AMERICAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK: A SURVEY OF THE STATE OF THE ART
Melody Maker, summer 1993
by Simon Reynolds
Because of the regional diversity and sheer vastness of the country, American rock evolves slowly, steadily, organically. In Britain, rock proceeds in leaps and bounds. Partly, this is because rock isn't rooted in the indigenous culture, and Brit-bands come to it already slightly detached, and so feel free to warp it,
overlay it with art-school conceptualism and style. Partly, it's because of the "unhealthy" (as the Yanks see it) influence of the weekly music press, with its high fever of rhetoric, its hysterical turnover of trends. And so America generates a steady stream of solid bands and far fewer "all mouth and no trouser" types (it's hard to imagine US equivalents to the Manics or Huggy Bear), while Britain spawns a scourge of chancers and charlatans. But, and it's a big but,
such mediatised self-consciousness also means that Brit-rock can
sometimes think itself through to formal breakthroughs that are inaccessible to the Americans.
Right now, US rock is much as it's ever been: diverse, but also samey (it's all based in guitars, bass and drums). Grunge isn't going to go away, even after being mainstreamed by the majors: its roots - the born-to-lose dejection of teenage wastelanders - will always abide. There's commercial grunge (ROLLINS, QUICKSAND), anti-commersh grunge (KYUSS, UNSANE, PAIN TEENS), proto-grunge (MELVINS,
TAD), smart-grunge (AFGHAN WHIGS, WALT MINK), even ambient grunge (EARTH), but it's all grunge, and it has nothing more to offer me.
Also on the despondent tip, there's the blues fundamentalists like PALACE BROS, MULE, RAILROAD JERK, COME, maybe JESUS LIZARD: bands that know the blues began with the likes of Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, and not (as grunge believes) with Ozzie Osbourne. The nouveau bluesologists are flanked on one side by the misery-guts contingent (RED HOUSE PAINTERS, CODEINE, MAZZY STAR, IDAHO) and on the other by avant-raunch units like ROYAL TRUX and THE JON SPENCER BLUES EXPLOSION. These Stones-fetishists also have something in common with the slacker bands, which range from lo-fi (PAVEMENT, THINKING FELLERS, TRUMAN'S WATER, SMOG, SILVER JEWS, NEW RADIANT STORM KING, THE GRIFTERS, UNCLE WIGGLY, ERIC'S TRIP, ad infinitum) to
neo-cosmic (MERCURY REV, FLAMING LIPS, RADIAL SPANGLE, CRAWLSPACE, CUL DE SAC). At the more Anglophile end of this freak-out spectrum, you'll find the MBV-aligned (SWIRLIES, DROP NINETEENS, MAJESTY CRUSH, MEDICINE) and the 4AD/FACTORY fixated (UNREST, HIS NAME IS ALIVE).
At the opposite extreme from all the above (bands who at least pay lipservice to the idea of pushing the envelope), there's the unabashed period-stylists, who indulge in what theorist Joe Carducci calls 'genre-mining': extracting the last few nuggets of pleasure from the near-exhausted seam of a retro genre. Some are earnest
(THE POSIES, UNCLE TUPELO, DILLON FENCE, for whom 'pure pop' is and alway shall be Big Star/Neil Young/Gram Parsons). Some are playful, rehabilitating discredited styles just like our own kitschadelic popsters Denim, Saint Etienne and Pulp: RAGING SLAB (Lynyrd Oak Arsansas), URGE OVERKILL (Cheap Trick), WHITE ZOMBIE/ MONSTER MAGNET (biker rock), BIG CHIEF (Funkadelic). Finally, there are those whose
retrogression is ideologically motivated, involving a return to one or other version of 'punk': the Gang of Four agit-pop/angst-rock of FUGAZI, GIRLS AGAINST BOYS, SIX FINGER SATELLITE; the DIY amateurism/authenticity of labels like K, SIMPLE MACHINES, KILL ROCK STARS and other Grrl-aligned elements.
Amid all this overlapping confusion and musical overproduction (so many fuckin bands!), you can discern four distinct responses to the problem of making music in rock's fourth decade.
1/FUNDAMENTALISM: a return to basics, whether that's cathartic riff-power or heart-felt songcraft.
2/ MAXIMALISM: trying to stretch the limits of gtrs/bs/drms
(very hard, this late in the day).
3/ IRONY: a tongue-in-chic exhumation of rock's most excessive, OTT styles-and-
4/ ECLECTICISM: joining the dots between earlier pinnacles of extremity, reviving and combining avant-rock methods, following under-explored routes into the Beyond or the Bizarre (Krautrock, Beefheart, The Fall, acid rock).
Of these, the ironists (Urge Overkill et al) offer the most entertainment, while the post-Pavement schizo-eclectics offer the most stimulation. But both strategies tend to degenerate into 'record collection rock': up-your-own-ass oneupmanship (what can we rehabilitate next?!). Lo-fi weirdness-for-its-own-sake has a long
history in the US (F/i, VERTICAL SLIT, SUN CITY GIRLS, MX-80, PERE UBU), but, I suspect, not much of a future. Already, with the likes of GUIDED BY VOICES and ARCHERS OF LOAF, it's petering out into a dead end of wacky inconsequentiality. Lo-fi bands have invented their own kind of muso virtuosity (odd time signatures, using
antiquated gtr effects to explore the textures of fuzz), and the genre seems destined to go the same way as jazz: eventually, its audience will be composed entirely of other musicians, who can spot the references and appreciate the form-bending mischief.
British avant-rock also faces contracting audiences. But to my ears, it feels more vital because it's in touch with developments outside of rock: the sound-sculpting innovations of hip hop, techno, ambient and dub. Bands like Seefeel, Insides, Papa Sprain, Ice, Scorn, Stereolab etc probably don't even warrant the term 'rock'
anymore, since they're based around layers and textures, rather than riff-dynamics, around using the studio-as-instrument rather than simulating a 'live' band. Effects-laden guitars are one element in a futurist armory that includes samplers, sequencers and drum machines.
All of which poses the question: why have American rock bands flinched away from embracing the sampladelic revolution? Obviously, rave culture is not as highly developed or pervasive in the USA as it is in the UK. Techno's influence is further limited by the Amer-indie conviction that "disco sucks", that 'real music' requires a human drummer. But what about hip hop, which is all-pervasive in America,
broadcast via MTV or boomin' from jeep sound-systems on every street corner? US rockers have either flirted with rap in a half-assed, facetious manner (Sonic Y's Ciccone Youth project) or they've emulated it wholesale (Beasties, Consolidated). Only Cop Shoot Cop have hijacked rap's sampler method and militant spirit and deployed them in a rock context.
The only explanation for this failure of nerve on the part of white American rock is the fraught politics of race in the US. White bohemians think rap is "cool", but they're wary about laying a finger on what they feel is Black cultural property.
Whereas Britain's remoteness from this racially-charged situation has meant that its most quick-thinking bands could respond almost instantly to rap's challenge, whether that took the form of gimmickry (Age Of Chance, Pop Will Shite Itself) or genuine, organic radicalism (MBV's looped beats and sampled feedback on "Soon" and "Loveless").
Because of its failure to respond to the only futuristic pop forms to emerge in the last decade (rap and rave), American underground rock can "advance" only by taking backward steps. Bands seek out and follow relatively untrodden trails within rock history, colonising and developing the territory. But the limits of that terrain were pretty much mapped in the late '60's and early 70's; the frontier has long been closed; a new one is needed.
American bands struggle to find new permutations on the basic real-time interaction of gtr/bs/drms mode that is the heart of rock and roll. And they find them, but the odds against such reinvention increase every day. The heart of rock'n'roll, as the sage Huey Lewis put it, is still beating. But in Britain and in Europe, bands are tearing out that heart with an electric claw, rewiring their nervous systems and
mutating into cyborg-rock.