Where is indie rock in 2016? It seems an awfully long time ago Is This It rekindled memories of skinny ties and valve amps in the collective unconscious and swept nu-metal aside like an awkward incident we’d all rather forget. Since then, the vagaries of chart success, international touring and commercial pressures have made and broken a variety of bands, in fact, the nomenclature of these acts has curiously evolved from definite article “The”s to plurals (insert however many examples). Niche genres like math and post-rock have been absorbed, perhaps superficially, into the amorphous stew of whatever “indie” stands for. The hallmarks are still there though, and you can find them on show at venues like Birmingham’s Hare & Hounds, a suburban haunt for all things alternative.
Hoopla Blue (FOMA) opened proceedings. Hot off a slot at the Weird on Purpose launch party in April, airplay on Q and a few tasty soundbites, Hoopla appear to be prepped for a big 2016. Harmonisers ringing, they tore through a sprightly, lean set of stylish yet strangely nebulous rock. Textural nods to Battles are obvious, glassy metallic guitar textures play over a workmanlike rhythm section, with beat-led jams churning away. The vocals are a curious mix of 80s crooner and disaffected sixth-former, not really arriving anywhere specific.
Decent stuff to be sure, with snappy hooks and a dual-frontman appeal, however there’s a distinct kinetic, emotional force absent from the stage which left things a little staid and the room frosty. If Hoopla Blue can separate the wheat from the chaff and perhaps embrace their dancier, funkier licks reminiscent of breakout indie bands like The Departure, then the obvious talent and aptitude they possess will serve them well.
Next up was Elizabeth la Fey aka Globelamp (Wichita Recordings) bringing her one woman show across the pond from SoCal. In contrast to her layered, swirling studio recordings this stripped back live set showcased her ethereal vocal style and charming lyricism. A strong thread of anti-folk recalled genre pioneers Kimya Dawson, Scout Niblett and perhaps the rawness of Cat Power who all made a virtue of musical simplicity and a distinct lack of artifice. Elsewhere, the snarl of Bikini Kill and the confrontational power of Babes In Toyland snuck in at the ragged edges of an otherwise foggy reverie.
Globelamp’s debut LP The Orange Glow drops June 10th and promises a startling integrity and fierce independence that translated remarkably well with just one guitar. With the addition of a rhythm section, percussion and/or lead guitar this set could be kicked up a notch into a touring powerhouse. Nevertheless, the immediacy and frank openness afforded by one voice and one guitar highlighted lyrical themes of dysfunctional relationships and a feeling of not quite belonging in one tribe or another.
It’s always so refreshing to see a female performer excelling on the Birmingham gig circuit, so often a fusty boy’s club of roaring amps and fragile egos. Perhaps ThisIsTmrw missed a trick and could’ve made this an all-female fronted line-up.
Hailing from Athens, Georgia, Mothers (Wichita Recordings) have big shoes to fill. The dearly departed R.E.M put Athens on the map in the early 80s and this small college town retains a vibrant alternative scene. Over the past five years singer and guitarist Kristine Leschper has honed a haunting vocal style recalling Vashti Bunyan mixed with a tinge of Southern Gothic. Backed by an understated rhythm section and experimental lead guitar, Mothers have a broad appeal to both mainstream indie and more adventurous listeners. Complex lyrics hint at a chilling unease “I awake ashamed of my fantasy, when I dream of us as two strains of bacteria, of a porch talk that lasts 1.5 billion years” and deep existential crisis “I don’t like myself, when I’m awake”. Flashes of technical inventiveness and eddies of delay couched these plaintive songs and separated Mothers from the pack of female singer-songwriters. This is a vital and rewarding marriage of lyrical intensity, emotion and serious chops. The crowd stood in rapt silence, with none of the usual hubbub, and it was easy to see why Mothers are building quite a buzz.
So it seems transatlantic indie rock is in rude health. An injection of jagged math angularity has kept things fresh, albeit resulting in a less defined whole than ten or twelve years ago when NME was still The Bible. Bands nowadays appear free to cherry pick the choice tones and aesthetic of more specialist scenes and adapt them into a palatable mélange of beats and riffs. Prog, surf, math and folk all have their impact, and the constant search for the next big sound rolls on.
Debut LP When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired is out now on Wichita Recordings for $8 on bandcamp.