Music has been treating me grand recently.
After a less than satisfying set on Saturday (not enough people there that early, and only about fifteen to twenty minutes of the set really worked….the ending was rushed, I thought it was getting better but I tried to squeeze too many songs into the end of my set…they were good songs…but the mix didn’t work at all….just confusing people….I made up for it by dancing like a maniac and yelling at people…it didn’t really help that much) I’ve returned to the musical mood that’s been really heating me up lately. Less breaksy and more relaxed. Not necessarily downbeat but definitely not about wrapping your head around a metaphorical tree of drum cascades and thunderous noise.
So what are the things that have been floating my boat recently?
Well….I’m glad you asked.
Basically, last week I got the new albums by Do Make Say Think (on Constellation) and Ellis Island Sound (on Peacefrog). These are very very very tasty sounds. We’ve got Post Rock with awesome track names in the DMST corner (‘The Universe!’ and ‘Herstory of Glory’ make me smile…as does the epic yet personal album title ‘You, You’re a History in Rust’) then over by the Isle of Ellis (or whatever), you’ve got a large number of short little ‘folktronica’ style songs, blending chilled guitars with lush synths and beats to underscore an incredible relaxed but urgent album.
They kinda reached into my heart and made it sigh with glee. It makes sitting around doing nothing feel slightly more adventurous, and goes well with thinking, writing and doing things. My favourite track on the Ellis Island Sound album is called ‘Building a Table’ and it does almost sound like doing something constructive. The music is simply very satisfying to listen to. It won’t twist your head round or slap your ass to the ground…but itwill sit nicely and not offend grandma too much.
Do Make Say Think (I can’t remember who told me to look out for this band. The words appeared as a reminder on my phone after a drunken night out. Took me a while to even work out they were a band) are more dramatic and over the top. The whole post rock doesn’t always work, Sickoakes and Godspeed are the peeps I’ve liked best so far in the genre….and these guys seem to have the same kind of energy and verve. It’s so easy to make this stuff just be oppressive and miserable and boring….but if you take the time to put real life into it. Don’t just repeat patterns…but construct something slowly and make it moving. It’s got to be genuinely emotional…not just sound forlorn. DMST do this brilliantly, the whole is particular uplifting, sailing between different layers of sound…and even some rather unobtrusive vocals.The piano opening is lovely and relaxed, with lots of warm strings and slow building rhythms and movements. ‘The Universe!’ is deserving of the exclamation, with a big explosion of fierce guitar mashing, giving way to the lovely guitar finger plucking and harmonic wonder-lovely that is the (almost) title track, ‘A Tender History in Rust’. It’s really quite good.
So lets get to what I really wanted to talk about. Which is trying to place a few different types of music together and investigate what makes them what they are.
So, I bandy about these terms, Post Rock and Folktronica, as if they mean something (I do the same with breakcore and drill and bass also, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). They kind of do, but also kind of don’t.
Post Rock has a wikipedia article saying that it is music using rock instruments unconventionally and with a ‘high musical density’. This basically means nothing. But I guess it’s a good place to start. For me, Post Rock is just one of many genres trying to recreate the rock label as something outside of the mainstream. This means it can claim the same roots, technically, as punk and grunge and a hundred other guitar based musical movements. The irony is that Prog Rock is often considered the musical problem that Punk was trying to fix (in the same way that grunge is considered a reaction to Heavy metal), and yet is something it’s easy to make a comparison to the Post Rock sound. You’ve got the huge dramatic songs, the long winding instrumentals all there. The movement that post rock is part of is probably the indie, but it is indie in the sense of being independent (smaller labels publish the bulk of the music), and not in the sense that most modern journalists use (NME will define as indie any shit miserable rock band…it’s almost always rubbish). Musically it is only vaguely related to indie though. It is almost orchestral in its intentions, often pushing a minimalist ideal, and taking more ideas from jazz and classical than a lot of rock.
But it uses the pallate of sounds created by rock bands. It does have elements in common with the grunge scene. I think that Sonic Youth create similar sounds at time…though in a very different (much more raw) way. But yeah…it’s about using the tones familiar to one particular genre or movement, and shaping something new. It is rock without rock. This is what the wiki is getting at when it says its using the instruments in a different and unusual way. But then…why all the viomalins, pianos and harps. Where do those other textures come from, big sweeps of violins in Godspeed’s elegaic work? (I love the word elegiac…it’s my favourite thing for music to do). It’s because the texture is really what it’s all about, big swooping movements, huge swells and blasts. It’s music to sound like seas. Rolling waves crashing over each other. Everything is bigger. Then it cuts out to calm, everything quiet and starts to slowly roll up. Storms and dreams and waves and whirlwinds. I don’t have a portable music player any more…but if I did, then post rock would make me walk slightly slower than usual, pushing my feet further into the ground, watching the world swarm around me. Birds flocking and worlds crashing down.
Where was I?
Well…no closer to defining anything, that’s the thing with music, it’s pretty indefinable. I try so hard to explain how music makes me feel and what it’s all about, but I can’t come close. Music can sound like unreal objects. Things that don’t exist can be bought to mind…but it’s not a real mode of communication…not in the traditional sense. It’s almost empathic; it shares emotional ideas instead of actual ideas. Without words attached (which is often the way I prefer things) music doesn’t actually communicate an idea…it just creates an image…and not necessarily one that has anything to do with the creator’s intention.
That’s what I love. The indefinable.
So, I was going to talk about folk as well, or more specifically the folk-ish offshoots that have been tugging upon my musical beard quite insistently of late. Oh…you want specifics. Well…we’re talking Jim O’Rourke and Ellis Island Sound (and to a lesser extent Daedalus, who doesn’t quite fit the bill here…but has definitely been grabbing my facial hair). With our Jim, I’m mostly thinking of the albums ‘Eureka’ and ‘Bad Timing’. With Ellis Island sound all I’ve heard is ‘the Good seed’ and an incredibly good remix of the Two Lone Swordsmen track ‘Spine Bubbles’ (all etheric piano and throbbing bass bubbling underneath…chilled and lovely).
Now, I’d say that Monsieur O’Rourke is in a category I almost think of as post-folk. Again, it’s using a pallette you’d expect of a folk singer. Light vocals, finger picked guitars and mellow string vibes. But something about it sounds fresher and more emotive. A willingness to experiment…a sense of fun. Particularly on the instrumental ‘Bad Timing’ album. That thing sounds like a post rock album (all the tracks at least ten minutes long…big sweeping and plunging movements simple minimalistic use of repetitive motifs and a certain brooding emotional quality…with uplift included as a bonus extra) made by folk guitarists. Subtle use of acoustic more than electric instruments…and a slightly lighter touch…a more gentle aesthetic. I like it muchly…and I like calling it Post Folk because I don’t know if anyone’s done that yet…and it makes a valid connection between the two movements and the origins that create the differences.
God I’m pretentious.
Then there’s the Ellis Island Sound, (and many others) with their Folksy take on the mellow downbeat jams of the Warp and Ninjatune crowds. Really relaxed beats, with subtle undertones of synth and a musical direction that seems to be of a keep it simple, but keep it warm and rich too. Like Hot Chocolate (the soothing bedtime drink and not the Seventies cheese merchants) it is nice to just sit down and relax with. It doesn’t need to push it’s emotional energy down your throat. It just seeps into the mind and stretches out…suddenly you’ve got a satisfied smile on your face…nothing major, just a little quaver upwards on the edges of your mouth.
It’s like stealth satisfaction. Undercover joy.
Let’s look at it for real (I mean it’s playing now). It’s all incredibly well produced. Subtle drum tones, a few bleeps, with accordians (my favourite) and strings providing the main harmonic thrust. Bassline sounds round and electronic. Little clicks and whirrs add depth to the beat. The song doesn’t so much progress as just sit there for a bit, let you know it’s lovely, then leave. Next track is all traditional instruments…a dull drone with a gently plucked banjo and a violin melody. All lovely and sweet, fairly quaint and countrified, soothing and homely. A bit like sitting on a porch. (incidentally, the first track I mentioned was called ‘Angel’s Way’, the second is ‘Auction of Promises’). The cover is a stylised and colourful and slightly rough around the edges pastoral landscape. Picnics and windmills and churches.
In fact for a large extent the only really electronic element is the production style. It’s all stripped down into layers of simple sound. The beats occasionally throb forward and everything feels like it’s been twiddled and fiddled to get an artificially naturalistic atmosphere. The more I think about the more I think it isn’t electronic most of the time…except for in vibe. I guess it’s more post folk, only with short tracks…a different kind of structure, no huge sweeping dramatic movements here…just simple little vignettes, of gentle romantic entanglements….or something.
Definitely post folk…which I don’t think exists…yet.
Anyway, in way of conclusion, I’d like to say that most of this is nonsense.
There’s no need to pigeonhole music. Just enjoy it.
You do need shorthand sometimes to describe what you like, but you shouldn’t limit yourself to certain names of genres. You might find that things you say you don’t like and realise that there’s a connection between them. You may hate dance music but love Aphex Twin, you may hate jazz but love Weather Report, you may think classical is boring but have a soft spot for Satie. Like all things in life. It is better to keep your options open. Don’t define anything unless it’s a useful shorthand and you’re aware of the shortcomings which come with that kind of abbreviation.
Listen and learn. Imagine and create.
Music is wonderful, a fount of joy and emotion, a way of amplifying feelings.
Enjoy it for what it is. Don’t fence it in.