Thursday, January 07, 2010

The obligatory "the year in music" post, a few days late

The cover art for Magnolia Electric Co.'s 2005 album, What Comes After the Blues. Image (and links to full-length tracks via the "Media" link) found here.

As I begin this post, I am listening to Tinariwen's 2009 album, Imidiwan ("Companions"), about which more later. I have posted about this Touareg band from the deserts of northern Mali before: real, genuine revolutionaries (they formed in the refugee camps of people displaced after the wars for independence against the Malian government in the '80s), still fighting on behalf of their people and culture--through music, now--that has melded electric guitars, traditional melodies influenced by John Lee Hooker-style blues, and lyrics so steeped in Touareg culture and politics that they read simultaneously like that people's open secrets and poetry to the rest of us. AND: White people can dance to it. No wonder this band, on its Summer 2009 tour of the U.S., won such acclaim from those who saw them perform.

How to convey my sense that Tinariwen are making music as vital as anyone I'm aware of and that anyone with any appreciation for hypnotic groove will find immediate entree into (and wait till you read the lyrics), and yet at the same time avoid romanticizing them into Noble Savages-with-Gibsons out of Western culture's constant craving for something authentic which we suspect our own culture has long ago lost? Even the accompanying booklet, with its interposed "Magic Desert Moments," I'm afraid to say, perhaps tilts this album's apparatus too far into romanticization. But what can the good people of World Village/Harmonia Mundi do? Tinariwen really do still live in/with the desert, with all that that entails: to know that they know, when they hear jackals at night, that "[t]hey're talking about us" is as much what Tinariwen signify as their music. Perhaps more--for without knowing something about that world that they remain immersed in, listening to their music becomes a lowest-common-denominator kind of experience: White folks willing to shell out $19 retail can dance to this. Cool!

Before this morning, I hadn't planned to yammer at such length about the dilemma Tinariwen pose for someone like me. But that was before I read David Hajdu's thought-provoking article at The New Republic, ""Pretending." It's ostensibly a review of the video games Guitar Hero and The Beatles: Rock Band but, in the tradition of Roland Barthes' essays in his book Mythologies ("Popular Culture" studies before such a thing existed) becomes something deeper:

It is tempting to interpret the phenomenal success of music-oriented games--especially the wildly hyped Beatles edition of Rock Band, introduced in September of this year--as evidence of music’s return to the center of young life, or as validation of the aesthetic values of classic rock. The reality is more complicated and less flattering to boomerdom. For one thing, these games have fairly little to do with music. After all, they are games--like poker, the Olympics, or pro football; and like those and other games, they are, to varying degrees, largely about the pursuit of status and glory, wealth and sex. Guitar Hero and Rock Band involve musicianship in the same sense that chess involves military service. Rocking, like rooking, is the thematic action; but the content is the form, the rules.

For another thing--and this is the main failing of music games, and it is a significant one--they have the insidious effect of glorifying classic rock, a music with an already bloated reputation that is founded on its very bloatedness. In the games’ absorption with technical prowess, speed, flash, grandiose show, and fakery, they not only affirm the enduring allure of classic rock to kids and young adults, especially males; they also advance its tyranny. People like me who have kids of video-game-playing age no doubt get many things wrong about these games, and chief among the errors of our age group, I think, is inflated generational pride in the 1970s-style arena rock that Guitar Hero and Rock Band promote to our descendants--kids who might otherwise, and perhaps more appropriately, use their after-school hours to nurture interests in music of their own. The games reassure us that our aftercomers are our heirs. They are male-oriented tools of cultural primogeniture, applications of twenty-first-century technology with a very ancient mission.

Later on, Hajdu will read Giles Martin's involvement with The Beatles: Rock Band as an Oedipal narrative (Giles' father is producer George Martin, the real "5th Beatle" if there ever was one): The Beatles of course started out as a band, but their legacy rests not on live performance but on what they did in the studio under the elder Martin's guidance; for the son to claim the Lads were "just the four guys in a room making noise, and that noise comes from them and from nothing else" is, to Hadju, "a strange betrayal not only of the Beatles, but of the person most responsible for facilitating their transmutation of pop into a studio art: his father. So much for pop primogeniture."

So, this is the mass-cultural world in which we find ourselves: one that craves and seeks "authenticity" in cultural expression because our own, we suspect, is so co-opted by commercial considerations as to be reduced to the state of the surface's being its essence; and yet, when we have within our own culture examples that seem authentic, there's the strong impulse to deny them something that informs that authenticity--not just, for example, the reductive reading of the Beatles as "just the four guys in a room making noise" but also things like the "No Fear Shakespeare" books. I think the thing to do with a band like Tinariwen is to keep on telling my reader(s) that they are a band worth knowing and, as faithfully to them as I can, convey why that is, and at the same time fervently hope that their music doesn't end up in Guitar Hero 2.0.

And now, on with the list. As with last year's round-up, what follows is more a new-to-me list of the best music I ran across, though some 2009 releases appear here. Because of my yammering on (and on) above, the comments below will be brief but, I hope, reflective and not reductive of what you'll hear.

Balmorhea, All Is Wild, All Is Silent (2009). Named for a small town in West Texas known for its enormous spring-fed swimming pool (now a state park), Austin-based Balmorhea is yet another post-rock band in that city. This group's sound has a chamber music feel to it, with its acoustic guitars, piano, violin and cello serving as foundations and some electric instruments as ornamentation. This album's music (and its title) are inspired by the letters of one of the very earliest American settlers in Texas--he was there even before the arrival of the famous-for-Texas Moses and Stephen F. Austin-led settlers to the land between the Brazos and Colorado rivers. It works even if you don't know all that, but (I think--and I may be writing about this album later) it becomes a richer listening experience if you do. Good driving-across-the-prairie music, at any rate. Here is a link to a live performance of "Coahuila," a song from the album.

More selections below the fold.

Boards of Canada, Twoism (1995; 2002). Electronica, I suppose you'd call it, but with a "live" rhythmic feel to it that so much of that music lacks. As I listened to this for the first time, I kept being reminded of the sort of thing you hear on the radio program Hearts of Space, but more overtly shaped by rhythm than much of that music is. If someone were to ask me what "chill" is, I'd point him/her in this direction.

Magnolia Electric Co., What Comes After the Blues (2005). This band and its previous incarnation, Songs: Ohia, were one of last year's big revelations for me. Jason Molina, the singer and principle songwriter, is a Neil Young soundalike whose music captures much of Young's brooding mysteriousness from those early-'70s albums; Molina's music mixes that with an alt-country vibe (think Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, the Jayhawks). The website has lots of samples from this and the other albums, plus scores of full-length live performances. Good stuff.

Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile (2008). Meyer (bass) and Thile (mandolin) work the space between bluegrass, jazz, and classical music. It's a tribute to just how intertwined the instruments are when I say that at times, it's difficult to know which of them is the one I "should" be listening to. Virtuosic, indeed, but often moving and, more than occasionally, witty and even humorous.

Luciana Souza, Duos II (2005). Souza is yet another in Brazil's apparently-endless line of smoky-voiced altos. I posted about Souza's album Brazilian Duos last year; this album also offers up older and contemporary sambas and bossa novas, but the playing and singing on this album has a jazzier feel. This is instantly likable and yet holds up to repeated listening as you become more aware of the wonderful musicianship on display here.

Tinariwen, Imidiwan (2009). The cover art for this album pretty much conveys what is important about this group: in particular, the desire to make music out of whatever is at hand. But by way of concluding this post I'll quote the (translated) lyrics of "Tamodjerazt Assis" ("Regret Is Like a Worm") and hope that some of the music you heard last year speaks this earnestly, this nakedly:
Regret is like a worm, anxiety is like war
For my youth which I wasted
I touched incandescence, I burned everything whole
I set fire to myself, I became like cinders
I wasted so much time with futile things
Getting mixed up with lies, with schemes, and with treachery
When I was a child, I was determined
When I was a child, I was already disconnected
I lived beyond the news of the world, I wasted everything


Anonymous said...

Thanks very, very much for the careful reading of my piece. I've started reading your blog just as careful, and I'm impressed.
D. Hajdu

John B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John B. said...

Thank you for your visit and for your very kind words. I very much enjoy reading The New Republic's cultural pieces in particular, and so your comment is most flattering.

R. Sherman said...

Off Topic: For your amusement.


Ariel said...

Don't know where else I can find tips on intriguing off-the-radar music with philosophical commentary thrown in for free. Looks like I have some investigating to do.

John B. said...

Randall and Ariel,

Thanks for the comments.

Randall, I ran across that this past weekend, too; I read the whole thing and thought it was well done--so well, in fact, that it makes me want to have another look at the film (Blog Meridian's Axiom for Parodies: It should make you want to revisit the original).

Ariel, good to hear from you, and thanks for the compliment. I'll just say, as I have before, that thanks to the 'Nets, we have more access to more, and more kinds of, music than ever before, and to musical omnivores like me, that's definitely a Good Thing.

Cordelia said...

Thank you for these; once again this year, you expanded the sonic range of my world.

John B. said...

Shucks, Cordelia--I'm speechless. But thank you.