Self-Help for Alt-Country Fans

Three bands that will revive your faith in indie pop. 

Independent-minded rock fans have it hard these days. People who spent their formative years reveling in the anarchic thrash-pop of ‘80s cult favorites like the Replacements, sharing a case of the heebie-jeebies with the Pixies or the Feelies, or lapsing into depression with Joy Division, have allowed their devotion to uncompromising pop music to lapse like an old magazine subscription. They’re still seeking out gritty, intense music, but, instead of new indie pop bands ignored by commercial radio, they listen to Southerners and Texans ignored by country radio, or Midwesterners ignored by both country and rock radio——“alternative country” acts like Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Son Volt, the Jayhawks, and Lucinda Williams.

I understand this evolution and have, to an extent, undergone it myself. But I also think that alt-country fans have given up too easily. Like any pop music connoisseur, they’re trained to appreciate authenticity, but they’re now too addled by the pressures of adulthood to hunt for subtler versions of it in underground pop music. With its explicit fidelity to a much-maligned and abused tradition, alt-country provides a way out. There is indeed a refreshing realness to alt-country’s old-timey trappings: the mournful whine of pedal steel and fiddle, the twangy vocal delivery, the empty-room ambience instead of Nashville’s wall-of-sound production.  But, with all its manifest honesty and unassailable roots-country integrity, it’s also, well, too damned reliable.

On the other hand, the world of underground pop music is likely to seem too damned unreliable, a little too introspective and morose for those who’ve outgrown their adolescent angst. However, within the last year, several indie bands have released albums that, in their combination of pop smarts and emotional generosity, are enough to make you start reading ‘zines and digging through used-CD bins all over again. And last week, indie-rock kings Guided by Voices, led by the prolific Robert Pollard, released their new album, Isolation Drills (TVT Records). After many years of recording brilliant little nuggets of pop genius (hundreds of ‘em) on a four-track tape machine, in a basement, Pollard has come up for air, using a real studio and a name producer for only the second time. Isolation Drills is an expansive, thrilling, beautiful album. These are good times for independent pop music in America. You just have to know where to look.

Washington state, for example. We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk Records) is the second full-length album by Death Cab for Cutie, originally from Bellingham. (The name comes from a song by the Bonzo Dog Band, an absurdist English group.) As it starts, We Have the Facts sounds poised to confirm all your fears about introverted indie pop. The first song, “Title Track,” opens with a guitar figure so slow it sounds like the song is ending, and when Ben Gibbard’s vocal enters noncommittally and drones that he’s “left uninspired …,” you’re tempted to take him at his word. But the song builds, however casually, and by the time they turn the last mic on halfway through, a promise of vital pop music has been, if not realized, at least strongly suggested. 

By the third track, “For What Reason,” that promise has been realized, and by the end of the album, it’s been realized several more times. These several pop gems reveal that Death Cab’s impact rests on something of a puzzle. The production is austere, the vocals are unassuming, and the playing is spare. But somehow the result is an arresting lushness. Gibbard’s effortless, warmly high-pitched vocals are often recorded with both echo and fuzz, so that the resonance sounds like it originates in his own heart, or perhaps inside your own head. Chris Walla’s guitar generally ambles at the same high registers as Gibbard’s voice. Behind them an occasional electric piano, some barely discernible organ, and a variety of homemade percussion effects play gently in the spaces. (See how it all adds up on the lovely intro to ” 405.”) With one exception, these are slow, very slow, and midtempo songs that pack a serious emotional punch. (I have no idea what “Scientist Studies” is about, but it’s downright heartbreaking.) The exception is the up-tempo “Company Calls,” whose breathless chorus hints at the even more compelling album we might get when Death Cab decides to speed things up. Ultimately, Death Cab’s strength rests not on production but on attitude. They toy with ambivalence and irony, but, when the songs kick in, Gibbard’s heart is on his sleeve.

Four Cornered Night (Jade Tree), the most recent album by New York’s Jets to Brazil, powerfully dramatizes this interplay of irony and sincerity. It begins by enclosing a genuinely poignant lyric about screwing up a relationship within an offhand up-tempo romp titled “You’re Having the Time of My Life.” “Air Traffic Control,” the third track, expresses the terrifying vertigo of falling in love but with the tone of someone self-defensively goofing on his own vulnerability. The ironic gulf between content and tone closes on the next song, “Pale New Dawn,” which shows lyricist Blake Schwarzenbach’s talent for building his lines out of a dense, fluid cascade of syllables. These often border on nonsense (“sickly surrender to cola remember machines/shaky somnambulist shivering out all your screams”), but sometimes a stab of clarity emerges (“the month has gone rabbits the winter is taking my life”). (Listen to an example from “Pale New Dawn.”) And occasionally the mist clears altogether, as on “Empty Picture Frame,” an achingly good-hearted take on romantic loss. 

JTB has the courage to withhold the climax of Four Cornered Night until the penultimate track, “Orange Rhyming Dictionary,” a throbbing, down-tempo reflection on the tradeoff between love and freedom (“Do the stars conspire/ to pin us down like butterflies?”) that is by turns plaintive and bruising. Its full-throated anguish somehow makes the album’s impossibly cornball finale, “All Things Good and Nice,” seem like a fully earned sigh of relief.

If Ben Gibbard and Blake Schwarzenbach exemplify indie pop at its best, they do so in a tradition dominated by Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard. It’s tempting to call Pollard a pop formalist, and to an extent his songs show an almost fanatical adherence to certain formal rigors: the galloping musicality of individual lines (as in ” Echos Myron“), the tidy but robust melodies within the untidy production, the fact that his songs are generally about nothing but themselves. But the songs are often too short to embody a form. (GBV’s album Alien Lanes, with 28 tracks, is 41 minutes from start to finish.) Instead, it’s as if they distill the moment of inspiration that a normal song expresses but without all the architecture of a song. The old, lo-fi GBV albums typically imply order but actually provide a kind of lovely chaos.

Pollard’s insistence on brevity in those albums also implied something else: a fear that this inspiration would be lost or diluted if spread across three or four minutes and three or four verses. The glory of Isolation Drills (a mere 16 songs over a full 47 minutes——almost three minutes apiece!) is how thoroughly it annihilates that concern. The earlier albums forged their dynamics—the succession of rich melodies—from song to song. On Isolation Drills, Pollard achieves the same effect within individual songs, which sometimes contain two or three different melodic hooks.

Though Pollard’s muse is the star of the show, credit also has to go Robert Schnapf’s smashing production. Schnapf, who’s worked with Beck and Foo Fighters, understands that the only reason to bring a studio-sheen to Pollard’s compositions is to place his potent melodies within the grand soundscapes they’ve always suggested. The result is music that both confirms the old gone-mainstream suspicions and obviates them. Even if the Byrds-y jangle of “Fair Touching” seems a little familiar, Schnapf helps convince us that there’s something special in having Pollard and his band work from this old trope. Likewise, “Twilight Campfighter” embraces its own gorgeousness and, as a result, moves from one sonic climax to another. (Listen to the soaring intro to see what I mean.) And “Run Wild” shivers with an almost gothic foreboding, but it gives way to a crunching, ferociously sung chorus. The best way I can describe this song’s pleasures is to say that, no matter how loud it is, you’ll always want it louder.

Indeed, “turn it up” captures the affirmative (though not entirely happy) spirit that animates Isolation Drills. If you turned to Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam after the Replacements lost their edge or you had your first kid, Robert Pollard, along with Ben Gibbard and Blake Schwarzenbach, may have what you’ve been looking for—sublimely intelligent, emotionally direct music, but without a steel guitar in sight.