January 29, 2002

Sad bastard music

It's a difficult proposition, elucidating the nature of music's darker half. As it stands, one is ostensibly faced with a spate of new nu-metal bands that rise orc-like from the same tepid pool to be smeared across popular radio for a week, or a swarm of ironic indie pop groups with thrift-store trousers and sentence-long song titles. What happens, though, to those kids that, well, just don't feel either way inclined? For years now, a steady output of slow, acoustic, gold-plated songwriting has offered a laudable alter ego for independent music. Like the countercurrent it is, the diffuse realm of "sad bastard" indie music has been flowing steadily, but molasses-like, under the pressures of everything else: the soft and murky underbelly that at once defines and undermines its parent art.

I guess when one thinks of sad indie music, the image always comes to mind of some heartbroken, soft-spoken, broke-as-hell singer with a five o'clock shadow, a hard-luck denim jacket, and lifelong memberships at a string of rehab farms along Interstate 80. One wouldn't be too far off the mark. Even if the stereotype doesn't always fit the singer, this is the general mood and tone. This is the music of sad America — abandoned towns, faded photographs, dime stores: the ever-present reminders of the slow trickling of time. It's a grim trade, but understandable in its impetus. Existing almost in defiance of the fickle and trend-driven nature of both mainstream and independent music cultures, artists that create this music stand on the outer fringes of popularity, drawing from the past rather than the present. Judging by the dusty shades of Americana that surface again and again in the music of Will Oldham, Damien Jurado, and the like, it is a self-imposed exile; the past they draw on is not, possibly never has been, fashionable

Lately though, the aesthetic has been approaching a critical mass: independent songwriters have surfaced left, right, and in the center of this specialty in sadness. With so many new stars rising, I suppose there is the risk of the genre being diluted with uninspired mimicry. For the moment, however, the emerging talent has been bright and impressive.

James William Hindle is one such newcomer. Anonymous in all respects, his music draws upon the deep vein of lost America and the rich legacy of songwriters such as Mark Kozelek and Will Oldham. The eight tracks on his eponymous debut album are a remarkable achievement. Each one carries a strong and graceful melody, swells under heavy, sepia tones, and is imbued with the same afternoon light that seems to shine through every sad, half-forgotten memory. Hindle's album is an accomplishment, furthermore, in that it offers new insight into the genre. At a juncture where bands such as Low or Ida are serving up atmosphere but not content, and a thousand and one solo acoustic-guitar songwriters are trying to recreate Dylan, Hindle's songs are polished and thoughtful, and confer originality to a genre that, by definition, is modeled on past glories.

Recording in San Francisco on Kozelek's Badman label, the Yorkshire-born Hindle's affinity with the Red House Painters' frontman exists despite his young age and trans-Atlantic nationality. Unlike Kozelek though, Hindle chooses a lush sound and themes that lean closer to the sadness of the city than the rusty tin-sheds and fields of rural America. Hindle nurtures the memories, abandonment, and regret than span a lifetime in urban America. Whose lifetime it is, we're not really sure. Hindle's? Perhaps. In the end though, it doesn't even matter: the sentiments shared are felt by all.

Most striking about this collection of songs is its instrumentation. While there is the requisite sensitive acoustic guitar, strumming out simple and bittersweet chords, what at times appears to be variously, a heavy cello or a string quartet, cuts and saws beneath most verses; heavy, dark, and sorrowful sounds that, while seeming familiar, take your breath in at times with their mournful warmth. Most evident on the beautiful "(Masks)," the strings here serve as the sole accompaniment to Hindle's voice, which itself is smooth, gently imperfect, and tinged lightly with British speech. The following "The List of You and Me" meanwhile draws the album back to its roots in tuneful, folky pop of the brand espoused by fellow countryman Billy Bragg. Taking slow drums and a backing of piano, lilting violins, cellos, and distant-sounding guitars, the song cycles through sincere verses tied together by a reassuring melody and an impeccable arrangement. The album's strongest track is "Brooklyn Song," the type of song that persists in your mind and casts a glow on other things. In what seems to be a regretful remembrance of love, here Hindle's lyrics are too at their strongest: "I see your face in the things we bought / and I miss you more than I ever thought," one line goes, and you can almost feel the shadows lengthening in the sparse arrangement of strings and plucked guitar.

So I guess you think you've heard all this before, perhaps in reference to the many stricken slowcore artists who have streaked across the recent scene. Where does the originality here lie, you may ask. Well, it's hard to say. While Hindle's recording is without a doubt deeply entrenched in the work of his contemporaries and predecessors within the field of sad indie music, the newness takes its form perhaps more in the feeling you get when you put this album on. It's like a fresh breeze — slow, perhaps, and kinda somber, but a breeze nonetheless. Where some bands leave you feeling heavy with oppressive moods and unfulfilling songs, Hindle takes a well-charted style and approaches it with innocence and openness.

Hindle's direction is probably best described by the cover of the Bee Gees' "I Started a Joke." In an understated acoustic arrangement, Hindle sinks beneath the song's whimsical, crestfallen sincerity. In singing this, Hindle brings out all the vulnerabilities and regrets of its writer, and also, importantly, his innocence and wish to express himself. Examples abound of pop music as entertainment and catharsis, but in this song and its album, Hindle presents an eloquent reminder of pop's capacity for expression — perhaps what these sad bastard musicians have been trying to get at all along.

For the moment however, Hindle won't be raising too many eyebrows or eliciting nods of agreement from the masses — indie music listeners, or otherwise. Indeed it remains to be seen whether James William Hindle will gain the wide recognition he arguably deserves before slipping into — or, more accurately, remaining in — obscurity. Whatever the outcome, though, the album is out and extant as a clear and gentle release for those wondering what lies on the other side of pop music.