Ask a music fan in their late 30s or 40s – preferably one stuck in their formidable years, and not an old hipster – to define “indie rock” as a sound, and you’ll unquestionably hear some semblance of these words: Loud. Abrasive. Anti-Authority. Forward-thinking. Think about indie-rock forebears, and some may even call them unlistenable: Sonic Youth reveled in noise; Lou Reed couldn’t sing to save his life; Michael Stipe’s lyrics made no sense. And yet, in the past few years, an unmistakable trend’s emerged that’s made indie rock something entirely different – in a word, beautiful.
That trend is harmony, the melding of vocals singing different notes to create a full, hopefully gorgeous chord. Admittedly, harmony has been a trait of indie rock since the early years (Kim Deal and Frank Black dabbled, as did Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl) but only recently has it become an indie-rock trademark, rather than a side note. Blame (or thank) The Shins, whose “New Slang” made Natalie Portman swoon and Zach Braff famous six years ago, opened the door to indie-rock sensitivity in a way it’d never been opened before.
Only in the last couple of years has harmony become zeitgeist-y, though. First came the Fleet Foxes, the ultra-hyped, superbly bearded Seattle band whose atmospheric, folksy “Sun Giant” was the toast of 2008, thanks to singer Robert Pecknold’s harmonizing with all of his band mates to create glorious, seemingly impossible vocal collosi that are at once overwhelming and majestic. Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear broke out last year with “Veckatimest,” which took the Fleet Foxes lushness and weirded it up, the group-sings so striking, they won the band the top spot on the Wall Street Journal’s list of the best records of 2009. And now, Angelenos Local Natives take the trend a step further, with the foursome bringing the fuzz of electric guitars (and the jumpy rhythms of bands like the Talking Heads) to the party, busting out three-and-sometimes-four part harmonies that’re both electrifying and soothing, occasionally simultaneously. Listening to them – or any of their predecessors – may not be an anti-authority statement the way, say, listening to Iggy was in 1972, but so what: who needs attitude when you can have lusciousness, instead?
Jeff Miller is the LA editor of Thrillist.com and has been writing about music professionally for over a decade for publications including the Los Angeles Times, Relix, and Esquire.com.