Fall From Grace – American Arty Pop Records Made by Earnest Artsy People

Why are these records all so bloody serious, so reverential anyway? Why do they look to be so sodding important? Why do these bands appear with a fanfare and then disappear?

(This is Not a “Proper” Review of On An On’s Give In: OR: What is going on with all these artsy pop bands? OR: In which the critic shows he’s been reading too much BS Johnson).

What a slog!, This record, On An On’s Give In, has got me thinking, what a slog it must have been to record it, (given all the press bumpf)* and make no mistake it’s been a slog to review it, despite it being, I hasten to add, it’s pleasant enough in its own manner… why?

* (Passages like this, they’re enough to put a man on his knees, sobbing, ululating into the night air, oppressed by the weight of the sincerity of it all…) “The end result was Give In, ON AN ON's ten-track debut album – a dream-washed textural journey armed with a biting perspective on life, love, and the commonality of loss. The affair sizzles with electricity and calls one in with its unnerved openness. It's a project – and approach to music -- the three musicians in ON AN ON had been waiting for.”

Wny? And where to begin? (Apart from ordering the word “project” and SOPHOMORE to be banished from the Eden of press releases.)

“In which the critic hears David Bowie in a bar.”

I’m sat in my local nursing a beer and Young Americans by Bowie comes on. Not my favourite Bowie, Young Americans is possibly the LP of his classic run that I listen to least, but after spending the previous 4 hours or so listening to records like On an On’s latest one, (there’s a pile of them at home, with their fashionable non-confrontational, homespun, out of focus photo cover artwork that looks like it’s been breeding when my back is turned), hearing Young Americans feels like a jolt, a wakeup call. A simple, catchy tune made into a stylish, truly great pop song. A song moreover with that whiff of grandeur, the promise of something more waiting to be discovered by the listener, the gateway to your own ill-formed dreams, the inspiration to your own meagre efforts. Why can’t so many of these newly minted records make me feel like this? Why do they all sound so… lumpy and passive?

“In which the critic feels bad about comparing On An On (amongst others) to David Bowie.”

I’m happy to concede that it’s daft to compare a young American band’s effort to random tracks drawn from Bowie’s imperial phase. What’s to be gained from hammering a new, independent hard working act with The Dame’s oeuvre? Bowie’s a one-off, let’s leave it and continue to enjoy that remarkable back catalogue, still sounding fresh and essential as it did 40 years back. And yes, as the previous paragraph half implied, On An On can take comfort in the fact that there are a fair number of similar bands of lesser talents ploughing this arty pop furrow, and to be fair yet again to On An On, there are songs on their LP Give In that are really good: War Is Gone is a nice enough track, with a pleasantly undulating chorus and a great reprise, and Cops is a nice, gently floating thing. The last track I Wanted To Say More (the one with the least “pots and pans stuff” in the accompaniment) is possibly the best, the track having a soulful, after the party’s over feel that is hard to resist…

Rather it’s the fact that there are SO BLOODY MANY of these bands. Doing much the same thing, and in the same way. They all last seem to put an astonishing amount of effort, good faith and time into all of these “projects” (go on, shoot me); draining their emotional and creative resources into a couple of records that have to sound as if they’ve solved pop’s eternal questions, the Big Answer, finally the Moment of Revelation. And you can bet your last quid that the latest attempt to decipher music’s Post-Post-Industrial Rosetta stone will be from three well-meaning, talented (all these bands can play and work hard, that’s the rub) and well educated lads in (say) Brooklyn with a collection of software packages and some toy synths: making a big sound, looking to sweep all before them by the power of a chord change or a righteous avalanche of choruses or a borrowed chopped up Afrobeat.

Why can’t people make records like Bowie did?

“In which the critic wonders whether this is an American “thing” that has deeper roots than we originally imagined.”

Why are these records all so bloody serious, so reverential anyway? Why do they look to be so sodding important? Why do these bands appear with a fanfare and then disappear? Maybe it’s the power statement? Kingsley Amis, not the intellectual slob or boring prig many think - when it comes to literature at any rate - put this theory forward (based on his musings about John O’Hara and Ernest Hemmingway). “Perhaps the American fondness for size, for big books, for large statements, subjects themes, a desire for greatness now rather than after a few decades work – very demoralising and exhausting.” Obviously bands don’t get a few decades grace, more like a month to make an impact… but even so, why not something nice and uncomplicated – and uncomplicated with any passive aggressive thoughts about how cool it is to be uncomplicated - that can also have time to develop?

There’s also this obsession with taming the wild, confronting the dark Gothic side of America, Blackwood, the Wendigo, all those early short stories... they’re driven by a fear of the unknown and a desire to bring order, to bring peace and sanity. You start to pick up that maybe this is what is driving the all-encompassing, maximalist nature of the music, the attempt to make the definitive statement, the attempts at redemption, and the nods to the non-conformist, independent spiritual heritage. It’s the hysteria of controlling the uncontrollable, creeping in half noticed, by the back gate.

In which the critic decides, “it’s all about feeling safe innit?

Despite the paranoia engendered by and inherent in all the tick-the-box elements in “successful urban living”, despite the attentive criticisms that clothes and beards and NHS style glasses and quirky tattoos and whatever other inconsequential whatnots receive; just look at photos in (for sake of argument) Vice… it’s still there, that doe eyed look, the “made it” “I’m finally safe” feel; the proclamation that “I haven’t fucked up, NO MATTER WHAT YOU SAY TO ME”. This throwaway culture Bohemianism brings us the kind of artsy music that’s currently growing in an increasingly unloved review pile by my PC and the reverse of this coin, (akin to the slobby housemate eating chicken wings in the bed), is the increasing slew of garage bands unleashed upon us. I’m sure this garage trend is also connected to a feeling that making an ill-defined mess of a sound is in its own way conforming to pattern too. There has to be someone with the wit and grace to bring an end to it all. Somehow.

It’s enough to make you want to live in a permanent musical 1979. Or 1967. Oh, wait….

“In which the critic decides to stop talking piss”

All of this theorising isn’t going to get us anywhere. There are still piles of LPs in my house that sound fairly similar and the fact that they’re all from the USA or at a stretch the USA & Canada isn’t my fault or cross to bear. I’ll ignore them.

“In which the critic decides to shoot at a real target and laments this record’s cover and all record covers like it.”

They’re invariably shit. That’s what. And boring. On An On can’t really escape censure on this I’m afraid. What’s it say about the record? It’s hardly Ivo Watt-Russell’s vision for the Cocteau Twins… and the thought grows daily, hourly, in the back of my mind that The Cocteaus’ beautiful covers spawned a hideously ill-defined army of monstrously bad imitators. What thought has gone into this? What banal half-mood brought this forth? What do we glean from this and how should we react? Why are all these covers gradations on the same half-arsed theme? Most importantly, can we stop, please, and while we’re at it, can we never see any more geometric shapes (of whatever equation) defiling a cover?

“In which the critic ends his piece on a Rampant Act of Plagiarism wrapped up as a homage to BS Johnson and Steve Jacuzzi, and applies a “Jacuzzi” joke used on a Half Man Half Biscuit record.”

- Fuck all this lying look what im really trying to write about is writing (music) not all this stuff about architecture (increasingly boring bands from the USA) trying to say something about writing im my hero (the critic) though what a useless appellation my first character then im trying to say something about me through him albert an architect (Richard the critic)when whats the point in covering up covering up covering over pretending pretending I can say anything through him that is anything I would be interested in saying.

Thanks for letting me get all this off my chest.