Monday, June 19, 2017

The Strength of Its Impurity


Today's formative-album replay: Indigo Girls. This wasn't the record that led me to buy a Martin dreadnought and haunt the strummy coffeehouse open mics of '90s-era L.A., but when I did eventually enter that world I recognized much of its shaggy, self-enclosed earnestness as having been at least partly created by this epochal neo-folk document from 1989 (technically the band’s second full-length album, but their major-label debut). Even self-styled young troubadours who’d never heard the Indigo Girls (or claimed not to) owed them an implicit debt every time they clapped on a capo and plodded through a journal entry set to a few chords on a 12-string.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers may have been easy to imitate--and parody--but on this replay, I both relished anew the chewy granola substance of the record’s sound and mostly admired the guileless integrity of its hippie Puritanism, even as many lyrics prompted fresh eyerolls (“Numbness from a scepter’s wound”? Okay). As ever, I felt relief when they relax from buttoned-up folk monks into convincingly loose folk rockers, on “Tried To Be True” (with members R.E.M. as a crack session band) and “Land of Canaan.”

There’s subtle, supportive production all around (and the indelible appearance of Michael Stipe, emerging from a dark corner of "Kid Fears" like a fairy-tale troll), but what seals the deal for any vocal-fronted group, whether it’s Take 6 or Simon and Garfunkel, is the blend of pipes. And centerstage on Indigo Girls is that infectious refracted harmony, Ray’s rasp fused to Saliers’ warble as a single indivisible, inimitable instrument. Indeed, it’s something very few of their coffeehouse copycats even bothered to try; most stood solemnly, penitently, offering the world just their voice and guitar (harmonica rack optional).

The Indigos took solo moments too, and in these Ray’s husky rock-star tenor has always had the edge for me over Saliers’s soft soprano bleat--and not just because a friend of mine and theirs from Georgia memorably impressed me with an early version of "Blood and Fire" on her little car stereo on a warm college night in 1988, assuring me, “They’re going to be big.” They were.

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