Saturday, August 21, 2004

The Sea and the Rhythm

Indie-rock trends are fickle, even compared to mainstream pop. For a while, everyone was interested in European-inspired, post-rock instrumentals. (Cf. Tortoise, Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor!) The garage-rock revival was over almost before it started, collapsing under the weight of mainstream breakthroughs and second-rate imitation. (Cf. Jonathan Fire*Eater, The White Stripes, The Strokes.) Dancepunk sprung Phoenix-like from garage-rock's ashes, combining the same angular guitar attacks with 80's-new-wave-inspired keyboard flourishes and atmospherics. (Cf. Interpol, The Rapture, Franz Ferdinand.)

All this makes the newly emerging trend -- a return to folk music -- both refreshing and entirely expected. Iron & Wine's Our Endless Numbered Days, Sufjan Stevens's Greetings from Michigan and Seven Swans, Devendra Banhart's Rejoicing in the Hands, and Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender have all gathered attention and praise from the usual sources -- indie websites and zines, NPR, and critic's lists -- but unlike his hipster counterparts, it's hard to imagine the decidedly unphotogenic Sam Beam (above) on TRL anytime soon. As David Bazan of Pedro the Lion sings, "Bands with managers / are going places; / bands with messy hair / and snow-white faces." The lo-fi folk crowd isn't going anywhere, but they make great music about it.

These younger artists join an established base of indie legends, and continue their precedent of using band names for solo artists: Smog (aka Bill Callhan), The Mountain Goats (aka John Darnielle), Hayden (aka Hayden Desser), The Microphones/Mount Eerie (aka Phil Elvrum/Elverum) and Will Oldham -- who's recorded as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and lately, Bonnie "Prince" Billy -- among others.

We've had folk revivals in independent music before, with mixed results: Billy Bragg's resurrection of political folk, Ani DiFranco's personal/political singer-songwriter persona, Elliott Smith's haunting fusion of Nick Drake, classic pop, and grunge confessionalism, or the Gillian Welch-by way of-O Brother, Where Art Thou? rediscovery of traditional Americana. What distinguishes the new artists is their connection to the indie traditions of DIY, lo-fidelity recording on the one hand and their exploration of near-psychedelic abstraction on the other. (And, of course, a willingness to deviate from both of these generalizations, through surprisingly lush arrangements and personal content.)

Both Stevens's and Oldham's music has a deeply religious content: in Stevens's case, the spirituality is genuine, while in Oldham's, it's more a matter of establishing an alternate persona. Banhart, on the other hand, on the brilliant "Michigan State," joyously yelps "The salt keeps the sea from feeling sweet / And my toes have my favorite feet" -- referencing less Blood on the Tracks than the homespun whimsy of The Basement Tapes. Banhart's Mark Bolan impression grates on some, but his songs crystallize the new musical aesthetic, and herald a return to a much-neglected persona in indie and alternative music: the poetic loser.


Gavin said...

Dude, Sam Beam is totally photogenic. Look at those soulful eyes. :-)

Tim said...

Yeah, the anti-Sam Beam's good looks comment was partly motivated by an inside joke: Sam Beam looks kinda like my brother Sean. And I bet that if Sean made sweet sweet homegrown folk music, it would sound a whole lot like Iron & Wine.