Quiet, Please -- We're Rocking

The American Analog Set, and how quiet may be the last place for rock to go

When we talk about "rock" -- a genre that has already lost its "roll," not to mention its "'n' " -- what do we mean? Yes, the term comes from old blues slang for the sexual act, and yes, it has something to do with rock's hard backbeat -- a rhythm we instantly recognize, even if we don't know what "backbeat" means. But when we say that a band "rocks," we're not referring to its ability to syncopate or get laid. It's something more abstract, and at the same time, a tad more dumb -- an intensity of sound and stage presence, usually comprising distortion, one big hook, well-miked toms, and lots and lots of strutting. And when we say that a band "rocked us," that's a whole 'nother tier of praise, whereby we acknowledge the band's ability, essentially, to render us helpless. Then there's the more elusive, more critical connotation of "rocking," and the one that seems least important in the popular arena -- namely, a band's justification of its existence with a sound all its own. Hard to accomplish when most of the chord charts in the Hard Rock Fake Book seem to indicate the same constellations of fingerings. Big Dipper, Ursa Minor, E major, A minor -- most just crank up the gain to drown out their great sameness.

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.

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