Column - From The Wire to Dream Pop, Baltimore's musical transformation via Animal Collective, Beach House, Lower Dens & more
Ashen streets, grim estates, slums choked with drug dealers and destitutes... thanks to HBO's The Wire, this is the Baltimore, USA that exists in the imaginations of many. However, since Jimmy McNulty's screen exit in 2008, Maryland's biggest city has heralded a different kind of cultural export, one that's somewhat incongruous to the legacy left by David Simon's show: atmospheric indie, tagged "dream pop" by some, made famous by the likes of Animal Collective, Lower Dens and Beach House.
Delve deeper into the city's music scene and there's even more where that came from: Dead Mellotron, Wye Oak, Celebration and Future Islands, who each posses a mix of ghostly vocals, reverberating drums and shoegazing influences, are all natives. Whereas in the 1990s Baltimore was dominated by hip-hop and house - the likes of Dru Hill, Ultra Nate, Rod Lee and K-Swift were all residents - it now is a city whose primary music exports recall the tenebrous moods of My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. Baltimore's music scene has undergone, to use Barksdale slang, a dream pop re-up.
"It's a pretty unique place to be right now," admits Lower Dens singer Jana Hunter, who relocated to the city from Houston in 2008. "At first it was kind of fascinating and fun but after I moved there I began to really believe in it as a different, more inspiring way of life than I'd experienced before."
Part of it, according to Hunter, is down to simple economics. "Baltimore has a lot to offer young creative people right now. It's such a friendly town for artists because it's very cheap. It's possible to live there scraping together $50 a week, renting a cheap room, when it isn't elsewhere. That makes art possible, you know?"
It's an analysis shared by former Baltimore Sun music reporter Erik Maza. "In 2004, a bunch of art school grads moved to Baltimore, drawn by cheap rents and available warehouses," he recalls. "They carved out this niche for a hyper-kinetic, anarchic, shamelessly dorky scene." Those graduates drew the attention of Rolling Stone, who in 2010 named the city the best scene in the US - not that those musicians there cared. "My sense is that artists here don't care and don't seek out that level of mainstream recognition," Maza observes.
"As a city, it's full of people doing a lot of art, theatre and so on who are very much devoted to what they were doing and doing it the way they want to do it. They - we, I suppose - don't really want the approval of the outside world," agrees Hunter. "Maybe there's some concern to meet the standard of their friends and peers in Baltimore, but that's a different thing. It's kind of like, How much of yourself can you pour into it? That's the litmus test here, not mainstream recognition."
Baltimore, it seems, hasn't changed that much from the way it was portrayed on screen. The city's crime rate remains high - the eighth highest in the US in fact, with a projected total of 6960 violent crimes for this year alone - and Hunter acknowledges it continues to be an "extremely impoverished" place to be, battling huge unemployment figures.
"Baltimore is still struggling with major class, development, crime and a whole range of other social issues that have contributed to that image portrayed in The Wire," says Maza. "That might seem contradictory to some of the music that's also coming out of the city. On the one hand, these two cultures exist side by side, but very much separated by gentrification and class and racial differences; the world of [local artistic collective] Wham City and the art school is, if we're generalizing, privileged and white."
But these artist do not live in a vacuum. "On the other hand Baltimore musicians and artists are also really engaged with some of these social issues, and while less so on the music side, a lot of them make work, or do activism, that specifically addresses some of those social issues," explains Maza adds, noting some of the bands involvement in the Occupy movement.
The Wire might have been lauded as a Dickensian in its storytelling, but when it comes to its growing musical renaissance, Baltimore really is a tale of two cities.
Al Horner @Al_Horner
10:47 AM | 14/06/2012
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