Friday, February 19, 2010

Why I Like Indie Rock

The most recent issue of Paste Magazine, maybe the main media culture magazine I read cover to cover every month, recently posed as it's cover article question: Is Indie Dead?

The article is really worth reading, and gives a great definition of what precisely indie is and how it has morphed over time. You could summarize the thesis of the article this way: "Indie is dead. Long live indie."

For a while now I've been musing over why it is I can't listen to popular radio formats, why most of the really big and famous bands lack appeal for me, and why music labeled as "indie" (a form of music Paste focuses on) is especially appealing.

I can't even remember the last time I really listened to popular radio. Maybe back in high school, when I was into classic rock on the local Davenport version--97X, the "future" of rock 'n roll. I still sometimes get a kick out of hearing "classic" rock, but I don't elect to listen to it regularly. For example, I really enjoyed the movie "It Might Get Loud," the documentary about the guitarists Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page. I enjoyed the footage and historical stuff about Led Zeppelin. I even thought about taking a listen again through some of the Led Zeppelin catalog. But I really doubt I'll keep listening to Led Zeppelin in rotation with any regularity.

Since high school, my musical tastes have passed through a variety of stages. In college, I tended towards alternative and grunge rock. For much of my time in seminary and Slovakia, it was jazz, folk rock, bluegrass. Since returning to the states, my interest in indie rock has grown and grown, to the point where keeping track of indie rock, analyzing and listening to it, has become a small hobby. I can't really even summarize here the bands I like to listen to that might be labeled "indie." Look at Paste Magazine's best albums of the last decade for a good sampling.

Some of the things I like about indie rock. First of all, it's outsider status. I like being part of a small cadré of people who like something rather than being part of those who purchase mass market consumables. I like the idea that some movements on the side actually lead the way forward. I believe it is true. I like the experimentalism of indie rock. Some great examples of albums that were especially experimental, but I fell in love with them, include Animal Collective's Veckatimest, or the collaboration by David Byrne and Brian Eno, or pretty much anything by Thom Yorke and Radiohead.

[This is also the kind of jazz I still listen to, stuff like Steve Lehman Octet, Jazz Mandolin Project, Andrew Hill]

I like the alt country aspects of indie the best. Maybe the most popular band of this type would be Wilco. I also like the bands that tell epic stories, like The Decemberists or Okkervil River.

And I like bands that are just plain weird, like The Flaming Lips or TV on the Radio. Somehow I both like their music and "identify" with them.

This is why, although there are some Christian bands I really, really love (Jonathan Rundman, Derek Webb, King's X, Rachel Kurtz), and there are bands that do Christian themes without being themselves ostensibly Christian (Rickie Lee Jones, The Mountain Goats), I just can't do mainstream Christian rock, at least not in a sustained fashion. I'm happy to go see David Crowder or Chris Tomlin in concert, and I can do their music in worship, but they don't make it into heavy rotation on the CD player.

I think at root what I like about music is when it pushes the envelope, experiments with the borders of what something should sound like, and is rootsy at the same time. Like the recent Levon Helm album, or Sinead O'Connor, or Portishead. There is a certain Je ne sais quois to this. I've often thought I could never write music reviews because in the end, I hear music and I just say, "I like it." or "I don't like it." And I can't necessarily put into words the why.

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