Listening in Real Time

Eclectic neoclassicism versus childhood-oriented avant-primitivism as global warming swamps our history

If my appetite for the literal isn't au courant, sue me. These days I'm such an old fart I even use albums to help me understand singles. James Murphy seems like a nice guy in interviews, but as an artist he's a scenester, and the poker-faced ennui of LCD Soundsystem taught me once and for all that it wasn't just arthritic knees and parenting hours that kept me away from techno—it was the disco way of escapism. Occasionally the right dancefloor hit—say "Hate It or Love It" or "Get Low," true electronica being so fungible it rarely makes our charts—can enlarge the soul, but most of them are too generalized to waste fun on. That extends even to the Gorillaz' fun-enough "Feel Good Inc." I like their DOR Demon Days better than the DOR LCD Soundsystem because it's at once more utopian and more pessimistic, meaning full of hope indulged or dashed. But I prefer both artists' wholes to their singles-charting parts; hell, I prefer James McMurtry's longform to his magnificent "We Can't Make It Here." My long-held belief is that pop music is a way of knowledge as well as a way of pleasure. We need its knowledge desperately right now—that elusive sense of humans-after-all not just struggling for fun, as Simon Frith once put it, but determined to keep living fully while their supposed betters rob or disdain them. As chunks rather than scraps of history, albums—like literalism, come to that—tell us this intuition that comes over us isn't just a trick of perception, evanescent and disposable.

Although the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday is more literal than the Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree, both are rock albums of a rather old-fashioned sort. Devoid of guitar pyrotechnics, pop cute'n'catchy, or any version of a hip-hop beat, each leads with a wordy singer who could almost be talking: ex-Lifter-Puller Craig Finn, whose storytelling has never shown more decency or range and whose band has never rocked louder, and Mountain Goat forever John Darnielle, who trades in the social fictions of Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed for less gnomic childhood reminiscences. In each band, strophic intensity packs a very basic musical wallop. Yet here's the funny thing—each band also packs a classically trained sumbitch. Mahler and Chopin fan Darnielle puts Zorn-connected cellist Erik Friedlander out front, but who would figure that Franz Nicolay, who beefs up the Hold Steady's guitar riffs with organ fills and varies them with piano figures, would show up on mandolin and accordion in the Zorn-connected avant-chamber ensemble Anti-Social Music?

This apparent coincidence manifests an Anglo culture that in 2005 is ruling-class hegemonic. As rock and roll attracts fewer juvenile delinquents and bored film students and more musos, it will sop up more classical training, because those are the music lessons young musos can get—like for instance Franz Ferdinand guitarist Nick McCarthy, an accomplished double bassist. But at a time when pop eats everything, the sonic repercussions of this regimen ain't so bad. Those Jeezy and Three 6 appropriations are slammin'. The new prog represents (some) progress. Illinois is good-not-great, its "Casimir Pulaski Day" peak also its barest song, but give the schoolboy oboist credit for thinking "serious music," asinine term, means Steve Reich—means the postmodern project of reconstituting 19th-century melodicism and color without corning everything up. And give Jon Brion credit for fitting in—if there's more substance, clarity, and resonance to Fiona Apple's musicianly songs than to Spoon's or the New Pornos', Brion is part of why. You won't find a bigger inspired-amateur fan than me. Yay Art Brut and yay art brut. But I also like melody and color and, in this vilely Orwellian epoch, any sense of history whatsoever.

Who knows what will become of New Orleans music? With Wynton Marsalis sticking his status in, you can bet it will include classical training, which long before Jelly Roll Morton fed into the racially striated city's black music, always informing the street culture Katrina swamped. But bet as well that it will include swingin'—so far, Anglo ethnic music is just a flavor in what remains a fundamentally African American conception. As a particular skill, however, swing in 2005—whatever the case in 2045, when 2005's cultural interventions will have vanished into the apparently natural—was also a conservatory matter. Just ask any jazz guy how many Berklee grads he knows. And note that by Marsalis's standards our most classical finisher is also our most swinging—the Monk-Coltrane find, a major and probably unrepeatable addition to both geniuses' oeuvres just like everybody claims, and easily the most traditional jazz album ever to convince our voters it was pazz. Yet when I A-B'd it up against Kanye, I found Late Registrationnot only deeper but just as much fun. The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara, which to me sounds as ancient as sand even though it's modern to Tuareg, Songhai, and Berber ears, is just deeper. You want fun, ask Amadou & Mariam.

Politically, the year wasn't as disastrous as we'd feared. Some depredations of the Bush regime were turned back as it overreached itself, though not the foul new bankruptcy laws, and don't ever think that the Bushies will back off, or that the new Supreme Court won't back them up. But as many P&J voters who promised to keep on pushing withdrew into ever more pressing personal necessities, Katrina—most visible effect so far of the global warning the neocons' trained seals with Ph.D.'s scoff at—threatened to destroy, and in the case of many artifacts, archives, and of course neighborhoods did destroy, a crucial locus of the history every rock critic owes himself or herself. So here's a modest proposal for my young colleagues on the Net. I just checked Metacritic, and there is no listing for Our New Orleans. Make it your business to get it up there. Even in these low-promo times, Melissa Cusick at Nonesuch will probably hook you up.

Then call your senator and ask why there was no Alito filibuster. Just to let the bastards know you're conscious.

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