It has been said that, when times are hard, the art gets better. To compare the state of the American economy to the health of indie music in America shows that there is some truth to this idea. The rude health of American music is symptomatic of the sheer number of lauded artists (big and small) emerging from Brooklyn, New York. At the top of the scale are TV on the Radio, whose recent release Dear Science headed numerous album polls last year; Rolling Stone and Spin are two of the bigger brands who plumped for the act. In fact, American music dominated year-end charts, with British act Portishead and Aussies Cut Copy the only acts outside of the States to really trouble critical listings. TV on the Radio are a bi-racial alternative rock band; four of the members are African Americans (Gerard A. Smith on keys and brass, Kyp Malone on bass, singer Tunde Adebimpe and Jaleel Bunton-Drums as percussionist) while fifth member and production hot-shot Dave Sitek is a white American. The significance of this idea of a bi-racial act is in line with the recent inauguration of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama. Take the track “Golden Age” from Dear Science: “There is a golden age/and it’s coming round.”
Leading indie website Pitchfork ranked Dear Science at number six in 2008 and their writer Eric Harvey commented: “One last sigh of relief that "Golden Age" in December isn't a sad curio of a nation afraid to embrace difference on November 4th [Election day], but instead stands as a bona fide fucking anthem going forward.”
For Harvey, this “Golden Age” is one of racial harmony, of kicking out Bush the draconian; but it can speak equally for the brilliant lights of the Brooklyn scene.
Telepathe are an electronic duo residing in Brooklyn, but with the release of their debut record Dance Mother, they haven’t been spending much time in the New York borough. Their record was produced by TV on the Radio member Sitek. It is experimental electronica and minimal, simmering with reverb-laden guitar moments akin to Sitek’s work for TV on the Radio.
In January, I spoke to Busy Ganges, one half of Telepathe, in the build-up to their debut release. Originally from Los Angeles, she said: “I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a few years now and I feel like I’ve been lucky to see live so many interesting and innovative bands over the years. But this past year, I feel like I’ve barely lived here. We’ve been touring, so I haven’t actually been out to any shows in Brooklyn. I feel like the scene has become so big that it’s almost overwhelming. I hear about a new band every single day.”
Ganges has a point. The overwhelming nature of the scene has lead to some bands spilling out into other parts of the country. Rob Barber and Mary Pearson of High Places comprise one of these acts who, in January, upped-sticks to Los Angeles, home of No Age and the Smell – perhaps America’s most relevant and, currently, most famous indie setting. High Places marry together an Animal Collective (once NYC-based) instinct for samples and ambient sounds, many of which are electronically modified sounds recorded at home, like plastic bags and even food bowls floating in a paddling pool full of water. High Places are perhaps the most under-the-radar of Brooklyn’s recent graduates but with much in common with the superlative Gang Gang Dance, another similar to Animal Collective.
The thing that ties bands such as TV on the Radio, High Places, Gang Gang Dance and Animal Collective together is their continental sound. The cover for Gang Gang Dance’s St. Dymphna is adorned with the image of lead singer Lizzi Bougatsos wearing colourful, almost royal Arabic headgear. The samples that tinge their breakthrough record hint at Middle Eastern influences with the kind of beats reminiscent of African American hip hop acts. It all adds up to a vibrant and colourful spectrum of artists that seem to cover so many genres that it all merges into one – a golden age for art. Though artists like High Places have drifted away from New York’s epicentre, there is a constant germination of new acts. Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts are two bands to have achieved international acclaim with their debut albums in late 2008, along with the lesser-known experimental dance trio Lemonade.
For all the hyped artists, such as Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts, dominating the blogosphere over the past 12 months, one band is on the brink of doing something wonderful. This band is Grizzly Bear, the Brooklyn-based quartet of Ed Droste (vocals), Chris Taylor (bass), Daniel Rossen (guitar) and Christopher Bear (drums). Veckatimest, their second studio album, will be released in May and has been described by indie-hegemonic Pitchfork as “one of the big ones”.
But 2008 was no dry year for the band. Rossen teamed with friend Fred Nikolaus to release their long-anticipated 4AD debut under the Department of Eagles guise – In Ear Park. What you can expect from Grizzly Bear’s new record will be similar to the Department of Eagles’ tone, a spirited sound lit by the ruffle of acoustic guitars and droning piano keys. In Rossen, Grizzly Bear have a folk-virtuoso, a skilled arranger whose input on 2006’s superlative slow burner Yellow House cannot be ignored. The band is on the verge of breaking into the corner of the mainstream inhabited by Seattle-based and much-admired folk crooners Fleet Foxes. In simpler terms, Grizzly Bear have the chance to hold the gong for 2009 as TV on the Radio did last year.
The Brooklyn scene is in the throes of a golden age. But what is most wonderful about it is its eddy; you cannot identify one influence for these bands. Thanks to the internet – the blogging culture that desperately and adoringly attempts to charter the rise of these bands – much of it can be witnessed from outside the city itself and from across the pond. As some acts move on and those such as Grizzly Bear scale the international heights, new bands are moving in and playing their first shows. The scale is large, but with TV on the Radio stirring styles at the top and the likes of Lemonade reinventing rave-culture at the other end, there’s plenty of gold to mine.