“I close my eyes and I see you dancing. Do you see me when you close yours too?”
You may have noticed that I’m a sucker for weird music. My favorite artists are the ones who think that weirdness is its own reward. You may also have noticed, gazing out at the world, that there’s a dearth of just that. Ironically, the downfall of big record companies and the open platform of the internet have actually curtailed the idea of weirdness as its own reward. Maybe it’s because now artists have to do all the heavy lifting of branding and promotion themselves. But I won’t get into that. What I’m saying is there’s not as many artists today who become successful with a “fuck y’all I’m gonna be weird” kind of an attitude as there were in the golden years of the 60’s and 70’s. There are still a few, though. Devendra Banhart is one of them. He throws every idea at the wall and not every one of them sticks, but when it does, it really hits that like-nothing-else sweet spot. Not coincidentally, many of his songs sound like they were rediscovered in an attic somewhere. Not because his music is derivative (though it does sometimes remind me of very specific things) but because it has a freewheeling spirit of do-whatever that just takes me straight back.
CSS is definitely one of the groups of the decade, or even the past two. (I feel so old typing those words!) They never became a household name, which is alright, and they’re past being indie darlings, which is alright too. The best artists don’t aim to sell to millions, and they don’t aim to please fickleness of It-hunters. The best artists aim to please themselves and their fans, and there’s no better legacy than a body of work that people actually go on enjoying. I enjoy CSS as much as I did when I first discovered them. Someday I may have to admit that there’s an element of nostalgia to that, but I’m not that old yet. We’re together through life, the artist and the fan.
The popularity of rap music begins with Blondie in much the same way that the fashionable bindi traces its history all the way back to Gwen Stefani. That is, it doesn’t. At all. But, long and complex history of cultural appropriation aside, in 1981 it was a novelty song by a pop group named after the color of its singer’s hair that gave middle American viewers of MTV their first taste of a new and exciting musical style that was fomenting within the coastal, urban black community. “What is this cool new sound that cool people in New York City are listening to?” Bible-belt Americans asked themselves. “I must discover this Fab Five Freddy for myself, posthaste!” they said. While I doubt that hearing Debbie Harry rap about space aliens really did all that much to turn a generation of suburban white kids into Run DMC fans, the adage that it takes a blonde woman to get black culture’s foot in the mainstream door continues to hold true.
You probably know Karen O for putting the ‘new’ back into the New York City punk scene with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. That was some of the brashest party music in recent history. So it may be surprising that O’s solo work has been in a notably different vein. O’s solo album Crush Songs is bona fide crying-alone-in-your-bedroom music, which she may or may not have actually wrote and recorded alone in her bedroom while crying. I mean, she probably didn’t literally do that, but it sounds like she did. I’m not sure that anyone was itching to hear the preeminent punk rock goddess of the aughts get that vulnerable and raw with us. Personally, I’ll take her in boot-stomping mode any day; the music scene is filled to overflowing with girls crying over their keyboards and acoustic guitars. But if you feel the need to get emo with it, you could do a lot worse. It’s a pretty lovely record.
Any excuse to listen to a lot of T. Rex. I’ll be over here doing that. I’m aware that I’m most likely the only one who cares about the minute gradiations of the T. Rex sound over time, or the steps Marc Bolan took that were ahead of his time. Bolan’s problem was that he was ahead of the times but not far enough ahead to get all the credit for it before others caught up and popularized his ideas into the stratosphere. Still, the T. Rex sound is instantly recognizable, and nobody else ever sounded quite like that.
Kurt Cobain: your favorite male feminist and mine. During his short tenure as the voice of his generation Kurt Cobain could not have been a better role model (aside from the whole heroin thing.) Like any good messiah, he denied that he was the voice of anyone, which of course cemented him in that role even more. But he used his platform to speak about his frustration at the deep sexism within the music industry, and all across the board. He hated the machismo and aggression in the underground punk scene he started out in, and soon found that the mainstream industry wasn’t any better. He was an early supporter of the Riot Grrrl movement; in The Punk Singer he gets a shout-out from Kathleen Hanna for being the only friend who believed and helped her after a sexual assault. I remember a few things about the early 90’s and one of them is the lively debate then going on about whether date rape is a legitimate thing or just another example of feminist hysteria. (We’ve since reached a general consensus that it’s most definitely a real thing, and it’s mostly considered pretty much illegal nowadays.) I also recall some hand-wringing and controversy as higher learning institutions started to implement campus anti-sexual assault policies; there was some deep concern that the awkwardness and effort of procuring a partner’s verbal consent would leech all of the fun and spontaneity out of sex. This particular lively debate has cycled back around along with tartan skirts and Doc Martens; we’re still collectively unclear on the concept of consent. All things considered, I would say that 90’s kids are lucky that the voice of their generation was a man who loudly, angrily and publicly proclaimed that rape is a shitty thing that needs to be talked about and took a stand of solidarity with victims and declared himself a proud feminist. Ironically, or perhaps not, he also felt used and violated in his role as a public figure to such a degree that he was unable to go on living. It’s unfortunate that sometimes the best role models are the people least suited to that role.
Remember the name Samuel T. Herring. He may not look like much, but with his group Future Islands, he’s making pop music rapturous again. The phrase “80’s-style synthpop” may be a worn and tired calling card at this point, and “80’s-style synthpop meets gospel” may not sound much better, but bear with me. Future Islands is the best – and only -synthgospel group in the world; they will make you wish synthgospel was an actual thing instead of a portmanteau that I just made up. Seriously, though, this guy has the most amazing voice. He looks like Kevin Spacey’s less-traditionally-handsome hick cousin, but he sings like an angel. An angel whose voice breaks on the high notes because he smokes a pack a day and otherwise lives a hard lifestyle. In fact, Herring’s distinctive vocal crackle is a result of a medical condition called Reinke’s edema, in which the vocal cords fill up with fluid. He’s one of those rare performers who actually became a better singer as a result of smoking and other ‘chronic misuses’ of the vocal chords. I didn’t initially make the comparison, but I’m struck by it; if Future Islands sounds like any specific thing, it’s Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. It’s elevating, propulsive synth music turned to intensely emotional ends, a weird chimera of sparkle and darkness.
(photo by John Hatfield)