erasing clouds

Ness, Up Late With People

reviewed by john wenzel

Call me a purist, but I'm instantly irritated by a press bio that employs the word "brilliant" in the first sentence. Whether it's true or not (and it usually isn't), it creates insurmountable expectations. That, and the word has been worn out to the point of meaninglessness, (and record critics are the worst offenders). I can only think of a few rock bands of the past few years that deserve the title. The Flaming Lips? Radiohead? Guided By Voices? Maybe, but that's even stretching it.

Ness's bio gets worse, railing against the customary bullshit in modern music with a weirdly bitter swipe at The White Stripes (they can't seem to wrap their minds around the fact that groups without bassists are commercially viable). The laughable quote asserting, "Live the band has no peers," coupled with the creatively-retarded cover art, had me expecting this to be a real piece of shit.

Well, shame on me, because Up Late with People is actually quite listenable. Nothing that would prompt me back for more, but solidly played and crisply produced, and infinitely better than its press materials suggest.

From the opening songs it's clear Ness's style is rooted in Classic Rock Radio. Leaning towards the power-pop side of the fence, "Where the People Kick It" pushes '70s posturing and Brit-inflected vocals to the fuzzy foreground. The abundance of hard-driving chords and chugging bass is rounded out by moody mid-tempo breaks and the obligatory 12-minute stab at prog (the tedious, 9-part title track). Unassuming organs add a traditional touch to the otherwise '90s-sounding guitar-based arrangements, but still can't rescue the songs from their exponentially derivative arc.

And that's what really kills Up Late with People: it's both obvious and oblivious. "Let's Vaporize" and "Adelaide" are dead ringers for Revolver-era Beatles, betraying the band's note-for-note (yet weirdly bland) fetish for tired source material. "Lighting Lights Up" is Damon Albarn humping George Harrison's corpse - nasal vocals, double-tracked solos, minor chord changes - and makes Elliott Smith's more imitative tendencies seem spontaneous revelations by comparison. Ness can't decide whether they're clever, earnest, or cleverly earnest.

With all the members' experience (numerous side projects are listed, including a record with John Cale) it's intriguing how blind to quality control Ness are. Our culture should have hit a saturation point with competent "alt-rock" that was played-out ten years ago. I guess we haven't.


Issue 20, February 2004

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