Saturday, January 06, 2007

Vital Musics

At his fine new blog Parlando, frequent Existence Machine commenter Scraps has a nice appreciation of Joan Armatrading, as part of his ongoing and interesting "Songs Project". I've never listened to any Armatrading; in the main, I haven't gone back and sampled much of the singer-songwritery stuff from the 1970s like I have other music from the past. Unfairly, it carries a negative connotation in my mind. No doubt just as unfairly, or at least inaccurately, I have Armatrading lumped in with Janis Ian, who I also know next to nothing about. Anyway, in his post Scraps writes that, of the singer-songwriter albums, it's one of the most underrated. He suggests that this might be:
. . . because an album by a black Caribbean woman in 1976 that wasn’t soul, reggae, or even folk — it’s just a straight pop-rock album — was bound to fall between the cracks. There’s nothing arresting about it, nothing eccentric or groundbreaking; there’s nothing special about it, except ten straight excellent songs; there’s nothing notable about it, except that it’s perfect.
Elsewhere, in an interesting mini-essay on generationality in music, as part of janedark's year-end music wrap-up (albums and singles, respectively; this is from the albums post), jane writes:
. . . to put the matter crudely, generationality happens where genres are both historical enough to have generations, and alive enough to be worth renewing. That aliveness is, of course, as much a story about money as about other kinds of emotional or libidinal investment. That hip-hop and country were the scenes of substantial generationality this year in one ways tells us what we already know: that these are the leading forms of indigenous music here in the hegemonoculture, where the greatest investments are made. Or at least it reminds us of that, since we seem to be so good at forgetting it every fifteen minutes. It’s not just that these musics are popular, and thus abstractly “populist,” and so should be reckoned with on those grounds; it’s also that they’re the most musically vital, the living forms, and if one’s way of measuring songs can’t recognize that, it’s the measure that’s got to go.
I admit that I don't always know what jane's talking about, and I'm not sure I do here. Somehow the implications of both of these posts are connected in my mind, where I have a number of questions percolating about music: What makes a music vital? Is it originality? Innovation? I do not listen to much pop country (though I have jane to thank for first alerting me to the awesomeness of Miranda Lambert), but what contact I do have with it does not make me think of it as terribly innovative. So I doubt that it's a necessary component to what he's talking about. How important is it? We seem to have certain ideas on what constitutes innovative or experimental anyway. I subscribe to and enjoy reading The Wire, which of course has the sub-heading "Adventures in Modern Music". And, while it does cover mainstream rap inside its pages, aside from the occasional primer, that's about it. At his excellent new blog, No Trivia, Brandon Soderberg writes:
If 'Wire Magazine' had any balls, if the magazine was honestly interested in “adventures in modern music” and dropped their elitism, their rap coverboys wouldn’t be lames like MF Doom or Edan. Three-Six Mafia would have made the cover a decade ago. So would The Neptunes and Timbaland, even Jazze Pha or Kanye West. Are Broadcast or Boards of Canada more “adventurous” than a Phizzle production like ‘So What’? The magazine’s year-end list might include ‘Late Registration’ or something, but it’s more like them conceding to it so they don’t look totally out of touch.
In his post, Soderberg (who I came across via the second comment to this entertaining Status Ain't Hood post by Tom Breihan; anyone who refers to J.D. Considine as "prick of all pricks" is worth a look from me) is writing about electronic musician Tim Hecker and rapper Young Jeezy. As it happens, I have one album by each artist, and like them both, though they are not the albums under discussion. Soderberg says:
While I was writing my Hecker review, I kept thinking of [Young Jeezy's] ‘The Inspiration’ and how 'Inspiration' and [Hecker's] 'Harmony...' are more alike than any of the other albums I’ve written about. If I had to compare ‘The Inspiration’, I’d say it is sonically similar to Three-Six Mafia ‘Most Known Unknown’, ‘M83’s ‘Before the Dawn Heals Us’, and the aforementioned Hecker album. A weird group, but seriously: What makes Tim Hecker avant-garde and Young Jeezy (and his producers) stupid mainstream rap? The music is primarily created through sampling and electronics. Those soundtrack to 'Thief' whips and beeps on [Jeezy's] ‘Hypnotize’ sound a lot like the in-and-out helicopter-sounding whooshes that provide the backing to [Hecker's] ‘Dungeoneering’. More importantly, the songs are after the same feeling: Some kind of claustrophobic, scary world-collapsing paranoia that occasionally breaks open into minor joy. The way ‘Dungeoneering’ lets up towards the end and segues into the next track is a lot like the feeling Jeezy provides with a defiant chorus or Shawty Red or Timbo provide the listener with through a change-up of the beat. What about those sub-level basstones that suddenly push forward on a lot of ‘The Inspiration’s tracks? Electronic music, especially the kind Hecker makes, is all production. The minor details and subtle shifts are what make it good. The organ stabs on ‘Whitecaps of White Noise I’ sound a lot like DJ Toomp’s now signature synth-tone. This stuff isn’t that different!
This is good stuff; he's saying a lot of interesting things here and in the rest of his post. Of course, I'm drawing attention to the point about avant-garde versus pop. The tendency to miss the innovation in pop, while hailing as "experimental" those underground moves that are finally not much different, or even merely recapitulate experiments of the past, is still strong. It's an interesting question as to why this is, one I'm not going to venture answering here, though I have my ideas. (In many respects, I think it's simply a matter of taste and exposure.) But, looking again at the quote from Scraps at the top of this post, I sometimes wonder why experimentation or innovation matter so much. Or maybe I wonder why they matter to me so much. I know I've sort of chased my tail a lot, trying to hear various so-called experimental musicians, attempting to keep abreast of the new. Since I've been forced in the last three years to recognize what critics and listeners like Soderberg have been arguing, that mainstream rap, and pop generally, can plausibly be shown to be as innovative or fresh as the most self-consciously underground music, the situation has become untenable for me; as a listener I am more overwhelmed than ever. Sometimes I just want the merely excellent, the satisfying musical experience.


Scraps said...

Thanks for the notice!

Funny that you associate Armatrading with Ian. That's two-thirds of Velma's triumvirate of special favorites from the 1970s (along with Laura Nyro). Armatrading and Ian are both songwriters with a lot more range than a casual acquaintance with their work would indicate. (And they're both lesbian.) Ian's relatively recent God and the FBI might be her best album. Ian was also one of the earliest musicians to have recognized the potential of internet self-marketing, and has had tons of stuff available for download for free for years.

I sometimes wonder why experimentation or innovation matter so much.

I have a personal theory about this. I think that experimental, innovative work is paradoxically easier for me to quickly engage with: to either be impressed or repelled by on first hearing. Whereas the music that sounds more familiar is harder to immediately appreciate; it doesn't jump out, and may take a lot of attention to tease out its pleasure. Fans of avant garde music -- like myself -- hold on to the idea that people would like their favorite obscure and difficult musicians if only they paid enough attention, but I think the truth is that people know right away if they are capable of liking Captain Beefheart and no amount of repetition is going to change their minds. But I can't tell you how many albums I have that didn't grab me right off because nothing about them seemed to stand out, but which grew on me and became favorites.

Richard said...

And I know even less about Laura Nyro!

I like your idea that "people know right away if they are capable of liking" this or that obscure or difficult musician. I think this is similar to my aside about "taste" being a determing factor. Some people are just more open to what others consider noise, I guess. But I do think the other element of my aside, "exposure", does play some role, if not that fantasy we like to hold on to that, gosh, if only people heard them, then Jackie-O Motherfucker would be climbing the charts! No, they wouldn't. But, other artists might gain a wider listenership.... etc.

I think that music that sounds more familiar is harder for me to immediately appreciate, too, probably for the reasons you name. Actually, music that is lyric-centric, or where the lyrics are more or less the point, takes me a long time to appreciate. I'm slow to notice or pick out the lyrics in music that is more arresting, so less arresting music just glides by... eh. Odd.

brandon said...

Hi, this is Brandon Soderberg, I make the blog you quoted from. I really appreciate your interest in my blog, thank you!
I'm also from MD, born in Baltimore. I really liked your thoughts on Phillip Roth.
Have a good day,