Monday, November 12, 2007

In the trenches....

I'm here on the last evening of mixing tracks for the upcoming Red Lights to Rio album. Everything's sounding really lush and that's pretty much all due to the great engineering of Scott Harding. Scott has worked with a diverse range of artists, from Wu Tang Clan to The Dears. He has not only made my sonic ideas happen, but has thrown in some new ones that have totally enhanced the tunes. Hopefully a label, manager or booking agent will also find it interesting. Fingers crossed.

We've been working 10-12 hour days since Thursday, a lot of which for me has been spent sitting on the couch and just listening. During that time, I've been crafting a response to the New Yorker article by Sasha Frere-Jones called "A Whiter Shade of Pale." The article is basically a theory to explain why most contemporary indie rock (and rock in general) often lacks any real elements “blackness.” I figured I should chime in before the article completely fades from public memory. So here goes...

In the article, Mr. Frere-Jones outlines the well-traveled history of entangled cultural influence between black and white musicians. The usual suspects are mentioned (spirituals, folk music, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin,) and he marks 1990’s west coast hip hop as a turning point in this tradition of musical dialogue. According to Mr. Frere-Jones, the inclusion of live instruments played with a murky slink on “The Chronic” ignited regional competition that led to a splintering of the hip hop, which then spilled over into splintering rock. This new regionalism (also spurred by a decrease in the use of samples,) combined with the growing trend in academic discourse of examining how culture and systems of power are created, made it harder for white people to imitate or interpret black music, unless done with irony (The Beastie Boys) or total mastery (Eminem.) While this is an interesting idea, the turning point in my opinion actually came at the end of the 1970’s. Up until that time, rock and roll had always been intimately tied to the blues. But two things happened at that time which broke with this tradition – punk and heavy metal.

Now I know people always say that bands like Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer were heavy metal. But those early heavy bands were “riffing” on the blues (Black Sabbath included) and heavy metal is not about the blues. It’s about theatrical bombast, explicit sexuality (not double entendres) and chord progressions that do not rely upon repetition or call-and-response structures. Metal really took off at the end of the 1970s, when the arena rock torch was passed from blues-based acts like Zeppelin and Aerosmith to more aggressive bands like Judas Priest and AC/DC. Unlike their blues forbearers, these new bands were not going down to the electric crossroads looking for redemption. They were perfectly happy to remain in sin. And this decadent party of virtuosity had no time for soul-searching. In the 1980’s, the outrageous onslaught continued with arrival of hair metal. The preeminent guitarist of that genre, Eddie Van Halen, has been quoted as saying that Jimi Hendrix was not a major influence to him. And while that’s an incendiary comment for any guitarist to make, Mr. Van Halen’s style backs the claim. The clean precision in his phrasing is antithetical to the muddied, deep string bends of the blues. This isn’t to say that the blues is inherently sloppy, but it certainly allows for a sloppiness in execution and emotion that is not found in heavy metal, which strives for perfection.

As heavy metal grew in the arenas, punk rock started gritting its teeth in the gutter as a response to the meticulous pomp of the various arena rock styles (heavy metal, prog, pop rock.) By emphasizing simple and raw emotion coupled with an attitude of playing for the moment, punk shunned (at least in image) any concessions to professionalism or the audience. While one could argue that this element of rawness shares a certain spirit with the blues, the difference is that punk’s adamant amateurism limited the ability of its musicians to be traditionally expressive on their instruments. And technical expertise (oral and/or notated) used for personal expression is a critical component to all of Black music. But punk musicians developed their own, non-traditional techniques of instrumental expression, which were eventually incorporated into the process of songwriting and became the foundation of post-punk. Interestingly, post-punk initially embraced the black rhythms of reggae, hip-hop and funk. But the genres that followed in its wake (new romantic, noise rock, math rock) kept post-punk’s urban malaise and sonic exploration while eschewing its rhythmic sensibility and emotional tone. So unlike Mr. Frere-Jones’s assertion, rock music had been splintering since the 1980’s. It was simply in the next decade that this splintering cut to the surface of public awareness.

In the 1990’s, exchanges between “black" and "white” music in the field of rock had been replaced by an intricate tapestry of subgenre. There was hardcore and straight-edge hardcore, indie rock and indie pop, hair metal and death metal, etc. People were constantly cutting and pasting different styles and sounds together, burrowing into established genres to make new ones. In his article, Mr. Frere-Jones describes these phenomena as a unique development in hip hop. In reality, lines were being drawn all over the musical and cultural map. The music market became a series of interlocking niches. And these niches did not necessarily have to be (or want to be) associated with black music in order to establish credibility, an identity or an agenda.

In addition, the ease of mass-producing cds (independently and thru labels,) the growing market of music downloading and the developments in digital recording had begun to make it easier to own, create and distribute music. Having this kind of access diminished the role of the fetish-like music object (record, tape or cd.) There was no longer much of a demand to browse through liner notes, read lyrics or examine cover art. So the rarified nature of owning black music on vinyl that drew rock bands (especially in England) in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s to dialogue with its form became a vestige of an earlier age. An overall emphasis shifted from using a knowledge of black music as a guide for creating rock to having an erudite knowledge of all music and choosing which strands to use as a direct influence. Which why indie artists (as Mr. Frere-Jones noted with Devendra Barnhart) will often cite an appreciation of black music, but not necessarily use its forms.


andrew gardner said...

Hey Evan, your writing is so good, perhaps, in addition to sending out email updates encouraging people to look at your new entires, you can encourage people to sign up for an RSS feeder. . . it really helps for organizing blog updates.

This short video is a great introduction/explanation of RSS feeds

keep on rockin in the free world

Derek Bermel said...

This is very interesting and cogent; it brings up a number of concurrent trends of 'splintering' within black music during this period, most for socio-political reasons. Nice writing!