YEAR IN MUSIC: Bay Area rock staked its claim while critical darlings turned bogus in 2010
MUSIC Why did Bay Area rock rule in 2010? As top 10 lists fall like snowflakes, there's no reason not to count the reasons. The first for me is "Age Class," by Weekend. Here is the sound of shoegaze sharpened into an attack. Evoking Loop on adrenaline (not amphetamine), the song is an example of a young band making an old sound new — it has age and class. The hook of the song resides in the way Shaun Durkan's voice manages to match and maybe even outdo the ferocity of the guitar, bass, and drums as he repeats the core lyric: "There's something in our blood." As he draws out the word blood and makes it rise, he taps into something human, maybe sinister, and definitely at the heart of rock 'n' roll.
What is that something in the blood? It could be many things, but reduced to the realm of Bay Area rock, it's imagination and vitality. Weekend's debut album Sports is traditionally classic in formal presentation, and it serves notice of a group that is likely to become big. Like many recent bands, Durkan and bandmates Abe Pedroza and Kevin Johnson tap into the late 1980s and early '90s whirlpools of shoegaze. But unlike many peers, they match it with dark, serrated edges characteristic of post-punk. Weekend may have various writers namedropping Joy Division, but for a trio of guys in their early twenties, they sound very much like themselves.
This command extends from sound to vision with Durkan and Johnson's video for a pair of songs on their album, "Monday Morning/Monongah, WV." Shot beautifully in widescreen, its suburban fable adds potent surreality to Larry Clark-like teen hijinks, simply by replacing taken-for-granted water with an oil-like black liquid. Clocking in at over seven minutes and successfully fusing two songs to each other to form one narrative, "Monday Morning/Monongah, WV" breaks out of standard music video tropes to work as a film.
Which brings me to reason No. 2: Some of the best current Bay Area music is wedded to a visual flair and style born from life rather than glossy magazines. For examples, one need look no further than Justin Kelly's videos for Hunx and His Punx, and thrift-shop owner Hunx's perverse looks — just this month, he debuted one that he'd nicknamed "Barefoot Contessa Egghead Dracula" onstage at a downtown museum, and in the summer, he landed in the pages of Vogue Italia and Les Inrockuptibles. Likewise, Skye Thorstenson's video — self-contained as a vintage Warner Bros. cartoon — for Myles Cooper's "Gonna Find Boyfriends Today" successfully cast the performer as a 21st-century Mister Rogers or Pee-wee Herman, and made him a pop phenom in the British music press.
Cooper may be big in England, and Hunx may be stripped bare onstage in Paris, but there's a gap between their do-it-yourself feats and the mainstream music press as represented by Pitchfork. I'd like to say that sexual preferences-turned-prejudices have nothing to do with it, but while Pitchfork has celebrated the neo-rave twists of Teengirl Fantasy, they've shown no interest in Nick Weiss of that group's new gay pop collabos with Hunx and with Alexis, tracks that perfectly fit into the site's established fetish for synth pop.
On Twitter, Hunx pretty much called the dominant website out on its bullshit when it omitted him from its "Top 40 Artist Twitters" list. Packed with sharp observation about music and day-to-day moments, the Twitter feeds of SF musicians such as Hunx, Cooper, Alexis Penney, and — showcased in this issue — swiftumz offer more than self-promotion. They're full-fledged creative diaries, and in some cases, spaces for comic or gay performance. It's no accident that today's most extreme example of a self-created musical Twitter or YouTube star — Lil B — also hails from the self-inventing Bay Area. On his own, jettisoning major labels, Lil B is a one-man Warhol factory, endlessly duplicating and multiplying and morphing his image.
In recent years, Pitchfork and other New York publications have tended to patronize the rock music coming out of San Francisco while staunchly championing the thrilling likes of the Drums and the Beets. This year, that practice had perhaps started to fade, maybe thanks to the sheer dynamic variety of sounds from San Francisco. At the tail end of 2010, Girls' Broken Dreams Club hit the site's "Best New Music" category, while Weekend's Sports garnered a high rating, and the Soft Moon's debut album was previewed and promoted in different contexts. Earlier in the year, Sonny and the Sunsets were blessed with a billing at Pitchfork's fest.
These national nods count for something, and the past twelve months have also seen solid-to-exceptional releases from Moon Duo, the Fresh and Onlys, the Mantles, Tamaryn, and more. Still, while new albums by the Alps and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma were championed by New York's Other Music, they've gone ignored on Pitchfork. Singular Bay Area labels such as Root Strata and Dark Entries are unveiling strange sonic worlds to excited audiences, though you wouldn't necessarily know it if you went to national music publications for your information.
Meanwhile, Pitchfork's influence — the inevitable wave crest of a sensibility (if you can call it that) cultivated by the echo-chamber of various blogs — has generated some truly dubious critical darlings in 2010. It's one thing to simply not care for a lauded artist. That kind of thing happens all the time. It's another, though, to listen to a celebrated phenom and feel that it is entirely bogus. Such is the case with How to Dress Well, whose Mr. Bill reinterpretations of '80s and '90s R&B have me racing for my Aaliyah collection and early Mary J. Blige recordings so as not to become wholly dispirited. Similarly, 2010 will also bear the scarlet letter of being the year that "witch house" broke, as the similar sub-musicality of Salem was taken seriously at face value — at least until some mind-boggling live performances began to circulate on YouTube.
Perhaps all too late, this critic inherently questions the value or existence of pop music criticism a little more with each passing year. At times, my disillusionment blooms into an outright alienation from an entire genre. I'll come right out and admit that frustration with commercial hip-hop has turned me off with no change in sight for a while, and I feel similarly about R&B. Janelle Monáe's android act leaves me cold, and no amount of pioneering or vanguard or even artistically challenging production moves by Kanye West will get me to successfully ignore or bypass the fact that he annoys the fuck out of me. Is this dubious? Maybe so. Tell me why. I'd like to feel enraptured by these genres, but right now, I don't.
Still, this disappointment has been countered by a sense of excitement about music on a local scale, and also a hope that actual songcraft — as embodied by Kisses, whose sublime song "Bermuda" made them a brief Pitchfork flavor-of-the-month — may yet have a comeback. Even as the likes of How to Dress Well and Salem seem to wage a war against musicality that has nothing to do with punk and everything to do with navel-gazing hipster tedium. Let me put it this way. Weekend is coming up, Girls is here for your broken heart, Hunx is around for other parts of your anatomy, and a Soft Moon is on the rise. It would be sheer foolishness to complain.