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LPs? Hold that swan song

Several innovative bands may be demonstrating how the rock-album concept can retain its relevancy in an ever-evolving digital world.

February 04, 2007|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

IN the news release for "Infinity on High," the imminent fourth release from emo-pop band Fall Out Boy, the band's bass player-mouthpiece Pete Wentz offers fans this directive: "The ideal presentation for this album would be for someone to buy it, take it home and listen to it in the dark."

Pete, what are you thinking? You've described the classic album-listening experience: a college freshman, a pair of headphones and Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." But that was 1973, this is now. I can see rabid Fall Out Boy followers hearing your wishes and fishing in their parents' basements for a stereo receiver. But just as many listeners -- no, more -- will enjoy "Infinity" in sing-along spurts on their iPods and cellphones.

The album as a format is dead. It is so, so dead that its obituary has been written approximately 981 times in the past five years (that's how many times the phrase "death of the album" came up when I put the phrase into a Google search). Last month, for the first time since shortly after Billboard started using the SoundScan sales tracking system in 1991, the nation's No. 1 album sold fewer than 100,000 units for three weeks running. Meanwhile, digital music sales rose 80% worldwide last year, to the tune of $2 billion. The venerable indie retailer has even started a "Save the Album" campaign, as if the format were a baby seal or an endangered rain forest. What's next, black vinyl-colored rubber bracelets?

But old habits die hard, even in young people. Next-generation rockers continue to roll out their 12 or 13 tracks of greatness, wrapped in a concept or a big pronouncement about how they've made the new "Born to Run." (Yes, I'm talking about you, Brandon Flowers of the Killers.) With so many good bands hitting their stride, big albums are everywhere. The question remains whether anyone will care in a year.

The last rock album that felt like it might actually change something was probably "White Blood Cells" by the White Stripes -- which came out in 2001. Sure, My Chemical Romance gained praise last year for its cancer-ward rock opera "The Black Parade," but in retrospect it seems more like a noble effort than a revolution. The Killers were drubbed in the media for acting as if "Sam's Town," their homage to Bruce Springsteen, was a big deal. As usual, Jack White is on the cutting edge: Last year the White Stripes leader released an album with his new band the Raconteurs, but it wasn't a big deal. More like a casual jaunt suitable for a time when big statements just don't work.

Still, the declarations just keep coming. This week, Fall Out Boy releases its flashy new set, "Infinity on High," complete with three songs recorded with the celebrated R&B producer Babyface. The same day, Bloc Party, the UK's latest pretender to Radiohead's art-rock throne, offers up its stunning second album, "A Weekend in the City." And in March comes the most critically anticipated rock release of the year -- "Neon Bible," by Arcade Fire.

These records are already being greeted with excitement, as if any one might determine the future of rock. In fact, each projects a very different avenue. How can the rock album survive? Look to these approaches.

Fall Out Boy's singles rock

IN the very early days of the album, the best were essentially singles collections, and that's one path commercial artists can return to now. Forget about esoteric "album tracks" -- in this approach, there's no fat on the release. Albums will be shorter and tight as a drum. Songs might or might not add up to a compelling narrative, but each can stand on its own. Together they offer a particular perspective, but no high concepts get in the way of the music's melodicism and punch. This is the Fall Out Boy model, one the Chicago emo kings make explicit on "Infinity on High" by hooking up with hip-hop, a genre whose popularity the hyper-ambitious Wentz so admires.

"This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race," the disc's irresistible first single, neatly contradicts Wentz's stated desire for his fans to worship his words in darkened rooms. It's about selling out, and Wentz's lyric embraces the mercenary mind: "I am an arms dealer fitting you with weapons in the form of words / And I don't really care which side wins." Maybe he means to be cynical, but attached to the bouncing Superball of a melody by singer-guitarist Patrick Stump, the sneer turns into a proud declaration. In this hit, Fall Out Boy, always more pop than punk, embraces accessibility with a vengeance.

Now more than ever, accessibility comes in the form of short, brilliant fragments. Great hooks matter most in the age of the ring tone, and Stump can't stop writing them. "Fix me in 45," he croons, romanticizing the idea of a jukebox single on the aptly named "Thriller," which not only props Michael Jackson but features a cameo by Jay-Z. Stump is speaking for anyone who's ever been healed by three minutes of sonic bliss.

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