Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Fans also like... Dermot Kennedy and the Well Groomed Men of Indie Folk

While recently going through Spotify’s new ‘Listen Alike’ site, and after finding out to my abject shock that Megan Thee Stallion and I only have a 5% corroboration in music taste, I came across a name that I didn’t recognise, but probably should have, Dermot Kennedy.

While yes, we apparently both like one DaBaby song and ‘Hip Hop’ in general (Listen Alike isn’t exactly specific), after actually listening to Kennedy’s own music I was surprised to find a sound that I thought had fallen out of vogue.

That sound being, the very specific but somehow also immensely generic ‘stomp and clap’ indie/pop/folk. The stuff that sensitive boys play at the gym with lots of guys chanting ‘ayyyohh’ in the background, and a big sterile bass drum thumping away.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about listen to ‘Best Day of My Life’ by American Authors and you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s that kind of song that’s for everyone so not really for anyone, a slightly novel pop song in that it’s a bit folky, but isn’t so ‘weird’ that it wouldn’t be played on top forty. This was in my opinion, regrettably the sound that defined the late noughties and early 2010’s. Think One Republic, Bastille, and Imagine Dragons as the first wave, and then the mountain of singer songwriters with perfectly groomed beards who followed as the second. The latter being what make up our current climate.

I know it’s a dick move to rag on these guys, because arguably the music they make is so inoffensive, it’s old hat to complain about. However, artists like Kennedy prove this sound is continuing to permeate and isn’t leaving anytime soon.
The aim of this segment is to find the root of Indie Snooze Pop, and track it’s progression, not to hunt down and kill it (as much as I would enjoy that), but to try and provide joyful and less boring alternatives to the whitebred beard soup that currently spills into all British pop and alt. rock.

Firstly, get out your NOW CD’s, and let’s go back to 2008. I think partly what upsets me about hearing this particular sound nowadays, is that music has become so democratised and diverse, it’s kind of depressing to hear the same shit working again and again. But back when I was 9, maybe I wasn’t so jaded, maybe, before all that came after them, there was only one band that played as the soundtrack to many hours wasted in the minigame casino of New Super Mario Bros. That band was the Script.

Again, it could be because I have such an overwhelming nostalgic connection with them, but listening to them now, they still hold up in a way that a lot of the artists which followed haven’t been able to, and I think that’s mostly because of Daniel O'Donoghue’s overwhelming sincerity when it comes to singing. Listen to ‘Breakeven’ and then the 2017 ‘Leave a Light on’ by Tom Walker, and you’ll see what I mean.

While both are what you could describe as indie/alt-pop, Donoghue makes performing sound effortless, whereas Walker sounds like he’s passing kidney stones, and that distinction is key when it comes to the enjoyment of either. So how do we get from the Script, to what I can now only describe as ‘musclecry singing’, where the guys are trying so hard to be earnest that their veins start popping?

Well, a year after the Scripts debut came one of the most insufferably stupid and catchy songs that has had a distressingly astronomical amount of influence on everything that’s come after. ‘Hey Soul Sister’ by Train.

It’s the ukelele, one of the first instances of that big clappy bass drum, and most importantly, the arse backwards writing that literally gets worse every time I listen to it. I’m not the first to point this out, but go and actually listen to the lyrics of Soul Sister, and tell me that the ‘left side brains’ Pat Monahan mentions in the first verse, aren’t severely damaged.

Regardless of how much I hate this song, as I said it’s impossible to deny its influence. After that it’s ‘Counting Stars’, ‘Pompeii’, ‘Radioactive’, and it’s not that these are bad songs necessarily, but it’s this tangent that takes us into the much more boring Phase Two of this progression.

For me the ultimate microcosm for all this is ‘Rag N’Bone Man’, a guy that has all the tattoos and piercings that make him look vaguely alternative, but that makes the kind of music that gets exclusively played in ‘hip’ wood paneled barbershops. It’s not that any of it is technically bad, and I even like some of his contemporaries like Jacob Banks, but I think my problem in general lies with the fact that to me, folk music and rock should always have an element of some edge, especially in times when you have genuine pop stars like Taylor Swift, actually making just that, work with an edge. Now throw in some of Ed Sheeran’s pseudo-hip hop production and you get Kennedy’s ‘Outnumbered’.

For every generation there’s going to be a few songs that some guy at a party will sit you down and force you to listen to him play on guitar. For me it was ‘No.1 Party Anthem’ and awful acoustic versions of rap songs, but I have no doubt that somewhere at this very minute, some guy with a shlid is playing slowed down Dermot Kennedy to a girl polite enough to not run away screaming.

So what’s the alternative? I’ve spent two pages telling people I don’t like music that is arguably fine, and should probably get a life, but I still firmly believe that you can make interesting and challenging pop music which isn’t made exclusively for workout playlists.

An old example of this could arguably be seen as another root of the genre as a whole. That being ‘Float On’ Modest Mouse’s 2004 commercial hit. The album it’s off ‘Good News For People Who Love Bad News’ isn’t exactly accessible even though I’d say it’s one of the bands best, but even for hipster wankers like me, there’s no denying that ‘Float On’, which at the end of the day is in a lot of ways a pop song, is probably one of the best things the band has ever made.

It’s all there, the big bass drum, simple chords, an intensely upbeat tone and weird singing, all the stuff I’ve been complaining about, and yet it works totally. Perhaps like The Script, it’s a question of sincerity. Float On isn’t made to be a hit, it’s still weird in a lot of ways, but it’s just so good people who wouldn’t ever listen to a Modest Mouse record can still enjoy it.

I’d also recommend going back to the first Scouting For Girls album. Unlike a lot of the dreary ‘deep’ pop stuff we have at the moment, it’s just fun, genuinely good music that takes all the lessons from rock and alternative, but sanitises them in just the right way. If you are looking for direct alternatives to what you’d describe as the ‘harder’ or at least sadder stuff, listen to JAWS. At this point their discography has morphed alongside British commercial indie to the point that there’s a song for every facet of what  I’ve been talking about that does it ten times better. 

The Night Cafe also has a lot of radio friendly rock that doesn’t feel like it’s the soundtrack to your bearded uncle proudly showing you his first tattoo. All the songs mentioned are included in the Fans 

Also Like Playlist which can be found below, except for Soul Sister (FUCK YOU TRAIN):

On a closing note, I hear a lot of people discussing that maybe out of this turbulent time a lot of good music will be produced in response to all the awful shit going on, much like in the 60s. While that music does exist, and is out there, it certainly isn’t in indie-rock, pop, or the strange hybrid the patrol of dudes I’ve been talking about make-up. Again, that’s ok, but maybe just being a bit of a traditionalist, it’s disappointing that the mainstream offerings of these classic genres are the same neutered tracks we’ve been hearing from arguably a better time for everyone.

A little bit of a bummer to end on, so I’ll point you towards arguably one of the funniest and most awful examples of all the stuff I’ve been complaining about, which I’ve tagged on to the end of the playlist.
‘Home’ from the soundtrack to trash Will Smith Netflix film ‘Bright’, featuring X Ambassadors and human punchline Machine Gun Kelly.


- James Charalambides


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