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O rocker, where art thou?

How the Coen Brothers killed one genre and injured another


Men of constant sorrow: George Clooney and company usher in an era of faux mountain music for urban latte-sippers.
  • Men of constant sorrow: George Clooney and company usher in an era of faux mountain music for urban latte-sippers.

The Coen brothers are to rock what Nirvana was to hair metal — its cold-blooded executioners. T Bone Burnett's soundtrack to their 2000 movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the crowbar to the kidneys that crippled rock 'n' roll. Moments later, beardos in drab pallbearer-wear descended on rock's prostrate body, stomping out its lights on the way to Milk Bar, the nearby fair trade/all-organic coffee shop.

Only three mainstream rock artists have survived the carnage. Dave Grohl, Jack White and Dan Auerbach are pretty much all that's left from the zombie string-band apocalypse. (Sadly, Billy Corgan was devoured by his own ego.) Opportunities to repopulate rock are hindered by the fact that musically inclined 16-year-old boys these days are more prone to pick up a banjo than a guitar.

As we approach the 15th anniversary of the Oscar-nominated film that birthed the Grammy-winning Album of the Year, let's take a moment to appreciate this pivotal moment in the bifurcation of contemporary music. Because today, if you aren't busting rhymes over laptop beats, you go out and get yourself some overalls and the featured hat at Amish Wearhouse.

Somewhere along the line, someone confused old-fashioned for authentic. Of course, some things are both, such as porcelain miniatures and racism. But playing mountain music for latté-sipping urban-dwellers, as they escape the anomie of modern life, is like hoping to see the world by traveling to Club Med. It's as authentic as those Western flats where you stick your head through the hole for a funny picture. Someday, kids will find the old band photos and ask how dad could be a farmer when he's lived in Brooklyn his whole life.

While it's easy to see the allure of a "simpler time," we're personally very much in favor of indoor plumbing and foaming bubbles. But feel free to head down to the river and beat your shirt clean with those rocks.

My quarrel isn't with the rebirth of roots music — rebranded Americana® — so much as it is with the wholesale train-jumping by an entire generation of musicians. Over the last 15 years, we've watched as artisanal beard-farmers replaced rock with this backwoods sound while, by and large, failing to appreciate the source material in the manner of Pete Townshend and Peter Green when they sold the blues back to us during the British Invasion. For every genuine lover of Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, there are two dozen guys who thought it'd be edgy if they all wore the same hat.

In the process, they've banished rock's sexy swagger in favor of dour self-consciousness, overwrought longing and occasional bursts of "Kumbaya," or whatever it is Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers are singing. Not since Enigma's Gregorian chants topped the music charts in 1990 has the state of guitar music seemed so dire.

And really, what for? So John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson and George Clooney could pause their prison break/road movie to record a Zelig-like '30s hit country-blues single, providing the deus ex machina that ultimately earns them full pardons during a full-on Frank Capra ending? That ridiculous ending's why we have to endure caterwauling, flat-picking 20-somethings?

Short of poisoning their beard and mustache pomade, there's little to be done but wait for the sexless nostalgists to die off. Already you can see hints that blue-eyed and Southern soul are pushing back as middle-class white kids look for another culture to expropriate. Of course, that isn't much succor for rock lovers who find the ranks growing thinner than Donald Trump's "hair."

Maybe one day Lucero, Drive-By Truckers, Titus Andronicus and perhaps even Canada's Fucked Up will push back the door, letting guitar aggression return from its black metal exile and reunite with its hook-laden roar. But that's hardly comfort to those pulling into Nazareth half-past bored to death by another cover of The Band's "The Weight."

Try to pity them. They clearly know not what they do, or even how to do it very well.

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