As a Caroline, I have an affinity for things that sound like “Caroline.” I audited the Western art history survey last year starting at the Carolingian period; I identify in general as “sanguine.” So on Saturday evening after listening to Minneapolis band Caroline Smith and the Goodnight Sleeps, who shared the stage with Yale’s own Plume Giant, I felt a little emboldened by the fact that women named Caroline can in fact do cool things like front rock bands.
The show took place in a never-cozier Saybrook Underbrook with dim lights, student art on the walls, and cabaret-style tables. The concert series, The Underbrook Coffeehouse, was started this year by a group of students to hold concerts by one Yale and one outside band every other week. There were some technical difficulties, but once a keen-eared audience member yelled from the floor how much to turn up the vocals and down the bass, Smith’s voice came through clearly. The balance yielded fully pleasant indie-pop, with lyrics largely about men and set against folky pastoral backgrounds: in “Strong Shoulders” and its reprise, for instance, “I know that I said that I’d be gone by now/belly up you said, but I wanted you by my side” turns into “I am looking across the water/where the mountains eat the trees.”
Smith, who has curly white-blonde hair, stands in front of the band in leggings and a sweater, playing the guitar and singing. The rest of the band consists of a drummer, bassist and keyboard-player-slash-backup-guitarist, who were all dressed in hipster regalia (oversized glasses, flannel shirt, baby-blue bandana around head respectively). Smith’s feminine charm leads the group: the drums, for instance, are sequined silver and teal. They are feminine, not feminist.
Smith’s website claims that the influences of Billie Holliday, Leslie Feist and Joanna Newsom are present in her music. The influence of Holliday is clearest on the song “Denim Boy,” from her album “Little Wind.” Smith swings, “cause the little sweety boys/they all got to use their women like toys/I been working, and treatin’ you good/I ain’t leaving though I know I should/I keep trying till you hold me right.” Newsom is present in Smith’s voice on “Eagle’s Nest,” and in the daintier elements of her music — the bells, for instance, in the openings of “Strong Shoulders” and “Scholarships.” But eventually the guitar comes in too strong for the fairy-tale style of Newsom. That’s where Feist is present, plus in the drums, and the unapologetic union of folk and syncopation.
I started to wonder during the show when boys became willing to back a woman who is not a dolled-up pop star but a song-writing, instrument-playing feminine person. I think it’s a quiet, pervasive influence of Riot Grrl, the branch of punk rock created in the early 90s by girls sick of being pushed out of the way by boys at shows, mistreated and/or abused romantically, and beholden to media conceptions of women’s bodies. The term “girl power” is credited to a zine made by the band Bikini Kill (who had a male guitarist backing up the girl-punk) during that time. Smith’s band inherits next to nothing stylistically from Riot Grrl. The fact that her role as a feminine musician leading a band (in contrast to Newsom and Feist’s individual singer-songwriter careers) might go unquestioned is the essence of girl power.
Conor Oberst’s meticulously curated early-2000s Midwestern indie rock scene and Neko Case’s alt-country style gave way to the last few years’ folk revival, endorsed largely by hipsters and Old Crow Medicine Show enthusiasts. Smith’s slight twang and pastoral folkiness seems to be an inheritance of all of these in succession. There’s a terse balance between earnest and trite. I cringe at the title of the final song on “Little Wind,” “Birch Trees and Broken Barns,” for instance, which pulls out all the stops of easy nostalgia. Ultimately, however, Smith comes out on the right side of that balance, and yields a take I like on the state of girl-fronted indie music: a folk-pop that is sincere but not afraid of its pleasantries.