The guitar is indispensable

The tacit elitism and vague Puritanism, the jangly guitars and lyrical non-sequiturs, the notion that playing a catchy hook like you sort of mean it is enough - all this seems as quaint as laser discs in our age of cheap recording equipment and digital sound editing programs, filesharing and, um... mp3 blogs. You can be DIY without being lo-fi; the cool kids are all Kanye this, M.I.A. that, and plain old indie rock has gone from being cool-dorky to dorky-dorky. Mannered eclecticism has killed the slacker hero, and even the most ghoulishly obsessive record collector is down with Jay-Z .

But those of us raised on indie rock will always live in the shadow of its assumptions, one of which being: The guitar is indispensable. Even as the meteoric rise of the power duo threatens to render the bass a quirky oddity, the laptop god is displacing the guitar god, and in the zeitgeist I know, that six-stringed standard's cultural currency has plummeted to an all-time low. Even as my iPod swells with blips and bleeps, shedding strummed chords like useless old skin, the latent indie rocker in me cries and shrivels, although I think it's my unjaded youth I'm lamenting more than the passing of verse-chorus-verse guitar jams. Same difference.

Subtle is hip-hop only by association, as its six members are culled from Anticon's and Lex's forward thinking undie-hop roster (most notably Doseone of cLOUDDEAD and Themselves semi-fame), but really, I don't think a proper name's been coined for this burgeoning micro-genre yet. A colleague suggested something along the lines of "staticky glitchy lo-fi murmur pop," but that's a little unwieldy. I prefer "muttercore" for the time being.

"Jr's Band" isn't the best song on Subtle's Earthsick, which compiles their four seasonal EPs - it's a slow starter, although it accumulates quite a bit of subsurface loveliness along its way - but it may be their most salient, a new sort of creature directly confronting the old one it seems to intend to replace. With its refrain of "Besides he plays guitar / And no one needs guitar no more," (and its slyly disingenuous, incantatory assertion that "By no means does this song truly attempt to make any legitimate judgments regarding your son's band'") it takes on a strangely interior voice, seeming to emanate from the lapsed indie rocker's very headspace. "I'm not judging you, I'm not judging you," Dose mutters provocatively. No need - judgment and confliction are the indie rocker's stock in trade, the byproducts most difficult to shed.

Half of Subtle - Doseone, Dax and Jel - comprises Themselves, which is as stark and discordant as Subtle is lush and sonorous. Themselves recently completed a collaboration with German lap-poppers the Notwist, whose Neon Golden has never fully dropped out of rotation for me since I first heard it in 2002. The collaboration, titled 13 & god, is due out from Anticon in May - on "L'atlas Flexible-Von Gradleute", Hrvatski remixes "Men of Station" and "Soft Atlas" into a gorgeous apocalypse of disembodied voices, electrocuted drums and digital detritus. The remix will not appear on the full length, only on the single, and I include it here as an extra treat, because I have an ulterior motive for this post.

On February 24th, Subtle's tour van ran across a patch of black ice in Iowa and careened out of control. While most of the group sustained only minor injuries, keyboard player Dax Pierson sustained a serious spinal injury. He remains hospitalized and wheelchair bound for the time being, but seems to be improving, "smiling and talking", continuing to work on the soundtrack for the film Dark Heat with the aid of bandmate Jordan Dalrymple. If you enjoy the songs posted here and feel that you'd like to help Dax by donating money, purchasing merchandise, or just tracking his progress and keeping him in your thoughts, you can do so at the website set up for just this purpose,