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Thursday, 4 February 2010

Alan Baban On A Decade Of The Best Music

Alan Baban on the Music of the 00s

Culturally we inhabit the margins. If the major movement in pop music over the last ten years was stealing other people’s ideas, we’re now in a position to see exactly what we got away with. What did we get away with?

We got away with wholesale theft. Many of the decade’s most lauded bands did double-up as penciled-in, papier-mâché versions of older (always better) acts. You can footnote The Strokes at Marquee Moon. The National did a fairly risible REM. Our own Libertines tried to do The Strokes, then they did The Clash, then they did The Strokes again. Too many bands copped Talking Heads. Not enough copped Pavement— not even the band’s erstwhile frontman Stephen Malkmus, who shot off into acid-psyche territory with his new band The Jicks, and in the process put out this decade’s best guitar album (2005’s utterly loopy Pig Lib). Sidenote: too many people played guitar, then again, too many people didn’t. Radiohead did and didn’t. (I liked them better when they did.) Further sidenote: Too Much Guitar is the name of a record released by Memphis rockers the Reigning Sound. That is the other great guitar album released this decade, appropriately released on LA-based indie In The Red.

This decade saw a lot of once-mores, more than a few have-anothers. Sometimes it was wholesale artistic re-appropriation. How else to explain Weezer releasing not one, but two, eponymous albums this decade, not counting the game-changing classic the band dropped back in the day— the original Weezer (1994) which, of course, got treated to a glitzy reissue ten years down the line. If one needed any reminding of how far that band has fallen. (For all intents and purposes, Rivers Cuomo lost his mind this past decade.) And then there’s Interpol: if we’re starting an encyclopaedia, that band’s entry can be a full-flash photo of Paul Banks staring into his RayBans, at night, in the dark.

Did these people take Billy Corgan at his word when he laughably proclaimed, ‘Rock is Dead’? Maybe Corgan is floored that the popular rock band Stereophonics still exists. Regardless, Is This It and Turn on the Bright Lights were hugely affecting records. They also threatened to schematize the very sound they seemed to celebrate— after their largescale success, the gates were left open for so many gamey pretenders to offer retreads, tired run-throughs, the same old repackaged sex. This wasn’t retro-revivalism; it was the affirmation of a dead language.
But with respect to where we’re at now, this is sort of beside the point.

For all their vicarious panhandling, the 2000s at least preserved one (sort of) important notion. It didn’t matter if you were a retro-outfit stealing somebody else’s act. At least the notion of their being an act still existed. One act was different from another. It didn’t matter if The Strokes filtered Television through early Ramones, or if Interpol made Joy Division sound vaguely post-grunge. Television wasn’t Joy Division. Likewise, nobody could really mistake Interpol for The Strokes, despite the two groups coming from the same city, during the same time period and being (more or less) equally hyped.

Now we steal from everywhere, all the time, at once. Maybe the new mantra could be Nothing In Its Right Place, But Everything (Sort Of) Works. Picking genres is anyone’s guessing game. The Venn plot of musical influences is a time-lapsed stereogram; everything overlaps. Sooner or later this is going to become a problem. Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion is rightfully regarded as a modern classic. It makes sport of simple classification, bends frequencies to its will; collapsing dub, house, straight-up indie rawk and ambient into one rolling ball of goodwill, and then firing the thing into deep space so it can float. Zero-gravity music: absolutely no pretense.

But later this year their Brooklyn cohorts Yeasayer drop their sophomore release (Odd Blood), and let me tell you, Yeasayer’s second album is just awful. Painfully bad. It takes all the good things about Animal Collective’s breakthrough and stretches them out of all proportion. Disney samples do not a good album make; the pitch-shifting privilege is should not be abused; kettle drum cameos does not equal serious musicianship. Odd Blood is laboured, fraught-over and relentlessly turgid. My fear is that Animal Collective’s perfect sun will now be followed by this smeared-over, stale aftermath of copycats. Let’s hope not.

I’m really meant to be writing about my favourite records of the past ten years. If I had to choose a favourite album it’d be Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga by Spoon. If I absolutely had to choose. This isn’t based on iTunes: a cursory run through my playlist tells me that my most-listened to album, since 2004 at least, has been Bob Dylan’s “Love and Theft”. I adore that record— to me, it’s amongst his finest works, the best of which (if you wanted to know my take on Bob) is the cautionary John Wesley Harding. I think we all come to Dylan’s music slightly brain-damaged by his status as a popular icon. There’s a real temptation now to homogenize his work.

I don’t see any recurring themes in the past decade of Bob’s mature music, ‘cept for the fact the music is more mature by dint of the man being older, presumably wiser, a grizzled veteran seemingly with time to spare. “Love and Theft” has little or nothing in common with Modern Times. It is also far superior to the Daniel Lanois helmed Time Out Of Mind : a lot funnier, it’s also a lot more fun to get through. Dylan brings it all back home. Rag-time, Cole Porter, rockabilly, even ominous psychedelia finds its home among the album’s twelve tracks. It’s like hearing a lot of good, free advice from someone who’s spent a lifetime earning it. Not quite believing, all the while, that this is the same Dylan who cleared the 80s on the back of a three-disc collection of his outtakes and hits (Biograph); the same Dylan who, for all anyone knew, was kicking back content we’d only get through his official Bootleg Series, poorly-recorded live versions, the odd (who’da thunk?!) charitable radio hour.

“Love and Theft” is just as thoughtful, just as loosely stylized as the man’s best output, benefitting the most from its clear, sparkling production: the first adequate representation of his live sound on a studio record. The band plays it off the cuff, despite being rigorously drilled. There are no slip-ups: only carefully planned instances of chance. Dylan sounds like he’s choking down on the exhaust fumes of a van pulling away. This isn’t the tired seer of the by-the-number cover years, nor is it the boring evangelist of the religious albums; although those personalities have been subsumed to create this new, more playful Bob. He has at his subjects like a brain-medic with chopping shears. (There’s an image.) “Love and Theft” is BD juggling a load of juiced-up brains, including (as it were) some of his own. It is, at its heart, a generous juggling act.

Some more great records. Gang Gang Dance put out the world-owning Saint Dympha. The Boredoms ascended to a greater spiritual place with Vision Creation Newsun, then spent the rest of the decade being the best live band on the planet. This culminated with the 77Boadrum spectacular, wherein the band would arrange to be accompanied in a wide open space by, yes, 77 drummers all playing at the same time. My abiding memory of catching the Boredoms live extravaganza is seeing their frontman Eye shamanastically go nuts at the centre of a drum circle, whilst banging on what I think was a Christmas tree made of guitar heads. You just don’t forget that shit.

Hendrik Weber put out a phenomenal record under the name Pantha du Prince. This Bliss was electronic music hemming and hawing: expansive, emotional and totally vocal-less experiments in how one co-opts space to make something tangible. Game-changing dance also came from Ellen Allien with Berlinette.

Lo-fi came to the fore during the tail-end of the decade. Hard to tell sometimes if these groups were makeshift, chancing or just for-the-hell-of-it. Wavves is an example of someone who was just-for-the-hell-of-it. Times New Viking, however, were and still are the real deal. Their debut collection Dig Yourself had the distinction of single-handedly resurrecting the long-dormant Siltbreeze label, and its songs –the first teenage anthems to escape the shadow of the Modern Lovers – were spirited hyper-kinetic things. Often these lo-fi acts would use noise as a thick glaze: a protective screen held over half-formed material that went nowhere fast. Psychedelic Horseshit (yep, Psychedelic Horseshit) took this sound in a more interesting direction. Think of the holy-roller noise of Kevin Shields as arranged and performed by Mark E. Smith. On their debut, the unfairly ignored Magic Flowers Droned, the band never misses a trick. Here you can hear a point-by-point refutation of the Beach Boys (“Bad Vibrations”), free-spirited trashcan solos in the style of Cale-era Velvets, enough garbage metaphors to make Lou Reed wince. I love it.

Which brings me back to Spoon. The Austin-based indie act released four of this decade’s best rock records— count ‘em, four. Formed from the core duo of frontman Britt Daniel (for my money, this generation’s Costello) and drummer/engineer Jim Eno, Spoon find their inspiration not only in the songs they write themselves but also in how those songs are presented to us. They’re fantastic arrangers. Each of their records steps forward to explore a different aspect of the band’s sound, whilst staying true to a weird quality that is totally ‘Spoon’; what one of my colleagues calls the band’s ‘Spoon-o-city’. So, 2001’s Girls Can Tell sees them play break-up with dark, moody numbers: equal parts spindly guitar figures and blunt chords. The following year’s Kill the Moonlight finds them stripping the atmosphere away, hard-panning sounds to the left and right, exploiting schisms in their sound to create tension. Opener “Small Stakes” is made out a kick drum, some snare drum, one-not keyboard and Britt’s always charismatic vocal performance. Later he beatboxes on “Stay Don’t Go”, lets words fly out of his mouth in a fight with the school bully (“Jonathan Fisk”) and finally manhandles the beat on the skeletal pop of “All the Pretty Girls Go to The City”. 2005’s Gimme Fiction is almost claustrophobically insular, always driving inwards, equal parts brain-damaged funk and MOR album-rock. (That’s a weird-ass combo, by the way.) But it was 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga that gave us the culmination of all this tinkering. At ten seconds in half an hour, it’s a perfect record, a Spoon jukebox joint. Quick: here’s the track that sounds like the Specials (“Eddie’s Ragga”), here’s the one we cut with Jon Brion (“The Underdog”), here’s your new romantic comedy credits stable (uh, everything else). It established the band in the States, but their reputation on this side of the pond is way more underground. When I caught them on the Ga tour, it was to a crowd of maybe one hundred people in a bar. I stood next to Britt as he bought a drink before the show. They put out a new record this past month (Transference) that’s proving divisive amongst the fans, on accounts of its buried hooks, its increased reliance on atmosphere and studio trickery. It’s fine record, un- or under-appreciated, and like the rest of Spoon’s back catalogue, deserves your total submission to its excellence.

So, yeah. That was the decade.

Alan Baban is a London-based poet and writer. He reviews music occasionally for Eyewear, and often for Coke Machine Glow.
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