American Princes: The Promise of the Future

By  |  December 7, 2009

Photo by Rhett PeekRock & roll lives in fear of the past. A musical form that at its birth declared and embodied desire without limits, rock, by the end of the century, had aged with its founders: the youthful joy of the Fifties and Sixties, the ambitions and decadence of the Seventies, the midlife crisis of the Eighties, and the acceptance—even celebration—of repetition in the Nineties. A music of no limits must end when it has nowhere new to go. Thus the dread of rock & roll at the end of history, or the nameless decade—the aughts, the nils, the nothings—now coming to a close: impotence.

For the young band, or the young music lover, growing up today, this dread expresses itself in a single question: Are we fated to perpetually recycle the music of two decades prior? An anxiety abetted by the Eighties revival of the last few years and confirmed by the Nineties hits we now hear, with a sense of doom, celebrated at our parties. We have taken for granted through most of rock history an uncanny ability to date previously unheard songs to a precise period, often a single year, based solely on style and timbre and tone. This led us to believe that rock was closely tied to history, an expression of the essence of 1956 or 1968 or 1979. However, much recent music, an LCD Soundsystem track, say, could as easily have been recorded in 1987 as 2007. Only by pushing the boundaries can rock stay tied to history, maintain a steady forward movement, and escape its past. Without history, rock sinks to the level of fashion: a pleasant recombination of styles that expresses little, or nothing, essential about the time in which it is made.

Other People, the most recent album by the breakthrough Little Rock band American Princes, suggests another possibility. What if it’s not rock that’s repeating itself, but history? One of the oddities about growing up in the Nineties was hearing how awful the Eighties were—two recessions, the victory of movement conservatism, the threat of thermonuclear war—and fearing that we pampered post–Cold War children would never escape a diminished, if happier, age. A decade later, as our generation graduated from college, we saw a second victory of movement conservatism, two more recessions, and a war without end on terror. Perhaps the return to the music of the Eighties was not a matter of fashion but of historical necessity.

The cleanest and brightest sounding record the Princes have made, Other People also happens to be the band’s bleakest. As a four-piece indie group, with two guitars and three vocalists, the Princes laid down some champion straight-ahead rock tracks on their first three albums, alternating riff-driven rave-ups with the occasional acoustic ballad. The addition of a third guitarist didn’t exactly suggest subtler dynamics—a triple axe attack, even for an indie group, is like asking for a “Freebird” request—but thanks to the help of veteran r&b producer Chuck Brody, every note of the now-five-member band sounds clearer and more vibrant than ever.

It’s the lyrics, most often sung by David Slade, that bring you down. Consider the chorus on “Real Love,” the album’s hopefully titled first single: “I don’t care about real love,” Slade pleads, shouts, and growls, over a wash of shimmering guitars, “I just want a world that will bear its own weight.” Later, with the Raymond Carver tribute “Where I’m Calling From,” Slade sighs with the passion of Paul Westerberg, over a backing track worthy of The Cure’s greatest hits: “Read the morning paper, angry at the news/The stories and the views all point to madness.” 

Even in the latter days of rock, few things can bring you back to a moment like music. When I hear the Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, or Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat, or now, even though I didn’t listen to it at the time, the Princes’ Other People I’m instantly back in the Bush Era. The album’s defining lyric comes a few verses further into “Where I’m Calling From”: “Filling up the moment/While the bombs are still exploding.” How to stay true to aesthetic personal desire, “filling up the moment,” while there’s a war going on? A conflict expressed by musical contrasts throughout the album: fragile guitar figures and aching, innocent backing vocals beside heavily distorted rhythms and an anguished lead singer.

“Auditorium,” the lead-off on Other People and the track featured here, serves as a driving introduction to the uncertainty behind the album’s best music. The song starts with the sound of laid-back surfer “ooh-aahs” and pleasant enough guitar doodling, only to be interrupted, after a few seconds, by what sounds like a punk shout-out, as if to clear the room of the uncommitted: “Everyone move it! Get outta here!” A huge, fuzzed-out riff, soon doubled by a second guitar, takes over, with alternate vocalist Collins Kilgore sing-shouting, “Looooooooooove.” It feels like we’re in U2 territory. But then the full lyric: “Love don’t mean nothing/You won’t feel nothing.” A small guitar figure chimes in the background, a remnant of warm early moments; the bludgeoning riff, in retrospect, meant not to break free but to anesthetize. The chorus, vague and cynical—“They’ve seen it all below the auditorium”—undercuts the music. The Princes are working a powerful line, but they don’t believe in it—and they doubt their audience does, either. “You won’t feel a thing,” the song closes. Music repeats; history repeats. It’s a difficulty the Princes never shrug off, even as they go on to prove that they, and we, certainly do feel something—a cry that still carries today and will, I suspect, continue in the decades to come. If rock lives in fear of the past, the Princes show it still has a future. 

Charles Peterson is an assistant editor of n+1.