More than marketing: The Blueflowers and the New Wave of Americana
I’ve never much cared for the musical genre broadly known as Americana, and lately I’ve been thinking about why this is. I suppose it’s acceptable to say hey, I’ve listened to a lot of these artists and most of them just kinda bore me, but that seems unsatisfactory for a guy who thinks about music like I do.
After some reflection, I think it comes down to a couple of issues. The first one, I admit right up front, is objectively unfair of me, but there is a part of me that associates Americana with the Baby Boomers, and in particular sees it as a late, faint attempt by the post-Reagan iteration of the cohort to recapture lost authenticity. When you look at the history of Boomer music culture, you start in the mid-’60s – maybe you talk about The Beach Boys, but things well and truly catch fire when four lads from Liverpool step off a plane at JFK. The British Invasion was both transcendent and ridiculous, depending on whether you were listening to The Fabs/Stones/Kinks/Who or lesser coattail surfers like Herman’s Hermits and Gerry & the Pacemakers, but we tend to remember the amazing, and for good reason.
Then you had various American responses to the Invasion, most of them centered on the Bay Area (Airplane, Dead, etc.) and LA (The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield). These were remarkable days, and we know the mythology of the next few years by heart, don’t we? Remember these bands, because we’ll be back to them shortly.
After Altamont, things went really bad for the Boom and its music. Progressive was by and large a retreat into psudo-intellectual rationalism, I’m still not over Disco, and the redemptive Punk/New Wave backlash is something I’m always going to see as distinctly Generation X (arising, as it did, when front-edge Xers like me were in high school). The Boom, which gave us the most idealistic moments of my lifetime, had given up and lapsed into cocooning, multi-level marketing, boxy-assed Volvos and Baby-on-Board Garfields. Two of the greatest journalists of their era tore them apart: Hunter Thompson called them A Generation of Swine and Tom Wolfe had a field day in Bonfire of the Vanities.
Hey, I said I was being unfair, didn’t I?
When you look at Americana today, you see a body of music that draws from all kinds of roots – rock, blues, country, folk, gospel – and in so many ways it winds up feeling like the natural heir, albeit 40 years removed, to the California sounds of the ’60s, doesn’t it? Can you imagine Americana existing, in anything like its current form, without the Springfield? And this is not a bad thing, by any stretch.
Still, from where I sit, all of this adds up to music that feels like somebody else’s experience. When Lucinda Williams or Ryan Adams are playing, I feel like I’ve wandered into the wrong building by mistake, like I really, really don’t belong. (Although I can’t lie – I loved the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collab and while I didn’t spin the Robert Plant/Alison Krause disc a lot, I bought it and respect the hell out it.)
Of course, I know that a lot of the important artists in Americana are, in fact, Gen Xers like me (heck, Ryan Adams was born in 1974, which was smack-ass in the middle of Gen X). And there are probably holes in my Brit Invasion/California reaction/Disco narrative big enough to drive a tour bus through. I know this, I accept it, and I’ll be fine if people use the comment thread to correct my revisionism.
The second issue is a little cleaner. Western history is defined, in part, by a tension between rural and urban that goes back at least to the Bible (Garden of Eden vs. New Jerusalem and on through Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, etc.). Americana is music that strives for the natural, whereas I have always been more a creature of the technological. But that’s just me.
Lately, though, I find myself wondering if there’s an alternate thread, perhaps a New Wave of Americana, that hasn’t been identified as such. The artists that got me to thinking about this are The Blueflowers, a Detroit-based band that reminds me of absolutely nobody I’ve ever heard from Detroit. Before we go any further, let’s pause and watch the video for “The Lovely Ones” from their marvelous new CD, In Line with the Broken-Hearted.
The Blueflowers market themselves using the Americana label, as in this bit for their 2009 debut CD: “a cinematic mélange of alt-country, gothic Americana, 1960’s psychedelia, and indie pop.” Which I suppose is fair, but I had listened to the new CD 10-15 times without the word “Americana” once occurring to me. So I dropped guitarist/songwriter Tony Hamera (who I’d been introduced to by The Lost Patrol’s manager, Ed Colavito) a note asking about the categorization. Here’s what he had to say:
The only reason I give us the generic label of ‘Americana’ is because I really don’t think any of the more specific genre descriptions fit us – we have elements of country, surf, garage rock, psychedelic rock, etc., but none of those in and of themselves fit our style exclusively, so I just went with ‘Americana.’ The bands that influence me the most tend to be the bands of the mid-late 60’s ie The Walker Brothers, The Zombies, The Turtles, The Shangri-La’s, Roy Orbison, etc. combined with the ‘newer’ alt-country/Americana artists like Neko Case, Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, Tarnation, etc…
So there you have it – Americana as a sort of catch-all driven by the need to market yourself in terms people recognize. Except…except that The Blueflowers have a lot in common with The Lost Patrol (and if you’ve paid any attention at all you know how much I respect what they’re doing). And then there’s Munly, whose insanely dark Petr & the Wulf was one of my co-CDs of the Year for 2010. And Munly is also a key piece of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, the iconic expression of the alt-Western Denver Sound. And what about the rootsy left-hand turn out of Neo-Soul that Nicole Atkins takes in her latest, Mondo Amore? (And for that matter, what about that far broader Neo-Soul context provided by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and She & Him?) Hmmm….
All of these bands are producing music that’s born of uniquely American roots – by and large the same roots we associate with all Americana, in fact – and yet they seem not to be associated with what we think of as the Americana mainline. Many of them do, however, remind me of that “alternate thread” I mentioned above. If we think back to the early 1980s, one the greatest bands in American history was taking form in Athens, and that band, REM, owed a great deal to the California bands I noted earlier. Have a look at the “influences” section in their AllMusic entry: The Byrds, Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield.
REM cultivated a sound that was grounded not just in the American, but in the gothic, the music of the American underbelly. Minor chords and oppressive humidity, the downbeat haunt of the underclasses, vistas that manage panoramic sweep and intimate ennui all at once, tent revivals and the antebellum. REM’s sound was beautiful, but it wasn’t uplifting (not until “Shiny Happy People” came along, anyway, and that was mainly to see if we were paying attention).
Maybe I’m reaching, but it seems to me that there’s an intimation of an Americana New Wave under way, and this movement is distinctly at odds with the thoroughly-commodified mainstream in just about every way imaginable. My guess is that there are a lot of other artists I could stir into the soup, as well.
Time will tell whether or not I’m imagining things, but for the moment I’m enjoying the resonance and texture these bands represent, whether we’re talking about the gritty medicine-show naturalism of Munly and Slim Cessna or the cinematic majesty of the Lost Patrol/Blueflowers double feature.
Let’s leave you with another one from The Blueflowers. Hope you enjoy it.