Thursday, October 30, 2008

Five Forgotten Pioneers: Part 1

I've made a list of five rock/pop innovators who I think are too often overlooked, and I'm going to tell you about them. Here's the first three, yay:

The Swell Maps

This band influenced Sonic Youth and Pavement, but no one seems to talk about them on this side of the Atlantic. And frankly, that's a travesty - they were one of the greatest bands of the post-punk era. Their music is difficult to classify, probably because the songs were written collectively or alternately by the band's vastly differing members. There's a lot of punk here, but also a lot of Krautrock, prog and experimental noise rock. Their albums are hodge-podge, but it somehow works, melding pop energy with visionary innovations. Experimental punk isn't unheard of (e.g. Sonic Youth, Pere Ubu) but Swell Maps were among the first and best.

Squirrel Bait

A punk band consisting of four or five high school students from Kentucky, Squirrel Bait achieved almost no recognition during their lifetime and might have been forever forgotten if its members hadn't gone on to form landmark post-rock bands Slint and Gastr del Sol (among others). There's nothing immediately experimental about this band, until you remember that this is pre-Nirvana and pre-grunge - which puts their metal-tinged punk completely ahead of its time. In 1986, no other band's sound as accurately predicted the future of rock music as Squirrel Bait, whose resemblance to Nirvana is at times uncanny.

Not only did Squirrel Bait combine metal influence with punk and melodic pop first, they also are among the best bands to use this sound. They don't top Nirvana, but might reasonably vie for second place. Perhaps because they pre-date Cobain's first releases, Squirrel Bait has a vitality and an inspired quality that's missing from the later sound-alikes. If you like Nirvana's punkier side (or even if you don't), check these guys out!

Lizzy Mercier Descloux / Rosa Yemen

One of music's true innovators, Lizzy Mercier Descloux deserved to be remembered, but today, almost no one knows her name. Descloux's career was two-fold. First, both as a solo artist and as half of duo Rosa Yemen, she was an innovative minimalist in New York City's arty No Wave scene. Her music involves simple guitar lines, complex rhythms and pseudo-melodic shrieks of nonsense in French, Descloux's native language.

The second part of her career is marked by travels throughout the Caribbean, Africa and South America, where she collected new ideas for sound and rhythm and incorporated them into her albums. AllMusic Guide essentially credits her with the invention of "world music" but that's just insulting. Today, "world music" most often refers to cheap and gimmicky "fusion" of two styles that don't belong together but that someone decided to put through a mixer to look more cultured (I'm looking at you, Sting! Not to mention Peter Gabriel and Mickey Hart.). However, in Descloux's music, the style is as it should be - an organic, open-minded melding of influences. Especially in her earlier "world" albums, her work is truly inspired and truly beautiful.

Part two is coming soon...

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