Antiques & the Emerging Musical Middle


“If you have to ask, you’ll never know” is a statement attributed to Louis Armstrong, in response to the question, “What is jazz?” It is a genius rejoinder that cuts to the core of the ineffable conundrum of cool. You can never really know what’s cool, and you especially can’t know why something is cool. You either get it or you don’t, and all the intellectualizing in the world can’t make you truly feel something’s hipness.

On If You Have to Ask, the debut LP release from Austin quartet Antiques, they alter Armstrong’s truism slightly. On the title track, Tyler Merriman sings, “If you have to ask / then it’s probably true” in a moment that drips with heartbreak, even though the line doesn’t necessarily hold up to intense intellectual scrutiny. It’s a line you just sort of feel. “If You Have to Ask” becomes a sort of eulogy (with a partner on the back half of the album in “Stop Trying”) for something that remains just beyond the listener’s grasp.

It’s appropriate, though, that Antiques slightly alters a line that everybody knows in order to wring some new purpose out of it. All across If You Have to Ask, Antiques invokes several familiar touchstones of late-00’s indie rock. There’s the Antlers (“Vixen”), Fleet Foxes (“Soul to Feed”), the Arcade Fire (“Midnight Shivers”), and TV on the Radio (the stuttering percussion of “Bitter Reactor”). They’re a young band still parsing through their influences, but while grounding themselves in various familiar sounds, they are still able to find some of their own voice as well.

Antiques - 'Wide Awake'

It helps that they have some good songwriting chops. Opener “Wide Awake” delivers a quite memorable chorus and starts the record off on an energetic high note. In its first half, “If You Have to Ask” works some nice lines in unexpected ways, such as, “Open / minded / I’ll know it when I find it” (hint: that rhymes). And album closer, “Wind Down Slow” concludes with a really beautiful string part fading from the background into the foreground of our hearing, as a finger-picked guitar meanders off into the distance. It’s a great moment on an album filled with great moments that speak well for the future of this group.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is that a band like this has a place in the musical landscape that they would have lacked only a few years ago. The overall effect of all of these nice moments is an easy and palatable version of their indie rock forebears. Antiques certainly isn’t as bland as fun. or Mumford & Sons (though they also lack hooks as insanely catchy as theirs), but they lack the Antlers’ dark menace or the Arcade Fire’s manic energy. They aren’t the pop/folk that is so popular now (just listen to the guitar crunch on a song like “Cranes and Buildings” to hear more power than you’ll find in any Of Monsters and Men track), but they won’t alienate or challenge as many people as some of their influences might.

If You Have to Ask is a kind of thrilling middle ground where no song is bad (I really tried to pick one out for this example, but I think each of their songs offers something interesting, if not downright enjoyable), but nothing goes out on a huge limb either. In my mind, it is the sound of the emerging musical middle – the home of talented groups like the Avett Brothers or the Lumineers. Is it the kind of sound that savvy – but not fanatical – Millennial music fans will enjoy? If you have to ask, it’s probably true.

Catch Antiques at Stubb’s on Saturday, August 17th for their album release party.

– Carter Delloro