Music Changing with the Tides

Many may think that Seattle’s music scene ended with a shotgun blast when, in a spare room above a garage in a large house facing Lake Washington, Kurt Cobain killed himself. The lead singer of Nirvana left a suicide note for his wife, Courtney Love, and their baby daughter, Frances Bean. On April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain died taking with him, many think, grunge music andconsequently taking with him the whole of Seattle’s musical identity.

Not so. Certainly “grunge,” termed by Mudhoney front man Mark Arm, firmly put Seattle on the rock and roll map in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. With its distorted guitars, angst-filled lyrics and its seeming uncomfortableness with popularity, it became hugely popular. Grunge bands became famous—like Alice in Chains, 7 Year Bitch, Screaming Trees, Soundgarden, the Melvins and Pearl Jam. All were based in or around Seattle, and all scored major hits on the charts.

That was years ago though. There’s been a music scene in Seattle since, yes? Yes. Grunge was a lifetime ago. To some, like Cobain, Layne Staley of Alice and Chains and Mother Love Bone’s Andrew Wood, it was a life. Period. Those grunge stars, and other Seattle bands of that era, are old now. Take Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam. He’s about to release a solo album of ukulele songs. That’s right—ukulele songs. The lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America, Chris Ballew, is putting on children’s music shows now under the moniker Caspar Babypants. That’s right—Caspar Babypants. Chris Cornell, lead singer of Soundgarden, has lent his voice to a James Bond movie theme song. They’re old—these singers and bands. Still good, certainly, but it was a generation ago when songs like “Black Hole Sun,” “Jeremy” and “Come As You Are” came over the airwaves for the first time and changed rock and roll music forever.

So what’s quietly screaming through the trees of Seattle these days? Very nearly the opposite of grunge. It’s young men and Mustaches. The women wear floral dresses and sport cowboy boots. They like chumminess and community. The men wear corduroy sport coats over Dr. Pepper T-shirts. They all wear sweaters made by their mothers. Fingerless gloves are popular. They have dimpled cheeks, and their teeth sparkle white like Chiclets straight out of the pack. They’re all quick with smiles or collaborating on a warm song that oftentimes incorporates a glockenspiel; perhaps claves. They’re literate types, eager to quote William Stafford poetry in a song. They’re quick to turn an obtuse phrase about enduring love into a song.

They’re wistfully melancholic. They strum guitars in coffee shops and play just for giggles at farmer’s markets with a porkpie hat set out for wrinkled dollars. They like using nautical terms in their songs. Sometimes they’ll do a reggae song about baseball on a lark. Oftentimes, they sing of loves won and lost. They might sing a sea shanty. If it’s a simple guitar and a mic for them, that’s good enough. The rain can be their accompaniment! If not that, they’ll cram all sorts of instruments into their songs: a piano, a viola, a trumpet, a children’s rattle, a didgeridoo for kicks. They might smoke pot during off hours and enjoy Pabst Blue Ribbon all the while craving the microbrews of Portland if someone were to buy them a round.

They’ll play virtually anywhere for little to nothing. They’ll shove themselves up in a corner of a dingy music shop to play and peddle Cds. They all want to get signed by Sub Pop—or maybe Barsuk. They’ll play small festivals under tents sponsored by women’s health clinics. Sweeping generalizations, all, but mostly true and truly most of these bands are sweepingly wonderful.

Sub Pop Records has been the constant between it all, betwixt the flannel-wearing angst-riddled bands of the ‘80s and ‘90s and the flannel-wearing beard-stroking Buddhas of today. The indie label that brought the world Mudhoney, Nirvana and The Jesus and Mary Chain continues to be a major force releasing the works of bands such as Death Cab for Cutie, Band of Horses, Modest Mouse and Fleet Foxes.

The Seattle bands that have broken out into the mainstream, or will soon, are many. Hey Marseilles, formed amongst the hallowed halls of the University of Washington, is a pop-chamber group with inviting and thoughtful lyrics married to instrumentations that include accordions, mandolins and more. The Head and the Heart, an indie-folk band formed in 2009 has recently signed with Sub Pop and has opened for Vampire Weekend and The Decemberists. They use a trio of harmonic voices and harken back to folk-singing heroes of old. Band of Horses, an alt-country band fronted by Ben Bridwell, is already big. Their album Infinite Arms was nominated for a Grammy. Damien Jurado, a big lug with a heart full of sorrows, pours out indie-folk songs that’ll crack the most hardened listener. Fences, the creation of Berklee College of Music graduate Christopher Mansfield, is a four-piece indie band that’ll break even Jurado down further. Texas-born alt-country singer Rocky Votolato sings Northwestern-y songs with a Southern twinge. The song “Sparklers” on his True Devotion album is lovely.

That’s Seattle’s music these days—simply lovely. Sure, Eddie Vedder comes by from time to time with a low growl and a ukulele strum. Absolutely, Dave Matthews, when he’s not touring, can be found at the coffee shop bleary eyed. Indeed, Alice in Chains has thoughts of recording a new album, and Caspar Babypants is playing for toddlers at a branch of the Seattle Public Library, but there’s a new sound emanating from the Puget Sound. It’s not a shotgun blast. It’s not feedback from a guitar. No one is hurling themselves off stage, nor are they turning their instruments into splinters. The words aren’t screeched into inaudibility, and the anger isn’t flourished out in head-splitting rapture. No, there’s quiet contentment here. The beards are scruffy, momma’s sweater fits just fine, the coffee shop is busy enough and the music floats and flows like the swelling waves out on the nearby sound.

– Jonathan Shipley