Hitting The Trunk Road: The Sad Domestication of Kid Rock

Since going platinum eleven times over with Devil Without A Cause, Kid Rock has adopted the not-so-variegated guises of the Bullgod, Rock & Roll Jesus, the early morning stoned pimp and Detroit’s favorite son. With a style that’s equal parts rock and roll history lesson and multi-genre mash up, Kid Rock’s live shows tend to be a veritable jukebox of country, classic rock, metal, southern rock, hip-hop and rap. He covers enough ground that his presence on stage with Phish, Hank Williams Jr., Lynyrd Skynyrd, Sheryl Crow and Reverend Run (of DMC fame) fail to even raise a quizzical eyebrow over the propriety of his appearance. Over the course of a career that has lasted longer than many might have suspected, Rock has cultivated a populist rocker-of-the-people persona that has found just as many detractors as fans. Regardless of your personal opinion of the scruffy Michigander, it would be disingenuous to ever call Kid Rock boring . . . until now. Once a red state redneck rebel at the center of tabloid headline quality brouhahas involving Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee and sex tape scandals that involved Creed’s Scott Stapp, he’s now more likely to found gladhanding the likes of Mitt Romney then waving his middle finger at the nearest authority figure.

As any artist gets older, it’s no crime for their musical output to reflect their changing worldview. Bruce Springsteen’s career wouldn’t have lasted to the present day if he hadn’t moved on from wistfully documenting the Jersey shore and anthemically wooing women to run off with him. Rock surely hasn’t turned his back on those that share his love for the boisterous pursuit of the American Dream and eloquent, if not profane, reprisals towards those who could be best deemed haters. It’s a mindset and a philosophy that has gained him fans across all strata of society. His spirit may be still be willing but with Rebel Soul, his latest album, he’s simply become uninteresting and starting that dangerous slide into self-parody.

In being one of the first to places genres in a blender and hit puree, Rock has always been one to embrace disparate styles. Unfortunately, his view of current trends has led him into the arms of the Autotune. While the voice flattening device added an interesting dimension to the studio version of God Only Knows, it seems forced in its use on Detroit, Michigan, which, though not overused, distracts rather than adds. On his ode to his hometown, Rock employs his road-tested songwriting trick of simply name checking bands that he likes. On American Badass and Forever, it was defiant and demanded that his tastes be recognized; on Detroit, Michigan, it comes across as a joyless roll call of bands that draw inspiration from the Motor City. Where Rock’s crassness on songs like Sugar and So Hott gave them a cheeky irreverence, if not earthy wit, now on songs like Cucci Galore, he sounds like he’s become amused with his own bawdy-bada.

Where Kid Rock once served as a lightning rod that marked the convergence of uncountable musical styles, he now seems to have aged into a purveyor of warmed over outlaw country. It appears that all kids must inevitably grow up.

In contrast to the sad domestication of Kid Rock, Leonard Cohen has managed to maintain his own urbane style well into his late seventies, his preternaturally deep voice sounding as warm and comforting as it did in his prime. Just this past December, Cohen mesmerized a sold out Madison Square Garden crowd with his decades-old, neo-romantic visions, bohemian patois and that oh so calm and reassuring voice for nearly three hours. Dropping to his knees in a penitent pose during many of the songs, Cohen demonstrated exactly how someone that doesn’t rock becomes inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Over two sets and a pair of encores Cohen left no one wanting, playing a veritable greatest hits show that included early hits like So Long, Marianne, Bird On A Wire and Famous Blue Raincoat, his rumination on a night with Janis Joplin, Chelsea Hotel No. 2, confident declarations of masculinity like I’m Your Man, latter day apocalyptic prophecies like The Future and selections from Old Ideas, his 2012 release, including Going Home, God’s reminiscence on his time with the singer. Notwithstanding jawdropping versions of Suzanne, the locale-appropriate First We Take Manhattan and his various takes on flamenco and European melodies, Cohen’s best moments were on Anthem and Hallelujah. A spiritual soul, Cohen’s passionate delivery evokes a powerful emotional response, shaming all inferior singers who feel theatrics and multi-octave ranges are a substitute for the true ability to convey the beauty of a song.

You might think that a crowd that skews old would diminish the feel of the show. Never underestimate the power of a well-mannered audience; it has its time and place. When Cohen performs, MSG (or any arena) takes on all the qualities of an intimate Broadway show. While on stage, Cohen didn’t battle banal self-involved chatter as an entire arena sat rapt with attention. When he spoke, nary a peep could be heard from the crowd who hung on every sepia-toned word that dripped from his lips. No one in that audience had an interest in anything but Leonard Cohen.

Where many artists have changed and evolved over the years, Cohen remains iconoclastic for steadfastly remaining constant for more than four decades. For all the praise that can be lauded upon the vaunted Canadian singer-songwriter for his evocative lyrics, inimitable style and singularly identifiable voice, it’s the songs that resonate. Once you hear Cohen sing, his voice, spiritual mien and impeccable sense of songcraft remain with you for life.

OFFRAMPS AND REST STOPS

Some Final Thoughts about 2012

In my years with Earvolution, I pretty much had free reign in putting together the year-end column ever so creatively entitled The Yearvolution. Now as a member of the Hidden Track arsenal of writers, no matter how correct my opinions may be, my voice is but one of many in proclaiming the best albums of the past twelve months. Since I don’t get the whole Frank Ocean thing and thought Kendrick Lamar was the basketball player that married a Kardashian, the unquestionable best five albums of the year were Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill, Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, Father John Misty’s Fear Fun, Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls and Cloud Nothings’ Attack On Memory. You may quibble with my choices but I am not wrong, especially about the kid from Cleveland.

Notwithstanding momentous events like the Hurricane Sandy benefit at Madison Square Garden that attracted classic rock’s vanguard (and Bon Jovi), the Love For Levon show in East Rutherford, New Jersey and that Phish show in Wisconsin where they really really jammed, the most important event of 2012 took place in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When a group of day-glo balaclava wearing punk rock chicks engaged in a guerrilla-style video shoot for their Punk Prayer, a song protesting the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of President Vladimir Putin, they spawned the Pussy Riot revolution. Ostensibly tried and imprisoned for political speech, the conviction of three of the group’s members (the others remain unknown and “at large”) struck a chord throughout the world. As two of the three ladies serve their sentences in the Russian prison system, we are confronted with the sad reminder that the freedom of speech we enjoy in America is not shared around the world. The rejoinder of “Free Pussy Riot” surely contains more import than a little horsey dance from South Korea.

Speaking of the Hurricane Sandy benefit, I was slightly stunned by the extreme backlash towards the event, mainly by people who watched it on television for free in the comfort of their own homes. Amongst the whining were complaints that no one did anything new. Which begs the question as to why anyone would think the show, which was essentially a telethon, would be anything other than classic rock titans doing what they do best? The brevity of The Rolling Stones set can likely be attributed to their late inclusion in the event and the fact that their $40 pay-per-view spectacular was three days away. Of the many things that can be said about The Stones, it’s rarely said that they leave money on the table. Personally, I thought the night’s most notable event was the surviving members of Nirvana playing with Paul McCartney. Those decrying that Nirvana isn’t Nirvana without Kurt Cobain are 100% correct. However, in Nirvana’s last run with In Utero, Pat Smear did the heavy lifting on guitar and the sound that blasted forth from the MSG stage as they played with McCartney was unmistakably late-era Nirvana. McCartney deserves credit for making no effort to emulate Kurt Cobain. In playing Dobro, Cut Me Some Slack was simply the surviving members of Nirvana playing with a Beatle and not a misshapen reunion peg being jammed into the circular hole of nostalgia.

If there were missed opportunities at the Garden that night, it was the lack of any truly notable collaboration. Notwithstanding, Eddie Vedder’s appearance with Roger Waters, the reciprocal Bon Jovi/Springsteen cameos and Michael Stipe’s surprise appearance with Chris Martin, there were many combinations left unexplored. Kanye West performing with any of the classic rock royalty would have been memorable, especially if Ye convinced the Boss or Billy Joel to take the Ray Charles part for an historic take on Gold Digger, and the song hasn’t been written that Eric Clapton couldn’t enhance. If the Stones were going to go short, couldn’t they have brought out McCartney for the I Wanna Be Your Man we’ve all been craving? Egos being what they are, the ticket prices were astronomical; no one needed to reinvent the wheel but a couple of these rock icons could’ve likely found more ways to share the bill than by being listed together on the program.

After a lengthy absence, Fiona Apple reemerged from seclusion in Austin, Texas as part of the NPR showcase at Stubbs Ampitheater. It’s a set that, according to the AV Club, almost never happened as the legendarily mercurial (to be read, flaky) singer “freaked out” and needed to be calmed down by singer-songwriter David Garza before making a somewhat triumphant return. It will be up to history to record whether Apple’s 2012 will be remembered for The Idler Wheel . . . (nonsense deleted), her comeback album, or her missive about her dying dog that caused more tears than that Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercial and marked a clear line of demarcation between animal lovers and the rest of the world.

To close out the year, the New York Times’ music critics Jon Caramanica, John Pareles and Ben Ratliff engaged in a round table discussion of the trends of the past year and their likely influence on 2013. For those that care about such things, Mad Science & Pop Hits is indispensable reading.

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