The Essence of Indie: The Raw and Organic

There used to be a time when Indie meant something; when Indie was unknown bands with weird names that you heard on a college campus or sitting in a CD store in the $1 bin. But today, everything is “Indie” and we have more “Indies” than we know what to do with—Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Indie Rap, Low-Fi Indie, etc.. In short, Indie has become a meaningless add-on moniker to gives something credibility, as in “I’m not hipster”.

 I think it’s time to define Indie for what it is and what it means. We can’t use the technical definition–that the band is “independent or unsigned—since recognized indie bands are signed (see Cutie, Death Cab for). No, it’s time to define Indie by its unique lyrical and musical features. In short, what makes Indie, well, Indie, is its sound.

Though there may be many qualities that define the Indie sound, I think the characteristic allure evolving in today’s Indie song is its raw and grainy imperfection mixed with vocal harmonies that challenge the over-produced and orderly smoothness of mainstream music. The Indie sound is organic and challenges mainstream’s mass-produced sound with the feeling that the song could have been recorded anywhere and could change on any given listening. Case in point? The Lumineers’ Stubborn Love produced in a bus.

In essence, the Indie sound removes the barriers between listener and producer, and puts you in the experience of the music itself.  Rather than just singing along with a song, you get the feeling that your singing along adds to the song’s musical quality. (The Lumineers’ “Stubborn Love” is one such song). In short, the essence of Indie is its open-endedness in making music a co-created experience.

Some of my favorite Indie bands that demonstrate this organic edginess:

(Note: Some of these downloads are from Noisetrade, a free download site for promoting Indie bands. I highly recommend making a donation if you like the music.)

 The Lumineers

I have already mentioned the Lumineers, and their meteoric rise in mainstream might classify them as mainstream now, but, popular or not, their raw sound is Indie perfection.  Doubtless you know “Ho Hey” already, from its constant radio presence and last year’s Bing commercial.  My personal favorite is Submarines, but the entire album is worth buying.

Free Download: The Lumineers – Ho Hey; Slow it Down via Indie Rock Cafe

The Oh Hellos

I recently discovered this brother-sister duo on Noisetrade, and have been smitten ever since. Their sound is characterized by what I call an un-edited graininess to their vocal harmonies and musical arrangements. Their music is folksie yet tribal, and every song builds to an emotional avalanche at the end. They are a must-hear. See their track “The Valley” in the free download below:

Free Download: The Oh Hellos – Through The Deep Dark Valley (Album) via Noisetrade

Of Monsters and Men

Another well-recognized band, I’ve chosen this Icelandic marvel because of quirky chants that elicit singing along (as evidenced in numerous road trips in my Indie-mobile with 4 kids). What’s more, OM&M have some of the most intriguing subject matter for their lyrical productions, including Six Weeks, which is a recount of frontiersman Hugh Glass’s 6 week ordeal after a bear attack.

Free Download: Of Monsters and Men – Lake House via Indie Rock Cafe

Great Lake Swimmers

This one comes with a minor disclaimer, that I think their newest album went too mainstream folk/bluegrass (if there is such thing) for my tastes. But their Legion Sessions is a must-own for any Indie Collection. From the lyrical genius of Sill to the haunting undertones of Stealing Tomorrow from Today, this band clearly knows how to grab you emotionally and bury you in the music.

Free Download: The Great Lake Swimmers – The Legion Sessions via NoiseTrade

Other Favorites:

Freelance Whales – Generator 1st Floor

Thad Kopec – The World Was Young 

Sooner the Sunset – All Becaue of You 

The Walkmen – We Can’t Be Beat

Deadman’s Bones – My Body’s a Zombie for You

Ivan and Alyosha – On My Way

Jenny & Tyler – Fear Thou Not, Hold on Hope

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..but what about the Indie Personality?

It seems we Indie fans have been left out…again. Nevermind that Indie has earned mainstream recognition through Indie bands gone mainstream (like Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists), and nevermind that movies like Juno and the upcoming Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist rely on Indie music….

…but, a new study has defined personality through music taste.

Apparently, classical and jazz enthusiasts are creative, pop fans are hardworkers, and heavy metal fans are, get ready for this, “gentle”.

But what about Indie fans? Since Indie can overlap between pop, heavy rock, and even jazz, do we fit somewhere in between? Are we gentle hardworkers who are creative? Maybe we’re something else?

If I had to put my vote in, I’d say Indie music fans are motivated. A personality theorist I used to be a ghostwriter for believed that personality could be reduced to 4 main core drivers: Drive for power, closeness or intimacy, fun, and peace or absence of conflict. Now, these don’t really translate into the music personality theory reported above, and I don’t think you can say all Indie enthusiasts are motivated by power, or intimacy, or even fun…but I do think you’d find that Indie enthusiasts have common personality traits like motivations for uniqueness, to be different, hardworking (as in driven to get what they want, not as in working 60 hour weeks), and committed.

In other words, I’d sum up the main Indie personality trait as “driven”.

What do you think?

10 Albums better than Viva La Vida

Ok, I’ve blogged my discontent with Viva La Vida already, but as I delve into new or recent offerings by Indie bands, I can’t help but think that in spite of the lack of name recognition, they’re better than the new Coldplay album.

Perhaps this is the mark of a band that has officially shed it’s “indie-ness” that it can produce music on the basis of its name rather than on the basis of its talent (I can be harsh here because prior to Viva La Vida, I was smitten with the brilliance of Coldplay’s music…especially their last two albums).

So, in that vein here, in no particular order, is my list of Indie albums that are far more worth the $10 or so than Coldplay’s album (You might call this the 10 CDs I wish I would have bought instead of Viva la Vida):

1. Barcelona – Absolutes: I don’t care that this album was released a year ago, it’s only now that it seems they’ve started really marketing it on the Indie circuit. Fantastic album. Haunting harmonies. Singable melodies. And a freshness that defies the copy-cat-dom of mainstream music

2. Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs. It’s like they didn’t even miss a beat from Plans. It’s contagious, to say the least.

3. Weezer – Red Album: I know what you’re saying, it doesn’t belong on this list, might even be a slightly different genre of music. Well, not Weezer’s latest. It has incredible depth, both musically and lyrically. Check out “Miss Sweeney”…fantastic emotion for a song.

4. Polyphonic Spree – Fragile Army: I am usually loathe to say anything good about this band, because their style is so overwhelming that it bowls me over and makes me never want to listen to music again. Not this one. It’s diverse…at least, to the extent that Happy-Shiny 60s Power pop can be.

5. Iron & Wine – the Shepherd’s Dog: I’ve already blogged that this album is a major breakthrough. It’s infectious, and it’s better than the coldplay album.

6. The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter – A cheeky pick by me here…but still, not a bad album…

7. Wolf Parade- At Mount Zoomer: I don’t know what it is about Wolf Parade. It might be their spacey tunes mixed with classic Oingo Boingo guitars but I like it.

8. Ferraby Lionheart – Catch the Brass Ring. If you’ve never heard of Ferraby Lionheart, they have a breezy Beatles sound, with a lead singer who has a down to Earth but memorable voice. For a really nice selection of downloads, check them out on music.download.com. “The Ballad of Gus and Sam” is Indie Perfection.

9. A Fine Frenzy – One Cell In the Sea: I’m a sucker for a good piano piece, this one has plenty…and this mention is in spite of the copy-cat “airy” voice she sings with.

10. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible: Yeah, I know this one came out last year, but it’s still one of my favorite Indie albums. I’ve been listening to it for a year, and I’m still not tired of the haunting rhythms, the moving melodies, and the downright perplexing lyrics.

What’s In a Voice?

I’ve been thinking about this one for quite some time…music, especially Indie music, is about more than just the music. It’s about the words. It’s about the singer. The genius of Indie is that each band has a distinct personality, that evades the normal “Write about the same thing” nonsense you hear on mainstream radio. For me, good music is about a nice combination of instrumentation AND voice work…In fact, I’ll take a good voice with so-so instrumentation over the opposite. If a song has a boring/horrible singer, I just can’t put up with it, no matter how good the music is. So, here’s my list of my favorite recognizable singing voices, in Letterman-esque descending style:

10. Claude, Anything Box: Raw. Emotional. I love how in one second his voice sounds innocent, the next, wild, untamed, and enraged.

9. Matthew Bellamy, Muse: Does anyone else in music express more emotion when singing? I defy you to find one.

8. Tori Amos: One of my all-time favorite voices. Haunting, simply haunting.

7a. Ryan Miller, Guster: His voice is simple and smooth…and easy to sing-along with, or maybe it’s his songs…

7b. Ben Gibbard, Death Cab For Cutie: Real is the best word I can come up with for Ben’s voice. It’s just plain real. Like you know him. Like he’s talking to you, rather than singing.

6. Harry Connick Jr. : Ok, deservedly, Harry Connick Jr. deserves to be on the top of this list, hands down. But first of all, he’s not Indie, and second of all…well I can’t think of a 2nd of all.

5. Johnny Boyd, Indigo Swing: (see comments for Connick Jr., Harry). Even more so, tragically, Johnny no longer sings for Indigo Swing. Which is odd…how can a band lose a guy commonly referred to as “The Voice”?

4. Rivers Cuomo, Weezer. Don’t know what it is, but I can’t get over the raw clarity and emotion of Rivers’ voice. My favorite example is on a live session their new song Miss Sweeney.

3. Steven Page/Ed Roberts, Barenaked Ladies: Rarely does a band have one good lead singer, let alone two. Ed is the charismatic voice, the accessible voice in a “You could be my best friend” sort of way. Steve is the powerhouse. If you’ve ever been to a BNL concert, you’d know what I’m talking out. He can simply BELT out some powerful melodies.

2. Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo. Yes, I know the Elf Man left singing on the radio for singing…and orchestrating…on the big screen, but his voice is still one of the very best AND most unique in all of music.

1. John Linell, They Might Be Giants: I love John’s voice. It’s raw. It’s even nasally. But it’s unique, and I can’t help but listen everytime I hear it. I love pointing out John Linell’s voice in obscure instances…like the Dunk’n Doughnuts new commercials, and even on PBS Kids in between shows.

Of Sequels and Trilogies: Bartimaeus and the Empire Strikes Back Syndrome

Golem\'s EyeI’m starting to notice a trend, and was wondering if you’ve noticed it too. The more I see and read, the more I think that the 2nd installment in a trilogy is one of the best. Empire Strikes Back is a dark horse favorite for a lot of people, me included, in the trilogy, and there are quite a few recent movies and books I’ve watched or read, and have noticed the same thing. For example, in the Twilight Book Series by Stephenie Meyer, New Moon (Book 2), has got to be the best–the anxiety, the emotion, the despair and recovery Meyer builds in that book far outweighs any book she has written. Shrek 2 was the best movie in that trilogy (especially better than the pathetic third installment). And the same rings true for the Bartimaeus Trilogy…

I just finished book two The Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Golem’s Eye. Simply incredible book.

First, as I was going through The Golem’s Eye, I came to the realization that Stroud’s original hero (Nathaniel) is a bit of a tragic character. In fact, rooting for him is like rooting for Draco Malfoy in the Potter series. Nathaniel is every bit as power hungry and brainwashed as was Draco. In book two, Stroud introduces a new hero…or heroine, Kitty Jones.

Second, the story was much more involved and fast paced than book one. It took a good few hundred pages before things started getting interesting in The Amulet of Samarkand. The story was good, but was fairly straightforward, without many plot divergences or multiple story lines. In Book two, there are at least 3 to 4 legitimate story lines…it’s like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure Book…only you get to choose who you’re rooting for.

Finally, the depth added to the real hero–Bartimaeus–brings you into the story and is quite engaging. So, in short, Book 2 is a great read*…I highly recommend it.

*Ok, I should say, great “listen”…since I’ve been listening to the books on CD. I have to put a plug in here, because the reader for this series is amazing. Simon Jones, a Broadway regular, really makes this series worthwhile. His voices and especially his interpretation of Bartimaeus, have kept me listening, even when I get urges to turn it off and listen to the new Death Cab…

Death Cab – A tale of too long and too short OR Amazon out of the dog-house

First, a Kudos to Amazon for rectifying the previous incident reported on this blog…when approached (for the 2nd time) about their faulty policy in shipping items altogether when you do super-saver shipping, they shipped my new Death Cab CD out immediately and swallowed the $2-$3 shipping at the same time.

Now on to my much awaited review. Death Cab’s “Narrow Stairs” is a dichotomy of too long and too short. On the one hand, “I will possess your heart” is fatally too long…8 minutes and then some, with the first four the same 4 riffs and piano measures, it seemed like Ben and company were just trying to satisfy its Indie faithful who wanted something expressly “non-mainstream”. Adding 4 unnecessary minutes to the track didn’t do it for me.

While one track may be too long, other parts of this CD are too short. In an Itunes world, there is simply NO excuse for an album with only 11 tracks. In my mind, for a CD to be a good deal, there should be incentive to buy it in its entirety in hard-copy. Tori Amos’ American Doll Posse had 22 legitimate tracks on it (2 were short musings), and over half of that 22 were fantastic. I think I have listened and re-listened to Narrow Stairs 10x hoping for 1 or 2 secret songs, some live-tracks, or SOMETHING beyond the 1990s album standard of 11 tracks. Some of their songs are fatally short too…No Sunlight and You can do better than me are fantastic tracks…but they’re cut short, the former under 2 minutes.

All this being said, my complaints on this album are mostly on account that I simply wanted MORE. Altogether, the album is fantastic. I think it’s more reflective of traditional Death Cab than Plans (which, for all intents and purposes, seemed written just to get radio-playability, though it was still good on its own merit). The songs are innovative, even catchy, and I can honestly say I’ve been listening to it for 5 hours straight today, without interruption. In short, it’s like an awesome concert you attend that ends with audience demanding 3 encores…only, on this album, Death Cab doesn’t give us any encores…just 11 great tracks and a unquenched thirst for more.

Amazon Sucks

Weeks ago, I pre-ordered the new Death Cab for Cutie CD “Narrow Stairs” through Amazon so I could review it early on this site. Trying to get the free shipping, I also pre-ordered Cold Play’s Viva la Vida and the next book in the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” series, Breaking Dawn. In spite of all my efforts to the contrary, Amazon is intent on sending me everything when the Meyer book comes out (in August).

So, rather than getting a nice review of Ben Gibbard’s new stuff…I get to review Amazon’s service for pre-ordering. So here you go:

It Sucks.

Yes, you can quote me. Even though I specifically requested the contrary, they did what was best for them, and went ahead and labeled my purchases to be shipped all together. So there you have it. If you want to pre-order something, AND you were hoping to get it before the rest of the Western Hemisphere got it so that you’d have at least the jump on a few people for a review…don’t go through Amazon.