MIKE PESCA, host:
More bad news for the record industry, if you're a little child of the record industry, you might want to leave the room for this because it could upset you. Nielsen SoundScan released its record-sales figures for the first half of 2008 last week, and once again, those stats show that consumers are buying less music than they were a year ago.
But for a couple of big hits like Lil Wayne's "Tha Carter III," or Coldplay's "Viva La Vida," this would be a calamitous time for the music industry. Maybe it is anyway. We'll revisit that topic in depth in just a few minutes. But first, let's celebrate, or perhaps decry, some new releases with Andy Langer of Esquire Magazine, our guide and spiritual advisor. Hello, Andy.
Mr. ANDY LANGER (Music Critic, Esquire Magazine): Good morning.
PESCA: Hello, good morning. I think I'm right here in saying that one of the artists that we're going to talk about this week, Beck, or Willie Nelson, or Wynton Marsalis, or Mugison, one of them is - they're definitely going to save the music industry, am I right?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGER: Well, somebody needs to, but probably not one of these three.
PESCA: Well, maybe it'll be Beck. Since "Loser" way back in 1993 and since the time of chimpanzees when he was a monkey, he's done this thing where sometimes it's like this party album, like, "Odelay" or "Guero," and then there's the kind of downbeat album, "Mutations" and "Sea Change," and he kind of alternates . Do you prefer one over the other, Sad Beck to Party Beck?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I like Party Beck and unfortunately, this record's Bummer Beck, and Party Beck fans will be bummed.
PESCA: Yeah. You would think that maybe by teaming up with Danger Mouse, who usually is the life of the party, with bands like Black Keys and Gorillaz and, you know, his own Gnarls Barkley, but it's not. What happened?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, Danger Mouse here is - it's sort of a - it's a Danger Mouse production in that there's this whole kitchen-sink, psychedelic thing going. And you know, there's definitely these signature Danger Mouse moves, these sort of vibe-y patchworks of scratchy records, and horns, and sort of production for humor's sake, and it's got all those Danger Mouse signatures. And yet, you can't save the fact there's no songs.
PESCA: One thing about Danger Mouse is he's a great producer. He's much in demand, but his records - well, maybe not the Gnarls Barkley records, but the other records always sound produced. It's not like you would ever listen to a Danger Mouse produced record and say, oh really, did you even work with a famous producer? I mean, he's right there in all the music.
Mr. LANGER: Yeah. No, he definitely has that signature, even if is his signature is not really to do the same thing twice. But the bummer here is just that the songs aren't up to the production. And so, ultimately, what's going to be memorable, you know? And is it going to be the fact that he worked with Danger Mouse on a record? Or that him and Danger Mouse made a great record? And I think it's going to be the, you know, the first of those options.
PESCA: Let's hear the song "Orphans" from "Modern Guilt."
(Soundbite of song "Orphans")
BECK: (Singing) Think I'm stranded, but I don't know where. I got this diamond I don't know how to shine. In the sun where the dark winds wail, And the children leave their rumors behind.
As you cross dead lakes from a Rubicon, The matchsticks for my bones. If we can learn how to freeze ourselves alive, We can learn to leave these burdens to burn.
Cast out these creatures of woe, shatter themselves, Fighting the fire with your bare hands.
Now my journey takes me further south...
PESCA: So we heard, you know, 34 production elements on that track with all the zings, and the zithers, and the low rumblings. Do you think that if Beck had just said, hey, let's just sing the song as the song, maybe, as I'd perform it live, it would improve? Or does he - does he need Danger Mouse's help?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I don't think, you know, blaming Danger Mouse here is the right way to go. You know, apparently Cat Power's on that track we just heard, but I think you need a Danger Mouse decoder ring to hear. But you know, "Orphans" and then the song that follows it, "Gamma Ray," start off really great. I mean, you've got two really good songs, and that makes this a great single with an A and a B side, but then there's, you know, the whole thing goes by, 10 songs, 33 minutes, which is, thankfully, a quick experience.
But it doesn't get much better than "Orphans" and "Gamma Ray." And yeah, I mean, to some degree, stripping them down and just having Beck perform them as Beck would have performed them might have helped. But at the same time, that's not these kinds of songs, and these songs aren't strong enough to strip away all that Danger Mouse stuff.
PESCA: One more song, perhaps, to prove the point, but this, "Volcano," from a little later in the record.
(Soundbite of song "Volcano")
BECK: (Singing) I don't know Where they're Calling me anymore. But I think I must have seen a ghost.
I don't know If it's my illusions That keep me alive. I don't know what I see. Was it all an illusion? Or a mirage gone bad?
PESCA: Am I to understand that this is Beck's, perhaps, his swan song with his current label?
Mr. LANGER: Yeah. It could be. You know, whether he re-ups or whether he goes the, quote, "Radiohead route," is not clear. Apparently, he's not happy, because, I mean, that tune there is Bummer Beck to whatever degree, and you know, the interesting thing is the next record, whatever the next record is, is going to be the record that, whether or not you see good reviews for this record right now, the next record's the one where they're going to call it a comeback, because he's going to have come back from this thing.
PESCA: Yeah. Well, let's go. Let's move on to a couple of, you know, true legends, Willie Nelson and Wynton Marsalis. "Two Men with the Blues," the name of their record tells us. Here's a backstory. In January of 2007, Willie teamed up with Wynton for a couple of concerts at Lincoln Center here in New York. What do you know about the backstory? How did that collaboration come together?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, there's not many folks Willie hasn't collaborated with. And you know, Willie and Wynton had a sort of mutual admiration of each other from afar. They're both fans of the idea, you know, which Ray Charles has done, which Louis Armstrong is famous for, of fusing this, you know, or taking a moment, to fuse jazz and country. And as we found out, and as the title suggests, the crossroads of jazz and country, the blues.
PESCA: Yeah, common ground, two great American art forms leading to a third. Let's hear a little of the magic on stage at Lincoln Center, Willie and Wynton playing "Bright Lights, Big City."
(Soundbite of song "Bright Lights, Big City")
Mr. WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Bright lights, big city, Gonna need my help some day. Oh, light, pretty baby, Gonna need my help some day.
You're gonna wish you listened To some of those things I say...
PESCA: Given the names, given the concept - I saw the track listings, seem to be some good selections - can you really go wrong with this CD?
Mr. LANGER: No. I mean, you can't go wrong, because they did the homework track, selection-wise. I mean, they chose the right songs, but they clearly didn't over rehearse it or decide to make this a studio record. And therefore, it sounds like they're having fun and it sounds spontaneous. It sounds like a jazz record should, and there's some, you know, just terrific performances here. There's terrific songs. It's a smart record, and you know, whether it's a classic Willie Nelson record, which it's not, it may wind up being a classic record in that people go back and look at this collaboration and say that was one of Willie's smartest collaborations.
PESCA: Yeah. It just seems like a great kind of record to have in almost every music lover's collection. Put it on for a dinner party or a number of settings. You know, you're on a long trip, and you'd probably please someone in the car, or everyone in the car, to some extent.
Mr. LANGER: That's sort of the genius of Willie.
PESCA: That's what he does. All right, now here's our next CD. A guy from Iceland who I'm not really sure how to pronounce his name. I know it's not pronounced Sigur Ros. It's, I think, Mugison?
Mr. LANGER: Well, the Icelandic people are the sworn enemy of the Bryant Park Project, correct?
PESCA: Yes, and simple pronunciations, yes.
Mr. LANGER: Yeah. I believe it's Mugison, and I believe that "Mugiboogie" is the name of the album. Apparently, I don't know, Mugison is the Icelandic naming convention for the surname of someone who is the son of Muggi.
PESCA: OK. That makes sense.
Mr. LANGER: And I am not sure what that means.
PESCA: I think it's a non-magic user in the Harry Potter world.
Mr. LANGER: There you go.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: Now, ah, OK. Let's listen to a little bit of the record, and then I want to ask you a very important question about Icelandic music in general. Here we go. This is the title track. Let's call it "Mugiboogie."
(Soundbite of song "Mugiboogie")
Mr. ORN ELIAS GUEDHMUNDSSON: (Singing) Yeah! I love the way she is looking at me, Like I was a fruit hanging in her tree. The way she moves her hips, The way she wets her lips...
PESCA: It's the rec-chee-ific (ph) stomp. Do you like "Mugiboogie"?
Mr. LANGER: Well, what's your very important Icelandic question?
PESCA: The important Icelandic question is, is it really a country, or actually a conceptual art project hoisted upon us? Because you get to Bjork, you get to Sigur Ros, I think "Mugiboogie" is the most understandable. It's kind of like bluesy and funky, and at least he sings in really understandable English, but...
Mr. LANGER: Yeah. No, this is a fun record, and it is chaotic, and there is this whole - you're right - art-project feel there. He's a guy that once made electronica records and now makes these sort of glam, blues, ballad-y - there's ballads here. There's big sort of, you know, those blues stomps. He's got a song called "Jesus is a Good Name to Moan." He's got another song called "George Harrison." So, he's got a sense of humor. One critic, you know, said that it's like if Spoon were into Primus, which I think is a little generous, but it's sort of more Rush meets the White Stripes, but it's interesting, and it's actually - it's probably a better record start to finish than the Beck record.
PESCA: Yeah. The latest Beck record, I don't know, I think Jacob thought it sounded - Jacob Ganz, our producer and self-proclaimed music snob, thought it was a little like early Beck, you know, somewhat esoteric, poppy, but not afraid to sound abrasive every once in awhile.
Mr. LANGER: Exactly.
PESCA: All right. So you are of the same mind. All right, let's talk about the big picture. Let's talk about stats. SoundScan's numbers said that Americans bought 11 percent less music in the first half of 2008 compared to 2007. It's not this huge falloff. It's not good, though. What do you think? What's your prescription for saving the record industry, if this industry can be saved?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, the 11 percent figure, you're right, not good. It means that more people or these - these numbers show that more people are downloading music and paying for it. The digital tracks continue to be a bright spot. They continue to sell more online. But if you look at these records that have been selling, Lil Wayne, the Jack Johnson, Mariah Carey, Coldplay, you know, there's A, not a lot of surprises there, and B, those still aren't the names that the record industry needs.
I mean, if you look at what Universal may have for the fourth quarter, a U2, a Black Eyed Peas, a No Doubt record and then potentially Eminem and Dr. Dre, separate records there, that would be the kind of numbers and names that could turn at least Universal's business around if not the rest of the business. And that's the thing, is that there are fewer superstar artists, people that, you know, become these dates on your calendar that you're going to a record store, these event releases where you're going to go and pick up the Eminem record.
And while you're there, you hopefully see two or three other things, or the industry hopes you see two or three other things, and that they have a big week overall because of Eminem. And it just seems like there's fewer of these superstar artists, fewer of these event records, and therefore, fewer of everything else selling.
PESCA: Well, listen to you. Going to a record store, I mean, if digital sales are up 30 percent, but there's an overall drop, which means CD sales are falling off the cliff, is there real rationalization for having the physical format even exist, you know, in ten years?
Mr. LANGER: Well, I mean, probably not. Look, you know, you've got your Towers, you got - they're gone.
PESCA: Gone, dead.
Mr. LANGER: Virgin's closing right there.
PESCA: Niedermeier, dead.
Mr. LANGER: Yeah. And you know, Starbucks is scaling back. Target and Wal-Mart, they're going to be the ones that control whether or not there are CDs in ten years. You're right, because the bottom line is, if they don't carry them, and they're doing the bulk of the sales that you're looking at here, if Target and Wal-Mart decide that that's just too much space to take up in their stores for something that's not really selling, then you've got a real problem. And then it becomes, you know, the CD is sort of this niche item that's like vinyl now.
Mr. LANGER: You know, people buy it because it's quaint, but they're really going to get their music online and...
PESCA: No, I've got to say your name and thank you. That's what I have to do now.
Mr. LANGER: All right. Go.
PESCA: Andy Langer, music critic for Esquire, thank you. And this is the Bryant Park Project. We're online all the time. I'm Mike Pesca. Thanks for listening. Bryant Park Project from NPR News.