Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts on popular music

I was a cameraman at the Governor's Ball, a three day music festival on Randall's Island in New York. My job was to shoot the long lens camera at the main stage for the large screens. With a crew of four cameras, we provided the live experience for most of the audience of 80,000 people sprawling back for miles from the stage. It was a great time and it gave me a chance to see some fantastic bands, and also to ponder the state of popular music in our current era.

It was a blast to take part in the performance of some of my favorite live acts like Outkast, Janelle Monae, Broken Bells, The Strokes, The Kills, Spoon, and Jack White.
The Strokes don't suck
I had never seen The Strokes live before and I was amazed. They've come a long way since I first heard about them sometime in the early 2000's. At that time, my band Melomane was recording an album in a studio in the East Village called Transporter Raum, run by our eccentric friend Gordon Raphael. We were all set to record the last week of overdubs, when we were told that we had to postpone the session. Gordon had gotten involved with some young kids who he said were going places, and they had to come in for a week to finish some demos. The band was the Strokes, and we were pissed off that they usurped our session. I went into the studio to pick up some mixes one day, and I met two or three of them, nice young kids sitting quietly listening to their tracks. I didn't think much of it. My bass player Daria was familiar with the Strokes, they were the bratty young punks who came into the Mars Bar where she worked, and acted like priviledged poser assholes. Their session dragged on, one week became two and then a month, and when it was finally time for us to get back into the studio, Gordon called us with bad news; the studio was shut down. The Strokes had descended into booze-soaked stupidity one night and fished some fluorescent light tubes out of the dumpster outside the studio. They had smashed all the tubes and trashed the studio. The landlord wasn't amused and shut the studio down, so our session was cancelled. Needless to say, I had no love for the Strokes and didn't share in everyone's enthusiasm for "the demo" which became their first album. However, when I finally got around to listening to it a few years later, after the band seemed to be on everyone's list of God's gift to mankind, I realized that it was… really really good. It was great. I loved it and still do. Those overpriviledged posers wrote gorgeous songs and crafted some truly inspired guitar rock.
Seeing them live, and being a part of their show, was a revelation. They are artisans of guitar rock, using two guitars and a bass much like a piano's left and right hands. Truly original and astounding. And now that they are older, less pretty, and less destructive, they are really focusing on the business of making great music on stage, and it was a total joy to watch. The crowd went absolutely batshit. It was a blast.

I also got to see some new bands that I didn't know about that ran the gamut from brilliant to unbearably shitty. One of my favorites was Frank Turner, a punk troubadour from England who sounds like the most brash and raucous parts of Billy Bragg, with less political edge but all the humor and a totally rocking band.
Another surprise was The Head and the Heart. My old friend Dave Burton, who was tour manager for my band Morning Glories back in the 90's, contacted me and said he'd be at the festival with this folk band from Portland. They had a beautiful, laid back, 70's era folk rock vibe, like the Eagles with better voices and cooler songs. Great stuff.
Jack White killing it

Silent disco is a very good start to the DJ problem

Then there were some bands that confused, depressed, and irritated me. I would lump these bands into the category of "horrible 80's retro." The worst offender was a band called Bleachers. They dressed like backup singers for Wham and sounded like Phil Collins singing over karaoke tracks of Gloria Estefan. Horrible fake string synths, whiny and overwrought vocals, and contrived arrangements filled with Broadway style bravado. I soon realized that there is a conscious effort among a bunch of twenty-somethings to channel precisely the worst elements of 80's mainstream. High pitched guitars, effete, asymmetrical outfits, terrible synth sounds, drum machines, jangly guitars, and inane, inoffensive lyrics. Any of those elements alone could be interesting, fun, or ironic, but when a whole subset of very popular bands is ripping off the entire oeuvre of A-HA or Cindy Lauper, something is horribly wrong. In all fairness, I was a big fan of some big mainstream bands in the 80's, like Duran Duran or Wham, but they all disappeared or evolved as music grew in depth and studios decided to re-embrace the mid and low end. The 80's happened and they were pretty crappy and they ended. The signature sound of the 80's was cavernously reverby drums, high pitched, whiny guitars, brooding, english-y, fey vocals, and fake horns and strings. But even during this period, other bands were holding on to powerful, imaginative, guitar-driven rock. The Minutemen, Fugazi, the Pixies, REM, the B-52s, and many many others were all alive and well in the 80s and so much better than the dreck that is being copied now. My question is WHY? Some of the worst offenders at the festival were Lucius, Haerts, Papa, Hunter Hunted, and Meg Myers.
And then the other category is what I call "mama's boys product placement rock." At the top of this list is Vampire Weekend. They are a living commercial for ______. I left this blank because they are so squeaky clean and irritatingly pleasant, they are just waiting to be used for the dullest, most sanitized marketing campaign imaginable. Rock and roll is a pulpit to question, think, ask, and agitate. These guys look like they would much rather be stock traders but unfortunately they are making too much money as rock musicians to quit and follow their passion, which is kissing ass.
Foster the People gets special mention for doing the mathematically impossible by fitting 100% into both categories and being by far the most irritating band to ever exist.
The last category is what I would call "DJ / karaoke / performance art." To me this is not really music and doesn't deserve much mention. These groups are usually comprised of a singer or two with one or two rudimentary instruments singing and yelling over laptop beats. Some people call this EDM. It is apparently very popular but it is not for me. Examples of this are Washed Out, Sleigh Bells, and others. Can't remember, don't care. When I go see a great movie, I don't immediately rush to the projection booth to congratulate the projectionist on the quality of projection and ask where he is "playing" again. That is the equivalent to me of paying to see a DJ "play" music. DJs are technicians who facilitate the reproduction of music that has been composed, performed, and recorded somewhere else. 
I will continue to seek out new artists making honest, thoughtful music with real songs. Lately I've been loving Courtney Barnett, Ages and Ages, Hooray for the Riffraff, Drenge, and Elbow to name a few.  Rock lives!