Who Shall Pass
Comparing Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass and Bright Eye’s Cassadaga
Technology has changed the trajectory of the musician’s career. There are fewer and fewer avenues to pursue a career in the vast ocean of bands, artists, rappers, acoustic folk singers and other musical explorers. Though it easier to reach people all over the world in terms of technology and availability there are a great deal more options for the potential audience to sift through. Take into account the homogenization and hybridizations of musical genres, fair-weather bands and just plain garbage and there isn’t a chance in hell your music is going to be considered let alone heard by any significant audience. To have a career at all, to actually make money of your craft is an accomplishment worthy of acknowledgement. To do all of this with out the aid of hundreds of thousands of dollars and a team of people working behind you all day, every day is even more of an accomplishment. The success of independent artists in today’s watered down music economy where every dollar counts are seemingly unfathomable.
Of course there are a lot of advantages to being an independent artist. There are less hands in the coffers, you can actually focus on the quality of your art and control who it is presented to the public. The model of large corporations seems to be going by the way side faster then the Compact Disc format they made the center of their business model in favor of independence. The work still needs to get done and the ultimate payoff may leave you broken and busted, but it’s better to make music on your own terms then those of a corporation who has a variety of business in their portfolio isn’t it?
Growing through these new muddy waters of the music industry we begin to see new models of success that appear to be working. Aesop Rock, hip hop artist from New York and Bright Eye’s Connor Oberst of Omaha, Nebraska come from two very different parts of the United States, employ two distinct aesthetic presentations and are both emerging from the seas of musical mud to international acclaim. Both artists released albums this year following several years of praise and anticipation. Bright Eyes, following tours with Bruce Springsteen, singing protest songs on Jay Lenoand releasing Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning in 2005 presented the world with Cassadaga. Aesop Rock, who followed up his indie classic Labor Days in 2003 with Bazooka Tooth has spent the last four years touring with Def Jux label CEO EL-P, making guest appearances with Del the Funky Homosapien and Prefuse 73, dropping a 45 minute instrumental oddesy for Nike and helped artists Jeremy Fish release a children’s book complete with a 7” dropped the None Shall Pass full length in the laps of an awaiting public this August.
Both of these artists have spent the better part of their twenties touring continually, gaining an audience as the go and making albums that are not only critically acclaimed but also becoming more and more popular as the years pass. As both of these artists move into their thirties, their youthful and energetic accomplisments set with much praise, the anticipation of what they do as they enter a new decade of their lives mounts at their feet. Do they continue to trod down the paths they have cut clear and enjoy a modest, and most likely declining carrer or do they continue to experiment with their chosen genre in hopes their fans come along for the ride. After all the public is fickle, too much straying from the sounds and styles that make the artist and the fans abandon them, too much stagnation and people begin to wonder if you ever had it in the first place. Of course there is always the problem of being accused of selling out (the deffinitions of which vary vastily between hip hop and indie rock) for any decission you make as an artist, be it stylistic changes, buisness moves or unions made with other artists. In this highly fickle, muddled music buying contingent, maintaining artistic integrity and a fan base of support are nearly impossible.
What can be said about both Bright Eye’s Cassadaga and Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass is that these albums place in their respective artist’s career come at a time when they are established, great things are expected of them and the impact of these albums on both artists career and the musical landscape is not very clear.
Aesop Rock resides on the label Definitive Jux, run by the enterprising El-P who have defined independent hip hop. In their 8 year existance they have emerged as one of the largest, most well known independent hip hop labels, boasting El-P, Mr. Lif and the critically acclaimed Canibal Ox, along with Aesop Rock. Def Jux has branded it self well not only amongst independent hip hop culture but independent music gaining accolades and coverage from several online journals and traditional music magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. No longer are their albums relegated to the reviews of regional alternative weekly rags or are their artists hussling CD’s on the streets of New York. Aesop Rock and Def Jux with him have emerged as a major part of hip hop culture.
Aesop Rock himself has had quite the career, first putting out his own music and then issuing the Float album on the small independent Mush Records. In 2001, Aesop Rock gave the public Labor Days, a 14 track album that has received favoral critical response, and established Aesop Rock in the underground hip hop culture. An album of light, flowing beats and music, Aesop Rock was exploring the every-person work day, throwing in some notes of hope along the way. Over all Labor Day was optimistic, if only because the music gave the listener a little bit of hope as he copes with the idea of the monotony of his day. 2003 saw the release of Bazooka Tooth a semi concept album about an anti-hero who shoots bullets and missiles when he speaks. Paranoia and anxiety were expressed in language that adopted the populace of video game culture, media lexicon used to express fear and story telling over harsh sounds and cutting beats. Aesop Rock laid his rappid fire flow over beats that were rigid creating a fretful listening experience. Aesop Rock proved he had command of his skills and the ability to articulate complex ideas with power, humor and empathy.
None Shall Pass finds Aesop Rock somewhere between these two albums. While he still continues to be skeptical the music over all is much more suited for a party then a dratic post-apocolyptical film. While Aesop Rock finds himself between these two very different sounds, there is certainly no sense of an identity crisis even when it feels like the music and concepts are not fully realized. Aesop Rock is a master of his craft when he is at his best and when he falls short of that he is still interesting and intricate. The title track is easily as accessible and masterful combination of music and lyrics he’s ever had. On the track “Bring Back Pluto” he uses humor and wit to weave a song about growing up and wondering what other giant things are going to change. This is where we find Aesop Rock at the moment. He’s no longer a young man, there are obligations to be met, standards to hold one self to and even a sense and need to be accepted by your peers. Yet he manages to meet all these challenges in his music and poetry with masterful insight.
The album overall is a bit long winded and in need of a little trimming along the middle. One or two of the tracks could have been cut. “Guns for the Whole Family” seems erroneous and sounds more like an outake from Bazooka Tooth. In exchange it would be favorable to add the hidden song “Pigs” as the proper album ender, where my only other major bone of contention falls. The last listed track “Coffee” is a thumping, rock inspired, fist pumping tune that scoarches well and is even augmented favorably by a verse sung by The Mountain Goat’s John Darnielle. The abrupt ending of the track sounds awkward however followed by five minutes of silence before “Pigs” picks up properly. The song serves as a perfect end note for a very noteable album, but the continuity would improve the over all impact this album has.
None Shall Pass is a favorable accomplishment for Aesop Rock but it is not a clear indication of the trajectory of his future. It suffers the pitfall of being a bit too verbose and fatty, an attribute that can be assigned to many albums that serve as the midway point for many great artists. All the ingredients are there though for continual interest from the public as it is proof positive that Aesop Rock is not going to rest on the success of his past accomplishments. There is enough familiarity in the substance to allow for the listener to have reference and an equal amount of ingenuity to keep the audience intirgued about what might comes next.
Much like Aesop Rock, Bright Eyes is a central part of the Saddle Creek lable. Saddle Creek was built around a group of musicians from Omaha, Nebraska, modeling themselves on other community based lables like Dischord. Saddle Creek released the music of Omaha, Nebreska made by a core group of friends. Through constant touring, dedication to the lable and a lot of growing press Saddle Creek has also grown into a model of success in the independet music world. Like Def Jux they serve as a model for buisness and integrity, building the career of the artists they release, relying not on slick marketing or competing for limited radio air play. Instead they invest in their bands and ensure that great art is being made first. There is an understanding that it is not how music is marketed, but how it affects the listener that is important.
Conner Oberst is the brain child of Bright Eyes, a project born out of four track tapes made in living rooms and basements. Gaining notice with Fevers and Mirrors within the indie rock culture, Connor Oberst followed the interest with the orchestraly rich, if slightly dramatic Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. A little bit of overzealous medial attention and sensational journalism put the spotlight on Oberst and his beautiful, painful, self depricating and indulgent music. Speculation over who this young man was and what he may or may not being doing to himself for a time overshadowed the fact that he was making art that was not only intense and deep and dark but also very well constructed and presented. All of this on an independent lable started in middle america, a place not even considered by the New York and Los Angeles record executives.
With the attention fully focused on him, Connor Oberst headed for New York, gathered up some friends and released two albums in 2005. The critically hearald I’m Wide Awake, it’s Morning showcased the roots inspired craft Bright Eyes had hinted at through it’s career, but stripped it down some from the presentation Lifted gave audiences. The grossly underrated Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was a futuristic inspired rock record, complete with computer samples and Philip K. Dick imagery. A spot on the Vote for Change tour before the albums release saw Oberst teaming up with Bruce Springsteen as support and even a few duets here and there. Media attention continued when he performed the folk inspired song “When the President Talks to Go” on the Tonight Show. A solid year of touring left everyone wondering if Connor had any more in him.
In 2006 it was announced that Connor was taking his time crafting his next album. He spent time in New York, Omaha and Portland writing and recording. Reports came out that he was enlisting the help from many differnt people in the indie rock community including Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and Merge Record recording artist M.Ward. Much like Aesop Rock, speculation and expectations for this album that was to become Cassadaga were fervent and nearly unrealistic.
For all it’s anticipation Cassadaga appears to have been unfairly forgotten in the fast moving music culture. The rich, orchestration is reminicent of Lifted but has the budget, time and focus to be more fully realized. This is no shoe-string budget, fly by the seat of the pants opperation of the past. Cassadaga is big, really really big in fact. So big that there is a lot to take in.
Cassadaga also sees Oberst trading in both the youthful angst and twenty-somethings wrecklessness for some wiser, somewhat cynical insight. No longer is Connor waking up on the bathroom floor (although he is near drowing in the tub still, but at least now there is someone some what more stable to pick him up) drunk on wine. Nor is he hysterically crying over the highschool girl who serves as an unbroken fixation. It is this entering into adulthood that begins to give Cassadaga some of it’s complexities and makes it troublesome. There is no burning wreckage on this album, but much like Aesop Rock, Oberst is able to utilize the wisdom learned from too many nights on the bathroom floor to his advantage. He isn’t looking back in fondness to his days of uncertainty, instead he is becoming comfortable with the lessons he learned and the world he has found.
Cassadaga has even less clear a position in the Bright Eyes cannon then Aesop Rock’s None Shall Pass. It is easy to imagine this album in the future being a defining moment in Bright Eyes career. The fact is, this album has more to offer over time and more secrets to uncover. It’s by no means an easy record to pinpoint which I am sure left many reviewers scratching their heads, especially faced with increasingly tight deadlines and piles and piles of unheard bands CD’s laying by their desks. No, Cassadaga has not fully left it’s footprint and will be an album that reveals itself more and more with each listen. Songs will emerge from this album as brilliant that were overlooked when first heard.
Bright Eyes and Aesop Rock have done something very important for their respective audiences. They have created quandries, challenged them to join them in as they grow artistically. They have both made uncompromising works of art, larger and grander then all previous work at the expense of alienating and audience. They have put art before everything else, which is what an artist is supposed to to. Most importantly they have done it on their own terms, without the approval or support of mainstream business. While they may not have created recordbreaking sales upon release they have secured a position the will allow them to continue to make are and be considered seriously. While the market is tightening it’s reins, looking for the cheapest, quickest way to make a dollar and compete for capital, Aesop Rock and Bright Eyes have created complex works that will far outlast the weekly sales figures that will ultimately be the death blow of a fading industry.