Somewhere between tour stops in Buffalo, N.Y., and Chicago, Brendon Anderegg—one half of the gorgeous instrumental New York duo Mountains—sketches his band's live setup from the passenger seat.
"We both use two acoustic guitars, small percussion objects, melodica and harmonica, and things along those lines with microphones," he says.
Anderegg is referring to himself and his best friend, Koen Holtkamp, whom he met while attending the same Connecticut middle school. "And then we have our acoustic guitars plugged into effects pedals and delay pedals and looping pedals. We use a micro synth keyboard, and Koen has some oscillators. Really it's just guitars and a bunch of boxes on the floor," he laughs.
I regretted the question as soon as I'd asked it. Such equipment details inspire assumptions about what Mountains use it all for, and about the sound made by those instruments. And frankly, I've already wasted a year by assuming too much about the way Mountains sound based mostly on one track, "Choral," which I had heard online. It's not an isolated incident, either: Blogs and online stores increasingly present new music for free with their own expert analysis, requiring little investment from listeners and little incentive to pursue the band further if the track doesn't immediately stun or hook them. It's a case of powerful, be-all-end-all filters at work in an overcrowded pool. So at this point, I'd rather just listen for myself, not depend on Anderegg's gear dossier.
Despite a 2008 LP on Catsup Plate, the Brooklyn label responsible for releases by Animal Collective, Black Dice and Destroyer, and two earlier albums on Holtkamp's own experimental label, I ignored Mountains until early 2009, when the Chicago label Thrill Jockey announced that it had signed the band for a new LP, Choral.
Last January, the album's title track made its way around the normal Internet hubs—blogs, message boards, podcasts. "Choral" was the record's lead and title track and its de facto single, meaning it's the one that MP3 blogs posted and summarized prior to the album's release. Other songs got online play, sure, but "Choral" was the one that served as Mountains' big, opening statement.
"Choral" is a pretty track of sustained synthesizer washes, mutated choir hums and submerged bass chords, all building steadily and safely for many of the song's 13 minutes. I was pleased but not impressed—it was nice but tepid. And so I treated Choral and Mountains with a certain measure of apathy. I casually listened to the album twice, letting it serve as the sort of wallpaper music I assumed Mountains had always made.
Turns out, "Choral" is a record label feint, a sonorous if deceptive introduction to the New York duo that was never intended to represent their oeuvre. For one, it's perhaps the most rhythmically oriented track in the band's 30-piece catalogue, and its lengthy synthesizer sprawl suggests a tidy distillation of bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and especially Harmonia—all pioneers of Krautrock—or one of the few common grounds for multiple experimental music scenes. The hope, I assume, was that "Choral" sounded familiar enough to find a lot of fans. For me, it wasn't provocative enough to inspire further investigation, and reading through a few other writers' and listeners' scattered thoughts online, it seemed as if moving on was the right decision. Besides, there were new tracks from Phoenix to hear. And who was this band Cymbals Eat Guitars? I didn't have time or desire to push past "Choral."
Online music criticism—or access to music online at large—is a domain of conjoined access, information and analysis, where the source from which you acquire music often delivers its own bits of editorial. Even in iTunes, where you'd assume the goal is only to sell a product, starred customer reviews and an unsigned summation by an iTunes staffer sit on the page where you can actually purchase the music.
The kingpin of such, Pitchfork, premieres fresh tunes in its News section and in a constant ticker-like stream called Forkcast. It furthers the approach with Forktracks, where strident song reviews accompany downloads or streams of those same songs. Blogs like Stereogum and Brooklyn Vegan offer new tracks alongside pithy descriptions and plaudits, as do thousands of other blogs operated by kids with computers around the world. And all of those come aggregated into searchable mega-sites like Elbo.ws or Hype Machine, which build the collective din of the indie rock Internet into neat little grids with names like "Hot Tracks" and "Most Favorited Music Chart."
In a sense, the role of supplier and decider have been made interchangeable.
So thanks, Internet—now I've got some catching up to do.
Late last year, Etching—a limited-edition, vinyl-only, one-track LP that Mountains released in hand-stamped sleeves—made me reconsider. During those 40 minutes, Mountains, recording live in their New York practice space, move seamlessly from rapid bits of acoustic plucking to glowing phases of keyboard chords to tidal washes of electric hum. It bears the majesty of a live set by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, the involvement of an album by composer Christian Fennesz.
In reviewing their discography, it was clear that Mountains had been developing something special all along, something I'd missed because of a download. A tour EP from 2008 showed that they could handle drama ("Untitled II"), while 2007's Sewn demonstrated an early prowess for slow, steady swells ("Hundred Acre").
The rest of Choral is a refined and refreshing mix of experimental ideas and forms—a banjo-drum-drone tune, a dark violin roar in an uncommon tuning, a forlorn post-rock soundscape. I had missed it all simply because one track that I'd downloaded from one Web site had convinced me I could.
I'm not blaming the Internet. It's my fault for not listening, and such filters are crucial these days, since one of the biggest challenges with music now is simply deciding what to hear. Most anyone with a laptop can make a record, and all it takes to promote it is an online connection and maybe an e-mail address. That's to say nothing of quality, though, but the sheer quantity of new music available online makes the allure of such automatic filters—where you can find out what's cool, why it's cool and get it in one stop—that much stronger. You don't need to hear something on the radio and search for it in a store, anymore. This is one-stop shopping.
Trouble is, it's not shopping: In most cases, this music and the analysis around it are free. Sure, the music industry has found ways to monetize digital music sales, whether simply with fees in iTunes or with free downloads accompanying the purchase of a physical album. But with a few minutes, a bit of Google skill and occasionally the ability to recognize the word "download" in foreign languages, you can find mostly anything you need to hear online for zilch—from the 50-CD set Merzbox by Japanese noise godhead Merzbow to Taylor Swift's Fearless, which won a Grammy Award for album of the year Sunday night. And free music doesn't require an investment on the listener's part—that is, unlike the 7″ or CD single, you've put no money toward the artist. You've simply listened to the track and maybe moved on, discarding it like the day's disposable contact lenses. You've spent no money, so why should you care how a band's discography sounds if the online single doesn't appeal to you?
The Internet not only serves as a fount for more music than you might have ever imagined existed (and for information about it), but it also gives those without labels and publicity budgets the chance to find a broad audience quickly. You don't have to be rich to be Internet famous, and that can be good news for unknown artists with brave ideas. What it misses in fast-paced oversights it makes up for in egalitarian avenues of exposure.
So let's not pine for the old model—where you heard about a record and sought it out, or vice versa—too long. Rather, let's remember that just because a band can be dismissed for one track doesn't mean they necessarily should be. I mean, which of your favorite bands became such after one spin of one track, anyway? And just because one great track by some unknown act from Sheboygan turns the indie rock Internet into tizzy of hyperbole, they're not always going to be The Next Great American Rock Band. If I would have considered that a year ago, I'd have a lot less of Mountains' stellar discography left to climb.
Mountains play Nightlight with excellent Swedish band Tape and a special drone set by Horseback Saturday, Feb. 6, at 9:30 p.m. Ghost Hand opens.