Let's be clear: Southern Belle is a very good indie pop band first, and a very young indie pop band second. In writing about their self-released debut album Hurry Up and Thrill Me, I would prefer to address only that first characteristic—the group's manifest talent—and acknowledge their youth only in passing. But the thing is, what makes Southern Belle special—that they are indie pop traditionalists who somehow carved out original space for themselves in that oversaturated genre, recalling loads of classic indie bands, but aping none of them—is very much related to the fact that all four of the group's members are between 18 and 20 years old.
Most musicians fall in love with the bands that formed their musical tastes as teenagers. In adolescence, at that point of preferential genesis, all bands past and present are equally legitimate candidates for one's personal musical canon, regardless of chronology. The members of Southern Belle entered their teens around 2002, and the music of the indie rock bands that came to prominence in the '90s and early oughts was already there waiting for them when they took up instruments, part of their cultural inheritance along with all the music that predated it.
To wit, drummer Max Lilien cites Mo Tucker of the Velvet Underground and Fabrizio Moretti of the Strokes as his two biggest influences, and the styles of both are indeed audible in his tastefully restrained backbeat playing. Austin Jackson, who contributes the dark, whirling keyboards and crazed yelps that are perhaps the ensemble's most immediately identifiable sounds, named Isaac Brock and Jello Biafra as his favorite rock screamers and, again, both are verifiably present in his pained vocals. The treble of Ross McLeron's arpeggiated Rickenbacker guitar resonates with the asynchronous legacies of Buddy Holly and Win Butler, and the coy mewing of bassist Nicole Perry—who previously played with McLeron in Hurah Hurah—is the sound of a person whose first playlist included Mum alongside X.
Of course, age provides only a context for Southern Belle; what ultimately matters is the content. The 17 compact songs of Hurry Up and Thrill Me are up-tempo but dark, romping but reflective, always tuneful, and more than once focused on the exotic promise of Japan. Shay Scott, who recorded the album at Klickitat Band Camp, understands that the band's vocal chemistry is its most immediately intriguing feature: "The moment I heard them together—Ross' singing, Austin's controlled screaming, and Nicole's cute vibe, I instantly knew that would be the focus of the record."
Southern Belle have managed to do something I thought basically impossible in 2008: make an original indie pop album free of self-conscious nostalgia, revivalism, or the anxiety of influence. They are well versed in and respectful of the extended indie rock canon, neither mired in nor dismissive of the past. And on Hurry Up and Thrill Me, equal parts the Kinks and Ugly Casanova, the Who and the Unicorns, they prove that following the road of indie rock tradition is still a viable path to bringing something compelling and fresh into the world.
Southern Belle perform at Exit Only on Sunday, August 31.