November 24, 2008

Requiem for a Music Geek: Slouching Towards Sonic Domesticity

For nearly fifty years now, "domesticity" has always meant the opposite of "rock." The mellow sounds of '70s singer-songwriters soothed the transatlantic sonic savagery of the '60s; the album-oriented radio and slick Philly soul of the Carter-Thatcher-Reagan era blunted the triple threat of reggae/ska, punk and hip-hop; and the fiendishly wretched "Adult Album Alternative" radio format of the mid-'90s cut off the spasms of alt-rock right as it hit the mainstream. By the turn of the 21st century, rock had become the new jazz—a niche genre of music meant for listening, not dancing; a squalid vacuum of insular sniping and revisionist desperation.

Of course, that's a pretty generalized, and harsh, paragraph to slide in right under a photo of Elbow, the genial British proglodytes who roam the vast chasm between Coldplay's lyrical mega-idiocy and Radiohead's willful, semi-arch obtuseness. Whether they like it or not, though, the fivesome from moody Manchester has been one of two twin poles of my own gradual slide into musical middle age—that terrible time of early adulthood when your job owns your day, you don't get out as much, you move into cohabitational bliss, and your social radius shrinks like Chris Martin's credibility. Besides, in my last music geek screed, I mercilessly slashed away at the horror that was Sting in late-career suckitude, so I guess it's only fair to turn the tables on myself this time.

Well...sort of. I don't have to lose all of my self-respect in one shot, though, and I hope to Elvis that grasping frantically at the periodic lyrical excellence of Elbow frontman Guy Garvey will leave a few shreds of aesthetic dignity. Now, in some circles that's veering perilously close to Sting territory, but whatever—some humorless assholes will never be happy with anything, and on my good days I don't identify with them very much. Obviously, worrying about it is the definition of navel-gazing bullshit, but if I didn't do that there wouldn't be anything to write about anyway, right?

Maybe so, but that silliness can be dumped for now in favor of more Elbow—as I know them, that is. I'd picked up their first disc Asleep in the Back a bit late—sometime in early 2002, I think, long after it had been released to favorable bleatings from the UK music press. However, I was pretty caught up in jump-starting Honey White with Bryn, Brian, and Billy; with the exception of some Eels, B.R.M.C., and other stray random crap, most outside musical stimulus was pretty weak back then. "Red," "Powder Blue," and especially "Newborn" made some heavy dents in my aural consciousness, but harder hits would have to wait.

Despite my revitalized epic indie-rock hobby, though, I'd already settled into the deadly formula of domesticity—moving in with my girlfriend, slaving away at dull office jobs, and teetering on the edge of that awful concept of "finding myself." Twenty-six is pretty late to be fucking around career-wise, or so I thought—I never had the itch to strap on a backpack and busk my way through Europe like my brother did in 2003, and so that fall, before I stumbled into night school and Em advanced to grad school, Elbow's second album Cast of Thousands was well on its way to ruling my endless hours of semi-employed solitude. I'd picked it up as an import, and the tour-de-force ballads immediately grabbed my windpipe; "Fugitive Motel" and "Switching Off" ground the record in tarnished beauty, but the rest of it doesn't exactly slouch either, from the burbling intensity of "Ribcage" to the massive celebration of "Grace Under Pressure."

So for me and Elbow, it's been all uphill from there; sure, on 2005's Leaders of the Free World (which I bought in Boston while visiting my sister) and this year's Seldom Seen Kid, the Potter brothers may have simplified the tunes a bit, but Garvey has become a masterful lyricist and, as I saw at two shows in L.A.'s fabled Avalon ballroom, an epic singer. The whole band just works, and if getting sucked into their agreeable sound means I've settled for the gradually rounding edges of "maturity," then I can deal with that. If well-made pop-rock is the mushy center of the musical spectrum, well, I don't mind checking in when Elbow's topping the bill. We are all, by now, professionals, are we not?

Naturally, that goes double for Chicago's own Wilco. The myriad musical whims of Jeff Tweedy have finally landed him and his revolving cast of sidemen in a weird side-street of American rock commerciality, where tour-chasing concert-geeks and dazed VH1 refugees alike meet in a public-radio sponsored forum of rootsy, feel-good (or at least feel-better), semi-diluted art-rock. Some have called the phenomenon a throwback to the Grateful Dead, but to me, it's a little more yuppified and Eagles-y than that; there are less trustafarians and more suburbanites at any given Wilco show—or at least at the four SoCal shows I've seen from 2003-2007.

Yes, that's right—even though I missed all of Uncle Tupelo and A.M., really enjoyed Being There as a college sophomore, and Summerteeth was pretty much my favorite album of 1999, I completely failed to see Wilco live until the apostate Jay Bennett was expelled from Eden, which means the Wilco that I've seen supporting A Ghost is Born and Sky Blue Sky, for all their collectively manic brilliance, is pretty much the Jeff Tweedy Show at this point. Now, that's fine—I've seen Tweedy once solo, too, so obviously there is a difference—like Elbow's Garvey, Tweedy has grown into a lyricist that, though not as tight over the course of a whole song, has nevertheless become comfortable with himself and what it is he does.

That's all you really have to ask for from an artist—that they be themselves—and of course Tweedy is just as susceptible as any of them when it comes to vacationing up his own ass (his father-of-boys streak of childishness can be a weird mix of Paul McCartney and Henry Miller), but thankfully I don't usually have to consider any of that ridiculous shit when listening to his albums or attending his shows. See, by the time of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's belated release in 2002, I had of course ended up living in the comfort of connubial sin, larded with a steady paycheck to sustain any remaining youth-rock pretentiousness—and I won't apologize for any of it. Why? Well, you know how some couples have "their song?" For me and Emily, Wilco is "our band." There's no real need to elaborate on that, and if people think that's cheesy, then fuck them.

Yeah, because John Stirratt is one of the steadiest bassists in rock, Glenn Kotche will never be simply a time-keeping drummer, and guitarist Nels Cline is a fucking six-string monster in ways guys like Satriani or Van Halen will never ever come close to touching. Cline is a fiend, a classy genius wielding a '59 Fender Jazzmaster, and both his humongous tornadoes of sound and his razor-sharp leads have injected new life into the entire Wilco back catalog on stage. Like I said, I've seen them four times now—one opening for REM (2003), once on a double-bill with the Roots (2005), and twice headlining (the Wiltern in 2004, the S.B. Bowl in 2007), and if that means I'm nothing more than a sucker for the New Eagles, well, I'm okay with that too. If Elbow and Wilco are the best mainstreamy examples of how Adult Men Bring The Rock, then the Rock will be in good hands until some other gang of gangly yahoos decides to stop milking their youth and instead learn to Write Songs.

And yeah, so what if I'm projecting a bit—or even a little more than that? I know that the best artists only really get going in their thirties—where Garvey is now, and where Tweedy was not too long ago—so color me unconcerned about the supposed terrible ramifications of emotional, circumstantial, and yes, "domestic" stability. Many men (and women) have mapped out this territory before, and hopefully I'll get to play in it for a good long while.

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