Thursday, October 2, 2008

Where Have All the Pretty Cowboys Gone?

At the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, something dawned on me.  A majority of the bands and musicians working hardest today to push music in new directions are leaving out an essential element of what makes the act of listening most pleasurable: beauty.

There are some goddamn phenomenal releases this year that just scream tension.  Most of them would fit into one of two broad genres, "electronic" or "noise," and in some instances both.  Examples include Fuck Buttons' Street Horrsing, Dan Friel's Ghost Town, Times New Viking's Rip It Off, or Crystal Castles' self-titled.

All of these albums have received considerable and well-deserved praise.  Mojo made Street Horrsing its "Underground Album of the Month" and Pitchfork gave it the "Best New Music" distinction.  CMG's Clayton Purdom said of Ghost Town: "This album is poised at a strange nexus of holy-fucking-shitdom...This is better than every other record you like right now."  Times New Viking received a 9/10 from Drowned in Sound for Rip It Off.  And Allmusic called Crystal Castles an "altogether striking debut."

While it's no surprise these releases are garnering strong reviews, some of the language used by the reviewers cited above is a bit confusing.  Pitchfork's Marc Masters describes the "prettier sounds" Fuck Buttons mix in with their repetitive noise.  Purdom calls Friel's Ghost Town "gorgeous" and DIS's Sam Lewis says Rip It Off is a "beautiful pop record."  And while it would be entirely unfair to paint Heather Phares' Allmusic review of Crystal Castles as inaccurate, she does manage to throw out the descriptors "serene" and "ethereal."

Look, I'm not here to argue semantics, but unless you happen to have a very deranged sense of what the word means, there simply isn't a whole lot of "beauty" in these albums.  I listen to and love each one because more than anything else, they're the badasses on the playground this year.  And again, they're pushing themselves in directions the rest of the kids are too scared to go.  Simply put, I would highly recommend these records, but for crying out loud, not because they're "pretty" or "gorgeous" or "beautiful" or "serene" or fucking "ethereal."


Unfortunately, there simply hasn't been a whole lot of worthwhile music released this year that I would describe as such.  There are, however, a handful of exceptions worth exploring:

Sam Amidon - All is Well

A simple-is-better Vermont singer/songwriter reinterprets public domain Appalachian compositions with impressive results.  Nico Muhly's string and brass arrangements add invaluable support without ever overpowering or masking the beauty of the songs themselves.  Look no further than "Saro," in which Amidon painfully recalls the love he left for a new country.  

Check out "Saro":

Kathleen Edwards - Asking for Flowers

Another solid release from the Canadian alt-country vet.  As usual, a bit of a mixed bag of upbeat numbers and downtempo heartbreakers.  It's in that second group where "Sure as Shit" lies, a quiet love song with sharp words, as gorgeous as anything you'll hear this year.

Check out "Sure as Shit" here.

Shearwater - Rook

Recalling the work of post-rock giants Talk Talk, Shearwater's newest album is, more than anything else, dramatic.  That's not to imply that they just do the slow-build crescendo rock thing (à la Explosions in the Sky).  But the well timed moments of serenity, such as album closer "The Hunter's Star," allow lead singer Jonathan Meiburg's vocals to lift Rook to places this young group has only begun to explore.

Check out "The Hunter's Star" here.

TV on the Radio - Dear Science,

The big exception.  The only band I've found this year that's truly pushing music to new heights without forgetting the limitless power of a beautiful track.  The album's fulcrum, "Family Tree," is unlike anything the band has ever produced before.  Soaring strings and an echoing piano accompany an utterly gorgeous vocal melody; it's easily their most accessible track to date.  Now this is what I call pretty.

Check out "Family Tree":


blake said...

A couple of other records that might fit the bill:

* Portishead's "Third" sounds cold as the robot-future but features the prettiest song of the year, "The Rip." This album is wrestling with "Dear Science" and "New Amerykah" as my top of 2008 thus far.
* Flying Lotus' "Los Angeles" is a really compelling record of hip hop instrumentals. Maybe a little bit like J Dilla, but denser textures and more synths.
* David Byrne and Brian Eno's reunion record "Everything That Happens Will Happen Today" is awesome too. "Experimental" rock music in the 00's borrows a lot of ideas from a record these two guys did over 30 years ago...sometimes bands even get away with blatantly ripping them off. Considering that, it's pretty impressive that they still have so much to teach younger generations of creative musicians. "Everything" is a lot more accessible than "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts," and it's probably not a stand-alone classic like that album...but it's still awesome.
* Erykah Badu's "New Amerykah Part One" is an incredibly exciting album. She's the standardbearer for R&B experimentation right now...listen to her collab with Madlib, "The Healer." Slow, heavy, lovely.
* Bon Iver's album dropped this year, didn't it? It's really gorgeous too. I'm pissed that I missed him this summer, but it's a wintertime record anyway so I'm not too pissed.

Thanks for the post Adam!

Dave said...

As someone who knows relatively little about music, in a technical sense that is, I struggle with bands that are solely pushing music in a new direction. It's a lot like modern art, I don't know enough about art to understand why modern art is so innovative.

I really resonate with this post. To me, music is good when it sounds good in your ears, not when it's making a statement. Music should be comprehensible and, as Adam said, beautiful.

Adam said...


I haven't heard Third or Los Angeles, but I'm surprised to hear you say they'd fit the bill, particularly the latter...I'll check them out.

Haven't heard the new Eno/Byrne, but to be blatantly honest, MLITBOG just never did a whole lot for me. I can respect its impact on what has come since, but oftentimes I get the feeling it's praised in retrospect because of the players and not because it's a great listen. At least for me.

Badu's record is pretty cool, yeah, but beautiful? Nah. I've listened to it a few times and enjoyed it, but I'm still not getting why it's the most revolutionary record of the year the way CMG says it is. Maybe you can explain?

Bon Iver self-released his record last fall, but yeah, Jagjaguar put it out this year. If you consider it an 08 album, it no doubt belongs on the list.

blake said...

Arguing about music is the best! Let's do it all the time!

To respond to a couple of your points, far as Byrne/Eno goes, hundreds of people have done a better job than I ever could describing the greatness of Bush of Ghosts...I guess if it's a matter of taste, I can't argue with that. The album is certainly not overrated though--I'd point to Dear Science as recent evidence of the continued relevance of Bush of Ghosts (there's so much David Byrne on Dear Science I'm surprised he's not listed in the liner notes). The new album doesn't really resemble the original collab all that much, I can actually stream the entire record at it's actually really catchy.

I'm pretty convinced that Erykah Badu has the single most distinctive voice in music right now. Each note, each beat, each space between beats...her new album is completely fearless. If 2008 music is a playground, she's the girl who hit puberty earlier than everybody else, and all the whimps in Fuck Buttons want to feel her up but they know she'd kick their asses if they tried to get fresh. Some of it is pretty aggressive, but there's a lot of prettiness there too...check "Twinkle," "That Hump," or "Healer."

Part of the problem is that "beauty" is kind of a lousy place to start because it totally depends on your frame of reference...the noisy bands you mentioned in your post have enjoyed some momentary popularity outside the confines of their normally inaccessible genre-ghettos. There is some seriously joyless sludge in noise music, and all these bands are on the poppy end of the spectrum if you view them in the context of the farther-flung regions of noisy, chaotic rock. My grandma wouldn't describe Dear Science as beautiful. She likes Chopin. It's sort of a tough starting point, but it makes for an interesting conversation because people's conception of beauty is almost never exactly the same. Thanks for your thoughts, and keep typing!!!

Adam said...

Blake, I don't know who you are, but good post. Beauty is a totally subjective term, but I would argue, it's just something you know when you see/hear. Your grandma thinks Chopin is beautiful because it (usually) is.

I'll check out the new Eno/Byrne, but again, I never said MLITBOG was underrated, just that it's not entirely fun for me to listen to. I'd much rather throw on Remain in Light or Another Green World.

Tim said...

So the whole post is premised on the concept of beauty, but you haven't really defined what you mean, except to say "this is beautiful" and "this isn't." So what's beauty? And is it Really "totally subjective?"

As for Fuck Buttons, "Sweet Love for Planet Earth" is definitely on my list of most beautiful songs of the year.

To add to your list (which in my mind represents "pretty" much more than "beautiful"), the new Horse Feathers album (House with No Home), the new Spiritualized (Songs in A&E), everything else from the Bedroom Community label that Sam Amidon is on (seriously, each of the 5 or so bands/musicians on there is golden), Karl Blau's "Beneath Waves," and to throw out one noise-ish album I think is almost the definition of beauty, Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet's "The Breadwinner."

Adam said...

Thanks for the recommendations, Tim.

So did anyone actually like the songs posted?...