I’ve been keeping myself entertained lately by listening to indie artists. Unlike last time, I’ve actually chosen what artists to listen to myself — with mixed results. I’ll talk about the good ones, today. Like last time, I feel compelled to remind the audience that while the word “indie” may enrage most music purists, it does embody a type of music adjacent to typical pop or rock that everybody is aware of, so the term has its uses.
More specifically, the music in this post consists of female vocalists, often multi-instrumental¹ backing tracks, and generally serious tonality. A well-known artist in the style I’m describing is Florence + the Machine, but the focal point of this post will be an artist I’ve particularly enjoyed: Bat for Lashes.
Bat for Lashes, the stage name of Natasha Khan, is an artist with a very robust discography. I’ve heard song after song and been amazed at how consistently good they all are. She has three main strengths. First, of course, she is a very talented vocalist. However, I do not put as much stock in this, because it’s rare to find a successful singer who does not have a good voice. Nonetheless, it is a strength.
More importantly, to me, is that she is a master of “the little things” in her songwriting. There are a lot of songs (primarily radio tracks) which are very straightforward, and receive nothing from band members other than their basic instrument playing. Khan adds a little sound here, or a new instrument there, or other sudden changes that add depth to her music. This is actually pretty common among good electronic producers, and it should be, because the little things go a long way. All Your Gold is one of her poppier songs, and since pop doesn’t have much of a reputation for subtlety, it is a good place to showcase what I’m talking about.
The song starts in a manner that could’ve been very basic. She’s singing over what would stereotypically be an acoustic guitar, but it’s been quietly distorted, and all of the heavier notes have an unconventional harmonic effect. After the first verse, she brings in a harp very briefly. Abuse of the string section is a common “trick” for artists these days, and Khan does bring it back throughout the song, but in this segment, keeping it brief is a tasteful decision. As she enters into the chorus, she starts adding tingly percussion elements. This is one of the high points of the song. The distorted guitar effect varies in volume, the string section comes in to add a kind of crescendo effect towards the end, and her voice raises in pitch. She also adds some chilly sounding synth effects, which are one of the more memorable aspects of the song for me.
From here, effects are brought in and out. I won’t deny that she is mathematical in her application of these effects — there is certainly a pattern. However, this is still something plenty of artists forgo altogether, and that is what separates the great from the thoughtless. Contrast with the very uninspiring Roar by Katy Perry. My favorite part of All Your Gold is actually the end, and I don’t mean that sarcastically. The instrumental outro during the last minute of the track stands on its own remarkably well. Listen to it bearing in mind what I talked about during the chorus, and see what you think.
Melodies, curiously enough, are often described like a disease. “Infectious,” “catchy,” something that one is unable to get rid of once they have it. It’s almost as if we can’t decide whether to thank or to rebuke the artist that brings us a new melody². For my part, I wholeheartedly thank Khan for her skill at writing them. Perhaps you felt the same after All Your Gold. However, she doesn’t stop there. Daniel is another great example. I don’t have too much to say about this one that hasn’t already been discussed above. I will note that her musical style reminds me of soundtracks to oldschool RPG games, with the serious strings and the electronic-y guitars and drums. One last general suggestion is Laura.
If you are starting to get the impression that Bat for Lashes is more of a pop artist than I led on, then prepare to be as surprised as I was when I first heard Siren Song. She can get serious. As I often say, the ability to be unpredictable is a hallmark of truly good artists, and it’s something Khan has above many of her contemporaries. In order to make my point, I’ll compare her to Feist (sorry Feist). Most of Feist’s songs share a happy tone, an upbeat pace, and this “old” sound that I struggle to describe: sometimes folky, sometimes jazzy. 1234 is a simple example. I find her very listenable for one or two songs, and boring afterwards. Because Khan is so varied in style by comparison, I enjoy her more. To be honest, I’d recommend any of her albums.
With that, I will talk a bit about some other artists that I heard less of, but still enjoyed while I was preparing this article.
Indie/electronic duo MS MR have a very well done song called Hurricane. However, even more interesting to me was the cover of said song by the synthpop group CHVRCHES. I like neither CHVRCHES nor the 80’s, but this flagrant 80’s cover was better than the original in my eyes³. If I had to come up with a reason for that opinion, I’d say that CHVRCHES made the song more interesting. The original is a good song, but what can I say? The dreaded string section is overused.
The Knife are a very unsettling synthpop group that last.fm apparently associates with Bat for Lashes because the lead vocalist Fever Ray’s solo act is roughly similar in genre. I’ll use A Tooth For An Eye as an example. I think that either due to Fever Ray’s unapologetic swedish accent, or the somewhat dissonant chorus effect they perpetually apply to her voice, but their music is somewhat creepy. I can’t deny that they are good at what they do, however. I mean, what in the world is A Cherry On Top, and what is it doing on a pop album? They’re scary, they’re experimental, and I know there are people who are into that.⁴
The last two artists of the night are Jessie Ware and Warpaint. I probably should’ve mentioned Jessie Ware when I did the article about prog-rnb, because she really is something like a female rnb artist. Her tracks are very smooth, and exude class. Two great ones are Night Light and Running. Warpaint are more of a shoegaze band, so all the songs of theirs that I’ve heard have been pretty chill. For me, they’ve been a bit hit or miss. However, I find Undertow and Stars to be strong enough to warrant a mention. Take home message: the music video for Stars reminds me of a very well-shot version of Flutes by Serengeti, what with the stupid synchronized dancing and the seemingly unscripted footage.
¹I consider this to mean “more instruments than a standard guitar+bass+drums,” and no, a computer does not count in the definition
²Or maybe that even though mathematics has taught us a lot about music, we still can’t seem to figure out a “perfect” melody. We sure know how to make bad ones, though.
³Which goes to show how little I value lyrical context
⁴And if you are, check out Soap&Skin. She scares me even more than The Knife.