Arts & Culture

That Noise in the Background

Maybe you’re in a crowded restaurant, deep in conversation, when you gradually start to realize that there’s a song you like penetrating the din. Or you’re browsing at the mall to a piped-in soundtrack that refuses to be consigned to … Read More

By / July 3, 2009

Maybe you’re in a crowded restaurant, deep in conversation, when you gradually start to realize that there’s a song you like penetrating the din. Or you’re browsing at the mall to a piped-in soundtrack that refuses to be consigned to the background. Or you’re sitting at a traffic light on a lovely June night, when the sounds pulsing from a nearby car pique your interest. Whatever the circumstances, the appeal of the music inspires you to search out its source. If it was interesting enough to attract your attention from afar, imagine how good it will sound when you are able to listen to it properly? The urge to bring what was in the background closer is strong.

But the truth of the matter is that it’s getting harder and harder to devote that level of concentration to a record, no matter how compelling. Distraction is the dominant mode of experiencing music these days. Paradoxically, the very technology that allows us to carry our music with us, to keep it close at hand, makes it easier to treat it like muzak. Even if we dream of being exposed to music that we take to heart, the reality is that making that kind of long-term commitment is taking more discipline with each passing year.

That’s one of the reasons why the decline of the compact disc has led, remarkably, to a resurgence of interest in the format it had seemingly rendered obsolete. Listening to vinyl demands a degree of concentration, a ritual devotion, that the digital age has made it more difficult to muster. The injunctions that those of us who grew up with phonographs remember with nostalgia – to keep the surface of records clean, to make sure the turntable is level, to refrain from doing anything that might cause the needle to lose its groove – now serve double duty as a demand to pay attention in an era when it’s easy to consume music without paying anything at all.

 The cover of Dinosaur Jr.'s new album Farm

Farm, the new album by alternative rock stalwarts Dinosaur Jr., does not explicitly thematize the massive changes in the music industry that have occurred since the band formed in the mid-1980s. But it does a better job than most records of making us ponder the way that our understanding of proximity and distance have been transformed as a result of that transformation. Although the songs on the album, with their tried-and-true format of guitar, bass and drums, are far removed from what usually gets classified as “ambient” music, they play with our expectations of the rock idiom. 

The longest song on Farm, “I Don’t Want To Go There,” is a prime example. Replete with the sort of weighty chords and meandering solos identified with the classic rock of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it nevertheless manages to break with that tradition in subtle but crucial ways. For one thing, rather than building to an emotional peak, the track starts with a sonic density that suggests that we are already in the middle of things. The first words, duplicating the song’s title, further reinforce the sense that we are hearing a response to something that happens off the record. While everything about the song suggests that there is an antecedent to the refusal it delimits, the nature of “there” is never fleshed out.

The contrast to the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s cover of “Hey Joe” or Neil Young’s classic Crazy Horse song “Down By the River,” the closest classic rock equivalent to “I Don’t Want To Go There,” is keen. Instead of an electrified update of a blues standard, the sort of murder ballad whose precedents go back centuries, we get a song that conveys ambivalence, not only towards what has already happened prior to its starting point, but, implicitly, to the musical tradition that such countercultural landmarks reverentially invoked. In a sense, “I Don’t Want To Go There” is a murder ballad. But the victim is the fusion of musical and narrative tradition from which classic rock derived its authenticity.

That makes a lot of sense given Farm’s relationship, not only to the evolution of the music industry in general, but to the trajectory of Dinosaur Jr.’s career. Formed from the remains of hardcore punk band Deep Wound by longtime friends J Mascis and Lou Barlow, the band developed a name for itself by violating the tacit code of conduct governing the behavior of new artists. As Mascis has wryly noted, although Dinosaur Jr. had no fan base, having alienated Deep Wound’s demographic without effectively reaching out to a new one, they would play their hybrid of punk rhythm section and classic rock lead guitar at a literally ear-bruising volume in small clubs near their Amherst, Massachusetts hometown. Even though they were eventually banned from playing most local venues, however, they refused to compromise their musical values.

Because Mascis meets the definition of “laconic” on his most voluble days and writes lyrics that traffic in vagueness, ambivalence and resignation, early commentators on the band tended to perceive their anti-populist – or at least anti-popularity – style of performance as a confirmation that the band’s preferred mode of communication was to bring about a communication breakdown. And that was true, up to a point. But what such assessments failed to capture was the underlying cultural signficance of this seemingly perverse aesthetic. By literalizing the noise that impedes the transmission of clear signals – even the most radio-friendly bits in their songs would disappear inside the wall of distortion they generated in concert – Dinosaur Jr. wasn’t just self-reflexively fixating on a failure to communicate, they were also pointing to resistance in the transmission of tradition.

For the members of what would later be called “Generation X,” a sense of musical belonging was hard to come by. Unlike Baby Boomers who grew up with a clear sense of what distinguished their culture from The Man’s, children of the 1960s who were actually born in the 1960s had a harder time deciding what to rail against. While those who were strongly influenced by older siblings sometimes identified upward, claiming the classic rock and soul acts of that era as their own, most were ambivalent about music that was constantly being held up as a standard against which their own efforts were bound to fall short.

Anyone who spent time reading Rolling Stone as it progressed from counter-cultural rag to establishment glossy will remember the distinction that its reviewers tacitly maintained between legendary figures of the past, even if their current work was lackluster, and newer artists who were consistently found lacking. Within the five-star rating system that the publication popularized with its 1979 book The Rolling Stone Record Guide, only the former ever seemed worthy of the highest marks. The impact of this caste system, together with its corollaries elsewhere in the music industry, on those who were teenagers in the 1980s was profound. Some avoided painful comparisons by measuring artists according to extra-musical criteria, such as fashion, dance moves or pure celebrity in the abstract, a trend that contributed to the success of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince, as well as lesser stars like Boy George. Others, too invested in history to forget that their youth culture was classified as second rate, confronted the tastemakers head on by turning to forms of popular music, like punk and electronic pop, that rejected Baby Boomer culture on principle.

In the end, though, many of the musicians identified with Generation X found the pull of tradition too powerful to ignore. Although they were happy to piss off their elders by expressing affection for music that was too abrasive or too slick to appeal to the Woodstock or Wattstax crowds, they began to integrate more touchstones from their forebears’ record collections. In the realm of hip-hop, this grudging reconciliation took the form of a new musical approach. Rather than produce a collage of many different samples, whose origins were frequently difficult to determine, producers began to prioritize one seed track, typically a classic soul number, at the expense of other sources.

While legal concerns may have motivated this shift – it’s easier to clear samples if you’re using fewer of them – it also marked an aesthetic decision. During the heyday of unfettered sampling, typified by Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, the music of the previous generation was often treated like the screw and nail section of a hardware store, a repository of parts too small to stand alone. By the mid-1990s, however, most of mainstream hip-hop had reverted to the less complicated collages characteristic of the genre’s early years, before digital sampling has been introduced.

The pioneering single Rapper’s Delight, with its appropriation of the instantly identifiable bassline in Chic’s “Good Times,” was once more the template. But there was a new wrinkle this time.  The resurgence of this less adventurous form of appropriation was accompanied by an explicitly historical consciousness. “Good Times” had barely left the charts when The Sugarhill Gang made it the bed for “Rapper’s Delight.” By contrast, the hip-hop of the mid-1990s went out of its way to expose listeners to the music that was popular immediately prior to the genre’s emergence. Whereas “Rapper’s Delight” made use of the Chic song “Good Times,” which had come out very recently, many of the most popular and effective new tracks used the soul, funk and reggae hits beloved by their parents as a musical bed. The effect of this fusion of old music to new lyrics was to give props to the past without falling prey to the illusion that it could return as a livable future.

In the domain of rock, which saw its scope and influence shrink as that of hip-hop expanded, the equivalent to this complex relation to musical and, by extension, political history usually took the form of an attempt to couple the aggressive sound of punk with elements derived from the countercultural icons that it had set out to skewer. While the sudden rise of Nirvana from respected independent-label band to platinum-selling standard-bearers brought this aesthetic sensibility to mainstream attention, their path to fame had been cleared – as Kurt Cobain always took pains to acknowledge – by predecessors such as Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, The Replacements and, yes, Dinosaur Jr., all bands that had managed, in different ways, to retain the attitude and energy of punk while invoking the melodicism and sensitivity of the best classic rock.

Just as hip-hop in the 1990s hearkened back, not to the blues or jazz tradition that preceded the rock and roll era, but to the output of the Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International labels as a tradition, these rock groups from the 1980s steered clear of “roots” music in order to explore the tangle of classic rock sources to which punk had initially threatened to sever all connection. Indeed, the difficulty of positing antecedents so characteristic of Dinosaur Jr. lyrics reflects a broader anxiety about finding a way to reestablish contact with roots which, even though they had only recently been laid down, were cut off from present-day concerns. 

What makes Farm such a great and troubling album – it speaks volumes that the Pitchfork review of it has ranked as one of its most read since the day of its release – is that it perfectly simulates the aesthetic approach that Dinosaur Jr. and other alternative artists from the 1980s developed, only from within a cultural context in which that aesthetic approach has itself become, for many, the tradition that newer artists express ambivalence towards. The band have never been better. J Mascis remains one of the greatest living lead guitarists, able to turn out a melancholy solo or brutal chord sequence with equal aplomb. Drummer Murph has become a master of the hardcore punk-derived style of drumming that Mascis, who sat behind the kit in Deep Wound, always wanted him to deploy. And bassist Lou Barlow, returned from years of independent label-style commercial success in his other bands Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion, gives each song a loose-limbed momentum that prevents Mascis’s more finger-happy moments from losing the sourness that keeps them pleasingly sweet.

One would be hard-pressed to name a better post-reunion record than Farm, which surpasses Dinosaur Jr.’s first new effort since getting back together, 2007’s excellent Beyond. Few of their classic rock predecessors can claim the same mid-career triumphs. With the possible exception of Neil Young, most of the big surviving countercultural icons started turning out watered-down versions of their sound by the end of the 1970s. While fans of The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks dutifully trotted out to purchase their favorites’ latest records, even the most diehard of them would have to acknowledge that, given the choice, they would much rather have listened to those bands’ classic offerings. In the case of Farm, however, we are confronted with a product of older, wiser middle age that is no softer than the youthful output it so ably mimics.

Indeed, Farm may well be the best Dinosaur Jr. album, combining as it does the highlights of the original line-up’s approach with the more nuanced songs that J Mascis wrote in the 1990s, after turning the band into a solo act in everything but name. Those later albums, particularly the fine Where You Been, suffered, in retrospect, from an absence of the underlying muddiness that had made Your Living All Over Me and Bug special. Although they still conveyed a failure to communicate at the lyrical level, their clarity sometimes pitted form against content. By contrast, Farm’s sophisticated yet defiantly “old school” production values make it possible for Mascis’ lead guitar to emerge far enough from the dense rhythm section to activate our body memories of classic rock without getting so far away from it that his solos give us the troublingly untroubled musical bliss of that era. There’s a hesitance, a shame even, that accompanies his fretwork fancies that identifies Farm squarely with the band’s mid-1980s origins.

The problem, though, is that this runs the risk of producing the satisfactions of nostalgia in a different register. If we are pleased to be troubled, if our expectations are met in the process, we can easily lapse into complacency. Ambivalence, too, can be its own reward. The challenge that faces us is to perceive it as a provocation instead of a salve. The brilliance of Farm is that it provides the tools we need to remind ourselves that the background should always be at the forefront of our concerns.

 

Charlie Bertsch is Zeek‘s Music Editor. Prior to joining Zeek, he held the same position at Tikkun. He was also a longtime contributor to Punk Planet, and was one of the founders of the pioneering electronic publication, Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life. He is working on several book projects, as both a writer and an editor. He welcomes your feedback whether in comments posted here or by e-mail.