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Indie 500: Vampire Weekend, Cat Power, and The Dø

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Indie 500: Vampire Weekend, Cat Power, and The Dø

Heh. Back in November, when I first wrote up Vampire Weekend, I noted that “they’re quite possibly the best thing to happen to trust-fund rock since The Strokes.” I didn’t go any further in this direction because I was hoping/praying that what happened with the Strokes’ debut wouldn’t happen: namely, that a vengefully impoverished music press wouldn’t fixate on VW’s collective wealth and use the music as a pretext to attack everything we are not. Last time, the debate fixated on the retarded question of whether or not The Strokes’ wealth and co-option of garage influences made them less “authentic.”

This time, no one’s even questioning the quality/derivation of the music; they’ve just skipped to accusing VW of being the second coming of musical Reagan neo-cons or some even less coherent argument. Tom Breihan offers up a comprehensive enough precis of the fracas thus far. Within the weekly’s actual pages, you can find Julianne Shepherd complaining, among other things, “I bet these guys read sheet music.” (Note to self: immediately expunge from iTunes anything featuring string arrangements.) What?

The idea here, I guess, is that VW shot themselves in the foot the instant they wrote non-populist songs about anti-populist types: Louis Vuitton shoppers, Ivy League English majors. Is it the wealth, or does the fact that they have no obvious chips on their shoulders make it worse? Rufus Wainwright came from money and musical nepotism and slathered his songs in strings—but I guess he’s gay and troubled, so that makes it OK? The hating is doubly puzzling because the music just isn’t hateable qua music—just as it can’t excite the most passionate devotion either, at least not on my part. VW’s official full-length debut makes all the right moves, from its sonic clean-up job (a better budget makes the demo obsolete: this version is still charmingly sparse, but the drums, keyboards et al. are far more vibrant) to the canny inclusion of two new songs stretching their range just enough to fend off haters who think they’re a one-trick pony (“I Stand Corrected” tames Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates”, backwards loops into something surprisingly not gut-wrenching-depressing). It’s also a little too restrained to aim for the majestic more than once—“Walcott” remains their best song, demonstrating, like Mercury Rev’s long-ago “Delta Blues Bottleneck Stomp,” that a pounding house beat is most energizing in a song where it seemingly has no business showing up. But no one’s disputing VW’s skill as musicians and arrangers—bloggers just can’t agree if they’re good or evil. And, unless we’re talking Skrewdriver, that’s a debate that’s pointless and near-impossible to have on the music pages. Save it for the drunken bar-rants please.

VW aren’t the single greatest innovation in recent twee-pop—I’ll be discussing Los Campesinos! in a few weeks, and if there’s any justice their even more accomplished songs will set off incendiary blog posts for their snarky disses of damn near every contemporary musical trend—but they’re a fine second-tier band nonetheless, purveying stripped-down indie pop even people who don’t dig the genre dig: they’ve got Death Cab for Cutie’s cross-over potential while actually deserving it, and that’s saying a lot. Is that where the bile’s coming from—pre-emptive hatred before the band can become as wealthy from their music as their families were when they sent them off to college?

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I can’t claim to be the most studious devotee of Cat Power’s back catalogue, but I’m still dismayed by where she’s going musically. A single like 2003’s “He War” makes as great a use of negative space as any given Spoon song—its simple piano chords, minimal guitar, and the single most restrained drum part Dave Grohl’s ever played in his life. But Chan Marshall went from notoriously erratic, frequently prematurely abortive live shows to sobriety and a new sound keeping in touch with her new-found maturity. The maturity will have to be reckoned all personal though; like 2006’s The Greatest, Jukebox is a terrific opener followed by 11 songs in search of their focal points as songs, not just moods. The last album’s “Lived In Bars” could serve as a key reference point here, except the idea is more like “Sang In Bars”: that jukebox is a collection of standards for people who think nothing goes better with hard drinking than Aretha Franklin and Hank Williams.

In other words, Cat Power’s a born-again traditionalist; she may not be expressly repudiating her previous knack for spiky melancholia, but she’s found comfort in more socially time-tested modes of expressing it. The Greatest drowned in its saving graces of brass arrangements from old studio pros—Marshall genuflected to their “authenticity” (that word again!) without for a moment seeming like she was thoughtlessly co-opting it or being insincere. But Jukebox places the attention where, arguably, it has no place: Marshall’s voice. It’s a pretty good one—smoky, serene—but not the bold stuff interpreters are made of. Now that she’s cleaned up, she’s channeling past sorrows through people who did it long before her, and there’s something prefab and annoying about this attitude: “Look,” the logic goes, “Billie Holiday suffered, and now everyone admires her music and mythologizes her personal tragedy as part and parcel of the end-product. I’m not suffering, and I’m doing the songs!”

I doubt the actual reasoning process was nearly that cynical—Cat Power’s nothing if not sincere—but still: just because she’s flattened out Hank Williams and James Brown to the same consistency doesn’t mean I have to admire it. Every song plays out the same: after the admirably menacing opening stab at “New York, New York,” everything is in the same lazy great American mythology: lost women, deserted bars with the down-and-outs, riding with your equally lost man down the open road sadly wondering what’ll come of it all. Who cares, you know? It’s all the same myth, and frankly Robert Frank should’ve killed this shit years ago, back when people still found it evocative of something besides cliche. This morning I heard a guy on the subway platform just killing “Knockin On Heaven’s Door”: he was circling that last line over and over, for an eternity that lasted at least 3 minutes, mangling the words over and over (at one point, I could’ve sworn “Knocking out” came out “I’m not gay”). He wasn’t as talented, but his belief in the emotional power of his default mode of performance was so strong that I thought he and Cat Power would’ve gotten along just fine.

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Rarely does this blog get to be on the cutting edge, so I’ll cut to the chase: just listen to The Dø, quickly, now, before they get signed and blow up and everyone pretends to be sick of them. As of press time, The Dø’s debut A Mouthful has no US representation, which is a damn shame. Olivia B. Merilahti and dude Dan (for the life of me, I can’t find his last name anywhere) make like Beck in half-castrated duo form. Popping in their album, you get the instant feeling that yes, you’ll be overplaying this massively for the next few months. Opener “Playground Hustle” has Olivia making like M.I.A. in middle-school, leading the other kids on the playground to pointless but fun insurrection: drums, fifes and juvenile punk chants. Merilahti’s voice is somewhere between the most annoying Poly Styrene screech of all time (in a good way) and the capacity for pretty ballads: the album’s somewhere between. The ballads are pretty without being stock, the weirdo-freakouts are perfectly catchy (“This is pretty damn queer oh shit” blurts out “Queen Dot King” for no good reason before pulling off something the Spice Girls or Girls Aloud would envy—then back to the string coda, without missing a beat), and the whole thing needs minimal talking up. I wish I had more to say, and hopefully the Internet will chip in at some point: this band needs coverage. For now, I promise that you should click these links (some kind soul has uploaded the whole thing to YouTube, so poke around while it’s still there) and get hooked: this is the most ambitious pop-formalist tour I’ve heard in a while, without all the sterile connotations that holds.

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