What makes the Boston sound? These days, thanks to films like The Departed, most people think of rabble-rousing Irish skinheads barking oi punk when they think of Boston music. Though our exports to the history of music are few, they include one of the most important bands of the past few decades: Pixies.
It's easy to forget that Pixies were a Boston band. They owe as much to Californian surf rock as they do the punk tradition. But it was their unusual alchemy of their sources that ended up as alternative rock as we know it today. The bait-and-switch between hushed verses and screaming, manic choruses was patented by the frontman of the Pixies, Black Francis. The methodical tempering of energy can still be seen all over contemporary rock.
As important as they are, Pixies didn't seem to come from any music scene in particular. They weren't incubated in a space like New York in the '60s and '70s or Seattle in the '90s. Their sound was formed in Boston, but not because of it.
Nor did they come to define the Boston sound. It's funny that the "quintessential" Boston band, the Dropkick Murphys, actually seem to be a step backward from Pixies with regard to music history. Black Francis and the rest of Pixies forged their sound out of a post-punk era, drawing us into a new chapter in underground music. The Dropkick Murphys merely reiterate the punk born out of midcentury England.
Really, it would make more sense for Pixies to be a Seattle band. They are, in spirit. Nirvana owed much of their innovation and popularity to Surfer Rosa. Modest Mouse also rode on the back of the entire Pixies catalog in the development of their sound. Isaac Brock in particular models his vocal style after the manic delivery of Black Francis. Pixies shipped their influence across the country and it took root on the opposite shore.
So what is the Boston sound if it's not evident within the city's most important export? Does Beantown even have a distinctive vibe like the bands from California or Chicago or New York? Maybe not: it seems the youth culture of the northeast is concentrated entirely within New York. Boston is a great city, but it's not exactly a young city. Its creative capital doesn't match that of Manhattan or Brooklyn these days. Many of Boston's young adults are packed into colleges, and maybe that's not the best environment for fresh sounds to grow.
There is a surviving hardcore and punk scene in Boston, but it's not enough to push the city to the edge of the music scene. In truth, we're a city of anomaly when it comes to influential bands. When we do spit something important out, it's very important, but we don't spit much out terribly often. Not that there's anything wrong with being a punk hub. For those who know where to find it, the music scene in Boston is alive and well. It just tends to be insular and site-specific rather than progressive.
(Photo courtesy last.fm)