A couple of years ago I had an idea for a regular column here. It started as an attempt to figure out why so many critically acclaimed bands did nothing for me. My intention was to document some sort of manifesto of what was missing in indie, namely an emphasis on traditional, emotional song craft in favor of obscurantism, deconstruction, and irony. I even had a great name for it, “The Audacity Of Hip.”
I eventually decided against doing the column because a) I’m lazy, b) I only had material for a handful of columns before I would start to repeat myself, and c) it was more negative than I wanted to be. Earmageddon notwithstanding, I’d much rather write about the good new music that inspires me – or, at the least, flawed but promising – than the sounds that leave me cold.
I’ve been thinking about that doomed column ever since last Saturday night, when I saw Julian Velard at Schubas, a small club here in Chicago. I learned about the 32-year old piano-based singer-songwriter last fall after Popdose Editor-In-Chief Jeff Giles interviewed him. That coincided nicely with his tour, which I saw (also at Schubas), and reviewed.
This time around, he didn’t do the full Mr. Saturday Night persona that I described because his “imaginary friend” Ryan Bull, who played guitar and triggered drum loops and sound effects crucial to the production, was unable to go on the road with him. It was just Velard and his keyboard doing a club show, not pretending to be streaming the show from his Brooklyn apartment, but it was still filled with his wonderful songs and stage presence.
But something he said from the stage surprised me. In talking about that last tour, he said that, of all the dates they did, the only show that connected with the audience was the one I attended, where it was pretty obvious to everybody what he was trying to do. He joked about several times during the night, but it was also obvious that it affected him.
Afterwards, he and I had a drink at the bar with some other fans he knew (including someone who had driven up from Indianapolis), and I pressed him for more details. He said that people didn’t seem to get the idea that it was, in his words, a “weird, absurdist musical,” and that when he read my review, he thought, “Finally, somebody gets it.”
Now, I didn’t write that to suggest that I’m blessed with brilliant insight that no other rock critic has (although i won’t stop any of you from saying it), but rather to return to my original point about the de-emphasis of craftsmanship in indie these days.
Velard is a throwback to a style of music whose peak popularity was between 1975 and 1984, and he’s neither unapologetic nor unironic about it. The Members Only section of his website features a gorgeous cover of Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” a song I never thought twice about, even though I heard it regularly growing up. I wouldn’t say he’s retro like, say, The Black Crowes, but rather that he’s a traditionalist who’s not concerned with breaking sonic ground.
So when Velard comes to town and the local paper’s music reviewer, who probably only knows Randy Newman from Pixar movies, Hall & Oates or Billy Joel as ironic punchlines, or the Great American Songbook from, God help us, Rod Stewart, the reasons for the poor reception become clear. But I, and many of my Popdose colleagues who have become smitten with Velard since reading Jeff’s review, are older, so it makes perfect sense to us.
If the across-all-platforms success of Adele – probably the closest we’ve had to a consensus of critical and popular acclaim in years – has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all starved for tunes. We want smart, emotional, melodic songs that speak to us. That might not be the hippest concept and won’t lead to a high rating at Pitchfork, but although tastes and styles may change, great songwriting is timeless.
I don’t think that Julian Velard would automatically be as popular as Adele even if he had the full power of a major label’s starmaking machinery behind it. There are far too many factors beyond an artist’s control that are involved in that process for me to say that. But I do know that we’ve fallen pretty far as a music-consuming society if we don’t know how to react to someone so rooted in classic songwriting techniques who delivers them in an engaging and entertaining fashion.