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November 28, 2006

In Case You Missed It—November 28, 2006

It’s a strange, ironic world we live in today. It’s hard to like really popular music without being a tool. It’s hard to like more obscure music without being a conceited waste of space. Everyone has had a conversation with a tool that goes something like this:

“Oh my God, don’t you just love Dave Matthews Band? I thought ‘The Space Between’ was just so deep. And they’ve got a violin in the band; isn’t that wild and creative?”

No offense to Dave. His music is halfway decent, but most of his fans are just artless freaks who latch onto his songs because they want to seem a little bit deeper than the latest Federline opus they just bought.

The conversations with the obscure music fan inevitably goes something like this:

“I like (random band), you’ve probably never heard of them, but they’re really deep; I feel like they really speak to me. They really defy the zeitgeist by altering the paradigm, which they do by employing a Hegelian dualism combined with a Marxian analysis of Nietzsche’s concept of the inner and the outer.”

For these reasons, I tend to shy away from popular music until it has proven its artistic integrity. On the flipside, I tend to shy away from music that is too “extreme” or “experimental,” since these tend to be by-words for “my eardrums are bleeding” and “noise,” respectively. I search instead for bands that are far enough from the mainstream, yet not so far that I start to get vertigo. I’m like the guy who will never eat vanilla ice cream and is afraid of praline-heath-pecan-cookie-dough chocolate, so will settle for the exotic, but not too exciting, French vanilla. In that vein, here are two of my favorite French vanilla bands.

Music: Guster

Here’s a little activity for you: Go buy albums from My Chemical Romance, Hawthorne Heights, and Green Day. Set them to play on three separate stereos. Now, get your parents to listen and see if they can tell them apart. Depending on the song, if they say they can tell the difference, congratulations, your parents are spectacular liars.

You can repeat this activity with pretty much any three bands from any specific genre of modern pop music. Such is the homogeneity of sound in music today.

It’s easy to understand and hard to criticize. The sounds of widely-released bands are going to be as close as possible to those that have already been successful. Record labels are rarely focused on what’s new or what’s innovative; they’re focused on what sells. More often than not, what sells today is what sold yesterday.

That’s not to say that I think Guster has a truly revolutionary sound, or that they’re some sort of stick-it-to-the-man rebellion that can’t be put down by Mr. Moneybags. But Guster’s sound is different, and it is genuinely unique. This unassuming band of Tufts graduates has, with just a little bit of instrument variation and some (gasp!) genuine creativity, crafted something that’s interesting enough to merit more than a few listens. It’s sometimes nerve-grating, as the vocal harmonies jump into that high castrato tone that you can only seem to achieve by singing somewhere up in your cerebrum. Other times you can tell that they’re really forcing a rhythm and words into a song that just can’t fit them both cohesively.

But most of the time it does work, and what results is a wonderfully distinctive overall sound. It’s not like hearing rock ’n’ roll for the first time, but it is kind of like listening to ’90s pop in the ’80s, or ’80s pop in the ’70s. It’s something that hasn’t been done, or at least hasn’t seen mainstream exposure yet, and Guster deserves credit for bucking the system in true French vanilla fashion.

Music: The Bad Examples

One big beef I have with a lot of bands is their lyrics. Too often, they come out sounding like the 14-year-old’s version of a U of C Hum paper. To quote Papa Roach’s “Scars”: “I tear my heart open, I sew myself shut/ My weakness is that I care too much/ And my scars remind me that the past is real/ I tear myself open, just to feel.”

First of all, what does that even mean? Apparently, the band is made up of a bunch of pseudo-intellectual masochistic wimps. Second, like a U of C paper, these lyrics appear deep, pained, and complicated, but upon closer scrutiny turn out to be just a bunch of unnecessary ramblings about something that everyone already knows.

And that’s why I’m so fond of The Bad Examples. Their lyrics aren’t just nice to listen to; they actually have legitimate meaning and depth. As far as sound goes, The Bad Examples are barely indistinguishable from a lot of mid-’90s bands (Barenaked Ladies come to mind) and didn’t really introduce anything new. They just took the long-lost and age-old concept of having interesting words strung together in a meaningful fashion and actually did something with it.

Granted, lead singer Ralph Covert’s singing could be a little stronger, as he tends to audibly strain to reach and maintain certain notes. But it usually comes together well enough in the end, and besides, the best part of the song isn’t how he’s singing, but instead what he’s singing.

That’s all for this week. As always, comments and suggestions are welcomed and encouraged, just e-mail me at bmw940@uchicago.edu.