More than a sum of the parts Music: Emily Saliers was a folkie, Amy Ray a rocker. But together, as the Indigo Girls, their apparent differences add up to a new kind of whole.

October 25, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

At first glance, the Indigo Girls come off like a classic example of how opposites attract.

Emily Saliers grew up a perfect little folk musician. The daughter of a classically trained pianist and organist, she took classical guitar lessons as a child, was deeply into Joni Mitchell as a college student, and was always eager to pick up tips on harmony and chord voicings. It's no surprise, then, that her playing emphasizes finesse, complexity and invention.

Amy Ray, on the other hand, grew up a rocker. She spent her youth strumming through "EZ Guitar" arrangements of Allman Brothers tunes, had her life changed by punk rock in college, and prefers to bang out chords as plainly as possible. Her playing is simple, visceral and impassioned.

So the Indigo Girls' sound is simply what happens when a folkie meets a rocker, right?

That would have been a reasonable read of the duo's start. "Closer to Fine," the 1989 pop hit that earned the group its initial audience, was straight out of the Simon & Garfunkel school of folk rock, and the Indigos' early efforts were all very much in that vein.

But even as the Indigo Girls' interwoven harmonies and emotionally charged lyrics earned them a strong and sizable following in the folk and women's music communities, there was also a solid alternarock component to their audience.

The group started using electric instruments in 1994, with the album "Swamp Ophelia," and have pushed even further in that direction with the recent "Shaming of the Sun."

Maybe that's why, these days, the dividing lines between "folkie" and "rocker" aren't always so neatly drawn. Saliers, for instance, has no trouble raving over the work of other folkies.

"Have you heard David Wilcox's version of 'My Old Addiction'?" she asks. "It's so haunting and beautiful."

But as much as she admires that tune's allusive lyrics and sophisticated harmonies, she has to admit that there are simpler songs she loves just as much. "Like 'Wild Horses' by the Rolling Stones. Simple chords, and just killer. Killer. Or Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song.' Simple, powerful. Like some of the stuff Jackson Browne was doing early in his career."

Get Saliers on the subject of guitar solos -- something she's been practicing a lot lately -- and her taste is even more unexpected.

"My favorite guitar players are guys like Jimmy Page and Joe Perry," she says, referring to the pickers behind rock heavies Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith. "Those guys pick out incredible, excellent lines and parts. They aren't just running the scale up and down the [guitar] neck. That's a gift, you know?"

Ray gets similarly enthused over Neil Young. "He really conveys the idea of unbridled energy," she says. "Something that's not necessarily reined in by which scale is proper."

But when it comes to her own music, Ray often finds herself wishing she thought more like Saliers. "Because sometimes I get frustrated," she says. "I'll be writing a song, and I'll want to go somewhere with it, but I have no context, no sense of how to express it. Sometimes I have to ask her, 'In this key, I want to go someplace and it sounds kinda like this. But I can't figure out what the chord should be.' She'll help me out sometimes with that."

When the Indigos go electric, as on "Shaming of the Sun," the lines blur even further. Ray, the rocker, admits that she was never interested in electric guitar when she was younger. "The acoustic transfers your passion so directly," she says. "I mean, you can bang on it and strum really loud, and you can hear the direct results of your physical strength.

"With the electric, if you wanted it really loud, you didn't strum harder, you just turned a knob. So I felt like there was no direct connection."

That hasn't kept Ray from bashing away, though. "I play a lot of electric at home, and I find that if I want to hit the guitar harder, I just hit it harder," she says. "It may not make it louder, but it makes it dirtier."

Saliers, though, has turned out to be the group's genuine Electric Guitar Hero. "When she picked up the electric, it wasn't like something she was so used to," says Ray. "So her approach was immediately very unorthodox, which brought out another side of her. She started getting into [effects] pedals and weird sounds, and it was great.

"It's kind of getting all mixed up now, because when she picks up an electric, it's crazy what she does."

Listening to electric guitarists helped Saliers realize that she could flesh out her musical ideas with texture and intensity instead of extra notes. "I think it's through Amy's influence that I've learned to be more patient," she says. "One reason she loves Neil Young so much is that he plays these killer guitar parts, and a lot of them are just two notes. But it's the feedback, and the sustain, and the passion behind the notes [that makes his solos great].

"So that really opened up my world, coming to a simpler approach."

Listen in

To hear excerpts from the Indigo Girls' new release, "Shaming of the Sun," call Sundial at 410-783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6107. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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