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Let be known that I am a HUGE FAN of posts like this – posts that evoke such intelligent and insightful comments from everybody who reads what I write. Seriously… thanks for all the interaction. Super cool.

I think the best plan in continuing the discussion is to select my favorite quotes from the comments and respond to them. I’ll put the comments in italics and respond to each one individually. Feel free to chime in on the discussion further if you think there’s more to add.

It should also be noted that Pavement, while influential to many bands, was never and still isn’t a “popular” band. The most timeless bands I think have Pavement’s humanness but also Yes’s or Rush’s “otherworldliness” and technical prowess. Bands like Nirvana and the Beatles have this immense accessibility because they straddle that line. That’s a crude oversimplification of why those two bands are what they are, but it still proves my point I think.   – Chris Morrissey

I love the logic of Pavement’s influence contrasted with their popularity.  A lot of you mentioned Pavement’s sound and approach as a rejection of 80’s over-production, which is probably accurate. That rejection, along with other bands of the time, fueled and inspired a massive shift in rock music, but Pavement themselves are left being largely irrelevant to MOST listeners.  My theory is that this irrelevance results from their lack of facility on the technical side of the medium they use to make their art.  (Also, Chris made a great point when he questioned my use of the term “musicianship”… he’s right on… “facility” is a better term.)

What I do know is that they (Wheat) were capable, at least in the studio and from what I could tell at the 7th Street Entry, of making a Pop record. For them the other records feel like more of a “decision” as far as the imperfections go – the “why take it again when it feels so sincere?” mentality.    – Aaron Ankrum

Aaron’s got a great point here. There are bands that intentionally ignore mistakes and/or “bad playing” because of the sincerity and feel behind the performance.  I hear this from many of the folk and alt-country artists I like: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Wilco, etc.  However, it seems like many Indie bands use this not-uncommon “loose” feel as an excuse to be loose themselves, when in reality they lack the ability to do anything that resembles “tight.”  This is speculative on my part, but I feel like I can really HEAR the difference between an honest and intentionally-flawed performance, and a just plain crappy one – and I bet a lot of other people can hear it too.

There is something about Indie music that captures me, and the best way I can describe it is that it’s a genre that lives and dies by vibe. If it evokes an emotional response, whether it’s joy or anger, it’s effective. That’s the artistic piece of it. So much of adult pop, modern rock, and CCM is pretty artless. It doesn’t make me feel anything, no matter how good the musicians are.  Of course, the best of the Indie bands are the ones that do both.    – Lars Stromberg

Yes Yes Yes.  Art should affect us on an emotional level, and I think Indie bands know this and try hard to do this.  Lars is so right that a lot of the commercial music world has no real artistic value, despite what the sales might indicate.  But, does a band have to suck at playing their instruments in order to be emotionally powerful?  My gut says no.  The transcendent music that results from BOTH potent art and competent instrumentalists seems to be the best goal.

I agree that poor musicianship does not mean bad music, but it takes a rare chemistry/combination of a group of people to make good music with poor musicianship…and THIS is what I think a lot of “Indie Rock” people forget. Just because it’s sloppy and/or executed poorly with bad sounding recordings doesn’t make it automatically cool.    – Nate Babbs

Nate again brings up the notion that some bands are INTENTIONALLY sloppy in order to utilize the loose feel in accomplishing the sound they want.  But it’s so true that this is far more difficult to actually pull off than one might imagine.  I feel like the Free Jazz world also suffers from this issue.

Maybe I can add one thought to the studio player mentality. I don’t think it’s totally a mindless, come in and play well and put no creativity into it thing. I believe the creativity is coming out in different ways. The effort is put into finding “appropriate fills” that fit the song. Not fills that drummers will appreciate. Also, the feel is creativity on every note to create the right vibe.    – Kevin Holvig

I agree with this, but I think this is only what GOOD session players do.  Not all session players do this.  In fact, this is a big issue because it’s basically the heart of the whole thing.  Every genre and sub-genre has a different game… a different target to aim for.  The GOOD studio player should make sure he gives the music what it needs, while also being true to the nature of art, which is creative.  My main point in this whole topic is to ask Indie bands to do the same thing, but in the opposite direction.  Good art should (in my opinion) be both creative/emotional and controlled/intentional.  The end result suffers when either side of the spectrum is overly stressed.  Which leads me to the last comment quote…

Like people have been saying, there are many great indie bands who find ways to explore new things in music and still be excellent musically. – Danny Warnock


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.

Music news for the week…

– Of course everybody knows about what Kanye West did on Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards show, but maybe some of you haven’t seen his apology from Monday’s Leno show.  Rolling Stone

– Coldplay has settled their lawsuit with guitarist Joe Satriani, citing “under stipulation.”  Legal sources for both parties say that the agreement contains a “financial settlement.”  Billboard

– The Californian cult-indie band Pavement is reuniting… or at least they are scheduled to perform at Central Park Summerstage in Sept of 2010, which will be their first show since there official goodbye in 1999. Brooklyn Vegan

– Bobby Graham, a very prolific and respected British session player from the 60’s, passed away on Monday.  Graham played on over 15,000 tracks and was allegedly on the short list for replacing Pete Best in the Beatles before Ringo joined.  NME

– U2 is reissuing their 1984 record, “The Unforgettable Fire,” which is due out October 27 of this year.  There are apparently multiple versions of the reissue, which will include anything from B-sides and alternate mixes to never-before released tracks.  Billboard

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