You Think You’re Sooo Indie… She & Him

Ok, so welcome to our new column, which will appear whenever we feel like writing it!  It is lovingly entitled, You Think You’re Sooo Indie, and it will be featuring bands which you think make you indie because you are young and naive like that, but  do not actually make you indie at all.

You Think You’re Sooo Indie… because you listen to She & Him

Paste magazine voted She & Him’s “Volume 1” as the best album of 2008. She & Him are Zooey Deschanel, who you know from Elf and possibly some other less interesting movies, and M. Ward, who doesn’t matter because no one really cares about his half of the collaboration anyway.  Paste magazine’s coveted and highly esteemed seal of approval is probably the number 1 reason you think listening to this dynamic duo makes you indie.  I can’t blame you, really.  Paste has much knowledge…much more than I or Eric…and in the exact same issue, they feature The Welcome Wagon, which is decidedly indie and somewhat obscure simply because it’s Christian, so that deserves respect.  However, I’m pretty sure another reason you think She & Him makes you indie is that their name is “She & Him”–how cheeky!  How cute!  How just plain indie!  On top of that, what kind of album name is “Volume One” anyway?  Everyone knows that cryptic = indie! Yeah, no.

Can we get back to Paste, though?

I flip through the December 08/January 09 issue of Paste magazine in awe.  I mean, look at the bands on their top-25 list and tell me how Mates of State’s Rearrange Us, Okkervil River’s The Stand Ins, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, and Sigur Ros’s Med sud i eyrum vid spilum endalaust failed to take the number 1 spot over She & Him!  Sigur Ros made it only one spot behind them, and I’m not even satisfied with that.  I’m still unclear about how Dear & the Headlights and Envy & Other Sins failed to make the list.  I suppose you could make an accessibility argument–but we aren’t voting on a The Most Accessible Album of 2008 award, are we?  And if She & Him is accessible, I have to assert that 75% of the others on the top-25 list are too.  Sigur Ros probably doesn’t fall into that percentage.  Paste magazine, what happened???

“Maybe it’s just a sweet little folk record–

–a tiny, flawless, diamond.  Or maybe it’s a pristine distillation of harmony and craft; 50 years of songwriting experience served up on a spinning silver platter.  Either way, it’s our album of the year.”  (Paste, Dec08Jan09)  Well Paste, that’s ridiculous.  First of all, maybe it is a tiny, flawless diamond.  In fact, I think that’s a perfect description.  The album is truly beautiful.  Zooey Deschanel has a lovely voice, and when M. Ward does decide to show off his vocal talents, they are there.  I wouldn’t call their style so much unique as timeless–a bit western, a lot folk, and just so much good clean fun.  While their sound is simple, their songwriting and arranging are full of raw talent  (“Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?,” “I Thought I Saw Your Face Today,” “I Should Have Known Better”).

My complaints are not so much about the band as they are about the publicity.  They’re great, sure, but they’re not pee-your-pants-revolutionize-your-life great.   Zooey has a unique and lovely voice, but it gets annoying sometimes (“Take It Back,” “I Was Made For You”).  “This Is Not A Test” and “Got Me” get a bit repititious.  I respect the musicians and their songwriting talent, but I simply don’t find them to be Best-Of worthy.  Or indie-worthy, with all the ridiculous publicity.  Best album of the year?  Please.  We know why they got best album of the year.

We all really do  know why, don’t we?

Look at that precious face.  That talented, artsy girl next door.  She doesn’t need M. Ward to get all the attention in the world, because she could have

aw, sugary sweet!
aw, sugary sweet!

put out “Volume One Half” by “She” and been voted best best BEST! album of the year.  Upon the first notes of “Sentimental Heart” you just want to squeeze her, and then you see the music video for “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” and you just collapse into a comatose state, probably related to all that sweet sugary goodness.  And do you think that’s a self-portrait on the album cover?  Oh my gosh probably…she’s so carefree and charming and wonderful…

Welcome back to reality, guys.  Haven’t you ever seen High Fidelity?–even She (ha…ha…) is not always lovely!  Also, contrary to popular (and sometimes Eric’s) belief, cuteness is not a good enough reason to call a collaboration incredible.  Those bearded Fleet Foxes boys are good…but not because of their beards, and not as good as everyone seems to think.  And She & Him are good, but not because Zooey Deschanel is adorable, and not as deserving as everyone seems to think.  I know, I know, ranting about it is not going to change anything.  But listen up boys and girls: I will I keep your indie points from you because of your mixed-up priorities and inability to compartmentalize squeezability from talent (especially when my male audience seems remarkably able to compartmentalize literally everything else in their lives!).

In conclusion, listening to She & Him does not make you indie because:

1. Paste magazine voted them #1 of 2008…for no good reason.
2. Their sound is timeless…but not incredibly creative.
3. They are mostly popular because everyone just dies when they hear Zooey sing…even though her voice sounds like 9/10 of the rest of the girl singer population.
4. She & Him? “Volume One”?  They’re trying too hard.

And if we ever have the follow conversation…

me: “what kind of music do you like?”
you: “oh you know, indie music…”
me: “oh cool, like what bands?”
you: “um, well i’m really into she & him right now–”

…then you will be shut down.  Because that is not indie.

I love your long shadows

**I know, I know, I am weeks late with this. But I did write it two weeks ago, really, I did. I am sorry. I was busy.**

Neko Case is back with her first studio album in three years. It is probably a good thing that she waited so long, because that is about how long it took for me to be able to say I get Fox Confessor. But now, after tours alone and with new Pornographer, an Austin City Limits broadcast (and CD), a move to a 100 acre farm in rural Vermont, and a Craigslist shopping spree, we are presented with Middle Cyclone. Yes, this album is currently for sale at Starbucks and some songs do feature choruses and there are loves songs, but rest assured, judging by my recent experience, most people still have no idea who she is and will think you are on the cutting edge for listening to this.

Sonically, the contrast with Fox Confessor is something of a give and take. This is not the extended harmonic vocabulary of the last album: the chord changes, while not necessarily predictable, are still part of the accepted canon. Certain elements (tremolo chords on “Vengeance is Sleeping”, occasional pitch bends, and a string of chords in open voicing and parallel motion over a tonic pedal in “Prison Girls” for instance) are used to great effect in maintaining the listeners’ interest. More than anything else, however, this is a coloristic record. In addition to her standard band and strings, “Fever” features a vintage delay pedal almost giving the guitar a detuned sound. The title track, with its music box obligato is the most stripped down cut on this album, and the intimacy is striking. Perhaps the most significant issue of instrumentation is the piano orchestra (obtained free of charge through Craigslist and crammed into the barn on Neko’s Vermont farm) appearing on three tracks.

Lyrics, however, were probably the most characteristic element of Neko’s last album. Her tendency to eschew the standard verse/chorus love song format in favor of a fairly tale infused narrative style set Fox Confessor apart from its contemporaries. Here, with “This Tornado Loves You”, we have an actual love song, albeit a surrealist one about a tornado (an actual tornado, this is not a metaphor) in love with a woman, singing (rather gruesomely) “Carved your name across three counties / ground it in with bloody hides / Their broken necks will line the ditch / ’til you stop it / stop this madness. / I want you”. “People Got a Lotta Nerve”, thrust upon the world on penalty of charitable donation weeks before the March 3 album release date, also breaks the Neko mold with an actual chorus (if a weak one) of “I’m a man eater / but you’re surprised when I eat ya”. These do not always fall flat, however. “Prison Girls” and its refrain: “I love your long shadows / and your gunpowder eyes” continues to haunt me, weeks after first hearing it. Perhaps the most stunning imagery comes from “Polar nettles”: “She is the centrifuge that throws / the spires from the sun / the Sistine Chapel / painted with a Gattling gun”. (“Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” includes the weakest rhyme I have ever heard [unfaithful/faithful-seriously?] but this is a cover, so I will not hold Neko responsible.)

Development-forward progress-is the mark of a mature artist (the satisfied never improve). With Fox Confessor, Neko Case claimed to be “just now figuring out what [her] style is.” Middle Cyclone, I would say, is proof that she had indeed found it. The two are distinctly different works (the current record occasionally blurring the line between Neko’s past projects and her work with the New Pornographers, including appearances by her fellow Pornographers as well as M Ward), but there is a definite sense running throughout that it is the same driving force behind the two (and it is not just that voice, magnificent as ever). I would rather not wait another three years for the next record, but if it is as good as this one, I will bide my time and hope Belle & Sebastian get off their butts and do something to tide me over.

*N.B. If you are a super nerd like I am, you will listen to the final track, “Marais La Nuit”, in its entirety (all 30 minutes of it), in search of polyrhythms.*

Some videos of Neko discussing Middle Cyclone: from ANTI- Records, QTV, and a QTV acoustic performance of “People Got a Lotta Nerve”