Sixties music returns with indie rock

Posted May 3, 2013


Ah, the 1960s, with long hair, wild psychedelic colors, and the Smothers Brothers. Do you miss that era?

Well, if you’re looking for music that suggests that era, you’re in luck. In the last six months, there have been an exceptional number of albums that harken back to that well-worn time without sounding derivative.

But don’t expect to see any of these albums in the Billboard 200 chart anytime soon. The 1960s seem to mostly be back in the wild and wonderful world of “indie rock,” a term so broad that it’s almost meaningless. But, save for one track appearing in a recent Blackberry commercial, these albums are better known by the type of people who wear Ray-Bans and consume hummus by the truckload.

The 1960s, of course, was the first era of music to draw people in for its anti-Vietnam message. It was psychedelic, it was hip and it was modern. Clean guitars, buzzy organs and simple drums were the norm.

Though it was released last year, it would be incomplete to have a discussion about 1960s throwback albums without talking about Tame Impala’s “Lonerism .” In the studio, Tame Impala is almost entirely the work of one person, Kevin Parker, of Perth, Australia.

“Elephant,” by Tame Impala

Given that Parker mostly works alone, it’s fitting that much of the album is about loneliness. “Lonerism” features song titles like “Music to Walk Home By,” “She Just Won’t Believe Me,” and, of course, “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” Even the cover, which features a vintage photograph of a closed gate in France, reinforces that theme.

“Lonerism” features synthesizers galore, but not in the 1980s New-Wave style that’s been en vogue since the late 2000s. Rather, the synths are of the hazy, mod, 1960s variety that suggests one of the Merry Pranksters’ “trips.” Also, it doesn’t hurt that Parker sounds more than a bit like John Lennon.

Altogether, “Lonerism” is nothing short of a masterpiece. Parker has enough pop sensibility to make catchy, vintage hooks on songs like “Apocalypse Dreams” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” that keep the listener hooked for months on end.

One thing that ties “Lonerism” with the other albums is a general respect for the “sound” of the 1960s without sounding too much like any one particular band. From here, though, things deviate. While “Lonerism” gets much of its inspiration from Todd Rundgren and the Beatles, Foxygen’s third album, “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic,” takes more influence from the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and even Bob Dylan.

“Shuggie,” by Foxygen

It’s hard to hate the type of music contained on “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic.” Even at the first listen, the Californian band’s psychedelic rock feels like an old, comfortable pair of shoes. On songs like “On Blue Mountain,” with its retro groove, or “Oh Yeah,” with a chord progression that owes more than a little debt to “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” it’s easy think you’re just hearing some forgotten gem from, for example, “Let It Bleed.”

But, as stated before, Foxygen doesn’t just sound like a shameless classic rock throwback band. Rather, they smartly update that sound and put indie rock sheen on it. For example, on “San Francisco,” singer Sam France isn’t singing about the old tropes of the Grateful Dead, LSD and other aspects of the late 1960s. Instead, he says that he’s left the city, singing “That’s okay, I was bored anyway.” All of this is warbled over a minimalist, vintage pop background.

“We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic” isn’t one of those albums that attempts to mope about existential angst, to belt out funereal odes about lost lifestyles, or to thematically advocate for a cause. It’s really just a fun jolt of neo-psychedelia about good times. And what’s to hate about that?

“Don’t Play With Guns,” by the Black Angels

On the other hand, some people prefer the type of slinky garage rock that eventually spawned punk rock. If you are one of those people, The Black Angels’ “Indigo Meadow” might be for you.

The songs on this album, like the wonderful “Don’t Play With Guns,” are harder and a bit more intense than the previous two albums. On that song, the combined buzz of organ and electric guitar reminds one of the influential “Nuggets” compilation. The influence of The Velvet Underground is clear, too; astute listeners will note that the band’s name is a reference to “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” by the Velvet Underground.

Compared to the previous two albums, Indigo Meadow feels slighter, but it’s still a good deal of fun. It’s a great distillation of the Velvet Underground, Question Mark and the Mysterians and Love into a fun album that would do well on any road trip.

“Swim and Sleep,” by UMO

Finally, for those looking for a bit more of a mellow take on the 1960s, look no further than Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s “II.” The product of musicians from Portland, Ore., and Auckland, New Zealand, “II” is the group’s uncreatively titled sophomore effort. Like The Black Angels, Unknown Mortal Orchestra (UMO) is evocative of the garage and psychedelic rock found on “Nuggets.” However, II’s lo-fi neo-psychedelia represents a completely different side of “Nuggets”: the type of unrefined, fuzzy pop that made songs like “Psychotic Reaction” into hits.

Though it was released in winter, many songs on “II” bring to mind the type of long, aimless summer days spent mostly outside. Take, for instance, “The Opposite of Afternoon.” It starts off slow, but then builds into a steady, chill groove that feels easy and comfortable. It’s sometimes hard to pull off chill lo-fi rock without it sounding, for lack of a better word, deflated. On “II,” UMO succeeds.

So, next time you hold a 1960s throwback party, you might want to hold off on the Troggs and go with any one of these modern groups.


  • “Lonerism,” by Tame Impala
  • RATING: Five Stars out of Five
  • Released on Oct. 5, 2012
  • Modular Recordings
  • “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic” by Foxygen
  • RATING: Four and a Half Stars out of Five
  • Released on Jan. 22, 2013
  • Jagjaguwar Records
  • “Indigo Meadow” by The Black Angels
  • Rating: Three and a Half Stars out of Five
  • Released April 2, 2013
  • Blue Horizon Ventures
  • “II” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra
  • Rating: Four Stars out of Five
  • Released Feb. 5, 2013
  • Jagjaguwar Records