Few debates can rage louder and longer than those among music fans regarding the merits of their favorite artists or songs . Anyone who has ever witnessed people arguing over who was the TRUE genius behind the Beatles, John or Paul, or what is the greatest song EVER will understand what I mean. Two albums released in late June raise a similar question for music lovers to ponder: what exactly is rock ?n roll? Is it the loud, no-holds-barred celebration of life and youth you discovered at the age of 15? Or can it be more than that? Can rock music be dense, enigmatic, and occasionally hard to listen to? Can it be like a Russian novel?hard to get into at first, but difficult to put down once you give it a chance?
20,000 Streets Under the Sky , the new album by the Philadelphia band Marah , falls into the first category. It is a loud, boozy, best-played-with-the-windows-rolled down kind of record. Listening to it makes you want to go see the band live, to share in the joy that must be present when the music is played. The new album from the Chicago-based Wilco, on the other hand, is slightly more subdued. A Ghost is Born has its share of catchy pop tunes, but just as many enigmatic, mournful songs that inspire more brooding than dancing. Yet like Wilco’s other albums, it has a strange power, proving that rock music continues to grow in new and interesting ways.
Some of these ideas were explored in a recent op-ed in the New York Times by Nick Hornby, the British-born pop music fanatic who penned High Fidelity and once reviewed music for the New Yorker. Hornby is a big fan of Marah, and in the Times, he argued that they are one of the few bands out there that plays rock music the way it should be played. He wrote that rock music has become “too grown-up and full of itself …You can find plenty that’s angry, or weird, or perverse, or melancholy and world-weary,” he wrote, “but that loud, sometimes dumb celebration of being alive has got lost somewhere along the way.” The reaction was quick and fierce. “Nick Hornby is full of s?” opined the Village Voice, and New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere Jones called Hornby an “old man” I haven’t read any reviews of the new Marah album, but my prediction is that they’ll suffer from guilt by association. That’s too bad, because Marah is back in fighting form on 20,000 Streets. The album has the same grainy, authentic feel as their best, Kids in Philly. The Beilanko brothers?the duo at the center of Marah?may hail from outside Philadelphia, but their album has the feel of the city in summer. Streets is best played on streets where girls play double-dutch and kids play in the spray of fire hydrants.
If all were right with the world, 20,000 Streets would get lots of radio play this summer. I’m not sure I can say the same about A Ghost is Born. Like their previous effort, the brilliant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Ghost can be dense and difficult. Lead singer and songwriter Jeff Tweedy has predicted that “99 percent of our fans won’t like” it. “Even I don’t want to listen to it every time I play through the album,” he said. But while Ghost may seem inaccessible at first, it reveals itself after several listens. The song “Spiders” may seem grating the first time you hear it, but by the fifth time around, you’re waiting anxiously for that perfectly placed piano chord midway through.
I can’t imagine Nick Hornby likes “Spiders.” He probably prefers “Hummingbird,” an unquestionably great song on Ghost, but in his schema, it is the only kind of song Tweedy should be writing. (Not surprisingly, Hornby loved the radio-friendly “Jesus, Etc.” from Yankee Hotel, while he thought the album’s “squeaks and bleeps” sounded like “an audio suicide note.”) That seems silly, especially given Tweedy’s genius for writing difficult music. Why can’t he experiment? Granted, there’s a fine line between daring artistry and self-indulgent claptrap. And too often today, critics lazily praise musicians for their artistic pretensions rather than the quality of their music. Hornby is right to insist that “emotional intelligence is sometimes best articulated through a great chord change, rather than a furrowed brow.” But that doesn’t mean all rock music has to sound like Springsteen or the Stones. Some of my favorite songs I disliked the first time I heard them, but they slowly burrowed deep under my skin, until I couldn’t live without listening to them. (I’m thinking of Bob Dylan’s “Idiot Wind.”)
The problem is that both Hornby and his critics are clinging to a rather narrow definition of rock ?n roll. Today’s music critics are often suspicious of songs that are radio friendly and Hornby is right to call them on this. Why can’t a song just make you feel good? But Hornby’s notion of what makes a good rock song isn’t adequate either. If rock ?n roll was big enough for Elvis and Dylan, it certainly has room for Marah and Wilco.