Notice the form, or, Looking up at music culture from the underground.

By Patrick Lee

And so to be brought reluctantly to the task of writing about music, an act memorialised by a post-ironical tee shirt that fittingly (pun intended) declares, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. “Memorialised” is the correct word as the tee shirt predicts, describes and celebrates the death of an act of expressing expressions on the already expressed. It is hard to imagine more fertile ground for soppy, pretentious and fledgling weaklings to plant their mossy heads but as this is the current task let’s briefly indulge in the really great aspect of the tee-shirt’s witticism, using a famous but pretentious aphorism: a witticism is an epigraph on the death of a feeling.

This article, for those who are already turning up a nose, will continue in the same vein so be advised: this may be the last piece of writing you ever read about music so you would do well to proceed. The Dandy Warhols get it down better than anyone else has at the start of their Odditorium when ringside announcer, well, announces: “By the time Gene Vincent, B.B King, and Elvis Presley heard this Warhol sound, they were calling it “Rock and Roll”. Front man, Courtney Taylor Taylor was quoted as saying “I know it’s only Rock and Roll, but I think I like it”. I’m Bill Curtis, and you’re listening to a piece of history.” Quoted and typed quickly and verbatim (as is, I confess, the majority of this article), such is the power and ability of those words in introducing such an excellent album. The point, and here we come to dangerously fertile but nonetheless necessary terrain: Alternative culture, music culture, American culture, anti-culture, and especially, people, youth culture has undergone a process called pre-corporation. It has been packaged, sold and materialised as mainstream alternative culture and what’s more there is quite literally no escape from it (Kurt Kobain, trapped by the enormity of his own commercial success, made this point with his shotgun, which I suppose is an escape or sorts). The history you are listening to a piece of is the endless chasm of history created at history’s end (see the same author of the death of the witticism quote above[1]), and writing about this history is not just like dancing about architecture, it’s more like dancing about dancing about architecture. At the end of creative, alternative, youth culture, the main option for an artist is to progress ironically, using a mosaic pattern of previous, more “genuine” days gone by, and to do this in a celebratory tone (it’s true: Tarantino’s later films are very comparable to late Dandy Warhol material – two truly contemporary artists[2]). And while we’re at it, please reflect on the un-accidental choice of the Dandy’s to nominate and modernise the name “Warhol”.

It is true, then, that this is more of an article about articles about music, and unfortunately in a world where to make a certain point about the inescapability of consumer culture people have to shoot themselves in the head, criticism (sweet criticism) has to draw some cultural blood. Get ready for it then Christopher Nosnibor, because you’re about to be quoted:

 

Granted, a band as hot as White Firs are going to attract more than their fare share of hipster hangers-on, and the duffel-coat wearing popped-collar brigade are out in full force tonight, standing right at the front talking loudly and posturing hard. Forget ‘em. it’s all about the music…

 

I think I might have been (depending on the time of the paragraph taking place) one of the “hipster hangers-on”, and whereas I am, I think, borderline complimented by this, I do take exception to the duffel-coat criticism, wanting to take the chance here to express admiration both for the duffel coat itself, and for those daring enough to wear it inside at a gig as “hot” as the one The White Firs produced. The quotation marks on “hot” there meant more as a satire on the tepid description, rather than my feelings on the band’s performance.

The talking referenced might also have been in relation to me as, alas, I confess to talking during the show. Now, obviously talkers are an issue during times when quiet ostensibly rules supreme[3], but to criticise those voicing an opinion during bands like Bull and The White Firs would be an error. Daring to pursue, tackle, render lifeless and then begin a post-mortem on this error is, as noted, daring, as splitting open an ugly error of such bizarre and complex proportions is likely to result in being covered in surgical smelling entrails; but, dragged here as we have been, we might as well cover ourselves in the grizzly innards of the thing, and hopefully be left cathartically and metaphorically cleansed by the end. A crucial question has been left unasked by the typical, cliché-ridden reviewer of music: What do The White Firs do?

For both purposes of relevance and brevity, Bull will also be included in this description. The talking referenced by Nosnibor during Bull may well have been me referring to them as “Weezer meets Teenage Fanclub, with a side plate of Pavement” a metaphor which has since been upgraded to a more nuanced food metaphor, in which Pavement is symbolised by vinegar. Nonetheless, a positive review. Very positive, in fact, and as terrible it is to say it must be acknowledged that their performance and sound was intelligent, in the same way that The Dandy Warhol’s intro is intelligent, and the way that Tame Impala (et al) have forced themselves into being very credible and highly enjoyable bands. They are catchy and simultaneously both serious and fun. I can pay no higher compliment to (is it still kosher to describe instrumentalists in this way?) the rhythm guitarist, and truly hope he takes it as a compliment, when I say that no man has ever been so obviously a Thurston Moore fan, a friend of mine noting “from the top of his scalp to the very tips of his toes”. He was great, put briefly. Originality, brilliance, achieved in reference and pastiche: Bull, you passed the test. You have furthered the cause.

This began, however, as a description of main event The White Firs. A final digression, though, for the sake of Muttley, who, sadly, fill the otherwise empty void which, God help us, would otherwise have had to be filled with conversation; playing the dreaded early evening spot to which I was not present, as it was far too early, and so you will for now be confined, potentially permanently, to history’s chasm as mentioned earlier. Don’t give up. We all have to try to claw our way out. The White Firs, though, they do something. I’ve recently heard that York is now somewhere high up (I believe either third or seventh) on a respectable publishers list of most influential cities in terms of music. This is no accident. Firs’ Front man Danny Barton, previously of The Federals acerbically observing “it only took us seven years”. As many reviewers currently and will continue to notice, The White Firs have kept The Federal’s scuzzy garage sound so easily comparable to The Stooges while at the same time developing a more melodic, unashamedly pop centred façade. Please note: “façade”. They are, and will continue to be, difficult to pin down, reference, pigeonhole and atomize. Credit must go to James Barton for seemingly adding the level of maturity and frivolity to brother Danny and Jack Holdstock’s obvious musical accomplishments. Further kudos goes to The Dutchess for honouring a musical occurrence of such originality with a new, more intimate and less conventional setting. It worked. Back to task: What The White Firs have brought to York, and to those lucky enough to be in the The Dutchess’s innovative space is an excellent local band who have both the potential to be enjoyed by a mass audience while at the same time somehow being totally incapable of being packaged and sold on any obvious mainstream scale. This is not to say that they are unmarketable; all run the risk, and constant change is necessary to avoid the giant rat or monkey or however you envision the consumer beast, but The Firs are highly original and accessible now. The sound is there; the influences a vague shadow, but their presence and the phonological result is unapologetically original and almost dangerous. Barton’s voice, as well as Holdstock’s drumming and the song writing as a whole are entirely their own. It is, unfortunately, rare to find a band that fits such a description.

This is in danger of turning into a description of sounds as interpreted by me, in turn expressed to you which is a trap I’d hoped to avoid. A description of the meaning of this sound, however, does necessitate treading the dangerously mossy pretentious ground, but is necessary all the same.

There can be a lot of speculation as to the next step for culture that is trapped in a constant state of ironic self-reflection, a relentless re-packaging of days gone by (the word “retro” always comes to mind while describing the sterile state of the early twenty-first century, but please believe and explore: it goes much deeper than that. Late capitalism affects more than just a culture’s notion of self-perception and forms of expression). I would argue that The White Firs have furthered the debate. While Bull fit satisfyingly into the bracket of ironic contemporaneity (forgive the use of word, I am on mossy ground) reflecting ironically days gone by, of the celebratory form of scuzzy indie pop, The White Firs announce themselves as being simply there. This sounds like a cop-out for a review, and is in truth a difficult form to describe. Consider the difference in the writing of Ernest Hemmingway and Bret Easton Ellis[4]. Both employ minimalist technique, sparse and equally effective, yet used to totally different effects. Hemmingway (here comes my layman interpretation) reflecting on the indescribability of war, trauma, among other themes, while Ellis inverts the rhetoric and technique of modern consumer society: juxtapositions of nihilism, violence and constant desire; constant sensory saturation inverted. A better example would be alt-lit king Tao Lin (much as I am loathed to describe him as such, it is true, he is a king of a certain genre), who uses literature and the same minimalist technique for its most simple basic function: description & communication. His point being that the technique reflects the state of modern life: the response to constant self-reflection is to not reflect at all, but rather to simply, unapologetically be[5]. This is not to say that The White Firs’ sound is minimal, the comparison instead is supposed to draw attention to the fact that they have used something old to represent something totally modern. There are arguments, on the literature side of this progression of expression, that this is essential in the continuation of expression fundamentally, an ultimatum which is difficult not to over-exaggerate. The White Firs, yes, that local band that played to an audience of maybe one hundred, I argue, have introduced the debate into our music scene. Unlike bands referenced above (and ones that come to mind now of similar vein: Tame Impala, Wilco, Smog, etc. etc., please free feel to fill in blanks) it is hard to find an obvious bracket or market for their sound or attitude. They simply, excellently are. And in the atmosphere of the odd, intimate setting of the venue, dare I even say it, in the context of the introduction of the New Year, they almost seemed to show us where we are all going. They are something new. Something as yet unnamed.


[1] Particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[2] Or maybe just past the point of contemporary, as will be seen.

[3] I, for example, am currently sat in a sparsely occupied “Quiet” train carriage. Empty except for me, a small, frizzy haired, bespectacled comic book harassed looking woman holding a cage containing a quieting kitten which is learning to adjust to the shakes of the train; and a very annoying young Cockney geezer type who is quite literally leaving the same message again and again on different answer machines re: the amount of trains it takes for him to travel wherever his A-B actually is. This, Nosnibor, is the quiet carriage. Not a live gig. This is where we’re meant to shut up.

[4] The recently increasingly terribly opinioned, over-rated Bret-Easton Ellis, my favourite description of which is that it’s just “such a shame that the man can write”.

[5] There is, of course, much more to say on the themes of Tao Lin and the instruction of his form…but this is for another day.

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