Last week, I attended the taping of what will be the first episode of the TV version of Long Night with Vish Khanna at The Great Hall in Toronto. The episode’s subject, discussed with esteemed music writer Carl Wilson, Shad and Jasmyn Burke of Weaves, was the often pondered and rarely answered “is rock still relevant” question. While the guests answered with a resounding but optimistic no, there is one facet of the question that was left relatively untouched: sure, rock music doesn’t sell as much anymore and maybe it’s not “relevant”, but is there still good rock music being made? If so, does only a handful of people caring mean it’s not worth anything artistically or otherwise? And what makes rock music “good” for that matter?
To answer those questions in a positive manner requires you to know where to look. The world (aka music websites, half empty venues, newsfeeds) is inundated with what I would (cynically) call recycle rock — rock music directly and intentionally influenced by a specific band, specific album, or a specific song. There is no attempt to hide the recycled nature of the music. Instead, the inspiration is often flaunted and used a promotional tool to entice people who are fans of the music being rehashed. There is a long history of this, and it can prove an exciting task for a music nerd to historically trace the influences other artists have had on the songs and artists they love. In fact rock music, and almost all popular music nowadays, was taken from some sound or artist or band that was influenced by another and so on and so forth. It’s evolution, baby! Yet there is a key ingredient missing from this process, particularly in “guitar music” these days.
In reading Bob Mehr’s excellent history of The Replacements, Trouble Boys, I was struck by a Paul Westerberg quote about the song “Swingin’ Party”. Westerberg, a voracious music consumer and rock historian himself, had a long history of lifting melodies, chords, and song structures from older artists, but his goal was to try and mask that fact as much as possible: “If you steal from everybody, nobody can put a finger on you.”
It’s not easy to strive for a sound that is original. Bands can mine for years before stumbling upon a sound or vision that is unique, but as long as there is some intention of finding originality, their music has the potential to be both palpable and exciting. Take for example, Montreal’s Yoo Doo Right.
While my mind goes to many different musical places and touchstones while listening to their debut EP, Nobody Panicked and Everybody Got On, it showcases a band who are driven by a sort of musical manifest destiny. They sound absolutely determined to discover new twists and turns on the “guitar music” road map.
While the EP plays out like one long suite, its four tracks find Yoo Doo Right condensing the overindulgence of some of their psychedelic influences into tight and sophisticated songs that breathe with introspection, but also blast off with propulsive and often exhilarating fury. Though the vocals are sparse, they are used wisely and are delivered with a bite that elevates the already solid post-rock instrumentals. “Fear Of Elevators” pushes out of the foggy ambience of its front half like a neon freight train, while the title track’s primal repetition and digital-dream ambience is the best argument on the EP for why rock music may not be ‘relevant’, but can certainly be very good.
The question of whether it’s worth anything to try and push a bygone style of music forward is harder to answer; it’s a question that I struggle with personally and I can only imagine other artists do as well. “Worth” here does not equate to money, because if that’s the case everyone should hang up their guitars right now. It’s worth it for those who hear the music and recognize the band’s drive to create something special artistically. Musicians pushing their own music forward can have a great affect on other musicians and artists around them, hopefully inspiring them to be more than mere recycle rockers. The hardest question is whether it’s worth it for the musicians striving for new ground. I see bands keeping it simple, rehashing the same decent ideas over and over and getting more attention than most bands who are not as easily marketable or digestible, and I think “Why wouldn’t everybody just do it this way?”
It falls on musicians to push music forward, and to keep it worthwhile for fans who come to the shows and listen to the records, but the creators need to have reason to create. Music made with guitars, drums, and whatever else, has the potential to be, and often is great. There are countless songs and albums by countless great bands that can prove that, but they all did their best to avoid anybody putting a finger on them. Bands: avoid the finger. Fans: learn how to spot those artists and bands who you can’t easily pin down — they deserve your attention and your life will be enriched because of it. It’s your support that gives those bands a fighting chance to push further than we have yet to sonically imagine.