Monday, April 11, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 102 - Indigo Girls

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

"I wish I was a nomad, an Indian, or a saint," Amy Ray sings on the Indigo Girls' second album. It's a line that's simultaneously poetic, corny, and a pretty good summation of the group's aesthetic. Their music feels folk-y, folksy and home-grown, but with a particular brand of spiritualism and introspection that pushes them a little beyond the standard "girl singer-songwriter with a guitar." 

So, even if it's a little hokey at times, this gives the Indigo Girls' music an innocent kind of sincerity that is absent from a lot of music I've been listening to lately. The recent acts I've covered tended to go for self-congratulatory braggadocio or wry self-deprecation, always through the lens of a layer or two of irony, so this week was refreshing. The lyrics of the Indigo Girls are often opaque, but they're sung witb such a straight-forward, anthemic sound that I can't help but believe this women mean what they're saying, even if I have no idea what that is. 

The Indigo Girls get a lot of press for being lesbians, but as far as I could discern, their sexual orientation rarely informs their actual music. Instead, I hear a lot more of the American South in this band (the group hails from Georgia). The song "Southland in the Springtime" falls into their "nomad" vein of music, but hits the nail on the head when it comes to describing a nighttime road trip through the South, right down to the roadside boiled peanut stands, and the odor of diesel and black coffee at truckstops. Is the song corny? Of course. But, while I can only speak with two years of Southern living under my belt, there's something about a lot of Southern music that embraces this kind of corniness. And I think a lot of Indigo Girls songs are corny without being kitschy because they whole-heartedly embrace the kind of music they want to make. They're southern lesbian rockers who don't cater to anybody but themselves, and the strange paradox is this makes their music sound more "Southern" than hundreds of Nashville acts who try too hard to cater to the redneck demographic.

WEEK 102


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: I knew that the Indigo Girls were lesbians. That's about it. You could probably do some sort of academic study on sexuality based on the fact that every music critic I read this week seemed inclined to bring this fact up, even though it seemingly has nothing to do with their music. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to the self-titled Indigo Girls (1989) every day this week. I also listened to Nomads Indians Saints (1990) and Rites of Passage (1991) twice each. 

WHAT I LIKED: Fun fact - Amy Ray and Emily Saliers don't actually write their songs together; instead, they compose tracks separately and then combine their output to construct albums. This separation of powers works to their advantage, especially on their self-titled album, which was my favorite from this week. Saliers writes the softer tracks, like the break-up song "Prince of Darkness." Ray, on the other hand, supplies some much needed energy to the band's folk rock - "Tried To Be True" and "Land of Canaan" are easily the highlights from the second half of the album. To peg Ray as the rocker and Saliers as the quiet one is to simplify a bit, but there's no denying that the integration of these two forces goes a long way to making the Indigo Girls what they are.

Indigo Girls hits all the basics of a successful indie-folk outfit - guitar picking over acoustic strumming, immaculate harmonies, slow crescendoes to some kind of emotional catharsis. What prevents the songs from becoming merely generic, at least to my ears, is the combination of the positive spiritual affirmations and the darker elements to their music. "Secure Yourself" is another Ray song that uses opaque lyrics to act simultaneously as an optimistic promise and an account of existentialist dread. 

Most important of all, though, the melodies on Indigo Girls were amazingly catchy. Neither of the other albums I listened to really caught my ear the way this one did, as if the Girls laid down all their best songs in one go and didn't know what direction to turn to. Still, Rites of Passage at least shows the duo trying to increase their repertoire, and some of the songs are fun - "Galileo," with its barrage of instruments, and the strange sound effects of "Airplane," even if both songs have cornier lyrics than anything on their first album. And "Chicken Man" has a harmonica!

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: As I said, after their first album the Indigo Girls failed to impress me all that much. Even on that one, however, I found myself getting bored with some of Saliers' snoozers, like "Love's Recovery" or "History of Us." On the whole, I think I appreciate the "blood and fire" that Ray brings to the group, rather than the more serene side that Saliers supplies. 

Nomads Indians Saints supplied all the generic southern folk rock that Indigo Girls managed to somehow avoid - though the catchy melodies are occasionally present, the album has more misses than hits. "Girl With the Weight On Her Hands" and "Keeper Of My Heart" are two songs that end up being too direct, and ultimately too slow to hold my attention. Rites of Passge is much better, but it still doesn't top the first album, and some of the instrumental choices are strange, like the use of marimbas and flutes in "Jonas and Ezekiel." At times, it seems they're trying to throw in a bevy of instruments to make the songs sound "real" and "authentic," but I prefer their music when it's more stripped down - just some guitars and maybe some back-up from the dudes in R.E.M. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: I doubt that anything else on the Indigo Girls discography is going to surprise me - they seem to have found their niche and stuck to it. Myself, I'm probably going to keep Indigo Girls and forget about the rest. However, 1997's Shaming of the Sun seems to have had the Girls dabbling with mainstream success, so it might be worth catching out. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Closer to Fine"

As I said, I usually prefer Ray's contributions to the group, but this one particular song by Saliers is quite good.


This is a nice demonstration of the band's quieter stuff while showing they can rock out when they need to. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: The Bangles. I'm continuing with the girl power. At least, for a little while.