Whatever Happened to… The ROCK?

As in Rock N’ Roll, not the mediocre Cage/Connery film of the same name. That heading might be more clear if I used the spelling “RAWK,” but I refuse.

Actually, for once, I come not to lament something we’ve lost but to celebrate something that’s gone largely unheralded: the great rock revival of the late Aughts.

Not since the grunged-out, celebrated summers of the early ’90s have there been this many good bands that flat-out rock.

Now, I’m not talking about metal. I’m sure Mastodon’s really good if that’s your thing. I’m talking about old-fashioned, straight-up rock and roll: music with a beat like a freight train, music that’s perfect for driving on open highways to, music that makes you tap your feet but still has a melody, music with bloodlines that can be traced back to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Dylan, The Beatles & Stones.

After Nirvana, Pearl Jam et al. rescued us from one of the bleaker pop periods in modern history, Western music began to splinter intro fragments (how has there not been a Stuff White People Like entry about discussing the fragmentation of popular culture?). Alternative/indie music moved further and further away from the mainstream, while the Top 40 was corrupted by the likes of Nickelback and American Idol winners. And indie music built walls around itself, determined not to slide into the horrors of popular rock. Within those walls, a thousand different styles emerged: slowcore, alt-country, low-fi, emo, post-punk, etc. A lot of great bands and songs came out of this era, but very few of those sub-genres actually rocked.

I spent the late ’90s/early Aughts listening to too much of The Shins, Wilco, Rilo Kiley, Ryan Adams, Archers of Loaf, Pavement, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo, Ben Kweller, and Neko Case. Now those artists have created some of my favorite music of all time, but they’re all pretty soft, or at the very least pretty weird. Weird is fine, weird can be fantastic, but sometimes I need a driving drumbeat, and some classic rock-esque radio jams. Some Tom Petty or The Who, you know? And indie rock seemed to be getting more twee, more self-satisfied and more precious by the year. Too much Belle & Sebastian, not enough Sugar. Too much Sufjan Stevens, not enough Replacements.

But sometime in the last decade, the tide began to shift, ever so subtly. And I give all credit for this sea change to one of the great (yet somehow still underappreciated) bands of our era: The White Stripes.

By perfecting their own corner of garage rock revivalism, the Stripes stripped rock music down its simplest elements. And they turned what could have easily been a gimmick (We might be divorced! Or we’re brother and sister! And there’s no bass player!) into a consistently impressive, constantly evolving career.

The White Stripes made it OK to rock again. They made it permissible to play straight-forward music while still showing some personality. To write great songs while still operating within the structural limitations of rock and roll.

The Strokes certainly served as an influence too, but their sway had more to do with their style, and with the hype that accompanied their arrival, than with their actual music, as good as it may have been. If the White Stripes showed future generations that it was OK to play fantastic rock songs, The Strokes showed them it could still be considered cool to do so.

But what have these bands wrought? Merely a collection of artists producing music that will make your heart pound. This is the golden age, kids.

Several sub-sets have emerged from this overabundance of great rock music:

The Direct Stripes Descendants
Following in the immediate footsteps of Jack White, these groups bought in wholesale to the garage rock movement, many of them eschewing all instrumentation but guitar and drums.

Key Examples:

  • The Black Keys, who have focused on the bluesier side of the Stripes’ ouevre.
  • The Kills, whose singer was picked by White himself to form the Dead Weather, his latest side project.
  • Japandroids, who mix the Stripes’ sparseness with a love of Mudhoney.

The Springsteenians
They’re not all from Jersey, though most are, and they all seem like they’ve spent quite a bit of time with Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Key examples:

  • The Hold Steady. Though their first couple albums sounded like a weird amalgam of Thin Lizzy and Lou Reed, Boys and Girls in America made it crystal clear who this group’s chief forebear is.
  • Gaslight Anthem, the most directly derivative of these bands. When not actually quoting Springsteen in their lyrics, they seem like they’d be perfectly pleased to make a bunch of albums that sound exactly like their hero.
  • Titus Andronicus. Yet more Jersey boys, they combine the concept-album ambition of The Hold Steady with the fist-pumping ethos of Gaslight Anthem.

Owing as much to Lynard Skynard as to Springsteen, these bands wear their Deep South idiosyncracies on their sleeves.

Key Examples:

  • Drive-By Truckers. The grandfathers of this genre, they seem to be headed full-on into mainstream rock as their career moves into its twilight phase.
  • Lucero, who manage to sound like the Truckers, but with even more whiskey in their system.

1 Comment

Filed under Music Has AIDS, The Dilemma

One response to “Whatever Happened to… The ROCK?

  1. David Simon Cowell

    I think you underestimate the role of Kings of Leon, especially in the last category. I know they kind of suck now, but they showed that you could be a straightforward Southern guitar rock band and become big.

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