In Defense of Gringo Star
Mobutu Sese Seko is a blogger and freelance copywriter and, as such, he is made of money. He supplements his income with assets embezzled from the nation of Zaire from 1965-1997. He last stopped by to talk to us about The Emmys. You can read more of his political/pop-culture criticism and dick jokes at Et tu, Mr. Destructo?
I can't remember the moment I got old, but I can remember the moment that people who really care about "shows" decided I was. Maybe my unwillingness to hop into mosh pits betrayed a distinctly aged awareness that I did not have sufficient health coverage. Suddenly, in the eyes of the sort of guys who check ID at the door, I had crossed that narrow strip of life between the sort of person who'd stand next to a loudspeaker and the sort of person who stands for election to the condo association.
This has its ups and downs. On the downside, the chick at the bar presumes to up-sell you by taking your order while sidling over to the refrigerator case with the Belgian trippels, and she doesn't even imagine anymore that you might be such a cheapskate as to want the $1.25 tallboy of proudly American swill. Asking for that instead prompts a look of surprise and disgust that you could appear so responsibly put together and at your core be so rotten.
On the upside, when you're a guy like me and go to a bar like this and see a band like Gringo Star, everyone just nods at you like they envy your finding your moment of nirvana. Gringo Star is a garage-rock band out of Atlanta, Georgia. I managed to catch their show after a late day at work while in rumpled business casual, and people in the audience were flashing me thumbs up like I'd stumbled upon a pure Dad Rock synergy unlikely to be equaled until there's a concept band about managing your kid's soccer team.
What interested me, at that moment, was not only the band but also how any attempt to describe it to strangers devoted to new music would seem perilously lame. Here was a band with harmonies, a lead singer who sounded eerily like Ray Davies, a classic late 1960s/early 1970s rock sound, handclaps, wah pedals and tambourines. By the standards of Internet music communities -- hell, even by the standards of the shows I go to -- this verged dangerously on the kind of sound you hear when the load at the Apple Store is showing mom how to work the Genius Mix button on her iTunes.
None of that is fair to Gringo Star, a genuinely fun band with a lot of talent to spare and hopefully a lot more stuff to come. But, as a reviewer for Pitchfork pointed out, when you hear those elements above in the first track, "All Y'all," you've pretty much heard the whole album. Here, check it out:
I single out this review because it seems representative of the negative responses I've seen to the band, in terms of formal review and general discussion. His point is that all the songs kinda sound alike; you've heard Ray Davies and the Kinks before, so this isn't that special, and that's pretty much it. To be fair, he's right: The tracks are tonally of a piece, and the lyrics, while fitting the rhythm and attitude of the songs, don't stand out poetically in a Davies-esque sense. Nonetheless, my first response was "I still think it's a really fun album, so who cares?" But as I thought about it, the review started to seem less like a direct engagement with a specific album and more a part of a larger attitudinal approach to Dad Rock.
(Note: "Dad Rock" as described in this piece differs somewhat from the definition of "Dadrock" Daryl "Freaking" Hall popularized in this section a few months ago.)
The epithet "Dad Rock" gets deployed pretty regularly on message boards, and it's the ultimate in condemnatory shorthand for music ostensibly appealing to those who are unserious about challenging their tastes and horizons, music whose appeal is as much based on prospective listeners knuckling under to critical/commercial legacy and processed nostalgia as it is on their discovering art that speaks to them. Pillorying that sort of decision-making and horizon-defining is perfectly fine. But as a term, it's conceptual bullshit. Dad Rock is as migratory as "hipness" or "alternative," a definition that, unmoored to any sense of time or a body of current work, makes almost zero sense.