This week’s “GET PSYCHED” post spotlights some of the unconventional but brilliant songwriters performing at the Coachella Festival in 2012. All five of them hail from a long tradition of great North American singer-songwriters (your Bob Dylans, your Leonard Cohens, your Victoria Williamses) — but all have put a distinctively modern twist on the craft. These aren’t your mama’s folkies. Instead, they’re just as likely to provoke discomfort, catharsis, and rage alongside the standard songwriter emotional palate of lovelorn longing, nostalgia, and wry observation. Starry-eyed innocents hitting the local coffee shop with acoustic guitars and big dreams, these artists are not. What they are, however, are five artists who will absolutely stand the test of time, destined to join the American songwriting canon even as their unconventional approaches to performance and subject matter aggressively redefine what that canon stands for. Think of them more as the progeny of Tom Waits and Neil Young than of Joni Mitchell or James Taylor.
Don’t miss any of them.
M. Ward: The First Time I Ran Away
Secret shredder Alert #1: M. Ward’s record do not at all reflect his skills as a guitar player. Forget about the mellow ballads that pepper his records, or his time served in cutesy alterna-pop duo She & Him. M. Ward can and will absolutely melt your face during his live shows. I’ve seen it happen, whether playing with a full band, playing solo (and using a delay pedal to loop his riffs, providing his own accompaniment), or as part of alternative songwriting supergroup, Monsters of Folk. I half expected him to start riffing with his teeth.
Of course, this absolutely gorgeous video — which accompanies and equally gorgeous song — shows off none of that. No shame, though. “The First Time I Ran Away” is the lead-off single from Ward’s forthcoming solo album, and if it doesn’t just melt your heart, well, perhaps you didn’t have a heart to begin with.
I should note too that M. Ward plays a special role in my life — my wife and I danced our traditional “first dance” together at our wedding to his excellent cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” which — when he performs it live with a full band, assumes a Lynchian dimension (all Duane Eddy-esque guitars and a slow, waltzy tempo) that Bowie probably never saw coming.
Yep, this song starts off with a bit of hipster whining — but there’s a good reason for that. Front man Christopher Owens’s heavily autobiographical lyrics describe exactly what was going on his life at the time he wrote the song: he was literally wandering around San Francisco looking for his girlfriend, who was cheating on him. Pathetic? Absolutely. The payoff? The 1:12 mark, when the full band comes crashing in on a wave of pure gospel-influenced rock power.
The rest of the band’s catalog is, despite its brevity (it has two albums and an EP under its belt so far), unfairly and unflinchingly great, and ranges from feedback drenched post-punk ragers to ’50s inspired rockers, with a few sweet ballads thrown in for good measure. Everything the group has done in its short career has met with near-universal critical acclaim, and it’s managed to live up to that hype with devastatingly sharp live shows.
The mythology here is also important — Owens grew up in the Children of God religious cult, the restrictiveness of which he credits with informing the expressive explosion you hear on Girls’ records.
Jeff Mangum: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment and admit that Jeff Mangum’s adenoidal voice and sing-songy cadence take more than a little getting used to. But then, so did Dylan’s. And Mangum will probably be remembered as his generation’s Dylan, despite only having (really, now) two albums that anyone has bought in earnest, both of which came out 15+ years ago. Once that voice DOES hook you, and you can start paying attention to the words, you realize very quickly that Mangum has a direct line to some part of your psyche.
The front man behind storied indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel and the co-founder of the Elephant 6 collective of bands (all of which shared a similar aesthetic sensibility, equal parts Sonic Youth, The Zombies, and Captain Beefheart), Mangum is one of those rare artists who knew how to stoke the fire of his reputation by simply letting it burn out of control. Reportedly troubled by the level of fame and success that NMH achieved in the wake of its instant classic albums, In the Aeroplane Over The Sea and On Avery Island, Mangum simply walked away from his career. He spent the next several years largely avoiding the public eye, only turning up sporadically to play solo acoustic shows at small venues like Jittery Joe’s Coffee in Athens, GA (you can find video of those on YouTube as well). The lack of availability only magnified his popularity; take a good thing, make it artificially scarce, and sometimes demand goes through the roof.
He’s been turning up more frequently of late, most infamously playing a spontaneous unannounced set in Zuccotti Park in NYC for Occupy Wall Street. No idea what he’s going to play at Coachella, but you can bet the crowd will know every word.
Feist: The Bad In Each Other
Leslie Feist is a Canadian, but I probably won’t hold that against her — so far she’s kept her in-born politeness in check enough to still be pretty rock ‘n’ roll. I’m also willing to forgive the over-saturation we all endured as the result of her song, “1,2,3,4” getting used in one of the original commercials for Apple’s iPod. The reason for that forgiveness being songs like this, which show her to not be something other than what the Apple marketing machine would have you believe. That is to say: she has some quiet power, a relentless, building thing that you can watch overtake her as her performances unfold. She also has some serious sharp edges, and she (like fellow Canadian songwriter Neil Young) makes them cut hard by throwing some fuzz behind those guitar lines. Unlike Young, and more like Tom Waits, she propels her songs forward on big, lurching rhythm parts. And that horn section? That’s big brassy muscle right there. And we haven’t even started talking about her voice yet. Like Neko Case’s, that voice is a 12-cylinder engine in a 4-cylinder body; when she floors it, hold on.
Did I mention she cut a split 7″ with Mastodon? That’s right. MASTODON. It gave the title of her new, thoroughly excellent album, Metals, a whole new context.
Anyhow, I figured Feist would end up consigned to one of the texts at Coachella, where she could play quietly and politely to an audience seeking refuge from all the bang-bang-bang in the Sahara and the stadium rock reaching on the main stage. Watching this performance from “Later … with Jools Holland,” I’m beginning to re-think that. It’s totally conceivable that she could command a bigger stage. And so the Canadian invasion begins in earnest.
St. Vincent: Cruel
Secret Shredder Alert #2: Annie Clark cut her musical teeth playing guitar in one-hot weirdos The Polyphonic Spree, and then in Sufjan Stevens‘s touring band, long before she broke off to lead her own band. Like M. Ward, it’s not obvious when you listen to her records, but all that experience gave her some serious axe chops, which she purportedly busts out during her live sets. She doesn’t go too crazy with it in this clip of her performing “Cruel,” a standout cut from her much-fawned over new album, Strange Mercy, but look at the way she holds the instrument … there’s an absolute sense of comfort and ease with it that speaks to her complete mastery over it.
Speaking of said critical fawning … Strange Mercy scores a “universally acclaimed” rating of 85 over on Metacritic and picked up a very rare “9 / 10” from the infamously tough-to-please folks at Pitchfork. That said, the album title has the “Strange” part correct — it’s one of the weirdest records to ever break the Billboard Top 20 — not so strange, though, if you go back and listen to some more recent Sufjan Stevens records and understand a bit where she’s coming from. Records like this are awesome, not just because of the music they contain and the talent that produces them, but because they’re such great stereotype busters. “Female singer-songwriter” used to signify a very specific type of sound and demeanor to me; not pejorative, but definitely a type. Think Beth Orton or Leona Naess for modern examples. That St. Vincent sounds nothing like them, and made this big, angular, oft-times experimental rock / pop record probably means the “female” modifier is finally, as it should be, an anachronism. Her music is the sound of preconceptions being shattered, hopefully for good.
Personally, I’m really hoping she busts out her wicked cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene,” which she performed late last year at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom as part of a tribute to that seminal band. Every time I listen to it, I want to march out my front door and set shit on fire. I absolutely love that I never would have expected an artist like St. Vincent to inspire that in me. I expect she’ll have a few surprises like that up her sleeve for Coachella.