Sasha Frere-Jones:The New Yorker Article Rant
Then I read a post by the Idolator published via the Internet. It was an amusing mockery of the article’s premise that gave me the impetuous to write the following assessment.
The article in question is in the New Yorker entitled, “A Paler Shade of White: Why indie rock lost its soul” written by Sasha Frere-Jones. It is a well-written article about the sharing of music origins between black and white musicians with some historic and correctly stated conclusions and observations. I take issue with several points.
1. Indie music is independent music. The term is still viable, and many different genres of music fall under its umbrella.
2. The general statement is that indie music has no rhythm or roots in soul.
3. The premise that independent music should be judged by the same standards applied to mainstream music; voice, musicianship, lyrics, and memorable, catchy hooks.
The term “indie rock” (Independent Music) came about as a result of bands and musicians being shut out of the mainstream media (Television, Radio) and major record label contracts. The bands and musicians that represent this genre are mostly white and male, and they are a minority within the broader context of the big corporate music enterprise.
This shutout continues today, with only a few of its originators signing on with major labels or their smaller counterparts, like; Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Rilo Kiley. Each group has spent at least ten years on the road with no Radio airtime, and their popularity grew from word of mouth. The level of their success is still small in comparison to pop performers like Ashanti or aging legendary rockers like Springsteen and U2, or the rapper heavyweights in Mr. Frere-Jones' article.
Conor Oberst of the group Bright Eyes, I believe, is one of the forbearers of this genre title. His group has gained exposure despite being on the Independent Label Saddle Creek Records, which he founded with others ten years ago in Omaha, Nebraska. He is still with that label in the US but has recently signed with Polydor for worldwide distribution. Over the years he tuned down major label interest and courting because he did not believe in their practices and, ultimately, felt it was bad for music in general. He wanted to maintain control of his original material and not have it commercialized and watered down for public consumption. That is the premise of most indie music standards. This is so the artist can maintain freedom of expression and artistic control and not appeal to the lowest common denominator.
The groups that Mr. Jones described, such as Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre, have had major mainstream radio play and backing from corporate interests. Their success doesn’t necessarily qualify them for judgment or comparison to the independents. The radio play they receive is not because the music is great it is because someone with about 250,000 dollars is willing to pay the radio stations to air it. This is an unfair advantage for judging success or quality.
With the onset of the Internet, blogging, Internet radio, podcasts, sharing Internet music communities, and myspace, that division is slowly changing. This democratizing of the music industry will ultimately be good for everybody. In the meantime, it is still a minefield for the independents to gain financial success despite their talent.
Judging music because it lacks a certain type of rhythm is not a fair assessment. There are different rhythms in indie rock. Indie rock has a different kind of soul. It relies on time changes and orchestral composition. Many of the groups described are not making music so people can dance but move them lyrically and musically. I love the song "Jesus Etc" by Wilco from the CD Yankee Foxtrot Hotel that Sasha described as being lyrically devoid of content. Showing a few brief lines from a song without hearing the phrasing and inference is not a good way to judge lyrics. Songs are created to be heard, not read. I love the song's simplicity and especially Jeff Tweedy’s delivery.
There are great independent bands today that are under the radar that combines folk /punk/hillbilly/roots, punk/blues, digital orchestration, and dance beats. People are moving but not in a prescribed method or in a formatted groove. Groups like Matt and Kim, Langhorne Slim, and The Dirty Projectors, o’death to name a few, are moving people differently. The musicianship is also having a resurgence as well with bands like Arcade Fire and The National. Yes, they know how to play music but in collaboration without the posturing of fancy guitar lead and drum solos of years past. That's a relief!
I take offense to his description of indie singers. Many do not have commercial voices but have individual voices, and that is just the point. The beauty of the voices I listen to has authenticity and originality. Just to name a few like; Joanna Newsom, Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and Chan Marshall of Cat Power. Their voices are refreshingly different and appealing because of their individual approach to singing and phrasing. They all would be judged poorly by commercial standards and criteria.
The concept of indie rock producing a memorable hook so that the music can be catchy defeats the purpose of independent music. It is what sets independent music apart from the mainstream.
When the airwaves were free in the sixties, all music genres were played simultaneously so that people of all backgrounds were exposed to varying genres of music. The Supremes, The Jackson Five, the Beatles, Dylan, Aretha, Joni Mitchell, and bubble gum pop were all heard in no particular order of an authority. The radio was for everyone. We were not a boutique culture at the time.
Music and art are not made in a vacuum, and no one is original. So judging someone’s success based on what their influences might be is misguided. It is how they are inspired and what they do with that information, to hopefully forge new territory. Adding zest and vitality to a stale formula or genre, whether it is rock, metal, soul, rap, or country, is welcome regardless of the race of people that are doing it or where or how it originated. Changing music that begins to sound predictable or homogenized is a way for new forms of music to be realized.
Combining the genres, as Mr. Jones stated, led to a fresh approach like the combination of Aerosmith and Run DMC. It also broadened the exposure for both groups. Another great white/black crossover was Sinead O’Conner doing a cover of the Prince song "Nothing Compares 2 you". It got attention, not because of the beat or its roots in the soul. She changed the very nature of the song through her interpretation. It was so refreshingly beautiful. It is a good example of the sound and quality of indie, where words and music work and subtlety and nuance meet.
I appreciate rap as a genre of music. I see it as an art form, both musically and lyrically, in its earlier form. When it became more mainstream, it became less relevant to me as a listener or an appreciator. I have difficulty with words that value violence, are homophobic and Misogynous, etc.
I have been looking and waiting for the racial divide to change in indie rock and feel uncomfortable with the lack of diversity. Groups like TV On the Radio are changing that formula and adding to the dialogue. Many diverse groups receive backlash, including TV On The Radio, who go to great lengths to justify what they do.
I am a white female who listened to music in the sixties. I loved Ottis Redding, The Temptations, The Meters, and The Jackson Five. I listened to and bought their albums. I also listened to The Beatles, Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones, Dylan, The Doors, the Band, and Joni Mitchell. Those were very different times.
We all have our perspectives and taste and bring different references to understand and categorize music history. Like in all classifications, we can never leave out the cultural, historic, and societal changes that contribute to what people listen to at any given time. The Clear Channel is just one example. Or do we need affirmative action for the great and talented bands and musicians being shut out?
Our global world gets much smaller via the Internet, creating access and exposure to all musical genres. The connections between race, culture, and art will be more difficult to classify. Indaba Music Site is a good example, and concept for the future direction and vision music will take. I welcome that concept and more that are on the horizon.
Audio version MP3
Many points I have mentioned are discussed in an audio version of the article. Only some concepts were clarified. Within the context of an article, not everything can be explained in full. I still take issue with many points revealed.
Two Gallants: Review
The recording, attitude, straightforwardness, raw quality, emotional levels, and full-bodied sound do not get better than this. I marvel at their musicianship because it has an immediate presence. I described their recently released EP, The Scenery of Farewell, as acoustic bliss. “Trembling of the Rose” is the only acoustic offering on this release, the other eight tracks are electric. The emotional and raw traits of this recording are even more striking because the music’s intensity and pace meet up with the highs and lows of the storytelling.
The flat-picking electric guitar leads echo in the desolate open air, allowing every note to resonate. Stephen’s harmonica bleeds with affectation while Vogel pounds the drums and clashes the cymbals with impending abandon.
Stephen is a raw folk storyteller who pens a hard-to-the-core palette, evoking ties that bind. The lyrical entries are of loss and abandonment, hate, lust, and heart-wrenching tales that are at times scornful with a vengeance.
Each track starts out differently, adding to the variety of the mix. "Reflections of a Marionette” shows off that diversity. Featuring a slew of styles so imaginatively synchronized to form an integral whole. Vehemently stating / I hope your gone by the time this song is through /. Then the scornful flurry in the chorus / I don’t want to see you fall/ I want you see you fail / catapults the song into a vindictive territory.
“The Hand That Held Me Down” describes the ultimate human betrayal with words that hurt like, / the heights to which you drag me / just to hurl your scorn /. The accusation of the chorus / did you hold the hand that held me down /, captures the essence of disloyalty while the harmonica simulates the vulnerable feelings expressed.
Rarely does Stephen’s use words that give an indication of time and place. In the last track, "My Baby's Gone,” he uses a contemporary reference quite effectively; he quietly moans, / I’ve lost my floaty, then he cries with a whisper / my baby’s gone /. The pace quickens epically, and the quietly whispered phrase becomes the roar of a relenting chorus.
“Fly Low Carrion Crow” is the most interesting from a vocal standpoint. Stephen’s trades in his strained throaty vocals for a more restrained lower register. In the song “Miss Merri” the cowboy bass line is an inferential musical clue reflecting the loss of America's soul in the sprawling fields of suburbia. / Oh miss merri don’t despair me / we got ways to numb your pain / same old story / blood, sweat, glory / just hope all your trials were in vain.
These collections of songs indulge my emotions. I revel in the lyrics and music to feel alive with pain. You don’t have to be there to go there. I would love the Two Gallants to write more about the state of the world, topics of great importance, and political and social unrest. They have the power in their writing and music to stir the nation, for now, they stir the soul.
Two Gallants 4Play Filmed by Saddle Creek Records:
Daytrotter Sessions: Two Gallants Encore
The Hand That Held Me Down MP3
CMJ Rants and observations
1. To be fair to the bands, the sound checks are almost non-existent, and the amount of time to play is very short. There is little time to get into the groove.
2. Seeing a band with an audience of fifteen or less is not the greatest way to judge their ability, musicians often feed off the energy of an audience and play off that dynamic.
3. Some groups are road veterans and are always relaxed and no big deal, another show of many.
4. Some are locals, so just hopping in a cab and meeting bandmates with their instruments is not too stressful. While others travel to perform at these events, hoping to catapult them into a new category of exposure.
5. Then there are different performers, like bands with local fans. Seeing them in this setting is great but an unfair advantage in judgment.
6. Solo and acoustic performers need an exclusive venue for listening.
7. Finally, some bands have been hyped beyond their current capabilities and are bound to disappoint.
I have read much of the coverage of the anticipated main events and lesser-known acts, only to realize that writers are fast to judge and tear down what they have spent so much time hyping. For instance, an act like Dan Deacon has received a slew of press and many new opportunities. I’m sure he is aware of some of the problems created by his insistence on performing on the venue's floor rather than the stage. It is difficult to change midstream, especially when riding on the success that has been a long effort. Changing what has been working is difficult and takes time and thought. He also has a philosophical bent being both a performance artist and composer.
The band Cut off Your Hands traveled from New Zealand and booked many shows to gain exposure and distribute their recordings in the states. They went for it and took a risk; they certainly got their name out there.
I truly understand the reasoning behind un C. Em. J. Music Fest, 07 alternative events catering to the under-21 crowd with good music taste, who are basically shut out from attending many of the shows offered by CMJ. The curated Blogger shows present another alternative. Many of the Bloggers staged events to give exposure to bands they have seen and enjoyed so that others from across the country have the same opportunity.
I wish I lived in closer proximity to Manhattan. Within the year, that will all change but for now, driving for over an hour and parking present obstacles.
I made my outing to two venues The Gothamist House and The Indaba Loft. Both are low-key free events.
People might find it strange, but I love the band o’death and I love Peasant. It was nice to see Peasant perform before a small attentive crowd and just hear his beautiful voice without any distractions. He followed o’death and most of the crowd walked out before his set. I think that is too bad. It is difficult for acoustic solo performers without a band because people expect instant gratification and theatrics over substance. His voice and song arrangements are beautiful, sincere, and tender and might seem foreign to an older, cynical listener.
To see o’death while sitting on a couch sipping sparkling water with a twist of lime presented a predicament. I didn’t sit for long. I loved seeing them play in such an intimate and cozy setting. Instantly their style of Appalachian punk with elements of diverse composition altered the surroundings. They played two new songs that sounded wonderful. It was a nice treat to see a tuba player in the mix adding additional flavor to their original and invigorating sound.
Cut Off Your Hands played very loud power pop punk, with emotive vocals that sounded like a mixture of the Cure and Cursive. Seeing them just felt out of place in a small venue during the day. It was as if they were performing for a stadium. Watching the lead singer posturing and
going through MTV video antics made me chuckle. I still enjoyed their lively 4 song set.
Indaba was very friendly and relaxing, it really felt like a party. The crowd was getting too comfortable talking, so when Natalie Prass finally arrived for her set after being delayed in traffic, the audience couldn’t stop. That was unfortunate because I liked what I heard, even with a backing band, it was an acoustic sound, so the outside noise couldn’t be drowned out. She has an interesting vocal range and reminds me of Fiest and alt. country great Patty Griffin. Her song arrangements were also quite nice.
I came to Indaba to see Beat Radio, I like Brian Sendrowitz's songwriting and have seen him solo acoustic once before. I’ve been meaning to see the band for a while. I’m happy I did. The sound is very powerful and rich live. There are no rough edges. The music is not slick, it is real, and the musicianship and collaborative spirit of the group are a pleasure to witness. The smart and memorable lyrics are melded into a sonic mix of finger-picking, electronic echoes with an upbeat pulse. My notes read....................
Powerhouse Phil Jimenez on keys and Guitar. They’ve got chops!
In both venues, I found the CMJ networking annoying, like reading while someone is performing a few feet away or talking really loud and not stopping even when there is a quiet moment on set. I think most of the networking can be done between acts. Maybe my networking is more limited, but I accomplished a lot and received an awesome EP from Jukebox The Ghost. I will see them soon!
I ended the evening at the Pink Pony. They have the best reasonably priced home cooking, a great atmosphere, and a jukebox. I drove home listening to Peasant’s Three songs promotional recording looped all the way. Ahhhh …….Work the next day. Wake up at 6:00.
Peasant, Damien DeRose CMJ 07
Peasant will perform Day One at the Gothamist / WOXY CMJ, a four-day party at the White Rabbit. The show will not be a typical full-on rock show but a more intimate acoustic fare. If you can’t attend, WOXY will broadcast from the space and provide a podcast of The Best of The Gothamist House shortly following the event's conclusion. The lineup is really fine, including other bands I love o'death and Illinois.
Peasant will also be a part of the great CMJ lineup at the Indaba Loft, presented by Indaba Music, This Side Up, and Underrated Magazine. This four-day event also features the band Beat Radio headed by the accomplished singer-songwriter Brian Sendrowitz and the indie pop rock outfit Eagle Seagull from Nebraska.
Continuing in his distinctive folk-pop style, Peasant has a new recording, On The Ground, to be released on Paper Garden Records in February of 08. The sound is divinely dreamy, yielding an array of silky vocal harmonies paired with exquisite echoed instrumentation. The release includes eight songs from the studio analog 2” tape and seven home recordings. Three of the studio songs are featured on his updated myspace site.
Wildebeest, Matthew Winn / Sweet Mini Tour
So........... get ready for some serious raw, passionate and bluesy folk like no other. Matthew Winn is a stellar multi-instrumentalist and accomplished songwriter.
October: check myspace for more details.
13 RISD house show/Providence, RI
14 Worcester College/Worcester MA
16 Leah house show/Portland Main
18 51 Railroad/Johnson, Vermont
20 Smog @ Bard College/New York
21 Five Points/Albany NY
24 American University/Washington DC
25 House Show/Baltimore MD
26 Flemington Bucks County Coffee/ Flemington NJ