(Just submitted this to the KSFS blog. A little bit of history for the young'uns.)
In his book How Music Works, David Byrne puts forth the theory that new forms of music develop, not merely through inspiration, but as a direct result of the architecture of the buildings where they're performed and the limits of the technology used to record them. When I think of music this way, the last 25 years of indie-rock make loads of sense.
In the 80s and 90s, cheap 4-track cassette recorders and a D.I.Y. aesthetic led to the inventive, fuzzy lo-fi sounds of bands like New Zealand's Tall Dwarfs, who used primitive overdubbing, crazy tape loops and inspired songcraft to create crude-yet-subtle music a four-piece punk rock band couldn't quite pull off:
One of my favorite artists in the lo-fi home recording scene was Baltimore's Linda Smith, whose recordings were like miniature paintings full of detail, melody, and quiet wit. (Nowadays, Linda has mostly retired from music and actually DOES create miniature paintings!)
John Darnielle's earliest Mountain Goats recordings took the idea of instant creation and accessibility even further as he bashed out freshly-written songs on a cassette boombox to capture the inspiration instantly, as it happened. Darnielle's work was infectiously spontaneous, and his natural gift for songwriting was oddly complemented by the imperfect sound, like a field recording from a mythological past:
But in the 21st century, with digital recording more accessible than ever and tape harder to come by, the old lo-fi sound no longer carries the feeling of "I have this idea and I have to get it down RIGHT NOW!" When sounds are reproduced with mathematical accuracy and the electronic tones that once required synthesizers can now be done on your own computer with a piece of plug-in software, the fuzzy sounds of the 80s and 90s sound like an affectation. The urge to reinvent the Velvet Underground for the 2000th time has not exactly gone away, but now, people in their own home studios also have the option of imagining they're Brian Wilson falling down the rabbit hole of Smile and landing in the middle of a disco with Philip Glass. Case in point: another artist from Baltimore who had a bit of a breakthrough not long ago:
In the end, what we create is not only a result of, but is directly altered by the tools available to us. It's hard to believe now that a clear, widescreen sound used to come off as "selling out" to underground ears. Now, instead of drowning in cruddy-sounding recordings that could be either works of genius hidden in atmospheric murk or just mediocrities posing in grubby clothes, we're confronted by new artists grappling with the urge to cover everything in reverb and use 100 tracks when four would do. What hasn't changed, though, is that a unique musical vision will emerge with each new set of tools that comes along. Right now, this is hitting the spot for me: