Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Ethical Dilemma? Nah, not so much.

Daniel Robinson (foreground) and guitarist Pat Manley at The Continental in NYC.

In this wacky post-postmodern world, who's to say what's ethical? Or so I tell myself when I consider the ethics of what I'm about to do. Look, I wrote this, sort of, but I'm going to link to it anyway, because it's cool, and a decent interview with a terrific songwriter. So there.

Okay, so a while ago (a couple of months now, I think) I interviewed Daniel Robinson of Milton and the Devils Party. I know Robinson personally, and I like him, maybe one reason I felt okay about this foray into traditional rock writing, which I generally eschew. We're both overeducated pop nuts, but our interests lie in such radically different directions that we've always got something to discuss or about which to argue (usually) good-naturedly. It's always fun to talk about music with your friends, and if it happens to fit into some other form, so much the better.

The interview appeared in Buzzsaw Haircut, a student publication at one of my campuses, presented here in an online version (thus the B for Buzzaw, which is really me). Anyway, here it is. Enjoy!

DR: I think respecting the genre is important. The songwriters who measure up in this regard are Ray Davies, Morrissey, and Nick Cave. Also Lloyd Cole, and sometimes Leonard Cohen. The ones who fail are people like Sting or Elvis Costello.

B: Why do they fail?

DR: Well, Sting’s problem as a songwriter is that he’s just a little bit smarter than the average person, and he tries to get as much mileage out of that as he can. But he can’t really go that far. I do believe he is smart—but almost in a mathematical, musical way. Not really in a literary sense.

B: Do you mean the early, poppy, reggae stuff? Or are we talking “Dream of the Blue Turtles” here?

DR: Well, I do think Sting has learned from his mistakes (“Don’t Stand So Close To Me,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” “Tea In The Sahara,” etc.). So, now that he’s grown out of his pretentiousness, he has nothing really to say.

B: His mispronunciation of Nabokov has had serious effects.

DR: Well, he’s not that smart.

B: But Elvis Costello has a similar split, no? Between something like This Year’s Model and say, “God Give Me Strength”?

DR: Well, Elvis Costello is too smart for his own good. Sting’s not really smart enough to pull off what he wants to do. Elvis Costello will throw everything away just to dazzle you with a phrase. If I ever taught a songwriting class (and I might one day), I would do a week on EC and have students read Samuel Johnson’s comments on the metaphysical poets—a lot of it applies to Elvis Costello!

B: Remind my readers what Johnson said about the metaphysical poets.

DR: Well, basically, that the metaphysicals love to dazzle you with surprising conceits—false wit—and incongruities, wordplay. But the poems don’t really add up to anything meaningful. Johnson saw that the parts were greater than the whole and that that was a serious deficiency. Elvis will throw a phrase like “I’m in a grip-like vice” and you are so dazzled by the brilliance of that that you forget that the rest of the song doesn’t make any sense.

If you're curious to see what kind of stuff someone with these opinions comes up with, you can hear a few mp3s here. Also MDP is available at Amazon.com and through itunes: if you have to pick one song to buy, and you're a power pop fan, allow me to humbly recommend "Perfect Breasts," which is poppy, energetic, and a hoot (so to speak). (I tried to podcast a sample, but as it transpires, #$%&ing Blogger doesn't accept podcasts yet. But I have a tech request in!)

Oh, and the pic is by the divine watertiger! Posted by Hello

Monday, May 23, 2005

I'm Going to Start Taking This Shit Personally...

via Rox Populi:
Ladies and Gentlemen ...The Pope:

... Rock music seeks release through liberation from the personality and its responsibility ... [it is] among the anarchic ideas of freedom which today [1985] predominate more openly in the West than in the East. But that is precisely why rock music is so completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite. Hence music of this type must be excluded from the Church on principle, and not merely for aesthetic reasons, or because of restorative crankiness or historical inflexibility.


Wow! I Never Would Have Thought...

that I'd get to link to someone as cool as James Wolcott! But check this out!
On June 25th, Patti Smith will perform "Horses" in its entirety at the Meltdown Festival in London's South Bank Centre. It's the 30th anniversary of her LP debut, and all I can say is, time do fly.

What makes the event even more eventful is that her backup band will include Tom Verlaine and John Cale. I'm certain it will be a more subdued Cale than the one who toured with Patti and played guest-star bass on the "My Generation" encore and had, shall we say, his wayward moments, as when he tried to poke out a stage light with the neck of his bass, missed, the momentum hurling him off stage, where he crashed on top of a ringside table. He had to be carried backstage by Patti's band like a fallen warrior or an injured rugby star. Had he connected with that stage light, he might have electrocuted himself.

Now we know that one of our resident rock critics loves, loves, LOVES Patti Smith, and she certainly rides the line between rock and punk and pop that I find so fascinating. But this looks like a seriously cool concert, and if I were less of a responsible, respectable adult, I'd probably max out a credit card to go.

Good on you, Patti!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Pet Issues

I'm always delighted to see that the concerns which move me also move my fellow bloggers. Over at Pangagon, they're having a conversation: Women Like Music? In it, Amanda Marcotte sez:

Female fans may or may not support female musicians on an individual basis but one thing almost all female fans do is support male musicians. As we should, of course. Unfortunately, the reverse isn't true as often as it should be--a lot men still harbor prejudices against female musicians. On top of that, a lot female fans have absorbed that prejudice and also dislike female musicians out of hand.

The situation is simple enough--male musicians can expect support from men and women, whether they are sexist or not. Female musicians can only expect support from non-sexist fans. Smaller group of people to draw fans from means less fans. Easy enough to understand.

Marcotte is responding to this post at Feministe: Why Don't Women Download?, which in turn looks at and article from The Guardian claiming that only 4% of legal downloads are by women.

And no, if you're curious, I don't happen to think that pastel ipods are the answer.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Looking for Citations

I recently asserted that: "Power pop ... was actually an industry euphemism coined to market punk to the masses."

I am hereby correcting myself.

Reader the tree has found the following:

In Wolter and Kimber, The Who in Print, citation 109 (p. 14) says:

Altham, Keith. "Lily isn't pornographic, say Who." New Musical Express, May 20, 1967, 2. A short interview with Townshend and Moon. Townshend defends the lyrics of "Pictures of Lily" and describes the Who's brand of power pop music.

Then reader Bill offered his opinion, which I think is probably right:

the music industry coined the phrase "new wave" so as not to frighten Middle America with the scandalous label "punk."

Always anxious to sort such things out, I asked those who know about the origin of the term "New Wave" (which is probably what I was thinking of all along, and had merely repressed, because that term got co-opted by your Haircut 100s and your Flock of Seagullses).

Anyway, one Steven Simels claims to have originated the term in Stereo Review, possibly in a review of The Fabulous Poodles or The Sports or some never-quite-there band like that. He has promised to look for confirmation of that point, and we here at PowerPop anxiously await his findings. If anyone else has evidence for or against this point, please let us know!

Friday Babyblogging: Snark Edition

Rosie sez: "I'm not going to swing anymore if John Bolton's doing it too!"

I'm on brief hiatus for the end of the semester (and fixing the blogroll & links, and figuring out podcasting), but I'll be back in a few days. Meanwhile, like steak to the wolves, enjoy this babyblog.... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


In which NYMary shamelessly steals a rhetorical technique from V., because it's cool.

I am, indeed, speechless. It seems some version of the book I want to write is, in fact, in progress. Of course I will buy it and read it. And write my own book, too.

Actually, I'm glad that attention is being paid to this genre. As you know, I think it's sorely ignored. And I think I bring something different than Borack.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Belated Babyblogging

Rosie crawls as fast as she can away from the laundry (and toward the edge of the bed... eek!). Posted by Hello

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Thinking Out Loud: Generic Definitions

As I think (probably too much) about the field in which my interest lies, I have to consider where its boundaries are. The problem, as when defining any aesthetic field, is that boundaries are a shaky business at best.

Power pop, I've asserted before, was actually an industry euphemism coined to market punk to the masses. (I am looking, holy grail-style, for confirmation of this fact, but it's one of those things it seems I've always known. When I find it, I'll post it.) But "power pop" quickly became a separate generic definition, as follows:

Rock music based on an aesthetic developed in the mid 1960's, primarily by The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, refined a bit later by The Byrds and The Move (but not delving into full-scale psychedelia, which is something else). Power pop refined itself post-punk, adopting that energy and drive.

This is what I, at least, take to be the defining aesthetic. I'd also argue for: short songs, generally structured fairly traditionally, guitar-based (though keyboards can be used sparingly), melodic, usually lyrically direct, often lyrically witty.

From the articulation of this aesthetic, there has been a consistent power pop movement, usually subterranean. (The same can probably be said of any genre, I suppose, though the subterranean narrative of, say, death metal is not so interesting to me.) The form asserts itself, then gets swamped by the Next Big Thing.
1965-66, swamped by psychedelia
1972-74, swamped by disco
1978-81, swamped by synth-pop
1989-91, swamped by grunge

And so on. But it never goes away, not really, though a lot depends, of course, on how one defines the aforementioned boundaries. (In the last two cases, I'd argue, power pop was somewhat coopted by the forms which replaced it, as plenty of synth bands fed off the power pop aesthetic, and "alternative" frequently has a strong thread of the same sound.)

I was ruminating about this some time ago when someone whose opinions I take very seriously in this regard asked a question which floored me. "What about The Ramones?"

What about The Ramones?

Initially, I dismissed them from this consideration, not because I don't love the Ramones, but because they don't seem to fit, generically. They're punk, right? The look and the shtick and the songs--a different thing, it seemed to me. But then I went back and listened again, and I'm rethinking a bit.

One of the things that's so striking about The Ramones and The Sex Pistols and The Clash, listening with the historian's prescribed distance of 25 years, is how surprisingly melodic they really are. L.A. punk seems a bit different to me in this regard, less melody, more pure energy. (I'm thinking Fear, X, that sort of thing.) The NY and British scenes, however, seemed to allow punk and pop to intermingle more freely. That punk is more melodic, that pop is edgier, the hybrid form can be seen in action.

(And I know it's a movie, but the essay-style digression about "tribes" in the excellent film SLC Punk! does a pretty good job of separating the strands. "New Wavers didn't fight anybody. They were the new hippies.")

Comments? Like I said, thinking out loud.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Things Which Warm My Heart

When you're a pop fan, you just get used to the idea, after a while, that the music you love must be some sort of arcane language opaque to others, that the shifting influences of the mid-sixties, the subtle interplay of influence and innovation, just doesn't sound the same to everyone. Personally, I don't get their lack of getting it, but then that's just me.

And then sometimes, out of nowhere, it works for someone. I've blogged about Steve Lawrenson before (here and here): his brand of psychedelic power pop, heavily influenced by Jeff Lynne in his various stages, is bound to make you smile. And not just you, or even me, because things are happening for Lawrenson.

This weekend, for example, Lawrenson played three times (3!) at the Dewey Beach Pop Festival (once with a full band, once acoustic, and once solo) in Dover, Delaware.
The rich harmonies and layered arrangements of Stephen Lawrenson’s songs will be heard in both an electric set at 7 p.m. Friday at the Rusty Rudder Stage D, and an acoustic set at 11 p.m. that night at booksandcoffee. {He ended up filling in doing a solo set on Saturday evening as well.}

“After being a drummer in my previous band for years, it’s great to be able to strap on a guitar and have some freedom on stage,” he said.

This will be his first time at the Pop Fest, and Lawrenson plans to stay the entire weekend to check out some of the other bands performing.

In addition to this good news, he's also had songs picked up for two forthcoming compilations: NotLame is including "4U," a track from Lawrenson's full-length CD Every Summer, on a sampler album, and an as yet unreleased track, "Hey," will be appearing on IPO #6, due out this summer. Add in regular gigs at IPO itself (Philly on 2004 and Nashville in 2005, so far), and you've got an absolutely respectable small pop career.

Such are the things which warm my heart.