Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Great War in Modern Memory

Yeah, I know that's not the title of the book.

PJ Harvey just put out a new album, Let England Shake, that I cannot recommend enough. It's about the First World War, and it seems absolutely appropriate for today. The century that began at Waterloo with the demise of Napoleon ended 1914, and it seems that--much more so than 1989--another century is ending right now. Economics as we know it doesn't work any more, the Middle East is eating itself, and China is slowly supplanting the US.

Pre-millennial tension produces great music, like Tricky's 1996 album, Pre-Millenium Tension.

Tricky - Christiansands (live, with a nuclear-powered bass amp)

But fast forward 15 years to 2011, and that's not the sound we have. PJ Harvey's new album isn't so much pre-millennial tension as it is post-funereal elegy.

PJ Harvey - Written on the Forehead

That's a sentiment that must be even stronger in the UK, where they seem to have taken their economic crisis by the horns and recognized their decline far more firmly than we have in the US. US culture continues to produce either degenerate art like Katy Perry and Justine Bieber (nope, no links here) or rage.

Tyler, the Creator and Hodgy Beats - Sandwitches

Note here the same underlying drone, low frequency rumble, and static that were all over Tricky and Massive Attack's best at the turn of the century. It's like paranoia has its own sonic footprint.

But that sound is not really there in PJ's album. Her album is a eulogy or a lament. One of the things that caught my attention was her sample in Written on the Forehead of Niney the Observer's Blood and Fire. How interesting is it that a requiem for an empire would quote from an outgrowth of that empire? Even more interesting is that during the 1970s, a similarly low period in England, they also borrowed from Jamaican music and launched the 2 Tone Ska. I wonder if that's a sign of England having exhausted itself, or is it a sign of hybrid vigor?

Niney the Observer - Blood and Fire

But the real sound of Let England Shake is very English. PJ in The Last Living Rose (how much more elegiac can you get?) used a jangly, reverby guitar and out-of-tune saxamaphones that recall skiffle and early early rock. No homage to Bollywood here, if anything, it's an inward turn: "God damned Europeans - take me back to beautiful England - and the gray damp filthiness of ages and battered books." The words of a homesick English soldier on the Western Front?

PJ Harvey - The Last Living Rose

This is not a fully formed thought in my head yet, and I'm still working it out, but I'm wondering what we'll start quoting as we realize that our imperial moment has passed.

I'm pretty sure that in rough times like these, in the US we'll fall back on something similarly culturally conservative. It probably won't be as backwards looking as the indie-folk scene in the UK--denial and optimism are too ingrained in the US--but I wonder if the sound will be the garage rock revival that started in about 2000 or so with acts like the Strokes, the White Stripes, Franz Ferdinand, the 5,6,7,8s, Ty Segall, etc. It's been vaguely popular for about 10 years now, but it can certainly go even more mainstream. Or, acts like Toro y Moi and Caribou are quoting heavily from the late 70s and early 80s, certainly not a conservative period, but a familiar sound, and further back than it should be if it were just part of the usual 20-years-gone revivals.

Ty Segall - It #1

Toro y Moi - Still Sound

Caribou - Odessa

But the other possibility is an even stronger turn to Americana. Where country and bluegrass recover from the nightmarish 80s and 90s and return to their roots:

Hank III -Long Gone Daddy (yup, that's the grandson...I've seen him live, this is not really what he does, but the resemblance is uncanny)

Justin Townes Earle -Mama's Eyes (Unlike the Williamses, only 2 generations of geniuses far)

Hayes Carill - KMAG YOYO

Brief word on Carill....fascinating to me that he's writing a song about the war in Afghanistan, and equally fascinating that it hearkens back to Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. Good show on how old stuff can be revisited without choking on nostalgia, I think.

But anyway, I hope the rage bit wins, because that's a much more constructive sentiment than nostalgia. But if we go the route of elegy ourselves, and have a wake for America, here's the soundtrack...provided by an Irishman:

The Pogues - Body of an American ("Put the fuckin' song on, Hugh!")