Smile Politely

Rock Bands, Middle Age and the Variable Virtues of Perseverance

At the somewhat ripe age of 51, I pretty much question continuing my maniacal pursuit of rock music every time I venture out the door to see a show. The first 20-something to step on my feet while I cling to a venue’s back wall in a vain attempt to stay out of his or her over-eager way makes me wonder why I am not home resting my proverbially (and persistently) aching bones. As depressing as my situation is, I have no doubt the rock bands that continue to draw me out of the house actually have it worse.

Famously, Lester Bangs once opined that the true test of rock stardom is a performer’s reaction (or lack thereof) to a pie in the face delivered on stage. While I would never dream of arguing with Mr. Bangs, I would simply add that there are other equally telling tests, usually more subtle and ongoing in nature. Take the question of a rock band’s longevity, their collective ability to keep on keeping on. For the vast majority of rock outfits there is that point when the path to the top takes its predictable detour, when they have to decide what it is they’re doing, what their motivation for continuing is, whether or not making a decent if unspectacular living making music is enough.

I imagine The Soundtrack of Our Lives (TSOOL), consciously or not, have been experiencing a protracted version of that moment over the last three years, ever since Origin Vol. I crashed and burned in the States and brought in less than their usual numbers in their native Sweden. Dropped by Universal in the States and facing major label anxiety back home, they have responded by releasing Communion, a two-CD opus that manages to do exactly what bands in for the long haul have to do: consolidate past victories, manage significant, if humble, forays into new(ish) territory and pull the plug on overt commercialism. No longer straining for epic victory, they “settle” for what they do best, which I would argue is not settling at all. They appear to have decided that they like who and what they are, and that’s good enough reason to continue.

So in “Babel On” and “The Ego Delusion” we get the kind of natural anthems that graced Behind the Music, as opposed to the more desperate efforts of the aforementioned Origin. In “Second Life Replay” we get another TSOOL staple, a delicate, minor key crescendo capped by one of their fabulous piledriver “OOOOOOOOH” outros. On disc two, the consolidation takes in even older precedents, much of the material reflecting the expansiveness of their second full length, Extended Revelation. The pace is slower throughout, the core largely acoustic in nature and the arrangements dense and ever-changing. Sonic experimentation is pushed to the fore as reflected in the baroque pop flourishes of “The Fan Who Wasn’t There” and “Songs of the Ocean,” the wall of sound approach of “Lost Prophets in Vain,” and the ’60s swirl of “Without Warning.”

There are also fairly obvious hints of change, specifically the band’s first committed foray into straight-ahead “rawk,” as evidenced in the positively vicious “RA 88,” the BTOish “Thrill Me” and the garage stomper “Mensa’s Marauders.” We also get a somewhat surprisingly overt homage to their many and varied roots in a rocked-up version of Nick Drake’s “Fly.”

Throughout Communion, regardless of style or intent, the arrangements are paramount, the attention to detail as much the point as the song structures themselves. Ultimately, that is what the best bands opting to continue past their sell-by date do: they become practitioners of songcraft, eternal students of the form.

In so committing, the Soundtracks could do worse than to emulate an American band with a similar relationship to their forebears: the Black Crowes. The Crowes back story is well-known, and while more convoluted and exaggerated than that of TSOOL, it reflects the same basic reality: at a certain point, they had to decide what was most important to them, and thankfully for all fans of rock music, they chose the simple joy of doing what comes naturally.

I saw them at the Riviera Theater in Chicago on Friday night, and as has been the case ever since they’ve reformed, I got my teeth kicked down my throat in the best, nicest possible way. The Crowes live are full-throated rock and rollers: intertwining guitars to the fore, drums and bass locked in a supremely easy stoner rock groove, keys accenting and corralling. Over it all is that voice, one of the best rock shrieks this side of Steve Marriott and Faces-era Rod Stewart. The songs themselves are object lessons in the art of immediacy and natural familiarity. They’ve embraced that stage of development where a back-catalogue becomes a repertoire, every song open to reinterpretation, expansion, reconfiguration via context. Their joy is palpable; the pleasure derived from playing well together undeniable. They just rip everything they play to shreds, old standards like “Jealous Again” and “Thorn in My Pride,” new paint peelers like “Goodbye Daughters of the Revolution” and “Wounded Bird,” perfectly chosen covers like “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and “Cold, Rain and Snow.” They are a goddamned rock band, plain and simple, and that’s all that matters, to them and their audience.

Will this middle ground of craftsmanship hold? Will either be able to sustain their recycling efforts indefinitely? I honestly don’t know. Are both, am I, settling? If we are, it’s for something really, really good, and I, for one, don’t feel the need to apologize to anybody. They shouldn’t either. We are lucky to have both; and if it ain’t asking too much, maybe we’ll get even luckier and they’ll keep going until the wheels fall off.

Communion is out now in Sweden and available in the US as an import. Downloads will be available domestically on January 6, 2009, via Yep Roc, who will also release it on vinyl on February 3 and on CD on March 3.

The Black Crowes most recent release, Warpaint, is available on LP and CD on the Silver Arrow label via Megaforce.

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