Elvis Presley, The King of rock ‘n’ roll, is dead. I’m not saying that Elvis fans are extinct. Spend a day in Vegas and you’re bound to run into more Elvis impersonators than hookers. But in this day and age, The King has been glossed over, and I can’t quite figure out why.
According to popular culture music didn’t begin until around 1963. Everybody from my Grandma to high school Freshman will endlessly gush about how The Beatles are the best band ever (usually spouting bullshit the whole time). When I was in high school the majority of the band t-shirts I saw were Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Grateful Dead (the worst were those kids who un-ironically wore Woodstock ‘69 shirts). I can’t tell you how many times I had to resist punching some smug fuck who just discovered his Dad’s old record collection ranting about how rock ‘n’ roll died after 1973, even though they couldn’t grow facial hair yet.
For the unaware, Elvis was sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll incarnate before anyone else. The ultimate rock star, the rebel without a cause, the guy who kick started the teenage angst that fuels the music industry to this day. There’s a deleted scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman asks John Travolta if he’s a Beatles man or an Elvis man because those are the only two kinds of people. If you traveled back in time to 1964 and told a passerby that those upstarts who recorded “I Want To Hold Your Hand” would go on to become bigger than The King they would have laughed in your face.
So why is it that Elvis hasn’t stood the test of time? I’m sure among those dusty, fatherly record collections there had to be an Elvis record or two. Why did Elvis Presley get glossed over in favor of Revolver, Dark Side Of The Moon, Led Zeppelin IV, Exile On Main Street, or Are You Experienced?
More importantly, when my generation grows old and has children and they grow up to thumb through our record collections, which ones will they pick? Will they find Funeral and Is This It as exciting as we did in 2004? Will Tim Kasher be their indie messiah like he was to us? Or will they go straight for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Who’sNext?
While Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Ke$ha may be dominating the Billboard Top 100 now, all us smug indie hipsters laugh and talk about how obscure they’ll be in ten years. How can we be so sure? The King of rock ‘n’ roll is dead. Who’s to say the graduating high school class of 2030 won’t endlessly spout bullshit about The Jonas Brothers musical legacy?
That begs the question, as an artist, should you appeal to the pop sensibilities of the current year so you can earn your place in the history books, or should you toil away in obscurity? Because even if you become the biggest band in the world, everyone will forget you in a decade or two.
If music is supposed to bring humanity closer why does it seem to be yet another thing that divides us? What separates a rapper, a classically trained pianist, and a punk rocker? Race? Social class? Intelligence? Technicality? They’re all just playing variations on the same theme that’s been around forever, right?
Maybe the difference is just something we invented. Maybe it’s because we can’t accept how insignificant we really are. Maybe we haven’t evolved out of our tribal instincts just yet. Maybe we never will. Maybe it’s a good thing that The King has been reduced to Vegas imitators and a featured night on American Idol.
We all want to be the king of the world, the richest, the strongest, the prettiest, the smartest. Doesn’t our fortune cookie remind us that it’s about the journey, not the destination? I think we’re all discovering what Elvis knew in 1973. After you become The King you only have two options: fight to stay on top, or get knocked off your throne.
I remember the first time I heard a modern murder ballad. Being raised on a fairly steady diet of classic country growing up, I was entirely familiar with songs that dealt with death at a young age and by second grade, I was telling pals that I’d shot a man in Reno just to watch him die, a proclamation which none of my peers found as funny as I did. When I developed my own musical taste, murder ballads fell off my radar as tunes dealing with matters of the heart became more prevalent in my life. Then I discovered Okkervil River.
I have a ridiculous, intense love for Will Sheff and his band of Austinites. It’s the type of love that affects my life on a daily basis, a love so intense that I’ve been known to present my friends with Okkervil River mix cds whilst wearing my Okkervil River hoodie as part of my constant championing of the band. I listen to Okkervil River every day and my face lights up like a child’s when they’re mentioned in passing by one of my friends. I even slip vague references to the band’s lyrics into every day conversation. Given these facts, it’s strange for me to think that a time existed not all that many years ago when I hadn’t so much as heard the band but it’s true: In 2004, I had nary a clue what or where Okkervil River was and the name Will Sheff meant nothing to me. Upon the release of the band’s triumphant Black Sheep Boy album, that changed and I subsequently immersed myself in the band’s back catalog, including the album Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See. On a whole, Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See was not as immediately hook-laden as the albums that followed it in Okkervil River’s discography and while the disc has grown very near and dear to my heart in very many ways, I wasn’t as impressed upon my first listen of the disc as I was with Black Sheep Boy. That is, however, until “Westfall”. “Westfall”, the fifth track on Don’t Fall In Love With Everyone You See, starts with hushed guitar and gentle mandolin. When Sheff’s vocals come in, they’re more composed and subdued than we’ve previously heard on tracks like “Lady Liberty” and “For Real”, where Sheff’s unhinged quality takes a featured spot to create the band’s urgent sound. So, when Sheff explains, as the true nature of the song begins to make itself audible, “When I killer her, it was so easy that I wanted to kill her again”, it’s so shocking that it’s enough to affect you physically. The first time I heard “Westfall”, the realism of Sheff’s storytelling had me rapt with attentiveness and, when the song climaxes with Sheff’s admission of murder, a wave of nausea overtook me. I’d never heard anything as shockingly affecting as “Westfall” before. And, thus, I began my love affair with modern murder ballads.
But what is it about songs about killing that I’ve taken such a shine to? I’ve never killed anyone and I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the majority of people who love murder ballads as much as I do haven’t either. In fact, I’m so sensitive to matters of life and death that I once cried when I killed a moth (Laughable but true). I can’t even imagine a scenario in which I would kill someone, even in a matter of life and death, as the prospect of murder is so frightening to me. I’m haunted enough by events in my past and less than respectable things that I’ve done. To add taking a human life to that list sounds nightmarish. So why is it that nothing enthralls me as much as Will Sheff luring an innocent co-ed into a forest and bludgeoning her to death? I feel as if this all comes down to morals. Murder ballads, as a subgenre of music (folk in particular), deal with subject matter that few other songs touch on. They let people examine the inherit morality (or lack thereof) in human beings. Most everything in life comes down to a question about one of three things: Love, God, and morality. I found David Bazan‘s harrowing loss of faith album, Curse Your Branches, a remarkably interesting take on “breaking up with God” and The Good Life‘s heartbreakingly honest Album of The Year forced me to take a hard look at the damage I was doing to my then-boyfriend in the relationship I was in when it came out. When the power of music is exploited in it’s entirety, it makes the listener examine their own life, and the morality touched upon in murder ballad is no exception to this. Chances are you’ll never kill anyone but through songs like “Mariner’s Revenge Song” by The Decemberists, you start to understand a fraction of the terror you might feel were the situation to ever arise and The Decemberists and Okkervil River aren’t the only bands taking the kitsch out of murder ballads.
Songs that deal with death are many, but most don’t examine the soul shattering event of actually taking a life. That’s what differentiates a “song about death” from a “murder ballad”. While John Vanderslice‘s “I’ll Never Live Up To You” tackles living with loss, the death in the song wasn’t at the hands of the tune’s narrator. San-Fran-by-way-of-Texas duo Agent Ribbons have a habit of tackling macabre subject matter more often than not but this is always done so in a tongue-in-cheek (and surprisingly seductive) manner and is never played for chills. Songs about morbid subject matter litter aren’t rare but instead of dealing with “morality”, these songs seem to deal with “mortality”. Interesting, yes, but not nearly as compelling as lyrics like “Climb into my arms with blood on your clothes” (Okkervil River’s “A Glow”).
Murder ballads pepper the modern indie scene with The Decemberists trying their hand at slaughtering the innocent on a number of their tracks, perhaps most notably on The Hazards of Love‘s main single, “The Rake’s Song”. “The Rake’s Song” finds Colin Meloy committing infanticide until he’s “living so easy and free” and confessing that, despite the fact that he’s poisoned and drowned his own children, he sleeps remarkably easy at night. Canada’s Timber Timbre have built their entire career on ghost stories and homicide, as evident on the band’s latest, self titled release, an album that touches on such bone chilling topics as grave robbing and necrophilia (“Lay Down In The Tall Grass”) and the electric chair (“We’ll Find Out”). The fact that Timber Timbre‘s dark subject matter is chased with a macabre romanticism makes the sexually deviant behavior Taylor Kirk mentions in passing have a strange allure to it that doesn’t exactly seem wrong. Arizona folk punk duwo Andrew Jackson Jihad‘s People Who Eat People Are The Luckiest People features “Bad, Bad Things”, a track that finds songwriter Sean Bonette brutally killing an entire family and surmising the events in the songs closing lines: “If I don’t go to hell when I die, I might go to heaven… But probably not.”
Perhaps the most remarkable modern murder ballad this side of “Westfall” is Fronteir Ruckus‘s brilliant “The Back-Lot World”, off the Michigan band’s full length debut, The Orion Songbook, sets it tone early on with the spooky quaver of a saw, coupled with the ungapping prose of Matt Milia’s lyrics, sung with a hushed manner that’s vaguely reminiscent of a sinner in a confessional, admitting their wrong-doings. By the time that Milia reveals “I killed a woman, she had it comin'”, you understand the gravity of the scenes that Milia has described earlier, from the “cooling rain clouds coming” to the “ghost-filled brimming field” that serve as an aching grey background for the mundane beauty of Milia’s storytelling.
Murder ballads in modern music are nothing new, per se. It’s not a budding trend like “lit rock” was a few years back or “chillwave” was in ’09. I don’t expect Pitchfork or Hipster Runoff to write about murder ballads because the fact of the matter is that murder ballads never went anywhere. From their inception in 1700’s English folk songs to “goth rock” artists like Rasputina, murder has always been a subject matter touched upon for dramatic storytelling. The way murder ballads are being tackled now, however, in the modern indie scene, is something different that I’ve taken quite a shine to. When I listen to music, I want to be affected. I want to feel something. For me, love songs are old hat, something I feel like I’ve heard before. Plus, I’ve loved and I’ve lost. But I’ve never killed a man. Hearing a song sung by a narrator that has, however, opens up my mind to horrific new possibilities that it may never think of without prodding. The low stakes involved when discussing heartbreak have dissipated in murder ballads. People recovering from heartache. More compelling are the risks involved when it comes to ending a life and the dramatics of this are darkly fascinating. When Meloy sings that the titular Shankill butchers “used to be just like me and you, they used to be sweet little boys, but something went horribly askew: Now killing is their only source of joy” and Sheff kills his ex-girlfriend’s new lover in “A Glow”, the unearthly allure of murder ballads is fantastically palpable.
Let me preface this post by admitting that I am a very sentimental person. I cry at movies, I am touched when customers tell me their stories at work, and I get emotionally attached to music. I care a lot about the people in my life, and the things we experience together, and the places we’ve been, and the fruits of the achievements I’ve worked for on my own, and so on and so forth. So, when I got online yesterday to write a post about Bright Eyes’ new album and saw that it would be the 100th IndieCollege.com item, I felt that our centenary post could not be frivoled away on Conor Oberst (though, he also has a place in my heart). Instead, I would like to share some thoughts with whomever thankfully takes the time to read our site.
About three years ago, I was going through a pretty disorderly and seemingly purposeless period. It had not been long since I moved away from my fairly sheltered suburban upbringing in the Twin Cities of Minnesota to an apartment in San Diego with my childhood cohort. We were both dealing with heartbreak, various tough decisions, struggles to balance our new lives with school and work, and consequential bouts of going out a little too much. After some troubling medical news, I got a traveling itch, and suddenly wanted very badly to get away from basically every responsiblity that I held. Desires and opportunity gelled when an old and dear friend offered me a seat to tag along on his band’s tour. I pitched a piece to a small ‘zine about what it’s like to be a completely independent, self-funded band on a cross-country jaunt, and a few weeks later I was off to Chicago to join the band (formerly Where Astronauts Go To Hide, currently Holyoke). I won’t say that it was the most fun I ever had, because I learned quickly that I could not run away from my issues easily. However, we had some interesting experiences and met some genuinely amazing, giving people and I got to see many states I otherwise likely would have never visited.
One of the cities our traveling trio landed in was Salt Lake City, UT. Like in all of the other towns, frontman Joshua signed off the set with a plea for a city guide and a floor to sleep on for the night. That night the response came from the then sound guy and manager at The Outer Rim, James Gentry (Indie College’s Creative Director and Designer Extraordinaire). James is one of those people that you just immediately like. He was (and is) so warm and witty, and we were lucky to get to have dinner in the city with him and some of his best friends. He set up some makeshift sleeping arrangements for us at his apartment, but I always had trouble falling asleep at the various strangers’ places we’d been crashing. I stayed up for quite a while after my companions fell asleep, watching “The Office” with James and his friends and talking about ourselves. I am going to impart some information that hopefully won’t embarrass James, but I was kind of smitten with him from the first time we met. We exchanged phone numbers and spent a lot of time having lengthy text-message conversations the rest of the tour, and would go on to form a wonderful friendship by phone and email that we retain to this day despite only physically seeing eachother an estimated total of less than 48 hours over the last three years.
Anyways, the point of this is not to openly confess that I used to have a crush on James – the point is to thank him. I wasn’t doing anything that I felt passionate about at that time. I was having no luck at all finding a music magazine or blog to contribute to, and I had started to seriously doubt all of my dreams and aspirations. James found out that I liked to write and felt strongly about indie music, and he asked me if I wanted to write for the blog he had just started – IndieCollege.com. It was basically just a few short posts by himself and a friend or two at that point, but I was so excited. From the very beginning, James gave me complete creative freedom to do whatever I wanted, and last year when he told me he wanted to get serious about the site and asked me to be the Editor in Chief, I was ecstatic. Since then the site has evolved and changed completely from what it once was, and being a part of it has been so fun and such an honor. Let me tell you guys something else: I don’t make a dime off of Indie College (or TRACER, or Radio Free Chicago). I do it purely because I love music, I love art, I love to write, and I LOVE helping musicians and artists get the attention that they deserve. The feeling I get everytime I am able to publish another post on the site is indescribable – but if I had to try, I would say that it is a very giddy and probably kind of dorky elation.
The story behind how Indie College came to be what you see today is a meaningful representation of what the indie community is all about. We are all struggling – most of us don’t have fame, or money, and we soldier on with our magazines/bands/blogs/record labels/etc. simply because we love what we do. And, whenever possible, we help each other grasp opportunities like James did for me. Take for instance the amazing site www.IndieGoGo.com. Through donations solicited by IndieGoGo, artists like Morgan Green get help paying their art school tuition, and bands like Agent Ribbons get to tour Europe with the comfort of knowing they will have a place to sleep at night. Strangers who are likely barely scraping by themselves help to raise thousands of dollars to see other artists achieve their dreams. Another example is a different chance meeting from that very same summer tour. When we got to Kansas, the venue we were supposed to play at was boarded up. Josh and his guest cellist Valerie pulled out their instruments and started practicing in the parking lot, feeling pretty beaten down by the stress of the tour. Out of nowhere, Brad appeared. The most I can tell you about Brad is that he was enigmatic, and a little eccentric. He told us that the venue owner had passed away just days before, and his sister had locked the place up indefinitely. Brad had no idea who we were, and he didn’t owe us anything. However, he invited us into his home, and he used every connection he had in Wichita to find the band somewhere else to play – and then he called up all of his friends to go to the show. It was probably the best turnout of the entire tour. He just wanted to help the band play. And that is what it is all about.
Whether you are an artist we feature or a reader, I hope you can all tell the passion that James and I have for Indie College. We thank you for your support, and I hope you will continue to read, and start interacting with us on Facebook and Twitter (because we need your suggestions and artist submissions!) over the coming year. I hope to increase our volume of posts about indie artists and introduce some new music review contributors, as well as get started with our Design section and unveil a whole area for DIY projects! I’m so pleased that we’ve reached 100 posts, and I can’t wait to post hundreds more.