Indie folk, or chamber pop, or whatever it’s called when musicians sing together over an acoustic/electric mix of instruments (it used to be called “folk rock”), is full of recycled chord progressions and predictable vocal harmonies. That’s not a problem, really. It’s a shared musical language with ties to the early ’60s (even earlier) and later, into the soft rock of the ’70s and ’80s. Traits-in-common keep it real, grounded, accessible. The world’s already too artsy, and as a friend recently said, “Virtuosity is embarrassing.”
The downside is that, over time, one indie folk band starts to sound like another. (Maybe that anonymity is part of the point, too.) Plume Giant, a trio of young musicians who graduated from Yale last spring, share some of those elements on Callithump, their debut full-length album, which was released on Aug. 28. But they avoid others. Their vocal harmonies (all three members sing) are atypical. They use pure triads sparingly, favoring unusually close, or wide, spacings. They know how to use counterpoint to retain the sense that these are three voices working together, not one unwieldy vocal blob. They don’t sound like the Beach Boys. They understand how chords move and relate to one another, and they play around with expectations.
No wonder: both Oliver Hill, who plays guitar and viola, and Eliza Bagg, who handles violin and harmonium, were music theory majors at Yale. For Hill’s thesis, he told me in an e-mail, he “modeled metric dissonance vis-à-vis harmonic dissonance, using the third movement from Brahms' String Quartet Op 51 #1 as a point of departure.” Nolan Green, who plays guitar and harmonium, is proudly untrained. That schooled/unschooled mashup is all over Callithump.
“There’s such a diverse tradition of vocal harmony in American culture,” Hill, who was raised in Pleasantville, N.Y., told me by phone from a friend’s West Village apartment where he was staying. (Bagg’s hometown is Durham, N.C., and Green hails from Minneapolis. They signed a lease on a place in Brooklyn beginning on Oct. 1, so they’ll be touring and couch-surfing until then.) “There’s the bluegrass triads thing, the Crosby Stills and Nash thing, there’s jazz harmony. We like to identify more with the Andrew Sisters, the ’40s-style cabaret style, even Rodgers and Hammerstein. They took really cool chances with harmony... The indie scene now is really vocally heavy... Part of our mission is to get that vocal harmony that’s really actually vocal harmony music... We are really trying to embed the composition in the vocal harmony.”
They all write. Someone will bring in two-thirds of a song on a demo, and the other two will go home and spend time with it. They reconvene. It’s that lyric sucks, that one’s great, until vocal harmonies are worked out, together, in the same room. Music theory is kept at bay, available if needed to counterbalance or add credence to icky “feeling” stuff. But it’s not like flipping a switch. You can’t always turn it off.
“We don’t write down our music,” Hill said. “It isn’t coming from a music theory perspective. We were writing papers [at Yale] on functional harmony and stuff. We are all listening to a ton of music. That’s where the ‘trained’ thing comes in. We are very analytical. We make a point of listening to a new record every day. A lot of bands have a very intuitive creative process. They soak up music and it gives them a style. We maybe think about it a little bit more.”
Plume Giant’s New Haven CD release show takes place on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Dwight Chapel on Yale’s Old Campus, presented by Underbrook Coffeehouse, a student organization. (The record was recorded with engineer James Frazee, who’s worked with the Hold Steady, the Walkmen and Son Volt.) Dwight Chapel, Hill said, was the site of many of their on-campus shows when they were students.
“It’s hard to get Yale kids off campus at all,” Hill said. “It’s famously an uphill battle. We really had to bend over backward to get people to show up.” What worked, Hill said, was offering free and accessible shows that people could go to in their pajamas. “The recreation is very administration oriented. Yale knows that workaholism is a problem and they go out of their way to organize amazing events... Then there are these arts institutions that are really established... If you are going to take a break from studying, that’s what you are going to do. There’s zero sense of DIY. It’s not even on the map. If you mentioned it, people would get confused.”
Plume Giant Record Release w/ Nine Tigers, Darlingside, Sept. 7, 7:30 p.m., free ($5 suggested donation), Dwight Chapel, Old Campus, Yale University, New Haven, plumegiant.com.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times