We list this year's real stinkers, get some critical advice from the folks and look at some scary new downloading laws

Avast, Pirates!

You've heard of the Culture Wars that recently divided America into primary-colored states. Some new bills in Congress mark the start of the Download Wars, which will forever change the way we obtain and share music. Currently, senators are haggling over a bill, HR 4077 Substitute, that would make it easier to prosecute casual downloaders. Sponsored by Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), this legislation is a bunch of stitched-together copyright-issue acts, some of which have already passed either or both houses of Congress. A few of the articles are harmless -- one would designate the oak our national tree -- while others are chilling. Chief in the latter category is the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act (PDEA).

"This is the almost worst possible bill," says Art Brodsky, communications director for Washington, D.C., digital-rights organization Public Knowledge.

The PDEA aims to switch the onus of prosecuting file-swappers from Big Music and Hollywood to the U.S. government. So instead of filing suit themselves, these huge media companies would have your tax dollars pay the freight.

"The recording industry has this problem," says Jason Schultz, attorney for San Francisco technology-liberties watchdog the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "The people who are their biggest fans are also the people who they are the most mad at, because they're the ones downloading stuff. They've never figured out what to do with this problem, because they want to crack down and sue, but they also don't want to alienate them. So the solution they came up with was, 'Jeez, if we can find some way for the Justice Department to do our dirty work for us, we can crack down on Americans, and they'll blame the government more than they'll blame us. '"

If passed, PDEA would mandate fines of up to $250,000 and jail stays of up to three years. And here's the kicker: The bill's language is incredibly vague, suggesting that "making available" or "offering for distribution" MP3s would constitute such an offense.

"'For distribution.' What does that mean? 'Making available.' What does that mean?" Brodsky asks. "These standards are very vague and could just as well include material on networks, on hard drives, whatever." And the bill's ambiguous language extends to legally downloaded songs, like the ones that artists offer for free on their Web sites, or even those you buy from iTunes, if you were to either burn songs for friends or use the site's sharing feature to stream songs over a network. Not to mention all the people -- you know who you are -- who are still illegally downloading materials, like, oh, the new U2 album.

"If that's the standard, then you're criminalizing half the teenagers in America," Schultz says. "Do we really want to start filling our jails with teenagers who simply downloaded music?"

Downloading -- legal or otherwise -- isn't going away, even with such heavy-handed attempts to terrorize the participants. Keep your eye on this story, folks. The RIAA legal team might be coming to a laptop near you. -- Dan Strachota

Bad Music!

Fatboy Slim, Palookaville (Astralwerks)

Big beat is a genre without much room for dumbing-down, but that's exactly what Fatboy Slim continues to do on the bland Palookaville, an album bent on putting Nytol out of business. Rote covers (Five Man Band's "Signs," Steve Miller's "The Joker"), leaden disco and a couple of left-foot rock tunes toll electronica's death knell. Fatboy even sullies the careers of other artists: Blur's Damon Albarn pisses away fifteen years of good karma on the meandering, acoustic snoozer "Put It Back Together." Look for him to get hit by a bus any day now.

Janet, Damita Jo (Virgin)

There's no place warmer than Janet Jackson's mouth. This is what we learn on Damita Jo. Also, that Janet likes to do the grown-up on cars and in cars. And she has a pet name for her clitoris. "Relax, it's just sex," she purrs as all this is going down. In interviews, she seems baffled that her version of Cinemax After Dark would actually shock anyone, but deep down, she knows that shocking listeners is her last resort these days. Damita Jo is almost bereft of actual tunes; half the album is marked by cloying, spoken-word interludes, in which she confesses that she's way into palm trees, sand and her man's wiener. Only walking in on your parents could make sex any less appealing.

Mos Def, The New Danger (Geffen)

The new danger here is that Mos Def has proven that ham-fisted honkies like Scott Stapp aren't the only guys ruining rock. Here, Mr. Def is pissed that rock & roll, which originated in the black community, has been co-opted by white people. Never mind that this was old news 40 years ago. But rather than drop a batch of kickass tunes to show the hacks in Three Days Grace how it's done, he lazily scats over a funky bass line here, a half-baked guitar riff there -- never constructing anything that resembles a fully realized idea. As persons of the Caucasian persuasion, we hereby apologize for Trapt, Collective Soul -- even Nickelback. Now, get back to rhyming, Mos.

Helmet, Size Matters (Interscope)

Helmet frontman Page Hamilton used to growl like Satan with a stubbed toe, over guitars the size of Godzilla's manhood. But on his band's misguided comeback effort, he farts out generic modern rock custom-made for Mountain Dew commercials. Granted, Helmet's massive crunch has always been tempered with touches of harmony, but now, it seems, one of alt-metal's leading figures is taking his cues from that dick in Puddle of Mudd. In one of the album's many Freudian slips, Hamilton even inadvertently acknowledges that he's lost it: "I swear to God I'm wrecking it all," he offers at one point. "I don't remember why we're here," he sings later. Size may matter, Page, but so does a little dignity. -- Jason Bracelin

Parental Guidance

I'm sitting down with a few glasses of wine and a stack of the year's most popular music. The idea is to see what impression these songs will make on my folks, who are diehard classical-music fans. When I ask them who they think is the year's top-selling artist, they struggle for the answer.

"I would guess Britney Spears," my mother says.

My father scrunches his forehead. "I don't know. Yanni?"

"Yeah!," Usher: My parents bob their heads appreciatively as the music plays. Last year it became clear that one of their biggest struggles is not so much enduring the songs but having something incisive to say about them. To their ears, most of this sounds the same: too loud, hard to understand, even incomprehensible. My father will begin almost every critique with a statement about whether or not the song was pleasant.

"Well, it was pleasant to listen to," says my dad when I turn off the song. I think that to him this is code for "It didn't hurt." He continues, "I would say that it's not something you'd listen to at home. It seems directly related to bopping."

Wait a minute. "Did you just say bopping?" I ask.

"Or dancing." He shrugs. "Whatever."

Our analysis of Usher seems to have come to an end. My mother tells me, "You know, your father and I recently watched ballroom dancing on Channel 13, so we know a lot of new steps. We can 'shake' and 'hesitate.'" And no: I don't know what "shake" or "hesitate" means either.

"Duality," Slipknot: As a teen my older brother subscribed to Circus magazine and owned every Judas Priest cassette ever made. This was just before the Tipper Gore-led PMRC blowup of the early '80s, which suddenly turned every metalhead into a suspected felon. I placed Slipknot in the playlist purely for shock value; part of me has always wondered if they knew what their son was listening to. But rather than being offended, my parents are intrigued. They patiently nod through the crunching guitars. My mother compares the hushed, spoken lyrics and backward tracks to "Revolution 9" on the Beatles' White Album. My father says it reminds him of Jesus Christ Superstar.

"Did you bring any Pantera?" my father asks. He's very curious about Dimebag.

"Redneck Woman," Gretchen Wilson: I've written before about warming to the basic humor and glee of Gretchen Wilson's breakout hit. My parents, however, are not impressed.

"It just seemed like so many other country songs," my father says.

"It didn't do much for me," says Mom.

"Depending on what she looks like, I might like it more," my dad says.

I shoot my mom an exasperated look, expecting her to say something, but she throws up her arms.

"What do you want? He's right."

"So," my dad says, "is she cute?" -- Sarah Hepola

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