Friday, July 10, 2009

Looking for a Bit of Harmony

The last two years of law school and the birth of kids #2 and #3 have pulled me away from my previously scheduled programming. But a little observation begs me to jot down this post on a crisp, feel-good Friday evening.

The observation is this: at this particular moment, it might be the Beach Boys, not the Beatles, that are the preeminent, overriding influence in the best indie pop/rock of-the-moment (I admit that I have deliberately cut-out the entire realm of Sonic Youth/Replacements/Pavement-influenced indie rock). For the Beatles, it was about endless imagination with pop song structure and melodic inventiveness that wove through anyone making "pop" music. And that's still there, but the most innovative music I've been hearing for the last year or two has been a little less concerned with pop structure and melody and more concerned with HARMONY--the intricate, complex, layered and gorgeous kind. That's not to say structure and melody have been jettisoned as much as the emphasis has shifted in a way I have not heard before. And, other than "post-rock," I also haven't heard much formal inventiveness in the pop field (underground or mainstream) in a long time (no, rehashing post-punk or dressing in kooky fashions (or going naked) is not inventive). And when I think of layered arrangements and harmonies, I think of the Beach Boys.

But the recent artists I'm thinking of are not merely pilfering a sound as an excuse to then market themselves with "image" and "attitude." Instead, the recent artists are succeeding in adding new layers of depth and complexity that have built upon the tradition that Wilson and the Boys so wonderfully elevated.

The Beach Boys influence is, surprisingly, most explicit in the most out-there of these albums: Panda Bear's Person Pitch, from 2007. The harmonies are sometimes almost identical to those conjured by Brian Wilson, but modern technology has allowed Panda Bear add track upon track of vocal overlays, turning up the density and richness, while also injecting just a dose or two of post-modern weirdness and trance-iness. The result is the feeling of a dizzying swoon of vocal motion, swirling while standing in place. Some of the indulgences do not help the album, but the layering is awe-inspiring and clearly drawn from the Beach Boys' well.

Check out "Bros" here.

Grizzly Bear, Panda Bear's Brooklyn neighbor and ursine cousin, also exalts its layering and harmonies. After 2007's breakthrough, Yellow House, the band has attained a new pinnacle with their 2009 album, Veckatimest. Most of the deliberately askew elements of the Panda Bear album were barred entry to this affair. The focus is almost entirely on beautiful harmonies that come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Spare the noize, thank you very much. The tracks sometimes swell and expand, while sometimes they simply glow and emanate a pale fire, but they don't "move" much. If you're looking for propulsion, this ain't it. But if you're not trying to get anywhere, except to dwell in a small space of radiance, this works delightfully.

Check out "Fine for Now" here.

The Fleet Foxes are the band that has come closest to matching their Beach Boys-gone-woodsy harmonies to accessible songs. Even then, I know several people who tell me that they don't hear "the tunes" in the Fleet foxes work. Those people are some of my friends, but they are wrong. I suspect the band's classic rock-era, Southern California influences conjure expectations of Fleetwood Mac/Crosby Still & Nash catchiness. If so, then, fine, the FFs "fail" (though the cathartic end section of their brilliant "Mykonos" follows a similar melodic line to the one CSN sing in "Ohio", "Gotta get down to it/soldiers are gunning us down/shoulda been done long ago..."). But the truth is that the tunes are there; they just don't always appear at the expected times and places. Stunning melodic hooks emerge throughout the album, often serendipitously 37% of the way through a song. The verses and chorus don't always follow standard format, but it makes the melodic and harmonic gems that much more magical when they emerge. The joy of following the twists in the snowy road till you find the magic valleys only gets stronger with more listens. Just as importantly, both the band's EP and full-length flow effortlessly through their sunshine, deep woods, wide skies, and cozy hearths, really riding their atmospherics and graceful dynamics. For a bunch of dudes in their early 20s, this is a spectacular accomplishment. A group with the potential to make it for the long haul and well worth keeping an eye on.

Check out "Ragged Wood" here and "Mykonos" here.

If we keep moving on our scale of increasing structure, we eventually arrive at the Dirty Projectors. On their dazzling Bitte Orca, the harmonies are not set on spiral, as with Panda Bear, nor on perma-glow, as with Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes, but on flash-and-cut. While the feel on the other three albums is loose, sometimes sprawling, the sound here is more tightly wound, with quicker, sharper edits. But around each rhythmic corner a will o' wisp mini-firework of female vocals lies waiting, to delicately explode and then disappear before you blinked. There is an effervescent sparkle to the harmonies, rather than the langurous glow, and even a vaguely African-esque vibe, at times. It's a different feeling, not as Beach Boys-based, but every bit as intoxicating.

Check out "Cannibal Resource" here.

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