's Tim Mooney (who produced Bright Ideas), Danny Pearson, and Jason Borger infuse it with a rootsy flavor most palatable on the echo-filled "Truckstop Cassettes," while "I Wanna Know Girls" finds McCaughan channeling Jeff Tweedy. Frustration with relationships and world affairs occasionally generates awkwardly clever lyrics ("Love is like an Uzi/It weighs a ton"), though they're outshined by the bulk of the tales. When McCaughan sings, "There's a black balloon imploding at the center of the world/Full of nothing tonight," in his trademark high register above an exuberant, pogo-worthy beat, you know he isn't suffering for good ideas. RACHEL SHIMP
Portastatic play Crocodile Cafe with Two Gallants, Holy Ghost Revival, and the Rosebuds at 8 p.m. Fri., Sept. 23. $10.
Rhythm 'n' Blues: Fine Brown Sugar
When you dig back through rock history, it can be startling how vibrant the early stuff still sounds. That goes equally for jump blues—the post–World War II style that preceded rock and, in some cases, was rock in all but name. Though Louis Jordan was the biggest (and best) of these artists, there's a wealth of good-to-great music there for the finding, plenty of it by women. This four-CD, 100-song, cheap-selling box (I got mine for around $35; it's also findable on Amazon.de) spanning 1939–54 is as thorough a cross-section of the style's female artists as you're likely to find, from the bigger names (Big Mama Thornton, Dinah Washington) to the completely obscure ("Mitzi Mars is one of the totally mysterious unknown artists," according to the liner notes). Not all of it is great—few 100-song box sets are—but it's plenty educational even for serious fans of the style. It's also quite a lot of fun. Jordan's many pop-crossover hits aside, most of this stuff wasn't even on the radar of white America until Elvis Presley's ascendance; consequently, much of the material here is loose and ribald—as when Rosetta Howard notes that "Men Are Like Streetcars," or Mabel Scott advises her listeners to "Catch 'Em Young, Treat 'Em Rough, Tell 'Em Nothing"—in a way that it wouldn't be (for awhile, anyway) once R&B went mainstream. As with R&B historically, the risqué commingles easily with the sacred—see Sister Rosetta Tharpe ("That's All"), not only a great vocalist, but also a still-unparalleled rhythm guitarist. Similarly, Camille Howard ("Try Try Again") began as bandleader Roy Milton's pianist before moving out front. For the most part, though, the women were showcased primarily as singers. But whatever their stated role, the majority of them made the material completely their own. MICHAELANGELO MATOS