Quick question: when you find yourself thinking about Animal Collective (which, we know, is often), what neighborhood springs to mind? Chances are good it's Brooklyn, not Baltimore -- and there's a reason for that. In the indie-rock hemisphere, Baltimore has earned a reputation as a great place to be from, but not necessarily a great place to be. The Animal kids met in Maryland before making the move to Brooklyn, as did Yeasayer. Spank Rock, who started in Baltimore, are now based out of Philadelphia.
If the flurry of recent musical output from Baltimore is any indication, though, the city is coming into its own -- and not just as a starter home. Jason Urick of local noise-rock group Wzt Hearts offers a little perspective on Baltimore's draws: "There's no real jealousy and bitterness, or not as much as bigger cities where people are more careerist with their music. Most people here play music because they love what they're doing."
Urick has a unique perspective on the Baltimore scene -- he lives and often plays at Floristree, a six-story artists' loft complex above a camping-supply store. Matt Papich, guitarist for Ecstatic Sunshine and a fellow Floristree resident, puts it this way: "Floristree, as far as I can tell, is the most professionally run DIY live-in public show space in the United States... Here is the main thing. On the stage side of the house, everyone refuses to live anything less than an absolutely extraordinary life. We eat the finest foods at the most beautiful times of days (dusk, dawn). No meal will be served without a bouquet on the table and lit candles. This includes breakfast."
Maybe it's spaces like Floristree that make Baltimore so amenable to hometown acts. Charm City Art Space plays a similar role for the punk and hardcore bands in town, and while the Wham City collective no longer has a designated space, Dan Deacon's brainchild is still a presence throughout the city. We've collected some of our favorite Baltimore indie acts -- and get used to referring to them that way, because they're not moving to Brooklyn anytime soon.
The lo-fi songs of Baltimore duo Alex Scally
and Victoria Legrand are ethereal and spare, a far cry from the
maximalism practiced by so many of the band's Baltimore neighbors. Their
beats are long and leave plenty of room for Legrand to fill with her
sweet, sometimes husky voice (she's often compared to Nico). And if the
songs are often melancholy, at least they haven't lost their sense of
humor. Consider the opening lines of "Master of None," from the band's
2006 self-titled album: "You always come to parties / To pluck the
feathers off all the birds." As its title implies, this year's
Devotion is a commitment-heavy song cycle; it opens with a track
called "Wedding Bell" and closes with "Home Again," stopping off along
the way to remind us that "Some Things Last a Long Time." Beach House
requires commitment from the listener, too -- Scally and Legrand's music
has nuances you just don't pick up on the first time around.
If you're saying the band's name aloud, it's "wet hearts." But if you're listening to WZT Hearts' music, you probably won't want to say much of anything -- you'll be too busy trying to figure out what the hell to call it. WZT is genre-defying; while it identifies most closely with the future shock movement, it doesn't sound much like Dan Deacon or most of his pals. It's electronic, but it isn't "electronic music," per se, and WZT Hearts' MySpace page lists influences that run the gamut from Bill Withers to Iancu Dumitrescu to Kate Bush and My Bloody Valentine. The band's four members layer one heavily-percussive track at a time, and the songs build on themselves in a way that's never predictable and always interesting. Jason Urick, who moderates the laptops for WZT Hearts, is one man who believes in Baltimore: "I think it's a good place to be a musician and an artist for relatively cheap," he says. "Even the people that are succeeding out of Baltimore don't necessarily feel like it's necessary to move to New York and pay more rent because they might get famous."
"Our life is one of celebration and excitement," Matt Papich writes in an e-mail describing his home at Floristree. "We believe in the future and despise nostalgia. Of course, we work for this charmed life, and struggle often, but the payoff is huge. Our faces remain young and without wrinkles. Our bodies slim and fit but not emaciated. Our minds relaxed and calm yet sharp." There's something a little sardonic about this, of course, and it's a wryness reflected in Ecstatic Sunshine's songs. "Little Big Dipper," off the band's 2006 release Freckle Wars, sounds for the first two and a half minutes like music to picnic to -- a delicate guitar overlay, an unhurried time signature -- until the band starts yelling, and the last 30 seconds take the song from an ambient place to a punk one. Time spent listening to Ecstatic Sunshine is often taken up enjoying the songs' slow buildup and wondering how they'll pay off. The upside is that they always do.
"The number-one reaction to all attention that Baltimore has been getting is we just kind of shrug and laugh," Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak says. "Like, âWell, I guess we'll just keep on doing what we're doing either way.'" Wye Oak, named after an iconic white oak tree in Maryland, is comprised of Wasner and her partner, Andy Stack. And what they're "doing," exactly, is creating sweet, full, deceptively optimistic music -- a song called "Obituary" from this year's If Children features hand-claps and a melodic la-la-la outro. Wye Oak, who will be touring throughout June with Pontiak, have the advantage of rarely sounding like a two-piece band; when you hear Wasner's guitar swelling through the bridge in opener "Please Concrete," you'd swear there were at least two or three of him.
"I think the reason bands flourished in Baltimore is because there was nothing," Ponytail guitarist Ken Seeno says. "It was really an open playing field for whatever you wanted to do. I think for originality that's really nice, because nobody was trying to be derivative." Ponytail is nothing if not original; and a little animalistic, too -- each song's ferocious twists and turns are executed with hairpin precision while vocalist Molly Siegel growls over it all. The band's enthusiasm is infective; bear witness to the ridiculously energetic opening riff on "Celebrate the Body Electric," and you'll see what we mean. Ponytail is also a great example of cross-pollination in the Baltimore scene: member Dustin Wong is formerly of Ecstatic Sunshine.
"It was like living in a cartoon," Dan Deacon says of the days when the Wham City collective still had a loft space. "If we wanted to move a wall, we'd pry it off of the floor and drag it a little bit closer to where we wanted to put it, and then prop it up on these hastily-made beams. I guess it sounds fantastical." Deacon immortalized the experience in a song named after the collective on last year's Spiderman of the Rings, which was widely and with good reason cited as one of the best experimental albums of 2007. Deacon's electronic/future shock compositions are frenetic and a little challenging, but also charming and weirdly fun. When it comes to Deacon's future, the lyrics at the end of "Wham City" are telling: "I love my friends and everyone / but we've had our chance, let's move aside / let time wash us out with the tide." Could this mean the end of Baltimore for its own favorite son? Not just yet. "I think I'll keep living in Baltimore as long as I can keep living the lifestyle that I like," Deacon says. "A bunch of us talk all the time about buying a bunch of land in the middle of nowhere, like West Virginia, and starting a compound." In the meantime, though, there's something he wants you to know: "We welcome everyone to come and visit Baltimore, and see what it's like in person. And if anyone needs a place to stay, they can always give me an e-mail."