I’m allergic to hype anyway, but indie hype just makes my skin crawl.
Every 20 minutes, it seems, some new group is being crowned the Best Band You’ve Never Heard, and indie tastemakers fall all over themselves to be the first to sing praises, mainly so they can later claim credit for being out in front of the zeitgeist. The result is an endless parade of breathless reviews of bands no one has ever heard of, each one proclaiming that the latest collective of 20-year-olds who can barely play their instruments will Change Your Life.
Even as I was typing the above paragraph, I realized two things about it: my description sounds uncannily like what I do here week in and week out, and I couldn’t have sounded more old and out of touch if I’d concluded my thoughts by saying, “Now get off my lawn.” I’m really not this crotchety, I promise. My main objection to indie hype is simple: there’s a lot of music to keep up with, and it’s hard enough for an obsessive like me without being misdirected. And I feel like a lot of “tastemaker” reviews are misleading, caught up in the excitement of being first out of the gate.
Every year, there are at least half a dozen new bands I’m supposed to have an opinion on. People will ask me about them, too. I got numerous emails last year when Girls’ album (wittily titled Album) hit stores. I’d heard a couple of tracks, and had no interest in buying it, but after a while, I felt obligated. As a critic, I felt like I had to have some thoughts about this thing. I know, that’s insane, but still. I was even angrier at myself when I discovered that Album is total crap, a collection of same-old-same-old garage rock clichés.
That’s been my experience more often than not. Every year, I scan Pitchfork’s top albums list, and I make it a point to hear the ones I haven’t. They’re usually not worth the effort. I’m also generally less interested in new bands than I am accomplished ones. Debut albums are fine and all, but the true test of a group’s worth comes from their subsequent efforts, I feel. I lauded Vampire Weekend’s first one, for example, but found their second, Contra, lacking. If their third is half-hearted, too, I will scrub them from my “bands to watch” list.
On the other hand, I am very excited for Rufus Wainwright’s new one, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. It will be his sixth, not counting live records. Wainwright’s self-titled debut was passable, but offered few hints of the songwriter he’d soon become. It wasn’t until his third, Want One, that he truly blossomed. I don’t regret buying the self-titled album, but I liked it more for its potential than for its actual music. And I hope my review (written for Face Magazine in 1998) reflected that.
I guess what I’m saying is, I try to maintain a balance here between jittery enthusiasm and world-weary cynicism. I know most of the new bands that debut this year won’t make it past their second record. I know it’s foolhardy to talk about any of them as if they’re important. And yet, I’ve been trying to give these new bands an even chance, buying the ones that sound interesting and pulling for the acts that turn in reasonably good work their first time out.
I still can’t escape the feeling that I’m supposed to have an opinion about these bands, however. So I picked a few I liked to talk about this time. These are bands embraced by the likes of Pitchfork, bands that are only considered overexposed in those rarified circles. I’m like the rest of you – I would never have heard of any of these acts without the urging of the ear-to-the-ground tastemakers, who enthusiastically supported all of these records.
I guess that means they’ve done some good, but those same tastemakers also enthusiastically supported some of the most awful crap I’ve had the misfortune to hear in the past few years, which I also would not have bought without their urging. I guess it’s like anything else – you have to figure out what works for you.
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In indie terms, Hot Chip has been around forever. The British quintet is now on its fourth album, having released its debut in 2004. They play danceable pop music, mostly synthesized, but with nice melodies. They’re like Depeche Mode, if they took happy pills and stopped dressing in black.
After hearing a couple of their four-on-the-floor singles in recent years, I steadfastly avoided buying any of Hot Chip’s albums. The songs just didn’t do it for me. But there’s such a buzz around their fourth, One Life Stand, that I decided to give it a go. I was immediately struck by how much the opening tracks sound like the Pet Shop Boys – Alexis Taylor has a clear, somewhat thin voice, and the band lays down computerized arpeggios and blip-beats behind him. Opener “Thieves in the Night” could easily fit onto any Pet Shop Boys album released in the last decade.
As I understand things, One Life Stand is the album on which Hot Chip matured, writing more directly emotional songs than ever before. The first three tracks don’t bear that out, sticking to dancefloor rhythms and simple lyrics, but that doesn’t stop “I Feel Better” from being the record’s best tune, its synth strings complementing Taylor’s swooping melody perfectly. The title track, which comes next, is also quite danceable, but its lyrics turn to fidelity: “All I want is a one-life stand…” Maturity, at this point on the record, looks good on them.
Unfortunately, it all goes south from there, as the emotional content overwhelms the melodic. I have not heard a more boring stretch of goopy balladry than “Brothers,” “Slush” and “Alley Cat” this year, together an interminable 16-and-a-half minutes of slow drudgery. The record rights itself by the end – closer “Take It In” is nicely anthemic – but it’s too late. One Life Stand has been dealt a fatal blow.
Still, there’s enough interesting stuff here to pique my interest in the earlier records. As for whether I’ll buy Hot Chip’s fifth album, whenever it’s released, that’s still up in the air.
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Much more successful is Yeasayer, an experimental trio from Brooklyn. Their appealing debut, All Hour Cymbals, dabbled in Animal Collective-style psychedelica with flavors from around the globe mixed in. Still, it was largely formless, and after the riveting “Wait for the Summer,” it basically fell apart. There was enough there to hold my interest in a second album, though, and with Odd Blood, the Yeasayers have delivered big time.
Strangely enough, the reason I like this is probably the very reason it’s been getting middling reviews: Odd Blood is a kickass pop album. An off-kilter, strange little pop album, but a pop album nonetheless. The band has concentrated on melodies and choruses and good old-fashioned songwriting here, and they’ve incorporated a winning ‘80s influence, both musically and lyrically. Once you get past the first track, the loping and off-putting “The Children,” little else here takes itself seriously at all. And that’s what makes it such a grand old time.
Single “Ambling Alp” finds Chris Keating sounding like Raine Maida from Our Lady Peace, grooving on a dazzling little chorus: “You’ve got to stick up for yourself, son, never mind what anybody else does.” Yeasayer take their own advice on every track, from the soaring “ooh-ooh-oohs” of mid-tempo stunner “Madder Red” to the limber disco wonderland of “O.N.E.” (just wait until the Thompson Twins-esque synths come in on the chorus), and even to titling a song “Love Me Girl.” Sometimes you’ll think you’re listening to Wham’s much cooler cousins.
In some ways, the whole album is prelude to “Rome,” the greatest stomper in the bunch. From the first notes, you know you’re in for something – it’s part Moroccan dance music, part Prince, and all relentless. Throughout this record, Yeasayer consistently find interesting ways to create this music, taking from virtually every global source they can find, and mixing with abandon. Still, the end result is just an awe-inspiring pop record, one you don’t need to study to enjoy.
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While Yeasayer took an extraordinary left turn into popland, Baltimore dream weavers Beach House have never really changed. Over three albums, the duo of Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally has slowly and methodically built up its hazy, lazy sound. Beach House records sound like half-remembered visions at first, cloudy and easy to simply watch pass by.
Their third, Teen Dream, is very similar to the last two, but to these ears, it sounds like something of a breakthrough. There are many things they did right here – the focus is on Scally’s twangy, reverbed guitar, rather than Legrand’s woozy keyboards, and Legrand finally wrote herself some deliriously fine melodies to wrap her haunting voice around. True, the tempo is more suitable for sleepwalking than dancing, but this time, the songs will take hold and stick with you.
Legrand has certainly never sounded better. She’s kind of a mixture of Hope Sandoval (of Mazzy Star) and Stevie Nicks, and Beach House songs have rarely given her the chance to show off her pipes. “Silver Soul” sets that right – the refrain is a simple “it’s happening again,” but Legrand sings the hell out of it. “Norway” and “Walk in the Park” follow suit, their sweetly ascending melodies sounding just beautiful coming from Legrand’s mouth.
But it’s “Used to Be” that takes the gold, a delightful piano piece with a chorus that’ll make you smile, and a coda (“coming home, any day now…”) that’ll make you shiver. The rest of Teen Dream is lovely as well, much better than anything else they’ve done, and by the end I can’t help thinking that this is the perfect Beach House album. If Legrand and Scally make another, as they probably will, they’ll either have to build on this somehow, or take that left turn somewhere else. Either way, I’ll be listening.
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Which brings us to Local Natives, the most recent indie buzz “ohmigodbuythisNOW” band I’ve encountered. I admit I get a little turned off by tsunamis of excitement surrounding a band with only one album, particularly considering the hype actually started last year, before the debut, Gorilla Manor, was released. It’s their first time out. How great can it possibly be?
Well, it’s pretty good, to be honest. Local Natives draw from two other acts with very successful debut albums: rhythmically, they take from Vampire Weekend, and melodically, they are reminiscent of Fleet Foxes. They have those high, wonderful harmonies, and an appealing sense of woodsy, organic charm. But they are much more propulsive than the Foxes, matching kinetic electric guitars with jets of percussion. And they’ve written some fine songs as well.
The best of those, to my ears, is “Sun Hands,” a circular drive of a piece that darts ahead adroitly, meeting an enchanting “ah-ah-ah-ah” refrain head-on. The other 11 songs are nice as well, and it takes a few listens to hear all the little things the band has done, from percussion breakdowns to a cappella sections to tribal shouts to clean webs of guitar. This is a very well-made record, particularly for a debut, and even though Local Natives sound like an even blend of indie’s greatest hits over the last few years, their sound works.
This album doesn’t have the magic of Fleet Foxes, although moments of it – like the sweet “Who Knows Who Cares” – are soul-liftingly pretty. And unlike a lot of of-the-moment debuts, this one doesn’t fall apart halfway through. Even as late as the penultimate track, the string-laden piano waltz “Stranger Things,” they’re still full of surprises. Gorilla Manor is an uncommonly good first album, and I hope the Natives can stick with it, and make a second and third to match.
Of course, I’ve rated many debut albums quite highly – think Mutemath, and Keane, and Fleet Foxes, and the list goes on and on. Do I think Local Natives are worthy of the hype that’s surrounded them for a year? Probably not. On the evidence of Gorilla Manor, they’re a good band, but only time will tell if they can become an important one. For now, though, check this out. It’s as fine a debut record as you’re likely to hear this year.
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And now, the next installment in my Top 20 of the 2000s. I’ll keep this one short, for obvious reasons.
#14. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love (2009).
I don’t have much more to say about The Hazards of Love than I did two months ago, when I proclaimed it the best album of 2009. Colin Meloy’s masterpiece is one of the most complete pieces of music released in the last 10 years, a single hour-long song telling an intricate, warped folk tale full of pain and death. I admire it for indulging in the album-length statement with a tricky and emotionally resonant plotline. I love it for simply being an amazing piece of music.
Meloy took from so many sources here – English folk music, centuries-old balladry, progressive rock, blues – and every one of them is a storytelling medium. He hired Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond to play the female roles, adding to the sense of watching a particularly good Shakespeare-in-the-park performance. And he wrote Hazards like a play, as motifs and lyrics from the first act take on new resonance in the second.
But mostly, this thing rocks like no Decemberists album before it. It’s here not just because it’s a challenging, brilliantly-written work that takes a bold stand for the album in the age of the download single, but because it’s a terrific, engaging, wholly enjoyable piece of music from first note to last. The Hazards of Love is a rock opera for people who hate rock operas, a gloriously mad and perfectly realized dark fairy tale set to extraordinary music. If you have the chance to see the band perform it live, in sequence, don’t pass it up. It will drive the album home for you – this is a singular work from a singular band, making music that no one else on earth is making.
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Next week, triple albums from Joanna Newsom and Leyland Kirby. Also coming soon, the final Johnny Cash album, and lovely records from Shearwater and Midlake. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.