The wide array of musicians branded as "indie rock" has provided a panorama of sounds and visions over the years but has usually kept politics at arm's length. There have been exceptions to the rule: Le Tigre, Fugazi, Atari Teenage Riot, Quasi. But the Bush Administration's calamitous policies have resulted in an up-tick in artists addressing the political and cultural desperation characterizing this new century.
Two releases reflect these desperate times with equally urgent music: Calexico's latest, the luminous Garden Ruin, and Black Heart Procession's incandescent The Spell (out May 9).
The Tucson-based collective Calexico, co-founded by multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino, has made no secret of its progressive politics throughout a decade of music-making. Calexico has confronted suburban sprawl, border issues and the plight of Native American tribes in its sun-blasted songs. Yet, as Garden Ruin's title suggests, the new record confronts one issue head-on: the sense of resignation that grips many concerned Americans.
"If you're going to be honest to yourself and honest to the music that's coming out of you, you can't help but be influenced by that, because nowadays it's just in the atmosphere," Convertino says by phone. "We try to do our best to let it out, to have the music be beautiful and the words as truthful as they can be. Hopefully, it'll help in some way."
Calexico has broadened its sonic palette on Garden Ruin with shimmering pop overtones -- thanks in part to nuanced production from JD Foster -- and cathartic punk-like crescendos, but Burns' lyrics are fraught with concern.
On "All Systems Red," Burns contrasts the sense of helplessness that he sees at home with the more engaged response Calexico witnesses first-hand during its many European tours: "Nothing changes here and nothing improves/All say my friends who just want out/And leave these troubles behind/Scatter like paper in the eye of the storm ... When you think it couldn't get much worse/The numbers rise on the death toll/And the chimes of freedom flash and fade/Only heard from far, far away."
Still, despite the Bush Administration's assault on civil liberties, its ruinous environmental policies and the obvious echoes of Vietnam in Iraq, Convertino sees signs of hope. He says it's there in Bush's plummeting approval numbers, the defections of religious groups that believe a basic Christian tenet is to "be good stewards of the earth," and recent massive protests against US immigration policy. "It's exciting to me that really young people are speaking out," Convertino says. "In the '60s, musicians were much more blatantly against what was going at that time, and I think musicians now are coming around."
Black Heart Procession has certainly come around, judging by The Spell. The San Diego-based band has shelved some of its ethereal, late-night, desert-noir sound for a more frenetic, guitar-based approach that pulses with Orwellian menace. On the follow-up to the well-received Amore del Tropico, Black Heart has dovetailed love's hypnotic effects with our national malaise.
On "The Fix," Pall Jenkins sings of our predicament: "We can't climb the ranks/We can't stand the taste/We can't cut the strings/We can't fill the void ... So please be calm they say/Please be still and you'll see/As cities ignite again we'll say/It's too late."
"We seem powerless in the face of all this, and what intrigued me was the question, How are we going to break this spell?" Jenkins said, during our recent interview for Harp magazine. "We can't buy our way out of this one. Something's got to give."
One thing both Garden Ruin and The Spell prove: Transcendent music doesn't preclude a political voice. Given this desperate era, it's about damn time.
The Local Twist: David Childers & the Modern Don Juans will be heading over to the Netherlands for a two-week tour, during which they'll headline the Roots at Roepaen festival in early June. "We're getting paid well and might even come back with some change in our pockets," says Childers ... Mark this one on your calendar: Queen City Independent presents Carla Bozulich, the Dead Strings, Court & Spark and Shearwater, July 11 at the Milestone; San Francisco's Court & Spark have one of the finest 2006 releases, Hearts, and Bozulich is best known for her work in Ethyl Meatplow and the Geraldine Fibbers, and her fascinating take on Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger ... A new local collective, Fence Lions, is wrapping up Evidence of the Giant, a 36-song suite recorded with Bruce Hazel, Rodney Lanier, Chris Lonon, Chad Wilson, David Kim and Michael Anderson.