Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Viva Glasvegas! The Return of Recession Rock and Roll

Since the advent of rock and roll in the 1950’s, people have attempted to declare it dead, that it has run its course and there is nothing more the medium can offer audiences. This has occurred since 1959’s Buddy Holly plane crash to the present day with John Mellencamp writing an article which theorized the music industry is responsible for his lack of album sales (please insert your own Mellencamp joke here). Mellencamp argued it was impossible for rock music to get airplay yet tales of hard times and Americana are a little tough believe when they are written from a millionaire’s mansion. Powerful songs or struggle and perseverance tend to be written by those who have experienced them recently. The debut album of Glasvegas, a quartet from Scotland, is the best record I’ve heard in years and seems the most likely artist to epitomize the current worldwide recession.

A quartet whose songs are majestic yet simple, Glasvegas has a stripped down look and sound, which accents the soaring harmonies in many of their songs. Singer/songwriter James Allan could be a dead ringer for Joe Strummer or a 1950’s rocker. The entire band usually dresses in simple, black clothes yet their sound resembles the Arcade Fire, albeit with ten fewer musicians. Singing with his natural Scottish accent, James Allan is almost challenging audiences to accept the philosophy of no compromise. Rarely, if ever, has any artist achieved mass popularity if had an accent as strong as Allan’s. U2’s Bono is Irish and Tom Jones is Welsh but if one were to listen to their recordings without this knowledge, they might as well have hailed from New York City. Glasvegas’ adherence to their Scottish heritage makes some of Allan’s lyrics unintelligible but in doing so makes the songs more alluring and draws the listener into his passionate vocals. Coincidentally, U2 has recently announced Glasvegas will open for them for part of their upcoming tour.

In tough economic times, most people tend to cut back on extravagances, which can be shown in popular music during various eras of recession. It seems hard times often bring the best music. The 2002 recession may have been short, but it brought the White Stripes to prominence. A duo of just guitar and drums, Jack and Meg White’s minimalism was a welcome shot in the arm to the rock industry. A decade earlier, as the United States was going through the Bush I recession, audiences rebelled against the excesses of hair bands like Motley Crue and flocked to an unknown Seattle trio, Nirvana, en masse. Nirvana’s “Nevermind” became the anthem of early 90’s angst and even knocked the King of Pop Michael Jackson from the top of the charts. Nirvana had a minimalist approach to music as well. Although it can be argued produced Butch Vig slicked up Nirvana’s sound, their blistering live performances showcase a band in total deafening control. If “Nevermind” was the angry record of the early 90’s, REM’s “Automatic for the People” was the sad record. Abandoning their traditional, bouncy sound for sparse, melancholy arrangements, REM crafted an album which reflected the attitude of a generation abandoned by their leaders. A stripped down sound filled the record, which is still considered the band’s greatest achievement.

The rise of punk music in 1970’s Britain stands as the ultimate example of music upheaval during an economic crisis. Chronicled in the Julien Temple film “The Filth and the Fury”, punk’s assault and takeover of British youth culture was a direct result of mass unemployment, despair and bitterness young people felt toward their government, elders and society. The Sex Pistols encapsulated these emotions in their first three singles “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “God Save the Queen” and “Pretty Vacant.” The political fury over the band’s popularity caused the BBC to ban playing of “God Save the Queen” to prevent it from becoming the number one song in the country. When the Pistols performed live, it was a live action disaster flick. It became debatable if the band could really play at all, which was a ruse spread by their manager, Malcolm McLaren. The concept of band with questionable musical ability somehow managing to become the most popular artist in Britain was indeed a slap in the face to society. Truthfully, all of the Sex Pistols (even Sid Vicious) had decent musical chops. Decent enough to convince critics they couldn’t play. Like Nirvana, the Sex Pistols’ existence was short (approximately eighteen months) but their one record is still considered one of the finest rock and roll albums ever made.

Glasvegas’ self-titled debut album reflects a society different from the three decades previously discussed. Most western cultures are no longer impoverished on a scale compared to yesteryear. Many people who consider themselves poor still have an Ipod, internet and a big T.V. Yet many are still sad, the disconnection brought on by modern convenience has left many lonely and unappreciated. Glasvegas’ first single, “Geraldine,” describes a social worker who wants to “be the angel on your shoulder” who talks people “back from the edge.” James Allan celebrates an occupation often underappreciated. Drummer Caroline McKay’s simple yet strong backbeat pounds against the falsetto of Rob Allan, James’ cousin. Combined with James Allan’s passionate, accented vocals, “Geraldine” is a fantastic debut single that recalls classic music from the 1950’s with punk bombast and pure pop melody.

“Daddy’s Gone”, the band’s second single is a different take on the far too common problem of absent fathers. James Allan describes his father as “my hero, but you were never here though,” a bittersweet admission of unconditional love. The lyrics, along with Allan’s incredible voice, conveys gutwrenching sadness yet the chorus has tone of defiant resolve:

“I wont be the lonely one
sitting on my own and sad
a fifty year old
reminiscing what I had”

The lyric can be interpreted two ways, as a statement of pity or one of self-determination, possibly both. Many sons of broken homes have resolved to raise their own families the best they can, refusing to subject their children or themselves to the fate given to them by their own father. The song’s arrangement is minimal, repeating motifs of guitar and bass until the emotional final chorus, which incorporates 50’s harmony with punk passion. This synthesis of old and new is epitome of great rock and roll. Glasvegas brings us a new interpretation of the past for our uncertain future. Unlike many of the recession rock artists of the past, Glasvegas inspires us to think, not destroy; to be passionate about life and not nihilistic.

We are in an era where many of us are contemplating our place and our future in this world; an inclusive, yet distant society that seems to long for real emotion rather than those manufactured on television or fabricated on the internet. James Allan and Glasvegas bring us back home, back to the place of unshielded feeling. Many of us need a little bit more of that human touch, the place inside us which makes us care and rage with all our power, suppressing nothing and ideologically uncompromising. Glasvegas challenges us to recognize the world around us for what it is and truly feel it in our gut. The world is not a just soundbite on CNN or gossip item on Perez Hilton. It is a real, evolving entity; one we can shape if we choose to do so. Glasvegas are a triumph of emotion over calculation, belief over doubt. It is this attitude, the same attitude of Elvis Presley, the Sex Pistols and Nirvana, that makes music truly alive for us all.

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