I spent last weekend in Portland with my brother, and while driving about the Mount Hood wilderness we noticed that all the rock stations played primarily grunge. My guess is that this Northwestern oasis latched onto neighboring Seattle’s aura back in the 90s and still hasn’t let go. I’m not arguing that there aren’t some incredible musicians in Portland (Joanna Newsom, Blitzen Trapper, M. Ward, Laura Veirs) but it seems the popular rock music in the area remains the music of the 90s. This led to a discussion between the two of us about the 2000s. Looking back through history, ever era had a distinct musical style, yet the past ten years didn’t yield anything definitive. Some may argue that it’s too soon to analyze the 2000s in general, but I guarantee that by the year 1999 anyone would define the 90s as a decade of grunge and gangsta rap.
My brother argued that all music anymore is recycled recreations of the past, that all avenues have been explored and now musicians are just driving up and down the driveway on their dirt bikes. I thought about arguing his point by bringing up artists who continued to push the musical stratosphere into unexplored territories (Animal Collective, Deerhoof, Battles) but in terms of mainstream music, he had a point. Even in indie music the art of imitation has become popular with many bands utilizing retro recording techniques to try and capture the sound of an era long ago.
I would like to contend that I stand against the idea of sound theft, yet I can’t get enough of throwback bands like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Black Lips, and The Dutchess and the Duke. But the artist I have the most difficult time with enjoying is the latest release from the Florida band The Drums. It reeks of rip-off. To be more exact, it virtually duplicates The Smiths, almost verbatim:
simple 80s drum track- CHECK
jaunty indie guitar riffs- CHECK
irresistible pop sensibility- CHECK
The only thing missing is the distinctive crooning voice of Morrissey. Smiths without Morrissey equals crap, right? Here in lies the dilemma. Not only is a Morrissey-less Smiths listenable, it’s downright charming. The playful back-and-forth between Jonathan Pierce and Jacob Graham of The Drums will have you feeling warm-fuzzies from one lovable song to the next. After the first track “Best Friend” you may try convincing yourself that the magic you just witnessed was a cute little stroke of luck. You’ll tell yourself, “When you emulate The Smiths, of course you’ll have at least one decent song.”
Even the lyrics about a dead friend in “Best Friend” resemble something Morrissey would have come up with:
But just when you think the duo has run out of pop-petroleum, the next song revs up and you’re continuing your joyous hike down happy trails. The band doesn’t stray from the Smith’s/Cure/New Order style though; it’s all 80s, all the time. Can you imagine witnessing a mugging and being filled with joy? Now just imagine if the person being robbed is Johnny Marr. Do you see why this album makes me feel dirty? Only on “Down By the Water” does the band stray from the indie 80s vibe, yet even this song is a grave robbing of Buddy Holly’s mangled corpse.
I listen to “Down By the Water” while taking a bath to wash away my shame:
I read somewhere on the internet (so it has to be true!) that the band claims to have recorded this album in a bedroom with only a guitar, an old keyboard, a microphone, a tambourine, and a reverb machine. Although I doubt this mythology is true, I want to believe it SO badly because if it were true, in a strange way it would validate my addiction to their album. Unfortunately, I struggle to accept this story. This album sounds too polished, too perfectly premeditated to have been an organic creation.
I love this album too damn much to accept that it is a total stylistic hold-up. When I listen to “Let’s Go Surfing” I try to convince myself that they’ve taken the 80s sound and made it a hybrid of surfer rock, 50s pop, and modern rock, but I know in the end that I’m fooling myself. Whistling, bleeping keyboards, and short doo-wop chant interludes don’t mask the fact that this album isn’t trying to change the world. It’s simply fun. Crap. I hate fun.
“Let’s Go Surfing”, a nominee for both “Best Song of 2010” and “Worst Video of 2010”:
I finally had to concede that, yes, this album is grand theft audio and that’s okay. Not everything has to be completely original, or in this case, remotely original. My brother may be right about the 2000s lack of an original sound, but imitation is happening everywhere. With the likes of “Hawaii Five-O” on TV and “The Karate Kid” in theaters, I like to believe that at least in the music world bands aren’t simply remaking classic albums; they are harnessing the essence of the greats, and I guess in the case of The Drums, I’m okay with that.
Speaking of movies, The Drums even rip-off the opening drum track to “Footloose” for “Me and the Moon”. Where’s a Chris Penn dance sequence in a barn when you need one?: