I recently started thinking about what the description “indie rock” means—and along with that, what I, as a listener, want it to mean, or want from it as a genre.
It has certainly become a kind of “catch all” genre, or at least the “indie” part of it has—but what does that mean? What did it, at one time mean? And what does it mean now? And the more you try to unpack this, I found while writing an earlier draft of this that I was subsequently extremely unhappy with, and wound up abandoning, the more questions you wind up asking of yourself, and of what you listen to—questions that might not have answers.
Does “indie” mean the artist in question is, in fact, on an independently owned and operated label? And even then, where do you begin to draw lines in that distinction? A beloved, long running name like Sub Pop is, to some, synonymous with “indie rock,” or independent music as a whole, but it is (or at least I think it is) well know that 49% of the label is controlled by Warner Brothers, and has been for quite some time.
Does “indie” still speak to a sound or an aesthetic? And if that is how you choose to define it, what attributes does the artist or performer need to have present within their work to qualify?
Does “indie” simply mean it isn’t mainstream enough to be played on Top 40 radio?
When people ask me what kind of music I listen to, I am usually at a loss on how to answer. You’d think that as someone who used to work in radio, as someone who hosts and produces a podcast about people’s relationships with music, as someone who used to spend a small fortune on buying LPs, and as someone who has critically and analytically written about music for nearly a decade—you would think I would have an easy answer.
But music classification isn’t easy. Not for me, anyway.
And I am remiss to say that I spend a lot of time listening to “indie” music, rock or otherwise, because I am uncertain if that is how I would describe the things that I, for leisure, listen to the most often.
If pressed for an answer, I usually say I listen to a lot of old Jazz records, East Coast Hip-Hop from the early to mid 1990s, ambient droning, girl pop, and “sad white people music.”
This piece, really, wasn’t going to exclusively about genres, or descriptors—but those things have been on my mind as of late, as I listen, and with what I find I am spending the most time with.
There’s a good possibility I was already aware of this but had never acknowledged it in anyway before, but very recently I came to understand there are specific genres, or styles, of music I tend to favor more than others during specific seasons, or through different portions of the year.
You could, and perhaps you maybe would, call them phases—a style, or genre, or even a sub-genre that I throw myself into for a period of time before my interest, or enthusiasm, begins to wane for no real reason; it’s just time for me to move along to something else. And perhaps it is a style or genre, or sub-genre I will eventually find my way back to—months, or even years later.
Or perhaps it is something I won’t ever really return to, or be as passionate about as I once had been.
During these, at times, seemingly endless and dark winter evenings, many of which I have spent at home, sitting on the couch with my dog while he slumbers, while I either read, or attempt to write, I find that I have been listening to either, through my headphones1, ambient or experimental composers, or in an effort to expand my horizons beyond the Miles Davis and John Coltrane I usually play, other older jazz records2 from the likes of Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, and Bill Evans.
During the day, though, since my temporary departure from the workforce3 before Thanksgiving, I find that when I am listening to something at home, or on the rare occasion I am choosing to listen to music for leisure, rather than research or with the intention of writing a review, I have found myself discovering, reading about, and simply drawn to artists that lean toward a gentle, introspective, hushed folky sound, as well as an extremely specific, borderline idiosyncratic kind of “indie rock.”
I don’t know if I ever left “indie,” as a genre, behind—but within the last handful of years, “indie rock,” or at least electric guitar structured music made by a band, is not something I found myself especially compelled to seek out.
My interest, though, began to shift toward4 the end of 2021, and as it did shift, what I realized is that while there are myriad outfits you could, and some would, refer to as “indie rock,” what I think I am specifically looking for, or what I want to get out of the genre, is a band, or a performer, that sounds an awful lot like Sparklehorse.
And that is, like, a very specific, idiosyncratic example to give, and one could argue, and make a strong case, that Mark Linkous’ output under the Sparkhorse name isn’t even really “indie” since three out of the four full lengths he recorded were released via Capitol Records; arguably, the mid to late 1990s were a time when major labels were willing to take more of a chance on an esoteric act like this.
But what I think I’m looking for, or want to get out an “indie rock” band, or “indie” music, is something compelling and thoughtful, that really tests the boundaries of genre—maybe a little hushed and folky, possibly a little twangy at times, maybe a little spectral; maybe ramshackle, or disorienting, or rough around the edges.
What I am looking for is an album, or at an artist, that is going to ask something out of me in return when I listen.
And it can be easy, if you’re like me, anyway, to become overwhelmed by the amount of new music out there—artists to look into, or albums that you want to hear. And I have found the older I grow, the less interested, or impressed, I am with the music that is often written about or promoted through articles, blurbs, or reviews on sites like Pitchfork or Stereogum.
I wish I could recall, exactly, how I came across the site For The Rabbits, but I do not remember. And near the beginning of March, one of the site’s Instagram updates happened to appear in my feed—the first slide of which was a photograph of Jess Awh, holding a resonator guitar in her lap.
The front woman, or at least who you could safely call the creative force behind the Nashville, Tennessee outfit Bats, the photo accompanies an interview with Awh regarding her second-full length released under the Bats moniker, Blue Cabinet.
Bats, as a project, or a band, and especially Blue Cabinet, occupy that space where the theoretical Venn diagram of what I want out of “indie” music converges—a little twangy, folky, and melancholic; a little ramshackle and at times sonically disorienting.
A collection of songs that are compelling and thoughtful, and tests the boundaries of genre.
An album that, as it unfolds, asks something of you as a listener in return for what it is giving.
“Bats,” on its own, is not the easiest thing to type into an internet search if you’re looking for information about Awh’s band, and “Bats Nashville” will not give you the results you want either. “Bats Nashville Band,” however, will bring up Awh’s Bandcamp page for the project, the aforementioned interview from For The Rabbits, as well as her social media accounts.
And I get the impression that the band itself, or at least Awh using it as a creative solo outlet, is relatively new—her first release under the moniker, There’s A River Up High, was issued in March of 2020, which feels like a lifetime ago for a number of reasons. And because of the pandemic, and subsequent lockdowns and isolation, Awh explained in her conversation with For The Rabbits that her first time fronting Bats as a “band” was less than a year ago—something she implied she is still figuring out as she was preparing to take Bats, as a four-piece band, on the road in support of Blue Cabinet.
There were a handful of additional performers involved in the creation of There’s A River Up High, but across its nine tracks, it has an extremely lo-fi, home recorded kind of intimacy to it—delicate, a little loose, and a times a little whimsical. And outside of simply being an incredible, thought provoking slice of esoteric “indie” folk, Blue Cabinet, almost right from the beginning, shows the growth, maturation, and confidence in Awh’s songwriting and arranging that has occurred over the last two years.
It is still inherently “indie,” but, in comparison to her earliest work as Bats, it is exponentially more robust and dense in sound—Awh challenging herself as a musician, then challenging us as listeners to unpack the complexities found within.
Like its predecessor, Blue Cabinets is nine songs, and while Awh and her collaborators operate within a relatively similar sonic aesthetic throughout the album, there is one song early on that is a drastic departure—the charmingly titled “We All Miss Football Season.”
Opening with a bizarre sample of someone announcing, quite emphatically, that they aren’t going to go to work the following day, “Football Season” is built around a very chintzy sounding keyboard, and an even chintzier sounding drum machine keeping time. And it is the song on the album that both pushes Bats’ sound the furthest out of their comfort zone, or at least what you might be anticipating from the project—no other song on the record sounds like it, and it is a fascinating choice to include it so early on in the album’s sequencing. It is also the song that might push the listener out of their comfort zone as well—there are no “bad” songs on Blue Cabinet, and within the five or so days I had spent listening to the album, both for enjoyment and as a means of preparing to sit down and analyze it, my original thought was to say it was a song that was not as well executed as the others.
But I realized that isn’t true—within the challenge, and the oddball dissonance from the dusty keyboard tones, there is an infectious pop song buried in the center, with the melody Awh sings in the song’s chorus lingering in my head long after the album’s finished.
It is when Awh returns to that richly developed intersection between folk and “indie rock” when the songs, musically speaking, are the most compelling, like “Golden Spoon,” which arrives at Blue Cabinet’s halfway point.
And, even if Awh is still finding the balance in Bats being more or less a solo output for her songs, while fronting it as a “band leader” for live performances, that kind of uncertainty is missing completely from just how well some of these songs sound when there is additional instrumentation thrown in—a melancholic pedal steel underscores the crisp sound of brushed percussion and jaunty bass line on “Golden Spoon,” the song that has, perhaps, the most twang or Western feeling to it, and one where it become very easy to forget that Bats is not exactly a band or group in the most traditional sense.
It, like “We All Miss Football Season,” is constructed with an impressive and memorable melody in the chorus—but rather than infectious, or “hook-y” like a pop song, there’s a bittersweet longing to it in the way that it lingers.
After the halfway point, Awh continues her turn into the bittersweet and the melancholic, with “Pillow Street,” and to match the downcast infection of her vocals, the music itself takes on somber notes as it moves through a slower, measured tempo with crisp, crunchy percussion, swirling banjo plucking, and the inclusion of another sampled voice, this time sounding like someone leaving a voice mail message.
If “We All Miss Football Season”’s use of whimsy in its arranging pushed Bats out of their usual territory, Blue Cabinet’s penultimate track does something similar—though far less whimsical, and much more dramatic and grand. “Signal Ridge” is the kind of song, at slightly over six minutes in length, is destined to build until it bursts, and Awh nearly plays her hand from the ver moment it begins. After counting off on the muted strings of her metallic, resonator guitar, the first chord of “Signal Ridge” is simply enormous. It’s not foreboding, like in a bad way—foretelling, I guess, would be a more accurate way to describe it. There’s a slow motion grandeur to the progression, implying the song is only going to continue to grow as the other instruments slowly tumble in. And even when it does grow, as “Signal Ridge” slowly closes in on the four minute mark, Awh and the group never truly let it get away from them—it could spiral out into total chaos or dissonance, but instead, there is a palpable sense of tension, with little, if any, release once the detonation of the song settles.
I am almost remiss to refer to Jess Awh’s voice as sounding “youthful.” She mentions early in her interview with For The Rabbits that she is 23; with that being said, I am uncertain how else to describe it. There was something, from the moment I began listening to Blue Cabinet, that felt extremely familiar to me about Bats—and as much as I try to avoid direct comparisons, or correlations between one artist and another, what I realized after a few times through is Awh’s voice is similar to Sophie Allison of Soccer Mommy, finding the places that form between a youthful delicacy or fragility, and and a youthful confidence and exuberance.
Musically, Blue Cabinet is undoubtedly a musically impressive record from the moment it begins—I understood that immediately during my first listen to the record. However, it’s Awh’s lyricism that, through subsequent sittings, begin to reveal themselves to you more, and will absolutely stop you in your tracks with their wit, as well as their severity.
For as whimsical, or quaint, as “Football Season” appears, there’s a hypnotic, but strangely anxious feeling from the way Awh coos the song’s chorus, “Oooh, I should be at my house—I should be at my house right now.” And there is something stark within the line that is casually delivered shortly after the chorus’ first time through—“If I saw you bleeding out, I’d count the hours ’til the sheets turn red. Nothing’s wrong until I prove you’re dead and I don’t wanna try.”
It was after my initial few listens, at first for enjoyment, then to get a better grasp on the record to confirm it was, in fact, something that I felt strongly enough to begin writing about, it was when I sat down to take notes on Blue Cabinet that Awh’s phrase turns, often arresting and evocative, really began to appear to me—“I will never be as nice as you,” she sings gently, and lightly, a contrast to the self-effacing reflection she’s made, in the swaying, folksy “Violets”; the hyper-literate descriptions of her youth in “Pillow Street”—“The old oak tree in your yard looks like I did—I used to run around on gravel roads with no shoes; with brown skin, poison oak, and violets staining all my clothes blue.” Then, shortly after, an extremely bleak, vivid, and poetic observation: “Pillow Street sleeps with the horses; I don’t wanna get that old and go rotten like fruit, left alone on your window, above the kitchen sink while you’re locked inside your room.”
There is that similar poetic longing early on in “Golden Spoon”—“Your face looks like a black and white cook when the light cuts you right down the middle of your nose,” Awh muses. “I know how it feels to be half of something, and half of something else you’re note even sure you know.”
At the top of my page of notes about Blue Cabinet, the first thing I wrote down was, “This is a songwriter’s album for sure. These lyrics are really something.”
Why can’t we just go back to the mall and get our olds job back, and work across the hall from each other again?
A little over a year ago, on a Tuesday night, I received a text from my boss, giving me a heads up that she was planning on putting in notice either the next day, or the following. To me, it was both a surprise, but also not a surprise at all—the very idea of her departure had been a possibility for a number of years at that point. And she had been patient enough, and kind enough, to spend parts of those years, off and on, preparing me as best as she was able to, for the inevitability that we would, one day, no longer work together.
And it isn’t easy, seeing a co-worker who you have built any kind of good, or friendly rapport with, decide to leave; it’s even harder when your rapport, or dynamic, with that co-worker has transcended the idea of being “friends from work,” and you have become incredibly close outside of work as well.
There is a wistfulness, and a longing, that runs throughout Blue Cabinet—Awh more or less introduces those feelings from the moment the record begins on the plaintive, gorgeous, and terribly somber “New Job.”
And I might have written at the top of the page while taking notes, “These lyrics are really something”—a thought that crossed my mind after a number of listens through, but the truth is, during the very first listen of Blue Cabinet, I hadn’t even gotten to the end of “New Job” yet, and I had already arrived at the conclusion that Bats, and this album, were both things to truly behold.
There is no time wasted on “New Job”—opening with a small moment of electrical buzzing coming from Awh’s guitar amp, she begins strumming, pensively exhaling before the song’s thoughtful lyrics begin to spill out—effortlessly crafting an evocative portrait within the song’s first few seconds.
“We need to take it back in time,” she commands, albeit gently. “I cannot be the voice you hear when you’re not listening.” And there is a lot, there, in that opening line—about taking it back in time. So much of Blue Cabinet exists in the present but is a product of, or a reflection of the past. It isn’t nostalgic—not really, but rather a terribly bittersweet melancholy and longing. And somehow Awh is able to put that feeling into literally every song on the record, in one way or another, so even when the album is at its most whimsical, or playful, or folksy, or “indie,” there are still very real, very visceral emotions underneath.
And that visceral, emotional feeling explodes in the song’s chorus—it is among the most honest, and saddest, moments on the record. “You’ve got a new job and it’s important. You’ve got responsibilities that you can’t ignore. You’ve got the world coming down on your shoulders—you’ve got a new job.” The song’s second verse is equally, if not more honest and sad—with Awh reaching the core of the bittersweet melancholy and longing for what once was. “Why can’t we just go back to the mall and get our old jobs back, and work across the hall from each other again?,” she asks. “Get off at six o’clock, jump into your car, and drive ‘till Old Hickory Boulevard ends.”
That longing just hangs, unresolved, and I was going to say her question of why can’t she and this unnamed friend get their old jobs back goes unanswered, but that isn’t true. The chorus, and the very notion of a new job—a different one, that shifts the dynamic, and relationship slightly, is the answer, regardless of if that is the answer you want to hear or not.
And that shift in dynamic, or change in the relationship, can be difficult to face or try to graciously accept. The first place we may think to retreat to is a rumination on the past—the “once was,” because being open to the “what might” is, at first, a place of discomfort.
There is enough of a give and take throughout Blue Cabinet that “New Job” isn’t a thesis statement for, or completely indicative of what will come as the rest of the record unfolds, but it does provide an extremely accurate depiction of Bats, both in Awh’s songwriting, and the way the song itself is arranged and produced. The attention to detail in the way the drums are engineered throughout is meticulous in just how crunchy, crisp, and thick they sound—and on “New Job,” especially, Awh finds that line between whimsy, playful, and pensive with the inclusion of what sounds like toy piano, plunking the notes out one at a time, underscored by a lower in tone, wonky synthesizer sound mirroring each key hit.
And the way Awh layers her vocals, hitting slightly different ranges, but in all of them singing the titular phrase to the song with such a tangible pleading in her voice only adds to the impact this song has, as well as the album as a whole.
Blue Cabinet doesn’t “thrive” in that place of discomfort when the dynamics in a relationship begin to shift towards something unknown, but that is where the album operates, and that is where Awh, as a lyricist, often writes from. And for as beautifully as Bats, as a project, finds itself in the space where idiosyncratic, dense “indie rock” and something much more whispered and folky intersect, the human condition, how we interact with it, and how we interact with each other, is not as easy of an intersection to navigate. Blue Cabinets is a reminder of that—at times a musically fun album that casts a long, fascinating shadow in its poignant, personal lyrics.
1- Many years ago, an ambient/experimental album by Federico Durand was apparently too weird, or was for some reason, extremely upsetting to our companion rabbit Annabell, so for a number of years, I tried to keep the “weird stuff” to my headphones only. We have lived with our dog since September, and I don’t think he gets too concerned about what kind of music is playing in the house, but I am still a little hesitant to introduce anything out of the ordinary over the stereo.
2- Shortly after the new year, in an effort to discover some jazz albums/artists that were new to me, and because I was, as I usually am, feeling extremely bleak, I searched “sad jazz” online and found a somewhat helpful thread from Reddit that pointed me in the direction of a number of things that are great but also are, in fact, extremely sad.
3- I am uncertain if it has found its way into anything that I have written since November, and if you’ve read this far, to the third footnote, there is a chance you know me personally so this is probably not “new news” but I left my job shortly before Thanksgiving and since the beginning of the new year have been trying to figure out what to do next.
4- The album in question here is Fishing in A Small Boat by Swim Camp, which was released in October, but because of “peak vinyl,” among other things, the physical release of the album has been delayed until possibly April. I had wanted to write about the album around the time it came out, but last year, I was still in the mindset of “needing” a physical copy of the record in order to accurately write about it—so my intent was to cover it in January, when the LP was, originally, slated to be ready. I would like to still write about it once I have it in my hands, I guess, even though there is a part of me that wonders about writing about something six months after it was originally released.