themostinept/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

How M.I.A. and the Mars Volta hold up 10 years later

Landmark records from M.I.A., Beck, and more turn 10 this month. Are they any good?

 

Ramon Ramirez

Streaming

Published Mar 3, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 9:56 am CDT

Throughout the year, we’ll be revisiting acclaimed albums month by month as they turn 10. Thanks to services like Spotify, these works are readily accessible, and we can process them in a bubble, sans a time-sensitive and superlative-laden media boost, to see if they are any good. Along the way, we’ll explore how then-nascent technology changed the way we move as music fans.

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The music industry will descend upon Austin, Texas, this month for the 29th annual South by Southwest music conference. For the disinterested or uninitiated: It’s like a car show where the business shows off its new line of models before they hit the sales floor, and you get to see Amy Winehouse play in a room that holds 100 people. 

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This year, 2,200 bands from all over the world will turn dive bars into time capsules. The point nowadays is to generate a groundswell of support for an imminent release, and the golden trump card is to forge a viral moment by way of a spellbinding performance (or, more likely, by causing some sort of scene). At SXSW, you’ll be remembered more for the city rejecting your permit to perform in a giant Doritos vending machine (Lady Gaga, 2014) than for what the final gig actually sounded like when it was held down the street. 

Ten years ago, this was a completely different conference. In 2005, the process was streamlined—a moist coffeecake for journalists to tackle. You’d hang out for four days watching bands and taking notes. You’d file a few days later, and a majority of daily arts sections were littered with meditative reports from the field in, say, the next Thursday’s weekender insert.

The field was more narrow (about 1,300 bands showed up in ’05). Blender Magazine was an important tastemaker that existed. Reporters wandered and listened as opposed to flying to Texas with a scavenger hunt checklist of SEO-optimizing trending terms.

Bored college kids could roam freely across unofficial side gigs that they’d read about on nerdy, fringe music blogs. Bloggers were themselves unofficial nobodies who could hardly afford a general admission wristband, let alone land accredited badges. Without Twitter charting every flicker of energy, without livestreams from the Fader Fort, SXSW was a comfortable insider bubble.

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Twitter caused a scene at SXSW two years later as a showcasing startup, and nothing was the same. Modern SXSW leads with its tech conference and the music component is, by comparison, a mainstream afterthought. The mass proliferation of social media means that everyone has the RSVP link to everything, and loose, unscripted, secret performances don’t stay quiet.

In 2009, Kanye West hijacked proceedings by skipping the major label showcases and headlining the unofficial Fader Fort as a surprise guest (he returned to SXSW in 2011 and 2014 with increasingly wider lenses and elaborate one-offs). Ever since, SXSW has been a must for pop’s biggest rappers. The Fader Fort was the heart of the conference for area partygoers, offering free wristbands to civilians and, once inside, free alcohol to couple its free entertainment.

The party bubble burst in 2014, particularly when Rick Ross gave a sort of keynote address to close out a conference during which four people were killed by a drunk driver who drove through the pedestrian barricades days earlier. The civilians swarmed the scene before that Ross performance; important people couldn’t get in and tweet. This year the Fader Fort will be an invite-only gathering. In general the city is actively minimizing the unsustainable Mardi Gras side effects that accompany unlicensed performances.

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It is both sad and necessary. But if there’s an immediate upside, it’s that it’ll be easier for the press to find and fawn over the next M.I.A.

5) Various Artists Atticus: …Dragging the Lake, Vol. 3

What critics said then: “The third compilation in a series by the folks at SideOneDummy Records and the Atticus clothing line—owned by Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 fame—is about as good as modern day, punk-tinged compilations get. Featuring a number of rarities along with previously released tracks by punk, emo, and hardcore vets and newcomers alike, the disc’s only real flaw is its lack of musical flow.”

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Most dated thing about it: The clothing that this punk compilation sells, and how that makes you think about shopping at Pacific Sunwear

Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 6.7332 

The biggest developmental contribution that Blink-182 offered its children was to act as a gateway drug toward other strains of punk rock. The band did this by constantly propping up the proverbial scene and, more tangibly, by spearheading these compilations that were often handed out freely at concerts as CDs. This is the last one I cared about, and it’s a quiet storm of B-sides: Gratitude’s skateboard punk epic “This Is the Part,” a token Taking Back Sunday gem that simultaneously makes you nod along and cringe (“spend the night late, listenin’ to Miles Davis”); an urgent, off-the-rails jam by Motion City Soundtrack. Memphis, Tenn., alt-country gamblers Lucero are welcome here, ditto the two-year-later placement of Death Cab for Cutie’s “This Is the New Year.” Your two key cuts: “Bad Timing” by Recover, easily the most enduring Texas-based emo act, and “Not Now,” which lives as the last good Blink song and was released just as the band said goodbye to fans and broke up.

4) Beck — Guero

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What critics said then: “On Guero, his eighth album, he returns to what he does best, hopping from genre to genre, hustling for scraps of beat and rhyme. He has reunited with the Dust Brothers, the producers behind his 1996 masterpiece, Odelay, for his liveliest and jumpiest music in years.”

Most dated thing about it:  The notion of Beck recording a mid-career masterpiece, a narrative that surrounded not only Guero, but 2006’s The Information, 2008’s Modern Guilt, and last year’s Grammy-winning Morning Phase.

Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 6.995

Beck dove into East Los Angeles barrio aesthetics on this record a bunch (“guero” basically means “white boy,” and he grew up there). It’s a hat that doesn’t fit as effortlessly as others he’s worn, like dialed-in stoner, ’70s R&B player hater, sad wanderer, Laurel Canyon mandolin bro, or even ironic hip-hop purveyor. When he samples curt, blaring car horns or sings “see the  vegetable man in the vegetable van with a horn that’s honking like a mariachi band,” it’s neither endearing or moving. But the Dust Brothers produced “MMMBop,” and Guero is a diverse, pop-laden supermix. Even the dirty intro rocker “El-Pro” pops with “So Watcha Want” drums. The freshest line item here is “Girl,” a winking, 8-bit assisted take on “I saw an attractive woman in a casual setting and now I must approach her” songwriting. Beck’s muse had “a fist pounding on the vending machine, toy diamond ring stuck on her finger.” We don’t know if Beck’s singing “my sun-eyed girl” or “my cyanide girl” on the hook, and at the time he blocked out the lyrics on his website.

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3) Beanie Sigel — The B. Coming

What critics said then: “‘I’m stressed out,’ confesses Sigel on The B. Coming, his third album. You can’t blame the rugged MC for being a tad overwhelmed. Currently serving a yearlong prison sentence on gun charges, he was clearly inspired to balance his usual crack-’n’-gats talk with unvarnished self-reflection.”

Most dated thing about it: Thinking about how Jay Z thought he could self-appoint a successor to the rap throne and do it by offering up a pudgy bulldog from Philadelphia without an ounce of mainstream charisma.

Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 7.001

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This is an easy record to rally behind—rushed to completion just as Sigel was headed to prison for weapons and drug possession charges. The hip-hop lover’s dream is that the demons would manifest in the tracks, and you’d feel more gravity for one of Jay Z’s most talented protégés as he tells all. The practical reality is that The B. Coming was stuffed with guest performer purchases (Snoop Dogg, Cam’Ron, beats from Just Blaze and the Neptunes), strays from its strongly branded message, and its high-dollar production was castoff work from in-demand names, so it hardly pops these days. Thing is, Sigel is one of the best living rappers, and despite his limited commercial ceiling, his blue-collar snarl and comfort on the mic remain freshly brilliant. Forget the swings and misses; when Sigel raps about not having union benefits or a dental plan as a signed artist or makes a Rae Carruth jab, there’s resonance from Philly’s most Crisco-slick tongue-twister. 

2) The Mars Volta — Frances the Mute

What critics said then“Before we say anything else we should say that Frances The Mute is a staggeringly accomplished work, both as a multi-dimensional of music and narrative, one that would reward both serious academic study and being listened to under the influence of hallucinogens. If it were judged purely on scale and ambition it’d be the album of the year.”

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Most dated thing about it:  The yearning that came with waiting on Omar Rodríguez-López and Cedrix Bixler-Zavala to become irrefutable rock gods.

Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 8.3314

Check out this prog monster’s mystical backstory:

Jeremy Ward, audio artist for The Mars Volta until his death, had previously worked as a repo man. One day, Ward discovered a diary in the backseat of a car he was repossessing, and began to note the similarities between his life and that of the author—most notably, that they had both been adopted. The diary told of the author’s search for his biological parents, with the way being pointed by a collection of people, their names being the basis for each named track of Frances the Mute

The Mars Volta had an opportunity to punch its way through and become an international Led Zeppelin savior of traditional muscle car rock. Proof is on lead single “The Widow”: There’s starry plucking, sorcery-infused storytelling, big drops, bombastic riffs. Unfortunately, that leaves Frances the Mute with only four other songs strewn across 70 minutes of smoldering forest fires. The uppers—particularly the Spanish language murder mystery “L’Via L’Viaquez”—are brazen bombs. But for the rest of it, you’re stuck in the woods without a compass. 

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1) M.I.A.  Arular

What critics said then: “Despite her ticking time bomb collages of beats and infectious hooks (in and of themselves enough to pledge allegiance to the M.I.A. consortium), it would behoove even the casual hipster to educate themselves on the tumultuous history that informs much of the album. Born Maya Arulpragasam in London, M.I.A. bounced back and forth between the civil war-torn Sri Lanka and India before settling in the projects of South London and discovering—and learning English via—hip-hop music. While filming a tour documentary, Canadian electro-rapper Peaches introduced Maya to a Roland groovebox, with which Maya frantically wrote most of Arular, and the rest is, as they say, history. Flash-forward to reactions like mine at a runway show and you’ve got the critical darling of ’05.”

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Most dated thing about it: The pop-up armchair political hipster conversations about Sri Lankan civil war.

Arbitrary rock critic score after 10 years in the earbuds: 9.2111

It’s OK to continue to wonder if M.I.A. is a king’s robes situation where left-leaning critics fawned over her music because of its defiant symbolism. Anyone that read Lynn Hirschberg’s 2010 New York Times profile (and followed its subsequent Twitter beef) can’t help but wonder if the style outweighs the substance here. Former collaborator, boyfriend, and part-time Web troll Diplo cast her as a sort of Megan Draper character with a stubborn artist’s temperament: “In the end, Maya is postmodern: she can’t really make music or art that well, but she’s better than anyone at putting crazy ideas into motion. She knows how to manipulate, how to withhold, how to get what she wants.” The reality is that M.I.A. is an expert editor with a vital, active voice, and more importantly a stocked bar of production talents. Arular is her hole in the speaker.

Photo via themostinept/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed 

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*First Published: Mar 3, 2015, 12:00 pm CST