Man, it's fucking amateur hour.
I got my back against the record machine: "So what happens when you’re Van Halen, the last song in your set list is the million-seller 'Jump' with its synthesizer-keyboard opening … and the recording you’re using to play back the synth is accidentally run at 48K instead of 44.1K?"
A couple Springsteen links from that Carl Wilson piece linked below (which you should go read now, if you haven't): a nice essay on the resurgence of Bossmania from the Toronto Star, and, uh, footage of Bruce onstage last Sunday. With Win and Régine of Arcade Fire. Doing "Keep the Car Running." Holy fuck.
Sasha Frere-Jones was an interestng and useful choice to be the New Yorker's music critic. It would have been easy to imagine the magazine running a column that served as an extension of the Nonesuch/Starbucks/KCRW "music for grownups" movement, reviewing new releases by Norah Jones and Elvis Costello and Wilco as though that were all there was to know about popular music in the 21st century. Instead, SFJ explicates country and crunk and mashups and Mariah Carey for the curious general reader. It is not inevitable that the New Yorker would include writing about these kinds of music; SFJ only makes it seem that way.
But he has this one hobbyhorse, and it is called indie rock.
The idea that indie rock abjures those aspects of rock 'n' roll that derive most directly from black musical forms is neither new nor exceptionable, and the story of indie rock's move away from blackness could be told in a non-pejorative way. In its classic form, indie rock is played on straight downbeats rather than with syncopation (compare Kim Deal's basslines to Keith Richards's guitar parts). Indie singers and guitarists typically don't flatten the third, fifth, and seventh notes of the scale in imitation of the blues. ("In the Velvets we had a rule," Lou Reed once said. "Anyone who played a blue note would be fined.") And archetypal indie bands don't groove -- they don't generate rhythmic tension from the interplay of disparate elements, in the manner pioneered by James Brown (although there are important exceptions here, which we'll get to).
This tendency doesn't begin with what we think of as modern indie, and it certainly didn't start in the '90s. Musically it's the heritage of punk. Perhaps SFJ doesn't want to blame punk; he dodges the question by focussing on the Clash, who blended "pure" punk elements with rootsier sounds like reggae and soul. But the Clash were the exception. Most punk bands, from the Sex Pistols and the Ramones on down, never made records like Sandinista; they never opened their aggressive straight-ahead rhythms to anything swingier. Punk's relationship to black-derived rock 'n' roll is best captured in the Pistols' recording of "Johnny B. Goode": the band tears through the twelve-bar changes while Johnny Rotten complains, "I hate songs like this!"
"Songs like this" -- blues structures, shuffling beats -- had been the template for rock 'n' roll since its inception, and they no longer signified in the way they once had. "Johnny B. Goode" sounded fresh and exciting in 1958 (in part because of they ways it crossed racial boundaries: a countryish narrative set to blues changes, sung by a black man with such precise diction that many listeners believed he was white, accompanying himself on guitar in a style derived from Delta bluesmen), but in 1977 it sounded like your dad's music, a story you've heard a million times from a war that took place before you were born. Punk made rock sound exciting again, and it did so by stripping away the derivative mannerisms, the reflexive note-bending and self-satisfied riffage that had accumulated over thirty years of white men playing black-derived music. Indie rock grew from that fresh start.
Some of the music that grew out of punk restored certain black elements. Talking Heads laid anxious, nerdy vocals over jerky James Brown grooves to make music that was both danceable and ironic; then they found their way through the irony to a kind of transcendence by routing around African American musical forms to straight-up African ones. Gang of Four did something similar with expressly political ends. (This strategy largely disappeared in the 1990s and then returned a few years ago.) Other bands departed from the punk sound without reverting to blues scales or dance beats. They made music that was verdant and mysterious like R.E.M., or dreamy and textured like My Bloody Valentine, or melodically rich like the Shins, or goofy and elusive like Pavement, or idiosyncratically expressive like Neutral Milk Hotel or Yo La Tengo or Radiohead, rather than physical and rhythmic. SFJ names two good reasons why they chose to do this: white musicians became self-conscious about their borrowings, and black musicians gained access to mass media. There's one reason he leaves out: for indie bands, making music that way felt more authentic and expressive, less like regurgitating the received wisdom. If Sasha Frere-Jones finds their music polite and precious and lacking in vigor, that's his right. But I wish he didn't let a narrow and rather arbitrary personal aesthetic (James Brown-style syncopation = good; Beach Boys-style harmonies = bad) get in the way of a useful historical argument.
Update: SFJ touches on some of this stuff in two blog posts. From the second:
Indie bands had good reason to look for uncolonized territory—that’s how art moves, how it lives. A less rosy interpretation is that if indie rock is rooted, at some level, in punk, then this re-sorting was preordained. Johnny Ramone effectively subtracted the blues from rock and roll, and that ideology may have attached itself to the entire project. Maybe the Clash and the Minutemen are exceptions in a long process of establishing a popular music that is structurally determined to escape the blues and its offspring.Update 2: I have company, according to Slate's Carl Wilson, in a piece densely packed with good points:
Many commentators have pointed out his article's basic problems of consistency and accuracy: ... the conscious and iconoclastic excision of blues-rock from "underground" rock goes back to the '70s and '80s origins of American punk and especially hardcore, from which indie complicatedly evolved.
So much to read! Vanessa Grigoriadis's NYMag feature on Gawker is extremely chewy and satisfying. Margaret Talbot on The Wire is like a big birthday present for me and probably you. And of course it is necessary to say something about Sasha Frere-Jones's takedown of indie rock, which I will do in a little while.
An unusual moment of confusion from the NYT's estimable Jon Pareles: "Even at 160 kilobits per second (Kbps), In Rainbows is a sonic notch above the standard 128 Kbps iTunes download, and on a portable MP3 player through good earphones, it has plenty of detail."
But when it comes to measuring the fidelity of compressed digital audio, bit rate is not the only relevant criterion. Other things being equal, files compressed at 160 Kbps definitely sound superior to those compressed at 128 Kbps. But other things are not equal. The In Rainbows tracks are in MP3 format, whereas iTunes tracks are compressed using the superior AAC codec. To my ears (and I'm not alone), AACs at 128 Kbps are sonically equivalent to MP3s at around 192 Kbps. I am surprised that Pareles doesn't understand this, given how smart he is.
Profiles in courage: So the Democrats are caving to Bush on his illegal wiretaps. But don't call them craven, spineless cowards! For one thing, that's redundant. For another, it's inaccurate. The Dems are actually drawing a firm line: they'll extend the NSA's eavesdropping authority for several years, but they won't legalize it permanently. No way! And you can just quit asking, you Republican bullies!
A senior Democratic aide said House leaders are working hard to make sure the administration does not succeed in pushing through a bill that would make permanent all the powers it secured in August for the N.S.A. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” the aide said. “We have that concern too.”So what the Democrats are saying is this: OK, we're petrified that someone's going to run an ad calling us weak on terror -- so petrified that we'll do anything the president wants us to. But just wait a couple years, and then see if we've grown a pair of testicles!
This NYRB piece on Gordon Brown put me in a really good mood.
The positive view of Brown was set abnormally early. He had been in Number Ten for about thirty-six hours when a car bomb was discovered in London's West End, followed by a failed attack on Glasgow airport. There was no sign of panic. Brown did not rush before the cameras insisting that he was taking personal charge or proclaiming a struggle for civilization, as his predecessor might have done. Instead he had his home secretary, Jacqui Smith, report to the public, making good on his promise to replace the presidentialism of Blair with a return to cabinet government.When he did comment, following the Glasgow attack, he did so plainly and soberly as if discussing a serious crime rather than an act of war. This fitted Brown's disavowal of the phrase "war on terror," which he believes grants too much status, even dignity, to the murderers of al-Qaeda. The new approach, which instantly took the heat out of the moment, spreading calm rather than panic, won universal plaudits, including from Britain's Muslim communities....
Nowhere was the shift more apparent than in his relationship with the Bush administration. Brown used his first visit to the US in July to signal, by means subtle and overt, that a change had come.... Gone were the chinos, first names, and chummy informality of the Bush–Blair summits. At Brown's request, prime minister and president wore suits and addressed each other formally. Brown wanted to convey that the relationship from now on would be strictly business. Brown's inability to make smalltalk underlined that he did not want to be Bush's buddy and that the "special relationship" would be between Britain and the US rather than between Number Ten and the White House. As one of Brown's allies remarked later: "It was fascinating to watch Gordon turn his pathologies into assets."
Sam Harris calls for an end to the term atheism:
Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as “non-racism” is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such.... Why should we stand obediently in the space provided, in the space carved out by the conceptual scheme of theistic religion? It’s as though, before the debate even begins, our opponents draw the chalk-outline of a dead man on the sidewalk, and we just walk up and lie down in it.
The Pear Cable company is offering a new line of 12-foot audio cables for $7,250. Dave Clark, editor of audiophile site Positive Feedback Online, describes them as "way better than anything I have heard ... very danceable cables." Professional skeptic James Randi offers Clark one million dollars if he can identify the cables in a blind test. Clark hasn't responded.
Return of crazy Wikipedia stuff: A sitcom called Heil Honey I'm Home!, in which Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun have to cope with their new Jewish neighbors -- who could possibly have guessed that this would be canceled after one episode? "The plot of episode 1 involved Adolf telling Eva of the impending arrival of Neville Chamberlain, and begging her not to tell the Goldensteins."