Monday, June 23, 2008

6/23/08 - Tragic lack of guitar solos in post-'91 rock hits

Listened to the new Girl Talk album all week, basically. If you haven't heard it yet, then don't waste any more time reading this missive about guitar music - go find it. I'll probably have more thoughts comprehensive thoughts later, but one thing that came about in the listening that I wanted to explore is the question of the guitar solo. Or perhaps I should say: the guitar solo? The question in question being prompted by the use in "Feed the Animals" of the guitar fills of "Jailbreak", the Thin Lizzy song.

Now, I love guitar solos. I'm a highly biased observer of music in this way. The idea of the guitar solo is so endemic the basic rock song structure that you can pretty much trace a straight line through from Chuck Berry to GNR, unbroken. The point on that graph are composed of solos. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always there. Like choruses, or songs about devil-women that are bad for your soul by being so goooooooooooood in bed, yowza!

Then, static clouds the signal around the time of the grunge explosion. After the smoke cleared, I can think of very few hit rock singles that really utilized the guitar solo. The temptation is to blame this on Nirvana, and, indeed, Cobain's reluctance to make the rock-star move and solo away post-Bleach surely made an impact on everyone following in the footsteps, but Nirvana hardly operated in a vacuum. The other high-impact grunge bands featured classic-rock inspired solos (Pearl Jam), metal-inspired solos (Soundgarden), and solos inspired by someone giving Billy Corgan a dirty look while he was in line at the post office (Smashing Pumpkins).

But looking at the post-grunge rock bands that took off reveals a glaring lock of solo action. Third Eye Blind, matchbox 20, and Collective Soul were the 3 titans of the charts in the post-grunge hangover (a painful triplet of oatmeal-ish pseudo-rock, to be sure), and as far as I can tell none of their hit songs had a solo. Is this really a case of everyone imitating Cobain, even though Mike McCready is probably still sitting in a studio finishing up the "Evenflow" solo? It seems like the spate of hit singles coming from the pop-punk end of things also contributed the development - the Offspring & Green Day had nary a solo to be found, instead hanging their hats on the reductive musical equations of the Ramones.

I think that this is the legacy of the 80s indie & punk scenes, where guitar solos were equated with the poofy LA metal bands that deployed them so frequently. So, as musical memes do, they came to signify something other than their original meaning: instead of to-be-lauded virtuosity they came to mean pompous head-up-ass posturing.

But man, this is the kind statement that only has to be made once, not over the course of a decade's worth of rock music. Short of Tom Morello, I can't think of another guitarist who put the solo imprinteur on his mainstream rock outfit. And, even more strangely, I have a hard time conjuring up any mainstream rock hits in the last 15 years or so with guitar solos at all to speak of. This seems like a vast opportunity lost.

I'll never forget going to see the White Stripes after the release of "White Blood Cells" at the Bowery. I had heard they put on a good show, but I was expecting hi-NRG amateur hour - after all, Jack White had consciously put no solos on the album, and the earlier albums had a little bit of slide work, and that was it. So when he proceeded to shred half of his songs to pieces I was practically catapulted out of the back of the establishment. The songs on the albums were blueprints - the man was creating buildings.

And, formally, I get why "Fell In Love With A Girl" doesn't need a guitar solo to make its point. But would Jimmy Page have let that song out the gate without a face-melter? Doubtful. Sure, you don't need 4 legs to have a table stand up, but that fourth leg really helps.

An arbitrary list of post-1991 songs that really could have used a guitar solo:
"Woman" - Wolfmother (organ solo? back to drawing board please gentlemen)
"Possum Kingdom" - The Toadies
"Mr. Brightside" - The Killers
"How You Remind Me" - Nickleback
"Fell In Love With A Girl" - White Stripes
"Hate To Say I Told You So" - The Hives
"Semi-Charmed Life" - Third Eye Blind
"Interstate Love Song" - Stone Temple Pilots
"Cannonball" - The Breeders


Andrew said...

more like arbitrary list of perfect songs unsullied by wankitude. perchance you have forgotten - COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN - about the Spin Motherfucking Doctors.

mike brotzman said...

Came here to post exactly what Andy B so adroitly nailed into your dumb ass: Pocket Full Of Kryptonite begs your attention; and as for Cannonball being on that list, FUCK YOU.

I'm not convinced that the guitar solo is the unifying feature of rock that you posture it as. The fourth leg of a table? Harsh. I think it would be more appropriate to say that it's a unifying feature of the kind of rock music that lends itself to guitar solos (and, as you said, there's a lot of music like this that is nevertheless devoid of any solo), which is not exhaustive of the whole genre nor should it be.

But what am I talking about. I miss a good solo like anybody else and bands that amount to little more than a reunion tour of the genre (Queens of the Stone Age, The Darkness) are insufficient, but I'm okay with that; I pray for your soul.

mike brotzman said...

ps while on the subject of kickin' rad guitar solos, I just wanted to destroy your soul a little bit here:

you're welcome!

Croz said...

Psht. I do not recant. The solo in "Two Princes", just to cite the clearest example of the Doctors of Spin, is totally sweet. Weaknesses of the Spin Doctors I think can be more accurately lain at the feet of the songwriting brain trust.

total aside - favorite comment on the youtube video of "Two Princes" = "I like the lead singers snowcap"

I would never argue that there is no such thing as a BAD solo, but I doubt that the Pocket Full of Krytonite would be a transcendent album if you stripped all the solos out.

wankitude I would say is just a label of bad soloing - I'm not saying to plop some Skunk Baxter on top of Cannonball - I'm saying think of the possibilities.

Ask youself this: are there any songs with SWEET guitar solos where the solo ruins the song?

I rest my case.

Also, I am going to invent a time machine, go back to 1997, and place Rivers Cuomo at the bottom of the ocean.