Living Through 2012: My Year In Music
(in which an eccentric music buff contemplates guitar/drum pop duos, Taylor Swift, a couple of songs about abortion, choosing aesthetic sides, and what sort of truth guttersnipes may or may not know, while briefly discussing 10 cool things)
This started because Sara was wondering if I would do a year-end music wrap. First I said no. Then I changed my mind. The reason for this wavering was that I figured out quite some time ago that my relationship to the mainstream of the popular music thought-o-sphere is something like one of those comets that is on a long elliptical orbit around the sun. Sometimes I'm completely in sync with the music everyone seems to think is wonderful, like I was last year. I had a copy of every album on most of the “best of” lists, and mainly agreed with the so-called “critics” about the veracity of each.
But this year, not so much. Now I will say that I'm not sure that 2012's offerings were quite up to the level of the year before. A lot of interesting stuff happened in 2011. Although the critical glow around tUnE-yArDs has dimmed somewhat, Merrill's unique rhythmic constructions, combined with DIY ethic, seemed refreshingly new. Kanye West and Jay-Z joined forces to attempt a blockbuster and nearly pulled it off. PJ Harvey and Wilco made albums that at least recalled the work that drew us to them in the first place, even if they didn't equal the quality. In 2012, a lot of people just seemed to be waiting for something to happen, and it never quite did. A lot of the more solid albums I heard, like The XX, Japandroids, and even Jack White, seemed to be riding on pretty well-worn tracks. I had been eagerly awaiting Beach House's followup to the beloved “Teen Dream,” but “Bloom” just seemed to be recycling the same dream pop with even more distancing layers of studio cream filling. And the so-called “EDM” and “dubstep” that is now echoing through the halls of middle schools all over the country is just a less interesting version of the electronic dance music that we were listening to in 1996. Even many of the albums I liked quite a bit — Frank Ocean, Tame Impala, Taylor Swift — were not so much breaking new ground as they were retrofitting.
This could be because even people much younger than me are searching for something that resonates on a deeper level. I was at a party at Christmas time that was mainly musicians and their friends, ages from around 18 to mid-thirties (if you don't count me) - the kind of people who are creating much of the music people are listening to now. It included all sorts of people, from a hip hop artist all the way to pop-dreamer Daoud of Art Sorority for Girls. Different people played DJ from the host's vinyl collection. What did we listen to? Pet Sounds, Rumours, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea — all with much nodding of heads. The newest of these albums is 15 years old, the oldest 46. When I was their age I wasn't listening to any 46-year-old albums (although in retrospect, I probably should have been). But it was clear that these people thought there was something captured on those old albums that struck a deeper, louder chord than what has recently rolled off the assembly line.
But when it comes to my choices there is also something else at work here. If this year's popular music was a romantic partner, I'd be saying “its not you — it's me.” Here's why I'm no longer a professional critic — to make good in this tweet-a-minute world you have to keep your microscope trained on the things in front of you all the time, and my microscope keeps getting flipped around so that I seem to be looking at things from a distance. I have this crazy idea that music functions as a vital emotional connection between people in a social context, and that there is a language in it that has been developed over the last 150 years, give or take. For me music has to speak plainly and get to the true heart of the matter — it has to be about something that is real and beautiful (even if the music isn't, in the traditional sense). I have to admit I've spent a lot more time in the last couple of months listening to Blind Willie McTell than I have listening to Charlie XCX or Grimes.
I think every serious music listener comes to this particular crossroad at some point in the development of their personal aesthetic — are you going towards (for lack of better terms) “folk” or “classical”? By that I don't mean the choice between Pete Seeger and Beethoven, I'm talking about the choice between “Folk” - basing your likes and dislikes on how powerfully and directly a piece of music communicates emotionally to a group of people, and what its social significance is;
or “Classical” - basing them on the degree of intellectual stimulation they communicate to you, usually mixed in with a concern for how craft (either in the composition or the playing) heightens the experience. Remember, I'm not passing judgment on the musical forms of “folk” and “classical,” I'm just using those terms to describe two sets of aesthetic principles.
Recently two friends of mine both posted online about music they heard recently. Their comments below pretty much illustrate the dichotomy I'm describing:
“A useful reminder that pop music has *always* been loathesome, insipid, facile, corny, cheesy and, ultimately, embarrassing. Also a cautionary tool, good for reminding us that the popmusic-industrial complex has long been waging its war for omnidirectional domination over the populace”
or on the other hand:
“When pop music is great (as Taylor Swift’s is) and has its heart in the right place (ditto), it has the power to melt the most jaded, rock snob heart and bring people together in song to persevere through anything. Regardless of race, political persuasion, state of residence, age. Pop music matters.”
Very few people are all one way or the other, but most people tend in one of those directions, and I've really always been a “folk” guy. Yes, there is a “popmusic-industrial complex.” You can see it at work in American Idol and its many spinoffs. Listen to Radio Disney. Read this article in The New Yorker about how pop songs are “constructed.” But amazing songs continue to be created. That's because no matter how restrictive the structure, songs are still made by actual human beings, and the human spirit still seeps out between the gears of the machinery. And for me, great music comes from and represents the aspirations, the loves, the heartbreaks, the degradations, and the desires of people trapped here in the present, along with being part of the great flowing river of music that has come before (Richard Thompson calls this “1,000 years of popular music” and he isn't exaggerating). How it fits into all that isn't determined by how a song is distributed, or even how (or by whom) it is created. The problem with a song like “Rack City” by Tyger isn't that it's a product of the “industry” - it's the way it promotes misogyny. On the other hand, Kelly Clarkson's infectious “Stronger” tries to get to the essence of gender relationships and tells a certain kind of fundamental truth about them. And as for Taylor Swift's “We Are Never...”, well, we will get to Taylor Swift shortly.
And getting back to where I started, this also applies to the “rock critical establishment,” whoever that is nowadays. Although as a “folk” guy I always examine the products of the “popmusic-industrial complex” and defend them when they fit my criteria, I tend to think those artists with their ears closest to the ground often catch the muted voices of both discontent and awe better than those looking down from a mountain- (or mansion-)top. The Clash's “Garageland” has always been my guidepost: “The truth is only known by guttersnipes” That's the reason, in case you are wondering, that my “cool things” list is certainly weighted more toward the “1000 sellers” than it is toward the “million sellers” (despite Taylor Swift and Frank Ocean) and in fact includes several artists whose fans probably number in the dozens.
As a retiree, I have the luxury of ignoring the critical establishment as well as the Billboard charts. So no, I'm not on the bandwagon with this year's neo-soul, garage-rock, neo-psychedelic, post-rock, or dream pop offerings just because they are the latest whatever. Those albums don't move me, and I'm not always sure they are designed to “move” anyone in that way. And I like that movement when I can get it.
All that being said, here are 10 cool things from my 2012:
1 Schwervon!, Courage
Somebody has to say this, so I guess I will — Schwervon! Is one of America's best bands. Fickle popular taste and the current state of the music industry may very well prevent them from joining the ranks of the Talking Heads, Nirvana, and the White Stripes in terms of mass appeal, but they are doing so many things right in so many ways that in a just world (which I'm afraid this is not) they would at least be in the same discussion as Sonic Youth or Yo La Tengo or LCD Soundsystem or Wilco. Now spread across 13 years, five albums, and a bunch of singles, they have developed what started out as a sort of primitive duo-pop into unique and lyrically sophisticated music that combines indie-punk aggression, early-Velvet-Underground-style experiments, ingenious harmonies, and such solid song structures that you never forget where you are in a song, and you never wonder if it is leading somewhere.
They understand the amped-up guitar as well as silence and empty space. Every corner you turn in one of their songs brings a shock of pleasure - a guitar freakout that evolves into a hook that stays with you until the next time you hear it, or a plaintive indie-folky intro that mashes seamlessly with a multi-layered pop chorus. The music is deceptively simple, but folds out like a pop-up book - turning lush without layers of distancing overdubs, adding hook after hook without making a huge big deal out of it, and staying unfathomably and deliberately uncatagorizable but completely audience friendly - although their insistence on doing all these wonderful pop things but leaving the rough edges intact may be part of why they haven't yet been at the top of the charts. And the lyrics, which early in their career were mainly ruminations on relationships (principally the one they have with each other), are now typically dreamscapes which strip the flesh off human interactions, not in order to disguise the personal (or the political), but to reveal the bones beneath.
2012's “Courage”, recorded in Memphis with engineer Doug Easley (Pavement, Sonic Youth, etc.) continued the winning streak. A masterpiece of brevity, clocking in at just over 23 minutes, it takes on longing, regret, anticipation and, of course, courage. The sessions took place as the band was making the decision to leave New York and make a new life in Kansas City, and in the songs you can feel them reluctantly letting go of what (and who) they were leaving behind and looking toward what was coming next with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Dave Shouse of The Grifters and Frances McKee of The Vaselines (who Schwervon have toured with and are in many ways their spiritual predecessors) make candid singing appearances. I can't put it any more simply: if you haven’t heard them, you need to hear them. If you don't like them, you need to like them. If you don't understand why, you need to go back and learn more about music.
2 Taylor Swift, Red
Has their ever been a bigger, louder, more cataclysmic shout of pure joy and youthful exuberance than this album? If there is, I've never heard it. She has always been that really pretty, really smart rich girl in your class who always seems to get all the breaks, but somehow you can't stay mad at her because, well, she seems so nice about it all. Ask Kanye West. But now she is putting it in your face a little bit, but you still can't stay mad because, well, the songs are just so good. Yes, I know, nothing new here — her building blocks are always vestiges of country, re-worked power ballads, and the healing power of anthem-rock choruses, but like all good pop divas, it's what she does with them that counts. Check out the hidden sophistication of a song like “State of Grace”, which kicks off the album. Built on a sort of U2ish 80s rock ballad foundation, it starts off the way you'd expect, verse backed by dancey-beats and washes of guitars, then the chorus. But then about halfway through the song the afterburner kicks in, and all of a sudden you are barreling down the track with the scenery whizzing by, and only after that, at about the 3-minute mark (of a 4 minute song!) she reveals that the hooky thing you thought was the chorus is actually NOT the chorus — that turns out to be an even bigger and hookier thing. And then she combines them in a sort of maelstrom that crosses the finish line just as you are getting out of breath. And that's just the first song.
And let me be the first to talk about the lyrics without getting all hung up about how they are all about her ex-boyfriends. She has a tale to tell, and it's about being a real person and having real human interactions and not being just a “girlfriend." Maybe this is why its hard to get mad at her — in a world full of fake pop-diva bravado and “empowerment” and attempts to get the “upper hand” in the same fucked up kinds of de-humanizing relationships that the boys sing about (are you listening, Beyonce and Madonna?), she is clearly looking for something else. As she tells it, the breakups always come because there is some breakdown in the engagement as equals. Unlike a lot of pop romance, her songs center more on the “us” of these relationships than the “me." In one of the few songs with an unbroken romance, “Stay Stay Stay”, she sings “You took the time to memorize me/my hopes and dreams/I just like hanging out with you/all the time...” And she knows her romantic streak makes her vulnerable, as in the lusty, powerful “Holy Ground”: “Tonight I'm gonna dance/for all that we've been through/but I'm not gonna dance/If I'm not dancing with you.”
And of course “Never Getting Back Together” and the magnificent, ravishing “22” (“happy free confused and lonely at the same time/its miserable and magical/oh yeah - if that doesn't sound familiar than I guess you were never 22) you already know about, so I can save my breath. Have I seen the future of rock and roll? Well maybe not, but this was one of the brightest bright spots of my year, and I think she may be on the verge of metamorphosing from teen idol to mature artist. Time will tell.
3 Coffin Fit
Ah, the innocence of the young. What if you didn't care that 70s-style punk and 80s-style riot girrl music have been pronounced “already over” and instead went down to your basement and came up with a bunch of cool, compelling songs about how screwed up your life seems to be and how mad it makes you to think about it? What if you didn't care that there are at least three other bands using that super-obvious pun name? What if instead of singing about being 22 from the bubble of being one of the most powerful young stars in the music industry you were singing about it as if you were living it in the real world? What if the songs were really catchy and full of fun choruses and really well played without any extraneous messing around? Here's the demo for these brash Long Islanders, nominally on the 6 6 Crush label. Real punk lives on in the suburbs, and it's a good thing, too.
4 Debe Dalton, Lives in Brooklyn
I've been following the exploits of this Austin, Texas-based (yes, you guessed it — drum and guitar) duo ever since some pals of mine ran into them at the South by Southwest music festival a few years ago and came back singing their praises. I'd seen them a few times when they've come to the NY area, initially as a trio of drums, guitar and violin, and owned a couple of their CDs. I'll admit I was somewhat less charmed by the music than many of my friends — the elaborate structures, combinations of burlesque-y, old-timey music, progressive rock, 70s ballads, and what-have-you, together with the ornate but obscure (to me, at least) wordplay, struck me as too clever by half. If Taylor Swift was the prom queen who sometimes smiled at you in the hall as she walked by with her popular friends, Natalie and Lauren are those girls who sat together in the back of the class, paying as little attention to the teacher as they could, and talking to each other in a made-up language only they could understand.
Ah, but that was then. Last time I saw them they played as a duo, and both the song structures and arrangements were considerably stripped down. And then this EP arrived. Five terrific, finely-honed, focused, meaningful songs, starting with this: “you're a needle pulling thread/through my eye and through my head/and there is nothing at the end” - that's cleverness being put to good use. And the music! Here's what they've done: grafted delicious remnants of British psychedelic bands like The Small Faces, The Pretty Things, later period Zombies, and early (Syd Barrett period) Pink Floyd to modern confessionals like Liz Phair and PJ Harvey. Natalie's Fender-esque guitar tone is so beautiful you just want to rub your face on it, and the drumming lopes and thrusts the way it should. The made-up language has morphed into real meaning - joys and sorrows that resonate, full of tiny, arresting details: “she can smell your willing heart like cheap perfume/she hears your blood ringing in a crowded room” or “I dog-eared you / because we were on the same page." Even in the space of five songs they want to clue you in that life is complicated, with the breathless joy of “I Can't Believe That You're Real” or the down-but-not-out optimism of “I'm Never Not Gonna Be Ready” counter-weighing the anxious foreboding of “Family Haircut” And then there's the unabashedly pro-abortion (not just “pro-choice”) title song. Billed as a teaser for a full-length album sometime this year, 2013 could be their moment. Sometimes, like with sports teams, it suddenly all falls into place for a rock band. Now that Agent Ribbons are less complicated, they can more easily communicate how complicated life can be.
6 A Deer A Horse
The great thing about Brooklyn being a rock-band mecca (there are lots of bad things about it as well, but I'll talk about those some other time) is that the clanking machinery of it throws off lots of sparks. If you are living where everyone is in a band, you want to start a band too, and you are likely to find another couple of people who feel the same way and, well, start a band. And then you never know. This Brooklyn trio, orbiting in the Brooklyn hipster planetary system with a million other bands in a sort of rock and roll Asteroid Belt, are a good argument for being in New York at this moment in time (there are even more arguments against being in New York at this moment, but I'll talk about those some other time). I was stunned when I saw them live at one of those semi-legal converted-storefront venues that have sprouted all over Bushwick, sounding sort of like early Sonic Youth covering a late 70s New York band that was channeling the Velvet Underground. The aggressive rhythm section prowls on the precipice while Rebecca Satellite’s unconstrained guitar playing and slightly eerie singing swoop down on them from above. But what really distinguishes them from every other Sonic Youth/NY Punk/Velvet Underground-style band in Brooklyn is that they have actual good songs. After only seeing them play once, I remembered how all the songs went, even the longish drone-y ones. Not yet sure what they are about, but they seem to be about cool stuff - they have a Walt Whitman quote posted on their Facebook page.
They have do have a demo, but I would strongly recommend not listening to it - it seems to have been recorded on a cassette recorder buried at one end of their rehearsal studio (it is actually the lowest lo-fi recording of a good band that I have ever heard). There are also a few YouTube videos under their old band name Firing Squad, but the audio quality isn't much better. Wait until they come to your town or until they make a more finished recording (whichever comes first) - I heard they might be working on an EP, hopefully that will come soon).
7 Erin Regan live at Cafe Chillo in Bushwick Brooklyn December 16, 2012
I've come to realize that the best venues for Erin are intimate and a little weird - playing (with a cast on her foot) a truncated, impromptu performance at the Erin Regan broken-foot benefit concert; a quiet, almost whispered set at 2AM the night of her wedding, with those guests at that massive sleep-over who were still awake gathered at her feet on the deserted dance floor, the slightly inebriated bride still in her wedding dress; or a set played midway through a raucous night of rock bands at the Brooklyn Tea Party performance space, silencing the over-caffeinated hipsters and actually, really (yes I observed this with my own eyes) bringing some of them to tears.
Well, let me back up a minute, because you might not know who Erin Regan is. Erin is a folk singer — by both definitions, one that guttersnipes recognize as their own, as well as someone Pete Seeger would recognize as a fellow troubadour. Originally from the south, now based in the part of Queens that nestles up next to Brooklyn, you can hear her roots in the slight southern drawl that still licks the edges of her voice. And she also has some longer, deeper roots — Celtic ones that go beyond her very Irish features and into the heart of where her music wants to go. Her songs, forged in the place where people like Leonard Cohen, Elliot Smith, and Nick Drake meet traditional English ballads, are carefully paced and plotted short stories that focus mainly on wanting and loss, built on a skeleton of closely observed, meaning-drenched details: “we wrote curse words in the sand traps/on the course behind the complex/asked the older kids for cigarettes / as they smoked along the bike path” she recalls, in “The Things We Used To Steal”, a song that begins with the lines: “simplicity is beautiful/complexity is real.” The effect is a whisper and a shudder, often childhood memories that are pierced by the dark reality of adult life, as in the haunting waltz-time “To Be Forgotten” where she falls into a reverie about a moment in her lost youth: “when I was a baby/I climbed a pine tree/ and I found some birdies/I thought just for me/so I took one home/ but it died alone/and I felt so bad for it/it never had flown.” Like her spiritual predecessor Emily Dickinson, her songs are almost all meditations on death, missed opportunities, guilt, and unrequited love, but as with Dickinson, the net effect is cathartic rather than depressing.
Transmitting songs that require so much of both the artist and the audience is a risky business, and the experience is as delicate as gossamer. I have seen her unable to finish sets because of the rumbling of a passing train outside the club, or another time because of a noisy air-conditioner. Like a psychic, she needs the still silence of a shuttered room and an audience that is willing to believe in her, in order to have the pictures rise in that space between your chair and her guitar. And on that cold December evening, in a cafe that wasn't quite open yet, with the heat only half working, and the PA system not working at all, and with only about 15 of us guttersnipes in attendance, the pictures materialized. I would love to say you should have been there, but I'm glad you weren't - it would have broken the spell.
8 Frank Ocean, Orange
Wow, couldn't the world use the next Stevie Wonder right about now, and this could be the guy. Sweet, melodic, knowing, but with barely restrained anger, and he keeps his foot off the brakes as he goes around the curves. Like Wonder, not afraid to address the world as he sees it, as in “Bad Religion” or “Super Rich Kids”. The production, out of the Odd Future funhouse, is a thrill - full of delicious moments without slathering it in “production values." Unlike Wonder, the world he addresses is still mainly his own, but that could change under the right circumstances. The big-time critical favorite of the year, and it's easy to see why.
9 Dots Will Echo, Drunk is the New Sober/Stupid is the New Dumb
This is the kind of album that could never have been made under the old “record industry” structures - a little-known band recording a 23-track behemoth that sounds, depending on which track you are listening to, as giddily unhinged as The Pogues, as self-determined as Guided By Voices, as raucously subversive as The Replacements, as electric and primal as Crazy Horse, and now and again like a weird Pixies outtake recorded after listening to Pere Ubu. It's full of fits and starts and quotes from bands like the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple and features more than one song written when the author was asleep. It's just crazy - but not I-can't-listen-to-any-more-of-this crazy, more like this-is-pretty-interesting-I-wonder-what-will-happen-next crazy. Once you are in it you can't get out, but you don't want to. Make no mistake, despite my description this is a very good rock and roll record. The duo of Nick Berry and Kurt Biroc (yes, that's right, a guitarist and drummer) let themselves run wild in the studio, using the miracle of modern digital technology to create an album that sounds like it was recorded by a large team of really smart, really talented, very stoned high-school band geeks. How else can I describe it? The songs run the gamut from this to this. And in keeping with my high standards of bands having to write actual songs and have them be about something that should matter to someone, these New Jersey-based guys do all that and more. As they say at the beginning of “Shitstorm”: “From an island made of garbage in the South Pacific Sea/I am broadcasting this message to the privileged and the free...” If there is a shitstorm coming, this will be a great soundtrack for keeping your bearings inside it.
10 Graham Parker and the Rumour, Three Chords Good
“By chapter one you know/this is a book you wanna close/by some young author of experimental prose/impossible to get through/it’ll make you comatose/but i wouldn’t read much into it/it’s progress, knock it down/it’s the last bookstore in town” - do you need to know anything more? The old man gets the band back together after all this time, and although they are not exactly on a mission from God, he's still full of both piss and vinegar. Seems like nobody paid much attention to this release last year, which is a shame, because they can still play as well as anybody, and the angst and anger still mixes with the sarcastic wit better than almost anyone since the early Elvis Costello. Maybe the problem was that this album sounds like it could have been made 30 years ago, and the desperate edge that made his original recordings with the Rumour so compelling has dulled a bit. But still such a pleasure to listen to, and he continues to be one of the few old-timers (along with Neil Young) to stake out a controversial political position.
Tony Are is a writer, critic, and occasional musician who lives in New York City. He started playing in bands in 1967 and finally gave up in 2003. Now he sits in a rocking chair and tells the young whippersnappers how much better it used to be in his day. His poetry is at http://tonyare.weebly.com/index.html.
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