Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Geography and Music

Musicians love geography. Maybe it's all the touring, which leads to increased atlas consultation. I don't know. But the music world is littered with bands who take their names from various geographic/topological landmarks.

I've long held the view that there is an inverse relationship between the geographic components of a band name and musical quality. The bigger the geographic reference, the worse the music. The more obscure the geographic reference, the better the music. Let's test out the theory.

Obscure Geographic Features

Okkervil River, Speck Mountain, Nickel Creek. Who knows if they even exist on maps? But the bands are great.

City/Town Bands

City/town bands can teeter either way. They often achieve commercial success that is commensurate with their relative urban importance (Chicago, Boston), but that doesn't make them particularly great from a musical standpoint. On the plus side, we have Beirut, Architecture in Helsinki, and The New York Dolls. On the minus side, we have Atlanta Rhythm Section, Orleans, and The Bay City Rollers. Call it a Wash(ington, D.C.).

State Bands

Here things start to deteriorate rapidly. Alabama. Georgia Satellites. Kentucky Headhunters. Black Oak Arkansas. Kansas. Granted, I'm not a fan of good ol' boys or '70s arena rockers, but I'm also convinced that there is a twisted bravura at work here that leads to hairy guys in overalls staking out hundreds of thousands of square miles in their band monikers.
Possible counter-argument: Oregon. No, they were New Age hippie dipshits. Never mind.

Country Bands

No, not the dudes in Stetson hats. The band that prompted this post, called These United States, has just released a new album called Everything Touches Everything. Except for Alaska and Hawaii. The album sucks, I think. It's honestly just kind of nondescript. It's not the worst music I've ever heard. It might be the most forgettable. Maybe. The same goes for Spain, Page France, and England Dan and John Ford Coley. If you can name even one song (no cheating, this has to be from memory) from anyone on that list I will personally award you with the National Geographic foldout map of my choice.
Counter-argument: Afghan Whigs, Japan, and Mission of Burma were/are actually good. Maybe the crap is limited to bands named after countries in the western hemisphere. But then there are ...

Continent Bands

Asia. Europe. Mercifully, the contagion appears to have stopped there. More dreaded and dangerous than Bubonic Plague, these two bands are personally responsible for inflicting the most bloated, pretentious music ever. Ever. Compared to Asia and Europe, William Shatner's albums are understated and low-key. Compared to Asia and Europe, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and every other scale-trilling robodiva is a paragon of nuance and tastefulness.

If my theory is correct, sometime in the future a megaband will adopt the name of a galaxy or distant solar system. This will mark the end of the world. Even so, come Lord Jesus.


woodsmeister said...

What about America? That band is so big it's named after two continents.

Andy Whitman said...

"Muskrat Susie, Muskrat Sam/Do the jitterbug down in Muskrat land."

I rest my case.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the Okkervil River exists, it's in Russia. They take their name from a short story by Tatanya Tolstoya (sorry I butchered that spelling). Yes, great band!

MSK said...

"If my theory is correct, sometime in the future a megaband will adopt the name of a galaxy or distant solar system. This will mark the end of the world."

Too late.

John Ford Coley said...

I'd Really Love To See You Tonight, Love Is The Answer, Nights Are Forever Without You, We'll Never Have To Say Goodbye Again, Sad To Belong, Gone Too Far, Soldier In The Rain, Westward Wind, to name a few. Where's my map.

John Ford Coley

Brother-in-law Bill said...

I'll take issue with you on Oregon. They were actually a pretty good bunch of jazz musicians that played much more interesting music than the New Agers that might have seen them as kindred souls. Saw them live many years ago. The name of the reed player escapes me at the moment, but he also toured with Bela Fleck a few years ago. Ralph Towner is (was) Oregon's guitarist, and he's well respected in jazz circles.

Andy Whitman said...

mknepher, you win the Space: The Final Frontier foldout map from the May, 1962 issue.

John, you win the Lake District of England foldout from the June, 1943 issue AND the 1996 compilation The Very Best of England Dan and John Ford Coley. Outstanding answer.

Bill, you win the knowledge that the reed player's name was Paul McCandless, that I really think more highly of Oregon than I let on in the original post, and the dubious honor of hanging out with me for four days over the Thanksgiving holidays.

Brother-in-law Bill said...

All good prizes, Andy

Matt Nightingale said...

How about neighborhood bands? Over the Rhine is a magnificent band named after a part of downtown Cincinnati, right?

And then there's another city band, Tulsa. But they're not from here.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if your theory works if applied to bands using modes of transportation.

Exhibit A: Jefferson Airplane vs. Jefferson Starship
Exhibit B: The Cars vs. Train
Exhibit C: U2 (spyplane) vs. Jets Over Brazil

Joe Koch said...

Aw man. I love the new These United States record, one of my faves of the year from one of the most energetic live bands on the scene these days.