Thursday, April 8, 2010

Serena-Maneesh, Unusual Alt From Norway

In my early years in the music business, I came to realize that there were at least two ways to listen to a piece of music in the rock-pop bag. There's a way that attempts to gauge commercial success, in which case you are looking to a song and whether it has enough hookiness to catch the average listener and get them to want to hear it again. Some of that has to do with the repetition of the name of the song, in the classic formula, and it relates to Madison Avenue forms of sloganeering; a form of brainwashing, if you will.

Back in the mid-'70s I was seeking an A & R position after a bout in music publishing and a little previous A & R-production. I had an interview with the then-young Arista Records. Part of the interview process involved picking three or four songs I thought would, or should become hits. Now even though I had placed the song "Can't Smile Without You" with the label and knew Barry Manilow was going to record it, I could not stand the song. Sure, it had all the makings of a hit with the formulas that were firmly in place by then, but I just didn't like it from a musical point of view. I didn't pick that song, didn't get the job and went my not-so-merry way. But it later hit me that I was listening with my musical ears at that point and should have stifled that form of listening for the interview.

I still listen with the non-commercial evaluatory ears when I listen to rock (or other forms of music) and I think I am right in that I tend to gravitate towards the music that gets the indie-alt-progressive-punk categorization in the rock bins, with a little metal thrown in. It is music that purposely disdains the obvious hook, the name-of-tune brainwashing structure, and instead goes for the long form, the long haul, the lack of the sing-song repetitive chorus, the song that doesn't try to sell itself. The commercial formula mostly leads to really bad music and it's part of the problem we see out there with the majors. All they can do is produce records that are designed for huge success. And that makes for a horrible musical result at least half the time. It also leads to boom-or-bust sales figures.

A long intro there but I lead up to my real subject: the second CD by Norwegian rockers Serena-Maneesh, S-M2: Abyss in B Minor (4AD). This is a group that writes songs with a rock-pop veneer, but they are anti-hook songs. A song like "Blow Yr Brains in the Morning Rain" obviously has no aspirations to enter the mainstream, and I think that's probably a wise thing. How many "real" rock acts get in the top forty today? Not very many. Why alienate the audience who will like your music to take a lottery shot in the popularity poll of the great "unwashed masses." That fickle group could well send you packing after one hit, if you are that lucky, and then your career is pretty much shot.

What S-M2 does is avoid all of that. Central to their music is dense wall of sound, the psychedelic sinfonia, with guitars and such blocking out big chunks of musicality. Then there's a very appealing, gentle sort of female vocalist who sings some impressionistically indistinct sorts of songs. The songs take a number of listens to digest, and the obverse side is that this CD can withstand many listens without the fatigue of pop-simplicity brain-stultification you get with that other kind of music.

There's a slight edge of metal here and there, but mostly the band heads you down a cosmic wind-tunnel of lush, spacey sound and doesn't let up until it's time to do so.

Chances are slim that we're talking about a top-40 hit with this group. That's all the more reason to like them. And all the more reason why I would never had fitted in doing A&R for the majors in their heyday. All the better for them and all the better for Serena-Maneesh, who get my attention and appreciation, if they should find that a worthy thing....

Friday: I was thinking perhaps I slightly overstated my case yesterday and want to clarify. I would certainly not be one to disdain out-of-hand the use of a returning chorus in song form. That has been with us since long before the commercial music industry existed and there are many wonderful songs that make good use of the device. My point is only that AS A FORMULA, the hook-chorus does not necessarily lead to good music. When the industry evaluates songs solely on this criteria, some bad music can result. Good song form does not require the chorus-hook, and sometimes liberation from this device can lead to fresh sounding music.

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