Independent Clauses exists to cover things that don’t get much coverage, and kindie rock doesn’t get much play in the circles I run in. But it certainly is worth the effort, because modern kids’ music is a far cry from Raffi and Harry Chapin (as much as I love Tom Chapin). I put Justin Roberts’ music on mixtapes for people and no one ever guesses it’s a kid song. So here’s two kindie rock albums that have crossed my path recently.
The Not-Its! are a power-pop band that probably sound less like a kid’s band than The Apples in Stereo sometimes did (Remember this song?!). They also come off as more of an indie band than some indie bands, dressed out in White Stripes-ian pink/black/white. Kidquake! is primarily female-fronted, although some songs (“Let’s Skateboard”) are fronted by a guy who’s voice is actually not that far off from Robert Schneider’s. “Let’s Skateboard” is one of the best tracks on the album, fitting both the term “no comply” and some infectious indie-punk-pop melodies into a sub-2:00 package. Legit. Also legit: the punk-ska attack of “Busy.” Less legit: the kid monologue opening the Blink 182-esque “Temper Tantrum.” But on the whole, this is a solidly enjoyable piece of power-pop that can be enjoyed on its own merits–not just as “kid’s music that doesn’t suck!”
Cat Doorman sounds even more comfortable in the “grown up” world, as Songbook is a gorgeous chamber-folk album. This is made possible because songwriter Julianna Bright is a music veteran and Chris Funk of the Decemberists is on board. The balance between fanciful arrangements and tactful restraint is navigated easily, as a honking bass saxophone and a grumbling electric guitar are treated with equal care and taste (“Effervescing Elephant” and “So Many Words,” respectively). Bright’s vocal melodies sell the album perfectly, as they don’t pander to kids in that annoying way that kids’ albums can do. These are real songs, and they happen to have lyrics kids can sing along with. Given the current indie penchant for whimsy, and it’s not that hard to imagine these songs being sung by the next big thing. “Turn Around” is especially poignant and beautiful; when’s the last time you said that about a kid’s song? Yeah. Songbook is impressive by any standard.
The genius of Pedro the Lion’s songwriting was the ability to combine minimalist singer/songwriter arrangements with loud indie-rock almost seamlessly. Illustrated Manual‘s The Long and Tangled Beard splits that difference neatly as well, allowing the deeply personal subject matter to find whatever proper mood it needs. “The Invisible Line” sets the tale of a first sexual encounter against the backdrop of a fragile piano line and slowly building arrangement. “Hiding the Boy” sets another intimate story against a solo acoustic guitar backdrop; “The Time Traveler” starts with airy synths and gentle acoustic guitar before snapping to attention as a driving pop/rock piece.
All of these tunes are directed by Jonathan Cooke’s fluid, gripping vocals; Cooke had vocal cord surgery during the process of making this album, but you’d never be able to tell. His vocal melodies are strong, and his tone is impeccable. It’s the perfect fit for intimate songs like these, as it feels as if Cooke is in the room with me, having a quiet conversation about his life. This album is the sort that doesn’t leave your mind or iPod quickly: this level of execution in the lyrical, instrumental and vocal arenas doesn’t come around that often. The Long and Tangled Beard is a must-hear.
At first glance, it wouldn’t seem that Hemmingbirds‘ The Vines of Age is a kitchen-sink album, as “My Love, Our Time is Now” establishes a pastoral folk-pop sort of mood for the album. But by the middle of the track, it has morphed into a towering rock song complete with walloping drums. This is basically how Hemmingbirds roll: they play everything from really quiet to really loud, without regard for whether that will be jarring. One of the thrashiest tunes, “Heart Attack,” cuts off abruptly from its wailing guitar, howling vocals and whirlwind drums and drops directly into the intricate, gentle solo acoustic guitar of “Through the Night.” They’re good at both ends of their spectrum, but yikes; that’s some heavy whiplash.
Another standout is “Toxic Noise,” which exercises as much restraint as it can before exploding in a gigantic, early-Walkmen rock track. It’s like Bon Iver secretly also wanted to be Jack White, so he did both his thing and JW’s thing at the same time. Again, both sides of the spectrum are good, and the mishmash makes songs like “My Love” and “Toxic Noise” into the successes they are. Don’t expect to have a single mood throughout The Vines of Age; you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to hear some unique songs, you’re in the right place.
The Griswolds‘ four-song Heart of a Lion EP is one of the most fun releases I’ve heard in 2012. This seems like an Australian cross between The Strokes and Vampire Weekend, with the energetic cool of the first and the perky rhythms of the second thrown into a blender and set to the “fun” setting. There are infectious “oh-oh-ohs” in the title track; rumbling toms and animated bass lines mark “The Courtship of Summer Preasley”; falsetto works its way into my heart in the charming “Red Tuxedo.” There’s only ten minutes of music here, but whoa, those ten minutes. They rule. Watch out for The Griswolds in 2013.
A snarling, devil-may-care attitude used to be one of the defining characteristics of rock’n’roll. When that attitude folded into post-grunge’s misogynistic machismo (in approximately 1995, when grunge’s rebellion had completely metamorphosed into radio-readiness), indie-rock picked up the emotive banner, effectively abandoning the gritty bad boy image for an excess-is-rock’n’roll mentality or emotions-are-rock’n’roll ideology.