Critical Backlash: "Dad-Rock"…and Dungen

Dungen / Courtesy of Ground Control Touring

It seems that there are all kinds of gaps these days: The obvious red state/blue state standby, the 15-year-old bit torrent user and the Walmart-shopping mom, and all kinds of generational issues that have less to do with technology and more with good ol’ teenage rebellion. They range from the Baby Boom’s inability to relate to rap (Kareem Abdul Jabbar was just quoted in the Daily Bruin as saying “There is no literature or art involved with [hip-hop music]”) to the one I’d like to touch upon today. Namely, “Dad-Rock.”

Rob Mitchum was absolutely right in calling Wilco’s new record by this name in his Pitchfork review, but why make it a pejorative? An ill-advised Ryan Schreiber review of a Pet Sounds reissue was similarly Boomer-baiting — though P4k seems to have refuted it, and with their pretty-unsurprising-but-fun-anyway ’60s song list, their own anti-old/unhip people posturing.

Certain friends and musical acquaintances of mine — some more than others — seem to hate “classic” rock, which by its very name, should be a cornerstone of said acquaintances’ collections. One particular pal routinely bashes on Led Zeppelin and honestly doesn’t seem to be aware that there were relevant bands before 2000 or so (except Pavement). Music bloggers are frequently criticized with thinking that music started in 2004, and if I was 15 years old today and my first exposure to rock was hearing the Arcade Fire and the Shins on the radio and my TV (!!!), I suppose I’d be pretty quick to dump on my dad’s vinyl collection, too. Why listen to Gang of Four when you can listen to Bloc Party? (Because Bloc Party’s new album sucks? I digress.)

When I was a kid, there was a brief period where I couldn’t stand the Beatles. It wasn’t because they sucked; it was because my dad had burned me out on them by playing the damn tape in the car every day. A few years later, of course, I came around in a big way. My own personal canon is largely defined by boundaries set out by my parents’ musical habits: The Who. Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Bossa Nova. From there, it’s not much of a stretch to Elliott Smith or Ryan Adams or Feist, even. No wonder it took me so long to get into Wu-Tang Clan, right? But there’s much more gold to mine in those records (and in ’70s soul, which I’m increasingly convinced is the best genre/era ever) than in most of the stuff coming out today.

Aside: music’s not any better today — but it’s not any worse! We just have more access to bands and albums and songs than ever before, and arguably, the concentration of “great” records is just as high now as it’s ever been. It’s just more of a minority.

So why the semi-backlash against old dudes? I can understand the whole ’70s coke/arena rock thing, even though I love Fleetwood Mac — I hate the Eagles. Not too big on James Taylor, either. But that stuff was supposed to be middle of the road, and it’s strange to me that the Wilco album is taking some flack (though not a lot) for sounding, admittedly, like the Eagles. The Eagles never had the chops Nels Cline had, nor the subtle framing of John Stirratt’s bass lines. They never had the dry-eyed emotional clarity that Jeff Tweedy has finally reached.

But this is not an essay about Wilco. It is an essay about Dungen. Tio Bitar is, for all intents and purposes, straight out of 1969. The band plays vintage instruments and occupies a musical space midway between the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ferocious auditory explorations and the druggy tunefulness of bands like Strawberry Alarm Clock. It’s all ostensibly contradictory –concise, melodic songcraft married to stoner jams? Jazz flute not sounding unbelievably cheesy? But somehow the band pulls it off. It helps that their sound is a mix of the old and the new, vintage gear gloriously filtered through crisp, modern sonics.

Your dad will love it. But you will too, thanks to the happy accident of the album’s language barrier: Dungen sing in Swedish. The result is that there’s no “hippie crap” on this record. No references to peace and love, no superficial dabblings in Eastern philosophy. Strawberry Alarm Clock, as much as I love them, haven’t aged very well in the lyrics department.

But since we can’t understand Dungen — and their music is so undeniably good — we can all enjoy them without worrying about how cool they (or we, or our parents) are. Dudes are foreign though, which pretty much means they’re cool no matter what. What a relief.

Dungen – “Familj”: mp3
Dungen – “Gor Det Nu”: mp3

(Tio Bitar is out now on Kemado Records)


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