Sunday, 12 September 2010

Grow Up! How to mature as a music artist

How many times have you read in an album review that an artist has gone for a more "mature" sound? How many times has that made you cringe? If you've read those words in Q or Rolling Stone, "mature" pretty much translates into "sold out" and/or "become really bland". So-called maturity can be a terrible thing for the creativity and credibility of a band - just look at the Red Hot Chili Peppers - but the fact is, very few artists can get away with forever mining the same sound. And when you start off playing as loud and as hard as you possibly can, there's only one way you can really go.

Portland, Oregon indie-punkers The Thermals are a prime example of a band  currently stuck in this conundrum. Their fifth album, Personal Life, which came out last Monday on Kill Rock Stars, is a disappointment, the sound of a band with the air taken out of them, when once they bristled with energy. Nobody could accuse them of "selling out"; their no-frills approach of guitar-bass-drums remains as true as ever. But their limited template just cannot bring anything to the (all too numerous) lower tempo songs on here.

Yet good bands can mature, and remain artistically vital long into their careers. Here are a couple of examples:

Pavement
Okay, so admittedly there's not many people who would say that their favourite Pavement album is Brighten The Corners or Terror Twilight. But those two releases honed in on the tunes that were always there, beneath all the jerking around and slack-strung guitars. And whilst the recording of Terror Twilight in full 24-track glory may have seemed like heresy to some, it served to make The Hexx the most densely atmospheric song in their entire catalogue.
Proof: Shady Lane (from Brighten The Corners), ...and Carrot Rope (from Terror Twilight)

Arcade Fire
A more recent example, yes, and a band (one hopes) still relatively early into their career, but the Arcade Fire solved the quite enviable problem of how exactly do you should follow up one of the defining debut albums of the last decade. Whilst Neon Bible was perhaps a minor misstep, this year's The Suburbs re-affirmed them as critical darlings by stripping away much of the  previous bombast, and delivering a set of songs with a clearly realised concept that sounded all the better in one another's company. And #1 positions on both sides of the Atlantic confirmed that it wasn't just critics who were in agreement.
Proof: Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains), Ready To Start (both from the Suburbs)

Fugazi
"Mature" shouldn't even be in the vocabulary of your average hardcore/post-hardcore band - most (Drive Like Jehu, Black Eyes, At The Drive In) burn fast and bright, whilst those that stick around (...Trail Of The Dead) go into a downward spiral. But typically Fugazi (along with perhaps Unwound) are the exception to the rule. Crucially, Fugazi demonstrated that sound experimentation, along with ever-improving musicianship and even a degree of subtlety, didn't have to come at the cost of the band's trademark intensity, and as great as 13 Songs and Repeater are, it's arguably the likes of 1995's Red Medicine and 2001's (probable) swansong The Argument that will remain the band's most enduring classics.
Proof: Fell, Destroyed (from Red Medicine), Full Disclosure (from The Argument)

Nick Cave
Here's another alternative; don't "mature" at all, but revel in your own filth as a dirty old man. If it helps, enlist some of your buddies in a side-project that allows you and your friends to let your hair down, and use that to re-inform and reinvigorate your day-job. That raucous first Grinderman album was swiftly followed by Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, possibly the most rollicking release in the Bad Seeds catalogue. The release of Grinderman 2 on Monday is a highly anticipated as any Bad Seeds album.
Proof: Get It On (from Grinderman), We Call Upon The Author (from Dig, Lazarus Dig!!!)

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