Monday, January 30, 2006

I never.

First things first: I heart Jenny Lewis. Blogger cliche? Yup. And I take full responsibility. The new album? I like it a lot, especially when listened to all the way through (I think the big picture works better than the singles).

That said my heart sank a little when I read this New York Times profile. Says Miss Lewis: "I find most modern country virtually unistenable."

I hate that snobbery. I've mentioned before that I loathe the old "I like all music except for country" trope; of course, that line doesn't really work anymore, what with the recent (and largely deserved) hagiographic treatment of Johnny, Loretta, and Dolly. So now the new line is "I like country music, just not modern country music."

For one, I don't buy for a second that Jenny Lewis has spent any real time listening to modern country radio. (Full admission: I haven't really either, but I'm not the asshole making dumb blanket generalizations.) I'm guessing that this is based on the indie-kid notion that modern country music is encapsulated wholly by what's played on the radio. Can we count Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Old 97's, Gillian Welch*, Nickel Creek, and Lucinda Williams as contemporary country? Or would their inclusion screw up Lewis's/indiedom's tired snobbery?

But let's forget about those KCRW/Starbucks-approved singer/songwriter types and get a little more radical: contemporary country that's played on the radio isn't all shit. I know. Stunning. An example: the first time I listened to Lewis's new record, I was struck by a lyric that goes "When you're sleeping with someone who doesn't get you / You're gonna hate yourself in the morning." It's impeccably delivered, but I couldn't help but think of Lee Ann Womack's "I May Hate Myself In the Morning," wherein our heroine makes a drunk dial, fucks an old boyfriend, and concludes "I may hate myself in the morning / but I'm gonna love you tonight." Womack's song is not only smarter and bolder, it was a huge country radio hit. (I'm not the only one who made this connection.)

Want more? You can't tell me that you wouldn't take Miranda Lambert's "Kerosene," a country hit about getting over heartbreak via arson, or Brad Paisley's "Alcohol," a radio staple about a love/hate relationship with getting drunk, over one of the approximately 9,732 solipsistic dirges that Ryan Adams released in 2005**. So there are three of the biggest country hits of 2005, all of them expertly crafted and immensely entertaining. And that's just based on my cursory, passing knowledge of current commercial country music; I bet there are dozens of songs that are in the same league. (And the list expands greatly if you include the aforementioned KCRW/Starbucks types.)

Don't get me wrong, should Ms. Lewis be in the market for a nice, Jew-friendly goy, I'm more than willing to overlook this bout of snobbery.

Oh, and go buy Rabbit Fur Coat. It really is an excellent collection of Nyro'd-out country. (And, yes, I even like that Traveling Wilburys cover featuring grumblegrumblegrumble Bright Eyes.)

* Have you heard Gillian's raw take on Radiohead's "Black Star"? If not, get over to the iTunes store and shell out the 99 cents.
** MEMO TO RYAN ADAMS: please, please, please reform Whiskeytown and write songs like you did circa 1998-2000. Thanks.


At 6:47 PM, Blogger girish said...

Nice call, Ben.

"Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Old 97's, Gillian Welch, Nickel Creek, and Lucinda Williams..."

To which we can add:
John Prine, Rosie Flores, Rosanne Cash, Kasey Chambers, Buddy & Julie Miller, Bobbie Cryner, Steve Earle, Jayhawks, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and hell, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.

At 7:21 PM, Blogger D. Greene said...

"I like country music, just not modern country music."

That hit a little close to home, but I try to qualify it with: I like country music, just not most modern country music.

But I can even listen to country on the radio sometimes, so, anyways, way to stick it to the indie-snob Man! You're like the Armond White of anti-hipsterism bloggers.

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Tommy said...

Lets add more - Shooter Jennings, Jason & The Scorchers, The Thrills, Terry Allen, Two Cow Garage, Drive-By Truckers and Gilmore's own Flatlanders.

At 11:47 PM, Blogger Joshua said...

I like Brad Paisley a lot. Especially "Whiskey Lullaby." And I know Toby Keith has a reputation for being gross, but who doesn't love "Beer For My Horses" (featuring Willie Nelson.) I mean, I know that Willie is also beloved by hipsters (though, I think, unfortunately more for his camp value and marijuana habits than his actual amazing talent) but that only makes the duet that much more amazing. And it's about vigilantes and alcoholism.

But radio-friendly country is still shameful. Yes there are a few great examples, but radio country used to be head and shoulders above radio rock. Old Country and Western music was so good because it was one of the last bastions of storytelling music in the 70s and 80s. But then Shania came along, Garth quit and Reba got a sitcom.

At 4:35 AM, Blogger girish said...

I must have some 20+ Willie albums.
Ironic: he was, on his classic 1978 record Stardust, one of my early introductions to jazz.
Oddly enough, Shania's Come On Over was one of my favorite albums of that year. As opposed to a random grab-bag of singles, it's actually a cohesive, sharply-written, funny, no-bullshit feminist record. And huge hooks that never stop coming. With production to match.

The country I love best is (unoriginally) all the old stuff: Hank Williams, George Jones, Gram Parsons, Lefty Frizzell, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline.

I almost never listen to country radio but when I do, I almost never fail to wince. But thanks, folks, for the songs you've recommended, coz I can go get 'em from iTunes.

At 9:04 AM, Blogger B.A. Slattery said...

What about Neko Case? She's some good alt-mod-country.

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Ben -- absolutely love the new Jenny Lewis album (the photos inside the CD booklet don't hurt either); what a great use of musical styles, with some interesting takes on familiar subjects. I think her statement about country music is a generalization, but I wonder if it's animated more by nostalgia than pure snobbery -- sort of a loyalty to the music of her youth, whatever merits current country music might have. (And, yeah, radio is hardly a measure of a genre's health, although, like Girish, I wince whenever I hear country radio -- pop music with twang.)

Brenton, Neko Case rocks. What a voice. Waiting anxiously for hew new album, due in March.

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Ben said...

The Armond White of anti-hipsterism bloggers? Dizamn. Thanks, D.

Michael, I see where you're coming from re: nostalgia/generalizations, etc. It still makes me kind of crazy. I'm not going to lie and say that I think modern radio is an entirely healthy bastion of creativity or that I wouldn't love for any of the artists mentioned in the comment section to get played on the radio. That said, I hate that as most people reach their mid-20s they slowly start to become complacent/nostalgic in their musical tastes and suddenly there's a fear of the new and/or what the kids are listening to. I mean, I understand it, but I don't like it.

Sasha was way meaner than me.

Totally unrelated: listening to Bowie's mid-'90s collaboration with Eno, Outside. So odd and kind of excellent.

At 11:21 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

Ben, I'm with you on that one: complacency and fear of the new really bug me, and they do lead to the kind of blanket statements we so often find in the press, online, in interviews, or just when talking with friends (reminds me of a friend who keeps telling me how all the music I like is "just plain bad," even though he's never heard three bars of any of it).

Sasha's post is brilliant, by the way.

At 11:25 AM, Blogger girish said...

I have no business passing judgments on country radio, simply because I hardly listen to enough of it to be qualified to. But those knee-jerk blanket dismissals get my goat too. Some of my most refreshing music discussions occur with former-students-now-friends, who are too often young to get all judgmental and rigid and will listen to anything with open ears. It can be downright inspiring to raise a few beers and spin some tunes with 'em.

Ben, what's Outside like? I've never heard it.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Oh man... Outside... It sounds like...

Well, it was clearly an attempt by Bowie to connect to the kids (circa 1995) by using a Nine Inch Nails/'95 modern rock template. Well, that's maybe a quarter of the album. Bowie was clearly trying to connect with modern rock radio, so there are three or four songs that, I think, work really well in that vein.

What's so perverse about the whole enterprise (and what was probably very appealing to Bowie & Eno) is that the album itself is a bizzaro concept album about a serial killer who murders his victims and then turns them into art pieces. It's all very strange and jumbled, but a very interesting listen.

At 4:10 PM, Blogger girish said...

Just ordered the album.
Also discovered that it contains that awesomely spooky-beautiful opening (and closing) track to Lost Highway, "I'm Deranged".

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Ben said...

Yup. "I'm Deranged" is classic.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger B.A. Slattery said...

It's spelt "Brennon".



I'm being sarcastic.

At 9:36 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

To quote my younger, hipper fellow Americans: "my bad".

At 1:11 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

I kind of like "Brenton." It's kind of butch in a gay porn way.

At 2:59 PM, Blogger B.A. Slattery said...

Maybe I'll become a butch gay porn star and call myself Brenton. Maybe, maybe.

Oh, my wild lovely dreams!


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