Art of the Sublime: Zeitgeist, Reprised

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Art of the Sublime: Zeitgeist, Reprised

There’s a thread running through the indie and not-so-indie rock these days and that thread is beauty. It’s a somewhat surprising turn towards the sublime, to harmony, to classically developed and taught techniques that had largely lost resonance in popular music. And now, those time-honored techniques and their inherent obsession with creating something beautiful have returned to prominence. The thesis is simple: the defining characteristic of the contemporary musical zeitgeist is an obsession with the sublime.

There’s ample evidence of this trend, one that can perhaps be traced back (in recent times) to Montreal’s Stars, and further back, to the folk ethos of the late 1960s and 70s. For over a decade, Stars has trafficked in crescendo, melody, and harmony. In many ways, their interlocking vocals and orchestral arrangements are much more classical than pop, more eruditely emotive than crassly cathartic. Even songs about diffidence and emotional detachment (see: “Your Ex-Lover is Dead”) soar with evocative vocals and delicate arrangements.

Their current tour bears witness to the sort of creative beauty that can only be obtained with years of training, diligent attention to detail, and top-level talent. They faced a tough crowd during their recent show at Baltimore’s Rams Head Live, a crowd either nonplussed by unfortunate sound issues or perhaps preoccupied with extant issues in their own lives. They’re seasoned performers, seasoned enough to understand that sound issues are a particularly problematic issue for a band so reliant upon orchestration. It doesn’t hurt in these types of situations to have a front man — Torquil Campbell — who can summon his inner Gordon Downie and amplify the inherent drama in their art. Beauty is almost always accompanied by drama, after all, its tension a prerequisite for the attendant calm and peaceful warmth of sublimation.

Their experience and ample abilities allow Stars to do something that rarely works. It positions them to tell the audience that its mood, its non-responsiveness, its self-involved moping…all that is wrong. A series of beautiful moments overcame what needed to be overcome and the performer was now teacher, showing the assembly of students that there was indeed another way to approach…things.

Tell me how I sleep.
Tell me how I wake up.
Tell me how I dream
.

Stars created the intimate ambiance of a living room, lulling their audience into feeling like they were curled up in front of a fire, embraced in a soft blanket, drinking hot cocoa. A warm place, safe place, a pure place, aesthetically and emotionally.

It was apt that Stars chose Milo Greene to tour alongside, given the band’s incredible talent for harmony and cinematic composition. It’s a natural and thematic affiliation, similar to the one the Los Angeles five-piece has had with other practitioners of the sublime. Fittingly, they’ve toured with bands that include The Civil Wars, The Lumineers and Lucius, all groups infatuated with the possibilities that lie within the harmonious realm. (And The Lumineers, of course, are perhaps most often compared to today’s most prominent purveyor of harmony, Mumford & Sons).

Milo Greene writes songs of intrinsic beauty, largely focused upon a uniquely comforting blend of naturalistic harmony and melody that has been steadily winning converts. They don’t offer the sort of rock and roll stage presence that a Stars’ performance remains rooted in, each member of the group focusing more upon their specific role in weaving their musical tapestry.  Over time, you’d expect them to add a bit more dynamism to their stage show, but it may not be necessary. As it is, they enthrall audiences with soundscapes that are as pure and penetrating as Simon & Garfunkel’s version of “Scarborough Fair.” Theatrics have their place in performance, no doubt, but Milo Greene listeners’ seratonin levels already spike in response to their tightly choreographed dive into the depths of harmonious beauty.

Volume rises and falls and rises and falls and captures the audience’s attention: dead silence off-stage becomes a sign of respect, not boredom. Many of their songs exist in the mid-tempo realm, and some of their orchestration is of the same heart-string tugging varietal vinted by Victoria’s Jets Overhead. The sublime can be deeply disturbing. The sublime can be uplifting.  Ultimately, though, the sublime is of such greatness, so magnificent and overwhelming, that its universal impact upon cannot be simply described: it’s mind-blowing.

And, if you appreciate either male or female beauty there’s some of that on stage as well. (In particular, Marlana Sheetz bears an uncanny resemblance to the actress, Alice Eve).  Dublin’s Little Green Cars also offer distractions of the flesh alongside their strong affection for harmony (their bassist bears a slight resemblance to a younger, saner, Tom Cruise). If they look really young, well, that’s because…they’re really young. (How young? A couple of the band members had their hands tagged with distinctive black Xs as the venue sought to protect its liquor license). Their music fits perfectly within the zeitgeist, genuflecting at the alter of harmony so frequently that their piety might be off-putting for non-believers. Not to the extent of, say, Fleet Foxes, and also with more verve than those hirsute musicians. They drew a strong crowd — a crowd of disciples — for a mid-week show competing for attention against the likes of Lucero and Nick Cave.

They shared a poem, sang their asses off, and generally pleased the church with their sermon. Their talent is evident, even as it is only beginning to be fleshed out. Record companies — always chasing the zeitgeist — have recently jumped on bands like The Last Bison, and the debut record from Little Green Cars arrives March 26th on Glassnote (also home of the aforementioned Mumford & Sons). Their first record follows the harmonic songbook quite well. In fact, if there’s a criticism to levy, it might be that some of the 11 tracks on Absolute Zero are too reliant upon harmony, occasionally making melody subservient in its pursuit. Theirs is an earnest delivery, full of youthful exuberance and a wide-eyed journey of discovery. Taken as a whole, their songs are not quite as polished as the silver produced by Stars and Milo Greene, but Little Green Cars offer up something lost in the blinding glint of polish: the sublime beauty contained within discovering the world and its wondrous treasures for the very first time.

As Marcus Mumford has stated about his eponymous and über popular band — they’re not “rock and roll.” This isn’t to say that the post-rock zeitgeist doesn’t reference its impact or allude to rock and roll on multiple occasions, but that the pursuit isn’t one of intrinsic rebellion or aggression. This breed of musicians doesn’t concern itself with sticking it to the man, they embrace a universalist and philosophical pursuit of the beauteous harmony, the comely chord, the sublime sound of people working together with seemingly effortless precision. Their pursuit seeks the exultation found on the top of the mountain, rather than a cacophonous waging of battle against the mountain itself. Their journey doesn’t seek to tear down tormentors, it searches for the stunning and transcendental. Their reward is received above the fray, wonderfully stunned by the sublimity of a view from the heavens. And at the moment, their brand of music is ruling the day from that loft perch.

 

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.