Indie Rock: it’s who you know.
Okay, maybe that’s a little much– but it might be the best way to express the bad taste left in the mouth after watching the meteoric rise to blogpop success that’s been afforded to Brisbane, Australia’s An Horse. A boy-girl duo (think a sex-changed White Stripes) hawking the latest in jangly indie pop, An Horse was formed from the ashes of two other Australian bands: singer Kate Cooper of Iron On, and drummer Damon Cox of Intercooler. An Horse sounded like a whole lot of other bands, with 3-chords-and-the-truth songwriting aesthetics and vaguely confessional lyrics, propelled by polite pseudo-punk drumming. Except, according to an interview with Spinner, Cooper happened to strike up a friendship with Tegan or Sara of twintastic pop duo Tegan and Sara. Which led to an opening slot on a sold-out US tour, and an instant record deal with Florida-based label Mom and Pop Records.
All this is well and good: far be it from this reviewer just to rag on a band for having a chance to break out of weekend warrior status and get the ever-coveted shot at stardom. But a quick listen to An Horse’s Rearrange Beds and the previous output of Cooper and Cox immediately raises one burning, stupid-obvious question: “Why did they quit those bands?” The irksome part of An Horse’s success story has nothing to do with ease or paying dues. It’s that even within the tiny indie scene of Brisbane, mediocrity is rewarded over creativity.
Check out a song like An Horse’s “Postcards”. On its own, it’s a hooky little pop song that never gives up on a dependable three-chord progression. Ever. Now, a lot of amazing songs have been written with the I-VI-VII chord progression. “Free Money” and the entire Iron Maiden catalog use this basic outline for harmony. It’s just that those latter songs add something else that sticks to your ribs, like a great melody or a signature riff. “Postcards” has nothing. And what makes it seem even worse is the fact that Cooper’s last band, Iron On, had some awesome songs. On “One Man Band”, from 2007’s The Verse EP, little caring touches like an overdubbed guitar track, persistent rhythmic tension, and tense boy/girl backup harmonies generate massive catchiness and return appeal—two things “Postcard” sorely lacks.
What really turns the stomach about Rearrange Beds is the lesson it teaches: how a play for crowd-pleasing mediocrity really does pay off. All but erasing the Aussie accent that gave her vocals such charm and character in Iron On, Cooper tries to play to the center with An Horse, going for a generically fey indie singer/songwriter approach, only slipping into her natural accent when the songs reach their most fevered pitch. Rearrange Bed’s songs, too, seem not only average, but averaged. Eight of the ten songs on Rearranging Bedssee Cooper strumming away on basic chord progressions that change in exactly the same way, with Cox providing a nearly uniform beat for the entire album’s length, clipping along in the neighborhood 130 bpm for at least thirty of the album’s thirty-six minutes.
Rearrange Beds‘ few sublime moments are when Cooper and Cox throw a few curveballs at the listener–“Little Lungs”, for instance, is the only song whose runtime falls outside of the comfortable 2:30-4:00 range. Not only that, but its crescendo structure and throbbing bass part (the only presence of that instrument on the entire LP) seem like genius musical innovation when held up against the surroundings. The closing track, “Listen” also comes as a bit of a surprise–the ubiquitous indie drumbeats are left aside, as Cooper plays some solo guitar over a bit of harmonica accompaniment, even dabbling with a little reverb on the vocals by the end of the track. And while this is hardly the work of Kevin Shields, even just the slightest touch of studio experimentation makes it seem like An Horse have been touched with unforseeable inspiration.
Some of this effect may be due to the disturbing fact that over half of Rearrange Beds is a wholesale recycling of the band’s 2008 Not Really Scared EP, which only forgivable by the fact that Not Really Scared enjoys a much more limited availability. An Horse doesn’t even bother with new recordings or arrangements–Not Really Scared is just shuffled in amongst five new songs, probably straight from a playlist on Tegan or Sara’s iPod. It’s good business sense to have a full-length LP before embarking on a two-month journey to middle-of-the-road pseudo-indieocrity, but repackaging Not Really Scared under a different name reads like a rather flagrant “fuck you” to anyone who actually purchased Not Really Scared and still thinks they’re getting $10 worth of new material. Maybe that’s a moot point in the iTunes era–but it’s still incredibly sketch that Not Really Scared’s “Warm Hands” appears on the LP as “Scared As Fuck” without any indication that it’s the exact same performance, rebranded with an attention-seeking title.
It may seem unsporting or even unfair to pass judgement on an album for anything but its musical merits; however, when An Horse’s backslapping rise to the arena of international touring and somewhat unscrupulous marketing strategies are married to the unabashedly redundant songwriting, uninspired performances, and the transparent (self-conscious, even) smoothing-off of anything that might have been worthwhile or unique about Rearrange Beds, there’s really little choice about the matter: this album deserves, more than any other in memory, to be unsparingly panned.