Influences and idols are tricky things, aren't they? Whether you're Ryan Adams and his thankfully-as-yet-to-be-realised threat to re-record The Strokes' “This Is It” note for note, or someone less heard of like The Miracle Fortress, channelling the Beach Boys in an interesting, tangential way, they tend to act like a millstone round the neck more often than not. Jaded critics can appropriate their 'it's not like the old days' oeuvre on you, morose bedroom commentators can post dismissive one-liners about you on the Internet, all the while you're forever put in a certain box, be it consciously or otherwise, by music fans. Yet at the same time, all musicians are a slave to the music they've loved. How do you get it right?
What's sparked this is the new album by Fionn Regan. For those not in the know, Fionn Regan's an Irish singer-songwriter who came to prominence when his debut album, “The End of History” got Mercury-nominated in 2006. Personally, I thought it was a fantastic album, it had the intricate acoustic guitarplay of a Nick Drake, but without the whimsy. It was personal and touching at times, but it also had a bite, and Regan plucked the guitar like he had a grudge against it, producing marvellous, percussive, almost a vicious feel to some tracks. I highly recommend it and please don't let anything I'm about to say prejudice you against it.
Fionn Regan has a new album, “The Shadow of an Empire”, just out earlier this month. And...well, it sounds like a Bob Dylan tribute album. There wasn't really any traces of Dylan on his first, unless you took the “he's young, male and headstrong” view. But all the lyrical tics, the tempos, the instrumentation, the subject matter...it's all there. Listen to first track 'Protection Racket' and you'd think you were listening to a Dylan song. In fact, it might be one! Hold on a second, I just need to check this...
...you can tell I've done my research. It's not. But you can infer from that I'm not a fan of Dylan.
Anyhow, what I wanted to get at is, it's really awkward when musicians seem to become slaves to their influences. Hell, I know it's hard enough to avoid. In my day I've played in shit university bands and written more songs, and though I've not much discernable talent, I know how hard it is to not start writing a song from an idea in your head which is actually, um, the main hook of another song you like that's stuck in your head. But hey, there's only a limited number of melodies in the world, isn't there? Similarities are to be expected.
And sure, there's only a limited number of styles. Well, that's not strictly true, but it takes one innovator – or rather, one breakthrough innovator (which is why Burial's more likely to be cited as an influence I guess than, say, well, any other dubstep artist really?) to expand the range of styles new bands will tap in on. Unless they're an innovator. And they're probably not.
I don't really know where I'm going with this. I'm not even railing against something. Reviewers comparing artists to other artists acts as a good reference point for people like me. It'd be a nose/face biting incident for me to damn those. And wearing your influences on your sleeve isn't necessarily that much of a millstone. For example, the Horrors' style on “Primary Colours” had about as much originality as that fried chicken shop round the corner from you. But they had pretty damn good songs to back it up. In my book – you know, the book that values the actual music rather than intellectual posturing – that's perfectly fine. It's just...write memorable songs, do SOMETHING to make yourselves stand out, artists. Have influences, but don't show a desire to be them. We cool? Cool.