Monday, 25 January 2010

2009 - That Was The Year That Was

Last year whilst UK and US bloggers, taste making promoters and club-kids were busy combing the beach for the perfect sound of summer, and the bewildered A & R men convinced themselves 2009 was 'year of the girls' the ne’er do wells of Brooklyn, New Jersey, Washington and Florida all quietly crouched under the radar. The result; carefully nurtured scenes cropping up in said locations, friends making music primarily for themselves but confident enough in their sound to play out live and spread their word; is just one encouraging sign that our beloved underground may have finally become self sufficient.

In spite of easily accessible downloads and leaks a plenty, vinyl sales are up and the collaborative nature of the lo-fi and garage rock scenes enabled label sharing cross-Atlantic tours. Thus ensuring the seeds of esoteric music were scattered far and wide, with rock & roll (nothing, a rude word) finding much fertile ground for growth in the UK and Europe.

Devoid of a premature gold rush signing spree, high end marketing techniques and star turn burn-outs (we won’t count Wavves' Nathan Williams), America’s alternative avant-garde has happily kept its head in the sand recently, keeping true to its roots without the hipper than thou reverse snobbery directed towards success in some indie circles and oozing quiet confidence and growth potential without celebrating itself as the dawn of a new cool.

All over the US, small independent labels proved integral to the golden year we’ve just waved goodbye to. Started by the more business minded players as a means to champion bands usually jamming in the margins of pop, their baby steps have proved their reliability with release after release of always-interesting-often-mind blowing music.

Brooklyn’s Captured Tracks is one such label, ran by Mike Sniper the pseudo anonymous underground figure behind Blank Dogs. The label grew naturally from releasing tapes, CD-R’s and 7” singles to putting out full lengths and EPs from some of the most exciting bands to emerge in the second half of the decade. Ganglians, Christmas Island, our own Spectrals and Thee Oh Sees have all recently released great material on Captured Tracks.

But loyalty or restrictive contracts don’t seem to be part of the agenda. San Diego’s Christmas Island actually signed to In the Red, who put out their debut LP and I get the feeling all you have to do to put out a Thee Oh Sees record is ask. Then there’s Underwater Peoples (UP), a Washington DC based collective whose incestuous roster of surf-jangle loving beardos is slowly coming to the forefront of the alternative scene. The debut LP of the uber-hyped Real Estate, their flagship band, was actually put out by Florida’s Dying Records but the association is still there and half of Real Estate’s members moonlight as Alex Bleeker & the Freaks (whose 2009 eponymous debut LP was the first long player UP put out, confused? You’re not alone.)

All this cross pollination has, however peculiar, led to such record labels becoming the object of fandom, rather than the bands. With the help of bloggers such as Gorilla Vs Bear and esoteric music news sites such as Pitchfork and Drowned In Sound in the UK, fans are able to track new releases with ease, finding themselves caught up in anticipation of the latest batch of lo-fi artefacts from labels such as Sacred Bones Records, or second guessing which underground luminaries’ new material will be on which label come the release date.

In fact underground bands at the moment have taken on an almost faceless existence. Personalities aren’t forced down the throats of fans in interviews, instead, those interested enough to seek an audience with artists have split into two very different camps. Some spend most of the time speculating on the almost spiritual aspects of the music and trying to come up with new superlatives, but sadly more often than not it’s to announce their keen ear and literary gift rather than to credit the band for a job well done. Others dissect with the relish of a technophile, the ins and outs of the recording process, sometimes risking the loss of the reader’s attention but nevertheless commendable in their attention to detail. No time for favourite colours or tales of traumatic childhood events with the new breed.

It’s extraordinary in that the labels are able to maintain a constant flow of new artists, perhaps putting out a single by an unknown accompanied by a collection of releases from more established bands on their roster, until the new kids become the trusted old boys and the whole thing begins again.

Captured Tracks for one, is brilliant at doing this, making a mixture of 7” records, collaborations, split singles and LP’s available in a bundle online for a cut price. It increases the desirability, collect-ability and value of their output and encourages loyalty from the fans once they’ve grown to trust the label’s quality control. It’s not only a great way to put the fun back into buying music, but a great way to dissuade serial downloading and freeloaders.

The speed at which the bands and labels turn around new material is also worthy of note. San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees, led by John Dwyer (The Hospitals, Coachwhips) have been around a few years now but Dwyer’s New Year’s resolution for 2009 seemed to have been ‘record copious amounts of high quality garage/psych pop until we drop’. Last year Thee Oh Sees released three LP’s and six 7-inch singles, all on different labels and with a couple of weeks left in the year, there were still rumours of a Christmas album which sadly never materialised.

It’s a pretty unprecedented turn around for an industry that usually likes to build the suspense around record releases like Irish charmer Dermot O’Leary announcing an X Factor winner. It seems the power has been taken away from big money labels, they’re not able to manipulate trends as they once did and whilst the mainstream pop market seems to be falling deeper and deeper into the grave it dug itself, the underground simply stands on the edge, shuffling sand into the hole with a scuffed sneaker.

Inevitably some scenes risk getting weighted down by hipster posing and the fashionista albatross that can crush a movement in its infancy, but there is some really exciting music making its way to the fans these days and it’s great to be able to really get stuck into new stuff again. In a decade when fads came thick and fast and blowing away the dust in the forgotten corners of pop culture was, for some, the only way to find anything resembling the great and the good, it finally feels exciting to be going to gigs, checking new bands out and buying records again. 2009 is dead, long live 2010.

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