It's Not Americana; It's Dress-Up
Vintage rural rock, country folk and stoner bluegrass are some of the more beautiful things our screwed-up country has given the world. My Sansa Fuze is packed with the stuff: The Grateful Dead, John Hartford, Waylon, Pure Prairie League, Muleskinner, Mason Proffit, the Seldom Scene and about 20 other stone-cold classics. My little gizmo also sports some current jams: The Coydogs' self-titled debut, released last April, is a two-ton heap of country power-pop shot through with Johnny Thunders' downtown swagger; and there's D. Charles Speer's
After Hours, an acid outlaw epic and a killer showcase for his backing band the Helix, who rock as though they'd discovered another dimension. Both Speer and the Coydogs are fringe acts for sure, yet neither one can be considered a part of the indie milieu, which is just as well.
These days indie rockers and those who write about them appear hell-bent on turning American country and folk into the next wave of Britpop. That sounds kind of crazy, but it's true.
Have you heard Delta Spirit? Rounder Records, an institution in folk and bluegrass circles, recently released the band's Ode to Sunshine. And, in the disc's reviews, Delta Spirit—note the Southern-fried name—has been called everything from "Americana/soul" to a "rocking version of '60s protest folk."
Although bassist Jon Jameson downplays such tags ("It's more in the ethos than the sound," he says), Delta Spirit's MySpace page contains this lengthy quote from Daytrotter.com writer Sean Moeller: "These Californians have more in common with the...folk groups of the nascent years than they do any of their contemporaries."
That's a total absurdity, however. Ode to Sunshine has nothing at all to do with, say, Ian and Sylvia or Steve Young; instead, it's Rattle and Hum filtered through emo and the Strokes. Similarly, L.A. band Biirdie, on their MySpace page "Sounds Like" list, include Randy Newman, J.J. "Cocaine" Cale and Relatively Clean Rivers (an obscure Grateful Dead-inspired band from the early '70s). Pitchfork's Stephen M. Deusner fell for their scheme, writing of the group's second disc Catherine Avenue: "Biirdie are beholden to...the larger perceptions of SoCal pop, Laurel Canyon folk, and Sunset Strip rock."
All I hear is an act nicking tricks from Bowie; in fact, the album's title track is a shameless rewrite of the Ziggy Stardust intro "Five Years."
The list goes on and on: Dr. Dog dresses like The Band, but sounds like Elton John; The National is an Interpol/Coldplay clone, but is somehow considered mellow Americana; Sleepercar claims Gram Parsons as an influence, but The Cure would be more apt.
"It's as if a lot of bands these days are trying to cheat their way to a certain mythology," says Glenn Donaldson. Donaldson plays in the band Skygreen Leopards, whose 2006 album Disciples of California expertly filtered New Riders of the Purple Sage-inspired hippie country through early-'80s New Zealand pop à la The Clean. His speculation is spot-on: Today's indie bands are doing nothing more than playing Americana dress-up. Over the last 10 to 15 years, a genre that once considered Neil Young a deity has devolved into a closed system regurgitating different permutations of U2, the Smiths, The Cure and Sonic Youth. When an indie artist does experiment with country-rock, he or she sounds middle of the road (Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis) or retro and novel (Blitzen Trapper).
But indie rock wasn't always this ignorant of roots music. Some of the latter's best bands (Souled American, Meat Puppets, Palace) also belonged to the former. But more often than not, as the examples above clearly demonstrate, indie bands are ditching originality altogether and merely dry-humping rustic legends and denim fashions.
The Skygreen Leopards aside, indie in 2008 is damn near incompatible with classic country-rock. Whereas indie is the heavily codified offspring of punk—fuck tradition...it's all about me, right this second—country rock is a subtle interface between maverick innovation and tradition and craftsmanship.
Indie rockers are college-educated kids too in love with postmodern detachment ever to commit to a discipline—to sit down, surrender their precious subjectivity and actually immerse themselves in bluegrass and/or country-style guitar (let alone to invest in the complex group dynamics required of any serious rural rock band). As Donaldson explains, even Wilco spent "a decade becoming Wilco and more time before that in Uncle Tupelo. So you have these guys who found their voice in classic rock, country rock—that kind of stuff. They didn't do a lot of flip-flopping [early in their career], which is what happens a lot these days."
You could argue that the Byrds and the Dead were postmodern in the way they morphed from folk-rock to psychedelia to country. Yet both groups consisted of iconoclastic musical explorers (Jerry Garcia, Chris Hillman, Clarence White) well-versed in bluegrass, country, folk and '50s rock and roll. These guys understood that individuality in American roots music is only to be found after you've submitted to the tradition's regimen. In other words, before you make your own rules, you must first observe somebody else's. Is that philosophy still possible in modern America?
I am, of course, a pessimistic douche. So let's end on a high note. A month ago, when The Coydogs and D. Charles Speer's After Hours were practically the only new releases I listened to, I received a package in the mail containing Soft Walks, the latest disc from Kentucky noise freaks Warmer Milks. "Oh, great," I muttered, "more free-form drone."
Boy, was I wrong. These dudes have pulled a violent 180. Soft Walks, much like Souled American's Flubber and Palace's Viva Last Blues, reaches across entire eras, fusing middle-American lo-fi rawness, earthy Southern grooves, pastoral balladry, heady mountain jams, and yes, extended free-form drones. Though the music remains tethered to country traditions, Warmer Milks makes them wholly their own in the course of exploring wild, futuristic dreams.
I don't know if Soft Walks is the last of its kind or a new beginning. Its existence, however, does prove that there are a few folks out there who know how to create authentic indie country rock. And best of all, unlike Delta Spirit and Biirdie, they don't sound a thing like Coldplay...or Bono...or Snow Patrol...or...
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