Saturday, December 22, 2012

Is Variety The Spice Of Life?

I took Billy's recommendation and purchased the highly-regarded Japandroids CD, Celebration Rock.  It's a pretty good listen in a way--high-energy, straight-ahead rock with good "rock" lyrics (meaning songs filled with disenchantment with the adult world, which has always been one of the themes that rock handles best).  It'll stir your coffee if you crank it in the car on your way to work.

In addition to the provocative opener "The Nights of Wine and Roses," I am especially partial to "Fire's Highway" and "Adrenaline Nightshift."  But I'll stop my praise there because my purpose is not to re-review the CD or, really, to even talk about Japandroids except as an example for a larger question.

The thing that struck me about the CD was how similar all of the songs were.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not about to become the rock version of that idiot who says that all bluegrass sounds the same.  But what I am suggesting is that the speed and the approach of the songs is similar from the first to last song of that short CD.  Notice I did not say "repetitive."  Notice that I am not calling Japandroids a one trick pony.

But their CD is an aural assault from beginning to end, and I'm pretty sure that they wanted it that way.  I'm also sure that we all know at this point that the guitar-and-drums two person band is no particular limitation in and of itself.  From the Flat Duo Jets and House Of Freaks in the 80's to The White Stripes and The Black Keys and others I may not know, this kind of band has proven to be most anything it wants to be.  No, Japandroids know exactly what they're doing, fitting music to theme.

But it's also fair to say that if you like one of their songs, you'll probably like all of them.  If you don't, well, their palette dictates that you're either in or you're out.

I contrast them, however, with another favorite CD I've mentioned this year, Springsteen's Wrecking Ball.  The aging Boss explores all kinds of musical styles on his CD.  Some of them enrich his music; some are kind of ho-hum, maybe new to him but not so new.  But both CDs are still very good, and in both cases, given the evolution of musical listening, I will gravitate toward favorite songs rather than straight, top-to-bottom listening of the CDs.

Still, this got me to wondering about variety.  Is the greater artist the one who keeps trying new things instead of doing what he or she always did, but with increasing skill or experience?  Do we expect variety?  Do we want it?  Does familiarity breed contempt?  

There are several restaurants that I go to that I always list among my "favorite" restaurants in this city, but the reality is that I order the same thing, or choose from among the same two or three things, every time that I go to those places to eat.  Would I be better served to try something new each time, to be able to say that I've eaten the entire menu and can attest to its breadth and quality?  Am I limiting myself by continuing to go with what I know that I will enjoy?

The situations, of course, are not analogous.  It can get pricey to have to order a new meal if you didn't like the one you ordered.  It's easy to change songs or CDs if you aren't into what you are listening to.  And were we to drift into a discussion of friendships or relationships or careers, who knows where we would end up.

I think most of us end up as a contradictory mix of wanting to try the new and clinging to the comfort of the old.  We lean either way whenever it suits us, maybe feeling risky and frisky when the context is a little safer, less so when there is something really at stake.  Yes, new things, new options, new outlooks can refresh, but change for change's sake wouldn't seem to have much lasting power either.

Me, while I like to think of myself as open to the new, I often have to be dragged toward it and have my head dunked in it before I will say, "Hey, that is pretty good."  Here's hoping that a band like Japandroids will have reasons to broaden their sound and their approach, not because those are commercial considerations, but because an ever-ripening outlook demands it.

(My apologies to readers, since this is only half thought out.  Sometimes that is the nature of the blogging game!)


G. B. Miller said...

I think I'm more imnpressed with an artist who looks to expand their musical horizons.

Not so sure with Bruce since he seems to be permanently stuck in particular facet of music and if he tries anything new, it will alway have that particular facet flavoring the new music.

I am impressed more with old artists like Neil Young who have managed to carve out new paths with different genres/styles (his overlooked album back in the mid-80's called "Everybody Rockin'" that he did in his rockablilly phase was really good) without his basic style really flavoring his new stuff.

Billy said...

In the world of actors, there are good actors who can do almost anything (e.g., Meryl, Day Lewis), and there are good actors who are good because they play a certain range of characters very well (e.g. Jimmy Stewart, Sandra Bullock).

While it's right to respect the former for their greater range, for their ability to "disappear" in more roles, I think it's unwise to discount the value or power of the latter. "Karate Kid" Daniel-San won an entire tournament not with a breadth of karate, but by mastering a small range of essential skills.

Everything I just wrote has a direct relation to music as well. Except I think maybe it's harder for musicians to break too far beyond a certain range and still be "loved" by their fans.

troutking said...

I'm not usually impressed when artists jump completely into a whole new genre. It usually seems forced to me. But, when Neil brings his Neil-ness to synth-rock in Transformer or Bruce uses elements of hip hop in Streets of Philadelphia or goes Celt-rock with Death to My Hometown while maintaining the essential Bruciness of the track, I think it provides a fresh context for them. Honestly, if I want to listen to some other genre, I'll go directly to the source. Example: Within You, Without You from Sgt. Pepper. I like that song because it's something different, even though it's still very much a Beatles song. If I really want to hear some straight raga sitar, I'll go listen to Ravi Shankar. Which I won't. I definitely think bringing in elements of other styles enriches an artist. I'm glad Bruce didn't keep rewriting Sandy and Incident on 57th street because then we'd never have gotten to hear Badlands or The Ties That Bind or Brilliant Disguise or Wrecking Ball, but I don't want to hear him doing a hip-hop album.