Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Debt of Gratitude to This Decade in Music, Part II

Part I of this essay declared my gratitude for music that came out of the early part of the past decade. Before I discuss some of the music that came into my world in the latter part of the decade, I think it is important to mention the change that has occurred over the past 10 years in consumer access to new and exciting music.

Around the time the new millennium rolled around, I discovered something that turned my love for the music of Stevie Nicks into a full-fledged obsession: I found her fan-generated web page. Not only did I learn then that there was a whole community of people who shared love for her music, I could go back and read every article ever published, every interview she ever gave. It was a treasure trove for the musically obsessed mind. It was around this time that Napster was gaining user momentum, and I was thrilled to discover I could obtain rare demos and live recordings from the cyber-community of music fans. In 10 short years, the online music community has exploded into an abundance of social networking sites, on-line magazines, and blogs where music lovers can sample music, watch live performances, and connect with one-another. Needless to say, I would not be the hyper-tuned-in music fan I am today without the technology of MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Last.fm and the countless magazines and blogs I visit weekly.

And let me just say, YouTube is a beautiful thing. To listen to music is one thing, but to view live clips of the music physically coming from a band or a singer can take your appreciation of that music to a much greater level. YouTube gives us up-close views that only the optimal concert experience can yield. Let’s face it – most of us are deprived of our optimal concert experience by geography, finances, or just being born in the wrong decade. Fortunately, YouTube allows us the ability to experience music in a more intimate way. YouTube can be a band’s best friend or its worst enemy; for better or worse, it reveals the authenticity in their playing, stage presence, and charisma. I have never been to an Arcade Fire concert, but I know they are a breathtaking live show; I have seen the video. Although video can never be the same as actually being there, YouTube is free and accessible to the masses, and it conveys the emotion of a performance well.

In addition to all of the changes in how we access music and view performance, the cool thing about the past decade in music is the breakdown and meshing of genres. Bands are pulling textures from all sorts of influences to create fresh sounds. The result is hybrids of rock, electronic, classical, blues, funk, cabaret, and various other genres. This is not the time for music purists. Bands may change their sound significantly from album to album, even from song to song within the same album; the challenge they have is in maintaining cohesiveness.

The Killers have been especially meaningful to me in recent years because the diversity of genres and influences is heavily represented in their songs, and they wear their own music fandom on their (opulently decorated) sleeves. As a band that repeatedly pays homage to the bands that have inspired them, they talk openly about their influences, continuously experiment with different musical styles, embrace the recording of cover songs, and collaborate with incredible artists. Because of the Killers, I have revisited artists and bands from past decades that I had earlier dismissed, for example ELO, David Bowie, and Lou Reed. The way in which the Killers blend styles and genres, for me, acted as a “101 Guide” to older artists, and made them more palatable then they were to me previously. Discovering their music opened my mind to many new sub-genres of rock and roll, and for that, I am grateful.

Muse is another band that completely revived my interest in rock music this decade. Their blend of hard rock, classical symphony, and electronic music was so fresh and new to my ears. Muse is the mad-minded professor of the rock world right now. Every album is crafted like a magnificent opus, and the themes of their songs include conspiracy politics, metaphysics, literature, and philosophy. Each new album they release is both sonically and socially thought provoking. I have not been to a Muse live show and I will not rest until I see the mad professors in action. 2010 will be the year.

The later half of this decade has introduced me to many young bands, and I look forward to following many promising careers into the next decade. Arctic Monkeys, Gaslight Anthem, White Rabbits, and Howling Bells are just a few examples of bands that have impressed me with excellently written albums and legitimate, authentic playing. As this decade comes to a close, music lovers have a lot to be excited about for the immediate future of rock and roll. A strange mix of authenticity and fantasy permeates the musical climate, and rather than existing separate from one another, they are increasingly present within artists’ work. Music by bands like MGMT and Phoenix is genuinely artistically crafted, but there are fanciful, playful elements to their songs.

For too long, rock music has taken itself too seriously. Sub-genres were strictly classified and a divisive snobbery among music fans has divided us in the past. That is not to say that music elitism does not still exist, but it is breaking down. Social networking, and the ability to sample music from new artists, is creating a music environment that is more populist and fan-driven. Bands communicate directly with fans, inform them of live shows and offer access to free or inexpensive downloads. Fans can decide for themselves what they like and what they don’t like. Increased populism in the industry is making the roles of the record executive and the rock critic increasingly obsolete. I believe that an environment where executives and critics have less clout will ultimately foster more creativity, less fear, and greater risk taking on the part of artists.

Bye 2000’s! I will remember you fondly. Bring on the New Year, the new decade!

-AZ

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Classic Clips: Fleetwood Mac, Tusk Tour 1979 “Angel”

Much of what makes bands so fascinating is that they are traveling families, and no matter what dysfunction stems from weeks, months and years on the road, their love of making music together is often the only stabilizing force that keeps the unit from imploding. Further, the chaos and tension among members can often breed fantastic, creative honesty. Fleetwood Mac is my favorite example, and probably the most documented in rock music, of the unifying power of music among a group of people who can no longer stand the sight of one another.

During the time Fleetwood Mac was making the Tusk album, the band was past the initial pain of dissolved relationships, and had moved right on to fury, spite, and jealousy. Tusk is my favorite Fleetwood Mac album because it is so raw; in it, you feel Lindsey’s bitter resentment, Stevie’s misplaced martyrdom, and Christine’s optimistic will to push through to a better place and time. Although I think Tusk has some of the career-best songs by all three songwriters, I always felt Tusk, as a complete album, was disjointed and did not flow well – like each song was constructed in total isolation. To Lindsey’s credit, despite his longstanding anger toward Stevie, he has always been the best producer for her songs – taking the skeletal poems and melodies she crafted and adding rich, layered complexity. As a musical team, they are magic.

Below is the greatest live clip I have ever found of Stevie and Lindsey. It is from a documentary of recording and touring for Tusk. The Tusk tour produced one of the most dysfunctional moments in Fleetwood Mac history (that is publicly known) when, during a show in New Zealand, Lindsey began mocking Stevie on stage as she sang; the incident ended in an all-out physical backstage brawl. But sorry - this is not that clip; this clip is from the same tour, filmed around 1979-80, but shows a lighter side of the band. This is a live performance of “Angel,” and demonstrates palpable joy in making music even through the darkest hours of a band in complete turmoil. Whatever wars were fought once Stevie and Lindsey stepped offstage, the latter half of this clip has them smiling, sharing the microphone, and dancing. It’s truly a classic!

-AZ

Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Debt of Gratitude to This Decade in Music, Part I

I am profoundly grateful to many bands that have come out of the past decade. The 2000’s have been an exciting time of musical discovery for me personally, a period in which I embraced my own generation of musicians and, for the first time, fell in love with new music as it was released. I always felt left out of the music scene, intimidated and out of touch because all of the music I connected with was made years before I was born. Why couldn’t I get excited about the music that came out of the 90’s? After all, it was the time when I first fell in love with rock and roll.

I was in high school when Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rest of the grunge movement blew up. I bought that music, and liked it, but I can’t really say that it excited me or that I felt connected to it. I would much rather listen to Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, Tom Petty, Bob Marley and Fleetwood Mac. And so it was that the classic rock staples of the 1970’s saw me through my high school years and into college. So when 2000 rolled around, I was bored and musically uninspired. I anxiously awaited new releases from my trusted favorites, but was frustrated that I was relying on my parents’ generation to provide music that I could relate to.

I can divide my music fandom into two eras: before I discovered the White Stripes and after I discovered the White Stripes. Theirs was the sound the abruptly jerked me into the new millennium and started me on a path of discovery of new and exciting rock and roll. I’ve wondered if I was first introduced to the Strokes, if their sound would have had the same impact. Though I love the Strokes, I think not. I don’t believe any other band besides the Stripes could have provided the bridge between classic and contemporary rock that I needed to open my ears and to open my mind. The White Stripes had the garage sound that new bands, like the Strokes, were producing in the early part of the decade, but their songs had the unmistakable influence of Jimmy Page-style blues-rock that was needed to draw me in.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to my brother, with whom – ironically - I share essentially no musical common ground. Despite his proclivity for hip-hop, he came to visit me one weekend in 2004, armed with what must have been every newly released rock album. I vividly remember hanging out in my living room for the better part of that weekend, playing through his music library and getting excited about music for the first time in years. In that weekend, I was introduced to The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, and many others that ultimately left a lesser impression on me.

The decade in music started bleakly, with a seemingly unending parade of pre-packaged pop tarts and boy bands, heavily focused on image and void of homegrown substance. Fortunately, rock fans didn’t have to wait long for reasons to feel excited about music again. Bands like the White Stripes and the Strokes striped rock down, essentially leveling it and rebuilding the foundation, and put the focus back on what was important: quality songwriting and authentic playing. And while those bands had an element of seriousness in their image and their playing, by mid-decade, bands like the Killers and Franz Ferdinand were following suit but filling an additional void: they were making great rock and roll colorful and fun, danceable, and thoroughly addicting.

Much has changed in music, and the delivery of music, since mid-decade. Rock music has also inspired me and brought a lot to my life in the past five years. Because the latter half of the 2000’s introduced me to more great bands than I can cover in this post (some of which, like Muse and Arcade Fire, I discovered late in the game), I am dividing this essay into two parts. Please check back in a few days to read Part II of My Debt of Gratitude to This Decade in Music!

-AZ

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fallen Down the (White) Rabbit Hole

Lately, I cannot get enough of White Rabbits. I am not accustomed to falling so hard and fast for a band. I usually like to take things slow, get to know a band, and listen casually before things get so serious that I would devote a whole blog entry to them. I am beginning to fear an unhealthy attachment forming. But, as with Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I shall surrender myself to the experience (mind alteration not required).

Although they released their debut album, Fort Nightly, back in 2007, the White Rabbits are brand new to me. I bought both the Fort Nightly album, and their most recent release, It’s Frightening, a couple of months ago after hearing some sample songs on their website. I instantly loved their songs, and although I have racked my brain for comparisons to other bands, I really can’t think of any.

The White Rabbits’ sound is fresh and unique; it is drum and bass driven rock that incorporates piano, guitar and - although I cannot find it credited anywhere - I swear I can hear brass on some songs. Although they mix elements that might be compared to other bands, when it comes together, the result is a sound all their own. The strongly percussive style is very tribal, and that is the foundation of their songs. Most of the percussive sounds are deep, but there is diversity in that they also range from snare drums to shakers, giving their songs a “world beat” flavor. The piano is a prominent instrument, but unlike a band like Coldplay, where the piano drives the melody of a song, the White Rabbits use the piano as a punctuation, to highlight the other instruments. Its role is simplistic, hard-hitting, and used for emphasis.

What I really appreciate about the White Rabbits is that it doesn’t sound like a lot of studio magic went into the production of their albums. It sounds like six guys hammering out authentic jams. The lead vocal has a slightly raspy quality, and the background harmonies are strong. Lyrically, they are OK, but it is really their musicianship that makes the White Rabbits an exciting band. Check out their Letterman performance of “Percussion Gun” below. I look forward to following the path of their career to whatever Wonderland it may lead.

-AZ

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Abroad and Technologically Limited

Hello Fellow Music Fans! Sorry for the delay in a new post. I am traveling abroad right now, but check back next week to read the post I am currently working on! In the meantime, you can visit my Twitter page (see link on left side of this page) to read music-related observations from the journey.

-AZ