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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Next Great American Band: "Top 12 Perform"

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Illustration for article titled The Next Great American Band: "Top 12 Perform"

I'm not sure what market research the Fox network has done that has convinced them The Next Great American Band is a non-starter, but between the late October debut, the Friday night timeslot, the shortened televised audition process and the fact that they're going to be cutting two bands a week starting next week–with no results show–it's obvious that Fox wants to hustle this program off its schedule as quickly as possible. Is this the fallout from the disaster that was On The Lot? At attempt to preserve the "special event" status of American Idol? What?

Well, if On The Lot could survive a full run, surely NGAB will be with us for the next two months, so please keep watching along with me, and together we'll try to figure out whether these bands deserve a shot at the big time–or another shot, in some cases. Let's start with tonight's episode, which provided an interesting challenge: One original song per band, and one Bob Dylan cover (!) each. Which of these 12 acts has what it takes to be…the next great American band?

Denver & The Mile High Orchestra: First off, isn't this band's hopped-up retro-lounge shtick about a decade out of date? Do people still swing dance non-ironically? Second off, Denver and his fellow ex-high-school-band-geeks quickly revealed tonight the problem with a gimmick: It becomes a hammer, and the songs become nails. The Mile Highs' cover of Dylan's "Freight Train Blues" drained the song of any meaning and personality, and while it was fine as a big-band exercise, if I'd been sent a CD in the mail from these guys, I'd be skipping past this song after about 30 seconds. Tonight's original song, "One Time Show," wouldn't have lasted even that long.

JUDGES' REACTION: Shelia E. is spot-on about Denver's lack of charisma and band chemistry, but otherwise she and Johnny are overkind. Dicko is more justly critical, noting that The Mile High Orchestra is neither good enough as a retro band or fresh enough as a modern band.

The Hatch: I didn't recall seeing these dudes last week until I checked out my notes and realized that this was the band that turned an old Bill Withers song into some Maroon 5 pap. What we didn't learn last week is that The Hatch is kind of the male version of Rocket, all living together and working on music constantly–only in NY instead of LA. Tonight, The Hatch reinterpreted Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" as a post-New-Wave mid-tempo dance-ballad, and the melody fit that mode surprisingly well. But the band did nothing with the lyrics, focusing more on a slick performance than a sensitive connection to what the song's about. And their original, "Stretch Out The Time," was just awful: a heavy blues muddle that sounded completely phony and sloppy, marred by mugging and formless jamming.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny gets it right, praising the Dylan and complaining that the original has no hook, while Sheila E. flips it and complains that the cover was too timid. Dicko nails the band's fundamental flaw by saying that their communal living may be leading to too much jamming.

Light Of Doom: Jim Henson's Metal Babies opt to cover "All Along The Watchtower," though they don't really do the Hendrix copy I was expecting. Maybe that's because they're fundamentally incapable. Individually, each of these little dudes can play with some skill, but they're just not that good at playing together. They each bash away in their own little worlds, losing both the beat and the key along the way. Light Of Doom's original, "Eye Of The Storm" (dedicated to the fire victims in California) is a little better, but there's nothing special about it, aside from the "talking dog" aspect of pre-driving-age teenagers writing and performing a competent metal song. But at the same time, their youth also works against them, both in the lead singer's overly smiley persona–half-embarrassed in that common adolescent way–and their ludicrous attempts to be Sex Godz.

JUDGES' REACTION: Non-specific praise from Johnny, admonitions to practice more from Sheila E., and Dicko saying what we're all thinking: that these boys' overt stab at sex appeal is inappropriate.

The Likes Of You: The godawful name and the news that this band has only been together for five months–yet has toured with Hall & Oates–made me suspicious that this isn't a band at all, but an attempt to worm back into the business by a singer-songwriter who blew his development deal money a decade ago. And as soon as I heard that The Likes Of You were doing "Blowin' In The Wind," my heart sank, because I never want to hear Dylan do that song again, let along a bland, Train-esque midtempo rock act. Sure enough, The Likes Of You evened the song out into nothingness, allowing Baldy McFrontman a chance to show off his falsetto. (And proving there's such a thing as having too trained a voice as a rock singer.) The middling, even-more-falsetto-wracked original "Love And Gravity" confirmed that these guys missed their window a decade back, when this kind of not-quite-rock/not-quite-pop slop had a place on the radio. Now that Train has left the station.

JUDGES' REACTION: No surprise that Johnny likes these guys, since Goo Goo Dolls were one of those bands who enjoyed success in that window I mentioned. Sheila E. disses the falsetto but likes the music. Dicko calls the lead singer Geoff Byrd out on what I'd already guessed, that this is a covert solo project for a veteran scenester, not a proper band.

Rocket: I didn't realize that all these girls have the same last name: Rocket. What are the odds? Last week I think I falsely implied that I thought these ladies were great, but that's not exactly the case. I meant to say that they look great–not in an eye candy way, but in a bad-ass rock 'n' roll way–and that they're formless enough that they could be shaped into something potentially interesting. We'll see how that goes if they stick around long enough. Certainly this week, Rocket's cover of "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" didn't really impress. It was too breathy, and too much of a mélange of other poppy brat-punk acts. The original, "Mean To You," was better, but both songs were kind of in line with their cover of "Blitzkrieg Bop" last week. Not a lot of range shown so far from Rocket, and no performances that would pass my 30-second CD "skip" test. But I still have faith that some week they'll sell out and do a cover I like.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny wrongly thinks they're tight, but rightly thinks that lead singer Lauren Rocket isn't as tough as Exene or Chrissie Hynde; Sheila E. overpraises the original song; Dicko piles on Lauren's voice–and uses the word "tanties" for "tantrum"–but also asserts his opinion that the band is improving. It's clear that producers want to keep these girls around.

Cliff Wagner & The Old #7: That name's a little close to the name of another former alt-country band, yes? From their intro package, Wagner and his bluegrass interlopers looked like everything I hate about Bloodshot Records-style redneck minstrelsy, but they did a fine job with "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," which is the perfect song for a skilled string band. Bluegrass pickers tend to drift toward a hegemonic middle, but the inherent passion of one of Dylan's thorniest songs dragged Wagner and company away from their natural tendency towards polish. I admit I worried about the original, "Old Fire," once Cliff said it was "about tender love and diesel fuel"–the kind of faux-folksy introduction that I've heard at every bluegrass festival and singer-songwriters' showcase since I was a lad, following my bass-playing dad around to country gigs–but the song was quite listenable, and the performance had some welcome looseness to it. This was the first band of the night that I liked.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny and Sheila E. love the band, but Dicko is critical of the Dylan cover, saying that it lacks spite.

The Muggs: This was my wife's favorite band last week, but they struck me then as a skilled electric blues band with no original spark, no better or worse then what you could've heard at any rock festival 40 years ago–and likely in a mid-morning slot. I didn't think they did much with Dylan's "Meet Me In The Morning" this week either, though they gave the song a heavy groove that suited the lyrics for once. As for The Muggs' original, "Slow Curve," it kind of put the lie to their "greasy Detroit rock 'n' roll" claims. These guys are fine, but they're not exactly The MC5, or The Stooges, or The White Stripes, or Bob Seger. I know it's a played-out reference, but I'm getting a strong whiff of Blueshammer off these Muggs. That said, their performance was basically fine.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny rightly praises the refined instrumental interplay, which is rare among the acts tonight, while Dicko rightly notes that the vocals could be more confident.

The Clark Brothers: Hold on. These guys are relatives from Middle Tennessee who grew up with a traveling Pentecostal preacher, but they're not Kings Of Leon? Well, shit-fire. I wasn't as impressed as the judges with these guys last week, because rapid-fire bluegrass is kind of run-of-the-mill within the genre, and I thought they overplayed their audition song. But I liked their cover of "Maggie's Farm" this week a lot better, because they found a unique groove within the song and exploited it, making "Maggie's Farm" into a kind of country funk workout. Their original, "Billy The Kid," wasn't bad either: A decent chorus, lyrically and melodically, and a spirited performance. A little underbaked, but the second best original of the night, overall.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny and Sheila E. praise the band, but both of them are looking a little fatigued, and running out of things to say. (I know how they feel.) Dicko praises them too, but he thinks they tinkered with the Dylan song's melody too much. (He's wrong.)

Très Bien!: I liked these guys' audition a lot, even though again, this particular retro-garage-British-Invasion vein is hardly original, and is at least a half-decade past being all the rage. Still, the band has energy and style, even though their cover of "Subterrenean Homesick Blues" was too straight-up, and not all that interesting in comparison to The Clark Brothers' Dyan cover. But Très Bien's original, "Easy To Love Me," while overly Strokes-y, has a nice, winding melody, and goes places I didn't expect. This is a song I would not skip. It's my favorite of the night.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny thinks the original isn't modern enough, Sheila E. disses the solos in the cover, and Dicko worries that they might be too kitschy.

Franklin Bridge: Here's another band that I felt the judges overpraised during the auditions. They're playing a kind of sloppy gospel-funk-rock, and this week I really hated their weird version of "Tangled Up In Blue," at least until the wailing guitar solo (which borrowed liberally from Hendrix's "Machine Gun"…but whatever). Franklin Bridge's original, "Incredible"–also dedicated to the firefighters and victims in Cali–was also an absolute mess, until a redemptive solo. The band is exciting to watch, but is this all they can do? There's a reason why Living Color only put on one hit album: You don't always need a Howitzer to do a Derringer's job.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny and Sheila E. think these guys are front-runners, but Dicko sounds a note of caution (and of paternalism, in saying, "I'm incredibly proud to have you on the show"). He makes the point that the Dylan song was over-arranged, and wonders if that's why they haven't been signed before. Personally, I'm wondering what they're going to do next week that will be distinct from the three sound-alike songs they've played so far.

Dot Dot Dot: Lead singer Adam describes his band as "five crazy people who like to get on stage and party," which he proves by stripping naked and intruding on his mates' interview. This is the kind of forced "crazy" that shows up in the band's performances too. Dot Dot Dot is stupidly frenetic. They look and act like a rock band right out of central casting. They could be singing on a kiddie show just as easily as in the background of some late '80s action movie (bathed in blue light, naturally). This week they rearranged "Like A Rolling Stone" into an arena anthem and followed it up with "Another Stupid Love Song," an overproduced piece of post-Killers pop-rock. And frankly, introducing that song after the Dylan song was kind of an insult, and indicative of the plug-and-play anonymity of these assholes.

JUDGES' REACTION: Johnny disses the Dylan cover and slags the lyrics of the original, Sheila E. complains that it's all too busy, and Dicko makes my exact point, saying that they're "some advertising executive's idea of a rock band." I swear I made my note before I heard his criticism. I did not however come up with anything as clever as Dicko calling the lead singer a "hyperactive emo leprechaun."

Sixwire: I was certain that I'd heard this band before, perhaps from back in the days when I used to review unsigned acts for a Nashville magazine, and sure enough, thanks to my obsessive habit of saving at least one track from every CD I've ever received (for future reference purposes), I was able to look on my external hard drive and see that I've actually got two Sixwire songs on there. That means I thought they were more than just okay when I got their disc way back in 2002. It also means they've been around for too long to still be sweating out their first big break. This week they repeated their original from the audition–an impressively thumping country-rock song called "Good To Be Back"–and added a mediocre cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man." These guys are polished to a fault, but that might make them strong contenders in this competition.

JUDGES' REACTION: Much love from Johnny and Sheila E., and a backhand compliment from Dicko, who calls them "the housewives' choice."

Who's in trouble: Denver, The Hatch, The Likes Of You, The Muggs, Dot Dot Dot

My favorites of the week: Très Bien!, The Clark Brothers.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

-So…Dylan, huh? Did he lose a bet, or has he just ceded all his business decisions to label people who went to bat for him 45 years ago?

-Dicko seemed a little put out by the standard "boo the bad criticism" formula of AI, and rightly so: He actually had cogent points to make, and not much time to make them. Maybe next week he'll succeed in getting the audience to put a sock in it for once.

-Watching all these almost-weres reminded me of my years covering the local music scene in Nashville–the bands on their way up, and those on their way down. If it's still relevant next week, I'll write about that time some more. Now it's time to put this recap to bed.