The Music Club

Titus Andronicus and Other Musical Artists Who Took Risks Last Year
New albums dissected over email.
Jan. 27 2011 12:50 PM

The Music Club

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Titus Andronicus.

Way to show up the guy from Toronto by dropping my neighbor Deadmau5 into the mix, Jonah. But that was a great description of the irreplaceable somatic rush of listening to music in groups, in public—and of the fact that it's time to stop setting hypermediation and "the real thing" against each other, as if we don't constantly experience both simultaneously and haven't been (through esoteric technologies like religion and ideology) for untold centuries.

And yet there's a faction that goes on granting special sincerity points to folks who play acoustic guitars and get vocal effects from the bass player's harmonies instead of via filtered spectrum analysis. At this point that's an aggressively naïve devaluation of the interchanges we all have face-not-to-face every day (not to mention those hollow-body-slingers tend to be gangs of white dudes).

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It feels too cavalier to say "we are our screens"—when government is talking about creating a national online-identity system, Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget manifesto remains compelling. But surely Radiohead-style techno-angst feels dead. Hell, it's 2011—if we weren't all listening to robot rock by now, we'd be disappointing four decades of musical futurists (or more, if you check out one of the year's better music books, Dave Tompkins' history of the vocoder, How to Wreck a Nice Beach).

In any case Jonah's image of a roomful of Canadians' and guests' "flesh on the floor" with "no dread in the air of any sort" was a relief after Jody's protectionist outcry against "musical outsourcing." Worrying that Eurodisco and dubstep is watering down good-ol' American syncopation seems pretty alarmist, unless you're also willing to say the British Invasion brought American national decay rather than a rejuvenating cosmopolitanism (though there's a way to make that case).

I'm just teasing Jody here. Still, the backlash, polarization, and retrenchment of 2010 has gone mostly unmentioned in this conversation, and "musical outsourcing" sounds a bit too much like the cry Glenn Beck might raise with a fever of flowcharts on his blackboard before a Tea Party rally, not like a rave beating as one. The BRIC countries might spook people economically, but which of us wouldn't welcome a lot more beats-and-scales pollution from Brazil and India? Lady Gaga's already been working the Russian end with her polka-faced pastiches, and my colleague Chris Randle has cheered the "tangled polycultural moves" the growing presence of Asian pop might inspire among North Americans in 2011. Missy and Timbo are back just in time.

So where does that specter of fear intersect with Ann's question about risk-taking? It's a risk whenever artists expose their creations to the world. Frequently, in working out their own relationship with their muse and their craft, they're not conscious of making the "moves" fans and critics ascribe to them out of our desire to impose a narrative. So what do our criteria for risk say about what we're afraid of, or what we admire? It's a little like asking what "difficult" music is, or difficult listening—as I say in my book, for one person it may be a raucous, discordant Schoenberg piece, for another it might take more fortitude and patience to discover any appreciation of Celine Dion, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift.

What kind of risk were David Byrne and Fatboy Slim taking by composing a double-CD song cycle about former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos and the nurse who raised her, Here Lies Love, featuring a pantheon of female guest vocalists from Cyndi Lauper to Santigold? It's audacious, with a stylistic range that sometimes soars and sometimes splats. Then again, Byrne's made casual audacity his comfort zone.

Or how about young guitar band Titus Andronicus's The Monitor, which weaves blue-and-gold threads of Civil War history into the knot of a quarter-life crisis, but with a sharp attack that's nothing like the fuzzed-out vagaries of their chillwave peers? Ann, you and I both also admired the writings of band member Amy Klein on her tumblr, which in the spirit of Riot Grrrl (speaking of 90s revivalism) articulately confronts sexism in and out of the music scene (speaking of Kanye, among way too many others).

On that topic, one of the more daring rock albums this year was Paul's Tomb: A Triumphby British Columbia's Frog Eyes, whose sound is equal parts gypsy-carnival, garage-punk, and Captain Beefheart (R.I.P.). It's an album about misogyny that, rather than explicitly denouncing it, features misogynist viewpoint characters whose lines sound a lot like the resentful-romantic lyrics of many an emo or indie guy singer, channelled through vocalist Carey Mercer's own signature Wordsworth-meets-Dali lyrical style. You can depict an evil more accurately by getting inside it, but you take the chance that audience will confuse the teller and the tale.

Those borders are messed with in other ways by another Canadian, Toronto violin-loop virtuoso Owen Pallett, who met the daunting challenge of following up his last, enormously acclaimed album (under the name Final Fantasy) with Heartland, featuring a character who rises up to destroy his maker: " 'Your light is spent, your light is spent!' I cried/ As I drove the iron spike into Owen's eyes." That's some way to confront artistic self-consciousness—in a whirling welter of texture that transliterates early-'70s Krautrock stylings into symphonic strings. (Later he put out an instrumental EP on Soundcloud to show off the orchestrations on their own, plus a book of the full score so fans could try their own hands or bows.)

As for those Joanna Newsom epics, I agree there were too many to digest on Have One on Me, so the compact love songs gleamed against that dense background. But I'm not rooting for her to rein her genius in to verse-chorus form—as Jonah said, there's more to life than fine pop craftsmanship. That's why bands such as Buke & Gass and The Lower Dens custom-deconstruct their instruments to unlock the cages of rock cliché, Matmos and So Percussion make music out of cactus needles, and Boston drone-landscapists The Fun Years conduct tours of unheard planets with just guitar and turntables on an album awesomely titled God Was Like, No.

There's the risk of alienating your fans that, say, Sufjan Stevens took by making a completely different kind of album (I didn't like it, but I didn't like him before, either), and then there's the risk of living up to your own legacy that Swans, Superchunk, and Macy Gray took just by returning after long absences and proving to be, if anything, tougher minded than ever. Gil Scott-Heron's comeback attempt I'm New Here was sadly undermined by his frailty from years of addiction, though it had moments where the pre-rap pioneer's keen perceptive soul shone through (as a certain someone noticed.)

The toll of substance abuse puts me in mind of Elizabeth Cook's "My Heroin-Addict Sister" from her intimate, autobiographical country album Welder—which amid the self-regarding, Twittering, cyberbullying, bourgeois-épater-ing, baroque racket of 2010, reminded that understatement can be one of the most powerful risks of all.

I could close by wishing more artists take that lesson in 2011, but it'd be disingenuous: When it comes to pop, you've always got to hang the same sampler over the mantle, and that's "Bless This Mess." (Well, that or "Teach Me How to Dougie.") Glad to have gotten to survey the latest wreckage from all of your lighthouses, and meet you back here any time.

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Carl Wilson is Slates music critic. 

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