Revenge of the Art Rockers

David Byrne has an interesting piece up on his Journal, meditating on his participation in the recent Dark Was The Night benefit concerts at Radio City Music Hall. (The DWTN compilation, it should be noted, is pretty damn fantastic, with a few notable exceptions, such as the sprawling Sufjan Stevens trainwreck, which I quickly deleted from my iPod. It almost seemed a joke: after all, he can write perfectly listenable music.)

The upshot of Byrne’s piece is that the collection of artists featured on the double CD, many of whom performed together earlier this month, represent a triumph of art rock over a more decadent, bratty, or trashy rock and roll aesthetic. Byrne, who appears on the album in one of its stand-out tracks, a collaboration with Dirty Projectors, also sees this set of artists — many of whom are Brooklyn-based, part of what could loosely be termed a “scene” — as representing something of a renaissance in American rock in which commercialism is losing ground to serious artistry:

Besides their dedication to their art, most are successful — but one
senses that fame wasn’t their primary engine for choosing a career in
music. There was no hierarchy in this group — everyone was treated as
an equal, and participated with everyone else where they could. Many
were already acquaintances or friends. Times have changed. No one was
drunk, on drugs or two hours late for rehearsal. There was no “rock
star” behavior. That could sound boring — but such rebellious, clichéd
behavior hasn’t always guaranteed good music. When great music would
surface from a personal or professional mess, it often seemed like a
rare but happy accident, unlikely to be repeated.

Maybe it’s the
headiness of being surrounded by so many creative folks, but it seems
that popular music — some of it anyway — might be going through one of
its periodic peaks. It also seems that rock music, or some sizable
branch of it, has evolved from being a throwaway piece of merchandise
for teens to a respectable art form. The transformation, made in fits
and starts over many decades, seems more or less complete.

Is the subtext here the long shadow of Talking Heads? Certainly he presides over the DWTN enterprise like a protective spirit. He links to a duet he performed with Bon Iver. Here’s decent footage of “Knotty Pine,” his song with Dirty Projectors. Byrne’s the one center-stage in the red, white, and blue:

When I first saw Dirty Projectors — maybe five years ago? — it was just Dave Longstreth with a laptop and boombox, performing material he eventually released on his album The Getty Address, a song cycle in which he imagines Don Henley touring the Gettysburg battle site. As disarmingly good as he was then, I wouldn’t have expected that he’d come to be such a major player in the indie world.

Tags: ,