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Critic's Notebook: Green Day's '¡Uno!' is, No. 1, overly commercial

Is this a 21st century breakdown? The band's punk rock rebellion is now slick and Clear Channel-ready. Which puts the weekend's events into another perspective.

September 24, 2012|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • The cover of Green Day's "Uno."
The cover of Green Day's "Uno." (Reprise )

Few places embody punk rock ideals less than Las Vegas, the setting for Green Day singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong's onstage tantrum on Friday night. And few Green Day albums embody the punk ideal less than "¡Uno!," the band's eighth studio album. Both highlight the challenges of turning rebellion into money.

Sponsored by corporate radio monolith Clear Channel, the Vegas event was called the iHeartRadio Music Festival, and took place at the MGM Grand Hotel. The annual festival, now in its third year, is designed to draw attention to the corporation's I Heart Radio smartphone application. Ryan Seacrest, the king of conformity, hosted the thing, which featured tightly scheduled performances — not a climate in which anarchy or rebellion thrives.


FOR THE RECORD:
Green Day: A review of the new Green Day album in the Sept. 25 Calendar section said that "¡Uno!" is the band's eighth studio album. It is the ninth. —

Nor does anarchy or rebellion thrive on "¡Uno!," the new record from Armstrong and company. If punk rock is about doing the unexpected, the least punk thing that Green Day could do at this juncture is to make a typical record. (And, recall, this is a band that had a very commercial Broadway musical, so it's a pretty high bar.) Its excellent musicians have been making such songs for more than two decades now; they understand the essentials of crafting catchily aggressive rock numbers. They can make this stuff in their sleep.

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On "¡Uno!," that's what they seem to do. If by definition punk is (or was, or should be) about breaking rules, "¡Uno!" breaks about as many as the new Carly Rae Jepsen album — or appearing on a Vegas bill alongside acts such as Taylor Swift, Linkin Park, Usher, Swedish House Mafia and other hit makers to do a quick-turnaround set at the behest of Clear Channel. Every chorus is telegraphed, every bridge comes when it should, and every chord feels crafted by the streamlining experts at Ikea.

Unlike the expansive three-act concept album "21st Century Breakdown" and the equally conceptual predecessor, "American Idiot," "¡Uno!" — the first in a trilogy — features four men, Mike Dirnt on bass, Armstrong, touring member Jason White on guitar and Tré Cool on drums, and a dozen straight-ahead songs, the portrait of a band currently either uninterested in or unconcerned with taking artistic chances.

Fourteen songs about themes that lyricist Armstrong, 40, has addressed throughout the group's career, "¡Uno!" reprises ideas that wouldn't sound out of place on any of their records. Perhaps that's the point of "¡Uno!" — to kick out some jams without worrying about "progress." Maybe the upcoming "¡Dos!" (which comes out Nov. 13) will see them making an experimental dubstep record with awesome scream-along choruses. And maybe "¡Tré!" (Jan. 15) will see them doing wicked funky remixes, or reinvigorating rock. Hopefully so, because "¡Uno!" feels like the work of a band that has painted itself into an aesthetic corner.

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Gone is the quest for epic narratives about Jesus of Suburbia and Whatsername, and in its place are a dozen songs about meaningless sex ("Stay the Night"), seizing the day Andrew W.K.-style ("Carpe Diem") and lust ("Fell for You").

Even when they do walk outside their comfort zone on "¡Uno!," as on transparently noncommittal "Kill the DJ," they do so tentatively, attempting to infiltrate clubs with an LCD Soundsystem-styled beat while hating on DJ culture. "Someone kill the DJ, someone shoot the DJ," sings Armstrong. "Voices in my head are saying, 'Shoot the DJ down.'"

It's the equivalent of Sinatra doing a psychedelic rock song about how much he hates hippie culture. The band wants to have it both ways, to sneer while participating.

That same reflex manifested itself onstage in Las Vegas.

In a phrase not unlike Richard Nixon declaring, "I am not a crook," Armstrong on Friday screamed (and I paraphrase to exclude cussing), "I'm not ... Justin Bieber!" before smashing his guitar, frustrated, and no doubt insulted, that their set had been cut short. Although he didn't mean it this way, Armstrong was right. He's not Bieber. If Bieber wanted to go over his allotted time by 15 minutes, Clear Channel most likely would have been all too happy to accommodate.

Will "¡Uno!" be a hit record? Probably, and the outburst certainly won't hurt the prospect. And there are a few very powerful songs that deserve to be commercial hits. Among the best is the closer, "Oh Love," which suggests a drunken Irish pub chant distorted and pumped with steroids. "Let Yourself Go" is the obvious chart-buster, the one that'll no doubt be used to back NFL highlight reels for years to come.

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