There’s this new band that sounds a lot like The Redwalls …

The Battalions? The Beat Bugs? Something like that
In 2003, I was 15-ish and looked like Ronald McDonald who, upon entering the Witness Protection Program, dyed his hair black. My brother, when coming home on college breaks, would bring gifts from the outside world, which was mainly great music.
He’d always have a stack of CD-Rs for me. One particular time, he found a band that sounded like they belonged near a seaport in another time. This was my first exposure to The Decemberists. I loved it, but my brother, as well as critics at the time, was on the fence. The argument went, sure they’re great, but aren’t they just a Neutral Milk Hotel rip-off? Even the untrained Ronald-me could guess that Meloy was inspired by Mangum’s nasally howl, but is that to say they were copycats?
As The Decemberists’ discography expanded, that argument proved totally invalid, but it did raise an interesting question: Where do you draw the line between tasteful homage and aesthetic plagiarism?
The early ’00s garage rock is a good time to examine. There were The Hives, who are amazing at what they do. But then there was Jet, God’s musical punishment to the world. The Hives expanded on the garage rock explosion of the late ’60s (i.e. The Sonics, Shadows of Knight) with brilliant pop songs. Jet, however, took overused rock archetypes and brought them to the realms of cliché. They pieced together drum rolls, bass lines and guitar fills from other rock songs and glued them together under the guise of “new” music. They even straight-up stole a drum beat from the favorite son of garage rock/the father of punk, Iggy Pop.
More recently, artists under the microscope have been Clap Your Hands (too Talking Heads?), Panda Bear (furry Brian Wilson?), and The Hold Steady (Baby Bruce?). Under any sort of stylistic analysis, none of these bands is very similar to its counterparts, but it’s a constant topic of conversation nonetheless.
A band sounding like a pre-existing group is rarely a reason to write them off. The quality of music is most important. If a band changes their sound and manipulates audience expectations by taking on a trademark style, that becomes a problem. It’s like how The Beatles are the best band ever but because of that, The Redwalls are literally the worst band in history. The Beatles are hard to emulate, but some non-north suburban bands have done it gracefully.
One of them is Dr. Dog. McCartney-esque bass lines meeting psychedelic vocal harmonies make up some of Dog’s best work. But this group dances along both ends of the homage/plagiary spectrum. Some pieces sound like a brilliant retelling of Bowie-glam or Beatles rock, but other material dribbles out the speakers like a sampling of rejected Flaming Lips songs.
Music as an art form should always try to push the medium forward. Bands such as The Decemberists and of Montreal started as comparison groups but moved on and created their own unique sound. Other artists seem happy to just stagnate in an already old form. But anything (film, music, cuisine) has a counterpart in its field. As they say, it’s all been done before. Like how I thought I had an original haircut in high school, but I was really just copying a clown in a yellow jumpsuit.

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