Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Anything Recorded After 1986 is “New Music” to Me

     Well, that’s the extreme truth. The last year I honestly got excited about new, popular music was 1986. After that it was all downhill for the most part. At least for new groups or singers who were courting the mainstream. There have been plenty of releases since that year that I’ve gotten excited about, yet they tended to be independent or niche-oriented. It would be many years before I would go to see a popular act in concert at the peak of their popularity (or near to it). In 1986 I have a strong memory of listening to Peter Gabriel’s “So” when it was newly released. My good friend Mike got a copy on LP. I was with him when he got it and went back to his place to listen. Mike was a longtime Peter Gabriel fan and had shared that music with me. We sat in his living room, he placed the needle down on that record  and within seconds of the first track we were looking at each other with that “Holy SHIT!” look. We knew this record was going to be a big deal. Mike managed to arrange for a whole group of our friends to see Peter Gabriel on the tour to support “So” and it was a very memorable experience. It was really fun to watch Peter Gabriel scale new heights of popularity that year, though he was hardly a “new artist” of course.

     But that was pretty much it for a long time. 1986 was also the year I dove headfirst into college radio and the pre-alternative groups of the era. Husker Du was my personal favorite, though I never got to see them. Mike and I (and the same group of friends) did get to see The Dead Milkmen in 1986 so that’ll tell you where we were headed, musically speaking! Popular music, however, really started to lose appeal by 1987 or so. I was just about poised to head off to college by that time anyway. I remember really disliking whatever Robert Plant song was popular then. What was it – “Tall Cool One”? Yuck. Hated it then – hate it now. Loved his first two albums, though. Turnoffs like that propelled me further to the outer reaches – blues, jazz, classical, punk, avant-garde and lesser-known older rock music from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Minor exceptions would periodically appear. It kinda bummed me out when Tracy Chapman’s career sputtered out after that first record of hers which I thought was good. Heck, I even liked Sinead O’Connor’s first album too. Yet, there were more compelling MYTHS beckoning………….

    In college I found myself in a talented band with some ambitions to take the step into the larger arena beyond the clubs. At the time, the next big sound hadn’t revealed itself. The future was up for grabs. What my group was doing was kind of jazz-inflected rock. Almost like jam-band with an edge and a taste for Hendrix. What did end up being the next big thing was ultimately Nirvana, not us. We didn’t sound anything like that. Not even close. And, of course, the way Nirvana reminded me of Husker Du (who had broken up a few years before) put me off. I never cared for Nirvana, even though they were purported to be the crowning achievement of the underground scene – the vindication of all those bands toiling through the 80s. I was pissed then and I’m still pissed it ended up being them instead of Husker Du, but that’s a story for another entry.

    That's how I lost my fascination with popular music. Big deal. I hear stuff on the radio today and honestly – I don’t get it. I’m an old guy for sure. But it’s all good. I sleep at night. No worries. Yet, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some great music I’ve missed along the way. I’m trying to find out this year, as I detailed in my New Year’s Day post.

    So, in the spirit of progress I sat down tonight to listen to two new-ish releases in their entirety. Here they are:

Real Estate – Atlas    (2014)

     I belong to a music forum where folks like to take pictures of vinyl LPs they’re listening to and share their listening habits with the world. Over the last month or so, a few members have been posting pictures of this record and I decided to seek it out online for a listen. Now, technically I did not hear the studio recording, so I can’t comment on that, but I did find a concert performance filmed by NPR of the group in a small club in New York City playing the whole new album start to finish live. You can see the whole thing here:

     I had no idea what this band sounded like until tonight. They looked more like a disheveled bunch of anti-hipsters if anything. Yet, I decided to just listen rather than look at the concert performance. I wanted to judge the music, mainly. And, quite frankly, the band didn’t have much of a stage presence to speak of anyway. No matter. Well, just my luck this group reminded me a lot of Young the Giant! Maybe not as polished. Yet, the same kind of mid-tempo, modern folk-rock with a twist stuff. The good news – this band was really performing live. The vocals were not especially strong, though I give them credit for avoiding the use of auto-tune in a live setting (and YES plenty of acts do that nowadays). Musically, aside from the mid-tempo fixation and predictable chord progressions I felt the band was strong on an instrumental level. There was enough variety to the songs to maintain interest in the music, even though I was left wanting to hear more chance-taking. The music was solid and professionally performed. However, the overall experience was not especially memorable. Nothing offensive or challenging here. Maybe the lyrics are deep? Couldn’t tell you – I didn’t focus on the words. I do wonder what the record sounds like. I imagine it’s more polished. I wonder if this group creates magic in the studio that doesn’t always translate in live performance. The early edition of The Byrds was like that. Great on record – ragged in person. So who knows? If I have any complaint, it is simply that these modern rock bands play it too safe. Or, to me, they pigeon-hole themselves into a very specific genre – a telling word used to describe them on the NPR website was “melancholy”. My aesthetic begs for greater diversity in the music. Yet, I reckon identifying your group with a particular sound is what gets your music on the radio and/or played over the PA in department stores these days. Please, please modern rock bands – do something to surprise me, musically! Being yourself doesn’t merely mean you decided not to shave in the last month. It takes effort to bring out the real unique voice in any particular collection of players. That’s what I like to hear, especially. So, although their music was genre-specific and the live performance was a little ragged, I’d still give the studio album a shot and hope the band keeps developing for the next ten years at least. It would be nice to see some groups dig in for the long haul like they used to.

Nation Beat – Growing Stone  (2011)

    I got hipped to Nation Beat through a good drumming friend of mine. We were talking about Brazilian rhythms and he mentioned how one of his daughters got involved with this band out of New York City. Now, here is the exact opposite of what I reviewed above. This is a studio recording of essentially a band that begs to be seen live. And, unlike the Real Estate band, Nation Beat might be accused of too much diversity, though in their case the stylistic curveballs are a strength that add depth to the overall identity of the group. Just ask Willie Nelson. He personally invited Nation Beat to perform at his Farm Aid show a few years back and sat in with them! Indeed, there are some country elements to Nation Beat’s sound yet the main focus seems to be on Brazilian-influenced jazz.

    Nation Beat is essentially the brainchild of drummer Scott Kettner. The idea to meld South American and North American roots music comes from his enthusiasm for both traditions. The album’s production is extremely high quality – the instruments and the voices are recorded beautifully. The performances are spirited and full of life. The groove is king here, yet there are some tasty slide guitar workouts mixed into the worldbeat flavor. An urban edge to the music was noted as well, particularly evident in the leadoff track “Puxa O Boi”. This is world music for the new generation.

    Keeping an extended ensemble busy can be a challenge. The performance schedule is a bit limited this summer, but a few free shows are listed on the website – both in New York City in July. 

The whole album can be downloaded there too. I would love to see this group live. If my schedule permits I might take the journey to the city. The price is right and I’ll bet they put on a great show!

    So it seems that I have been more excited by world-music bands than modern rock bands. I could see a time when the two guitars, bass and drums model wears itself out. Great music can come from any ensemble of course. I just don’t know if the modern rock groups are part of the myth of the future. And I have a feeling whatever that myth is won’t make much sense to the older generation, but I’m curious to see what emerges so I’ll keep sticking around to find out. There is certainly room for new musical horizons. That’s what excites me about bands like Nation Beat.

From the Deserving of Wider Recognition Department:
Grant Hart – The Argument (2013)

     Speaking of Husker Du, I need to give a plug for last year’s ambitious solo release from Grant Hart. This is a sprawling double album of new material setting Milton’s Paradise Lost to music. Well, that’s one version of the explanation. The other involves a rare William Burroughs take on Milton’s work called, curiously enough, Lost Paradise. Essentially, all three of these works deal with the biblical story of Heaven and Hell, angels and demons and the creation of the world and human beings. The topics of free will, sin and eternity are woven into the storyline which reaches a climax with the title track featuring Adam debating with the snake over whether or not to eat the apple. My description doesn’t do the work justice because it is a serious work – Grant Hart takes an age-old story and breathes life into it. The songs are strong enough to hold up on their own outside of the storyline and feature the catchy hooks that are Hart’s trademark. The production has a home-brewed quality to it yet dishes out a cornucopia of styles and sonic textures – a beggars’ banquet of sound.  However, the uninitiated are to be forewarned – this album does not reveal its charms right out of the gate. The first batch of songs set the stage for the story and the overall aesthetic of the music. The album really starts to hit its stride by the 9th track – arguably the biggest Grant Hart “classic song” on the record – “Is the Sky the Limit”. From there on out it’s smooth sailing right through to the end so don’t give up too soon or you’ll miss the best stuff.

       I’ve read a smattering of interviews Hart has given in support of the record, yet he doesn’t reveal what may have inspired him to tackle such an ambitious storyline. I get the feeling whatever it was may be intensely personal simply due to the conviction of the performances on the record. Hart isn’t kidding with this project – he clearly means every word. And those are some heavy, soul-searching themes he’s dealing with! I should mention that I bought the vinyl LP version of the album which did include a free download coupon. Hearing the album broken up into 4 LP sides for the first time was a treat and I honestly believe Hart programmed the music as a “double album experience”. He should know a thing or two about classic double albums – Husker Du’s “Zen Arcade” is one of the finest of the genre. Please add The Argument to this list of classic doubles. Grant Hart doesn’t get nearly the recognition he deserves for the talent that he is. His low-key solo career belies an all-too-rare postmodern musical genius the likes of which some high profile rock stars would give their left testicles to have a fraction of. The Argument makes a good argument in Hart’s favor. Check it out.