Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dropping The Big One

Even though I grew up with the generation that let their "freak flag fly" (thank you for that, David Crosby) the musicians of that era seldom used language that was considered inappropriate in polite society on their recordings.

Steppenwolf's "The Pusher" used a word similar to "darn" along with the deity's name and John Lennon used the English language's most infamous four letter word on "Working Class Hero" from his LP, Plastic Ono Band. Nils Lofgren employed the same word in "I Had Too Much" from Grin's first album. Billy Joel dropped it in one of his attempts to win over critics on "Laura" from The Nylon Curtain. There may have been a couple more examples but not many.

Call me old, stodgy, out of touch, narrow-minded, or whatever insult suits you, but the current generation of musicians seems to have no qualms about using this word that begins with the sixth letter of the alphabet quite routinely in their songs. It doesn't bother me to hear Tony Soprano utter it on TV, or Joe Pesci being his usual foul-mouthed self in a movie, or when I'm hanging with a bunch of male friends, but somehow it irritates me no end when musicians use it in their songs.

Perhaps I feel this way because one of the major criteria music lovers use to judge the worthiness of a composer's output is their lyrical content. To prove my point, except for a few guitar heroes, who are the most revered rock musicians? They're usually the ones who are known for having something to say in their songs. You know their names: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and Jackson Browne just to name a few. More recently, bands like Mumford & Sons and Dawes can be included in that group.

The difference between the heritage rockers and these new kids on the block is that the former were consistently writing relevant, meaningful, and poetic words without resorting to the basest forms of the English language. The latter? Not so much.

Unfortunately, Mumford couldn't resist swearing on "Little Lion Man," the hot band's big song from their first album. They used the word so frequently that I almost wrote the band off before I discovered how good they actually are.

The thing that set me off today is Dawes, the Southern California quartet heavily influenced by Browne and other similar West Coast folk-rockers, who, in 2011, issued one of the better rock albums of the first half of the decade, Nothing is Wrong. The song that closed their fantastic CD, "A Little Bit of Everything," is one of the most moving and literate rock songs a band has issued in many years. You may have heard it, "Time Spent in Los Angeles," and "Fire Away" on radio stations that play modern rock.

I was really looking forward to Dawes' latest, Stories Don't End, released this past Tuesday. As I was listening to it online while preparing to make the big purchase, I sampled all of the album's tracks. Unfortunately, on "Hey Lover" they dropped the big bomb that was almost immediately followed by another crudity. In my humble opinion, lead singer and lyricist, Taylor Goldsmith, is too good of a writer to fall into this trap of low standards.

It's possible the old guard popsters weren't really classier. Maybe they held their tongues in the studio because the only outlet for the public to embrace their work was on FCC controlled conventional radio. Today, the existence of satellite radio, cable, and the Internet, none of which are regulated as heavily as the AM and FM radio bands, means the artists no longer have to hold back.

Note to Dawes: Because you were not careful with your words I now have to watch who's around when I play your new album and I'm already disappointed with it even though I haven't heard a complete song yet. In the end I'm sure I'll like Stories Don't End very much, and I'll say so here, but I don't think I'll ever get over my initial disappointment.

1 comment:

  1. I have no problems with using or hearing profanity, but I share your opinion on this.

    Pink is a tremendous example of somebody otherwise very talented who throws obscenities into her songs unnecessarily. There was absolutely no reason on Earth that her song "F***in' Perfect" needed that title or that word, and the safe-for-radio version of "Blow Me One Last Kiss" has enough blanked words to render it unintelligible.

    Artists may be striving for emotional authenticity by doing this, but they come off as lazy. Every writer knows that finding the right word can be hard. Sometimes it IS an obscenity, but not as often as some of these people believe.