The last five or so years there’s been something of a renaissance, something of a new charge, rippling through indie rock. Quite a few college radio stations seem to be playing an awful lot of good stuff as far as rock goes…at least, to my ears much of it sounds as good as what was on offer in the late 80s, when yours truly spun the discs for SDSU’s KCR radio, and much better than what was typically on offer from the early 90s up through the mid-aughties. As far as I can make out, there are several sides to the scene: the “bearded” folk-ish bands like Fleet Foxes, the various bands mining/remixing 80s new wave and post-punk, which I guess includes bands like Arcade Fire, the related synthy/producer-oriented groups, and the likewise related craze for, er…beachy noise-pop music, the trend I like best.
A few a Junes ago I was making a surf tape and needed some more tunes, went to my local independent record store, and asked the hipster there, “Uh…do you have any surf music?” To paraphrase Mr. Schneeebly, what I had in mind was bands that SURF, you know, Dick Dale, the Original Surfaris, etc. Well, little did I know that there was a contemporary movement that sometimes gets called “surf rock” but is way more in the spirit of “In My Room” than of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” So to my surprise and eventual delight, the record-store guy was having me listen to these new bands that were echo-y, jangle-y, lo-fi, often with a very mid-60s folk-rock vibe, yet often also blended with various 80s post-punk sounds.
Once you have a few quality entry points, of course, You Tube allows you to go hog-wild in music exploration. And so this Gen X middle-aged guy is now able to think he’s getting hip about certain rock trends. I welcome any schooling from those who know more, because all I have to offer is this very tweaked sort of hipness—for example, I often don’t know a thing about these groups beyond the you tube clip–but cut me some slack, and let’s do some surfin’.
Beginning with the beachiest stuff, there’s Real Estate, a band a commenter here introduced me too… very relaxing music, with thoughtful-sounding lyrics. More mellow yet is Dirty Gold, veering towards outright ambient sounds such as you get with bands like Tycho. Also on the very mellow side, this time a la Mazzy Star, is Beach House, but I prefer something more lively and 80s-arty, like the lovely White Wishes, or in a much more driving style, Girls Names, a UK band sometimes under the influence, as several of these bands are, of the 80s feedback pioneers The Jesus and Mary Chain. (Hey! Looking back, I see that even those guys hung out at the beach!) Another UK band more grounded in 80s post-punk sounds are Veronica Falls, whose addictive songs may be coming to a radio near you, but whose only beach song turns out to be, ha-ha, from the perspective of the cliffs above, where pasty-skinned goths can look cool while having suicidal thoughts.
The last gives you a taste of the broader way in which a lot of the current bands combine 60s or post-punk rock sounds with 80s-type Euro-pop synth. Take, for example, a band more on the synth scene, the Chromatics. Their gorgeous, if structurally unremarkable, song partakes of not a few noise-pop elements, and exemplifies the fine sonic texturing many of these bands are seeking out.
Much attention has also been given to the employment many of these bands make of lo-fi. I may say more about lo-fi another time, as it’s a trend that spans multiple rock styles, but it’s particularly amenable to the vibe I’m talking about here. In a more hippie lo-fi vein, there’s the Growlers, a band I suspect will become pretty big, perhaps kind of a smaller-scale Grateful Dead for this generation, as they have live chops and charisma to spare. In a more garage-pop lo-fi vein, there’s the Dum Dum Girls, a kind of rockier/better version of the 80s band the Primitives, and very fetching to boot. They and Best Coast are now getting flack for dropping much of the lo-fi as they try to get a more chart-friendly sound.
The most serious exponents of the lo-fi approach I am aware of are the now-defunct noise-band Women, and the Brooklyn psychedelic-folkie band, Woods. The former had a noise-layered wall of sound that does not exactly surprise, profiting as it had from the best lessons of The Velvet Underground, The Jesus and Mary Chain, etc. Still, the execution is impressive—certain members of the VU wished they could have achieved a sound like this! As for Woods, I am by turns annoyed and intrigued—the lo-fi seems used as less as a dressing, and more as an integral component of the eerie (and initially gender-ambiguous) vocal style, and to complement the band’s winning simplicity of approach. Their occasional noisy/mental “psychedelic” guitar solos are deliberately repellant, and the overall depressed vibe wears at one, but my sense is they’ve got something special.
I hoped you enjoyed the ride, well, it was more of a contented float, wasn’t it? I’m going to save my critical comments—such as the obvious fact that Harvey Mansfield wouldn’t like any of these bands—for later, and just bask in the warmth of this peculiarly moody sun for the moment, feeling Eternally Teenage.