“If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction? Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas, each with their own set of reference points. The best stuff, every year, is the stuff that somehow leaps across those gaps, like a firing synapse.” -Jayson Greene, Pitchfork, “Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical”
I’ve been quoting this paragraph copiously in conversation and text since it was published, because it perfectly frames the situation in which indie rock currently sits. Should you be really, really good at one genre? The answer as an extension of this paragraph is “Probably not”: the genre already has a hero (or heroes), and you’re just going to be appropriating heroes if you aspire to greatness in a genre. You should mix and match, because that’s the stuff that gets applause these days: Bon Iver abandoning pure folk for a confluence of acoustic and ’80s synthscapes, Arcade Fire adopting a wiry ’80s touch for “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains.” If we’ve heard it all before, we must repackage it in new ways. (This is why we have “new” lawyer dramas every year.)
I disagree that there is no room for purists; folksters The Low Anthem immediately come to mind as a great example of forging forward in a historically-established sound, as well as singer/songwriters like Brianna Gaither. Still, it’s true that the hip and cool stuff right now is interdisciplinary. (The technically appropriate term would intergenrenary, but that’s a clunky, made-up word.) Everything in the world is becoming interconnected; why not music?
Gabriel and the Hounds‘ Kiss Full of Teeth is the sound of a band working hard on its interdisciplinary mix. The basic elements of the sound are stark folk in the For Emma vein, The National-style gloomy indie rock, and a composer’s sense of symphonic instrumentation (more Firebird Suite, less “Eleanor Rigby”). Like my late grandfather’s attempts to recreate Bailey’s Irish Cream from his own personal brewing and mixing, the results aren’t perfect—but they still taste great.
“Lovely Thief” is the most memorable track of the album, both for its successes and head-scratching excesses. The first minute consists of a grooving, lightly distorted guitar rhythm and comfortable tenor vocals. Trumpets, horns and oboes arrive without warning, colliding with the rhythmically solid guitar in erratic foxhunt calls. The guitar and foxhunt end simultaneously, giving way to an elegant symphonic break. Drums and guitar are then introduced on top of the continued symphonic elements. It’s a beautiful tune, especially in its final, fully-realized minute.
However, its abrupt switches show either a desire to rupture normative ideas of modern songwriting or an unfamiliarity with the delicate balance between all the song’s moving parts (or both!). The first is admirable, the second understandable; both show that they’re trying stuff. When the band sticks to one genre, they make very consistent songs that are less dynamic and interesting that their experiments: “The World Unfolds” uses strings as a support element to a straight-forward indie-rock tune; “What Good Would That Do” is Tom Waits for electric guitar.
So it’s pleasing that Gabriel and the Hounds try more ambitious tunes than standard ones: the very pretty “When We Die in South America” uses an unexpected entry point of strings to disrupt usual songwriting structure, while “Wire and Stone” sets an orchestra as the grounding point instead of traditional rock instruments. The swelling, building “An In-Between (Full Where You Are)” provides even more emphasis on symphonic composition—Colin Stetson listeners will nod and smile. “Who Will Fall on Knees” sets the symphonic arrangement against a pensive folk piece, using the strings as the forceful element in the piece.
Gabriel and the Hounds’ Kiss Full of Teeth is a wildly interesting piece of work packed with vitality and thought. The unique ideas shine, even if the pieces don’t come together in a completely unified way. It’s like listening to Regina Spektor’s Soviet Kitsch: It’s clear that she is either purposefully ignoring conventions of songwriting or isn’t yet skilled enough to write proper songs she hears in her head—regardless, Soviet Kitsch is wonderful. (Based on the markedly less erratic quality of her later output, I’d bank the latter idea.) Put another way: formal success does not ensure quality. Sometimes the half-baked mistakes are far more interesting and vital than the fully-formed, conventionally-sound work, and that’s the case for Gabriel and the Hounds. Hopefully more bands follow their lead and risk putting out this sort of genre-bending, might-be-a-mess-but-who-cares work.
Plants and Animals‘ The End of That enthusiastically and successfully combines “Wonderwall”-esque Brit-pop with modern indie bombast a la Frightened Rabbit (“Lightshow,” “2010”). If you’re excited about that sentence, check out the aforementioned tunes and then go forth to the album. If you think, “I’ve heard that before,” you’re correct—analysis of that sentiment follows.
Plants and Animals understands that in 2012, people ask a lot of indie bands. They’ve got to churn out a single, a viral video, and a fully-formed album to be seen as the complete package. Some bands excel so greatly at one aspect (Sleigh Bells, OK Go, Radiohead, respectively) that their attempts at the other two go underappreciated or even maligned.
That’s in the left hand. In the right hand is a growing “end of history” mentality in indie-rock, which was neatly encapsulated last week when Jayson Greene of Pitchfork pondered: “If there’s no grand cultural war left for you to wage, how are you supposed make friction?” (Greene’s response: “Indie rock responded by fanning out into a thousand sub-genre deltas.”) People are genuinely worried that there’s nothing left to say, not just in indie-rock but in, uh, everything. Simon Reynolds spends all of Retromania laying the death of creativity at the feet of a myriad of sources that include YouTube and Flying Lotus. What’s a band supposed to do when it’s asked to do more than ever, but people believe less than ever that it is saying and sounding something meaningful?
Answer: whatever it wants. In a critical environment that’s so hyper-analytical, so backward-referencing, so instantly affirmative or negative, there’s no recourse but to simply put stuff out. I hope this sounds reductive, because it is. Bands shouldn’t be afraid of or even antagonistic toward critics anymore, because hot on the heels of both the aforementioned quandaries is a third problem that is purely a critic’s concern: readers of criticism now have access to whatever they want. Critics don’t have exclusive access to the goods anymore, and that means that the original power of the critic is greatly reduced.
Lest I pull the trigger on the gun pointed at my foot, a clarification: The original power of the critic was the power to exalt or destroy, by telling people to not waste their cash on something terrible. Because cash is now not a bar to access, the writer’s power to destroy is much less; the critical backlash to Tapes’N’Tapes was almost a palpable thing at one point, but people still listened to the band’s music. (And the band still put out more music.) Critics, even the still-hugely-influential Pitchfork, can’t kill a band. (Not even Black Kids.)
With that in mind, there’s a conclusion here that relates to the very short but specific review of The End of That posited above: There is now no reason to write bad reviews. Why would space that could be given to something incredible be dedicated to something mediocre? Part of the reason indie music is wallowing in mediocrity (if you agree that it is, but that’s a different article altogether) is that we consistently foreground it. By giving bad reviews and mediocre reviews equal space and footing in our media outlets, critics create an environment that gives the all-coveted “exposure” to bands that are just okay. This is devastating to the state of music because “exposure” is the critic’s new power: a ready-made audience, dedicated to reading what the writer has to say. The access is available to all, but if “all” doesn’t know that the access is there to be had, no one accesses it.
“Lightshow” and “2010” are great tunes, and that’s where the review kicked off. Honestly, the review could have ended there, and that would have said (most of) what I wanted to say. I left off naming any other songs, because in my analysis they should be left off, as they aren’t particularly as exciting as the first two. However, the album as a whole can be praised as a well-conceived long-player for a certain audience. That includes shades of the Jayson Greene analysis, for sure, but that is still a recommendation for people who are into that particular subgenre.
But does my par-for-the-course analysis of “Crisis!” and “Why & Why” mean that those songs don’t have as much worth as “Lightshow”? No. There are writers out there enthusiastically parsing their depths. With the myriad of available voices, a critic is only as quantifiably meaningful as the size of his audience. As Clap Your Hands Say Yeah will note, not even the whole current critical audience moving in one direction is all-powerful. So even though this review will not result in Plants and Animals ending up on my year-end list, it is entirely likely that someone will read it, hear “Lightshow,” and love it—which is what I intended the first line of this review to do, because “Lightshow” might end up on my 50 best songs of the year list. It’s that good.
So if critics can’t kill a band, but they might expose its work to the masses if it does something awesome, why not go make something completely, idiosyncratically its own? And critics, ignore those idiosyncratic things unless and until you love them. Readers, support the bands that you find and love with money (in the form of album sales, Kickstarter contributions, donations to the band while they’re on tour, whatever). The mediocrity be lessened; the good will out; music will grow.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.