The Aging Punk 027

The Aging Punk 027

Thursday, 03 November 2022


My favorite album of the past year or so is Emily Wells’ Regards to the End. It is beautiful, emotionally powerful and transcendent, even; and it is unclassifiable. It is not really rock, or pop, or electronica, or hip-hop, although it contains elements of all. It’s not classical, or jazz, or soul. The best qualifier is simply to call this album Music, with a capital M. Pure music.

Then take Nels Cline, one of the most innovative guitarists working today. Working with musicians such as Mike Watt, Carla Bozulich, LA punk supergroup Banyan, and today with Wilco would seem to place him solidly in the rock genre. Yet his solo albums are filed in Jazz. Which probably says more about our (or someone’s) concept of jazz than about his music. But, with its rock tonalities, heavy improvised nature, and occasional veering into pure noise, Cline’s music doesn’t really fit in comfortably in any of our standard genres either.

Also consider Bill Nelson, former leader and guitarist of Be-Bop Deluxe (rock outfit from the Seventies) who has continued to record solo albums (he has dozens on Bandcamp) – primarily instrumental guitar. He certainly has moved beyond basic rock, but into where? Again, it’s not really jazz, or electronica, or… whatever. It’s simply music.

What’s important here is that all three of these, and many more musicians today, play what moves them, go where their creative energies take them, without any regard for the various categories others try to impose on music. Perhaps they need their own category, something like post-genre music.

In fact, twenty years ago I wrote about this very issue in an Orange County punk zine called Skratch. Here’s a bit of that:

The very best music transcends genre altogether. They’re just music, drawing on numerous influences, but in the end just playing whatever sounds right at the moment. I call this post-genre music.

There are two basic forms of post-genre music. One takes the various elements of different genres, and mixes them up, refuses to be boxed in by them. The prime example of this type of music today is Beck. His music is a gumbo of styles (hip-hop, soul, folk, etc.), blended into a coherent whole, where each flavor still retains its presence. But in this style, the various genres still show up, if only as identifiable ingredients in the stew. It may cross and blend genres, but it does not transcend them.

There is also pure post-genre music, music that simply ignores the notions and conventions of genre. I recently attended a show by the band Critters Buggin’. I have heard them labelled as a “noise” band, but what they played wasn’t noise, or jazz, or anything in particular. It was just music, music without boundaries, without labels. Five people on stage, playing together, playing in the moment. Just playing.

All of this does raise a question: why do we bother categorizing music anyway? Who invented genre in the first place?

Humans have a compulsive urge to organize and categorize things. Everything, in fact. Look at all the effort spent in the 1800s on taxonomy, the attempt to classify every form of life into a coherent system of clear types and divisions. But for all the human effort, nature refused to cooperate. Behold the platypus!

So creating classes and categories is human nature. It is almost instinctive. It is a good part of how we understand the world, this whole “like with like” concept.

It does have its practical side too, even in music. Maybe especially in music. How else would you find music you liked? If you like classic rock, you can listen to a classic rock station. Likewise for classical. Or jazz, country, alternative — having genres helps you avoid constantly changing stations while looking for something you like. (At least until you get tired of hearing the same songs over and over.)

When you go into a record store, it saves you searching the whole store for your target artist. Except not always, consider my search for Nels Cline or, more recently, Shelby Lynne. Maybe it would be easier if the whole store was organized like my CD collection — all the artists in alphabetical order.

But I am really showing my age here, aren’t I? Strict genre categories are, in fact, less important if you find new music through an algorithm, if it operates on similarity rather than genre. A Bob Dylan song may be similar to a country song which may be similar to a rockabilly song, and away you go into a post-genre world.

Yet we not only cling to our genres, we (or someone) keeps inventing new ones. Such as “rockabilly.” Nowadays, there are so many, such as emo-pop, progressive folk, post-rock. What the fuck is “post-rock,” anyway? Sometimes I think these new categories are made up by music critics, so they can describe music in shorthand, rather than actually have to tell us how it sounds.

And don’t even get me started on “world music,” a category so broad as to be meaningless – unless your primary goal is avoiding lyrics you don’t understand.

Still, all these micro-genres tell me that we actually are moving toward a post-genre world, where musicians are free to play what they want, and leave the critics behind, scrambling to find new categories to fit them into.

All hail the platypus! [Murray Thomas]

The inspiration for this column was brought on by Emily Wells’ album, Regards To The End. Buy it here, directly from the artist’s web site.

Emily Wells – Regards To The End – [stream]

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