In 2003, while driving back to New York from a show at Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church (Thursday, Murder by Death), the now TV critic and author Andy Greenwald – we were both employed by Spin magazine at the time – popped in an advance CD of Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism. Sad and lovely, it was a soothing soundtrack for an early-morning drive. Little did I know at the time, however, that for the next decade-plus, the vast majority of indie rock would soothe in very much the same way (or like Gibbard’s synth-pop side project The Postal Service). Sure, there were variations – like, say, ’80s kitsch and a return to garbage production – but while emo conflagrated, hip-hop and R&B evolved, and dance/pop transformed, indie rock clutched its pearls tight. Too many earnestly clever straight white bros, emoting over self-effacing riffs and rhythms.
We could blame the corporate lifestyle marketing that exploited a demographic codified and monetized by Pitchfork, blog networks, and Internet hustlers of all stripes. But it’s also the earnestly clever bros growing up and wanting to cash in (or weigh in); it’s the Internet’s boost to savvy DIY entrepreneurs; and, unmistakably, it’s the entitlement and creative inertia of privilege. So when David Turner wrote a piece called "Is Indie Rock Over for the White Male Voice?" last week, it was a perfectly reasonable, modest query. Of course, a raft of bros took to social media, decrying race as any factor (surprise!), even advising Turner that he should’ve written about the current wave of thriving indie-rock women instead. Oh, cool, feminist posturing in the service of racial denial! Also, let’s gin up another “women who rock” trend piece. Thanks for the tip, fellas!
If we’re being honest, post the mid-’90s, most of the interesting indie/alternative rock music has been made by women (chill, all you Radiohead/Wilco stans). And about those so-called progressive “women who rock” articles: I’m reminded of a 2004 interview with Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. When I told her the piece was about all the women-led acts who had played the main stages of festivals throughout the year, she responded, with a sigh, “So, we’re still doing this?” Not here. If I were to write a column devoted to indie rock this week (and I am), it would feature women artists or bands led by women. Because that’s what’s up. Lo siento, bros.
Adia Victoria, “Dead Eyes”
My first Adia Victoria song still chills me – 2014’s “Stuck in the South” is a rollicking stick in the eye, a bluesy lament with bloody teeth. The nomadic South Carolina–born singer dreams of playing in a palmetto tree, but not for long. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no Southern belles,” she sneers, “But I can tell you something about Southern hell” – a line that should be shouted to the rafters of every club from Virginia to Mississippi. “Stuck in the South” is on her debut album, Beyond the Bloodhounds (due out in May), the title a nod to Harriet Jacobs’ unflinching 1861 autobiography Incidents of a Slave Girl. So is “Dead Eyes,” a clear-headed psychobilly romp like PJ Harvey’s “50ft Queenie” in miniature, unhappy-woman-blues-punk that promises you lies and keeps it moving. The album version skips like a stone, but in this clip from Nashville’s Basement East, Victoria is coolly charged, channeling the raw power of her favorite band (Nirvana) and the steely leer of her favorite singer (blues legend Victoria Spivey). “When I’m onstage, I don’t want men thinking about fucking me,” she said recently. “Because one, I ain’t gonna fuck you. And two, I’m telling you real stuff.” No joke.
Mitski, “Your Best American Girl”
Tense, minimal folk-pop that slowly opens up to a cathedral reverberating with the regret contained in a million prom-night fizzles. Except Mitski Miyawaki doesn’t dwell on the regret; she trembles, but embraces her power, gaining strength as she goes. Born in Japan and raised all over the globe, the Brooklyn songwriter comes at white American patriarchal myths and youth-culture rituals like an unflinching paleontologist, rolling them over in her hands like fossils before declaring, “Uh, no.”
IKEA Graveyard, “Leone in High Desert”
A young singer-songwriter who records in her bedroom and on her porch, Alofa Gould, a.k.a. IKEA Graveyard, first attracted a smattering of attention when the then-19-year-old posted a live acoustic mash-up of partynextdoor’s “Persian Rugs” and King Krule’s “Baby Blue” on YouTube in 2014. It’s an astonishing performance, a folk confessional brash in its shrewd, soulful open-heartedness. Gould released a cassette, Stray, later that year. But more recently, this past January, she posted another mesmerizing video, the ruggedly personal “Leone in High Desert,” which calls to mind Joan Armatrading’s intensely rolling emotional waves. Gould’s eyes are hidden behind the glare of her glasses, but she shuts them most of the time, anyway. And when she incants, toward the song’s end, “My mother kept her own island / A land of misery and pain / In that one way we are the same,” we’re in deep water, and before long, our eyes are closing tight as well.
What kinda music would a skateboarding beach witch make? Summoning a familiar but fidgety garage-pop spell – see Burger Records – Ventura, California, beercan punks Sasha Green (clipped vocal whine) and Seth Pettersen (urgent guitar squall) suggest an option with Massenger’s undead chug. They’re the band you want playing every house party or rent party or let’s-break-into-that-storage-unit party, shouting, “Power to the people” from under a curtain or ratty hair. Green, who grew up in Panama, often writes and sings in Spanish, and seems as beset by the screwy events of the world as by how long last night’s burrito has been in the fridge, just like all the best punks.
Empress Of, “Woman Is a Word”
If I wrote the phrase “feminist synth-pop anthem,” would you glaze over or read on? Would the “feminist” draw you in or push you away or elicit a shrug? How about “anthem”? We music writers habitually toss around these words without any social or political context whatsoever, but singer-producer Lorely Rodriguez, a.k.a. Empress Of, does the work for us, if you’ll just click play. In the spirit of Björk and St. Vincent before her (but on her own voyage entirely), she builds twisty swells of instrumentation and mood, with lyrics that beam straight to your preconceptions: “I’m only an image of what you see,” she croons, and then briskly chants, “You don’t known me.” Later, she sensually quips, “I’m always coming on the inside.” Her next album should be a gift, even if it doesn’t feature another “woke-as-hell feminist slapper” like “Woman Is a Word,” as one would-be Ellen Willis put it.
Japanese Breakfast, “The Woman That Loves You”
This dreamy, drifting indie-pop gem from Philly’s Michelle Zauner is inspired by Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s exhilaratingly lonely 1997 film Happy Together, a fragmented story of kinetic, fraught lovers hurtling around the colorfully blurry nightlife of Buenos Aires. In the emblematic scene for Zauner, two men, on their way to visit the majestic, crashing Iguazu waterfalls (a legendary site of tragic romance) endure a brutal breakup on the side of a highway, setting a series of desperate events in motion. Zauner, who left her friends and relationship and emo-ish punk band Little Big League behind for a full year to help her dying mother and grieving dad in Oregon, began writing during this period of disarray; her first album as Japanese Breakfast will be released in April. “The Woman That Loves You” is a defiant coo which could ease seamlessly into Happy Together, pronouns adjusted. Zauner narrates bittersweetly: "With a postponed marriage and this stalled-out car / Then you leave me in the back with half a window rolled down / Like a dog in the summer heat." Then she tempers the ’80s-hazy synths with a plainly yearning mantra: “You should try and do as little harm as you can to the woman that loves you.” We’ll always have the waterfalls.
Sheer Mag, “Nobody’s Baby”
In 2016, this is one way to make your punk band not suck – pair groove-excavating Thin Lizzy riffs (yes, guitarist Kyle Seely plays legit leads!) with the corrosive vocals of a singer who worships Meat Loaf and delivers political fight songs, including a searing view of the unsolved murders of countless women who work at maquiladoras in the Mexican city of Juarez. On “Nobody’s Baby,” frontperson Christina Halladay sends girl-group spittle flying, proclaiming that it’s over if she doesn’t get treated the way she deserves. With members culled from Philadelphia and New York scenes, Sheer Mag have consistently refined their sound as Halladay’s confidence has grown; now, she’s edging toward a style that hints at Beth Ditto if she emphasized nuanced soul over lung-busting blues.
With her rhythmically challenged lo-fi guitar jangle, references to the Chinese zodiac, and lyrics pining over Brooklyn bandmate/partner Oliver Kalb, Gabrielle Smith might as well be an indie tchotchke in a Condoburg boutique. Or so I thought, until this song’s airy organ and matter-of-factly haunting chorus – “What the fuck is a kiss anyway?” – swept me away.
Skyler Gudasz, “About Great Men”
After earning a bus full of fans by performing in the Big Star Third touring band along with members of R.E.M., Wilco, and the dB’s, this North Carolina singer-songwriter just released her debut album Oleander (produced by Chris Stamey). It’s a powerful, playful, almost startling statement, calling to mind 1960s-1970s pop-rock icons Carole King and Laura Nyro, or later folkier artists like Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin. She’s that good. First, Gudasz’s voice is a bell-like force, capable of pulling you in or blowing you back. On “About Great Men,” a piano ballad featuring the horn of free-jazz master Ken Vandermark and members of the North Carolina Symphony, she sets a grand scene, asking, “Is it love that makes a great man?” as if she’s gliding through a forest and transfixing the trees (despite already knowing the answer). He’s gone, but she’s here to stay.
Kero Kero Bonito, “Lipslap”
It’s all led to this – music so meticulously slapdash that it sounds as if it were built by a 6-year-old Minecraft prodigy on a cracked iPad. Textured neon cubes of hip-hop, hip-house, ’90s pop-house, J-pop, and Nintendo bit-bursts are rearranged and clicked and dragged into a file tagged “International Tanoshii Sound” (tanoshii being the Japanese word for “fun”). And fun it is, frolicking on the line between rinky-dink and dance floor sturdy, bounding across the border of all-caps YEAH and Brit-twits having a wank. The London group’s tightrope party owes its functionality to singer-visual artist-Japanese expat Sarah Midori Perry, whose half-rapped word jumble (“I went straight through a tin can / Tied up to a fish tank”) is indefatigably bright-eyed, plus the deft production of Gus Lobban, a.k.a. Kane West (also of the PC Music collective). Call ’em the Deee-Lite of Internet-raised humans. Just in case you get bored, there’s also a laugh track. Isn’t there?
Feels, “Play It Cool”
A classically trained violinist who played with Mark Ronson–produced alt-pop teens The Like, and is also the daughter of Devo drummer Alan Myers, Los Angeles scene vet and singer-guitarist Laena Myers-Ionita, a.k.a. Laena Geronimo, has finally found an engine for her restless energy with Feels. “Play It Cool” starts like stoner metal, scratches off in a hurry, and screeches into brusque stops and starts as Geronimo and guitarist-keyboardist Shannon Lay shout, “I swim like a fish in the ocean / Enjoying my life until everything’s dead.” Produced for maximum racket by Ty Segall at his “Shred Shed,” everything about Feels sounds very much alive.