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!