Feel bad for the Indigo Girls. Not only have they become an easy punchline for granola-spoofing practitioners of snark — and been forgotten by just about everyone else — but Despite Our Differences is being released by Hollywood Records, long a music-industry punchline of its own. No matter how good this album is (and it’s plenty good), it’s destined for a swift commercial death; Hollywood couldn’t market a vaccine in an epidemic.
The main problem that’s faced the Indigo Girls for awhile now is that their sound was a breath of fresh air at the tail end of the ’80s, but now we’re used to it, so their stream of predictably solid albums (released on a predictable every-two-or-three-years schedule) has become easy to ignore. This is the fault of the waxy public ear, not the Indigo Girls; I defy you to name another group that has released this many albums of such consistently high quality since 1989.
(Then again, that’s sort of a trick dare, because you probably haven’t heard much of what they’ve done since Rites of Passage or Swamp Ophelia.)
It pleases me to tell you that the worst thing about this album, by far, is its hideous cover. The person who designed it should be fired. It’s garish and orange, and there is nothing garish or orange about this set, which hews wonderfully close to the standard of quality set by previous albums. If you’ve ever listened to an Indigo Girls record (and even if you haven’t), you know the template: Emily Saliers does some pretty songs, mostly about relationships but some with a slant which could be interpreted as political, and Amy Ray does some darker, more rockin’ songs, more-but-not-all-of which are political.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat. You can see why people have stopped getting excited about this stuff, but viewed objectively, it’s really pretty impressive; given a decade or two, it isn’t hard to imagine the duo’s output being given a suitably rose-colored public reappraisal. In the meantime, however, here’s another entry in the catalog.
As with pretty much every other Indigos record, there are tweaks and changes, however minimal. Differences was produced by Mitchell Froom, who continues to prove himself a far less intrusive producer than I would have given him credit for ten (or even five) years ago. There are some well-known guests, such as Pink on the sadly sardonic “Rock and Roll Heaven’s Gate” (download). But the album’s real meat is located, as always, in the vocal and musical blend produced by Saliers and Ray. Leadoff track “Pendulum Swinger” (download) is a good example as any of how seamlessly they continue to mesh their voices, their backgrounds, and the personal and political. There really isn’t a bad track in the bunch.
For a deeper perspective on the Indigo Girls and their back catalog, we look hopefully to Jason Hare‘s long-promised Idiot’s Guide. Go bust his balls and remind him that things like “personal time,” “meeting Pete Townshend,” and “a life” are meaningless next to the public’s insatiable demand for musical analysis and free downloads!