Over the years, the term “indie” has become warped and faded, stigmatized and destigmatized to the point of unrecognizability. Most of what gets played on Lightning 100 would be considered “indie” in other markets, but does radio play and general exposure neutralize the weight of the word or does it actually embellish it? A good example of this conflict of legitimacy was witnessed live in person just last evening at Cannery Ballroom. I’ll start with the diverging career paths of Durham-based electropop darlings Sylvan Esso and their opening act.
Flock of Dimes is the solo project of Baltimore-based Jenn Wasner, who recently solved her own dichotomous interests by molding the once folk-heavy sounds of her band Wye Oak in the image of her criminally overlooked ‘90s R&B throwback side project Dungeonesse. It’s been exciting to watch Wasner’s career unfold and evolve over the past few years, with the ‘80s indebted synthpop of this new project being just forceful enough to make an impression but subtle enough to allow her consistently brilliant songwriting to make its presence felt. Though Wye Oak is signed to longtime heavyweights Merge Records, the Flock of Dimes project is currently untethered to any label home, marking it as a truly independent endeavor.
That digression aside, let’s get to the meat of the matter: Is Sylvan Esso “indie”? Well, yes. They’re signed to Partisan Records (for the time being), a Brooklyn-based label mostly known as the home of someone you know’s favorite band, Deer Tick. Sylvan Esso consists of singer/vibrant dancer Amelia Meath, formerly of Appalachian folk singing trio Mountain Man and multi-instrumentalist/tall human being Nick Sanborn, formerly of psych folk outfit Megafaun. If anything, the wave of exposure that the group has been riding the past year proves that there is life for modern sensitive folkies, even in the aftermath of Justin Vernon grossly perpetuating and then swiftly carpet bombing the stereotype, the indulgences of Sufjan Stevens and even the barber shop that rendered Robin Pecknold into a clean-shaven adult. It is also impressive that in the year 2015, a call-and-response involving the lyrics “my baby does the hanky panky” could serve as the climactic moment of a live performance, even if that climactic moment came only four songs into a setlist that barely made it into the double digits.
That act of interpolation, though cleverly done, would seem to go against the “indie” ethos because it shows the audience the trick. There’s nothing new under the sun, especially in what we talk about when we talk about “indie” (I’ve been waiting for an excuse to slip that heavily abused Carver reference into my writing for a long time) and Sylvan Esso embraces that, almost to a fault. There was a moment at the end of “Dress” where Amelia Meath coyly slipped in another interpolation – this one being a short nod to Beyonce’s “Flawless”, a maneuver that positioned the group as your cool friends that came from a weird background but still like the stuff that you like. It’s a smart tactic for a band that has little more than a 40-minute album under their belt, but the execution of it fell deaf to the ears of someone who’s witnessed a similar play run several times, and by more seasoned coaches. And, honestly, if you took Megan James’ corporeal fixation, imbued it with a more self-loving disposition and toned down the more obvious EDM influences, then there would be very little to distinguish Sylvan Esso from Purity Ring.
I guess none of this serves to actually answer as to whether or not Sylvan Esso is “indie.” While they fulfill the most basic checkpoints for what I would consider to be essential aspects of the category, I also don’t think that they produce anything that I can’t connect to a glaring influence. Even though the appeal seemed transparent to me on Wednesday night, the (surprisingly diverse) crowd was eating out of their hand for the first half of the set. However, I couldn’t help but notice the mass pilgrimage following “Coffee” and the amount of free space that opened up in the sold-out Cannery space before they even got around to an encore.
I’ve long been a fan of taking the weight out of the common use of “indie” by grouping acts commonly referred to as such by their ideal context. The two that I use the most in conversation are “restaurant indie” – soothing and mostly unintrusive (Beach House, The War on Drugs, Fleet Foxes) and “retail indie” – bright and conducive to spending money (Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Spoon). Sylvan Esso, however, has caused me to come up with my newest one: “Instagram indie” – indie music that touches all the bases of simple pop pleasures enough to where it appeals to most people to the point that they will buy a ticket simply to say they saw that one song get played, but not to the point that they can fathom possibly standing in a room for an entire show.
Here are pictures from one such show, taken by Lauren Hanson.
– Kevin B.