I’ve Never Known The Morning: ‘Dolewave’ as Reaction

INTRODUCTION TO THE INTRODUCTION

This is a fairly meagre attempt to add my own POV to two recent pieces on what some critics and listeners (and detractors) are calling ‘dolewave’. To my ears, it’s Australian guitar pop music, that avoids any sense of power- or punk-. I wrote this on Sunday morning after reading Shaun Prescott’s piece on Crawlspace and having a bit of a chat to him on Twitter. Max Easton posted his own follow-up not long after. Together, they’re entirely good enough. Between them, they’d make a good popular music study group: Shaun’s sense of ideology and social stratification (cultural studies, sociology) meets Max’s careful eye for what my colleagues would call ‘spatial concerns’. Both are equally important: power and place make the world go round.

What struck me about both accounts was the absence of aesthetic politics and taste. Flying Nun style jangle pop is not exactly working class music. (That’s metal.) Why did these bands choose this sound? And why now? Why is there any similarity between them at all in 2014? 

My answer to this feels flimsy, at best.

But it’s all that would come to me when I wrote it. 

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INTRODUCTION

Shaun Prescott published a provocative piece over the weekend on dolewave, that loose collection of Australian pop bands that he expertly describes as being ‘beautiful and poignant in an aggressively sad way’. The vibe of these bands is the eternal share-house, forever stuck at that moment when you say to yourself, ‘Enough of this shit’ but can’t scratch together the bond for your own place. For many of us, this carries right through into our 30s where, ‘Why can’t I afford a house when I work full-time?’ takes over.

It’s such a double-edged frame of mind:

Why can’t I get what I want?

Why do I want what I want?

Age old stuff.

And what I like about some of these bands is that they marry this feeling to some of the  more blissful moments extracted from the mess: it doesn’t cost a lot to have a picnic in the park or to record at home. There’s more to life as well as less.

Anyway, what I found interesting in Shaun’s piece was mainly my own baggage, my own history. This is what his writing stirred up.

Let me tell this to you, if you like?

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MURMURS OF DISSENT IN AUSTRALIAN GUITAR POP LAST DECADE

I spent about half my 20s around indie-rock bands that sounded like beefed up versions of the current bands pinned ‘dolewave’. This is circa 2002-2008. These bands I’m talking about were kinda sloppy but kinda brilliant pop/rock bands that combined a Flying Nun sensibility/accent with whatever else they could get their hands on: post-punk, select bits of Sonic Youth, classic rock, the poppier end of 80s hardcore, Pavement, Guided By Voices, lo-fi, you name it.

Specifically I’m thinking of bands like The Bites (and later Hand Hell), New Estate, Dollar Bar, The Zebras and a constellation of others that more or less came and went in the blink of an eye. I’d  put this era of Screamfeeder in there as well. The production/songwriting on the last couple of Screamfeeder releases are right out of this playbook.

recoverypress3-295x300None of these bands had much to do with localised iterations of hardcore or punk or noise in the cities they came from. It just wasn’t that moment. It has none of these roots. This stuff comes out of urban pop scenes.

And musically, this isn’t the pre-history of dolewave. I wouldn’t tar those bands now with an association to this stuff (for reasons described below) but there is a common sensibility at work. These are all bands that are interested in pop structures and suburban Australia and not really knowing what to do next.

To me, they absolutely fit the themes Shaun writes about, if not the clique. These were bands that rejected:

“…the neo-liberal, self-improvement, mortage-till-death, make-a-buck-or-die, protect-at-all-costs impulses which are more real now, in established workaday Australian life…”

They played melodic songs with choruses, to 30 people a couple of weekends a month.

In short, it felt the same.

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EXCEPT…

…all of those bands from last decade were potently uncool at the time.

Some had a following but they were about as far out of vogue as the mind could wander.

I’m glad they were uncool because it was a weird time.

Early 21st century Australia fucking sucked:

Howard was at the height of his powers and seemed unstoppable. He had the best part of a decade left to run.

Alongside which, dance rhythms finally stormed the walls of Indie™ and what should have been a jubilant moment went sour pretty quickly. All of a sudden we had a hundred dance-rock bands propped up by Vice magazine and the return of club nights. In short the tone of the time was: it’s fucking midnight in Australia (politically, socially) so let’s parti!

Rock’s great response: nu-rock. ‘Get Born’ by Jet was released in 2003. Can you imagine playing ‘Bad Decisions’ onstage in an era where people took Jet seriously?

And compounding all this: another cyclical backlash against political correctness. It was particularly brutal this time round. This specific couple of years were probably the most homophobic, munted, patently fuckedheaded moment in Australian music I’ll ever live through. (I hope.) Say what you like about the culture of cheap for-clicks outrage operating at present but it’s 100% better than this era I’m talking about.

So things are going greeeeeaaaat and we have a hundred bands that sound like a danceable dude-bro version of The Cure and a few rawk throw-backs balancing the till.

And in the middle of this?

Kirsty Stegwazi singing about the gentrification of Fitzroy, dumb rich kids and this tale of temp-work laid out over a beautifully pop second verse:

And when you vote me/

From your three-girl/

Dog-eat-dog suburban right-wing Axis-of-evil/

Worst kind of reality I’ve ever been in/

Ask me if there’s room for you and your friends in my life boat/

And I’ll tell you sweat-heart/

I don’t think so.

In Brisbane, Tim Stewart was just as ticked off:

I’ve never known the morning to not give up the night/

There must be ways, we haven’t discussed/

To stop going crazy from doing what we must/

Had a falling out with love and a falling in with lust/

A falling out of favour with the folks on the hill/

(You’re) behaving like a child with your hands in the till/

That was the temperature we were all feeling.

Howard and the passé state of guitar music in Australia.

These bands I loved were playing on a scorched earth. But it was provocative enough to make us all really angry. The enemies were pretty clear. The main one had a name. We could pin the whole monty on him.

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UNTIL LABOUR SAVES THE DAY

To me this is the space before dolewave and it bears little stylistic relation to what came next.

Imagine being a teenager listening to years of shitty coke party rock or angry indie-pop and then, when the dawn finally breaks, you get Kevin Rudd (incompetent and a prat) and then Julia Gillard (incompetent and a homophobe), all soundtracked by the dying embers of shit like Sneaky Sound System, Jet’s second album and that half-inflated silverchair reunion.

That’s the germinating political setting of ‘dolewave’ to me.

Dolewave, to me at least, feels exactly like Labour’s legacy, not Howard’s.

I can take or leave many of the bands labelled dolewave but I totally respect all of them for their blanket rejection of this recent past.

For none of what happened in those last years of Howard prepared anyone for what came next. All our pop songs of rejection and home-spun valorisation didn’t mean a thing when the ‘distant future’ proved such a bummer.

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Postscript: One day I was walking down the street and ran into a guy I knew who had just returned home to Brisbane from a long stint in Melbourne. I asked him why he moved back and he said, ‘Melbourne’s a great place for a good time and the worst place ever for a bad one.’ And it’s true: it’s hard to get too down on yourself in the clear skies of a Brisbane ‘winter’ plus you never expect much at the height of summer either. 

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Always On This Line by Sarah Blasko

AKA THIS SONG AND WHAT’S IT ABOUT

Oh, it might be unkind of me to make you feel bad,
It might be a shame of me to treat you like that,
When there’s everything you’ve worked for in your life,
On this line…

You think?

The middle-eight of ‘Always On This Line’ by Sarah Blasko is one of the most bittersweet moments in Australian music. It’s pretentious, manipulative, awful but also knowing, sly and gut-wrenching. After a whole song of ‘Maybe you could have made something of yourself’ (never myself), Blazzy cops to this brief moment of doubt. But…it’s never felt very generous to me. It feels like fine print. Compounded by the cute filmclip, the only difference between this and – as John Gardner would say – ‘staring into a volcano filled with baby skulls,’ is her awkward dancing and the impeccable chorus hook. There’s a lot of life in that dancing and chorus. I don’t know how she does it.

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Amanda Palmer, Music Criticism and Sour Grapes

AKA HAD A BIT OF A MOMENT ON TWITTER YESTERDAY AFTERNOON 

If you haven’t seen the Amanda Palmer TED speech I’m talking about, it’s here.

Sometimes Twitter really is the best medium for getting an idea across. So I’m not going to elaborate much on it here.

What I would add – now, after the fact / rage-blackout – is that I don’t necessarily dislike Amanda Palmer. Sure, there’s parts of what she does I find ethically questionable and parts I find unfortunate (I’m not a fan of her music) but the level of communication at work here can’t really be disputed. She speaks to her audience and to the TED audience better than most music critics speak to people who like music. Ask a friend. Use Google. Think about it. End of debate.

She’s visible, she has a message she’s selling and she’s willing to go for the weapons-grade schmaltz as required. She’s more narcissistic than most critics at the moment, more self-confident (at least in a public capacity, where it counts). And she has backing and resources, both reputational and capital, and at this point, Amanda Palmer is – without question – the most celebrated music commentator in the world.

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Why I Still Review Albums

AKA IF YOU WANT TO TAP DANCE, GET ON THE TITANIC

The music critic should not use first person pronouns.

The music critic should always describe the music accurately.

The music critic should keep it brief and entertaining and informative and fair.

The critic should arbitrate taste, be bold.

The music critic should always know they’re being indulged by his/her reader and thus should be referential, respectful.

These are the consensus opinions, no matter how contradictory.

This is the truth: there shouldn’t even be music critics any more so all those rules are wrong.

It was supposed to stop.

To me, it’s not enough to doubt or debate the meaning of music criticism in 2012. Questioning it is just wistful and naive; the ridiculous hypothetical that technology will reverse itself, that tides will turn, that the whole world will be sucked inside out again. It’s all garbage logic. Delusional. The music writer needs to understand that a ‘good’ critical review – that follows all the rules – is now nothing more than the Lorem Ipsum sitting between the album cover and the track/album stream in a well-tooled advertisement. In terms of its older traditional functions, music criticism is dead, dead, dead.

At present, critical music writing is seldom any better than the copy that came with the Tame Impala’s one sheet:

Be Above It applies a cleansing pressure hose to the brain, and Endors Toi plunges you into a deep sleep of ripping guitar riff dreams. Music To Walk Home By is as it says on the tin, announcing its arrival at the front gate with the kind of ceremonious, shredding guitar riff that makes home seem like a good place to be. Keep On Lying intentionally drifts in and out as if in the middle of a wandering jam at the end of the earth, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards is as close as Tame Impala will ever come to a top down cruising anthem, albeit one from a cracked reality and soaked in a deep, solo melancholy. Elephant doesn’t hide it’s rollicking, outerspace glam strut, while Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control arguably boils the essence of Lonerism into a dense, ecstatic brew of utopian proportions.”

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Dear Shitty Rock Band: On Guided By Voices, The Rock Canon and Everyday Life

AKA BANDS, YOU CAN BE ANYTHING BUT ORDINARY 

A couple of months ago I was getting prepared to review an album that just plained sucked. This happens all the time, more often than any casual reader could possibly imagine. We live in age where almost ANYONE in the first world can make a record cheaply and send it out for review electronically with even less expense incurred. I had been commissioned to write the review, so there was money in it for me to produce something. I decided ‘I’m going to make an example of this band, but as kindly as possible.’ It didn’t exactly work out. The finished review was way too snarky and mean, so I pulled it. But this is what I was going to submit, as a review, to a website that has over 250,000 page views a week and I’m quite sure it would have been published. I think if you’re in a band, that’s worth thinking about. What follows is fairly succinct I think, but even still it’s also a bit of a low water mark for my personality. Hey, you try writing record reviews. It does THIS to you. 

(Also publishing this here because by coincidence some of the comments on this thread articulated some of the same things I’m on about here. Dzzmzz even offered up my closing example.)

Dear Shitty Rock Band, 

I’m not going to gleefully dissect your album for you. In short, I don’t like the songs or the way the whole thing barely holds together and my reaction to it is not much more complex than that. In the scheme of things, it’s not a woeful disaster. It’s not an affront to culture or human dignity. It’s a mistake. It’s extremely human in this regard.

Normally I’d acknowledge all this by ‘filing’ your album without an unkind word. Yet every year these albums are made and arrive on my desk and this time – for no particular reason related to what you did – I think it might be a good idea to explain to bands like yours why their albums disappear forever.

Firstly, what does this album do? 

What is its function?

You like The Beatles and Bowie and The Who and The Rolling Stones? Good for you. That’s a type of rock music that virtually every single person you’ve ever met in the Western world has heard before. The best music distracts us from the mundanity of everyday life, that’s exactly why it’s entertaining. That’s how it’s entertaining. As such, good music is not something that reminds us of The Beatles, Bowie, The Who and The Rolling Stones (or REM, U2, The Beach Boys or The Sex Pistols), unless it has some sort of significant new inflection or half buried nuance. Presenting entirely derivative music to the marketplace (aka your take on the classics) is a little bit like asking people to go to the office on the weekend.

Do you like going to the office on the weekend? 

Also worth considering is this surprisingly difficult question:

What have you actually done? 

I know it’s incredibly difficult to balance the making of something that strives to push out from everyday life with self-criticism and cautiousness. But as in most things in life, you subconsciously know when you’re shitting in life’s punchbowl. You always have your suspicions.

Maybe someone casually suggested this to you? 

Maybe a reviewer completely unknown to you has suggested this to you? (hint, hint)

Maybe no one under the age of thirty-five attends your shows? 

Maybe no significant taste-maker of any description has ever taken a liking to your work? Not ever?

My advice is to act on these suspicions in some capacity. I can’t really advise you further on this other than to suggest that you not hire a publicist to promote your suspected turd in these situations. Also: don’t have said publicist send your album out to a website known for its bitchy and snarky commentary. That’s just a series of bad ideas, one after the other.

Lastly, why did you spend all that money on recording?

Get a grip.

You don’t need the polish of a studio unless you’re aiming to get played on the radio.

(Confused about radio? As a rule of thumb: If you suspect your album is a bit shit and you’re primarily influenced by The Beatles, Bowie, The Who and/or The Rolling Stones and you’re not already on the radio then you’re not getting on the radio. No amount of polish will change this.)

Do something else.

What type of something else?

There is an ideal model for rock musicians of your ilk: Guided By Voices. They were Dayton Ohio yahoos who recorded an album called ‘Bee Thousand’ album for the cost of batteries and beer. They liked The Beatles and Bowie and The Who and The Rolling Stones (and REM as well) and they spent years making those influences into something almost entirely their own. During this time of development, they hardly ever played live or sent out promotional copies of their early albums. Why? Because they had enough common sense to know that timidly ripping off rock’s canon was not good music. It was leisure and then, later, it was research.

I’m not saying don’t play in a rock band and I’m not saying don’t pay your dues to the classics. I’m saying you should think about what contribution you’re making to the history of music before making a contribution to the history of music. Where is your voice? It doesn’t have to be a slick or practiced voice and it doesn’t have to be completely original either. It just has to be partly original and partly unique. Until you’ve got those basics down, you’re not ready to be out in the world of music. Until you get the basics down there’s so, so much to be gained from hiding out, recording cheap and acting smart in the meantime.

Further to which, those early pre-reviews, pre-albums, pre-everything months can be some of the best there are in a band. My advice: make them last, for everyone’s sake, most of all yours.

The Art of Complaining About A Bad Review: Musicians and Critics

AKA YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN’T DO IT!

The Art of Complaining About A Bad Review: Musicians and CriticsMost of my friends are musicians and I tell them this stuff over and over and it never really seems to sink in. They almost never listen. When the bad review comes in, the knee-jerk complaint emails and snippy Facebook updates go out and if I slapped my forehead every time it happened, I’d have brain damage by now.

But let me explain it one more time, in writing, on the internet, so I can link people to this in future and just say, ‘Here, numb-nut!’ instead of wasting my breath.

WHY YOU THE MUSICIAN GENERALLY SHOULDN’T RESPOND TO CRITICISM

#1 It’s painfully uncool.

In a 1983 Art Forum article, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth described the live concert as:

‘People pay(ing) to see other people believe in themselves.’

Try as I might, I’ve never been able to fault the logic of that. Sounds gross sure, but it’s true. The only thing separating you from the non-musicians in your audience is that you have enough self-confidence (or neurosis) to get onstage. That’s it. It’s a weird dynamic but the people who listen to your music will think of you as being a little bit bigger (or weirder) than one person’s opinion (unless that person writes for Pitchfork). So responding is lame. It never reads as constructive or fair. It always reads as a whiney tantrum. And as such it always chips away at that part of you that other people are interested in.

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