[Editor's Note: "Indie 500", a look at the music scene past and present, is published every other Thursday.]
As a freshman, I assumed that if I showed up and diligently scribbled every week for NYU's student paper, the job offers would come rolling in. Silly me: in the meantime, I honed my craft and, after embarking on a shaky semester-long tenure as music editor—during which time my style of cursing the entire room during meetings and awkwardly sweating beneath the eyes of much cooler contributing writers did little to endear me to anyone—conscientiously listened to a number of promos from bands I'd never heard of, convinced that undiscovered gems were mine for the reaping.
They weren't—most of the promos were sold to undiscriminating stores around the St. Marks' area. I've only come back to two bands: De Novo Dahl (a Tennessee combo with a knack for instantly infectious pop tunes whose self-titled debut shot itself in the foot by appending a second disk of jokey, lo-fi and stupid remixes of every last goddamn song) and The Comas. I obviously didn't know how to write about music when I listened to 2004's Conductor—the brave/masochistic can check out the review here, where I manage to use "synth(s)" three times in the opening paragraph—but I wasn't wrong to be enthused. It's a disk of dubious origins—lead singer/songwriter Andy Herod went through a bad break-up with Michelle Williams, then spent a lot of time getting stoned and watching Dark City every night, leading to a lot of vaguely futuristic lyrical bullshit—but solid rock nonetheless. It doesn't sound quite like anything else I own: a simple but reasonably accurate comparison might be the fuzz of Spiritualized with half the pretension and twice the chord changes or a far more pissed-off Grandaddy, a desire to present straightforward rock songs that somehow end up sounding endlessly fuzzed-out and overproduced.
The futuristic/psychedelic retreads are still around on Spells, another disk that seems destined to be slept on, this time with some justice. "She's got a telepathic aftertaste" goes "Hannah T.," which comes off like an unintentional early Beck pastiche. Better to focus on the disk's instant stand-out, girl companion "Sarah T.," a perfect example of everything the band can do right. The quiet guitar intro seems to be tapping into some Americana folk-song vibe. That's not completely misleading: the turbo-charged verse finally takes off with galloping-horse drum beats and an epic guitar that lands somewhere in the middle between a spaghetti western soundtrack and Young Guns. The band flawlessly negotiates the transition between that and the stomping, four-on-the-floor chorus, then ramps down the volume for the conclusion, all while somehow managing to sound consistently wistful. It's a very difficult song The Comas make sound easy and natural.
Spells is a mixed bag: "Red Microphones" are as simple and infectious as they get, but the band seems to be under the bizarre delusion that writing simple rockers isn't good enough. The less said about "New Wolf"—a shrill chorus where the same riff hysterically ascends an octave on a crappy-sounding synth while the band gets close to prog-rock with some ridiculous time signature—the better. What The Comas are searching for is a balance somewhere between rock immediacy and recognizable distance and sophistication without succumbing to emo yelping; still, a single like "Come My Sunshine" comes dangerously close to the latter territory. (It's really cool, however, to hear vocalist Nicole Gehweiler's increased vocal presence; the world needs more guy-girl duet bands.) A mixed bag from a band still stuck in "promising" rather than arrived territory.
It may seem like I'm about to go off on an obtuse tangent, but bear with me: immediacy is an overrated virtue in music. The Onion A.V. Club recently let one of their bloggers run amok with memories about The Joshua Tree. (I really don't get U2, but that's a discussion for another time.) Steve Hyden makes a point that seems contradictory, but it's not: on the one hand, for him, the album was the "first time, a lightning bolt in your brain that tells you, 'This is it. This is what it feels like to feel, to connect, to be changed forever.' " Ignore the hyperbole; the point is that it's also an album he only listened to the first three singles from, over and over, until he started listening to the whole album obsessively. In other words, the single "a-ha!" moment pretty much took a whole season. Lightning strikes slowly.
My point is two-fold: one, that I've always been fascinated by the listening rituals hardcore music nerds set for themselves (Hyden talks about only really listening to stuff when he was on his bike for an hour or so), and two, saying that an album is "immediate" is like saying some meals take less time to prepare than others. One of my favorite albums is The Wrens' The Meadowlands, which was a knockout the first time, an impenetrable slog the next three or four, and finally emerged as a masterpiece, like some kind of Magic Eye picture finally popping into focus. That's part of what I enjoy about pop music: it no longer being the 19th century, we're no longer required to sit in the concert hall and absorb the whole symphony at once. There's time to repeat listen to stuff over and over, until it sinks in or we confidently reject it. Immediacy is all well and good sometimes—there's a reason I'm a Fountains of Wayne fan—but why some people insist on everything hitting at once puzzles me. Where's the fun in that?
That said: The Clientele are really pushing it. Since we're getting close to end-of-year list-making season, this column may well get bogged down in remainders from way earlier in the year for a while; in the case of God Save The Clientele, though, we're talking about an album I listened to once over the summer and it nearly killed me, so I put aside repeat listens 'til recently. I remembered having the same problem with their last album, Strange Geometry: really delightful when you started off, increasingly same-y and tedious until you could no longer remember which string arrangement went with which song. Eventually I sorted them out—"Since K Got Over Me" was the well-done prototypical wistful Britpop, "K" was the one with the ethereal choir intro, "When I Came Home From The Party" was the one with a repeated string hook as insistent as any disco arrangement—and was content to have figured out half the disk. Because of my (somewhat muted) faith in The Clientele's Voyage Of Discovery, I let God Save The Clientele sit for six months or so, then tried it again.
Is it fair to beat up on a band if they want to write pop songs and end up writing mood music? This album plays best late at night, when I'm reluctantly still working; I've always been a sucker for music that sounds demoralized, especially after midnight, and this—their cheeriest album yet!—is still pretty cloistered and fragile. Still, I've managed to sort things out a bit: for starters, it's amazing that they have a song called "Isn't Life Strange" that manages to be winter-fireside cozy rather than cloyingly smug. They've also maintained their inexplicable devotion to spoken-word: the previous album's nostalgia-fest "Losing Haringey" has been supplanted by the inscrutable whispering of "The Dance of the Hours." (It has to be a joke that this, one of the fastest and loudest tracks—all things being relative—is also almost completely incomprehensible.)
And yet: tracks like "From Brighton Beach To Santa Monica" and "These Days Nothing But Sunshine" are indistinguishably lovely, except the latter has a slide guitar and the former doesn't. The exceptions pop into sharp relief: besides "The Dance Of The Hours," which distinguishes itself through vocal novelty, there's "Bookshop Casanova." I have no doubt The Clientele are being totally sincere when they link libidinous bookishness to white-boys playing endearingly textbook disco; still, Belle & Sebastian kicked off these sweepstakes a while ago with the infinitely superior "Your Cover's Blown" (not to mention Orange Juice et al.). After all this time, it's still unclear to me if The Clientele are much more than hipster dinner-music.
This may be a really inane thing to say, but I'm really digging Battles' Mirrored. I didn't listen to it for a long time because there were vague comparisons to prog rock, which always makes me reflexively embarrassed; at the tender age of 14, I committed a Dream Theater album (Scenes From A Memory: Metropolis Pt. 2 - yes, it's a rock opera) to memory; my subsequent disenchantment at a Dream Theater/Joe Satriani concert is something I'd rather not discuss.
There's a lot to be said for these guys, most of which has been said already. The basic thing I'd like to commend is how light-hearted it all is: they can play as fast as Dillinger Escape Plan or whoever your shredding heroes are, but the potential aggression has been Prozac-ed out. I enjoy the fact that there's constantly enough demented whistling to power Disney's inevitable Snow White movie. I enjoy that "Atlas" starts off like a piss-take on Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" before introducing what sounds like a cheerful chorus of helium-abusing Munchkins. I like how "Tonto" sort of sounds like disco-punk, except the vocals are gibberish, kind of like how most disco-punk lyrics are gibberish except they're supposed to be meaningful words. I like how the chords and vocals on "Ddiamondd" sound like a madrigal 33rpm being spun at 45. (That said: indie bands? Pseudo-illiteracy is still not cute. That means you too, Spoon ["Don't You Evah"] and Blonde "Dr. Strangeluv" Redhead.)
Most of all, I like Battles because they don't make me feel hopelessly behind the curve. A lot of the It bands of indie rock the last few years have really puzzled me: Animal Collective makes me queasy, Joanna Newsom is shrill and annoying, I can't handle Antony's voice, etc. Battles made me feel right at home the first time I heard them; I didn't have to keep spinning to figure out if the problem was with me or them. Battles make music of the most immediate kind: repeated listens might pick up details, but you'll get a gut response right away. For once, I can see the point of that. And that's about all I have to say about that.
No wait, one last note about this immediacy thing, and then I'll let it go: back in high school, I was in Waterloo Records, sitting in a listening booth trying to make out with a girl. (I was a late bloomer.) Our ostensible excuse for being there was sampling Primal Scream's Screamadelica: I remembered liking it a lot, and patting myself on the back for liking something so "funky" and "non-indie." What did I know? 5 years later, I finally got around to trying it. And I'm shocked: it's a masterpiece.
There's tons of appreciative print on this album, so I won't waste too much of your time on that. Just a few things: for an album that occasionally sounds like Madchester-come-lately, this has aged shockingly well. Few bands associated with that period came out completely unscathed: if they weren't putting out bad second albums, they were getting My Bloody Valentine to end Loveless with a bad faux-Stone Roses track. How did Primal Scream get out so clean? At an hour, Screamadelica only has a few bum notes, most of them relating to technological progress: the first minute or so of "Slip Inside This House" could be replicated easily these days with a cheap keyboard with pre-programmed loops for the talentless. Also, subtitling a song "A Dub Symphony In 2 Parts" is a bad idea, but I suspect that was already obvious in 1991.
But it's telling that when Primal Scream showed up in 2004's 9 Songs, they played the 13-year-old "Movin' On Up": how do you top the best cross-over trend-of-the-moment single the Rolling Stones never wrote? Elsewhere: how do you top inventing a whole vein of music Air strip-mined on "Inner Flight," or a synth-pop tune as flawless as any Depeche Mode/Dandy Warhols dream collaboration you could think of? You can't. More to the point, over unexpectedly compulsive listening this weekend, I realized that the dated period trappings don't matter that much: in some ways, mentally editing out the most dated effects gives me a greater appreciation for what a miraculous hybrid this album is. Lesson learned: drug-addled music with epic, gospel pretensions doesn't always end up just being nostalgia listening for the old guard. Note to anyone my age or younger: you may think you don't need to hear this album, but you really do. It just took me 5 years. Without the cloud of "new" hanging over it, it sounds that much better; nearly timeless, really, and what's timely is endearingly dated.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.