Feb 01

Americana In Pieces

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What we get is over a short span of years, a sector of the post-punk community turning to country music, and then a few years later, some of the best of the bunch running off and leaving it for pop. Wilco, Radar Bros., Scud Mountain Brothers, The Jayhawks, et cet. So, why this abandonment of alt-country?

Well, Lukacs argues that irony is the normative form of the novel. In the same vein, pop seems to me the normative form of music. Avant-gardeism presents two+ messages on equal plane, leading to tension, dissonance, et cet. But this is clearly not the basis for a stable genre. Either we get subordination to pop as signifier of universalism (cf. Beechwood Sparks who can achieve the expansiveness of country through the use of pop production to provide an illusion of breadth to their music — the feel that it speaks to everyone, even if it does not) or we get elevation of the genre’s tensions into universal artistic traits in their own right, which simply reifys the contradiction, rather than resolving it.

Then we have the priming element, in the momentum of the song structure, which tends to determine which type of pop the genre becomes attracted to. But this all needs a catalyst to set it off — and in the case of “alternative” music, this is almost always a shift in the mainstream, something new to define yourself in opposition to. So we go from music which comes just as alternative breaks, which promises more “authenticity” than Nirvana, to a music which comes as alternative is swallowed into the hype of the “year of electronica” (’97) where the reactive indie-community is now concerned with defending the very concept of songcraft against both those they fear would replace it with bleeps and against those who claim to traffic on songcraft (Spice Girls, and the subsequent wave) but whose songs are “not original.” Then we see that the bands who are more concerned with a broader range of music are the ones who move, not because they’re exploring new avenues, but because they’re sensitive to the cultural shifts. The bands with the least intuition dig into their scene and cry “sellout” at the rest.

Pop reduces all musical genres to their base elements of aural pleasure, relentlessly raiding and reconstructing the past. Thus any innovation begs pop to plunder it, and any sort of active and continual resistance to pop places first the artist, and eventually the listener, in a willfully static mode of stagnancy and decay.

In other words, alt.country is dead.


Post-punk is the proper term for Marcus’ ethos precisely because post-punk was the last great incorporative artistic wave to sweep pop-music, and its slapdash collagist ethos of combinationism still predominates. (more accurately, the last great incorporative artistic wave not ghettoized into “black” or “urban” music categories). Marcus’ liner notes are thus pixies-era grunge design. Raygun style, with funny font switches, things that look like old typewriters, and strange dirty crumbled looking things in the background, as well as fragments of a catholic fresco. While this design was common for music mags, I don’t recall it as an artist’s (rather than critical) design style since the Pixies — particularly since we’re dealing with spare, black text white background type work. This comparison is not out of order, as Marcus’ sampling and structuring of her album is similar to Surfer Rosa — “interludes” between songs of vocal samples or treated instruments, same effects appearing irregularly in songs themselves. Lending a loose baggy coherence to the whole thing.

The genric switching is what calls to mind The Fall. The Fall sound like nobody but themselves, but within that sound they can call up any number of genres. Marcus, in turn, goes from drinking song to nico-pastiche to eastern-tinged beat-free psychadelia to Kurt Weil cabaret tune to Edelweiss inspired countryside Shaker simplicity.

Well, maybe that’s a lie — post-punk. We have sample-happy trip-hop and dub now, which are indirect scions but deserve their own names. And trip-hop beats, oddly enough, carry though the album in big lazy off kilter lopes of hollow drum hits and looped samples. (related question: is it any accident that Portishead named a song Cowboy?) Which brings us to a different question — levels of structure. The overall album structure is clearly post-punk in nature, but the microstructure, the framework within each bar of a song which lets the samples and music hang — this is trip-hop at work, with an expansiveness within the beat that feels like anything can be put in that big gap between second and third hits, a sort of rhythmic parallel to the harmonic features I described in Color Me Impressed.

This leaves open the question of middle-level structures — the micro-structure of the beat is presided over by the needs of the song — appearing, shifting, diminishing, going away completely, and interacting ultimately at the service of the main melodic line, which is carried largely by voice. But the voice is determined by the needs of the narrative of the song.

Ms. Marcus’ folkie background is most evident, in fact, by the dominance of voice in the mix — no matter how much the guitar wail, how much static and feedback and tape loop delays and effects, the voice is always loudest in the mix, and vocal effects (chorus, echo) are common, suggesting that a song constructed around voice is the starting point, that Ms. Marcus writes the lyrics first — at the same time, the song structures are unconventional, switching styles midway through, instruments fading in and out, and climaxes and peaks crawling all over, beats shifting, reminding me of Godspeed You Black Emperor. While GYBE construct instrumentals to carry listeners through shifting moods — moodiness, tension, buildup, catharsis — Marcus does the same thing — except these moods correspond to the lyrics, and the lyrics are then stretched and pulled, repeated, slowed, echoed, carried onto rarely reached high notes, all for the purpose of creating that catharsis — also note that GYBE reach catharsis through amping volume and resolving chords — Marcus amps pitch and resolves chords, and sings particularly sweet.

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