Sunday, February 25, 2007

In which the Meridian totally post-rocks wid his crazy self

Toothpaste For Dinner

Given my advanced years, I find it surprising I know much of anything at all about, even, trends in contemporary music, much less some of the practitioners of those trends. I know what (little) I know, though, thanks to a combination of the much-more hip Mrs. M., friends with enormously-diverse tastes and my own natural tendency to listen to anything at least once.

So, as typical with me, it was only last year that I first heard the term "post-rock" (via the Toothpaste for Dinner cartoon above), after having heard Sigur Rós's Takk for the first time without knowing that I was listening to the most prominent of the post-rock bands. And wouldn't you know it: according to the Wikipedia article, the term had already begun passing out of favor by that time. I'm behind the times before I knew there were times to be behind.

In one sense, this constantly-shifting terrain of labels and bands is no country for old men. But for this particular old man, one with fondness for the old prog rock bands and Minimalist composers and an aesthetic preference for something I call "grandeur" in music, post-rock feels approachable and accessible to me. So, below the fold you'll find links to some songs and some general comments on some recent listening I've been doing that falls under this genre.

Tortoise, "Cliff Dweller Society," from A Lazarus Taxon. Tortoise is first here because, according to what I've learned, it was among the very first bands to be described as "post-rock." As you'll hear if you compare/contrast to the links that follow, Tortoise don't have a great deal in common with the other post-rockers, but they are interesting in their own right. Somewhere in the blogospheric mists I read a review of a Tortoise concert that concluded with the sentiment that they sound so much like everyone else that they end up sounding original, and that's been my sense of their music, too. Throughout the three discs (and one DVD) of A Lazarus Taxon, more of a retrospective of their work than a "Best of" collection, you'll hear elements of Minimalism, jazz, funk, metal, folk, and electronica, and experiments with "found" and ambient sound. Indeed, on the long piece "Cliff Dweller Society," you will hear all those elements. In that song, the band have created a sort of collage of musical snippets of various styles, the aural equivalent of walking by the open doors or windows of apartment-dwellers and lingering longer at some doors/windows than at others. I can't think of a better introduction to what Tortoise is like. Its other songs are more sustained explorations of a given style, though at times, either mid-song or almost at the end, it will suddenly shift into a different style entirely.

Its eclecticism sets Tortoise apart from the other post-rockers, but so also does its tendency, no matter the style, to build the song from the rhythm up. In addition to the usual drums and bass, many Tortoise songs include marimba, their electronic noises have a more percussive than "musical" quality, and the band often performs with two drummers onstage. Thus, groove is important to the band's music. That sensibility places them, to my ear, in kinship with west African music. A rather remote kinship, mind you: when I listen to Tortoise, I think, "This is dance music you have to sit and listen to." If that makes sense to you, then you'll probably enjoy listening to the full-length tracks at the link for A Lazarus Taxon.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Storm,", from Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. GYBE is a Canadian band who, on this album at least, favor long tracks ("Storm" is 22 minutes long; Lift Yr. Skinny Fists is a two-CD set, two songs per CD). I've chosen this song because of its grand opening and the considerable musical drama that comes (much) later on, but really all four of this album's songs sound very similar (with the exception of two songs which incorporate voices). I don't think it's a slight to the band to say that these songs are thus fairly interchangeable.

But what will you hear? Well, I think you'll hear a band that has listened to more than its share of the sort of music that Yes made in the '70s: not as complex or flashy, but certainly not afraid to stretch things out--indeed, these GYBE songs make a lot of Yes sound positively conscious of the dictates of radio programing nowadays. This band is more interested in texture and mood than in melody, valuing slow-tempo, repeated chord sequences growing in volume and, in some cases, instrumentation (a small string section is part of the mix in these songs, making me wonder what Yes might have done with such an augmentation). But this music is sly, too: its slow tempos and repetitious chords almost hide subtle changes that, before you know it, have emerged to change the song's nature. It doesn't make the sorts of demands on the listener that Tortoise does, but that doesn't mean that GYBE will just play quietly in the background, either.

Explosions in the Sky, from my home town of Austin, is a garage-band version of GYBE: the same sonic sensibility but without the strings. In this video (warning: shot by a not-so-steady videographer), they perform "The Only Moment We Were Alone," from The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place.

Sigur Rós, "Sé Lest,", from Takk. At a little over eight minutes, this is the shortest of the selections in this post. Aside from being a very pretty song, this serves as a nice aggregation of (some of) what Tortoise and GYBE do: odd noises, electronic and otherwise; strings and horns; repeated riffs; a shift towards the end from delicate musicbox to delicate oompah-band. There's a chilly loveliness to Sigur Rós's music, well-suited in its expansiveness to long road-trips across the plains (the grasslands substituting nicely for the oceans surrounding the band's native Iceland).

This sort of music won't get much airplay on your typical Clear Channel Communication radio station due to its performers' tendency to write really long songs and the songs' utter lack of hooks (despite, paradoxically, their equal tendency toward melodicism). I haven't yet decided whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. The nature of the Internets is such that word can spread about bands like these widely and quickly. But that's the thing: this is the sort of music that finds individuals and not an audience . . . which, come to think of it, might be a succinct way of thinking about the difference between whatever "rock" is and post-rock.

Technorati tags:
, , , , ,


fearful_syzygy said...

Currently listening to Takk as a result of your post. That bit in Sé Lest when the oompah band comes in never fails to bring a smile to my face, and in that it's comparable to the entrance of the Welsh choir in Damien Rice's 'Eskimo', if you know that. I seem to remember 'Sé Lest' getting a mixed response amongst fans (at least if this thread is anything to go by, and I think it is), but I've always liked it, just as I could never understand the other point of criticism, namely that the string coda on 'Andvari' went on for too long. 'Heysátan' is still my favourite piece on the album though.

Have you managed to listen to Ágætis byrjun yet? That remains their best album in my opinion.

Also, it should be noted that a surprisingly large and comprehensive selection of their work can be downloaded free of charge from the band's website:

John B. said...

Glad to have inspired you to listen again.

I didn't know what to think about the oompah band at first, but it's grown on me.

I don't know the Damien Rice song. Tangentially, though, the Mrs. has been wearing out her copy of 9 (I can listen to it only in small doses, though--it demands a lot of the listener.)

Have you managed to listen to Ágætis byrjun yet? That remains their best album in my opinion.

I bought it a couple of months ago, yes, and I think you're right about it.

the County Clerk said...


I am COMPLETELY out of touch and COMPLETELY impressed. Ágætis byrjun? Sounds cool. Does it SOUND COOL?

John B. said...

Indeed it does. Here are a couple of things to listen to:
"Ágætis byrjun"

And as Fearful Syzygy mentioned, be sure to visit the website (which I linked to in the post) to listen to more.

R. Sherman said...

It's a helluva thing to wake up and realize "your" music is now available only on the "oldies" stations.

Sonuva . . .

BTW, did you see this? I can't help but think that the "thinking man's" parts of the novel will go out the window, in favor of a few more gunfights and gratuitious nudity.

Oh well.


Gwynne said...


Hmmm, I just went to the Wikipedia entry and it all read like gibberish to me. So I am much further behind the times than you, if that makes you feel any younger. ;-)

noneuclidean said...

Post-rock? Ha. From what I've heard Rock's dead. Sigur Ros is neat, but, like Radiohead and other such groups, they must go so far out in order to be original that they leave little room for followers to come along and improve. Great stuff though. I'm just rock-bitter.

fearful_syzygy said...

I don't know the Damien Rice song. Tangentially, though, the Mrs. has been wearing out her copy of 9 (I can listen to it only in small doses, though--it demands a lot of the listener.)

'Eskimo' is actually the last song on his previous album, so if she's got that too then give it a whirl, and if she hasn't, then you can tell her from me that 9 isn't half as good, at least not yet. There was a really bad (as in, poorly conceived/written) review of 0 in the Danish magazine Gaffa when that came out, in which the reviewer spent most of the time complaining that he'd tried to take the sticker off the front and that it had ripped half the cover off, before making some offhand remark about how he sounded just like all these guys with a guitar and some feelings, and that by the way he couldn't really sing and tried to make up for it by just shouting a lot. Well, while DR may not have the greatest singing voice ever, I think there is an irresistible force behind the songs on 0 which seems to be a little 'forced' on 9, particularly on 'Elephant', which is so overloaded with excess pathos, that it becomes unbearable, and a little embarrassing. That's never the case on 0, in my opinion.

Anyway, a review of 9 is probably long overdue over at my blog, but then so are a lot of things. At least there's some pretty pictures for you to look at in the meantime, eh?

Conrad H. Roth said...

For what it's worth I find Sigur Ros a bit wishy-washy. I'd put in an oar for the Dirty Three's "Horse Stories" (and also "Ocean Songs")--it's violin, drums and guitar, that's it, with lovely, rough production and folkish melodies. Probably the best of the post-rock records I've heard. I also prefer GYBE's first album. For a while I was friends with GYBE's drummer, likeable chap with a good sense of humour, whom I met in Montreal. I don't know what's happened to him recently. Other records of note: Tarentel's first one (don't remember the name), "Goodbye Enemy Airship" by Do Make Say Think, and "Young Team" by Mogwai. I haven't listened to this stuff in a few years now, but it brings back fond memories.

John B. said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I'll give them a listen.