My brother Andrew’s band, The Yage Letters, has released their new album, and I am quite enjoying it, though it is actively designed not to be a commercial success in the traditional music industry. The songs are far too long. They have no lyrics. Their sound does not consist of a single musical hook that appears in the first few seconds. None of it would work on the radio, but it does permit a much greater freedom for experimentation and creativity. The multiple guitars and the broad range of dynamics produce a very layered sound, and the heavier sections, where the time signature is sometimes changed quite aggressively, lead musically from the quieter parts rather than just contrasting with them. I am not by any means an expert on music, but there is much that I appreciate in the album, and my sons seem to like it also.
The album has also reminded me of how difficult a relationship I have with lyrics generally. Whereas Andrew would argue that popular music is bad because of its predictable chord progressions, unimaginative verse-chorus structures, uninteresting melodies, and any number of other musical reasons, my dislike of popular music has to do primarily with its horribly cliche and insipid lyrics. There are certainly examples of music with interesting lyrics, of course. Anything by Bob Dylan will be good. There is a joint album by Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet called The Juliet Letters that I think is quite original lyrically. Simon and Garfunkel are usually good as well, though they tend to be overly romantic for my taste. There are others, certainly, but far too few.
I have coped with this lack in two ways. First, I have chosen genres where the lyrics are so established by tradition or are so secondary to the music that they are almost meant to be ignored in any case. This is a large part of my attraction to the blues. There are only so many times that you can hear the same lyrics sung before you stop listening to them as lyrics at all and start listening to them as mere vocalizations, something akin to scat. There is also a humour and a lack of polish to these kinds of lyrics that indicate clearly how seriously they are meant to be taken, a quality that much folk music has also. A certain amount of the musical interest in these genres is to be found precisely in seeing how different artists treat the same lyrics, in seeing how Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters sing the songs of Leadbelly or Robert Johnson or Mississippi John Hurt.
My second way of responding to bad lyrics has been a gravitation toward instrumental music. My first musical discovery was Jeff Becks’ Guitar Shop, which I stole from my Uncle Jack, and which I still play frequently, though it now sounds a little dated. This was my introduction to instrumental rock, a genre which was never as fully developed as it could have been, mostly because removing the vocals from most rock music would just reveal how musically inept it actually is.
In any case, Andrew’s new album has motivated me to see what other instrumental music there might be. I have already emailed Andrew about it, and he has sent me a list of post-rock artists that might be quiet enough for my delicate sensibilities. I have sent a similar email to several of my other musical friends, and I am interested to see what they might have to offer. So, I may as well make the question an open one. What are the essential instrumental albums in your opinion? My Christmas money awaits your suggestions.