Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Machete in hand

It's limited: the ways in which an artist can grow old--or empirically it at least seems that way. One would think we have a veritable wealth of evidence in musical careers but really, it is surprising just how many throw in the towel. There comes a point that the shitty day job to support the anemic artistic career (that frequently requires long hours of low-grade travel and sleeping on people's floors) all begins to lose its allure. I wonder why?

By-and-large the ones left ascended to at least a baseline of 'cult' appeal. Even though I could rattle of a list of names starting at the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, passing through Morrissey and Echo and the Bunnymen and ending at the Orb and O Yuki Conjugate, I still find most of these artists falling into about three categories.

Constant innovation seems unsustainable. Every artist known for so-called innovation eventually falls behind the people expanding on their own achievements. Brian Eno might have the greatest track-record of the seventies. Add to his revered career as an ambient music pioneer his highly influential pop career, his moonlighting with various amazing artists (David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, John Cale) and producing startling upstarts (Devo, Ultravox, DNA), and you have a map of half of what is considered good and worthy from that decade. All this, and his last few albums have been... quaint... dated, even.

Many artists try and retreat to what once made them popular--a sort of returning to the well. It is often critically and commercially applauded: they are essentially giving fans exactly what they want. Of course the test of time is not so kind: late-period retreads by U2 and the Cure are never in the list of landmarks when their works are assessed. At this point it can be seen that the artists have settled into their careers as an act of labor, not creation.

As a side note: I still like bands to ape the sound of older artists I love--I just no longer seem to like those same artists to sound like themselves (or more accurately, like their old selves, which I suppose is exactly my point).

The most successful attempt at a late career maneuver I have witnessed is when the artist settles into an unfussy but unromantic sound. It separates them from the idea of innovation, or even keeping up with innovations of others. As a style, it often references their own past without reproducing it, sparing them being labeled a rehash.

While Bob Dylan may be the most famous example, with his lean and efficient, workman-like records of the 2000s, the best example I have heard is in fact Wire. I guess, in a way, it makes sense. Wire was never short on confounding expectations. They were principle in showing the way from punk to post-punk then promptly disbanded. They reformed before it could be called a reunion to release artful electronic rock then disbanded again before it got embarrassing. They did a reunion tour, which in-itself was surprising, then they started recording new music--and did so with energy and grace.

Their new sound is streamlined and metronomic but not in the same way their early punk records were. It's electronically enhanced but never really electronic pop. It's rarely overly aggressive and never too saccharine. Most of all, it seems to be outside any trend in music. This new-century Wire is a casual extension of their history, the sound of a band with a style its own but nothing to prove. Of course its also sounds like the result of a band that likes their jobs. They have seemingly found a balance. Next thing you know, they'll break up (again).

Friday, November 19, 2010

The bride stripped bare

Minimalism was one of the most popular and compelling concepts to come out of the 20th century. It can befound in multiple movements of virtually every art and discipline practiced. It's been codified into an unspoken cycle of musical styles: tastes progress toward a lean minimal sound then swing back around to maximalist, psychedelic excess and back again.

Most of the styles of popular music that are frequently given to minimalism are instrumental. I'm especially keen on pop singers who move into this realm. Even more, there's usually one or two every cycle that take it to uncharted realms: a place so pared back that very little is left to even call a song.

It's fascinating to hear how a song can retain its songhood despite losing almost all the adornment of style--that it can still be catchy, melodic, compelling... These types of songs demand a language that is contrary to how we usually talk about vocal pop. If arrangement, accompaniment and structure all seem absent; how are we to talk about it in any sort of universal terms?

A peculiar effect I've noticed in these minimal pop songs is an increased sense of anticipation and hence a heightened awareness of time. It sounds weird to say that we often forget that music is a time-based art form. We are constantly reminded of the facts--just look in your media-player and sort the songs there by length. Yet, we often seem to enjoy music as it unfolds--occasionally we look a bit to the future as a choice part is coming up or discuss one that just passed with someone to savor it--but for the most part we listen to music in the present, accepting what it is giving to us there. Given a song with enough gaps to give an agoraphobic pause, you sit in these spaces leaning forward.

Though our sense of time is increased we are at the same time deceived by an illusion of space. Songs with this much space often let each sound trail in a dovetail of reverb and roomsound. This idea that the recording is unfolding in a space (especially in our world of computer editing and limitless overdubs) is neat little slight of hand. It's especially disorienting with noise-cancelling headphones: your little bubble of sensory-deprivation seems popped by an unseen world.

Most of all, it seems that this sort of extremist pop reintroduces a tension that is so easily lost in pop. The same way that some artists mix sickly-sweet melodies with viciously barbed lyrics, here we have the tension between familiar forms and abstract execution. They've left us enough signposts to know we are in the land of popular music but removed most of what we associate with it. Because of that we can't feel casual and at ease. Like that bustop in the middle of cornfield nowhere in North by Northwest, everything seems to be in normal, but it feels dangerous.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Red-head Reconciliation

Alexander Theroux, in a rambling, random (and utterly awesome) book ruminating on the Primary Colors, sited that most red heads' color fades over time. I've often wondered if being an odd singer was similar. I have seen the quirks in some of my favorite songwriters fade as I have followed them now for twenty years or so. 

Maybe it gets lonely thinking in patterns that others do not. How many times can you be misunderstood or plainly told that you don't make any sense--especially when you sincerely believe you do? If musicians are to be taken as a model: people like this age and start speaking more simply; dumbing it down; cutting out the 50 cent words; removing the convoluted structures. All this to help people understand them. It may not be a concession. Maybe they have lofty ideas but gain experience to more clearly route our understanding them.

David Byrne was once one of the strangest men with a top-ten hit. Admittedly he got there by toning down some of his proclivities--Once in a Lifetime is more readily accessible than Born Under Punches. On Remain in the Light, Byrne rarely says something is like something. Things just are, and things are apparently fucking weird. On recent albums, his thoughts are often conveyed by comparison, his vision of the world is now one step removed. He has moved from the realm of metaphor to simile.

REM has gone one step further. Somewhere in the mid-90s they traded Disturbance in the Heron House for Everybody Hurts. They've put all their chips on plain speech. It would be wrong to say that in their heyday REM were impenetrable. Even if confusing, the best of the oddballs worked on an level of intimation: their lyrics communicated a concrete sense that, despite an incomprehensible surface, told an intuitive story that was almost more immediate than literal understanding. It struck your gut.

Once upon a time, Robyn Hitchcock had the capacity to be downright creepy. Something has crept up on him though: his once offbeat lyrics that could be about either  about shellfish or sex at or both are now positively mundane. There's no mystery in his phraseology. The singer who once said, "If I were man enough; I would come on your stump" now says, "I feel beautiful because you love me". He had a great capacity to be entertaining and unnerving at one and the same time. He still delivers a good turn of phrase, but he no longer earns double-takes.

If Syd Barrett had lived long enough--I suppose technically he did, but if he had lived as the Syd Barrett long enough--would he have psychedelically mellowed; veered toward simple and immediate communication? Would the man who wrote Gigilo Aunt and Octopus be writing silly love songs Paul McCartney could be proud of? It pains me to say it, but probably so.

This isn't inherently wrong. I am the last person to demand that an artist keep doing things that were relevant to them at 22 when they're now in their 50s--that's inauthentic. Unfortunately I think it takes some time for them to realize the change within themselves. Even once they do,  it is a very public transition. They have to search for a new mode of expression--on the record as it were. It's like watching someone claw their way through an identity crisis, which in and of itself is interesting (if not good music).

Of course when you've had a such a long relationship with their work, it may take you some time to realize when they have arrived at something new, and that where they have arrived is--in fact--good. It is far too easy to be attached to what a musician was, especially when what they meant to you is tied up in your own coming of age. So like the artists themselves the best we can hope to do is to try and grow, recognizing the need for constant development.