Many bands dabble with the instrumental, but how many actually make it work? For the conventional indie act, successfully pulling off an instrumental song is like serving tofurky to a room full of Guy Fieri-fans on Thanksgiving and having them ask for seconds. It’s perilous and the odds for success are low, but when you nail it, it can be surprisingly fulfilling.
This week we’ll be looking at the successes: 10 great instrumental songs from traditional indie bands. Bedroom producers, synth-pop duos, and one-man-bands need not apply (sorry Cigo Man):
Real Estate – “April’s Song”: Often times, when I hear an instrumental track by a traditional band, I find myself waiting for the vocals to come in—hoping that the track will eventually become something it is not. With “April’s Song” however, there are no such wishes. Sure, it’s simple, and certainly room could be made for the reedy voice of Martin Courtney, but “April’s Song” is fine the way it is. Breezy, and uplifting, it is the perfect backdrop for a beachy summer montage.
Elliott Smith – “Kiwi Maddog 20/20”: named after a brand of flavored, fortified wine, “Kiwi Maddog 20/20” is the understated, surf-inspired closer from Smith’s debut LP Roman Candle. While far from being his most intricate guitar work, it manages to nail the desired cowboy slacker vibe while still maintaining something ineffably Elliot Smith about it.
Broken Social Scene – “Meet Me in the Basement”: Back in the day, BSS was largely an instrumental band and it shows here on Forgiveness Rock Record’s ‘vocal-less’ highlight, “Meet Me in the Basement.” With all the peaks and valleys necessary to keep a listener’s attention sans lyrics, “Meet Me in the Basement” is a guitar assault (the band had no fewer than 5 ‘axe men’ on stage when I saw them perform this live a few years ago) with melody to spare.
Radiohead – “Feral”: Forget the disembodied vocals, this is an instrumental track all the way. Sounding as if the band cut and copied the drum line from a jazzy afrobeat record and pasted it back on top of itself multiple times—sometimes neatly in time with the track’s menacing bassline, other times, seemingly at random—it’s ambient music that keeps your attention.
New Order – “Elegia”: On Low-Life (1985), their most danceable album, “Elegia”, stands out for being one of the only tracks not designed for the floor. Slow and brooding, “Elegia” (latin for elegy) is a waltz dedicated to the memory of Ian Curtis, the Joy Division frontman who took his life 4 years prior.
Yo La Tengo – “Green Arrow”: This is lost in the desert music. Not in the heat of the midday sun, but at dawn, when you’re still able to appreciate its stark, natural beauty; feel in awe of its grandeur while at once accepting your impending doom at the brutal indifference of its hands. Stunning and terrifying in its lack of urgency, each slide of the lap steel, the passing of millennia.
Caribou – “Hannibal”: It may take a while for things to lock in, but when they do, this is among the strongest moments of standalone dance music Caribou have ever produced. When out of nowhere, at the 4:40 mark it becomes a disco-boogie track and Dan Snaith finally gets singing—transforming the song into what can only be described as the best “Hold On, We’re Going Home” B-Side you’re likely to hear from a mathematics Doctorate from Dundas Ontario—the damage has already been done. It’s an instrumental track first. A track full of extraordinary sounds from an LP (Swim) that any audiophile should be well acquainted with.
Uncle Tupelo – “Sandusky”: Before Jeff Tweedy was breaking our hearts and minds with Wilco he was one third of the alt-country outfit Uncle Tupelo beside Jay Farrar and Mike Heidorn. On “Sandusky”, the trio let their guitars do the talking. Harnessed by a compelling riff, picked banjo and some minimal percussion, the track chugs along with a purpose and southern-fried grace.
Sunset Rubdown – “A Day In The Graveyard”: Like the title suggests, “A Day in the Graveyard” conjures up images of dusty bones and long forgotten graves—but not in a spooky way. This is music for the daylight haunting. With its consistent tape-hiss, skeletal percussion, and elusive melody, it’s a loving ode to the past in more ways than one.
Blink 182 – “The Fallen Interlude”: Didn’t think I’d include a Blink song, did you? Well, here’s the thing, Blink 182 have a couple interludes on their self-titled 2003 LP and they’re both pretty great. You already knew the band were masters at wrenching intrigue and drama out of seemingly simple instrumental parts. It makes sense that these underrated composers found the confidence to release these in 2003 at the peak of their creative growth.
Honourable Mentions: Teenage Fanclub – “Is This Music?”, M. Ward – “Duet for Guitars #3”, The Smiths – “Money Changes Everything”, Red House Painters – “Cabezon”, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – “Blue Turning Gray”, Beirut – “Venice”, Fleet Foxes – “The Cascades”