I gave up a long time ago trying to understand the strategy behind Saddle Creek Records’ roster decisions. Mad genius? Shot in the dark? Take your pick.
In the label’s early days circa the late ’90s, there was no such mystery. The holy triumvirate that created the dynasty — Bright Eyes, The Faint, Cursive — all resided in Omaha and were friends with one another. In fact, all the bands’ frontmen had played together at one time or other. Saddle Creek Records was a means to an end, a way to get their music recorded and out to a mass audience that couldn’t find Omaha on a map.
The other prerequisite to landing on the label, of course, was the quality of their music. And while each band had a distinctly different approach, lazy music critics quickly coined the term “the Omaha Sound,” though they’d be hard pressed to actually define what it was.
Saddle Creek would “sign” its first non-Nebraska acts after the turn of century — Rilo Kiley (with front woman Jenny Lewis), Azure Ray and Now It’s Overhead seemed like perfect fits; whereas craggy, rustic balladeers Two Gallants was a head scratcher. But even that seemed like a winsome stroll off the beaten path compared to some of the label’s recent choices.
Let’s look at the breakdown:
Many are those of the art/noise set applauded the release of Spirit of the Beehive’s Entertainment.Death — a recording I equate to watching a fine arthouse film that you can admire while seated in the dark but will likely never see again, unless you’re stoned (which I’ve never been). “Challenging” is a charitable description. Young Jesus, another recent Saddle Creek addition, also takes its songwriting to experimental levels that borders on jam band territory. Both acts are hugely popular with critics, but you have to wonder how well they sell or get played on streaming services, which these days is the mark of success.
Then there’s the label’s cadre of forlorn singer/songwriter projects like Tomberlin, Black Belt Eagle Scout and Hand Habits. Meg Duffy of Hand Habits is a major talent and I love her work. But, man, you better be in the right mood for it.
Then there’s the label’s more accessible indie-rock staples — Hop Along, Stef Chura, Disq. These are the most predictable acts of the recent signings (last six years) and the most enjoyable. Hop Along and Frances Quinlan get their share of Sirius XMU plays; and Disq was my choice for a Saddle Creek breakout band. While I love Disq’s latest album, it’s hardly broken through in a way that, say, Big Thief, Saddle Creek’s most successful recent signing has, and alas, one that quickly moved onto a different label after only a couple releases.
This is a long preamble to say that Indigo De Souza doesn’t fall into any of these categories, and yet, her new album, Any Shape You Take, released in late August, is my favorite Saddle Creek release in the past few years.
Ten songs, 38 minutes, not a dud in the bunch. Built on a framework of traditional modern indie pop, De Souza in some ways is old school in that she knows how to write a great hook, how to drop in a tasty power chord, where to bring in the rest of the band in a way that makes you look up from whatever you’re doing and PAY ATTENTION.
The one-sheet that came with the record describes the daughter of musicians and her constant struggle to find her voice as she goes through painful relationships, and so on. These are songs about misplaced devotion and insecurity taken to a familiar level. You may be finding your own way, Indigo, but we’ve all been there. We’ve heard it before, but rarely as honestly or brutally straight forward.
Favorite tracks include “Darker than Death” “Die/Cry” and “Pretty Pictures” — pop nuggets that come in at three minutes or less. In fact, no song exceeds five minutes, including the closing masterpiece, “Kill Me,” that should have been the first track (instead of the auto-tune-heavy “17,” my least favorite of the bunch). Despite the dark themes, this is a pop album and it, indeed, rocks, setting it apart from the cadre of depressing women singer/songwriters dominating indie these days like Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus.
De Souza’s performance is backed by a great band with a great rhythm section, though the one-sheet doesn’t list the personnel and only says, “While her backing band has undergone shifts between releases, her sound has stayed tethered to her vision.” I guess we’ll find out who her band is when she plays at The Slowdown Oct. 2.
I’m not alone in my adoration. Any Shape… has been tossed bouquets by numerous critics and received the lauded “Best New Music” designation from Pitchfork, the bible of indie rock tastemakers. Could she be the next Phoebe (or next Jenny Lewis)? Time will tell, but here’s hoping she provides another shot in the arm to keep Saddle Creek Records healthy for years to come.
Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.