Monday, December 28, 2009

A Very Personal, Highly Idiosyncratic Musical Overview of the Aughts

This is not about American Idol, Kenny Chesney, Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens, Beyonce, Wilco, or The Arcade Fire. If, for the past ten years, you’ve followed popular music beyond the narrow confines of Top 40 radio, you already know the big albums and the major musical trends of the decade. This is not about that. The Aughts were ushered in by a cavalcade of short-lived (sometimes all too literally) rap stars, pre-fab boy bands, and pop divas, and they will be ushered out by a cavalcade of rap stars and pre-fab artists who made their names by covering classic rock and Motown tunes on TV. Now that’s innovation. During the intervening ten years Pitchfork became the de facto arbiter of all things hip, and hyped a bunch of tuneless bands with animals in their names. MTV continued to have nothing to do with music, preferring instead to pump out reality shows of has-been rock stars dating D-list actresses. And Rolling Stone steadfastly held its ground, holding out for a Beatles reunion. To all of them I bid auld lang syne, and good riddance. I’m more interested in what happened in the margins, in those places where musical taste was not a fashion or lifestyle accessory, and where certain albums and songs intersected with my life and informed my understanding of what was happening around me.

So here’s a strange and idiosyncratic musical overview of the decade that was. Much of the music that was most meaningful to me was made by people who are not household names, perhaps not even in their own homes. But they made music that thrilled me, challenged me, and made me believe, all over again, in the everlasting value of three chords and a backbeat.

The Next Dylan, Twice Removed

The “new Dylan” tag has historically been a curse, the musical equivalent of appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Anybody remember Steve Forbert these days?

But since I’m inordinately fond of Bob Dylan, I tend to pay attention to these labels. The Aughts featured their share of nasal upstarts, but the most promising Dylan acolytes were Dan Bern, Ezra Furman, and The Tallest Man on Earth. Bern drew out his vowels and wrote epic nightmares on albums such as New American Language and Fleeting Days. Furman’s debut album Banging Down the Doors was a bracing, poetic yelp and snarl. And Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson, who records as The Tallest Man on Earth, delivered a fine surrealistic opening salvo on 2008’s Shallow Grave.

It should also be noted that the original of the species is doing just fine, at least when he’s not attempting to croon Christmas carols best left to Bing Crosby. Dylan’s late-career renaissance continued throughout most of the decade, with two very strong albums (Love and Theft and Modern Times), and yet another Bootleg Series release (Vol. 8) that proves that Dylan leftovers and throwaways are far better than most artists’ Greatest Hits albums.

Jazz Finds a New Canon

I have nothing against George Gershwin or Cole Porter. They were marvelous songwriters. But their songs have formed the backbone of jazz for more than eighty years now. Do we really need another interpretation of “Someone to Watch Over Me”? Do we really need to give Rod Stewart another excuse to plunder the Great American Songbook?

And so it was a great pleasure to watch jazz musicians adapt during the Aughts. Pianist Brad Mehldau championed the music of Radiohead and Nick Drake. Punk piano trio The Bad Plus covered Nirvana and The Pixies, and deconstructed The Bee Gees. Jazz found a new canon, and if the old standards will never entirely go away (thank God), there was ample evidence that the genre was evolving, assimilating the great music of the near past, just as it always has.

The Soundtrack to Mortality

My father, father-in-law, and mother-in-law died this decade, as did assorted aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers-in-law, friends, and children of friends. There was a time in my life when it seemed like most of my spare time was taken up by weddings. I have apparently now crossed that threshold where funerals have supplanted weddings as the unhip way to pass the time. And time is surely passing. As a cousin pointed out to me at the funeral of her father and my uncle, “I guess this means we’re on deck now.” Whee.

Maybe it’s for that reason, or maybe it’s because I’ve always had a morbid streak a mile wide. In any event, I probably played Regard the End, by the curiously named The Willard Grant Conspiracy, more than any other album this decade. Nobody bought the album. It was a morose Americana meditation on death by drowning, ghosts, and Old Testament judgment and dread, leavened by a few glimpses of sweetness and hope. And it was a superb album that met me right where I lived, and that immeasurably helped me cope with loss. Robert Fisher’s craggy voice sang of shame, of pain, of missing what is gone and what isn’t coming back, and it was a soothing balm for the soul.

By Any Other Name

Mark Kozelek was my great musical discovery of the decade. I missed the Red House Painters albums in the ‘90s, dismissing them as morose whining. My loss. I discovered them during the Aughts. It was a good decade to discover Mark Kozelek. He started off good and got ridiculously great. Old Ramon, the 2001 swan song from Red House Painters, was Kozelek’s most accessible work yet, substituting melody and, gasp, choruses, for the unremitting drone. Ever the iconoclast, Kozelek released a batch of odd covers throughout the decade; songs ostensibly written by the likes of AC/DC, John Denver, Modest Mouse, and Yes, and sounding nothing like the originals and wholly like Mark Kozelek.

But he saved the best for last. Changing the name of his performing/recording band to Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek released two albums that will, if I have my way, someday be recognized as lost masterpieces, 2003’s Ghosts of the Great Highway and 2008’s April. By the way, the key word here is “lost”. No one probes the recesses of memory, of lost time and lost relationships, better than Mark Kozelek. He is, to pull out an obscure literary reference, Marcel Proust with a guitar. Those memories and relationships form the warp and woof of his worldview, and the tapestry he weaves is stunning in its longing and beauty. Musically, Kozelek alternates between gentle acoustic picker and Neil Young Godfather of Grunge mode, unleashing winding electric solos. But the longing, the yearning, is a constant, and it is a palpable reminder of why he is one of the most distinctive and worthwhile artists of the decade.

Great Scots

You can have your Brooklyns and your Portlands. For my money, the best music scene of the Aughts came out of Glasgow, Scotland. Belle and Sebastian and Camera Obscura continued to release delightful pop mini-symphonies. Mogwai balanced massive, sculpted guitar noise with surprisingly tender sentiments. The Twilight Sad, The Fratellis, Glasvegas, and Franz Ferdinand released a dozen soulful, soaring indie rock near masterpieces. Alasdair Roberts and Trembling Bells built on the foundation of traditional folk music and took it down some engaging, completely idiosyncratic byways. And Frightened Rabbit, one of the few animal bands that remembered how to engage in emotional catharsis, released three albums that heralded a new and potent folk-rock hybrid.

Heaven’s Garage Band

After the great but unheralded Minneapolis art punks Lifter Puller fizzled at the beginning of the decade, singer/songwriter Craig Finn and bassist/guitarist Tad Kubler relocated to Brooklyn and formed The Hold Steady. It was hard to envision what a change of scenery might mean. The band’s debut album, Almost Killed Me, didn’t sound appreciably different from what Lifter Puller was doing all along. Kubler rocketed power chords to the back of the bar, and Finn declaimed his hipster poetry, rattling off literate tales of losers and desperate hedonists.

So what happened? On the surface, not much. The sound didn’t change radically. Finn sang a bit more and declaimed less, and Franz Nicolay added vintage E Street Band keyboards. But at some point – either on Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America, take your pick – Finn became the best songwriter in rock ‘n roll, and the band itself became a juggernaut, the embodiment of all that was great about all the earnest schleps who actually seemed to believe that rock ‘n roll was a kind of salvation. In the process, they made transcendent music, a wondrously muscular and poetic concoction that delighted the classic rock fans and indie kids alike.
Heaven’s Choir

If the angels form bands (no heavenly hosts allowed; these are strictly small guitar, bass, and drums cherubim/seraphim combos), then I hope they sound like Sigur Ros. I hate the label “post-rock” (what?), and I hate the fact that these Icelandic Vikings have spawned a less-than-heavenly host of imitators. But there was no other band this decade that left me in such gaping, open-mouthed wonder. They went for the jugular every time, building their epic songs from the ground up, from sedate, ethereal beginnings to majestic, thunderous crescendos. It’s the “post-rock” formula, of course; one they pretty much invented and perfected. But the secret ingredient was the ravishing beauty, best encapsulated by Jonsi’s wordless (sorry I’m not seriously going to consider Hopelandic as a language), soaring falsetto. They made a glorious din; five albums worth this decade.

Models of Consistency

They weren’t always great, but they were always good, and they stayed good for a long time. There were others who released better individual albums, but these folks put out quality albums again and again, and they made music that considerably brightened a decade.

Andrew Bird
The Black Keys
Bonnie “Prince” Billy
British Sea Power
Buddy Miller
The Clientele
The Decemberists
Drive-By Truckers
Eleni Mandell
The Handsome Family
Iron and Wine
Jolie Holland
Kathleen Edwards
Loudon Wainwright III
M. Ward
Matthew Ryan
The Mountain Goats
Neko Case
The New Pornographers
P.J. Harvey
Patty Griffin
The Pernice Brothers
Richard Thompson
Sam Phillips
Sonic Youth
Sufjan Stevens
Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
The Thermals
Todd Snider
Tom Waits
TV on the Radio
Watermelon Slim
The Weakerthans
The White Stripes
Yo La Tengo

Artist of the Decade

Nobody – and yes, that includes the crotchety curmudgeon from Hibbing Minnesota – wrote better songs this decade than Joe Henry. He released four albums in the Aughts: Scar, Tiny Voices, Civilians, and Blood from Stars. They’re all essential. Just buy them. I’d like to think that, in twenty or thirty years or so, when the musical wheel turns and the world reassesses all that has been ignored, these albums will be recognized as the masterpieces they are.

Joe Henry has been making albums for twenty years now, and almost nobody buys them. If you like Tom Waits, you might like him. Like Waits, his songs are densely layered, heavily percussive, prone to careen off in unexpected directions. Unlike Waits, he can really sing, and his nasal, ring-a-ding croon emerges somewhere between Elton John and Frank Sinatra. His songs are jazz and folk and blues, all rolled into one, and given a woozy, off-kilter spin to suggest that he’s the lead singer for the house band at some Holiday Inn on Pluto. Jazz greats like Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau and Don Byron like to record with him. So do alt-country bands like The Jayhawks. So does the supremely gifted Victoria Williams, whose vocals are even more idiosyncratic than Joe's. So does guitarist Marc Ribot, but he plays with everybody. He occasionally employs operatic divas to provide accompaniment for lines like “Because there was no gold mine, I freed the dogs and burned their sled." Good luck trying to find a label for the surrealistic dreamscape that is his music. I'm content to just call it great. As an added bonus, his lyrics also happen to be jaw-droppingly wonderful, and work more often as standalone poetry than those of The Poet of a Generation. His songs are as consistently, restlessly challenging and rewarding as contemporary music gets.

So maybe I’m bitter, sitting here in my coffee-stained T-shirt. I don’t know why the rest of the world doesn’t recognize this incontrovertible truth. Maybe it’s the nondescript name that keeps people from discovering music that is anything but nondescript. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Joe Henry’s songs don’t fit into an easily defined box, and are too genre-busting to slot within the confines of today’s narrowcasting world. Whatever it is, Joe Henry is the Dylan that scarcely anybody knows.

I interviewed him five or six years ago, right before the release of his album Tiny Voices. He had woken up shortly before I called, and he had just returned from dropping his kids off at school. It was delicious to imagine this dutiful father and devoted family man returning to his notepad after making sure that the kids had their lunch money in hand, jotting down lyrics about widows of Central American revolutionaries, junkies, and rape victims, reveling in apocalyptic imagery involving bombers and tanks and beauty queens and circus freaks selling lemonade. He was writing the kind of shadowy, surrealistic nightmares that Dylan hadn’t explored since “Desolation Row,” and I imagined that he was doing it in his pajamas.

I don’t know if that’s literally true, of course, and Joe Henry wasn’t telling. But maybe that’s because he’s the master of the oblique, of the truth that resides in between the lines on a page, of the indirection that conveys as much in what isn’t said as in the black and white lyrics in the CD booklet. His song “This Afternoon” is a masterpiece of impending dread, of ominous detail piled atop ominous detail, and he never once gets around to saying what actually happens. But you have a pretty good inkling, and it isn’t good.

As an added bonus, he just might be the producer of the decade as well, and during the past ten years he’s worked with artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Teddy Thompson, Aimee Mann, Mavis Staples, and Mary Gauthier, and has almost single-handedly revived the careers of Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint, and Bettye Lavette.

It’s a staggering body of work. Do yourself a favor and check him out now, before the musical wheel turns.


Brother-in-law Bill said...

It will be interesting to see if new jazz standards emerge, or if what we've heard are like Sonny Rollins doing "I'm an Old Cow Hand" back in the '50s. By the way, you need to update your "about me" write-up. I'm surprised your daughters haven't bugged you about it.

OKC Herbivore said...

Mark Kozelek as Proust= sage indeed.

and Joe Henry's record for Aimee Mann was brilliant. can't say i'm a huge fan of his, but very much so of Aimee.

Gar said...

Your artist of the decade is playing March 13th in Chicago. Want to join me?

Lawrence Edwards said...

Andy, I just picked up Joe Henry's Scar for a dollar at Half Price in Westerville. According to you I should get my money's worth. Right?