Genre Study - 6.22.2010

Queried Album: Roy Orbison - Greatest Hits
Gracenote Genre: Early Rock & Roll
Wikipedia Genre: Rock, pop, pop-rock
My Genre: Rockabilly, blue-eyed soul

This one isn't actually all that bad, it's just a good illustration of a particular pet-peeve of mine: genres based on time periods. Early rock & roll is about as helpful a label as classic rock in my mind, and completely fails to suggest what the sound of the artist actually is. And if its doesn't do that, then what, pray tell, is the exact point of genres in the first place?

I'm being a bit harsh on the term here, and a lot of that is due to the 'early' bit. The phrase 'rock & roll' has taken on a colloquial meaning of early rock music anyway, so we might as well run with it and use that term alone. If you want to get prissy about it then what we understand as rock & roll today would be better termed as rockabilly, but this is simply splitting hairs. Genres are not an exact science; hell it isn't even a decent taxonomy. It's subjective as hell, based more on impression then actual elements of the songs (with a few exceptions, such as singer-songwriter and folk).

Oddly enough, Wikipedia's take is the one I most disagree with. Rock/pop isn't inaccurate, but it is frustratingly vague. I'm not saying it's inaccurate, I just think it shows laziness on the part of the article editors. Roy Orbison has a reasonably distinct sound that can be more directly addressed than writing it off as 'pop-rock'.

I may have mentioned blue-eyed soul before; the term was coined to describe singers who could be considered as a part of the soul genre were it not for their race. White folks, in other words, hence the 'blue-eyed' disclaimer. If "Yesterday" was the seed for twee/pop-folk, then "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers or Orbison's own "Crying" could be considered the start of blue-eyed soul. Such songs are all about the singer, presaging the singer-songwriter genre and distinguished from it by powerful voices as opposed to the reedy, often close-miced singing of Leonard Cohen, Carole King, and Tim Buckley. Orbison's other, more rhythm based songs are pure rockabilly.


Genre Study - 6.18.2010

Boy, it's been a while, huh?

Queried Album: The National - Alligator
Gracenote Genre: Sadcore
Wikipedia Genre: Indie rock
My Genre: Alternative rock, low rock, post-punk

Fuck. Fuck. Fucking shit.

I actually had to leave this post for about half an hour to calm down. I'm still not entirely clear what 'sadcore' exactly is, but I'm quite sure of two things: (1) it should never be used by anyone in any kind of professional capacity, and (2) it should never be used in reference to good music. 'Sadcore' is the kind of word that, in my ideal world, should only be used as a punchline or to describe incredibly shitty bands who only have a MySpace and a YouTube channel to communicate their ideas. Their terrible ideas.

You can therefore guess at my distress of The National being described with such a term, as The National are one of the more beloved bands of my generation. They've achieved critical success in both the mainstream (New York Times) and vaguely-indie (Pitchfork) review circuits. They have that vaguely post-punk-baritone-monotone sound for the vocals, and they have an absolutely kickass drummer who managed to single-handedly make Boxer one of my favorite albums from the 00's.

I don't even know what sadcore is meant to describe in a serious manner. I always assumed it was a joke term used at the expense of new goth/emo bands who lack talent/ability/pop-sensibilities. Clearly, that's not the case. Regardless, I don't see The National as particularly depressing, nor do I see 'sadcore' as particularly descriptive. Therefore, I dismiss it and go to Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, Wikipedia has resorted to the generic 'indie-rock' label. I've discussed my misgivings with that one before, so I'll cut this short and toss on the arguably-equally dubious title of 'alternative' and be done with it.


Genre Study - 6.5.2010 - Part 2

I should consider making a new blog just for this....

Queried Album: The Postal Service - Give Up
Gracenote Genre: Post-Modern Electronic Pop
Wikipedia Genre: Indie pop, Electropop, Electronica
My Genre: Electropop
HAHA OH WOW Sorry, sorry. It's just... post-modern? Really? REALLY?

If you take that bit out then Gracenote's genre is perfectly fine; electropop is a portmanteau of electronic and pop, after all. It's a little wordier than necessary (when a genre name begins to resemble a Bob Dylan song title you know you have issues), but at least it's accurate. Calling this post-modern though... that's a bit beyond the pale, isn't it?

Post-modern is a term that's gotten tossed around by so many art critics that it's lost a lot of its actual meaning, but generally it refers to a work that elevates or subverts some aspects of a pre-existing genre. Like the famous "Treachery Of Images", or the classic "Duck Amuck" sketch, it's something that causes the viewer to question their perception of the referenced genre/movement.

The Postal Service doesn't do any of that. At all. As far as I know, no band/artist could claim to be post-modern. You could make a case for Frank Zappa I suppose, but his music was more about sheer entertainment than anything else. Music isn't really a proper venue for such things, as making melodic music requires you to employ at least some conventional structure. Lou Reed's notorious Metal Machine Music did that, but it was also tossed into the proverbial dustbin of artistic failure, and has never been reclaimed by society as a whole.

It's an interesting dynamic, and it's one that I'm not really capable of discussing in depth, partly because of a lack of relevant knowledge and partially because of a total lack of interest. I am not a student at an art school, and therefore I don't give a shit about the distinction between modern and post-modern. The point is, The Postal Service didn't push any boundaries with Give Up, they just made an electropop album.

Which is absolutely fine. Give Up is a perfectly good album that made lots and lots of money by selling over 900,000 copies, which is pretty damn good for something that Sub-Pop released.

This brings us to the Wikipedia genres, which are by and large fine, except for that hated word, 'Indie'. People, especially critics, need to figure out that indie is a completely meaningless name for a genre, and has absolutely no distinguishing features. It's basically another word for twee, and the term's massive vagaries leads to it being slapped onto all kinds of unsuitable artists. Any genre that claims to include Arcade Fire (baroque pop), Peter Bjorn And John (electropop), Fountains of Wayne (power pop), and fucking Oasis (brit pop) is full of shit, period. No arguments accepted or warranted.

Genre Study - 6.5.2010

I wasn't going to put two of these so close together but I have been enraged anew by Gracenote's tomfoolery/cockfuckery.

Queried Album: David Bryne And Brian Eno - Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
Gracenote Genre: General Adult Alternative Rock
Wikipedia Genre: Folktronica, Gospel
My Genre: Electropop, New Wave
Fucking hell, will you just look at this shit? At least with Tom Waits the genre name suggested a general sound, vague and unrevealing as it was. Ignoring the baffling 'General' that got thrown in there we still have the 'Adult', which is meaningless even when used in its usual context of 'Adult Alternative'. The whole thing is some bullshit holdover of the concept that older people only listen to vapid easy listening tunes. We therefore label artists like Sarah McLaughlin or latter-day Alanis Morissette as 'adult alternative', ignoring the perfectly serviceable singer-songwriter label in the process.

It's pathetic! Are we still mired in this idea that our parents are listening to shit like Perry Como when that generation is the same one that saw rock & roll climb the charts? I think half the problem is this generation's collective ego in believing that the new trends of twee and contemporary R&B are somehow original, even though the former got kicked off in the 60s and the latter started in the early-70s. Even the current hipster fad can be traced back to the days when folk rock seemed new and exciting. Think carefully here; hipsters buy their clothes at VINTAGE/SECOND-HAND stores. Man, I wonder what that means!?

Besides, the synth-laden Everything That Happens is as far from 'Rock' as it is from 'Adult Alternative'. It's pretty clearly in the same domain as the electropop of Depeche Mode or the Pet Shop Boys. You could call it New Wave just as easily.

And why Wikipedia has chosen to call this album 'Gospel' is beyond me. Bryne and Eno may have taken gospel music as an inspiration for this album, but they did the same thing back on "Once In A Lifetime" and I don't see anyone calling that gospel music. And 'Folktronica'? The fuck does that even mean?


Genre Study - 6.4.2010

I recently embarked on one of my periodic efforts to give every song in my music library a proper ID3 tag, and in the process I discovered some rather odd data on some of my songs. Winamp's Auto-Tag process, which queries the reputable Gracenote music database, is generally reliable for basic information like year of release, publisher, and other such fields, but their genres are... odd. Bizarrely specific tags like 'Original New Wave Scene' or 'General Alternative Rock' are the norm, despite their bizarre ambiguity. What does 'General Alternative' even mean? Is it somehow different than 'Alternative'? These posts endeavor to further investigate the topic.

Queried Album: The Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers
Gracenote Genre: Original New Wave
Wikipedia Genre: Rock, proto-punk, garage rock
My Genre: Proto-alternative
First off, I should point out that no one really knows what New Wave means. The term was invented as a marketing gimmick in order to avoid using the word 'punk', and it's generally used as a catch all for bands that would now be called alternative. The term gradually shifted from groups like Television to the burgeoning synth-pop movement, and then died off all together in the mid-80s.

The original, I suspect, is based on how some modern groups, like Franz Ferdinand, are being called 'New Wave revival'. The idea of reviving a New Wave is laughable as is, and demonstrates just how incurably lazy people are getting with genre names. Or maybe it's just the opposite and music is getting incurably lazy. I don't fucking care, the point is that 'Original New Wave' should be truncated to 'New Wave'.

However, note that Wikipedia, the ultimate internet reference in front of which I daily debase myself, seems to disagree with Gracenote's assertion. God knows why Wikipedia is calling this band proto-punk; their album was released in '76, right at the onset of the punk movement. Can't be right all the time, I suppose. 'Garage rock' is a pet peeve of mine, and the only professionally released album I'd put under that label would be the re-release of Raw Power.

From my personal perusal of The Modern Lovers, the group's only album, I'd put them in the same boat as Television in terms of their sound, which would lead me to put them into a new genre I am creating right now: proto-alternative. New Wave, for me, refers to bands with a lighter sound, such as the Talking Heads or Blondie. The Modern Lovers aren't that poppy.

Queried Album: Tom Waits - Blue Valentine
Gracenote Genre: Alternative Pop Singer-Songwriter
Wikipedia Genre: Blues-rock
My Genre: Nicotine blues, nicotine jazz, jazz-blues
Well shit, I don't even know where to begin! The fuck is going on over in Gracenote's offices anyway? Alternative Pop is a misnomer, and Singer-Songwriter tends to describe solo acts like James Taylor and early Leonard Cohen; artists who accompanied their signing with a guitar and very little else. Tom Waits does play the piano, but he doesn't even do that on every track! You could possibly lump his first album under the singer-songwriter label, but even that doesn't work all that well.

A good rule of thumb is that no genre name should ever exceed two words. Three's pushing it, and four is right out. I'll admit that the Gracenote genre is roughly descriptive, and you can get a decent idea of what Waits is up to by looking at it. Still, you could easily truncate it to 'Alternative Singer Songwriter'. Alternative, in it's musical use, suggests anti-pop in-and-of-itself, though that itself is a very vague description. Painfully, Gracenote uses the same genre for Waits' later avant-garde work, where it's even more inappropriate. I can't imagine anyone calling Swordfishtrombones a singer-songwriter album, even with a bunch of extra words thrown in for good measure.

I coined nicotine blues as a vague catch-all, as no one genre really accounts for all of Waits' output. You could call this album, as well as most of his early period, nicotine jazz just as easily, or maybe jazz-blues. Blues-rock, Wikipedia's take on the album, isn't quite there, as the term can be used just as easily for roots rock groups like Creedence. Jazz-blues is probably the best one to use for general reference.