Maybe I shouldn't have expected it would be easy to pin down Indian Jewelry for an interview. Most bands at their level—popular enough to generate modest word-of-mouth hype and support a national tour of small but respected venues—are eager to do whatever press work is needed to get them to the next one. But Indian Jewelry doesn't really operate the way most bands do. They cultivate an image of mystery and rebellion, like they're some sort of quasimystic gang of psych-rock revolutionaries—an art-damaged Baader-Meinhof faction out to thrill those who get it and offend those who don't. In their press photos they pose in kaffiyehs and capes, holding guns. The press copy of Free Gold! (out May 20 on We are Free) came with two pieces of propaganda: one a manifesto promising a "bloodbath" in the album's wake, the other a probably made-up historian's account of another, overlooked Indian Jewelry from 1970s Montauk, New York. And so when one of them told me through a haze of static that they couldn't follow through on our scheduled interview because their van had broken down in the desert, I think he might have been laughing at me.
I should note that the breakdown didn't prevent them—or their van—from making it to the photo shoot I set up for them the next day in LA. That's OK: Indian Jewelry is a total aesthetic package, and I can see how a photo shoot would rank higher for them than an interview. Words are words and whatever, but dressing up like a militant cult member is performance art. And when they do it, at least, it's a show worth seeing.
The first time I saw it was a couple years back, when they were still 100 percent based in Texas, before the core of the group—the quartet of Rodney Rodriguez, Brandon Davis, Erika Thrasher, and Tex Kerschen—started splitting their time between Houston and Chicago. (Bet you didn't know three of the four core members were crashing in Chicago last year—Indian Jewelry's kinda mysterious like that.) They were at the Bottle but had forgone the stage in favor of an Oriental carpet and a tiny PA set up on the floor; I think they even set up their own light show. They looked like a noise band, but although what came out of their speakers was noisy enough it was built on the warped but still recognizable framework of traditional rock 'n' roll, a howling storm of scary, acid-drenched desert punk that sounded like what might have happened if Sonic Youth never got off their Manson Family kick after Bad Moon Rising.
I don't want to call Free Gold! cheery, even in comparison to the dark shit they were kicking out at the Bottle, but it's less heavy for sure. If that old material was the sound of an invading war party from Spahn Ranch, the new stuff's more like peyote night around the campfire. They haven't lost the ability to whip up an intimidating squall, as evidenced by the album opener "Swans." Like an apocalyptic reimagining of shoegaze, the track fills up every inch of sonic space with delay and drone, but the atmosphere is more free-floating dread than dreamy bliss. Elsewhere, though, the band demonstrates more restraint and subtlety than they have before. I hate using the term "freak folk" as much as musicians hate having it used on them, but Indian Jewelry's spin on folk pop is extremely freaky. The acoustic guitar on "Everyday" is straightforward enough, but Erika Thrasher's multitracked voice, which wobbles in pitch as if the song were playing back from a warped tape, adds an element of the intimately insane. Most psychedelic bands are content to make music that sounds good while you're stoned, but Indian Jewelry makes you wonder whether you're having auditory hallucinations even when you're stone-cold sober.
Of the range of trips available on Free Gold!, maybe the best is the drone blues of "Hello Africa." It consists mostly of a loping toms-and-cowbell beat, a two-note riff, and a rambling vocal part that only occasionally resolves itself into a melody. Again, it's the little touches that push the song beyond the mundane and into the impressively nuts—the unexpected Miami Vice-style electro drum fill, the unnatural effects on the vocals, the occasional squeal of tape echo slashing through the drone. The song is difficult, disorienting, and aggressively unwilling to fade into background music at any volume. I can't claim that I totally get it, but it's thrilling nonetheless.v
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