Notably Decent Indie Rock: Meet the Counterfactuals

counterfactuals minimally decent people

ToM Best of 2013

There’s something very charming about the thought of a band of philosopher-musicians. Enter the Counterfactuals, a band whose members hail from Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges in Northfield, Minnesota. Songwriter, vocalist, and rhythm guitarist Daniel Groll specializes in normative and biomedical ethics at Carleton. Lead guitarist and Carleton philosopher Jason Decker may be most entertainingly described in his own words: “After refusing to vacate his office, he was hired as a tenure track professor, starting in the fall of 2008.” Drummer Mike Fuerstein teaches at St. Olaf, where he tackles epistemological issues in politics and the sciences and makes time to take American Pragmatism seriously (props!). And rounding out this musical symposium is Carleton’s ethnomusicologist Andy Flory, whose focus is in American rhythm-and-blues and Motown.

If you’ve heard the cheesy educational tunes of the 21st Century Monads, you might be hesitant to give another philosophy group a try. The Monads: cute idea, but it’s hard to listen to their epistemology-pop “The G.E. Moore shift” without wincing (unless maybe you’re someone who can groove to the ABC’s or the quadratic formula song). But while the title of the Counterfactuals’ album Minimally Decent People (which just dropped this month) promises the viewpoint of an ethicist, and while the band itself cheekily refers to its genre as “prof rock,” this is a real indie rock band we’re talking about, not a gimmick for spreading in-jokes about syllogisms.

A counterfactual, in philosophy, is a claim about the consequent of a contrary-to-fact antecedent, or, in other words, is the formalization of our ordinary-language subjunctive conditional “if [it] were…then.” Counterfactual theories of causation date back at least to David Hume and have been hotly contested in philosophy since David Lewis’s envisioning of possible worlds as being concretely real. While the Counterfactuals—the band—could simply be paying homage to a popular problem in philosophy by adopting the name, there is most likely a bit of self-deprecatory subtext to the choice: Do these guys track the truth? Is rocking out even possible for a bunch of academics? But, looking to a more positive undertone of the name: will they throw a kink into music that will reverberate through the listening world, or at least through the indie/rockabilly scene?

The relevant possible answers to this final question are, if we assume a correlation between the goodness of music and its likelihood to find its way into popular consciousness, contingent on the Counterfactuals’ sound. The prof-rock theme might make for fun small-talk, and it may even be sufficient to compel us to tune in once, but beyond that, is this band worth liking, worth listening to, and worth remembering? My answer is yes.

Some of the criticism to follow will be harsh, but let me premise it by saying buy this album; you won’t regret it (it’s also available through iTunes).

Groll’s lyrics are nothing to write home about (or to plagiarize?). He’s no poet, and reading them (accessible here by hovering the cursor over individual tracks), one can at times imagine Groll laundry-listing rhyming and near-rhyming words and counting syllables to create on-beat couplets without a particular story to tell (example: “We look up to the sky, watch the birds as they’re flying away/ I’m holding your hand, not too tight see I’m ready to play/ Oh I’ve heard it before, that the birds will be back every year/ You just heard the bells, and they bring back the worst of your fears”). But the worst track on the album, “I Remember,” is a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, not Daniel Groll, set to music. It’s annoyingly catchy, rhymey, and repetitive, but it does Groll a huge favor in highlighting the musicality of his own lyrics. It doesn’t so much matter whether the words work as poetry, because they work as phonetic arrangements to be played upon by Groll’s vocal instrument. And it’s a good instrument: emotive (but tempered), clean, in-tune, and with a style that ranges from indie rock’s take on country/bluegrass to seventies folk (think Don McLean) to something similar to the voice of the Shins’ James Mercer. In fact, the Counterfactuals’ sound resembles the Shins enough on some tracks, like 2 and 7, that parts of Minimally Decent People might have been a better follow-up to Oh, Inverted World! and Chutes Too Narrow than was Wincing the Night Away.

The Counterfactuals’ music itself isn’t experimental—it isn’t new—it’s firmly grounded in both indie rock and Americana. The lack of uniqueness is both a blessing and a curse. The group’s respect for and reflection of the music that came before them make the tunes on Minimally Decent People both instantly accessible and instantly nostalgic. The instrumentation is skillful and unified. The production quality is not perfect, but it’s far better than amateur, and it’s superb for an independently recorded first album. In the long haul, we have a right to expect a little more originality from popular musicians we mean to take seriously, but the Counterfactuals give us enough in this album to make it worth the (low) price of admission.

To some extent, seeking parallels between new and familiar music is a fool’s errand. We can make damn near anything seem derivative by forcing it into the mold of what has gone before. But even if the comparisons I suggest fall short of encompassing the range of influence audible in Minimally Decent People, comparisons strike me as important for this particular album. It’s a musical collage—perhaps less unimaginative than purposely familiar.

The vocal lead-in lines on track one (“Running Dry”) have a moment of suboptimal balance against instrumentation, with a slight tempo disparity between the two, but the awkwardness is over before you know it, never to jar the listener more. The song itself is just awesome—nostalgic, danceable, with a perfect blend of guitar lines, voice (both lead and harmonic), and fun eighties-video-game scales on the synthesizer. The instruments jam with an earnest optimism similar to some Belle & Sebastian tracks, like “Sleep the Clock Around.” I don’t know if the kids are making mix CDs anymore, but “Running Dry” belongs on one.

Track 2, “Look Up at the Light,” is one of the Shins-y songs, with some Beatles-esque harmony kicking in later. The third track, “Indiana,” is a schizophrenic vacillation between simple folk strumming under minstrel singing (almost what we’d expect from a children’s folk singer) and an old-country sound combined with a storytelling prog-rock use of the flugelhorn backed for a few measures by a minor arpeggio strikingly similar to the one in the long instrumental section of the Shins’ “One by One All Day.” But the appearance of sounds reminiscent of the Shins comes with a feeling of collage rather than mere appropriation.

Enormous diversity in musical influence seeps through the tracks on this album—more influences than a dilettante listener like me could recognize. Catches of a broad musical past carry us into the fourth track, “Hindsight,” possibly the best song on the album. Its twangy rhythmic hook reminds us of its rock-and-roll counterpart in “Running Dry,” and the quasi-repetition gives the album a sense of theme and continuity, slowing the listener from a dance to a sway. Lyrics that are mediocre on paper come to life in song. The upward slide Groll puts into the line ending “let me do it all again” smacks of more Shins influence (you know that upturned last word in “suddenly struggles to take flight” in “Know Your Onion”?), and the ooing near the song’s close is quite like the ooing at the close of “New Slang.” But here might be the place to give the musicians credit for behaving like academics—they are creating within a discourse, more like the transition from Searle to Kripke than the transition from Ptolemy to Copernicus. Following “Hindsight,” “If You Go Then You Go It Alone” is something like Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s swelling instrumentation set to Shinsian vocals, with an almost-steel-guitar high strumming adding eeriness. This one feels short.

Should’ve Known” is an excellent, bluesier song that returns to another variation of the album’s hook to accompany vocals and guitar with a Grateful Dead groove ending in Pink Floyd-like spooky vocalization followed by sax noise like that in Radiohead’s “National Anthem.” The Millay poem on the following track is, I suppose, catchy in a way some people might find pleasant (if you liked the Arcade Fire’s “Rococo,” maybe), folky and sweet, with more Shins oo’s. Track eight, “Hold on for the Sign”: Do you have to keep sounding like the Shins, because it’s making my goal of extolling the virtues of this album more difficult! But looking past the “New Slang” tambourine, the guitar entrance couldn’t be more good-old-boy, and the soothing tones of the Wurly and the multi-tracked vocals reminded me more of Gilbert O’Sullivan, or David Cassidy singing with the Partridge Family—in a good way.  And finally, the last song, “Bottles and Saddle” teases a smorgasbord Viva-Las-Vegas upbeat opening but quickly slows into a Phish jam in 5/4 time that eventually transitions into straight-up Willie Nelson vocals over country guitar strumming, with a bit of suspense from the bass drum, and then back into an Arcade-Fiery nostalgia-dance that leaves you just unsatisfied enough to restart the album from the beginning.

The Counterfactuals still have some work ahead of them in terms of “finding their voice” (metaphorically), but in the more literal sense, Daniel Groll’s voice is exactly where it needs to be, and all four musicians display unmistakable talent and skill when it comes to jamming out. The band’s sound is clean, practiced, and professional. More than half of the songs on this album are worth listening to again and again. For a small-town band . . . well, the Counterfactuals just don’t sound like a small-town band. They sound like they’re almost ready to quit their day jobs. If you want to hop on this train before it’s a bandwagon, now’s your chance.