My girlfriend got a new car recently and it has satellite radio. The result has been a lot of channel-surfing and among the more regular selections is Alt Nation.
Though there are certainly some god-awful songs that get played on there, on the whole, it isn't bad and has even led me to some interesting new music.
One band that gets a lot of play on Alt Nation at the moment is the Icelandic group Of Monsters and Men. Unfortunately for me, they embody many of the things I hate about indie music. Most notably, I heard a live version of their song "Little Talks" and instead of the bland horn section that mirrors the melody on the record, there was just a single trumpet playing the same boring part. All I could think was, "Is that even necessary?"
It got me thinking that a lot of bands of their ilk possess some completely unnecessary crap that, if replaced, could go a long way towards siphoning off some of their more annoying qualities. Here are five.
5. What They Have: Pet Sounds-era reverb. What They Need: Pet Sounds-era songwriting.
Indie bands are enamored with this beautiful effect pioneered by the Beach Boys and Phil Spector, but that's exactly what it was for...effect. Pet Sounds may have been swimming in reverb, but it was used to punctuate the mournfulness of "God Only Knows," dial back the silliness of "Sloop John B" or, more importantly, enhance the ethereal quality of Brian Wilson's sweet falsetto.
Underneath this swirling echo wasn't seven minutes of bitter irony with no chorus that no one could remember 30 seconds after it was over. It was two and a half minutes of corny love song called "Wouldn't It Be Nice" everyone knows nearly 50 years later.
4. What They Have: A useless horn section. What They Need: A sound man.
Whenever I see a band on a stage filled with every resident of their Brooklyn co-op, the first thing I think is, "How the hell are they getting paid?" The second thing I think is, "Couldn't any of them take up sound engineering instead of the zither?"
It's the sad irony (yes, I said it) of bands that have ten musicians, every one of whom swaps instruments multiple times in a single set, that often can't afford to pay someone to mix their sound because they have ten people in the band.
Deciphering the cacophony of sound from what amounts to a small orchestra rolling off the stage is something only a skilled sound guy can handle and absolutely necessary for an audience to truly enjoy the music. Ditch the hot tambourine-playing girl who is too tiny to even help carry a mike stand in favor of a good engineer, which brings me to...
3. What They Have: A cute girl singer who plays bad keyboard. What They Need: A cute girl singer who plays great keyboard.
It's an insult to both women and keyboard players that so many of those populating indie bands have only enough skill to put two fingers down at a time on a synthesizer their guitar player sets up for them before every gig (don't get me started on the girl bass players).
Hell, if I threw a rock out of a window in any hip urban center -- I'm looking at you, Portland -- I'd likely hit a half-dozen cute hipster girls with wings tattooed on their backs who can carry a tune and took piano lessons as a kid, but that doesn't mean they should be in a band.
If she's the lead singer or the co-lead singer (sigh), fine. Buy her some lessons when you aren't on the road and keep on keepin' on. But if all she does is act cute as she bites her bottom lip and looks at the crowd with big doe eyes, you don't need her in the band; on the album cover, maybe, but not in the band. And if she's the singer's girlfriend, fire her immediately.
2. What They Have: Youth What They Need: Experience
It's tough to sing deeply about your heart going through a grinder when the worst thing you've ever experienced is your dog dying right before your Sweet Sixteen party. And lest you think one can just smoke a bunch of weed or sleep in youth hostels while back-packing across eastern Europe to gain the complex experience necessary to pen truly heartfelt music, be forewarned, that kind of pain, joy and sacrifice cannot be self-inflicted on spring break or summer vacation.
It happens through careful observation and time-worn honesty with yourself and the world around you. It doesn't mean you should stop writing and playing, just that you might want to listen to that Lightnin Hopkins record again, but this time without the intellectual commentary and ironic detachment.
1. What They Have: Mustaches What They Need: Blisters
Years ago, my guitarist and I were waiting outside a venue for a gig when some guys from another band walked by discussing how they spent that day getting band photos done. One of them mentioned the fact that their stylist was of invaluable assistance.
My guitarist and I (plus like half a dozen other musicians near us) laughed for five minutes, then spent the rest of the night loudly proclaiming for all to hear how we wish we had a stylist. The bottom line is that it's fine if you want to look good, but if you spend more time carefully crafting your wardrobe and personal style than you do learning how to play your instrument, you are no different than Katy Perry or any other pop icon you love to hate.
Even Bryan Adams played his Strat until his fingers bled, or so the lyric goes. As my jazz musician friends would say, "Get yo' ass to the woodshed, son."
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