One of my favorite phenomena in music is when a band renowned for pristine, flawless production has lesser-known/stripped-down roots. It’s actually a very common occurrence, as typically bands enrich their sound over time when better resources/more expensive equipment becomes available. Nevertheless, I felt that it would make for an interesting set of case studies, observing where a band began, what they ended up sounding like, and whether that journey made them better or worse (in this blog, “before” indicates they were better before polishing their brand, “after” implies the opposite). There are several examples that could be used, but today I’m going to go with a handful of artists that have been making frequent rounds on my rotation of music. We begin with one of my all-time favorite bands, The Antlers:
Case Study #1: The Antlers
In contrasting ‘Palace’ from The Antlers’ 2014 LP Familiars to ‘In the Attic’ off their 2007 sophomore record In The Attic of the Universe, you can hear the development of the band’s sound quite clearly. On ‘Palace’, frontman Peter Silberman reins supreme, his vocals the central focus of everything as the surrounding instrumentation is highly orchestral and elegant. It works wonderfully, resulting in a crystalline, glass-like glaze that covers the album. If you’re anything like me, you got into The Antlers later in their career – probably circa Hospice – so it was quite the aesthetic shock when I trekked backwards to In The Attic of the Universe, which is very much a full-band effort that is also scaled back in the production department. On ‘In the Attic’, everything is earth-toned and dry. Immediately, you are serenaded with the sound of crickets and footsteps in crunchy autumn leaves before the acoustic guitars and drums join in. Silberman’s voice sounds like a distant afterthought, almost as if he’s singing to us from another room in the house. Despite everything being so stripped down, The Antlers are still able to craft an atmosphere that sounds destined for the outer reached of our galaxy – glowing with a certain thoughtfulness that can’t be feigned.
While The Antlers have crafted beautifully dreamy and momentous indie-rock closer to the present day, I still prefer this dusty old gem, In The Attic of the Universe, to their more polished offerings. There’s something about it that feels more authentic and grounded without losing any of the mystique that made them so alluring from 2009-2014.
Case Study #2: Silversun Pickups
As we transition from dreamy indie-pop to grungy shoegaze, we observe the difference between Silversun pickups at their most adorned with 2015’s Better Nature versus their comparatively rustic debut EP, Pikul. On the sample track ‘The Wild Kind’, we are treated to bubbling electronics, huge electric riffs, and breezy vocals. The song, which is a strong representation of the album, is so well-polished that it’s almost slippery. With a hugely contagious chorus, though, there’s almost nothing like it – and that’s modern day SSPU for you; this sleek, bombastic, electronically-burgeoning outfit capable of soothing you and blasting down the doors within the same minute. A trip back to 2005 provides a totally different view of the same band. On Pikul‘s opener ‘Kissing Families’, we get less of a glamorous indie outfit and more starving artists pulling themselves up by the bootstraps. The band has actually been on record as saying that their early shows were so bad that they didn’t know if fans would continue paying to see them; fortunately, that rawness didn’t negatively translate to the studio. The acoustic strumming and gradual ascension to electric – accompanied by Aubert’s screams – all feel very SSPU, but possess a rougher edge that makes the music feel more passionate.
I’m still a big fan of modern day SSPU, but nothing compares to the raw sincerity of their earliest roots. If you like Silversun Pickups now but wonder what they might sound like with a lot less overhead production, the Pikul EP is well worth your time.
Case Study #3: Animal Collective
Animal Collective have carved out quite the niche. They’re viewed as almost untouchable pioneers of indie-rock experimentation, employing the most unorthodox instruments and production techniques. Although they probably reached their pinnacle around 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, I feel like ‘FloriDada’ from 2016’s Painting With provides a more accurate glimpse of what they’ve become: fun, upbeat, and eclectic. It’s almost a drugged-up Beach Boys vibe – and while I can’t always stomach a full album of their off-the-wall attention spans, they’re almost always good for a chunk of inimitable tracks for your best experimental playlist. A glance back at ‘It’s You’, the opener from their 2005 EP Prospect Hummer, paints an entirely different picture of the band. You can still tell that they’re a creative/imaginative bunch, but the music is much less bubbly and refined. ‘It’s You’ is a virtual snow globe of acoustics, the strums swirling around you like a funneling wind, interrupted only by meek and gorgeously melodic verses. The sound is less structured and more expansive.
Animal Collective still have their moments, but in my book they’ll never be as good as they were on Prospect Hummer or Fall Be Kind – very naturalistic, earthy EPs that stretch the band’s sound to ethereal sonic realms.
Case Study #4: Grizzly Bear
Without this website, I probably wouldn’t know that Horn of Plenty exists. 2006’s Yellow House is when they really broke into public consciousness, but their 2004 debut is arguably just as good in a different way. The atmosphere is mysterious and dark, like a camping trip surrounded by wild carnivores. Comparisons to Animal Collective could be made with the use of sound effects/non-traditional frills. In our example ‘A Good Place’, which is actually a bit more uplifting than the majority of Horn of Plenty, we’re treated to a stunning and semi-complex atmosphere that is beautiful in the moment, but not necessarily memorable. If you fast forward to 2017’s ‘Sky Took Hold’ from Painted Ruins, you can feel the full surge of the band. All the elements that felt loose in 2004 are unified in gorgeous harmony – and in this case, the strong production cleans up the melodies and helps the instrumentation to sound less random/haphazard.
This is one instance where I think the band clearly got better by polishing their sound. Horn of Plenty still has a ton of charm, but it’s their work from Yellow House onward that has rightfully garnered high acclaim.
Case Study #5: Annuals
Annuals are possibly the toughest band to dissect on this list because their sound changed the least. Also, the last reference point is 2013’s Time Stamp. On that record’s opener, ‘Omnicide’, you can hear the vocals clearly and the melodies are well-defined. A pattering of drums splash in the background, accompanied by some humorous sound bites and an unanticipated electronic outro. It’s an excellent song from a band whose late career has been wrongfully overlooked. With that said, even in their best 2013 incarnation, the band couldn’t hold a candle to their 2006 selves. If you’ll be so kind as to click “play” on the opening track to Be He Me, you’ll hear a stunning cacophony of sound that gradually progresses from murky nature sounds (crickets, frogs, etc) to a resplendent choral eruption that includes thunderous drum beats and passionate screams/shouts. This band was destined to be something special on the heels of Be He Me, but somewhere along the line, they lost their way.
Annuals may not have lived up to the potential of stalwart indie tracks like ‘Brother’, but they probably shouldn’t have fallen off the map entirely the way they did. Later records still offer plenty to fans, but it’s the breezy, earthly crunch of their debut that continues to steal my heart.