For Nashville indie musicians like Lambchop and Cortney Tidwell, it was the post-post-rock decade 

Over the course of the last decade, Nashville became the city that couldn't forget post-rock, and some of the era's finest indie records imagined Music City as a dreamscape unencumbered by song-pluggers or song form. Like their '90s predecessors, such performers as Cortney Tidwell, Lone Official and Altered Statesman made sounds that grasped for the limits of traditional rock and pop music. In a city crammed to the gills with players and home-recording savants, indie bands invented a topsy-turvy Nashville that valued sound over lyrics and literary values over colloquial turns of phrase. It was a late moment in pop history, and it felt good.

The pop moment was already well into evening 10 years ago, when post-rock icons such as Pavement, Tortoise and Stereolab were making transitional records or breaking up entirely. High-toned Muzak with impeccably hip credentials, Tortoise's 1998 TNT sounded like a commentary on the tail end of a boom era. Ennio Morricone-style melodies dovetailed into jazzy passages, while the record's simple, indelible melodies floated over minimalist drums-and-bass backdrops. Rock only by association, TNT never removed its seamless mask.

Tortoise represented a strain of mid-American experimentation that found a home in Chicago, where all manner of pop visionaries were busy expanding ideas of traditional song form. At the same time, Nashville's avant-pop collective Lambchop were working along similar lines. Mixing countrypolitan gentility with cooled-out soul guitars and Kurt Wagner's pleasantly meandering lyrics, Lambchop was as close as Nashville got to post-rock in the '90s. They would be an enormous influence on the post-post-rock of the next decade.

Released in 2001, Fognode's Beat Hollow stands as an excellent introduction to the pastoral mode that would characterize indie Nashville in the coming decade. The brainchild of multi-instrumentalist Brian Siskind, Beat Hollow sounds a lot like TNT, except that trip-hop beats underpin acoustic guitar patterns and half-remembered country-blues licks. If TNT was decisively urban, Beat Hollow sounds like Nashville looks—complete with humidity and crumbling stone walls.

Listening to Fognode or Lambchop, you could get the idea that rock 'n' roll had simply never occurred here—that Lee Hazlewood and John Fahey loomed as large in pop history as had Phil Spector and Jimi Hendrix. In the case of Lone Official (some of whose members had played in Lambchop), the obvious antecedent was Pavement. Still, leader Matt Button wrote about what he knew: horse racing and bar fights. The expressionist guitar structures may have been borrowed, but Lone Official's 2006 Tuckassee Take sounds verdant where Pavement could seem parched.

Around the same time, singer-songwriter Cortney Tidwell dueted with Wagner on a song called "Society," and her unnerving high wail—an unpredictable sound that crossed Björk's damaged croon with Patty Waters' free-jazz phrasing—made it clear that the prospect of joining society filled her with apprehension. The daughter of a '70s country singer, Tidwell married a modest tune sense to a knack for the kind of two-chord compositions that recalled everything from '60s garage bands to Gal Costa's Brazilian pop.

Tidwell's Don't Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up featured contributions from Siskind, and the record continued in the pastoral and somewhat overheated mode of Beat Hollow, right down to the combination of acoustic guitars and shimmering keyboards. It remains a stunning debut. This year, Tidwell released Boys, a followup that folds, filters and double-tracks her voice into infinity. The results are amniotic and a little aimless, but often thrilling.

For all that, Tidwell can come across like an unsure diva, and that's to be expected in the super-saturated landscape of the Nashville music business. Don't Let Stars and Boys are unabashedly abstract, but there are times when one craves recognizable human detail. On his 2008 Altered Statesman, singer Steve Poulton makes like a stoned, down-at-heel Boz Scaggs on a series of songs that actually have something to say about the un-trendy side of Nashville's bohemian fringe.

And that may be the rub of all this post-post-rock business. Nashville's emphasis on the well-made record and the pithy song may cast a shadow on any number of acceptable daydreams, but the alternative can seem solipsistic. Poulton says he and Wagner have put together an EP for release early next year, and it features them singing over various country-rock settings, with Wagner doing his best Don Williams impersonation. It sounds both traditional and experimental, and maybe that combination is what Music City ought to aim for in the future. As Poulton says, "It used to be cruel and unusual punishment to own a guitar in Nashville and try to figure out what music is. It's not that way any more."


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