I. NE1 CAN > GTR
No image from this year better captured the state of the guitar going into 2015 than the opening shot of the video for Ought’s “New Calm, Pt. 2.” There sits a Telecaster. We hear it playing as we watch it sit there, leaning against an amp, unplayed. Though it seems incredibly simple, the sensory dissociation here is really pretty elaborate and based in a lot of weird shit going on in indie rock for the past several years, so let’s start with some context.
If you can think back a few years, you might remember that not long ago, it seemed the guitar was done for. 2009 and 2010 were the years when chillwave became the center of indie music, when Neon Indian and Washed Out and Toro Y Moi and Memory Tapes (remember Memory Tapes?) were breaking out and somehow actually exciting people. These were records built on synths, digitized to hell, designed for maximum relaxation and minimum physical exertion. This was music as escapist fantasy, made out of the horrible combination of disillusionment and boredom. These artists rode a wave of dissatisfied pot highs in reaction to what was seen as a retro fixation on music that no longer felt relevant – badly distilled emo and weird post-punk revivalism that felt too earnest for its own good.
Which was fair – at that point, “guitar music” seemed to have essentially ridden itself out. Of the early 2000s crowd of “rock saviors,” none still mattered – The White Stripes put out their last album in 2007, the Strokes had turned into a weird joke, Interpol was just pathetic. The Vines? The Hives? Yeah, the Libertines are reuniting, does anyone care? And bands that had been reliably putting out excellent guitar records in the aughts were either switching to synths or starting their shitty phases.
The major guitar records of those couple years – “The Monitor,” “Post-Nothing,” “Everything In Between,” fucking “King of the Beach,” – these were based on the revival of older guitar-rock thematics, and their coupling with things that made them appeal somehow to the masses. Titus Andronicus did Thin Lizzy and Bruce Springsteen, but with Millennial Nietzschean anthems for narratives. Japandroids did hair-metal-via-punk-rock but with the attitude of a couple dudes in a Vancouver basement, which is so relatable it’s untouchable. No Age was taking classic noisy punk from the likes of Hüsker Dü and adding samples, (worth noting – they moved even further away from rock music on follow-up “An Object” when Dean Spunt stopped playing drums altogether.) Wavves wore a stupid hat and dated Best Coast, which somehow worked for him. Yeah, Arcade Fire won a Grammy, but Arcade Fire was never a “guitar band” no matter how many guitars were on stage.
Which is not to say those albums – and other albums with prominent guitar work – were not big deals at the time, and are not still great (“KotB” obviously excepted). “Bitte Orca” came out in 2009, so did “Veckatimest” and “Halcyon Digest” and “Treats.” (1) Fucking “Civilian” was 2011, so let’s count that one, too. And “Strange Mercy,” too. (2) But these records did not position themselves as “guitar music.” Grizzly Bear is so entrenched in folk mythos that not all the Daniel Rossen paeans in the world can make them feel like a “rock” band. “Halcyon Digest” was interesting in Deerhunter’s catalog because of how little it focused on guitars. “Treats” blew up because it was basically a hip-hop record built on metal guitar instead of samples. No one knows what to do with Dave Longstreth or Annie Clark, and Jenn Wasner was roundly ignored by the general music-reviewing public, much to the chagrin of everyone with taste.
A few years later, and chillwave is a punchline. I honestly had completely forgotten that Memory Tapes even existed until I started looking up acts to namedrop here, and I actually really liked “Seek Magic.” The only band to really bridge the guitar/chillwave gap, Beach House, peaked phenomenally in 2010, and probably will never be relevant again, no matter how many people try to justify “Bloom.” It’s done – the moment is over. But what’s replaced it?
The past couple years have been filled with renewed enthusiasm for pop music and its tropes, and for hip-hop, which has topped the Pitchfork albums lists three of the past five years (and, let’s be real, “Yeezus” is way more important than “Modern Vampires of the City,” even if VW’s videos were better, so let’s call it four). The indie world has been taking its cues from the pop world, then twisting them a bit and throwing in some vocoder and distortion and tape hiss for good measure. We’ve gotten “PBR&B” from Frank Ocean and The Weeknd and How To Dress Well and Autre Ne Veut, we’ve gotten alt-pop heroines like Charli XCX and HAIM and Sky Ferreira, we’ve gotten the completely uncategorizable and unexpected Grimes. All of which is cool and fair, so long as we’re done with chillwave.
2014, though, was different somehow. This year, more than any in recent memory, saw people innovating with an instrument that’s been relegated to sideline status for far too long. Yes, the guitar has committed a lot of heinous acts, but this doesn’t mean we have to cast it aside entirely. We just need to teach it new tricks, to synthesize the soul of the instrument that was so iconoclastic in the first half of the last century with the digital, broke-up spirit of our digital, broke-up age. We needed a breather for a second to figure out what could still be done with the guitar, now, in the second decade of the new millennium. Well, we had it, and we’re off to a great start in 2014.
To illustrate this point, I want to spend time primarily with two bands – Ought and Naomi Punk. That being said, I feel obligated to pay lip service to some other awesome guitar records that came out this year. Cloud Nothings’s “Here and Nowhere Else” found Dylan Baldi learning to play two guitar parts at once in a sloppy mess that felt more alive than most six-piece metal bands; Annie Clark made “St. Vincent” basically a case-study in the versatility of the instrument; Swans put out their second magnum opus of the past three years with “To Be Kind,” which blended its guitars so expertly with its percussive instruments that the entire thing felt like a two-hour bodily assault. (Credit where credit is very much due: John Congleton had hands in all three of these records, AND Angel Olsen’s magnificent “Burn Your Fire For No Witness,” which doesn’t quite seem to fit here, but which is certainly based around guitars.) Other major guitar albums this year – Helms Alee’s “Sleepwalking Sailors,” Perfect Pussy’s “Say Yes to Love,” Joyce Manor’s “Never Hungover Again,” Protomartyr’s “Under Color of Official Right,” Shellac’s “Dude Incredible,” Parquet Courts’s “Sunbathing Animal,” Iceage’s “Plowing into the Field of Love.” It was a very good year for the guitar.
My pinpointing of Ought and Naomi Punk is not necessarily based on the overall quality of their 2014 albums – “More Than Any Other Day” and “Television Man,” respectively. Rather, I think these two bands, in two very different yet oddly similar ways, explored the potential of the guitar as an expressive force more than anyone else this year, and I don’t think they got enough credit for it. Let’s start with Ought, because they’re a bit less obtuse.
II. I NEED TO KNOW I’M NOT ALONE
Ought reportedly formed in the midst of the 2012 student tuition protests that swamped their own McGill University in Montreal. They signed to Constellation, home of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and all its offshoots, which seems weird, because the music they make has nothing to do with Godspeed’s over-the-top theatrical protest post-rock – or does it?
Ought’s songs are all over four minutes long, they are all repetitive. Many are built on four chord structures and very basic drum-beats that beg to be compared to the Velvet Underground and every guitar-based punk band that rose up in their wake. They sound especially like the Velvets on their extended rave-up tracks, like “New Calm Pt. 3” and “Clarity!” Frontman Tim Beeler’s vocal delivery is consistently compared to three people – Mark E. Smith, Jonathan Richman, and David Byrne. These are all fair comparisons. Lou Reed would be fair, too.
All of this is to say that Ought is, on the surface, an incredibly unoriginal band. But if we look at the spirit with which they approach what they’re doing, things become far more interesting. The bio section on their Bandcamp page proudly/sarcastically proclaims, “*now with guitars*” and I’d like to contend that this is actually very significant. Ought knows that being a guitar band in 2014 means something different than it did ten years ago, or even five. They’re reminding us that guitars don’t need to signify anything in particular – if the feeling is true to the spirit of the times, then what does it matter what instrument’s being played? “Yeah, we play guitars, fuck you.” But they also know how mundane the guitar is – “Oh, your band has guitars? Gee whiz.” Ought’s project is one of blending the now completely standard and even banal motifs of Velvets-inspired stoned guitar music with a fully current, freaked-out understanding of existence, and when they strike this balance, they strike it incredibly well.
“Habit” was the first song a lot of people took note of – It’s one of Ought’s prettiest, and most direct lyrically. Beeler, over some generically nice guitar work, tries desperately to convey the feeling of the Creative Urge, begging for people to relate to his experience. “Do you FEEL IT? Like I FEEL IT? / Cause I need to know I’m not alone!” he pleads, and it’s hard not to feel “it,” even if you don’t know what “it” is. The song contains another line that I think is the essence of Ought, and which is one of the few lyrics I would ever approve of as a tattoo – “It’s not that you need it / It’s that you need it.” This line belies the base uncertainty at the heart of Ought – the totally sincere sense of fear, shame, anger, and confusion that sits at the heart of music that might otherwise be heard as ironically detached and nostalgic. Beeler works himself up into frenzies all over “More Than Any Other Day,” but the peak of “Habit” – “I FEEL IT / A HABIT / I FEEL A HABIT FORMING” – is easily one of the most moving, both because of and in spite of its honestly dull surroundings.
Ought’s other hallmark song, in my mind, is “New Calm Pt. 2,” from their second release of the year, this fall’s “Once More With Feeling…” EP. If I could spend 3000 words dissecting the video for this song, I would absolutely do so. (3) Starting with that opening shot of the guitar that never gets played, the video perfectly expresses the song’s twisted approach to rock music – frustrated by the strictures under which it must operate, in love with the glory of a four-chord pop song. “New Calm Pt. 2” opens with Beeler proclaiming “Oh, I love this one!” Many more meta-references abound – “That’s the refrain!” “We are all feeling this together now!” “Now everybody put your arms in the air / That’s the generally accepted sign for ‘not having a care!'” “And you remember how it goes: / To the left! / To the left!” “I have the microphone but you can sing it as well!” The seven-minute song – which deploys the four same discordant chords for it’s entire runtime – concludes with a solid minute of “Da da da da das” interspersed with “One more time!” “Last time!” “Once more with FEELING!” Beeler and Ought are trapped in the song, which has been written for them, on guitars, a thousand times over, and they sound thrilled about it. This song also contains Beeler’s searing call-out of his direct indie music antecedents – “You gave me your calm / And I gave it away,” he repeats over and over. Because what can he actually do with calm? Make more chillwave? Calm doesn’t create, calm doesn’t energize. We have absolutely no need for calm right now. (4)
In the “New Calm Pt. 2” video, the relatively standard performance clip segments are occasionally interrupted with shots of every member of the band, except for the guitarist, playing guitars instead of their own instruments. I don’t really know how to elaborate on that – it *is* what the guitar means now. Maybe one way to talk about it would be to invoke a relatively new philosophical framework known as “metamodernism” – In the simplest terms, this is a marriage between the sincerity of modernism and the irony of postmodernism, into a cultural movement that is sincere about its irony, ironic about its sincerity, and utterly convicted in both. Ought’s retro-guitar moves, coupled with their utterly sincere frustration, and their obtuse political lyrics which often read like jokes despite being delivered like crazed sermons – this is metamodern music as best as I can imagine it. The album’s almost-title track – “The name of this song is ‘Today More Than Any Other Day,’ parts four through forty-three!” – is an upbeat freakout about how goddamn exciting it is to go grocery shopping. “TODAY! TOGETHER! TODAY! TOGETHER!,” Beeler shouts over two chords you’ve heard a million times. “WE’RE ALL THE FUCKING SAME!” The other message on Ought’s Bandcamp bio is “everyone’s in the band.” Ought is thrilled because they are just like you, they are with you, and they want you to get thrilled about it, too, and to then shout about it. Preferably *with guitars*.
III. I SING THE SONG IN MY HEART
Then there’s Naomi Punk. (Never before has “then there’s” been a more appropriate lead-in.) I can honestly say that this band put on the best show I saw all year, and I saw fucking Swans. I had heard a couple songs going in, but I didn’t know what I was getting into at all. (5) It might have partly been the surprise factor and a mild hangover, but the three young Washingtonians of Naomi Punk had my jaw dropped for the duration of their set opening for the freshly reunited Blood Brothers as they battered their instruments into oblivion, creating motifs and compositions that I really don’t think I’d ever heard before, at volumes that made them entirely undeniable. The sleeve of “Television Man” – which I bought from frontman Travis Benjamin Coster after the show for a buck off because that was all the cash I had – bears two all-caps imperatives – “PLEASE BLAST THE RECORD” and “RECLAIM YOUR LIFE.” The first is pretty straightforward, and definitely assists in this album’s enjoyment. But the second is crucial, I think, to understanding where Naomi Punk is coming from, which evidently no one who wrote year-end lists this year did.
The critical response to this band has continually baffled me. Just about everyone who wrote about them felt the need to drop the term “grunge,” when, as music critics, they should all be pretty much be aware that grunge-as-musical-style never once existed. There were some bands, most of them were from Seattle, they made relatively heavy music, for the most part. Some of them were drug addicts and died. None of this is especially relevant to what Naomi Punk is doing twenty-odd years later, aside from the fact that Seattle still cannot get over its Cobain fixation. The closest anyone’s gotten, as far as I’ve seen, to accurately describing Naomi Punk is by calling it “rock deconstruction” but even that really doesn’t do the trick, “deconstruction” being a negative/negational, postmodern term. And unlike the relatively ubiquitous “More Than Any Other Day,” “Television Man” failed to secure a spot on any year-end list I’ve seen thus far.
This is probably because Naomi Punk is operating from a really weird spot – Three super-strange Northwestern youths who look like a cross between medieval squires and Seattle street urchins, growing up in the shadow of grunge and recognizing the need to acknowledge it (thanking “Kurdt” in their liner notes), but also very clearly doing something pretty insular and remote from everything around them, complete with isolation from local scenes, refusal of technology, and genderqueer themes (the band’s name was originally Coster’s drag name, and he writes about himself as a woman) – Naomi Punk are both building from the ashes of grunge and ignoring it completely. (6) Yes, this is dark, heavy music made by men in Washington. No, that does not mean it has anything to do with grunge. Use your fucking ears.
Playing down-tuned, down-strung, down-everything guitars through bass amps, Coster and second guitarist Neil Gregerson frequently mimic each other’s lines, playing in unison at some moments, separately at others. The riffs are heavy, dense, uncomplicated, brutal. Drummer Nicolas Luempert doesn’t ever really play “beats” or “fills” per se – he simply hits part of his kit on every beat on which the guitars play, which is most of them, so as to achieve maximum impact. The durations of musical phrases are unbound by normal notions of “time signatures,” let alone common time (though they do frequently end up in 4/4). Coster writes lines that go as long as they should, then he repeats them, and repeats them, until he feels like moving to a new one, which he then repeats, and repeats, and repeats. “Verses” and “choruses” don’t exist for Naomi Punk. What do exist are themes – certain guitar tricks, bits of tremolo, three-note ascending arpeggios – these repeat not only within songs but throughout the NP discography. This is so true that the line, musical and lyrical, between 2012’s “The Feeling” and “Telelvision Man” hardly exists. (The band has even admitted that “Trashworld” and “Television Man” are essentially the same song, technically speaking.) The two records feel like separate movements of the same weird symphony, rather than two collections of “songs” by a band that is probably supposed to have “evolved” in the intervening years.
What I mean to say is that Naomi Punk has taken the tools of rock ‘n roll – guitar, drum kit, the human voice, the album – and made something that can only be called rock ‘n roll if you’re being lazy. (And this analysis is completely ignoring the bizarre, keyboard-based interstitial bits on both records, which Coster claims are more important to him than the actual songs.) The melodic themes here are more reminiscent of Gregorian chant or “Young Prayer”-era Panda Bear than anything else. The rhythms don’t move in any way that you could actually move to yourself – seeing Naomi Punk live is a very static affair. Everything is played as if whatever people have been doing with these tools for the past fifty years is moot. In this way, Naomi Punk attack the metamodern from a different angle than Ought. They’re not directly referencing anything they’d expect you to know, and they’re not deliberately evoking feelings they figure you might be having now. Instead, they draw their influences from some base human melodic touchstone that feels eons old, while making music that doesn’t feel like it could’ve happened until right now, at this point in musical history. They may have zero Internet presence, but they’re clearly aware of the recent anti-guitar movement and the rise of music made on computers. Consciously or not, they’re operating in response to that, demonstrating one of the many things the guitar can still do.
Lyrically, “Television Man” reads like a book of arcane spells – “I drew a circle,” “Cut inside of me,” “You open the door” – each line repeated several times as if it were a mantra. Coster’s voice is far more limited than his guitar-playing, so the vocal line tends to cut a direct path through the knots of distortion simply by virtue of sticking to only a couple notes. This helps the lyrics seem all the more pointedly enigmatic, like tiny little koans.
On gargantuan “Television Man” closer “Rodeo Trash Pit,” Coster gets a little bit more pointed – “My generation is dead, yeah – / But I can feel you inside!” His complaint and subsequent rebuttal here brings us back to that demand on the sleeve – “RECLAIM YOUR LIFE.” Naomi Punk sees the disaffection surrounding them, the nihilistic acceptance of things as they appear to be. They see that opinions are now formed based on systematized decisions regarding what is worthwhile and what is not. Like Ought, they are desperate for you to realize that these things you’ve been told to like, to accept, to think of as gospel – they’re over if you want them. That includes rock, it includes grunge, it includes chillwave. It includes irony, it includes sincerity, it includes truth, it includes fiction. It includes productivity and it includes stagnation. It includes fear of failure and aspiration to success. It includes codified economic systems and intellectual property laws. It definitely includes any standard concept of what a guitar is supposed to do.
(1) Remember when “Crown On The Ground” dropped? I nearly shit myself and declared Sleigh Bells the future of music. So much for that.
(2) It’s weird to think that before “Strange Mercy,” in 2011, we didn’t talk about St. Vincent as a guitar goddess. That element of her work was not something we were aware of yet, or maybe we just didn’t care.
(3) A teaser – the avocado shot, the shoelace shot, the match shot, the way the frustrated hand shots are colored to mirror the object in hand, the looped bits in the performance segments, the blindfolded child, the reveal of the camera crew, the mirrors behind the band.
(4) Once you put your finger on the urgency in Ought’s music, their affiliation with Constellation makes a lot of sense. Play this album next to the label’s other major 2014 release and it fits perfectly.
(5) Naomi Punk deliberately record everything themselves, and they aren’t very good at it yet. If you have the opportunity, see them live. Please.
(6)Weirdly, one of the few musical allies Naomi Punk has is the ridiculously indie-big Parquet Courts, who at this point are most interesting to me for the circles they run in. The two bands play together whenever they get the chance, and Coster has said that Parquet Courts are one of the few bands anywhere NP feels aligned with. I think the connection is actually there, if you look hard enough, and it probably has something to do with metamodernism.