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Remember the first groove you learned as a drummer? Boom-boom-crack, kabookaboom-crack… kinda rushing on the extra snare hits in the middle and everything. And when you’re young you always play it with a real stiff 8th note pattern on the ride, because you’re too physically tense from concentrating to play with any feel.
I’m mentioning this because I spent some time listening to Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain yesterday. Pavement played a substantial role in forming the early 90’s underground Indie Rock scene, which became the basis for the broad Indie Rock landscape.
Wow… they suck. I mean, SUCK. Crooked Rain sounds like the demo tape my junior high band made in my basement with the internal mic on my boom box. Drummer Steve West plays the groove I mentioned above on what seems like every track. Bassist Mark Ibold has probably the worst pocket I’ve ever heard on a major label recording. Guitars are constantly rushing and out of tune. Stephen Malkmus does the “talk-sing” thing a ton, and every time he does it I’m actually relieved because his pitch while he’s trying to actually sing is so terrible.
Disclaimer: I’m being intentionally provocative. Regardless of everything I just said (which maybe isn’t quite as bad as I made it out to be), I really do enjoy Pavement’s music. There are elements of their sound and direction that I both appreciate and dig. BUT… they still suck, and by that I mean the musicianship is terrible. And I’m not just poking at Pavement either. The sloppiness I’m describing is widespread in the Indie Rock scene. Generally speaking, Indie bands sound like amateurs, and I’m writing this post to ask the question why.
Like I said, for the most part I enjoy the music that Indie bands make. I think most indie fans would respond to my criticism above by pointing out that indie musicians are putting the majority of their effort toward being artistic, original, and creative. In other words, Indie musicians focus so much on being artists that there’s no time left to be skilled instrumentalists. I think that means this discussion now becomes intertwined with the “Genre-ism” idea, because it’s unfair of me to judge a genre of music based on how I want it to sound instead of how those from within the genre intend it to sound. I get that, and like I said before, I really do like a lot of Indie bands, mainly because of the immense creativity that results from the their quest for originality. The soundscape on a Pavement record is definitely super cool, and the songwriting is often clever and elusive. I feel the same way about bands like Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, the Hold Steady, Andrew Bird, and many others.
So again, to clarify, when I say that Pavement “sucks,” what I mean is that they do not sound like proficient musicians. I don’t mean that I dislike their music, because that’s not true. I dig what Pavement does, and the Indie sound as a whole, but I feel like I can still make the observation that Indie bands exhibit (again, on the whole) poor musicianship.
Before I go any further I should bring up the other side of the coin: the session player mentality. This is something I know a little bit about because I’ve been doing a fair amount of session of work lately. The session player takes the opposite approach to music from the Indie band: the music doesn’t need to be creative, in fact it really shouldn’t push the envelope too much, but it MUST be performed PERFECTLY. For instance, a session drummer does lots of typical, stock-option (i.e. boring) grooves and fills, but with incredibly precise execution. This mindset is prevalent in both the Country and Pop/Rock worlds. I remember being in high school and mocking this kind of music because it was so cookie-cutter, but nowadays I really admire it. I’ve come to realize how challenging it is to attain the level of precision that session players reach.
Summary so far: We have the two sides of a spectrum: 1) the session player, who delivers an unbelievable performance that often lacks any real substance, and 2) the Indie Rock band, who plays creative music with distractingly sloppy execution. I’m taking time to clarify as I go here because I’m really hoping for feedback on this stuff, so if you disagree with anything I’ve said up to this point then be sure and comment about it.
I want to be unbiased and fair with my assessment of the situation, so just know that I’m not trying to take one side over the other. Nevertheless, when I really think hard about the two mentalities represented in the session player vs. Indie band spectrum, it seems like the bulk of the accusation against session players can be explained. Session players are often not very creative, but… um, they’re getting paid to play that way. Today’s Pop music world is primarily focused on making money through hit singles and videos, and most of the time the content needs to be fairly watered down in order to become a smash success, financially. Session musicians rarely feel emotional or creative attachment to the music that they’re recording on any given day, but that doesn’t bother them… because they’re just doing a job. They show up to the studio, learn the songs, play standard and predictable parts with perfect execution, and then go home. Do they know the stuff they played is watered-down and not very creative? Of course they do, but a job’s a job.
I wish I could let the Indie Rock scene off the hook in the same way, but it really feels like I can’t. Will someone actually suggest that Meg White is a skilled and precise drummer who uses bad time feel on purpose? Am I supposed to believe that Clinic’s bassist could lock down a little tighter but just chooses not to? Or… could it be that the guys in Pavement know they suck and just don’t care?
I think this last idea might be more toward the truth than anything else. Perhaps the Indie Rock culture has crafted an environment where low-level musicianship is expected, and it doesn’t matter. I have more to say about this but I want to get some feedback first. I’m honestly just thinking out loud here, and I’m totally open to the fact that I’m unaware of an important perspective.
One last clarification: Of course I know that not all Indie Rock musicians suck. A decent percentage of the players are quite proficient, and I can always really hear the difference. This makes it even more annoying to me that the crappy players don’t get called out for being crappy. I mean, what is the deal with that? Why does the Indie scene pretend that the sucky bands don’t suck?
Ok, I’ll shut up now. I want to read some comments on what you have to say about it.
AOTW for this week is probably the heaviest record yet in the series, and I don’t mean instrumentally heavy. Control by Pedro The Lion is a concept album about the pit of American materialism interwoven with the lack of moral fiber in American social and family life. Yeah… heavy. The lyrical content of Control is easily the most artistically deep, dark, controversial, poignant, and powerful of any record that I own. All of these things exist simultaneously in the text of the album, which is itself impressive… but then the music comes in and interprets the message so incredibly spot-on that the record catapults from impressive to utterly brilliant.
The only consistent band member in now defunked Pedro The Lion was David Bazan. Control was the band’s 3rd of four official releases. Aside from some auxiliary instrumentation from friend Casey Fourbert, the record is basically just a Bazan solo album: he wrote the songs, sang, played guitar, played bass, played drums, and even played some keys. The sonic vibe of the record is very indie rock, but without too much of the standard 8th note guitar strum. Avoiding stereotypical indie rock guitar playing is one of Bazan’s strengths in my opinion, although the overall indie vibe remains. In fact, Control is probably the only Bazan album that could be fairly called a “rock” record at all – the other Pedro records are much calmer and more acoustic-driven. Control is definitely the loudest and most aggressive record thus far from Bazan, but don’t misunderstand me… this album definitely contains the simplest and most raw instrumental performances of any AOTW feature. As I mentioned above, the real shining point of the playing is the way it so perfectly translates the lyric. A concept album through and through.
Despite its simplicity, I do listen to this record for inspiration in my own playing from time to time. Bazan’s drumming has a great sloppy-but-grooving feeling to it, and his ideas for patterns/fills are creative and appropriate. I particularly love his snare tone, and the way the compression breathes on his crash-ride during the more rocking moments.
I listened to Control last week for the first time in a couple years, and I was reminded how much I love it. In fact, I’d probably put this album in my top-20 favs of all time. You can listen to the record here, and you can check out David Bazan’s current happenings here.