Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hold Your Tongue

Waterloo Records, 2/10

Most of the time when a young band is totally unoriginal, their copying has a naive, blundering quality to it, a clueless element that partially excuses the nature of their blatant thefts. Playing music is hard, and learning to take what you like and don't like about different artists and distill those ideas into your own blend takes a lot of listening and a lot of practice. I can be unduly harsh on musicians who steal, but usually the reason I'm doing so is because I think I need to be firm in order to get my point across. Most of these unwitting thieves have no idea what their music sounds like to someone who 1) isn't their friend or relative and 2) writes critically for a living. Being gentle wouldn't help matters any, and it's better to have a reason for why you can't get anywhere with your band than to end your musical career prematurely in bitterness and paranoia.

But what do you say to a band that's totally capable of being interesting and creative but deliberately chooses not to do so? Can you even critique that? Isn't it more a question for marketing majors than journalists interested primarily in fostering the development of new music? Speak are a band with musicianship that sets them apart in a positive way, but songwriting and arranging that aims them cravenly for the lowest common denominator. They have a template that they stick to rigidly. Their songs are not written from new ideas, but rather repeating pieces grafted on to a formula. They present broad, meaningless lyrics stuffed into bland melodies and repeated over and over and over again to maximize audience adhesion. The music is at least grounded in 70's pop (Stevie Wonder, mostly) so there's some room for grooving basslines and slick keyboard work, but the band performs mechanically and the possibility for surprise is nil.

They're more of an idea of a band than a real band -- guys in standard-issue emo haircuts and thrift-store getups draining out what little hardcore urgency was still left in pop-punk to make music that sounds already as if it's playing through the treble-heavy speakers at an indoor mall. (They make me miss Fall Out Boy, who evidently broke up recently. At least those jokers let their drummer rock out.) When they play along to loops, they're pretty much unbearable, workers performing the function of musicians without any of the attendant risk or serendipity. Absent the canned parts, they're a little better because they can all play well, but the stink of manipulation never quite leaves the air.

The trouble with deciding what your commercial concept is before you write any songs is that you've completely cut off the potential for growth and change. Maybe this made smart business sense 20 years ago, when the right "look" and one tolerable single could be the basis for a highly profitable three-album career. Now that the paradigm for the music industry is the digital download, the financial benefit possible from playing the same (crappy) song on a loop is much less. If you want to have a career in music -- and Speak are bending over backwards, contorting even, in the hopes of making that happen -- you have to be able to offer more than one gag. Very few people have the outside support needed to construct one gimmick, wait until it plays out its course, then emerge a few years later with a new one (like that dude who used to be Ima Robot but is now Edward Sharpe). You could easily imagine the guys in Speak developing something new and cool -- if the guitar player was doing anything besides providing texture, if the drummer wasn't trying to play like ProTools had already "fixed" his beats, if the singer was communicating his actual feelings rather than aphorisms that stupid people expect to hear in bad pop songs.

If what you want out of your music is the aural equivalent of a fast-food brand -- always the same, always generic, always slightly stale and totally devoid of nutritional value -- then more power to you. Speak's fatal flaws were perhaps revealed most by their could-have-been lovely cover of the Beatles "This Boy." Unrehearsed and spontaneous in a way nothing else they touched was, their guitarist and bassist impressively had the tricky three-part harmony down pat. But their leader refused to abandon his snotty, nasal vocal affectation and harmonize properly (to do so might damage the brand, I guess). Obsessed with the surfaces of things, Speak's music is as forgettable -- and as insubstantial -- as an airline meal. Personally I like to cook all of my own food.

1 comment:

  1. Well written, as always. Some might consider it harsh, but I think it's just more constructive. ^_^