With every new cultural trend, a counter-trend inevitably evolves to rebel against it. We are living in an era when the most popular music is beaten to a shiny, shiny Auto-Tuned pulp. It is no surprise, then, that many of those making music outside the mainstream have shifted into reverse and record on old, obscure equipment that submerges the music in a bath of clipped sound and fuzzy distortion. Some of these artists choose lo-fi for practical reasons -– studio time is expensive. But in this day of cheap recording equipment and open-source software, it’s not hard to sound professional, even recording out of a bedroom. More and more artists are choosing lo-fi as an artistic statement, and using its limitations to their advantage.
However, there comes a time in most lo-fi artists’ careers when it makes sense to move on to less fuzzy pastures. This transition can be a difficult one, often diminishing a band’s intimate, retro charm and angering a fanbase dedicated to the old sound. (Dylan going electric, anyone?) But sometimes it works out. After the jump, we’ve complied a list of artists that navigated the passage from lo-fi to hi-fi with grace and ease. We’re not gonna lie: we love the early stuff. But as their production values escalated, their music kept pace, and for many of these artists, their best work is surely still ahead of them.
Over the course of their three albums, Beach House have transformed from an obscure dream-pop act to a band playing fleshed out songs with crystal clear production for audiences of thousands. Their self-titled debut felt like a half-forgotten secret, full of songs that made us want to curl into bed with some incense burning and watch the snow fall. Though their aesthetic has remained the same, with each new installment Beach House grew more ambitious and confident. On last year’s Teen Dream , they expanded into hugely beautiful and emotional songs that took their initial concept to perfect fruition. And they still make the best music to make a chilling winter seem romantic.
In 2004, Nevada City, CA native and Joanna Newsom’s childhood friend Alela Diane self-released her debut album The Pirate’s Gospel . The record’s mood is captivating: it’s intimate and warm with an edge of foreboding sadness. The lo-fi production, though not overwhelming the music, aided in achieving its tone. Some tracks, like the obvious standout and mysteriously ominous opener “The Rifle,” were easily accessible folk songs. Others were more like musical musings glued together by suggestive repeated phrases like “pieces of string too small to use.” We loved it, and were interested to see how Alela’s quiet and personal music would fare with a real studio treatment. Luckily for us, her album To Be Still , released in 2009, used the increased production value and a full band perfectly to reveal her gorgeous voice and songwriting without losing her music’s emotion.
The Love Language
We first noticed The Love Language during CMJ ’09, when they played the annual Brooklyn Vegan loft party with the now-super-famous Local Natives. Their live show was intense and cathartic, and their self-titled album was similarly affecting. Imagine if The Smiths had recorded in Morrissey’s bedroom, and you have an approximation of their sound. They’re simultaneously melodramatic and cute. The lo-fi distortion melds perfectly with their sugary hooks and bends their lead singer’s voice into the antithesis of Auto-Tune: he sings with too much emotion for the microphone to handle. Their sound was just begging for big arrangements, and on their second album, Libraries , they deliver them.
Merril Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs, was an artist you really needed to see live to appreciate. On stage, she is a one-woman band, looping drums, crazy intertwining vocals, and ukulele to create vital pop music. She screams, punches the air, wears awesome face paint, and generally dominates any crowd she comes across. But if you listened to her first album, recorded by herself on a handheld microphone, you wouldn’t have gotten this impression. It has some great tracks, but it is entirely separate from who she is as a live artist. It’s hard to make out her lyrics, and the vocals sound muted and cracked from the poor quality. She was the perfect candidate for a victorious transition to studio recordings. From what we’ve heard so far from her upcoming album w h o k i l l , to be released later this month, Garbus pulled this off to a degree we couldn’t have imagined. The first single, “Bizness,” is full of the vitality of her live show but retains some of the aspects of her lo-fi debut, blending them into something that doesn’t feel too shiny but definitely makes you want to dance.
If you are a casual fan of the Wolf Parade arm of Sunset Rubdown, you may not know how far their sound has come since their early recordings. Dragonslayer , the brilliant album they released last year, had super clean production, many times just leaving Spencer Krug’s voice to carry the nuanced songs. On their first album, Krug and the gang sounded a lot rougher, but no less epic, than they do now. This is epitomized by the explosive album opener “Stadiums and Shrines II,” which is as grandiose as anything Arcade Fire has put out (they happen to be from Montreal as well). It’s so rare and welcome for a band to put out three consecutive nearly perfect albums, we almost don’t mind that Sunset Rubdown are now on indefinite hiatus (or that’s what we tell ourselves).
Iron & Wine
Before Bon Iver did it, Sam Beam of Iron & Wine was the man whose voice and lo-fi recordings convinced us that the key to happiness was holing up in a cabin somewhere (or, in his case, on his front porch) and listening to his album on repeat for ever. Quite possibly the best lo-fi folk album of the last decade, The Creek Drank The Cradle is a masterpiece of nostalgia, longing, love and loss. It’s the aural equivalent of a warm blanket and a cup of tea with honey. His next album, Our Endless Numbered Days , didn’t alter the musical style but upped the recording quality of Iron & Wine’s music to great effect. It was on 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog that Beam blew us away again by changing everything we had considered essential to his music in the past. There were countless instruments, long jams, up-tempo tracks, and even a reggae-influenced song. We love both sides of the Iron & Wine project, and as crazy as it is that they’re playing places like Radio City Music Hall, it’s amazing to see someone who began by recording on an 8-track on his front porch reach this level of stardom.
Think you got over pop-punk when Green Day released American Idiot (or way before that)? The Thermals, a three-piece, kick-ass band from Portland, will prove you wrong. The Thermals originally recorded fuzzy anthems that are still perfect for sitting around with your friends drinking beer and singing along. Then they got serious. The Body, The Blood, The Machine , released in the middle of the Bush administration, is possibly the best musical expression of the frustration and dread that so many Americans felt during that time. It is written from the perspective of people in a post-apocalyptic future where a hyper-conservative Christian regime rules the United States — a scenario that felt close enough to reality for every song to ring true. The clarity of the recording only emphasized the importance of their message, seeming to leave their old songs in a haze of apathy. Now that we have a slightly less insane president, it’s easy to enjoy any Thermals album, and as you can see from this video for “A Pillar of Salt,” they can have tons of fun while singing about shit that matters.
As charming as Swedish indie-pop star Jens Lekman’s older albums are, the songs are hit and miss. Some of his greatest tracks are on the compilation Oh You’re So Silent, Jens , and they do not lose anything from the super lo-fi production. But they don’t really gain anything either, and that’s part of the reason that his most recent album, Night Falls Over Kortedala was so wildly successful. Lekman’s beautiful pop is meant to be over-the-top schmaltzy and sincere, something that is best achieved with the melodramatic string and horn samples that litter the album. Interestingly, even this album was not recorded in a professional studio; the only parts that aren’t sampled are his vocals and guitar parts. It’s hard to think about the production, though, when the music is this euphoric.
The Mountain Goats
If you haven’t noticed, we’re pretty obsessed with John Darnielle’s 500+ songs and counting here at Flavorpill. For eight years Darnielle, who is The Mountain Goats whether or not he’s got a backing band, recorded songs in the most primitive method aside from wax cylinder: on a boombox in his living room. No overdubs, no reverb, nothing but his distinctive voice and some basic guitar chords. For most artists, this would have been the end of a very short career summary. Those bands are not The Mountain Goats. Darnielle’s writing, which Sasha Frere-Jones once called “the best non hip hop [lyrics] in America,” manages to build devastating and life-affirming stories out of details like half-eaten ice cream containers and bleeding dogs on the side of the highway. He created a singular sound, and many hardcore fans maintain that his best work was done during his lo-fi period. However, when the tape recorder finally broke, he got a real band, went into the studio, and recorded some of his best, and now most popular, songs. Allowing himself to finally write songs about his own traumatic past also helped produce some of the most moving and relatable work of his career. We are in awe of his ability, after 15 years of songwriting, to write songs that can consistently teach us about our own humanity.