Deconstructing Indie
What the Hell Does That Word Mean, Anyway?

I have a complex relationship with the word “indie.”

I certainly use it enough, and I find it a useful descriptor. When I say “indie,” you all think the same thing: scrappy guitar music recorded by people who aren’t looking for radio hits. When you hear the word indie, you’re imagining guys in glasses and sweater vests writing clever-catchy songs about the girls who broke their hearts, aren’t you? In that way, the word works.

But in another, it’s broken. It used to mean music released on an independent label, which used to mean a record label not owned by a major corporation. Now indie bands like Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists are on major labels like Atlantic and Capitol, respectively, and many of the so-called independent labels are subsidiaries of big companies. In this Internet age, it would seem the most independent bands are the ones without labels, who release their music on their own. But I don’t think anyone would ever call Nine Inch Nails indie.

It’s like alternative, or punk, a word fully severed from its original meaning and turned into a marketing term. It’s also kind of a snobby word, one that turns its nose up at the radio-friendly and the accessible. If something is indie, it’s automatically more meaningful and relevant and worth hearing than something that is not indie to a distressingly large chunk of the music-loving population. Never mind the fact that the term is now used by men in suits who decide how to best spend millions in advertising budgets.

The sheep-and-goats nature of a word like indie often leads the image-conscious to reject whole catalogs of music they might otherwise enjoy. It also leads the indie cognoscenti to praise and embrace truly terrible stuff that the non-indie labels would never release, and with good reason. They do this so they can seem more in touch with the cutting edge. They can start trends, and have whole conversations about bands no one else knows, just to feel good about themselves. “Oh, you don’t know the Humpbacked Shitweasels? They’re the latest thing. They sound like a mix of the Ocelots and the Translucent Unitards. Oh, you don’t know those bands either? Too bad for you. Everyone will be talking about them soon, trust me.”

I really believe this happens a lot. Even if I didn’t, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another explanation for the drooling adulation the indie press gives to Wavves.

Nathan Williams’ one-man project is probably my favorite example of how the whole indie thing is broken. Williams is an early-20s surfer guy who gladly and cheerfully admits he’s not a musician. I’ve read more about his on-stage breakdowns than I have about the music he makes with Wavves, a sort of actively-annoying lo-fi home-recorded noise. He somehow convinced Fat Possum Records to release two whole discs of this shit. I’ve only heard the second, Wavvves (note the third ‘v,’ there for extra indie-awesomeness), and if it’s an improvement, then the first one must be like jamming razorblades into one’s ear canal.

With Wavves, Williams has embraced both lack of ambition and lack of talent as badges of honor. And the indie press has eaten it up with a spoon. What better way to celebrate the division between us and them than with so-called music that makes anyone with a discerning ear want to vomit? You don’t like this? You’re not cool enough to like this. It’s not about the music, it’s about the aesthetic, and about being in the club. Listening to Wavves is less important than saying you listen to them.

That’s why reaction to King of the Beach, Wavves’ third album, has been so oddly mixed. For this disc, Williams decided to hire a couple of actual musicians, go into an actual studio, and crank out some actual songs. They’re not very good songs, mind you, but they are songs, and the recording is infinitely more polished this time out. That means it’s still rough and hissy and ragged, but you can hear what each instrument is doing now. King of the Beach is a surprisingly coherent, sprightly little rock record, leaps and bounds above anything Nathan Williams has done before.

And that’s made some people pretty mad. In addition to the usual praises, Williams has come in for some stick online for dispensing with the ugly noise and writing hummable tunes. I read one comment from a former fan who said when Williams decided to go into a real recording studio, he sold out. That’s right, people are complaining that this record doesn’t sound shitty enough. I know I grew up a Boston fan, but that just seems strange to me.

What these people are trying to say is that Williams is now too mainstream for them. Yes, he’s on Fat Possum, and yes, only a couple thousand people will ever hear King of the Beach. But that’s a couple thousand too many for people who want to be known as tastemakers. Better to get in on the backlash now and maintain your cred. While standing at an ironically safe distance, of course.

Blah blah blah. What does the music sound like?

Well, it’s spunky, melodic pop music, made by rank amateurs with a sloppiness that sometimes borders on appealing. The title track and “Super Soaker” are the best songs here, sequenced first and second, and the most likely to get stuck in your head. Modest Mouse producer Dennis Herring has clearly done a lot to improve Williams’ voice, a blunt and scattershot instrument, but Williams still just kind of shout-moans his way through this thing. His lyrics are about his own life as a beach bum and bored rich kid, and are all surface-level. Still, this is listenable, and even kind of fun at times.

It’s obvious Williams worked pretty hard on this album. “Post Acid” is a fun romp with a groovy “ooh-ooh” chorus. “When Will You Come” aims for a ‘50s sun-drenched sound, and Williams’ falsetto notwithstanding, it works. Still, there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this, nothing worth the silly amounts of adulation being heaped on it in some corners. Williams set his own bar pretty low, but seriously. It’s loud and sloppy indie-rock, which is better than loud and ass-aching noise, which I guess is better than static. But at some point, it’s just a matter of degrees.

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Bethany Cosentino has come in for the same praise as her friend Williams, but for some reason, I think she fares better. Cosentino calls herself Best Coast, and her 31-minute debut album is entitled Crazy for You. The front cover, painstakingly designed to look shitty, features a picture of Cosentino’s cat Snacks, who has his own Twitter feed. This is the world we’re living in now.

But one listen to the album and such concerns melt away. Crazy for You is adorable. It’s a very simple record – simpler in many ways than Wavves’ effort – but its charm is immense and undeniable. Imagine ‘50s girl-group romantic ballads performed on thick, reverb-soaked guitars and you have the right idea. Cosentino sings like a bird, and harmonizes with herself in pure Phil Spector fashion. The songs are all very short – “Honey” is the epic at 3:01 – and packed with sweet, sweet melodies.

The lyrics are all self-consciously simple and lovey-dovey, which may irritate some. I think there are three songs on here built around the phrase “I miss you,” and occasional references to weed aside, Cosentino spends the entirety of Crazy for You pining over boys, or walking away from them. And yet, her homage to a bygone age of pop music is so heartfelt, so complete, that I don’t mind. When she sings “I wish you were my boyfriend,” all is right with the world. Occasionally, Cosentino reminds me of Jenny Lewis here, but for the most part, she’s doing her own thing.

That thing does get wearying after a while. These 13 songs all sound essentially the same, and it’s probably good this is only half an hour long. The indie press is fawning all over this, of course, but I have reservations. I wonder if Cosnetino has another trick, or if future Best Coast albums will sound just like this one. As a one-off, Crazy for You is sweet and fun and lightweight. As a career, even the considerable charms on display here will grow old. (The aforementioned “Honey” points towards a darker direction, which is welcome.)

I hope Cosentino can find a way to stick around, though. Unlike Williams, she seems to know what she’s doing, and she knows her way around a melody. Crazy for You is full of fun tunes with a sense of history. While it may not be an album I pull out very often, I expect I’ll enjoy it each time I do.

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But if we’re going to talk about indie, particularly its original definition, we have to bring up Starflyer 59. Well, we don’t have to. But I think it’s worth doing, so bear with me, okay?

Starflyer 59 has been around for 17 years now. Mastermind Jason Martin met Brandon Ebel at a music festival in 1993, and gave him a demo tape. Shortly thereafter, Martin’s band was one of the first to sign with then-fledgling Tooth and Nail Records, Ebel’s company. 11 albums, 10 EPs and a box set later, Martin’s still with Tooth and Nail, and still putting out remarkable pop records that too few will hear.

The latest of these, the 12th, is called The Changing of the Guard. Like every Starflyer record, it sounds completely different from the last one, and yet of a piece with Martin’s catalog. This new one abandons the angular ‘80s pop of Dial M for a more Church-inspired sound: strummed acoustics, clean reverbed guitar lines, a smattering of synths, and Martin’s low, dark voice. It’s an atmospheric record, but it rocks as well, and Martin’s gift for sonic layering never deserts him. And the songs? He’s Jason Martin. Of course they’re good.

Now, I realize at this point some of you might be accusing me of hypocrisy. How dare I get all huffy about reviewers who praise unknown artists, and then do the exact same thing? Do I feel that much cooler for knowing Starflyer 59? Well, no. Martin’s been doing this way too long to be the Next Big Thing, and he’s not about to get that buzz going, not after 12 albums. He’s just a guy on the periphery, doing what he does with remarkable consistency. Knowing him doesn’t make you more indie, or more inside, or more of a trend-setter. If you get to know him, though, your CD collection will be a little bigger, and a little richer for it.

Jason Martin’s never made a bad record, but The Changing of the Guard is superb. It opens with its softest songs – the swaying “Shane” sets the tone, with its light strumming, prominent keyboard line, piano bridge, and Martin’s deep vocal. “Trucker’s Son” is an autobiographical piece set to sweet finger-picked guitars, Martin singing about the faded dreams of his youth. It’s marvelous.

The record really picks up in its second half, however. “I Had a Song for the Ages” is terrific, bringing in a bit of jangling electrics to surround a swell chorus and a memorable piano figure. Martin taps into his side project, Neon Horse, a bit for “Cry Me a River,” and ends things with two acoustic rockers, the organ-drenched “Kick the Can” and the deep, dark “Lose My Mind.” Ten songs, 32 minutes, and yet unlike the Best Coast record, I want this one to go on and on.

Starflyer 59 is, to me, the epitome of what indie should be. Jason Martin is committed to a small label, which offers him the freedom to change up his sound however he wants. He uses that freedom to write as many great songs as he can, and just keeps plugging away. I don’t know if The Changing of the Guard will attract any more fans than Martin already has, but I don’t expect that will stop him if it doesn’t. This is why I go to the smaller labels – not to find the likes of Nathan Williams, or even Bethany Cosentino, working their way through their own amateur shoddiness, but to find musicians like Martin, tucked away in a corner of the world, making magic.

Hear Starflyer here.

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It’s been a while since I’ve done this, as faithful reader Jeff Ward pointed out to me last week, so here’s a quick look at some records I’m excited about in the coming months.

Next week, we get the new Iron Maiden, entitled The Final Frontier. My inner teenage metalhead will be satisfied with that, but the more mature me is looking forward to new things from John Mellencamp (No Better Than This), Ray LaMontagne (God Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise) and Brian Wilson (Reimagines Gershwin). The week after that, we get the third Eels album in 18 months, Tomorrow Morning, as well as the new Ra Ra Riot, The Orchard, and a sci-fi concept album called Warp Riders from stoner metal heroes The Sword.

August rounds out with Richard Thompson’s new one Dream Attic, a collaboration between Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice called I’m Having Fun Now, and Radiohead drummer Phil Selway’s solo album, Familial. September starts with an EP from Antony and the Johnsons, Thank You For Your Love, and the self-titled fourth album from Interpol. September 14 is massive, with new ones by Weezer (actually called Hurley, with a picture of Jorge Garcia on the cover), the Walkmen (Lisbon), Robert Plant (the well-regarded Band of Joy), Of Montreal (False Priest) and the first album from raunch-poppers The Vaselines in 20 years or so, Sex With an X.

Come back on September 21 for John Legend’s team-up with the Roots, Wake Up, and stay for the first new Swans album in ages, My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. Also, Richard’s son Teddy Thompson returns with Bella, which I hope isn’t a tribute album to Twilight. September finishes up with new things from Bad Religion (The Dissent of Man) and Nellie McKay (Home Sweet Mobile Home), but I’m most looking forward to Lonely Avenue, Ben Folds’ new album with lyrics by novelist Nick Hornby.

October, then, will bring us Antony’s full album, Swanlights; a new Elvis Costello called National Ransom, produced by T-Bone Burnett; Guster’s Easy Wonderful; Wreckorder, a solo album from Travis’ Fran Healy; Kid Cudi’s Man in the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager; and, for you moshers, a full-length from Phil Anselmo’s new band Arson Anthem. Also, for the big spenders out there, a 30-CD box set of every master recording Elvis Presley ever made will be available, for a modest $750.

That’s not everything, but it’s the stuff I’m most looking forward to. Stay tuned for reviews of all of the above, if I can manage it.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.