15 Songs | MR048 | Release Date 2009
Listening to Lenny Bryan’s just-released solo album Mama - The Sound of Inevitability, the old problem recurs of how to write about music in an honest and meaningful way for folks generally unfamiliar with the work at hand.
Say the Max Recordings album - which I like a lot, by the way - is all about shimmering, decaying sheets of guitar tone and liquid crystal vocals that sometimes split the difference between John Fogerty and Bono; that it’s dreamy and droney, subtle and sublime, with percolating water torture beats and swirling frequencies mixed up with animal noises and musique concrete treatments. It’s state-of-the-art, 21st Century pop music.
Does that really tell you anything? Or is it so much adjectival jazz that might (or might not) make sense if you headphoned the disc yourself ? Language is insufficient for describing complex sound, so a lot of music writing ends up being about lyrics and what other bands the guitar player has been in. Reviews train readers to expect that sort of approach, which is as good as any for promoting a product, but largely irrelevant to considering a work of art.
And does a review of The Sound of Inevitability really help matters anyway? Newspapers can do a lot of things, but they can’t confer hipness or certify cool. A review drags an underground artifact out into the vampire-killing sunlight, where it might be pounced upon (and consumed) by that part ofthe population that so yearns to be thought of as “with it.” Nobody gets better after they become famous.
It’s not a newspaper’s job to plug local talent anyway. Most of what we do is reactive. If 20,000 people turn out to watch Kris Allen strum and smile, that’s a news story. If Evanescence sells 15 million albums and wins two Grammy Awards, we report and you decide. If some kid in Capitol View re-invents pop music in his bedroom and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
So it’s inaccurate to say the media missed the strangely rich and deep current of locally manufactured pop music that flows back at least to the mid-1960s and The Coachmen and The Culls. (See the 1999 Butler Center-produced CD, The Little Rock Sound, 1965-1969, compiled by and with liner notes from writer Bill Jones. The story is picked up in 1986 and carried forward another 20 years by Richard Matson’s excellent documentary, Towncraft.)
It wasn’t news. There’s never been much money in being a local hero, and the musicians who do manage to make their livings playing in bars are generally compelled to perform as human jukeboxes, churning out user-friendly versions of other singers’ hits.
Yet musicians persist like cockroaches. Someone snaps on a light, and you catch them in midscurry, evacuating the pantry. The Gunbunnies had their exposed moment; so did the Boondogs. Bryan’s old band Ho-Hum popped up here and there. The American Princes tickled some big-city critics’ ears.
Luckily, for most musicians, the point is not so much the being heard as the making of music. It’s all well and good if people attend to it, like it and are willing to pay you to play, but in a way, it’s less complicated if they don’t.
As Ricky Nelson said, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself. If you’re not compelled to produce what is palatable to your “fans,” then you have a kind of freedom that’s unavailable to the Jonas Brothers. (Not that being rich is a drag; money buys power and a brand of freedom that, if you’re not the starving artist type, is preferable to the right to scream fire in an empty theater.)
Over the past couple of decades, great music has been made by people who live within a few blocks of me, by musicians who’ve likely been as influenced by each other as by commercial pop’s rich pageant. I call it the Stifft Station Sound, which maybe isn’t geographically accurate but conjures up what the music typically feels like - it’s perpetually transitional, post-college, frayed, comfortable with natural organic decomposition and pretty handy with computers. It drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon and jams on its porch in its underwear.
It’s collegial, only modestly aspirational, and deeply connected to the grand traditions of American folk and blues. You hear it in bands like the Big Cats and the Magic Cropdusters, and in that great Techno-Squid Eats Parliament album from 1995.
I’m by no means a musical local vore, but it shouldn’t surprise us that the quality of local music is first-rate. Genius is scarce, but talent is abundant. There are probably a hundred bands in this newspaper’s circulation that produce more interesting music than most of what shows up on the charts.
But remember, Grasshopper, the record companies don’t make their money selling music to music lovers - they make money selling product to those who don’t really care that much for music.
All a critic can really do is say, “Here. Listen. Hear.”
- Phillip Martin via Arkansas Democrat-Gazette