Maybe I blame Feist. Her first album, 2004’s Let It Die, featured a couple of tracks that tested my tolerance levels: “One Evening” and “Leisure Suite” They were cheesy, quote-unquote sexy wink wink—“One Evening” especially. Feist even seemed to acknowledge this in her video for that song, in which she and her partner do a silly synchronized dance that underlines how dumb the whole thing is.
I recall an interview between Leslie Feist and Nic Harcourt on KCRW a few years ago in which she herself admitted that Let It Die was assembled piecemeal and was released with no expectation that it would catch on; had she been more premeditated about it, she said, she might not have put certain songs on it. I chose to assume she meant the songs I disliked. These were, after all, straight up soft rock songs. Maybe it sounds silly to say that about some Feist songs and not others—her music is, all around, pretty soft. But many of them are gentle without being corny, sexy without being “sexy,” heartwarming without being manipulative. These two songs, on the other hand, crossed over to something cheeky and ironic. Still, these were, to me, aberrations on an otherwise fantastic album.
Her next album, The Reminder, also possessed a few soft rockisms but more organically integrated. The irony was mostly absent but there was still a smoothness to it, in songs like “Brandy Alexander” and “Limit to Your Love.” I didn’t care. I liked it. Claims from other quarters were that Feist was part of a new wave in indie music that was… boring. Bland. I wrote a post at the time defending my enjoyment of the record, even if it was “Adult Alternative.” Defending my enjoyment against whom? Mostly me, if I'm being honest. Feist made me cognizant of an internal struggle over my own taste. I thought I detected a shift in my tastes toward something with less of an edge and I wasn’t really sure what that meant. The young punk in me was raging against the aging softy I was becoming. At any rate by the time Sky Blue Sky was the definition of "Dad Rock" and Fleet Foxes were winning hearts (and rousing consternation) with their latter-day CSNYisms, I was happily on board and I didn’t care who called it boring. So I'd gone soft.
Meanwhile something else was happening in indie rock that I wasn’t fully paying attention to. That winky nod to soft rock I’d detected in “One Evening” had become a thing. More specifically 80s soft rock, or more generally just shit music from the 80s. Critical consensus regarding Hall & Oates, they of the atrocious “Man-Eater” and “Kiss On My List,” was being reconsidered. So too was Phil Collins. I couldn’t take it seriously, and I still can’t. I’m convinced that every nod to the wonders of Hall & Oates includes a wink and sly smile—like, “They’re great (not really).”
Other than being occasionally mystified by this trend, I’d mostly steered clear of it until I saw the movie (500) Days of Summer, which I mostly liked except for the one scene that was soundtracked by Hall & Oates. Aside from a random dance sequence feeling out of place in the otherwise not-absurd film, it rubbed me the wrong way because I knew that I was part of this film’s target demographic. Maybe on the older end, sure. Here were two characters who hailed more or less from the same subcultural milieu as I did—they had jobs in the arts, they bonded over the Smiths, they sang Pixies songs at karaoke—and when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character gets laid he bursts into… Hall & Oates. Fuck me. Whatever, it’s meant to be funny, that’s all.
Parallel to this was the emergence of “Yacht Rock,” a youtube phenomenon made by and for bearded hipsters. Clearly a joke, each of its dozen episodes found their punch lines in bad wigs and references to Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Toto, Christopher Cross, etc. It actually wasn’t that funny but a lot of people seemed to disagree based on how many times Yacht Rock showed up in my RSS feed. But whatever, it’s sketch comedy and who cares if I think it’s funny or not.
Then last year Grizzly Bear, a band who on record has zero sense of humor (intentionally, at least—often their songs remind me of the scary part of Splash Mountain), released a version of their song “While You Wait for the Others,” with the actual Michael McDonald on lead vocals. It was something of a bastard child of the genuine (not really) rehabilitation of Hall & Oates and Phil Collins and the obvious parody of Yacht Rock.
The thing that was weird about it was that the song was played totally straight. Like most Grizzly Bear songs it is dramatic and creepy and somewhat clinical. With McDonald on lead vocals, it was still all of those things. The punch line really came in the concept; the execution was straight, so you’d be forgiven if, midway into the track, you just sort of got into it the way you do with Grizzly Bear songs (assuming you like Grizzly Bear songs in the first place). Whatever. I just sort of took as an attempt at a joke by a band that had never made a joke before.
- Grizzly Bear featuring Michael McDonald: While You Wait for the Others
I was able to avoid all of these jokes because their whole basis for humor fell outside my sphere of interest. I was alive in the 80s and I remember these bands being massive hits. Barring a few exceptions (the Footloose soundtrack and Genesis’ Invisible Touch), I hated all these acts back then, so this whole “remember those shitty bands?” joke wasn’t that funny to me. Any joke that involves me remembering Bruce Hornsby or Christopher Cross or Air Supply is a joke I don’t need to hear. The punch line, fyi, is that it sucks.
Meanwhile I was perfectly happy listening to my bland, boring, no-edged indie bands like Midlake and Iron & Wine and Neko Case and Fleet Foxes. It’s not the softness that bothers me so much as the soft reference points.
Note, however, that nothing I’ve mentioned thus far involves a saxophone.
(Note: the reason this clip is funny is because it sucks.)
Skip to 2010: Gayngs were joking too. They made an awful record which references white soul and R&B of the 80s. They wear matching white suits when they perform. They covered (and butchered) George Michael’s “One More Try.” When I went off on their album last year none other than Justin Vernon tweeted at me, informing me that the band in fact took their whole endeavor quite seriously. And, if you compare Gayngs' astute level of musicianship to, say, the half-assed nature of the Yacht Rock videos, he has a point. Though he also admitted it was supposed to be funny (as if it weren’t apparent). “So what?” he seemed to be asked me. (Maybe you're saying that too. Can't I take a joke?) I responded that if the band knows that, on some level, the songs are funny, then they must also grasp that they're funny for the same reason "Yacht Rock" is funny—the punchline is that it sucks.
I feel more or less the same way about Ariel Pink’s recent album, Before Today. Conceptually, the record seems to evolve over a kind of timeline, the early songs sounding like mid/late-60s garage and psychedelia, the middle songs veering toward 70s gaudiness, the end morphing into 80s cheese. Like the Gayngs record, I was attracted to Before Today because of one outstanding track which turned out, I realized later, to be an utterly faithful cover. (For Gayngs it was Godley & Creme’s “Cry”; for Ariel Pink it was "Bright Lit Blue Sky," by the Rockin’ Ramrods and later the Rising Storm.) Realizing both albums had just one gem, and that the gem required only some good ears and the musical talent to ape their source perfectly, only underlined how much I disliked the rest of their material—i.e., when they're not in tribute band mode, their ideas are bunk. I can grant that Ariel Pink is up to something more original, perhaps more ambitious (and has apparently been mining this territory for years), but it doesn’t make the music more listenable.
- Ariel Pink: Can't Hear My Eyes
In college my friend Dan used to say “sweeeet” a lot. He sounded like a douche when he said it, but he knew he sounded like a douche. He was mocking douches who said “sweeeet” all the time. But he did it so much—he admitted this to me—that he had gotten to the point of legitimately saying “sweeeet” in response to something cool. It had stopped being a joke and instead just became part of his lexicon.
This to me is the feeling I get while listening to Destroyer’s new album, Kaputt. The album is rife with smooth saxophone. All the air quotes that might surround all the other songs I’ve talked about here have evaporated. The music of Destroyer sounds genuine, earnest. And—going back to the same internal battle I had over Feist—that disturbs me. To me it feels like a sea change has happened within indie rock in which the “sweeeet” joke has just become part of the lexicon. At one point, back when Feist was fumbling through her choreographed "One Evening" routine and later singing about her Brandy Alexander, I felt a tide turning against that younger me who stridently hated anything appoaching lite rock. I still like Feist, and still side with myself in that inner dialogue... but Kaputt, and in fact a whole trend in indie rock, has crossed a line.
- Destroyer: Kaputt
I missed all the hullabaloo around James Blake last year. Now he's got his debut album hitting stores today. I've heard just two songs from this album, so I don't claim to have the last word on the dude. But God, those songs. One is called "The Wilhelm Scream," and is it just me or does it sound like Aaron Neville singing over the music for "In the Air Tonight"? The other song, no shit, is a Feist cover. Full circle!
There’s a line in one of the Destroyer songs where Dan Bejar sings “I sent a message to the press: it said ‘don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves.’” I’ve seen the line quoted in a number of reviews of Kaputt, all of which cite how daring Bejar is to engage such a crap genre and how meta he is for acknowledging it. Oh, and by the way, as far as I can tell I am the only person on the internet who thinks Kaputt is an awful record. I’ve only seen raves, most of which are calling it not only good but the best album Bejar has ever made. Likewise Before Today was Pitchfork's top album of last year, Gayngs is not universally loathed or shrugged off, James Blake's debut is eagerly anticipated. I don't think I've ever felt more out of step with indie music. It disturbs me because, in the case of Bejar and Blake at least, the punch line is that there is no punch line. It's not a comedy anymore.