Captured Tracks’ International Division and
the Birth of “Undie”

by Kevin J. Elliott

In a recent Paste cover feature, the question of indie rock’s death was posed. Not sure if they were hoping for some legitimate thesis and/or conclusion to magically appear—I didn’t take the time to read the thing—but the whole argument is laughable. For starters you’d need to find the origins of indie and it’s likely everyone has a different answer. Was it the psych-folk warriors of the ’70s making private press records in handfuls unbeknownst to the majors they were snubbing? I’d consider Vertical Slit “indie.” Or the DIY post-punk movement in early-80s Britain? Desperate Bicycles selling singles for pence is pretty indie. And then there are those bands Michael Azerrad claimed “could be your life,” wherein REM is usually hailed as the first. But again, my “indie” years started with Pavement and the Pixies, so trying to pinpoint a germ of creation is fruitless these days. As long as labels like Captured Tracks keep on keeping with the aesthetics most of us associate with “indie,” the concept that anyone can make a record will continue to evolve. Those precious economical ideas hung upon the lowest rung of fidelity still live. In fact, they’ve been compounded over the years into a delightfully scruffy mess. If you’re still concerned about lo-fi making eardrums bleed, you’re not listening hard enough. “Indie” has moved beyond that. It’s more about immediacy now, capturing the moment in a space where the scant parameters of recording aren’t even an afterthought.

Love ?em or hate ?em, Captured Tracks are maintaining the “indie” spirit, defining how indie has evolved, for better or worse, and now, with two stellar-yet-unassuming albums from Dignan Porch and Hanoi Janes, have show how the current “undie” aesthetes have proliferated overseas. Tendrils, the debut from Tooting, England’s Dignan Porch, is certainly a record that is stamped with an expiration date, but the same thing was probably said about Slanted and Enchanted upon release. Brothers Joe and Sam Walsh make no bones about their enthusiasm; there is enthusiasm in their tinny, sprightly, pop songs, but they claim to “not rehearse much” because they like to keep it “slack.” That’s a sentiment near and dear to my heart. Peel back the layers and you’ll find that compound to which I was alluding. Tendrils’ heritage is just as indebted to Beat Happening as it is to the Beatnik Filmstars (remember them?), even plucking abject guitar deconstructions from Truman’s Water or the Thinking Fellers in a exercise searching for obscurity. These are kids who probably were sucking from the nipple when Godspeed the Punchline was wowing a few hundred heads. Regardless, they seem to know their roots. That emphasis on “slack,” reverb, and the occasionally fragmented riffs or ill-tempo bodes well for short run times and repeat listens, not to mention the variety with which these types of records come equipped. Tendrils goes from the fog-out tumbleweed atmospherics of “Two of Us” to the warped fuzz-drenched sing-alongs of “As You Were” in the course of a few songs. It might take some settling in to get comfortable with Dignan Porch’s casualness, but their youth and vitality supersedes pretension making for repeated listens deep past the twilight of the amateurism.

The other obvious end of the undie spectrum that has flourished in recent months holds bands with little mettle to achieve their grandiose desires, though they are determined to try anyways. Dresden, Germany homebody Oliver Scharf, recording under the name Hanoi Janes, has huge ambitions. Whether it’s to be Phil Spector or Brian Wilson (aren’t they the demi-gods of lo-fi anyways) is irrelevant, to be the Jesus and Mary Chain or a surf version of the Minutemen secondary, as in any imagined form Scharf kicks up a pretty infectious racket, with few resources at his disposal. After all, Husker Dü just wanted to be a heavy metal Byrds, right? And they did it as a garage band on blast trio? Don’t associate Scharf with that logic, but he does tie on so many lofty identities throughout Year of Panic you’d think he’s primping for a deal with Capitol. The twinkling twee of “Hey Julia” and rickety off-kilter punk of “Always Gone,” though replicated by a million replicators the world over right now, exudes a certain charm that’s undeniable in the present tense. Like most undie released under the Captured Tracks auspices, both of these records are ephemeral, but that’s what makes it wholesome and pure, or in layman’s terms, unabashed fun rock. Tendrils and Year of Panic mark another line above the average label. Now doing full-lengths, Captured Tracks are obviously thinking they are onto something, finding the soul of both indie and undie (not dead, mind you) and letting loose upon the globe with it. This is proof to that logic.