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Indie 500: Emma Pollock, UGK, the Fiery Furnaces, and Superdrag

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Indie 500: Emma Pollock, UGK, the Fiery Furnaces, and Superdrag

“We’re looking at strangers and suddenly we’re free,” sings Emma Pollock on “You’ll Come Around.” Easy for her to say. From 1999 to 2002, The Delgados—co-headed by Pollock and Alun Woodward—were arguably the finest band on the planet. I say this not out of contrarianism or perversity, but because, in my angsty, well-remembered 16-year-old heart of hearts, I know it to be true; I’m still in mourning for their dissolution. Their lack of popularity probably had to do with how quickly they shed their indie roots, debuting as a Pavement-fixated group with 1996’s Domestiques and, in one album’s time, acquiring the heaviness of metal (“Is this Metallica?” once grimaced a girl walking into my room) and the pristine arrangements of Sufjan Stevens. On 1999’s Peloton, 2000’s The Great Eastern and 2002’s Hate, they were the most depressing and musically complex band I’d ever heard. Keep The Smiths and Joy Division; I’ll settle for lush, boy-girl duets over bombastic arrangements.

Aside from maybe Tindersticks, I’m pretty sure The Delgados still remain the most unabashedly morose band on the planet, to a point that would approach self-parody if it weren’t so accomplished. Song titles like “The Weaker Argument Defeats The Stronger” and “Is This All That I Came For?” tell the premise; lyrics like “Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m going to give up breathing” and “Life isn’t precious and life isn’t special/sometimes relief only comes when you meet death” tell the rest.

The band dissolved in 2005 at the request of bassist Stewart Henderson, who quite reasonably protested putting “so much of my energy and time into something that never quite seemed to get the attention or respect I felt it deserved.” Fair enough; here’s Pollock’s solo debut two years later, and Henderson needn’t have bothered making such a pronouncement. Even before working with legendarily overblown producer Dave Fridmann (he of the epic Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev soundscapes), The Delgados had acquired a knack for figuring out exactly how many layers of backwards-looped children’s choirs, fuzzed-out string sections and glockenspiel a song could survive. Watch The Fireworks sticks to the normal rock band instruments, but they’re so heavily layered that they’re just as epic as what came before (the drums, as always, sound particularly unreal, booming all the way to the back of the empty stadium), and Pollock is typically unhappy, if frequently rhythmically upbeat. The cheery song titles this time include “If Silence Means That Much To You” and “This Rope’s Getting Tighter.”

It’s a Delgados album without Woodward songs; how much you like it will depend directly on how much you enjoy fussy, not-within-an-inch-of-spontaneous indie rock. On stand-out track “Acid Test,” Pollock tames David Byrne’s raucous “woah-oh-oh-oh” scream from “Psycho Killer,” neutering it in what I can only assume is a joke. Pollock is indie rock’s Tilda Swinton: obviously talented, alluring with her songwriting, and always at a chilly reserve (she’s Aimee Mann without the warmth). I enjoy this album way out of proportion to its merits, perhaps, but that’s what fandom is about; perhaps solo Pollock can gain the fame the Delgados never got. She deserves it.

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Underrated on a whole other end of the charts are UGK, the legendary Southern-rap duo whose Underground Kingz dropped on August 7 at number one on the Billboard charts and has yet to go gold. To a whole generation of kids, myself included, UGK will always be remembered for their guest appearance on Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’.” In the single most informative interview I’ve ever read with a rapper, Bun B—Pimp C’s better half—noted that “in the South, I’m regarded as the guy who, quote unquote, out-rapped Jay-Z. A lot of Southern rappers would say that. Not saying that I’m a better rapper than Jay-Z, but I was able to out-rap Jay-Z on a track.” Still, I missed out the first time round; I didn’t catch on to UGK’s influence until they went on hiatus: while Pimp C was in jail, Bun B went on a spree of guesting on pretty much every single major rap album out there. By the time Pimp C was out, they made a killer reunion appearance on T.I.’s “Front Back,” and I was hooked.

Underground Kingz is probably both the best and most unlistenable mainstream rap album of 2007. By unlistenable, I don’t mean that the lyrical content is particularly harsh or difficult, or that the music is deliberately abrasive; I mean it’s over two hours long, and for an album guy like me (and one without a car to spread an album over a day), that’s a hard sell. Whenever I put it on, it’s consistently awesome: musically rich, expertly treading over the same few lyrical modes (I’m a thug, I sell drugs, I like sex almost as much as my car, and occasionally I regret this life of sin). UGK are gracious party hosts, both for their inspirations (Scarface contributes an awesomely out-of-tune sing-along chorus on “Still Ridin’ Dirty,” the closest we’ve gotten to Biz Markie in years) and disciples (on stand-out track “Take Tha Hood Back,” Slim Thug—whose greatest appeal is a deep Southern drawl deeply indebted to Bun B—provides an appropriately menacing chorus). The samples are unadventurous, sticking to the urban charts: don’t look for Kanye’s appropriations of Can or Elton John here. But this patented southern-soul/funk/whatever rap sound creates a consistently groovy rap album with more wah-wah guitar than any in recent memory. If only I had the energy to listen to it more; highly recommended though, and easily accessible even if you don’t care what they’re saying.

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Speaking of sprawl: another year, another 70-minute Fiery Furnaces album. Meh…no band I’m a fan of seems so invested in regularly testing my patience. Until now, I’ve dodged the major obstacles—ignoring both Matthew Friedberger’s poorly received solo double-disk and the widely reviled Rehearsing My Choir (although that album has a cult that won’t leave me alone until I listen; I’ll break down one day)—but Widow City, bizarrely, is getting some of the best reviews they’ve had in a while. It’s more accessible, apparently. Like hell it is. For my money, the Furnaces peaked on last year’s inexplicably slept on Bitter Tea. Combining the rewarding, long-form adventurousness of Blueberry Boat with the unusually sweet melodic directness of EP, Bitter Tea capped off its rewardingly spazzy explorations with the pared-down sweetness of “Benton Harbor Blues Again”: it may be a cop-out to call their least adventurous song their best, but it’s true.

Widow City may be their first recording where the sum is less than the parts: up until now, I’ve always thought of their albums as something to be absorbed all at once, with the occasional longeurs contributing something to the overall feel. But Widow City loses nothing when you trim the most annoying songs: it actually becomes much improved. “Restorative Beer” would sound a lot better if it weren’t preceded by “Right By Conquest”—a potentially decent song that goes haywire halfway through. In this it’s basically the album in miniature: the first five songs are as fun as could be, but it’s hard to remember that by the time the album crawls to “Widow City,” which spends a good minute-plus combining random piano chords and arpeggios with what sounds like a drunk New Orleans jazz band plugged in through a cheap synth (all this plus free jazz drumming and bass lines). Because the Furnaces have mastered and claimed as their own a particular studio sound (flat, clean and without a whole lot of depth, heavy on single distorted guitar lines and almost never playing normal rock guitar chords, privileging Eleanor Friedberger’s calmly declamatory vocals over all else), this potentially adventurous detour negates its unusual instrumentation: it sounds like every other seemingly directionless detour the Friedbergers take, except it actually *is* directionless. The back half of this album is a disaster.

What stops the Fiery Furnaces from tipping over into total self-parody is the fact that Friedberger writes way too much material not to come up with some good stuff. Aside from the solid opening third, listen to “Restorative Beer” out of context: ignoring its witty lyrics (probably plundered, like most of their catalogue, from some obscure flea market book or magazine or something), listen to how Matthew Friedberger constructs the song like an 18th-century aria, in its descending vocal line (an elaborate downward scale that normally would serve as a coloratura showcase for virtuosity, tamed here by Eleanor) and the way it introduces said vocal line in an instrumental (“orchestral,” if you want) opening before handing it off to her. Yet the song is never stifling in its antecedents: the guitar sounds glam-rock awesome, and there’s a minimalist Philip Glass keyboard interlude. There’s no one else writing songs like these—potentially disastrous exercises turned pop gems—and we need the Friedbergers around. Maybe next time they’ll stop spending so much time obsessing over weird drum sounds; it’s by far my least favorite Furnaces album heard start to finish. For the first time, the best songs sound better on their own.

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On the classic album beat: I’ve been meaning to mine my long-neglected obsession with ’90s indie guitar rock for a while, and I meant to write about Superchunk’s No Pocky For Kitty. I’ll get around to it (Q: why are Superchunk relatively neglected these days? Is it punishment for not being as obviously clever as Pavement?), but iTunes’ alphabetical arrangement got me to thinking about the perenially underrated Superdrag again. Generally pegged as a sub-Foo Fighters outfit, Superdrag are best remembered (if at all) for their minor MTV hit “Sucked Out,” as succinct a complaint about selling out to the man without getting famous as any: “Who sucked out the feeling,” screamed frontman John Davis, audibly shredding his vocal cords. “Would you go now that everybody knows that we did a couple shows out there? Look at me, I can write a melody but I can’t expect a soul to care.” Self-prophecy in action, but it’s a shame.

Part of the reason 1996’s Regretfully Yours got ignored, I suspect, is because the band (presumably still in thrall to their admitted Husker Du influence) went out of their way to turn off kids who just liked Weezer and wanted more of the same. For a rock album, it’s remarkably impenetrable the first time round: I remember not being able to tell where the first three songs started and ended. Banging around on the same chords, mixing everything into the same dynamic range, all the songs sound the same at first. Opener “Slot Machine” short-circuits itself after exactly one iteration of the would-be chorus. Davis remains an oddly uncharismatic frontman, at least on the record: whiny and forceful, without a hint of the charisma externally directed self-loathing can bring with it, he seemed deadly, maybe cripplingly serious. But Regretfully Yours is a terrific record, although those Foo Fighters comparisons weren’t totally off: meat-and-potatoes rock songs, many hovering under 3 minutes, recorded with a minimum of artifice, more scuzzily garage than all those tinny pseudo-cheap Strokes demos. The album’s got it all: one heartbreaking ballad of solipsistic despair (“Nothing Good Is Real”), a lot of ass-kicking rock pseudo-nihilism (the aptly titled “Cynicality,” which comes dangerously close to biting Radiohead: “make it happen, make it happen, nothing’s happening,” Davis whines), bitching about the music industry. “Destination Ursa Major,” the “Sucked Out” follow-up single rejected by fickle teen audiences, is pretty magical too. “What did I do? Nothing is true,” sings Davis. “Summer is over now.” Summer flings gone bad never sounded so good. True believers take note: the original line-up (with a now devoutly-evangelical Davis) is reuniting this fall for a few shows. Catch ’em before they disappear again.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.