Funny things happen on comment boards sometimes. Last week I weighed in on the new Dr. Dog over at the Onion A.V. Club, which is always fun: they have some of the most restless and inventive commenters around, and it’s always interesting to watch people spin out weird tangents I couldn’t have seen coming. Sometimes things are predictable: even before my Tapes ’N Tapes went up, it was a safe bet that the usual disgruntled fucktards would be up in arms at someone reviewing something “indie” and hence elitist, obscure, bloodless, etc. But something different happened with Dr. Dog—who, I want to make it absolutely clear, I quite like, despite some minor reservations about their latest. This is how I opened: “The market seems just about perfect for Dr. Dog’s fifth album: Fate is logical kin to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Fleet Foxes, and other recent attempts to reboot slacker Americana for people who don’t know or care about The Band.” I meant this neutrally: you can listen to all this stuff and not really miss much if you don’t care about The Band. And I don’t; point in fact, they represent exactly the kind of plodding, humorless, strum-and-nod Americana bullshit I have no use for (at least if The Last Waltz is enough to go off of; probably isn’t, but let’s pretend it is). But that, apparently, isn’t how it read. Sample outraged responses: “don’t be calling me uneducated and shallow for listening to motherfucking Wilco.” “i didn’t know the av club shat on their readers.” So apparently what happened is my sentiments came back around in weird karmic form: there’s plenty of other people out there tired of being hectored about The Band who also like this stuff—i.e., the stuff without which you allegedly have no business listening to without a working knowledge of the Robbie Robertson back catalogue—and they thought I was doing it again.
Anyway. I have no idea why it’s suddenly cool for bands to stretch out all folk-like, set up shop in some godforsaken shack and pretend they like to watch birds all day or brew moonshine or ride freight trains or whatever the hell, as long as they’re inventive with it. Enter Fleet Foxes (and yes, I know this places me months behind; bite me), who may yet crack my top 10 on repeated spins. Then again, they may not, but I’d like to write about it now, because I want to blow through all the major summer releases I can in the next few columns before we enter the third quarter. (Hence, only two albums this week, but the same word count; sorry fans.) I was (and remain) underwhelmed by their Sun Giant EP, which struck me as fairly drab. Then I was sitting there, putting their full-length debut Ragged Wood through its initial spins, not really paying much attention. On the fifth track “Quiet Houses,” with a little over a minute to go, Fleet Foxes suddenly break down into this perfect Brian Wilson imitation (probably far better than the man himself can manage at this late date, the outstanding, late-breaking completion of Smile notwithstanding), with wordless vocals over an ascending piano line that initially seems too fragile to soar as high as it wants, then does it anyway. That blend of grandeur and fragility gets at the essence of the Wilson project, and it’s my favorite moment on the album.
When the album came out, Graeme Thomson put up a well-intentioned but fundamentally misguided blog post over at the Guardian: “what,” he asked his British readers, “are the hallmarks of great American music?” Thomson gets off to a good start, disemboweling the hackneyed “obvious lyrical signifiers of America” so dear to teenaged Kerouac fans and clueless romantics: “turnpikes; boardwalks; state troopers; the Kokomo and the levee; a poignant recollection of some joyous yet profoundly painful coupling involving Mary in the summer of 66; sundry incomprehensible technical details about cars.” Thomson then goes on to suggest—in a way that’s both basic and evasive—that American music is about “exploring a sense of national identity,” and that “intricate harmonies ... suggest wide-open spaces, vast reserves of loneliness and freedom, the capacity and imperative to travel, disparate parts fleetingly coming together. Harmonies both embrace and try to reconcile the confusing enormity of the place.” Huh.
Part of me wants to propose an equally reductive history of British music, suggesting that there’s little more going on there than a fundamental urge to escape the drabness of British life, whether through regressions to music halls past, frantic appropriations of American rock cliches, or getting E’d up beyond belief while thumping away, and that the Britpop movement was a cruel parody of lapsed British nationalism, presented straight-faced to a gullible nation by extremely cynical art-school students (except for the Gallagher brothers, who unfortunately weren’t kidding). But that would be stupid and omit everything that contradicts my thesis, so let’s skip it. There’s a way to rework Thomson’s propositions slightly so that they start to make sense, which is if you presume that these ideas conform to certain sentimental notions about what “America” should “mean” in music—which is, in a certain sense, a cop-out. With rare exceptions, Fleet Foxes’ lyrics suggest that they’ve been living in the backwoods watching animals: this may be true, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Fleet Foxes have found a kind of lyrical Walden haven that gets them going, and the results are worth it. (I’d suggest that e.g. the curiously insistent passive-aggression of Pavement is equally “American,” but I’ll hold off on that for now.) I can’t tell if this album will grow on me or just remain kind of theoretically admirable: where Band acolytes think a certain head-nod solves all your problems, Fleet Foxes seem to think there’s nothing a good dose of wordless three-part harmony (preferably acoustic) won’t solve. I’m not sure this is true, but I like them well enough. More than the initial descriptions made me think I would anyway.
Speaking of The Band and the A.V. Club: last year Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) did a Random Roles, a fascinating regular feature wherein musicians shuffle through their iPods and offer comments with varying levels of insight. When it came to “The Weight,” Gillis offered a surprisingly naïve appraisal: “I actually don’t know anything about this other than they’re kind of a ’60s band.” Take that, greatest American band ever! (Sample commenter backlash: “I honestly hate to sound like a cunt, but not knowing who the Band were is like not knowing who JFK was.” They’re never happy, are they?) Girl Talk, of course, is the super-awesome master of ADD mash-ups, where something new pops up every 7 seconds or else. Feed The Animals is the follow-up to his breakthrough with 2006’s Night Ripper, and in many ways the formula’s the same: incongruous, surprisingly successful juxtapositions of decidedly non-rap, mostly populist musical samples backing mostly hip-hop and R&B vocal lines, in ways that defy any kind of synthesized meaning. When he layers Young Gunz’ decidedly vapid “Set If Off” over Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” I doubt he intends any kind of rote critique about the social relevance and critique of old-school hip-hop vs. modern lack of substance or something: he’s just taking one hook and putting it on another. Girl Talk’s basic project is to give you a head-rush in the least amount of time possible; more often than not, he gets it done.
He has no shame, which helps. On “What It’s All About,” there’s no particular reason to follow-up The Jackson 5’s soaring vocals for “ABC” over “Umbrella” ’s high-hat with the gooey rush of young MJ over “Bohemian Rhapsody” except that you can get all the best parts together in one place really fast. Sometimes he takes that principal literally: when Flo Rida goes over the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” suddenly the VU’s hazy little hangover ode is twice as fast and way lusher than I remember it being. That kind of putative high/low divide is grist to Gillis, whose ultimate message, if any, seems to be that all pop music serves the exact same function. This gets us close to one of those inane arguments about when a cover is condescending, which tends to break down in pretty predictable ways. Reading Jonah Weiner’s recent Slate piece, for example, it’s hard not to notice that Jay-Z sarcastically covering “Wonderwall” is good (because he’s a rapper and dealing with Noel Gallagher’s stupid, near-racist claims that he shouldn’t be headlining at Glastonbury) but bad when Pavement does it because it’s “snobbish.” In fact, it’s always snobbish when someone lower-profile covers someone higher-profile: fer chrissakes, Weiner even claims that Travis’ cover of “Hit Me One More Time” contains “a patronizing subtext,” wherein someone “scrub[s] away the deadening Top 40 luster, and exhume[s] the fine song hidden beneath.” The idea that Travis are patronizing about anything (given their own longstanding insecurity—they used to complain “’We got popular without the permission of cool people and we have never been forgiven”) is pretty hilarious. People who are extremely defensive about the critical status of one of the most successful musical forms in America today (for reasons that kind of elude me) tend to lose all sense of perspective; what’s great about Girl Talk is that he makes that debate irrelevant. Call it crass or thoughtless; he really doesn’t see the difference. It’s all party music.
When the inevitable oldies station for my generation comes along, we could all be saved the fuss and bother of listening to a lot of nostalgic but not all that great songs if they just played this stuff. That said, Feed The Animals isn’t quite as great as Night Ripper. Maybe it’s just the novelty factor wearing off, but Gillis has amped up the number of samples tremendously and there’s less breathing room than before: less drum breaks, more excitable rappers. (Gillis appears to have just discovered Lil’ Scrappy, god bless him. Btw: does it make me nervous that I know a few people who have no use for mainstream hip-hop but like this? A little, but I’ll chalk it up to good faith rather than an inadvertent minstrel effect.) There’s some stand-out moments, of course, where the songs become actual songs: the aforementioned Jackson 5 vs. Queen moment, for example, or the ending juxtaposition of “International Player’s Anthem” with Journey. There’s two ways to listen to it: you should listen to it blind the first time and marvel at what pops up, then cue up the Wikipedia track-listing and have the surprisingly academic experience of watching exactly how it all patches together. What I wonder—and this is something someone other than Gillis will have to figure out, given that his disks are basically prep for allegedly awesome live shows—is if there’s a way to take this hyper mash-up style and make it express more than one emotion. Someone step up.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.