Sunday Morning: Pealing Labels

Labeling musical genres is an inexact science, but it lets a journalist qualify and quantify a band's sound.

Music journalists thrive on labels -- the easier to separate "ska-punk" act

No Doubt from "Brit-pop" band Oasis and "trip-hop" outfit Portishead.

Musicians, on the other hand, seem constantly befuddled by the music

writer's desire to put a tag on everything.

"It's pretty much music journalism that cares about genres," said David

Lowery, frontman for Cracker -- make that "eclectic pop-rock bandî Cracker.

Singer-songwriter Lowery contends that most people pay little or no

attention to genre differences. "They certainly cross the genres in their

listening," he said.

Not only do most musicians not care about labels, they don't keep their

listening confined to the cozy cubbyholes chosen for them by journalists

and critics. Consider what's on the jukebox in the kitchen of guitarist

Tony Iommi, from the original heavy-metal group Black Sabbath:

brother/sister easy-listening duo the Carpenters, '70s new-wavers the

Pretenders, classic crooner Frank Sinatra...

Iommi himself is no fan of the heavy-metal tag, applied to Sabbath since

they came to prominence in the early 1970s.

"I don't, quite honestly, listen to one sort of music," Iommi said.

"Heavy-metal -- I hate that term. Always have. [We're] always classed as

heavy-metal. We're a heavy rock band, basically."

Still, despite the considered objections of musicians, adjectives, handles

and labels are necessary if anyone is going to write about music. At some

point, pedal steel guitar equals "country," a fistful of power chords

becomes "punk" and a generous combination of horns over the on-beat adds up

to "ska."

It's not a rigid formula, and it ain't always right, but it serves as a

guide or a map. Saying a band plays ska does not doom them to a lifetime of

playing only that. It just means they've got enough of the elements of what

one guy considers "ska" to be labeled as such.

Labels might not be necessary at all if everyone was open-minded and eager

to plunge into all kinds of music, with no agenda but a desire for quality.

Young people are more inclined to be that open. If you're like me, once

you've gotten out of school and into the workaday grind, you're not real

anxious to go out and see a band you know nothing about.

Although labeling is a flawed science, it's one way of relating bands to

each other. Hearing that the Old 97's are in the same general vein as Uncle

Tupelo can help you decide if you want to check them out or not.

In my experience, most musicians clam up at the prospect of having to

pigeonhole what they do. It's possible that they fear having to parade

under that banner for the rest of their careers. But some don't mind

talking about their music in very specific terms. Take the response from

John Hill of the lo-fi pop act Apples in Stereo when asked to describe the

sound of his side band, Dressy Bessy.

"We're just trying to get something that's kind of upbeat" Hill said. "We

want it to be a little rocking, a little groovy, a little catchy -- all

that stuff. We're not afraid to rock."

"Rock is not a dirty word," chimed in bandmate Tammy Ealom.

Nor, I suppose, is "catchy-groove-rock."