I like a love song that’s straightforward and makes sense. Nothing makes more sense than “shut up, kiss me, hold me tight.” Angel Olsen is definitely one of the best singer-songwriters we’ve got around right now. She likes to play around with different styles and perspectives, which is, of course, the cream that keeps the coffee interesting. Intellectual polish and unvarnished emotion are kind of a ‘pick just one’ proposition, pop music being very one-track-minded most of the time. You can put My Woman on your playlist of records for smart girls with tender hearts.
Okay, first things first: Bombay Bicycle Club are not a group of old Indian men who gather to drink tea and reminisce about colonial times. Although that would be a record I would very much buy. No, they are a group of youngsters from England who are part of the whole indie pop-electronic-chillwave thing of the two-thousand-teens. Which is a movement that, if it’s defined by anything at all, is defined by being pleasant. Just nice chill music made by nice, well-adjusted-seeming young people who don’t appear to be driven by rage and hormones. You may ask yourself, what is rock music without anger and unbridled libido? Well, it’s not exactly rock music anymore, but it’s really quite nice and I’m here for it. As much as I’m sometimes entertained by other people’s angst, sometimes I want music that doesn’t yank away at my emotions. I suspect that early 2000’s indie pop like this will come to be remembered, like 80’s adult contemporary, as unimportant and overshadowed by more strident genres. But, you know what, I like it. I’m a thirtysomething adult person who can’t be entertained by angst all the fucking time.
Here is the small sliver of intersection where the blues meets electronica. Those two genres don’t seem like natural bedfellows, but R.L. Burnside went there. It was a brave and foolhardy move, but it worked, and it made him famous. Burnside was one of the last practitioners of old-school blue music, and it the deepest blues tradition, spent most of his life toiling away in obscurity. But he was also savvy to new ways of making music, and he didn’t mind letting his songs get the remix treatment. Turned out audiences liked that new amped-up blues sound. No genre is more directly sprung from the blood, sweat and tears of America’s history than the blues, but modern audiences find it pretty inaccessible, especially since many blues recordings are so technically primitive. Making it sound like it wasn’t recorded in the middle of a literal cotton field goes a long way to making it more accessible. And there’s nothing too sacred to be remixed and turned into fodder for new genres.
Do you ever wonder what discerning hipsters in Albania are listening to? Are they dancing to Euro-hip-hop like everyone else, or are they still weeping into their sardines to the dulcet strains of an accordion? Yes, to both. With multicultural musical collectives like Fanfara Tirana and Transglobal Underground, European audiences can enjoy a heady brew of everything the global diaspora has to offer, from Caribbean funk to sub-Saharan beats to American-style gangsta rap to chanson and tango. Not forgetting those homegrown accordion solos. The open bordered EU has birthed a creative scene that’s the musical equivalent of a crowded railway platform, but obviously a lot more festive. Everyone is coming and going from all corners of the world, and everyone brought an instrument.
If you only have time to discover one earnest singer-songwriter, let it be Lissie. You may know how I generally feel about earnest singer-songwriters: they tend to be boring in their earnestness. Lissie is a bit of a music industry outsider. She lives in rural Iowa and doesn’t spend much time making the rounds of music festivals and late night talk shows to promote herself. There’s something of the humbleness of her life that shows in her music, and it makes her writing feel so refreshing. When it feels like even the most heart-on-sleeve confessional songwriters are trying to hit some targeted mark that will earn them a Honda commercial or a minute and a half on the soundtrack of a cable dramedy, real sincerity seems in short supply. I admire a songwriter who can lay out their feelings without descending intro trope, and Lissie is definitely one such songwriter. Because of her modesty, I had no idea that she released a new album this spring. I just ordered it. I have complete faith that it’s going to be excellent.
If modern man, with his off-the-rack suit and pre-fabricated corporate environment, is little more than an anonymous mannequin representing the material aspirations of the Western way of life, then to what end have we even bothered with all of our industry and progress? If modern life is so spiritually kaput, why do we keep grinding the wheels of technology? It’s so we can acquire collectively agreed-upon symbols of achievement and use them in substitution for insight, connection and personal growth. And in the evening we can go dance to electronic music. See, Kraftwerk asks the deep questions and makes the deep statements. The commentary made on the postwar condition of 1977 is no less relevant, except now we also have to deal with the newfangled snake-oil business of commodified identity and 15-minutes-of-wellness spiritual conformity. Yeah, it’s pretty bleak out there for people who value creativity and self expression for their own sake rather than as a branding exercise. Is it a fair trade-off for the magic of penicillin and airline travel? Are we aching to return to times when lives were presumably more meaningful for being shorter and more brutish? Nah. Modern life offers us the entirety of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips and the luxury of not dying of dysentery. Our desire to complain about our own moral and spiritual bankruptcy is its own form of posturing.
Perhaps I should spend more time listening to songs by once-popular 70’s rock bands of the kind who haven’t been remembered as cultural icons who sell a million t-shirts. One thing I’ve found on the internet, is there are entire communities of strange teenagers creating fandoms for obscure members of forgotten bands, fandoms for people who didn’t have fandoms when their songs were actually on the charts. (This is why Tumblr will never die.) A quick search for Electric Light Orchestra, and some genderfluid 10th grade munchkin thinks Jeff Lynne is the light of their life. God, I love the internet. It’s that kind of context-free love and devotion that makes me think I should take time to rediscover artists who I’ve always identified as staples of late-night oldies radio and the two dollar vinyl bin at the thrift store.