Taking the Indie Life in a New Direction

IMG_1497Anyone following this blog (or should I say, anyone left still following this blog?) would know that I’ve been on a little hiatus from blogging. Ok that’s an understatement. The last post I made dubbed Arcade Fire the Kings of Indie following their “newest” release, Reflektor. Yeah, it’s been a while.

So, what have I been doing with my lengthy blogging sabbatical? Besides teaching, researching, and otherwise fulfilling my professorial responsibilities?

Take a look:

 

Yep, I’ve been traveling… a lot. My research and teaching have had me outside the U.S. for a good portion of the last two years…and it’s not letting up any time soon.  I’ve always believed that the “Indie Life” is one dedicated to exploring the under-explored, experiencing the in-experienced, and an altogether rejection of the mainstream. My travels with the Indie Girl and my Indie Kids have followed that tune.

So I thought, why not mix my 3 favorite things: My Family, Traveling, and Indie Music?

So,  I’ve launched a new endeavor for This Indie Life…an Indie Music meets Indie Traveling YouTube Channel called Expatriate Snippets. There, I post short quirky travel videos highlighted by some deep Indie music to promote great music and great places to travel.

I’ve also launched a corresponding travel blog at http://expatriatesmiths.blogspot.com, where I have been posting travel insights. I’ll continue posting on This Indie Life as well.

Subscribe to the channel, leave a comment, or like. I’d love to get your feedback. I’ll continue to post on this blog, but will also leave more in-depth insight on the

 

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The Kings of Indie?

History has yet to conclusively decide who is the undisputed the king of rock and roll (hint: It’s the Beatles), but the race for the king of Indie may already be won (yes, I know I mixed my metaphors, just stay with me here). The last decade and a half has been the age of Indie. There’s indie everything: Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Indie Bluegrass, lo-fi Indie, hi-fi Indie, and an indie designation for nearly every country and language. Such is the grandeur of the movement toward rejecting the degradation of society from bane and vacuous mainstream pop music–which I call the “Indie Movement”.

But here’s the rub, with so many different types of Indie, is it possible to crown just one band king? Yes, yes it is.

There are plenty of worthy heirs for the kingship. But if we’re going to name one, it has to be:

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Arcade Fire.

Here’s why:

Arcade Fire is a singular “Indie” talent because with every album they redefine what it means to be Indie. They’re not just writing low-fi songs that are an “acquired taste” (read: Categorical music that has dubbed Indie “boring”). They’re also not straddling the pop line–selling out a little to get radio playability while reserving their deeper tracks for the Indie enthusiast (The Black Keys flirted with this on their last album). And most importantly, they’re not just writing songs that inevitably have to do with overdone themes (i.e. lost love, lost happiness, new love, new happiness).

No, Arcade Fire is substance. They’re meaning and melody, without one overpowering the other. Their music carries an air that says, “We don’t care if you like this stuff. We like it. If you don’t, get out of the way and let us play”. Case in point: their Grammy performance in which they played Month of May as the credits rolled and producers cut transmission.

I found Arcade Fire with 2007’s Neon Bible. Black Mirror, Intervention, Ocean of Noise. They pushed “alternative music” further than any music I had ever heard. I dug into Funeral and was convinced, this band was unique. Three years later, I heard the Suburbs and I was converted.  Three years after their Best Album Grammy win, their newest album, Reflektor, only pushes the dimensions of “alternative” music further. They’re so far ahead of the pack with their musical innovation, it’s not even close.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t sold on Reflektor on the first and second listens. My first time through, I actually thought it was bland and unmemorable. And then I heard After Life and Joan of Arc, and I started coming around. The title track “Reflektor”–a song that originally disappointed me–turned me around completely. (Download it from IndieRockCafe.com for free here)

That’s the magic of Arcade Fire, and what makes them the kings of indie. They don’t monotonous mass produce radio-friendly hits that inevitably wear on you nerves after a few listens and end up driving you mad after a week. Their music is deep, enigmatic, and intense. It stays with you a fleeting memory and resurfaces like a forgotten memory. On Reflektor, none of the songs appear, at first listen, to be phenomenal, but each grabs you and pulls you in, until, without warning, you find the subdued beats and melodies echoing in your subconscious. Unlike overplayed pop songs you can’t get out of your head, it’s a pleasant experience. And the effect is not age discriminant. My pre-K son will often spontaneously start chanting the French echo chorus of Joan of Arc: Jeanne d’Arc even if it’s been days since he heard the song.

Reflektor is further proof that Arcade Fire push the boundaries of alternative music with their lyrical depth and mastery of melody (alliteration is awesome). No doubt, we’ll be seeing an encore performance at the Grammy Awards. Let’s hope this time the producers don’t cut transmission this time.

When an Indie song isn’t…

I admit it. I, too, get excited by a retweet or reply on Twitter, especially if it’s a musician or band I enjoy. My most recent crazed fan experience was last week.

The musician: Nick Waterhouse.

The topic: This

Being too big an Indie aficionado for my own good, I can usually name the “unknown” song on commercials before they go all buzzy online. In fact, I’ve usually moved on from the song and am on to something else by the time I hear the song on the commercial. But the commercial usually reinvigorates interest for me. Thinking about this phenomenon, I posted the following tweet:

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The response came almost immediately:

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It had never dawned on me that what I call Indie probably has no meaning for (who I’d term) the Indie artist. Truth be told, Waterhouse’s music is probably more funk, soul, and R&B than it is traditional Indie (as might be defined by Juno and Nick and Norah). Truth be told, Indie is probably just as it sounds: Music from unsigned, independent bands, thus “Indie”.

But over the last few years, Indie music, in my mind, has become more about the sound than the band’s status as unsigned and “independent”. Case in point: bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, and Vampire Weekend are hallmarks of Indie music, but “independent” and unsigned, they are not. It’s the sound that defines the genre, and Indie sound is a rejection of the mainstream, sell-out radio-endorsed music that clutters the airwaves. It’s also broader than limiting it to one “type” of music (i.e. electronic, rock, etc.). The best indie is genre-defining and is often a fusion of multiple styles. (Take Mariachi El Bronx for example: a Punk and Mariachi fusion. Yeah, you’ve got to hear it).

So, to Nick Waterhouse, whose music is genre bending enough to be called Indie, I say: Indie music is innovative, musical style that rejects the mainstream…

….and that may or may NOT be, technically, independent.

Defining the Essence of Indie

Maybe you’re like me. Whenever I say I’m an Indie music fan, or I announce my favorite bands include Mates of State, The Great Lake Swimmers, and Freelance Whales, I am usually met with a confused expression. I have even met the occasional inculto who denounces Indie music as boring, low-fi dribble that is hardly listenable. Maybe Indie is an acquired taste, or maybe, most people just haven’t been properly educated beyond the Nick and Norah’s Playlists of Hollywood or the occasional television commercial:

Or maybe, most people have been brainwashed by the catchiness of the otherwise monotonous melodies and lyrical dribble of the so-called “radio playable” mainstream.

Of course, Indie-lovers will disagree with the mainstream mumbo jumbo that Indie is just low-fi boredom. But the problem of Indie may be even more complex for us aficionados. After all, ask 100 Indie fans what Indie is, and you’ll get 100 answers. Heck, ask one Indie fan what Indie and you’ll get 100 answers, or 100 bands, whichever comes first. Either way, none of the above helps anyone answer the question: How does one know if one is listening to Indie.

Strictly speaking, Indie music is music developed and produced by Independent artists (those either unsigned or represented by an Independent label). This definition presents a further problem: What if an Indie band is signed by a non-independent record label. Does said band thus forfeit its right to be Indie?

Of course, that’s ludicrous. So the only other answer is that there must be an Indie-ness to Indie Music—an essence that qualifies it as Indie. After all, Indie is neither Alternative Rock nor Bubble Gum Pop, but yet there is Indie Rock and Indie Pop.

Clearly, there is a need to conceptualize “Indie”. And, of course, it has to be more than whether the music was featured on the Juno Soundtrack or whether the band’s name looks like it was derived from random Wikipedia pages (i.e. Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, Ha Ha Tonka, and Architecture in Helsinki).

The heart of Indie may be in its rejection of the mainstream mundane, and though this has led to numerous permutations of what could be considered Indie, in this wake of musical revolution, some hallmarks of Indie may be notable, including its vocal variety, fusion of musical styles, instrumental innovation, and lyrical superiority to mainstream radio-playability.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be devoting this blog space to building a case for what constitutes Indie-ness, complete with legally FREE DOWNLOADS, which is also a hallmark of Indie. Stay tuned.

Introducing the Nine

One thing I hate about top 10 lists, is that there’s always that one item on the top 10 that you can tell was simply a place-holder, a stupid and less than original point that they used because they couldn’t find anything better to say. For example,Top 10 Reasons to Wear Clean Underwear:

10. Because your mom said so (because, you know, you could be injured and may need it).

Either that or the grand master list makers just threw it in there to make someone happy. For example, Top 10 Reasons to Wear Clean Underwear:

10. Because your mom said so (because, you know, you could be injured and may need it) (don’t forget to call the Law offices of Mather and Mather if you’re injured!).

So, I’m putting my foot down on top 10 lists. No more TOP 10! It’s time to seize power from these faceless list makers and give it to those who deserve it: ME…ok, and you can have some too. Let’s share: I’ll take the top 9, you add one to make it an even 10.

Behold, the Nine.

First up: 9 Bands You May Not Know Now (but you should).

1. Rogue Wave: After years of fringe popularity, including a few song cameos on one of those over-dramatized teenage life TV dramas based somewhere in Southern California, it is now time to give Zach Rogue his due. Forget for a moment that he has had incredible odds to overcome, including tragic losses and even a doctor warning that playing music would lead to paralysis…Rogue Wave’s latest album is pure brilliance on its own merit. Chris and the gang have effectively seized the classic R.E.M. sound (that Stipe and the boys left behind in 1994) and merged it with an uncharacteristic catchiness that often escapes Indie music. With a forthcoming marquee at Lollapalooza, Rogue Wave will not suffer Indie obscurity for long. Album: Permalight. Song: Solitary Gun.

2. Mates of State: Frequenters of this blog will know my personal bias for Mates of State. And I believe, by now, they have a big enough following that you may already know them. But if you don’t, get on the proverbial train. The best girl-guy mixed band since X and The Goodwin Club. Their music has already infiltrated TV commercials (Carnival Cruise)…which is step 1 in securing Indie greatness. Bonus points for raising a family while touring and blogging about it! Their latest album is one of the best of the last 10 years. Album: Re-Arrange Us. Song: Re-Arranger

3. Slow Club. Odd name considering there’s nothing slow about this band. Probably the most uppity, can’t help but play along band I’ve ever heard. They merge an infectious immaturity with the attitude of a one-hit wonder. Album: Yeah So. Song: It Doesn’t Have to be Beautiful

4. Rodrigo and Gabriela. Yes, I’ve hyped them before, but good Spanish Flamenco with an Indie edge to it? It’s a hard combination to ignore. The astute observer will recognize their song “Tamacun” which is played every 15 minutes in the Hispanic Heart of Disney’s California Adventure (see: Tortilla Factory). Album: 11:11, Song: Hanuman.

5. The Annuals. Young and raw, not to mention un-contaminated by the glitzy world of pop and un-tantalized by the lure of grunge (but mixing the best of both those worlds), the Annuals have a sound that I can only describe as a mountain fresh air with a hint of gritty twang and raw exuberance. Love everything about them. Album: Such Fun. Song: Wake.

6. Iron and Wine. I may be 2 weeks too late in declaring this one. Iron and Wine fans will have caught the song cameo in NBC’s Parenthood a few weeks ago (see: baseball scene), which followed up a highlight in an M&Ms commercial (see: Cover, Such Great Heights). Others may just mistake Iron and Wine for Sufjan Stevens. But that would be a mistake. Stevens is melancholy to Iron and Wine’s infinite rhythm.

7.Great Northern. It only took one song to sell me on this band (see recommended song at end of paragraph). The power of Paramore without the teenage angst (or punk princess tantrums for that matter).  Album: Remind me where the light is. Song: Story

8. Matt Pond PA. Mix the mystery of Iron and Wine with the groove of Matthew Sweet, and you have Austin’s favorite son: Matt Pond. Only a matter of time before he’s featured in some sappy prime time hospital drama. Album: The Dark Leaves. Song: Stranger.

9. April Smith and the Great Picture Show: Sultry voice, rythmic entrancement, incredible beef to pick with any guy who has ever crossed her. Throw in the fun of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Perfect indie equation. Album: Songs for a Sinking Ship. Song: Terrible Things.

10. [Input Band Name Here]: Now, it’s your turn. Fill in the blank.

BNL: ME or MEN?

I’ve been a Barenaked Ladies fan for quite some time, and I’ve been to several of their concerts, and even have met them. They’re right up there with They Might Be Giants for me…
…but their latest albums have me confused. The mainstream album is Barenaked Ladies are Me, and features some great clips, the best of which is Bank Job (Fantastic song, one of their best I think). It also has some real snoozers…
Then, a few weeks ago, I found another BNL release: BNL are MEN. Similar cover art, but over 20 new songs. When I was at the BNL are ME concert launch 2 years ago here in Virginia, they hoped that starting in VA would bring them the kind of luck they had with Stunt (when they also launched the tour in VA). Unfortunately, it didn’t go as well for them this time, but considering that they have 2 BNL are ME CDs, I thought I’d compile a list of songs they could have put together on the same disc and produced a real winner:
(key: Me=BNL are ME, MEN=BNL are MEN)
1. Easy (ME): Enigmatically, this was the official single, and it’s not even the 3rd best song on the album. You could go with “Adrift” here too, and get the same effect.
2. Bank Job (ME): See above. Intelligent song…one of their best.
3. Sound of your Voice (ME): Gotta love a song when Steve can belt it out.
4. Wind it up (ME): The rock classic ditty
5. Maybe You’re Right (ME): Great melodies
6. Bull in a China Shop (ME): the radio-playable ditty necessary for every album
7. Angry People (Men): A classic sardonic song from the guys. Smart. Funny.
8. Running out of Ink (MEN): This would be the dark horse favorite of real BNL fans…it’s almost a memoire (like Gordon’s Box Set). Classic. Funny. Great song, simply great. Could’ve been the single.
9. Fun and Games (MEN): I love the lyrics on this one. Talk about going outside mainstream…and gotta hand it to them: 11 straight phrases ending with a word with the “..ected” as an ending.
10. Maybe Not (MEN): Another great song with great lyrical sarcasm, like “Pretty soon you’ll be needing me……….to leave”
11. Why Say Anything Nice (MEN)
12. Another Spin: Cool song, but oddly enough, sung by Kevin.

And while I’m on that… I have to say that I think Kevin “The New Guy” is an AMAZING piano player. He’s added depth to the band that they never knew before him…And considering he overcame cancer a number of years ago, I have to say, the guy is amazing. But why let him sing? When you already have not one, but TWO signature voices, why overdo it and add another? They’ve slowly been adding Kevin to the singing over the last few albums, starting with Maroon (which was a fairly forgettable album). On BNL are ME, he sings at least once, and on MEN, he sings twice. I see a pattern. The problem is, his singing style doesn’t match the energy of traditional BNL songs. I don’t get it, really I don’t.

13. Half a heart (MEN): Another song that’s better than 75% of the songs on ME.

And with that, I think you’d have a winning album.