By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
While forerunners of the indieverse—Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, the Arcade Fire—mime pouts and wrap their skinny arms around rock like the ascending angel it might still be, trends among smaller bands edge in the opposite direction: folky, celebratory, and more vaguely ethnic than ever before. "Mellifluous" is the new "angular"; "colorful" the new "monochromatic"; Bajas, I anticipate, the new tight jeans. In 2002, buzz for Dodos, El Guincho, or Ruby Suns would be anomalous; in 2008, it's routine.
Dodos, a duo from San Francisco, make hectic, tom-tom-heavy folk-pop equally reminiscent of Animal Collective and Death Cab for Cutie—references that emote serially, one in imitation of animals, the other in imitation of humans. Singer and guitarist Meric Long studied West African drumming and Balinese gamelan; drummer Logan Kroeber used to be in a metal band and plays like it. Their coup, then, is "conventional" moping—over Roxy Music and coffee—with a studied abandon that gains more currency with each prefab primal scream. Visiter's anomaly is American blues, an influence that pokes through several songs; beyond that, browner sounds only exist as a trace element. Unfortunately, the album's about 25 minutes too long, and while curlicues in their songs temper aggression with prettiness (and vice versa), a few lose their truest moments to jamboree—understandable at a harvest festival, but in journalism as in pop music, it's burying the lead.
Alegranza!, the debut of Spanish sample-jockey Pablo Díaz-Reixa (a/k/a El Guincho), is a brainless smear of Tropicália, Afropop, dub, early rock 'n' roll, and Spanish music I'm not qualified to talk about. I understand that it's supposed to sound like a party (wave your hands in the air!), but the pitch is closer to a children's-show introduction stretched over 40 minutes. And in terminal joy there's inevitable exhaustion: Like "Who Let the Dogs Out?", Alegranza!—an exclamation!—is easy to get a kick out of for 20 minutes. After that, I get the feeling it's kicking me.
Memphis Industries/Sub Pop
Ruby Suns' Ryan McPhun is a California expat living in New Zealand. No knock to Alegranza! and Visiter—whose fatal flaws are the duration and monotony of their excitement—but Sea Lion, ostensibly a psych-pop album, is the most playable of this bunch. It's also the safest. When the trio isn't sashaying through backdrops of quasi-Polynesian consonance with big grins and hand claps to spare ("Oh, Mojave," "Tane Mahuta"), they dabble in sleepy Pink Floyd imitations ("Remember"). Nothing particularly committal, everything generally joyous.
The bands' obvious differences are overshadowed by their similarities. On Visiter and Sea Lion, the acoustic guitar (and its lapdog, the zealous yelp) is a token of spontaneity and humility—these songs could combust at any moment, and, crucially, from the hearts of anyone. The cheering sounds on Alegranza!—sampled from the Ruby Suns record, for all I know—make campfire or carnival by proxy. Ruby Suns and El Guincho, especially, forge worlds without politics or worry. Self-consciousness is recast as moroseness, and bemused stupidity as wisdom. A contributor to a message-board discussion about a song on Alegranza! might've put it best: " 'Antillas' makes me :) so much!"