29 August 2010


I find myself challenged by the very nature of music. I think most people, especially past a certain age, are only casual music listeners. Radio people. Me, I rarely listen to the radio, because most music does nothing for me. In fact, I actively dislike most music. But when I hear music I really like, my brain spasms with a flood of endorphins. Like mainlining pure pleasure. It's literally a religious experience, and I don't know why. That this happens with such wide varieties and genres of music deepens the mystery.

I don't know exactly what makes good music good, but some genres I understand better than others. With mainstream country music, it's the sentimental lyrics and simple sing-a-long melodies. It's done strictly to a formula and the formula works. In fact, as Steve Leftridge has brilliantly argued, it's exactly the same successful formula as classic rock. Alt Country (at least the hard-edged Bloodshot kind) does the same thing, but replaces the sentimentality with punk attitude.

Jazz is all about constant motion, waves of chromatic tones over a highly syncopated rhythm, with an emphasis on free-flowing melody rather than chordal harmony. An instrumental soloist usually leads instead of a vocalist. It's the antithesis of post-40s popular music, which is why most of us can only enjoy it in certain moods and small doses. We're just not acculturated to it.

Classical music is just archaic. I can understand why people don't like it (archaic), but I really don't know why some people do. But there is a profile. Most classical music fans either have played an orchestral instrument, have a lot money, are stereophiles, or are old. Or all of those things.

Rock is simple on paper. Strong backbeat, 4/4 time, drum 'n bass 'n guitar(s), a basic verse/chorus structure, vocals and harmony, and lots of youthful and/or counter-cultural attitude. I mostly listen to rock, so I'm a rock fan, but most rock I hate. Especially when it conforms to the classic rock formula. With some exceptions, the more "rock" it is, the less I like it. Why is that?

The fact is, unlike jazz or country, straight genre rock exhausts the formula very quickly. This is why most rock does not fit the classical rock mold in one way or another, which broadens the scope of the term's meaning until it's almost meaningless. Rock is some kind of consensual genre that no formula can actually define. If I say, "I like rock," that could mean I like REM or Limp Bizkit or the Beatles or AC/DC. All superstar bands, but few rock fans like them all equally, or even like them at all. Whereas few jazz fans love Miles but hate Coltrane.

The fact is, rock music in the round is a highly varied and complex musical form. There is a bewildering number of subgenres, that some artists are quite happy to skip across, and it's always both self-referencing and appropriating influences from the outside. It's a connoisseur's music every bit as much as jazz. For these reasons rock is always surprising me, usually when I've all but given up on it, but finding rock I really like is an incredible challenge. Thirty seconds on Flikr and I can find photographs that thrill me. But I can spend hours reading on Pitchfork and surfing Zune, and still come up with zilch.

This ramble is actually a preamble (pre-ramble?) to some music posts I'm going to start doing, highlighting some bands, or genres, or subgenres, or whatever, that have caught my fancy. Not reviews so much as notices and appreciations. For some reason, I find music criticism the most worthless kind of criticism. I can read a couple movie reviews and know with fair accuracy if I will like a certain movie. But I can read several album reviews and have no idea if I will like an artist or album at all.

I guess (as they say) writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but blogs are read, not heard. Sorry. Right now, it's either that, or all photography all the time.

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