When artist-owned indie labels grow beyond the realm of vanity outlets, they tend to make an impact on music culture. Consider Calvin Johnstonís K Records, which helped reignite home-grown rock in the Pacific Northwest. Or Fugazi frontman Ian MacKayeís Dischord, which bred a generation of peace-loving straight-edge punks. And perhaps the most famous and influential of all punk-era artist-run indies, Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginnís SST, which was home to the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Leaving Trains, fIREHOSE, the Meat Puppets, and a host of other bands who inspired hosts of other bands.
Michael Giraís Young God Records has yet to ruffle the fabric of rock the way these labels did, but the imprint ó which has recently released new albums by Devendra Banhart, Palestine/Coulter/Mathoul, and Giraís own Angels of Light ó does possess the requisite musical vitality and sense of mission. Gira and Young God also have a coterie of followers that make both enterprises self-sustaining.
For the New York CityĖbased Gira, the Angels of Light, who play the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center next Thursday, and Young God are part of a somewhat unintentional musical career that started in the early í80s. It was then that he founded the Swans on a lark. He admits that group were at least in part an experiment in searing sonic obnoxiousness, with their stories of rape, violence, and despair set to a booming low-end piledriver chug. Nonetheless, the Swans were riveting and powerful, and when Gira took the stage shirtless and drooling, a little scary, too. But as Giraís music grew and developed, blistering sonic and psychic assaults gave way to gentler psychedelic electronics-fueled folk songs, to spare acoustic-guitar-based solo recordings, and to the Angels of Light.
Young God seems to have followed an arch similar to Giraís. The label was built on the Swans catalogue, solo albums by group keyboardist Jarboe, early Angels of Light discs, and Giraís credibility among his goth-art-rock fan base. Yet he insists the world-folk sensibility thatís filtered into recent Young God releases like the new Angels disc Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home and Banhartís Oh Me Oh My . . . The Way the Day Goes By the Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Lovesongs of the Christmas Spirit is unintentional. “Iím just interested in releasing music that seems to have the ability to touch people in some real way, and style or genre doesnít enter into it. Iíve always felt that a good bluegrass record would make as much sense on the label as a record of Mongolian folk songs or an electronic-oriented release.”
Indeed, Palestine/Coulter/Mathoulís Maximin does seem like an update of the 1970s experiments with slowly evolving textural music conducted by Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, albeit crossed with the crackling static of Brit-culties Throbbing Gristle. Like muzak, it can be embraced or ignored, but it has a droning presence that aims to pacify and nettle.
What all three Young God albums share is a capacity to inspire dreaming. The expansive Angels of Light disc is full of chiming melodies that tumble along at a relaxed pace, transporting the listener through rich, elegant soundscapes. Acoustic guitars, piano, horns, steel guitars, violins, banjo, and a childrenís choir all bathe in the warm mix, even as Gira applies simple, nursery-rhyme-like vocal lines to stories of wasted lives (“The Family God,” “What You Were”) and wishes for redemption (“What Will Come”). Banhart is more directly evocative of his roots-music sources, cramming 22 cuts of dark, fairy-tale blues onto Oh Me Oh My. He sings with the willful madness and lyric fragility of Syd Barrett ó heís too sophisticated to be lumped with so-called outsiders like Daniel Johnston ó as he plucks ą la Mississippi John Hurt. The childlike quality of his work is captivating, even if the kind of childhood it evokes is cursed with undefined ennui.
Although Gira says that “as soon as I get a whiff of careerism or a sense of someone trying to Ďmake ití through an association with the label, I lose interest immediately and irrevocably,” he concedes that in these precarious financial times “I do think about the market for what we release. I have to if I want the label to survive. But I also feel that our greatest strength is the potential longevity of the music we make available, and the obvious sincerity of intent, as well as the fact that our fan base knows that what we put out is likely to be rewarding in some way.”
Again, thatís where Giraís personal ĺsthetics and his labelís releases seem to twine. “I really just work from intuition and follow my imagination,” he allows. And so far thatís been fine.
The Angels of Light with openers Devendra Banhart and the Dresden Dolls play the Jorge Hernández Cultural Center, 85 West Newton Street in the South End, next Thursday, March 27. Call (617) 937-0061.