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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.