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The Enduring '70s: Dawes, Tame Impala, & Midlake

There’s a tendency to oversimplify historical periods; i.e., “the 1950s were innocent,”[1] “the 1960s were decadent,”[2] when in fact, sociological gestalts are invariably complex, ripe with a variety of inevitably disparate ideologies and lifestyles. Speaking in terms of aesthetics, a vast array of voices and approaches are being asserted at all times; to associate a given decade or epoch with a singular kind of content is grossly reductionist, to say the least.

Recent releases by Dawes, Tame Impala, and Midlake highlight the influence of the 1970s, each album drawing on a different aspect of that fertile decade. Dawes has released four praiseworthy albums, starting with North Hills in 2009. With their most recent, All Your Favorite Bands (2015), they continue to mine and reconfigure their influences: Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Tom Petty, The Eagles, and especially Jackson Browne, who added backup vocals to several tracks on their second album, Nothing Is Wrong. Over the years, Dawes has continued to benefit from a surge of mainstream interest in Americana, folk, and so-called nu-folk (Mumford & Sons, Civil Wars, Lumineers, Shovels & Rope, etc.), displaying a definite talent for memorable melodies, earnest and accessible lyrics, and solid rock and folk-rock soundscapes. Taylor Goldsmith is a convincing singer, and his guitar playing is pretty impressive too (especially live). It's occasionally reminiscent of Brian May, Mike Campbell, or Joe Walsh, as well as the usual and probably unavoidable sources like Keith Richards, Pete Townsend, etc.

As I listened to the tracks on Tame Impala’s Currents (2015), I frequently visualized the strobe light and karaoke machine. Kevin Parker crafts shimmering synth-scapes, catchy beats, and delicate melodies that remind me of the easy-listening songs that played on my clock radio when I was growing up in Polk County, listening to WTYN (AM) out of Tryon, NC, the only available station. There’s something (intentionally) loungy about this album, in the way that Father John Misty’s albums are loungy (Fear Fun more successfully so than this year’s I Love You, Honeybear). Wow, who am I thinking of? Rupert Holmes comes to mind (“Him”), maybe 10cc, maybe ELO? Perhaps more interestingly, Currents demonstrates Parker’s absorption and effective geekification of disco, certainly the Bee Gees, but also Kool & the Gang, KC and the Sunshine Band, perhaps Michael Jackson.

Finally, and probably my favorite of the three, is Midlake’s Antiphon (2013). I can appreciate the folk-rock references that some reviewers have mentioned, but I more distinctly hear the progressive rock influence from bands like Kansas, Styx, and Blue Oyster Cult. Reviewers have compared the sound to Pink Floyd, but to me this project is noticeably less spacey than anything Pink Floyd has released (before or after The Final Cut). It's also more rooted in ultimately-not-psychedelic rock a la the abovementioned groups. (Whereas I could see the strobe light and karaoke machine while chilling to Currents, while grooving on Antiphon I can see the black light and a guy in a tank-top playing air guitar). There are hook-laden melodies on this CD, and lyrics range from obliquely earnest to more abstract. Abstract in that “epic” sense that you might find in a RUSH or Yes song, or consider Kansas’s “Carry On My Wayward Son” — you know, lyrics that revolve around the themes of quest, journey, initiation, perhaps inspired in part by the popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien and his reworking of Nordic mythology, pagan folklore, and Christian dualism?

The differences between the latest Dawes, Tame Impala, and Midlake albums highlight the multifaceted legacy of the 1970s, that somewhat now-dissed decade. I find it noteworthy that, 40 years later, it’s the proto-Americana bands (and, of course, hard-rock/metal pioneers such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin) that are most well-regarded, while so much of the '70s easy-listening, pop, and disco sources have lost traction, relegated to that schizy category of “guilty pleasures,” as if one needed to feel compunction for enjoying a certain sound or song. Most of the progressive rock sources, too, are not held in particularly high regard, although King Crimson, for example — a band that ventured into jazz, fusion, maybe even new wave — seems to still be heralded as “real music.” The recent induction of RUSH into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was a coup for prog-rock. Yes seems pretty undeniable in terms of musicianship, though I sense that this band’s reputation has eroded over the years.

I want to be more conscious of not using descriptive phrases that are lazily general: “Sounds kind of '70s-ish,” “sounds kind of '80s-ish,” etc. It can’t be denied that certain sounds and styles are more pronounced during a given period (to refer to the early-mid '90s as the “grunge era,” for example, isn’t totally off-base[3]); however, again, numerous directions are being explored at any given time.

Using generalizations is essentially a way to create psychological and linguistic shortcuts. These shortcuts are helpful and have their place, however they can also unfairly simplify complex issues and topics. This is moderately annoying when it comes to discussions regarding art; however, the tendency is obviously more dangerous,  in fact deadly, when it results in the simplifying, categorizing, and stereotyping of groups of people.

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[1] This notion is probably mostly espoused by people who were born after 1955, who have no clear recollection of the decade and feel no motivation to research it — an absurd association of Leave It to Beaver with actual reality. Let’s not forget: the Korean War, McCarthyism, the murder of Emmett Till. There was also, as I’m understanding it, the establishment of revolving credit standardized in the 1950s. Since then, personal debt has escalated and essentially become a norm, a socio-economic phenomenon that has perhaps more than any other single trajectory defined the lives of Americans post WWII.

The '50s also brought us Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, the Beats, and Diane Arbus. To boot, “Howl” was published in 1956 — not exactly a Manifesto of Innocence!

[2] The conservative hype machine has been grinding 24-7 for at least 40 years, its sole purpose to discredit liberal agendas; i.e., to reduce and simplify progressive positions into iconic images and catch-phrases that in turn spin liberal orientations as “contrary to American values.” It seems to me that the liberality of the '60s was actually short-lived, a wave of violent conservatism building and cresting in the late '60s and into the '70s — in great part a response to the passing of Civil Rights legislation — flooding into American culture with the election and eventual deification of Ronald Reagan.

[3] Then again, reflecting 20-plus years later, I’m not sure that Pearl Jam was ever grunge. To me, the band always had and then, album by album, further developed what I’d call a reinterpreted mainstream sound. Say, mainstream redux, a contemporary and pseudo-punk attitude fused with classic-rock song-craft. Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots had more in common with Led Zeppelin, and Alice in Chains with Black Sabbath, than any of them had with Nirvana. As with all labels, grunge was an umbrella tag, used primarily for marketing and promotional purposes. In the end, it probably referred to sound less than image and ostensible lifestyle. To be endorsed as grunge could be of commercial benefit for an early-mid-90s band, which might result in greater album and ticket sales. So of course bands were hyped accordingly, the term grunge stretched to be as general and inclusive as possible.