People often say (or intimate) that there isn’t much good music made today. Were it not for the fact that most of the music I listen to in a given week were made in the last five years, I might consider agreeing. Not because I think there is nothing but meritless music made these days, but because most, if not all, the music I listen to today takes it roots from the music made between 1969 and 1989. Most notably stolen from (or borrowed if we mean to be a bit more generous to today’s hitmakers) is the post-punk movement that took place between 1978 and 1984. Bands that started making records in the last five years that you’ll find at your average club or college radio playlist today will more than likely have done at least as much research as I have on the subject. In fact it’s tough to think of one immune from Gang of Four comparisons, and nearly impossible to think of one who doesn’t want to be Echo & The Bunnymen. Coldplay admitted they used the Bunnymen, R.E.M., and Depeche Mode as fuel for their second and third records, Bloc Party, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Of Montreal, Radiohead, The Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio and other indie staples all borrow heavily from the Cure, New Order, The Fall, The Bunnymen, The Smiths, Public Image LTD., and others. Even bands that were around for for the movement’s death like Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, and The Flaming Lips have started taking cues from the more melodic records of the time. The real test is whether these bands can learn to change. The thing that makes Post Punk so edgy and fondly remembered is that so few bands hung around to embarrass themselves like the Classic Rock or Pop bands that clung to life like residue on a tooth brush. (Picture would have happened if the Beegees or the Rolling Stones had called it quits before 1975). Radiohead, The Arcade Fire, The Stills, and LCD Soundsystem, among others, have proved themselves capable of absorbing their influences, paying homage, and then running into new territory with them; Bloc Party, The Helio Sequence, The Faint, & Interpol have all made decent records but as of this writing haven’t yet proved themselves capable of keeping their influences in check; they all sound very much like they’re borrowing from 80s bands (not that diminishes their ability to make good music, mind you). It strikes me that when a band has the courage to take what they know, hang on to it, and then go in an unprecedented direction, that’s the definition of courage and it shows more artistry than when you never leave your means as a band. When bands try this they get as much flack as praise on principle, and so it takes a lot longer to truly appreciate the effort. This is where the Futureheads come in.
News & Tributes
by The Futureheads
I’m on too many email lists for my own good, and one of the subscriptions is get is from the Futureheads. When they started talking about their new record (due in a few months), they sent out a disheartening little message about their sophomore LP.
“…but before I go in to it I would really like to thank those of you who 'got' our second record and enjoyed where we took it, perhaps not the most predictable musical diversion, but a progression none the less. It was a pretty difficult process to rejuvenate and restore our confidence after it failed to live up to the first records success. A personal challenge and a half but nobody ever said to us, ‘be a band, it'll be easy, a doddle'. We were so sure that we had made an album that would take us to places we had never been…”
I was struck by this because, though admittedly it took me some time, I loved the record. In fact I had come to think of it as one of the best records I’d ever heard. I wanted desparately to explain that I loved it, considered it as masterful as many of my other favorites (Weezer, Nick Drake, Tom Waits), and that, yes the first record might have been a bit more ‘party-all-the-time’ catchy and sounded a bit more like everyone else, I would take News & Tributes over the eponymous any day. The more I thought about I realized that their first record’s weakness was the second’s strong points; The Futureheads sounded like a post-punk record, like it had been recorded, forgotten and then found under John Peels desk when they swept his office after his death (this could of course have something to do with Gang of Four’s Andy Gill producing a handful of the songs). This is definitely a plus when you like Entertainment! or Unknown Pleasures and want to hear something that could be the half brother of either of those records, but there was almost no risk in this formula (except to be called copycat hipsters). I still love the first record it just pales when placed next to the second one.
The start of the record is one of the smartest I’ve ever encountered. A drum program slowly grows louder and then it’s replaced by live drums, which get even louder (I was in a car with the speaker all the way up the middle of the night the first time I heard it, the ideal setting for music in my opinion). Then come the guitars; striking like lightning, kicking the thing into action, like someone turning the keys all the way. Then Barry Hyde’s voice comes in “in some cases yes, in most cases no…” It’s like a warning; ‘be warned, this is an experiment and they only work half the time, but we think you’re gonna like this’. The chorus of this song was the one thing my friend Ken told me about, and it’s probably the most English-sounding thing every recorded. The four band members chant (dubbed many times over I suspect) “YES! NO! YES! NO!” You know what that sound is? It’s ambition and it’s glorious! It sounds like a football game is underway and the band is at Manchester United leading the crowd like conductors. And the best part about this song, though it’s certainly the happiest the record get, it isn’t the loudest. Next is “Cope”, like a punk, metal, rock, and pop tune all shot out of the same barrel (guitarist Ross Millard is something of metal fan with a love for Mastodon [he’s not the only one]). It’s less than three minutes long and it takes you prisoner every second. The language is just as fierce as the music when it needs to be; there is no chorus to speak of but the thing that gets repeated most often is “HOW DARE YOU!” It is an awesome song and while it may recall the crunchy anger of tunes like “He Knows” or “Le Garage” it doesn’t really sound like the Futureheads; the melody is off kilter, and the harmonies are just bizarre, somewhere between the Gibbs and the Dead. So many alien elements in so little time was initially a turn-off during the hot summer it was released during, but it won me over when winter came and bitterness was exactly what the doctor ordered. (winter is a theme for my musical habits, but that’s another article).
Next is Fallout, which relies on verses given up for voice-less passages to elaborate on the new level of production the Heads have achieved. The verse starts with a brash attack from guitarists Hyde and Ross Millard that seems to be plunged underwater for the second half. Try walking down a city street while it snows outside with this song in your earphones and see if this doesn’t make some kind of sense. The tone has gone back to their “future is a dark place” theme as it forecasts a couple trapped in a fallout shelter for days after something horrible’s happened on the surface. Something terrible is happening out there, and the idea of surviving with the few things you hold dear is really important to the Head’s music and crucial to really understanding News & Tributes. It underscores much of their music and is something I find fascinating, which is why News & Tributes works so well for me. Hyde’s lyrics seem to fixate on the idea of being drawn from someone or something close and the need to reclaim it and the feelings it holds, even if it means revisiting something painful. It helps too that he has the most British voice in rock music. The influences on the record are a little more varied than cold british post-punk, Kate Bush and science fiction. Critics have cited the Beach Boys, XTC, Big Country, Blur, The Knack, GOF, Talking Heads, & Cocteau Twins, to name just a few, as some of the audible influences on News & Tributes. More impressive than simply flipping through their record collection, they have managed to digest what made these records so great and come up with something that surprises you every second it spins.
As always there’s a weak point, and the rule that the single is the worst track on the record holds true, but only because to me it sounds too much like they were writing a pop song. It’s still a lot of fun and such, but the hook just isn’t strong enough. Anyway, I don’t mind so much because it’s followed by one of my favorite songs of the last ten years. “Burnt” is an anomaly all right, stripped down, driven by a lone bass line for most of it’s three minutes and forty-one seconds, relying on acoustic guitar for the first time on any Heads record; in short, it isn’t your average post-punk tune. The electric lead sounds alternately like a Television lick and a distorted Cello (I don’t know Ross Millard did that, but I’d give my pinky finger to find out). The chorus is addictive in the best way; it’s almost too good, dissonant with the song’s hitherto melancholia, but monumental, sounding like all the best Kinks songs smashed into one. They also, unlike most others bands in the world, found a nice balance with dynamics. Whereas most 80s-obssesed guitar bands will give you an onslaught of sound, every space and second filled with synth, acoustic guitar, leads, piano, backing vocals and other things, News & Tributes has a much-appreciated return to quiet. The best thing about Coldplay’s Parachutes, Sigur Rós’ Ágætis Byrjun or Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights from a theoretical standpoint is that they use silence and solitude to aid the feel of their music (No one will do this as perfectly as Joy Division did, but they do a good job nonetheless). It’s one thing to evoke loneliness by singing about it, it’s another thing to actually make us feel it in the music. Not every second is filled with overdubs or choral-style vocals. News is the one record that’s done that in the last few years. For all their studio savvy, it still sounds like four guys and they never break from the integrity of the model. The leads never overpower the rhythm and they don’t all have to play at once. It’s a simple strategy, but it’s one that
The Heads graduated very quickly from one-trick pony to electrical storm, and yet the sad email. The production, songwriting, and arrangement all matured, so why haven’t people given them the credit they deserve. There were positive notices, to be sure, but this was lost among 2006’s big nothings like Bob Dylan’s Modern Times and The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Stadium Arcadium; records that sound like their creators have learned absolutely nothing from their many, many years making landmark records and shaking the world by the collar with stylistic 180s and abjurations of commercial appeal. It’s up to the new guys to bring about change, but most kids my age just want to listen to Van Halen and Sublime. I understand appreciating a record, but not to the point of irrelevance and not when there are people making good use of their influences. When someone flat out refuses to listen to anything not prescribed to them by their social stratum or heritage, then bands with something to say are going to be forced underground to make brilliant records that no one will ever hear.