I present you with the humble folk singer, Robert Plant. If that’s not what you know him for, think again. If there’s one thing his recent career developments have shown, is that Plant rather does fancy himself a folk singer, and perhaps always has. Even when the singer can’t resist unleashing those signature wails, it’s still a folk song. Another lifelong signature (and a controversial one) is the habit of giving himself writing credit for rearrangements of songs whose roots aren’t lost to time enough to qualify as ‘traditional’. This a rearrangement of a Leadbelly song, and it true Robert Plant fashion, the lyrics remain while the shape has been shifted into something quite new. It’s American blues taken through space-time to meet English folk tradition, plus some global stuff thrown in. Of course, Anglicizing American blues music beyond all recognition is what pays Plant’s castle mortgage. So all this getting ‘rootsier’ with age isn’t exactly a new development; it’s an inevitable development.
If I wanted to simplify my musical choices into if-then bytes, I would say that you’d then like Glass Animals if you like Alt-J. Because cryptic, whispery, psychedelic tunes with atmosphere over hooks. But, you know, that’s a simplistic way of explaining things. Let’s just say, here’s another corner of in the psychedelic side of electronic indie music. Glass Animals’ first album Zaba was a triumph of sustained atmosphere. Not really the kind of record where individual songs fly out at you, but the kind that you kind of get into the flow of. This song was a single, and it does stand on its own quite well. I also really love the beautiful claymation video.
In the face of hundred million dollar offers to ride the nostalgia bus, Robert Plant turns his nose up and says that he’s just not that bored. Sick burn, Robert! While some people *cough* Jimmy Page *cough* *cough* want to spend their time digging through their own archives, remastering the hits, dusting off old demos, and just generally living in the past, Plant is busy trotting the musical globe with a new set of friends. Maybe Plant’s contentious relationship with his old partner and their legacy isn’t very graceful and smells like the bickering of an old divorced couple, but his ongoing creative vitality makes up for it. Sure, it’s detrimental to the kids not to have both fathers hand-in-hand like they used to be. But I’d rather hear new music than forgotten outtakes from Led Zeppelin III, and Plant has been on a Renaissance tear lately. First he did the big bluegrass excursion with Alison Krauss, then he gathered the band he calls The Sensational Space Shifters for a record that pours together all of the folk music of the world. It’s quite satisfying to see him evolve his sound and build on his interests without falling back the damn tropes he helped create. He still likes magic and mythology, and he’s still interested in the heroic possibilities of British folk music, and if he’s less bombastic about those things, all the better for it. And he still has the looks and bearing of a horse lord, albeit now one who has retired with honors from the Rohirrim.
Here, a lesson in zef aesthetics. For Die Antwoord music is only part of the story; their personas and visual style make them a complete package. There’s some debate as to how real those personas really are. It’s a bigger issue back home in South Africa, where some critics have accused Yo-Landi and Ninja of being middle class poseurs, much like white performers in America often get called out for trying to act like they from the hood. But for us viewing audiences here in the States, a lot of the context gets lost, and we don’t really care if their zef is the most authentic zef, because it’s the only zef we know. You don’t need an in-depth cultural history to enjoy what’s clearly an image that’s heavily dramatized for the stage. Die Antwoord’s visual cues are uniquely theirs, from their love of rats and freeky people to their clever takedowns of American hip hop culture. If you didn’t get it already, the sleek pimpy fellow getting his throat ripped out at the beginning of the video is a doppelganger of the aggressively mediocre and wildly popular Miami rapper Armando Perez aka Pitbull. Die Antwoord have consistently set themselves against what they call “one big inbred fuck-fest” of a music scene, meaning the endlessly generic, overhyped, overproduced products of the mainstream pop machine. Rap music used to be an outsider culture, but it has been cannibalized by the music industry and turned into another bland mass market product ruled by stereotype and cliche. The same has happened to rave culture and electronic music. Die Antwoord are a rap-rave outfit, drawing inspiration from – and satirizing – both cultures. One of the most enjoyable things about their inventive videos is seeing them send up, invert, and overturn the tired tropes of the standard music video.
Should I call this Ambient Dance Music? Because you could totally dance to Broken Bells, but also most of their music slides by so gently. That’s not an insult. A Broken Bells record is a smooth, pleasurable ride. So what if you don’t necessarily remember very many moments of it? It may be snarky to say so, but this is music that appears to have been written specifically to be played in restaurants with pastel interiors. Danger Mouse is a smart guy, and I’m sure he’s heard of Brian Eno and his concepts of ambiance. Whether or not he intended Broken Bells as a venture into that territory remains unknown, but again, the comparison is not meant to be a putdown. There’s nothing wrong with writing music with an eye towards creating a more beatific environment. Honestly, I think that’s something the world needs more of. You can say that the world has enough bland indie pop and we need more punk rock, but those things are in no way exclusive.
A slightly belated tribute to the late legend Sharon Jones. Jones passed away on November 18th, and if nobody has optioned the film rights to her life story yet, someone needs to get on it. (I want Viola Davis on this, ASAP!) Jones’ life was truly a success story that couldn’t have been better written; she was one of those rare artists whose talents aren’t rewarded until well into mid-life. She was in her mid forties when she became one of the founding artists at Daptone Records, and began recording with her band The Dap-Kings. Before that she spent years working as a guard at Rikers Island and other thankless jobs. Even her passing was a twist stranger than fiction – weakened by an ongoing battle with cancer, she suffered a stroke while watching the results of the presidential election. But, though fascinating, Jones’ incredible life is not really what her legacy is about. Her legacy is how she near-singlehandedly revived old-school soul and funk music at a time when R’N’B was more ‘ratchet and bitches’ than ‘rhythm and blues’. Neo-soul has become increasingly popular recently, with more interest in classic Motown and a wave of younger artists like Anthony Hamilton and Mayer Hawthorne adapting the style. And it was Sharon Jones who took the form out of the realm of nostalgia and pastiche; making searing authentic soul music for a new generation; reminding us that real soul is never irrelevant.
Add Bombay Bicycle Club to your growing collection of new indie music, though it may disappoint you to learn that they’re not really from Bombay. They started out as a fairly generic guitar band, but quickly added a psychedelic dimension and world music influences. I very much like the flow and atmosphere of their last two albums, A Different Kind of Fix and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It seems that they haven’t released anything in a couple of years, though that’t fairly par for the course today. Since nobody makes money selling albums anymore, most groups have to support their new releases with 18 month long tours and negotiating corporate sponsorships. Therefore, it’s no worries if there hasn’t been an album since 2014. I’m sure they’ll bounce back within the next year or two. In the meantime, there’s a pretty strong couple of offerings to get the library started.