You could choke on the talk of money these days. Jay Z, some other assorted clowns and the Arcade Fire have so recently launched another streaming service promising in vague terms more money to musicians. It’s a cash grab, to be sure, with no real innovations to platform or service. Taylor Swift recently used her enormous star power to force fans to buy her last record, and all the groups you love are actively courting major corporations to create brand anthems, in essence pimping out the mood of a song to add dimension to a soulless product or service.
Feels like something’s been lost.
Musicians: Do you remember your first paying gig? I bet a number of you could even name the bar. Sure, of the half dozen people to show up not a damn one listened until you started playing ‘Margaritaville,’ but when the manager put that meager wad of cash in your hands at the end of the two hour set didn’t it feel like you just got signed?
Remember that magic?
Writers/Editors: Recall the time before the daily onslaught of releases left you trying your damnedest to stretch 1,000 words out of the painfully mediocre record dropped into your inbox? It’s hard to feel a connection when the article is either an assignment, a return back-scratch to some company or else a form of trend-surfing to keep the fickle tastes of an audience, publication or editor sated. Do you remember when you had months to sink into and digest an album from the first track to the last, and your entire critique was a one sentence exclamation, “Taylor, you’ve got to hear this!”
Those were good times.
Fans: Do you too remember a time when you could tell a lot about a person when you asked what they listened to? You’d get an answer like, rap, rock, country, or pop. It was that simple. These days there’s a thousand and one sub-genres, and if you ask that same question you’ll get either a generic “Oh I like everything!” Before they drop a word that tips you off they don’t actually like anything, ‘eclectic,’ or else you’ll receive a litany of hyper-specific genre connotations in addition to a meandering resuscitation of incredibly arcane acts. Seems like everyone’s playing this tired, hipster, one up game of ‘Who Can Be the Most Obscure.’
It’s all sentimental blathering, a rose tinted look back on a time that probably never existed, any of the above scenarios. But it seems to me something has been lost with the modern market. The better I understand music, the more involved with the industry I become, I can’t shake the feeling I’m losing a bit more of the magic of discovery, the starry eyed wonderment of absolutely loving a record/song/artist for the pure fact a complete stranger is providing insight into my life. How did Ryan Adams write all my songs on Heartbreaker?! There’s an immediate connection there. It’s like an unexpected romance or a windfall during an otherwise featureless stretch of existence.
Back before the internet music was more exciting. A chance look through the hard press revealed one of your favorite bands was playing town, and that very night! Otherwise you’d encounter long lines of people waiting outside Ticketmaster at dawn with cash money just talking shit about all the music they hated and how great whatever the show was, was going to be. Boozy afternoons spent lost in a haze of smoke led to concrete discoveries. “You’re into Wilco?” The dealer would ask, “Well shit, you ever heard of Elliot Smith?” He’d mutter while cycling through his old vinyl collection. And the world would suddenly change for you when that needle hit the groove. There was a time the local independent radio station was the most exciting source imaginable. You’d hear a song you liked and you’d call the DJ to ask what it was… and talk to a person. You knew there was good music out there, but like anything precious you just had to dig for it. So you’d go out and find it on your own, you’d interact with like-minded people, and you’d actually listen.
Well, that’s all gone for the most part, which is why during a long-haul day-drunk at the recent SXSW festival I couldn’t have been more slack-jawed to look down at whatever rot-gut I was in at the moment to see propped against a napkin dispenser an E.P. bearing the name of Anna Vogelzang. The album cover brought back years of history.
Half a decade ago I was living in an East Coast capitol city, dating a girl so pretty and so cool you’d probably try to steal her away, and it’d probably come to blows between you and me. Well, she was very well educated, a visual artist and feminist. She only listened to female musicians. It was an ear opening experience for a hetero-normative rock n’ roller. As you can probably guess, one of the women she liked most was named Anna Vogelzang. Vogelzang wrote innocent, almost childlike ballads, back in the days of the indie-mainstream Juno awakening when Kimya Dawson and Joanna Newsome were popular amongst a certain college age crowd.
Years pass, the relationship was a ball of fire that burnt itself quickly out. I start working for a lesser publication and the editor asks me to cover this unknown musician out of Wisconsin named Vogelzang. It’s not a name you easily forget. So I take it on. And much unlike with the old flame, I actually listened. The album was called Canary in a Coal Mine, and I described it as thus:
“Vogelzang’s got a voice that bristles between training and conviction, it bursts when emotion gets the better of her. I know her only goal on Canary is to try and seduce me, and while recognizing this these bits of honest relation only endear me all the more. You hear her voice crack and spit in places as she falls slightly off key owing to the gut infliction placed over her lyrics, leading me to suspect the worst. She might actually mean what she’s singing.”
What was more interesting at the time was Vogelzang didn’t have a website. I contact the editor and ask for a press release. There was none. I guess she didn’t have management or a publicist. There was no way to look up her discography or contact her. From her voice alone I knew she was pretty, but I couldn’t even find a picture of her on the internet. But the album was exciting. It was layered, emphatic, interesting and different. And I liked it. I give it a positive review and then move on down the list to whomever was next in line.
Years pass. I conduct several hundred interviews, record reviews, live concerts, critiques, etc for various publications. The lines blur and at times I feel more like a publicist than a writer. What’s worse is when I go back and read a disingenuous article I feel horrible shame for writing such trash. Some are so bad, and so susceptible to the hype of the time it was written that I can’t even fucking believe the words I wrote. I get sent to these mega-festivals, and instead of watching some of the most respected bands in music play their set I’ll stick around the media tent and yuck it up with industriosos. After all, there isn’t free beer out in the audience. I become bitter and cut the legs out from under acts like Mumford and Sons who deserve to be stuck because no one else is doing it, or else I thrash unknown musicians for the crime of getting up on that stage and playing music. I’ll write generally positive reviews of music I can’t stand because the suits of such and such a company picked up the hotel bill, the flight, or else I’m hoping to get in the good graces of whatever other company. I drive hundreds of miles alone in an old Buick, talking to myself, listening to promo-copies of what someone has assured me is ‘the next big thing’ chain smoking cigarettes and rolling my eyes, when, in rare moments of clarity, I realize again I’ve lost something.
It’s not really about the music anymore, is it? That unexpected romance morphed into a twenty year marriage.
In Austin I look down to see Driftless, the most recent Anna Vogelzang record and I smile. I don’t bother asking, I just take it. There’s no publicist there pushing it down my throat, there’s no band fresh from the stage talking to me at the bar because of the camera slung over my shoulder. In contrast to all the open faced screaming that is popular music, Driftless is a whisper in the ear. It speaks to me of history, not that cold ass ladder stretching into the future called a ‘career.’ It is the delight of a pretty new face, not the sigh of coming home to find your clothes strewn out along the lawn.
On Driftless not much has changed. Vogelzangs voice is still lovely in its disparity. Album opener, ‘Amarillo’ features oddball musical accompaniment as the protagonist speaks of the possibility of the future while nodding at an implicit history. Thanks to a website, what’s more a Wikipedia entry, that mysterious history from our last encounter has been put to rest. With ten releases over as many years it seems Vozelgang isn’t necessarily as fleeting or momentary as the artists I’d lumped her with earlier, Dawson, Newsome, et al.
Across Driftless one senses a fatigue that wasn’t necessarily apparent in her past work. While ‘Amarillo’ speaks of turning a new page without directly references from what, the swelling orchestration of ‘Mercy’ contains lyrics of lost love at every crescendo. The line, “I’m grateful for such mercy,” offers a message that lies in direct contrast to its vocal delivery. ‘Vanguard,’ is equally forlorn, but sweet in its sorrow, like the poetry of Poe or losing an argument to save a relationship.
And on and on, with the rhetoric of ‘Lion,’ and the forced easy feeling of ‘Kay,’ we find a woman at a crossroads. With every new undertaking in life we get a little farther away from the original plan. Lyrics like, “Whisky for breakfast,” aren’t sung as a youthful ode to hedonism, rather they relate a slow decent into muted confusion. ‘Kay’ is sung from a point where the protagonist wonders exactly how she got from there to here.
Driftless isn’t a Dark Side of the Moon. It isn’t After the Gold Rush, or Four Thieves Gone. It isn’t going to change the music industry, how we write about that industry, or how fans relate to music. Hell, it isn’t even new. It was released last November. But for me, personally, it’s a very special album. It’s the first album in a long time to capture a little bit of that magic I felt back in the beginning before any of this mess started. As final track, ‘Why Not,’ closes out I think about calling that ol’ girl up and asking her how she’s been. I probably won’t, maybe I’ll just spin the record again and try to hold on to that feeling for as long as possible.