Oct 172010

Sounds like...

Dear RTH’ers, please reflect on the following quote by uber music journalist, Sasha Frere-Jones:

Spending the nineties in a working indie band, my bandmates and I developed a shorthand for identifying other groups that we played with. After 1995 or so, there wasn’t a whole lot of variation. “Pavement or Stereolab?” we would ask, trying to discover who had inspired the act in question. Eighty percent of the time, the answer was “Pavement.”

As my educational brethren are currently wont to say, this quote provides a perfect opportunity for “think pair share.” Please reflect and discuss the accuracy of Mr. Frere-Jones’ comment. If you believe that his paradigm is a load of bollocks, please provide examples of other mid-to-late ’90s bands that would provide a template (divisive or not) that may be missing from his perspective.  Note to self and readers, these are two of my favorite bands…but seriously!


  47 Responses to “Unfair Tone Burst”

  1. I can’t say I know a lot about bands from this period, ladymiss, but Pavement was clearly a huge model. Any time I listen to Stereolab I’m a bit mystified. There are elements of their music that I can tune into, but much of it doesn’t make a significant sound to my ears. It’s like they make a representation of music, but not music itself. When they’re referenced as an influence I don’t understand what that means. I plead complete ignorance on that band rather than my typically informed (or so I think) dogmatic style of criticism.

    The one musical strain that I find prevalent in “indie rock” is the European (ie, Giorgio Moroder-style disco), totally “white” rhythmic pulse of the drummer and bassist clicking out 1/8th notes. The Joy Division/New Order rhythm section is where I see this approach solidifying in rock. Maybe that’s what Stereolab’s music comes out of? Personally, although I can be a sucker to this approach as much as the next music lover, I find this to be a sort of “representational rock” rock itself, and I tend to look down on it as taking a “short-cut” around the hard-earned rhythmic tradition in rock that once included the works of African Americans and other American ethnic/regional groups that made music from a “folk” tradition. The Euro 1/8th Note Style of Representational Rock, if you will, is a product of the “modern age,” getting back to the “motorik” style those Krautrock guys got into, right? There’s nothing inherently “wrong” with making music that openly embraces technology – and it makes perfect sense that we would do so by now. Anyhow, if that’s what Stereolab represents, then, yes, this is a roundabout way of possibly agreeing with Frere-Jones.

  2. BigSteve

    Except that I think you’d be hard pressed to find all that much evidence of the African American rhythmic tradition in Pavement either.

  3. ladymisskirroyale

    I actually agree with Frere-Jones’ belief that a lot of bands of the period sounded like Pavement or Stereolab. But I think his comment that all bands of that period could be distilled to one of the two is dismissive to the subtlety of other music being generated at that time. Frere-Jones’ own band, Ui, wouldn’t fit either category. He borrowed much more from bands like Liquid Liquid and others such as those whom Mr. Mod refers to as the “hard earned rhythmic tradition in rock that once included the works of African Americans..”

  4. Frere-Jones is probably mostly right, though I’m sure there are exceptions (Sleater-Kinney) for one. But name me any genre or era of rock or popular music that can’t eventually traced back to one or two bands.

  5. ladymisskirroyale

    Isn’t the old adage that all bands can be traced to the Stones, the Beatles or Velvet Underground? I would add in the Krautrock/Minimalist sounds (that spawned Stereolab), and the more funk-based stuff (that was the basis for Ui). Maybe what is more interesting is which 2 bands are popular in a given time period and why.

    Frere-Jones writes for the New Yorker, and I’m frequently annoyed by his perspective. Despite my grousing, it often has an element of something interesting in it. Last year, he wrote an article, reviewing Fleet Foxes, I think, and said that all indie music was sounding like the Beach Boys.

  6. I wasn’t beginning to make a case for that, but Pavement do have some ’70s-based rawk songs now and then. They occasionally accent one beat over another.

  7. machinery

    I agree a bit with Mr. Mod about Stereo Lab making music-like music. I have a similar feeling about Pavement, too. Both of these bands seem born out of the jam-band tradition, yet on different continents. I like a lot about each one as a kind of background in-the-office-while-I’m-working music. But I would never have a hankering to listen to a “song” by either, because they don’t really meet the requirements (in my book, mind you) of being songs — namely beginning, middles and ends. Pavement has more of this, but I think you get my meaning.

  8. The other day in the “Little Things” thread I wrote

    “Or put another way, large segments of music (I’m talking about you again, indie rock) has pretty much done away with the influence of black music.”

    I felt alone on a limb at the lack of response to that statement, so I’d like to thank Mr. Mod and BigSteve for their cross-thread support here.

  9. bostonhistorian

    I think the key is “my bandmates and I developed a shorthand for identifying other groups that we played with”. Groups they played *with*. I’m of the opinion that his band probably ended up playing with shitty derivative bands because, well, his band wasn’t that great.

  10. jeangray

    Mr. Mod:
    Jus’ out of curiousity, did you pull an E. Plurbs and stop listening to new musik after ’95??

  11. jeangray

    I thought that you were jus’ a-referencing Sasha’s article on that subject last year. It seemed to be everywhere in the blogosphere, and I had nothing intelligent, besides agreeing, to add to the discussion. If’n you haven’t read that New yorker article, yous should.

  12. Yes – I too am annoyed by his criticism in the New Yorker…but I rarely find anything interesting in his opinion.

  13. al, I’m always feeling that way. In fact, if I can ever write it the way I want to, I have a piece I’ve been fiddling with for some time on this issue that I hope will stand as a better explanation of all that goes into how I feel about this.

  14. jeangray, I coauthored the opinion that rock ‘n roll went downhill around 1983. E. thinks Elvis Costello’s Trust was the last gasp; I think Imperial Bedroom is still top shelf. I own and like MUCH more music through the ’90s and 2000s than E., but our beefs are similar.

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    Well put, Boston.

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    That New Yorker article, from last year, really irritated me. But as jean mentions, it is something worth reading. To me, saying something is derived from black music vs. it is derived from white music is once again an oversimplification. Why does it have to be either/or?

  17. I don’t think it has to be either/or at all – if the music is not derived from one tradition or another. In those cases, can’t it be pretty much a fact? Why do we have to pretend that, say, New Order’s music owes a great debt to soul music, for instance. Why? Just because they have that “blues eyes/grey eyes” song with the falsetto oohs? I can say with almost near certainty that some music shows no traces of African American popular music traditions – or other American pre-rock, popular music traditions.

    As I said in my initial comments, this is not necessarily a “bad” or “wrong” thing, but as someone immersed in his own musical history, it often makes me feel like I’m missing something. Not always, mind you. And I don’t expect it to make someone immersed in his or her own musical history to feel like I do.

  18. I don’t recall reading that article but then I usually skip his articles (and until this thread I had assumed that “Sasha” was a female). And RTH is the only music-related place I go in the blogosphere so I wouldn’t have seen it that way.

    I, too, was not suggesting good/bad. I was explaining why I don’t like much (all?) of that music. I do try not to use good/bad when dealing with styles of music. There’s what I like and what I don’t like. I may deal with good and bad for individual acts; I can tell as well as the next person when a vocalist can’t hit the notes.

    As I said in that other thread, I like a balance among lyric, melody, and arrangement and it needs to have that swing. It doesn’t have to have all of that for me to love it and my shelves are filled with stuff that doesn’t. You’d never say James Brown has a balance among those items but I love James. But so much of indie rock since grunge, rap/hip-hop, techno, etc. is unappealing to me because it lacks too much and especially that balance.

    This ties in with my feelings of the anti-pop bias I often see here in RTH. I’ll take any one song by Herman’s Hermits over everything grunge produced. I’ve never heard a song by Justin Beiber and I’d guess it’s all empty calories but I’ll bet it’s got more of what I like in it than any current indie rock darling.

    I’ve learned to love a lot of music that on first hearing I didn’t enjoy in the least (can you say Captain Beefheart?). Maybe it’s the difference between being 15 and having the time to dedicate to understanding something, to finding a way into it, and being 55 and not having the time and not caring enough. I just know that every time I’ve fallen prey to the hype and bought something by one of those darlings in the last 20 years I’ve come up empty.

    In the last two weeks I’ve bought the third Bear Family Rick Nelson box, the 6 CD Rolling Stones Genuine Black Box boot, Little Steven’s Men Without Women/Voices of America two-fer, a couple of Delfonics two-fers, a couple of Bing Crosby discs, Neil Young’s latest, the Rhino Handmade Delaney & Bonnie On Tour set, and Hirth Martinez’s Hirth From Earth (that’s right, Geo, newly reissued on CD). Also on the pile are the discs from the latest issues of Uncut and The Word. If there’s a single song on the latter two that is as enjoyable to me as any song in the others, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  19. Oh, and since I’m talking about lyrics, melody, arrangement, balance, and swing, I’ll use this thread to note the passing of General Johnson, the chairman of the Chairmen Of The Board.

    From the days on H-D-H’s Invictus label and on Surfside since then, there’s a man who has far more than enough great stuff to have been on that recent list of R&R Hall of Fame nominees. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that he was another Smokey Robinson.



  20. meanstom

    General Johnson’s not a name I usually match with specific songs but he was behind some killer childhood singles. I had no idea he had a hand in ‘Want Ads.’

  21. 2000 Man

    None of the Indie music I listen to sounds like The Beach Boys. At least I don’t think it does. Black Mountain and The Dirtbombs certainly don’t have any Beach Boys sounds.

  22. ladymisskirroyale

    I WOULD like to generalize and say that I hope and think that most RTH’ers are not quite as apt to departmentalize music as, say, “professional” music critics. But I think that most people tend to simplify things, for ease of understanding, description, or whatever, and that most music has a lot more nuance or intent than one would pick up on early listens. It makes me laugh that when I listen to the rather pretty melodies of some Stereolab songs, Ms. Sadier is singing about anti-capitalism: not what I would have guessed on a cold listen.

    Which gets me back to origin of the thread: are there predominant styles of music at different periods of time? How would you characterize them? Why do you think they are popular at that time?

  23. BigSteve

    I still have vinyl rips of Men Without Woman and Hirth from Earth. Those albums are lost classics.

  24. jeangray

    Hey! Care to review that new Neil Young for us??

  25. jeangray

    I’ve never heard of this guy, but they have both of those albums on Rhapsody. I will have to check them out.

  26. jeangray

    I believe that is it was Duke Ellington who said: “There are only two types of music. Good music & bad music.”

  27. jeangray

    Have you heard the Fleet Foxes? Far too many “ooooh’s & ahhhh’s” going on in the background vocals for my taste. Kind of reminds me of that Chicago song that the Beach Boys sang back-up on (“Wishing You Were Here”).

  28. ladymisskirroyale

    I like the Fleet Foxes a lot. They’ve been posting videos of music that has been inspiring their next album, and I would guess that it will quite different.

  29. ladymisskirroyale asked:

    Which gets me back to origin of the thread: are there predominant styles of music at different periods of time? How would you characterize them? Why do you think they are popular at that time?

    I would think there are owing to factors like technology, commercial trends (ie, artists following the lead of what sells/works), general “tone” of a country/region, and the like. Getting extremely broad (and possibly talking out my ass), rock ‘n roll started as a very communal music for teens to dance to. It was listened to on tube, mono record players, car stereos, and little radios. The records were made to focus on the dance beat and the lyrics were centered around defining a new youth culture.

    Technology for listening to records was pretty much the same in the ’60s, although stereos/headphones and drugs came into play for some rock fans by the end of the decade. The notion of defining the new youth culture had progressed to defining youth culture’s role in the adult world. You get a lot of youth power songs, where kids are not just tearing up the hop but making the world a better place to live.

    By the ’70s the act of listening to music has completely changed: you get a lot of people enjoying rock records in the privacy of their homes, and concerts have become an effort to re-create the historic effects of Woodstock and other groundbreaking festival shows from the late-’60s. Rock records are typically more personal, iconoclastic, bombastic, and whatnot. They are made with the intent of being appreciated as works of art. The search for the New Dylan is in full force, man.

    I can’t explain the ’80s other than to say that the business took over from the artists, and everything started sounding geared toward the interests of radio programmers and coke dealers. Plenty of interesting underground music did appear, as DIY labels and related industries grew, but the Industry wiped out avenues of regionalism, which used to allow somewhat funky artists to develop a national audience based on their popularity in a regional market (eg, The Boss, J. Geils Band, Billy Joel…).

    By the ’90s, technology allowed all those excluded by The Industry to find ways to exist outside normal channels. Although a sense of community still exists, it’s often a virtual community. Everybody knows it’s less fun to “high five” on Facebook than in real life. We do the best we can on Rock Town Hall, for instance, but wouldn’t you rather we were all meeting up at the same club to see a really cool band that just might break through to a national market without immediately sucking in order to break through to that larger market?

  30. BigSteve

    There do seem to be patterns. Today there does seem to be a strain of vocal-oriented pop — Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Midlake, etc — that some might say comes out of the Beach Boys, though ‘Beach Boys’ is really just shorthand for ‘music with lots of background vocals.’ In the early 00s there was a time when it seemed like 80s dance-rock was a big influence. In the 70s country became a big influence for a while.

    The problem comes when you say ‘there was only 80s influenced dance rock in the early 00s.’ There’s always a lot of everything happening all the time, but it’s natural for our minds to try to impose patterns on reality, especially journalists, who are paid to spot trends. Just don’t assume that the trend is the totality.

  31. I’ve always known his quote as, “There are two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind.” Which I love.

  32. THAT, jeangray, is a perfect description of the Fleet Foxes songs I’ve heard. Man, now I’ve got to worry about getting that song stuck in my head.

  33. I think there seems to be a tacit assumption that black music stopped developing past the “classic soul” stage. There is an entire complex NYC rap subculture, which influenced bands like New Order.

  34. Stereolab listened to VU, who built songs around blues-based guitar riffs. So they were influenced by black music. Don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but critics can have a really narrow view of what black music is and thus award it a lesser relevance to indie rock and even rock in general than it really should have.

  35. Yes, and the vegetables that vegetarians eat are fertilized by horse manure, so it might be said they’re eating meat.

    Seriously, since we’re speaking as music lovers and not “critics,” please feel free to put a finer point on the “narrow view” of black music and the “lesser relevance” it’s given to indie rock.

  36. Clever analogy, but biologically inaccurate. Look, all I’m saying is that rap/hip-hop/reggae/dub had a visible influence on indie rock. PE and BDP were huge on college radio during the indie-rock heyday. It was, to correct your analogy, cross-fertilization.

  37. I don’t think black music stopped developing passed the “classic soul” stage. Clearly that would be absurd, tacit or no.

    But for me, the development did get away from the balance that I’ve been speaking of as a key requirement for my pleasure. That’s why so much of rap/hip-hop does nothing for me.

    I’m reminded of that old American Bandstand cliche “It’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to, I’ll give it a 95.” James Brown has a great beat and he’s easy to dance to. Lots of rap/hip-hop has a good beat as well but it’s not easy to dance to, at least not for this white boy. Having a good beat doesn’t necessarily mean it swings.

    You know, there’s a thread I’ve been thinking of for a bit that maybe needs developing as it seems to fit in here. It’s about musical giants who still must be held accountable. James Brown is one. He was a visionary and his groundbreaking funk hasn’t been bested. But by that emphasis on the beat he spawned imitators who took it way too far (for me) and who else to blame but JB. Ditto for Talking Heads. That white boy punk-funk was door opening but, man, I gotta blame them for all the crap that went thru that door.

  38. That makes more sense, Dr. John. Thanks.

  39. misterioso

    Mod, you should consider recording this in stentorian tones and lots of echo as The Definitive History of Rock.

  40. ladymisskirroyale

    Applause here.

  41. ladymisskirroyale

    I like this analysis via technology.

    And re. the High Five in vivo: I see a RTH annual conference as a being a possibility here.

  42. ladymisskirroyale

    Going back to the original thought of this thread, maybe the mid to late 90’s reflected the continuation of the DIY spirit? Both Pavement and Stereolab were ferocious tourers, and touring was (and now once again appears to be) the way to have a stronger personal influence on the direction that the band was going in.

  43. Yeah, we did a live event in Philly, in our nascent days as a Yahoo Groups list. It was a lot of fun and a TON of work. I’d spearhead another one if we could ever find the time and a place. At the end of the year I always try to organize an informal get-together for Townspeople in the Philly area. That’s also a fun time. Maybe in the future we’ll find a way to kick it out and do something on a larger scale.

  44. I remember a piece in the Citipaper that described it as “Trouser Press heads, nerds and the two women who like them”.

  45. That’s right, I forgot we got a little write-up for that first live event.

  46. a.d. cracks me up.

  47. This gets back to the 1981 theorem, which posits that the last original musical thoughts occurred that year, in great quantity and quality. Might be worth a RTH flashback.

Lost Password?

twitter facebook youtube