Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Meet the New Boss

By Noel Murray

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  The term "post-rock" has come into heavy critical usage in the past year--initially, as a way of describing the spate of bands who have begun forgoing traditional rock song structures in favor of disjointed, textured, mostly instrumental jams. As the label has become more familiar though, its meaning has expanded, reaching beyond the Tortoises and Trans Ams of the world to include any band that mixes up rhythms or combines genres in a novel way. Post-rock now spreads in two directions, and the term is applied casually both to futurist pop groups like Stereolab and to rustic throwbacks like Palace.

Personally, I don't much care for the phrase, and not just because it's bandied about so loosely. I don't like what "post-rock" implies--that rock is an aging thing, to be superseded by a new paradigm. The bands who bear the post-rock stamp have largely earned the tag by performing alchemical experiments with genres and instruments (e.g. merging cocktail with No Wave). What's more "rock" than that? What was Elvis, if not the shotgun marriage of Bill Monroe and Arthur Crudup?

The problem is that no one really knows what "rock" means anymore, and without an understanding of what rock is, it's hard to say when it's over. My feeling is that rock is merely an extension of the popular music that has been with mankind since we first learned to whistle. We have always gathered together to sing catchy tunes; only the presentation has changed to reflect the pace and timbre of the times. With jet engines and atomic-bomb blasts ringing in our ears, our music naturally gets louder and faster.

So where do we go from here? What's the next sound, now that our music seems to have gotten as loud and as fast as it can? Following our multiplexing culture, which has splintered into a hundred cable channels, 30 radio formats, and a magazine for every taste, popular music has no choice but to expand vertically. To attract increasingly disparate tastes, musicians draw not just from different genres but also from underexploited sounds. If this means replacing a guitar solo with chanting Tibetan monks, so be it.

To that end, there's hardly a more modern band than Stereolab, whose sound combines the primitive rock of The Velvet Underground with the stereophonic excursions of Esquivel; with this hybrid, they've effectively straddled the minimalist and the progressive. On their latest, Dots and Loops (Elektra)--produced in part by Tortoise founder and post-rock inspiration John McEntire--Stereolab swirl together a pallette full of pleasing colors to make a challenging but always engaging picture.

Though not as consistently brilliant as last year's expansive Emperor Tomato Ketchup, this new record has a more unified, neo-modern feel. On songs like "Miss Modular" and "Rainbo Conversation," Stereolab make use of cocktail-ish xylophones, Brazilian-inflected guitars, brass hangings from '70s cop shows, and aloof harmonies. It's enough to make the listener collapse in nostalgic tears, even though Stereolab's sound is meant to be "space-age." Theirs is a retro kind of future--what we imagined the '90s would be like in the '60s. Then again, here we are, and guess what? The music sounds exactly as predicted. The loop is closed.

Future past
Stereolab, taking pop music of the '60s into the '90s
Photo by Jean Claude Dhien

The future is also on the minds of Japan's Pizzicato Five, whose Happy End of the World (Matador) injects a little pre-millennium tension into their Bacharach-inspired pop. Previous U.S. releases have focused on P5's kitschy, hyper-pop appeal, but this latest finds them picking away at the strands of their intricate sonic tapestry and presenting the resultant wad of loose strings. While "It's a Beautiful Day" is a typical P5 song--a gaggle of cheerleaders stomps the intro, leading to the goosed-up Nipponese equivalent of a Nancy Sinatra toe-tapper--other tracks like "My Baby Portable Player Sound" and "Collision and Improvisation" blend vocal excerpts with stop-start rhythms and what could pass for the backing track to a Saturday-morning cartoon show.

It's tempting to hold Pizzicato Five as an example of Western culture's degrading influence on the East, but that's far too pat. (Besides, as the book Eastern Standard Time points out, the reverse is just as true.) They're commenting on the commercial sounds they borrow as much as they're reveling in how cool it all sounds.

Pizzicato Five inspired an interesting experiment in my living room. I recorded songs from Happy End of the World back to back with songs from Negativland's Dispepsi (Seeland). The cuts from the former--with their sweet, meaningless harmonic choruses--slotted nicely between the latter's brilliantly conceived assault on the advertising industry. The connection here is that both groups use the jingle as a starting point for music--P5 for cheerful melody-making, Negativland for a satire on our consumer obsessions.

Negativland have long been sifting through the detritus of the media age for telling sound bites. (The band was almost sued out of existence when it turned a profane Casey Kasem outtake and a kazoo chorus of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" into an EP called U2.) Unfortunately, with the exception of maybe two records, the band has always been more clever than entertaining.

On Dispepsi, though, they've found a great subject, and they exploit it to maximum effect. Two sound collages, "Why Is This Commercial?" and "A Most Successful Formula," address the phenomenon of celebrity endorsements, while the catchy original "Happy Hero" tells a morality tale about a man who becomes arbitrarily famous, lands an endorsement deal, and then is acquitted of a heinous crime. The highlight of the disc is "All She Called About," a slowly building mix of sound bites about the New Coke debacle; the song effectively skewers the shallow concerns of corporations while also targeting our own dependence on brand-name soft drinks.

On the opposite side of the post-rock spectrum from Negativland is Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. Indeed, you couldn't find a group more different from Negativland--sincere instead of sarcastic, organic rather than contrived. Gorky's previous Mercury release, Introducing..., was a compilation of their eccentric Welsh albums, but their latest, Barafundle (Mercury), has a cohesive, almost medieval sound. On their first American full-length LP, the group's interest in all forms of esoteric British music has narrowed to the folky minstrel ballads that date back before the Renaissance.

Which is not to say that GZM still doesn't employ traditional rock stylings. The U.S.-only track "Young Girls & Happy Endings" swings like an old Blow Monkeys single, and several other songs rest on the kind of staccato guitar-and-organ bursts that '60s garage bands rode to glory. The main of Barafundle, though, is taken up by whimsical ditties like "The Wizard and the Lizard" and "Sometimes the Father is the Son," both of which blend the haunting strains of a recorder with high-pitched male vocals and minor-key acoustic guitar. Forever restless, no song stays in the same place for more than 30 seconds. This is what Gorky's Zygotic Mynci bring to the party--a willingness to wander about until they find the heart of a song.

Back in the States, American Analog Set's second album, From Our Living Room to Yours (Emperor Jones), makes lengthy vamping a priority. Inspired by the early Stereolab, AmAnSet use reverberating electric guitar, rolling rhythms, and shades of organ to create a late-night-at-the-trainyard vibe. Their standard M.O. is to start a song with one catchy groove, switch to another when the mumbled, ghostly vocals appear, and then switch back again for a repetitive, minimalist coda.

When the grooves are really catchy--as on "Magnificent Seventies," "Where Have All the Good Boys Gone," and "White House"--the effect is mesmerizing, like hearing all the odd juxtapositions of an old Yes song smoothed out and shaped into something gentle and calm. These mellow Austinites have found a way to make curves out of angles.

Polvo's angles are much sharper. Shapes (Touch and Go), their most recent foray into oddly-tuned guitars, near-metallic riffs, and vacant vocalizing, finds the Chapel Hill, N.C., group's formula getting a little stale. To disguise their familiar tread, they experiment with different instrumentation, bringing oddly tuned acoustic guitars into the mix on "Twenty White Tents." What makes Polvo still worth listening to, despite their approaching conceptual bankruptcy, is that they remain committed to making their music dive and swoop in ways that few bands this side of Built to Spill and Yes have dared. They were playing with sonic textures when John McEntire was still keeping 4/4 time.

Interestingly, Polvo actually refers to the genre of the moment on "Rock Post Rock." Opening with ringing, Oriental-sounding strumming, the song quickly converts into a gutty, electric stomper, then into the standard herky-jerky, ear-bending Polvo song. What are they trying to say about post-rock? I would guess that they're scoffing at the very idea, which is easy to do. Again, the problem is in the name--"post-rock." It tends to make folks defensive, especially rock 'n' roll fans. A better phrase would be "fusion," if jazz-rock hadn't already coined it.

Some label is required, though; make no mistake about that. The truth is, it's both fun and useful to label things, to carve a line around an assortment of seemingly unrelated objects and find in them some commonality. It enhances our enjoyment and understanding of music to pinpoint where a song comes from, and to figure out what makes it original despite its influences.

What can we learn from this latest batch of trendsetters? To borrow a line from Cornershop's When I Was Born for the Seventh Time (a classic post-rock album if ever there was one), "Good shit's all around, good people." It's in the air, in commercials, in film scores, and in the staticky noise from a boombox around the corner. All these new bands are doing is opening their ears to the fragmentation of the culture. Want to know where the future of popular music lies? It's with the people who can translate those fragments into hummable melodies. So rock goes on, after rock is gone.

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