Sunday, August 5, 2012

Old Music, New Music

I just ran across something that made me smile. Jed Gottlieb writes for the Boston Herald and put up an essay titled "Why classic albums are selling more than new ones". Because they are cheaper is his answer. But it was this bit that made me pause:
And anyone who thinks old music is better than new music isn’t listening to new music. Neko Case, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and a hundred other young acts are delivering brilliant art.
The "old music" he is referring to isn't J. S. Bach, let me hasten to add, but the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Since this is the internet, there was the option to leave a comment, which a number of people did. Here's the link to the comments. With only a couple of exceptions, every single commentor said the same thing: "dude, the pop musicians today have a serious shortage of talent". Heh.

OK, well we are all about exploring the new here at The Music Salon, so let's have a listen to a little Neko Case. She is, by the way, an American singer/songwriter who has done a lot of performing with a Canadian group, the New Pornographers. Here is the first clip that comes up on YouTube:

That was ... exciting? Pretty dull harmonies alternating between I and bVII nearly all the time (the same semi-progression that Gotye uses in his hit "Somebody That I Used to Know"). Drumming? OK. Guitar-playing? Subfusc. Singing? OK. Now this is awkward. In the traditional method of music criticism here at The Music Salon, now I am going to put up some 'old music' to compare this to. But it's going to be embarrassing. OK, let me see if I can find a dull song by the Stones.

I'm not a big fan of the Stones, nor of this song, but don't you think there is something going on there, some of it fairly original? It would be cruel to put Neko Case up against some real singers and songwriters, but what the heck, let's do it:

Yeah, no way that is better than Neko Case. Uh-huh.


Craig said...

It is perhaps a quixotic exercise to come to the defense of any pop artist, much less Neko Case, since I don't particularly care one way or the other, but I do think that she is considerably better than this short post gives her credit for.

That song ("Hold On, Hold On") is one of the weaker in her catalogue. She's actually quite a talented songwriter, with a gift for elliptic wordplay that resembles Lennon and McCartney at their best. Musically she may be middle of the road, but some people (and here I would include myself) just find her countrified rock idiom appealing. And she definitely has a better voice than Sir Jagger.

Anyway, some better songs by Neko Case: "Set Out Running", "I Wish I was the Moon", "Maybe Sparrow".

Bryan Townsend said...

I never think that making a case for any musician is quixotic! I do it all the time and the interesting thing is the reasons why, I think. Thanks so much for the comment. Perhaps you are right about "Hold On, Hold On". I picked it simply because it was the first clip on YouTube. On your advice, I listened to the other three songs you mentioned. I'm more convinced of her singing as a result, but I still don't find much of interest in the songwriting or the lyrics. Sorry!

The songs are pleasant enough, but I don't see them as being in the same league as Lennon/McCartney.

Craig said...

Not in the same league, no, but in the world of pop music who is? I do, by and large, find her songs intriguing, but mostly on the level of words, rather than melodies, and despite a sometimes nasal quality I do think she has a fine voice.

You've at least got to give me this: she's prettier than either John or Paul.

I've only discovered your blog in the last week, and I really like what I see. Blogging about music is not easy -- at least, most people don't do it very well -- but you seem to be doing fine!

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, much prettier than John or Paul, let alone George and Ringo. Yes, she does have a fine voice.

Creativity is a funny thing. Neko Case is like a lot of artists: she is very capably using the features of an already established genre of music. In her case, I think we would call it country rock. Everything is already established: typical chord progressions, melodic style, rhythmic textures and so on. It is an immediately recognizable style, which is why it is suitable for popular musicians who want the audience to like them from the beginning.

But this makes what the Beatles did even more outstanding because they took the popular genres and transformed them. Even more, they invented some entirely new kinds of songs. Everything they touched they transformed and improved. The wonder of it is that audiences were so receptive to it. Usually, if you mess around with an audiences expectations too much, they stop liking what you are doing.

Thanks so much for the compliment!