Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Decade in Music, Part 2: Everything That’s Old Is New Again (2002-2004)

2002 proved to be an emotional turning point in my personal life. By the end of the summer I was ripe for a musical picking. It seemed to be at the right moment that it all fell into my lap. I had caught wind of a transformation happening in the independent music scene. Mainstream rags like Rolling Stone - which were sitting at the desk at the college gym I worked at - were discussing new bands that were sounding out of the 60's and 70's (and later, the tasteful portions of the 80's). The Strokes and the Hives were at the head of this procession in the first wave. The Vines were too but I disliked them from the get-go and they never did it for me before they flamed out completely. Another of these new bands mentioned, in tandem with something John McCain's daughter said she liked (or something, I barely remember how I actually learned of them) were a "brother and sister" duo out of Detroit called The White Stripes. Not long after, I caught an animated Lego video by the eventual director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the band's song "Fell In Love With A Girl". It wasn't even two minutes long but it was pretty persuasive. I caught a second video - for "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and I was underwhelmed. Then one Fall day I was walking back to my apartment in Center City Philadelphia and "Dead Leaves" came on Y100, which I was listening to on my Discman. The song then struck me like a bullet. So began the mass absorption – the purchases of De Stijil and the self-titled first LP. (though White Blood Cells remained the only album I did not properly purchase for a couple of years), the downloads of the hard-to-get singles (at the time of the initial downloadings, I had no idea new bands were even putting out 45's - I assumed they were bootlegs being picked up on the Internet). By April of 2003, it was lights out on just about everything else. The White Stripes were my musical everything. The anticipation for Elephant was obscene. I made buying it at Tower Records the event of the year. I even managed to sucker Ed into joining me for it and the subsequent inaugural playing. That week on Conan O'Brien was out of control. I was so desperate to get to a show at the Hammerstein Ballroom (not caring one bit that country legend and future Jack White collaborator Loretta Lynn was on the bill and completely oblivious to some band called Blanche opening the show), I even joined an Internet message board in hopes of finding some tickets (I didn't get the tickets but I got stuck on that board for five long years). By the time I finally saw the Stripes live in November of 2003, it was beyond normal. Well not quite beyond. I wasn’t exactly walking around in red, black, and white everyday. But I may as well have been.

Everything else dwarfed in comparison to the White Stripes - a phenomenon which I rationalized this way: "Before the Stripes, I arguably liked Bob Dylan and AC/DC the most. Well what are the White Stripes but the perfect combination of Bob Dylan and AC/DC?" And that was to say nothing of Jack and Meg directly covering Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, and Dolly Parton. But even with those facts, I had begun the biggest absorption of music in my life. In addition to the Stripes, Strokes, and Hives, I got into retro-sounding bands such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Mooney Suzuki, the Raveonettes, the Sounds, and the Black Keys (and the Kings of Leon too, back when they were a garage band). With a couple of exceptions like the Keys from Akron and the Libertines from London (who I never really dug save for "Vertigo"), I basically declared this Garage Scene to exist out of a trio of places: New York, Detroit, and Scandanavia. And so also began my musical pontificating, in which I thought I would give back to my friends what they had given to me. But they were having almost none of it. I was going to be all on my own for a while in this regard. Perhaps I deserved it. I predicted that Electric Six - a Jack White-associated band from Detroit that scored a number 1 in England with the man's collaboration ("Danger! High Voltage!") were going to represent a new sound in music - DISCO-METAL. I was wrong about that (though damned if Dick Valentine and his various line-ups of five other guys didn't stick around in their own way).

I wasn't limiting myself to just these new bands however. As 2002 gave way to 2003, Norah Jones had come onto the scene. Norah had Indie-flare but mainstream presence. Her triumph at the Grammys were the first bit of credibility that awards show had maybe...ever? Come Away With Me, rightly the last proper selling album in traditional music buying history, is forever a classic. And right through her recent release, The Fall, Norah has released a significant number of excellent songs that deserve nothing but praise. She was and is sort of an amalgam of everything right with music - blues, folk, and country - in all their purest forms. And she was and is sincere. And humble. Her popularity was inexplicable considering the trends of the decade (which began with boy bands/slutty pop songstresses and ended with an endless number of shallow melisma-heavy singers backed by often weak-voiced rappers). But that inexplicable success was also a welcome respite. And she branched out with side projects like the Little Willies an El Madmo. And I already told you about what happened at that concert in June ’03.

Ryan Adams made an attempt to break through to the mainstream after 90’s Indie cred stamping with Whiskeytown (incidentally, at the time I got into his solo work, I also briefly got into the solo work of his former Whiskeytown cohort Caitln Cary). While Ryan’s mainstream success may have peaked low with his “New York, New York” adopted as a 9/11 recovery song, his success in my musical listening began a steady climb in those discoveries of Heartbreaker and Gold. By the end of 2003, I had his solo work up to date (a process not made easy by his endless output, yet I’ve managed to hold up through the decade). Very quietly, and very stealthily, Ryan Adams became my favorite singer who I never went on about to anyone. I just listened. Straight through to the Cardinals and apparently whatever comes next. All very funny considering what an egomaniac the man is (and Ryan is one too).

Heartbreaker featured a collaboration with Gillian Welch. Gillian Welch was featured on the soundtrack to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, and with that she endeared herself forever. Her own proper records all proved to be solid affairs, culminating in the supremely excellent Soul Journey, which her tour in support of led to that very same June 2003 concert with Norah Jones. She then stopped making records. The decade has come to an end some seven years after her last LP. Every year that goes by without another Gillian Welch record is a crime.

Coldplay came into the picture late for me. Some 3 years after it was a hit, “Yellow” was all over my mp3 playlists. When A Rush of Blood to the Head came out soon after, I was a full-fledged fan though my interest would ebb and flow with each subsequent record.

I had not lost my knack for picking up older music either. By the time I was headed back to New York in the summer of 2003, I had become a nut for the Ramones, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello (who did it anew at least three times this decade and delivered live and on TV), and Johnny Cash (who said goodbye with the song you’ll play to your children for the rest of your lives – his cover of “Hurt”). Thanks in part to the retro-sounding bands, and Little Steven's Underground Garage, but mostly to my devotion to finally making good on hearing all these sounds (with the ease of the Internet), I just picked up band after band and artist after artist. The Pogues, the Smiths, the New York Dolls, Social Distortion, the Jam, Reverend Horton Heat, John Hiatt, Warren Zevon, Van Morrison, Sleater-Kinney (who went out in fashion with The Woods and the amazing “Modern Girl”), Run DMC, even finally the Sex Pistols (after years of scorn). Take this expression: "Separate the Men from the Boys." The majority of this music is still much of the music I listen to today, as opposed to much of the classic rock I listened to at the beginning of the decade. Once finally back in New York, I took the time to properly get into native son Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground (though I only went through ANOTHER Lou phase in the last couple years), as well as David Bowie, Neil Young, Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols (those two bands didn’t really take) and an assortment of one hit wonders from Punk and New Wave (a friendship with a hardcore girl from Cleveland living in New York led to listening to some of the single greatest songs ever made, namely "Situations" by the classic Slaughter & The Dogs and the later "Better Him Than Me" by the no-hit wonder Gang of Four).

In a juxtaposition of every direction I was going, the last older band I actively got into was the Los Angeles punk/new wave/plain ol rock n roll band X. A Spring 2003 write-up of an X anthology in Rolling Stone got me interested (I can't believe how often that magazine how sprouted up in this rememberance of things from THIS decade, it just doesn't seem right). A pick-up of the records and a live show in June of that record culminated in a mass insanity that went alongside the one going for the White Stripes and their colleagues. With the Ramones gone (at that point, Joey and Dee Dee had passed with Johnny to follow in the following year or so), and Talking Heads not getting back together anytime soon, it fell to X to carry the fire. And they did. And they still do including in the form of the Knitters, their country alter-egos and as solo artists (Exene with Original Sinners and John Doe as a solo country artist, whose 2004 with Grant Lee Phillips exposed me to that man’s body of work, including the then-recent Virginia Creeper LP). (Funny sidenote: that June 2003 show in Philadelphia featured a non-scene band from Detroit called the Fags and a local band called Stiffed whose lead singer was Santi White - as in Santigold. How about that?) And if that wasn’t enough, the X/Knitters program resulted in an education in the Blasters. So there.

By the end of 2003, the retro revival was in full gear. Little Steven's radio show ushered in a period of garage rock madness (see “Rock n Roll Babe” by the Cocktail Slippers, “Wolf n the Lamb” by Hawaii Mud Bombers, “Walking With a Ghost” by Tegan and Sara, “Rockin’ America” the Catholic Girls, “I Am Your Radio” by the Boss Martians, “Hero of 1983” by Peachfuzz, and “The Kids Just Want to Dance” by Manda & the Marbles,). Garage rock, and particularly the Detroit scene at that time, became my chief wellspring of music. AC/DC-copy cats Jet are now something of a sham. The Star Spangles had an impressive debut LP (if I was ever one to be in such standing as to call things "impressive") but quickly fizzled (I remember their career was supposed to be built on bashing the Strokes in Rolling Stone – there’s that mag again!). And though we all knew they were going to be good for one novelty record, the hair-metal throwbacks known as the Darkness left such a mark with Permission to Land, that I include it on my best-of-decade lists. Chew on that for a bit.

I developed a taste for the rock club scene before leaving college. Electric Six came to Philadelphia and played the Balcony, which was actually the attic to the Trocadero. That same venue was used twice for "Philly Freakout" shows curated by local garage purists Mondo Topless, a band introduced to me by a friend, Mike, who I knew through Ed. Though Ed had been the chief character for vintage rock with distinct looks and style, this had all proven to be too much (or maybe not enough) for him, which I found kind of funny. Also funny – Mike was a vintage rock enthusiast who was the first person I knew to possess an Ipod but I don’t think owned any vinyl. Mondo Topless incidentally became one of my favorite bands, a local twist on this major musical shift change.

Technologically speaking, I had become familiar with the Ipod but was still a year away from buying one. I was reliant on downloading and burning mp3’s onto CD’s (and those CD’s led to mixtapes for my back-up tape player, mixtapes for blues, the Detroit scene, and yes, Irish-based rock). I spent a good deal of 2002-2004 using downloading to catch-up on just about every neglected genre. From “Rocket 88” by Jackie Breston and the Del-Cats to the entire discography of the Flaming Lips (who I saw in April of 2003, kicking off a period of major love for that band), from Captain Beefheart’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” to Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, from the Circle Jerks to Michelle Shocked, from Iris DeMint’s “Our Town” to Slayer’s Seasons of the Abyss, from Pachelbel’s Canon in D to Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast as You”, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, from “867-5309” by Tommy Tutone and “Freeway of Love” by Aretha Franklin to Perry Como and Etta James, from Hank Williams the First to Hank Williams III, downloading was the best drug anyone could have ever taken (and a true vice, if you think it so).

Additionally, hits seemed to be coming from every which way, also facilitated by easy downloading. The Roots put out “The Seed 2.0” and as mentioned briefly before, Cheap Trick, of all bands, put out “Scent of a Woman”. The last of the popular rock bands got their say this way: Stone Temple Pilots’ last gasp – “Days of the Week”, Jane’s Addiction’s curtain call – “Just Because”, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “By The Way”, the entire first Audioslave record which included “I am the Highway” (a song that deserves to be on anyone’s playlist of the decade). This trend continued towards the end of the decade – Morrissey’s “First of the Gang to Die”, REM’s “Supernatural Super Serious”, all of U2’s No Line on the Horizon, and Pearl Jam’s “The Fixer”.

By the end of 2004, I had my Ipod – which should have been called the Digital Transference AudioSonic Device. And nothing has been the same since. All that grand larceny from the tubes of the Internet came to rest in the physical body of an Ipod. The discman was dead. The tape player was dead. The radio was on its fairly last legs. A revolution indeed.

2003 and 2004 saw the beginning of my New York scene hopping. As evidenced by the trend happening towards the end of my time in Philadelphia, my concerts were getting smaller. Not many more arenas featuring U2 or AC/DC. It was the Sounds at Luxx (now the Trash Bar). It was Holly Golightly and Ko & The Knockouts at Southpaw. It was the Star Spangles, Hank III, Scott Biram, and Eagles of Death Metal (when they were good) at CBGB's. It was Sleater-Kinney and the Thermals at Irving Plaza. It was the Bamboo Kids everywhere. It was Sit n Spin, the’s, And it was the Dirtbombs at the Bowery Ballroom.



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