Monday, October 26, 2009

Jungle Fever

I managed to get sneak out for a couple of hours last week to see the free afternoon shows for CMJ. The first and best band I saw was Stricken City, from London.

Everything was right about them: they were tight, had a bunch of good hooks and a fetching female lead singer. However, their style (a combination of "ethnic" rhythms, post punk guitars, 80s synth and yelpy vocals), while smart and engaging, was nonetheless pretty familiar. If I had heard these kids a year and a half ago, I probably would've flipped. But in that time, there has been a strong growing presence of african/tropical influence in indie rock. Generally it's tastefully done (with the exception of the feigning fey, snobbish entitlement of Vampire Weekend), but I just don't know where it came from. Did those aforementioned post-colonial indie prepsters start it? Whatever the source (dubious or not), this development adds an interesting wrinkle to the genre. Here are a few other bands (some obvious, some not) playing with that sound:

Fool's Gold
The So So Glos
The Dirty Projectors

It actually made me think of the immediate predecessor to indie rock's jungle fever: 1980's pop artists who wrote particular songs or albums with an african/world music-influence.

"Remain in Light"-era Talking Heads did it best, thanks largely to supplementing the quartet with kickass black studio musicians (which live included P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell) and the guitar wizardry of Adrian Belew (David Bowie, King Crimson):

There was also....

Thomas Dolby (recently discovered this great song that's totally out of character with the rest of his synth-heavy material)

Peter Gabriel (a classic done in painfully earnest and hilarious performance)

Toto (awesome, tasteless, perfect)

Hans Zimmer (soundtracks also reflected this trend)

There are others I'm missing from both eras, but you get the idea. Now instead of examining the cultural ramifications of this particular brand of re-appropriation, I'm going to briefly focus instead on pure aesthetics. "Jungle Fever" seems to be part of a cycle of style in pop music. It comes and goes and returns. Other elements in this cycle include vocoder/autotune, drum mixing preferences (natural vs. processed), inclusion of guitar solos and choices in reverb. Compare the sound of the drums on Led Zeppelin "II" to Def Leppard's "Hysteria" or the use of reverb in the recordings of The Supremes compared to that of Destiny's Child. All of these elements contribute to defining a stylistic moment in musical time. Jungle Fever is simply another element in that mix, permutating and dissipating with every new era.

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