Literary Rock: Poetic or Pretentious?

This photo just SCREAMS rock star.

Literary bands, including Destroyer, Sufjan Stevens, The Decemberists, and Okkervil River, have gained a foothold in the modern music scene; it’s the type of tunes where songwriting prose competes with or even outshines instrumentation. It’s a listening experience where fans intently read liner notes while dropping the needle to the groove, analyzing heady lyrics for a multiplicity of meanings. Founded on the legacy of Morrissey, this new crop of singer-songwriters infuse an nerdish, academic vibe into their work that seems at odds with the supposedly scuzzy world of rock.

What makes a band ‘literary’? Is it based on clever wordplay, ‘wordiness’, or writing one’s lyrics in prose? Is it founded on obscure allusions (for example, Okkervil River takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya)? Are goofily thick prescription glasses a necessary component (a la Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, pictured to the right)?

Portland-based indie breakout The Decemberists take the literary slant to the next level, with a music video drawn from an acclaimed novel. “Calamity Song” (from 2011’s The King Is Dead) is directly inspired by David Foster Wallace’s legendary tomb Infinite Jest. Parks and Recreation co-creator Michael Schur directed the video, which depicts Eschaton, a tennis-like game

Interestingly enough, some rockers began their careers as writers, such as Sufjan Stevens. Stevens received his MFA in Creative Writing from the New School in 1999, and has had his work published in the UK Sunday Observer, Topic, and The Best Non-Required American Reading 2007. He wrote his 1999 debut album, A Sun Came, as a student; “Dumb I Sound” is one of my favorites of his early work, a rough, rakish but beautiful cut.

“A Good Man Is Hard To Find” from Stevens’ 2004 banjo-laden Seven Swans was inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s short story of the same name. Check out his KCRW performance of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”:

Austin-based band Okkervil River is one band that is almost always described as literary, particularly due to their critically-acclaimed stand-out 2005 album Black Sheep Boy. Here is an excerpt of a review from Dusted:

Will Sheff’s lyrics garner acclaim for being “literary,” but simply writing one’s lyrics in prose form, as Sheff does, doesn’t quite make his songs worthy of Cliff Notes. What Sheff can do, and do very well, is nurture his images into believable symbols of greater girth, like when the grey, inert qualities of a rock become fodder for a jilted lover’s diatribe (“A Stone”) or the word real is ironically twisted into multiple, shifting meanings (“For Real”).

Will Sheff emphatically rejected the “bookish and literary” label ascribed to Okkervil River in a 2007 interview with The Believer, describing it classist and vaguely insulting to pop music.

“I don’t want to be some fop pretending to be a half-baked poet… I’m very happy that the New York Times wrote a big piece and called us “literary,” because it’s good to have somebody say something about you, but honestly I think it’s all bullshit. My favorite groups, whether it’s the Rolling Stones or Neil Young or the Shangri-Las, they don’t have anything “literary” about them. It’s like saying that comic books are good if they’re like paintings. In the end, it’s classist, you know? And all these bands that are trying to dignify themselves by coming across as literary are classist.”

I see Sheff’s point, but perhaps ‘literary’ can be considered as more of a descriptor rather than a definition. It is confining to smack a band into one particular category when there are multiple influences at play. Is there really anything detrimental in the ‘literary’ descriptor, when it seems only to augment the breadth of possible interpretations?

From a listener’s perspective, I hope that esoteric references to Russian literature and flowery language maintain their place in popular music. After all, I gotta pore over and over-analyze SOMETHING while listening to records.


playlist 9.20.11 xylophone, swedes + beirut giveaway

LANA DEL REY blue jeans (whoa, this video was uploaded on sept 9th and already has 380,000 views [definitely buoyed by how foxy del rey is]… what do you think, is it cool or is it a little too intentionally ‘indie’ aesthetic, feels a little contrived?)

THE ETTES you never say- wicked will

TY SEGALL my head explodes- goodbye bread

BLUE SKIES FOR BLACK HEARTS majoring in the arts- pdx pop now! 2011

ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI fright night- before today

NURSES fever dreams- dracula

ALEXANDER awake my body- alexander (listen to this song and try and stay in a bad mood. just try. NOT. POSSIBLE.) 

BSS PRESENTS KEVIN DREW safety bricks- spirit if…

AKRON/FAMILY light emerges

EL PERRO DEL MAR somebody’s baby- from the valley to the stars

JENS LEKMAN a promise- an argument with myself (performing at the california academy of sciences nightlife on september 29th… only twelve bucks, jens’ only SF show, get yer tickets now! cocktails, planetarium, and sweet swedish pop… what’s not to like?) 

OKKERVIL RIVER starry stairs- the stand-ins

STRFKR the wisdom of insecurity- japan 3.11.11 polyvinyl 

EL PERRO DEL MAR what do you expect- pale fire (Swedish chanteuse Sarah Assbring goes darkly electronic with this single from her 2012 release “Pale Fire”. “What Do You Expect” was inspired by the London Riots.)

OF MONTREAL sex karma (st. vincent remix)- japan 3.11.11

FOL CHEN in ruins (keepaway remix)

SMALL BLACK despicable dogs

THE HORRORS endless blue- skying

BEIRUT vagabond- the rip tide

CONGRATS GILBERT ON WINNING A PAIR OF TICKETS TO BEIRUT IN OAKLAND! have an amaaaaaaazing timeee with good ol’ zach condon & his brass-instrument toting troupe 

STARFUCKER reptilians-reptilians

TUNE-YARDS gangsta (cut chemist remix)- gangsta single(available for free download from 4AD… sick remix!)

GOLD PANDA marriage (star slinger remix)

TORO Y MOI all alone- freaking out

BSS romance to the grave- forgiveness rock record

SUFJAN STEVENS side d of ‘all delighted people’ vinyl, untitled piano tracks


playlist 09.13.11 8 bit + CSS giveaway

RADIOHEAD little by little (caribou remix) (oh mah gahhd whatta sick remix!) 

LITTLE DRAGON crystalfilm- ritual union

TWIN SISTER bad street (single)

NEON INDIAN polish girl- era extraña (just released… check out this futuristic vid)

OF MONTREAL sex karma (st. vincent remix)- japan 3.11.11 benefit

STARFUCKER bury us alive- reptilians

LYKKE LI i’m good i’m gone (metronomy remix)

M83 midnight city- hurry up we’re dreaming (out October 13th on Mute, streaming on Pitchfork)

ST. VINCENT surgeon- ritual union (out today! on 4AD)

THE TWELVES i feel fine

ZOMBY natalia’s song- dedication

FLYING LOTUS kill your co-workers- pattern + grid world

PIXIES where is my mind 8-bit remix (crafted by some dude in his basement haha.. but surprisingly good)

HORRORS still life- skying

CSS alala- cansai de ser sexy 

CSS giveaway at the Fillmore!!! Check out CSS’s new album, “La Liberación” on Sub Pop.

STS9 scheme- when the dust settles

METRONOMY the look (fred falke remix)

_ _ _ _______  theeemeee changeee________ _ _ _

FLAMING LIPS silver trembling hands- embryonic

BOB DYLAN oh sister- desire

FLEET FOXES sim sala bim- helplessness blues

FRUIT BATS so long- tripper

KURT VILE jesus fever- smoke ring for my halo

TY SEGALL my head explodes- goodbye bread

FLEET FOXES sun it rises- fleet foxes

BEACH HOUSE wedding bell- devotion

FEIST how come you never go there- metals

Two Two-Minute Ditties: Little Joy + Velvet Underground

Sometimes short can be sweet.

Little Joy’s self-titled 2008 debut has to be one of my favorite albums of the last few years, a rarity in a world of failed side-projects floundering in mediocrity. Little Joy is a trio comprised of three already-establised artists: Fabrizio Moretti (of the Strokes), Rodrigo Amarante (Los Hermanos), and Binki Shapiro. The Brazilian-American group named their band after a favorite cocktail haunt in LA… God, I wish I could hang out with them there,  so cool. I bet Fab’s ex Drew Barrymore meets up with them before they kick it at Devendra Banhart’s crumbling-but-charming bungalow. For further evidence check out their retro-cool video for “No One’s Better Sake”… that shrouded figure rattling shakers in the background is none other than freak-folk god Banhart.

ANYWAY, Little Joy is a kick ass album, apparently Nick Hornby (author of music-nerd bible High Fidelity) even voted it his favorite release of  ’08. SO GIVE IT A LISTEN if you haven’t already!

At just two minutes, “Unattainable” is a whisper of a song, you might miss it upon first listen.  But, wow, once you give this seemingly-simple track your attention it really has some substance. Binki Shapiro appears simultaneously innocent and jaded, sweetly singing of world-weary longing. It feels intimate, almost as if we listening to her inner dialogue expressing themes of loneliness and isolation.

This track reminds me of one of my favorite Velvet Underground songs, “After Hours,” the tenth song from their self-titled 1969 album. Drummer Maureen Tucker helms the vocals for this song, in a pure, almost child-like voice that addresses both hope and desperation (“drink a toast to never”… very upbeat, no?).

This fan vid stars Edie Sedgwick, Warhol muse and subject of Dylan’s “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat”. She is captivating, mysterious, and a little sad. A tragic beauty. Although I am not exactly Sedgwick fan Numero Uno (she strikes me as a bit obnoxious and attention-whorey), one cannot deny her sartorial influence and pop-culture clout. Here, she is both fragile and bruised, a not-so-innocent ingenue.

Complexity bubbles beneath a sweet veneer….

playlist 8.30.11- dark synth rainbow + kills giveaway

ST. VINCENT surgeon- strange mercy

GANG GANG DANCE glass jar- eye contact

ZOMBY natalia’s song- dedication

THOM YORKE cymbal rush (field late night remix)- the eraser rmxs

AIR FRANCE it feels good to be around you

HERE WE GO MAGIC mirror me- the january ep

FEIST how come you never go there- metals [NEW! FEIST! ‘Metals’ coming in October eee can’t wait]

RADIOHEAD bloom/ morning mr magpie- king of limbs

WASHED OUT you and i- within and without

WOODEN SHJIPS we ask you to ride

THE HORRORS endless blue- skying

TWIN SISTER bad street- bad street

BEST COAST our deal- crazy for you [Yo you seen the music vid for this song, directed by Drew Barrymore? West Side Story-style gang dance fight ya]

HANDSOME FURS what about us- sound kapital

YACHT tripped and fell in love- shangri-la

JOHN MAUS believe- we must become

ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI  round and round- before today

JOY DIVISION love will tear us apart- peel session 1979

THE KILLS heart is a beating drum- blod pressure

Congrats Mike on winning tickets to The Kills at the Fox Theater 9/9!!!

MALE BONDING tame the sun

LYKKE LI youth knows no pain- wounded rhymes

FRUIT BATS so long- tripper

CHAD VAN GAALEN red hot drops- stelliconnection [VanGallen does his own animation for his music videos… check out this vid from ’06! Pretty cool…]

MORNING BENDERS cold war (star slinger remix)- japan echo

Thanksss for listenin amigos.

Tuesdays 4-6 PM 103.3 FM/ KSCU.ORG