Ask 411 Music 10.03.12: Modern Indie WTF?
Posted by David Hayter on 10.03.2012
So many music fans are left scratching their heads when they see five star reviews for records that seem weird to the point of being unlistenable - so what's the deal with hipster indie acts like Animal Collective
Last week we tackled Green Day's triple album and whether musicians make more money on the road or on record, and today, we start with an apology. The new comment section means that we've lost the brilliant backlog of questions you left for us. Fear not, I will answer those questions, but I'm going to have to paraphrase as best as I can from memory.
I'm an open-minded guy but I can't get to grips with modern indie. It seems to get showered with praise and yet seems totally unapproachable and unlistenable. Am I missing something? What's the deal with bands like Animal Collective?
This is an interesting question as at different periods in time it could be applied to different genres and various sonic breakthroughs. At its heart is a simple underlying notion; what is the point of music?
Is it art? An intellectual property to be considered, dissected and reacted to, or is it something more transient, melodious, and of the moment? Is it a deeply personal form of expression or is a product for mass consumption? Should music be universal or should it alienate?
The truth is, at its core, music is a whole mess of contradictions; it's all of the above. Unlike traditional fine art/modern art, where we accept that something grotesque or deeply abstract has more intellectual and emotional value than a pretty drawing of a smiling kitten, music finds depth and brilliance in each extreme. "She Loves You" is as brilliant and stirring as "Piano Concerto No.21", "Autobahn" or "Master Of Puppets". We rightly often revere the transparent simplistic gesture for being so forthright or beautifully composed. Instead the problem lies at the other extreme. Confounding imagery might not make sense to us, but there is a thrill to beholding it, but confusing difficult noise, how are we supposed to enjoy that?
The answer, more often than not, is by either sharing in/appreciating the desired emotional state of the music, or by simply exposing yourself to these seemingly opaque sounds until the hidden intricacies and rhythms reveal themself. It might not be a sexy answer, but it just takes time.
Post-Punk is a perfect example of this; these weird bassless, rhythmless sounds that pathed the way for everything from white funk and goth to industrial and spectral-pop terrified listeners at first. They alienated the masses, but over the years the maverick sounds and ideas of The Talking Heads, Throbbing Gristle, Young Marble Giants, The Pop Group, Public Image Ltd., and host of others have been distilled into the pop and rock world to the point where they inform some incredible commercial artists.
Now for the record, I'm not saying that Animal Collective are the new Talking Heads, but their strangeness shouldn't be held against them. On a first listen, especially to the uninitiated, Animal Collective records sound like a mess. Full of contrasting sounds, uncomfortably rhythms, disorientating samples, and with no recognizable verse/chorus structures in earshot they will alienate. On top of this, the band are psychedelic, specializing in the kind of mind warping sounds normally induced by psychotropic drugs. As a result they often possess an uncomfortable paranoid edginess or a directionless joyful aura (entirely by design).
Listening to Strawberry Jam by Animal Collective can feel like staring at a brick wall; a big slab of densely layered impenetrable, intentionally niggling, sound that never quite sits still long enough to get a handle on it. It's like a Jackson Pollock, at first it's an overwhelming mess of colour, only with experience do you detect first pattern, then mood and finally meaning. Strawberry Jam is the same. Over time, the individual elements will separate and you'll be left with a series of trippy but beautiful pop songs. At their heart, they're quite cute. Frail little slithers of emotion being jabbed and poked by an ever-changing vortex of sound.
The contrast between thrill of the new/the alien and the warmth of comfort is one of the great cultural divides within every society, and there's no wrong side of the argument. The cutting edge is a difficult place to be, it takes a lot of work, you have to be willing to expose yourself to strange sounds, and sometimes their mysteries are unraveled in a matter of minutes, while other works will confound you till the end of time (and of course some acts aren't worthy of your time at all).
Experimentation is key to art. Pushing new boundaries sometimes to express (attempting to replicate disturbing moods or enlivening passions) and sometime just for the thrill of discovery. Certain indie bands, particularly pyschedlic ones, can be opaque in the extreme, but more often than not they are simply trying new combinations of sounds that will inevitably sound alien and uncomfortable at first – the reason they receive praise is, in the critics eyes, after repeated exposure you are not only welcome in that world, but begin to see the meaning beneath the madness. Suddenly it all makes sense.
So can we get you to enjoy Animal Collective – well let's give it a go. First of all, start at their most accessible extreme. Make a playlist of "Blueish", "My Girls" and "In The Flowers" and stick them on in your headphones while you do something you enjoy (a bit of gaming, a jog, whatever). Let them swirl around, and if you start to get to grips with them, try Merriweather Post Pavillion and Strawberry Jam in full, by listening to the more immediate end of their spectrum, it should help you find the melodies and the subtle beauty in their more complex offerings – or you might just hate it all. It doesn't matter really you don't have to like everything.
It worked for me, I went from struggling with Animal Collective to considering "Blueish" for one my wedding songs.
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