Naively complex music

My recent chronological voyage through the XTC back catalog, and excitement at hearing many early songs I hadn’t listened to in ages, got me thinking about some aspects that much of my favorite rock music has in common. I like to think of myself as having pretty varied tastes, but it’s true that a certain class of music is just about guaranteed to tickle my fancy.

I was going to call this Idiot Savant music, but that name is both not all that accurate and I guess kind of derogatory.

Here is my basic set of criteria for a band to belong to this category:

  1. A high level of musical inventiveness that appeals to me in a music-theory-nerd sort of way, such that I could explain to another theory-literate person what is interesting about it.
  2. A corresponding lack of ability of the artists to explain their methods theoretically.
  3. A high level of ROCK.

Point 2 is what prevents pretty much any prog rock from falling into this category (although some of my favorite rock music still scores high in points 1 and 3, like Led Zeppelin and Red-era King Crimson). But point 1 is important too, and is what prevents me from getting similarly excited by artists like Daniel Johnston or Jad Fair.

Artists who I love and who I’d more or less place in this group include:

  • Early XTC (you will see the word ‘early’ a lot)
  • Early Pixies
  • Early Throwing Muses
  • A lot of Guided By Voices / Robert Pollard
  • Captain Beefheart
  • The Minutemen, perhaps, but I feel like they understood what they were doing more

Generally the bands eventually start figuring out what they’re doing and slide out of this category.

The Fiery Furnaces are sort of on the line. I have the feeling that Matthew Friedberger is pretty aware of the techniques he is using, but he deploys a lot of them so charmingly ham-handedly that it has the same sort of effect.

When I read about these bands, often one of the members is quoted as saying something like “We thought we were making poppy dance music and would shoot up the charts!” Which is pretty much the point.

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6 Responses to “Naively complex music”

  1. Art says:

    I suspect the problem in point 2 lies in how the artist’s capacity to describe what they’re doing intersects with their ability to do it. Or, in other words, whether the art ends up serving the theory or the theory ends up serving the art.

    I’d file the Minutemen as a band who knew intimately what they were doing but didn’t let it get in the way of making music out of whatever sounded good at the moment. At the art end of rock, the only Robert Fripp stuff I go back to are the albums he made with collaborators who asserted their own agendas, not so much pushing him in the background but forcing him to react to things outside his head.

    And you just made me nostalgic for Game Theory.

  2. dfan says:

    Game Theory / The Loud Family was a band I specifically left out of this category, despite the fact that Scott Miller obviously does not completely have the vocabulary to describe or analyze what he’s doing (I found his chart to some song, and it did something like alternate between B and “Gb”, which no one with any passing knowledge of music theory would ever write), because he’s so obviously thoughtful about the music he writes.

    I’d be curious to know what Fripp you’re referring to. 80’s+ era King Crimson had a sufficiently strong non-Fripp personality in Adrian Belew that it feels like it should fall into that category. I like the Fripp/Eno music that I’ve heard but I haven’t spent as much time with it as I should. I love the League Of Gentlemen album.

  3. Matthew Amster-Burton says:

    How do you feel about Shudder to Think?

  4. dfan says:

    I have one Shudder to Think album (Get Your Goat, I think) and it’s been sufficiently long since I’ve listened to it (probably over 10 years) that I have no recollection of it. I will report back!

  5. dfan says» Blog Archive » Shudder To Think, Get Your Goat says:

    […] dfan says « Naively complex music […]

  6. Art says:

    League of Gentlemen, actually, is one I haven’t heard yet.

    The early ’80s Fripp/Belew/Bruford/Levin lineup is, in a way, more poppish than the other Crimson albums. Or, at least, more driving. Or, at least, less arch (to me) than the others. I honestly haven’t heard much of the later King Crimson, most of which include members of the ’80s band. (Which surprised me, since I vaguely recall Fripp complaining about his bandmembers after dissolving that lineup.)

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