Okay, first things first: Bombay Bicycle Club are not a group of old Indian men who gather to drink tea and reminisce about colonial times. Although that would be a record I would very much buy. No, they are a group of youngsters from England who are part of the whole indie pop-electronic-chillwave thing of the two-thousand-teens. Which is a movement that, if it’s defined by anything at all, is defined by being pleasant. Just nice chill music made by nice, well-adjusted-seeming young people who don’t appear to be driven by rage and hormones. You may ask yourself, what is rock music without anger and unbridled libido? Well, it’s not exactly rock music anymore, but it’s really quite nice and I’m here for it. As much as I’m sometimes entertained by other people’s angst, sometimes I want music that doesn’t yank away at my emotions. I suspect that early 2000’s indie pop like this will come to be remembered, like 80’s adult contemporary, as unimportant and overshadowed by more strident genres. But, you know what, I like it. I’m a thirtysomething adult person who can’t be entertained by angst all the fucking time.
Here’s an artist you should start getting to know: Zola Jesus. Hers is both an unusual story and yet a very thoroughly modern one. To make it short and sweet, she’s a child of Russian emigres, born Nika Danilova, raised in small-town Wisconsin, who started her musical career making tapes in her bedroom and posting them on the internet. She built an audience of fans who were entranced by her otherworldly voice and ice-witch aesthetic. She’s made five albums and still lives in Wisconsin. That’s a modern-day, internet-age ascent to… not exactly fame, but the kind of niche success that outlasts mere celebrity and allows for decades of artistic growth. In pre-internet times, weirdo artists had to built their weirdo careers by locating themselves in the kind of cultural centers where weird-taste having people gather, playing and touring incessantly, and hoping for a write-up in one of a handful of influential publications. Nowadays you can do those things without leaving the comfort of your home. Word of mouth is still word of mouth, though, and self-promotion is still work, so I’m not saying that bedroom artists who make it out of their bedrooms are less deserving of acclaim. It’s just that they’re less likely to die trying. Kids these days can just network and self-promote without having to step in bigger stars’ vomit in the back hallway of the CBGB.
Portugal. The Man, stealin’ from the sixties again. Can’t complain about it – they nail the whole psychedelic rock sound so well that if I didn’t know better I’d be wondering what obscure Haight-Ashbury collective is responsible for this. They got it right, right down to the song titles. What I can’t help but wonder with these guys is just how serious they’re being. You can’t fault their musicality, but is there a subtle element of ironic mockery at play? It may be that I’ve just been raised to expect ironic mockery in everything and have a hard time accepting sincere homage as real, being the jaded millennial that I am. But this is now, and you can’t just sell sunshiny melodies without a dark evil underside. If you’ve ever watched any of Portugal. The Man’s videos, they’re usually as dark as the songs are tuneful. If the music isn’t exactly ironic – and I think that it’s too lovingly well made to be – then it’s at least self-aware.
“I think I came to the studio with a bit of a hangover, and it was one of those strange days where you’re not really sure where a song comes from. [Producer] Paul [Epworth] just had these chords on the organ, and they sounded optimistic and sad at the same time. And I was thinking of regrets, like, you know when you feel like you’re stuck in yourself, you keep repeating certain patterns of behavior, and you kind of want to cut out that part of you and restart yourself. […] So this song was kind of like, ‘Shake yourself out of it, things will be OK,’. [Because] sometimes I have to write songs for myself, reminding me to let it go. But then, the end refrain of ‘What the hell’ is really important as well, because you’ll dance with the devil again at some point, and maybe it will be fun. I’ve heard he does a really good foxtrot. […] I feel weird because I’m always talking about how I’m writing songs when I’m hung over most of the songs weren’t but ‘Shake It Out’ was. Like ‘Cosmic Love‘ (it was) written when you’re not feeling too great. It became the ultimate hangover cure, and then it became about something bigger. Like trying to get rid of ‘hangover ghouls’.” – Florence Welch
There you go, “hangover ghouls”. Clearly, Florence Welch is a woman after my own spirit. She knows that you have to dabble in a little self-destruction to fuel the creativity. It’s constant cycle of wreck and rebuild. But she makes is sound like such dizzy heights though. I wish I could build such mad magic out of my hangovers.
Bait-and-switch! This song isn’t really about sex or sexiness at all. It’s a self-deprecating joke by Art Brut’s Eddie Argos. He can’t really sing, you see. Not only can he not sing, he doesn’t even pretend that he can sing, which is unusual for a professional singer. He’s also rather portly, which is another item of self-deprecation. None of those things have stopped the man from becoming a rock star, or, if not exactly a rock star in the traditional sense, then at least an interesting and well-respected frontman. Well-played self-deprecation is very endearing, unless it’s poorly-played and becomes whiny. In this case I think it’s winningly played. This guy knows his limitations. He knows he’s nobody’s idea of a crooner. But he’s so good at other things, like wit, which is in much shorter supply than crooning.
This is Florence Welch is full pagan priestess mode, which is when I love her best. She has a bit of a dual-sided persona. Sometimes she presents herself as a regular (or regular-ish) English girl who struggles in love and drinks too much. Then there’s the Florence who appears to know the path to fairyland and wants you to know that it’s not necessarily a very nice place. Those two sides intersect, of course. If you give regular old Flo too much trouble, she’s bound to unleash forces from the world beyond. Her new album, and the one before it as well, both felt more firmly rooted in real experience. The artist has been turning away from the baroque and more towards the personal. Not that she would ever entirely reject grand gestures, but it’s been a little bit more intimate with her lately. I still love Ceremonials most dearly out of Florence’s oeuvre thus far, for its epic sweep and having grandest, most baroque orchestration. It’s the artist as the madwoman in the woods, invoking fire and brimstone and deluges.
Kimbra wrote this song when she was sixteen years old. (And recorded it as an adult, thankfully.) In the video she represents her settle-down-wanting little self as a girl much younger than sixteen, which I think implies that the fantasy of white-picket-fence domesticity is something only a complete naif would fall for. If you’re the type of little girl who dreams up names for hypothetical future children while still playing with dolls, you’ve got a lot of learning about the world to do, not least probably how to leave whatever cult you’re being raised in. The broader implication here, I think, is that childhood dreams very frequently go up in flames, and that it’s sometimes for the best that they do.