Saturday, September 26, 2009

Indie Rock and You

What is it LIKE to enjoy a piece of music? This is what I want to know from a record review. Obviously, the very worst reviews of music are those that just talk about the lyrics, but from an intellectual standpoint, just as bad is the pretentious claim that reviews should "tell us what the music sounds like." Well, nothing could be more idiotic while sounding like a reasonable demand.

There is a rave review for the new GIRLS album, up on Pitchfork. Here is the part where they tell you what the music sounds like:

Musically, Album is mostly sunny Beach Boys pastiche, but it's not the kajillionth indie attempt at orchestral Pet Sounds majesty. Rather, it's simple and forthright early Beach Boys stuff: compact guitar-jangles, sha-la-la harmonies, muffled heartbeat drums. It sounds great. And even though it has a basic core sound, Album manages to cover a lot of aesthetic ground in its 44 minutes. Without being showy about it, they swing from rushing power-pop to acoustic campfire laments to "Morning Light", which is one of the most fully realized slices of shoegaze revivalism I've heard in years. If they'd made an entire album of songs like "Morning Light", Girls would be getting a ton of blog love, but they decided to go for something at once messier and simpler. And they're getting a ton of blog love anyway.

There's a pillowy quality to many of the sounds on Album, but this isn't lo-fi or glo-fi or whatever. Rather, every little production flourish is so much a part of the whole that you don't notice it until the 10th or 15th listen. On "Lust for Life", for instance, there's a melodica that bubbles up on the second half. "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" is joyous beach-party stuff, but there's a beautifully discordant guitar solo in there. "Hellhole Ratrace" builds to an epic guitar whoosh halfway through its seven minutes, but the beat's hammer never quite falls; the drums stay just slightly off. The guitars on "Lauren Marie" twang like Duane Eddy's. All this stuff functions like the sleigh bells on Liz Phair's "Fuck and Run": subtle little intuitive details that you might never notice but that add to the devastating whole. The canniness of Album's production choices and the scuzzy depression of the lyrics and the gut-level songwriting instincts, along with everything else about the record, add up to something elusive and fascinating-- maybe even heartbreaking.

Now, that is really specific. A true description of what this album sounds like. But what remains to be pointed out is the deep irrelevance of "sounding like..." The guitars on "Lauren Marie" twang like Duane Eddy's--you don't say?? Does that mean any song will mean anything to me on first listen, on twelfth listen, in ten years? No matter how precise the description of the sound, I actually have no idea what it is like to *enjoy* this record. I only know what it is like to have *heard* this record.

Do the songs get under your skin? Do you find yourself singing them in the shower? Do you find little parts to memorize and play over and over? Or is it the sequencing? How does the filler fit in with the singles? Does it play best in short doses or all the way through? Might it be best to listen to this in the car or while doing the dishes?

Without being too autobiographical, the reviewer should tell me these things. For example, let me review an indie rock song for you. This is how it's done. This is a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah song from a few years ago.

Although much of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's sound (slurred, slightly precious, affected vocals and droopy, woozy guitar) will be familiar to fans of indie rock--most recently in Modest Mouse's stirring late-career hit "Float On"--the layering of synthesizers over a predominantly bass-driven melody reminds me of nothing more than prime New Order. Meaning, if there is something like a canon of crowd-pleasers and genuine HITS in indie rock, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have tapped into this tradition. Nothing I think could be more profoundly uncool than such a move: it's like writing a poem with T.S. Eliot as your major influence, emulating The Godfather in film, or saying your favorite music is Mozart. The "cool" thing is secretly the artistic position which cuts out a certain portion of the audience in advance, the art that is less ambitious but which has obvious allusions instead. CYHSY are truly embarrassing, because they seemingly did not get this memo. On the contrary, they quietly have gone about the business of writing a song that is outstanding beyond its years: like "Sweet Child o' Mine" on Guns 'n Roses' debut album, it seems impossible that a young band could have produced such an obvious classic. CYHSY don't try to write "the perfect pop song" as though that were just the code for certain moves: they understand that "the perfect pop song" has a *unique* energy, not just the bland moodlessness of power-pop. And unlike the Jesus & Mary Chain-influenced groups that would come after, in the Brooklyn noise-pop wave of 2008, CYHSY have mastered dynamics, and... musicianship! In conclusion, that this is perfect car-commercial music is not to be doubted; but that something this propulsive and memorable is never to be produced by abstract and merely stylistic concerns, but only by real uninhibited creativity, is equally testified to in this little gem.

(In conclusion to this post, though, you will note that Pitchfork's review of the GIRLS album is different from my review of this CYHSY song, not just because the writing is different, but because no one could ever write such a thing of the boring, tepid, and suffocatingly-constrained mannerisms of GIRLS.)