Arriving Late to the Party (Item #2): The Art of Surprise

(Featuring tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent, Simon & Garfunkel) (With a brief Fernando Ortega update)

Part of a regular series here at PostConsumer Reports wherein I reflect on something that I either totally missed or completely disliked the first time I heard, watched, and/or read it. In a sense, the party’s been going on for quite some time and I have arrived significantly late. If you will, it is the AfterParty or the PostParty Party.

[Disclaimer: I am still in the process of writing a critical analysis of Coldplay's work (as I said I would in my last blog post). I have reserved finishing that essay until I can devote the necessary amount of thought to it. So, with that in mind...]

It was all a matter of priorities; a simple adherence to the economy of time.

I just celebrated my thirtieth birthday a little while ago and with a large portion of my birthday money (thanks dad!) I purchased my second ipod. Having been ipod-less for the better part of a year due to dropping it in the toilet and it being just plain old (5 years old has to be something like 70 in ipod years) I was chomping at the bit (to use an equine figure of speech {thanks classical education!}) to catch up on all my podcasts. I do not listen to a lot of music on my ipod--I mainly listen to a lot of people talking about interesting things. I love interviews (Fresh Air, The Drew Marshall Show, WTF), well told stories both entertaining and educational (This American Life, Radiolab), funny stuff (the Relevant Podcast, The Ricky Gervais Show), spiritual stuff (sermons, academic essays) and shows about music (Sound Opinions, All Songs Considered).

I hunger and thirst for new music and yet I do not really spend a lot of time looking for the next great thing that is supposed to change our culture's musical landscape. I simply have no time for that anymore and I have even come to realize that although I like to think I am a patron of forward-thinking creative music, I still play it pretty safe when it comes to what I listen to day in and day out. I scan the reviews on Pitchfork every day to see what I ‘should’ be listening to, but unless someone actually recommends something to me in person or I get introduced to something on a podcast I will most likely never listen to a new artist. Thus the importance of me getting my new ipod if I am ever to discover any new music.

Lately, I have been catching up with the Sound Opinions podcast even though I am often perplexed by what they find laudable (Realy!? The Vivian Girls? ...) and Jim DeRogatis himself is rarely not a loathsome bore. Even so, they have introduced me to a lot of good music over the years (Fleet Foxes first comes to mind) and they have not disappointed me on this round of listening either.

One band that kept popping up in their conversations and whom they eventually interviewed on their July 15, 2011 episode was the band tUnE-yArDs (forgive the spelling), which is primarily the work of the very talented Merrill Garbus. Again, since the economy of my life is so short on time it took me a number of times of hearing them mentioned as well as their music being played several times over before I was actually willing to give their music any serious attention. Unless something is good (i.e., good to me, of course) I am not going to give it the time of day--it really has to reach out and grab me, and tune-yards did just that. There is a lot going on in the music that I will not get into here, but just give it a listen (the video is posted below).

Another artist that recently got my attention was St. Vincent, an art-rock band of which Annie Clark is the mastermind. I have known of St. Vincent for a number of years now, but I have never really listened closely to her/their music. But around the time their new album Strange Mercy was released a music video for the song “Cruel” was also put up on various online outlets. I was hooked on the song after one listen and continued to re-listen to it numerous times in the ensuing weeks. On top of this, a friend of mine gave me a copy of their previous album Actor a few months back and I finally decided to listen to it a few weeks ago and have been listening to it quite frequently ever since. What Clark does with melody is simply head-turning and the tones she gets out of her guitar signifies that she has quite a unique voice.

The reason I bring the music of these two bands up is that they somewhat came out of leftfield and surprised me. I was not expecting to like them--I was merely nonchalantly seeking out new music. I clicked on the St. Vincent video because it was posted on a few of the sites I frequent and tuneyards’ music caught my interest only as I was disinterestedly listening to podcasts while doing housework. It is not that their music was radically different than anything I had heard before, but instead that there was something radically fresh and unique carried within familiar musical forms. Annie Clark’s guitar on "Cruel" was a revelation to me, and the way Garbus uses her voice in tuneyards, as well as her commanding stage presence, really struck me deeply. I think both of these artists are examples of what pop music can become—deeply thoughtful, musically complex, and yet well within the bounds of catchy ear-wormy music that will appeal to a wide swath of people.

One more band/artist that has really surprised me lately is Simon & Garfunkel. I have loved Paul Simon’s music for two decades now (I very distinctly remember being blown away by my brother’s cassette copy of Graceland as I scavenged through his music collection making mixtapes as a ten year old) but my knowledge of his work in S&G has been mainly cursory (think The Graduate). So, when the Sound Opinions guys played “The Only Living Boy in New York” on a podcast from a few months back it was like I was hearing the very apex of recorded sound. Actually, as the song began to unfold I was astounded that I had never heard it before. It was the same feeling I had at age 12 when I discovered The Chronicles of Narnia on my own and I was mad that no one had ever told me about it before. I have since listened to the whole Bridge Over Troubled Water album and I have no idea why it is not ranked up there with The Beatles’ later period work and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds as one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded (and I am not talking about #51 —I am talking top 10; although there could be quite a bit of debate about whether it could even be considered a rock album).

All this is to say that I was so surprised by the above mentioned music. I made a little effort on my own to seek it out, but for the most part the music reached out, grabbed me, and shouted LISTEN! And then listen to me again and again and again (BTW--I have had “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head non-stop for nearly a week now). In so many ways this is nothing new for me, as basically all the music I have come to love initially surprised me, but each time this happens I am still surprised at how surprising the music is to me, amazed at how much it moves me, gets inside me, and changes me. I have so many musical surprise stories (e.g., Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, Keith Green, Sufjan’s Illinoise, Sixpence’s self-titled, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and on and on), but most of my life consists of long periods of time of not being surprised, desperately searching for new surprises, and then being disappointed at striking out again and being frustrated for spending another ten or so dollars on some music I do not really want.

At the moment I really have the need to get Simon and Garfunkel out of my head, because they are driving me a little crazy. So I am sure things are going to settle down for a little while on the musical front. Nonetheless, I know it will not be long before that deep deep hunger comes back and I begin the hunt for the next great musical surprise. I am looking forward to it, even if it means like with Simon and Garfunkel I am arriving forty years too late to the party.

Please enjoy these videos and do not feel bad if you are not as surprised as I was:

Brief Fernando Ortega Update

Someone (who knows who?) has posted a couple of interviews with Fernando Ortega onto their youtube page. In them he discusses his musical influences and his thought on becoming Anglican, liturgy, and the church calendar. They're definitely worth a watch:

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