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Long Live the Plague

By Alan Baban | 18 December 2006

Lots of mosquitoes, lots of music.

The anarchy of fried stereos in unresponsive, empty rooms. Your neighbours' voices eat through the meringue walls, and it seems -- at least, for now -- that not even fishnets doused by a flask of DDT can keep away the savage, buzzing boredom.

You see, where I live -- I being narrator and arch progenitor of that there libidinous phraseology (ok, I'll stop now) -- people like big words. What am I saying? Walloping words. Heavy-weight sentences just brimming with every mongrel breed of heavy-duty phraseology and libidinous verbiage. Big people, with big names, who live in big houses with big swimming pools, are meant to use big words, right? Admittedly, this might merely constitute uttering the perpetual polysyllables in their butler's name, but the effect isn't undermined: it's big. But besides the day-glo lego language of school newspapers, liturgical post-grad and various scientific nomenclature, big rules the roost in other, more wide-spread couture institutes. Indeed, why use English, when the French is, well, bigger?

Widescreen televisions, super-sized menus, Big Macs -- the Godzilla complex predates the new-age "less is more" philosophies, existing as a kind of endoskeleton to the commercial glob that assimilates us all. Likewise with music, as so-called "indie rock" and "mainstream," caught by the net, get knocked about into two cracked yolk sacs, ultimately hybridised into a cohesive mush, easy putty for the paws of excitable journos worldwide. Of course, once something loses its clear definition, all sorts of identities can be imposed onto it. But I'm not here to talk about the embryonic gestation of nu-indie, or whatever. Now that one doesn't fit all anymore, it only seems appropriate to square up the sizes.

Things sound big these days, punk/pop stalwarts like Good Charlotte unleashing treatises on life and death, and everything in between. Artistic possibility is all things at once, but not binary. Good ol' cut-down, stripped down song-writing may as well be the kickback to some enveloping, avant-garde directive. All the genuinely big records this year were occupied by over-arching concepts: the Hold Steady took on America, Meloy tried Japanese folk tales, Colbert and ottomans. But it was Newsom who cast the deepest impression. Who would have thought that a harp-playing pseudo-elf would, with a little help from messrs. Albini and O'Rourke, unleash an album whose apparent artistic indigestion would stir up such a furore in the critical community? The big lie is that Ys is a divisive record: one skimmed eye over the metacriticism is enough proof of the uniform praise lavished upon five long, intermittently tedious songs about all sorts, monkeys and bears not excluded. Since when did last year's pretension become next year's make-out mix tape? Sure, our collective idea of 'eccentric and outlandish' has become increasingly elastic with every multi-instrumental, doctrinal troupe that busts the blogs -- but surely this is the moment when the bind has to break. What next: George Michael Sings the Blues?

Even more insidious are the potential relations between the nascent fey brigade and Quinine. Discovered in 1820 by the Vermouth-splashed boots of French explorers Caventou and Pelletier, Quinine was extracted from the grounded pulp of the cinchona tree. It was the first mass prophylactic, commonly mixed into alcoholic drinks as a sort of teetotal tonic before industrialisation institutionalised the formula into an active synthesis, and, ultimately, a tactile, purified tablet. But who could have predicted that one of the major side effects of Quinine overdose, Cinchonism, would come to be a mainstay of twee concerts worldwide, irrespective of local malarial prevalence? That bitter, hoppy aftertaste in the house beer? The relentless wafts of smoke machine atmospherics?

These artists we come back from, most of them do not rock. Logic: Boris rocks. Sonic Youth rocks. Mclusky rocked. Joanna fucking Newsom does not rock. So why do we think she, in a way, does? How does she subjugate so many of us to the same sort of mental and physical grovelling that once required lordship from eviscerated guitars and devastated drum kits, now achieved by way of harp and Van Dyke Parks? Why is her will so much stronger than ours when she asserts it so preciously? If I were extra paranoid, right now I'd be silently mouthing "Quinine" while I typed out some slightly more rational conclusion about how this vague idea of "bigness" relates to the new musical zeitgeist. Maybe do a little sentence or two about Newsom's mannered opulence as token of a wider movement -- perhaps an attempted gentrification of the indie music biz. But think of how easy it could be: smack that shit into the airvents, drop it into our dateless drinks, and we overdose on the therapy. Yes, I'm still on about the Quinine. But biochemical conspiracy theory or culture critic commentary, the end is the same, equally bonkers and equally true: they are making us think that everything is punk as fuck!

Whatever. Lots of mosquitoes, lots of music.

*****

Alan Baban is quite confident that this article made perfect sense to you.