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Is Acoustic-Based Music Relevant in the Modern Scene?
BEFORE this year is through…
I will look at a variety of things I have not covered before. Among them will be new technologies and breakthroughs; ideas and suggestions; some of the best (and worst) musical achievements of the year; tattoos (believe it or not!) - and a lot of other stuff. My energy for Christmas-based features has waned slightly so I am going to look at non-festive topics that are of interest to me. One thing I have noticed about modern music is how few genuinely appealing acoustic-led songs there are out there. The past few years, certainly, has seen genres like Folk relegated and overlooked. Many might say that is nothing new: it has never gained the focus it deserves and has struggled for appreciation. I guess the last time acoustic artists were truly commended and celebrated was back in the 1960s and 1970s – the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, for example. I will come to them but feel modern music has evolved and changed so much there is that emphasis on sound and energy – fewer artists willing to strip it back and produce something quite tender and Folk-y. Of course; there are other genres where one can hear softer strings – there have been a couple of albums this year that have provided that sense of comfort and contemplation. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile’s Lotta Sea Lice (awful title, by the way!) gained some great reviews but some felt the record was a middle-ground and compromise: none of Barnett’s fire and playfulness; the material did not match Kurt Vile’s best days.
Although that record garnered appreciation and showed both songwriters were suited to one another and able to step outside their usual remit – most of its gentler moments still had an electric guitar in the mix. Top Folk albums like Queen of Hearts by Offa Rex and Julien Baker’s Turn Out the Lights have stepped into Rock territory and employ a lot of different sounds and variations. I guess you can claim albums like Stranger in the Alps (Phoebe Bridgers), Not Even Happiness (Julie Byrne); Hitchhiker (Neil Young) and Memories Are Now (Jesca Hoop) are quite soft in places. Hoop’s album was reviewed by Allmusic’s Marcy Donelson who claimed:
“The whole record, in fact, is injected with a heavy dose of gumption and irreverence, a spirit that, deliberate or not, seems timely in the sociopolitical climate of early 2017”.
Maybe it is the times we live in that means fewer artists are picking up an acoustic guitar. There is a lot of tension and uncertainty in the world - so it is only natural modern artists would reflect this through greater urgency and sonic exploration. I would counteract that assertion with the fact, back in the 1960s, there was plenty of political strife and social division. Artists like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan created assertive and sentient music with acoustic strings – that offered commentary regarding the world around them (and wise words).
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I feel this year has been a good one for music but is defined by sonic ambition and evolution. Even Folk artists – who exist in a genre defined by a certain stillness and grace – are pushing the envelope and taking the genre in new directions. I guess music is much more competitive and busy than ever and there is that need to stand out from the crowd. Will one fall for an artist unless they provide music with depth, vibrancy and colour? It is hard to capture the minds armed with little more than an acoustic guitar, songbook and voice. It may sound like I am hankering after a time that no longer exists: has music come too far so acoustic-made music is no longer viable and demanded? There are Pop artists (like Ed Sheeran) who produce acoustic music but they/he appeals to a very limited audience. Even musicians like Sheeran, who courts a huge following, are not really offering anything original and memorable. The reason this subject comes to my mind is the fact I have been listening back to great Folk/Pop albums of the past and immersed in their beauty and power. One need not be rigid when it comes to the definition of ‘acoustic’. Take an album like Blue (Joni Mitchell) or Tapestry (Carole King) and you get piano and other elements. Again; there are very few albums that strip things back and provide shivers and astonishment.
Is it, therefore, impossible to replicate the sounds of the 1960s/1970s – at a time when music is at its hottest, most jam-packed and varied? The acoustic artists we hear on the radio now, for the most part, seem to have little to say and do not really remain in the mind. For those who want a modern-day Wonderwall (Oasis) or Blowin’ in the Wind - where do we turn to get our fix?! Perhaps we do not have the same calibre of artists now but I wonder whether guitar music is as relevant in the modern day? I read an interesting article by Billboard published earlier this year – that asked whether Folk music was social relevant – are modern artists preserving the ethics and ideals of their forefathers?
“It’s hard to imagine the turbulent '60s without such folk songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Eve of Destruction” or “The Times They Are A-Changin’” serving as musical markers of protest. And when Lady Gaga opened her Super Bowl halftime show earlier this month with Woody Guthrie’s iconic folk song “This Land Is Your Land,” the 77-year-old patriotic anthem got introduced to a new generation.
As America enters its most fractious political time in decades, can folk regain the social relevance it once had as the musical voice of resilience and resistance? The very people you would expect to say yes -- some of the biggest artists in the folk genre -- said no during the 29th annual Folk Alliance International conference held Feb. 15-19 in Kansas City, Missouri. But they passionately believe that folk music and its heritage will have a moral and guiding role in shaping the conversation, no matter what it sounds like.
“White boys with guitars is a bit outdated,” FAI keynote speaker Billy Bragg told Billboard. However, he added, “This is one of those fertile times when folk music can come along and feed the resistance. What’s different is that music no longer has a vanguard role in youth culture because of the internet. There are so many different ways to express your anger now, whereas before the only real medium that made sense was music. If you’re 19 and angry, you can make a film on your phone.”
Modern bands like Shame and IDLES are producing terrific guitar music; there are promising Punk/Alternative groups appearing on the scene right now. I agree (with Bragg) Folk music has a vital role in today’s world! The political and social clashes mean there is a need for artists to articulate the divisions and strains we are all aware of. If, as suggested, there is a strong and necessary Folk scene cementing and rising – where are the acoustic-based artists?! The same article raised an interesting point when referring to U.S. Folk and the type of sounds/styles favoured:
“It is a tough line to walk, said upcoming folk singer Caitlin Canty, especially when so many artists make their living playing in red states before paying customers who want to be entertained, not necessarily preached to. “I feel sympathetic to those audience members,” she said, adding that she kept most of her political opinions and activism separate from her music -- until recently. “We need our Guthries right now,” she said. “That’s not how I’d stereotype myself or my friends, but I think everyone is adding that piece to their personality right now.”
What folk artists may lack in arena-sized audiences, Finnan believes they can make up for in a more personal outreach. “The activation that is happening now is at a grassroots level,” he said. “There is an intimacy to the presentation of acoustic-based folk music that is in the coffee houses, in the community halls, in the church basements, in the high school gymnasiums that has a very disarming quality and that has a proximity to people’s hearts and lives that is different from commercial music. There may be a few crossover acts that bump up into that world from ours, but I think it’s a different track that folk music can tak.”
It is that personal touch I want from music. I love the way music continues to change and develop but I am concerned the market/mainstream demands artists have a certain sound. Even modern Folk, away from the underground, is defined by a more varied and genre-splicing sound. Aside from the odd album here and there; I am hearing few acoustic artists who can genuinely stand out and create an impact. I long for the literate and cultured sounds of The Beatles (the sort of sounds they were producing around 1964-1965), Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan – artists that have survived the years and inspired so many people to go into music. I guess a lot of acoustic-focused music is Folk and, historically, that genre has investigated poorer communities and struggles; the plight and fight of those suppressed and ignored. If, in a gentrified and developed world, there is less social poverty – Folk music loses some of its traction and necessity.
I think there is plenty of struggle and hardship out there but, whereas Folk artists addressed these problems in years-past; now, genres like Hip-Hop and Rap are taking over. It is important to preserve the traditions of Folk because it is a way of passing down to generations the reality and situation of the world. A lot of current music shies away from issues like social deprivation and political tension – the same themes and subjects (love and personal struggles) are still the popular currency. It is not only Folk music that employs acoustic strings to convey its messages. I have mentioned artists like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Carole King. They, between them, have crafted immaculate, heartbreaking love songs on the acoustic guitar. It is not true that all acoustic music is Folk; it is not the case all the greatest songs ever created have gone beyond the humble six-string. I wonder whether artists are concerned something pastoral and acoustic alienates them from the public. Folk is transforming and most mainstream artists employ more instrumentation into their music. I know acoustic music, in general, has never been huge – it is nice to hear artists bare their soul in an original and striking way with little more than that single instrument.
I do not buy into the assumption guitar music is dead and extinct. Maybe that is true of the mainstream but, when you look at the great artists coming through right now – maybe independent and underground – there are plenty of Punk/Alternative/Rock options. I believe there will be a revival and re-examination of guitar sounds. Solo artist-made music is more popular and impressive (in my view) than band-created sounds but the contemporary musician is a lot more adventurous and vivacious than previous years. You can debate how important and relevant acoustic music is at a time when there is bubbling communal anger and universal friction. Perhaps we do need the fire and motivation of Hip-Hop pastors; the incredible fizz and innovation of the new bands emerging. It is a shame the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell seem to be a product of the past - something we cannot reverse and revert to. Perhaps this is something we need to consider for 2018? We need to promote artists who document the desire of the people and go beyond the predictable and generic songs of love and relationships. I do not agree that acoustic music – whether Folk or Pop – is a non-entity that has little muscle and importance. Maybe it is a fear of commercial isolation or a lack of quality – there enough great singer-songwriters around that can argue against that point – but I feel the sort of potency and genius one can only get from the acoustic guitar still…
HAS a huge role to play!