Marnie Stern is an American musician, singer-songwriter, and guitarist. She has garnered acclaim for her technical skill and tapping style of guitar playing. She currently resides in New York City with her dog Fig. You can follow her on Twitter here.
I keep the radio in my bathroom tuned to the classic rock station so that when I get in the shower, I can have some fun listening to familiar stuff. In a way it’s a guilty pleasure, because I don’t really have to concentrate. I’m not letting in anything new. Everything is familiar. And maybe in that way, it’s bad for me, kind of like watching Con Air on TV when you cook dinner. Anyway, when a song I don’t like comes on, I say boo out loud. When I like it, I sing and try to find harmonies.
Repetition plays a huge role in our nostalgia and attachment to music, and I’ve been listening to these songs on the radio forever. So it’s strange to listen to a new classic rock record and have no nostalgic attachments to it. Things are familiar, but they don’t sound as good. Probably part of my dissociation is with the tone. I’ve gotten into a lot of discussions over the years with bands about tone in music, and how pivotal of a role it plays. I’m used to cringing at certain synthetic tones, or laughing at the gaudy compression that denotes major label involvement.
I’ve never been a huge Boston fan. I’ve always liked “More Than a Feeling,” but I’ve never really thought about them much. I’ve just heard their hits and knew them from constant classic rock airplay. But here I am, listening to their new album Life, Love & Hope, their first album in 11 years and also their first since the death of singer Brad Delp (though he recorded some vocals for the album before his 2007 suicide). Amazingly, even though Boston’s self-titled debut came out in 1976, Life, Love & Hope is only their sixth album.
There are so many parts of this record that I like, but it reminds me that the entire song has to work as one whole breathing unit and can’t survive on just its parts alone. What I mean is, there are interesting guitar parts, pretty vocal lines and moody transitions. But they don’t sit well as a complete album. Now, this is probably because Tom Scholz (Boston’s main guitar player, producer and overall sonic mastermind) has had a bunch of ideas brewing since their last record. Still, they don’t seem unified.
The opening track “Heaven on Earth” has a bit of a Jefferson Starship feel vocally; this is even softer rock than the soft-rock they perfected on “More Than a Feeling.” Some of these tracks have the bittersweet chord progression Peter Gabriel used on “In Your Eyes.” I don’t know what it says about me that I don’t hate this, though it’s a bit manipulative. But again, these are just effective parts. Also, as far as the tone goes, it reminds me of Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf.
But it’s not all ballady stuff. The third track, “Last Day of School,” is an instrumental that belongs in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. If you replaced it with the actual song that’s in that movie when they go to the future world to talk to George Carlin, I wouldn’t know the difference. For this reason, I like it.
I’ve never thought about Tom Scholz very much. I think he’s a really good musician. But I like freaking out and he doesn’t do much of that; every song and album he makes has clearly been endlessly fussed over. But he is really great at fussing over things and he has a pile of platinum records to prove it.
Some of the songs could do without some of the wanky guitar flourishes that follow the vocal melody, which is ironic coming from me, I know. But overall, I am reticent to criticize this album, because I have fears about staying relevant every day. The further away I get from the pulse of my youth, and the creative storm that comes with it, the more disconnected I feel. At the same time, I don’t want to be the aging hipster at the club who is desperate to stay in the know. Trends come and go and if you aren’t a fan of the current trend, there’s no reason why you should adapt to it just because it’s popular. So I think a band like Boston should just continue to make the music that they like. If it’s fulfilling them creatively, that’s really great. I worry about staying relevant in music, so I respect anyone who finds a way to keep doing it, even if it that means they’re basically repeating themselves.
But I’ve been wondering a lot lately: Can you get older and still make creative leaps in rock music? I don’t know. I’m hard pressed to think of many examples of rock bands that have been around for decades and are pushing the creative envelope. The Flaming Lips and Frank Zappa come to mind. But they are (were) experimental artists. I’m not talking about a band making an interesting reccord showcasing what they do well, I’m talking about a big switcharoo from a rock band that pushes the creative landscape forward by contributing new and fresh ideas. I know that’s a very, very broad and probably ignorant statement, so if anyone can set me straight, I’d be happy to hear it.