The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 4, 2012

Joe Hadsall: Soloists swim against current in today’s rock scene

By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor

JOPLIN, Mo. — Rock artists on “American Idol” are like magicians on “America’s Got Talent": They don’t stand a chance.

Rock is mostly known for heavy guitars, driving drums and screeching vocals. Bands with virtuostic players -- Eddie Van Halen, Neil Peart, Jimmy Page, Kirk Hammett, Les Claypool, Slash, Mike Portnoy -- helped propel their bands to a legendary status and earned critical acclaim along with all the record sales.

I would argue that rock is the one genre that focuses the most on a complete sound. Pop, country, R&B, hip-hop -- everything we hear on Top 40 radio is based on the songwriting and melody. Only rock songs paint a full instrumental picture and market themselves on a sound, not a singer.

That’s why it’s hard for such an instrument-driven field to give vocalists a chance to shine. But that doesn’t mean rock doesn’t have any vocalists who go beyond screaming or wailing.

Maynard James Keenan, of Tool and A Perfect Circle. Freddy Mercury, of Queen. Serj Tankian, of System of a Down. Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin. Chris Cornell, of Soundgarden, Audioslave and Temple of the Dog. Geoff Tate, of Queensryche. Rob Halford, of Judas Priest.

All of those guys and others treated their voices like instruments, and filled songs with wide ranges of vocal inflections and emotions. They made their bands legendary.

Because of that, it’s unfair that rock is unkind to the vocalist with aspirations of a solo career.

“Wait,” you say. “What about Ozzy Osborne?”

He started with Black Sabbath, and his solo music was propelled by guitarists Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde. Try again.

“Trent Reznor.”

Ah, you mean the guy who performs under the name Nine Inch Nails? Thanks for proving my point.

“Phil Collins.”

Compelling, thanks to “In the Air Tonight,” but his solo career didn’t take off in rock -- pop and Top 40 fell in love with Phil. (This one gets a lot more fun to debate when you roll in “Invisible Touch,” a Genesis album that is a lot more like a Collins solo album.)

“Bruce Springsteen.”

Ah, you got me there. He’s one of the few rock success stories performing under his own name. But for every Springsteen, there are five or six rock vocalists who leave their bands and don’t find the same level of success.

Tankian hasn’t had the same impact without System of a Down. No one takes Eddie Vedder that seriously without Pearl Jam -- with or without the ukulele. Sammy Hagar had a good career, but singing with Van Halen pushed him to a higher level -- albeit I’m one of the few who appreciate the Van Hagar era more than David Lee Roth. And speaking of Diamond Dave, life never was quite as good as it was before leaving Eddie, Alex and Michael Anthony.

Which brings me back to “American Idol.” Why in the world would Daughtry, James Durbin or any of the “rockers” try to start or boost their career on a show dedicated to letting the vocalist shine? Granted, I don’t watch “American Idol,” but in post-show coverage, I read how guys like those are labeled as “the rocker guys,” while all the other competitors are “singers.”

Durbin has his own take on that -- he never saw it as much of a problem. In fact, according to his bio, he realizes the power of the band. Check this passage out:

“The current musical climate is utterly dominated by pop music and hip-hop, with artists tapping into computers and software programs to craft songs. In the digital age, the information superhighway has made the ability to create music instant, if a bit inorganic. As a result, instrument-driven music like rock 'n' roll has taken a bit of a back seat.”

That’s from the first paragraph of his bio. Yet he pushes forward with a solo career.

He probably knows what he’s doing. He’s the guy opening for Buckcherry this weekend, not me.

But as long as rock is marketed with an emphasis on the band, it’s going to be tough for the solo guys. I wish them the best, because the deck is stacked against them.

Country marketing

Here’s a thought: Does the band-marketing philosophy help add critical acclaim and/or credibility to country-rock bands such as the Damn Quails, because of the contrast to the first-middle-last-name Nashville scene? Discuss.

‘The Crux’ lets singer shine

Go back to that list of epic rock singers above: Does J. Loren, of Hurt, belong in that group? He’s no Keenan or Mercury, but he belongs in the conversation, based on Hurt’s latest album, “The Crux.”

After seeing Hurt live in Springfield a couple of months ago, I wrote that the band approaches their songwriting with the depth and complexity of a prog-rock band, even though band members don’t spend a lot of time showing off their chops during songs.

The only exception to that could be Loren, who also plays guitar and violin for the band. The new album’s first song, “So When,” shows off his range pretty well. Thanks to a great engineering job, his angry scream, mournful drone and soulful wail harmonize pretty well. The same can be heard on “How We End Up Alone,” which has been in regular rotation on local rock stations.

While there’s nothing as ballad-strong as past hits “Alone with the Sea” or “Falls Apart,” there’s plenty of gutpunching rock: “How We End Up Alone,” “Numbers,” “So When” and “Eden” drive the album.

I could argue that the band’s efforts to not sound like its previous album, “Goodbye to the Machine,” pushed it to eschew more of the subtle songwriting they usually pack in. “The Crux” doesn’t have as many surprising changes of direction as past albums -- which is too bad, because the band has a gift for that. Listen to “Summers Lost” from “Vol. II” to hear more of what I mean.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great moments. “Cuffed” features an orchestrated melody in the background of the chorus that contrasts nicely. “So When” has a few interesting movements.

My biggest complaint with “The Crux is that it seems to end quickly. There’s almost 45 minutes of music, so it’s not a ripoff. It just goes quickly, for some reason. Maybe it’s because the song that hooks me the most, “How We End Up Alone,” is a song I’ve already been listening to for a couple of months.

“The Crux” isn’t Hurt’s strongest album, but it is strong. A bad Hurt song is still better than a lot of the screamo angst-rock junk food passing as metal on the radio, and Hurt excels at crafting powerful, emotional rock that satisfies like a meal.