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Nervous Trend – “Shattered”

February 23, 2016 Leave a comment

I mentioned Nervous Trend in my earlier swipe at Savages, but wanted to give them their own post because I think this anonymous group from Australia (with a singer from Chicago) might be the best rock band in the world. That isn’t some kind of writerly hyperbole that is only meant to capture attention — I actually believe it. Their latest release, “Shattered,” accomplishes more in two songs and six minutes than most rock bands do in a lifetime.

One of my many complaints about music lately is bands who adopt the attitude and style of punk, but don’t actually back it up with any substance. Nervous Trend actually have something to say, and “Shattered” pulses with an urgency that demands attention and lyrics that sharply combine the personal and political. The title track lasers in on how women are frequently seen as not being “whole beings,” using a brilliant analogy of being shattered into pieces: “Which pieces of me do you want today?” singer Jen Mace asks. “Do you see a virgin? Do you see a whore? Do you see a plaything? Do you see a savior?”

The second track, “Decency,” is a scathing criticism of hypocrisy from those who claim to be decent (also known as “the virtue squad”), but spend their time limiting the rights of women. Mace ends the E.P. with her most impassioned vocal delivery, almost reaching a scream: “This is not your proselytizing. This is my life. This choice lies with me. Fuck your decency.”

None of this is groundbreaking material in the world of feminist-leaning punk, and part of why I’ve been less invested in punk lately is that these sort of lyrics can feel like going after low-hanging fruit for easy cred points. This is exacerbated by bands that intentionally sound sloppy because it’s “punk,” giving the impression that they care more about the message than the music. Nervous Trend care deeply about both, and the pointed lyrics are matched by the music itself, which is tight and roars with purpose while being inspired equally by goth and punk rock. Mace also has one of those voices that cuts through everything around it, and she throws herself completely into these songs while sounding melodic rather than shrill.

I’ve often felt like a grumbly baby about rock music lately, but hearing this band reminds me that, when it’s done with this level of skill and commitment, pretty much nothing is better. Nervous Trend have made themselves hard to find with no social media or Spotify, but their music speaks for itself, and those who find it will be moved.

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The History of Rock and Roll

February 10, 2016 Leave a comment

When I attended community college a few years ago, I decided to challenge myself by taking difficult courses that would expand my knowledge base and prepare me not just for attending a four-year institution, but also for the real world that lied ahead. That was how I spent Tuesday and Thursday afternoons taking a class called “The History of Rock and Roll,” which was taught by a U of M grad student who walked us through a chronological history of music with intricate PowerPoint presentations while challenging us with impossibly difficult essay questions like “describe some of the differences between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.”

I won’t lie: sometimes, the class was so difficult that I thought about giving up. As the subject matter got more complex, eventually reaching mind-boggling subjects like “grunge,” it was tempting to walk out of the classroom, drop out of school, and look for janitorial work. But I stuck with it, and with enough hard work and dedication was able to earn an “A” in the course — something that remains one of my most impressive adult achievements.

What stood about the course, besides the difficulty, was how it turned something as exciting and life-affirming as rock and roll into another boring classroom topic that was rooted in objectivity. The course’s curriculum inherently made authoritative judgments over which bands were worth including and which would be left out of the history it was teaching us. The class stuck to the classic, practically official rock and roll canon — also seen in places like The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — tracing a linear line from artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to more contemporary music that was influenced by them.

One of my longtime insecurities as someone who writes and talks about music is that most of these canonized artists have never done much for me. This ranges from liking their songs, but not feeling any emotional connection to the music (The Beatles, Led Zeppelin) to outright disliking artists that are considered legendary and hugely important (The Rolling Stones — ugh). In all cases, I recognize the band’s influence and how they helped innovate rock, but even the most detailed and fascinating of PowerPoint presentations couldn’t make them feel as important to me as they seem to be to everyone else.

Not loving these bands has always made me feel alienated and sometimes even stupid. If I can’t like these artists that are universally considered to be incredible, maybe I don’t understand music. So I’ve spent a lot of mental energy reflecting on the canon and why it has never worked for me like it does for everyone else. My biggest issues are that the canon has two major biases: it is heavily skewed towards men, especially “rock gods,” and it is also biased towards older artists who came first, because obviously nobody in the last 20 years has innovated music. If you like listening to music that was made by women after 1980, the canon isn’t going to have much for you, and I can’t get behind a history that excludes so many artists.

Music does have a history, but the canon tells it incorrectly. It focuses on a single path that goes in a straight line, when a true, honest history of rock and roll is made up of different branches and curves off that path. One of my favorite things to do as a listener is find a specific genre or style of music, and try to piece the history of it together myself by connecting the dots between various bands. This way, the music tells the story rather than a professor or a bunch of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voters, and it stays true to what I enjoy about it, which is the process of discovery and the subjectivity.

The best example of this different way of viewing music’s history was from a random blog I stumbled upon online when I was searching out female-fronted punk music. A very devoted, possibly crazy person compiled a series of 12 CD-Rs that served as a reference of female punk from 1977-1989, and gave them to some friends, one of whom uploaded them online. I listened to it and was astonished at how comprehensive it was — it combined relatively well-known artists like Blondie with some of the most obscure bands imaginable, like German groups that released one song on a cassette in 1981 and gave it to three of their friends. What made it so enjoyable wasn’t just that I liked the music, but that the series was mixing artists of all levels of popularity and obscurity together and forming an entire story of a certain niche of music — one that is completely ignored by the traditional canon.

While the canon is based on exclusivity and favors artists who are popular and “important,” this collection made no judgments and included seemingly every female-fronted punk band that made a song in the time frame. A powerful feeling I got from it was that no band is more important than any other, and everyone who makes music is in their own way contributing to its history. Even a band that released literally one song was remembered and viewed as important in this context.

Rather than making certain music sacred or unimpeachable and clinging to bland objectivity, I prefer that collection’s more subjective and inclusive take on history that focuses on the music rather than what people have written about it. Obviously, a class can only discuss so many bands and a museum can only have so much space, but that’s why a History of Rock and Roll course and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are ineffective. The real history of music is sprawling and defined just as much by outsiders as the most popular artists of all time, and to reduce it to such a small number of popular artists is antithetical to what makes music great.

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Spotify Playlist: “Loomers”

February 1, 2016 Leave a comment

In a post last year, I mentioned how My Bloody Valentine’s “Loomer” sounds exactly the way I want all music to sound due to its contrast of heavy guitars and light, feminine vocals. This playlist is a collection of songs that feel similarly to me and are the basis of my theory that “Loomer” spawned its own micro-genre of music that falls somewhere between shoegaze and metal. The songs range from artists that are doing essentially My Bloody Valentine tributes (Fleeting Joys) to bands who push the principles in “Loomer” as far as possible to explore more adventurous musical ground (metal groups like SubRosa and True Widow).

For most of music’s history, loud guitar noise has been strongly associated with machismo and was considered ugly or abrasive. I love this style of music because it twists those preconceptions with the vocals, resulting in songs that have fascinating dualities: they are ugly and beautiful, strong and fragile, masculine and feminine. These themes all get blended together in the music and start to blur these arbitrary gender lines. (I just read The Left Hand of Darkness if you can’t tell.)

On a less academic level, listening to these songs always makes me think of the apocalypse. The image the sound creates in my head is of a lone voice singing while the world crumbles around them.