Sunday, August 28, 2005

More recent listening:

Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm - Disappointing. Mann generally writes lovely, lilting melodies with acceptably depressive (if rarely profound) lyrics, but at least half of the joy is in the arrangements - those of the ever-ingenious Jon Brion, but also those of Mann herself, who can easily measure up in the ingenuity stakes. The songs on the Magnolia soundtrack are simple, but nearly unplayable live: the instrumentation is unassumingly complex. Pity, then, that Mann suddenly developed an urge to simplify: she says in press releases that she wanted to get back to basics, which means that this is a boring, ready-for-NPR slog of undistinguished 70s roots-rock. Practically every song ends with an organ fading out and features the exact same instrumental line-up. Opener "Dear John" uses the formula well, bu this is a boring genre, and Mann's songs aren't nearly exciting or ingenious enough to transcend the arrangements. The gems you may want to download (because Mann is far too talented a craftsman to completely flop) are single "Going Through The Motions" and the lovely "She Really Wants You." Oh, and the conceptual framework that makes this something of a rock opera is boring and underwhelming - Mann's lyrics can't carry it through - and it's a pathetic excuse to make the music 70s-ish just because that's the era the characters live through. The 70s were not this monotoned and boring, even in the mainstream - Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything? is the single (OK, double-) album refutation of that: you can be totally of the era without sticking to one sound.

Teenage Fanclub, Man-Made - not much to say. I was familiar only with the guitar-heavy sounds of Bandwagonesque, and assumed the stripped-down string loveliness of recent singles I'd heard on compilations was an aberration, but apparently the Fanclub no longer drowns in guitars. So this is all pretty spare, and I kept expecting it to grow on me more than it did; I ended up cutting half of it, but it makes a lovely EP. These guys have grown into elegiac mode well, although you don't need too many of their songs. So who's gonna finally have the good sense to pair their songs with a Nick Hornby movie adaptation, where they arguably belong?

Roisin Murphy, Ruby Blue - in some ways, it's the Album Of The Year in a way that makes you want to champion it, the perfect meeting of sensibilities between a sultry female vocalist with, perhaps, not a whole lot on her mind, and a normally over-cerebral producer ridiculously dedicated to his craft. Everyone wins as they meet halfway, but it's still light dance music, and as such has little staying power past a few weeks. Still, there's more new, good ideas here than on most of 2005's releases combined, like the lovely, lilting bossa nova of "Through Time" that's increasingly undercut by tape haze and distorted vocals, or the R&B-but-slightly-off single "If We're In Love," whose chilly saxes are rhythmically right on, but sounds texturally a little anti-septic (in a good way). This is also available import-only, and as such knowing about it makes you look that much cooler, if you care about those things. Still, I've stoppped championing it as much as I did a few weeks ago because of its limited listening life. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: twisting the knife in indie rock's death-wound

OK, so picture the following: it's Saturday night in San Antonio, and I'm visiting my friend Spencer. We're sitting in his shitty, ant-infested, university-provided apartment, killing time for an hour before going to see Wedding Crashers, and I turn to him. "Hey, wanna listen to that fucking Clap Your Hands Say Yeah album? You know neither one of us is gonna want to do it on our own." Spencer thinks for a second, then says "Yeah, you're right. Let's do it." I plug my laptop into his speakers, and we listen to the unimpressive sounds of yet another band who revere 1978-era post-punk, deeply unmoved. Periodically, Spencer turns to me and says sadly "My life hasn't changed yet. You?" I shake my head. Later, while driving, he will periodically stop, clap his hands twice, and offer a sarcastic "Yeah."

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah like the same albums as me, I just know it. They play so derivately that I can't hear the band themselves; all I hear is Talking Heads guitars, a strong bass-drum four-on-the-floor pounding backbeat taken from any number of current indie-rock practitioners who just want the kids to dance, and a vocalist who melds the whines of both Thom Yorke and Rufus Wainwright, with occasional yelps from David Byrne. In and of themselves, they're innofensively generic indie rock: strummed electric guitars within slightly tweaked dance structures and a vocalist who takes himself very seriously, moaning lyrics about death and life and love (to the point of a song called "Is This Love?"), a lack of memorable melodies or hooks or instrumentation or harmony or texture. But nothing, as Chuck Klosterman, is ever purely "in and of itself" and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have been required to save the entire indie generation this summer.

Apart from an impressively absurdist penultimate number called "Gimme Some Salt," which makes the title a repeated bit of litany, there's nothing too bold or outrageous about this production. It sounds prototypically "indie": thinly produced, afraid of overly dramatic gestures, always trying to make more out of less. Yet like their spiritual predecessors the Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have been anointed as not just a juggernaut of powerfully emotional music which stands defiant in the face of death and despair, but as an indisputable juggernaut at that. Check out the comment of one Bryce on metacritic, who declares that "If you can't enjoy this you can't enjoy music." I'm blaming this, as with so many other things, on the (thorougly lovable) indie agenda-setters of, who in their absurdly overheated review of The Arcade Fire's Funeral declared, manifesto-like:

Upon the turn of the 21st century, we have come to know our isolation well. Our self-imposed solitude renders us politically and spiritually inert, but rather than take steps to heal our emotional and existential wounds, we have chosen to revel in them. We consume the affected martyrdom of our purported idols and spit it back in mocking defiance. We forget that "emo" was once derived from emotion, and that in our buying and selling of personal pain, or the cynical approximation of it, we feel nothing....So long as we're unable or unwilling to fully recognize the healing aspect of embracing honest emotion in popular music, we will always approach the sincerity of an album like Funeral from a clinical distance.

The implication is clear: not liking the Arcade Fire isn't just a matter of musical taste, it's a statement of cynicism. Spencer's provided a nice reductio ad absurdum of this position: "if you don't like this music, you're just cynical. And that's ridiculous: it's a version of rock history which blames Pavement for causing everyone to be disaffected slackers. It's a dull, self-righteous stance: some of us didn't go apeshit for the Arcade Fire because their outsized emotions currently outpace their melodic skills, not because we hate love and life and passion. Until indie rock gets over itself and starts prioritizing musical quality over generic emotion again, I'll devote more time than I probably should to exacting formalist pop song craftsmanship.