So, just by the fact that we call this corner of MSNBC.com “Independent Study” I hope we've been able to convince at least some of you out there that there actually is great indie music being made just about everywhere, just about every hour of the day.
But what does “independent” mean these days, anyway?
Sure, there are independent labels, and artists who try to stake out on their own. But have you noticed that somehow, the indie world's getting sucked up as mainstream fodder faster than you can download the latest Coldplay single?
I was genuinely pissed off a couple of weeks ago when Nike ran the “Major Threat” campaign for one of their skateboarding tours, co-opting Minor Threat's “Discography” cover art for their own commercial purposes. It was a move that stirred up a well-deserved you-know-what storm among fans who grew up associating Minor Threat with independence and anti-commercial rebellion. They've since recalled the campaign and are bracing themselves for what could be a mother of a lawsuit. But the message was clear. They want us to be what we own, to paraphrase a precious Fugazi lyric.
This is not a sudden trend. A couple of decades after Lennon's “Instant Karma” was trying to get you to buy running shoes, The Shins' “New Slang” was selling me McFries. I nearly broke my own jaw when it hit the floor hearing a Tortoise track in a cologne commercial. The Walkmen sold four-door sedans with their song “We’ve Been Had” right before they became The Next Big Thing (or, wait, is that how they became The Next Big Thing?) Up-and-coming bands like The Caesars are shifting units on the strength of a single iPod commercial. “Jerk It Out” indeed.
I mean, Bob Dylan tried to sell you thongs, for crissakes. Bob freakin' Dylan!
I like to think independent music is as much a spirit of soul as it is a designation or process. Brooklyn's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are here to rest their collective arms around your shoulders and lead you back across the indie pop threshold into a rare corner of sweet guitar rock that hums with fresh originality. And while they aren't raucous straight-edge hardcore punk, their music still embodies Minor Threat's legacy of doing it yourself.
Their debut album, self-released and self-distributed, makes the case for how truly indie rock can still be vital and surprising. It gives listeners like us here at Independent Study one more reason to hold out hope for the bands that can still spring up from the cracks of what can sometimes seem like a paved-over musical landscape.
The 12 songs on their self-titled release careen along like a more ambitious Strokes and a less obtuse Interpol, especially on “Details of the War” where a wistful opening yawns wide and gorges itself on strummy earnestness. “Leather pants / Happiness / A hundred dollars / Buy success” sings frontman Alec Ounsworth. “Hanging with your fashionable whores / And I'm a wounded bird / I will take your word.”
Ounsworth comes off as an amalgam of early David Byrne and a fitter, happier Thom Yorke, drawing long, languid syllables and straining where straining seems the best thing to do. At his most unbridled, Ounsworth even coughs up a bit of Tim Kinsella, the “singer” from Chicago art-rock outfit Joan of Arc (which can be a good or bad thing depending on your tastes). But despite all the frontman alchemy, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah still fold it all up into a pretty little Origami package that's completely their own.
“The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” is a rollicking foot-stomper of a tune, one that twirls guitars licks and insistent drumming as if it's racing U2 for title of Most Important Band In The World. The most subversive, lovely track “Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)” is destined to be targeted by would-be marketeers for its pure pop appeal and world-weary charm. But even Ounsworth seems to acquiesce a bit, giving us the hi-sign that times they are a'changin': “I heard it from a friend / The Revolution never happened / Sigh / A little die / No more a child / Goodbye.”
Their toy piano meanderings and harmonica huffs wrap their songs up in an earthy homemade hug. It all feels real and meaningful. It sounds immediate and sounds of our time. I want it to stay that way. I don't want it to sell me anything.
This is just a request. I know, I know, little bands could use the attention and the cash. Hell, they might already be in an iPod commercial, as far as I know. But guys, if you're reading this, do us a favor. When the blank check rolls in to help sell fast food or hatchbacks (and it will), please clasp your hands and say no, at least for now. I want this to last as long as it can.
Dig into Clap Your Hands and say yeah at http://clapyourhandssayyeah.com/.