Rock Since the Bee Gees

City Paper

In an otherwise laudatory review of Wye Oak’s homecoming July show that ran on CityPaper.com, something struck me as off: Our writer Brandon Soderberg declared the guitar is dead. That’s bullshit.

This was not meant as a literal statement, of course. Plenty of bands still wield the six-string and it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. But it was an assertion that the most compelling music being made in 2014 comes from bands or artists outside the traditional four-piece rock ‘n’ roll format.

He’s right that there’s a lot of interesting, weird, forward-thinking music coming from outside this paradigm. But rest assured, the guitar is still very much alive.

While much of the narrative surrounding Wye Oak’s excellent fourth album “Shriek,” including a cover story in this paper, focuses on the band’s abandonment of the instrument for a more groove-heavy, electronic sound, the duo was more than happy to oblige the crowd at the July show with some of their loud-quiet-loud rock-centric standards. Songs like ‘Holy Holy’ and ‘For Prayer’ played a big part in the band’s rise in notoriety, here and elsewhere—they’re the “hits,” so to speak. Naturally, when the sold-out Metro Gallery crowd heard these songs, the concert-goers flipped their shit. The wailing chords cast the same spell that they’ve always had the ability to do. 

And there’s still plenty of bands tinkering with a Stratocaster and making it great. Not even a month after Soderberg’s live review ran, the always-terrific Spoon released its eighth album, “They Want My Soul.” Spoon has always been, as my one friend put it, a very “meat and potatoes” band, and yet it has continued to take these very basic ingredients and mixed them into a new, interesting recipe. As writer Dan Kois put it in his excellent New York Times profile of the band: “Riffs and instruments stand out in Spoon’s songs, individual sounds in empty space. The result is that their songs deliver a pure rush of musical elation, the distillation of rock music, in the way that sea-urchin foam on an avant-garde restaurant’s plate provides a diner with the essential flavor of ocean. Spoon delivers the power of familiar songs without actually sounding that much like other rock music at all.”

Naturally, there are plenty of bands in our own backyard that manage to do interesting things with your standard electric guitar. On their new single, ‘Hired Gun,’ heavy rockers Dope Body shed the glitchy effects of old for a crunchy, straight-forward garage sound, and the song totally rips. On a much different end of the spectrum, Alex Scally’s woozy surfy plucking has a dreamy, intoxicating effect that has ensnared listeners across the world. Shoegazers Wildhoney show there’s still beauty in a chaotic wall of harsh, shredding chords. 

That’s just scratching the surface. And while, like Soderberg, I enjoy finding bands that push for new sounds and formats,  there’s still something about a heavily distorted chord progression or a melodic jangly riff that catches the ear. As with any instrument—and this applies to the broader, non-musical definition of the word too—the object matters less than the artistry and creativity of the user. Musicians, especially here in Baltimore, have proven adept at twisting, contorting, and reshaping established norms. And then there are moments, like a new Spoon record or hearing Wye Oak run through old standards, that show the basics can still be just as alluring.

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