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The Year in Fey

By David Greenwald | 18 December 2006

This was supposed to be about "The Year in Fahey." After Animal Collective and Akron/Family took over the e-world last year, I was ready for the folk floodgates to open and drown out indie rock with genre-bending masterworks.

Yeah, not so much.

Things worked out, though. As much as I enjoyed writing on Grizzly Bear (the year's one ray of blue-eyed acoustic hope, not counting however you're categorizing Joanna Newsom -- me, I just call her "great"), it was refreshing to spend 2006 cleansing my palette with music a little less dour. In looking over the staff lists, you'll notice a pretty substantial riff between myself and most of my colleagues -- for better or worse, I'm CMG's indie-pop guy, and judging by my reviews, it's about all I listened to this year.

If I was going to pick a year to dive into the genre -- which for the purposes of this article, we'll define as an umbrella spanning the Pacific Northwestern jangly, lo-fi school, the more melodramatic, reverb-cloaked British acts and, uh, bands that sound like Belle & Sebastian -- this was the one. The marquee acts lived up to their names, including B&S, who have long since grown up and forgotten they ever listened to the Left Banke. Even the more forgettable twee pop albums I came across were good, or at least cute and thoroughly listenable. Then again, I'm not one to turn down a half-hour of hugs. Still, more impressive than the depth of material was its sheer diversity. Depending on who you ask, "indie-pop" can mean almost anything; in 2006, it meant a British girl group whose album isn't out in U.S. yet, yelling pants, a painfully lonely keyboard player fleshing out his sound, a softly triumphant return from one of the genre's icons, and a 29-member Swedish band whose album was unrepentantly downloaded by several thousand people the day after one critic lavished four stars on it. All that and "Young Folks!"

This is not to say we twee listeners all agree. Even if I'm From Borecelona (see what I did there?) got me to take them "seriously" (this is the year in fey, remember) by dropping their extra 25 members, they'd probably still miss the point. Indie-pop isn't about building tree houses or hitching apple wagons or having a precocious band name. It's about being silly and ridiculous and sounding like you really mean it or alternatively, being ironically detached even though you're still totally in love with so-and-so and you spent third period drawing hearts around his/her name. There's a thin line between adults ironically playing at childhood and kids learning how to play their instruments and sing harmony; in theory, a 29-member indie-pop orchestra is twee as fuck, but to actually put one together, tour, record an album and presumably have a functioning business model? No thanks, Dad.

The groups I found most successful at navigating that self-aware line were the Pipettes, who need no introduction, and Math & Physics Club, a band whose debut album logged more time in my stereo since its October release than Belle & Sebastian's The Life Pursuit did all year. In answer to the complaints of more than a few CMG colleagues, yes, M&P substantially resemble B&S. What makes the album stand out is how free and easy it all sounds. In songs such as "I Know What I Want," there's an abundance of melodic ideas, the lead guitar responding to lead singer Charles Bert's calls and then moving on to something else entirely without stepping on anyone's toes. There's a lot packed into the album's fast-paced sub-30 minutes, segues and sections that tie off choruses and lead into joyous "ba ba bas," but none of it ever feels in any way forced. Quite the opposite: The music of Math & Physics Club is more lithe and athletic than Belle & Sebastian's old four-chord set pieces ever were. It sounds the way indie-pop is supposed to sound: fun, and sometimes a little sad.

That's a lot of song and dance about a pretty frilly bunch of records, you're probably thinking, and wait a minute, what kind of jerk doesn't like Boy Least Likely To? Maybe you're right. Like regular pop, indie-pop is easy to love. Too easy, some would say. That's its greatest strength and its greatest weakness: how can something so sweet and accessible have any authenticity, much less meaning? To which I reply, dude, who cares? The truest, purest meaning a song can have is the way it makes you feel the first time you hear it, and that, that is a game indie-pop wins every time -- but especially this year.

*****

Greenwald is looking forward to writing "The Year in Braff" in about a month when the new Shins drops.