The Essentials: Indigo Girls – Self-Titled

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

In some respects, for those of us who came of age during them, the 1980s were akin to the 1960s with the 6 closed off. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, last-gasp baby boomers and first-wave Gen Xers navigated an oddly dispirited land due to a forever-faltering economy, incompetent leadership and a moribund pop culture that mythologized the Summer of Love and Woodstock and dismissed everything else; the new wave coming was, by and large, ignored by rock radio.

But, to quote a Paul Simon lyric, “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts” – MTV, which debuted on August 1st, 1981, saw to that. A new wave, a slew of New Romantics, college rock, hip-hop, country-pop and lightweight metal battled for airplay both terrestrial and cable, with the latter seemingly more important than the former. 

By decade’s end, the long-deposed old order was older still and the new order that had supplanted it was growing stale. (It’s the way of the world, after all.) Yet, even as that was occurring, a quiet revolution was taking place, fueled in large part by the folk and folk-rock sounds of Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and Tracy Chapman, not to mention R.E.M. 

The Indigo Girls’ self-titled set, released on February 28, 1989, is another piece of that puzzle.

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers first met in elementary school in Decatur, Ga., but – being a grade apart – didn’t become friendly until high school, when they began performing together. College interrupted their musical journey, however, as Saliers left for Tulane University in Louisiana and, a year later, Ray chose to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. But, in time, both became homesick for their native Georgia and transferred to Emory University in Atlanta, where they reunited their partnership. They released a single, an EP and an album, Strange Fire, prior to being signed by Epic Records (which, after the success of Indigo Girls, released a reconfigured Strange Fire).

Indigo Girls, the album, isn’t a five-star set, yet its importance can’t be underestimated: It’s a crucial step in the resurgence of acoustic and folk-styled music, though the undertow of rock ’n’ roll is present in the songs, too. I first heard it not long after its release; I was 23 and managing the CD departments at two video-chain stores, and had free rein to open and play what I wanted. And I have to say: It was a hit not just with me, but with most of the (overwhelmingly male) clientele as well as co-workers at both locales. Although it topped off in the charts at No. 22, it was – easily – in the Top 10 of my stores for several weeks that late winter and early spring.

“Closer to Fine,” the catchy lead single, opens the album with aplomb. Due to the demands of my convoluted work schedule and social life, I rarely watched TV – let alone MTV or VH1 – at the time, so wasn’t aware that a video for it existed until this morning.

Emily’s vocals are, like her hair, light; Amy’s are, like hers, dark. Together, however, they mesh into a sonically seductive whole that overcomes the occasionally iffy lyrics, which can conjure the pretentious poems shared in first-year poetry classes. (God knows, I wrote my share.) Yet, at the same time, there’s something gloriously exhilarating about the same. They mean what they sing and sing what they mean.

One of my favorite tunes is the brooding “Kid Fears,” which features vocal support from R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe:

Another highlight is the Byrdsian “Tried to Be True,” in which they’re backed by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry.

“Land of Canaan,” which they also recorded on Strange Fire, is another favorite. This video, another that I just discovered today, shows the power of their live performance. I saw them live three times that year (once opening for Neil Young and twice when they headlined the TLA in Philadelphia); they were charismatic and their songs incredibly infectious.

In short, the history of popular music is littered with artists and acts that came and went with little or no impact. With this album, the Indigo Girls did the opposite. Even when lyrics shade lilac (aka prose colored purple) to make a rhyme, the performances are guaranteed to pull you in. It’s an intense, fitful and fanciful album. It’s a must. It’s a part of us.

As Emily sings in “The History of Us,” “So we must love while these moments are still called today/Take part in the pain of this passion play/Stretched our youth as we must, until we are ashes to dust/Until time makes history of us.”

The track list:


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