Perhaps the problem lies in our expectation of what it takes to be impressed. Can a band rock even if it doesn't, um, rock? Do you have to sneer and turn up the volume? Or can someone rock us, overwhelm us, with something else? Let's see. At the start of "Magnificent Seventies," the initial track on From Our Living Room to Yours -- a new LP by the American Analog Set, a low-key Austin quartet -- an announcer says: "You know, the fun of watching fireworks is built pretty much around the a cappella vocal approval that you do with or after each explosion. All right? We provide the fireworks, you do the oohs and aahs." It's an odd lead-in for a record without any of those old cuke-stuffed rock gestures -- the grind of power chords, the 'nad-struck wailing, the fusillade of bass-drum rolls and shimmering cymbals. And the promise of fireworks is a daring one. But ultimately, it's the perfect intro for a record that manages to rock us in a new way.
In "Magnificent Seventies," the music initiates with a slow, clean-toned guitar arpeggio, a vaguely unsettling wash of Farfisa keyboard tones, a bass line attaching chords with simple melodic stitches, and restrained but accented smacks upon the drums. The first half of the song drifts in this two-chord movement, barely lifting the singer's subdued, almost whispered vocal lines, while the second half finds a guitar riff and variations, over which the singer scats in unison. The riff would seem to announce a build, where we finally get our beloved hammer-to-the-head, rawk-style. Still, there's no rev of overdrive, no feedback lashing around like a loose hose, no underlying septic tank full of restless testes. The fireworks turn out to be literal, with a track of distant aerial explosions as the song fades. And despite everything rock has taught us, we're not bored -- we are, in fact, pleasantly surprised. We may have been short on oohs and aahs, but the joke was still being told. After decades of pungent stage spectacle and torrential volume, who'd have thought that the sedate could turn out to be seditious?
True, the American Analog Set never detonate; nor do scads of other serene, slow, stripped, sparse, and otherwise understated bands of recent years -- among them, Fuck (of San Francisco), Low (of Duluth, Minn.), and Tindersticks (from Britain). They have none of the volume, sneer, or other overwhelming qualities of the genital-swaying stadium bulls we associate with being "rocked." Among these quieter folk, we are rocked by surprise. We're not used to having intensity expressed by any means other than sheer volume.
And that's exactly why rock bands who indulge in quiet seem so startling. Rock is expected to be anthemic, hormonally imbalanced, and noisy beyond compare. But built into this equation is stadium rock's fatal flaw: In a supposedly revolutionary, incendiary genre, any sort of expectation becomes stifling. Big rawk thunder is just another cliche -- another easily interpreted sonic cue in the lukewarm cinema we imagine as our lives. The whole notion of louder and louder being the only way to surpass your forebears, and to keep pissing off those crucial parents, is just as much a staid part of the rock vocabulary as groupies and drug abuse. And if the movement is ever noisier, ever faster, along a Chuck Berry-Rolling Stones-Stooges-Ramones-Sex Pistols-Black Flag-HYsker DY-Sonic Youth-Swans axis (not to mention the Zeppelin-Black Sabbath-Venom-Slayer-Carcass-Emperor parallel) -- how loud can loud get? Once an industrial artist has brought a jet engine onstage to play "bass" to a backhoe's "drums," just how much room is left before we've hit the noise ceiling -- the point where there's no longer any point in having a sense of hearing, much less to bother listening? Better to don a hard hat and ply your jackhammer out in the street than in a club.
Of course, these questions are not new -- they were asked decades ago by those selfsame gents with jet engines and backhoes -- but it seems only in recent years that rock bands have started working away from the ceiling in enough number to call it a phenomenon. (Lest I fall into that most grating of rock-writer habits, and declare "quietude" the Next Big Thing, let me say that I think the punk resurgence is welcome, even if I'm done with the stuff, and that I will always have a soft spot for Loud and Stupid.) Bands like the American Analog Set have discovered that with or without distortion, a good riff is still a good riff, and a compelling melody still begs attention. Better yet, without dirt, whole new palettes of tonal color become available. On "Where Have All the Good Boys Gone," the relative hush and use of empty space allow aural elements that would have been drowned out in a Great Wall of Marshall stacks to stand crisp and resolute. Even the tambourine sounds interesting; every last rattle of the brass along its rim is audible. You can picture what's happening in the room at the lower thresholds; it's almost as if turning down the volume transforms listening into an act of sonar. Each instrumental part is distinct, even when played in unison with the others. The American Analog Set's sound is more interesting than metal extremis or punk aggro, simply because it achieves almost holographic depth, as opposed to monolithic size.
Sure, there have always been people who play quieter -- folks like Leonard Cohen, who chose a sort of reserved and seedy burlesque (which Tindersticks seem to crave), and assorted folkies, whose idiom differed from rock's, and who couldn't have rendered their acoustic guitars deafening, even if they wanted to. There is also an aesthetic line that can be traced back to the Velvet Underground, where bands use soft dynamics and atmospheres to good end. (Though I hasten to add, nothing rocks harder in the old sense than the atonal, shrilling solo on "I Heard Her Call My Name" from White Light/White Heat. Duuuuude!) But the American Analog Set and their ilk are doing two important things that make them sound revolutionary. First, they are working against type. "White House," the "heaviest" tune on Living Room, breaks away from the relatively hard-drumming intro for some gentle vocals over electric piano -- almost the direct opposite of the dynamic you'd expect. Other bands do similar things. On Baby Loves a Funny Bunny by Fuck, there's a moment on "[Heart] Me 2" -- a mostly instrumental track with brief, disturbing lyrics about cross-dressing -- when the instruments build to that old crescendo. But at the moment of maximum tension, where you think they'll settle into some Zep-style lick-pounding en route to cock rock victory, the whole thing falls apart. The old tram up to Jimmy Page's rock plateau is thus sabotaged, and the plummet is far more affecting besides.
Second, and more important, the newer quiet folk sound novel. And I don't mean "like a novelty." All of the American Analog Set's instrumentation is old -- that Farfisa in particular is a rickety coelacanth of an instrument -- but the sound the group produces is new. On Living Room's "Don't Wake Me," the bass line moves down from its pedal to a low minor third -- a patent Neil Young maneuver, but it's played against bell-like keyboard tones that sound almost like the Crusaders. The contrast creates a sugary, prowling effect -- an almost extraterrestrial mood drawn from pre-electronic timbres. Old sounds are being used in a new way, not as a means of retrospective or stasis. (Otherwise, the American Analog Set's set might require a prog-rock flautist and songs about elves.)
Granted, there's a danger to all this quiet and terse phrasing -- the American Analog Set's labelmates Windsor for the Derby, who use even simpler structures, are particularly somnolent. But newness is vital to rock, and to any other living genre -- even if it means that the old parameters of excess must be deliberately collapsed. A monotonous gesture is still monotonous, even when it's harmful to human hearing. No need to scrape rock's ceiling face-first when there's an entire living room no one has bothered to explore.