It’s no secret that rock and roll is the province of the young. Ticket prices and attendance figures for tours by classic rock legends, especially the $263 it would cost to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse at Madison Square Garden, may seem to support a different conclusion but the heart of rock and roll doesn’t beat in any particular city like Huey Lewis thought, it lies within the hopes, dreams, energy and spirit of those that feel the world is theirs to conquer. Even rock’s biggest dinosaurs earned their bones by singing about their generation, their street-fighting brethren or the time they went to Woodstock.
The success of The Hold Steady derived from their ability to challenge Father Time and make the difference work in their favor. Rather than first person narratives, Craig Finn chronicled the follies and misguided decisions of the drug-addled denizens that populate the dive bars and keg parties around America from a wry, detached perspective. In doing so, Finn circumvented the problem of not being young by fostering nostalgia for the thrill of being young. When backed with a soundtrack that does justice to the feelings being evoked, it’s a formula destined to transcend generations. Just north of the border, Japandroids – guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse – may not be looking backwards over too great a chasm of time, they are proving though that rock and roll works best when it’s tied to the carefree buzz of our formative years.
If the tale of Japandroids is going to be told, it might as well be told as a Cinderella story. With Post-Nothing, their 2009 breakthrough recorded but not released, Prowse and King had come to the conclusion that Japandroids weren’t going to succeed. Having agreed to self-release the album, let it die an anonymous death and go their separate ways, the two were convinced to stay together and promote the album by Unfamiliar Records, an independent Canadian label excited to distribute their full-length debut. Two months later, Pitchfork lauded platitudes upon Young Hearts Spark Fire and the quick ascent fueled by critical acclaim was afoot. Before any true momentum could be built, King’s body began to rebel and the initial promotional effort was sidetracked by his hospitalization to treat a life-threatening ulcer. If Japandroids seem a little bit older than their years, they’ve experienced enough over the last three years to age anyone.
On Post Nothing, Japandroids enveloped all the wondrous dreams and grand expectations that can only be maintained by the young in a magnificent haze of beautiful noise. On Wet Hair, they envisioned themselves going to France so they could French kiss a French girl, they wrote a modern day love song in Crazy/Forever that could underscore any surreptitious tryst and on Heart Sweats, the chorus needed nothing more than the quaint “xoxoxoxo” to get its point across. With a live show that was equal parts perspiration and inspiration, the guitar and drums duo established themselves as one of the more exciting and intriguing bands of the end of the last decade.
On Celebration Rock, their heavily praised and long awaited follow up, King and Prowse don’t stray far from the themes that run through Post-Nothing. While nostalgia for the days when the camaraderie of friends was the be-all and end-all of their universe may be creeping into the lyrics, Japandroids are becoming synonymous with anthemic rock and roll. They pine for the younger them on Younger Us and on The Nights Of Wine And Roses, Celebration Rock’s glorious opener, King sings (or rather shouts melodically) about the fact that he’s still drinking and smoking. However, it’s not a lifestyle choice, he’s just waiting for what comes next and killing time until it happens.
If there’s anything to harp on, Japandroids’ live show, which was once an unbridled adrenalin rush, seems to have lost its focus. At a recent gig at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom, King unnecessarily annotated the songs with overly long discourses that provided relatively little insight to the songs, their genesis or their performance. Granted, King & Prowse would be deserving of a break between songs but learning about what fascinates or interests King gives too much of a glimpse behind the curtain. He does make it clear that neither he nor Prowse take their success for granted – in fact, they may marvel at it as much as anyone else – but no one wants their rock stars to be humble.
After giving the matter much consideration, including repeated listens of Bitte Orca, the recently released Swing Lo Magellan and seeing them perform at Prospect Park Bandshell, I’ve come to the conclusion that The Dirty Projectors are beloved by music lovers that really don’t care all that much for what most people call music. Reaping the beneficial results of sneaking a Hypnotoad into the Pitchfork offices (ALL GLORY TO THE HYPNOTOAD!), David Longstreth’s project has amassed a healthy cult of followers while becoming critically beloved in a near universal manner. With quivering vocals and songs that lurch and careen in angular and often-unpredictable turns, The Dirty Projectors seem to answer the question of what music would sound like if you robbed it of all melody and stripped it of its aesthetically pleasing aspects.
While Neil Young has never gone to the mattresses against melody, he has always been one to draw lines in the sand concerning others’ expectations. With a ready-made audience eager for any classic rock tidbits Young would care to toss their way, Ol’ Shakey has experimented with synthesizers, drone, bluegrass and soul, going so far afield in the late Eighties that his record company once sued him for failing to record albums that sounded like Neil Young albums. In reuniting with Crazy Horse, the band that helped him invent (or at least heavily inspire) grunge, Young once again defies expectations. Instead of assembling another collection of cinnamon girls and southern men, on Americana, Young and his old band sit around a campfire seemingly made of bales of marijuana and reinvent folk standards from another generation. As only Young could, he transforms traditional standards like Oh Susannah, She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain, My Darling Clementine and (Hang Down Your Head) Tom Dooley into completely new organisms, vamps up The Silhouettes’ Get A Job and instills This Land Is Your Land and God Save The Queen with a redirected sense of purpose. Americana may not be what many hoped for when hearing news of an album with Crazy Horse; it is an unquestionable hoot and proves that folk music remains a malleable, vital form of musical expression.
Over the last few years, we’ve created genres for alt-rock and alt-country to distinguish those artists that diverge from the norms of their forebears. Perhaps it’s about time to take note of (or maybe invent) the alt-soul genre that oftentimes gets subsumed into the psychedelic soul umbrella. If alt-soul were to exist (from a quick Google search, it might), King Khan & The Shrines would fall well within its scope. Led by a charismatic, feathered turban clad singer, King Khan & The Shrines are a deliciously over-the-top outfit churning out riffs that would sound at home in the Stax/Volt world but transformed through the sensibilities of a well-educated garage band. Very rarely does soul music make you want to thrash and mosh as much as it makes you want to dance, yet that’s what occurred when Khan & The Shrines sold out the Bowery Ballroom. They also possess a sense of the outré: for their encore Khan returned to the stage clad only in a cape and shorts. It’s not the prettiest picture but it does demonstrate who’s down with the cause.
Benny Yurco, currently playing stadiums around the country as one-half of Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ lethal guitar tandem, also explored the alt-soul area on This Is A Future, his debut solo album. With an assist from Seth Kaufman (Floating Action), Yurco took the warm glow of sixties-era soul and interpreted it for the modern age with the instruments of the next generation. In doing so, Yurco breathes life into Contempt Of Court, a Brill building-style chestnut, gets the R&B/rock shuffle just right on Meet Again and Tres Survivors, works ska beats into the title track and offers up surf rock of Dick Dale quality on Undertow. Yurco’s solo effort provides a fine reminder of the depth of a band that sometimes gets overlooked playing behind the wonderful Ms. Potter.
In books like Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman poses erudite yet somewhat surreal ethical conundrums such as whether you, as Commissioner of the NFL, would permit a genetically engineered, self-aware gorilla to play for the Oakland Raiders. He’s now handling questions of a less esoteric variety as The Ethicist for the New York Times Magazine. It’s unclear whether Klosterman has the bona fides to be the Dear Abbey of ethics for the austere publication but he clearly is fun to read.
Movie question: why did Terrence Malick make a 2 ½ hour version of The Barenaked Ladies theme to The Big Bang Theory? Even The Simpsons managed to get the whole evolution of man thing done in a 30 second couch gag.