The world of indie rock is a very beardy place right now. It’s most noticeable in London. Guys playing rock and metal have always done facial hair, but London is bigger on indie than heavy rock. As recently as 2004, two months after Take Me Out was released, every young male musician in London (and they did all seem to be male) had Franz Ferdinanded themselves: clean shaven, short, neat hair in a side parting, clean Telecasters. It lasted until after the Arctic Monkeys hype died down.
Around 2006 or 2007, certain records were coming out that felt more rootsy. Acoustic guitars started making a comeback. Soon there were banjos being openly played on stages up and down the country. Not to ascribe cynical reasons to this, but I observed it in the appearance and sound of the bands I saw, and played with, around London. I don’t know if they were conscious of it at all, but a lot of musicians were heading in the same direction at the same time. Now, a few years later, every guitar-playing dude has a beard, a hat, and a waistcoat, except the ones who’ll tell you that beards are over. There are many more co-ed bands than I saw 10 years ago, too, which (unlike the waistcoats) is an unambiguously good thing. Singer-songwriters are no longer confined to a sort of ghetto. The end point of this is a lot of bands playing a hideous Mumford-style acoustic stadium indie. But on the plus side, I know, like, half a dozen double bassists now; where were they ten years ago?
There are three records I’d nominate as being responsible for starting all this: Fleet Foxes’ self-titled debut, For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver and The Trials of Van Occupanther by Midlake.
They all share common elements: a pastoral, back-to-the-country vibe, predominantly acoustic instrumentation, and a lack of interest in engaging with the world as it is today (and a resulting nostalgia for the past, an imagined past). All three records were stronger at mood and atmosphere than melody and lyrics. All three had a good sound more than they had great songs.
The partial exception was Midlake, who had evolved to that sound rather than arriving at it first time out. They began as a jazz quintet at the University of Texas, before saxophonist turned singer/guitarist Tim Smith discovered Radiohead and Grandaddy; his vocal style recalls Thom Yorke so much I thought it was a joke the first time I heard Van Occupanther (after a while I stopped noticing). Their first album Bamnan and Silvercork went nowhere, and they abandoned the lo-fi synths for a clean, semi-acoustic 1970s West Coast sound; essentially a more rustic Fleetwood Mac, with Thom Yorke on vocals. It was released to little immediate notice (its reputation is now such that some might be surprised to read the mixed reviews it received at the time) but slowly built a following in Britain and the US and is now one of the most beloved and influential albums of the last ten years. Wherever you go in London, you’ll run into young musicians with a Midlake influence. Furthermore, their blatant imitation of Fleetwood Mac has led to that band being re-evaluated by the indie press: last year a tribute album came out of twenty-something indie bands playing Fleetwood Mac songs (and showing how good the originals were by comparison).
Tim Smith has now left the band, and the remains of Midlake are following a more democratic vision, with a bigger, louder, rhythm-section led sound, albeit with some remaining 1970s prog influences. Their last album, Antiphon, was a step back in songwriting and vocal quality, but a leap forward in originality. Nevertheless, if they were to stop now, they’d be remembered as essentially a minor, derivative band. They haven’t yet improved on the work of their influences.. But both Van Occupanther and follow-up The Courage of Others, which is more imitative of British folk-rock acts like Fairport Convention, contain half a dozen excellent songs each, and if you’re interested in any of the beardy, folky West Coast-style indie rock that’s so prevalent at the moment, those two Midlake records are the place to start, the best of the bunch.