Indie bands of the future: Don't touch the Ambien

ESCAPE-ROCK CHAMPION: Iron & Wine, the stage name of Sam Beam.
ESCAPE-ROCK CHAMPION: Iron & Wine, the stage name of Sam Beam.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remember the aughties? It was a decade riddled with war anxiety, Internet fatigue and Gitmo shame.

Somehow, rock-and-roll became the security blanket that would protect us from this accelerating horde of American bummers. Coldplay filled stadiums with their comfort anthems, while the Shins defined threatening times with nonthreatening songs. (Then Ronald McDonald waved his magic freedom fry and turned one into a television ad.)

Elsewhere in indieland, a bothersome new type of escape-rock emerged, promising to lower your blood pressure while increasing your IQ. Its champions were Iron & Wine and the Decemberists, two acts that arrived in the early 2000s, armed with acoustic guitars and surplus copies of Roget's Thesaurus. Their lyrics were smart, their melodies were precious and it was all so boring. Now, both acts have new major label releases that venture into fresh turf but still feel uninspired.

Decemberist in chief Colin Meloy has sung plenty about war, but his stomach-turning fondness for lyrical archaisms and songs about medieval romance always gave the impression that he was living in the wrong century - or in the deluded fog of his own genius.

No surprise, then, that the new Decemberists album, "The King Is Dead," finds Meloy crooning about Gilded Age businesswoman Hetty Green and "supply-side bonhomie . . . in the year of the chewable Ambien tab.

Meloy seems to have chewed a few Ambien before heading into the studio. Easing up on the fussy progressive-folk loop-de-loops, this is a stripped-down, mercifully mellower Decemberists. "Don't Carry It All" sounds like Weezer checked in for a weekend at the Neutral Milk Hotel, while "Down by the Water" pantomimes R.E.M. to startling effect. Or maybe not that startling - R.E.M.'s Peter Buck actually plays guitar on the song (and Americana darling Gillian Welch sings backup).

But with all of the musical derring-do extracted from the mix, Meloy's most pretentious lyrics - "The thrushes bleating battle with the wrens/Disrupts my reverie again," for instance - feel particularly grating.

Sam Beam, who performs as indie-folk star Iron & Wine, faces the inverse problem. His lyrics hardly jump out from the pleasing sonic gristle of his new album, "Kiss Each Other Clean."

That's because this is a wonderfully recorded clutch of songs, full of rubbery bass lines, epileptic clavinet riffs and hyper-studied production values that fall somewhere between the soft rock of the '70s and the global-minded pop of the '80s. "Rabbit Will Run" might be Beam's finest five minutes - pliant vocals over plinking marimbas, whispering flutes and simmering cymbals.

But even beneath his most imaginative soundscapes flows a river of sap. As a singer, Beam is still afraid to use both lungs, and as a songwriter he's still allergic to adventure - a weakness evidenced with album-closer "Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me." It's an unexpected swatch of jaunty Afro-pop that inexplicably changes its wonderful tempo, scrapping all momentum for a plodding, prosaic grand finale. Just like that, a welcome left turn sadly corrects itself.

Will indie rock remain forever dull? Maybe. A new generation of bands is proving that the new boring is different from the old boring, but still kinda boring. Among them: Tennis, a Denver duo with 10 more songs you probably won't remember next week.

Most of the buzz surrounding the band's debut album, "Cape Dory," comes from its back story. In 2009, guitarist Patrick Riley and singer Alaina Moore, husband and wife, sailed a boat down the East Coast of the United States. When they got home, they started writing "Cape Dory."

But these aren't deck-swabbin' sea shanties - they're listless, Phil Spector-inspired tunes about the places they visited. The album's opening cut, "Take Me Somewhere," offers the closest Tennis ever gets to a hook. And isn't the song's titular refrain something we should be asking of them?

The quick ascent of easy-breezy groups such as Tennis shows that, from one decade to the next, the indie rock landscape has barely shifted beneath our espadrilles. Brainy, austere and quirky has given way only to clever, casual and quirky.

The security blanket has become a Snuggie.

Recommended tracks: Iron & Wine's "Rabbit Will Run," Tennis's "Take Me Somewhere"

Tennis is scheduled to perform March 5 at the Rock & Roll Hotel.

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