Sometimes it’s just bland stew. That sound that, somehow, over a decade, has become the popular texture of that nebula called “indie rock” can sometimes seem like nothing but a sloppy liquid mystery meat. The sound has been successful for some, but always because there was something else, a spice, a gravity, giving it some shape. Okkervil River’s later albums, for example, their foggy rock-by-way-of-folk, often succeed in a whitewashed, genreless space where others would fail. Or Menomena’s firmly (and contradictory) conservative experiments with rock instrumentation and composition — the hoarder impulse, the way some musicians take from named and nameless sources as a means of constructing a “sound.” Sometimes it really does come together just fine.
Floating Action, the name representing the last several albums by North Carolina’s Seth Kauffman, seems to be losing a little spirit. There was never anything about Kauffman’s work that was truly singular or innovative, but Floating Action’s self-titled debut and the preceding Research, the last record Kauffman would release under his own name, were charged with an almost bottomless reserve of wonderful hooks and noticeably idiosyncratic, rhythmic guitar playing. Kauffman pulled, and pulls now, from the usual unnamed influences in 2000s-2010s indie rock: melodies from folk traditions, rock & roll instrumentation, moments of soul or R&B, some electronics, harmonies used to the point of meaninglessness. Where this soupy conglomeration found the best of its twirled parts in Kauffman’s earlier work, his newest album, Body Questions, marks the point at which Floating Action has entered a grey area.
There are good songs on Body Questions. Lead single “Unrevenged” sounds like what one would have wanted after 2012’s Fake Blood: not the excitement and potential felt in Floating Action, but a pretty solid piece of tofu-textured indie rock. Opening track “Taking Me A Little While” also works, but that’s about all we get from this album: some songs that work, some that float by without leaving any impression at all.
Kauffman recently contributed guitars to Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, thanks in part, I assume, to his friendship with The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who produced it. Listening to Ultraviolence now, I feel myself wishing Floating Action could have retained some of the spacey guitar work from Del Rey’s album. Body Questions is fine to listen to without much attention, but each time I get about halfway through the record, I find myself wanting the better-spiced mushiness of Kauffman’s earlier work or even his work with Del Rey. We can’t kid ourselves anymore — so much of what comes from our indie rock musicians feels like the dying whispers preceding total change.