Friday, 24 December 2010

Snow | Music | WHINDIE (Whimsy + Winter + Indie)

Can’t remember who it was, so I can’t credit them unfortunately, but a month or so ago, on Facebook (yeah, sorry, it’s going to one of those articles) somebody wrote something like the following…

the one upside to it being this cold: i can start listening to bon iver again

…and I was really bloody happy to see that somebody else saves up a certain type of music for the winter. This time two years ago, I spent the vast majority of December listening to Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan, Yeasayer, Jen Lekman and very little else. This time one year ago, it was Midlake, Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, Mew, Talons’, Jen Lekman and very little else. This year it’s been Peter Broderick, Perfume Genius, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Jens Lekman and very little else. For me, in short, an essential component of my cultural experience during the winter months, particularly those preceding Christmas, is a soundtrack of unambiguously wintery (and often enough, somewhat unchallenging) American and Canadian guitar music – both accompanying and redefining my romanticed notions of winter’s special poetry, loveliness, importance.

Now, a certain amount of this connection speaks for itself insofar as, say, Lekman’s Cold Swedish Winter…

We went home to her place
and cooked up some chilli
Warmed us from the inside
'cause the outside was chilly

…is, explicitly, a whimsical romanticisation of winter, whilst his being Swedish, along with Mew’s being Danish, Broderick being adopted Danish, Fleet Foxes being from snowy Washington state and so on, are all clear pointers as to why this music makes sense – is pleasurable to the point that it’s the only music worth listening to – in the colder months. But actually, a lot of the songs by the above artists explicitly about winter aren’t actually very much in love with it. ‘A man can be happy with the weather / As long as it doesn’t snow / There’s a price to pay for summertime,’ explain Yeasayer in Wait For The Wintertime, and as for Fleet Foxes:

I was following the pack
All swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied around their throats
To keep their little heads
From falling in the snow
And I turned around and there you go
And, Michael, you would fall
And turn the white snow red as strawberries
In the summertime

Bleak. Lyrically, anyway. But not aesthetically, which to me is a point far more important than apparently obvious lyrical or, I don’t know, geographical explanations: the reason for the connection between winter and a certain kind of music is about music, rather than ‘meaning'. For me, the way Phil Spector produced his glorious Christmas Album is much more Christmassy than its banal and, in the case of album highlight I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, frankly sinister lyrical content. All scratchily galloping Little Drummer Boy snares, backing vocals melting into strings and back again, layered instrumentals. It’s a winter sound that makes its way into Grizzly Bear, Sufjan, and many more besides.
I’m fudging together winter and Christmas here because it’s the easiest way – obviously they’re different things, in music and in life, but as a general rule most Christmassy American and Canadian guitar music fits into the winter music framework I’m trying to define, whilst most winter music doesn’t fit into whatever Christmas frameworks do exist. Incidentally, one shouldn’t underestimate the impact the OC and, more specifically, its Chrismukkah compilation has had upon the now entrenched relationship between commercialish indie music and a sorta kitch love of Christmas stuff. See Sufjan’s Songs for Christmas. See AV Undercover’s recent set of ‘holiday covers’ featuring bands like the Walkmen – who, you knows it OC fans, actually appeared in an episode of the show. The OC defined an entire generation’s relationship with alternative music. Underestimate the OC at your peril. Incidentally, the opening track on the Chrismukkah record is the Raveonette’s The Christmas Song which tries really, really hard to sound like a Spector creation. Just sayin.

Anyway, this aesthetic blueprint, this makes-sense-in-wintertime blueprint, what are its ingredients, beyond those contained within Phil Spectorism? Firstly, quietness – many of the artists I’ve mentioned already are solo outfits, many make creative use of silence, Peter Broderick’s pauses and Samuel Beam’s Iron & Wine whisper particularly good examples. And the association between winter and quiet isn’t too hard to work out – for me, the most striking thing about snow is the way it flattens urban noise into a cushioned, swaddled silence, as uncanny as it is wonderful. Second, a certain type of vocal, invariably layered into harmony, á la Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes, almost always male, yet frequently verging on falsetto – so King’s College’s Nine Lessons and Carols, then? Well perhaps that’s going a bit far. But the relationship between one of the most-sung strands of choral composition and winter is long-established and still going strong – think Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium, his Mid-winter Songs – and so it’s inevitable that other modes of music which adopt choral-ish tropes will appear, well, wintery. That’s what Fleet Foxes are like: choir boys.
Thirdly, there’s storytelling whimsy, a Christmas/winter tradition that has dominated Western culture from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s ‘Christmas game’ to Good King Wenceslas via the tradition of old wives’ winter’s tales immortalised by Shakespeare – who’s Mamillus warns us that ‘a sad tale’s best for winter,’ a notion adopted throughout, say, Perfume Genius’ particular take on meandering wintery songwriting. Here’s Mr Peterson:

He let me smoke weed in his truck
If I could convince him I loved him enough

He made me a tape of Joy Division
He told there was a part of him missing
When I was sixteen
He jumped off a building

In short, this thing I do, this thing I was so excited to see somebody else do, actually makes perfect sense, buys into existing seasonal cultural frameworks, traditions, trends – that were, indeed, erected and established in my cultural life at a ridiculously young age via weather patterns, carol services and 19th century poems like A Visit from St. Nicholas. Winterous indie music is a fact, not a thing. A prevalent fact, indeed. These ingredients are utilised by an enormous spectrum of bands, ranging from Crosby, Stills & Nash to My Bloody Valentine to TVOTR to Deerhunter via the Beach Boys. Make that half the Beach Boys – for a lot of their most well-known singles are, naturally, summertime tunes. And that Beach Boys dichotomy introduces us to the most compelling proof of wintery guitar music there is, the fact that there is a parallel strand of summery guitar music – one, indeed, that we all take for granted. Just one manifestation: that difficult to summarise genre we call surf that one can trace all the way through from Brian Wilson to Wavves.

The truth of this is evident in three examples: the fact that Springsteen released a single in 2008 called Girls In Their Summer Clothes – and then released a different mix that he felt the need to entitle Girls In Their Summer Clothes (Winter Mix) in order to differentiate it as a fundamentally different song. For as anybody who has seen The Promise will know, Bruce cares about production. And as Spector has taught us, production can be a basis of winterousness. Two, the fact Pavement did exactly the same with Summer Babe which, when it appeared on Slanted & Enchanted, became Summer Babe (Winter Version) to designate a completely different, wintery mix. And finally, the fact Yeasayer’s debut record All Hour Cymbals was constructed around a counterpointing pair of songs, Wait For The Summer and Wait For The Wintertime, each representing a checklist of the different components that made up the two strands they’d spend the rest of the record attempting to fuse – a lightly cascading sunny worldbeat on the one hand, frostily gothic walls of sound on the other.
It makes me wonder whether all (guitar) music can be broken down into wintery and summery headings. Whether it is indeed fair, as I suspect it is, to describe a label like Bella Union’s entire roster as winter bands – they put on a hell of a Christmas party after all. And this in turn makes me wonder whether it reflects badly on (guitar) music that it can be so tied to seasonal extremes, rather than the more sophisticated liminalities that so much literature and visual art seems to get its kicks out of. Oh wells, I’m still going to spend tomorrow (today) listening to as much of it as I possibly can whilst decorating my tree. Yeah, I decorate it on Christmas eve. That's what you're supposed to do.

God bless everyone,

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

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