PJ Harvey: The Words That Maketh Murder
In the sixteenth century or so, music theory first began to get into the concept of meaning or feeling resting in composition, rather than lyrics – ie: the idea that the chords and melodies behind a song meant more than just being a pretty little bed for the hymns and prayers to go on. 20th century/21st century rock critics tended to forget all this and just do their thing, but I feel like the question of taking the two separately gets kinda complicated when you get to listen to popular hard-rock or metal songs depicting the brutality of war (as opposed to the more drippy paeans for peace). The gold standard for this probably remains Metallica’s “One” and the futility and horror of its Dalton Trumbo-inspired protagonist. The lyrics are one thing; the gung-ho triumphalism of machine-gun fire chords and artillery barrage drums are another. It’s got the enthusiastic, stylised macho aggression of NASCAR or or pro-wrestling. The message is simple: war is hell, but hell is freaking awesome.
Flash forward 20 years and “One” gets blasted out of US Army tanks next to Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” and Disturbed’s “Down With The Sickness“, while James Hetfield, when asked to comment on the use of Metallica’s music as part of Guantanamo Bay’s interrogation techniques, responded that he was “kind of proud…It’s strong; it’s music that’s powerful. It represents something that they don’t like — maybe freedom, aggression… I don’t know… freedom of speech.” Sure, the combination of an anti-war message and exultation in the military-industrial application of noise as torture is a kind of cognitive dissonance – but worse still, for the band it borders on unintentional self-parody, effectively the place where everything from teen-pop to black metal goes to die.
PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is less clear about what it represents and stands for than Hetfield – its sources, which include T.S Eliot, historical tomes on Gallipoli and the oral testimony of survivors of a couple of 21st-century wars, wouldn’t make this much clearer – but it’s a refreshingly honest piece of work with a fierce intelligence to its music, and “The Words That Maketh Murder” functions well as a miniature of this. Apart from some of the more elegiac aesthetics (the way the waves of guitar strum carry the ghostly trace of delay of a faded photograph, percussion that sounds like its been assembled out of items you’d find in a pub kitchen) I like that it’s old person music. Wait, hear me out.
When I last visited Melbourne, the RSA’s in the more gentrified and hip areas were starting to get frequented by dudes who looked like Nathan Barley rejects. Pink crop tops, filthy dyed mops, tiny denim jorts, tricycles, the whole package. Idiots parading themselves in front of bemused old men and women who were too polite and possibly too stricken to say anything. The same guilty, conservative twinge I get when relish the thought of kerbstomping people like this is (I think) the same frission I get when I hear people making the experiences of war’s aging and ancient survivors into bitchin’ punk-rock or metal songs. Put on something respectable, get out of drop-D, and shut your fucking mouths. Let England Shake doesn’t alienate those it tries to document in the same way, which I actually appreciate a lot – a puff piece though it is, this story from the Herald last year made me smile.
Though L.E.S represents an extension of artistic effort, the conclusion of a process of reinvention that started on the underformed if admirable White Chalk, Harvey’s characteristic bluntness suits her subject matter. Here, “soldiers fall like lumps of meat”, “a corporal’s nerves were shot”, “arms and legs were in the trees”, “flesh quivering in the heat” – etc. The masterstroke on “Words” is a protagonist who intersperses the cascade of horror with a longing to see a woman’s face, and then winds up stumped at the end of it – “This was something else again/I fear it cannot explain”.
The interpolation of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (“what if I take my problems to the United Nations?”) at the song’s end comes out as pitch-black gallows humour rather than right-on sloganeering – the music that boys young enough to go and die listened to, the organisation that couldn’t have helped them anyway. In terms of contemporary British music, it’s a moment that sits alongside the mutation of “Jailhouse Rock” that opens Scott Walker’s “Jesse“, or the processed nuke klaxon that ties Portishead’s “Threads” into the apocalyptic 1984 TV drama of the same name – cultural references a shade or two smarter than dropping a great big sample in there, and all the more chilling and effective for it.
Anyway, it’s probably the best song cycle about warfare I’ve ever encountered. I’m not going to read that AV Club 2011 roundup again but I think Hyden complained that the songs felt “too much like homework”, which should tell you more about most people who are paid to write about music than you ever wanted to know.
Kurt Vile – Puppet To The Man
November saw a Tweetwar-I-can’t-believe-I-just-wrote-tweetwar-oh-G_d between Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Kurt Vile and Patrick Stickles of New Jersey prog-punkers Titus Andronicus. Long story short: Vile licensed his his song “Baby’s Arms” to the Bank of America for a TV ad; Stickles went after him for the perceived betrayal (“I thought you were, like, the best dude in music!”); Vile mustered the energy to respond with his second tweet ever “I did it to be like the carpenters.and to buy my daughter high end diapers …. and to pay back my publishing advance. and because I never cared about that sorta thing.” Stickles promptly backed down with what I thought was a pretty decent measure of contrition.
Being a jobbing indie rock musician in 2011 wasn’t so much a false economy as it was a contracted one which the musicians themselves have been avowedly shut out of. Big, medium, and small labels devote their energies to their own survival before that of their signings; the physical releases don’t recoup their advances; the touring overheads are higher, in many places; Pitchfork and the big aggregator music blogs make very, very strong advertising revenue from judicious selection of other people’s creative output and contribute virtually nothing in return apart from the hope of another 8.0+ review in 20 months’ time. This has probably been the case for about five or six years.
In this context, Vile trying to provide for a baby daughter and get a few thousand more ears listening to his music in the process (because the environment to have that happen in virtually any other way is, of course, kaput) is probably not the mighty moral undoing we might have been able to paint it as twenty or thirty years ago. Doing the ad thing used to be a way for a well-to-do artist and very well-to-do label/publisher to scoop more cream off the top with; now you do it to get by for another year or two.
What’s more, Vile has a dry sense of humour about it – “Puppet To The Man” presages the BoA deal but the sound of a dude basically laconically stating “I’m selling out, deal with it” over heartland “authentic” rock is definitely kind of subversive and great. Like Harvey, you really just learn to sit and anticipate those moments when Vile deviates from the mean and mucks with traditional forms a little bit – terse, choppy transfigurations of Dire Straits chords alongside rock ‘n roll non-starters like ‘I’m stuck in a rut so much I don’t want it to end‘. The disappointing long-slog backend of Smoke Ring For My Halo puts the fear of God into me that he thinks he should lose some of the cleverness or oddness and ‘just be real’. Really hoping to be proved wrong, and hoping that we get more like this in the future.
ASAP Rocky – Wassup
This was Clams Casino’s year for sure, when Instrumentals became the first set of MC-free productions in a while that didn’t make you feel like the kind of person who actively listens to movie soundtracks (Clams né Mike Volpe, sitting in his mother’s New Jersey and editing bits of Aguirre to match his beats, might still be this dude). But the best evaluation of his impact is trying to imagine hip-hop right now without him – he helmed a third of ASAP Rocky’s mixtape, his post-Enya cascades make Lil B seem truly based in a way that the Berkeley rappers straighter work can’t, and his partnerships with the likes of Main Attraktionz have left a permanent mark on their work – it’s hard to imagine this (excellent) Squadda B track for 2011′s Shady Bambino Project existing in his absence. Guy is blazing some serious trails.
Eighteen months ago, the first and best answer to the cheap and rough sound of mixtapes still seemed to be maximalism – throw everything you’ve got at it to make it sound huge. Cue lots of 96kbps sub-Lil Wayne bells and Vocoder and portentous synth-string shit in my ears. I sort of never want to hear anything like this again. Anyway, it feels as if Clams has found the way out by obfuscation. His best productions are muffled, hazy, dreamlike and perhaps not all that far away from the hypnagogic pop states posited by The Wire a few years ago, when they sought out a common reference point for the likes of Mark McGuire and Ariel Pink.
Anyway, “Wassup” is the best of a very good bunch. ASAP himself is a rare find, the sort of rapper you get who is nimble without sounding like he’s trying, finds room between lines for the tics and weird digressions that make up charisma – a pretty motherfucker with hidden depths, basically. He also defers to the space and serenity of Volpe’s atmospherics really well – I love Lil B, but, really, compare the way he scrawls all over “I’m God” to this. It’s smooth. I’m genuinely fascinated as to what happens next – by all rights, Clams should be in hot demand, but it’s hard to see how a million-dollar major-label sheen would improve his sound (there’s a case to be made that it would actively detract from it – think a nth-grade version of “Stan” with a lot more Dido on it, shudder a bit, move on). The alternative – that the big players and elder statesmen in rap instead opt to cloak themselves in spooky deliquescence – would probably be incredible.
SBTRKT – Go Bang
I can’t get into James Blake. There, I said it. I was on board in 2010 with the reverent plunderphonic overtones of stuff like “CMYK” – though after a couple of years of Girl Talk worship, anything that didn’t sound like a retarded adult crossfading two genres into each other could be considered a qualified success in recontextualisation. I have no good or coherent reason for my apathy towards his 2011 full-length, but I guess it has a certain austere greyness to it that seems more exhausting to me than bracing, a self-conscious highmindedness to its soul manoeuvrings that just makes me want to go back and listen to Jamie Liddell‘s work five years earlier. Blake is a million times better than, say, Skrillex or Nero, but I worry when I see him go on the record attacking the “frat-boy scene” in the paper, just because it’s never a good idea to take a big dump where you eat. Bros aren’t averse to something presented as big, challenging, or out-there; they listened to Radiohead, they listened to Arcade Fire. They are listening to a crossover artist like James Blake.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying how much more I enjoy SBTRKT (Aaron Jerome’s) work this year. Like Darkstar’s North in 2010, SBTRKT’s best work treats dubstep as a nominal starting point, a sort of pervading low-end wub for very good midbrow electronic pop music. The former drew on the likes of OMD and early Human League; Jerome’s moveable feast feels like it’s taking in the more playful Chicago house auteurs like Larry Heard alongside a nostalgia for percolating 2000s 2-step (yes I’m thinking of “Fill Me In” yes it is a tune).
In other words, it draws from a musical world outside of its time and scene rather than opting to seal itself in, so yes, I like that there’s nary a sample to be found, I like that his in-house MC is aching and plaintive in-my-ear rather than being reduced to juddering shards and whispers, I like that Jerome gave up the spooky-mask anonymity bag and turned it into a gimmicky, bemused shrug, and I like that they have a good live show. Most of all, I like “Go Bang”, his one instrumental workout that stands above as a sort of stately Eno/Aphex artifact. There’s a lot of post-dubstep R’n B guys out there at the moment. I don’t think many start up their computer and make something with the out-there pageantry at 0:58 of this number.
Diana Rozz – Walk On By
Just to end our wrapup with some yuks – the New York Times ended its musical year in review with a piece by Jon Caramanica entitled “The Year Rock Spun Its Wheels”. The thesis of the essay is that 2011 was a time where commercial rock failed to really take creative leaps or risks. In other words, it’s a thesis statement that can roughly be valued somewhere between “Endangered Beauty: How Do We Save The Compact Disc?” and “Bald Lazarus: Why Billy Corgan is Back and Better Than Ever”.
I’m still not sure what’s behind Caramanica’s piece (current theory: he’s an advanced algorithm designed by the NYT to ingest certain parameters on bands and labels and then rigidly follow them with written output) but it’s endlessly rewarding to delve into for nuggets of idiot-savant insanity. “The Gaslight Anthem are a great rock band, but they are indie, so they do not count.” “Large record companies are choosing to fund and foster acts which will give them the largest financial return.” “Bands who have existed for approximately 87 years like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and R.E.M failed to reach their previous heights”. Rock, he declares, is zombified – moving, occupying space, powerful from afar – yet stagnant and rotting.
That bit isn’t such a bad piece of visual imagery, apart from the fact it misjudges the scope entirely. The zombification isn’t just about the music – it extends to thinkpieces like Caramanica’s, prodding at the cadaver. I think what gives me the most comfort is the sheer anachronistic fascination of an article like this. Its reasons for existing don’t extend beyond the fact that rock music is possibly still popular somewhere and the New York Times is a large newspaper. It contains no capacity to engage, because this isn’t how people encounter and process genres anymore; no capacity to offend, because it debates an issue that was being described on exactly the same terms in 1999; no capacity to harm, because no one will ever read a musical account of a year like this and believe that that’s all there is ever again. Once it would have been a run-of-the-mill and vaguely authoritative piece of commentary. Realising how much things have changed around a fixed point like this is scary, but mainly exciting.
My favourite rock song this year came from an all-female band in Wellington, New Zealand. Their EP came in a desultory plastic sleeve, or on Bandcamp. The music sounds as if it’s being played down a wind tunnel at first, although it’s beautiful. It promises to fall apart, then doesn’t. It mocks itself with its own coda and reminds us this isn’t all so serious. Everything would have been a count against it in the model world Caramanica creates. But that world doesn’t stand for shit now. All told, I think we’re in an okay place, and we have Diana Rozz along for the ride.
Happy new 2012, and thanks for sticking with us this year.