09 April 2007

i'm not in love with the modern

(arms race whoops i mean scene)

transferred from from the podcast post, for yr reading ease, and to combat wanton blog sprawl.

one of the many memorable moments of south-by-south-west that i didn't mention in my recap came right at the beginning, the first morning of the festival, in jenny's car on the way to austin java, when, in search of some blonde redhead song, we listened to the first few seconds of each track of two discs of somebody's 'introduction to indie' mixtape. it turned into a sort of rapid-fire pop quiz, with jenny not pressing the skip button until i could correctly identify the artist. it usually took about ten seconds, and i probably got at least 90% of the tracks: jolie holland, enon, neutral milk, john vanderslice, spoon, even tx weirdballs the baptist generals ("okay, it's kind of a fluke that i knew that one") - it made me feel slightly ridiculous, not so much like i was showing off as revealing an inordinate and casual familiarity with indie music, at least c. 1998-2005 or something. not that that's so surprising, but it prompted me to sigh, with performative resignation, as we stepped into the parking lot: "okay...i guess i like indie music..."

had been feeling a little bit lukewarm about sxsw just because of its pronounced emphasis on indie, as opposed to the kinds of music that i think of myself as being excited about these days (dance-pop, soul, electronica, '60s pop.) but obviously i did find plenty to enjoy, regardless of labels. 'course, these days "indie" feels like more of a cultural category than a stylistic one - as the music-industrial complex merrily bumbles its way towards apocalypse, the indie and main-streams become increasingly difficult to untangle, and the incoherently defined indie listenership is just as likely to devote itunes attention and mixtape-slots to folky singer-songwriters (the mountain goats, m. ward), hip-hoppers (el-p, the clipse), scandinavian electro-poppers (!) (annie, the knife), sonically expansive "experimentalists" (panda bear, scott walker), and big-budget dance acts (justin timberlake, missy elliott) and so forth as to the kind of prototypical "indie rock" bands whose albums, by the way, are hitting #1 and #2 on the billboard charts lately (modest mouse, the shins, arcade fire.)

if this diversification in the quote-unquote indie milieu is a relatively recent development - which i think is fair to say - why do i find myself - an eclecticist die-hard - with a growing ambivalence towards the concept of "indie"? it's a little hard to pinpoint. i don't want to delve into the muddle of trying to actually define "indie" or "indie rock" or what-have-you - no question these are major-league Superwords - just take a look at the wikipedia entries for some considerable confusion. but i think we more or less know what we're talking about.

whatever it is - and, by the way, i feel like i hear "indie rock" a lot less often than just plain "indie" these days, even though the two used to seem roughly synonymous and the former probably more prevalent - it still feels to a great extent like my "baseline" music; the foundation and starting point for my understanding of and perspective w/r/t popular music in general. even though i grew up listening to oldies pop radio, and such seemingly classification-proof deviants as tmbg, phish, and talking heads (on reflection, it turns out that they were all rock bands), i guess the groups that i stumbled upon in my later high school years represented the first music that i came to understand in terms of a coherent "scene" that, at least by early college, i could see myself as in some way part of.

i dunno. radiohead, belle and sebastian, and elliott smith are my "comfort music" (all class of '97-98.) pavement and guided by voices (and, even more so, sonic youth) - "seminal," milieu-defining acts who reached the height of their prominence (or better: "influence") shortly before my awareness kicked in - still maintain a vaguely mystical stature in my mind, a sense that they'll always be the province of people slightly cooler (that is, older) than me - unlike earlier, probably more objectively "important" bands like the clash and the velvet underground and even the pixies, who seem more approachable, more possible to own.

the acts that came up while i was in college - shins, strokes, spoon, new pornographers - i have total mastery of: we can relate as friends, as equals - we love each other but they hold no real mystique for me. (though there are some, like yo la tengo and the mountain goats and the dismemberment plan, slightly older and with longer and darker pasts that i may never quite get a handle on, who'll always retain just that slight bit of distance.) but now that i'm three years out of school, well beyond the tyranny of the wsrn rok playlist, the delimited benificence of olde club and r5 all-ages booking, the rockcentric listening interests of most of my musical colleagues... i feel like it's gotten away from me, or me from it.

i'll still devotedly keep tabs on those aforementioned friends; i'll still dutifully snap up used back-catalog from the likes of sebadoh, lambchop, and superchunk, bands whose early-90s work i feel i'm supposed to have already known and loved even though they came to me in later incarnations that will always bear more emotional significance. but i'm running into limited tolerance, and diminishing returns, for the more recent crops of touted, beloved bands, whose sound, i've gotta say, often seems so distantly related to "rock" per se that i'm more inclined to call it Indie Guitar-Based Music.

[btw, one pop-ular indie band that does stand out as undeniably, unrepentantly ROCK, in a distinctive albeit derivative way - and thereby sort of points up what i mean - is The Hold Steady. so go them. (and look, i made a movie!)]

funny thing. it makes me feel like a bit of a young curmudgeon, a bit of a traitorous ingrate (turning my back on the scene that made me?), a bit of counter-cultural cliché. and y'all know i hate to be a hater. so this is hard. some of it is undeniably cultural - it's not so much that being out of college has separated me from a community that's actively involved in this stuff; almost the opposite in fact, as more and more people are tuning in and turning on to the music whose oppositional definition as "independent" grows ever more dubious. i'm all for increasing audiences - far be it from me to heap scorn a band or style for becoming popular - but the sense of a cohesive listenership becomes increasingly vague as it grows; much like the stylistic limitations of the music itself: it gets so big and diverse as to become meaningless.

[i've just written a paragraph and a half that i'm now retracting b/c it kind of seems like unonvincing, insubstantive whining stemming from laughably flimsy generational bias.]

in musical terms though - and obviously this is just my perspective - i've really struggled to find any sustainable interest in most of the new indie rock bands of the last few years: wolf parade, clap your hands say yeah, tv on the radio (whose previous album i found much more distinctive than return), islands (even though i quite liked the unicorns record), menomena - even though i have enjoyed listening to them on occasion (some more than others)...and i'll admit that i haven't given any of them a lot of attention or listening time... they just really don't sound very interesting to me. rather, they all sort of sound the same - i think a lot of it has to do with the production - these records often sound flat, cold, muddy, cluttered, claustrophobic. it's like they're trying to hold on to the lo-fi aesthetic of earlier indie music, as if on principle, despite arrangements and performances that are too big to be translated justly by those means, so that an approach which should make the music seem more personal and idiosyncratic ends up making it rough and indistinct. when moments on these albums do stand out, it's because the songs or the singers succeed in spite of this unflattering presentation.

well. of course it's okay for me not to like them - obv. they're doing fine without my support, and it's probably healthier for me not to want to traipse down every single musical avenue i encounter. but, you know, it makes me a little sad, or at least a little confused, and distanced from my fellow listeners (which is the opposite of what music should do), to find little to connect with in music that's clearly struck a chord with many people. and since i personally feel like these bands could be more exciting with cleaner, more vibrant production and arrangements, i get to wondering whether folks are (unwittingly?) harboring complicated, inappropriately moralistic grounds for wanting to listen to music that's so defiantly "indie" (for better as well as for worse) in its production values...

as a final note on that strand, i better say something about the band that to some extent epitomizes this aesthetic, has found the greatest success with it to date (a #2 album, on merge! that's crazy-talk!), is starting to look like the biggest, most significant indie-associated act of the 2000s (well, who else... lcd soundsystem?), and is hugely emblematic of my personal relationship with guitar-based indie music. y'all know how the story goes. it's effing ridiculous. i saw the arcade fire in a tiny club in NC, two months before their album came out, before anybody had heard of them; they blew me away, i fell in love, bought their album they day it came out, my buddy dave gave it an almost-10 in pithfork (sic but i like it), i found it a little less exciting than the live show but still love it and name it my favorite of the year, i saw them once more in a somewhat larger club - still good but they rubbed me the wrong way by doing a lame cover of my favorite song; they got gradually massive, and even as i thrilled when "rebellion" becomes an end-of-the-night danceparty anthem, and they started to hobnob with my other buddy dave the famous rckstr (who wrote my favorite song that they butchered, and whose quoted lyrics had opened pfk review, but whose band i think has become majorly abused as a reference point in recent years, including/especially w/r/t the a.f., whose appeal comes from a very different place, imho)... eventually funeral started to leave me a little cold, hate to say it but maybe, just maybe my relationship with it has been corrupted by overexposure, although it can still catch me the right way on the right sunny morning...flashfoward to three weeks ago when the follow-up dropped (and hits #2!) and my unreconstructed (ha!) indie-devotee roommate buys it and loves the heck out of it and...well, i'm listening to it now: it's pretty good. i guess. it does sound like them, at least, though i wish regine got to do more - she (and esp. richard reed perry) always seemed much more charismatic and important to the band's unique appeal than the likable but kind of drudgy over-earnest (?) everymannish win butler. oh man. "no cars go" (rerecorded from the debut ep) is still a great song. "my body is a cage" has a nice melody. "keep the car running" has a sorta nifty jangle to it. those organs sure are big and imposing. oh dear...i don't know what to say. like, it's an album, you know? the cover art's kind of ugly...


Dave said...

Christgau's A+ review for Neon Bible (which no one has discussed yet as far as I know, even HIM since he hasn't linked to it from his website yet):

To remind us that anxiety is in his bones, Win Butler refurbishes the 2003 plaint "No Cars Go" as a football cheer about the safe place just before sleep. But everywhere else he emerges from his precious privacy and names the things he has to be afraid of, things he shares with all of us -- religions run amok, rising tides, the surveillance state, a cowboy-in-chief with so little to lose he could start World War III on a dare. He doesn't tame his fears by naming them, or hint that they can be overcome, although in "The Well and the Lighthouse," he advises the lighthouse: "If you leave, them ships are gonna wreck." But he and his large band of unarty art-rockers rock so hard and so beautiful they can propel anyone who listens past the end of the record. They thud rather than thunder. But what a loud and joyous thud it is.

Grade: A PLUS

Dave said...

Funny, since Xgau seemed to be the only critic to pick up on AF's "sense of the ridiculous" the first time around! I'd say he "fell for" something but I wouldn't have any idea what I'm talking about. But I do disagree, I think it's an oppressive and joyless THUD. (Xgau's dead-on evocative as always, tho.) Should note that I do like the album generally.