Escaping Conventions: Akron/Family and Talk Talk [Now with a list!]
You know when you watch a cheesy sitcom like Friends and you can see the jokes coming a mile away? The conventions of sitcom are so well defined and familiar that the machinations of joke setup and payoff are entirely too visible. When the punchline or payoff comes, even though it may sometimes be funny or clever, you feel that it was inevitable, which detracts significantly from the enjoyment. While there are some really clever and witty shows, like Seinfeld and The Simpsons, that work within the conventions of sitcom that are nevertheless a lot of fun to watch, they're still bound and limited by those conventions. Not everything is possible. And because not everything is possible, what does happen is not the best choice of all possibilities, but one choice out of a limited selection. Convention, therefore, can be oppressive, so much so that it stifles and limits the boundless human imagination.
Like sitcoms, popular music has well-defined and widely followed conventions in song structure, chord progression, tension/resolution dynamics, sounds and textures, etc. Which isnot actually a bad thing--some conventions are necessary in order for music to be palatable. Music devoid of convention is not all that fun to listen to (think free jazz). In fact, most of the music that I listen to and enjoy, even indie and alterative stuff that the average person would consider weird, is quite beholden to convention. Sometimes while I'm listening great stuff like Elliott Smith or Uncle Tupelo or Led Zeppelin, even though I really love the music, I still feel the oppression of convention. That's not to say that these artists are entirely conventional or boring; to the contrary, they are adventurous and inventive in many aspects. It's just that every once in a while I get the itch for more freedom and adventure.
Well these past couple of weeks that itch has been scratched by a couple of great albums: Akron/Family (2005) by Akron/Family and Laughing Stock (1991) by Talk Talk. Akron/Family is a lo-fi-ish, alternative-ish, folk-ish, band who released their first album last year. Listening to Akron/Family I get the sense that anything is possible. And they do some great things with the freedom that they afford themselves. They naturally transition from found sounds to rich string accompaniment to submarine/heart monitor beeping and other electronic and synth effects to everthing-including-the-kitchen-sink percussion; from almost painfully slow and quiet to big and lush; from no melody to infectious melody; from nice back porch folk to crazy dissonant noise. The songs go everywhere and do everthing. OK, not everywhere and everything, but they go exploring and do a lot of great stuff.
I can't believe that Laughing Stock came out of an 80's synth-pop band. It's a mostly subdued, meditative album without a cheezy synth line in sight. Nor a pop hook. Nor a catchy melody. Nor a pop song. The voice is pretty much just another instrument alongside the others. The songs have definite shapes, but they're not your typical shapes and they unfold rather slowly. The pleasure of this album isn't so much in the drama and movement of the songs, although there some of both, but in spending time in the musical place that each song builds and in the breathing room and freedom in that space. I don't have a lot of smart things to say about this album, but I haven't heard anything quite like it.
Since no post is complete without a list (except the posts that don't have lists), and since this post isn't long enough already, here are some lists. Keep in mind that I am a hack, so I may be way off base in everything I say and do.
Some Others that I Love Who Are Relatively "Out There":
Radiohead--especially KidA and Amnesiac
Bjork--unique in so many ways
Deerhoof--Once I stopped hating the vocals I started loving the vocals.
Loose Fur/Jim O'Rourke--I put these together because they seem like almost the same project.
My Bloody Valentine--I don't love them really, but I feel cool putting them on the list. They don't really make songs and they don't really sing but they create beautiful music.
Some Who Buck Convention But Don't Quite Do It For Me
Bjork--Medulla was painful.
The Fiery Furnaces--I like their spirit and their sound. It just doesn't quite come together for me. They lack discipline, I think.
Animal Collective--Great, inventive sounds and textures, but the songs are flat-ish and not too compelling. I go back and forth with these guys.
Mogwai--They bore me.
Some Who Are Fairly Conventional But Very Good
Bob Dylan--I know he was revolutionary and unconventional in his day, but to my ears he's traditional.
A lot of Neil Young
Magnolia Electric Co.
Some Tweeners--They Do Both Pop/Rock Convention and Avant Experimentation
Wilco--"Heavy Metal Drummer" and "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" on the same album? Choppy, clunky improvized guitar solo and a big, cheesy riff in the same song ("Spiders (Kidsmoke)")? Only Wilco. This is one reason Wilco is such a lovable band. They have materail to satisfy all of one's multiple personalities.
The Flaming Lips--The songs are often of standard and simple structure, but they are adorned with so many bells and whistles. It's an irresistible combination of unique sounds and great songs.
The White Stripes--I like them best when they're rockin' like only the Stripes rock. Their traditional stuff can be good, but it doesn't quite keep my attention.