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!