Thursday, May 19, 2005

On second thought...

It seems everyone and their grandmother went to see the various Brit Rock exhibitions that rolled into Toronto earlier this week. In lieu of adding to the effusive reviews already circulating around the blog-o-sphere (and only slightly more legitimate music press such as Chart), I'm not going to post "reviews" of the two shows I saw.

Instead, straight shooting: Doves were great, and the number of really great rock anthems in their live repertoire is unbelievable. However, acoustics at the Kool Haus are woefully inadequate for that kind of "awash in guitars" sound.

British Sea Power were equally good, but one felt for the most part they were satisfied simply by being good. It was only during the "Please Stand Up"--"North Hanging Rock" double punch, and set closer "Lately," that I had any real sense that the band was truly striving for greatness.

Now we come to the real meat of this post. Both shows demonstrated simultaneously an interesting paradox I've noticed with a lot of "newish" bands: most of them have strong songwriting (lyrics, arranging, ear for "hooky" melodies, etc) and musicianship (in this case, one might say a given band is "tight"); however, many of these bands lack what one might call a mastery of their respective instruments.

Doves and BSP are perfect examples of this paradox. Each boast a catalogue of very good pop songs and albums, but neither band "strays from the page" when performing live. The musicians definitely know how to play the songs they wrote, but nobody seems to have the expertise (or maybe just the confidence) to play an actual improvised solo, or migrate from the melody while singing. Certainly, these bands (and many others) can and do slightly alter their tunes for live performance, but it seems that more often than not, the alteration of choice is simply to append a coda with a few different chords, and jam things out until the distortion kicks in.

This isn't to claim that all rock/pop bands are incapable of playing anything other than their own songs learned by rote, or covers they have practiced into the ground, but there's something missing when you've listened to "The Cedar Room" a thousand times on the stereo, and then find out the live version is exactly the same, save for the fact that all the parts have been muddled together by a bad house mix.

Nor is the problem necessarily limited to guitar players (though it's most obvious here, as they are saddled with most of the "solo" time in rock music). The less accomplished drummers of the rock world often seem to fall into the pattern of, well, playing patterns. Vocalists who are able to add lines or modify a song's original melody are few and far between; and I would indeed be reasonably surprised to find a band these days that employs a keyboard player who's first instrument is in fact the keyboard.

Yes, there are many popular groups on the "indie" scene that are made up of accomplished musicians. But these are hardly what one would categorize as traditional rock or pop. Vaunted "instrumental" bands like Tortoise are much closer to Herbie Hancock or Albert Ayler than they are to Franz Ferdinand or Spoon.

And of course, this argument has a lot more holes than the one(s) I have bothered to address, but no matter how you cut it, popular musicians today, while possessing of strong songwriting talent and good performance instincts, simply do not have chops.

I'm going to listen a lot of Bill Frisell tomorrow.

Click for more reasoned discussion on this topic... Socrates would've wanted you to.


Blogger Rock Snob said...

I really regret missing that Doves show.

5/20/2005 12:57 a.m.  
Blogger Punk is Dead said...

Indeed it was a fine affair. Although Mercury Rev walked a very fine line between annoyingly pretentious and, well... pretty much they were just annoyingly pretentious.*

*in terms of performance, at least. Their actually music was reasonably good (esp. the stuff from "Secret Migration."

5/20/2005 12:44 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


5/20/2005 6:53 p.m.  

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