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Future Shock

Critic Nick Hornby's got it; The Eastern Seaboard doesn't


Poor Nick Hornby. The British author of High Fidelity fame and erstwhile music critic is at it again, this time in a recent New York Times op-ed piece bemoaning the fact that rock music has become too experimental and "self-conscious," and that no one -- with the apparent exception of Philadelphia's Marah -- remembers how to rock any more. A few years back, the man who "novelized" his list-making fetish into a mediocre best seller was bellyaching in the New Yorker, railing against Radiohead's Kid A and how his beloved band had failed him by not re-making The Bends forever and ever.

"Kid A demands the patience of the devoted; both patience and devotion become scarcer commodities once you start picking up a paycheck," Hornby wrote in an ugly spasm of Baby Boomer nostalgia. (You can tell how homesick he is by the number of times ol' Nick swears he isn't.)

Putting aside the sinister assertion that art is just another commodity, there are countless logical fallacies at work in Hornby's soapbox sermons. For starters, one listener's taxed patience is often another's glorious abandon; nor have the rock-starved masses swarmed Marah's shows (which are quite good, mind you).

And if by "self-conscious" Hornby is referring to musicians who are aware of their musical ancestors and seek to expand upon their work or add their own twist -- well, has there ever been a group more conscious of themselves and their place in history than the Beatles? Experimentation seems to have suited their legacy rather well. (One senses Hornby is more of a Rolling Stones fan -- not that there's anything wrong with that).

More importantly to this discussion, where is it written that you can't enjoy, say, both Marah and Radiohead? Both the Stones and the Beatles? Who says you can't get a musical thrill from the past and the present, while eagerly anticipating what the future will bring? Where is that damn Rock & Roll rulebook, anyway?

Hornby is by no means alone -- the hue and cry over the alleged "Death of Rock" appears cyclically (often accompanying cicada plagues), and we're in a decidedly inflationary cycle when it comes to the gnashing of teeth and hand wringing. You could argue that we live in very conservative times, when a good portion of the country views change as near heresy.

For instance, the new record from Wilco, A Ghost Is Born, is already receiving the "it's too difficult" treatment from some critics and those fans still longing for Summerteeth II or Being There, Again.

No doubt our man Nick will be ready to lead the charge -- or retreat, to be more accurate in this instance. Of Wilco's last record, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Hornby writes in his recent op-ed piece:

"The squeaks and bleeps scattered all over the lovely songs on the last Wilco album sound less like experimentation, and more like a despairing audio suicide note."

How far is Hornby willing to go to prove he doesn't like change? You could argue he's got one thing right -- the "squeaks and bleeps" themselves are nothing new; bandleader Jeff Tweedy has clearly programmed a little post rock into the ol' iPod, making Yankee ... a subconscious homage, perhaps, to those who'd come before. (Coincidentally, Hornby lauds Marah for the same type of behavior, albeit in a different rock milieu -- "you can often hear their love for the rock cannon").

What is vitally new, however, and apparently beyond Hornby's grasp, is that Tweedy -- by almost universal consensus a musician with a pretty singular vision -- was behind the wheel of these experiments. The results are songs wholly unique and never-before heard -- with the "squeaks and bleeps" an integral component, if not the most important, of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

As for the pre-emptive strikes against Wilco's new one, look for a lot of "A Ghost Is Born reassessed" reviews down the road. This record reveals more with every listen -- a common occurrence with most remotely challenging or new music. Which is exactly the way Tweedy prefers it:

"(Listeners) get what they put into it, out of it," he says by phone from Chicago. "In my listening experiences, I like to be able to have room to kind of get in there and explore and feel like my perception is changing -- I love that experience."

What does all this have to do with the matter at hand, the excellent new free jazz recording, Nonfiction, from New York City/Charlotte-based The Eastern Seaboard (which performs at The Room Saturday)? Plenty. The same obsessions with the past that permeate the rock world are just as rampant in jazz-land (see Wynton Marsalis' hard-core hard-bop nostalgia, or the fundamentally flawed Jazz documentary by Ken Burns, for starters).

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