Note: This show was originally scheduled for March 7. It’s been rescheduled for June 22.
What we call indie rock probably grew out of what we used to call college rock, and college rock probably was a term coined specifically to describe the anti-machismo jangle and lyrical abstraction of early REM. And while college rock/indie rock could get somewhat brainy (say, Pavement), it was brainy like John Ashbery or Lydia Davis or Camille Paglia, not brainy like Astor Piazzolla or Ennio Morricone or Van Dyke Parks. In other words, the original indie rock could be culturally and referentially whip-smart, but in the strict tradition of do-it-yourself, it remained musically transparent and – in spirit, not style – punk, favoring the naïve, noisy gestures of the “non-player” playing style (especially on guitar; non-player drumming has never really been in fashion because non-player drumming sinks all ships).
John Cage nailed the foundational spirit of indie rock years before: “Yes, anyone could do it, but they don’t.” It is the prerogative of slack and dabble, which of course really means the prerogative of idle wealth in its years of handsome dalliance. While it still feels like indie rock is generally a rich kid’s game, and private-school white kids are truly the last remaining willing audience for poorly played instruments (that sh*t don’t fly in the modern rock-loving, working-class flyover states), something happened to indie at the turn of the millennium. I’m no scholar of it or of anything else, but I begin to hear it in the melodic opulence and structural quirk of the Shins; in the (largely futile) chamber ambitions of the Decemberists; certainly in the modernist, Steve Reich settings that Sufjan Stevens favored for his frail little folksongs about states.
I still know people who are terminally, permanently pissed about that precise moment when indie rock stopped rocking, or rocked only in deconstructive reference to the authentic rocking of others. When exactly did outsider rock icons start majoring in Music at Yale and not Cultural Theory, Art and Heroin? When did they actually start going to Berklee, for f*ck’s sake? To these friends, the Dirty Projectors are anathema, poison, the exact opposite of rock ’n’ roll and its primal urgencies.
Not me, however. I was intrigued from the start by the surprising appearance of musical seriousness in rich-kid rock. I loved hearing it blossom. I was refreshed by it, often declaring fast allegiance to that freshness before I was even precisely sure whether I liked the songs at all. Would it produce lasting iconic rock? Probably not. I don’t know, because I don’t care much about lasting iconic rock and the terms of relevance, of rock that purports to end wars or to express the hollow heart and dead eyes of one of generation or the let’s-start-over conscious innocence of another generation or the identity fluidity of yet another. But I am half-curmudgeon, after all; and as we’ve gained some distance from the Brooklyn decade, some façades of musical seriousness crumble, while others stand.
Ambition unsupported by substance is always what crumbles first. The indie of the aughts did produce a few genuinely visionary composers in figures like Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent, duh), both of whom wrestle with pop in ways that are often hard to trust and believe. But elsewhere, the “composer” gambit was castles built on clouds. “There just aren’t that many geniuses,” mutters my Midwestern music-professor brother.
Hiring a chamber orchestra does not make you Randy Newman. Sufjan can be a hell of a good writer, but give me the plain folk of “Casimir Pulaski Day” over the tepid marimba-minimalism of “Chicago” any day.
Flame suit on, but for me, Arcade Fire was the epitome of gestures of complexity and ambition Photoshopped on top of what is a pretty threadbare and pedestrian set of musical resources, after all. (I do like a great number of their songs). And that other Brooklyn-by-way-of-Ohio band has, to me, always sounded like a basso profundo Gertrude Stein intoning fragments of heartbreak over a looped segment of an unfinished Coldplay track that is gradually drifting out of sync – which is to say, pretty cool.
Then there’s the great Andrew Bird: no matter how you slice it, a pivotal figure in indie rock’s sudden presumption of musical substance. He will forever be associated with hallmarks of the New Serious: gorgeous proficiency on a non-rock instrument (violin), with a predilection for percolating pizzicato pattern studies overtly in the Minimalist tradition; insanely deft mastery of the solipsistic technique of live, off-the-grid looping; High Plains whistling and the prevalence of glockenspiel; tremolo-noir guitars and lyrics that are big-brained, difficult to the point of being functional nonsense for most listeners and almost never about girls. When your first cult hit goes by the title “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left” and seems to describe a hazmat spill…well, yeah.
The funny thing, though, is that Bird never explicitly presumed musical substance or courted the plumage of postmodern high art. He just has musical substance. He bleeds it. In his songs and compositions, he sounds less like someone fitting himself for a concert-hall tuxedo or an honorary degree and more like an Aspie savant, working his way, entirely on his own, through the source music he loves: old folk, swing, noir, Beatles and a little bit of Broadway, jigs, sambas and arabesques – unconsciously and almost infallibly musical in every note he plays.
Consider: He has never commanded a large band, spread his constructs across a big ensemble. He has spent most of his career working in spare duo and trio settings, and – especially – solo, that Andrew Bird thing in the Bill Evans tradition of Conversations with Myself, an insular musical universe both familiar and foreign. Apart from a film score or two and some jams with Yo-Yo Ma, Andrew Bird’s first actual gesture of compositional seriousness is his most recent project, nearly 25 years into his prolific career (take that, oh rooftops of Brooklyn): a series of site-specific improvisational short films and recordings called Echolocations, recorded in remote spaces – a Utah canyon, an abandoned seaside bunker, the middle of the Los Angeles River and a reverberant tile-covered aqueduct in Lisbon. That’s the first pretentious-on-paper move of his career, and the music itself is just more effortless and broadly defined folk beauty, with very little in the way of conscious positioning. He just bleeds it.
I don’t even know what kind of show Bird is bringing to the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) on Friday, June 22. Will he be alone with his rotating speakers and his Line 6 DL4s for loops, playing fan favorites from Armchair Apocrypha and The Mysterious Production of Eggs? Will he and a few folk cronies like Tift Merritt gather around a single omni microphone? Or will he perhaps be doing the Echolocations thing, maybe in front of some spectacular projections and time-lapse Planet Earth stuff? Thing is: I don’t care, man. I’ll be there.
The Bardavon presents the great Andrew Bird at UPAC on Friday, June 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $40 to $50, based on location. Purchase tickets in person at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072, or the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088. For online ticket purchase and additional information, visit www.bardavon.org.