Soft sells

The rise of indie rock’s cult of the singer-songwriter
By FRANKLIN BRUNO  |  September 22, 2006

OH, ADLAI!: The first Kill Rock Stars compilation featured Bikini Kill and Nirvana; the latest includes Laura Veirs and Sufjan Stevens
Quiet is the new loud, pretty is the new rocking, and acoustic is the new electric. In 2006, the primary model for new emerging artists — at least within the microverse that is American independent music — is the solo singer-songwriter expressing his or her inner life through the performance of self-penned compositions. In many ways, this is a shocking development. Even after hardcore slowed and thickened into indie rock proper, it remained an article of faith that volume, distortion, and aggression — not to mention the rock-band format itself — were immutable virtues. A few subdued souls — Will Oldham, Lois Maffeo — thrived, but an old slogan of Lester Bangs’s captured the still-prevailing attitude: “James Taylor Must Die.”

But in 2006, the likes of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Sufjan Stevens, and Joanna Newsome rule the indie roost. The center has shifted so far that even ’80s/’90s survivors make common cause with the new quietude. Steve Albini records such acoustically based acts as Danielson and Nina Nastasia; Young God Records, helmed by Swans’ Michael Gira, abets the post-Donovan musings of Devendra Banhart. Veteran labels traffic in feather-light sounds that wouldn’t have made it past demo-listening day a decade ago: Touch and Go has its Coco Rosie, Sub Pop its Iron & Wine.

And Kill Rock Stars has The Sound the Hare Heard, a 21-cut introduction to what its own sticker terms “the new breed of American songwriter.” It’s not the first time the Portland (Oregon) label has defined a subcultural moment: its very name comes from a 1990 compilation that set riot grrrls Bikini Kill and 7 Year Bitch alongside the no less confrontational Melvins and a pre-Nevermind Nirvana. The present collection couldn’t be more distant in mood and sound. Six-string strumming (and the occasional piano) dominate, along with palatable, uncommanding vocals; accompaniment, if any, runs to brushed drums and faux rustic banjo or accordion noodling. (There are exceptions: Death Vessel’s “Dancers All” is a welcome shot of soul-pop energy, and the programmed samba backing “Lazy Little Ada,” a Nabokov-inspired demo from the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, is audible evidence that the entire compilation wasn’t recorded in SoCal circa ’72.)

It’s hard to imagine that the alt-MOR field would be so crowded if not for the late Elliot Smith, an earlier KRS signing who now seems to have been a key transitional figure. Smith was a once-in-a-generation songwriter whose gifts shone forth more clearly on solo releases like 1998’s Either/Or than they ever did in his run-of-the-mill “real band,” Heatmiser. (He was also a meticulous melodist and home recordist; his turn-arounds, the minute harmonic transitions that join sections of a song, could be as precise as Gershwin’s.)

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