May 16, 2022

White, Lizard, Fire, and the Bastille


The idea behind Tunes Past to Present is to talk about new music that might appeal to us, well, older folks. After you reach a certain age, it’s easy to exist in a music echo chamber. You listen to the tunes that you are most familiar with as do your friends. After a while it becomes easy to miss great bands that you would certainly like. Part of reason for missing so much good music is the siloed radio world. You get used to listening to classic rock stations or some 90s alternative station, all with limited scope. Meanwhile, music services such as Spotify or Apple Music feed you recommendations that are based on what you have already listened to, isolating you from newer music. Finally, the patterns of what we like in music were set down early in life, usually during our teen and young adult years. That makes much of the new music you might encounter sounds kind of awful. Hence, Tunes Past to Present exists to alleviate these effects.

The problem I consistently run into is how to determine if something is “new”. Does a new album from an old artist count as “new”? What about a new artist doing covers of older music? Is there a limit to how long an artist has been around to make them sufficiently new enough to write about? Newness is somewhat subjective.

This all matters because there has been a spate of new albums by artists that may not be all that new to the average teen or college student. It’s weird for me to think that bands of the 2000s are now 20 years old. That said, they fall outside the classic rock and alternative eras of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, when much of the music we identify with was recorded. Yet, these artists are at least from this century and are very relevant (or at least trying to stay relevant) today. These are not legacy acts, such as U2 or The Rolling Stone, whose best days are behind them, and fan base is mostly over 40. I would say they are contemporary enough.

Here are my short takes on four new albums by contemporary bands who, nonetheless, are producing music that a wide range of people will enjoy.

  • Jack White, Fear of the Dawn. Jack White, formerly of the White Stripes and Raconteurs, has become something of a cult figure in indie rock. His new album, Fear of the Dawn, strikes a middle ground between the stark minimalism of the White Stripes and the hard rock of the Raconteurs. This is truly a solo album, even more than the White Stripes were (and that band were mostly a vehicle for White), driven by White’s superlative guitar playing. It is a rock lover’s album, with even fewer pop features than the White Strips. There are not many memorable tunes on Fear of the Dawn, nothing hummable at least. That doesn’t matter, though, since the album rocks so hard.
  • King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Omnium Gatherum. The name King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard evokes an early age of prog rock. I don’t think it would be right to call this band prog rock because it is too limiting. They certainly have prog rock elements such as big, sonically diverse, and grandiose songs. King Gizzard could also be called a jam band with long jazz inspired compositions that meander and resolve, often several times over. It’s fairer to say they are a neo prog, jam band, and psychedelia mash up that will appeal to all of those audiences. Omnium Gatherum, their latest album, it is quite long album with many epic length songs. The Dripping Tap – the opening track – for example is over 18 minutes in length. Stylistically, it’s all over the map. Frankly, I liked it, in the way I like Yes’ Tales from the Topographic Oceans which has a similarly big scope and variety of styles. The downside of all that variety is that it can seem unfocused, lacking in a unifying theme. King Gizzard’s 2021 album Butterfly 3000 is an infinitely better album but that doesn’t mean Omnium Gatherum Is not a worthy listen.
  • Arcade Fire, WE. Back in the mid-2000s. Arcade Fire became the darlings of the pre-Internet music, indie, world with their debut album Funeral. The follow ups, Neon Bible and The Suburbs, helped them achieve mainstream success, at least within the broad genre of alternative music. All three are excellent albums. Then everything headed downhill quickly with the overly conscience pop of Reflektor and the album with no soul, Everything Now, from 2013 and 2017 respectively. At that point it seemed that Arcade Fire was washed up, or more accurately, dried up. Their music no longer appealed to their now grown-up fans and was too obscure for the average youngster. The recently released WE, has been hailed in the rock press as their great reemergence. I have no idea why. The album lacks the quirkiness of their best (i.e., their first three) albums. Whatever social commentary they are espousing seems lost in music that is quite mundane. Even the “all caps” album title is an indie rock conceit so stale that it accentuates how much Arcade Fire has run out of ideas.
  • Bastille, Give Me the Future. Bastille is one of those modern pop dance bands that really know how to channel the 80s. The 2013 debut, Bad Blood, was a masterpiece of modern dance pop combined with 80s new romantics sensibility. It is not too outlandish to say they are the logical and worthy successors to Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. 2019’s Doom Days was a typical sophomore slump album. It was good, following the Bad Blood formula but with lesser songs and some outright missteps. Give Me the Future is a much better album. While the basic plan hasn’t change (infectious 80s inspired dance pop), the execution is significantly better. It is a thoroughly enjoyable album but breaks no new ground nor does it stretch the band in any wayway. It is a safe album but worthy of repeated listening.

So, while bands such as Bastille and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are only about ten years old or less, Jack White and Arcade Fire are obviously older, pushing 20 years old. Are any of these new enough to be “Present” or are they from the past. I don’t know but they are certainly contemporary. They also provide a snapshot of the current state of music outside of R&B and hip-hop infused pop. Rock is making a comeback (ala jack White), the 80s still live in bands such as Bastille, weird still exists thanks to bands like King Gizzard, and the indie scene of the 2000s has played out. I guess that’s better for folks who came of age in the 70s, 80s, and 90s than Millennials from the 2000s. The latter may have to wait another ten years before their music is cool again.