Genres are a hot mess. Not only do no two people agree on the parameters of particular genres, many genres are far too wide to be useful for classification (rock, alternative, pop could really mean almost anything…even something like punk could, in the end) which leads to splintering ad absurdum. Look at what Wikipedia, that bastion of crowdsourced wisdom, has for sub-genres within “techno”:
- Acid techno
- Detroit techno
- Free tekno
- Rave music
- Rotterdam techno
- Schranz / Hardtechno
- Symphonic techno
- Tecno brega
- Toytown Techno
- Yorkshire Techno
Let’s not even get into metal sub-genres.
And when you start adding in the prefixes, like “post-“, “dream-“, “noise-“, etc, you can create genre strings limited only by your creativity and attention span.
So That Brings Us To Glam
So why even mention a genre? Genres still have some value as shorthand among those who know what the genre is supposed to shorthand for. So, let me define my terms here. To me, and the way I shall always use it henceforth, “glam” means a showy, sleek, overtly sexual (in tone, if not always in content) style of rock, often with a bit of a sneer to it. Musically, they generally have very poppy melodies while utilizing crunchy guitar lines. A briefer description might be “theatrical, sexualized bubblegum rock.”
To me, the most obvious and classic example of glam is T.Rex. Another fine example is Queen. Mind, I’m not trying to provide a definition that would fit some universal idea of what glam is. Mine certainly at least resembles a popular conception of it, but it is purely my personal concept of glam. A major split from popular conceptions of glam is that I don’t include Bowie or Mott the Hoople, two bands that are considered “classic” examples. I don’t feel that they split enough from what I’d consider regular rock music to usefully define in another way. I do feel that bands like T.Rex or Queen or Sweet differ enough, and have a similar enough sound to usefully group together with a label.
What’s Old Is New Again
Glam is not a very common influence on a broad section of current indie rock/pop. Certainly, you have some bands like the Scissor Sisters or even Mika (who isn’t really glam, but seems clearly to bring some elements of it to his music), but they are far from the norm. Glam is generally seen as more of a camp factor these days, not something to pursue seriously.
The result is that when a band does take it seriously (as opposed to ironically), it sounds awfully fresh and distinctive. The Smith Westerns don’t take the route of the Scissor Sisters, who were basically an homage act to the gender-bending showiness of glam artists in the ’70s. The Smith Westerns, on 2011’s Dye It Blonde, take the guitar hero bravado of Marc Bolan (and his vocal style in many ways) in his Electric Warrior days and fuse it to the garage/indie stylings that they dabbled in over the course of their self-titled debut from 2009.
While their interest in glam was evident on their debut, they sounded (again, both musically and vocally) like kids bashing out pop tunes. Which was fantastic. Kids should bash out pop tunes, when the songs are as catchy as their early offerings.
However, on their latest album, they sound like adults who know how to infuse sexuality into music and produce it to a bright sheen. None of this sounds like overly produced, processed music. It sounds fresh and pops out of the speakers. But there is a lot to be said for taking a scalpel and honing the hooks (both vocal and guitar-driven) to a razor sharpness. There’s a lot going on in each song, but that’s due to layers not lo-fi distractions. And I say that as a huge fan of noise pop and lo-fi rock. Some music was meant to be clean and sharp.
Every song has an anthemic sound to it. Not in the U2 sense of crooning epics that arena crowds should be rhythmically waving their arms to. Instead, each song sounds like it could be the theme to the best night of your life. The night where you drink to a pleasurable haze, drive around with friends, hook up with someone and fall asleep in their bed. Every song is immediately accessible and catchy, yet with enough musical complexity to stand up to repeat listening. It’s the classic “summer album,” the album that could define a summer of your life.
The vocals distill into a sound the mature earnestness of youth that wants simple things and is happy in that centeredness. It’s really pretty remarkable. The guitars actually do different things, depending on the song. Often they’re crunchy, but at times they jangle, chime and whine. Lovely piano bits intermix with the guitars and drums at times.
This is an album of exquisite musical richness and complexity that is about the simple mythos of youth. Very few people experience the hedonistic simplicity of drinking with friends, having sex and letting tomorrow take of itself, nor is it always a warm summer night when you’re young. But the genius of this album is that it almost feels true.