Thursday, October 18, 2007

Give Up the Funk

It seems like all the music blogs I read (that's like five or six) are buzzing about Sasha Frere Jones' article in the new New Yorker called "A Paler Shade of White." Tom Breihan and Rob Harvilla, both Village Voice writers, argue about it here. And this morning, Brandon over at No Trivia, had this to say about the article. I expect more reaction in the next few days.

To put it simplistically, Frere Jones (or SFJ as he's called) thinks indie rock (indie rock here defined as non-mainstream rock music, regardless of whether the bands are actual independent labels) has become too white. Eschewing the importance put on rhythm by African and African-American music, bands like Arcade Fire and the Decemberists and the Shins stick to styles of music that mostly skirt black influence . He attributes part of this to the fear white musicians might have of trying to borrow from genres like gangster rap without looking like a joke or being labeled a thief of authentic black culture.

SFJ further complicates his argument by explaining that, unlike in the days when rock bands like Cream or the Stones covered blues songs to give the artists they loved exposure (as well to give themselves authenticity), black and white artists are on the same playing field when it comes to exposure. No rock act has to cover Snoop Dogg for someone to hear about him.

Towards the end of the article, it becomes clear SFJ's true issue with indie rock is that it's not energetic or danceable enough. That may be a fair criticism, although obviously subjective, but he begins the article by attacking, of all bands, The Arcade Fire, for lacking "ecstatic singing" and "elaborate showmanship." The rap equivalent would be to attack Busta Rhymes for not rapping with enough passion and abandon. If anything, The Arcade Fire could be accused of being too dramatic and over the top. Many of their stage shows have featured men in motorcycle helmets bashing into each other and spontaneous (well, sometimes) exits out into the crowd and onto the street outside, banging away the whole time.

For me, the idea that indie rock is too white is ridiculous. Musicians have the right to play whatever kind of music they want. If the Decemberists love The Soft Boys and Neutral Milk Hotel (and lately Jethro Tull), that's great. If the Shins like 80s new wave guitar bands and the Beach Boys, more power to them. Only people who don't really like those bands would want them to stick funk bass lines or hyphy synth sounds in their music.That's really all this boils down too: people who don't like certain popular bands wishing they'd change their music so it sounded better to them.

As a fan of rap and soul and numerous other African and African-American art forms, I'm reminded of conversations with people who wish "rap wasn't so materialistic" or that "r&b had more soul like it used to," as if they just want to like the music but can't. But what's so wrong about not liking it? If you dislike rap, that's fine. If you dislike whiny, precious indie rock, that's fine too. But if you want to like rap if only it was more like jazz or you want like rock if only it sounded like funk, you're waging a losing battle. So leave those bands alone, Sasha Frere Jones, and go listen to whatever it is you actually like.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Shocking Stink

As remixers, DFA (James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy) are pretty much untouchable. Their remixes of Goldfrapp's "Slide In," Unkle's "In a State," Chromeo's "Destination Overdrive", and Tiga's "Far from Home" on the vinyl version of "DFA Remixes Chapter. 2" are easily the best of their kind. A DFA remix (with the exception of their half-assed reworking of Justin Timberlake's "My Love") is pretty much a guarantee of quality. As well, their roster (The Juan McLean, Hot Chip, Gavin and Russom, Black Dice, LCD Soundsystem) is amazing for not only its diversity but its consistency.

So why'd they sign Shocking Pinks?

After reading this review, I was pretty much sold on the Shocking Pinks first album for DFA.Describing the album as containing "scruffy Jesus and Mary Chain dream-pop, ecstatic My Bloody Valentine haze, droning C-86 confessionals, and bedroom New Order bass lines" appealed to the geek in me in a way that now I'm not too proud of. Turns out the JAMC dream-pop is extra scruffy, the My Bloody Valentine "haze" sounds a lot like a cheap synth pad buried deep in the mix, and the New Order bass lines need to be turned up, oh, I don't know, six or seven notches to actually be New Order bass lines. Only the "droning C-86 confessionals" is dead on because, firstly, droning is the only way to describe Nick Harte's (Shocking Pinks frontman and only member) vocal style, and secondly, only on cheap 80s mix tapes by twee English teenagers can I imagine music so poorly mixed and amateurish.

But maybe that's unfair. After all, C-86 bands like Tallulah Gosh and The Field Mice actually wrote a lot of catchy songs, something Nick Harte can't do to save his life. I could have forgiven all of his flaws--the buried, half spoken vocals, the drums constantly mixed into just one channel (oh, did I forget to mention that?), the aforementioned cheap synth pads--if the album had at least a handful of catchy songs. Instead, Harte uses my favorite indie-rock trick of singing half the lyrics, playing a bridge, than singing the rest and playing the bridge again before fade out. I swear, only "musicians" do this, because amateurs are too focused on just writing a song poppy enough to hide their inability. Harte used to be the drummer for The Brunettes, an insufferably cute indie-pop band from New Zealand, so I don't think he completely lacks musical talent, but his songwriting is so lazy and half-assed it's hard not to think he should stick to banging on drums (Decide for yourself: here are links to songs here, here, and here.)

I think maybe DFA is a little pissed off at their success and are trying to throw curveballs at their audience. Their other new signing, Prinzhorn Dance School, is an ultra minimalist art punk band that wouldn't really blow the mind of someone looking for another Hot Chip. As music nerds, I think they're resentful that fans are pigeonholing them as a dance music label, and a "slick" one at that. On a certain level, I totally sympathize. DFA represent a sensibility, not a sound, and making only "good" music is a quick path to mediocrity. But there is a fine line between music that's difficult but ultimately engaging and lazy stuff like the Shocking Pinks record. DFA remains bulletproof, but they won't be for long if they keep releasing stuff this bad..