Record collections are littered with often vaguely embarrassing, occasionally downright cringe-worthy reminders of things that seemed like a good idea at the time. I sometimes talk about what I like to call the “Muffin Syndrome,” something I first noticed among my peers in high school when they were obviously pained to have to “introduce” me to aging pets they’d given embarrassing names to as toddlers: Muffin, Mr. Raffles, etc. Well, it’s the same thing with records.
Even classic rock ain’t what it used to be. Lately these stations that once made the so-called timeless appeal of the Guess Who and Blood, Sweat and Tears their stock in trade have been updating their catalogue from the back end at the rate of five years for every one year that has elapsed in real time. Last time I checked, Pearl Jam and the Gin Blossoms were in classic rock rotation, which brings us—in classic rock time—at least to the middle of a decade that expired just last year. I cringe at the thought that “rap-rock,” a horrid miscegenation that’s currently one of the few items mainstream rock has got to sell, will in just a few years be shown into the musty halls of the classic rock repository.
No one should have to feel too embarrassed about anything they’ve ever enjoyed listening to—after all, we’ve all got the equivalent of a Flock of Seagulls in our respective closets. But some damn kinds of music, like “rap-rock,” have always struck me as such misbegotten bad ideas that they should have been recognized as such even at the time: Whoever came up with the idea of “thrash-funk,” I ask you, and what could possibly have been going through his mind?
Revivals—ska, swing, and so forth—come and go. New generations add their own stamp to familiar sounds, ideally with enough restraint to prevent the new version from oxidizing too quickly once the revival wave has crested. Nothing comes from nothing, though, and willful attempts to cobble a new sound out of pre-existing genres have a way of exciting momentarily before either collapsing under the weight of their own pretensions or becoming so watered down by imitators that little or nothing of the original juice remains. Consider the jazz-rock fusion of the early 1970s, a genre that I personally love but feel sheepish for loving and on behalf of which I often feel obliged to take apologetic stands for the transgressions of Pat Metheny and Kenny G. Where does a guy go to exult publicly in his fondness for the Mahavishnu Orchestra without being held at least partly accountable for Spyro Gyra?
Most bands, as it turns out, fall somewhere between the twin evils of slavish imitation and stunning originality on the influence spectrum. With so many bands out there and so many intriguing but historically isolated regional spurs on the rock ’n’ roll railway, it’s pretty much impossible to say with any confidence who’s been influenced by what and to what degree, even when everyone hails from the same general neck of the woods. About the best a reviewer can do is hazard a guess as to what kind of music the band members grew up hearing and later sought out on purpose; the ugly truth of the matter is that the reviewer’s findings are usually as unexciting as they are arbitrary.
Portland’s Cow Trippers are one of those bands who, consarnit!, just do not want to lie down in any particular category. More importantly, they will not be shamed into disavowing any particular part of what is obviously a checkered musical past. One song is going to be a minor-key hoedown, and the very next a molten plug of Sabbath-worshipping metal that hovers between radio-friendly ‘90s arena rock and the regional color of Port Townsend’s My Name. There seems to be a lot of talent brought to bear on the five songs included on their recent Homogenized EP. How does “eclectic” on record translate to “engaging” in concert? To judge by these five songs, just winningly off the mark.
Portland’s Cow Trippers do their ruminating Friday night at Jay’s Upstairs. Cover TBA.