Sound Off

Them's the Rules, or Why I Like The New Lenny Kravitz

If you honestly love music, you've got rules about it.

Here are a few my mine.

1. Non-jazz artists and bands may feature no more than two saxophone solos during the duration of their career.

2. Bass guitars should be strung with two to four strings, but any more is not allowed.

3. "Shred" music. Only for video games.

4. Soul music that doesn't acknowledge the existence of Otis Redding shouldn't be considered soul music.

5. No Nickelback. Ever.

I could go on. The point is, you've got to have ideas about music if you really engage it. Have you ever heard someone say, 'I love everything,' when asked what they listen to? Not only is the answer a lie, but it reveals that the listener doesn't actually care about any music. It's all just background noise.

No one loves every type of music, and they shouldn't. (The only worse answer to the question is "Everything but country and rap." It's not wrong to dislike country and rap, but there's just something infuriating about the statement, isn't there?)

I don't care how eclectic you are. There's just too much music for us to hear it all, let alone like it all. We construct rules to help us out, guideposts to help us figure out what we should pick up, and what records to ignore.

Sometimes these rules are guided by our honest tastes; other times they come courtesy of the circles we run in, or sometimes it's a weird grudge against the artist (why do I feel personally insulted by modern records by Weezer or Ryan Adams?).

So here's the thing. A week ago, if you would have told me that I would really like the new Lenny Kravitz record, I would have laughed at you. 'Nope, not for me.' "Get Away," "Again?," "Are You Gonna Go My Way?" Yeah, no thanks.

It's the rules, you know? I instinctively "know" that I don't like the new Lenny Kravitz album the same way I know I don't like the new Nickleback. That's just not what I'm into.

But all it took was a semi-positive missive by a friend on Facebook for me to decide to give it a shot. And you know what? I like a lot of Black and White America, the new Lenny Kravitiz album.

Black and White America isn't perfect. It's too long, for starters. Then there's "Boongie Boogie," which is actually hampered by Jay-Z's appearance more than the stuttering beat. There's "The Faith of a Child," which tries so hard (and features the lyric "There's so many wars upon our plate") and still comes up real short, a mess of platitudes and gospel tones.

But elsewhere, Kravitiz hits on some serious stuff. "Superlove" recalls the funky bliss of Shuggie Otis; "Stand" does the Todd Rundgren thing, "Liquid Jesus" is a straight-up old-school sex jam, recalling Marvin Gaye's '80s work. "Looking Back on Love" takes on Bill Withers sounds, and the title track has more than a little Curtis Mayfield to it.

Sonically, the record plays like a mixtape of Kravitz's best influences, though it too often veers into the bad ones. Records like this are why I can't hate iTunes, despite loving the LP format. Just don't import those stinkers, and you've got an enjoyable modern- funk/soul/pop record.

I can't say that the record defies everything I know about Kravitz, but the songs that have won me over certainly make me pause and reconsider things.

Then there's the new album by Thundercat, The Golden Age of the Apocalypse. Here's a record that I feel like I should hate. It's obnoxiously "proficient," with the kind of bass guitar slap-fests that normally drive me insane (see Les Claypool, who I've tried to like, but I just can't).

But Thundercat's debut is one of my favorite albums of the year. I love every smooth note, every flanged bass thump. "For Love I Come" -- originally recorded by George Duke-- may be my favorite soul-jazz single of the year, and yeah, its got some ridiculous bass fireworks.

The whole thing works both ways. I know I'm supposed to love the new Jacuzzi Boys record, Glazin', but really, a lot of the record falls flat for me. I can't pinpoint exactly what it is, but aside from "Ko Ko With You," which may well find itself on my favorite singles of the year list, I barely remember the album when I finish listening to it. I know I should love it -- the band does everything that I want them to, but you know you're in a weird position (Slipping? Losing it?) when you find yourself tending to put the new Lenny Kravitiz record on over a what should be a killer garage classic. (Though I wouldn't be surprised if the band's live show Tuesday, September 27 at Yucca Tap Room slays.)

Taste is a weird thing. I'm not arguing that you should toss the rules out the window. We need ways to interpret and file music. I used to say things like, 'There's only two kinds of music: good and bad music.' Now I wonder if I that's like saying, "There are only two kinds of people: good ones and bad ones." It's more complicated than that, right?

No, I'm not arguing that you should toss the rule book out and embrace it all. What I'm saying is, maybe don't shut something down before you know what it is. Have the rules -- they are good -- but don't be too freaked out when something sneaks through and makes you feel a little different. Make exceptions, and love that you, as a listener, enjoy contradictions (I love Springsteen, and heaven knows there's more than one sax solo in his catalog).

For all I know, the new Nickelback album, due on November 21, may wind up my favorite album of the year (but, you know, no chance in hell and all that).

Follow us on Twitter and friend us on Facebook

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.