I was strangely disappointed, upon learning that the band the Academy Is (formerly known as simply the Academy) were going to be showcased on M2 as a hot, new band. Of all the artists that I’ve reviewed, I think they might have been the most forgettable, a generic emo-rock band incapable of coming up with any melody or idea that hadn’t been done a thousand times before.
As this knowledge sunk in, I began thinking about those rare occasions where I had the pleasure of reviewing something that I felt was truly great, and how those releases never seemed to pan out. Marianne Faithfull’s Before the Poison failed to reach a single year’s best list, and Robyn Hitchcock’s gorgeous alt-country album Spooked came and went like it never even was released. Where was the iPod commercial featuring Jennifer Gentle’s bizarre and brilliant pop oddity “I Do Dream You”? Why hadn’t even the general indie press given any notice to Nanook of the North’s The Taby Tapes or even given a shout-out to Postal Blue’s melancholy bossa-nova inspired ballads? For the first time, I wondered if some strange prejudices were deceiving me about the quality of the music I was listening to, and I began to wonder if I were giving people inflated impressions.
If there’s one band that I’ve found myself liking and praising more than my head tells me to, it’s New York City’s Witnesses. I praise their every release like it’s the second (or sixteenth) coming of straight-forward rock and roll, even though a part of me tells me that they really aren’t any more imaginative than the Academy Is. Sure, there’s some great rock songs on Black Eyes and White Lies, but are they really that good? Aren’t they just another New York rock and roll act with a female singer and a barrage of old school riffs? On my third evaluation of their talents, shouldn’t I just lay low and damn them with faint praise?
Fortunately for me, Black Eyes and White Lies is such a powerful record, an incredible leap from their debut Tunnel Vision, that it dispelled any of my doubts about the Witnesses’ worth. While commenting on their early releases, I think I liked the Witnesses because I wanted to like the Witnesses. On the new album, the band takes their glam/grunge sound and applies it to material that matches its image, and even occasionally works a little outside their relatively narrow niche. “Be Straight with Me” starts with a long, ecstatic guitar solo designed to piss off anyone who was looking for a punk/post-punk band, as the extended song goes into refreshingly uncool classic rock detours. Better still is the terse, keyboard driven “Stockholm Syndrome” where Bonnie Bloomgarden switches tone from high speed rawk into beautiful, midtempo paranoia. Her vocals also fuel the similarly moody “Rocks” and “Dead Wood”, which provide a more varied pop landscape for the Witnesses.
Still, the Witnesses, at their heart, are all about pure rock and roll, which is aided by the fact that they have a male/female vocal pair with Bloomgarden and guitarist Oakley Munson that somehow survives comparisons to John Doe and Exene Cervenka. The Witnesses debuted “Hard Up” on a limited edition eponymous EP last year, but the track works even better as the zero-to-a-hundred opening blast, the lyrics are standard boy-girl stuff, and I’m sure you could name thousands of other songs that followed the same basic pattern, but when Bloomgarden and Munson come together on the chorus, the song becomes so big and powerful that it can’t be written off as old hat.
In fact, to call the Witnesses “old hat” would be tantamount to calling rock music “old hat”. Then again, that may be an apt phrase to use in describing rock music. I don’t think I’ve had a single conversation about music when I didn’t mention that rock and roll, as a popular media, is dying, and that fairly soon it will mainly be listened to by devoted followers, much like jazz is today. I don’t want to believe it, my heart doesn’t believe it, but I fear that it’s due to happen fairly soon, perhaps within a decade or so. Certainly rock music will transform into something else, and survive in its mutated form (much like what happened to Rhythm & Blues, although hopefully not as sad and pathetic). Again this is what my head believes, but when the Witnesses start it describing a “Summer of Blood”, my heart refuses to believe it. My heart tells me there’s still something vital about listening to a group of young people play electric guitars and scream into a microphone about love and partying, but mostly nothing in particular.
Am I allowing myself to be duped again by the Witnesses? Should I just concede the remaining history of rock music to the freeze-dried, tuneless, and unforgivably ignorable likes of the Academy Is, Fall Out Boy, and All-American Rejects, like how the jazz lovers just frowned and turned off the radio with the advent of smooth jazz? I don’t know right now, and I don’t care. “Summer of Blood” is blasting from my speakers and I absolutely love it, and that, not Billboard chart positions or mentions in Rolling Stone or Magnet or even PopMatters, is what matters, when it comes down to it.