The Sound vs. Fury

The secret success of 1995's rhythm nation

Was 1995 terrible for music? In their annual roundups, a slew of critics have slammed the year as the pale successor to the glory days of 1994 (which, incidentally, met the same censure last year), when Courtney Love ruled with an iron fist, the punk revival was newly hatched, and MTV made Beck wanna smoke crack. True, the mallternative revolution has empowered mainly forgettable bands like Live, Bush, and Hootie & the Blowfish and short-term wonders like Elastica; there was no central figure to rally around (P J's too smart; Alanis too vacant); and no top-selling artist offered a challenge to (or psychic protection against) the reactionary policies of Newt and crew. And that, paradoxically, is why the past 12 months have been seminal for music -- for sound and not fury, a time when music itself really mattered.

Casting the musical naivetŽ of grunge aside, artists ventured into sonic exploration unseen since psychedelia-era rock and mid- to late-'80s hip hop. Tortoise's Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters best symbolized the trend: The band tore apart its self-titled indie debut, remixed it, and remade it as a spacey dub document. Other rockers overcame their death-to-disco prejudices and joined the rhythm nation, whether techno (Laika) or hip-hopified dub (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), making qualifiers like "Does it rock?" seem more Neanderthal than ever. Smearing boundaries was the rule of thumb, and new genres -- trip hop, jungle, post-rock -- seemed to pop up overnight. With its slippery cut-and-paste aesthetic and rejection of rules, dub captured the spirit of the times -- the freedom and the confusion.

On the hip-hop side, DJs Krush and Shadow deconstructed the genre to its purest abstraction -- breakbeats -- then frosted them with odd sound effects and ghostly raps. Just as g-funk started sounding like yesterday's news, RZA solidified the Wu-Tang clank on his bandmates' solo joints and set new standards for production, while the Roots finally perfected jazz hop. Meanwhile, people hungry for pure astral sounds rediscovered old instruments like the Moog and the theremin, and a resurgence in instrumental music underscored a newfound interest in form over explicit meaning.

With no one artist convincingly grabbing the limelight, critical discourse was pried wide open. Bands who would have been consigned to fanzines at best found themselves the subjects of national attention. Who ever imagined that an obscure trip-hopper like Tricky would make countless top-10 lists? Moby? Of course, none of this avant-garde music really sold or truly resonated with the general public. Contrast the accessibly raunchy image of Alanis on her knees in the theater vs. Tricky's chanteuse, Martine, threatening to "fuck you in the ass/ just for a laugh." Yet just as the confessional gender critique of Liz Phair and P J Harvey filtered down to Alanis Morissette -- in much-diluted form, but better than nothing -- it's easy to envision the recent aural innovations eventually infiltrating generic-sounding alternarock and gangsta rap.

With his unclassifiable genre-bending of hip hop, funk, rock, ambient, and dub, Tricky was a radio pariah. If his Maxinquaye had gotten any airplay, though, could he have resonated at all? His "brain thinks bomblike," crafting the perfect soundtrack to a year of blunted expectations, murderous white supremacists, and a mind-fucking Unabomber; his evocative music verbalizes with few words the same alienation and gender (con)fusion of Kurt Cobain. Wrapping disappointment around himself like a blanket, Tricky repeatedly rubs our noses in our collective stink, though his "suffocated love" for his muse Martine betrays a chink in his armor of cynicism. Still, his revelations seem solipsistic, secretive, like he's mumbling them into our ears.

Though the perverted minimalist blues of P J Harvey's To Bring You My Love are far-removed from the beat-oriented sounds of the year's best albums, they best embody the Zeitgeist. Committed to impeccable musicianship, Harvey took opera lessons to discipline her voice; she toys with rhythm and repetition with the flair of a dub wizard. But she speaks in universals far more often than worthy peers like Tricky or Bjsrk -- the hallmark of lasting art. Harvey brilliantly ruffles the fuzzy gray area of gender and human emotion, making the ordinary seem terrible and strange. With its fuzz-chord thrusts and strap-on boasts, a song like "Long Snake Moan" puts other anthems of female lust to shame.

It's all about transformation. Preferring kabuki-like theatrics to histrionics in concert, she paints herself as both asexual and sexually carnivorous, her off-kilter femininity intentionally approaching repulsiveness and cartoon. Harvey's persona is too distant, her lyrics too poetically elliptical, her music too hyperintellectual to offer nice-and-easy identification. Besides, she likes it like that.

Our best artists have taken signposts like Kurt's suicide and Courtney's descent into self-parody to heart. Who's sucka enough to be the voice of a "voiceless generation" that naysays such spokesmen as a matter of course? To paraphrase Lester Bangs, we will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Nirvana or Public Enemy -- at least not overnight. We've been spoiled by the first half of this decade, when our private idols were also public ones; the tribalism of 1995 recalls the indie nation of the '80s, a time when discovering good music took a little effort. Just when "alternative" was co-opted and swallowed whole, musicians took their red pens to the drawing boards. As Aceyalone rapped on All Balls Don't Bounce: "I'd rather be undefined/ not underestimated or undermined.

 
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