Not Lost in the Shuffle Again: on Cindy Lee’s Diamond Jubilee

Craig Heed (Miracle Sweepstakes, Hit) talks the two-hour opus.

Music should always evoke its time, but that’s a pretty impressionistic benchmark. Indiewise, the bookending sounds of the 2000s were the Strokes’ taut down strumming, and chillwave’s VHS warble — each a “memory of a memory” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, respectively. I’m sure there are people for whom the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s ‘60s cosplay evokes the ‘90s, and there’ll doubtlessly one day be aging Zoomers who’ll hear an old song by one of today’s many ‘90s indie rock retreads and be instantly transported back to 2024.

It’s hard to say what separates the hauntological from the derogatorily retro; I think it’s down to how codified the sonic elements are. Ariel Pink’s signature mouth drumming and tape-degraded production set parameters for his early records, at once hamstringing them from ever aspiring to the slick arrangements of their AM gold forebears, and liberating them from the structural conventions you’ll find on a Time Life compilation. Meanwhile, Greta Van Fleet’s “Highway Tune” is Led Zeppelin without stipulation, its DNA coming about as close to “Celebration Day” as intellectual property laws would allow. Probably just desserts

If Pink’s music has generation loss, Diamond Jubilee, the new triple album from Patrick Flegel’s drag alter ego Cindy Lee, is a record twice-removed, with a rollout to match. Available only via Flegel’s GeoCities site and one giant (ad free) YouTube video, its release falls somewhere between In Rainbows’ pay-what-you-want scheme and a tossed off MediaFire link in a MySpace About Me. Over its 32 songs and two-hour-two-minute runtime, Flegel tries on virtually every style of popular music from the early-to-mid 20th century, in the process also recalling the late 2000s and early 2010s, when people made music like this and released it on these terms. 

Flegel was one of those people, fronting and playing guitar in Women, a band whose story, music and influence far outstrip their cult status. Formed in Calgary, they made just two albums — a 2008 eponymous debut and 2010’s insular masterpiece Public Strain — before breaking up in an onstage fistfight between Flegel and his brother, bassist Matt Flegel. I had waffled on taking the Long Island Rail Road two hours to go see them play the New York leg of the Public Strain tour at the Knitting Factory on October 9, 2010. The fight happened on the 29th, and on November 1, it was announced that the band was going on hiatus. A little over a year later, Chris Reimer, the other half of the group’s guitar tandem, died in his sleep. I’ve never been passionate about live music, but I’ll always regret missing that show.

Women sounded like the first three Velvet Underground records, meets the Stone Roses (at least on their two most popular songs), meets no wave, with mathy guitars that bear almost no trace of post-hardcore, all filtered through Chad VanGaalen’s cavernous production. After breaking up, in keeping with a saga fit for a bigger band, they splintered into two projects: Matt and drummer Mike Wallace formed Viet Cong (now Preoccupations), and Patrick founded Androgynous Mind, a precursor to Cindy Lee. 

Viet Cong brightened the Women sound, but Androgynous Mind obfuscated it. One song off their lone EP Nightstalker, “Juanita,” is a microcosm of the tension in Flegel’s work as both a guitarist and songwriter, between his natural chops and interest in brut(e) primitivism. “Juanita” sounds like the VU’s “Temptation Inside Your Heart” if you melted it; the turnaround is just barely reminiscent, but everything else is out of tune and out of time. In an effort to capture their raw immediacy, Rusty Kershaw supposedly insisted on not rehearsing the songs for Neil Young’s On the Beach before recording them, and here, it sounds like Flegel is writing the song as he goes, fingers hesitantly sliding in the vicinity of the right frets. Dressing the song’s fragile melody in such a precarious arrangement makes it even more viscerally beautiful; it forces you to actively participate in the song, squinting your ears to hold it together at its fraying seams. Of all the great songs to come out of the Women diaspora, it might be my favorite.

As Cindy Lee, Flegel’s continued to make evocatively damaged music. Pockets waver, notes get choked, and songs — some so serene they stop time, others barely able to stem tides of violent noise — float in and out of focus. In recent interviews and Reddit AMAs, Flegel has reiterated his obsessive love of writing and recording — processes he sees as one in the same — but always with the caveat that he’s impatient. That’s one way of explaining the music’s rough hewn quality, but I think there’s more cunning than convenience behind it.

I sent Flegel a cold email late one night about seven years ago, asking for home recording advice when my band Miracle Sweepstakes were working on our second album, Rorschached. Shockingly, he replied the next afternoon, explaining his philosophy on recording drums (“drums sound like shit, always”) and on recording in general: be reckless, be fearless, be aggressive. The part that has always stuck with me was about balancing the “dainty nerd side” and the “free spirited side,” and that when the two sides coalesce, “that’s when sickening shit happens.” If Flegel leaves the blemishes partly because he just wants to move on, I think he also is doing it to preserve this equilibrium. You can trace it back to records as thoroughly produced as they are fucked up sounding, Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, both of which Flegel is an avowed disciple.

Cindy Lee’s music has always sounded eerie. My long-running favorite, 2015’s Act of Tenderness, is permeated by a distant choral hum that makes its quiet numbers sound like the ghosts of those who died in the fracas of its noise tantrums. But on the Songs From a Padded Envelope podcast in 2021, Flegel said that going forward, he just wanted to make music that made people feel good. True to his word, Diamond Jubilee is hardly abrasive, replacing that side of Cindy’s sound with everything from Thin Lizzy guitarmonies to reggae. Major pentatonic riffs flow like squalls of feedback once did.

It’s hard not to think of a two-hour album released as one seamless block in terms of moments, at least initially. When the acoustic guitars strut into “Wild One”; the first snare hits as “Realistik Heaven”’s swaggering string hook rises; when the Gary Glitter beat and airy drone kick into “Lockstepp”; the dreamy tremolo vocals counting away the hours as birds chirp on “What’s It Going to Take.” As the moments crystallize into songs, it becomes clear that there’s never been more great material on a Cindy Lee release. Whether there’s too much of a good thing should be as irrelevant now as it would’ve been if you really were dragging the song files to your iPod; even the YouTube stream has timestamped track leads in the comments.

Listeners clearly haven’t been intimidated by the length. Diamond Jubilee is currently the #1 ranked album of the year on Rate Your Music, and the word of mouth wildfire prompted Pitchfork to give the album a 9.1, its highest rating for a new release in four years. Cindy Lee’s left field success has generated a range of responses that miss the mark. There’s cynical suspicion of an unknown artist coming out of nowhere to rapturous praise, as if Flegel isn’t one of the most important indie guitarists of the last 15 years. One framing of the album as a self-contained discography of sorts overlooks the fact that it’s really a late career shift, away from the dark abstraction of the previous six Cindy Lee records and towards warmer accessibility.

And then there’s the notion of Diamond Jubilee as a decisive blow to Spotify, one which will pave the way for others. In this regard I think In Rainbows is again instructive — just because Radiohead can make millions by giving away an album doesn’t mean everyone else can. Patrick Flegel has a diehard cult following; look no further than the YouTube comments. “Saw half of this live 3 times and still would jump off a bridge for them!!!” reads one, “SINGULAR, AN ALL TIME GREAT, THE TOP TIER, A GIFT TO THE WORLD, CRIMINALLY UNDERRATED” reads another. Someone even says they’re skipping their sister’s wedding to catch one of the shows. If your average mid-level indie artist went off the grid, they probably aren’t inspiring such dedication.

A recent New Yorker article laments the new trend in television of “visual Muzak”— intentionally unengaging shows designed to be watched while you scroll your phone, or “second-screen content.” Hand-wringing over the state of TV, the thing Beavis and Butt-Head watch, seems a bit rich, but I think the idea can be applied to Diamond Jubilee and explain some of its surface appeal. The same people who swipe through 60 Instagram stories a minute will also mindlessly binge watch an entire television series; it holds that listeners who crave extreme brevity will also gravitate to a vibey, two-hour monolith they can zone out to. Dating back to Women, Flegel’s music has always sounded equally good as background music as it does on closer inspection. If the record were shorter, paradoxically, it would probably lose its utility to a screen-addled audience. You can throw this thing on and putz around the same way you would an episode of Get Back. Chill ‘60s art rock to study to.

There’s also what everyone gets out of liking it. Listeners get a willfully obscure record, an anachronism they can count as a genuine discovery, unmediated by algorithms. Blogs get to LARP like it’s 2010, and they’re once again the bellwethers of the next big thing. And for the first time in the streaming era, Pitchfork has an uncontested shot to break an artist to a wider audience. The old saying used to be that the best records score in the 7.0-8.0 range — the music can’t be denied, but there’s no cultural capital for P4k to extract in coronating it. Women got a 7.9, and Public Strain an 8.0, no Best New Music. As Women’s legacy grows — and with speculation that Diamond Jubilee is the final Cindy Lee album (the current tour has been billed as a farewell) — The Most Trusted Voice in Music may be reckoning with missing their own Knitting Factory show.

At the end of the Songs From a Padded Envelope interview, Flegel debuts a demo of the Cindy Lee song “24/7.” Like “Black Rice” was for Women, “24/7” is Cindy’s Perfect Pop moment. It’s a lost girl group classic that’s so satisfyingly simple — not in an anyone-could’ve-done-it way, but in the same way Picasso would do one line drawings, their economy betraying their draughtsman’s mastery. “24/7” closes out Diamond Jubilee as “24/7 Heaven,” an instrumental strings version, which I initially found disappointing. If this is really the end of Cindy Lee, the original “24/7” will remain a non-album demo, a fate that seems beneath a song so catchy. But in his email to me, Flegel championed a “disposable approach,” and if that’s what killed “24/7,” maybe it’s also what yielded it in the first place.

The more I listen, the more the elegiac “24/7 Heaven” makes sense within the context of the record. I think putting the original somewhere earlier in the tracklist would’ve been cool, effectively making “24/7 Heaven” a reprise, but maybe that’s corny. Still, making a triple album is already so bombastic, why not fully lean in? It could’ve been some sickening shit.

Craig Heed is a musician from New York who plays in the bands Miracle Sweepstakes and Hit. Miracle Sweepstakes’ latest record, Last Licks, is out now on One Weird Trick.

(Photo Credit: Sam Blieden)