Originally published 10/27/ 2009
The death of Johann Sebastian Bach in 1750 was a solemn occasion indeed. It would have to have been–it’s hard to imagine anything more solemn than a German funeral. Germany, and certainly all of Europe, mourned the passing of one of the greatest paragons of artistic achievement they–and, assuredly, the world–had ever known. Bach’s entire enormous family was there, including his wife Anna Magdalena and their twenty children, most of whom were probably half-occupied composing trio sonatas in their heads, hoping to remember all the counterpoint by the time they got home to write it down. His eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach stood off to the side, sneaking snootfuls of whiskey from a hidden flask, musing to himself that he was REALLY going to have a hard time living up to his father’s reputation now that the old man was dead. The pallbearers lowered the casket with unparalleled Teutonic solemnity into the grave.
And then, as they threw the first shovelful of dirt on top of the casket, the sky lit with fireworks! A trumpet fanfare sounded! Banners dropped from the eaves of every building in town, bearing in gaudy colors the message “Welcome to the Classical Era!”
Well, no. That’s probably not how it went at all. This idea of imposing labels onto artistic epochs is something that doesn’t happen until long after the epochs have passed, but this contrived practice is one that’s always fascinated me. Why do we have such a huge desire to categorize things? And who makes up the names? And why has this process spiraled out of all control since the 20th century?
It’s fitting, I think, that historians should mark the year of Bach’s death as the end of the Baroque era. He was probably the most important creative figure working in that period–and I feel pretty safe in asserting that, since I think he was probably just about the most important creative figure working in ANY period. (more…)
I’m not sure why I even read music reviews anymore. I think there’s a secret website somewhere containing about five phrases you’re supposed to draw from if you’re writing a music review, and the phrase I’d put first on my list of “If I See This Again Somebody’s Gonna Get Castrated” is this one:
“…nothing particularly new here…”
It’s this phrase (and permutations thereof), more than any other, that suggests to me that somebody is probably almost willfully missing the point of something. It’s one of those snarky blogger-phrases that just reek of presumed superiority (number two on my list is “self-indulgent,” because if you’re Making Something, who the fuck else are you going to indulge?). Digression aside, let me explain something, and maybe I’ll boldface it to make sure everybody gets it: There is nothing substantially new in popular music. There may be elements that are new to the genre, but that’s about as much as you can hope for. And that’s fine! I like it that way! The point is not necessarily to be innovative. The point is to be fun to listen to.
I mean, does anybody honestly think for a moment that before (for instance) Nirvana, nobody in the history of creative musical endeavor had ever thought of alternating quiet sections with loud ones? Ever? Maybe nobody had done it quite that way in that style of music before. I’d allow that. But that device had been around for hundreds of years before Kurt Cobain got to it, I assure you.
And let me just add that I emphatically do not want to meet anybody who sets out on some grand quest specifically to become a revolutionary. The one example that springs to mind of somebody who actively set out to revolutionize music is Richard Wagner. And although he was incredibly rare in that he actually accomplished what he set out to do, he was by all accounts a terrible prick.
What all this is leading up to, really, is a discussion about the band Secret Powers. Secret Powers is a band fronted by Ryan “Shmedly” Maynes, who was in the band Arlo (who I know I’ve mentioned before), although I first knew him from the Electrolites, his first post-Arlo band. Anyway, Shmed moved to Montana a few years ago (to my hometown of Missoula, by bizarre coincidence) and got Secret Powers off the ground with former members of other bands there.
The reason I brought up the “nothing new” issue is because I read a review of the Secret Powers album, Explorers of the Polar Eclipse—it was a glowing review, actually—that used that nauseatingly bloggy phrase to describe the album. It’s true that Shmed’s songwriting and production borrow elements from his favorite bands (among them the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jellyfish, and ELO). But it’s done in such an obviously gleeful and celebratory way, and with such masterful craftsmanship, that to even mention it is to miss the point of this band. More than anything else, and all influences aside, the songs on Polar Eclipse are seamless exaltations of the pop form. It’s everything that’s good about a genre, all at once, done up in layers upon layers of keyboards, guitars, and multi-part vocal harmonies, performed by people who clearly love what they’re doing. To dismiss something like this as “nothing new,” even if it’s meant as part of a compliment, is to misapprehend the whole point of this style of music. It’s not supposed to solve mysteries of the human condition, or deconstruct forms, or plumb the depths of emotion. It’s supposed to make you enjoy being alive for three or four minutes.
If one wanted to oversimplify (and one does at the moment), one could divide melodic/harmonic movement into two types: 1) the type that surprises, and 2) the type that goes exactly where you want it to at just the right time. In my head, these are labeled as the “Whoa!” and the “Fuck yes!” categories, respectively. Secret Powers are good at both. I remember an Electrolites show a few years back where my fellow Get Set Go member, Jim, said something like “I can’t believe people don’t pay Shmed millions of dollars to write these melodies.” This accessible melodic emphasis is true of Secret Powers as well, and I was glad to see that a few Electrolites songs were reconstituted for Polar Eclipse. Especially “Counting Stars.” I could probably go on for pages doing comparisons and analyses and being offensively academic about it all, but I’d rather just say that Secret Powers is a real real good band and recommend that everybody get their album.
I think it’s time to bring my remarks to an anecdotal close now. I was re-reading The Salmon of Doubt the other day. It’s a collection of previously unpublished writings by Douglas Adams, on all sorts of different subjects, and it’s very entertaining. There’s a bit in his introduction to P.G. Wodehouse’s Sunset at Blandings that struck me as being particularly germane to this topic (oh holy shit have I ever wanted so badly to use the word “germane” in a sentence):
“…exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day. In fact, what it’s about seems to me to be wonderfully irrelevant. Beauty doesn’t have to be about anything.”
Sure! P.G. Wodehouse’s stories are about butlers and comically deviant members of the idle rich. Secret Powers songs are mostly about girls and use chords common to the pop genre. But both transcend what they’re about and manage to be enormously entertaining examples of artists joyously practicing their craft.