[Edited version published on Flex Online, here]
Band trends come and go. Sometimes all the uber-hyped bands in NME will look like they haven’t showered since 1998 and borrowed their clothes/hairstyles from tramps, sometimes they’ll all have endorsed a particular brand of theatrical, futuristic weirdness (hey MGMT, Klaxons and Empire of the Sun), and sometimes you won’t be able to move for all the instrument-toting Scottish band members in a room (Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura). The 2010s have thus far chiefly nurtured a batch of upsettingly photogenic boy/girl duos, more slick than The White Stripes but less sickly than Sonny and Cher. Admittedly, the latter’s not saying much – the cake Bruce Bogtrotter ate in Matilda was less sickly than them.
. While the 10 acts featured all have similarities among themselves, they’ve all got differences enough to make them worthy of inclusion here. Many have released or are releasing albums in 2012, and those who haven’t/aren’t released albums last year. Despite this, none have really ‘crossed over’ yet, with She & Him the nearest to doing so in terms of chart success. However, many critics consider Best Coast, Beach House and Sleigh Bells among the crème de la crème of alternative music. Perhaps it’s time to get them to cross over; with your help, maybe it could happen! Maybe we could kickstart a musical revolution, dethroning Olly Murs and Rihanna in the process! Like how Rage Against The Machine cockblocked Joe McElderry from getting together with the #1 Christmas slot in 2009!! …Err, sorry, got carried away there. Onto the guide. In no particular order:
Who?: Bethany Cosentino (vocalist, guitarist), Bobb Bruno (bassist)
Sounds like: The Beach Boys-meets-The Shangri La’s, if they’d both been lo-fi and fronted by a girl who loves cannabis and cats. First single from their second album, ‘The Only Place’, has country influences as well and drops the lo-fi.
Couple?: Nope, she’s dating Wavves’s Nathan Williams. Plus BB was formerly her babysitter, which might make a relationship awkward. Though not as awkward as Woody Allen’s marriage.
USP: I’ve never been to California, but they make it sound sunnier and more appealing than The Beach Boys. Bethany Cosentino’s voice is stronger than many of her rivals’, plus they absolutely make the California sound their own.
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: I’d be hard-pressed to find any aspect of them lame, personally, but their ‘angsty, obsessive teen girl’ lyrics have seen them dubbed ‘clingy-core’ by LastFM users. Not necessarily in an endearing way.
The critics say: “Musically, the idea is to recreate the Beach Boys’ aura 50 years later. Thematically, it’s to prove that she’s a postmodern girl who knows better. The catch is that through all her generalizations it soon becomes clear that she needs that guy much more than a postmodern girl is supposed to.” – Robert Christgau
Jen says: After Suede and Blur, they’re probably my favourite band. Crazy For You was virtually perfect; languid, summery and incessantly catchy. I also love the new single, which progresses their old sound without losing any of the warmth or charm. They’re contemporary canon for any self-respecting surf-pop/alt-pop fan.
Who?: Alaina Moore (vocalist, sometime keyboardist), Patrick Riley (guitarist)
Sounds like: A less languid, cleaner-sounding, East-Coast-based Best Coast who’ve replaced marijuana and errant males with nautical adventures.
Back catalogue: Cape Dory (2011), Young & Old (2012)
Couple?: Yep, married and all.
USP: The storyline behind their first album, of selling up and living on a sailing boat for the best part of a year, informs their first album, while the novelty of that story caught the internet’s attention and brought them to semi-prominence online.
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: The overt saccharine-ness can grow tiring, certain tracks are indistinctive and immemorable, and while they’re very nice, they’re a bit uninspiring.
The critics say: “Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley [have] a real knack for breezy, deceptively simple beach-pop that could get lodged in your head and inspire your own seafaring daydreams. Or at least make you jealous.” – Pitchfork
Jen says: Love the first album, especially tracks ‘Take Me Somewhere’, ‘Marathon’ and ‘Seafaring’, but the Patrick-Carney-from-The-Black-Keys-produced new album is – eek – eminently forgettable. Utterly inoffensive, but forgettable. If Best Coast personify summer, Tennis are more of a breezy spring day.
Who?: Madeline Follin (vocalist), Brian Oblivion* (guitarist, backing vocalist) [*Strangely enough, not his real name – which is Ryan Mattos.]
Sounds like: Jangly pop with the odd UFO-esque synth thrown in. Don’t let the fact that they’re signed to Lily Allen’s label put you off.
Back catalogue: Cults (2011)
USP: There’s a sense of eeriness underneath the cheeriness. It’s the lyrics; though dealing with the girl-group standard theme of love and break-ups, they include ghoulish angles on the subject such as break-ups resulting from divine retribution (‘The Curse’), comparing falling in love to kidnapping (‘Abducted’) and neuroticism induced by love (‘You Know What I Mean’). Scary.
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Follin’s voice is so girly that, like a 7-year-old playing recorder in a school concert, it may drive you mad after the first five endearing minutes.
The critics say: “Unsettling and charming is a hard combination to pull off, but Cults have managed just fine.” – The Guardian
Jen says: Not the best of the bunch, but enjoyable songs nonetheless and good enough to get me looking out for news of future records of theirs. And, while this is really lame as a point of appreciation, I love the action shot they’ve used as a front cover for their album. Couldn’t be more Tumblr-worthy if it tried, though.
Who?: Alice Costelloe (vocalist, guitarist), Kacey Underwood (guitarist, backing vocalist)
Sounds like: Fey acoustic stuff, just like- oh wait! Like a margarita, it has a bit of a kick to it after the pleasant first taste. Unlike a margarita, the kick livens things up for the better, and doesn’t taste of urine. (I’ve only ever tried one margarita, but that’s what the aftertaste was like. Tonbridge Wetherspoons – sort it out.)
Back catalogue: Lights Out (2011)
Couple?: No-one’s really sure… Except them, presumably.
USP: The angst is far more mature and thoughtful than your average teen-years-riffing band. (Yeah, you, Summer Camp.) They also surprise, at times; the acoustic-backed opening of ‘Chair’ is sweet, but nothing to write home about, and then the electric guitar kicks in. Changing tack or adding instruments is in itself nothing new, but they seem so unassuming, almost amateur, at first listen that it genuinely is unexpected.
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: If your teenage kicks were hard to beat, you’ll have difficulty empathising with the pains of adolescence. Even if they’re quite rational pains in comparison with their peers. (Still looking at you, Summer Camp.) Additionally, the non-uriney kick may not be enough to save them from floundering in relative blandness. I mean, they’re not exactly M.I.A., are they?
The critics say: “Big Deal… could be mistaken for just another wimpy acoustic band at first glance: their debut has plenty of fragile guitars and schoolgirl subject matter. But their songs are more grungy than gooey: super lo-fi recordings that sound equal parts Sonic Youth and The Moldy Peaches.” – NME
Jen says: From seeing them at Reading, having never heard of them before: “[E]asy on the ear, wispy on the eye and totally inoffensive, but probably not going to set the world alight.” [link to requisite article]
Who?: Elizabeth Sankey (vocalist and hilarious blogger – her Dawson’s Creek episode guides are worth a peek even if you’ve never come within 10 feet of a boxset of it in HMV), Jeremy Warmsley (vocals, guitarist)
Sounds like: 60s girl bands meets 80s synths meets John Hughes films. I think that’s a paraphrase of something from their website, but that’s pretty appropriate as far as descriptions go.
Back catalogue: Young EP (2010), Welcome To Condale (2011) [review here]. They’ve said to crowds on their tour that an EP is forthcoming later this year; the songs they’ve showcased in their live set put more of an emphasis on bass-heavy, dance-lite background music.
USP: They’re pretty much the only band on this list you could play (certain tracks by) in a club and get away with it. The divergence of styles they’ve emulated both between their first EP and full album, along with those presented on the album itself, range from bouncy no-holds-barred pop to anthems that touch on punk-pop to stonkingly atmospheric chillwave floorfillers. And that’s within three tracks. Pitchfork decried this as messy, but there’s enough of a unifying sound to hold it together while also allowing them to explore different sounds; none of the aforementioned artists can be said to have done the same.
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: If you got bored of 80s-riffing artists a few years ago when it was all the rage, you’ll probably hate this. Some tunes take longer than others to get stuck in your head, and the lyrics are very teen-angst.
The critics say: “A sincere, wryly appealing turning point in the art of romanticised retrospection.” – BBC Music
Jen says: I love them, as evidenced by me travelling 400 miles from Falmouth to Norwich to see one of their gigs. They’re catchy as hell, fun and simultaneously sweet and sour. Also, ‘Veronica Sawyer’ from their EP is the ultimate ‘feeling existential at a party’ anthem. Fact.
Who?: Victoria Legrand (vocalist, organist), Alex Scully (multi-instrumentalist)
Sounds like: Dream-pop, which here is the homo sapiens sapiens to shoegaze’s apes – if the apes mated with organs, Fleetwood Mac, Mazzy Star and French singers. Legrand’s voice varies from softly mellifluous on their first two albums to powerfully husky on Teen Dream; it’s frequently been compared to Nico (of Velvet Underground and Nico fame)’s vocals.
USP: They’re easily more sonically sophisticated than their competitors. Teen Dream is lushly orchestrated and mixed, making them more a ‘credible’ prospect to the SRS MUSIC LOVER WHO LIKES GRIMES* AND OTHER SRS ARTISTS WHO YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF. (*Up-and-coming, makes-the-music-press-salivate female artist who uses international sounds, including throat singing, to make rather good, interesting music. Possible inheritor to Bjork’s throne.)
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Because it favours craft over catchiness, those who prefer short, snappy songs will be disappointed. Basically, if you love punk/rock, you’ll probably find this really boring.
The critics say: “Brilliantly dreamy without being pretentious” – HearYa.com
Jen says: The construction is strangely wintry, to continue the ‘bands = seasons’ theme, but Legrand’s voice is warm and, sod it, a lot more pleasant than Nico’s.
Who?: Alexis Krauss (vocals), Derek E. Miller (guitar)
Sounds like: The music that Veronica Sawyer from Heathers* or A from Easy A** would make if she were a cheerleader and listened to a combination of cock rock, hair metal, experimental noise pop and shoegaze. (*Late 80s black teen comedy that’s basically a murder-heavy prototype of Mean Girls. **2010 teen film about an outcast girl who pretends she’s promiscuous, partly to evade spending time with her friend’s weird family and partly to make uncool men seem cooler, which inadvertently blows up and ruins her reputation. ***You should watch both of these films.)
USP: They’ve got, like, hair metal influences! Dude! *does Gene Simmons impersonation* As a result, THEIR NEW STUFF IS LOUDER THAN ANYTHING ELSE HERE AND THEREFORE THEY ARE TOTES RAWK GAWDS. PUMP UP THE VOLUME. (I DON’T KNOW WHY I’M SHOUTING.)
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: If you’re not into LOUD MUSIC you may find this abrasive, possibly even obnoxious. They’re so much like an in-your-face alt-loving cheerleader on their current album that you may find yourself wondering if you’re in an American high school. (Not necessarily a criticism – I like it – but the more sensitive among you may not.)
The critics say: “Guitarist Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss are the kind of music geeks who had their formative-crush experiences soundtracked to My Bloody Valentine and Slayer records.” – Rolling Stone
Jen says: I thought Treats was ok, but hugely overhyped and a wee bit dull, if I’m honest. Reign of Terror is far more solid, memorable and peppy for me. As I said, I like the confrontationalness (which is now a word) of it, but will it wear thin after several more listens? Rhetorical question time.
Who?: Rebecca Taylor (vocals, guitar, percussion), Charles Watson (vocals, guitar)
Sounds like: If Juno had been made several years later, they would’ve featured emphatically on its soundtrack – softly-sung acoustic songs with cutesy-but-perceptive/quirky lyrics. Sort of like a 2-person, less saccharine version of Noah and the Whale.
Couple?: Nope, it’s been emphatically denied by Rebecca.
USP: Latest album Paradise is a powerful fusion of Beach House-esque atmosphere and their debut’s She & Him-esque understated folkiness, but they’re darker than the latter and lighter than the former. NME dubbed Taylor the ‘funniest woman in indie’ in a review of their live show, which adds further personality to a live show which has been critically praised for its ramshackle, jokey quality (in their early days, they used to start gigs in the middle of the audience and end up on the street – which sounds reminiscent of the Pixies’ gig in-jokes like playing their set lists in alphabetical order).
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Although they bring their own mark to the genre, they’re still in many ways just another folky, cutesy act to add to an already saturated market.
The critics say: “Slow Club display remarkable skill in tugging at heartstrings, but they do it without being particularly manipulative or overly saccharine.” – Pitchfork
Jen says: I advise starting with Yeah So before moving on to Paradise. It’s quite easy to let the latter wash over you without giving it the respect it deserves; Yeah So won’t blow you away, but it’s a more instantly likable album, which then paves the way for you to appreciate Paradise’s more subtle charms. It’s kind of like putting primer on before eyeshadow. You can put eyeshadow on without primer and be fine, but it looks better with the primer. (And here endeth the somewhat abstract simile.)
She & Him
Who?: Zooey Deschanel (vocalist and Hollywood indie pin-up), M Ward (guitar)
Sounds like: If the girl in 500 Days of Summer had had a band then this is what it’d sound li- oh, wait. Basically, a less lyrically interesting, more syrupy country version of Slow Club.
Couple?: Nope, though she’s in the process of divorcing Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, so who knows if an interband relationship may spring up? (Sorry, that’s my two years’ worth of reading Heat magazine experience in the throes of adolescence coming through.)
USP: Their lead singer’s notoriety on the celebrity scene has brought them the closest act on the list to crossing over into the mainstream. Their second album got to #6 in the Billboard 200, so you could argue they have crossed over already. They’re clearly striking a chord with listeners, and while the US charts are usually a ‘lowest common denominator’ yardstick, She & Him scaling the heights in charts usually filled with Rihanna’s tiresome, attention-starved, idiotic nymphomaniac act is a joyous moment indeed for purveyors of ‘proper music’. #hipsterrant
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: They’re pretty bland, and sometimes verge into the ‘sugary to the point of cloying’ territory. There’s a reason you feel ill if you eat too much sugar, and that’s because it’s sickly. If you don’t like Deschanel’s big-eyed actress schtick, you’re probably not going to find much to enjoy here.
The critics say: “If Deschanel’s occasionally off-putting intonation isn’t too much for you, this sweet romp through a warm, largely carefree universe should nestle naturally into your listening rotation.” – Now Toronto
Jen says: Like Ed Sheeran, they walk the line between ‘pleasant, fluffy background music’ and ‘plain boring’ that has crossed into ‘liked by the vaguely musically aware, and thus derided by THE SRS MUSIC LOVER WHO LOVES GRIMES AND OTHER SRS ARTISTS WHO YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF’ territory. Affable, but being brutally honest, I’d rather watch 500 Days of Summer again and cry at the Expectations/Reality scene instead. Again. For about the sixth time.
Blood Red Shoes
Who?: Laura-Mary Carter (vocals, guitar), Steven Ansell (vocals, drums)
Sounds like: “What shall we bring back into vogue? Hmm, I know, Nirvana loud-quiet rock dynamics and lots of them!”
Couple?: Nothing seems to suggest they are, so I’ll go with ‘no’.
USP: The most straight-up rock band of the lot. Sure, Sleigh Bells muck around with heavy metal influences to be kind of ironic, but these guys just seem a lot more authentic about it all. In the age of Lana-Del-Rey-Authenticitygate, this is terribly important. This isn’t to say they’re hiding behind ‘authentic rock’ as an excuse to be boring and refuse to try anything out that isn’t a 3-chord pub anthem, like Oasis, they’re far more creative than that. Just, in comparison with the far wispier other acts on the list…
ULP [Unique Lame Point]: Their guitar riffs, more of a centrepiece than most of the duos’, aren’t particularly inventive. Plus, being totally rawk and all, they don’t use harmonies but shout along together instead – fits their sound, sure, but it’s difficult to argue that this sounds nicer than the other couples’ harmonies.
The critics say: “Blood Red Shoes are the band The Kills think they are.” – The Independent on Sunday
Jen says: I first heard of them from the ‘Scott Pilgrim’ soundtrack… their inclusion on which (with ‘It’s Getting Boring By The Sea’) speaks very highly of them. The video for IGBBTS, incidentally, features Laura-Mary looking more like a dark-haired Debbie Harry circa 1978 than anyone else in the history of the universe has ever done. Just thought this needed mentioning.