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Indie 500: Bonnie Prince Billy, Titus Andronicus, Halftime Round-Up

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Indie 500: Bonnie Prince Billy, Titus Andronicus, Halftime Round-Up

Today I will begin by tearing apart the adjective “non-confrontational.” Because music criticism is, in so many watery cliched variations on “dancing about architecture,” one of the harder things to do without resorting to either endless comparisons, unhelpful technicalities, or purple prose that tries to replicate the feeling of listening to the music. Adjectives start to get warped, defamed, and generally take on qualities they don’t really possess.

“Non-confrontational” is not, in its original context, a pejorative word; unless you’re the kind of guy that likes to get drunk and start shit, it’s probably preferable for the enjoyment of you and your friends’ nights out that you stay non-confrontational. But when it comes to music, watch out: “non-confrontational” means that you’re playing pussy background music for people who don’t want to be challenged or shaken or stirred. Because sometimes old punks die hard, and they can’t believe that if they grew up listening to Black Flag or whatever the fuck that the wimpy kids these days really know what it’s all about. One day you’re sitting there listening to Vampire Weekend; the next you’re wearing corduroys and acting fey all the time and you can’t challenge society and music doesn’t mean anything more, not like in the dear old DIY days, etc. etc.

This comes up approximately every two seconds on angry message boards across America, where grizzled ’80s veterans decry the spinelessness of this generation; it’s very much like D.H. Lawrence frothing raving about the English. “They’ve got white of egg in their veins and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed,” he said; discourse hasn’t moved on much past that in some places. And so on to Bonnie ’Prince’ Billy’s Ask Forgiveness, a mini-EP of almost all covers from last year that I’ve been listening to as prep for his latest. This is kind of a test case: BPB (nee Will Oldham for Old Joy or Matewan fans) has kind of a jackass public persona; in his spare time, he does things like appear in the sublimely ridiculous alternate “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” video or in R. Kelly’s Trapped In The Closet series, sporting an ironic hipster mustache, which makes it really hard to tell when he’s kidding. But his music isn’t ever kidding around, so hold your breath if you view the prospect of Danzig and Kelly covers with trepidation.

Since 2006’s excellent The Letting Go, BPB appears to be beating a hasty retreat from the deliberately incomplete, quavery, rough style that he made so appealing on 1999’s I See A Darkness (certainly my favorite album about fear of death, and pretty much perfect in general): these days he’s slicker and not averse to the occasional string arrangement. This has led to discontent in certain quarters: is he getting too comfortable with himself? Is it some kind of joke to take the notorious Mr. Danzig and make him sound like a mild-mannered folk singer? I suspect not. The point here is that BPB’s found a pared-down approach that manages to make all the songs relaxing and gorgeous without tedium: because he’s chosen songs that wouldn’t initially seem to call out for a stripped-down guitar version. Such as: Björk’s “I’ve Seen It All,” the Dancer In The Dark gut-wrenching ballad. BPB ditches the shrill voice and gratuitous weirdness, adds sparse and menacing strings (it could go on the Assassination of Jesse James soundtrack, no questions asked) and brings the song’s elegance and storytelling lyrics into sharp relief. Is it too easy? Sure, just like it sometimes seems being an arthouse director is too easy: just take the most elegant master shot and it’s easy. But that kind of easiness is deceptive; this takes more effort than initially appears.

Take his cover of R. Kelly’s “The World Greatest.” In BPB’s hands, lines like “I am a giant / I am an eagle” stop being idiotic, and the cheesy vibe leftover from R. Kelly’s similar song on the Space Jam soundtrack disappears; all that’s left is vulnerability and a suddenly excavated melody. Or the Danzig cover, of a perfectly ordinary song, where the standard issue overly-hysterical vocals and demonic imagery give over to a song where the lyrics no longer seem like rote tropes and suddenly become introspective and questioning. What BPB does—whether with good songs or bad—is take them from whatever place they’re at and turn them into vulnerable, world-weary ballads. (A weird method for doing this: the metrical qualities of each song get emphasized. “I’ve Seen It All”’s lyrics are now halting and deliberate, not just the result of Björk’s weird breathing techniques; “The World’s Greatest” now seems elegantly fluid in where the sentences start and stop.) It’s a very cool trick that never once condescends to the source material; at a certain point, it doesn’t even refer to it. He’s become a fantastic interpreter; all the songs now sound like they belong to him.

But hey, rock ’n roll, right? I’m not averse to the occasional noisy burst: in high school, I took to Refused, Blood Brothers and Dillinger Escape Plan as my adrenaline bursts when needed, and I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to find a band that’s both loud and disciplined. Titus Andronicus is not that band, and their debut The Airing Of Grievances is remarkably tedious, despite a wittily aggrieved title and lyrics that read better than they sound. Like the Twilight Sad, they’re loud, they bash out the guitar lines, they yell inaudibly (though when I read stuff like “She’s got a secret surname that nobody knows with the most gorgeous hyphen,” I’m convinced I have to be underrating them somehow), and they have really long titles. They’re the sonic equivalent of a really self-serious kid sitting at the back of the 11th-grade class, reading Camus (they have a song called “Albert Camus”! And they’re not kidding!) while his headphones blast Bruce Springsteen or whatever the hell you listen to when you’re a misplaced bundle of rage from New Jersey. Then he starts a band and convinces their bandmates to play really loud while they yell out their notebooks of poetry. Titus Andronicus’ high-school poetry is better than most, but I can’t hear it above the din, which, a lot of the time, sounds mostly like “Fairytale of New York” for whatever reason. Their best song is probably “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s ’Landscape With The Fall of Icarus,’ ” which has a chorus that’s actually meaningfully differentiable from the verses, or their self-titled number, which is kind of the negative flip-side to the Buzzcocks’ “I Need.” If the Buzzcocks announce, with little hesitation or modesty, “I need sex I need love I need drink I need drugs,” Titus Andronicus say goodbye to all that: “There’ll be no more cigarettes / No more having sex / No more drinking until you fall on the floor / No more indie rock.” They also announce “Innovation, I leave to smarter men / Pretty melodies don’t fall out of the air for me / I’ve got to steal them from somewhere.” That explains a lot.

A bit late, I remembered that as a good blogger, I’m supposed to offer up some kind of mid-year Best So Far list, so let’s do this quickly, because I haven’t heard many of the year’s key releases (Hercules And Love Affair, Lil’ Wayne, Portishead, Crystal Castles: you name it, I’m late on it) and, frankly, it hasn’t been all that great of a year so far, at least from where I’m standing. The top 5:

1) Beach House, Devotion—The year’s most sustained start-to-finish success, overcoming the slight monotony of their debut, fleshing out a sound that had seemingly nowhere to go and getting epic on everyone’s ass. This was not a band I expected to do much, but hey: best two-person band since the White Stripes? Not yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they got around to it.

2) Vampire Weekend, s/t—I’ve already spent way too much time writing about the year’s most bizarrely controversial band. When my A.V. Club overlords asked for a quick list/blurb on the staff’s favorite songs of the year thus far, I picked “M79” and Weezer’s “Pork & Beans” (I’m serious! I dare you to get that shit out of your head!). I am an idiot; by picking those two songs, I appear to have given comment bait to the inevitable angry souls that populate music message boards. Without those two songs, the comments would’ve been cut in half. (Sample comment: “vampire weekend is gayness personified.”) I don’t really get where the anger comes from, but whatever. The question seems to be, by the time they get around to a second album, will they have enough of a mainstream fan base (i.e. people who don’t give a shit about cred pissing contests) to keep on going? Or will the backlash affect enough of their original fanbase to screw them over? I can only hope.

3) The Dø, A Mouthful—I wrote about this back in February (see the second VW link above). They still do not have a label, despite being one of the only signs of intelligent pop innovation I’ve heard in a while. Everyone’s priorities are fucked up: any band that can do syrupy, Air-without-the-electronics ballads and M.I.A. equally well should go far, even if their album is way too fucking long.

4) Tapes ’N Tapes, Walk It Off—Speaking of automatic backlashes: I assumed that Tapes ’N Tapes sophomore effort would get mostly respectful press. My mistake, or rather everyone else’s: these songs aren’t “hookless” by any means, and “Hang Them All” is a strong candidate for Song Of The Year. The back half’s a mess, but the first half is gold, and if we’re living in the post-album age (as I seem to keep hearing), well, just delete the rest off your iTunes.

5) Girl Talk, Feed The Animals—Eh, let’s just say this for now and deal with it later.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.