By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
And then Banhart is off, laying out the details of reissue programs and liner notes and Web sites and eBay and e-mail correspondences. I ask him where he’d be without having heard these records.
“Ah fuck, dude, I’d be fuckin’ selling my ass on 14th Street, man.”
If you’ve got a voice like Devendra Banhart’s, or James Walsh’s of the Tim and Jeff Buckley–inspired Starsailor, it makes no sense to look to contemporary music for ideas. You can page through rock history’s encyclopedia and find where you fit in — or, better yet, where you can start. And you have the courage to do it because of the example of others: The White Stripes, the Hives, the Strokes, the Soundtrack of Our Lives, etc., have all emerged in the last few years with sounds derived totally from other than the usual ’90s/’00s sources, and they’ve absorbed and disgorged them with style and success and, most important, via skillful songwriting.
Perhaps it’s the willingness of internationally successful bands like the Strokes and the White Stripes to point backward at music more than 20 years old that has inspired, or at least encouraged, so many young artists in the last couple of years to look to other long-abandoned tributaries from that same period. As a rather self-congratulatory Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman told the Manchester Guardian recently, “What’s happening is that young people are opening a lot of drawers and finding things that were buried, and going, ‘What’s this?’ Prog-rock used to be the porn of the record industry, and people would almost ask for it in a brown paper bag. But bands are stealing bits of it now, because they want to progress.”
The key here is that, Yes aside, there’s so much good material to reboot and recombine, and the bands doing it are for the most part proficient enough, that this consciousness-of-rock’s-past isn’t devolving into mere tribute bands. In L.A. clubs recently, there’s been the knockout Raspberries-meet-Television tunefulness of the Cuts at Spaceland; primo Devo–Pere Ubu–Chrome–James Chance art-rock freakazoidery from Whirlwind Heat at El Rey, opening for the White Stripes; Devendra Banhart sharing the Silverlake Lounge stage with the almost comically Tim Buckley–enamored Entrance. Just three months ago, Jet, a young Australian band following in the footsteps of Badfinger, Cheap Trick, AC/DC and Sticky Fingers–era Stones, opened a show at Spaceland for the Blue Cheer/Junior Kimbrough/Funkadelic–inflected Black Keys at Spaceland. There were the Kings of Leon that same night at House of Blues, opening for the Coral, a fantastical, charming outfit from Liverpool steeped in Kevin Ayers–era Soft Machine, Scott Walker and Love.
Now, it’s not that other bands in rock history haven’t looked more than 10 years into the past for inspiration. Bobby Zimmerman was checking out Harry Smith’s anthologies of obscure old American music when he was in high school in the ’50s. And we all know how the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds and other British musicians studied whatever old blues records they could find in the late ’50s and early ’60s. But something happened after punk hit in the late ’70s. Young musicians were told — or decided, depending on your ideological position — that the old stuff was obsolete. A line was drawn, earth was scorched, babies and bathwater and a lot of bathtubs were thrown out. Somewhere along the line, probably around the time people were digging Johnny Rotten’s dismissal of Pink Floyd and the Beatles while simultaneously tuning out his praise for experimental rockers Van Der Graaf Generator and Can, old paths were covered up, paths that are only now being reopened for exploration.
You can call it pop eating itself and say that all we’re hearing now is a recapitulation and regurgitation of old gestures and styles — musicians as antique dealers, the pop equivalent of those weird Civil War re-enactors. There’s doubtless some truth in that, especially when Starsailor is recording with Phil Spector, but . . . shit, it’s Phil goddamn Spector, for crissakes, and watch how goosed your bumps get when you hear the song! (Recorded during sessions that were aborted two months prior to the death of Lana Clarkson at Spector’s estate, the thrilling “Silence Is Easy” is the most intense vocal Walsh has ever done.)
Anyway, given the relatively rapid creative exhaustion of various genres and styles during the last decade (grunge, indie rock, alternative rock, electronica, Britpop, post-rock, mainstream hip-hop) and the obvious artistic dead ends of surviving genres (pop-punk, electroclash, rap-rock, emo, nu-metal and underground hip-hop), taking three decadelong steps back to go forward four begins to look like a reasonable artistic strategy, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. (In Kings of Leon’s case, there’s a hint of contrivance, given the presence of Nashville-based songwriter-for-hire Angelo Petraglia in the credits for every one of their songs. So yeah, they’re good, but perhaps not as impressive as you might at first think.) Losing the self-defeating straitjacket that is punk-rock ideology — i.e., that technical facility is automatically suspect — has also got to be healthy for artists whose visions can’t and shouldn’t be confined to two chords (maybe three) and a half-truth. Given the quality of most of these born-after-1979 artists’ first records, there really may be no time like the present for the deep past.