Friday, September 17, 2010
Tunesome Thursday: the elusive soft rock feeling
Soft rock is one of the most vast and vague genres out there. Lots of stuff rocks and lots of stuff is soft.
Soft-rock, to me is not Steely Dan. They are too complicated and too interesting. None of my brain shuts off when Steely Dan come on. Steely Dan are more like jazz fusion with lyrics, or an updated type of big-band music. They may be smooth, but they are not soft rock.
Nor is Elton John soft rock. When he rocks, he rocks too hard, and when he gets soft, he's too emotional to truly be soft.
And mellow folk-rock is not soft rock. It's smooth, but it's usually too personal, or too based in tradition to really have that kitschy soft rock feeling.
When I used to think of soft rock, I'd think of Peter Cetera & Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now."
With my tongue in my cheek, I can allow this song to pummel me into sweet ambivalence. But without that tongue-in-cheek filter, I just can't take it. It makes me think of shopping at K-mart in the 20th century, wishing that I didn't have to buy new shirts and shoes, because buying new shirts and shoes only made me think of going back to school.
K-mart. Not Walmart. Peter Cetera's brand of soft rock is the kind that once made me run and hide inside those circular clothing racks. I'd hide inside and be sheltered from the shopping and the fluorescent lights around me, but Cetera still managed to get me, even through the protective ring of t-shirts.
That kind of soft rock makes me think of back-to-school shopping in the less-artsy part of the Hudson Valley, so I had a deep and personal distaste for it. But I don't know anybody who likes it.
Some people can't even bring themselves to listen to it with that defensive tongue in their cheek.
But my opinion of smooth keyboards and nasally male vocals drenched in gallons of oozy reverb has increased over the years. I'm not sure why, but it began about two years ago while I was packing up to move from Albany to New York City and I discovered Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street."
First of all, this is the only song I know of that, instead of following the pattern of verse-chorus-verse, follows the pattern of verse-saxophone solo-verse.
That is only one of many things in the song that are artfully done. All of the things that make me laugh in most seventies soft-rock hits - Rafferty's high and smooth voice, the chimey keyboards, the processed saxophone, the bongos - made me laugh slightly less the first time I heard this song. And the second time I heard the song, I barely laughed at all. I realized that it was a good song. I realized that what's funny about other soft rock songs is that the presentation dilutes whatever emotion is behind the music and renders it into a kitschy mess.
But in "Baker Street," the languid and depressingly overproduced sound is part of the point. It's like the obnoxious malaise that he sings about can only be expressed by an obnoxiously loud saxophone solo. It's so poignantly obnoxious that by the end it's not obnoxious anymore.
And that sense that you're experiencing something meant to appeal to everyone - in other words, "kitsch" - only improves the song for me. In the best kitschy songs, it doesn't feel like its reducing emotion to some cookie-cutter experience. In the best kitschy songs, the kitsch feels like a way of saying, "By the way, everybody feels this way, so get over it."
Since discovering the genius of Rafferty, I've dug a bit more into music for that era, and I've found a few more soft rock classics that fit that mold. Songs where over-production and over-emotion meet and create something awesome. Songs where smooth actually = classy and sexy, instead of tacky. Songs that make me want to come out of that ring of t-shirts instead of continue to hide in it. Songs that sound like an upstate K-mart but also manage to artfully address that feeling you get in an upstate K-mart.
I'll level with you: I'm not sure what I just said there. I may have mixed metaphors. But I know I really meant it, and I'm not going to mess with it. Enjoy the songs. I've heard that they sound best on quaaludes, but they don't make those anymore, so I recommend a humid or rainy evening and your downer of choice. My downer of choice, these days, is a full box of buttery mac & cheese. And maybe a xanax. Seriously, though, I usually eat nothing but vegetables, soups, yogurt, and Indian food, so that shit hits me hard.