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Wednesday November 15, 2000

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The Holy Childhood - up with what I'm down with

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By Phil Leckman

Grade: B+

For much of its existence, indie rock has equalled simplicity. It was rough, jagged, a bold assertion that a cheap guitar, a bass and drums with minimal production could sound better than the most polished product of a major studio. This approach largely worked - good indie releases have a purity and raw vitality that few big-budget albums can equal.

But like most dogmatic beliefs, this credo grew confining, mutating into a sneering disdain for "bullshit" like actual production, musical ability or anything beyond the sacred guitar-bass-drums combo. The sound-alike music of these sonic Puritans resulted in albums that were hardly pretty.

Fortunately, the ice may be cracking. An increasing number of bands are broadening their horizons, experimenting with drum machines, keyboards and pianos. While the results of this thaw are mixed so far, up with what I'm down with, the debut release from The Holy Childhood, clearly shows its potential.

The music here is rich and powerful, blending acoustic guitars and loose drums with horns, standup bass and piano. There is a definite 1970s sensibility at work - some of the tracks recall early Springsteen, or the Band. But this is not just a retro throw-back. Rather, it reminds the listener that the raw, organic integrity that characterizes good indie rock once characterized good rock in general. This is what used to be called "heart," and it is sadly lacking in most of today's music. Singer Dan Leo's flawed, awkward voice will leave many listeners cold, especially on his high notes. But he is real, and feels what he sings. This music breathes, and both indie purists and big-studio robots should take notice.