Pop Music Critic

One way to stay sane in the big gray city is to seek out the wilderness pulling at its seams. In Los Angeles, it’s easy. The chaparral pokes through everywhere, throwing tumbleweeds into car lanes; coyotes cross into our gardens at night. The shift in attention can seem harder in older, denser spots like New York, but even there, undomesticated life has a way of wriggling forth -- hermit crabs and jellyfish have recently surfaced in the toxic silt of the Gowanus Canal.

Pop music in the age of the universal download is a lot like a megalopolis: sprawling, chaotic, seemingly without borders. Innovative but mercenary power-players peddle corporate pop in its financial centers. Elites -- blockbuster rock stars, divas, record producers of note -- clink their glasses together in gated communities. Scrappy newcomers and forgotten elders squat in the tenements, hoping for a break.

And then there are the urban bushwhackers: creative people determined to carve some space out of the concrete where something might grow and they might be able to wander a bit.


Since the 1960s, these folks have often been called “hippies,” though that term is too specific, and carries too much historical weight. Younger practitioners, including California Summer of Love revivalists such as Devendra Banhart, Jonathan Wilson and the Entrance Band; Oregonian country fuzz rockers Blitzen Trapper; and Atlanta post-punks Deerhunter modify countercultural visions to suit a more pragmatic age.

Think of urban bushwhackers as those sea creatures in the chemical mud, with both the inner city and the outback in their DNA. They’re different from the back-to-the-land pastoralists who decamp to yurts in New Mexico. What urban bushwhackers share across the generations, whether they’ve ridden in Ken Kesey’s bus or danced at Burning Man, is an understanding that new technologies can be useful in pursuit of an idyllic vibe.

That’s why they don’t think it’s weird to accessorize a thrift-store dress with an electroluminescent wire necklace. And it’s why the musicians among them are leading a trend that feels like the future, even as, on the surface, it celebrates the primitive and the past.


Welcome to the cult

Animal Collective, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes are three leading urban bushwhackers. They’re among the most cultishly followed indie acts -- the prolific Animal Collective’s eighth studio album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” is earning wide praise as a front-runner for best recording of 2009, while Seattle’s Fleet Foxes and Wisconsin’s Bon Iver topped 2008 critics’ lists with their debut releases.

These three bands differ somewhat in sound, lifestyle and approaches to music-making. But their popularity can be attributed to the same thing: the ever-renewable urge within the middle class to step away from the timetables of life and find a different source of meaning. Going off-trail is an apt metaphor for what earlier generations thought of as shedding the gray flannel suits. Moguls don’t wear suits now, but they’d never enter a space where their cellphone reception might be endangered. Urban bushwhackers try to imagine that space, even though they often use laptops and sequencers to do so.

Animal Collective’s career has been characterized by forays into the brush. Since evolving from a bunch of childhood friends into a band around a decade ago, the group became strongly identified with the East Coast avant-rock scene and the more scattered “psych folk” trend. Its sound is hard to describe, let alone classify; it pulls from post-techno dance music, world rhythms, harmony groups and playful 1960s folk-rockers like the Holy Modal Rounders.


The band’s sound is as intentionally bewildering (and goofy) as its members’ silly stage names (Avey Tare and Panda Bear, for example), and its fanboy followers have turned the game of this music into an obsession. Fans hail AC shows as near-religious experiences and pore over their recordings as if they were I Ching oracle tosses.

The AC catalog may overflow with tangential forays that will interest only true believers. But such undirected play is what bushwhacking is all about.

Like the Grateful Dead, AC fetishizes process over catchiness. This band likes to stretch time and get lost. Its huggy psychedelia doesn’t stimulate nostalgia for the hippie era as much as for the early days of raves and Ecstasy, when the drugs made you want to cuddle and the beats per minute were transcendently intense.

There was something deeply insular about rave culture -- it was a very white, middle-class, college kid thing. AC suffers from this limitation too. Focusing on one another, these four former prep-school buddies mostly have rejected the pop path of imagining a world that’s open to all.

“Merriweather Post Pavilion” goes beyond this closed universe by turning Animal Collective’s experiments into gelatinous but still graspable song forms. Choruses, hooks and harmonies that undeniably smack of the Beach Boys make it feasible for songs like “My Girls” and “Brother Sport” to get played on the radio. AC’s members, all around 30 now, are learning how to focus. Finally, they’ve made an album in which even nonbelievers can lose themselves.

Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver have no trouble attracting new followers. Their music is as ordered and pretty as AC’s is unhinged, though it’s also polarizing and intense. Both hail from regions where country and city meet and meld. Seattle, home to Fleet Foxes, is well known as a place where outdoorsiness and nerdy cosmopolitanism collide. Eau Claire, Wis., where Justin Vernon began Bon Iver as a solo project (he’s now formed a band), is a small town, but it’s also home to several colleges.


If Animal Collective’s musicians are bushwhackers who bury their tracks, Fleet Foxes, a quintet led by 22-year-old Robin Pecknold, are the kind who carefully carve trail markers. The band is still riding the ripples caused by its self-titled summertime debut -- the influential webzine Pitchfork recently named it the album of the year and the band played Jan. 17 on “Saturday Night Live.”

Like their fellow Seattleites who’ve perfected latte art, Pecknold and his friends are artisans. “There’s no digital effects on the record, there’s no synths,” Pecknold told an interviewer on the website last July. “All of our amps and guitars are old. We didn’t really care how it ended up sounding, production-wise. We just wanted it to sound good, but not too tricky. Not too much we couldn’t pull off live. Less than half the record was recorded to tape at studios, but most of it was done at my house with Pro Tools, like, not really caring what it sounded like at all.”

The hitch is the mention of Pro Tools. The band’s focus on harmonies that are reproducible in concert evoke the second golden age of white-guy harmonizing -- not the doo-wop era but the end of the counterculture, when longhairs like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young made singalongs into anthems. Yet, as recorded by producer Phil Ek using up-to-date studio tools, the Fleet Foxes’ sound doesn’t merely mimic the period it so strongly recalls.

As realized through Pecknold’s serious, deliberately archaic songs, it takes on timelessness as a subject. Reimagining the folk-pop of the late 1960s, a subculture that used contemporary pop tricks to conjure dreamed-up versions of earlier styles like Appalachian folk balladry and medieval madrigals, Fleet Foxes ends up in a space between or beyond epochs -- a very cyber-age thing to do.


Soulful sound of isolation

Justin Vernon, when he became Bon Iver, went out to the woods, Henry David Thoreau-style, to clear his head. Like Pecknold, though, he was able to take Pro Tools with him. “For Emma, Forever Ago” is a collection of tracks he made in his parents’ hunting cabin outside Eau Claire in the dead of winter. The romance of his isolation has helped him attract listeners, but it’s what he did with the little bit of technology he could haul with him that makes his music so startlingly rich.

Bon Iver’s new EP, “Blood Bank,” expands on the layered vocals and ambient sonic pathways Vernon laid down on “For Emma,” and proves that Vernon isn’t just a novelty artist. Now working with a small band, he widens his path in several directions. The title track is a sexy little story of a coupling that comes after a donation to the Red Cross; it’s fairly conventional. But on two other tracks, the piano-driven “Babys” and the Auto-Tuned “The Woods,” Vernon shows that for someone committed to the semirural life (he’s an avid hunter) he’s blessedly uninterested in isolating himself.


A dense keyboard cacophony forms a base in “Babys,” Vernon’s slightly horror-stricken song about the urge to procreate. It sounds as much like a foray into classical minimalism as a pop song. And “The Woods,” the EP’s high point, seems almost like an answer to Kanye West’s exploration of Auto-Tune, “808s and Heartbreak” -- a welcome antidote to the geeky white-boy supremacy of indie rock.

Built around a four-line poem about trying to mellow out, and a melody that sounds more like contemporary R&B; than folk-rock, “The Woods” grows more and more intense as Vernon adds layers of his Auto-Tuned voice. “I’m building a still to slow down the time,” he croons, using the resolutely rural image of a whiskey shack; but the sound is slyly urban, the sensual roar of a self-styled soul man. Making explicit the connection between country and soul, Vernon makes a claim for the title of most forward-looking urban bushwhacker yet.

Erik Davis, the writer whose work might best capture the complexities of the urban bushwhacker world, recently wrote a column for Arthur magazine in which he played with the idea of embracing the economic slowdown.

“Slow time could be seen as elastic time,” he wrote. “Once you slow down enough, you can see all the things that need help and care, and you have more time to attend to them, and more time to creatively respond to difficulties and constraints. If the slowdown is not too catastrophic, it will carve out more room in time and space for individuals and communities to take responsibility for their lives and localities and for some of the myriad grass-roots solutions that already exist to take root.”

This might be the real calling of the bushwhackers: to respond to the impending scarcity that’s come hand in hand with cultural acceleration by taking up their tools and making a new path. There’s an aspect of escapism to what they’re doing. But pushing through the underbrush, they’ve found a way to breathe.