Back in the early 1990s heyday of “grunge” and “alternative rock” that cracked into mainstream airplay, The Afghan Whigs were in the cadre of the most well-known rock bands. Gentlemen was ubiquitous. I must admit to having known about it, but never bothering with it until a full two decades later. Looking back at it, I can’t really say this is my thing. The subject matter inhabits a place that seems a little too juvenile for me to relate to today, but I can still respect what the group achieves here. Greg Dulli’s vocals achieve a kind of burning torment that encapsulates much of what they were about. Yet the group’s real strength was how they blended together so much of what was in the air at the time. The iconoclastic jazz musician and composer Anthony Braxton has theorized that there are three types of musicians: restructuralists (who come up with new ways of thinking), stylists (who expand upon the restructuralists’ new ways of thinking), and traditionalists (who operate within a defined space). By that account The Afghan Whigs were stylists. Frankly, they weren’t the most proficient musicians by this evidence. But bits of this recall everything from alternative hard rock (Smashing Pumpkins), to Seattle grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam), to lo-fi rock (Pavement, Dinosaur Jr.), to funky party rock (Red Hot Chili Peppers), to britpop (Pulp, Suede, Blur). They even occasionally adopt the kind of off-key vocals that would come to dominate “indie rock” a decade later. The result comes across like more than the sum of its parts, just because it seems to carry on from beginning to end without ever running out of new bits and pieces to assimilate. This may be a period piece of sorts, but it’s one that perhaps endures because of a slight sense that it’s hardly more than a garage rock experiment that worked out in spite of the odds.
The most amazing feat of Scott Walker’s later career has been to have the most unlikely popular audiences receive it so well. Since Tilt in 1995 his music has adopted experimental, operatic elements that lack the syncopation that is foundational to pop music of the rock era. The Drift added an increasingly ominous and dark tone to what already was frighteningly unique music. With Bish Bosch, Walker is flirting again with syncopation, fitfully at times, but with its programmed drum beats and proto-metal electric guitar it provides a more direct link with (fairly) contemporary pop music than anything he’s released in nearly 30 years. On top of that he’s able to pull together the resources to have orchestration on an album this “out”. Yet, he still manages to have his sense of humor felt quite directly. His previous album The Drift had surreal, absurdist lyrics like “I’ll punch a donkey in the streets of Galway” (“Jolson and Jones”) but Bish Bosch goes for a more heady mix of lowbrow phrasings with lyrics like “I’ve severed my reeking gonads/ Fed them to your shrunken face” (“SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)”). To pull all these elements together in a way that holds together and finds more than scattered audiences at the fringes is no mean feat, and it’s the mark of a master that Walker has done it, again. There is definitely a brutality in the world of 2012 and Scott Walker seems to have his finger on that pulse in a way that is as unsettling and uncomfortable as the times themselves. What Bish Bosch reveals, though, is a sense of hidden value in the grotesque, an affirming quality that with a lot of effort–and with the enormous cast of players here, that’s an understatement–people have the power to reclaim the very foundation of the grotesque and create from it a new context. It’s quite telling that Walker’s approach means an engagement of the highbrow with the lowbrow, and that a gap between those audiences music be bridged. Granted, he has not won over all listeners, but in a philosophical sense, he’s re-imagining the meaning and possibilities of the path he sets out upon. It’s not just a different arrangement of the same old elements, but a bold new system of determining what is real and what is illusion. That is to say that listening to this sort of music can change how to listen to other things, and change your perception of what you have already heard. It seems the role of philosopher king suits Scott Walker well in his advancing years.
Lester Bangs lamented that The Electric Flag got buzz in the press when more deserving acts languished in obscurity (in spite of Bangs’ best efforts). There is just something disingenuous about The Electric Flag. Yeah, they have a jazzy soul thing going, melded with slightly psychedelic blues rock. But it seems too crass, just an assemblage of whatever seemed “hip” at the time. It’s contrived. These guys would have made a great studio band for somebody else, but on their own they just don’t have any good ideas of their own, just the ability to loosely amalgamate popular styles of the day. It’s the kind of music they seemed obligated to make, not music that came from any kind of genuine passion or drive outside of rock careerism. This just clings to forms that already had matured in the hands of others. But, for what it’s worth, this album beats the seemingly better-known A Long Time Comin’. Reference The Rascals too.
The eponymous debut album by The Rolling Stones (renamed England’s Newest Hit Makers for subsequent U.S. release) is a somewhat inauspicious affair. It is full of energetic takes on American blues. The group plays with enthusiasm. Yet aside from a few hints at guitar prowess, there aren’t a whole lot of highlights here. Still, there aren’t any great missteps, and the effort to reach out across racial lines is admirable. This was about taking essentially rural music and making it more urban and palatable for middle class youth desperate for a new music to call their own. Perhaps that wasn’t the precise intent, but it was the ultimate effect. They got better quickly. What is stunning is how there are scarcely any cues here to indicate just how good they would get — or how fast they would get there.
Some bag on Stereopathetic Soulmanure as an inferior Beck release, but I think it’s easily one of his best albums. It’s a little rough in patches, but the eclectic songwriting is usually good and there is even some fairly good guitar playing. Beck is all over the place. From found sounds, to noise rock, to country, to folk, he tries a little of everything. But he manages to pull it off. In fact, Mellow Gold was a big step down from the creativity on display here. Beck hadn’t yet hooked up with hip-hop producers but it’s no real loss with what is found here. Is this juvenile? Yes, of course. But it manages to faithfully capture the sense of looking for something that resonates and finding the process of the search at least as interesting as anything found along the way. This has the feel of bored Southern California kids making their own entertainment — not unlike what Ariel Pink would do a few years later.