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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.


++ Recently ++

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 = The Stooges Unearthed (Again)

Tuesday, November 8, 2005 = Documenting Beulah And DCFC

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 = Out-Of-Control Rock 'N' Roll Is Alive And Well

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 = Just In Time For Halloween

Monday, October 3, 2005 = The Dandyesque Raunch Of Louis XI

Monday, August 15, 2005 = The Empire Blues

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 = David Howie's Sónar Diary

Monday, July 25, 2005 = Hot Sounds For Summertime

Monday, June 27, 2005 = Overcoming Writer's Block At Sónar 2005

Monday, June 4, 2005 = Cool New Sounds To Download Or Stream


++ Needle Drops Archives ++

View full list of Needle Drops articles...




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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

++ Putting The Focus On New Music

By Jennifer Kelly

++ Mystics tell of startling moments of clarity when time seems to cease and everything that has ever happened is suddenly, simultaneously present. It sounds a lot like the current music climate — with Brian Wilson's decades-old Smile having topped the year-end lists, Loretta Lynn close behind, and even a slightly refurbished London Calling garnering mentions as one of last year's best records. Lower down the lists, critics touted Sex Pistols-era punks like The Homosexuals and The Prefects, or such lost '60s folkers as Vashti Bunyan and the Incredible String Band. And yes, time travelers, this year you can see The Pixies, The Cure, Gang of Four and Bauhaus, all in the same weekend. Robert Plant and Mavis Staples kicked off SXSW — and Billy Idol and Elvis Costello performed there as well. What decade is it anyway?

There's nothing inherently wrong with being in touch with the past. Every artist I've mentioned is well worth listening to, whether live or on some recently resuscitated CD. Moreover, there's no "best sold by" date stamped on musical creativity. Some of my favorite records this year were recorded by bands started 20 years or more ago — and I fully defend the rights of bands like The Fall, Mission of Burma, The Ex and Sonic Youth to keep making music as long as they want to.

Still, the continuing presence of everything that's ever gone into rock history does create a bit of a logjam at the top of our cultural consciousness. It makes it hard to identify exactly what's new, what's relevant right now. Put it this way: It has got to be harder to start a musical movement now than at any other time in history.

Not that it's impossible. The early '00s saw Liars single-handedly reviving the angular anxiety of no-wave; when, a year or so later, Devendra Banhart dropped the penny into the psyche-folk pool, the impact started ripples that continue to fan outward today. More recently, Franz Ferdinand kick-started the pop-leaning, Gang of Four-referencing craze, and it wouldn't be surprising if mega-popular Arcade Fire carved out their own genre in the next year or so.

++ Are there others out there? Are there bands with similarly distinctive sounds — perhaps based on historical precedent, but innovative and talented enough to define a space, not only for themselves but for other like-minded artists?

Who are they?

So glad you asked. While it's hard to predict who will catch on and who will fade away, here are four bands that have what it takes to start a cult.

Consider Man Man, an art-rock foursome from New York City, whose surreal lyrics, elaborate instrumentation and percussive attack sound like no one else working today. Their music is dense and layered, with junkyard percussion rattling over '40s-jazz sax solos, and grimy lead vocals punctuated by bursts of falsetto. Live, the four bandmembers switch rapidly between instruments, the guitarist picking up a trumpet, the bass player setting down his stick-like ax for xylophone mallets. The sound is full of contradictions, wild and chaotic in concept yet absolutely precise in execution. The band's 40-minute set has no breaks and no banter; it is intensely theatrical, not because of externals like costumes, masks or props, but because of the constant interplay among musicians and their instruments. They're on top of their difficult groove, but just barely, and it could fall apart at any minute.

Another band with movement-starting potential is Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, an operatic metal collective out of San Francisco. Their Museum of Natural History, out on Web of Mimicry last fall, is extreme, intense and intellectually challenging, moving from passages of sheer unadulterated beauty to rabid explosions of feedback within single songs. The subject matter is similarly diverse, ranging from absolute good to utter evil, from the technology-embracing philosophies of the Futurists to the bleak despair of the Unabomber. But regardless of whether the band is keening drum-punctured ballads about wasting disease ("Phthisis") or crunching and grinding like Phi Beta Kappa-wearing death-metallists, the sound is absolutely its own self-defined thing, intense and purifying and exhausting.

Both Man Man and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum flirt with excess, loading their songs with as much complexity and contradiction as these vehicles can bear. Micah P. Hinson, a Texas-born singer/songwriter, falls into the other camp, stripping the paint off life's most vital experiences to expose them, song by song, in his recent album And the Gospel of Progress (Overcoat Recordings). Hinson's backstory is dramatic: homeless at 19, jailed at 21 for forging drug prescriptions (for a Vogue model he'd hooked up with). He recorded this album at 23 with The Earlies, whose subtle accompaniment adds color and texture to simple songs. The tremble of organ, the twang of pedal steel, even, in places, the rich tones of trumpet and trombone, underline the sweet, swelling melodies. When the man-with-guitar simplicity of "At Last, Our Promises" erupts into heady swirls of strings and dissonant guitar notes under the "It's all my fault" refrain, it is more than music; it is pure feeling loaded into notes. Later, in the waltz-time "Stand in My Way," cello weaves in and around the lilting vocals; accordion and piano resonate in the corners; a marching band full of brass adds a sad, nostalgic tone. The song is plain and heartfelt, the pauses feeling like a man gathering thought; it is packaged artfully, in a way that seems to reinforce its purity.

++ And finally, we come to Diamond Nights, a Queens, N.Y.-based band who, on the basis of four songs, seem ready to put the fun back into rock music with one song — the category-killing "The Girl's Attractive," with its slink-inducing beat and '80s clouds of synth, its not-quite-Jarvis-Cocker, testosterone-laden vocals. What really makes the song, though, is that slight hesitation, the very-rock wait-for-it-here-it-comes break between "She looks good... the girl is attractive." There was a time when every summer was defined by a single song, played at every club, in every beach house, on every portable radio all summer long. If it were a good world, a fair world, a musically interesting world, that song would be "Girl's Attractive" this summer.

So, there you have it: Four new bands with new music who just might start something big. Or not. In any case, they're here now, alongside all those classic reissues and long-forgotten geniuses. We're three and a half months into 2005 and it's time to listen to something from this year — or at least this decade — once in a while.
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