Mahgeetah (Part I)

Backtracking: When you sit around pretending to study all day, there’s no time to appreciate the raw power of the guitar. Consequently, rhythm-based music has soundtracked much of the last five years of my life, with “rock” music relegated to weekend blowouts, when I just want to sit in front of the hi-fi, mouth agape at the rich overtones and natural harmonies of the humble axe.

There have been guitars, of course, but they were either in the post-rock vein, or they were being re-appropriated into dance music. Like I wrote previously, the post-punk revival happened.

In my downtime, the twin mainstays whose CDs always found their way into the stereo were Spoon and My Morning Jacket: two bands who keep the rock rolling. The former make taut, concise music that, at its most prosaic, resembles Pavement and Led Zeppelin, but, at its smartest, fashioned instantly familiar melodies out of white space and scrappy guitar. The latter write caterwauling, brawling songs, recorded in grain silos and made to be played in country discos, like the ones Dub Blood frequents in Annie Proulx‘s Postcards.

I have written in the past about the minimalism of Spoon; how they rarely eke out a song beyond its natural limit. But they also do maximalism, of a kind, as on their 2007 album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Unexpectedly embracing a poppier tone (in particular, that of rhythm and blues), the band sound less jittery and paranoid than on their other albums, and the songs take in rousing brass and leather-jacket swagger. Experimental moments persist, notably with “The Ghost Of You Lingers” and its urgent keys and desolate vocals, but the prevailing mood is one of accessible optimism, even when the songs’ protagonists are deadbeats or world-weary. “The Underdog”, which was produced by Jon Brion (of Late Registration fame), hurtles out of the starting block before settling into a jaunty shuffle. Over scraggly acoustic guitars we hear frontman Britt Daniel revelling in the band’s titular status; a faintly mariachi brass arrangement likes to cut in periodically. At the song’s close, brass and percussion whip up a ragged storm, before the whole thing implodes in on itself, which could be seen as a metaphor for the impermanence of the band’s popularity.

There are several references to Elvis Costello, circa-Get Happy!!, on the album. Most audibly, many of the songs bear a similar debt to the R&B and soul Costello was inspired by on his 1980 album. Additionally, a bonus disc supplied with some editions of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was entitled Get Nice!—if this is a coincidence, I’ll be damned. On this supplement, the band spell out the inner workings of the songs, and the processes by which they arrive at the final versions of songs. So we get a space-rock demo of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb”, only a fragment of which made it to the final cut, tacked on right at the end of the album version. Another song on the main disc which retains the stamp of a cut ‘n’ paste approach is the brash “Finer Feelings” (see above), which progresses in a familiar, canonical style (brittle guitars, intricate drums and percussion, the odd flourish of synth) until we get to where the bridge should be. Suddenly, the main arrangement peters out, to be replaced by an interpolation of Mikey Dread’s “Industrial Spy“. Distant samples of a cheering audience clash with it, creating a disorienting, dubby feel. And then, a few seconds later, the brittle guitar cuts back in and we are returned, safe and dry, to Spoonland. It’s this kind of abrupt yet comfortable experimentation that Spoon excel at weaving into what might otherwise be dubbed “dad rock”.

My Morning Jacket reached the apex of their rural rock on 2003’s It Still Moves. A few of the songs, like “Dancefloors” and “Easy Morning Rebel”, encourage innocent jiving, and conjure up the aforementioned country discos, in which minor fights break out, and belles are courted. But there are also more spacious and elegant songs, like the centrepiece “I Will Sing You Songs” and the yearning “Rollin’ Back” (see above), which allow frontman Jim James room to breathe. He still uses his distinctive howl on these songs, but more sparingly, as an embellishment, in collaboration with an elegant croon and gentle cooing, the likes of which would later be resurrected by Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. James’s voice is cloaked in reverb—not the pretentious kind used by the lo-fi crowd, but a more hushed variety which lingers in the air. Behind him, the instrumentation is less raucous, with muted chords and fragile arpeggios. It’s the kind of music that could soundtrack first dances in the backwoods of Kentucky, or Tennessee, in village halls and country clubs untouched by Jack Johnson and Snow Patrol.

But now my formal education is at an end, the open road beckons, and the time has come to merge on the freeway of rock. In the concluding part of “Mahgeetah”, I shall discuss the new inheritors of the rawk throne: Kurt Vile, The War On Drugs, Yuck. Until next time…

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