Category: Face the Music

Music, Consensus, and Rock Greats

With rock greats like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones dominating lists of the best musicians of the past century, I’ve often come to wonder who will remain relevant in the decades from now. The other day, I read an old article written by journalist and author Chuck Klosterman about comedian and late night TV legend Johnny Carson after the celebrity’s death. He said that Carson was a funny person, but his true significance and importance lies in the fact that he was basically the last great cultural icon.

The connection between these two ideas may seem far-fetched, but trust me, they are more related than you’d think. I think what Klosterman was getting at is that there was once this sense of a shared, collective culture and a perceived consensus, probably because of limited media sources.  As he said, “There will never again be cultural knowledge that everybody shares, mostly because there is just too much culture.”

Back in the ‘60s, we are led to believe that everyone in America was watching when the Beatles performed “I Want To Hold Your Hand” on the Ed Sullivan Show. This is probably somewhat likely. Back in the days of limited television channels and definitely no internet in sight, the outlets through which popular music was transmitted were limited, at least compared to today. Magazines such as Rolling Stone would put rock stars like Jim Morrison on its cover and tell us that he was worth caring about. The majority seems to have listened.

Today, we have an infinite number of choices, which is an idea that Klosterman also draws on. With blogs, social media sites and the like telling us about this band and that band, this obscure singer and that under-the-radar rapper, it’s hard to keep up. I’m not saying that there aren’t cultural figures that many of us seem to know and agree on and that there were in the past. After all, I think that the passage of time definitely explains why many of us can stand back and say that Jimi Hendrix was an amazing guitarist or that Led Zeppelin led the way for many metal bands that were to follow.

I think, however, that the idea of a consensus is harder to believe when two-way communication dominates our interactions with the media. Today, there are millions of blogs and sites like Pitchfork or Live Music Guide devoted solely to music and reviews – individual listeners can argue back against mainstream expressions. So what if many magazines named Kanye West’s recent album the best of 2010? We don’t have to listen. With a click of the mouse and flickering of our fingers across the keyboard, we can tell the world that we disagree or agree or are completely confused or that, frankly, we could care less. The media is still telling us what to believe, but we can just as easily drown their messages out with our own opinions and voices. Now, we are the media.

It’s hard to compare the current cultural and music environment of our time to that of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It can be argued that rock ‘n’ roll basically dominated much of those decades, basking in its newness and unfamiliarity. Today, the assortment of genres and subgenres that receive radio airplay have vastly increased – hip hop and pop are more likely to reach number one on top 40 charts than rock. In that vein, however, we don’t even need to listen to the radio. We have Pandora, GrooveShark, etc. We can choose what we want to listen to and when we want to listen to it.

Perhaps these are some reasons why the idea of the “greats of yesteryear” seems unattainable for our generation. To some extent I have always believed there was somewhat of a consensus about great musicians of all time, even if I personally disagreed with the choices. For example, even if I used to be a little less than crazy about Queen (don’t worry – I have since reformed), I feel like I understood their place in rock cultural history. I knew better than to expect that every single person liked every single popular band, but still. So, here’s the question: years from now will a list of the great rockers of right now (the future past, if you know what I mean) develop? Or is our cultural identity becoming less and less homogeneous by the day, to the extent that a consensus will be as ancient as cassette players? It may be a little clichéd, but only time will tell.

-Margot Pien

Favorite Music-Centric Movies

Today, I offer a run-down of some of my favorite music-centered movies. My humble list doesn’t include popular films and documentaries like the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” or the Martin Scorsese flick about Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home.” However, I think these movies show the interesting blend of music in films, whether through fictional bands or semi-biographical retellings.

“Almost Famous” (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s flick about a teenage journalist who follows a rock band called Stillwater on the road during the ‘70s has resonated in the hearts and minds of many. With the unforgettable scene in which the bus full of musicians, managers and friends burst into Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” the movie has cemented itself into pop culture history (did anyone catch that Super Bowl ad?). Apparently based on Crowe’s own adventures hanging with the Allman Brothers Band, the film has the perfect mix of an amazing soundtrack, lovable characters and skilled acting. Patrick Fugit’s portrayal of William, the teen who is eager to become pals with his rocker friends, and Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who leads a group of self-professed “band-aids” (not groupies, she claims), are both memorable.

“That Thing You Do” (1996)

I remember at a young age seeing the film that tells the story of the quick rise and fall of a rock band in the ‘60s. The poppy tracks that the fictional group – “The Wonders” – played caught my ear, and I remember loving the vintage nostalgia of the costumes and sets. As the small-town musicians rocket from obscurity to billboard-hit fame, tensions among members inevitably rise and success is short lived. Catch winning performances from Tom Hanks as the savvy manager, Tom Everett Scott as the sunglasses-sporting drummer and Liv Tyler as the spurned girlfriend of the egocentric lead singer.

“Blues Brothers” (1980)

Building on the success of a SNL skit by cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the comedians took their act to the big screen to make the hilarious “Blues Brothers” film. After Jake (Belushi) springs from a stint in jail, the brothers go on a mission to reassemble their old band, win a competition and save the Catholic home where the siblings were raised. My favorite scene has to be when the band, which dabbles in – you guessed it – blues and rock ‘n’ roll, book a gig at a country-western bar. After initially playing their usual material and being booed, the band switches to a rendition of the “Rawhide” theme and a Tammy Wynette hit called “Stand by Your Man”.

“I’m Not There” (2007)

Surprisingly, this is the only film on my list that profiles a real-life musician. This ambitious semi-biographical film takes a look at various stages of Bob Dylan’s life, along with different facets of his personality and music. A share of actors portrays Dylan during various scenes, settings and interpretations; the list includes Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett among others. The soundtrack is almost a character of its own, with a range of musicians covering some of Dylan’s best tracks. Some of my favorites are Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) and Calexico’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” Cat Power’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) and The Million Dollar Bashers’ “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

“Flight of the Conchords” (2007-2009)

Ok, so I know this isn’t a movie, but I can’t leave out the unforgettable HBO show about a duo hailing from New Zealand. The show follows Bret and Jemaine as they go about their daily lives, trying to book gigs and penning hilarious songs along the way. The comedians/band members blurred the lines between fiction and reality, releasing two albums and going on tour. It’s often hard to listen to their songs with a straight face, and they often parody different musical styles. Some of the best include the rap battle of “Hiphopopatamus vs. Rhymenoceros,” the song praising a girl for her mediocre looks in “Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” and the tribute to fashion and hipsters, “Fashion is Danger.”

-Margot Pien

White Stripes

When the White Stripes announced their break up last week, I reacted with mixed emotions. Although I was definitely upset at first, I wasn’t necessarily surprised. The rock group last released a studio album in 2007, and since then we’ve seen singer/guitarist Jack White branch out on many solo ventures and appearances. The more that I think about the announcement, however, the more monumental the band’s end has become.

When I think back to the first time I heard the White Stripes, I envision legos. I remember watching MTV and seeing the video for “Fell In Love With a Girl” hit the TRL airwaves. Until then, my music was admittedly dominated by ‘90s boy bands and a share of Britney Spears, but with that video I was exposed to rock for the first time. Clinging onto my older sister’s teenage viewing habits, I stared at the colored legos dance across the screen, reconstructing themselves into shapes and designs to the beat of the thrashing guitar and drums and Jack White’s electrifying voice.

I’m not going to lie and say that the White Stripes was my favorite band ever or that I will lament the band’s end with a candle-lit shrine and an all-black outfit of mourning. However, each time I listen to different songs released by the White Stripes over the years, I am taken back to different stages of my life. It feels like I grew up with the band, and each time I go back and listen to their work, I appreciate things that once went through my head. While I was transfixed by their mysterious looks and unfamiliar rock music when I was younger, I revisit their tracks and find how they seamlessly embody very different styles, from blues to punk to garage rock. I find myself putting their amazing covers of Bob Dylan and Burt Bacharach/Dusty Springfield hits on repeat on my iPod. I start to wonder about their rise and their background, especially after seeing a glimpse of Jack’s life in It Might Get Loud.

I feel like I owe a lot to the White Stripes. They made me love other bands that started to emerge at the time – The Hives, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The groups that spawned from the White Stripes – namely The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather – probably wouldn’t have been possible either without the original band’s success. When Jack and Meg White announced their band’s break up, they said they did so for many reasons, “mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band.” It’s an almost noble move – quitting while they’re still ahead, perhaps keeping their legacy in gold and making this an optimistic “end” rather than a tragic “demise.” It seems as if both members are ready to move on and the announcement merely cemented their intentions. Regardless of future endeavors, the White Stripes will always remain a part of my life. Here are some of my favorite songs – hopefully, they speak for themselves:

“Fell In Love With a Girl”

“One More Cup of Coffee (Bob Dylan cover)”

“Dead Leaves & The Dirty Ground”

-Margot Pien

Vampire Weekend in Raleigh: Oct. 17, 2010

So, unfortunately I missed the opening act, Beach House.  I did get to hear them from afar as I approached the downtown Raleigh Amphitheatre.  They sounded really good and I was pretty sad I only got to catch the end of them. I’d never been to this venue before, but it is surprisingly and pleasantly small. It’s right in the middle of the city, so close to the streets that a passerby could enjoy a concert if he were just strolling the streets after a nice dinner. The inside of the venue is a simple layout — most of the ground is covered with seats and in the back there is a small strip of grass that is considered the “lawn.”  I had lawn tickets but I sat there for all of five minutes before my friends and I joined the mob of people that rushed toward the front.

Vampire Weekend was fashionably late, coming on stage at 9:00 p.m. instead of 8:30 as scheduled. I assumed that they would mostly plays songs from their newest album, Contra. Instead, their set list was a mix of both Contra and their self-titled 2008 debut, Vampire Weekend; they alternated pretty much every song. After the band walked on stage to a Ludacris song, they got right into the set list by playing “Holiday.”

I was a fan before I went to this concert but my appreciation for this band dramatically increased after attending this concert. They sounded even better than they do on their albums. They remixed some of their songs and added in guitar solos (which was highlighted by a light shining down on Ezra Koenig, the lead singer and guitarist). They were also more alive on stage — they were louder and had even more personality (which I didn’t think was possible). Their improvisations at this concert were a true mark of their artistic ability and just one of the reasons why I gained even more appreciation for them.

The light show really complimented the energy, keeping up with the beats and changing colors with each song. The light always illuminated the back of the stage, where a supersized version of their disk hung. When Ezra started playing a guitar solo, the light would cut out in the back of the stage and focus solely on him for a minute or so, mesmerizing the audience as he improvised.

My friends and I also managed to head to the front and we landed the perfect seats without realizing it at first. There was a big gap between our seats and the seats in front of us — this big walkway became a sort of runway. Some people danced along it as they made their way to the designated smoking area, and for some it was the drunken walk of shame. One guy had two or five too many and he drunkenly made his way down the cement path, dancing with the audience.  I was even lucky enough to get a shimmy from him. Security escorted him out, but they definitely had a fun time watching this guy.

My only problem with this show was that it was way too short. Vampire Weekend only played for about an hour and ten minutes. I was wanting more from them but I guess that is kind of hard when they only have two albums. They were so electric, vibrant, colorful and energetic. It is hard to dance to their music; you don’t know whether to bob, sway your hips or jump up and down. It didn’t matter; Vampire Weekend managed to get everybody moving in their seats or on the lawn.

As the band left the stage, Ezra announced that they might not be playing for a while in the U.S.  I got a little emotional when he said this but I am still waiting for their next album or concert. This band still has a lot to offer us. This show was just a delicious taste of what is to come from this New York-based band.

– Sarah Diedrick

Cut Copy

Lollapalooza music festival. August 7th, 2010.  Grant Park, Chicago.  Sears tower and other skyscrapers line the outskirts of the park, but inside is a different vibe — grungy hippies, college students, older couples, and even babies equipped with earplugs.

7:30 p.m.  It’s getting dark but you can still see the congested crowd on the pavement — some sitting in a circle smoking cigarettes, some taking swigs of their vodka handles, some hyping themselves up — but all waiting for Cut Copy.

Cut Copy is from Melbourne, Australia, drawing its influence from the 80s, with most of their songs considered to be “synthpop.”  My favorite album is In Ghost Colours because there’s a good variety on the disc — upbeat, electronic-type songs that you can’t help but dance to, and some slower songs with beats still powerful enough to make you move.  The video I posted, a song called “Hearts on Fire,” is a good mixture of both.  It has some suspenseful build-ups and then eruptive beats that unleash your inner dance moves.

I couldn’t have asked for a better crowd during Cut Copy’s performance at Lollapalooza this past summer.  Everyone jumped in sync to the songs, calmed down during the build-ups, and then went crazy when the beat started again. Front man Dan Whitford, dressed in a silk button down shirt and dress pants, got the crowd going by dancing across the stage and lifting his arms up.  The lights synchronized to the beat and mirrored the crowd’s movements.  Just look at the YouTube video and you can see the excitement that spanned across the crowd standing in front of the PlayStation stage.

For a full hour, I danced and mouthed the words to Cut Copy songs as the sun set and darkness settled over Grant Park, brightening the light show that added to the performance.

Cut Copy is releasing a new album due in January that is yet to be titled.  In the past, Cut Copy has gotten inspiration for its albums from a lot of acid house era, post-rave indie music, but this new album seems to incorporate a different type of sound. In an interview with Pitchfork, Dan Whitford said that he “had this idea of getting a choir and some strings to add an extra dimension to some songs.”

Go check out the single they released from their new album called “Where I’m Going.”  It has a Beatles feel and is a lot different from other songs of theirs, such as “Saturday” and most of the tracks off of In Ghost Colours.

Lollapalooza only reinforced my love for Cut Copy and their versatile music.  When I listen to their songs I can literally just feel the beat acting as a ventriloquist for my dance moves — I can’t help but dance. Watching the crowd around me in Grant Park just solidified my belief that Cut Copy’s music does the same thing for many others.

My top 5 Cut Copy songs are “Saturday”, “Hearts on Fire”, “Lights and Music”, “Out there on the Ice”, and “Time Stands Still”.  Whether you’re walking to class, trying to get a party started, or dancing in front of the mirror, Cut Copy is the perfect remedy for those who just want to dance.

– Sarah Diedrick

[listen while you read: Nothing but the Whole Wide World by Jakob Dylan]

Jakob Dylan’s “Women and Country” is a great album.  In a time when fans are predicting the death of the album, Dylan has created a work of great beauty that defies this death sentence, containing strings of well-turned phrases and thoughtful arrangements. This is only Dylan’s second solo effort but it wears every one of his 20 years of performing like a well-worn saddle.

With “Women and Country,” Dylan emerges as one of the foremost singer/songwriters of his generation.  He continually defies convention.  When critics assumed he would begin his career as a solo act like his father, Dylan formed what essentially began as a jam band with The Wallflowers in 1992.  They quickly moved into Heartbreakers territory, delivering a product to fans that’s long been in short supply: rock n’ roll.  Now, with his newest album, Dylan tackles what could be the most unpopular musical genre. Yee-haw.

At the beginning of the album, on “Nothing But The Whole Wide World,” Dylan rolls out the steady, driving percussion popular in many country songs.  This time out, he’s got back up, provided by the lovely Neko Case and Kelly Hogan.  A steel guitar accompanies Dylan’s raspy crooning.  Like many of the characters in his songs, this one is an optimistic pessimist. Interestingly, he is a man who recognizes the existence of God, no matter if he’s praising or scorning Him:

Mama, she raised me to sing and just let ’em talk
Said no rich man’s worth his weight in dust
Bury him down same as they’ll do us
God wants us busy, never giving up
He wants nothing but the whole wide world for us

Dylan follows this happy tune with the sober, New Orleans-styled “Lend A Hand.”  You feel like you could hear any number of similar songs walking through the French Quarter of the city.  But the song is anything but optimistic; even the bloodhound can find a trail. With this song and others, Dylan hit upon a fundamental truth of country, that country and blues are essentially inseparable.  Both genres rest upon two themes: love and God/Satan.

“Holy Rollers For Love” exemplifies Dylan’s growth as an artist and it’s the most beautiful track on the album. It’s the archetype of a great song: poetry and music.  The song displays Dylan’s timeless themes:

With battle songs filling their lungs
Move them out down under the sun
Give them tears for cherry red blood
Stack them old, we cradle them young
World is crazy or maybe just
Holy rollers for love

Nothing is spared on the track, but everything is sparing, including a haunting steel guitar solo bridge and drums that could be heard on a Native reservation.

T-Bone Burnett produced the album and it’s evident in every one of the tracks. Burnett seems to prefer what I call “clean” country.  His arrangements are spare, polished and hauntingly melodic, even sensitive. He fills spaces with steady percussion and plenty of steel guitar.  Burnett brought the same when he reworked Johnny Cash standards for “Walk the Line” (’05) and scored the excellent “Crazy Heart,” in which he won an Oscar for “The Weary Kind” with Ryan Bingham this year.

Dylan’s search for popularity and respect could not have been an easy task.  First, he had to steal away from his father’s shadow, not an easy task.  But instead of coming out shooting, Dylan thought up an escape plan and he organized himself a posse: the Wallflowers.  Together, under Dylan’s direction, they shot up the charts. Their album “Bringing Down the Horse” (’96), also under the direction of Burnett, produced a string of hits, including the Grammy-winning “One Headlight.”

– Jonathan Michels