Music criticism and glass houses

Last Wednesday, a friend offered me an extra ticket to join her at Cirkus here in Stockholm, to hear Ane Brun.  Well, I’d never been to Cirkus, and I’d never heard of Brun, so of course I said yes!

The venue sits next to Skansen, the historic/history park, and was built over a century ago to house a permanent circus. The halls that concert-goers now walk through were once the hallways through which the horses trotted to enter into the ring. The ring is now seating, slightly cantilevered for the view of the stage and back building added over the years. Now there’s a restaurant and bars.

AJ and I had a quick glass of wine and then joined the waves of people entering the circus ring/theater with the arrival of the tram. The band had asked for a skrim of smoke, so AJ and I felt blinded, and a twinge of concern over what we were breathing in.  AJ also had some concerns over the concert: She loves Ane Brun’s earlier work, which is acoustic and highlights her twangy singing style.  Brun is Norwegian, lives in Stockholm and speaks Swedish, but sings in English mostly (her one song in Norwegian was beautiful, if totally incomprehensible to me!), and seems to have slowly added more instrumentation to what was once just her voice and guitar.

I could see the problem.  The setup was two drummers, with great beats; a keyboardist; another keyboardist/percussionist; and a cellist (who also opened for the band, solo — she had this weird trick: she would record a lick with a device controlled with a foot-pedal that then looped as background to her songs.  Quite neat, a distracting gimmick, and overall, disappointing somehow, though I cannot put my finger on it).  The drummers dominated for sure, which was both good and bad.  I loved them.  But their force made Brun’s voice and songs seem lacking in complexity to me, with the reductionist beats.

But oh, those beats.  As we were lounging around on Saturday morning, Matt called up some of Brun’s songs on YouTube.  The beats are addictive.  And so are the added vocals, particularly for the song to which I am currently addicted, “Do You Remember.” Now, compare her unplugged original (here or officially here) with the official video, with drums (here).

The videos are a distraction, and give meanings to the song(s) I don’t care to link myself.  But dammit, it’s catchy either way.  And Matt points out that the more instrumented version seems to rely on Native American drumming, which I think is so basic, so intrinsically part of human rhythms, that it’s almost not fair.  Of course I’m stuck on this damn song — how could I not be?

Brun, it turns out, has played at Cirkus before.  If you search YouTube, you can find her performance from October 2011, with the same smog hanging over the stage, and almost the same band setup — only with two backup singers in Little House on the Prairie garb.  (I was so annoyed by one woman’s dress as I watched this morning — I wore the exact same getup as an 8-year-old. How’d I miss this trend?)

So why can’t I put my finger on why I don’t like Brun and her band’s most current incarnation?  I am more inclined toward her simpler guitar-and-voice music (as is AJ, so maybe I’m susceptible to the opinions of my friends).  The stuff Brun’s playing now strikes me as derivative, referencing Arcade Fire or The National, for example, but without as much complexity — particularly in the lyrics.

I’ve become accustomed to cleverness, to tricky words and meanings, to departures from just the chorus.  I blame Paul Simon completely.  Does that mean it’s bad if it’s not complex?  I guess not; just different.  But I’m allowed to be critical and opinionated when it comes to music, right?  I should listen to what I like.

But if I don’t challenge my musical ear and tastes, I will be stuck listening to the bands of the 80s and my youth (see the essay on neuroplasticity, novelty, and music called “Open Season,” by Robert Sapolsky, in Monkeyluv or The New Yorker).  So, I will try to be less critical, as Matt encourages me to be.  I can’t sing, I can’t play — so no throwing stones!

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One Response to Music criticism and glass houses

  1. Mom says:

    Not true, Naomi. You used to play the piano (and compose) and the flute. So you do have a musical background. And it has stuck with you….

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