Major labels get desperate

By Jon Garrett

Someone asked me recently if I was at all surprised that major labels are still willing to bankroll the likes of the L.A. Guns and Mötley Crüe. “I mean, doesn’t it seem crazy that these bands that are so obviously over the hill are still getting contracts while plenty of young and talented groups aren’t given the time of day?” he said. No, actually, it doesn’t shock me in the slightest. In fact, it makes good business sense to me. Not only are these has-beens proven multi-platinum sellers, but occasionally one group breaks out of the commercial mortuary and taps a whole new generation of fans (á la Bon Jovi). And when even one smashes expectations, it more than justifies the release of all the rest.

I’m far more bewildered by the signing of bands to major labels who have never and likely will never reach a wide audience. Yet plenty of mediocre bands have managed to make a career out of bouncing from label to label. I have no idea why these record conglomerates even bother, but here are merely two more examples: The Charlatans (or as they’re known stateside, Charlatans U.K.) and Remy Zero. These groups have, at best, been innocuous and, at worst, really horrendous copycats. The Charlatans are a relic of the “Madchester” scene, which spawned the infinitely greater bands The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays, and Remy Zero is one of a gagillion groups that got damned with the “American Radiohead” tag. Both have survived being dropped by their original labels and managed to sucker a couple of other majors into releasing their latest offerings.

Although the albums will undoubtedly suffer the same commercial fate, The Charlatans’ Wonderland and Remy Zero’s The Golden Hum have absolutely nothing in common when judged on their musical merits. The Charlatans, after years of toiling in other bands’ shadows and recording subpar albums, have actually cobbled together a coherent and enjoyable album. Remy Zero, on the other hand, seems to have lost its way entirely in the search for an original sound.

The Charlatans have certainly traveled a rough road to Wonderland. In addition to their label woes, they endured the untimely death of their longtime organist and the defection of their lead singer from the U.K. to Los Angeles. While many of their more artistically inspired contemporaries succumbed to feuds or drugs, The Charlatans carried on in spite of their troubles and mediocrity. And now, out of nowhere, they deliver an above average album. Not a great album, but certainly a much better one than what we expected at this stage in the game, when most groups are too busy staving off arthritis and gout to bother with the music. The first three songs alone rank among the most inspired moments in their lengthy catalog. Deep, dance-oriented bass is stacked up against towering, take-no-shit guitar riffs. It’s something the Black Crowes might pull off if they weren’t so blitzed on pharmaceuticals. The third track, and the album’s first single, “Love Is The Key” successfully updates Primal Scream’s “Rocks” — even though the 1994 song shouldn’t really qualify for an update yet. In the process, they make a strong case for the resurrection of the all-white funk band. However, I feel an obligation to inform The Charlatans that no such band has ever been able to retain that title without descending into parody.

Remy Zero, meanwhile, has already descended into parody and then some. These five guys sport the kind of earnestness that went out of fashion with the Counting Crows (no relation to the Black Crowes, save for their lead singers’ tendencies to date very hot actresses). In case the album title didn’t tip you off, The Golden Hum is full of blustery self-importance. After all, these are serious musicians with serious artistic ambitions. So serious in fact that their song titles require periods. The overblown production values and hollow anthems reek of latter day U2 or R.E.M., except these guys will be playing in dingy bars instead of packed stadiums. Worst of all, the members of Remy Zero can’t seem to figure out what they want to sound like anymore. At least they had decent role models when they were trying, in vain, to emulate Radiohead. Hell, they even showed some taste when they recruited Alan Moulder for some production work on their last album, Villa Elaine. This time, they’ve hired Jack Puig to produce and mix the album. In case you’re unfamiliar with his résumé, his notable works include Green Day’s Warning, Semisonic’s Feeling Strangely Fine, and BBMak’s Sooner or Later. The actual songs on The Golden Hum could easily have been written by any Three Collective Horizon. It all adds up to a frighteningly anesthetized modern rock album.

Well, unfortunately, I’m still no closer to answering the original question about why bands with no steady track record or commercial potential get signed by major labels. Maybe one of Remy Zero’s 200 fans works at Elektra. Although it’s statistically unlikely, I suppose it’s still possible. Other than that, I haven’t the slightest clue as to why The Charlatans and Remy Zero have major label contracts. But one thing that Voices knows for sure is that they certainly won’t be the last. In fact, we’re expecting that new Ocean Colour Scene album any day now.