Monday, July 26, 2010

Are there any really consistent bands?

In an age of intangible music formats, X-factor here-today-gone-tomorrow clowns, more so-called indie bands than you can shake a stick at, not to mention every second older band reforming, today’s music scene is arguably more transient than ever before.

In the supposed ‘golden age’ of rock, there were consistent acts like the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and David Bowie to name just 3 who had a superb string of albums (especially the last 2) and seemed untouchable. Until the crap one came along.

In the case of the Rolling Stones, this arrived in 1980 with Emotional Rescue, which took some of the disco beat experiments and Jagger falsettoisms from their previous album, the not-too-bad-at-all Some Girls, and fleshed them into a basis for an album. The impact of this was to render them unable to subsequently release any more than 2 more tracks of musical merit, the following years’ Start Me Up and the excellent Waiting On A Friend. And they still haven’t gone away you know.

Neil Young’s case is less straightforward. After a string of almost flawless albums from 1970’s After the Goldrush to 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, 1981 saw the release of the pretty uninspiring Re-ac-tor (featuring the 9 minute repetitive yawn-fest T-Bone). Since then his solo career has not been totally merit-free (Freedom, Harvest Moon and Silver and Gold all had their moments), though it never scaled the heights of the 1970s.

Similarly with the aforementioned David Bowie. He bestrode the 70s like a colossus, with some brilliant albums (Hunky Dory, Aladdin Sane, Low), some very good ones (Ziggy Stardust) and some critically acclaimed (though overrated) ones (Diamond Dogs, Station to Station, Heroes). He inspired punk, post-punk and even the new Romantics, and invented Berlin as a cool destination for making music. So he could have defined 80s mainstream music. Unfortunately he let it define him. Let’s Dance was the start of it. Commercial as hell, aside from the title track it featured a terribly sanitised version of China Girl, which he wrote for Iggy Pop in 1977, which set the benchmark for the remainder of the decade. He released cheesy albums like Tonight and Never Let Me Down, before forming the noisy and tedious Tin Machine. Since then, he has been less relevant, releasing a series of albums in divergent musical styles, none of which has been awful but few with any really high quality tracks.

I can’t claim ownership of any of the above as I was too young for them in their prime. So what of the next generations of bands. Are there any who have managed a string of consistent albums, without any let downs?

Definitely out of the reckoning: Morrissey (Kill Uncle, Maladjusted, Years of Refusal), Mark Eitzel (despite the quality of the American Music Club albums, his solo albums are generally pretty patchy), The Cure (should never have been allowed release anything after 1989), Jesus and Mary Chain (ditto except fast forward to 1994). Also out would be Sonic Youth - too many dodgy noise experiments, key piece of evidence being their collaboration with Mats Gustafsson, Hidros 3, which consists of little more than noise and some particularly nasty groaning from Kim Gordon.

The Lemonheads released a pretty awful covers album last year (Varshons), and Primal Shame are really just a bunch of chancers. And Lurid (Lou Reed) had the same problem in the 1980s as Bowie and Neil Young. As for the grunge scene, Pearl Jam didn’t keep their initial momentum going, in fact they deliberately pulled back, while Soundgarden were all well and good but I don’t know if Chris Cornell’s credibility will ever recover from last year’s Timbaland-produced Scream.

Arab Strap were a candidate, though I was reminded that they were off the boil sometimes, and had too many albums that sounded the same. And the problem with Ryan Adams, apart from the awful Rock N Roll, was the media attention he received turned him into a pain in the neck really, which manifested itself in some of his music, of which he released too much to even approach consistency.

REM is an interesting one. 1994’s Monster is probably the most bought REM album. What I mean is that, with their critical stock at an all-time high after Automatic for the People, everybody wanted Monster. What an aptly named album though, within months you could pick this up easily in any second-hand music shop (of which there used to be plenty in the mid-90s). They haven’t released anything of note since. But imagine Michael Stipe had died after Automatic for the People, he would be deemed way more important than Kurt Cobain. There were rumours about his health at this time. Thankfully he is alive and well, though if a hypothetical premature death had occurred I’d say he’d have been revered, almost deified.

As for the possibles, the first band that occurred to me was the National. Although the first album wasn’t really anything special, subsequent albums have been way better. Though perhaps it’s them remaking the same album, just better each time? Radiohead would probably be the most obvious candidate, though it’s hard to make a case for Hail to the Thief as a truly enjoyable album. Nick Cave probably counts as one but he’s just so goddamn unloveable really, I can never get truly moved by him. He seems incapable of getting bad reviews though.

Mark Kozelek is probably an example of this, ever since his Red House Painting days, and perhaps Mark Lanegan would count too, no serious mis-steps (in my opinion). Tindersticks would also be one, though it’s probably just for my ears really. Richmond Fontaine are discounted as they don’t really make much impact, and I actually prefer Willy Vlautin’s books, I’d argue that’s where his true talent lies.

The problem is that many bands just make the same album over and over (often with diminishing returns), does that make them consistent? All feedback welcome!