Times change, just as people do. Twenty years ago punk was the music of rebellion. Now it's pitch-corrected, its edges sanded down and danger removed to the point where it's just another pop confection manufactured to move more product out of Hot Topic. This is a fact bemoaned ad nauseam by purists, but that doesn't make it any less disturbing. The anger and alienation punk was meant to capture did momentarily escape, only somewhat diminished, onto the airwaves in the form of its less-loved stepchild, grunge. The Seattle sound tried to convey the anomie of middle-class American existence. Ironically, the success of grunge destroyed the then-vibrant metal scene (which itself had become a pale, saccharine imitation of its initial antiauthoritarian impulse), but eventually grunge's attitude was reclaimed by the free-floating angst of quasi-metal bands like Linkin Park and Trapt, who resurrect the old alt-rock idea of confrontation.
All these angry youths, generation after generation of them. Fists raised, voices aloft. Raging against the machine in variously mutated forms that do little but echo the screams that came before them. Times change, people change, echoes decay and, eventually, we must wonder: What next?
"Those strange echoes," says Iron and Wine's Sam Beam. "When it comes back it doesn't really have the same voice, does it?"
Beam grew up on punk rock, but when he began making music it was a decidedly unpunk sound he chose to explore. Hints of country and the sonorous sounds of '70s pop suffuse the South Florida resident's soft, delicate music. That his music appeals to the same audiences and the same record label, Sub Pop that embraced Soundgarden and Nirvana is somewhat shocking. More interesting still is the fact that Beam is far from the only one treading these unexpected paths. The underground is rife these days with acts purveying a rich baroque sound replete with strings and horns, or attempting gentle, elegiac, heavily melodic music that would have seemed anathema to bands a quarter century ago.
"The idea of what is punk has completely been lost on most people who would claim to be punk nowadays," says Nick Stampf of The French Kicks, whose initial garage-rock sound drew comparisons to The Strokes, but who've moved on to a pretty, fully-fleshed sound that has more in common with Rufus Wainwright or New Order than with the MC5. "I've always thought of our band as having a serious punk element in the sense that we don't give a shit what else is going on, and we just do our own thing. That's the punk idea. It takes a lot more balls to make this kind of music than it does to shit out garage-rock songs."
What happened to inspire all these kids to toss their three-chords-and-an-attitude for dobros and string sections? The easiest suggestion is to point to radio and the underground's knee-jerk contrarian impulse.
"It's like hard music is definitely the mainstream, so whatever the mainstream is, the underground is going to take a left turn," suggests guitarist Jay Ferguson of the Beatlesque Canadian band Sloan. "Someone making `the Beach Boys'` Pet Sounds today wouldn't even be considered Top 40. I mean something like "Good Vibrations" ... I can't imagine that being a hit today; to me that's a record that the Flaming Lips would make today. It's definitely more underground and for a specific audience as opposed to a No. 1 hit."
But such ideas are oversimplifications. While it would be naïve for musicians to suggest that they're unaware of what's going on in mainstream radio after all, it pervades every corner of the pop culture it's equally true that few artists could be bothered to be such obvious reactionaries.
"I have a personal problem with creating things from a negative stance. I'd rather not react against things," says Eric Bachmann, former frontman of indie rockers Archers of Loaf, who now makes music as a solo artist under the name Crooked Fingers. "There's no way I could be honest and react to the radio, because I don't even listen to it. I hear the radio, and that sounds like the radio. And I don't want to hear that because it's shit. So I don't react to it."
Beggars Group CEO Lesley Bleakley agrees. As an umbrella home to labels such as Matador, 4AD and Too Pure, as well as the stalwart Beggars Banquet imprint, the Beggars Group has released albums by bands such as Belle & Sebastian, the Delgados, Mercury Rev, Badly Drawn Boy, Tindersticks, Cocteau Twins, Yo La Tengo and Luna all of whom have fashioned albums of beautiful, supple music. Bleakley suggests this wasn't their intent, it just turned out that way.
"We work with an awful lot of bands that are like that, and I kind of feel strange to think that it might be a reaction to what's on the radio, because I don't really care what's on the radio," Bleakley says. "I don't think it's a conscious decision on anyone's part, as a reaction against what's going on in Modern Rock. Psychologically there might be a sort of reaction to that by sort of becoming the pretty, delicate, lovely indie sounds that we've had, but I can't imagine it's conscious. Is it because these people are getting a little bit older and less aggressive?"
ALT-ROCK GROWS UP
Undoubtedly some of it has to do with the aging of the members of the alternative rock scene. Musicians who came up making loud, aggressive music have had the time to grow up and out. Meanwhile, the underground audiences have continued to nurture them as their vistas have expanded with their sound.
A prime example is Blonde Redhead. As a noisy, dissonant band that took their cues from Sonic Youth (SY drummer Steve Shelley produced their first album), they made four albums of loud, art-damaged noise rock before diverging on 2000's Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. The band then took an entirely different tack on their latest, Misery Is a Butterfly, an album with gauzy, somnambulant textures reminiscent of the Cocteau Twins. Queried about the change, drummer Simone Pace told UR Chicago, "We always wanted to make music like this, it's just we never felt like we were allowed."
"A lot of us who were punk rockers were music lovers when we were young, but so much of what we listened to was dictated by either politics or fashion. I think when you get older you don't worry about those things as much. You become more comfortable with yourself and with what you like and what you don't like, and you're far less apologetic about it," says Beulah frontman Miles Kurosky. "And as you become a songwriter and grow within your own skin, you become more ambitious. And the fact is that to set ambitious or lofty goals you're certainly not going to keep making punk rock."
Certainly for artists who've already been down the punk rock road, there's little incentive or desire to keep covering the same ground.
"If you were in a kind of a loud, quirky guitar band, and you were doing that, but `after a while` it wasn't that rewarding, why the fuck would you start another one? Why would you eat the same food over and over again?" asks Bachmann.
For Davey von Bohlen, who played guitar in pioneering emo bands Cap'n Jazz and Promise Ring, the symphonic sounds of his new band, Maritime, were a chance to explore an approach he had only just begun on the final Promise Ring record, Wood/Water.
"It's like you're denying yourself intelligence if you don't realize the depth of human emotion as you get older. When I made that Wood/Water record, I think it was the first time I realized that though usually generated by pace and volume intensity is a vast world that can be accessed through many different avenues. It's challenging to harness all that. It's just not something you'll see a lot of teenagers do," says von Bohlen. "Rebellion is always raging against whatever in your youth. Which isn't to say you're not angry anymore, but I think you have to use those emotions in different ways. Life is larger and there are just more aspects to my life that I can't get totally tied up in this exhausting emotion. I have to hone it in a different way."
The emotional sophistication conveyed by this more intricately arranged intensity can be painstaking to actually convey. Punk rock is simple by definition and necessity. To move above and beyond it requires a substantial amount of work, according to producer Dave Fridmann, who's recorded several of the best baroque pop albums of the past few years, including The Flaming Lips' Soft Bulletin and The Delgados' Hate.
"For a band like The Delgados or The Flaming Lips, it's all about the sonic detail. They will spend a lot of their time on a song getting from 94 percent done to 94.5 percent," says Fridmann.
"There is something about when you start adding all these other instruments that gives it more of an intellectual edge that wouldn't necessarily be there simply because of the sonic equation," concurs Tim Delaughter, leader of the 22-person rock orchestra The Polyphonic Spree and formerly the leader of the rock outfit Tripping Daisy.
But there's another way age and maturity factors into the pretty rock music being made today a nostalgia for preadolescent immaturity. One consistent thread throughout most of this music is a sonic link to the luxurious pop sounds many of the musicians were surrounded by when they were growing up.
"I think it comes from before I thought about music in terms of genres of music. It was just what my parents played and what was on the radio in the '70s," says Beam. "As a little kid, that was just music. I wasn't worried about what genre it fit into. I didn't think, 'Oh that's pretty,' or, 'Oh, that's punk rock.'"Delaughter concurs, saying, "The bands that influenced me the most as a kid are the ones that I think are responsible for The Polyphonic Spree. When I was first discovering music as a kid, orchestral pop was happening in the '70s. You had the Phil Spector sound, which mixes rock and symphonic orchestration; you had the Walt Disney storybook records, in which all their stories were told with symphonics; Fifth Dimension was mixing pop with symphonics. Burt Bacharach, Percy Faith and Wings. A lot of your rock bands were using symphonics and harmonies. That's where I stuck my head in music, so to speak, and was affected by it. It's where I learned an appreciation of melody. It's like I've reverted back to a 6-year-old, and it's awesome. It's taken 32 years to get back."
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