The Music Club

Panda Bear Literally Puts Me to Sleep
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 19 2007 1:40 PM

The Music Club

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Panda Bear 
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Panda Bear

Bros,

Indie vs. mainstream, populist vs. blog-snobby, funky vs. folky—don't you feel like these dichotomies merge and morph every time we try to grasp them? Take a band you two happily disdain: mountain-man beard proponents Iron & Wine.

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Bob, I'd especially expect you to despise Sam Beam's spacey-fuzzy soundscapes, as they fall right in line with stuff we've been fondly disagreeing about for, gulp, nearly two decades. His whispering whines didn't work for me either until he teamed up with Calexico and put a little spring in his step. But "The Shepherd's Dog" hung around in my Rhapsody Sansa Player because it went way beyond moping: In his own postgraduate white boy way, Beam followed M.I.A. around the world, enriching his pup-tent ghost stories with Arabic handclaps, African guitar runs, and diasporic guitar that might have fit on that super Tinariwen record.

What Beam is chasing is pleasure—the blood rush that comes when some new wonder unfolds, whether it's a love thing, a previously unexplored backroad, or (this is pop, after all) a new commodity. Pleasure became a problem for indie rock in the 1990s; blame Kurt, blame heroin, blame political correctness, whatever, never mind. But it's totally back, from the silk-purse neo-hippiesms of freak folk (dudes, hippies get laid), to the roving house parties of CSS and Girl Talk (Paris Hilton jumped onstage during their Coachella sets—that's hot!), to the superstoner subcult that produced Pitchfork's 2007 No. 1, Panda Bear's "Person Pitch," an album that literally puts me to sleep.

And what values are expressed by the natty retro-soul scene that championed Amy Winehouse, if not the nightlife creed of boundaries crossed in the name of fun? At Winehouse producer/It Boy Mark Ronson's El Rey show last fall, Christina Aguilera and Nicole Richie hung in the VIP lounge as Ronson's interracial troupe laid down their rock-soul hybrids. Pitchfork hates Ronson, by the way—reviewer Adam Moerder gave his album Version a sneery 3.3. Is it because starlets boogie to his grooves? Maybe they'd better reconsider Girl Talk.

Sasha's critique of the year, already parsed in your previous posts, was a crucial corrective to the strain of indie rock that includes the Shins and the now officially overbashed Decemberists. Yet I hear the opposite everywhere: not white isolationism, but rampant appropriation of not just African-American but (as M.I.A. calls it) World town musical styles, as well as a slight if still inadequate increase in nonwhite membership in the club. Look at that Pitchfork Top 10—I'll never get Animal Collective, but beyond them the faves include indeterminate dubstep artist Burial, interracial trigonometry team Battles, and funky white boys Of Montreal and Spoon.

Maybe it's time to stop worrying about how political correctness has divided us and remind ourselves of the lessons it meant to teach: that copping someone's style without acknowledging their presence can be a problem; that libertinism can lead pretty quickly to exploitation if you're not careful; and that (go ahead, yawn) the personal is political, right down to your choice of samples and shout-outs.

I'm going into 2008 with determined optimism. Women are inching closer to equal representation in the mainstream and the underground, despite hip-hop's ensconced machismo—and hey, Jody, we've got Kid Sister and Santogold to give us hope for female rappers. A year after TV on the Radio's poll-topping triumphs, interracial (if not class-crossing) collars are still a trend. Curious nerds are indulging in fruitful explorations of worlds beyond their own bedrooms, traveling to the Balkans for their instruments, Manchester for their vintage soul, and France for their techno refresher course. And Robert Wyatt and the Wu-Tang Clan have both somehow survived.

What do I want next year? Sexiness in mainstream rock (sorry, Jody; while I agree that Daughtry has genuine charisma, he's too Christian and too blatantly married to satisfy my desire for new polymorphous rock gods); attention for Lizz Wright, whose upcoming album is pure gorgeous; the return of Missy, Erika Baud, the Breeders, and my mainstream home girl Sheryl Crow, and, completely divorced from trends, the return of Metallica.

As for now, I wish our conversation could go on and on. But I've got to make some chicken soup and give that new Drive-By Truckers record a play. It's not even January, and I'm already behind.

Love,
Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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