This is a look into what defines indie rock by observing a record that fits almost any definition of the genre you can imagine. This topic might become a recurring feature.
What is indie music? It’s a question I don’t typically consider, I just listen to it. But really: what makes it that way anymore? Not everything indie is on an independent label, after all. Isn’t it just a sub-genre of alternative music but without any clear boundaries? That’s a valid assessment, but doesn’t seem to account for the genre carving out its own (now fairly sizable) niche in the music landscape. Particularly, indie rock has become an important part of the music industry: whole festivals have shifted their content from “typical” alternative rock to big-name indie groups like Arcade Fire or The Shins. Websites like Pitchfork have grown alongside (and helped to foster growth in) indie rock and are now influential promotional and editorial machines. But what is indie rock?
For those new to indie rock, definitions are hard to deal with. The sort of dictionary phrasing would probably sound like “Guitar and drum based sub-set of rock music that is sometimes melodic, sometimes noisy, sometimes lo-fi, often created with a DYI attitude that reflects a history of existence on independent record labels.” That kind of commentary is essentially meaningless. So why not hop in and listen to a record that is almost stereotypically indie rock? This album manages to fit all the genre norms while still being musically above average thanks to songwriting skill. The record is Everything All the Time by Band of Horses
Band of Horses (for the uninitiated) are a group out originally out of Seattle and consisting mainly of Ben Birdwell. That’s a bit disingenuous (they do have a fully functioning band after all), but Birdwell has been the only constant since their formation and continues to be their driving creative force and visible leader. While the band did self-release an EP on their early tours, things took off with the launch of their debut record in 2006, Everything All the Time. Since then, Band of Horses has released two more albums and has become reasonably popular (including a top 10-selling debut week for their latest CD).
So let’s start at the beginning: the first track on Everything All the Time is appropriately titled “The First Song.” Band of Horses wastes no time getting right at the heart of indie rock: guitars, a slightly under-produced (but not low quality) feel, and heart-on-sleeve sentiment. And they do the same thing on the next track. And throughout the record, which is actually on an independent label. It all fits indie rock very nicely both at first glance, and with repeated listening.
Like all good music, there must be a reason to like what’s there and the initial appeal of Everything All the Time is the songwriting and use of instrumentation. It’s alternative music, but Band of Horses doesn’t stray too far from the addictive setup of classic pop. The aforementioned “First Song” opens with a satisfying flourish, has a great central guitar line that wanders through the track, and operates over a soothing drum line that nudges the song ahead without pushing. “The First Song” is also built to be reasonably digested without seeming completely unoriginal. Overly typical verse-chorus-verse isn’t used, but the back and forth between sung “verse” and a pause for an instrumental break feels familiar. The lyrics discuss some kind of vague wintertime love and loss. While the exact verbal meaning of the phrases is unclear, the vocal intonation comes across as pained, earnest, and heartfelt. When combined with the musical component, the whole song fills the ears and “The First Song” becomes a great example for indie rock.
Similar higher-energy tracks dominate the first half of the record, each with slight variations on the pure rock side of indie. “Wicked Gil” has a more dominant and speedy rhythm and pushes forward with more force than the opening track. “Our Swords” is built from the ground up with a pulsing bass line that develops into the foundation of all drumming and guitar work for the rest of the song. These pieces exemplify the more pop-oriented side of indie rock, more in line with a typical Shins single; they’re fun, and packed with joyous guitars.
Band of Horses also pushes further into the depth of indie rock by exploring folk-rock/alt-country touches in the later half of the record. “Part One” sets off toward the quiet side of rock with primarily acoustic guitars, subdued drums and whisper-like vocals from Birdwell. Things are slower and hushed, but the track manages to maintain band and album identity. The final two songs follow a similar setup, and with very evocative results. Band of Horses still holds onto indie rock but shows the range of the genre, pushing from the pop and energy of earlier songs to the reflection and slight sorrow of folk.
Of course, any discussion about Everything All the Time eventually lands on the standout single “The Funeral.” If you haven’t experienced the track, I’d advise giving it a spin and then coming back. No really, go see the video or something. We can wait for a second.
The sheer weight of the song is felt instantly, and it’s both impressive and oppressive when placed in album context. After all the high-energy guitar work of the first few songs, the depressing, haunting ring and slide of the deliberate plucking is quite an emotional letdown. And like any great song, “The Funeral” plays on the emotion to devastating and perfect effect. The song explodes from the somber tones into powerful chords and makes the refrain hit that much harder: “At every occasion I’ll be ready for the funeral.” The most curious power of this song is that it doesn’t age. I’ve played “The Funeral” dozens of times, and yet the weeping guitar, emotional singing, and great dynamic shifts always impress.
And therein lies the power of Everything All the Time and good indie rock: when done right, it’s earnest and emotional without being cheesy and obnoxious. It makes you feel something. Sometimes that’s joy from a ringing chord or an upbeat tempo, and sometimes that’s a shocking burst of sorrow oozing from a careful guitar. Band of Horses didn’t intend to make a genre-defining record, but here it is anyway. Everything All the Time is a great album and excellent introduction to the range and excellence of the sometimes-confusing and often-rewarding world of indie rock.