Choice And Prejudice
My daughter, about to be eight, has an earworm. You know, a piece of music that seems stuck in your ear so seemingly permanently that you just couldn’t get it out. It’s a song that she hums, sings and dances with vigorously even though it’s not being played anywhere. And I’m happy. Delighted, actually, because the song happens to be Lonely Boy by The Black Keys. Actually, the duo that makes up The Black Keys may also seem like an earworm for Download Central, in case you are one of those readers who for some strange reason follows this column fairly regularly—I don’t know how many times I have written about them, obsessively, compulsively and, perhaps also, maniacally.
Lonely Boy is off the now-sensational blues duo’s latest release, El Camino—it’s the first song on that great album, which should be in your collection for keeps. I have written so much on The Black Keys here over the past couple of years that it would be unfair to write about them again just now but it is true that their catchy, minimalist hook-filled blues music has a way of playing involuntary in your head without any warning. The other day, a colleague mentioned that his son, on spring break in New York, went for a Black Keys concert and has been in thrall ever since. I am not surprised. I have checked with others too—older listeners, younger ones, blues lovers as well as those who’re indifferent to that genre. The Black Keys seem to be liked by everyone.
Now, that’s rare these days. There are few bands today that appeal to everybody. More than half the new music that I seem to love is thought to suck by most other people that have heard them. One of the problems is the exponential growth of genres and sub-genres. Last month, in a brilliant 50-minute keynote address at the SXSW festival and conference in Austin, Texas, Bruce Springsteen touched upon this very phenomenon. His speech, a must-listen if you haven’t already heard it (it’s available for free streaming on the web), lists a dozen or more genres and their subs, each of them with their cultish followers as well as forthright haters, making the point that the market for music is more fragmented than ever before.
Springsteen traces his own musical history, of when he first picked up the guitar in the early 1960s when you probably could count rock’s great guitar players on your fingers, and of how the legendary music critic Lester Bangs (portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Almost Famous) once said that Elvis was the last great popular musician that everyone seemed to agree on. All other musicians and bands appear to provoke highly polarised reactions—those who love them and those who hate them. When we were growing up listening to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there would always be rival groups, those who loved the fab four but hated their edgier rivals and those who did the exact opposite.
Many other bands evoked similar response. I never cared for Deep Purple and I know many people who don’t either but I also knew guys who loved them so deeply that when a geriatric avatar of the band showed up in Bangalore for a gig in 2001, many of my acquaintances flew in from other cities and giddily thronged the place. Many of the so-called big bands are like that. I like the Grateful Dead and Phish and Widespread Panic but I know many, many people who viscerally hate them. The polarisation thing has become sharper with the way music is created and distributed. The web provides such a deluge to choose from that you end up listening to very few actually and then, instead of trying to rummage in a haystack, stick to a handful of bands that you become a loyal fan of.
Of course, there’s the other, lazier way of looking for bands to listen to. You can always listen to what’s getting airplay or what’s playing in clubs and bars and stick to that. Quite often it is crap.
Music blogs or even magazines—online or otherwise—are a better source of new stuff to try. I find the UK’s Uncut a great sample provider—a free CD comes with it every month with new or, at least, undiscovered music. Last month’s issue had the Watch That Band! CD, introducing new albums that you should look for in 2012. Of the 15 tracks from bands whose albums Uncut says you should try out, I’m checking out two. The first is Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself. The track on the Uncut sample CD is called Orpheo Looks Back and has all of the cerebral quotient that Bird’s lyrics usually have but it is also the music. Bird is a classically trained violinist but he plays the guitar too and the glockenspiel, all of it in a baroque folk-rock style. He also whistles. On Orpheo it’s the whistling that grabs you.
The other is The Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn’s new solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes. I like The Hold Steady, a booze-soaked bar band in which Finn sings intense ballads (mainly about losers!) with a voice that gets better as you call for new rounds of pints or whatever your poison is. But I was not prepared for Finn’s solo work. It’s laid-back, morose even, and doesn’t quite have the ‘bar band-ness’ that I like about his full band. The songs on Clear Heart are bleak and the style easier and less driven. Try Apollo Bay, the first bluesy track on that album about an unsure bachelor’s drive to the coast. Unlike in The Hold Steady, Finn country-fies the music on his solo venture—there’s a pedal-steel guitar and also some banjo. It’s different. You could like it. Or, perhaps, hate it.