Sufjan Stevens, Illinois (2005)
Talkdemonic, Beat Romantic (2006)
Victory at Sea, All Your Things Are Gone (2005)
Young People, All at Once (2006)
First off, I should say that this post is several years past its expiration date. It’s like I see a requiem for indie rock in some magazine or another every year, so I shouldn’t annoy anyone by adding my voice to the chorus now. But the sheer mediocrity of three of my recent CD orders left me with no other way to review them than by clustering them into a eulogy. And I threw in Sufjan Stevens for good measure.
So what is “indie rock”? I’ll assign Sufjan Stevens, Talkdemonic, Victory at Sea, and Young People to that genre because they’re all vaguely poppish (which is almost like being rock) and they’re all on indie labels. But stylistically, I don’t think “indie rock” means anything anymore; at this point it designates only a mode of distribution. The underground network of independent labels and distributors, which used to deliver specifically non-commercial rock, has (with the help of online music retailing) stepped into the void created by the major music conglomerates’ continual swallowing of smaller labels. Signing to an independent label is no longer a statement of musical ideals: it’s a viable career move. You won’t have a #1 album, but you can still get your music to the masses.
Which is a shame, because the perpetrators of these albums really don’t need to be heard. Take Talkdemonic. The duo comprises a fiddler, Lisa Molinaro, and a multi-instrumentalist mastermind, Kevin O’Connor. Beat Romantic, the liner notes helpfully tell me, is “the second Talkdemonic record.” Released on the ironically named Arena Rock label, it features lovely cover art of white-barked birch trunks in a row under a canopy of green leaves. And the music sounds like it was recorded in a bedroom with a Starbucks latte at hand. It’s offensively inoffensive. A reviewer might refer to “delicately plucked acoustic guitar,” “whispers of organ,” “reedy violin.” I might put this on in the background while I’m surfing the Internet, then get frustrated halfway through and exchange the CD for something else. The only one of these sixteen instrumental tracks I could identify after it has passed is “White Gymnasium,” thanks to the nautical flute line that graces it. The album is very polished and very pretty, and I mean that in the worst way possible.
For something equally low in energy, trying Young People’s All at Once. After about five listens, I finally cottoned on to who Young People sounds like: Cat Power. Katie isn’t as good a singer as Chan Marshall, but she does offer the same wispy, alcoholic vocal haze; I don’t think she delivers a single song in full voice. It makes me tune out, so I’m not sure I can remember any of the lyrics. These might be lines from “Slow-Moving Storm”: “Angel bright and fair / Take me to your care.” Or they might not be. It’s her voice that mires All at Once in the realm of passionless music I don’t care about. They have some interesting musical ideas, like the distortion-drowned piano riff of “Reapers,” but too many of those ideas meander into collapse. They sound like they got bored while recording; why should I be interested while listening?
I think Victory at Sea’s album, All Your Things Are Gone, is the clearest sign that anything underground about the indie world has long since been abolished. The band starts off with some trendy angular post-punk (“No Reason to Stay,” “Cecille”) before moving into strange storytelling (“The Letter”), but finally softens to reveal itself as a purveyor of Carole King adult-contemporary piano pop (“Turn It Around” onward: six songs out of ten). This kind of music isn’t in vogue right now, but there’s no stylistic weirdness that would prevent Victory at Sea from having a hit single. All Your Things Are Gone is a 2005 release, so it’s past its sell-by date already, but may I suggest “Bored Otherwise” as the potential hit that could have led listeners to this filler-packed extravaganza?
Speaking of hits, filler, and piano pop: Sufjan Stevens. I’m not as in touch with indie politics as I used to be—blame the dullness of the music—so I might be wrong about this, but I think Stevens is today’s biggest indie star. He got enough press on what was probably an off-the-cuff comment about making an album for each of the fifty states that he decided to follow his love letter to Michigan with 2005’s study of Illinois. Even the outtakes got great reviews.
But I must say, I’m not impressed. First of all, Illinois doesn’t have any moves on it that weren’t already in display on Michigan—I suppose Stevens has his Beatles-style “Revolution” with the electrified Superman song, whose title I will not exhaust my fingers by typing, but Stevens’s distorted guitar work only reminds me of the excruciating, incomprehensibly reissued A Sun Came! Otherwise, there’s a lot of the Charlie-Brown-soundtrack piano, orchestral instrumentation, softly sung melodies, and pensive lyrics that have long stocked Stevens’s releases. The musicianship has come a long way since Michigan, in that there’s no spit-filled trumpet here, but then the bedroom-recording aesthetic was part of the charm of early Sufjan (and if Talkdemonic had left some rough edges unsanded, their bland instrumental pop might have had more character).
The word I want to use to describe Illinois is “professional.” And that’s part of the problem. “Professional” implies a received standard, an external framework of values. “Professional” demands a pre-established sound and promises a primarily financial reward. So here’s a word to describe Stevens: “accomplished.” As in “mission.” He found a career path and he’s treading it to the usual terminus.
This is why indie isn’t indie anymore. Underground rock was supposed to be about finding your own voice, about making your own noise. Early indie bands (I’m thinking of those profiled in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Black Flag, Minutemen, Mission of Burma) went independent because they had to—major labels weren’t willing to take a chance on their weird music. There’s no reason a major label wouldn’t want to take a chance on Stevens. He’s cute, friendly, low-budget, and has already proven himself. Stevens may decide he wants to stick with Asthmatic Kitty, but that doesn’t mean he’s underground. If you need proof, just get The Avalanche (outtakes from Illinois). I haven’t heard it and I’m not going to, but: recording 150 minutes of music for a single album and then releasing the outtakes separately, as if even your rejects are gems? Smells like Fleetwood Mac to me.
One Response to One of These Days, I’ll Write Something Besides a Review
I think Sufjan Stevens should be able to make it on a big label, too, but not in a negative way — he crafts a number of winning melodies on Illinois that ought to have a mass appeal, because they’re, well, good. Based on the Kelly Clarksons of the world and Janet Jackson’s new CD, I think you may overestimate just what major labels are willing to take a chance on.
No, Sufjan isn’t DIY punk, but I don’t hold that against him. I think songs like Casimir Pulaski Day and Chicago are impressive — the lyrics take topics that, if you value subtlety, you would be crazy to risk writing a song about (like a little girl with bone cancer); but Stevens tosses off fine, specific details that elicit a story and carry you through affected but not sickened.
That being said, though, when I wrote a “number” of good songs, I meant like 5. On a two-disk album. Not including the extras disk. I’d recommend Sufjan get an editor. A lot of the songs sound the same, and go way long. But he wrote a good song about John Wayne Gasey. What’s not to like about that?
Oh yeah, those other bands? Never heard them. I’m sure they suck.