Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Reading: Funky Precedent

sharon_jones_walters_08004 Continuing a thought process I began on Friday as I rummaged through Amazon’s bargain offerings, I’d like to point you toward Sasha Frere-Jones’ recent New Yorker piece on revivalist music.

When discussing new music, it’s easy to slip into name-dropping shorthand: “So-and-so sounds like Classic Group A” or “This guy’s voice reminds me of Famous Crooner B.”  I’m as guilty of it as anyone, whether I’m trying to describe obscure techno acts or drooling over a superamalgam of the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age, and Zeppelin.  Rather than articulate what an electric guitar sounds like eighty years after it was invented, it’s quicker to just tell you if a guitarist sounds more Eric Clapton than George Benson, more Van Halen than Hendrix.

The problem then is: what happens to originality?  Is there never anything truly new worth listening to?  Of course there is, but Jones isn’t sure that copycatting – good copycatting, anyway – is a bad thing.

Jones kicks off the piece with an examination of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, the funk/soul group cut from the same cloth as James Brown’s trademark capes.  Won over by the group’s electric live shows, Jones considers the value of the Dap-Kings and other revivalist acts:

“So why not just let go of the conceit of originality, and let the songbook stand? The revival problem is also the repertory question. Very few people complain that “Hamlet” is restaged every year. Why treat music differently from any other art? Once the original authors are absent, and we agree that their ideas are perfect as is, there seems little reason to monkey with them.

I admit to having dismissed most of these acts out of hand on first listen. Their live shows began dismantling my skepticism. We are broadly taught to respect the innovator, to trust that he or she is doing something important. But we also like what we like, and I like a strong downbeat.”

There will always be something new, something cutting-edge.  But revisiting the standards can be just as rewarding.  They’re standards for a reason, right?