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The Rest is Noise

I have recently read Alex Ross’s book, “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century” and would recommend it to anyone who appreciates serious music, especially the music student who is being introduced to the Twentieth Century canon. I have read many music history books like this, and I must admit at first, the title put me off. I thought, “here goes another historian who will be exclusive with the difficulties of contemporary music.” Gladly, I was wrong. Ross is gracious with the full canon of contemporary composers and gives everyone their due. For me, it was a satisfying feeling to read about the composers that I have appreciated but of whom are given a passing glance in other history books. These books, like that of the high art coffee table variety, are usually dominated by well-known composers, and the historians, while going through the motions, sift through their worn out writing with the same, safe, predictable history. Ross not only has his perspective from his research, with fifteen years in writing this book, he gives color to the composers private and public lives. He writes about how they functioned within their musical and political culture. But more importantly, Ross is a music lover and a fluent, informed listener. And as a historian, he is able to articulate on a formal level what is happening in the music and why it is significant. Ross begins his story with Strauss and Mahler and ends it in the late 1980s with John Adams. There is enough biographical information on each composer that the reader gets a sense of the artist. For example, Ross writes about how Strauss (a Jew) lived under Nazi Germany and his relationship with Mahler and Schoenberg. He does the same with Shostakovich and Prokofiev under Stalin. Ross’s writing is succinct, lively, and confident throughout the whole book. He may give some composers too much biographical emphasis like Britten, and some too little attention like Varese, Berio, and Xenakis, (I was somewhat disappointed with this), but at least all the composers are given their due. Also Ross isn’t afraid to personally criticize some composers like Boulez, who comes off as an elitist tyrant, setting the agenda for serious music after the war. Ross’s writing gives a cultural and historical context for each composer and  why their music is significant. For example, he will give the reader an idea how other composers reacted at the time to Schoenberg’s 12 tone row, and not just a glib historical fact. Ross’s focus moves from political and personal to more serious matters, giving the reader a nice well-rounded ride. In other words, his story isn’t didactic or stuffy. There are no suspicions here, just a matter of fact voice tone and clarity in historical perspective. Ross fully tracks the continuing drama of the position of atonal music in modernism.  After you read the book, you’ll  know what Ross means by his title; he is writing about all that is important in serious twentieth century music and the rest is noise. As an afterthought, Ross has a short suggested listening list. You can find these well known examples at the library. Also, if you are not familiar with the pieces that are discussed in this book, you can put the book down and listen to the piece played on You tube. Such advantages are given these days.


Indeed Dandy

It’s an English thing to do. If it helps you to understand a band by categorizing it or framing it within a context, go for it. For example, if knowing that the Who started on the Mod side of the barricade, or that Ringo said he was a mocker; a pun combining mod and rocker. If it helps you after all these years, then really, you’ve got me there. In London, during the late ’70s and into the ’80s, it was the Teddy Boy, then Punk, then the New Romanticism, then what? These are the petty fashion skirmishes that rage on the streets of London, and because they turn over so quickly, they never catch on in America. English bands relentlessly associate themselves with these organically grown fashions and micro-cultures, while we, in the states, really don’t care. They may say “we’re a Neo-Romantic Punk Irish band,” and we just nod our heads and listen to the music. We either like it or not, but we can easily get the band through their sound. The myth of the “handsome young man” has persisted in rock and popular music since its beginnings. For example, Elvis was the sweaty, bull fighter-like, dandy king, the Beatles were the stylishly charming, lovable mop-tops, Marc Bolan and David Bowie were the androgynous crooners, and the Sex Pistols were the beautiful ugly mess – etc. You could use your own examples to mark how street fashion and music co-mingle into a constituency. In the ’80s, we saw a flood of bands that played on their sexual image in a bold and overt way (Prince, Madonna). Sex was in the video air and almost every band played up to this dandy inoculation. For all their energy, there are still so many remarkable ’80s bands that aren’t included in the hall of fame, much less played on the radio in the canon of “classic rock.” And this fact is the real goofy cultural segregation that we see in our media and critical discourse.

For a band that intentionally used a name that is common and pedestrian, The Smiths are a sophisticated rock band. At times, their music evokes the sweet aroma of stationary and literature. It astounds me that Johnny Marr is not included in the canon of great rock guitarists. His fills and flourishes layer over strong rhythmic patterns, and he uses a capo to play in another register on top of the bass harmonies. He runs through chord changes with so much flexibility and intensity that he makes his virtuosity seem off-handed and casual. Marr makes it seem so simple by playing counterpoint to, not under, Morrissey’s singing. Marr’s and Morrissey’s melodies are expressionistic and have a propulsion in a linear way. The band is nimble and drives forward, and their harmonic progressions support Morrissey’s phrasing, which is unusual and idiosyncratic, giving it the dramatic emphasis it deserves. The Smiths are original sounding, yet they are the standard set-up rock band, having intentionally expunged all the traps of the glamorous synthesizers or drum machines that were popular with competing bands. You get them from the strong belief they have in their music. Morrissey is so clean-cut, with a rarefied air of a “James Dean” sort of dandy. His sexual image is so fluid and ambiguous, that it contradicts itself relentlessly. For example, “Girlfriend in a coma, I know, I know, It’s Serious” – whose girlfriend is it anyway? or is he opening his arms to a friend with the possibility that the loss will…? On the other hand, “Girlfriend in a coma,” are realistic lyrics because they express feelings that are directly inherent in daily life, but may seem hard to express. Morrissey is very effective at this level because his lyrics get more ironic and ambiguous the more you think about them. Yet, half the fun is trying to pin down who/what he’s singing about (a third or fourth sex ?), as it appeals to everyone. Morrissey’s tongue in cheek morose humor has the sweet drama of being oh-so-overwhelmed by the tragedy of daily life with its troublesome decisions of what to wear or where to go out, or even finding a job. In this, Morrissey articulates the very essence of woeful teenage angst through his songs.

Sailing the seven exotic seas, in a yacht full of young dandies on board, Duran Duran‘s videos show the achingly fun, world-wide adventure of the carefree, high energy, ’80s. On that level, they recall the wacky adventures in the Beatles films or the Monkees’ episodes. But there they are: they are the handsome sons of Dr Livingston, vacationing in the jungles of Sri Lanka, riding elephants, and swinging from tree vines in their white ice cream suits with their songs on the sound track; the heart-throbs of Princess Diana, and neo-colonialism on coke. That’s what we saw, and what we wished we could have been. But how did they get there? Everything seemed to come out of nowhere and contorted on MTV. Duran Duran was John Taylor, Roger Taylor, and Nick Rhodes, with Andy Taylor following, and lastly, Simon Le Bon as the main song writer and singer. It was only after I read Andy Taylor’s autobiography that I really appreciated how hard they worked and how lucky they were. They had the look of beautiful fresh-faced English boys, but they worked relentlessly as the house band at the Rum Runner night club. A house band is fortunate to get paid for “practising” and trying out new material night after night. Not only that, but Andy Taylor and Nick Rhodes spent a ton of hours in the studio, away from the videos, perfecting the mix, overdubs, and fighting over details. They both had a strong ear for what they wanted and weren’t happy until it was perfect and intentional. Also, when they first met Le Bon, they couldn’t believe how much he wrote and how quickly he could write lyrics to a song. “Girls on Film” was one of the first, and they had the fortune of getting an immediate response from the audience at the Rum Runner. You can hear the influence of the Rum Runner in a lot of their songs: their catchy white boy funk migrated from the dance floor to such songs as “Notorious.” Their core sound was Andy Taylor’s guitar from 70’s funky bands like the Ohio Players, Nick Rhodes’ idiosyncratic keyboards, and Le Bon’s inflected phrasing. These are all their own stylistic elements, and later became a sort of Duran Duran cliché. After Andy Taylor left the band, they came out with the “Wedding album.” This was their swan song album, and in comparison to their other albums, seemed beautifully sober as a come down. “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone,” are sublime, intimate songs without the dance or commercial hysteria. This album veered away from the “big world” issues that Le Bon was currently pushing (“Planet Earth”). Like a lot of 80’s “band-aid” bands, he wanted to be as serious as Bono’s politics.  But with the “Wedding” album, it seemed as if all the coke had run out and they confronted their honesty as a band. This made the absence of Andy Taylor even more questionable. They finally showed the world that they could produce beautiful songs without the pretension of putting themselves and their dandy image first.

In the early ’80s, there really wasn’t anyone who sounded like the Cure, and they never failed to hit that spot. From songs such  as “The Love Cats,” “Just Like Heaven,” “High,” and “Halo,” we knew this was a band all about love songs. Robert Smith is a man in love and he sings about all things love; from the highs and lows of love, to how sick and sweet love can be. Even after those years, Cure songs have an immediacy and deep musicality. Robert Smith and the band have a fine ear and play with such a terrific invention and variety. Right from the opening chords, their songs are never ordinary. They are an autonomous band that resonates a strong point of view. Yet, you can hear their distant influences: Pink Floyd, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix. The Cure use those elements in such a blended way to flavor their own unique sound. The Cure can sound like sheets of wind or heavy flowing water, and it is a sound that varies in density, consistency, and architecturally. In songs such as “Never Enough,” the Cure can spit fire that is on the level of the best in hard rock. With the amount and variety of material they have produced alone, they should have been in the Hall of Fame a long time ago or played in the media more than just a few songs. My strong sense is that the general media statically clings to just the surface style of Robert Smith’s cooing and lip stick/eye liner smeared appearance, and only views the Cure’s blues element as their main ingredient without going further into the depths of their style. Indeed, the microculture of the Goths have appropriated the Cure as their emblematic band and “dark vampire” appearance. But from Robert Smith’s interviews, he trivialized the Cure’s connection to the Goth style. I have my doubts as to what Goth is. This is another whirlpool of street styles that may not have any significance. But I will celebrate St. Valentines by playing the Cure all day, as they celebrate all the points of love through their songs. They are indeed dandy.


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.