Like indie and alternative, college rock was not an intensely useful sonic signifier; it was a place where the jagged edges of Mission Of Burma could rub up against the polished pop confections of Ken Stringfellow or the Paisley Underground movement in the UK. These fertile stratas of sonic influence - bringing in elements of folk, twee, post-punk, hip-hop and non-western musics would yield offshoots like R.E.M. They may have ended up as straight up radio fare, but were avid Wire and Television lovers, in their early days. They blended the arty concepts of post-punk to their down home Georgia soul.
Similarly Missoula, Montana’s Mendelssohn blends airy art rock with a roots Americana sensibility - like the tributaries of indie rock finally falling together and surging towards the sea. Mendelssohn starts with a skeleton of acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, courtesy of husband-and-wife duo Jon Filkins and Sara Marker, which are then fleshed out with brass, percussion and woodwinds, without ever becoming precious orchestral pop in the process.
Instead, these are like bluegrass sculptures, materializing in thin air in front of your eyes and ears. Funnily enough, I was thinking of the mighty orchestral grandeur of Portland's Typhoon with their infectious sing-alongs and horn stabs, while listening to their release Years only to find out this record was mixed by Portland's mightiest sound engineer Larry Crane at his Jackpot! Studios. In a way, Years is like a combination of Missoula and Portland, a mishmash of the two that becomes something brand new and completely its own.
While much of Years is driving, fast-paced folk rock - "Little Sioux," "Holiest Acts," "Shake The Hair Off Your Head" - Mendelssohn also slows things down, getting pretty and letting the songs breathe, like on the breathtaking "Camp Song" where crystal-like feedback streaks across the fingerpicked arpeggios like the Geminids, while Filkins' and Marker’s voices blend and fuse like two shadows beneath a streetlight.
Honestly, I hate the artificial automation of genre-specific trends, which seem to exist more for marketers and critics than bands. I mean, I'm a critic, so I use genres as a shorthand and a launching off point, but the idea of "I only listen to shoegaze," is gut-shakingly laughable and getting less relevant by the second. I'd like to think the days of a "punk only" or a "bluegrass night" are eclipsing, with ALL of the tributaries coming back home.
This will make things more challenging, as well as more interesting and exciting, for those of us who write about music, as well as those who make it. Because we now need to decide for ourselves if we like something or not on a case-by-case basis. After spending some time with Years I ended up really liking it. The similarities to some of Portland's interesting music was a bonus for me, and cool to hear it coming out of Montana, no less. I also really like Filkins’ and Marker’s voices together, as well as the way they were recorded and mixed, as there is an airy spaciousness, without becoming too wispy or nebulous - still clean and clear, but ambient, in the real-world sense.
Ambient Americana might be a good tag for this, but we need less genres, not more. For those that like shoegaze and porch jams, driving across cornfields and hanging out under freeway overpasses, Years is a winner.
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