Sunday, July 01, 2007

IS ROCK MUSIC DEAD? FAR FROM IT...

For lots of my friends who happen to be in my age group, I often think conventional wisdom is that the last good rock and roll music was played by Cream, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, etc. and that rock and roll is basically dead and has been for years. They seem to believe there "isn't any good rock and roll music anymore" and I hear them lamenting about "Whatever happened to rock and roll?" Well... rock and roll never died. It changed. It went underground for a while but came back wearing different clothing and different hairstyles. So if rock and roll is still alive and kicking, just what bands are out there that have something to say and who say it ways that are artful and new?

For starters, I have to say I LOVE the Dandy Warhols. For not really having a bass player they sound great live. I guess Zia McCabe plays bass on a keyboard, which is fine. Their songs tend to have very simple/primitive chord progressions, but I love Courtney Taylor-Taylor's voice, the powerful metronomic drumming of Brent DeBoer and the guitar sounds Taylor-Taylor and Peter Holstrom create.

A friend and I were talking recently about differences between newer rock bands and the older bands. I observed that in today's music scene I don't see as many rock performers consciously trying to create "art" as I used to, and that today there is more of an outrpouring of gut-bucket energy within the young bands... but maybe that isn't so. When I consider bands like The Arcade Fire and The Dandy Warhols, I think what they do is not only an outrpouring of energy but also artful.


I strongly disagree with that notion that really good rock music kind of die in the late 70's to mid 80's. I believe that rather than dying or getting worse, rock music began to change around that time. Disco had mostly already happened, punk was underway and New Wave was getting started... and to me, those things didn't necessarily signal a form of musical death, but rather the onset of a gradual paradigm shift for rock and roll as it later incorporated many of those elements. "Classic rock" groups continued to put out albums, but attention from critics and writers seemed to shift away from them and toward newer acts.

If rock and roll seemed to kind of go away for a while, I think there has been a definite resurgence during the past 10-15 years and that what we have now is a big picture in which, while things may often not sound unique at first listen, performers tend to embrace and absorb past influences into a new kind of musical outlook that we see manifest in groups like The Dandy Warhols, who seem to fuse a lot of classic rock ideas with steady beats and with what almost amounts to "trance rock" or "stoner rock" psychedelia.


Newer artists have shown us you don't have to play flashy solos on the guitar to be a good guitarist, that you don't need to have a traditional two guitars + bass + drums lineup with an occasional keyboard to sound good, and that you don't have to be on a major record label to be good. I think it's a shame that this new sense of musical freedom hasn't been glorified by radio to the point where we see more rock music on charts like Billboard. If things worked now the same way they did 30 years ago, we might have seen bands like The Dandy Warhols getting songs like "Bohemian Like You" into the Top Ten.

When it comes to what constitutes the "top-of-the-pops" today, I find things depressing. It seems like L'il So-and-So and DJ Whatzis/Whozis create hip-hop influenced ballads and rap/pop stuff that hogs the charts, along with the usual pop divas and guys like Michael Buble, all undeniably talented, but somehow very musically and lyrically generic to my ears. I haven't been as flexible as I would like when it has come to embracing much of what is in the higher levels of the Billboard charts of today. However, when it comes to the current state of rock and roll music, I get excited just thinking about it.


Some of the older, more established groups such as Rush maintain their relevance and just seem to get better with age. Some of the younger bands like The Arcade Fire and The Hold Steady maintain a new tradition of taking the best of the "old", fusing often-disparate sounds into new, bold material that is still "art" as far as I'm concerned. If you listen to the total sound of a band as well as analyzing the separate parts of the music, I think you'll find there are specific groups for which you feel like you "get" what the band is trying to accomplish. The scope of the efforts of newer rock bands seems truly impressive, especially when you find music that is nothing like any you have heard before! It seems as if sounding unique in today's rock world would present numerous difficulties, the primary one being "Oh, that band is just a rehash of so-and-so from ten years ago". On the other hand, newer bands that take older ideas and refine them and run with them (like the Black Angels with their darkly psychedelic "Passover" CD) are just as welcome for me, because I have always liked dark psychedelia.

If I find that I tend to "get" what artists are trying to do more than I used to, does that just mean that I have heard so much rock music by age 50 that it is easier for me to understand more music at deeper levels? Who knows. Or, is it that I have refined the ways in which I listen, by broadening my rock and roll tastes? Is it kind of like becoming more musically "tolerant", in a sense? I find that I now like music I tended not to like as much 25 years ago, and that if I hear a band that derives some of its sound from such music I didn't care for earlier, I often don't mind that new band's product.


I'm a rock and roll fan in middle age. For rock and roll fans in my age group, is determining whether I like a newer rock band the end result of judging how many familiar elements are present in the music and how many of those elements fit together in a way I like? Or is it that I like it just because I like it? I really can't answer that, but if anyone ever tells me "rock is dead" I find myself telling them I think they are probably taking on that attitude because they have been overwhelmed by all the new music and don't know where to begin when it comes to listening. They probably got overwhelmed enough at some point that they just stopped paying attention to what is new. I always ask them "What rock artists do you like?" and find that I can usually give them the names of a few newer bands who have been influenced by some of their older favorites.

The "Yellow House" CD by Grizzly Bear fits into the "nothing like I've heard before" category, and while I wouldn't say they have suddenly become one of my favorite bands, I find their music fascinating. I have heard "Yellow House" four or five times now, and I like it better each time I hear it. I can hear some odd things in their music, maybe an occasional arrangment nod to Van Dyke Parks or some vocal harmonies that sound like they could have been arranged by Brian Wilson, or even some guitar work that borders on "alt country". They use autoharps, clarinets, banjos and other instruments that aren't traditionally "rock", and they successfully bury many of their influences, making their music sound unique, so that the listener may find himself or herself thinking "This is a gloriously different sound, but where have I heard them before?" Grizzly Bear is a rare kind of group to hear in today's scene or any scene.


Even if you like the "old", there is plenty you can find to like in the "new"... because of all the "old" that came first, the "new" has so much to offer. You just have to listen!


12 Comments:

Blogger J. Marquis said...

You are so right, Sir Snave. If it's funny, I was contemplating doing a post very similiar to this. Lately I've been discovering great new artists so fast I can't find the time to listen to them all.

I just don't talk to many people our age about music. It's too maddening...rock and roll isn't dead but there are a lot of people over the age of 35 who quit making an effort to find it.

Hey, I understand that people get busy with their jobs and kids and spouses but it's still a shame they're not taking advantage of all this great creative energy flowing around us.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Lew Scannon said...

There are a lot of good new bands out there, they're just struggling for airtime against all the corporate bad music that gets rammed down the radio audience's ears. I try to keep an open mind, but right now, because all my kids want to hear is The Beatles, I have less time to spend seeking out cool new bands.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

Thanks J., I figured you would understand! 8-)> You obviously don't have time to listen to the great new stuff as I don't either, but the two of do make time to look for it. I find it to be one of life's many joys!

As are the Beatles, Lew! My wife and I got our two daughters started on The Beatles when they were preschoolers with tunes like "Octopus' Garden" and "Yellow Submarine" (the Ringo tunes!) That has always been one of their favorite bands. I tried with other "classic" rock bands, particularly The Who, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues... that didn't take, but at least they ended up getting into Annie Lennox/Eurythmics and David Bowie. It seems like I'm always introducing them to new music, and they are always doing the same for me.

And J., I know what you mean about it being maddening talking to people our age about rock and roll music. I would rather talk to people in the 18-35 age range because they are the ones who tend to know what's happening. How about you and I go to Sasquatch next spring? We will be two of the oldest people at The Gorge, but I guarantee you, you won't care! I came back from that weekend with a new understanding of "indie" and "alternative" music, and with my batteries recharged beyond belief. I can safely say you would have a great time!

3:36 PM  
Blogger Snave said...

Also, Lew, I agree about the bad corporate music that I think is maybe popular only because it is the music we are told is popular and therefore that's what we ought to be listening to. Yucch!!! I think the only way to tell some of that stuff apart is by the song titles.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Christopher I said...

Popular music doesn’t get worse or better, but simply changes, as you said.

Music, like all other artistic expression, books, movies etc, tells us about the times in which the music is made. Therefore if much of the music of the ‘fifties and earlier, and even, heaven forbid, of the hallowed ‘sixties, seems hokey to us today, it wasn’t hokey then.

What does the “rock” music of the groups you mentioned in your posting tell us of today? Perhaps today’s meaninglessness and despair, that the imminent end of humanity through climate warming, and destruction of the environment and apocalyptic war, is something we are helpless to do anything about, so why not sing nothing but banalities because nothing matters any more?

Courtesy of youtube, I watched and listened to some of the videos of the groups you mentioned, and it did seem to me that the music of Grizzly Bear was influenced by the Beatles, and that of Dandy Warhols and Arcade Fire by the Stones and others. But then, all music is influenced by the music which went before.

I think the most exciting and vibrant music today is being heavily influenced by other cultures, an expression of our increasingly multi-racial and multi-ethnic society. It reflects the future, whereas “rock” music, predominantly “white”, perhaps reflects the passing of something, hence its gloominess? This is just a question.

I hope you’ll produce more posts on music, especially since, with the advent of youtube, you can, through hyperlinking to videos on youtube (or embedding the videos in your postings) illustrate more graphically your thoughts on the contemporary music scene.

4:17 PM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

Christophe- you can find gloomy music if you want it, but actually most of the new Rock seems humorous, inspirational and hopeful.

Check out The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, Sky Cries Mary or Dandy Warhols and you'll see what I mean.

4:54 PM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

Snave- Sasquatch? Yeah, let's plan on it! We will truly be The Old Dudes Who Rule.

4:56 PM  
Blogger People in the Sun said...

When a friend of mine (32 years old) complained about music, I told her it's not that music got worse, but that she stopped searching for good music.

When it comes to new music, there's always been bad popular music, good semi-popular music (Arcade Fire), and good obscure music by unsigned bands and by those on small labels. When we were all young and thought we'd become rock stars we knew every obscure band in the world, but now we just wait for the few lucky ones to break in through the rubbish. The problem is not with contemporary music, it's with us .

6:23 PM  
Blogger Undeniable Liberal said...

My daughter has turned me on to alot of the newer rock, and like I told her, good rock is just that, good rock. She and I both agree on that and she enjoys anything from the 70's up until now.

4:46 AM  
Blogger 1138 said...

I won't make a pronouncement on Rock or Rock & Roll but I can say with some certainty that Rock Radio is dead and has been for a long long time.

Rock and Rock and Roll won't die as long as there are guitars, drums and garages to play in.

9:11 AM  
Blogger J. Marquis said...

1138- you might want to check out KEXP.org...it's the streaming version of a non-profit FM station we have here in the Emerald City. I swear, everytime I listen to it for more than a few minutes I hear a great song by some new artist I've never heard of before.

5:51 PM  
Blogger Lizzy said...

Great post.

While I do primarily listen to the music I grew up with, there are many new bands I like.

9:36 PM  

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