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The Indie-Folk Crossover: Commercials for Our Selves in a Hunger Games World

Of Monsters & Men: Ampersand? Check. Wooly sweaters? Check. Mountaintop? Check. Photo: H?r?ur Sveinsson

Soon after they turned down a spot on the soundtrack for Twilight: New Moon, the band My Chemical Romance released a wonderfully snotty song called “Vampire Money” — a tune about a glittery Hollywood rock-and-roll lifestyle made possible by cash injections from the glittery undead. (“Gimme gimme some of that vampire money tonight!”) That was just two years ago, and yet somehow it feels like longer. I suppose we’ve slid gradually over into a Hunger Games world, one that sounds quite different from the “jet black,” “collar up,” “sparkle like Bowie” era MCR were singing about. There’s a whole clutch of indie-folk guitar bands, up-and-comers and major-label crossovers alike, who enjoy dressing as if they just stepped out from among the coal miners of Hunger Games’ District 12 and prefer hardscrabble tales of personal determination to gothic glitter. There are hugely successful Grammy favorites like Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire; jaunty American acts like Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros; whole slews of whispery guitar-pluckers with ampersands in their names, from the Head & the Heart to Boy & Bear; and baroque Brits like Dry the River and Fanfarlo. Somewhere at the center of them is a form of polished, triumphal, suspender-friendly indie-folk that is, for the moment, enjoying a surprising amount of commercial success.

This Tuesday’s roster of album releases contains plenty of that sound. There’s the self-titled debut from a Denver trio called Lumineers, whose songs keep up a nice Dylanesque patter, full of concrete details. And there’s New Wild Everywhere, the fifth album from the Toronto act Great Lakes Swimmers — it’s loose, homey, and country-heavy. But you couldn’t ask for a better example of this territory’s commercial side than the flannely five-piece Icelandic band Of Monsters & Men, whose first album, My Head Is an Animal, gets its U.S. release. They do slow-building thrums of guitar with an inspirational mien; they do songs that sway from murmuring folk to punchy, horn-led la-la-la-alongs; two of five band members are credited with contributing glockenspiel. Two vocalists — one man, one woman — sing in that firm, hushed voice that’s normally used to convey a sense of nervy purpose, especially when the cymbals, strings, and reeds start swirling around it. The band’s great at shaping a pop song, laying out simple hooks and changes; there’s a reason they’re tipped as a potential big thing. (Or, given their niche, a potential almost-medium-size thing.) But one does tend to notice a lack of much actual “nervy purpose.” My Head Is an Animal has a smooth, punch-pulling sound; it’s cozy, attenuated, rigorously easy on the ears.

That’s the normal state of play for a lot of today’s crossover indie-folk. Sure, this music always sounds faintly militaristic, full of stomps, call-and-response shouts, and marching snares; it has the feel of an army being summoned up to agitate in the service of some exceedingly minor point, like twice-a-week recycling pickups. The style’s signature sound might be that group shout — the band members lined up, far back from a microphone, all crying out a “hey” or “ho” to punctuate the song and give it that sense of musicians actually inhabiting a room together. (One surprisingly good way of judging these acts is to listen for whether they’re actually shouting, or just making semi-enthusiastic noises that have been larded with enough echo and reverb to make them sound room-filling. Of Monsters & Men struggle on this front.) The music aims to feel stirring, inspiring, or empowering, and in the right moment it can. But a striking amount of it winds up feeling inspiring on roughly the same level that your bank would like to inspire you to enjoy the freedom of no-fee checking, or your cellular provider would like to empower you to lead a rich, interconnected social life with your unlimited data plan.

That’s not intended as a cheap shot; it strikes me as genuinely meaningful. This type of music does seem to be the score of choice for a certain kind of television commercial, a relationship that isn’t cheap or accidental. Skim through many of these bands’ lyrics and you tend to find them fighting for the same variety of highly generalized self-actualization that TV ads revolve around. You know: Your new Apple gadget will empower you to express yourself creatively. Your smartphone will draw you into a warm circle of friendship. Your new hatchback will allow you to tote your sporting equipment into the wild and fulfill your dreams. Eventually you and your love and your friends will be parking the hatchback next to a mountain, and scaling the mountain, and tweeting camera-phone pictures of the summit for your warm circle of family and friends to comment supportively on, and maybe imaginary home viewers will watch via the kind of sun-streaked, nostalgic film stock that suggests you are having memorable adventures and becoming a person, somehow — this is the triumph of living, as expressed by those things that occasionally interrupt your favorite shows.

My Head Is an Animal actually contains many references to fighting and struggle, but a lot of them are submerged in the world of the figurative and the imaginary. (Of Monsters & Men are obsessive about animals, so the record is full of beasts, bears, bees, dragonflies, sea monsters, and lions.) The other references are to the idea of struggle itself. The world comes to an end, but “you’re my king and I’m your lionheart,” so someone’s left standing brave and tall. Someone’s “climbing to the top in worn-out shoes.” There’s “a road that’s so steep.” Someone fights all those animals, all alone. There are many lines about getting home, getting back to shore, fighting one’s way back to something.

And then there’s the point where Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir sings “maybe I’m a bad, bad, bad person.” Is that getting closer to something? Maybe it’s a bit like Mumford & Sons’ “Little Lion Man,” the song that was a hit because it actually sounded nervy instead of only gesturing at it — “you’ll never be what is in your heart,” that one says. Perhaps that’s the anxiety being exorcised in this music. We are talking about a whole lot of militaristic songs of self-affirmation and confidence-building and the vague yearning for unspecific fulfillment. They’re songs about courage, purpose, and struggling and overcoming something wherein there is no specific something provided, so you can peacefully pencil in your own thing to be regal and victorious about — lost love, career advancement, upcoming SATs, not suffering from crippling depression, triumphantly setting off on a post-college road trip with friends, whatever. “The Cave,” Mumford’s other hit, says: “I will hold on hope … I’ll find strength in pain.” It’s tempting to say these acts, with their nineteenth-century wardrobes and their banjos, are offering some fans a kind of antidote to pop’s sheer modern popness, but something about what they’re offering doesn’t seem incredibly different from all the self-assertion on the radio. Chris Brown is telling alleged haters to look at him now, Nicki Minaj wants to seize a victorious “moment for life,” and the indie-folksters are singing “I need to know how to live my life as it’s meant to be.” We are all of us working on our selves at the moment.

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The Indie-Folk Crossover: Commercials for Our Selves in a Hunger Games World