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Pop Music | FAST TRACKS

New songs of protest and rage

April 02, 2006|Chris Lee | Special to The Times

BETWEEN the president's plummeting poll numbers, widespread public dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq and the poetic potential of all that angst in the air, it was only a matter of time before pop music caught up with popular discontent.

Now, three high-profile acts offer pointed social critiques, an upswing in the kind of politically minded pop music that top-of-the-charts acts have addressed only sporadically from any perspective since the beginning of the war in Iraq three years ago.

The Dixie Chicks recently cracked the country Top 40 with "Not Ready to Make Nice," a single that amplifies and elaborates on band member Natalie Maines' 2003 Bush-bashing comment (on the eve of the war, she told a London audience that the group was "ashamed" it shared its home state with President Bush). In May, Paul Simon resurfaces with "Surprise," his first album in six years, one that includes the song "Wartime Prayers." In a disheartened meditation about psychic war wounds, the 64-year-old sings of cleansing his "soul of rage."

Pearl Jam's antiwar anthem "World Wide Suicide" has been on fire on rock radio since last week.

"Medals on a wooden mantle, next to a handsome face," lead vocalist Eddie Vedder seethes on "Suicide," "that the president took for granted, writing checks that others pay."

That song's anti-establishment stance won't come as a shock to anyone familiar with the band's campaign-year efforts in 2004, when it mounted the overtly political Vote for Change tour designed to promote regime change at home. Vedder also hinted at his political leanings when he impaled a rubber mask of Bush on a microphone stand in 2003.

"Pearl Jam is a band who throughout [its] career [has] been known for making some politically charged statements," says Bill Burrs, vice president of rock music for the RCA Music Group, Pearl Jam's distributor. "Given what's going on in the world today, maybe that's why some radio has embraced the song."

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Laurel Canyon's rock 'n' roll legacy

CALL Hollywood's Laurel Canyon the original rock 'n' roll suburb. From the mid-1960s to the early '80s, a massive influx of British rockers and East Coast bohemians mingled with local druggies and folkies, rockers and hippies in a leafy mountainside enclave just north of the Sunset Strip.

Author Michael Walker's "Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll's Legendary Neighborhood," (Farrar Straus and Giroux) chronicles the canyon's decadent musical menagerie as it came to be defined by the rock royalty that lived there -- members of the Doors, the Byrds, the Mamas & the Papas, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell, among many others.

"There was this tribal life, this incredible hotbed of talent," Walker, a Laurel Canyon dweller, explains. "Two dozen of the baby boom generation's signature artists were neighbors in a place with a history of tolerating unapologetic behavior.

"There was a lot of energy and creativity. A lot of what turned out to be the 20th century's most lasting compositions were recorded in Laurel Canyon."

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Garage has been good to Van Zandt

ON "The Sopranos," Steven Van Zandt plays a trusted mob advisor who can be relied on for sage advice. Last month, Van Zandt -- a longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band known to fans as Little Steven -- persuaded Billboard magazine to include a garage-rock chart and began writing a column called Little Steven's Underground Garage that passionately advocates the musical category.

Call him garage-rock's resident consigliere.

"This is the legitimization of the garage-rock genre," Van Zandt exclaims. "We introduce bands like the Vines, the Hives, the Mooney Suzuki, the Donnas -- bands that wouldn't appear on a Billboard chart otherwise. These bands have been ignored, this genre's been ignored. And guess what? We're not going anywhere."

Add the writing gig to his five-year run on Sirius Satellite Radio as creator and programmer of the 24/7 Underground Garage, similarly dedicated to music influence by the signature sounds of the '50s and '60s, from British Invasion to punk, teen pop to rockabilly.

Admittedly, Van Zandt's rock arbiter role is a shade different from his six-year run as part of TV's favorite mob family.

"If I screw up my column, I might get [beaten up] by Jack White," he says, laughing. "But I won't get whacked by [the Hives'] Pelle Almqvist!"

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Sirius is serious about the Smiths

INDIE '80s mope-rockers extraordinaire the Smiths may have declined a reported $5-million payday from the Coachella Valley Arts & Music Festival to reunite this summer. And as recently as last month, lead singer Morrissey had insisted that no amount of money could persuade him to retake the stage with guitarist Johnny Marr, drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke.

But all this weekend, Sirius Satellite Radio is running a nonstop Smiths-apalooza, the first time its First Wave '80s channel has devoted itself entirely to music from one act.

In addition, Sirius will premiere Morrissey's new solo album, "Ringleader of the Tormentors," in its entirety before it hits stores -- another Sirius first.

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