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Give the Coasts a Rest, the Midwest is Truly the Best

By Chris Polley | Music | June 25, 2009 |

By Chris Polley | Music | June 25, 2009 |

Welcome to a news series of articles that we’ll be running periodically over the next several weeks. We thought it’d be interesting to look beyond our favorite bands, and do a bit of examination of the labels that record and promote those bands. It allows us to learn a bit about musical history, and hopefully learn about some new music as well. We start off with Chris Polley and two of his favorites.

polyvinyl logo 256 72dpi.jpgPolyvinyl Record Co. (Champaign, IL; 1996-Present)

It’s both amazing and frightening when a label can keep up with your evolving music taste, rather than you keep up with their ever-evolving roster. Thus is the case with the Illinois-based record label king of the Midwest, Polyvinyl. Every single artist that these folks have signed ever since they branched out from their tri-state area has been in heavy rotation in my music collection before the announcement was made. It feels like they’re watching me or tiny nodes in my brain are clandestinely connected directly to their internal database.

But let’s start at the beginning. Before the paranoia set in. I was just a teenager in suburban Milwaukee downloading music off Napster and suddenly found and fell in love with local band The Promise Ring. Their music wasn’t played on the alt-rock station, but they had gorgeously buoyant melodic hooks and a kind of earnest, quirky sensibility unfound in most of the rock star-posturing post-grunge garbage that infiltrated my ear canals back then. From there, I found singer/guitarist Davey von Bohlen’s first band, the arguably even more recklessly passionate Cap’n Jazz, and then that band’s other members’ new bands: Joan of Arc and American Football. Have I lost you yet? Hopefully not, because when I heard the Polyvinyl-released albums A Portable Model of… by the former and the self-titled disc by the latter, I felt that music and I had finally reached the apex of our relationship. Those two albums were the be-all end-all of angst-ridden confusion/celebration and heartfelt lusciousness/melancholy for me. They are the two albums I can guarantee I will never ever hear anything like again and for that reason, Polyvinyl earned my loyalty instantly.

Luckily they also kept putting out masterpieces, like Braid’s Frame And Canvas, which was a touchstone (and quite possibly the true death knell) for the much-maligned emo genre right before the band called it quits. It’s as fierce, raw, and pummeling as it is upbeat, endearing, and downright fun; and this is all way before eyeliner was a required accessory. Similarly, Rainer Maria’s A Better Version of Me did the same for raucous and affecting female-fronted music and Pele’s Nudes proved that instrumental rock didn’t have to be overly cocky nor overly boring as their clean guitar licks and jazzy percussion were both playful and moving, as did all three of these bands’ extended discographies for the label. As we got further and further away from Y2K, Polyvinyl continued to excel at releasing pop music with both heart and brains, including but not limited to the warbly vibraphone-fueled intimate rock of Aloha’s and the one and only release by the off-the-wall Casio enthusiasts Volcano I’m Still Excited!!, which was self-titled and is in the midst of being fundraised to be re-released on vinyl for fans by Polyvinyl themselves. This paragraph could easily go on forever, as I haven’t even mentioned the angular spazz of the much-missed Paris Texas nor the devastating brooding of Sunday’s Best (now morphed into the buzzy pop band The Little Ones).

Fast-forward to the present and while Aloha and Joan of Arc (which is now just leader Tim Kinsella and whatever friends are available that year) are the only aforementioned ones still around, two of Pele’s members have formed Collections of Colonies of Bees, a masterful bright-eyed wall-of-sound project expected to collaborate with Bon Iver later in 2009, and Mike Kinsella of American Football has been recording under the moniker Owen for quite some time now, and has released some passionately restrained albums, namely 2006’s At Home. Also in today’s times we have the paranoia. Since expanding their base, Polyvinyl has signed some big time artists, probably the largest name being Of Montreal, who I might have fallen off the wagon for a bit lately, but their Polyvinyl debut, 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic is a splendid example of synth bliss meets lo-fi guitar pop, before the band went all theatrical on us. Their 2002 Kindercore-released album Adhils Arbouretum was a curiosity of mine for a while beforehand though, which made their move to Polyvinyl welcomed on my part. But things didn’t get weird until the past few years, when suddenly Polyvinyl starting signing artists I adored left and right: Australia’s Architecture in Helsinki got with them right after releasing two stellar albums on Bar/None, New York’s Asobi Seksu jumped on board after two mind-expanding shoegaze records on Friendly Fire, and Sweden’s Loney Dear inked a deal not long after Sub Pop re-issued his fantastic softcore outing Loney, Noir in 2007.

Surely in 2009 the conspiracy couldn’t continue. The buck has to stop somewhere, right? Wrong. As I was researching for this piece, I read that the Vancouver duo Japandroids, whose new effort Post-Nothing is chock full of deliciously crunchy riffs and brash sing-along choruses and skyrocketed to my “best of 2009 thus far” list last month, is going to be released domestically on the label later this year. GET OUT OF MY BRAIN, RECORD LABEL EXECUTIVES!

ghostly-international.jpgGhostly International (Ann Arbor, MI; 1999-Present)

I’ll admit this one I did not get in on the ground floor of, so I cannot feign that his label has been as monumentally consistent or as near and dear to me throughout its past decade or so of existence. In fact, when I first heard the music swelling out of Ann Arbor in sheens of metallic mutant electronic blips and bloops, I downright dismissed the label for trying to be too “avant-whatever” or confusing me by being pretty and engrossing one minute and completely arbitrarily strange the next. And then something happened. I grew up and, if I’m not mistaken, so did the artists of Ghostly International, started by art history major Sam Valenti. And the shift can be marked by one album in particular: Midwest Product’s World Series of Love took me by complete surprise in 2003. As a staunch listener of guitar-based music around this time period, and sadly only guitar-based music, it felt like a punch to the gut that was 20 years in the making.

The album is muscular and jagged like a rock record, but also somehow loose and pristine. It’s a dream concoction of blissful organic loops and pulsing mechanical rhythms - something that sounds like it should have been developed in a studio in a hip coastal city somewhere, but in fact bloomed out of the same town the label sprang up from: Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a wake-up call to me that I could both like strange (yet also intensely beautiful) beats and unconventional (yet also mind-blowingly seductive) arrangements with nary a (recognizable) guitar in earshot. And this was all before the usual touchstone album, The Postal Service’s Give Up, opened up so many other indie rock kids’ ears to a world rife with synthetic possibilities. And while I love that album as much as the next sad-eyed dope, its range of emotions aren’t nearly as compelling, lush, and eclectic as anything released on the Ghostly label. Shortly after Midwest Product’s masterpiece came Lusine’s Serial Hodgepodge in 2004, which flickered with city-life agitation and dripped with dance floor sex whenever it didn’t calm with reverse piano licks and lilting atmospherics. Next was a bigger step in the rock/pop direction, albeit still with the trademark Ghostly otherworldly electro-binge: 2005’s Git by Skeletons And The Girl-Faced Boys is a soulful dip in a chaotic public pool of golden synths, falsetto-ridden choral harmonies, and fragmented percussion that moves the hips as much as it does the brain.

What’s possibly most amazing about Ghostly is not their ever-evolving roster’s ability to dip into different degrees of electronic dabbling while always sounding like a community of like-minded artists, but the very simple dedication to producing and releasing artists whose work is always both aesthetically pleasing and intellectually abstract. It’s smart music for smart people who sometimes want to take a break from being smart and just chill out, or just dance, or just sing along. Christopher Willits’ Surf Boundaries in 2006 is a perfect example of the former, where waterfall processed guitars bury themselves in sheets of layered breathy vocals, and pummeled into a package so bright and airy that it’s irresistible. On the other end of the spectrum is, to date, my favorite hip hop album of the 00s, Dabrye’s Two/Three, from 2006, which is possibly Ghostly’s most abrasive but also their most accessible release. The DJ invites some of the best, darkest, most fiercely head-scratching rappers (Doom, Vast Aire, Beans, the awesome list goes on) to rhyme over his night-drenched production that shows as much love for the genre as it does disregard for its overdone conventions. And just when things didn’t seem like they could get better, Ghostly did it again in 2007 with Matthew Dear’s Asa Breed, which takes a similar tone of pitch black twilight, but infuses it with 80s pop melodies and bedroom acoustic guitar ballads. The sound is so unique and immediately likeable (and upon repeat listens, just gets better with age) that it made my personal short list for best releases of that year.

After that, I couldn’t help but assume it was the end for Ghostly’s brilliance. The metaphor was too strong: two flawless albums both sounding like the dead of night; there could be no sunrise. Electronic music was getting co-opted left and right by emo bands with auto-tuners and rock bands who wished they were James Murphy. No one cared about the quiet and understated and/or bellowing weirdness that was Ghostly’s signature, I thought. But I was wrong, because when Minneapolis native Cepia released Natura Morta later in 2007 and the next year saw releases from Twine, The Chap, and School of Seven Bells, all my fears were assuaged. Natura is the kind of sublime splendor that the label built itself on, Twine’s Violets was a deftly orchestrated experiment in sparkling guitars over experimental sound collage, and psycho-pop veterans The Chap took Ghostly’s sound on a wild but completely fitting new path, where their debut for the label, Mega Breakfast, felt just like its hilarious title implied: a robust and plentiful meal for a bright and shiny new morning. But it was SVIIB’s Alpinisms that finally catapulted the label into the indie blogosphere, thanks to some well-deserved praise from mainstream press as well as a much larger percentage than usual of online hypesters clamoring for their brand of shoegaze laptop-pop. And it clearly didn’t hurt that the trio’s two female vocalists have powerfully ethereal voices that sound like they came from a cloudy netherworld beyond our human comprehension. Yeah, they’re that breathtaking.

Now it’s 2009 and the key release for the label is Deastro’s Moondagger, which is a one-man band that actually sounds like a full band. Usually I hate that phrase because it’s clear that in this day and age it’s pretty easy to get one guy to overlay 4-5 different instruments on an album, but this guy Deastro is ridiculous. I want to use the phrase “urgent electronic-fueled pop” but that’s so not fair. He piles on so many thick blankets of heavenly computer sounds, dramatic and bold live instrumentation, and vocals that sound like they were recorded in the Grand Canyon that I’m left with nothing else to predict than an apocalypse of electronic music, controlled by the Ghostly International record label. There is no line any longer between pop, rock, hip hop, and that nebulous-to-begin-with term “electronica” - they have infused it with every genre and subgenre known to man that if we just let them be the gatekeepers for every artist that decided a synthesized sound needed to enter their musical vocabulary, Ghostly would have to approve first. Then, and only then, we would live in a better world.

Chris Polley teaches high school English, often with his hair disheveled and a glint of crazy in his eye, in the Midwest’s greatest city, Minneapolis. He rambles on and conducts discourse with friends and strangers about the horrific beast that is pop culture over at The Blogulator.