Richard Crary pointed me to Charlie Wilmoth’s review of The Reminder over at Dusted, which begins to raise some of the issues I’ve touched on here and in some comments at the Existence Machine. Wilmoth doesn’t so much review Feist’s album as he does use it to talk about some other issues—namely the disappearance of lo-fi recording in indie rock. Gone are the days of Sebadoh and Beat Happening, where whole albums were made from 4-tracks because that’s all these people could afford. These days, if anyone is making an album with that equipment, it’s an aesthetic choice, not a necessity.
Wilmoth’s observation is a good one, though it might have packed more punch in the context of Elliott Smith’s newest, since Smith is arguably the last significant artist to squeeze genius out of a 4-track (and subsequently lose some of his genius once he had every trick at his disposal). I’m not sure why Wilmoth would choose a major-label release by an artist who has never claimed to have roots in lo-fi (in fact Wilmoth admits this slight absurdity his review). His ultimate complaint seems to be that Feist used her major label–quality recording equipment to make a record that is not very challenging—whereas if she were limited by budget and technology, it might have pushed her to make something more visceral. I can’t ride that train all the way to Wilmoth’s destination, however. His wish for Feist to be “more amateur” is ridiculous given that she’s done nothing with her career other than prove that she’s far from amateur—she’s versatile and commanding, both on record and on stage, solo or in support of others.
But Wilmoth’s observation concerning The Reminder’s many smooth corners, and his discomfort with that as he tries to place Feist within a Pitchfork (or Dusted)-approved context, points to a similar idea I’ve been circling for a while now—namely that Feist is trading in what Wilmoth dubs “Adult Alternative.” He writes:
The less obvious effect that technology is having on indie rock is that the punk spirit of so much ’80s and ’90s indie is just about gone from many of the biggest records. You can now buy the Shins’ latest album at Starbucks. And when I hear the Shins, or Death Cab for Cutie, I mostly hear a very beautiful-sounding brand of bougie, thirtysomething myopia. Even when the Shins’ lyrics drip with bitterness, and even when Ben Gibbard sings about his estrangement from the church, the underlying message is that everything is okay, or at least that everything is okay beyond the world of the narrators' personal lives. Their music is perfect, professional, and Starbucks-friendly. As much as I enjoy many aspects of both bands’ music, there is something wrong with this picture.
It may seem absurd to mention Sebadoh’s III in the context of a review of a record like The Reminder, which was released on a major label and features an opener (“So Sorry”) that could easily be mistaken for Norah Jones. And, after all, Leslie Feist has received a huge career boost from NPR. So why not just acknowledge that it’s Adult Alternative fodder and let it be?
Again, I’m not so sure the onset of Adult Alternative is the fault of technology, but nevertheless there does seem to be such a genre, one that didn’t exist five or six years ago but which has quietly come into existence on any thirtysomething indie rocker’s iPod. Feist is far from the only one to occupy this territory. The newest Sea & Cake record, for instance, is so free of rough edges it’s practically dust. KCRW’s celebrated music programming is filled to the gills with underground soft rock. Even my beloved Midlake has garnered their fair share of comparisons to America.
Have we been snookered? How can I read Pitchfork every morning and enjoy an album so palatable my mother-in-law might even like it? How can Pitchfork swoon over that album with an 8.8 rating?
Since Wilmoth uses Sebadoh as his foil to Feist, let’s travel back in time, to the days when indie rock was so fucking new Lou Barlow hadn’t even written a song about it yet. Sebadoh’s first album, The Freed Man, was released in 1989. That same year the Who infamously embarked on their 25th anniversary reunion tour. “What happened to ‘Hope I Die Before I Get Old’?” the baby boomers lamented—not so much because they didn’t want to rock out with their spouses and children to “Pinball Wizard”; they just realized that, like 3/4 of the Who, they did not die before they got old. The irony that the anti-establishment g-g-generation had become the establishment had officially dawned. It’s okay that the spirit of the song no longer makes sense; I just want to hear that song again.
Around the same time, boomers were upgrading their music collections from vinyl to the relatively newfangled format, the CD. They headed to their local Tower with the intention of buying Exile on Main Street, but they came out with the new James Taylor, too. Worse, they didn’t even bother re-buying any Kinks albums; they bought Kenny G instead.
Fast forward to present day. Now that indie rock itself is as old as the Who were in 1989, it is perhaps not surprising that there is such a thing as indie rock for parents—that same combination of mellowing contemporary tastes and a nostalgia for bygone rockers. Even Lou Barlow is in on it: Dinosaur Jr.’s back together. It’s the same disconnect found in our parents' record collections.
Which brings me back around to Feist and Adult Alternative. We’ve been listening to punk, alternative, indie, underground—whatever you want to call it, not mainstream—pretty much our entire lives. Why, now that we are married and are having kids, would we suddenly abandon our innate distrust of mainstream music, even if our tastes are, perhaps inevitably, mellowing? Fuck no I’m not going to buy today’s popular equivalent to Kenny G—but I’m considering buying the new Air. How’s that for a middle finger to the mainstream? Just gimme indie dinner music!
The ultimate question, finally, is this: so what? Wilmoth is onto something when he alludes to a sort of discomfort in acknowledging that the easiness of Feist’s sound is precisely what makes her records so beguiling, all the while reconciling that with your inner teenager, who would sooner punch his head through a wall than sing along with “Brandy Alexander.” But overcoming one’s inner college rock snob is a personal battle. I’m waging mine. How’s yours going?