The Reputations

The Reputations and the Necessity of Pop Music in the Wake of Sadness

By Jay Armstrong

 

I can’t speak for certain about the rest of the country but Austin specifically has an eye-roll approach to all things which might possibly fall in the realm of being labeled “pop.” What a disgusting reaction to see at the simple mention of a genre with one of the richest and most distinguished lineages in all of music. Sure, pop music jumped shark towards the end of the eighties and had lost all sense of soul by the turn of the century but so did every other aspect of music. Seriously, if The Pixies or Radiohead had been making noise in ’82 they would have been just another flash in the pan but in the nineties they become cornerstones to our folklore of faux-importance at a time we would have all been better not having had to wade through at all. Thankfully Charles Bradley came out of nowhere and was given an honorary free pass due to his age and the world suddenly remembers “holy shit, pop music still can be great.” Let The Supremes come on and tell me everything in the world doesn’t feel right. Hear the Jackson 5 lament about some breakup and keep your feet from tapping along at their expense.

 

All the glory goes to rock ‘n’ roll in those tragic years of the late-sixties and early seventies, it was wildly alive and easily identifiable with the youth counter culture and will forever be remembered for its role as conduits for political change yet we forget that while draft cards were being lit on fire by priests and nuns in Catonsville, when America needed desperately to escape from the images of napalm and burning villages saturating their nightly news while Reagan was calling for police to fire shotguns at retreating students in People’s Park, as the Chicago police riots gave the world the impression we had reached the violent point of no return in the face of King’s death, it was pop which was there to help us remember how to let go of it all for a few brief moments, to remind us how to remain upbeat in the wake of all the cruel terrifying realities of a world we simultaneously felt equally connected with and disenfranchised by.

 

I sit staring at my computer screen consumed by the reality that I’m wrapped up in writing about bands and music that unavoidably feel trite in the face of the violence and sadness we once again have occurring all over this country. We watch as our distant friends and fringe relatives spout hate towards the oppressed, our seemingly paranoid friends ramble on about institutionalized brutality, self-righteous religion rears its awful head with disgusting words of  judgement, our hearts tense seeing once more the arrogantly high-road people pretend they are taking by being too weak to speak up against the injustices of the world simply out of a need to protect their own white-privilege. I wish I had the words to rally everyone to be motivated towards change, whatever that sort of change you might feel convicted enough to move for would be, yet as I write this at four in the morning, having just been out to catch The Reputations play a great set at Beerland, I try to collect my thoughts and realize for a brief moment I feel absolutely nothing, god the weight of the world around us can be too much sometimes, and for the first time since Ferguson I feel once more the weariness of wishing not to ignore it, not to pretend like it doesn’t exist, just move it to the background until morning, finding peace for a few breaths before propping it all back up on my shoulders and realize this is exactly the point I have been circling around, the ideal example of the escape pop music has given us since the very beginning, the place where its importance cannot be understated in our lives, a place heartbreakingly empty as it seems Saun & Starr are left as the only legitimate torch bearers at a time where we need far more.

 

 

I remember when I was young, whenever my grandmother would be dealing with a stress of life I cannot even pretend to understand the complexity or severe ominousness of, you would hear her crack for a split second, her tone frustrated, slightly angry, it would catch your attention from the kitchen when she thought everyone was out of earshot, it would be directed at some external minor issue and then just as soon as you could hear the tension there would be a deep breath and she would instantly go into some doo-wop number from her youth, songs so precious in my mind I wouldn’t even mention them now for the mere sense of connection between you and my memory, her rhythm would drag just before the catchy one or two lines which really pulled the song together and then at the perfect moment she would speed it up to where, without even seeing her at the sink, you knew she was almost floating as the chorus came in, it was a dance of joy that made the room lose gravity. She sang with her entire soul and it radiated your universe. Oh man, the hardships that women lived through and could tell you about with an optimistic tone; alcoholism and depression that took loved ones forever away from her, absolute starving poverty through the depression, the way everything seemed to crumble in the wake of my grandfather’s death, still there she would be just singing with her whole heart, not quite in tune but close enough to make you love her all the more for singing anyway. I’m struck by the thought of why I would bring that precise memory up now of all times, half-stoned in the still hours of the night. Maybe my subconscious has been looking for the right time to bring it up and I just haven’t been in the right mood, whatever the reason, it makes perfect sense just how much you and I need some optimism in our lives and possibly for the first time the records we hold so dearly, having been created before we were even born, can’t quite cut it. Those records have their own past, their own memories attached to them. Their redemption has all but been used up. Am I going to put on Ben E. King and fully wash myself in his relevance? Could Cher really wrap her arms around me to shield the gut wrenching reality we live in? I still love them, certainly while driving through the desert with a car full of friends they will be more important than any ten modern bands could ever be to our connected equilibrium but we need bands such as The Reputations to create escapes of our own right here in our time. We need new sounds to drift into the ether and bring all of us together in their power of escape. We need songs cherished all our own to pull us away for a few minutes. Why is it so damn rare to find a band willing to write upbeat music without sounding like they only have monetary ambitions or  haven’t seen enough from life to understand what happiness means as a reaction to evil and darkness? I can imagine my grandmother singing the perfect chorus of “Sugar High” so clearly, I take it as real for a few brief seconds just for the smile it brings.

 

 

I’ve been catching versions of The Reputations play for as long as I have lived in Austin, going all the way back to the early Bobby Jealousy days, it seemed I had them figured out where seeing their name on a lineup meant a solid time that would be worth watching yet somewhat unaffecting. Then out of nowhere, almost as a secret, an excited whisper during last period class, POW, they became this giant. Through all the changes we have seen within the band these first three offerings finally prove what their most recent live shows have had us catching on to; Jenny Carson and Rockyanne Bullwinkel are goddamn powerhouses, Justin Smith should have been born in ’58, and Alfie Bernal may be the quiet guy in the back but the good time he has brought to the rest of the dudes by filling out their sound should never go unnoticed.

 

 

One of my favorite records to come out of Austin, and certainly my favorite of the last five years, is the tragically unnoticed album from the I Love You Collective which featured not only Rockyanne but brothers Seth Gibbs and Jimmy Wildcat (also of The Reputations). I’ve spent more time than is justifiable thinking over what made that album so incredible. Was it the fact all these musicians, at the  moment where all the years of developing their craft finally began to come into fruition, had gotten together before the onset of inevitable pessimism about the idea of actually making it at music set in? Was it the fact that every person involved was finally given a chance to have their talent held under a microscope by the lions they believed they too should be allowed to roar beside? Or was it getting a group of brilliant musicians out of the city to record in the middle of nowhere what made the difference? I’m certain those factors all played towards what made the album great, and considering most of this band had a hand in that record it isn’t exactly surprising to hear what they have made, but after seeing The Reputations head off to create their first record in the same manor of escaping to a farm in east Texas where you bring an idea to the table and without distractions spend a week collaborating equally on shaping songs to best express your abilities in ways that come across the most honest and exciting as possible has me leaning more and more to the latter being the defining factor.

 

 

Look, I wish I could drag on about The Reputations being the saviors of some coveted sound or about how they will be the band the world will be revolving around soon but hollow optimism just feels out of place at a time such as this. Dramatics do nothing on a good day but make me feel pretentious better yet how gaudy they seem on a night where police in Dallas held a press conference at midnight. Who knows whether anyone other than you and I will ever care about these guys, personally though I’m thankful just for having their songs in this tiny room while I sit alone needing help remembering how to remain positive when the rest of the world seems to be doing the exact opposite. And even if that doesn’t match whatever ambitions they might have with their art, it’s the sort of response sixty years down the road will mean more than a million records sold and fifteen minutes of halfhearted distanced appreciation, that goes for both of us.

 

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