Monday, March 7, 2011

Don't Paint with Poop, You're Art Will Stink

I think it's probably time I admit to myself that I don't get music anymore. For about the last 2 years, I've maintained this persona of a guy who still has his finger on the pulse of contemporary tunes, but the truth is that I don't understand why any of the new "it" bands are bands at all. I hear the things I'm supposed to dig as a person who loves left-of-center music and I just don't understand it. Without realizing it, I might have become the aging-music-fan/curmudgeon; the guy who thinks that anything released after he was 26 is bad on principle, because frankly, everything new sounds like shit to me.

Okay, so I have heard some new(er) bands that I think are amazing. The Rural Alberta Advantage recorded a breathtaking debut and followed it up with a record that, although nowhere near as brilliant as the first album, manages to be not just listenable or even solid but actively very good. Florence + The Machine's Lungs, though occasionally a little too "Neo-Lilith Fair" for me to be entirely comfortable, is shockingly soulful, full of heart, and kind of remarkable. Dawes released their debut, North Hills, a simple but incredibly well-written set of songs that channels the spirit of their Laurel Canyon predecessors, like CSNY, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and the Momas & The Popas, with honesty and sincerity that's a breath of fresh air in the current musical climate. And even as vapid as it ultimately may be, that first Sleigh Bells album released last summer rocks pretty fucking hard.

And then there's new albums by old bands. In the last 2 years or so, The Hold Steady, Bright Eyes, The National, Band of Horses, Tim Kasher, The Decemberists, The Flaming Lips, and Ryan Adams (although his 2 records, Orion and III/IV were recorded 2005-2007) are just a few of the bands who have put out records that I would file under "awesome". Hell, even that last Interpol album wasn't nearly as bad as I expected it to be. And I imagine that new Okkervil River coming out in a few months will be as geniuso as ever, but still, for the most part, everything new I hear sounds derivative or worse, either painfully boring or just painful.

Honestly, I don't think I'm too old to appreciate new music. I'm a person destined to maintain a high level of mediocrity my entire life, so I was going to ever have a prime, thus I certainly haven't passed it. I'm only a stone's throw away from 32 years old, and my wife tells me I often think and behave like a child, so both physically and mentally, I'm still pretty young. But being too old to get the new bands is the only thing I can really come up with because every time I hear a new band that's supposed to be the shit, I can't help but believe that labels have started hiring retired sanitation workers for A&R jobs, because all they're doing is collecting trash and filling the record stores with garbage.

And hey, maybe I am too old and am just equally too stubborn to admit it. If I was, it would definitely make life way easier. I could just kind of give up. I could stop paying attention to what's going on. There's enough new music being released by bands I already like, so I wouldn't be in short supply of unheard tunage, and if I occasionally by accident heard a new band I did like, it'd just be icing on the cake. Plus, not only is there a boatload of old(er) stuff I have yet to explore (for instance, my record store-owner buddy Matt* played me The Black Angels the other day and those guys kick serious ass), but making the switch from the sterile and beleaguered digital existence to the purity of a life in analog ensures that my joy (problem) of record collecting won't take a hit.

Between already in-print albums I love but don't own, the mountain of re-issues that seem to be coming out on a weekly basis, and quality of selection and physical integrity of used records at Encore in Ann Arbor (I hope that place manages to stay open. If it closes, I'm not sure my soul can take it.), there's more than enough of the flat, black, and circular to keep my wallet hemorrhaging and collection growing for years.

If I was too old, I'd be alright, but I can't let it go, I have to keep listening, I have to keep trying, I have to keep ultimately punishing myself and getting annoyed and angry, so I don't think I'm too old. If I was too old, it'd be easy to throw in the towel. I'm a classic underachiever; I will never be a person unwilling to call it quits even if I have no business continuing to try. If I was too old, I'd have no problem retiring, but I can't, so I'm inclined to believe that my age isn't a factor in what I hear. Regardless of what angle I look at things or how in-depth I scrutinize this predicament, reexamine why I feel this way, I keep coming up with a single, 1 word answer: gimmick. All paths lead to gimmick.

The Record Industry seems desperate for invention. Desperate, shit, they seem downright ravenous. The bands want to solidify a sense of unique identity, small labels want to release records that sound like something no one's ever heard before, the critics want to adore the stuff that seems too "out-there" for general mass consumption; you add those things together, you end up in the situation we're in.

With the exception of Fucked Up, there's not a band on the planet who doesn't want to be heard, who doesn't want to sell records. That's an obvious truth, and you won't convince me otherwise. (In the case of Fucked Up, clearly these guys have no real desire to make it big because you can't choose a name like that without being completely ambivalent to record sales. No TV or radio station in the country is going to play a single or video by a band whose name they can't say without accruing a hefty FCC fine.) No one becomes a doctor in hopes of having no patients, no one becomes a teacher with crossed fingers and a wish for no students, no one decides to create art in any of its various forms and hopes no one ever sees it. Art is supposed to effect people. It's supposed to make us think, make us feel. It's supposed to push boundaries and buttons. It's supposed to force the consumer to reevaluate their ideologies. At the very least, it's supposed to make us feel good. If no one's there to be effected by it, then the art an artist creates doesn't fulfill its primary directive.

Kurt Cobain was the archetype of the disenchanted artist and even he didn't hate selling records, he hated the people he was selling records to. He didn't like the fact that the kind of people who beat him up in high school were also the same kind of people who were beating up new defenseless kids while humming the tune to "Smells Like Teen Spirit". If you could've convinced Kurt Cobain that his records were only being bought by 10,000 misanthropic teens who came out of the woodwork because they finally had a public voice, he would've been ecstatic. Instead, a lot of cookie-cutter, white-bread assholes who hated anything that didn't fit into their limited rubric of "normal" loved "Come as You Are", and the result of said equation is Kurt Cobain's misery-fame.

Bands want to be heard. They want to sell records. Maybe they're not looking to be Micheal Jackson or N'SYNC, but they want to have fans. This has been the case since time immemorial, but recently, I'd say the last 2, maybe 3 years, what always was changed. Bands still want to sell albums, but they don't want to be beholden to any other band. Suddenly, the idea of influence has become pornographic. There's been a ton of music released since the invention of the phonautograph in 1857. Out of that ton, at least a few hundred lbs. have been brilliant. Usually, these brilliant artists are the ones who pass on their genius to other budding geniuses and the cycle thankfully continues. But lately, it seems that bands don't want to derive comparison. They want to be heard as a solely unique, entirely individual entity, almost as if their music appeared out of thin air and leapt onto the tape or a hard-drive. Bands want to be seen as brilliant and want that perceived brilliance to be entirely a making of their own design. This wouldn't be a problem if they could write good songs.

I'm not arguing against eccentricity or individuality in music. If a band (artist) can write a good song and approach the application of that song in a new and fresh way, well, that's what makes music so exciting. That's what makes music worth listening to. But if a song isn't well-written, it doesn't matter how unique or eccentric the execution is, it's still just a bad song played in a different way. I mean, as far as I know, there's never been a painter who's decided to work in a fecal medium. I could paint a picture with my or other people's dook, and it would be a unique approach, but that painting would still smell like shit. And I don't know about you, but I think poop smells bad.

This is, I guess, in a crass nutshell, the approach I see the new "it"bands taking. It's not simply style over substance, it's style without substance. It's like these bands have tried so hard to sound different that by the time they get to actually writing a song, they're spent, so they hope that people will be so amazed by the fact that they sound so very different that the fact that they have no ability to write a solid or enduring song will be missed, and sadly enough, that approach is kind of working.

Bands like Deerhunter, The XX, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, or the latest piece of indie-tale, James Blake, are great at sounding different, but bad at sounding good. The songs have taken a backseat. Where are the hooks, where's the melody? Where's the skeleton, the backbone, the nerve center of popular music? Where's the feeling, the life? They, and many others like them, have hawked it for a stab at flavor of the month status. Get your name out there, and hopefully, enough sheep will be within earshot to herd. Sound used to be a vehicle for the songs, but it seems that song has become the means for delivering a sound, and that's a shame.

I don't know, maybe I'm too old or too pedantic. Maybe I'm too stubborn or too pedestrian. Maybe I'm provincial or parochial or some other applicable "P" word. It's possible. I might be any or all of those things. Who knows? At least I don't. But I do know I will take the 20 second guitar solo in Wilco's "I Got You (At the End of the Century) over the longest Toro Y Moi song in history.

*Underground Sounds, 255 E. Liberty Suite# 249, Ann Arbor, MI 48104. If you live here or find yourself in the area, do yourself a favor and visit this store. Not only is the proprietor Matt knowledgeable, friendly and accommodating, his store is just probably the best I've ever been to. The selection is remarkable, and if he doesn't have what you're looking for, he'll get it for you.