Thursday, December 10, 2009

Back to '79

There was never any time better than the late 1970's to be a singer/songwriter. The successful scorched-earth campaign of punk got rid of the unrealistic expectations for young songwriters to all be musical prodigies. The arresting rhythms of African and Caribbean music were beginning to be listened to seriously outside of ghettos. Most importantly, the heavyweights of this era were not so far removed from the golden era of 60's rock to understand the importance of harmony.

This last detail is an overlooked one. Since all musical trends are cyclical, it shouldn't be at all surprising that there's a wealth of bands trying self-consciously traffic in a new wave style nowadays. It's disappointing that most of these bands only take the simple chord changes and catchy melodies. A few of the sharper ones (Franz Ferdinand, Vampire Weekend) have managed to get the rhythms right. But hardly anybody is paying attention to harmony these days, which is unforgivable. Thoughtfully constructed harmonies give sprightly major-key songs sophistication and depth. They provide shading, allowing some dark colors in with all the brightness.

The new single from Austin's Rich Restaino and The Obits, "Susie," demonstrates that harmony isn't entirely dead and buried. The bouncy melody and a confident, full-sounding lead vocal make it clear that this is a pop song first and foremost -- not to mention the chipper piano ostinatos. But clever choices in the female backing vocals, and Alexei Sefchick's fleet, vaguely ominous bassline, lend the song an element of melancholy that's most welcome. Restaino's lyric, regarding a young headbanger who has nothing to say to her mother until she finds herself with a kid of her own, benefits from the intelligence of the arrangement. His vocals sound improved from their earlier recordings, smoother and more expressive. The band sound in top form, too, with the lead guitar really picking its spots well.

Restaino is a true polymath: writer, reader, thinker, teacher, rocker. We're lucky to have him here in Austin. Go support him and the Obits and hear some more of their new material when they play tonight, December 10th, at the Nomad Bar.

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