"Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll." —Keith Richards
“After a period as America's finest shoegaze revivalists, Asobi Seksu now leave genres behind and document the night sky” —Plan B
I have a friend with whom I have an ongoing, nearly ritualized conversation about music. It starts by him bemoaning the lack of any interesting movements these days. I counter with a choice selection or two from the last few years: drone metal, freak folk, left field hip hop. He then explains why none of these are real movements or at least why none of them measure up to the punk scene of late 80's San Francisco. In those days, he always reminds me, shows would spontaneously crop up in abandoned buildings. There was an immediacy and an edge that just isn't there anymore. It's been lost, he says. Lost forever to an industry mindset.
He has a point, and yet music's forward edge is never fixed. For one thing, the epicenter moves around and these days it's not the Bay Area—it's New York. For another, the forefront looks and sounds so different than it did in the past that I suspect it's difficult for some of rock's more seasoned gatekeepers to recognize it as such, maybe all the more so for being kind of...um...girly. Maybe that's the wrong word, but I can't help noticing that several of my recent concert going experiences have been genteel in the extreme. A few weeks ago at a medium-sized venue where I'm typically packed in shoulder-to-shoulder to see bands, I was surprised to find the space set up like a concert hall with folding wooden chairs. I wondered if I was in the right place for the band formerly known as "Sportfuck." Asobi Seksu, as they're now called, delivered such a floating, feminine, and unapologetically orchestral set that it hardly mattered to me whether it was part of some definable movement or genre. It was just so pretty.
A recent Magnetic Fields show was quietly transcendental. Watching the audience file in you'd have sworn they were there for a book signing. The performance itself was intimate, unhurried...almost recital-like. It had exactly none of the urgency of an underground punk show, but I think that was the point. When rock snaps the tether so completely, it makes sense to listen to it in a different way. Consider that the new it-gig appears to be a particularly unlikely place to hear loud music: the museum. Yeasayer recently headlined at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. No Age played MoMA. Animal Collective was just booked at the Guggenheim. My friend might see this development as an unacceptably far cry from the squat-rock of yore. I see it a sign that institutions are giving interesting music its due. One thing I know for sure: none of this music should be written off just because it isn't all that pissed off.
A recent Guardian article observed, "Dream-pop, nature and nostalgia is in, raging against the machine is out. Just when did indie rock get so laidback?"
I have a theory that Kurt Cobain's suicide in 1994 marked the point when rock unconsciously started to veer toward something gentler because his death symbolized the logical extreme of the genre's own iconoclasm—one that had been on loan from the blues for too long anyway. A few years after that, Massive Attack released the landmark "Mezzanine." It was still dark, narcotic music but leavened with a dreamers' love of reverb, deeply imaginative production, and the angelic voice of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins.
For me personally, the trajectory is now reaching some sort of apex. The vaulting but pensive melodies of Bat for Lashes. The gauzy downcast psychedelia of Beach House. The Cloud City synth of M83 and Ulrich Schnauss. Even more straightforward indie rock from The xx and Spoon seems more about nuance than propulsive forward motion. I love the intricate, sugary experimentalism of Passion Pit and shiny headphone candy of Gang Gang Dance. And of course there's all the indie folk that seems to be emanating directly from the forest these days. Fleet Foxes. Blitzen Trapper. Bon Iver. For every relatively traditional rock band like Phoenix that arrives on the scene, there's some soul holed up in a one-room cabin somewhere, writing fiercely clean harmonies that attempt to rival mother nature herself in purity and scope.
In short, I am loving all the yin lately. Hell, even metal is oblique these days.
In Rolling Stone, Jonathan Lethem wrote, "We judge pre-rock singing by how perfectly the lyric is served...We judge popular vocals since 1956 by what the singer unearths that the song itself could never quite." In rock, he observes, the singer has to be doing something that "pulls against" his or her context.
Rock is still pulling against its context, but this time the context is one of its own making—having made such a point of its own bad-assery for so long that it became a cliché. Vampire Weekend's "Contra" debuted at number one a few weeks ago, and it's no accident that the title of this preppy, playful album means "against." For those steeped Decline of Western Civilization-style notions of rock, it's difficult to swallow that something so carefree could represent the vanguard, but if you're using Lethem's definition, these guys are doing a great job.
And thank God it isn't all acorns and antlers out there. One of the sexiest developments in music lately is how many artists got bored with their own schtick and started messing around in other genres. When Dirty Projectors' "Bitte Orca" was released last year, many reviewers noted that it contained some fairly hot R&B-style hooks. Beyonce's sister, Solange Knowles, noticed too and did a sultry cover of their song, "Stillness is the Move." Jay Z made an appearance at a recent Grizzly Bear show on the Brooklyn waterfront and suggested hip-hop should take some artistic cues from indie rock. At live shows indie duo Cocorosie is known to cover "Turn Me On," turning the bouncy Kevin Lyttle dancehall track into a smoldering R&B ballad, and it's delicious to hear Bianca Casady sing lines like "Girl, caress my body" in a delicate vintage warble. (Talk about pulling against a context.) Artists like Brian Burton (Danger Mouse) and Scott Herren (Prefuse 73) weave together hip hop and experimental rock so expertly that it would make Prince Paul and Syd Barrett equally happy. To me, Herren's "The Class of 73 Bells" (featuring twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Deheza from School of Seven Bells) represents a high watermark in this love affair between urban and indie.
It could be that we're coming into a time when music will be judged not by how well it serves or defies a lyric, but by how able it is to take us somewhere completely new...how well the artist plays Tetris with the tectonic plates of genre. Of course there will never not be a place for anger, grit, and unvarnished darkness in rock. Bands like Baroness, The White Stripes, and The Kills easily prove that and I wouldn't want to live in a world without them. And when the context changes once again and the pendulum swings the other way, anger may yet spawn new sub-genres of the sort my friend misses so much. For now though, it's refreshing to me that so many artists want to leave off cock-and-awe for awhile, break some genre rules, and light out for the territories. It's sophisticated, fluid, unexpected. More please.