Once upon a time, the term “indie” as applied to music meant one thing: music that was independently released, outside of the major-label system. In recent years, it seems to have evolved to mean basically one thing (or a very narrow range of things) to the hipster cognoscenti: usually songwriter-driven, rooted in, well, roots music (lots of banjos and fiddles) and played by musicians who seem to wish it was still 1920-something. OK, I’m oversimplifying, probably (this is what you get when you listen to music for a living).
But I’m not here to argue the merits of modern indie music in general, just the merits of one band: Bend quartet The Rye Smiles. With its standard guitar-bass-drums instrumentation augmented by violin, the band looks the part — at least, that’s what I thought when I saw the foursome line up onstage at Bend Roots Revival a few weekends ago. And on a cursory listen, the harmony-rich, laid-back songs seemed to fit the Americana/indie thing, too.
After three songs filled with playfully shifting rhythms; intricate, almost classical-sounding guitar and violin duels; and ethereal singing, I walked away a fan. Everything coming from the stage felt more honest and more real in that moment than all the old-timey bluegrass The Decemberists could appropriate in two decades.
This feeling carries over into The Rye Smiles’ self-titled, debut EP. Singer/guitarist Amy Bathen has a knack for ear-worm melodies that tug at the heartstrings, and a voice to match. But she rarely sings by herself: violinist Amanda Wren harmonizes throughout, and the two hit dramatic peaks often, especially in the dirge-like “Picket Line” and “Yesterday,” a shifting epic with a chorus that explodes with emotion.
“Say More” is another highlight. When Bathen sings, “Why don’t we listen when we know there’s so much to be learned?” over the song’s chorus, it’s a plea for sanity in a world gone to screaming matches and cybertrolls.
As great as the songwriting is, the rhythm section of drummer Austin Ross and bassist Adam Weyer are just as important to the overall sound, adding texture and drama to what otherwise might be straight up-and-down music. Tracks such as “Say Goodbye” or the aforementioned “Yesterday” start and end in entirely different places, taking plenty of rhythmic detours along the way.
The Rye Smiles EP release show: 7 p.m. Thursday; free; Spoken Moto, 310 SW Industrial Way, Bend; spokenmoto.com or 541-306-6689.
— Brian McElhiney, The Bulletin