A Year for Growing Old? 2012 and the Advent of the Maturing Indie

As we enter the 12th year of the 21st century, an increasing number of young independent recording artists are shedding their “bratty” images. Are these true moves toward a “matured” sound or just away from the risks of cliche?

Best Coast promises a "grown up" record (preferably with less words like "baby", "crazy", "lazy", "hazy"- ... you get the picture...

(Classic Best Coast track: “Crazy for You” [mp3])

It had to happen eventually: Bethany Cosentino is giving up on words that end in “y”, writing a “grown up” record that’s apparently less about lethargy and cat obsessions and, rather, more “emo” (which I guess she’s trying to tell us is an album about feelings… whatever that means…). In her recent interview with Pitchfork, the Best Coast front-woman mapped out her plans to release a more matured album sometime later this year, describing her work with producer Jon (Mr. I-scored-I ❤ Huckabees-what-did-you-ever-do?) Brion and a significant step away from the simplistic songwriting that both drove and diminished her highly listenable first LP. While Crazy for You was a pop gem, it lacked the lyrical prowess and compositional complexity needed to truly warrant the artistic acclaim in managed to garner. It felt more like a guilty pleasure than a fully realized masterpiece back in 2010, and while it catapulted Best Coast to the forefront of indie’s most popular acts, one couldn’t help but ask whether Cosentino’s bratty lo-fi tunes were worth hailing her the queen of the scene.

Totally ready for a mature followup record... totally... (Tyler, The Creator)

Best Coast is hardly the only indie mega-act looking for a little adult credibility. One of 2011’s most controversial and unapologetic indie fixtures, Tyler, The Creator of Wu-Tang Clan part-deux (aka Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), is reportedly in the works of a followup to last year’s Goblin LP. Having built his career (or hype, as it were) around an aggressively nihilistic image of contemporary youth culture, rampant disregard for authority or self-reservation, and disrespect for just about everyone and anything around him, the idea of a human-caricature like himself turning away from lyrics about rape, killing people, and generally acting like an all-around a**hole seems to go against the unrelenting pseudo-realist aggro-principles he’s built his image around. While Cosentino’s move toward mature songwriting at least hints a step in the right direction, Tyler’s works against the only thing going for his buzz-machine: unrestricted mania and a dedication to shock-value.

Before (The Walkmen's "bratty" beginnings...)

After (now that's how you do it RIGHT!)

The idea of the “mature” followup has been in place as long as recorded music has been a medium, and the move toward softened songwriting is an omnipresence especially in the independent music scene. One of my personal favorite groups, The Walkmen, jump-started their career with garage-rock revival and now stand as one of the most thoughtful and “grown-up” acts in the scene (along with bands like the National or *shudder* My Morning Jacket… The Walkmen are exponentially more poignant than both). The late Jay Reatard took similar strides toward a matured sound with Watch Me Fall and even the recently disbanded LCD Soundsystem saw significant maturation after their first record (let’s be honest, guys: “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” pales in comparison to just about anything on the two latter LPs or subsequent EPs). Still it’s often difficult to gauge how ready an act is to truly move past “bratty” songwriting: take for example Cloud Nothings’ new record (which you can read a review for HERE). Where their first true LP was an energetic blast of youthful songwriting, the second album drags under an ambitious emotional weight the band simply can’t carry yet.

(The Walkmen [doing it right] – “On the Water” [mp3])

Why'd you boys have to go and get grown up on us (Cloud Nothings)!

At risk of saying “if it ain’t broke…”, I do feel like many acts (especially in the independent music scene) feel pressured to move past the workable styles and structure of previous records merely out of a fear of losing relevancy with contemporary audiences. And while tastes have certainly shifted towards the quieted sounds that dominated critics’ and listener review polls last year (Bon Iver, I’m looking at you… drowsily…), hasty departure from a sound and vibe that compliments the actual maturity of the songwriting (and songwriters) can only stand to detract from the credibility of a “matured” followup, and in turn, its relevancy. So don’t feel like you have to plug us with a “grown up” record, guys: just do what you do best, and take it in strides. After all, most of you have only been with us for less than three years anyways!

Records in Review: Cloud Nothings – “Attack on Memory”

Hard-working, hard-rocking indie outfit Cloud Nothings return with Steve Albini-produced Attack on Memory. Is front-man Dylan Baldi ready for “serious” songwriting?

"Attack on Memory" (2012) - Cloud Nothings

One of the more auspicious young indie-rock acts of the past three or four years, Cleveland’s Cloud Nothings have made a name for themselves with a feverish energy that surges through each of their punky-pop songs. When the band’s eponymous sophomore LP dropped on Carpark Records last year, front-man and songwriter Dylan Baldi generated some impressive buzz for the catchy tunes and searing riffs that drove the album to the top of many “Best of”-lists in 2011. Despite not even being out of his teens, Baldi was quickly rising to the forefront of indie rock’s most prized and promising talents in an age where the guitar-based music of yesteryear was giving way to throwback chillwavers on synths and samplers.

As evidenced in both 2009’s killer comp Turning On and last year’s S/T effort, if there was one thing Baldi knew how to do extremely well, it was write energetic and engaging guitar-pop. So when I got my first listen to Cloud Nothing’s new, Steve Albini-produced “No Future/No Past”, I was a little befuddled. Trading directed, understated songwriting for ventures into instrumental and structural experimentation is one thing, but trying to pull off a five-minute long, slow-burning angst-fest is something completely different. The songwriting was one-note and repetitive to a fault. Within half a minute of this single, I was already skeptic about the direction one of my favorite bands was heading in.

Fortunately, Cloud Nothing’s third full-length, Attack on Memory, isn’t quite the disappointment “No Future/No Past” teases at it becoming. Sure the album starts on a meandering note with both the previously mentioned misstep and “Wasted Days” (which, at a grating and repetitious eight minutes, is a coincidentally telling song title), but energetic and tightly composed tracks like “Fall In” and “Stay Useless” are kept short and fiercely performed, catering to the band’s strengths. Instrumental “Separation” hints at a solid marriage between the pop gems of the group’s finer work and Albini’s noise rock-leaning influences, but fails to rise to the occasion mainly because of a distinct lack of Baldi’s vocal presence, which, despite his recent turns to whiny-ness, often counteract the tedium endured through the rest of the piece’s three minutes. “No Sentiment” plays like “No Future” should have: a minute and half shorter with a chorus to break up the monotony.

Just gimme Indie Rock!

Luckily, Attack ends strong: “Our Plans” and “Cut You” are easily the most memorable tracks of the outing, highlighting Baldi’s ballad-sense and riffage. That said, the songwriter’s questionable choice to focus his talents on brooding, lumbering pieces like he has here spotlight a level of immaturity in his talent. At 20, Baldi has plenty of time to write dark pieces on love-lost and hopeless, dire situations. For now, though, he should be focusing his skills on doing what he does best: writing from the standpoint of a youthful musician with the world in his corner and buzz in his pocket. Save the tears for another four years and bring back the energy I fell for back in 2009!

Stand-out Track: “Stay Useless” (mp3)

*Bonus! Probably still the band’s best track: favorite tune of 2009!

Review: Guided By Voices – “Let’s Go Eat the Factory”

Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)

Let's Go Eat the Factory (2012)

The original line-up of lo-fi luminaries Guided By Voices have produced their first album in nearly 20 years. Does it live up to their own massive legacy?

The boys at Penn's Landing (down in Philly)

For a line-up that hadn’t played with each other in nearly two decades, the Guided By Voices I saw this past summer was a tight rock n’ roll muscle-machine. Front-man and ceaseless song-writer Robert Pollard could still pull off a mean jump-kick. Mitch Mitchell still chain-smoked during the entirety of the three hour-long set. Greg Demos still knew how to rock pajama pants. And Tobin Sprout still seemed really serious when he sang “Awful Bliss”. The music growled the way it should have. The beer flowed freely, and the Tequila was drank heavily. For a few twilight hours, an otherwise awkward match-up of indiecentric Gen-Yers and blue-collar, middle-aged men huddled around Penn’s Landing in mutual joy that the boys were back together and rocking just as hard as ever.

Pollard fueling up...

When I heard GBV was making a new record (a first for the original line-up since 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars), I knew it was going to be amazing. These were the dudes who pretty much established the lo-fi rock scene and were responsible for some of the most memorable and endearingly well-written albums of the 90’s. I was even more thrilled to learn the band was returning to a 4-track sound, something Pollard had set aside (along with most of the original band members) in the latter half of the group’s career. With the prospect of becoming a worthy followup to Alien Lanes or Bee Thousand of the 21st century, Let’s Go Eat the Factory had a lot riding on it from the very start.

Rocking into their mid-50s...

The band’s 17th record starts off promisingly enough. The raucous growl of “Laundry and Lasers” recalls some of the driving rockers of the group’s late-80’s records with youthful energy rarely heard from dudes teetering on senior citizen status. The following set of songs are classic GBV affair, short and sweet, if somewhat unassuming: as passable as these mini-ballads may be, they lack the pop-y punch of their progenitors on earlier albums. “Spiderfighter” is something of an enigma: though it starts with a classically distorted, repetitive riff it abruptly collapses into a piano-based finale. While this thoughtful second half of the song aims for emotional peaks, it’s jarring transition mars the final product. “Hang Mr. Kite” relies far too heavily on ugly Moog compositions where guitar-based attacks are clearly needed.

Hard at work?

Still the record finds footing on certain stand-out tracks. “God Loves Us” is fantastically anthematic and “How I Met My Mother” recalls some of the better burst-rockers of the band’s stand-out records. “Waves” showcases Sprout’s writing capabilities, as well as the band’s flair for eccentric sound manipulation. “Chocolate Boy” stands amongst the best balladry Pollard has produced in 20 years. If not for some head-scratchingly weird underwater-esque vocal-distortion and volume manipulation on “Cyclone Utilities (Remember Your Birthday)”, the song harks to the better aspects of the badass-ery in classics like “Hit” and “Hot Freaks”. The finale, “We Won’t Apologize for the Human Race” is both the record’s longest track and most intriguingly realized, featuring full breakdowns and an evolving composition rarely seen in most of the otherwise dwarfed songs of Factory.

At least they still kick ass live!

Unfortunately, despite the occasional standout, Let’s Go Eat the Factory is less of a triumphant return to a band on the top of its game than a struggle to re-adapt to the genre they were birthed in. While GBV have adequately mimicked the lo-fi sound they are famous for, they have as of yet to prove they can write a truly memorable song fit for the new century. To be fair, these guys haven’t written cohesively in over 20 years, so the rust is completely forgivable: let’s just hope the next go-around they’ll be back in full-swing, offering those awesome hooks worthy of jump-kicking and drinking tequila to.

Stand-out Tracks: “God Loves Us” (.m4a)

“Waves” (.m4a)

Hidden Gems of 2011 (or 2010, if you wanna get technical…): Hesher

Hesher (2010)

Scalding to the touch (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the eponymous miscreant)

The past couple years have been particularly kind to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For an actor who had his career jump-started on syndicated TV face-palmers like Roseanne or 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has risen above the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1990s teenager and into the more diversified and weighty shoes of the post-2k twentysomething. Despite the stereotypical pratfalls many actors of these niche roles often take to (inexplicable wealth and undeserved senses of self-importance, I’m looking at you), Gordon-Levitt has a seemingly magical ability to convince an audience that he, as a person, is just as fiercely intelligent, charming, and empathetic as his characters are written to be. So it’s easy to see where his decision to take up the titular role of a nihilistic, violence-prone, anti-authoritarian metal-head in Hesher might inspire a few heads to start scratching.

Definitely not 500 Days of Summer.

The film itself (which made its festival circuit in 2010 but didn’t see theatrical release till this past year) plays out less like a story about Gordon-Levitt’s character than it does a vehicle for him to drive head-long through your HD-TV, leaving a sparks and jagged pieces of shrapnel flying in his wake. The bulk of the narrative is focused, rather, on T.J. (Devin Brochu), an angsty pre-teen with a gnarly bowl-cut and a royally f*cked-up family situation. After his mother dies in a car-accident, T.J. has devoted himself entirely to recovering the newly impounded station-wagon she lost her (and, as he believes, his own) life in. T.J.’s dad (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into a state of reclusive, strangling depression, wandering around the family home in tighty-whities and a bathrobe for a majority of the film, and T.J.’s live-in grandma battles dementia and arthritis with medical marijuana (to space-tastic results). As T.J. finds himself increasingly isolated both at home by a family caught up in their own problems and at school where bullies seem to prey off his recent tragedy, he gets increasingly frustrated and eventually lashes out at a nearby housing construction site, throwing a rock through a window… unfortunately for T.J., Hesher’s been squatting in the house.

TJ! Watch out! There's a totally crazy, badass metalhead behind you!!!

From there Hesher descends into a blur of dynamite, lighter fluid, Metallica-worship, and all-around nihilistic mayhem. Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan, dead-serious, and dead-on character study is wholly engrossing: to think an actor usually caught in cardigans on-screen could pull off a long-haired, shirt-ripping, perpetually anarchistic metal-head is utterly fascinating, not only because it defies logic but because Gordon-Levitt does it so well. Beyond the chaotic fun to be had with the eponymous character’s antics, the film also manages to put its heart on display despite the insanity at the centerpiece. As Hesher becomes a forced fixture in T.J.’s life (literally invading his home and going on a personal crusade to terrorize T.J.’s bullies), his pattern of destruction becomes something more along the lines of therapy, allowing T.J. a chance at moving past his mom’s death through learning how to live on his own again.

Nothing quite like rolling your grandma's corpse down a public street to get your spirits up. Thanks Dr. Hesher!

Overall, the film is fantastically realized and darkly hilarious. The cast, which also includes Natalie Portman as the object of T.J.’s ill-directed affections, are all well suited for their roles but rarely push their characters past the narrative moment. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is nothing short of phenomenal: his uninhibited performance leaves a mark you won’t soon forget. A must watch for anyone who’s looking for a little therapeutic chaos in their lives.

Leaving his mark.