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Americana - Matt Liebowitz's view of the U.S.A
In the first of his special columns, Sound Generator writer Matt Liebowitz looks at the whole spectrum of Stateside Pop.
As an American who enjoys both pop and indie music, I’ve naturally been asked by Sound Generator to write a column about the current American pop and indie scene…

Okay! Over the past five years or so, my friend Tom and I have measured every rock-n-roll song against the song ‘Mississippi Queen,’ by the 70’s classic rock band Mountain. It is, as far as we can tell, the ultimate rock song, and the barometer by which all other rock songs, past and present, should be measured; if something is 2/3 as powerful as ‘Mississippi Queen,’ then it is probably very good, perhaps great. I’ll be the judge.

So here, before we continue: Watch this

My Morning Jacket, the visionary southern rock band, and the hyper-literate Brooklyn bar-band The Hold Steady, regularly achieve ‘Mississippi Queen’ like heights. ‘Massive Nights,’ off The Hold Steady’s 2006 Boys and Girls in America, and My Morning Jacket’s ‘Off The Record,’ from last year’s Z, both have the immediate impact and beer-swilling bravado of the classic template. They are, however, updated versions, with lyrics not entirely about sex and music that lays off the cowbell and gets into subtle, exploratory territory. This is called, I believe, evolution.

Kings of Leon and Gov’t Mule and long running, underappreciated Philadelphia bar-band Marah also pass, rather consistently, the Mountain litmus test, but with an updated swagger. Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes actually covers ‘Mississippi Queen’ in his solo sets. See how rock eventually comes full circle?

Even Wilco’s latest album Sky Blue Sky takes it easy on the spaciness and instead embraces the space, and surefootedness, of Grateful Dead, Neil Young-style classic rock. In these guises —and other bands’ less successful, trendier approaches —old-fashioned rock-and-roll is steadily coming back in American music. Whether or not it maintains its vitality or veers into retro parody, only time, or over-saturation, will tell. Until then, I’m content to listen to ‘Mississippi Queen’ and the crop of quality bands it’s inspired.

There are also a ton of bands copying Tom Waits’ style. More about that in two weeks.

***

From the past to the very present.

Every week, America’s finest indie bands are somewhere on the road, and, in the course of this traveling, Futureappletree Studio One in Rock Island, Illinois, manages to steer two bands to their studio for two hours, where they record four or five songs quickly, often on borrowed instruments, before hitting the road again. It’s an extremely casual affair, yet the results are more often than not astonishing. Indie bands like The Slip, Menomena, Of Montreal, Sunset Rubdown, David Vendervelde, Richard Swift, David Bazan, and Low, have all logged in stellar performances, but my favorite so far is the song ‘Blood and Guts’ by the Los Angeles band Simon Dawes, which I can only hope is on the follow-up to last year’s Carnivore. Listen here

Amidst the unbelievable and numbing amount of access to every facet of everything about every musician, Daytrotter seems to still be quaint place to discover great indie gems, like the basement club only you know about.

***

Britney Spears has released a new song, ‘Gimme More,’ which is a huge deal to anyone who thinks Justin Timberlake can’t single-handedly be the voice, face, director, choreographer, producer, and overall swami of American modern pop music. Here, watch a miraculously airbrushed photo of Britney while her new song plays in the background. Airbrushed vocals at no extra charge.

So, okay, the production is top-quality, because, unlike talent, or relevance, or credibility, money can buy music. But, given what we all know about Mrs. Ex-Federline and her sons Jayden James and Sean Preston —hey, I also work for an entertainment newspaper —something about hearing her announce —coo, even —“It’s Britney, bitch,” before the beat drops is off-putting, if not to say offensive, and, in some way, I imagine it being used as fodder for the mounting social-services investigation against her.

I’m not saying Justin Timberlake is the savior, but he does seem to have the market perpetually cornered.

***

But what discussion of pop music’s chart and zeitgeist domination can leave out Michael Jackson. I mean, if we’re talking about Britney’s crumbling personal life negatively influencing the way her new music is perceived, and in the same breath talking about Justin Timberlake and the fact that he could kick an infant and people would still buy his albums, we’ve got to leave moon-walking room for MJ.

Specifically, let’s talk about the time he created an absolute freaking mêlée at a 1992 concert in Budapest, when he tossed his bowler hat into the crowd. Girls screaming, fainting, actual real live adults crying, competent, decades-beyond-adolescent adult human beings —with gainful employment and most likely a family and perhaps even children or at least a pet or two —people actually bawling and writhing and losing their minds and shrieking in a sound that can only be described as Michael-Jackson-in-his-prime ecstasy.

(Incidentally, this may or may not have also been the same concert in which The King of Pop strapped on a rocket pack and took flight).

So my question is this: Is there a single current performer you’d cry over? Would you faint at the sight of Adam Levine? Would you lose all bowel control over Christina Aguilera? Would you fight another person for Akon’s hat?

Oh, and Michael Jackson’s face has since been used in Budapest as part of an anti-pedophilia campaign. I believe this, in a roundabout way, proves my case about Justin and Britney and whatever it was I was discussing about the pop-culture of popstars’ private lives.

***

The Florida rock band Against Me! have a song called ‘Thrash Unreal.’ It is essentially a punk-rock song, and despite singer Tom Gabel’s gnarled, aggressive delivery, it is very polished. It is not garage rock, it is not indie, and it is 100% addictive. It sounds remarkably like The Hold Steady’s song ‘Chips Ahoy,’ which is not a bad thing. They are both classic rock, I suppose, in that there is a bass, a snare, a guitar riff, and it all kicks ass. Here, Listen or watch


***

So, from the pinnacle of rock-and-roll and the most honest music made in the most honest way, to a real life train-wreck making her own personal life soundtrack, to Michael Jackson, who effectively remains both the pinnacle of pop and the prime example of a life way beyond studio enhancement, I hope you’ve some general idea of the trials of listening to a load of music and trying to think intelligently about it. And perhaps you even are able to connect the not-so-disparate dots between a great 70’s classic rock song and the modern ingenuity it inspired, as well as the over-production and hype of radio pop music, and how sometimes a few microphones in an out of the way location is all the production and glitz a truly talented band needs.

Or if nothing else, I hope you’ve enjoyed the video clips. My Internet connection is very slow, and it took me a long time to find those. It was, however, not as difficult as making Britney look that good.

Next time, in addition to the Tom Waits trickle-down effect, I’ll also address the similarities between indie and other more noxious and recognizable curse words. Until then: Watch this

- Matt Liebowitz
written by on 24/09/2007 11:51:00

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