By this point, forming a rock band that draws primarily on ‘60s influences is a tricky proposition. Rock is a genre that’s very connected to forward developments which at least proffer an appearance of/attempt at “originality”. Bands very often finesse previous points of reference until they’re implicit (the Anxiety of Influence ain’t just a poet’s bag), and when overt similarities rise to the fore they can often be shrugged off as coincidental (which they sometimes are) or as a simple matter of osmosis (hear something enough and it will slowly seep into yr own thing). Yes, movements like the ‘70s punk explosion and the late ‘80s/early ‘90s Pacific Northwest situation (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and all that) found bands often bluntly wearing influences on their sleeves, but those groups were to varying degrees swept up in returns to basic principles (necessary historical disruptions) as rock had either strayed too far from the path (in the late ‘70s) or was being ignored and denied access to the mainstream (Gimmie Indie Rock!!). Sure, bands like The Cramps, Pussy Galore and The Mummies were all up-front about the sources of their inspiration, but that was in the spirit of bold-faced hommage that sits in direct/deliberate/defiant contrast to rock’s predominant mode of “the art of the steal”: Hardly anything is really and truly original after all, but the effort to at least appear that way is a major component in the success of so many worthy bands. Now the difference between those who deliver inspired hommage and the multitude of lackluster retro-retreads is paper thin and can be hard to articulate. Suffice to say, it’s the distinction between a great like Billy Childish and numerous hacks in paisley shirts and granny glasses. Back in the ‘90s, Robert Schneider (Apples in Stereo, Marbles) and many of his fellow travelers in the Elephant 6 collective (Olivia Tremor Control, Elf Power, Secret Square) worked a fine split between crafty hommage and the veneer of attempted originality, and I bring up that whole swell scene because it was one of the first positive associations to spring forth upon hearing INNERSPEAKER, the debut full-length by contemporary Australian band Tame Impala. This is due partly to some mild vocal similarities between Schneider and Tame Impala vocalist/guitarist Kevin Parker, both of whom can be quite Lennon-ite in delivery. But there is also a similar musical emphasis on getting the listener to turn off their mind, relax and float downstream. Yes, the early psychedelia of The Beatles is a shared point of reference, but where Schneider generally headed in a poppy, sometimes borderline bubblegum direction, Tame Impala are far more rock in orientation, though they aren’t a particularly heavy band. Song lengths on INNERSPEAKER are short (only one beyond seven minutes), and the 4-piece generally favor catchy melodies instead of far-out excessiveness. Fuzzy distortion and trippy atmospheres are very much in evidence, but this never overwhelms the focus on fairly concise tunes that impress with a lightness which never falters into a lack of substance. Ultimately, Tame Impala’s gestures of hommage are somewhat general instead of bluntly obvious, more in keeping with the sound of the era, though a little bit of Syd-era Floyd can creep in. For that matter, so does a mild similarity to ‘90s Flaming Lips. Part of this Lips-ian quality can probably be credited to producer Dave Fridmann (Mercury Rev, Lips, Sparklehorse, etc). Any tendency to draw a too direct line between the floaty, polished ache and bombast of THE SOFT BULLETIN or DESERTER’S SONGS is wisely avoided, though; Tame Impala aren’t (yet?) working on that kind of grand scale. While INNERSPEAKER is surely ‘60s influenced, it smartly sidesteps retro shortcomings. For one thing, there is a well-employed additive of occasional keyboard/synth texture that, while not a quality I’d describe as groundbreaking or even particularly current, definitely does help steer the record away from any kind of dominant stylistic aping. That Tame Impala elect to employ/update the feel of a period instead of leaning too much on one band’s sound is in the end their smartest maneuver. Yes, the ‘60s were a long time ago. Hell, they ended before I was even born, and in rock terms I’m a certifiable codger. Plenty a young Sam or Sally will hear INNERSPEAKER and get their first taste of Six-Oh-style medicated goo. More experienced hands will immediately understand that it’s nothing new under the sun, but I find the pleasant haziness between the hints of hommage and the more dominant mode of casual absorption in Tame Impala’s music quite appealing at the moment. Anybody not rigidly opposed to revamped examinations of longstanding psyche-rock tropes should at least lend it an ear. It surely remains to be seen if Tame Impala have the stuff for the long-haul or even just how well this first full-length will stand the test of time, but that shouldn’t belittle the band’s modest achievement. INNERSPEAKER is in no way mind-blowing, but not all records need to be. It is a very good example of three guys working outside the expected modes of contemporary rock, and I’m curious to hear more.
The best examples of Zach Condon’s band Beirut are his two excellent full-length records, but there is a big helping of EPs in the group’s discography that shouldn’t be left unexamined. LON GISLAND is the first of them, released in 2007 shortly after Condon’s debut as a solo artist under the Beirut moniker, the terrific GULAG ORKESTAR. That record was a heavy, heady dose of indie-derived songwriting stretched all out of shape with the deep and intriguing influence of Balkan folk music, a maneuver that would’ve been suspect or even downright odious were it not for his tunes being up to snuff and most importantly, the scope of his musical/cultural integration registering not as any sort of bogus bid for authenticity. It seemed immediately obvious that Condon was craftily indulging in exoticism in service of a distinct, highly considered sound, not trying to pull the wool over the eyes of rookie listeners or attempting to impress with how well he understood and could mimic the music of a far away land. Crucial though, is how Beirut’s songs seemed to bask in the grandiose beauty of brass instrumentation, gusts of accordion and bold percussion; it really felt that Condon’s interest in this unusual source of inspiration was genuine. I first perked up an ear to Beirut due to some comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel. As far as GULAG ORKESTAR, this connection is appropriate (ex-Neutral Milk member Jeremy Barnes assists on the record), if not overwhelming. The differences are worth detailing. Where Jeff Mangum, particularly on his masterpiece IN THE AEROPLANE OVER THE SEA, came on like some disheveled folk visionary bursting with the precociousness of youth and a mind overflowing with troubled, surreal imagery, Condon felt more like a cross between a less grumpy and cynical Stephen Merritt and an anonymous but devastatingly handsome street-corner minstrel who’s worshipful of Scott Walker or that grand Belgian Jacques Brel. Sonic similarities do pop up, but what Neutral Milk Hotel and Beirut share deep down is an emotional desperation; one’s brilliantly warped and the other is erudite but earthy. Both are fine exemplars of the bohemian tradition. But here I’ll note that LON GISLAND’s shift into a more fully fledged band mode takes Beirut away from the air of the desperate to a place that’s calmer, more assured and well focused. A brief five song affair, the EP smartly emphasizes Condon’s best attribute, his songwriting. A new version of GULAG’s “Scenic World” is just as Magnetic Fields-like as ever, but here it feels very much in the vein of Merritt’s mammoth 69 LOVE SONGS project. But where Merritt’s vocals are morose, undersung, and sometimes sleepy, Condon has an extroverted, booming confidence that lines up with his stated influence of The Smiths. Some folks seem to disdain his lyrics, but I honestly haven’t noticed. To be blunt, I’m not listening to what he’s saying since I’m too struck by how he’s saying it. LON GISLAND also moves noticeably away from the Eastern Euro folk inflection and towards a very tastefully applied mariachi flavor that reminds me very much of Calexico (who Beirut shared a split single with). In fact, this EP and Calexico’s killer short player CONVICT POOL feel like serious brothers under the covers. The stylistic unity comes not only from the Latin flavor but in their mutual interest in expanding beyond the typical realms of indie music’s norms. LON GISLAND features a nice mix of playfulness (the short instrumental “My Family’s Role in the World Revolution”) bumping up against more grandiose emotive statements (“Machine Gun”, Scenic World”) and ends with the outstanding “Carousels”, which hits a fine balance between Condon’s essentially traditional songwriting and his interest in atypical musical overtures. The whole of the EP lacks any sense of overbearing importance, and that’s refreshing. Never does it feel like it’s expected that I be blown away. Instead, it just seems like I’m invited to share in the guy’s work, and hopefully I’ll dig it. Well, I do. And the dude has some sly tricks up his sleeve. He’s since darted into an unexpected electronic dancey diversion, for one thing. His new record drops in August, and I’ll be checking it out. But LON GISLAND is a relatively self-contained statement released on one-sided vinyl for those with the necessary equipment, and it’s been standing up quite well under any scrutiny I might throw its way for quite a while.