In her recent article in The Believer, “On the Spiritual in Indie Rock,” Judy Berman uses Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 essay “On the Spiritual in Art” as an inroad into discussing the work of certain indie rock acts that strive to express the sublime. According to Kandinsky, music is the art least concerned with representation (imitating and reproducing likenesses of physical reality) and which is most fit to express the artist’s soul. Music does not rely on written or spoken language (and if there are words they react with the music in unpredictable ways, adding complexity—at least, that is, if the music is good), nor does it add new, concrete objects to it (as does abstract visual art). Given its ephemeral nature, music is uniquely suited for expressing the immaterial, the motions and emotions that come and go, passing into memory as they become present to us. This inner life—which exists without shape, without physicality—is, one could say, the life of the soul.
Now, if that all sounds a bit highbrow or even religious for a review of an indie pop (whatever the hell that means at this point) record, all the better. There are many ways to think about songs and if the songs seem to be trying to evoke something big and nameless and important, we may as well resort to the declarations of artists who hoped to explore all that is big and important and nameless in life. Berman’s examples range from Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea—in which Jeff Mangum “projects onto [Anne Frank’s] ghostly figure a lifetime of anxieties about youth and aging, love and sex, birth and death and rebirth”—to Animal Collective’s “My Girls,” which brings “spirituality to bear on the physical realm.” While Aeroplane at times seems like an unruly and elated conjuring of the spirit and vitality projected by the dead into the present, “My Girls” euphorically pays tribute to the mysterious joys which emanate from those people who we most love.
And this is where Le Loup take their cue for their sophomore record, Family, which dwells lyrically on basic human relationships and the natural world but sets these themes to music designed to evoke the supernatural wonder of the everyday. The band’s first record announced spiritual ambition with its title, The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a reference to outsider artist James Hampton’s incomplete project, which he claimed was inspired by mystical visions. The music on the record is, however, rather staid in relation to Hampton’s foil-covered, glittering sculpture. Sam Simkoff’s pleasantly subdued arrangements and performances charmed but did not awe. Family, on the other hand, reaches out for grandeur from track one, the slowly growing, folksy “Saddle Mountain.” It does not feel as if the influences have altered remarkably for Family, but it does feel as if Simkoff and the band that has joined him have done a much better job at synthesizing them and melding them into sometimes catchy, sometimes woozily enticing songs.
And, of course, other records have intervened in the meantime, perhaps most importantly Panda Bear’s Person Pitch, though Simkoff and Christian Ervin are chopping up and sampling sounds from recordings made of their own band. These manipulated sounds are then played against sweet melodies and heaven-bound harmonies. Family carves out a niche among the work of bands like The Dodos, The Ruby Suns, probably a little more off-kilter than either of them, and with Fleet Foxes ache toward building up an overwhelming, earthy yet quietly mystical atmosphere. One can hear the impression made by Animal Collective songs like “Winter’s Love” and “Leaf House” that temper weirdness with easily discernible song structures. That said, “Beach Town” might be the band’s most original track, working in a groovy bassline among clattering percussion and washing out the corners in droning haze. It highlights the talent Simkoff and Ervin have for taking elements and breaking them apart and rearranging them into shapes both idiosyncratic and coherent. Family is a record that shows its makers to be well aware of many of the more interesting trends passing as indie rock in the last few years, and, more importantly, that they are capable of using what they hear to construct their own, spiritualized take on things.
MP3: “Forgive Me”