Some of the best lyricists in American music today are laboring in blue-collar rock’n’roll bands where the words often get buried in muddy sound mixes made worse by the bad acoustics of most modern rock clubs. I’m not the only one who goes to these live shows, only to be frustrated that the lyrics, one of the best qualities of the bands’ records, are more or less negated on stage.
Which bands and lyricists am I talking about? The Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Lucero’s Ben Nichols, the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman, the Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey and Al Barr, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Dicky Barrett and Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon. What do these bands have in common? They all grew up on punk-rock as kids but later embraced Bruce Springsteen’s literary populism. Call them E Street Punks. It’s as if they’re all trying to find out what “Hungry Heart” might have sounded like if the Ramones had recorded it, as Springsteen originally intended.
This unlikely fusion is responsible for both the triumph of these bands’ records and the frustration of their live shows. An early enthusiasm for the Clash and Husker Du gave these bands a skeptical toughness that works as an antidote to the overly earnest romanticism that sometimes afflicts Springsteen (and his fellow travelers such as John Fogerty, Tom Petty, Jackson Browne and Bob Seger). When the E Street Punk songwriters evolved from staccato slogans to Americana storytelling, they were less likely than their classic-rock elders to glamorize their characters or give them an easy way out of their problems. This bracing realism resulted in some magnificent songs.
But when those songs moved to the stage, so did the punk ethos that vocals are just one more instrument in a democratic band and should have no privileges in the mix. That was fine in the bands’ early punk songs where the words functioned more as percussion accents and emotional markers than as narrative elements. But when those words have been carefully crafted, as they are in these bands’ mature songs, it makes no sense to keep the vocals at the same level as the bass and drums, thereby obliterating the intelligibility of the lyrics. If the words contribute a large portion of the value in these songs, why would you make that value inaccessible in a concert setting? It’s like turning off the sound during a Coen Brothers movie.
Part of the problem is the mix at live shows. As a result of their own decisions or the instructions they’ve received, rock’n’roll sound engineers tend to bury vocals inside the instrumental sound, so you can hear the emotional and musical tone of the singing but can’t quite make out the words. Pop, R&B, country and hip-hop sound engineers, by contrast, bring the vocals out of the instrumental ensemble so almost every word can be heard. It can be done.
Part of the problem is the singers themselves. If you’ve grown up on the rock’n’roll philosophy that the sound of vocals is more important than the meaning, you’re not going to worry about crisp consonants or the definition of each word; you’re going to let it all out in an undifferentiated mumble or roar. Again, the contrast with pop, country, R&B and hip-hop is telling.
Part of the problem is the venues. Over the past 20 years, a new kind of rock-club design has emerged: cement floors and walls, industrial ceilings, few if any chairs. The rationale is obvious: If you’re going to be bringing in hundreds of young males every night and selling them drinks, you have to expect mosh pits, fights and “accidents.” These new clubs are built to survive such audiences. But the byproduct of these bunker-like clubs is sound that ricochets off hard surfaces until it dissolves in a blobby blur. You might be able to catch a lyric line here and there, but you’ll never be able to string consecutive lines into a meaningful verse.
There’s an argument that we aren’t meant to understand the words at a live rock’n’roll concert. Instead we are expected to have heard the relevant albums so many times that we have memorized the words. We can then apply those words to the inarticulate vocal sounds coming out of the club’s speakers and thus create a complete song in our heads. I don’t buy it. A concert shouldn’t be dependent on another medium; it shouldn’t require a prior homework assignment. It should be a complete experience unto itself.
I remember when the Drive-By Truckers and Hold Steady toured the U.S. as a twin bill in 2008. I was so excited by the opportunity to hear three of the best lyricists in American music on one bill that I drove all the way from D.C. to Philadelphia to catch the show at the Electric Factory, a typical bunker nightclub. I was heartbroken when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to hear the words. Once in a while a phrase would break the surface like a dolphin coming up for a breath, but most of the time the words were swimming underwater in guitar noise.
I asked Patterson Hood about it later, and he said he was aware of the problem but didn’t know the solution. Part of the band’s audience, usually the harder drinking part, cares more about the guitars than the words, and club owners are loath to antagonize them. Given the Drive-By Truckers’ level of success, bunker clubs make the most economic sense. And yet Hood is justly proud of his lyrics and wants them to be heard.
You can hear those words on the records, so why not in the clubs? You can usually hear the lyrics in theaters, listening rooms, unplugged or semi-unplugged sets, solo gigs and SXSW day parties, so why not in the clubs? You can hear the words when Austin rockers such as Alejandro Escovedo, Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry, all schooled in the literary tradition of Texas songwriting, lead loud, rocking bands. You can hear the lyrics when Springsteen and his generation play.
The E Street Punks are writing some of the best rock’n’roll of our era, even if they’re not selling many records. Are they trapped in bunker clubs because they don’t sell records, or are they not selling records because they support those releases in clubs where the words can’t be heard?