Soft sells

By FRANKLIN BRUNO  |  September 22, 2006

There’s no telling how many current practitioners Smith inspired to unplug, though few are foolish enough to ape his style directly. The naked confessionalism that was his stock-in-trade certainly has its place in the current climate, on albums like the Arcade Fire’s 2004 sleeper Funeral (Merge) and the Mountain Goats’ critically acclaimed The Sunset Tree (4AD), a disc that’s made singer-songwriter John Darnielle a cult star (he headlines the Middle East downstairs this Tuesday), and the new Mountain Goats album, Get Lonely (4AD), one of the more eagerly awaited indie discs of the year. (Full disclosure: as part of Darnielle’s rotating Mountain Goats line-up, I performed on The Sunset Tree.) But torn-from-life revelations are rare on The Sound the Hare Heard. Instead, autobiography is filtered through fantasy, as on Laura Veirs’s nautical love song “Cast a Hook in Me,” or the Moore Brothers’ “Waves of Wonder,” which reimagines a moment of maternal comfort: “You came and snatched me up in the hurricane of your hair.” Other writers pursue vague spirituality (Devin Davis’s “When the Angels Lift Our Eyelids in the Morning,” Jeff Hanson’s “Daylight”) or, more hearteningly, political concerns. Simone White’s “The American Way” takes its name from the Vietnamese name for the Vietnam war; Sufjan Stevens’s slight, deftly arranged “Adlai Stevenson” (yet another Illinois outtake) gets bite from a liner note identifying the song’s subject as “the last man of political virtue.”

Relatively seasoned artists like Stevens, Meloy, and the long-underrated Danielle Howle have carved out individual styles within their chosen genre’s borders; this isn’t always the case with the compilation’s lesser-knowns. Tracks by Great Lake Swimmers, Wooden Wand, and Owen McCarthy drift by innocuously and interchangeably. Four of the disc’s nine female performers (and none of its male ones) sing from behind a piano rather than a guitar. Of these, Essie Jain, Corrina Repp and Aliccia BB issue directly from Laura Nyro and Carole King.

The fourth, Nedelle, is something else again. Simply played but harmonically cagy, her “Poor Little City Boy” is an absurd vignette about a kid whose heart stops dead upon sighting a baby grizzly bear, but its point is the chorus’s pleading commentary on the verses’ narrative momentum: “Oh no, don’t tell me what comes next/Oh no, let me make up the rest.” She’s one of the disc’s few writers who displays the kind of critical awareness of craft and convention that might allow “the new breed” to unearth something new on their well-tramped path; no coincidence that she’s also one of the few with a discernible sense of humor.

THE SENSITIVE TYPE: On the reissued Sebadoh III, Lou Barlow sounds so thin-skinned, you fear for his nerve endings.
Another precursor of present-day indie manners always kept its self-critical distance. In the early ’90s, Sebadoh were responsible for both the most delicate acoustic miniatures around and the sharpest debunkings of the harder, harsher bands with whom they co-existed. Never a one-man show, Lou Barlow’s first home-taped collaborations with Eric Gaffney were in part the Dinosaur Jr. bassist’s escape valve. With the addition of Jason Lowenstein, Sebadoh became an unorthodox power trio in their own right, announcing themselves with the scene-puncturing seven-inch “Gimme Indie Rock” (“It’s a new generation of electric white-boy blues!”) and 1991’s Sebadoh III, a double album modeled on earlier punk benchmarks Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime.

The original III was a sprawling 23-track affair; a recent two-disc reissue on Domino adds another 18. Both veer from wanky mockery of the excesses of former Barlow band mate J Mascis to poised, inventively tuned balladeering. On “Kath” and “Perverted World,” Barlow sounds so thin-skinned, you fear for his nerve endings; Gaffney, meanwhile, externalizes his demons into imagery (“I know sorcery, it’s miserable/I know violet teeth to pull”) that would do any freak folkie proud. (Lowenstein contributes as well, though he wouldn’t come until his own as a full songwriting partner until later in the band’s career.)

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