We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the perfume samples that inadvertently leave our fingertips smelling like a soap factory is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, the challenge of describing our favorite bands to the people around us.
Zach Rowe writes: "In one week this summer, my wife and I are going to three concerts: Dawes, The Lone Bellow and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down. People who don't know these bands have asked me what kind of music they play. Dawes, folk-rock; The Lone Bellow, country-soul; Thao, I have no idea. None of these titles seem to be particularly helpful, though, and the word 'alternative' means almost nothing. What do you say in a similar situation?"
You are absolutely right about the word "alternative" — when you start to suspect that a term has been warped into nothingness, it's usually wise to chase that feeling. "Alternative," like "indie" or "hipster," can provoke reflexive disdain, and doesn't evoke a sound or give anyone a reason to care. And what we're really talking about is just that: giving your friends a reason to seek out the bands you like.
Think of talking about your favorite bands the way you'd think of any persuasive argument, and start by asking, "Why should people care?" In the case of music, interrogate yourself a little bit: "Why do I like it? What does it evoke in me, or say to me? Why does it matter?" It's fine to say that Dawes plays bittersweet Southern California folk-rock with smart, personal lyrics; that's a perfectly apt description. But why do you like it, specifically? Maybe it's the energy and passion of the live shows, or an ability to mix energetic barroom rock 'n' roll with a thoughtful ballad like "A Little Bit of Everything," which actually aims to break down the meaning of life. For many fans and many bands — certainly for the ones you describe — talking about music isn't that far removed from talking about feelings.
Speaking of the phrase "a little bit of everything," you want to shy away from generalities when you describe your tastes in music — even if you do actually feel notionally open to music in all its forms. It's okay to be a little self-effacing: I often joke that my favorite music involves a bearded man singing about his feelings with an acoustic guitar while a woman from Portland plays the cello. Only a vanishingly tiny percentage of my favorite bands actually fit that bill — it's basically Horse Feathers, Blind Pilot and a couple others — but the description opens a window to a style that often speaks to me.
Getting back to Dawes, The Lone Bellow and Thao, all three don't fall too terribly far from the folk-rock family tree, so you can certainly start with that term. But, having already touched on Dawes, I'd describe The Lone Bellow and Thao based on their distinct ways of presenting songs. The Lone Bellow is sort of vein-bulgingly earnest, with boy-girl singers who dig for intense emotions; the result feels like The Civil Wars singing with the intensity of a Glen Hansard. (Yeah, it's fine, within reason, to throw out comparisons as shorthand. The important thing is to persuade.) Meanwhile, Thao is about live-wire energy, and about the kind of jagged precision and intelligence she brings to music that's catchy but a little strange, and always unpredictable.
The important thing here is to bait the hook with something alluring enough to give people who might like the music a reason to bite. The worst that can happen has nothing to do with others disliking your favorite bands; it's your friends opting never to listen to them in the first place.
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