A pretty cool year for retro

Joe Shearer

Yeah, yeah. you’ve all heard enough about The White Stripes and Amy Winehouse in 2007.

And a lot of you are understandably sick of the retro big bang caused in large part by the Strokes’ 2001 debut album, Is This It.

But I think last year was a great year for the retro music thing, and let me tell you why: The scene is finally starting to get that what makes great music isn’t copying what others have done, but instead building on it.

Let’s start with what you know. The White Stripes bounced back after a disappointing fifth album and released its best and most powerful album to date, Icky Thump. The band learned it could rock out and experiment at the same time, and although it’s no London Calling, there’s the promise of good things to come.

Then, many of us were introduced to Amy Winehouse. You didn’t want to like her. I mean you really didn’t want to like her (OK, maybe it’s just me), but you have to hand it to the rehab-bound performer. Her sophomore effort, Back to Black, is a cool hybrid of Motown and ’60s girl groups injected with a healthy dose of modern beats. So even though the drugs, stringy hair, tattoos and strange, jerky movements on stage may turn you off, you can bypass all of that and simply listen to the disc. Cool.

And so we move on to those songs you heard on TV or radio, but didn’t know the artist. Scottish band The Fratellis’ debut album, Costello Music, yielded a couple of catchy advertising hits in “Flathead” and the riotous “Chelsea Dagger,” but the rest of the album is also pretty interesting. Other than the obvious punk influence, there’s a little bit of ska, country and even some whistling.

Speaking of whistling, it seems to be in style right now thanks to Swedish rockers Peter Bjorn and John’s surprise hit, “Young Folks,” another advertising super song. Like The Fratellis, this band also has another “commercial” song, “Up Against the Wall,” which is used in that annoying Levi’s commercial where the guy pulls up his pants and annihilates his apartment complex. Do girls really find this sort of thing hot or something? I’ll have to get on that.

All jokes aside, this was definitely the year for retro women. While Amy Winehouse was receiving all of the hype and press, sister duo The Pierces was releasing its third album, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge, a collection of dark, tongue-in-cheek tunes fused with psychedelic vibes and modern pop.

Luckily for the sisters (and really, for anyone who likes good, creative pop music), they caught an odd break when asked to play a couple of songs on the teen-drama “Gossip Girl.” I know what you’re thinking: “How good can it be if it’s on a show that follows teen sexcapades?” To you I say listen to “Lights On” or “Secret” on the group’s MySpace page. If you’re not at the very least intrigued, there’s nothing I can do for you.

I’d have to say the finest debut of the year goes to Nicole Atkins and the Sea and its album, Neptune City. Front woman Nicole Atkins’ longing, mesmerizing vocals have the uncanny ability to trap the listener and cover him or her in an array of goose bumps, and the echoey movie-like guitars and string arrangements make for a surreal experience. However, don’t take my word for it. For a full-blown introduction of the band, go to YouTube and check out its performance of “The Way it is” on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”

While talking with Atkins last year, she told me Mary Weiss of ’60s girl group the Shangri-Las emailed her after the show telling her how much she liked the performance. If that’s not retro cred, I don’t know what is.

I could go on about how 2007 was a great year for retro music, and music in general. With matching polka-dot dresses, British girl group The Pipettes revived what else: ’60s girl groups. Shivaree (whose song “Goodnight Moon” is used in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 2) released a clever cover album containing hip renditions of songs by Michael Jackson, Phil Spector and Chuck Berry.

The good news is that one of the best retro albums of late hasn’t even hit stateside. The Raveonettes fourth and best release, Lust Lust Lust, is due to hit stores in mid-February, and let me tell you, this piece of work is all retro music should strive to be. It’s a sexy collision of past and present, filled with electronic samples and surf guitars.

Until then, take comfort in the idea that these bands toying with garage rock, surf rock, new wave and so on is actually giving us a reason to take them seriously. No longer are they living in the shadows of the ones they idolize. After years of repetition, some of them are finally learning how to use their wings and fly from the nest.

Joe Shearer is a senior magazine journalism major and an all reporter for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].