Music Made With Your Blog in Mind

“I get the sense that a lot of bands today are designing themselves to get a good review in the hip blogs, and that is probably the safest and most cowardly thing you can do as an artist.” – Trent Reznor in The Daily Record

I posted this on my Facebook page and got a lot of interesting comments, some ragging on Trent Reznor, but many equally frustrated with the current decline of rock.

Rock music is extremely stale, especially considering that the bland, commercial-ready, bluesy 60s retread of The Black Keys seems to be the most widely respected contemporary rock (Go listen to Cream instead – better songwriting.) In fact, The Black Keys were a chief inspiration for calling Libel’s last LP “Music For Car Commercials” – a significant portion of their blowup seems to have to do with their appearance in a slew of advertisements.

But bands designing themselves to get good reviews on hip blogs?!? Sounds like mainstream acts perfecting their sound to appeal to the A&R man. Except “blog” here is code for “smaller music publication,” the ones that are supposed to champion the independent underdogs but increasingly seem to write about the latest Beyonce hoopla (better clicks and pageviews, because those are what drive ad revenue in digital media). No, the “blogs” seek out raw talent keeping it real, pushing their own sounds and styles… Don’t they?

Indie/alternative critics (by which I mean those not focused on mainstream, major label-produced pap) are more concerned with categorization these days instead of criticism. How does this group fit into the narrative of this genre? It’s similar to how news and political reporters try to manipulate the most recent events into their overarching view of the world – the narrative. That has happened because real-time technology has killed the idea of “breaking news,” or really news itself. Most newswriting now is news analysis.

The massive ocean of music being released now – thank you, digital democratization – is daunting for all of us, not just critics. In order to work their way through it and supposedly separate the wheat from the chaff, the critics employ narratives for segmenting artists – shoegaze, grindcore, witchhouse, etc. These genres also have built-in audiences, listeners who actively associate themselves with these labels. In turn, the critics are feeding their audiences, and preferably making the music sites money by smacking their eyeballs all over their pages.

So the artists who correspond best with these genres/narratives (preferably with some kind of marketing schtick to differentiate) get attention while the ones that don’t (perhaps because they blend genres in unexpected ways) are ignored. Take CHVRCHES – MOR 80s-style synth pop that seems to have stood out because of its singer’s Scottish lilt (I once read it described as adorable – not condescending at all).

It’s not surprising then that you see smaller groups who are desperate for attention designing themselves to fit into these critical narratives. “Indie” musicians (I mean this as musicians more concerned with their art than making money) used to (and many like myself still do) seek out music outlets that show preference to a similar sound, but Trent is complaining about bands that do the exact opposite.

More than cowardly, I find it lame – of course we expect major-label, cash-hungry artists to modify their sounds to sell more, but acts searching for the tiniest amount of recognition doing the same to appease “bloggers” (who are themselves trying to drive pennies from digital advertising) are downright disheartening. Even more so when they actually get attention or build buzz – theoretically they’re squeezing out artists pushing boundaries by doing their own thing.

I personally know artists who admit they’re doing this, some who are witnessing success. In a time where the music industry is facing serious economic constraints, wagging the dog is certainly a way to go. But this is a vicious circle that discourages creativity and risk-taking – commercial success becomes about rehashing what came before, not building on it to break new ground. Thus, the music is dull and unmemorable because it’s mere retread. Rock becomes increasingly marginalized and serves as background music, because listeners can’t wade through the sonic morass and lose faith in their guides – the critics.

I could say small record labels have the opportunity to pick up the slack, but I think they too are stuck in a low-risk mindset (keep a defensive posture during a downturn), and worse – they’re following the lead of the critics.

Coachella Blues

I’m both amused and depressed by all the headlines I see around Coachella: “Cutest Couples at Coachella”; “Hottest Bros at Coachella”; “Best Dressed Girls at Coachella.” Even before the event, pretty much all the text was dedicated to the “Coachella Crowd” – young bourgeoisie out in the dessert for Spring Break hi-jinks fueled by drinking and drugs. Basically, the same as any Florida beach last month, expect with more diverse background music.

Because that’s really all the music was – the soundtrack for a bunch of kids rolling full hedonism. In the years past, I dreamed of being able to afford a ticket out to Coachella to see Radiohead, Portishead and a ton of other awesome groups on the same bill. There were plenty of favorites of mine out this year, including The Afghan Whigs and Queens of the Stone Age. I can also afford the flight and the concert ticket now. I didn’t want to deal with that crowd.

It ain’t about the music anymore – it’s all about the people. Yup, this is the social age.

Chill Wave Is the New New Age

I don’t normally buy into generational arguments, but I have a theory that chillwave is a result of millennial anxiety around unstable social circumstances. Rough economy, hard to get jobs, and the ones you get are low-paying with seemingly little room for upward mobility. With all this anxiety plus the general noise of a society awash in media, music provides solace, explaining chillwave’s general inoffensiveness: straightforward major-key melodies, soothing vocals, layers upon layers of synth pads, beats that are the epitome of fluid. It’s relaxing – honestly not that far away from new age. Turn on Washed Out, smoke a bowl, leave this grating world for a while.

Basically, it’s the new new age music.

Teach the Children Well

My friend Eric Tischler of The Hurricane Lamps and The Jet Age posted this classic Onion piece on Facebook – “Cool Dad Raising Daughter On Media That Will Put Her Entirely Out Of Touch With Her Generation” – with the comment, “My heart-felt inner monologue rendered as satire.”

I can relate: As I explained in an interview once, my dad had firm control over the radio dial, so growing up in the 80s I only ingested classic rock, which sounded a lot better than the contemporary stuff I was hearing. (Of course, now I listen to a ton of bands from my childhood that I had no idea existed – it wasn’t on the suburban radio station and I lacked a cool older sibling.) Oh how the kids at school made fun of me for my love of Bowie, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the uncoolest band of all time: The Beatles.

I was especially given a hard time by the jean-jacket-wearing, mullet-spouting guys who were into Metallica and Guns & Roses. Now considering how far from grace both of those groups have fallen. Primus is another band I remember the cool kids raving about – the best description I ever read of Les Claypool and crew was by Dr. David Thorpe, who commented that Primus is that band that your older brother was into, and he seemed so cool when you were young, but then you got older and listened to it and realized, “Wow, this kind of sucks.”

I have to give a lot of credit to my father for shaping my taste in music early, and actually inspiring me to pick up the guitar. I struck out on my own listening path around the time Nirvana broke, but my dad actually considers Nirvana Unplugged one of his favorite albums. I think my love of NIN was much harder for him to relate to, though I was listening to The Bends a lot at the same time, another modern favorite for him. I’m still trading music suggestions with him now.

When it comes to music, Eric’s kids are lucky to have a dad who is a talented musician, has pristine taste, and can probably listen to contemporary artists and point out their influences, thereby furthering their musical discovery. Also, I think the current crop of kids (Generation Z?) are growing up in a time similar to my childhood: mainstream music is simply godawful. Since “indie” itself is now an industry producing one milquetoast product after another, the hunt is on for the “new alternative” (it is not revivalist emo).

Perhaps Libel is part of that… Tell your kids they can’t listen to my album because it has explicit lyrics – that’ll really get them interested… Eric mentioned his friend David  told him the secret about how to upgrade his kids’ musical tastes: he just puts cool music on without any preamble, and answer all questions as if he’s distracted and not really interested in talking about it but he’ll indulge.

BTW, I don’t have kids (that I know of), but I’m deathly afraid if/when I do that they will find my music incredibly lame…

On Political Songs, or Not Sounding Like a Self-Righteous Prick

Something I always contemplate in lyric writing and my band banter is how deep do I dive into politics? As my friend Steve put it, “Music For Car Commercials” features my first overtly political song, “Old Boy,” but it’s definitely not a left vs. right piece. The key lyric: “Old words spew from that fresh face/yeah, he’s just like the guy he replaced/Old Boy, ain’t such a thing as change.” There’s also the line, “Hope’s just a thing they say.”

Now “Old Boy” and a few other songs on the album are about resignation and feeling powerless in modern society. But there’s a reason the album ends with “Thoroughly Modern Milieu” and the line, “You are not all right, you are not OK.” It’s a call to realize that while much looks bleak for us huddled masses (the term “Old Boy” in my mind refers to the everyman), don’t stop fighting for what you want, what you believe. Resignation is for chumps.

“Old Boy” is a bit more of a warning against politicians, the media and the financial system. Even the first chorus is a call to rise above the shit: “Tired of running the race/when we can’t even keep on the pace/Old Boy, never get ahead that way.” The game is rigged? Stop playing it – but stop playing, just make your own game.

A bit vague, maybe. But overtly political music irritates me because it’s self righteous and preachy. I enjoy me some 80s hardcore, but I try to filter out the “Reagan Sux!” lyrics and revel in the pure emotion (anger). I enjoyed the first few Bright Eyes albums (definitely out of my normal stomping grounds) but he warded me off for good with his anti-Bush screeds in the mid-00s.

A political message shouldn’t eclipse the actual song. Take a listen to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” The lyrics are biting but don’t punch you in the face; what grabs you is that catchy chorus and the tremolo guitar (especially the harmonics, which I’ve heard sampled countless times). Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” is a hot groove before being an anthem – you’re tapping your foot and nodding your head in time as you say, “That ain’t right.”

The power of music should be it’s ability to stand the test of time, transcend from generation to generation. History and politics roll in cycles – I can relate to the words of both “For What It’s Worth” and “What’s Going On” though they comment on society before my birth. The lyrics reference a time, but also a sensation as timeless as the music itself.

Will “Old Boy” pass the same test, with future generations whistling alongside the chorus? Probably not, but you can’t say I didn’t try. And I doubt I’ll look back and say, “Christ, what preachy bullshit.”

“Still devoid of wit, subtlety and danger”

I listened to pieces of the new Arcade Fire and was shocked how well this review by Chris Richards summed up my thoughts. Since I first heard “Funeral,” I’ve always thought Arcade Fire was pretty fucking milquetoast. Sure, there were hooks and singalong choruses, but never any energy, never any edge. Any time I tried rock my head in beat with something like “Neighborhood Whatever (Lies)”, I found myself half-heartedly nodding. Their stuff is never bad (arguably highly derivative of Springsteen, and now late 70s Bowie it seems), just bland. They were definitely an inspiration for my newer lyric, “Mediocrity rises up/overfloweth the cup.”

There is a larger argument to make here that Arcade Fire was a key in the transition of the term “indie” from punk and vanguard to safe music segment for upper-middle class white kids to differentiate themselves from mainstream pop fans/listeners of adult contemporary radio. That would take some time – never forget that music is always about class.

Why should you listen to this Chris Richards guy? Well, he was part of Q & Not U, which was edgy and innovative while dropping killer hooks, and some pretty offbeat lyrics.