Are Spine-tingling Musical Discoveries Over?
Robert Plant recently said of the constant request to reunite Led Zeppelin, “magazines and internet platforms should be supporting new music” rather than clamoring for reunions. A fair argument for a man who fronted the band over thirty-seven years ago (with a few one-off reunions since). His retort inspired me to investigate his recent output, and I’m listening to his latest album, “Carry Fire,” as I write this. And it’s fine. It might even be good. Plant has proven to be among the most versatile vocalists in rock history, but there’s nothing about his new music that’s shaking me down to my soul, imploring me to listen.
It’s not Plant’s fault. Creating something that screams “this is something you HAVE to hear” is getting harder and harder to achieve, and I’m beginning to think that music has largely played itself out. Everything that you’re able to accomplish using 12 tones has been achieved (check out The Guardian's article, Has Pop Finally Run Out of Tunes.). Classical music hit a wall in the 20th Century, giving way to Dixieland and jazz, giving way to blues and folk, giving way to simple rock followed by prog rock, breaking back down to punk, post-punk, new wave, giving way to rap and hip hop, electronic, etc. This isn’t to say that there isn’t good music being written and performed today – in fact, I’d argue that there may be more good music today than at anytime on the planet, simply because there’s SO MUCH to choose from – but I doubt that many current acts are breaking any new ground. I’m currently rehearsing songs for my tenth album, and while I truly like the compositions and think it’s going to end up sounding great, I’d be a moron to think that any of it is particularly inventive and not leaning heavily on influences of other artists.
“Ah-hah” moments – those spine-tingling revelations that grab you by the collar and assault you emotionally – happen few and far between for me these days, but they DO happen once in a while, most times in the car where most of my new music listening occurs. In 1980 Rush sang about radio’s “magic at your fingers,” and for me, this has certainly been the case, as I can recall several "Ah hah” moments in transit:
2016: Heading north on York Road in Elmhurst, returning home from volunteering at a food bank, I tuned into WDCB playing “Porcupine Dreams” by the Danny Green Trio. It blew me away. I’ve written since about Green’s stellar album, Altered Narratives, but it bears repeating: listen to this recording!
2011: In the parking lot at the mini-golf on Lake Street in Addison, I waited for my son to leave a birthday party when “Rolling in the Deep” by Adelle came on WXRT. Say what you want about Adelle, but the gal has chops. This song grabbed me by the gut and didn’t let go.
2009: Driving to drop off the kids at Hebrew school on a Wednesday afternoon, WXRT played “Oscar Wilde” by a local band called Company of Thieves. Holy crap. Intelligent, sultry, angry, rocking, enticing - everything that I want in a song was there, and all in under five minutes.
1999: On my way to kill some time with my girls on a cold winter’s day, I took some extra time in the Lehigh Valley Mall parking lot as the disc jockey of Muhlenberg College’s WMUH played a song by a woman singing the lyric “I can’t breathe” over an infectious drum loop and haunting Rhodes keyboard. Unfortunately, this was pre-smart phone, so I jotted down what I could remember about the song and what time it was played. Upon returning home I called the radio station, by which time a classical guy was manning the radio booth. He was kind enough to go back to the previous jockey's song log and start rattling off song titles, eventually coming to the title “Here with Me” by an artist named Dido. That was it! One of the best songs of the 1990s.
1995: After flying into Detroit, I borrowed my brother’s car to drive to Grand Rapids for a friend’s wedding, and on the way a very angry woman spouted off venomous words to a former lover. I needn’t have jotted down the song title or the woman’s name the way I did, as the song “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette consumed the airwaves for the next six months and beyond. It was a game changer, and it was evident upon first listen.
1995: Just six months after the revelation of Alanis, I heard the pounding piano, falsetto voices and witty, sardonic lyrics of Ben Folds Five. Driving with my handheld recorder that I used to quickly document song ideas, I pressed record in case the DJ of WXPN didn’t announce the artist and song right away. I still own the tape today of the fantastic final thirty seconds of “Underground.” Four years later I was recording my own songs that were directly linked to that revealing day driving around in my crappy Dodge Neon.
Lately, I've been tuning into classical radio when I'm in the car. The songs I’m hearing on XRT are predictable and lifeless. The songs on classic rock radio are overplayed and cumbersome. Jazz on WDCB is hit and miss. But classical often provides the challenge my ears are searching for, something I wouldn’t have predicted just a few years ago.
Where music goes from here is open to debate, but there will always be opportunities to discover “ah hah” moments - if not from new artists, then retroactively. Leaning on the familiar denies the spark of insight and emotional intensity that the soul seeks. Keep searching and once in a while you may find it.