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The evolution of the urban bushwhacker

Animal Collective, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes celebrate the primitive and the past, but they sure do sound like the future.

January 25, 2009|Ann Powers | Pop Music Critic

One way to stay sane in the big gray city is to seek out the wilderness pulling at its seams. In Los Angeles, it's easy. The chaparral pokes through everywhere, throwing tumbleweeds into car lanes; coyotes cross into our gardens at night. The shift in attention can seem harder in older, denser spots like New York, but even there, undomesticated life has a way of wriggling forth -- hermit crabs and jellyfish have recently surfaced in the toxic silt of the Gowanus Canal.

Pop music in the age of the universal download is a lot like a megalopolis: sprawling, chaotic, seemingly without borders. Innovative but mercenary power-players peddle corporate pop in its financial centers. Elites -- blockbuster rock stars, divas, record producers of note -- clink their glasses together in gated communities. Scrappy newcomers and forgotten elders squat in the tenements, hoping for a break.

And then there are the urban bushwhackers: creative people determined to carve some space out of the concrete where something might grow and they might be able to wander a bit.

Since the 1960s, these folks have often been called "hippies," though that term is too specific, and carries too much historical weight. Younger practitioners, including California Summer of Love revivalists such as Devendra Banhart, Jonathan Wilson and the Entrance Band; Oregonian country fuzz rockers Blitzen Trapper; and Atlanta post-punks Deerhunter modify countercultural visions to suit a more pragmatic age.

Think of urban bushwhackers as those sea creatures in the chemical mud, with both the inner city and the outback in their DNA. They're different from the back-to-the-land pastoralists who decamp to yurts in New Mexico. What urban bushwhackers share across the generations, whether they've ridden in Ken Kesey's bus or danced at Burning Man, is an understanding that new technologies can be useful in pursuit of an idyllic vibe.

That's why they don't think it's weird to accessorize a thrift-store dress with an electroluminescent wire necklace. And it's why the musicians among them are leading a trend that feels like the future, even as, on the surface, it celebrates the primitive and the past.

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Welcome to the cult

Animal Collective, Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes are three leading urban bushwhackers. They're among the most cultishly followed indie acts -- the prolific Animal Collective's eighth studio album, "Merriweather Post Pavilion," is earning wide praise as a front-runner for best recording of 2009, while Seattle's Fleet Foxes and Wisconsin's Bon Iver topped 2008 critics' lists with their debut releases.

These three bands differ somewhat in sound, lifestyle and approaches to music-making. But their popularity can be attributed to the same thing: the ever-renewable urge within the middle class to step away from the timetables of life and find a different source of meaning. Going off-trail is an apt metaphor for what earlier generations thought of as shedding the gray flannel suits. Moguls don't wear suits now, but they'd never enter a space where their cellphone reception might be endangered. Urban bushwhackers try to imagine that space, even though they often use laptops and sequencers to do so.

Animal Collective's career has been characterized by forays into the brush. Since evolving from a bunch of childhood friends into a band around a decade ago, the group became strongly identified with the East Coast avant-rock scene and the more scattered "psych folk" trend. Its sound is hard to describe, let alone classify; it pulls from post-techno dance music, world rhythms, harmony groups and playful 1960s folk-rockers like the Holy Modal Rounders.

The band's sound is as intentionally bewildering (and goofy) as its members' silly stage names (Avey Tare and Panda Bear, for example), and its fanboy followers have turned the game of this music into an obsession. Fans hail AC shows as near-religious experiences and pore over their recordings as if they were I Ching oracle tosses.

The AC catalog may overflow with tangential forays that will interest only true believers. But such undirected play is what bushwhacking is all about.

Like the Grateful Dead, AC fetishizes process over catchiness. This band likes to stretch time and get lost. Its huggy psychedelia doesn't stimulate nostalgia for the hippie era as much as for the early days of raves and Ecstasy, when the drugs made you want to cuddle and the beats per minute were transcendently intense.

There was something deeply insular about rave culture -- it was a very white, middle-class, college kid thing. AC suffers from this limitation too. Focusing on one another, these four former prep-school buddies mostly have rejected the pop path of imagining a world that's open to all.

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