Imaginary Brazilian Revolution

Brazil is a state of carefree serenity. Brazil is attained by forsaking sanity.

Return . . . I will . . . to old . . . Brazil.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

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
Andrew Bird
Bob Dylan--I know he was revolutionary and unconventional in his day, but to my ears he's traditional.
A lot of Neil Young
Elliott Smith
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.


At 3/06/2006 1:41 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Wow. What a fantastic post!


You've got me thinking about unconventional, unrestrained TV. South Park is the show that seems most adventurous and unbounded to me. They do still follow conventional storytelling forms, but anything can and does happen (a satellite unfolding out of Cartman's butt--priceless). Stella was a short-lived but really fun Comedy Central show that was pretty random. From what I've seen of Arrested Development, it was very unconventional. I've been meaning to rent some episodes on Netflix. The ultimate crazy, random show would probably be Monty Python's Flying Circus, but I haven't seen much of it so I don't know how entertaining it is.

At 3/07/2006 8:29 PM, Blogger Tyler said...

While we're on the subject, I highly suggest viewing some Aqua Teen Hunger Force and/or 12 oz. Mouse dude. A few nights ago I bought the DVD for South Park season six, which I agree, is in many aspects random and uninhibited. Nothing that I have recently seen exhibits so much lack of inhibition as ATHF. While watching South Park has always been an enjoyable experience, (and while I do think that it displays some of the greatest satire the world has ever seen,) it isn't even in the same chaotic arena as's not even playing the same sport. I love them both deeply though.

What a lame comment.

At 3/07/2006 10:31 PM, Blogger Tom said...

There are no lame comments. Only lame silence.

I would also have mentioned Comedy Central's Drawn Together, the fake animated reality TV show, but it's definitely not appropriate for a PG-13 blog. That show actually needs to get some inhibitions. But I have to say, it can be freakin' hilarious. Sometimes, though, like I said, it goes too freakin' far and you just cringe and try not to laugh.

Just the title, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, has me smiling. This is a title that indicates great things.

Speaking of funny titles, I still think it's hilarious how the t in Report is silent in the Colber Report. That is never going to get old.

South Park definitely does have some conventions that it holds to pretty closely. Mostly in how the stories are structured. There's always a moral of the story moment at the end.

Now that was a lame comment.

At 3/07/2006 10:36 PM, Blogger Tom said...

By the way, what do you think of my classification of Elliott Smith as somewhat conventional?

At 3/08/2006 5:31 PM, Blogger Tyler said...

I've seen a few episodes of that Drawn Together, and while it is lacking in MORAL inhibition, it's randomness is not even on par with Aqua Teen. Yesterday I bought another season of Aqua Teen DVD's, season 3 this time. The chaos of the show is difficult to describe. At the end of each episode you have no idea who will be alive and who will be dead. The characters of the show progress or degress so rapidly into entropy that it's a constant source of surprise. And it's a little bit edgy, but not in the same way as South Park. Granted, it's probably a less mature form of edgy, (which is debatable, since oftentimes one feels that South Park is simply trying to provoke the masses, while Aqua Teen is just strange, plain and simple. Who can classify the politics of edginess? There are too many variables.)

You're right Tom...South Park definitely has a formula that they follow pretty consistently, (though certain episodes do slightly diverge, i.e. Woodland Critter Christmas...the quintessential Christmas special.)Another superiority of Aqua Teen is that you can begin an episode that you've never seen before, and you could NEVER predict where you're going to end up. On almost every episode I have had one of those magical "What the hell?" moments, where I begin wondering what the hell it is that I'm watching exactly. Brilliant television, a pure and subversive jewel.

And Elliott Smith is probably pretty conventional. Nothing wrong with being better at acoustic singer/songwriter type songs than anyone else in the world. May as well flaunt your shiz, right? I've been listening to SOOOOO much Elliott Smith lately dude. "Oh Well, Okay," "Pitseleh," "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free," and "2:45 a.m." Are you kidding me??? Elliott was too amazing to go on living.

At 3/08/2006 6:39 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I have to agree. Elliott does it better than anybody ever has. I didn't love Figure 8 so I was reticent to go further back. But when I finally did XO blew my socks off. And now I appreciate Figure 8 more. I still haven't heard Either/Or. I think I'll get that one tonight.

At 3/24/2006 7:47 AM, Anonymous Susan M said...

I love the Talk Talk singer's voice, I'll have to check that album out.

I have a hard time judging what is considered unconventional in music. It all sounds great to me. I guess stuff like Shudder to Think is unconventional? They do some weird stuff in their songs--love those guys.

Low were doing stuff no one else was, right?

A lot of the doom metal I love is pretty unconventional. Songs that repeat the same down-tuned riff for 30 minutes. Check out Yob, or Sleep, or this new band Om.

Also, bands like Isis, Pelican, Mono are all doing some interesting things. Sort of in the same ballpark as Mogwai. Actually, they're all just Neurosis-wannabes. But I love them all.

Japanese pop can be sort of unconventional, I think. They take their influences from so many different places. Pizzicato Five is my favorite.

You know who was unconventional? The Bad Brains. And let's hear it for the Butthole Surfers. There's not enough megaphone in rock.

At 3/24/2006 9:41 AM, Anonymous Susan M said...

Oh and geeze, how could I forget the Melvins? Although it's their conventional stuff I really love. They can go off on weird tangents, though, and after 5 minutes of feedback or whatever you're thinking, "how long can this go on?" and ten minutes after that you realize--as long as they want it to.

Also, I'm not sure Om is considered doom metal, they might be considered drone. Which brings me to another band I forgot--the Thrones. Excellent stuff--especially live. But not for everyone.

I thought about mentioning the Mars Volta, but they seem kind of too much like a Led Zep/Rush wannabe sometimes. I love them, though.

Also, Opeth.

At 3/24/2006 11:25 PM, Blogger Tom said...

There you go with Opeth again. I have made my commitment and I will follow through.

As always, I'm humbled by the depth of your musical experience. I'm not worthy.

Who gets into the unconventional label all depends on what conventions you're talking about and how far out there the artist has to be before you consider him/her "out there." Basically, like all categorization, it's all arbitrary labeling to give music geeks stuff to talk about.

It's funny that even though my post was in praise of breaking the shackles of convention my initial reaction to some of the things that you describe, like repetitive riffs and extended drones, is negative. Why would I want to listen to that? But then I get to thinking and realize that hey, that could be really exciting. I've even been considering giving free jazz a second chance. But, like I say, some conventions are necessary in order for music to be listenable.

Low belongs in the unconventional and great category. If they just played slowed-down rock music, I wouldn't consider them really unconventional--only the tempo would be unconventional--but their music is so much more than slow rock. Some of Alan's songs are really uniquely put together. Like "Cue the Strings," which just builds and builds without ever really resolving.

The Talk Talk guy really does have a compelling voice. It stands out on Laughing Stock, even though the singing isn't really featured. It's just part of the beautiful mix. When he's singing pop songs I don't notice how great his voice is.

At 3/25/2006 7:07 AM, Anonymous Susan M said...

If you ever want to do some music trading, let me know. Mixes or albums, I live for that stuff.

My husband was talking last night about unconventional television, like the Office and Arrested Development. They don't/didn't use the same rhythyms conventional sitcoms do. Neither did Seinfeld, often--if you missed the first few minutes of a Seinfeld episode, you wouldn't get most of the jokes. The Simpsons also is weird--the first few minutes often seem like they're completely unrelated to the rest of the episode.

I can't believe you have seen much of Monty Python. Go rent/buy it now.


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