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The Kids Aren’t Alright . . . They’re Amazing

Photo by Gregory Bojorquez

It happened again a few weeks ago. I was checking out Kings of Leon, a band made up of three brothers and one cousin from Tennessee who do an amazing, uptempo ’70s Allmans/Faces/gospel/Southern-fried beast of a slurred boogie–rock & roll thing. That these guys were playing this well at 7:45 p.m. on a weeknight to a House of Blues that was at best one-quarter filled was noteworthy. That they had ballads this good and a stage presence this intriguing was special. But it was their ages (16, 18, 21 and 23) that left me in a state of mild shock. I couldn’t believe how young these guys are.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In the last year and a half, there’s been a host of notable debut recordings and performances by other deep-past-influenced youngsters: Starsailor, the Coral, the Cuts, the Black Keys, Devendra Banhart, Whirlwind Heat, Entrance, Jet, Sondre Lerche — young artists looking not just a few years back for inspiration, but decades, to a time before they were even born. This phenomenon seemed counterintuitive — interesting work is rarely done by retro-heads, and artists chasing a strange vintage are usually older, not younger — and perhaps even unprecedented. How and why are these artists, from all across the English-speaking world, arriving on the scene near-simultaneously, playing music rooted in styles templated before their births? How could a kid be so nostalgic for a non-experienced past that he shapes his own art in its image? And why is this happening to the unprecedented degree that it is right now?

 



The Sleepy Jackson
(Photo by Andrzej Liguz)

Well, it wasn’t always 2003. In 1987, when I was still in high school and trying to find out about the Sex Pistols, the search was difficult. The songs weren’t played on the radio. The record wasn’t available at the Wherehouse. There were no books on the subject at the public library or the local B. Dalton. Music magazines like Rolling Stone , Spin and Musician wrote mostly about contemporary bands, with only the slightest occasional reference to mysterious characters named Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, who’d apparently made the most controversial music ever. In Upland, just 50 miles east of Los Angeles, if you didn’t have a cool older brother or sister, or didn’t know someone else who did, you were stuck — no Bollocks for you. The scope of the music you knew about was only what you’d heard on the radio in the previous years, and maybe whatever records your parents had lying around from high school or college. And if you were a musician, that would be where you would start — and the results could be good. As Brit musician-scholar Julian Cope noted recently:

 

In those bad old days, it used to be that certain of the more eclectic pop groups had such a wide range of styles that once in a while a song might be released that the public definitely needed more of. But the originators were just so totally on one that it surely weren’t gonna be them who provided it . . . [Take] the Zombies’ 1964 epic “She’s Not There,” which the band themselves never even came close to revisiting but whose bass parts, drum parts, keyboard stylings and minor-key melodrama was lifted with extraordinary vision and percipient thoroughness by the Doors for a magnificent (and genuinely exploratory) six-album career of sub-Nietzschean post-Jungian pub-banter.

 

It had been like that for years. Teenage musicians and music fans would have memories of, at best, the previous five to eight years; everything older than that was kind of mysterious and shadowy and rumorlike. It was like this in 1987, and it had been like that in 1981, in 1977 and so on. The upshot, in rock-music-history terms, was that, generally speaking, you’d get occasional stylistic or formal innovations, followed by a simplified imitation of said innovation, which would eventually fade. Then, a decade or so down the line, you’d hear that style being played again: a revival played by bands making something like the music they’d grown up on; thus you got the god-awful hair-metal of the ’80s, a devolution from the glam and glitter of the early to mid-’70s. Sometimes these bands would be good, sometimes they’d be silly, sometimes they’d sell, sometimes they wouldn’t. (Late-’60s/early-’70s revivalists in the late ’80s to ’90s, such as the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz or Oasis, managed to do all four of these things.) The point is that their absorption of musical ideas would be pretty much limited to the biggest-selling pop from the 20-year period prior to each band’s emergence, because information about music styles earlier than that — and/or less popular than that — was so limited and so arbitrarily distributed. In other words: We all knew about the Beatles and the Stones, but how many of us really knew much about Tim Buckley or Love or the Raspberries or the Voidoids or Gang of Four?



Kings of Leon:
Allmans or all boys?


 

Come 2000, and things have changed. The rapid, broad-based spread of the Internet means that information about bands from all eras, in all styles, whether popular or obscure, has become widely available and easily accessible to the curious young musician. The advent of the compact disc meant that during the ’90s both familiar and obscure albums came back into print. A friend in his mid-40s recently reminded me that before the CD appeared, the only way you could hear a lot of music from the ’70s — and nearly everything from the ’60s — was by borrowing or buying original vinyl copies, usually at great expense and in beat-up condition. Albums by Zappa, Beefheart, the Doors and even the Beatles had the status of antique artifacts — if you saw copies at all. That you can now buy Love’s Forever Changes, say, in a pristine copy (with extra tracks) is a major development. And, of course, there’s file trading and downloading and all that as well.

There is also the classic-rock radio format that is present in almost every substantial radio market in the country, occasionally (as in Los Angeles) on more than one station. If you like guitar-based music but you don’t like what’s on the “alternative” channel, then your place of refuge is the classic-rock station — to wit, the past. If KROQ is in yet another Korn–Limp Bizkit–Linkin Park–Staind spelling-impaired angry-moper frenzy, there’s always KLOS or “the Arrow,” where you’ve got a decent chance of hearing something genuinely good and well-crafted (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan, Hendrix, Bowie, Elton John, Neil Young, Queen, AC/DC) every few minutes, even if the playlists are shamefully narrow.

Then there are the ancillary media that have evolved around rock-music history and culture. There is now a pervasive nostalgia that far outstrips the level of nostalgia in the past, consolidating and enumerating and assessing the substantial, unprecedented artistic achievements of ’64–’82, with a special emphasis on that golden period of ’66–’74. At the supercultural level, there’s VH1 and VH1 Classics; you might not see a program on Love or Captain Beefheart or Television or the Voidoids on VH1’s Behind the Music, but you might get clues there about them, or about certain histories, styles and lineages. At the minimum, you get the sense that there’s a lot out there to explore, that current rock styles aren’t the only ones to be tapped.

At the midcultural level, there are the “past master” articles that have been running in Spin and other music magazines in the last few years, perhaps in response to the success of pop-music nostalgia magazines like Mojo, and at the subcultural level there are zines like Ugly Things that bring a microscopic, obsessive perspective to all this stuff. Finally, there’s the flood of books we’ve seen over the last decade, published by major houses, available in mega-bookstores in shopping malls across the English-speaking world, devoted to seemingly every band, genre and episode in music history, no matter how minute or obscure. Information that used to be either lost or passed along via word of mouth and low-circulation zines is now out there for everyone.

Something has shifted: You don’t need a hip older brother anymore to know about the Sex Pistols; you’ll hear about them via any of the aforementioned venues, even the most mainstream ones. Because even if the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and Iggy Pop didn’t experience mainstream success in the ’60s and ’70s, time has been kind to them. Critical consensus has ensured that these giants have earned their place, and music history has been rewritten so that the dross has fallen away. Look back at the music charts of those years and you’ll see a million songs you’ve never heard by thousands of artists you’ve never heard of. Where did they go, why aren’t they talked about, why aren’t they played?

The simple truth is that what we call the media — from fanzines to The New York Times — like any curators of culture, have seized upon a lot of musical artifacts that were initially passed over and declared that this is what was important. So now you get articles saying, “1977: It was the year of Star Wars and the Sex Pistols,” when, in fact, in the USA the Sex Pistols weren’t played on the radio, didn’t sell many records and, to the extent that they were regarded at all, were generally seen as a joke/novelty band. But now, after years of magazine articles, feature-length documentaries, books, TV shows, TV commercials, movie soundtracks, concert DVDs and such, we’ve all got it in our heads that what was culturally significant about ’77 was Never Mind the Bollocks. Cultural history isn’t written by the early victors.

 

What this means for musicians born since 1980 is that they’re being fed the good, fertile stuff from way back when. Critics and fans always go for the art they perceive as pure, authentic, less compromised, and that sort of thing is more likely to exist at the margins than at the center, though as the years go by, the fringe moves from the edge to the mainstream. Nirvana has already been determined to be significant, while Candlebox hasn’t, even though there was a long period when Kevin Martin, Peter Klett, Scott Mercado and Bardi Martin (Who? Exactly) were outselling Kurt Cobain. The same thing has happened with music from the ’60s and ’70s: The important, purer sounds (popular or not) have been drawn out, or preserved, and made available.

This is why these young musicians we’re seeing now have such seemingly good taste: That taste has been shaped by a media consensus about what was truly of quality back then. Call it the formulation of a rock canon, the imposition of marginal/elitist values on the mainstream — it don’t matter none, the outcome is the same: The purer the fertilizer, the stronger the plants that grow in the garden.

 

But is this interest by young people in the deep past new? Ex-Minuteman/art-punk lifer Mike Watt — the kind of guy who would know — thinks it is. He noted recently in his online tour diary that “The younger folks now are so much more open to music before them than in my days in the ’70s. We would’ve been hard-pressed to dig anything from the ’40s or ’50s in those days.”

So, why exactly does music back-sourced so far in time resonate with the new generation of musicians? Well, consider the crap they grew up inhaling in the pop mediasphere; an Island A&R man observed recently in The New York Times, “For young, middle-class, suburban American kids of above-average intelligence, there hasn’t been any challenging, soulful music for them, ever. It’s all either pop or rap-rock — music with no sensitivity, no intellectual heft.” You can see why the young bands might be looking for inspiration to music that hasn’t had currency with youths for decades. Also, they’re the first generation to grow up with parents who experienced the late ’60s and ’70s as teenagers. The Cuts’ singer-guitarist-songwriter Andy Jordan was born in 1980 to a couple who had met while working on the original Maximumrocknroll radio show. (Jordan’s father now owns the vintage-jazz record shop D.B.A. Brown in Oakland.)

“I’ve always been into shit that wasn’t going on right now,” says Jordan. “I was living in East Oakland with a small group of friends, and we would just listen to punk from the ’80s — the Clash, the Lurkers, the Damned. But I didn’t have a context for them. No one understood what the fuck we were talking about or doing. You know, if you don’t have dreadlocks and black clothes . . . But we loved it! Then I met Chuck, our bass player. He was obsessed with the Ramones, and if you hear about the Ramones, then you go, Oh, what’s this Ramones flier with the Pagans on it? My mom had a copy of the original Nuggets double record. It said ‘punk,’ so I was like, Oh really? Gradually I started to realize where those people — the Ramones, the Dead Boys, all those people — what they were working off of. Pictures were instrumental, ’cause you look at a picture of the DMZ and you go, These guys look cool, and they’ve got long hair . . . And then you look at a picture of Tommy James or the Shadows of Knight or Love and you go, Well, they look really cool. You could kinda see how that music really was heavy and wild as fuck at that time. All this shit just added up to some kind of aesthetic.”

When he was a teenager, the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach (born in 1980) was given a Son House record by his dad. It changed his life.

 

“My friends in high school were all listening to the Dave Matthews Band, smoking a lot of weed, drinking beers,” he says. “But I was in my own little world.”

Auerbach happened upon Junior Kimbrough’s All Night Long album at a local chain record store: The cover caught his eye, and the music eventually caught his ear. The liner notes, written by the album’s producer, ex–New York Times music critic Robert Palmer, led him to the local superbookstore (the kind of expansively stocked outlet that didn’t exist in the sticks prior to the mid-’90s), in search of Palmer’s definitive blues tome Deep Blues. He found a copy. The book was a lifeline.

“Deep Blues got me hip to a lot of stuff. I’d read about it, and then I’d go try to look for it on the Internet. Normally I could find it — like the Bear Family CD reissues from Germany. Then I started listening to Furry Lewis, and those Memphis guys, and Sam Chatmon. I got an Arhoolie comp of George Mitchell recordings, with R.L. Burnside doing ‘Jumper on the Line.’

“The Internet opens up this whole database for people to search and get wacko about music. Especially growing up in Akron, there were no good record stores. I worked at a record store that was the local independent; there were, like, four of them in a chain around Akron, and it was just fuckin’ pathetic.”

I ask Auerbach where he’d be if he hadn’t had access to all this music — if, say, he’d grown up in the ’80s instead of the ’90s.

He chuckles. “I’d probably be playing Richard Marx covers.”

Instead, Auerbach and his Black Keys partner, drummer Patrick Carney, are doing covers of Kimbrough and the Beatles alongside their own blistering, beard-rawk, soul-in-denims tunes. Thickfreakness is their second album in two years, and their first on Fat Possum (the same label that released Kimbrough’s album; in a sweet coincidence, Fat Possum last month reissued on CD those same Furry Lewis recordings that Auerbach ordered from Germany when he was a teenager).

Weirdie folk-sprite Devendra Banhart, born in 1981, found inspiration in a number of obscure musicians from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Like Auerbach, he followed trails of clues — some from older hipster friends, some from record-album sleeves and fan Web sites — to locate music that spoke to him. The Internet was invaluable.

“I could go to a record store, but you know these records aren’t gonna be there,” he says. “But if you type it in the Internet, there’s gonna be some information. First you hear about people like Nick Drake, and then you get interested in who else was published by Warlock Music, which was the publisher for Nick Drake. So I read about [doomed ’60s dust-bowl blues folknik] Karen Dalton and [sparkly pastoral Gypsy folk singer] Vashti Bunyan, and Linda Perhacs, who was like the queen-goddess-mother of the world.”

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.

You might even say it’s been a long time coming.

One final word on the Sex Pistols. With the Internet, VH1, Mojo, Spin, the endless books and such, you sure as shit don’t need a hip older brother anymore to know about these geezers. In fact, at this point, 26 years after the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, you’re more likely to have a hip father. The Cuts’ Andy Jordan laughs, “My dad played me the Sex Pistols when I was like 13 or 14.” Perhaps that’s the new initiation rite into adulthood for budding musicians in the 21st century: having your pop introduce you to the wonders of “God Save the Queen.”

Kings of Leon and Jet perform at the Troubadour on Wednesday, September 24.


The ConqueringChildren

Where does a sound come from, and why this sound here, and why this sound now? In the last three years, Monday-morning quarterbacks have been marking off electroclash and garage-rock and new New Wave and other post-punk blurblings as predictable nostalgist retreads of lost sounds, which means that most young, past-influenced bands have been met with skepticism at best and complete dismissal at worst. But go back and listen to the White Stripes’ De Stijl and tell me this wasn’t a band worth listening to in December 2000, long before the general public pricked up its ears and took notice. Most of the artists listed below have received nothing near the radio rotation and column inches they’ve deserved — here’s a guide to what you may have been missing:

 

Devendra Banhart
Oh Me Oh My . . .
Black Babies UK EP (both Young God)

These two CDs are derived from the home recordings this fuzzled elf from the darkish woodlands passed to ex–Swans leader Michael Gira. Beautiful finger-picking, mixed-metaphor lyrics about sensory organs, flora/fauna and just-recovered memories, sung in a distinctive Marc Bolan/Tiny Tim voice. The album has more songs, but the EP seems more perfectly formed and paced. (Note: Banhart covered both Fred Neill and Johnny Thunders at his recent Spaceland gig.)

The Black Keys
Thickfreakness (Fat Possum/Epitaph)
The Big Come Up (Alive!)

Patrick Carney makes the music swing with a bare minimum of actual percussion. Dan Auerbach is that rare kind of singer whose dusty, gruff voice sounds much older than he is. His guitar work is already accomplished, effortlessly combining the drive and simplicity of T-Model Ford with the into-the-dark extrapolations of Junior Kimbrough. The Big Come Up has garage-punk aggression, stuttered blooz and straight-up rock & roll, and can cover both the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” and the Stooges’ “No Fun” with credibility to burn. Thickfreakness is even heavier, harder, more dynamic, more spacious.

The Coral
The Coral
Skeleton Key
EP (both Deltasonic/Columbia)

Energetic, electrified baroque-folk psychedelic music hall given formal song structure. Some Pogues, some Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, sure, but mostly a whole lotta late-’60s arty stuff of varying obscurity. A new album (not yet released in America) is apparently significantly moodier.

The Cuts
2 Over Ten (Birdman)

Bay Area quintet who sound like some never-released ’70s KTEL-does-Nuggets compilation: Andy Jordan yelps ’n’ gulps like a less angst-ridden Richard Hell (or a less precious Tom Verlaine); the high-melodic songs are stuffed with lavender keyboards and Raspberries harmonies and chiming guitars and shuffling, danceable upbeats.

Entrance
The Kingdom of Heaven Must Be Taken by Storm (Tiger Style)

One dude, going for the full-on acoustic guitar and Starsailor/Greetings From L.A.–era Tim Buckley vocal sound, wailing away till you either give in or flee in horror. Test-listen before you buy.

Jet
Dirty Sweet EP
Get Born (both Elektra)

Rock & roll like the last 25 years never happened: Their stomping rock songs make you wanna dance, their ballads bend your ears on first listen, their solos don’t go on forever, and their lead singer has both a classic screech and a gentle, unaffected croon. Most important, they’ve got a repertoire of songs that the Stones, Badfinger, AC/DC and Cheap Trick forgot to write. Get Born is a ridiculously confident debut.

Kings of Leon
Holy Roller Novocaine EP
Youth and Young Manhood (both RCA)

Skip the EP and advance directly to the album. Good ol’ belt-buckled-boys boogie and holler — it’s got some Allmans soul on it, too, and some nice ballads. Live? Undeniable. But let’s see what they can do without the aid (or hindrance?) of a Nashville gun-for-hire songwriter.

Sondre Lerche
Faces Down (Astralwerks)

Solo easygoing folker from Northern Europe, with a clear genetic basis in Nick Drake and Donovan. Lotsa wide-screen production à la those guys and Glen Campbell. Vaguely bossa nova. Pass the champagne.

The Libertines
Up the Bracket (Rough Trade)

A fantastically high-energy, ramshackle yet coherent late-afternoon performance at Coachella was the proof that this album’s pudding suggested: tons of li’l hooks, duo singing, frantic melodies, evocative diaristic lyrics, and music that’s part Clash, part Jam, part Who, part Housemartins and so on. Classically bohemian stuff, smart and vulnerable. Produced by Mick Jones!

The Sleepy Jackson
Lovers (Astralwerks)

Beautiful country-Beatles, John Lennon “Mind Games” melodies and great acid-naif lyrics, all loved up into a futuristic, majestic sheen with pedal steel, choirs, piano and the occasional Chic beat. Luke Steele, who is the Sleepy Jackson, is ridiculously gifted: Check “This Day,” an astonishing song that features six discrete melodic vocal hooks in its first 90 seconds.

Starsailor
Love Is Here (Capitol)

“Silence Is Easy” single (import)

Forget Coldplay and the piano bench that guy rode in on: The only one of the New Sensitive Brits worth yer bent ear is this band. James Walsh has a set of pipes that doesn’t come along that often, and his band is capable. Think fey Tim Buckley folk-rock that leans into soul, marches and anthems. Skip the debut album and head straight to the brand-new “Silence Is Easy”: This is probably the last time we’ll ever hear Phil Spector working with a worthy artist, and it’s a staggering, magnificent gift of goose-bump-inducing Wall of Sound beauty.

 

Whirlwind Heat
Do Rabbits Wonder? (Third Man/V2)

Contortions-like art-spaz trio, a taste that’s rarely acquired by the masses, but totally dug hard by those who do. Like Jack White — who produced this record.

—J.B


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