A couple of months ago, I poured over an article detailing the decline of doo-wop with interest. No, I’ve never been a connoisseur of the genre, but it always brought a smile to my face when I heard one of The Ronettes or The Temptations. In fact, those dulcet girl groups and foot-tapping melodies seemed to be creeping up with increased incidence. Hearing a little doo-wop between sets at a trendy indie show is certainly not unusual.
So, in this – the very age of nostalgia – why isn’t doo-wop more popular? Are we simply too cynical to accept it? Might it still have its turn for a comeback? And how do you measure the vitality of a genre? Does it have to keep churning out new artists and producing new music for it to be “alive”?
If you’ve got answers, I’d love to hear them.
In the meantime, here’s a modest little compilation of some of the essentials. Maybe it won’t be enough to rekindle an interest in the genre or to launch a new era of doo-wop groups, but as long as these songs continue to net hundreds of thousands of plays on Youtube – a site that seems to be a far more popular source of boobs and baby animals – the genre hasn’t breathed its dying breath just yet.
2011 may technically be a thing of the past, but what’s a few more lists, right? I’ll begin the trio with my favorite shows of the year. This list is always the most fun to put together because unlike the best songs or best albums, the list of contenders is limited to the shows that I managed to catch.
There are so many factors that go into a good show: the crowd, the venue, the sound, the music, and even the stage banter and my mood. All too often, concerts leave me rather indifferent. Here are a handful of the shows that I won’t soon forget.
13. Timber Timbre + Angel Olsen – Glasslands, April 14th* Of course, we’ve already established that Angel Olsen is a delight, so seeing her open for Timber Timbre was a nice treat – especially on such a small stage! For the late night show, Glasslands underwent a dramatic transformation. Usually whimsical and cozy, for Timber Timbre’s set, the venue transformed into an eerie, lantern-bedecked cavern, which mirrored the Canadian group’s spooky blues sound perfectly.
12. Lykke Li + Grimes – Webster Hall, May 18th* Maybe it was the sheer spectacle of Lykke Li dancing and prancing on stage or her amazing charisma – whatever the case, this was a solid show (even if Li’s album, Wounded Rhymes, didn’t hold up for me). Of course it didn’t hurt that Grimes, “the sound of the future” according to one music fan I spoke to, held the opening slot. These women will challenge even the most aloof hipster to get down.
Lykke Li (Photo Chris Jobling)
11. M83 + Active Child – Music Hall of Williamsburg, November 23rd* From Anthony Gonzalez’s introductory yelp (“Carry on! Carry on!”), M83 was an unstoppable force. They exuded confidence and competence in equal measure – a rare feat these days.
10. Bon Iver + The Rosebuds – United Palace Theatre, August 9th* I don’t expect Bon Iver’s 2011 release to make the cut for best albums, but there’s no denying it – that man’s voice could cure a cripple, enough so that I was even willing to give that ridiculous saxophone solo a pass.
Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Photo Renee)
9. Mount Eerie + Wyrd Visions – St. Cecilia’s Roman Catholic Church, June 19th* (Northside Fest)
Northside Fest brought some great artists to town in June, Mount Eerie, and this show was the highlight for me. Given the reverence lavished upon Phil Elverum by his fans (I turned into a giggling mess at the merch booth myself when I finally got my hands on The Glow, pt. 2 on vinyl), it only seemed right to watch the show from church pews. (Much love for Wyrd Visions, too!)
8. St. Vincent with Cate le Bon – Webster Hall, November 3rd* Perhaps one of the most flawless and powerful performances I saw all year – Annie Clark brings it.
St. Vincent (Photo Guus Krol)
7. Feist + Mountain Men – Church of the Intercession, October 3rd*
This show was certainly a surprise – for me and the hundred or so others in attendance. It’s not often you find yourself at a crypt in Harlem – especially with an orchestra, Leslie Feist, and the lovely women of Mountain Man. Definitely a treat.
Feist (Photo Jill Mapes)
6. Sea of Bees – Rockwood Music Hall (stage 2), October 21st(CMJ)
Good God, Jules Baeziger left me breathless with this one. In the midst of all the prefab beats, glitz, glitch, and hype that comes with CMJ, an intimate Sea of Bees set was just what I needed. I think I cried at this one. Multiple times. So good.
5. PJ Harvey – Terminal 5, April 19th* Yes, it was Terminal 5, but come on. We’re talking PJ Harvey here. I could hardly believe I was in the same room as her, let alone listening to her play from my perch in the VIP balcony. Cat Power may have been a bust last year, but PJ Harvey? Untouchable.
PJ Harvey (Photo Il Fatto Quotidiano)
4. Austra – Emo’s, March 17th (SXSW) I definitely didn’t know when I was getting into when I stepped into the Domino showcase at Emo’s last spring. With SXSW, it’s always a temptation to dart from show to show, but Austra definitely caught my eye, and I think you’ll see why…
3. Sufjan Stevens + Diamond Rings – Prospect Park, August 3rd*
Despite the fact that rain poured down on us for upwards of three hours, the mood at the park was ecstatic. Swirling neons, giant blow-up men, quick choreography, ridiculous costume changes, Kat Martino’s solo, and beach balls were just a few of the things that made this show pop. Epic in every sense of the word – and worth every drop of rain.
Sufjan Stevens (Photo Jon Uleis)
2. John Maus – 285 Kent, October 19th* (CMJ) Stepping into this show (another Domino showcase) felt like stepping back in time when music still mattered enough to make you forget everything else and embrace the moment in all its sweaty, smokey glory. Like a cult leader, Maus writhed and shook on stage with fervor as the music swept over the room of his unquestioning followers. Magic.
John Maus (Photo Stephan CK)
1. Laura Marling – Audio Visual Arts Gallery, September 28th*
A private song with Laura Marling? Hands down my favorite music moment of the year.
Picture me and Laura sitting in this room (Photo RK)
As I reported a few weeks ago, I managed to score a ticket to a special one-on-one show with Laura Marling (all right, so technically it was two-on-one, and it was just one song… but still!). You can read about my experience here on the All Songs Considered blog.
But what isn’t included in that post is the audio I took on site. As I tried to collect my own thoughts about the experience, I went around and interviewed a few people to hear what they had to say, and I thought I’d post that here.
My favorite response came from Riley Fields who went in shortly after me:
Then there was the more collected duo, Julia Ramsey and Ben Kupstas:
And finally, I sought out Jennifer Barckley who had never heard Marling’s music before:
To hear the song she performed for me, check out an earlier post.
I have an oddly ambivalent relationship with female singer-songwriters.
Of course, there are a handful that I absolutely adore: Moon Pix era Cat Power, Laura Marling, Scout Niblett, Julie Doiron, Hope Sandoval, and Sea of Bees come to mind. And there are some that I have passing flings with – the Charlotte Gainsbourgs and Lykke Lis of the world. But more times than not, I just can’t muster any excitement.
Is it my gender that leaves me largely indifferent or downright turned off when it comes to artists like Wye Oak, My Brightest Diamond, or Joanna Newsom? Does some part of me feel threatened by a pretty girl with a guitar?
Heck, I’m not even really into Sharon Van Etten, the indie rock darling of Brooklyn. Or at least, I didn’t think I was until this week when a couple of her songs popped into my head unexpectedly, prompting me to go back and give Epic another shot.
Then there are still other female artists that I simply never gave a shot. So when I saw that NPR Music was streaming the new St. Vincent album, Strange Mercy, I knew I had to give it a shot. I confess to being embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Annie Clark’s discography. Sure, I’ve seen her collaborate with other musicians a few times, but somehow, I had never listened to either of her albums.
Strange Mercy opens with a warped organ, some Bjðrk-esque vocals, some potent guitar riffs, and a hip beat. Not what I was expecting. I confess that in my mind, Annie Clark and Miranda July had converged into one person due to their quirky personas, similar hair styles, doe eyes, and ability to steal my male friends’ hearts. But far from being an awkward, twee parody, Annie Clark delivers cool precision.
Here’s “Cruel,” the first video from the new album:
Following a surprisingly upbeat couple of songs, “Cheerleader” sees Clark dipping into a darker, more vulnerable side that more closely matches the tone of her lyrics. (I can’t help but think back to Grizzly Bear’s song by the same title – also excellent.)
Pretty in pink Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent (photo Annabel Mehran)
The album is polished in a way that will surely cause some to balk, but a gritty rawness still permeates the songs and prevents them from turning into eerie exercises in perfection. “Come cut me open,” Clark sings in “Surgeon.”
“[A]n unsparing examination of personal catharsis cloaked in some of the most sublime music of Annie Clark’s career,” boasts 4AD. A pretty piece of copy, indeed. Take a listen for yourself, and let me know if you agree.
One aspect of the music world that has always interested me is the process of choosing a band name or moniker. Sure, sometimes when you ask musicians how they arrived at their choice, you get some boring, non-committal answers. But every now and then, you may hear a humorous anecdote or even obtain a rare glimpse into a musician’s psyche.
Of course, there are the inevitable trends. The bear-, black-, sea-, beach-, and crystal- names. (I won’t bother to list them out here. We’ve seen them all before.) And the ridiculous, over-the-top names: Natalie Portman’s Sideways Ponytail, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. (1)
Then there’s the ironically un-Googleable names. Women, Real Estate, !!!,YACHT, The Muslims – the list goes on. (Just try finding info on BOBBY.)
These names are so common that it becomes nearly impossible to find them online – especially when they are first starting out. No Google, I don’t want to buy a house. I want to listen to “Beach Comber.”
But even this phenomenon isn’t terribly new.
What struck me as funny last week was the band Little Girls. Google that, and you may just end up on a watch list.
— (1) This clever little program makes fun at the increasingly arbitrary process of band naming. The sad thing is the results aren’t half bad. Go here and auto-generate one for yourself! My first attempt yielded “My Sister is Canadian.” (I took piano lessons for 7 years. Can you play the guitar/banjo/or ukulele? We might be onto something…)
Oh, the Snuggie. “You want to keep warm when you’re feeling chilled, but you don’t want to raise your heating bill…” When I first saw the infomercial for this ridiculous (but ingenious) product last year, I marvelled at the cheeziness of it. But the Snuggie recently one-upped itself this year with the introduction of the Weezer line.
In a recent segment All Things Considered, Rivers Cuomo said:
Well, like Weezer, Snuggies are just this weird, cool product that everyone seems to like. They’re really popular, and you can’t really figure out why. So we figured it’s a good match.
You can check out the official Weezer Snuggie infomercial here or watch Weezer performing (and clad in the Snuggie) on Letterman below:
What’s next? Maybe some N’Sync Orange Glow? Perhaps the Mates of State Magic Bullet?
Today, one of my co-workers asked me how I felt about Grizzly Bear having a song on the upcoming soundtrack for the new Twilight movie, New Moon. I confess most of my popular culture news comes either from Leslee or from a casual glance at one of NY’s two free newspapers, so I wasn’t even aware of the news, but it got me to thinking… what exactly qualifies as ‘selling out’ these days?
Taking a look at the artists signed on for the Twilight soundtrack, I’m actually moderately impressed. Sure, they have some obvious names like Thom Yorke, The Killers, and Death Cab for Cutie, but they also have some decent artists from the recent indie world like Lykke Li, Bon Iver with St. Vincent, Sea Wolf, and of course the aforementioned song with Grizzly Bear and Beach House’s Victoria Legrand.
So how do I feel about the potential proliferation and mass marketing of some of my preferred artists, you ask? Well, I think it’s tricky. I admit I did initially recoil at the idea if for no other reason than because I don’t really want to share the floor at a show with a horde of 15 year-olds (1). But of course, I also realize how hard it is to be a musician these days. Even artists that are fairly well known in the indie world still hold onto their day jobs to make ends meet. And it would be nice to get some decent artists some (commercial) radio play–especially if it means turning even a handful of listeners over to the joys of listening to a wider array of artists and finding good music for themselves instead of relying on a radio personality or MTV dj to simply feed them the same ten songs on repeat throughout the day.
But the question remains: What constitutes a sell-out? Is Of Montreal a sell out since they had a jingle in an Outback Steakhouse commercial?
To me, when a band makes decisions motivated solely by money, then that band is a sell out. If, however, their decision is motivated by wanting to spread their music or reach a wider audience, wanting to make a better product, or wanting to expand their horizons, well then perhaps they’re not really sell outs at heart even if they are releasing a song on a movie that will most-likely be completely heinous. Of course, part of me is still a little sad when one of my favorite bands all of the sudden starts playing at a larger venue , and I’m no longer the only cool kid who knows their name… but that’s just because I can fall into the trap of being an elitist music snob.
But what do you think? Are those hordes of adoring teenagers and pre-teens really ready for the hazy, hypnotic melodies of Grizzly Bear and Victoria LeGrand?
(1) Especially if it means they’re going to chase poor Ed Droeste or Daniel Rossen into the path of a moving vehicle like they did with Robert Pattinson.
A mere 15 years ago, discovering new music was a much more labor-intensive process. You’d have to turn on the radio or the tv (back when they still played music videos on MTV) or actually go to a record store to see what was new on the music scene. Sure, the popularity of certain bands or artists came in waves and they could certainly swell up, but back then, it was a different beast.
With the advent of the internet and MP3′s, the dynamics have certainly changed… especially in the ‘indie’ rock world, which I gravitate towards. Long gone are the days of turning on the radio and discovering new music. (1) Today, the avid music consumer has at his or her fingertips a wide body of opinions and whims thanks to the Internet. Anyone can start a blog and start proselytizing. (2) Still though, there are taste makers. We may have graduated from the days of listening to local radio stations, but sites like Pitchfork have become a new force to reckon with. Whether you read it religiously or the very name causes your skin to crawl, you can’t deny the power that it wields. Little-known bands can suddenly gain widespread exposure when they make the cut for ‘best new music.’ Pitchfork has been credited as launching the careers of such bands as Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and more.
Well, first of all we didn’t think Pitchfork would ever review our record because we’re not on a label. I don’t read Pitchfork much these days because I don’t have any money. So if there’s, like, a record I want to buy I’ll have to buy it and then I’ll be in debt again. Um, so I don’t really read it much. But I’m fully aware of how influential it is and I’m fully aware of what they do for a lot of bands [...]
We always knew that this band was going to be successful eventually. We didn’t know how long it would take. You hear about really awesome bands like, “paying their dues” for three years and not getting noticed. So that was always a possibility. But, the thing about a publication like Pitchfork is that they can decide when that happens. You know what I mean? They can say, “We’re going to speed up the process and this is going to happen…now!” And it was a kick in the pants for us, because we lost control of everything.
But… all that said, how much credit should we really give Pitchfork? Are their articles peer edited? Do they get paid or bribed by promoters or labels? Are the whims of the music industry really dictated by one individual’s opinion? How do you become a Pitchfork God anyway? How thoroughly do the reviewers imbibe the albums before they write the review?
Though many of these questions have been floating around in my consciousness for a while now, it was my friend Jeff who really called into question the advent of the music blog and the arbitrariness of the taste makers. Jeff and his roommate Paul are starting a music blog of their own. In it, various people (myself included) will contribute reviews of albums, with the stipulation that we must listen to the entire album ten times before we write the review. There will be no casual listening there. Will this dedication and attention clear away the preconceived notions and expectations thrust upon the music by these hype machines? We’ll see…
Until then, I thought I’d start a little thing of my own. Periodically, I will take the track or album highlighted in the ‘best new music’ section and review it, myself – right here in this blog. So stay tuned for my thoughts on the likes of The Drums, Wild Beasts, The xx, and more.
(1) Unless you count NPR music-related content as radio… but I for one typically stream that online or download the podcast.
(2) Though I will say that it is getting harder and harder to come up with a catchy original name for a blog since they’re all getting snatched up.
- “Could This Be the World’s Most Hated Website?” An article that depicts the pro’s and con’s of Pitchfork.
- “David Cross: Albums to Listen to While Reading Overwrought Pitchfork Reviews” A humorous article/spoof by comedian David Cross.
- The message boards on last.fm about “Pitchfork Oversights”
- “Music Critics: Irreplaceable or Irrelevant?” a segment from WNYC’s show Soundcheck that features Douglas Wolk, a blogger and contributor to Pitchfork.
Solid song writing and musicianship may still be sure fire ways to get your band noticed (or so I’d like to think), but more and more it seems as if another approach is coming to a head. It’s a strange aesthetic really. In the past, only the most skilled bands tended to garner wide exposure, but now that we are in the midst of the golden age of things like YouTube and Myspace, it’s easier than ever to put your music out there–for better… or for worse, and unfortunately the latter is often the case.
Terrible videos often become the most-watched clips on YouTube, and irony has saturated the culture. It’s actually becoming cool to appreciate things that either the general public despises or doesn’t appreciate. It’s a badge of honor to listen to music that your parents or neighbors would find grating or just plain weird.
Of course, some of the bands that I would classify as falling into this strange, hipster aesthetic I actually find myself enjoying at least on some level. MGMT comes to mind. The first time I saw them play (they opened for an Of Montreal show I attended sometime in the fall of 2005), I thought they were absolutely terrible. Entertaining? Sure I’ll give them that. It was kind of like a car wreck – you just couldn’t look away. Here were two white guys, not even playing instruments, but instead singing over shoddily produced, pre-recorded music. Occasionally, they would pull down an instrument suspended from the ceiling and pretend to play it, but that seemed to be as close as they came to actually playing. Fast forward to the release of Oracular Spectacular, and I admit I was hooked, but all the while, a little voice in my head kept saying are you sure you want to be listening to this? Are you sure this isn’t actually terrible?
Last night at the Cake Shop, was a perfect example of this strange phenomenon. The two bands in question are The Lovely Eggs and Schwervon!. When I first hear Schwervon! toward the beginning of the year, I was taken in particular by the track “Low Blow,” but I knew instantaneously, that this band would not be for everyone – not at all. Schwervon! is Nan and Matt: a couple based out of NYC who just sort of accidentally fell into playing music together and have been jamming now for about a decade. Their music is technically basic, straight-forward, and simple… but there’s something endearing about it… something that tips it over to enjoyable instead of grating. (1)
Schwervon: See? Endearing. (photo courtesy of Lippe)
Though I came specifically to see Schwervon!, the band that proceeded them also illustrated this conflict. British band The Lovely Eggs is like Schwervon! in many ways. They also are made up of a guy and a gal (David and Holly) and fall squarely into the DIY music scene. At times, Holly sings sweetly and demurely, but like Nan, she has been known to switch to a more aggressive style without any warning. (2)
The Lovely Eggs (photo courtesy of Darren Andrews)
But can we really take someone wearing a cowboy hat who sings about intentionally falling off a bike or eating cheese seriously? And what about the impromptu breakdancing? The shrieking? It’s hard to say, really. Yes, ok they have their charm. I found myself smiling when they played “Have You Ever Heard a Digital Accordion?” But the whole time I stood in the audience, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were a tightrope walker, teetering dangerously on the line. If I fell to my right, I’d declare their ‘music’ an ear sore, but if I fell to my left, well then they weren’t so bad after all.
Take a listen for yourself and let me know what you think.
(1) I found it interesting and fitting that Jeffrey Lewis, the king of the anti-folk movement, was wearing a Schwervon! t-shirt when I last saw him play at the beginning of the summer. Of course, the anti-folk movement is another source of this terrible/wonderful tension.
(2) Holly reminds me of a less mesmerizing version of Scout Niblett.
"He considered music a liberating force: it liberated him from loneliness, introversion, the dust of the library; it opened the door of his body and allowed his soul to step out into the world to make friends."
- Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being