Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Challenges

Over dinner last Friday, I found myself in an argument over whether music ought be challenging. This didn't so much start because I have strong opinions one way or another, but because I advanced Brendan's once casually mentioned "Band of Horses as quintessential The OC soundtrack band" theory/objections in a conversation about the year thus far in music. Which didn't so much start because I have strong opinions about his beef with Band of Horses, as because we started talking about Band of Horses. And if there's one thing I don't have a strong opinion about, it's Band of Horses.

As I started going through the music I'd picked up this year, I found myself subconsciously putting releases into one of two categories - better or worse than Cease to Begin, BoH's sophomore release. More than the usual ordered preferencing that goes into these lists, which occurs by the very nature of lists where everything is invariably either better or worse than an arbitrary line in the sand, it seemed necessary that I make this record my balancing point. To me, it is the universal signifier for 2007 - a "much anticipated follow-up record" by an indie rock band with some twang - between these three characteristics I might be able to sum up most new releases I heard this year. It has also left me mildly disappointed, another feature it shares with most music I found this year.

Everything All the Time came out to the great anticipation of most everyone who had ever listened to Carissa's Wierd, promising something along the lines of alt-country shoegaze northwest indie-rock. As it turned out, it delivered on the first, kind of ignored the second and third, but knocked out of the park the most radio-friendly version of the fourth this side of a Grey's Anatomy soundtrack. Unfortunately, Cease to Begin doesn't do much but work within the template of their first release. It rocks a bit harder at points, and croons a bit sweeter at others, but it never really gets beyond the catchy melodies into really interesting songs that beg putting the record on repeat.

When I first heard Some Loud Thunder, I wasn't impressed. Hot on the heels of their stellar self-titled debut, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! were on the verge of breaking into the mainstream, or at least whatever part of the mainstream the Shins inhabit, and proceed to pull the musical equivalent of a rickroll. The first track's distorted-to-hell production left me convinced that my leaked copy was messed up, and the second song sounded like a pale imitation of their first record. And thus, I went into the album with an admittedly negative disposition that took the varying tones and moods as a lack of focus, the stronger songwriting for lost spontaneity and creativity. I somehow missed the raucously wailing "Yankee Go Home," which was the track that the blogosphere meant to choose when it instead started hyping "Satan Said Dance." Then, with a little more distance, I started listening to it again. As it turns out, that first track, "Some Loud Thunder" might be the most frustratingly great pop song of the year. And I mean that as a compliment.

Since my turnaround on this record, I've grown to appreciate many things about it, but the vocals really do deserve mention, along with the de rigeur mention of David Byrne. It isn't just the similarities in the emotive, exposed delivery and curious arrangements that bring him to mind, but that I haven't heard someone sing with this sort of melancholy and longing since Speaking in Tongues. Sure, it's nasal, and the songs, while they develop better than the sketches of songs in their first release, don't have the sort of verse-chorus-bridge structures that the collective pop consciousness clues into immediately, but that's part of what makes it so rewarding.

The last artist I wrote about here was Tullycraft: no doubt there's something to be said for pop music in its purest, most obvious, grab-you-by-the-earworm forms, and it's the reason why the 60's were fucking awesome (even?) before the hippies took over. Is music bad because it doesn't challenge us? Of course not. But is it good because it challenges us?


We will always be playing catch up to artists who are beyond us - insomuch as they create and we consume, we will always be a step behind. In the same way that artists pushing the limits of their form is good, advancing as it were, working to an understanding of the off-putting or out of the ordinary or the just plain weird is how we as listeners grow. As we catch up, we discover gems that we didn't realize were there - history is littered with genius unrecognized until after its time. So this means everyone be listening to John Cage? Hell no.

Perhaps challenging music is an end in itself - music exists as a search for better and more perfect forms of expression and staying atop that evolution is thus clutch - but more likely music has other places, other functions, fills other needs in your life. For me, it's the emotional and aesthetic qualities - how music makes me feel, what music says about life, how fucking fantastic some melodies can sound, how some rhythms just seem to catch me, and how all those pieces fit together. And that's why "Some Loud Thunder" has become my favorite track on the album.

I've heard plenty of explanations for why CYHSY! tweaked the sound on the track, but I'm not sure if I care what the real reason was; to me, the song's themes of alienation and loss are just made that much more powerful as you listen through the broken-speaker-sounding drums to decipher the words. Cease to Begin is a solid album, but it delivers its message as crystal clear as the reverb on the first single's vocals. I may not have had to work for that album, but I also haven't really wanted to listen to it for the last month out of anything other than the obligation to write this post. Some Loud Thunder is one of the few albums released lately that I find getting better with time. Sure, I didn't love it as much on first listen as I did their first record, but I'm willing to catch up to them. It's been worth it.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fan of Neon Hustle...not a fan of the new design :(

Brendan K. said...

For those interested, my original comment was along the lines of claiming Band of Horses first record, "Everything All the Time," sounded like music that was perfectly and specifically created for one of those "Music from 'The OC'" compilations.

This isn't really meant as a comment on if I like them or not, though when I was DJing at KTXT in Lubbock I did draw a cartoon on one of my end-of-shift reports saying that should I hear "The Funeral" one more time on our station I was gonna fucking hang myself.

scott pgwp said...

I'm a month late... but this is a great post. Kinda tackles a lot of the same issues I wrestle with on a regular basis.

I wrote about the CYHSY album back when it came out, voicing my ultimate disappointment; I thought the band was transparently "experimental" - i.e., making aesthetic choices to no apparent end.

I still view it as a disappointing album, ultimately, but I must also admit that of the many disappointing albums released this year (Bjork, Arcade Fire, Shins, among others), this is the album I feel I'll continue to come back to and try again, to see if my feelings might change. The album is more interesting than I originally gave it credit for.