Best of 2014: Defending Generational Music with Nicholas
Music Ain’t A Crime
On one hand, my musical year could have started and ended in mid-January when dispatches from New Orleans emphatically announced that a noise ordinance was killed by the city council. Opposition to that ordinance promptly staged a Jazz Funeral for the doomed measure, raising the key question about what type of soulless creature would move to New Orleans and demand that musicians stop their hustle. “Music Ain’t A Crime:” yearly sentiments rarely come in such precise, poetic slogans, yet there it was, an idea or theme that could drive the rest of the year. Not long after, Scammers’ title track from his Jehu & Chinaman cassette openly carried that theme onward, for the flipside of “Music Ain’t A Crime” is indeed to make this A Song That Can Exist. This was on my conscience throughout the year, if not only in the form of a phenomenal tape that haunted my every waking second, it was surely in the form of defending generational music by contemporary artists.
Few moments in 2014 stopped me dead in my tracks like watching the New Orleans protesters; they obviously foreshadowed the trajectory of American messages throughout the year. Their spirited defense of music provides an ideal that is worth aspiring to, as well as an instant reminder that contemporary music is always important. It is easy to get bogged down in wide-open independent, internet-driven distribution systems, or the decay of commercial pop music, or the endless proliferation of sub-genres, or the endless stream of releases that invariably receive “instant classic” reviews (or worse, academic reviews that promptly assess and place an album in its “pop music timeline,” leaving it forever-categorized); it is easy to see why so many people consistently feel like contemporary music is terrible, or that rock is dead. One can think about the grand distribution schemes afforded past rock and pop artists, and instantly compare a contemporary gang of performers with the swift conclusion that “No one will be better than The Beatles,” or “There will never be another Nirvana,” or something like that.
Unfortunately, these pervasive attitudes about music strikingly dismiss one of the most creative eras in American music. Certainly our recent decade of music faces brand new challenges of distribution, criticism, and consumption, and the skepticism of many people showed loud and clear during some of the best “Pop WTF” moments in 2014. If the jazz funeral proved that music ain’t a crime, television appearances from St. Vincent to Future Islands proved that pop music still had a chance to stun and confuse the masses. Even when these exceptional performances for broad audiences were misappropriated (such as David Letterman’s “Let’s Dance…” segments), they still provided notice that pop music serves as an avenue for creative beats, choreography, oddball humor, ethereal synths, and heartfelt vocals. Or, at the very least, there must be some value in the fact that certain trends in pop music can be delivered to a large audience and stun them into disbelief, awe, obsession, hatred, or mockery. I don’t love the St. Vincent and Future Islands performances because they’re divisive, but because both performances showcase the potential for pop to capture dreamlike states, or surrealist social commentary.
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Grantland’s “American Band Championship Belt” piece by Steven Hyden must be one of 2014’s best examples of a writer affirming both contemporary pop cynicism and skepticism (“the last six years are the weakest ever for American bands“) while perpetuating “safe” generational narratives (Deerhunter as defining this generation’s great music, a claim both seriously and sarcastically defended). This was yet another moment that stopped me in my tracks in 2014, not simply in order to scream as frequently and loudly as possible that there are alternative narratives to even the last six years of music (let alone the entire history of American bands and bandleaders). My review of For the Recently Found Innocent by White Fence tracks one potential culmination to an alternative narrative, one that finds American bands retreating to the lonely spaces of 1970s individualism (in this case through paisley, country moves), and it is certainly one of many examples of a “generational” album that deserves top praise for the decade. White Fence’s Tim Presley once again proved this year that even if he’s not as openly embraced as an icon for this generation, his songs and performances are consistently building a body of work that will stand next to any contemporary songwriter. This isn’t a “Deerhunter vs. Darker My Love” thing as much as it is a reminder that any proclamation that “Artist X defines this generation” will have its blind spots.
If the 1960s worship went on hiatus as throngs of San Francisco migrated to Los Angeles, 2014 generally felt like new and interesting calls to the 1970s leaked into pop music. White Fence’s recent developments hawked the gritty boots of psychedelia’s country while Obnox spun glamorous and soulful updates to his unique brand of punk music. It finally seemed that Obnox received more press within the last year, which is a welcome development that meets Lamont Thomas’s singular vision with critical assessment. Louder Space (12XU) featured wide open soul that matched the fury of the protests stemmed from police brutality in the US punctuating the last quarter of the year, lending Thomas’s versions of punk a perfectly timed avenue for commentary. Perhaps the best element of the Obnox catalog is that Thomas gets in his listener’s face without posing, delivering honest-to-goodness rants without entitlement, and sprinkles his driving punk with debauchery that never seems self-indulgent. Every move is perfect without being pristine or predictable, and that fury also translates to Obnox’s stripped down live performances (typically in the form of a drum-and-guitar duo).
Revealing another avenue for duos, Klaus Johann Grobe made their USA splash in 2014, courtesy of Trouble In Mind. On their “Traumhaft” 7-inch and debut LP, Im Sinne der Zeit, the Swiss duo bent key and bass-driven krautrock into its most dancefloor-ready format. If you squint hard enough, you’ll see the international punk rock of Hot and Cold, while other moments invoke their labelmate Jacco Gardner’s bright pop. Regardless, Klaus Johann Grobe spin their minimal set into brief, catchy statements that advance recent krautrock obsessions into perhaps their shortest and most radical format yet. The psychedelic resurgence of recent years is morphing into diverse directions, from glam and soul to short-form electronic songcraft.
Speaking of glam developments, I once saw a contemporary musician state that one of their obsessions with the current state of music is that everyone seemingly plays in three bands and runs a label on the side. In this department, God? Records repackaging of Jack Name’s Light Show was a worthy entry into the “side projects better than lead projects” departments, as well as a total demolition of 1960s garage rock worship. The White Fence touring guitarist and sound engineer presented an unorthodox pop album that felt as uneasy as it did emancipatory. Jack Name’s album was one of the very first things I heard this year, and I have carried it in my mind every step of the way. From the queasy rhythms and “off” double-tracking to the unsteady harmonies of manipulated vocals, Jack Name exhausts no technique to entrance the listener, yet his most stripped-down moments such as “New Guitars” or “Trans America” bluntly counter the idea that these layered visions are disguises with a backbone of solid songs.
Even Deerhunter cannot have the last claim on their peculiar strand of ambient/experimental punk as a generational format, not if Vehicle Blues or Katrina Stoneheart have anything to say about it. On his Lake Paradise 7-inch, Gabe Holcombe loaded distant vocals and a vivid, layered sound into the deepest atmospheres. Over the span of 30 minutes, Holcombe’s sound would have produced a blissful drone, but instead, “Luke Song” served as a brief pop insight into something that is obviously deeper and further out of reach. Even if one is inclined to dismiss this as shoegaze worship, the strength of the songwriting and vocal performance would carry the tune in any format (imagine it, like any great Deerhunter song, in the hands of The Everly Brothers, for instance, and I think “Luke Song” also sticks as some type of strange Americana just as well). Holcombe slows the punk to a crawl, and allows the airiness of the track to take over, causing euphoric multiple spins.
In the case of Katrina Stoneheart’s self-titled debut on Fire Talk, the ambiance was maintained by droning vocals, which provided a seamless fabric against sputtering percussion, broken-down blips, and prominent acoustic guitar. Performing as Katrina Stoneheart, Drew Gibson arguably updated threads of “ambient punk” so adored as a generational calling card by extracting true, restless peacefulness from the form of the pop song. Even in the format of nine relatively brief songs, Gibson does not appear confined by the truncated performances, instead weaving these tracks to form one overreaching mood. This happened to be one of the albums in 2014 that I heard exactly when I needed to hear it as well, which is a nice reminder of the power of music. Gibson expands his own musical vision through his Solid Melts label, which also finds ambient meditations in statements by Josh Millrod (Seeking the Millenary Kingdom) and Daniel Wyche (The Last Flight of the Voidship Remainder). Both extended atmospheric visions into longer expressions, Millrod through synthetic manipulation, feedback, and trumpet, and Wyche through rising-and-falling, modulated guitar fluctuations. These tapes arguably serve as complements to the shorter visions of Katrina Stoneheart, giving Gibson many opportunities to express his vision.
Kranky, a label that arguably brought us the very best of this generation, consistently defines contemporary music through different avenues of ambiance. On one extreme, Anjou’s self-titled debut was populated with careful, slow-building swells. The tension was easy to miss at certain points, but as the release progressed, the players produce exquisite fields. At the other extreme of careful ambiance stood Tara Jane O’Neil, whose Where Shine New Lights was one of the albums I needed most throughout the first half of the year. Her peaceful reflections shone through shorter song formats, tied together with drones and electronic complements. Both Anjou and O’Neil showed different vantage points or destinations for ambient music, but they shared a certain care and understated production that is immensely rewarding on return listens.
One of the exciting elements of this recent generation of music is the consistently unearthed gems from years past. There are many notable labels releasing forgotten music by everyday people, previously unreleased music, or music that went entirely unappreciated during its time. Permanent Records released one particularly great archival single from Bad Axe in 2014, among other issues involving The Chicago Triangle and The Exit. Bad Axe will undoubtedly serve as one of the catchiest 7-inch records heard all year, and given its status as previously unreleased material from the 1970s, one only dreams whether (or how) the universe would have been different had these gems surfaced during their rightful era. This wasn’t simply a “backwards-looking” attempt to cash in, but an exhibition of classic rock songwriting chops and thoughtful, textured production. One can ride the highs and lows of this single and hopefully look forward to all the gems that will emerge in the coming years.
ONO’s resurgence is one of the top stories in Chicago’s musical orbit over the last few years, and the noise troupe serves as living proof of this generation’s penchant for unearthing previously unappreciated gems. However, ONO aren’t simply some nostalgia act, and Diegesis (Moniker Records) is a raw poetic challenge to unrefined noise and long-form experimental story-telling. In contrast to their sometimes-confrontational live show, Diegesis truly shows a noise release that can be digested and appreciated by submerging oneself in the story told by the group (instead of serving as a noise release that thrives as a difficult experience that turns the listener’s gaze inward). Alongside the troupe’s experimentation and storytelling, Cooper Crain (of Bitchin’ Bajas and CAVE) shined as producer, carrying each song into the next with sound snippets and atmospheric portals. Crain will be known for his contributions in his critically acclaimed groups, but one should not forget that he is also an able producer. Diegesis succeeds as a comprehensive experimental experience, its incantations that “we will live again” ultimately chilling to the bone and redeeming. ONO’s challenge simply implores its listener to find salvation through noise.
Turning to darker timbres and passages from ONO’s noise, the split the Ivory Antler label released between Onibaba and Nick Millevoi is probably one of the single most listened-to pieces of music in my collection in 2014. The CD accompanied me everywhere for most of the year, and its monolithic feeling presented by both performances never disappointed. Despite offsetting ensemble and solo performances, the compositions matched one another quite well, with Onibaba’s feedback, woodwinds, synths, and percussion matching Millevoi’s physical examination of the guitar. Ultimately, these experimentations were highly structural, outlining immense physical impressions and slow-building motions (rather than notes, noise blasts, etc.).
Finally, on the other side of noise, one of the most exciting developments in the last year-and-beyond is the progressive label New Atlantis, which released completely free jazz, long-form compositions and “aggressive” releases that straddled other genres. There are many artists to feature among their most recent releases, but U SCO’s treffpunkt and Keir Neuringer’s Ceremonies Out of the Air particularly stood out for their uncompromising performances. I used the word “aggressive” above because I’m not sure how else to describe these releases; they are not violent, they are not abusive, but their aggression comes through in a certain unrelenting quality, where ensembles each brought their maximum effort or created maximum sounds, or soloists pushed themselves to their full limits. Neuringer’s breathing cycles are powerful throughout his album, as are his subdued, droning respites. U SCO translates the expansive oblivion of free jazz into the highly structured realms of progressive and punk rock, resulting in an emotionally engaging listening experience that will test your endurance (not a joke). Not unlike ONO’s home at Moniker Records, New Atlantis also serves as a relatively young and progressive avenue for pure expression and multi-faceted experimentation, which is another good reminder that following specific labels in this era will present many encounters with valuable statements in music.
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I suppose that each year provides genre developments and innovations that show the value of contemporary music. After 2014, it’s simply worth asking the role of cynicism and skepticism about music distribution and trends. One could certainly feel upset about the lack of “breakthrough” potential for independent musicians, or brood about the serious issues facing music sales and digital consumption. At the same time, artists continue to show their ability to create, adapt, and make great statements, all beneath the weight of these supposedly unworkable circumstances for music. So, keep looking for that generational music, it is worth defending the merits of contemporary music to skeptics. The list I provided above only scratches the surface of worthwhile trends and creativity from current artists.
…to everyone that helped me with writing gigs, developing features, and turned me on to new music in 2014, especially Liz, Dwight, Bobby, Crawford, and Steve at Decoder; Robert at Moniker Records; Edward at New Atlantis; everyone at Permanent Records Chicago & LA; Reckless Records Chicago; Elastic Chicago; Travis Bird and Evan Lindorff-Ellery; Ben at Captcha Records; SS Records and aQuarius Records; Terminal Boredom; and, of course, Now Playing (!!!).