What is it about Felt? Legend has it that about 10 years ago, Stuart Murdoch-the genius behind the widely adored 90’s twee-pop ensemble, Belle and Sebastian-left Glasgow in search of Lawrence Hayward, the genius behind the great 80’s cult favorite Felt. He never found him-but, as always, the failure to encounter an idol in the flesh only redoubled the obsession. In the liner notes to the latest Belle and Sebastian album, Mr. Murdoch describes how a Felt DVD, just arrived in the mail, has delivered him into the arms of a delectable agony. “It’s almost too much to take,” he confesses, approaching a Molly Bloom–like crescendo. “Lawrence looks so good, it’s too much, it’s like a dream. I can’t believe this band ever existed. They’re so perfect. Fuck the Smiths, fuck Orange Juice, Felt, FELT, FELT!!”
Felt? Don’t get me wrong, I like Felt: They were Television revivalists back when Julian Casablancas was still in nappies, and made music far weirder, moodier and truer to its sources than anything the Strokes will ever do. But Felt ? Mr. Murdoch’s peculiar romance for Mr. Hayward, I submit, has less to do with Mr. Hayward’s looks and chops than with the special aura of obscurity that surrounds an incorrigibly fame-lorn band like Felt. (The Smiths, they’re public property, Mr. Murdoch is saying; Felt is mine .)
In 1979, the year the first wave of punk rockers were starting to realize their rock-star dreams, Mr. Hayward recorded the song “Index” on a portable cassette player, alone in his bedroom in Birmingham, England. It went on to become Felt’s first single, but almost more importantly, it paved the way for scores of Tascam-wielding Eleanor Rigbys who followed, from Daniel Johnston and the Field Mice to the dearly departed Elliott Smith, whose masterful debut, Roman Candle , was recorded on a four-track in his basement. A movement was born: Let’s call it Obscurity Rock.
Obscurity Rock takes the old mythos of rock ‘n’ roll and turns it on its head. Gone are Apollonian self-infatuation and the groupie-defiling hotel suite; loser-loner desperation and the childhood bedroom have taken their place. The first great Obscurity Rockers in the 90’s were Smith and Lou Barlow, whose luscious 1994 collection Winning Losers: A Collection of Home Recordings pretty much defined the sound: lo-fi and melancholy, the aural equivalent of sketch work.
Not all the bands that followed in the O.R. mold recorded at home, true; but all were equally devoted to a stripped-down, homemade aesthetic, as well as the idea of rock without the star. Like Mr. Barlow’s Sentridoh, they employed band names as aliases, the better to hide the solo artist lurking beneath: Smog (Bill Callahan), Cat Power (Chan Marshall), the Palace Brothers (Will Oldham) and Neutral Milk Hotel (Jeff Mangum) are the obvious examples. (More recently there’s David Bazan, who shed his bandmates from Pedro the Lion but kept the name to produce the truly delightful It’s Hard to Find a Friend in 2001. Allow me to pound the table: It’s Hard to Find a Friend is one sweet record.)
The latest-and among the finest-O.R. acts is Iron and Wine, the alias for Samuel Beam. Mr. Beam is a Florida college teacher who, a couple of years ago, sent 20 or so home-recorded songs to Sub Pop records. In 2002, the label released 12 minimally remastered tracks as the album The Creek Drank the Cradle , and it’s a drop-dead beauty from beginning to end-“Bird Stealing Bread” is impossible to get out of one’s head, and may just be a perfect song.
Sub Pop has recently released more tracks from those demos on the EP The Sea and the Rhythm . Mr. Beam’s recording style and even his singing-often a breathy halfway between a falsetto and an exhale-owe a debt to Mr. Barlow, though he’s folked things up a bit by adding banjo and some slide and layering the vocals with self-sung harmonies. The effect is Sentridoh crossed with Harry Smith, with a (somehow, blissfully) cheese-free helping of CSNY and Southern rock on the side. His lyrics are sweetly elliptical (“Love is a crying baby / your mama warned you not to shake”) in the Jeff Mangum mode, though less privately symbolic-when Mr. Beam sings about a creek bed, he seems to have an actual creek bed in mind. Despite the outdoorsy feel and the occasional classic rock lick, though, all O.R. credentials seem to be in order. On the Iron and Wine Sub Pop Web page, under the category “How Formed,” it reads “I got a four track recorder,” and the credits to Creek read: “All songs written, performed, recorded and produced at home by Samuel Beam.”
So why all this delectable anonymity? Rock ‘n’ roll, for better and for worse, has always been about allegiance; and O.R., I submit, gives us something to care about other than winking retread acts like the Strokes and the White Stripes. Let’s face it: Everyone likes them, no one cares about them. All the nudge-nudging aside, they’re striving too hard to be public property, and that paradigm is dead no matter how many units you move. It’s as if, in 1994, Kurt Cobain killed himself and the pop world forever split in half: Celebrity went to MTV, and music into a diaspora of jerry-rigged home studios. Take the positively Salingeresque Queens denizen F.M. Cornog, who seems to exist to keep a universe featuring Britney Spears in cosmic balance. Mr. Cornog has been recording downhearted synth-folk under the band alias East River Pipe since he debuted (in 1994, no less) with Shining Hours in a Can .
Before Mr. Cornog named his “band” after a pipe near his house that spews raw sewage into the East River, he worked in a linoleum warehouse and a light-bulb factory; and as the press materials accompanying his CD make clear, he’s self-taught and only plays unannounced shows at open-mike nights. The paradigmatic O.R. non-star, Mr. Cornog “writes, sings, plays and records all of his own songs on a TASCAM 388 mini-studio in the corner of his apartment in Queens, NYC,” according to those previously mentioned publicity materials. His masterpiece, Poor Fricky , appeared in 1995; and his new album, Garbageheads on Endless Stun , is another minor godsend.
I like the Strokes-there’s no denying it, they are deliriously fun-but getting too excited about them is like buying stock in NetZero because you missed out on AOL the first time around. Obscurity Rock, however, is onto something new: It’s acknowledging rock’s last mythic frontier, the bedroom where rock ‘n’ roll was first consumed by lonely, adolescent boys and girls-the bedroom where most rock ‘n’ roll, after all, happens . By recording at home, alone, they’ve made the place where rock is traditionally consumed the same place where it is produced. And as a result, they’re onto something strangely fresh and intimate: music for all us adolescent boys who, still alone in our bedrooms, are no longer posing in front of the mirror.