Living on the internet has its side-effects, and none more so than the sort of “isolation chamber” aspect of what you hear, and what you don’t have to. I’m hardly the first person to say this, but it leads to an odd sort of dissonance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of radio rock music. Bands have entire careers (well. theoretically, mostly.) of ups and downs and, I don’t know, being screwed by labels and stuff that I am completely unaware of. (Meanwhile, Drake farted seven times yesterday and then drank a big ol’ glass of milk. I’m just saying.) And that’s fine. Perhaps the best thing about everything being available all the time is that I don’t have to care about what’s happening over there, where I’m no longer interested.
But notice that I said “no longer.” See, I’m old. So old, in fact, that I can remember when rock radio was a thing that people did. In fact, I worked for a time in an auto shop where one or the other of the local rock radio stations (there used to be two non-classic rock stations), and it was at the tail-end of the sort of “ipod-only” cocooned environment that I would create for myself.
The thing is, I’ll listen to anything. Anydamnthing at all. That’s not bragging, or even a point of pride to begin with. If it’s in front of me, I’ll listen to it, and it’ll get equal billing with anything else that’s in front of me. This is why curation is such a hard-line thing for me (and why the gap between “what I’m listening to” and “rock radio” is so intransigent for the most part): I would rather not feel compelled to give something my time just because the fact of its existence says “someone liked this enough to put it in front of you” Yes, I realize that radio doesn’t work that way. and that really , what its presence on the readio means is that someone paid enough money to put it there, but I’m unable, in any meaningful way, to internalize this fact such that I don’t end up thinking about who it is that said “yes” in the first place. But that brings us to the column.
“Who the fuck listens to this” is the question that it all brings to mind. And this column starts with sort of the patron-saint of “who the fuck listens to this,” Evanescence, who “reunited” (more on that later) and made a record a month or so ago.
The question is one you could ask of anything (I have heard it asked many, many times. Those of you who have sat patiently through, records by, say, f/i or Aidan Baker will appreciate that this is coming from the other end). And I would like to say, at this point, that I’m not talking about rock radio in general. I know why people listen to it: because the effort required (“turning on the radio”) to reward given (“hearing a song you like enough to justify having turned the radio on”) is such that it presents a viable option1. But the fact remains: this is Evanescence.
In the interest of being as honest as possible, I’ve cast back in my memory to those dark, pre-ipod days, when the radio was a source of stuff (at least when I wasn’t tethered to the computer, which was full of music, or walking around, when even in those benighted times I still had access to my cds), at least in some sense. I am not a man who can claim not to have liked some utter crap, and even some utter crap in the post-post2 wasteland that gave rise to Evanescence. And you know what? I have no feelings about them. At all. I remember hearing “Bring Me to Life” a couple of times a day, I remember the song about “Going Under,” I have a very clear memory of what they sounded like. I remember, in short, this band being huge. And yet, I have no feelings either way. Hell, I’m the only person on the planet that liked the Daredevil movie (they feature prominently in the funeral scene, which, when you think about it, is sort of a good symbol for more-or-less everything that was wrong with that movie, but I digress), and I still have no residual goodwill. Not even a little.
NB: this means that I do not have strong negative feelings either. I remember their songs only in the sense that I remember that they exist, and what they sound like. It’s worth saying at this point that I have never listened to an Evanescence album all the way through, or even heard a song that wasn’t a single.
It seemed a remarkably appropriate album to start with. For one, it’s made some impressive sales for a commercial rock record in 2011. Also, it’s being billed as their “comeback” album, since their last album was five whole years ago. During which time the band “broke up” and Amy Lee (the one person from this band anyone can name) married a therapist3 and apparently enjoyed being domestic, until the siren call of being in a very-famous rock band summoned her, and the people she could find to come back with her, to the stage, inexorably.
And what a cast of people it is! There’s a guy who used to be in Seether! (hey, remember Seether? Yeah, I kind of didn’t either. But Amy Lee used to doink the dude that sang for them, and also they were South African. Apparently she got the guitar player in the breakup, unless the singer for Seether is now a therapist. My willingness to pry into this woman’s career stops where it becomes her personal life, except for the bits that bleed over.) The rest of the band is a another guitar player from post-post also-rans Cold (their “hit” was a song called “Stupid Girl,” which I don’t remember, but which is by no means terrible), a bass player who was in a lot of bands, exactly none of which I know anything about, and Will Hunt, a drummer who is apparently willing to play for anyone.
Actually, he’s one of two Will Hunts. It took more than one Will Hunt to make this record. It is, probably, the Will Hunt-iest record ever made. I cannot think of a record with a higher Will Hunt to non-Will Hunt density. It also required 12 different people playing stringed instruments, including seven that play, at some point, a violin. On the one hand, that’s entirely unsurprising, on the other, I sort of thought they would do all of that with studio trickery. I guess I was wrong. I think. There are a lot of technicians on this record. At this point, I haven’t heard it yet. Maybe they secretly decided to come back as Mono? That’d be pretty boss.
Alright. Now I’ve listened to it. I’m going to sound like an old person for a second, or perhaps just a colossal snob, but here’s the thing: I hear no evidence of an actual band playing these songs. I’m pretty sure that The Seether Guy, the other guy, the bass guy, and one of the Will Hunts are actually just robots, programmed to make the same crunchy noises, in exactly-prescribed sequences. And that’s the thing: it’s not that every song sounds the same, necessarily. I could definitely pick one out from another. It’s just that they’re all composed of the same elements. It’s like the sounds on this record are a repertory company, each playing a different part as necessary. “Ok, overcompressed guitar crunches over here, then that patterpatter drum stuff that we’re supposed to do to prove we’re metal underneath” (one thing I will say for Will Hunt 1: he’s got stamina. I mean, assuming that he does his own drumming onstage.) And the strings. Oh. my. balls. the strings.
Here’s the thing: Evanescence has basically one element. The reason they can find success among their (presumed) fans is because it doesn’t really matter who’s doing the identical sub-metal crunch ‘n’ grind, because all anyone cares about is Amy Lee’s enormous voice. And that’s fine. At some point in the five years they spent not being Evanescence, they decided that what they needed was…more strings. Everywhere. All the time. For “serious” “dramatic” flourishes4 which are, of course, neither serious nor dramatic when they happen every time the song turns a corner5
It’s worth noting at this point: I am not a lyrics guy. I almost never pay any attention to lyrics at all. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was in a car, enthusing about Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio,” when I pointed out to my long-suffering journeymate that I had no idea what any of the words were. L-SJM was suitably flabbergasted – very nearly offended, actually – and all of that is just to say: even when the words are seemingly all that any given thing has to offer, I still don’t notice them at all. In the interest of getting to the bottom of who the fuck would listen to this, I made the conscious decision to listen to the words.
The chorus of the first song (and leadoff single) begins “hello hello remember me.” I apologize to all of you who may have expected the lyrics to be included, but, frankly, it’s things like that that represent the reason why I don’t listen to them in the first fucking place.
But then, that’s the other thing: nothing they do on this record is remotely original. At all. Their reliance on Amy Lee’s “no-really-I-don’t-think-she’s-shouting-no-matter-how-much-it-sounds -like-she-is” voice is literally the entire thing. So it starts off with one of the most ridiculous of “reunion band” cliches, the “Don’t You Know Who I Am” song. A great many reunion albums feature this song, and I can think of two that don’t make me want to stab the people that wrote them6 . The entire album plays like an extended callback to the band’s previous records (“Oceans,” in perhaps the most egregious offense, opens with Amy Lee singing solo over some less-frantically-crunched-than-usual guitars, a la “You Only Call Me When You’re Sober,” and even begins with her singing the word “don’t”. Seriously.), and I think that’s where we find our answer.
The one thing that can be said for the people of Evanascence is that, for all of their inability to do anything except provide a backdrop for the “oh-my-god-is-she-choke-gargling- her-vocals” stylings of Ms. Lee, they’re not unselfaware. They may have talked in interveiws about being excited to do something new, and keeping things vital, but the fact of the matter is, if such concerns were any part of the effort they put into the record, it didn’t show. I can’t begin to speak to the creative process of anyone else, but I’m willing to bet “we need a bit here that sounds like this other bit there” was a big part of it. I get the impression that if I’d spent more time with the non-single chunk of their catalog, I would be able to spot all of their weird, hermetic references.
They assembled (this is the correct word) a record with remnant members of other post-post bands, and basically courted the only people they could: people who would hear the music and think “Oh golly, I remember them. They sound just like they used to.” They even went so far as to hire producer Nick Raskulinecz, whose credits include a great many records by bands who had days where they were more vital that they wanted to remind people about7 . Raskulinecz is also the source of any of the good things about the record: i.e. the band doesn’t sound as samey or as caterwauling as they could, and for that he deserves credit. Good job, Nick. And possibly the other Will Hunt, who is reponsible for sequencing or programming or some other thing. Maybe he’s the guy that programmed all the robots.
A final point: this record was initially supposed to be produced by Steve Lillywhite, but things “didn’t work out.” This points, I feel, to the central deficiency of Evanesence as an entity: they aren’t a fucking band. Steve Lillywhite produced what is literally the Rosetta Stone of “band that exists as kind of a bland backdrop for bombastic, huge-voiced singer” in The Joshua Tree8 , and the band wasn’t happy with it. Why? probably because they aren’t a fucking band. They’re robots. They fail the turing test, I’m onto them. Bleep blorp blap, this record’s crap.
So, who the fuck listens to this? People that really liked their lives in 2002. Alternately: people that will listen to any band with a woman singer (it’s more common than you think). Finally: people that just want their music to be a predictable, unchanging set of dynamic shifts, and don’t mind wondering if the woman with the microphone in her hand might possibly need medical attention.
1By means of comparison, this is roughly how I feel about classical music: I like it just enough to flip over to npr sometimes and hear something interesting, which scratches my itch for classical music, which I then don’t really pay much attention to until the next time I get a very-generalized craving for the genre itself. I have never said to myself “boy oh boy I’d like to listen to “Bolero,” but I’ve often though “oh, some classical music would be nice.” Yes, I realize the violence I’m doing to hundreds of years of music history. I’m ok with it. Personal taste is not an objective record. The fate of human civilization will never – ever – rely on me to be the person who remembers the difference between one subset and another.
2 This is not a typo. I just don’t know what else to call it. It’s post-things being called post. It’s after the late-nineties, when everything was so post-everything that we had no choice but to start actually naming things again. The problem being, I have no idea what you would “name” whatever it is Evanescence does. But clearly it’s that thing of being a band that’s clearly influenced by heavy metal (“nu-metal” if you will, but nobody has said that in ten years) and also the post-grunge (again, I’m basically relying on the 2000 edition of the “Big Book of Talking About Music Cliches here) that predated it, and you know what? “the state of rock radio in like 2003 or whatever was basically a great big smashed-up casserole of the fifteen years that immediately preceeded it” is a perfectly fine sentence, and I should just go with that.
4 Needless to say, they did not spend their time off turning into Mono. That’s probably for the best.
5 You know, it occurred to me that I could’ve hoped they’d turned into Low. Low makes excellent use of string arrangements, and also came back in 2011 after a long-ish time between records. Basically Evanescence is precisely the opposite of Low.
6 The Feelies “Here Before” and the Eurhythmics “Seventeen Again” although I haven’t heard the latter in many years.
7 Also the Foo Fighter’s One By One, which is the best record Raskulinecz ever worked on and which, frankly, is by a band that sort of always sounded like they’d been around forever, even when they hadn’t.
8 I wasn’t actually going to mention it, but you know, both bands also have that “will they or won’t they” romance with Jesus as well. Basically, Steve Lillywhite would’ve been the dude for this job if Evanescence had been any kind of quality band.