It´s about time this story continued….
So where were we? In the previous episode of this mini series, we looked at how the idea behind the origins of “Krútt” music went a lot farther back that the ’90s. indeed in terms of modern pop music, we can see the ideas and aesthetic of innocence and cuteness in music going all the way back to the ’60s. We left this story as the Indiepop flourishings of the ’80s were about to tip toe gently into the ’90s.
TIGERMILK PISSES ALL OVER THE CHAMPAGNE SUPERNOVA
The ’90s have arrived and indiepop is getting crowded out of the picture a bit. Rave music and culture is now omnipresent with techno, house, and hardcore spawning Jungle, DnB and IDM. True there was a lot of peace and love on the menu but much of that was chemically assisted. And while the likes of Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works” was soothing and a balm for those heady excesses, it’s safe to say that much dance music during that period wasn’t that “innocent”
Meanwhile UK indie is beginning to discover a little bit of an Anglo Swagger. A response to the macho, rough-hewn sound of corporate Grunge and Gangsta Rap, Britpop was seen as the distillation of all that was good about British rock, namely music that was Witty, urbane and stylish, with the faintest whiff of Eno and glam. But alas by the mid to late ’90s it all when tits up (in some cases quite literally) as the scene devolved into the a mix of drugs, ego, and the neo-laddish culture fostered by the likes of Loaded, FHM and the cockernee gangster posing crystalised in Guy Ritchie’s ‘Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels,’ meant that much of indie music attempted to take on a thuggish, geezer aspect to it. Blur cavorting with glamour models on the video of “Country House,” or trying to look tough at the dog track. Oasis trying to look like cartoon villains scoring heroin on a street corner. And don’T get me started about shit like Ocean colour Scene! It was all so bad i pretty much didn’t buy any music for 3 years!
As with the ’80s, an atmosphere of overt bullishness and dominant aggression provided the likes of innocence and cuteness in music a position to offer a path of resistance. At the time though many of the bands who carried on from the ’80s such as BMX Bandits to the The Pastels, while hanging in there were drifting on the edges and were passing by unnoticed and unloved except for a hardcore following.
So when twee salvation came in the form of a bunch of students who were attending a course in music at Stow College in Glasgow, it did go unnoticed by most of mainstream indie, but it certain caused ripples in the firmament. The arrival of Belle & Sebastian in the collective minds of the indie consciousness has been pretty much assured thanks with a trio of *90s albums ‘Tigermilk,’ ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister,’ and ‘The Boy With The Arab Strap,’ pretty much spearheading a revival and reemergence of ’90s indiepop all by themselves.
I admit that their music at the time wasn’t for me. It wallowed too much in whimsy and were sweetness personified. But looking back there was definitely something there. Taking their cultural cues from the likes of The Smiths, they displayed a love and adoring fetishism for ’60s music and style. Their album covers displayed coloured monochrome photography that would ape the ennui of Nouveau Vague and British Kitchen sink drama. the music meanwhile was a mix of intricate arrangements that would take in shades of ’60s style pop, soul, and folk. Compared to the stuttery jangle of ’80s indiepop, the music of B&S was more confident, True there was a shared lo-fi scratchiness, but the music of B&S had much more warmth to it.
But the real kicker to B&S is the songwriting of lead vocalist Stuart Murdoch. True, his lilting wisp and wry whimsical stories of everyday relationships and daily messes may make many people click their tongue and roll their eyes into the back of their head, but when you compare the wit on display on songs such as “The State I Am In,” to the utter troglodyte reductionism of Oasis’ ‘Be Here Now.’ that stuff is definitely both funny and poignant! You can see the success of B&S caused a noticeable shift in the spectrum of indie music as people started to embrace niceness and a sunny disposition. Artists such as Badly Drawn Boy and Camera Obscura, to mainstream indie acts such as Travis achieved a fair amount of crossover success thanks to the groundwork made by B&S.
FREAKY FOLK YANKEES
Meanwhile, what was happening to US Indie at the time? To be honest at the time I didn’t have a Scooby. All that we saw coming from the land of the free was wall to wall grunge and it’s successor, the so-called “alt rock.” Lots of stuff like Bush, Foo Fighters, Nickleback and Live. Lots of pained hurrrrrs and durrrrrs all over over the shop. However there is a nice piece in Pitchfork that covers the US indiepop bands that were around at the time. I recommend that you read those those bands got up to.
What you did see was that around the beginning on the naughties there was a small but noticeable rumble in the US alternative music circles. Bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel were displaying an easygoing, ramshackle sensibility, a slightly serious earnestness that seemed to ache for something that was carefree and innocent. Then you had the rise of the “Freak Folk” acts such as Animal Collective and Sufjan Stevens all the way to Ed Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. Acts who took their cues from the likes of The Incredible String Band, as they tried to mix freakish psychedelia, freestyle folk music, and communal dynamics with the innocence of childhood and coquettish eccentricity. Admittedly compared to the likes of B&S, the music made by these bands certainly didn’t sounds “twee.” In fact some artists such as early Animal Collective actually sounded more like electronic noise. But the overall sound was something that tried to link in with something that approximated to the inner wild child, free of constraints and adult rules.
Looking back you can understand that in a cultural world, where alt-rock was descending into Nu-Metal along with misogynistic flashpoints of apocalypse-fest such as Woodstock ’99, then the desire by many of these acts to turn away and try to look for something nicer, for music that had a pure sense of romanticism and happiness to it. And as the decade continued, with publications such as Pitchfork championing their scene, more and more people started to come round to their way of thinking.
DON’T WORRY, MÚM KNOWS BEST
By now you’re probably thinking, “So where does Iceland fit into all of this?” I mean, we’ve been badgering on for a while now and there’s barely been a hint of some of the true Icelandic krútt stuff. Well, that’s because there wasn’t that much of a krútt scene to speak of during the ’80s and ’90s. Of course there was punk, new wave, electronica, techno, grunge and indie rock, but there was nothing that really compared to what was happening in the UK or the US.
So when a group of like minded people decided to make nice beautiful music that seemed completely out of step with everything else, people were certainly going to take notice. True, Múm didn’t come straight out of nowhere (They released a split single and were performing with the Kitchen Motors music collective at the time, but when they released their 2000 debut album, ‘Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is OK,’ it was almost as if it dropped out of the sky, a musical artifact that came with no explanation of its origins, puzzling and enthralling the people who listened to it. The album is full of music that is difficult to get a pin on The glitchy electronica, broken rhythms, the sampling and reworking of children’s toys and vocals, the use of harmoniums, glockenspiels and sound sources that you couldn’t place, and ethereal adult vocals – there really was nothing like it around at the time. Something that sounded dense and rich textually, with so yet seemed unprocessed or affected. It´s that entirely alien abstractness that give it that atmosphere of completely lacking in worldly adult cynicism and pessimism. It was something that the words “Epoch Defining” was created for.
As was pointed out in the recent GV interview with the band, in terms of influence it can’t be stressed enough how much of of a impression Múm have made on Iceland music over the last decade more so than even the likes of Björk or Sigur Rós. True, while their artistic fortunes have waxed and waned a bit over the past decade, the band has acted as an incubator for pretty much a whos who of Icelandic Indie music. Former member Kristín Valtýsdóttir went on to become known as Kría Brekka (Eventually marrying Animal Collective’s Avey Tare), while current live members include Ólöf Arnalds, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Sigurlaug Gisladottir, Róbert Sturla Reynisson. Meanwhile the list of bands and artists who have fallen into the influence of the great Múm universe include the likes of Mr. Silla, Benni Hemm Hemm, Singapore Sling, Slowblow, Skakkamanage, FM Belfast, as well as the likes of Seaber, Snorri Helgason and Sin Fang. Without Múm, there really would be no “Krútt” scene that we would call it today.
Effectively It’s all their fault. The bastards!
PEACE, LOVE AND FREE MARKET ECONOMICS
So what of Krútt music these days? Well when the kreppa hit us all with it’s full force back 5 years ago, I and many others honestly thought that Krútt music would fall a bit out of favour. I mean, who would want to listen to music that’s all coy and cutesy when everything is going to shit, when people are losing their jobs and their savings and the feeling of anger on the streets is palpable?
Oh how wrong we were! If anything the Krútt scene has emerged stronger than ever. Acts from Pascal Pinon, Of Monsters & Men, My Bubba and Mi, Grúska Babúska, Eliza Newmann, Jara, and Cheek Mountain Thief are making waves, while the grizzled vets Múm and Amiina are still releasing music and are as popular as ever. Meanwhile outside of Iceland, much of the UK and US indie music is overrun with earnest, folky types who are seeking to make musical displays of innocentese, ethical compassion, and natural unaffected goodness. Even the media talk of how twee music is emerging in other countries as if it was a product entering emerging new markets.
And it’s not just music. As posts by Dorian Lynskey and Joe Kennedy show, the rise of the cult of the child and childhood innocence is permeating other parts of our everyday life. As well as films and the arts, innocentese can be seen on everything from smoothie drinks, to utility bills and supermarket bread. It’s also invading our social spaces. In Reykjavik for example, you often come across knitting wrapped around trees as well as our local buses and the bus station.
In a throwback to ’60s counterculture, ideas of peace, love and innocence had taken a slightly political edge, to it. The leader of Iceland’s Björt Framtið party calls for people to end their political comments on Facebook with a smiley face, while Joe Kennedy’s piece, tells of Scottish conceptual artist Robert Montgomery’s use of naivety in a series of politically charged billboards, telling you that “THE CITY IS A HOUSE AND YOU ARE A CHILD IN IT.” The picture above is a of a knitted poster that appeared in Laugavegur over the summer that says, “Not my government. Not my President.” The invasion of our public space with such stuff smacks of situationalism, as it tries to subvert our perspective of the world around us, to break the spell of consumerism, and show a better, nicer way of life.
But as Joe points out, the problem with all of this is that the character of the image has changed. Since the ’60s, instead of money, sex and power/stability, the desire and wants of our ABC1’s have changed, as they now desire things that are “natural,” “wholesome,” and “organic.” As such most modern media and advertising that is “designed to help sell us things,” constantly use twee and Krútt music and imagery to sell us all sorts of shit. Music that was meant to be seen as an alternative to cultural Hegemony have now have become branding tools to help perpetuate the image of perfect lives of bliss and harmony (if only we buy the things first).
(That first ad is especially ironic in that it uses the song “Diamond Day,” by Vashti Bunyan, who had been mostly forgotten by people at the time. The add was responsible for spark a resurgence of interest in her and her music)
And this is a shame to be honest. But even the future of krútt music is that of so much content driven music, there is something to be admired from musician who are looking to make music that is yhe embodiment of beauty. Like my old mucker Thor Heyerdahl, I’ve now come to terms about how I feel about the Krútt aesthetic in music. A lot of what gets made doesn’t really rock my boat a lot, and I do often find that where a lot of the music comes from mixes naivete with navel gazing. But there are some real gems among the heaps of twee and they’re definitely worth you time and effort. Stuff that is definitely twee as fuck.