Monday, February 07, 2005

drummers in drag

What this should really be is a concert review of Mandonna, San Francisco’s venerable cross-dressing Madonna cover-band. But I haven’t seen them yet so that will have to wait. The title actually refers to the musical benefits of recruiting rhythm players that play primarily in genres different from your own.

I started thinking about this while listening to a stream of the Invisible Cities’ debut album, Watertown. First of all, lemme recommend this one for real. According to the fairly accurate description on the Invisible Cities Website, the band makes “incandescent rough-around- the-edges sometimes-quiet sometimes-loud rocknroll pop music with wiry guitars and boy/girl harmonies.” I found out about them through my girlfriend Camille, who designed and built their drummer’s website. His name is Tim Bulkley, and he played primarily jazz before joining the group. Apart from being indie-licious and delightful to listen to, I think a lot of the appeal in the Invisible Cities sound comes from Bulkley's attack and sensibility. That Luna-style indie ether effect that so many bands are striving for these days – and fail at because of plodding rhythm sections – succeeds in the Invisible Cities due (in part) to their drummer's buoyant, precise approach. You can stream their album here.

(By the way, folks who saw the previous format of New Plastic Music and were wondering whether I was just a pretentious dick for taking pictures of myself wearing headphones will now understand why I took them. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t get lonely and take pictures of myself to prove I exist. My lady needed them for Tim Bulkley’s website. Apparently, when Mr. Bulkley’s girlfriend saw the site she was like “Who the hell is that guy?”)

Listening to Watertown got me thinking about other bands that sound fucking great because they have jazz drummers. It’s usually not the only reason, but it helps. I’m talking here about the Smashing Pumpkins, the Doors, Cream. Ever wonder why listening to Siamese Dream doesn’t give you headache, even though there are 189,000 guitar overdubs? Jimmy Chamberlain has an impossibly light touch. Also, Doors songs would be a lot more boring without John Densmore’s subtle pattern and fill work. I gotta say that I hate listening to Cream no matter what Ginger Baker does, but I don't think that's his fault.

The best example of course would be Motown's Funk Brothers, all culled by Berry Gordy from the local Detroit Jazz scene. I don’t need to retell this whole story, but you should all see Standing in the Shadows of Motown. The Funk Bros. subscribed to an almost anti-rock musical aesthetic, full of improvisation, harmonic complexity and independent linear composition. That, plain and simple, is why Motown sounds like nothing else.

Jazz seems like the ideal breeding ground for members of a cross-genre rhythm section, since jazz music requires unlimited virtuosity and flexibility. You sort of have to be able to do anything on your instrument. That’s also why Benny Goodman could so successfully interpret mid-century clarinet repertoire, and also why Yo Yo Ma is like a character in some RPG video game where you conquer every type of music using stealth and guile.

There are probably rhythm players coming from genres besides jazz and classical music, but they seem much more rare. I’d guess it’s because the ensemble structure (not to mention the industry structure) prevent all but the most lunatic musical chameleons from doing genre hops between punk and bluegrass or hip-hop and new age. It’s also usually not the rhythm players who do so.

Regardless, the last thing I wanted to say was that there’s a common assumption out there that having genre-specific technique somehow “contaminates” a musician. This is straight up dumbass garbage. Most musicians can’t play everything, of course, and some can only play one thing comfortably. And sometimes familiarity with a set of genre-specific techniques does color how you play, and that may get in the way of your ability to play another kind of music. In fact, it’s likely to. But that’s either the result of the player’s ego or his/her inhibitions. Genre-crossing, especially for rhythm players, can obviously work in everybody’s favor. Just listen to Smokey.

On another note: this week's picks (with blurbs and audio) are up at New Plastic Music, along with photos and music from my fieldwork in Senegal. Don’t read the thesis unless you like being so bored that you fall into a relieved coma.

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