Tag Archives: Indie

Vive le France: 2013 has been a great year for Pop, and the French are leading the way

CATEGORY: MusicOnce upon a time the term “Pop” simply referred to popular music, and little effort was devoted to differentiating between styles. R&B, Rock & Roll, standards (Ol’ Blue Eyes and his ilk), Soul, whatever – it was all lumped together on AM radio and while you probably liked some things more than others, it was a mass media world and you didn’t really have the rigid demands of subcultural self-selection and boundary policing that came to be the rule later on.

Beginning in the late ’60s and early ’70s, though, the genrefication of popular music began getting serious, driven in large part by the emergence of FM radio. All of a sudden you came to understand that Rock was something different from Pop and that some music was Art while other music was Product. The illuminated musical elite, which listened to Artist, looked down on the unwashed Pop peasantry and thus ensued the out of control nichification that has dominated the last 30 years.

I don’t want this to sound like those snooty Rock-loving elites are the bad guys here, though. I mean, I’m one of them. In truth, their disdain for the Pop industry was well-informed. Pop wasn’t about authentic expression, it was, in fact, about corporate product. There might be a music genius involved, but that person was usually behind the scenes, helming the money machine and playing Svengali to a series of disposable faces chosen more for their look as their actual musical ability. Milli Vanilli and C&C Music Factory weren’t the first put-up jobs in music history and while he may have perfected the process, Simon Cowell didn’t invent cynical factory pop.

That’s your quick three-paragraph Reader’s Digest summary of how we got to where we are.

The saddest part of it all is that Pop has been branded for all time with an inherently pejorative taint by so many of popular music’s more intelligent fans. But let’s remember: The Beatles were a Pop band – probably the greatest one ever. The Who, as far as I can tell, were the ones that coined the term “Power Pop.” And it has to be acknowledged that a lot of today’s brightest stars are doing music that is unabashedly Pop in its sound.

While the difference between a Product and a Serious Artist, in the eyes of the intelligentsia, often boils down more to “I know it when I see it” than it does objective criteria, there are factors that are generally accepted as key to the evaluation. “Authenticity,” while it can subjective to the point of random, spiteful arbitrariness, is everything. You have to write your own songs. You have to play an instrument (even if you’re mainly a singer, fans are reassured when you strum away at the acoustic for a song or two in concert, as Mick and Bono have been known to do).

And you need to be in control of your career. Artistic and professional autonomy, these matter a lot. The people around you – managers and the like – they work for you, not the other way around.

As the header says, 2013 has been a great year so far for what I guess we’ll call “authentic Pop.” In some cases, we have to attach the word “Indie,” because doing so insulates artists from charges that they’re money-grubbing sellouts. That word is so incredibly powerful these days, too. I think a five dollar hooker could brand him/herself an “Indie Prostitute” and immediately garner widespread social and critical acclaim for the gritty realism and authenticity being brought to a profession that has never enjoyed proper respect from the corporatized mainstream media establishment/sex industry.

Of course, were that to happen, the commodification engines would spring into action, monetizing the perceived authenticity of the Indie Hooker, and invariably some would emerge as stars of the genre, meaning that instead of five dollars, a romp would cost you a few thousand large. At that point graduate students and junior tenure track faculty would begin jacking out largely incomprehensible neo-Marxian critiques of how Late-Stage Capitalism was appropriating legitimate cultural spheres of work and play, and in doing so invalidating the linguistic vocabulary of dissent and rebellion. #Hipster #AvrilLaVigneIsARealPunk #PostModernism #YouKnowI’mRight


The theme that’s hard to ignore, if you waste as much money on tuneage as I do, is the French Invasion. The CD that freakin’ everybody is raving about right now is Random Access Memories, the lastest from Paris synthpoppers Daft Punk. I’m still trying to onboard this one – I habitually dislike everything until I’ve heard it four or five times, and I’m currently halfway through spin #3. But the intelligence and craftsmanship are immediately evident, as is the duo’s thoughtfulness about its own influences. I could probably do without some of the overt Studio 54ishness, but the homage to Giorgi Moroder goes well beyond riff and deeper into a consideration of the path from youthful aspiration to fully realized stardom.

Also, my gods, is “Get Lucky” the most infectious tune you’ve heard all year or what? It actually makes me hate The Bee Gees just a bit less. Not much, mind you, but a little.

The other French band that gets a lot of attention is Phoenix. They blew the proverbial lidd off of Indie Pop with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009) and this year’s Bankrupt! is a worthy follow-up. Critics don’t seem to love it quite as much (AMG gives it four stars instead of the four and a half that WAP earned), with the sense being that it’s a little more comfortable and not as ambitious. Maybe, but if so, that slight lack of edge is compensated for with a confidence and a polish that wasn’t always evident before.

Then there are a couple of bands that you probably haven’t heard of. First up is Aline, the Marseilles quartet responsible for Regarde Le Ciel. Insanely catchy, hooky Power Pop inflected by both an ’80s wistful Romanticism and a more stripped-down aesthetic owing more to late ’70s UK New Wave – it all adds up to perhaps the best French CD of the year to date. The fact that it’s all in French means RlC is going to have a hard time breaking through in the US, which is a pity. It’s a superb effort that you’re going to love even if you don’t speak a word of the Gallic.

Finally, there’s a band I only discovered recently: Exsonvaldes, who are so darned French they don’t even have an English language Wikipedia page (although some of their vocals are in English). They’re probably a bit less poppy, in the sense that we usually think of the term, with a noisier, harder edge on their sound (it’s even a little shoegazerish in spots) than the other bands noted here. But there’s a distinct ’80s influence and they wouldn’t be at all out of place on a bill with other Power Pop and Indie bands. And, most importantly, they’re driven by the rich sense of melody and structure common to all great Pop.

Of course, not all the great Pop this year hails from France. For instance, if you liked Pet Shop Boys style ’80s synthpop, you’re gonna freakin’ love Brooklyn’s Bear in Heaven.

And Manhattan’s The Postelles, who are following up their fantastic self-titled debut with …And It Shook Me, which is arguably an even better effort. I’ve argued that these guys are what all your favorite Hipster Pop bands would sound like if they’d get the fuck over themselves.

Finally, there’s Fitz & the Tantrums. Their debut was a wonderland of Motown and Stax influenced neo-Soul goodness. In an interview shortly before the new disc’s release, frontman Michael Fitzpatrick explained that while the debut was marked by a distinct 1960s sound, there was a lot of ’80s going on underneath it all. With More Than Just a Dream, he said, the dynamic was flipped, with the ’80s out front and the ’60s lurking in the background. The point is proven a few seconds into the lead track, and while this was not what I was expecting, and it took me a few listens to catch on, by the seventh or eighth spin it had become one of my favorites of the year so far. Put simply, it’s one of those CDs that gets in your head and you can’t get it out.

I’m expecting 2013’s back nine to be pretty cool on the Pop front, too. I don’t know if there will be more discoveries from le Francais, but I do know that Mayer Hawthorne’s new one is slated to drop on July 16, and if it’s half the record the last one was I’m going to be a very happy boy.

TunesDay: Phoenix and Aline are making 2013 a big year for French Indie Pop

We haven’t historically regarded the French for their rock & roll. Wine and cuisine, sure. Beautiful women, absolutely. But Europe’s greatest pop music has always tended to emerge across the channel. Then, in 2009, a little band from Versailles called Phoenix blowed up with Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and one of the year’s hottest Indie singles, “Lisztomania.” Phoenix had been around for a few years, and music insiders were also familiar with bands like Rouen’s Tahiti 80, but never before had a French act been so much en vogue in the lands of the Anglos.

Now they’re back, with a new CD entitled Bankrupt set to drop this summer. The first cut is “Entertainment,” and if the rest of the disc is this wonderful they’re going to have another smash on their hands.

As is so often the case, when an artist from a previously unmined cultural outback (think Athens, or Seattle, or Minneapolis, if you will) breaks through, it opens the doors for others from the neighborhood. I find myself really, really hoping that another outstanding French act – Aline, from Marseilles – benefits from the rub. Their new release, Regarde le Ciel, is simply freakin’ marvelous.

Spread the love, spread the music. Happy TunesDay.

I feel a disturbance in The Force: quick, check the Billboard Hot 100 chart

Not to belabor the point – because it doesn’t really need a lot of explanation – but the US Top 40 has sucked moose balls for a very long time. The fashion in recent years has tended toward prefabricated diva pop, braindead hit-hop and cynical producer-driven techno-pop music-like product. Imagine Simon Cowell’s iPod, in other words. Oscar Wilde once described fox hunting as “the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Find a way to work “unlistenable” into the phrase somehow and you have the whole US hit music industry just about nailed.

So imagine my bafflement at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2012. Read more

TunesDay: What the hell is going on in Boulder?

When I first moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1993 there were three big local bands: Big Head Todd & the Monsters, The Samples and The Reejers. BHTM were and still are an outstanding blues/rock band. The Samples were an alt act that reminded me at times of The Police and at other times of Johnny Clegg & Savuka (although both comparisons are misleading – Sean Kelly’s voice had a sort of Stingish quality about it and the Savuka reference is mainly about Jeep MacNichol’s drumming). The Reejers were a hard, noisy industrial-edged grunge act, I guess you’d say. All three of these were, in my view, outstanding bands, and they represented a broad diversity of sound. I was in heaven.

But then Boulder went 100% hippie on us and has since been defined by bands like Leftover Salmon, The String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band.  Read more

If only there were an American Idol for grown-ups: how to market new, indie music to an adult audience?

Once upon a time, marketing music must have been so simple: in the ’50s you just bribed a local DJ and off you went. By the ’80s it was a little more complicated – in addition to cash you needed to bring coke and hookers, but still, it was a straightforward process and everybody understood the rules.

Maybe that’s understating the difficulty of getting discovered back in the Good Old Days®, but there’s no arguing that things are a lot trickier here in the 21st Century, as nichification, genrefication, segmentation, fragmentation, the consolidation of major labels, the profusion of new media and the ascendancy of coolmongering has so dramatically complexified the challenge facing new bands that it’s a wonder anybody even tries anymore. (And if you’re naïve enough to think that hard work and talent will ultimately win out, well, welcome to math class.)

Read more

The S&R Interview: 22 questions with Sarah Lewis of Jag Star

I remember distinctly how I first discovered Jag Star. I was snooping around on eMusic for new bands and was using the old triangulation method – who sounds like band X? One of my favorite bands is VAST, and Jag Star turned up as a “Similar Artist.”

That was both a great moment and a confusing one. On the one hand, I immediately liked Jag Star’s music. I’ve long loved Power Pop, and while you wouldn’t exactly slot Jag Star in with other bands in the contemporary disciples of The Beatles / Raspberries / Who / Big Star / Badfinger Pop Underground scene, they write great hooks, play really well and aren’t at all afraid to turn up the volume. Not only that, they’re doing it on their terms, the establishment and labels be damned.

On the other hand, I can’t for the life of me figure out how they got into the “Sounds Like VAST” queue. Read more

TunesDay: Go West, young man

You may not have heard of Adam Marsland. You may not have heard of his former band, Cockeyed Ghost. But as we’ve tried to demonstrate, time and time again, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Radio is a wasteland, the RIAA is waging a toxic war on the artist, and the explosion of media and Internet channels has so fractured and nichified the listening audience that the Second Coming of The Beatles probably wouldn’t be noticed by more than a few hundred people. Upshot: there’s a lot of great music out there that you and I haven’t discovered yet (although I’m searching as hard as I can). Read more

TunesDay: The best CDs of 2008, pt. 2 – the Platinum LPs

Our Best CDs of 2008 continues today with a review of the super-premium Platinum Award winners for Excellence in rocking and rolling. As with last week’s Gold Awards, these are in alphabetical order. Band Web sites link to the band name, and if the CD is available via eMusic, that links to the CD title. (Mike Smith of Fiction 8, in last week’s comments, recommended that you buy from the band’s Web site or Amazon, if possible, because the artists get a better cut of the proceeds that way. Duly noted.)

Speaking of Fiction 8, let’s get this out of the way first

Fiction 8Project Phoenix
I have a rule – I never include in my official ratings CDs that I had something to do with, no matter how great I think they are. And since I co-wrote “Hegemony,” the track that closes this disc, that means that Fiction 8 is officially disqualified. This doesn’t mean I can’t tell you what I think I’d think about the record if I weren’t laboring with a conflict of interest, though. Read more