We’re gonna roll through the next few days examining the redemptive power of rock music, in all of its various forms and permutations. That’s necessarily going to focus on the big players for the most part, but we’ll hear some less well-known artists. Like Wild Belle, who aren’t really a rock band – but you don’t have to be in a rock band to be a rock star. Wild Belle are so not-well-known their second album doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page, which implies that there’s literally nothing to say about it except to acknowledge that it exists. I can say that it’s a good record and you should buy it. Wild Belle are different from most of the other sibling duos in that they really like roots reggae; their sound is half island, half Laurel Canyon. It’s still, on some level, lifestyle music, which, it seems, is what most light indie pop is geared to be. As in, you can hear these songs being unobtrusively pleasant as you shop, and they evoke hashtag-ready imagery of girls with long blonde hair and fringe suede boots. There’s nothing wrong with pleasant music evoking pleasant images, and I certainly am not shading Natalie Bergman for her fair hair. The way those things have been monetized via social media is also not inherently wrong, despite the misgivings of people raised on traditional media. In fact, young stars like Bergman have means to control and market their image in a way that a comparably appealing young star in the 60’s never dreamed of. That’s progress, of a sort, though we haven’t made heads or tails of it yet. The nature of stardom is different today. Maybe stars can’t be larger than life anymore, but in exchange, they can be constantly in your life, like a friend who never stops forwarding you Groupon offers.
(Concert Photo by K. Nordstrom // Instagram: @kellenyousoftly)
Now that it’s almost time to pick the best-of of the year, let’s revisit one of last year’s best. Paul Simon’s Stranger to Stranger has been on my playlist since it came out in the summer of 2016, and it still makes me think “Wow, how does this guy manage to be better than ever?” In fact, I haven’t listened to this much Paul Simon since my days of identifying way too much with I Am a Rock back in high school. Now I hope that I have so much creativity and vitality when I’m freaking 76 years old. Maybe the best years are still ahead, for all of us.
You’ll be hard pressed to find any trace of Nick Cave’s signature wit and mordant humor on Skeleton Tree. The album was recorded in the fallout of family tragedy, and necessarily, the music is stripped down to a funereal bleakness hitherto undelved. The business of show business, however, must go on, and the wheels of the machine that sells records must keep turning. There’s something particularly grotesque, a testament about our time and celebrity culture, in watching a man whose child has just died make the rounds of late night talk show stages to promote a set of songs about deepest tragedy. Nick Cave is, of course, uniquely qualified to face being in this position; the tragic and the grotesque have always been his stomping grounds. He has to, on some level, appreciate the irony. Hence, I suppose, the garish carnival backdrop of his Late Show performance, a gallows joke nonpareil. There’s that sense of humor after all.
I don’t usually know very much about what’s going on in the R&B corner of things. It’s, um, it’s a neighborhood I don’t go to very often, so to speak. But sometimes there’s an artist who has the potential to blow up beyond the boundaries of what genre they’re booked into. I recommend keeping an eye on the progress of Tinashe. She’s nominally an R&B artist, but it’s like alternative R&B. Alternative R&B is an umbrella genre that covers a pretty far-flung range of artists from The Weeknd to Rhye to Solange to Banks, all of whom share an interest in sexy grooves and moody atmospheres but also draw from just about everywhere else as well. Tinashe draws from contemporary R&B and soul, from hip hop and from pop, from dance music. She’s a well rounded artist in that way. What matters is she’s got a great voice, a sexy smoky voice that puts her in the school of Sade, and her records (two albums and counting) are commercial without being generic. (She’s been described as a more pop oriented FKA Twigs.) The trend right now is female pop singers who are always trying to hit the top of their range; there’s not much room for quiet. But we could use a quiet pop star who prefers to whisper rather than to shout. Tinashe could be, with the right hit, a huge, huge star. Or she could go on to build an edgier career, if she follows her more eccentric side.
Electropop groups are not good candidates for the unplugged treatment. It’s tough test, stripping away the heavy production and electronic atmospheres defines the genre. There’s not always a lot of strong writing or good musicianship underneath. So you can’t blame any group who leans heavily on bleep-bloops for not wanting to go all acoustic. Here, however, is an acoustic performance by noted bleep-bloop duo Broods, and guess what, it’s good. They’ve pulled the plaintive ballad out of a song that was originally halfway to being a club track. Georgia Nott doesn’t have the most outstanding voice, but she sings with feeling. It’s nice to see that there’s a genuine person behind the usually very glossy music, and there’s an emotional center to the song that may get lost in the production.
There are a lot of things to admire about Sia; her powerhouse voice, her artsy music videos, her clever response to the sex- and scandal- hungry celebrity culture that cannibalizes female artists. There are also things about her that may annoy you. For instance her tendency, as a professional songwriter, to engineer every tune for maximum back-row-of-the-stadium bombastic effect. Writing smash hits is her job. The result is that she fills her records with wannabe smashes that never quite get there. Nuance ain’t her bag. Then there’s her relentless positivity. Every song doesn’t have to be the triumphant anthem that scores the sports montage in an underdog movie, Sia. Not that she’s never written about anything dark; Chandelier, her biggest hit, is about her own alcoholism. It’s just that she makes everything sound like, well, the triumphant anthem that scores the sports montage in an underdog movie. This track was originally written for Rihanna, and you can see why she turned it down. Ri-Ri has a healthy sense of nuance, for all of her glamour, and she tends to steer away from the overly uplifting or sentimental. Uplift should be earned, not hammered home. On the other hand, there’s a place in every record library for an album full of nothing but aggressively fist-pumping pop anthems, and it should probably be This Is Acting.
Hey, did you know that The Joy Formidable released an album in 2016? No, how could you? Unless you actively follow their moves on social media, it’s hard to keep track of what indie bands are up to. The only mainstream music related publication still in print is Rolling Stone, and if anything, their focus has narrowed of late. I’ve heard that in the UK, there’s still a number of music magazines that actually cover new music and rising artists and the indie scene, but I don’t have access to those and I’m guessing you don’t either. My point is, there are many exciting events that occur without much fanfare from whatever you call the media, so you really have to do your own research. I would really love to see Ritzy Bryan get the rock star treatment; she could be on the cover of Rolling Stone, mostly naked in a lewd pose photographed by a known serial rapist. Ok, no, you know what, just keep doing what you’re doing Ritzy, you don’t need that shit. Indie artists can go on being indie artists and I think you’ll find it worthwhile to do the footwork, so to speak, of keeping up with them yourself.