Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ties, Slurs, and Ligatures

Along with appearances by Bono or Thurston Moore, one of the checklist clichés of music documentaries is the breathless pronouncement that "I'd never heard anything like it before." The statement usually comes towards the end of the first act, once all the major players & their backstories have been introduced, and is typically made by someone peripheral or successive to the spotlit artist or scene. It's threadbare hyperbole by now, but bless 'em for having lived in a place or time when it was possible to be genuinely surprised by music.

These days, almost anyone with a music-listening appliance is also sure to have a decent internet connection. There's consequently no excuse to be ignorant: easy access to the full global & historical sweep of music means everyone is now a music nerd. It's merely a question of how much of what kind of nerd you are.

So should there a come a day when filmmakers decide this solipsistically self-documenting culture requires even further exposition, no one will vaguely exalt a song or artist as "unlike anything I'd heard before." Everyone will have their own hand-picked stockpile of ready references & easy similes. Nevermind the ol' Band A = Band B + Band C equation; folks will be busting out algebraic analogies, multiplying influences before subdividing by microgenre.

Of course, the opposite effect could easily result: because the internet allows users to hand-tailor their input, everyone's frame of reference could shrink to a miniscule, self-satisfied speck. Sure, it requires the same minimal effort to drag up a YouTube clip of either some new buzzband or a tried-and-true favourite, but why risk the disappointment that Yuck might kinda be bullshit when I can just listen to "Wings" for the god-knows-nth time? Why struggle to decide if it's morally acceptable to enjoy Odd Future when you can just throw on the Wu-Tang's debut again? The danger of such smug myopia is that there are hordes of nerdier-than-thou jerks (Hi!) ready to school your cul-de-sac ass. Sure, Lostage may be the latest in a long lineage of arena-sized riff merchants, but beware if you're going to "saddle the band with too many overt Page/Plant comparisons." Some snide punk out there will want to know, for real, Led fuckin' Zeppelin is the only goddamned guitar band you can draw a comparison to? What, were you too stoned to take Houses of the Holy off your turntable and investigate Drive Like Jehu, or Universal Order of Armageddon, or, I dunno, any band on Dischord records?

Mercifully, some bands make it easy for lazy critics by wearing their influences so baldly, they don't require multiple citations - it's straight Band A = Band B. (See: Black Lips, Serena Maneesh, The Horrors, etc.) Many Japanese bands actually invite such easy equivalencies. Desperate to broadcast their influences, many musicians borrow a song title for their band name (e.g. Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, Boris) or vice versa (e.g. Number Girl's "Pixie Dü"); the clever ones quote directly but with deliberate misspellings (e.g. Discharming Man).

Often, the most interesting bands work like Rorschach tests for their listeners' musical knowledge: everyone draws different correlations, based on their personal tastes, without anyone necessarily being inaccurate. For example, a band I used to tour-manage earned sprawling comparisons to DJ Shadow, Radiohead, the Flaming Lips, and Can - all fair assessments to my ears. There were, of course, a few folks suggested jaw-droppingly inaccurate agnates (Helmet? Really?) but that's what happens when drunk Alabamans try their hand at cultural criticism.

My current band's been suited with an even baggier patchwork of musical parallels. No one seems quite sure where to situate us. So far, we've done things strictly D.I.Y. without so much as an official website, yet two weeks ago the drummer from Melt Banana said we "totally sound like a major [label] band." Well, yeah, contrasted with Melt Banana, we do totally sound like a major label band, but that's a seriously relative appraisal - like saying the Melvins sound way more commercial than Napalm Death.

Given Japan's malignant self-perception as rock's farm league, it's high praise for a band to be compared to a foreign act. Not only have we only been identified with overseas acts, we frequently receive the highest praise possible: we don't even sound like a Japanese band* at all! I suspect most people are tempted to make this comment because there's a gaijin on guitar and the lyrics are all in English. That we look & sound comparatively "less Japanese" is less a plaudit than a plain statement of fact.

Anyway, below is a mix of the bands we're most frequently stood alongside - which I find hilariously flattering, with the exceptions of Killing Joke (meh) and perennial underachievers Primal Scream. But I admit, we bear the most consistent likeness to Primal Scream, in that all of our songs sound kinda sorta like Primal Scream. Our vocalist loves Bobby and the bassist digs Mani, so we operate around 20% Primal Scream at all times. The similarity to our other soundalikes varies wildly: one song may split the difference between Shellac and the Birthday Party, the next number might sound like Sonic Youth all over.

Perhaps I should make a "soundalike outlier" mix of all the bands we've been compared to only once, just to see how ludicrous a Venn diagram that draws around our sound. Could we in fact be the middle point between Sleep, Seefeel, and Company Flow? I fucking wish.

Ties, Slurs, and Ligatures

1. Shellac - "My Black Ass"
2. Lungfish - "Jonah"
3. My Bloody Valentine - "Slow"
4. Killing Joke - "Seeing Red"
5. The Jesus Lizard - "Monkey Trick"
6. Primal Scream - "Rise"
7. The Birthday Party - "The Dim Locator"
8. Public Image Ltd. - "Death Disco (Swan Lake)"
9. Sonic Youth - "Death Valley '69"

* - Believe me, I don't consider this praise of any sort, let alone a high honour. The endemic insecurity of many Japanese rock musicians is a sorry state. And what does it mean to "not sound Japanese" anyway?

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