« Once | Main | Graham Greene: It's a Battlefield »

June 04, 2007


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Excellent post. A lot to consider. I will likely have more to say, but for now... I think one problem (if it's a problem) is this: indie rock, or underground rock, may have exhausted all of what rock has to say, within the normally accepted confines of the genre. There's a lot of plenty "edgy" stuff beyond those confines, but people aren't willing to go there. Wolf Eyes is not for everyone.

My big BIG music buying years were the late 90s through, like, 2004. I discovered a vibrant underground at the intersection of Fahey-style folk guitar, jazz, and underground rock. For my purposes, since most "popular" indie rock abandoned this vein in favor of boring Death Cab for Cutie pop or recapitulations of post-punk (Interpol, Franz Ferdinand) or Pavement, I lost interest. Feist is more interesting to me than any of the stuff mentioned in that last sentence (well, not more interesting than Pavement, but than those bands influenced by a watered-down idea of Pavement). I hear her stuff as sophisticated pop, whereas I hear Death Cab as better described as "adult alternative".

Oops. I'm rambling. Sorry.

I've never felt that mainstream music was bad because it was mainstream, though I did tend to observe that mainstream music tended to be bad, for a variety of reasons (not least of which is the manufacturing of taste), which meant that I generally avoided it. You referred to Air as "indie dinner music"--as against the garbage of Kenny G. The problem, for me, lies not in the fact that they (either Air or Kenny G) are soft or "mellow". There is of course plenty of great mellow music! Nothing wrong with it! But, can those indie fans who like Air but would never listen to Kenny G tell you why they like the former but not the latter, beyond simply "it's crap" or "it's mainstream"?

If I had more time, no doubt I'd be more coherent... but I have to go. I may comment again later. (Lucky you!)

Don't apologize to me for rambling... have you seen the length of my posts? Ramble on.

While I think that Death Cab has pretty much no edge to them, I still think they're making music for the kids first; that it might cross over to Adult Alternative is a secondary achievement. And I agree with you that Feist is a more sophisticated pop, but that still doesn't remove her from this realm. James Taylor, for instance, could also be considered more sophisiticated than Death Cab.

As to your second point - I hope my post doesn't come off as too narrow. I definitely don't condemn all mainstream music out of hand, but I do admit to being bred with a certain skepticism -- similar to what you describe. I also think that what I perceive as Adult Alternative is not simply defined as being "mellow" - I wouldn't, for instance, put Elliott Smith or Low in that category. I think there is a certain easiness to it, mellow without being morose.

Incidentally - Jeremy, another frequent commenter here (and old friend of mine - maybe he'll pipe up at some point), noted in a comment a while back that he was actively looking for quieter records now that he had a kid. I found that comment sort of fascinating, partly in the context of what I'm talking about here. Does the addition of children nudge us toward this music (again, mellow, not morose)?

One minor point: I'm not trying to remove Feist from this realm. I was just trying to describe her music.

I think my main point, which I almost made last time, had to do not with "edge" (after all, REM never had much edge), but with a loss of urgency--no, not urgency--a loss of necessity with indie rock. The indie rock bands we're talking about don't sound like they need to be what they are, almost as if they could be anything. But for example, Low, on the other hand, at least till recently, was, I felt, doing something of necessity to them.

Like, contra Wilmoth's review, Sebadoh's best work (III and Bakesale, to these ears) is definitely "better" than stuff like the Shins, the latter's higher budget and arguable superior technical competence notwithstanding...

I don't know, unfortunately I don't have a lot of time to flesh this out. Am I making any sense?

As for the move to quieter music when people have kids? Yeah, I see it. With me, I don't have kids yet, but I look for stuff my wife and I can both listen to. She has fine taste in music, but isn't so interested in the drone or the metal (but Sleater-Kinney and Sonic Youth, for the most part, are ok), and since I'm not interested in the indie bands of the moment, usually, there's Gilian Welch and Emmylou Harris, or Songs: Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co. and Smog (I name these last couple of indie artists, not because I think they're either mellow, necessarily, or quiet all the time, but because they are focused on the songs, versus the rock), all stuff I listened to all along, but we focus more on that together...


Is any of this shit really that "Alternative". Was Nirvana or Pearl Jam even all that "alternative" at the time it broke? It may have been an alternative to what preceded it, but it wasn't underground or unknown in '92. Adult Alternative is pretty much the new mainstream.

And is Beat Happening really all that? That American Indie book that I was reading a few weeks back listed them as the last band. I'd never heard of them before. The friend who I borrowed the book from was wondering why the hell they were included. Is this just a local music scene that I missed out on completely?

Richard - I think you hit on something. That word "necessity" zeroes in on what Wilmoth is saying, and also speaks to what I'm trying to say as well. Very good point.

Jesse - you're opening all kinds of cans of worms! I'm not even gonna touch Nirvana & Pearl Jam; and while I do see a lot of contemporary indie rock rising to the mainstream (or is the mainstream sinking to indie level?), I don't think it's quite there yet.

Re: Beat Happening, I'm personally not much of a fan, but in Calvin Johnson has a firm spot it the annals of indie rock for sure, since he's the guy behind K Records. Remind me - what's this American Indie book? I might check it out.

>That word "necessity" zeroes in on what Wilmoth is saying, and also speaks to what I'm trying to say as well.

If necessity is key to art and independence, then doesn't flippancy become revolutionary?

I'm not sure I agree with the idea of mainstream/independent... I much more like the idea of how conscious I am of something. Is Deep House underground? Is it independent? Mainstream? The word that my friend, Hanif from Naked Music. As to whether or not it's hip/cool/indie/undie, I'm not sure. It's funny though, after the third pill wore off, I wasn't sure that I wasn't listening to elevator music. But I liked it. The again, I've always had a soft spot for Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good". It was funny, whenever I put that track on back when my friends were in college, all the cool kids would start making faces and then about five minutes in they'd be grooving like muppets.

Here's a link to the post where I quote the Am Indie book...

Great conversation. Since getting old, this is something I've been thinking about a lot. I've got plenty to say about it, but I'm not sure I'll be able to say it all clearly.

re: Kids - That was me, and, yes, it's huge. I've always been interested in folksy stuff, but I've never devoted as much time to it as I have over the last 6 (almost 7) months. Kids really respond to music. Their moods change depending on what is playing. Since we often need to keep the little guy mellow, we do a lot more Iron and Wine, a lot more Damien Rice; a lot less Refused.

re: Adult Alternative. As I've gotten older, my taste really has changed. I've spend the bulk of my life with pretty aggressive stuff. But I'm just not an emotional teenager anymore, and so, largely, that stuff doesn't resonate with me like it used to.

Yet, even as I've gravitated toward the mellow "adult" sounds, I've still stuck with the "indie" side of things. Sufjan, not Matt Karney.

I don't think that has anything, however, to do with ideology or a "punk rock ethic." I think it has to do with the true nature of the indie market. Like everyone else here, sorry if this starts to ramble.

"Indie" music (and mainstream stuff with the same fan base - see Flaming Lips, radiohead....) exists in a different advertising market. Indie fans here music through record reviews, not radio. This might even be especially true of us old timers, as word of mouth plays a smaller role in our less social age. So, what that means is that records, to be popular among that group, have to have something different to offer. If your advertising medium is radio, you have to have a couple great singles to sell records. You also ought to have a good look, attitute, etc... If your advertising medium is record reviews, you can't get by on a couple singles. You have to have what music snob record reviewers like. You have to have what will get you an 8.5 on the pitchfork scale. And, really, that means having more of the full package. It's multiple tracks, it's an overall mood, it's pacing, it's experimentation, it's everything, or else the snobs that write reviews won't like it.

So, what's all that mean? Two things: 1. Because reviews are really the only place I hear new music, I won't hear it unless it has those qualities. 2. more importantly, those different markets create different incentives. The radio model creates the incentive to come up with a couple good tracks, and some fluff to fill out the rest of the album. The record review model creates the incentive to give the full package. That's just economics. That's just selling albums.

And, I, as a discerning listener, with the desire to hear genuinely good stuff, want the latter. I want good albums. And the indie model gives them to me.

So, yeah, Feist might fit the same general genre as Sheryl Crow. But the two albums won't deliver the same level of quality.

Did any of that make sense? Didn't think so.

Jeremy, lots of excellent points there. I think you're totally right that the way in which we seek out music, or what we expect from a record, is not changing. But I wonder about the actual truth to the albums vs singles thing. That's definitely true in the mainstream pop vs indie rock dichotomy--Sam's Town vs. Neon Bible, say. But I wonder if it remains true when you get into adult contemporary vs adult alternative (by the way, I'm only using that phrase because it's what kickstarted everything - parsing that phrase is a whole 'nother post, I think).

For instance, does Norah Jones or Michael Buble approach their albums from a singles+filler point of view? I don't know for sure because I haven't heard them, but my instinct tells me they're approach is probably more album-oriented. The whole idea behind a lot of adult contemporary is that it's mood music - something you can put on and just let play, no surprises. In that sense an artist would have to think about the album as a whole.

But getting back to what you were saying about how we aging indie kids look for music, in a way it is almost pavlovian - we're set in our ways (revolutionary technology aside) as to who we trust in getting musical recommendations.

Regardless of how a mainstream or indie adult contemporary artist might approach his or her album, there IS a difference in the end product, and I think you nailed it:

>It's multiple tracks, it's an overall mood, it's pacing, it's experimentation

I think both Norah Jones and Feist probably would approach their records with the first three ingredients in mind--cohesive composition, mood, and pacing. But it's the last--"experimentation" that sets the two genres apart and keeps it kosher for indie adults. "Experimentation" might not quite be the right word, but I think there is a certain edge that is brought to the music, or a certain ability to retain mistakes. This goes back to Wilmoth's musings lo-fi - not that an adult alternative artist would willfully use lo-fi, but that the looseness that was a part of lo-fi, or 90s indie rock, is now ingrained in the DNA of a generation of musicians.

obligatory apology for muddled thoughts and rambling.

Quite a bit to respond to, but very little time. The one thing that I'll say before this workstation runs out of time.

You remember the concept of imprinting from your intro to pysch class where they found that a duck will come out of an egg and attach itself to the first thing it sees. That tends to be a very good part of how musical tastes are formed. Except it's not popping out of the egg, it's what you heard between 20-24.

Can I toss out a word that I think sums up a lot of what you're driving at?


The idea of necessity or integrity, an album that has a unified feel. You're looking for someone who had to make the album that they made. Someone who made the album not necessarily to have a product that they felt that they needed to sell, but an album that they felt that they needed to make.

The concept of streams - streams of thought, streams of consciousness, mainstream - edge, experimentation, these are kind of tangential to the whole thing if I read it correctly. In revolutionary times, retrograde thinking may be the only true independence.

Everything in some sense becomes relative to something else. It's the way that fundamentalist Christians are able to paint themselves as put-upon bearers of the truth. And all of the punks I know feel that they're the sticking it to the man. But this becomes problematic past a certain point. To be completely reactionary is still to define yourself in someone else's terms.

I was riding shotgun in an acquaintance's car the other week. He was shitfaced. Drunk and high on 'shrooms. Was going the wrong way down one way streets on purpose. Blowing red lights. "I don't care," he said.

"I don't give a fuck. Let them pull me over," he said.

He spent about half an hour doing this.

For someone who really didn't give a fuck, he was spending an awful lot of time trying to prove that he didn't really give a fuck.

When I was younger, it was pretty easy to figure out what the hell I wanted to do. I'd listen to my parents and do the opposite. (Quite a bit of the time, this actually ended up being the correct thing to do. This was coincidence.)

Past a certain point, though, I realised that maybe it was time to actually figure out what I wanted to do instead of just saying "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me."

I get Jesse's comments to mean, "those of use who grew up in the 90's indie/alternative scenes are programed to look for music that is different or experimental in some way. We still look for that. But maybe we shouldn't. Maybe what's different isn't necessarily what's best."

I agree that at least part of my interest in "experimentation" in music is a leftover from my early years of listening. And during those years, it might be true that some of that interest was reactionary. However, I don't think all of it is, and I don't think much of it is today.

Really, I think it has something to do with the fact that I'm a person who's listened to A LOT of music. The more you hear, the more interesting the next song needs to be to catch me and rope me in. And I don't mean that it needs to be different for its own sake. It might just be that the melody needs to be compelling or the drum beat needs to be interesting and driving.

Like I said before, I think the indie market delivers that more often, so that's where I tend to go looking.

To PGWP: I also don't totally know what goes into making a Norah Jones or Matt Karney album. I don't hear much of it. I've heard enough though to know two things: 1. when I have spent any time listening to those albums, I've noticed that the song from the radio is really one of the very few worth listening to, and 2. the fact that a lot of those albums only have one song that anyone ever really cares to listen to seems to bolster #1.

I know that some of that is about creating "mood music" and that that means the rest of the songs don't have to be radio hits. But they should at least still be good. They should still be worth listening to. With a Feist album, ideally, the tone and mood are similar to Norah Jones, but the songs and structures, including their experimentation with melody and mood, should make a greater percentage of the songs actually interesting to listen to. Ideally.

Fascinating site and well worth the visit. I will be back/

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo