The Ninety Per Cent

I get anxious going into a record store these days. The feeling is like seeing an old friend on the street that you’ve had so many disagreements with and let downs that you now make conversations glib and terse; each person knowing that you still share a tenuous relationship. It’s annoying when the clerks play a loud and unwelcoming track, but I usually ignore this after a while and make my browse a direct one. I go shopping at a large two-story record store that sells everything you could ask for. The trouble is, they put racks of CDs in rows marked “Classic Rock,” “Modern Rock,” and “Independent Rock.” And now stack microgenres such as “Goth,” “Metal.” I can’t find anything because this is so arbitrary. When did they think “Modern Rock” began? I found out later as I asked the clerk that the cut off date is 1980. So where does that put a band like The Cure who ride the line? There are so many new CDs that I could spend days at the store sampling, but I get the feeling from the impatient store clerks that I could only sample two or three before they would kick me out.  I always want to know what the new bands are doing, but the store puts them in one long row. You really have to fight your way through the band names that only a college freshman would know.  I really want to know what’s going on out there. A  few years ago (2009), neopsychedelic bands, and bands with a sort of sonic luxuriousness, in a harder mode of the Cocteau Twins, was the hot thing on the radio. Bands like Asobi Seksu and Solid Gold were leading the way. This micro-movement really never caught on and presumably was replaced by another neopsychedelic movement with band like the Black Angels. Americana is in the air now and sold out with neo-Hillbilly bands like “Trampled by Turtles.” Driving with my Dad, in the late ’60s, with the windows rolled up on a spring day, his cigar in the overflowing ashtray, and KSON Kountry blasting Buck Owens on the radio, I never would have imagined that he would be the future of rock’s audience. I can understand the banjo in the Delta Blues, but Oh, BROTHER, where art thou’s guitar?

I listen to a local college FM radio station, (see if this sounds like the one in your city), that relentlessly tells me that they play all  the new “alternative” music. They play the bands who are on tour or have released a new CD. The rest is what the announcer wants to play or requests. The format is so eclectic and varied, that a set will offer up a scattershot of tastes and musical genres. It will get weird at times. It’s as though they are pandering to an iTunes kind of audience, fishing for a consensus of which there really is none. I have looked at their play list and it is as arbitrary as the record store: a few “good” songs selected as a sample and not anything else from the CD. You will get Bessie Smith followed by the Vines.

And this is the irritation I have with so many bands today. They have one or two songs that are interesting, but they fail to explore the groove they have going. The rest of the of the CD is either directionless filler or moving on to something else that shadows. We have heard so many bands like this who come and go: The Editors, Nada Surf, Big Pink, etc. Lacking in honesty and rigor, they seem timid and wrap themselves in a thin, blurry watercolor wash of reverberation. They put up some sort of precious lengthy introduction – a mini-filler that is setting the mood for the song. A musical warm up, before the real song begins, is when  I lose patience.

The Strokes, The Hives, and The Arctic Monkeys show some irritability, but with other bands like Retribution Gospel Choir (a really pretentious name for a rock band), or Arcade Fire, no one knows who the “enemy” is. The CD limps along to the end. Between the “alternative punk” bands and Led Zeppelinish bands, Coheed and Cambria dish out interesting space age folk metal rock tunes submerged within an epic Halo or Dune landscape. A part of their songs are based on lead singer Claudio Sanchez’s Sci-fi stories. He is the center of the band and has a powerful helium-register vocal range. Their intense songs build to pertinent climaxes, and there is a fierceness and dramatic quality in Sanchez’s singing. In concert, they remain faithful to the record. Another throw-back band is Bloc Party. Singer Kele Okereke’s prevalent accent and deep plangent tone aches with desire over their rhythmic chordal music. Their drummer, Matt Tong, anchors the band, yet plays funky in between the down chords. When you hear this band, it’s warmly familiar; you can immediately hear the royal blooded musical lineage in their sound and know where they come from and their influences (a soup of post punk, ska, The Cure, Smiths, et al). Bloc Party stays passionate in what they do. Author’s note: I recently saw this band (9-22-12) at First Ave in Minneapolis. Bloc Party is a very intense live band and you understand them more when you experience this. They are everything a modern rock band should be and they push it. They are now at the height of their powers having release four albums. Through time, they have worked to define their sound much more from their first album to become unique and sophisticated. They are now on it, which should influence any start-up band. Lissack has proven how really good he is. He plays with an overwhelming variety of textures and sonic effects under Okereke’s soulful melodies. Bloc Party is ripe and this show was one of the best shows I have heard recently.

If you agree with the record store owner’s cut off date of 1980, then we are over 30 years into postmodern rock. This somehow makes sense? It frames the audience who were born in the 50s as the beginning and the end: they were young teenagers when the Beatles landed and were in their 20s during the emergence of the Sex Pistols and Punk ( The Cure etc.). Bands, at the time, shared a special musical dialogue with their audience and with each other. This culture also created a context for the music. The vinyl package was a big part of the allure that blossomed into an exciting experience. The artwork, usually a portrait of the band (clothes, hair,etc) created a connection with the audience. The lyrics were printed so that the audience could sing along and understand how the words interacted with the music. Finally, the context of the album’s song order: Its intentionally as to how the album should be listened to. With the iPod and so forth, younger listeners are editing the play list without a context.  Alternative radio  follows this same edited format: a folksy new ballad played after a slow hip hop thing after the Stone Roses, for example. It becomes a crazy postmodern soup. In his talk about the theory and practice of postmodernism, David Antin, rhetorically compares it to buying the best possible mattress, and ends with a note from Descartes’ “If you’re lost in a forest and you have no idea which way to go, go for it straight ahead because it’s not likely to be any worse than anything else.” Fair enough.

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