The Music Club
Dear Ann and J-dy,
Finally, we get down to it—critics' music! Yay! Has Pitchfork posted its list yet? That Knife record last year came out of the blue and was really good—dance music, too. J-dy (is reading flamers contractually required at your mag?), methinks the youngest of we three is also the most populist of us all. This is probably because by the time you were coming up, anyone who actually liked real pop songs could no longer miss the anti-pop polarization that became the indie rule post-Kurt—who mouthed the line himself, and was tormented by its contradictions. I've been bitching about this forever—at least as long as a 1990 pan of Harvard's Galaxie 500 (supposedly a classic band, but for me Dean Wareham's major-label spinoff Luna was the classic):
Look, all you young white people, I know fate has dealt you a shitty hand. Rent stabilization is a joke, safe sex isn't a joke, pollutants can really get you down, and forget the economy. Not to mention the decline of civility on our city streets. So if you just want to sit around and mope about it to each other, we understand. But if you're looking for a helping hand, you're going to have to reach out a little yourselves—that's just human nature. Show some get-up-and-go, crack a few jokes, like on the first song. As my grandpa used to say: "Laugh and the world laughs with you/Weep and you weep alone."
Pardon my quoting myself, but I was struck by how much this anticipated Jody's take—only now we get to factor a vile war and a neofascist executive branch into the anomie. And "reaching out for a helping hand," intended ironically at the time, is now off the table—the young feel self-sufficient in the musical present and resigned to a medium-secure economic future. That's one reason it's still anomie, not revolt. Cf. the National's Boxer, which I too hated until I bore down on the lyrics while casting about for a Dud of the Month one night—the fabulous lead track, "Fake Empire," is a self-knowledge anthem for what Carl Wilson, in the response to Frere-Jones you published here, called "knowledge workers." Like Sasha, I'm always suspicious when pop fans dismiss African-American musical usages. The historical record is so clear. I don't attribute this to racism, and Sasha didn't, either—that's a grave charge requiring hard evidence. It's more like a chronic short in the collective ear-brain-ass circuitry, perhaps exacerbated by the politer modern versions of de facto segregation, which is bad enough. Still, in the end I found Wilson's class analysis of the Trouble With Indie more persuasive than Frere-Jones' racial analysis. And with that I'd like to quote myself again, for the last time, I promise, and it's short, in re: that intelligent but also annoying Feist album you both like and I don't hate: "Not-so-oblique adult love songs for young professionals not-so-displeased with their lot."
Look, I'm an old professional pleased to have lived his life in the ever-expanding knowledge field, which I was lucky to get into when it was a more fulfilling gig than it is now, unless you work at Google. I just think it could be more fun for people, whatever their day-job constrictions, if they'd open up a little more, and more interesting if they had a somewhat sharper and more aggressive critique of the constrictions. Although she's obviously sharp, I don't feel either of those tendencies in Feist, who sounds like she gets her jollies hanging out in wine bars I can't afford (where she'll get picked up by Matt Berninger of the National, who'll hate himself or maybe her in the morning). Is the admittedly ambivalent (and sexy) "Brandy Alexander" her twist on that? Maybe as regards the drinking, conceivably as regards the venue, not as regards the prices. Could be generational, could be my own lower-middle-class youth and frugal-bohemian young adulthood, but the lounge was never where I went for fun, including the intelligent kind Feist is selling. No barfly, I nevertheless dug CBGB before it was a punk club.
But at least Feist is sharp. What struck me about Ann's indie faves is that a lot of them weren't—not enough to suit me. PJ Harvey sounds as if she's going to rise to the heavens in a wisp of steam before she can force another record out, the Avett Brothers—like their Americana Music Award co-winner Patty Griffin—have yet to hit me with that spot-on moment of vernacular wit that can induce me to keep my mind on folk-rock these days (that name again: Amy LaVere), and as for Of Montreal's all-over-the-place Kevin Barnes, the gender-bend is an enduring and understandable passion of rock criticism's foremost feminist, but only seduces me when it rises to the heights of "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" (or, better still, 69 Love Songs). Yet for all that—in fact, as all that illustrates, proves, even—what Ann says about enablement and choice in "our speedy era" is absolutely true. It's fine for this great critic to like music I don't care for—she helps me understand its meaning for those it touches. The music opens them up, she opens me up. The reason all of us have such problems with indie orthodoxy—really orthodoxies, since, to cite just the two examples at hand, the Ryan Adams-Wilco-Josh Ritter Americanans are nowhere near hip enough for the half-assed revisionists and band-of-the-month snobs of Pitchfork and its many inferiors—is that we don't sense much emotional generosity there. The formal conservatism of the former and one-upping sectarianism of the latter—not to mention the rarity of engaging prose in either camp—seem stifling. And of course, there is the problem that both camps think so highly of Iron and Wine.
In other words, just as Ann says, the indie world—now about 25 years old—is essential. Not just in the obvious sense that small-time capitalists will put out commercially marginal records (such as Reboot Stereophonic's Jewface, or that Rochereau labor of love that, along with Gogol Bordello, was near the top of my most major-heavy top 10 in years), but that the bohemias and fandoms they service and reflect, silly or wrong-headed or narrow though they may be, are breeding grounds. Jody notices all the indie bands rocking out, while Ann's preferences, for purposes of this discussion, are more reflective. But no matter how much we may and should bitch, we're so much better off with them than without them.
And then, shit, there's Lil Wayne, transforming the notion of indie as he swamps not just Jay-Z but—sorry, Jody—a merely quick and catchy Kanye West swallowed by his own stardom. Because I almost never download (there's so much to listen to without that potentially viral fuss) and was on vacation when the Frere-Jones piece dropped, I missed The Carter 3 and Da Drought 3. So I've only been living with them for a week, and don't have them under my belt. But I mean—jeeze. Just checked Metacritic's ridiculous roll call and see that not a single Lil Wayne album, much less these two phantom releases, has yet accrued an entry there. That's disgusting—isn't genius below the radar what the blogosphere is supposed to track? So give Pitchfork credit for Ryan Dombal's engaging Da Drought 3 review. But jeeze. Maybe Lil Wayne's negatives, which Ann rightly flags—"woman-fearing," bring it—will eventually undercut my pleasure in the untrammeled inventiveness of the things, so confident they don't even swagger except as a kind of stage move. Plus the indifference to, or defiance of, normal distribution channels—no RIAA robot here. But I bet not. Stream them now, folks. Get your kid to help you.
Happy New Year, everybody. Nas, you knew hip-hop wasn't dead. You were just saying that.