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A look at pop music under the lens of virgin - The GROUND Magazine

A look at pop music under the lens of virgin

By On September 12, 2011 In Music, Print

When it comes to pop music as a whole and rock music in particular, the concept of ‘virgin’ is something of a paradox. After all, pop is not a virgin field, it is the home of the familiar.

Trends, revivals, and genres referred to as waves with adjectives in front of them, are cyclical; they are both in response and in reaction to their immediate predecessors. When examined in this context, it is difficult to conceive of any trend in music as being truly virgin, and unless you’re in Japan and you know the right surgeon, virginity isn’t something that comes back. It’s a great trick, but you can only do it once.

In this sense, virginity as an irreplaceable item, there are no truly uniquely qualities in pop music, as pop isn’t about the new, but recombining and revising what’s always been there. However, it is this very act of revision that makes contemporary music so fascinating. Everywhere, artists are moving forward by recreating and reshaping the past. Like those Japanese surgeons, they’re taking something old and used up and making it new again.

An early single found Sonic Youth exhorting their listeners to kill their idols. At the time, it was the perfect summation of their music: arty noise defined as much by what it wasn’t as what it was. Yet despite their musical nihilism, there are now numerous bands that have been inspired by Sonic Youth. Blonde Redhead, a band named after a song by No Wave act DNA, had an early career that was defined by their music’s similarity to Sonic Youth.  Their dissonant, dual guitar attack was clearly inspired by Sonic Youth, and it didn’t help that this comparison was made all the easier due to being on Sonic Youth member Steve Shelly’s pet label Smells Like Records. Despite Blonde Redhead’s early struggles to differentiate themselves, the band has always harbored strong melodic elements that made them unique.

Take a listen to “Fake Can be Just as Good” and amid the squealing noise, lilting melodies peek through. The track “Water,” reexamined with the benefit of hindsight, contains an excellent example of their future. It begins with choppy guitars and drums, only to gradually calm into one of those minor key melodies that would soon become a hallmark of the band, before returning back to the songs thrashy beginning.

Subsequent albums found Blonde Redhead’s sound evolving into a band that is critically acclaimed, and sounding like no one but themselves. More recently, Talk Normal have begun receiving attention with their own take on Sonic Youth noise. Theirs is a more Spartan interpretation, with only one guitar and a drum kit utilized to create a surprisingly dense, sound. Talk Normal’s guitarist Sarah Register frequently utilizes repetitive atonal motifs to hypnotic effect. The sole guitar allows the drums played by Andrya Ambro more room than either Blonde Redhead or Sonic Youth could offer, and she whips up a fierce, tribal sound, part war march, and part tribal incantation. Whatever adjective, Talk Normal is expanding the boundaries for rock’s two most common instruments.

The 1980s were filled with acts that were similarly eager to push the boundaries of what a band could be.  None, however, were both as radical and simultaneously as successful as Public Image Ltd, John Lydon’s followup to the Sex Pistols. Sounding nothing like the Pistols, or any other act of the time, Public Image Ltd was a band that claimed to be a company. While this alone would make them unusual, their music was truly radical. Their first single, “Public Image” was a bracing, jubilant combination of deep, dub inspired bass, and shimmery guitar work. The sound was so distinct that it inspired numerous acts, and was famously copied by U2, on “I Will Follow” the opening to their debut album “Boy.”

Public Image Ltd continued to push boundaries beyond those set by their first single, however. At their early best, songs such as Death Disco combined previously unheard of combinations of music such as funk, dub, disco, microtonality, and even a touch of Tchaikovsky. What’s truly astounding is that they managed to take this music to Top of the Pops. Their unique sound inspired countless other bands, but rarely have any taken on all of Public Image’s elements. U2 made it big by copying the guitar sound of early Public Image Ltd, but they ignored the other elements, instead grafting that guitar sound onto traditional rock bass and drum structures.

Much more recently, the band Warpaint is now finding success by focusing and recombining Public Image’s sound in more novel ways. On their debut LP, “The Fool” heavy, melodic basswork  recall PiL’s own dub inspired tracks, as does the atmosphere of dread that frequently pervades Warpaint’s songs. The band is not simply a tawdry knockoff though. In an interesting sonic departure, Warpaint uses two guitars processed with effects such as flange and echo to create delicate psychedelic textures. The bass and drums may sound like PiL, but the treble is closer to Pink Floyd or Roxy Music. Put together, and topped with the wounded vocal harmonies of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman, the music recalls numerous influences, without sounding quiet like any of them. Just like Public Image Ltd.

Despite bands such as Warpaint and Talk Normal, it can still be tempting to feel that the current music scene is at it’s most conservative. Band after band is still playing the same melodies as the Beach Boys and the Ramones, and calling it Shoegaze if it has poor production values, or Lo-Fi if it has no production values at all. Change the name, change the clothes, but the song never changes. It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when truly wild bands regularly terrorized audience across the country. Take the Butthole Surfers, a band that began with a sleazy rockabilly sound that was then distorted, modulated, cut up, and otherwise violated until it was unrecognizable.

Live shows utilized props such as smoke machines, and projectors, creating a  hallucinogenic combination of theater, noise, and unsavory fluids. Though their heyday was decades ago, and though such shows may be a thing of the past, their influence is not.

Many Americans might not know it, however, as successors to the Butthole Surfers don’t live in the US. French native Cheveu revel in the filth and the glory present in early Surfers classics.

Like the Surfers, Cheveu have a fondness for scratchy rockabilly and blues, but they add jarring doses of synth and other noises to create something far less recognizable than Buddy Holly. They also share the Butthole Surfer’s unhealthy interest in deviancy, best evidenced in their song “Happiness” in which the singer recites a rather infamous monologue from the movie of the same name. More than just imitators, however, Cheveu show promise as developing their own sound. No more is this apparent than in “Unemployment Blues” a twisting nightmare of echo, wordless vocals, and repetitive blues guitar riffs, perfect for inspiring the neighbors to phone the cops.

But if the end of the Nighties found legions of bands eager to redo “Loveless”, the first half of the decade saw a similar resurgence in Post-Punk adoration. Bands such as the Rapture and Franz Ferdinand appropriating many of its sounds and rhythms. At the same time, many of the original acts of that era, such Gang of Four, Wire, and Mission of Burma, responded by reforming.

Despite this rush of interest in Post-Punk, the revivalists frequently toned down the genre’s inherent abrasiveness, instead focusing on the more rhythmic elements, creating music that is consistently described with the now ubiquitous descriptor “dance friendly.”

It is only much more recently that emerging bands have begun to focus on Post-Punk’s less accessible qualities. Clipd Beaks’ droning bass and mournful textures recall Joy Division on their final album “Closer”, but the song structures are even less traditional. For example, on their most recent album, “To Realize,” the song “Blood” contains a bass that drones on one note for it’s entirety, while vocals and guitars come in and out like the sun glancing through fast moving clouds. It’s a jarring effect, and one that not all will find enticing. Not all the work coming from Post-Punk inspiration is as off putting, though.

Inspired by similar artists, but with an entirely different sound, is the band Weekend. There’s plenty of adjectives that they share with Clipd Beaks: “noisy” “abrasive” and “loud” all come to mind. But the painting is not at all the same, even if the colors often are. If Clipd Beaks is a modern interpretation of Post-Punk at it’s gloomiest, Weekend is the genre at it’s brightest. The music contained in their debut “Sports” is more uptempo, and more embracing of melodies, even if they are frequently buffeted by fuzz, as on the single “Coma Summer.”

It’s encouraging to see just how unique bands such as Weekend and Clipd Beaks can sound, both from each other and from the bands they claim as influences. “Virgin” may not be the right term for them, but “new” and “exciting” would both fit nicely.


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