Show Me Your Undies

Local Record Labels Strip Down to Just the Essentials

Nowadays there are more "underground" bands than ever, and if you don't wanna bother sifting through 'em, that's fine—there's good stuff on MTV and Hot 97, too. Still, it's fun to root for the little guys, especially with the economy on the skids, so let's just say you wouldn't be amiss to shell out for any of these above-average, semi-popular, and mostly local acts, all of which are releasing records and/or gigging regularly right about now: Radio 4, Enon, Les Savy Fav, Pixeltan, Laptop, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Oneida, Rival Schools, Walkmen, Liars, Greenhornes, Bee & Flower, Outhud, Lambchop, Panthers, Bis, Hefner, X-Ecutioners, Party of Helicopters. (And there are plenty more where those came from; check the listings.)

These bands bear witness to several totally decent undergrounds, and likewise two fiercely independent local record labels are busy carving niches for themselves within their respective genres: Young God Records, headed by former Swans frontperson Michael Gira, and Def Jux Recordings, NYC's premier undie hip-hop label. YGR specializes in post-rock, art rock, soundtrack rock, and no wave (all nebulous labels, true, but so's your mom), music that, according to Gira, "has a filmic quality to it, in that it develops a sonic world you might want to fall into." Calla, a trio of Brooklynites Gira stumbled upon in time to produce their second album, sound a little like any number of bands odiously rocking the ether (Iceland's elfin snooze-rock purveyors Sigur Rós, for example), and yet their minimalist, beautiful Scavengers is evocative, nuanced, and smart: the contemplative Bernard Herrmann score to the blockbuster bombast of other soundtrack rockers.

For pure impact, nothing on YGR quite matches the Swans' wall-to-wall boom-bap, but several arty young guns have been making a fine mess of things. Flux Information Sciences' Neubauten-style rhythmic attack and bizarro cabaret/disco leanings are best experienced live (although last year's Private/Public is more than solid), and Gira is currently hyping Larsen, an Italian band whose pastiche-like "field recordings" yoke found noise, guitar spills, and weirdo scritti-politti. The mellow, Gira-led Angels of Light dole out the best "songs" per se.

Mothers of Unconvention: Angels of Light's How I Loved you album cover
Mothers of Unconvention: Angels of Light's How I Loved you album cover

It'd be great if Uncle Mike, as his bandmates have dubbed him, could cultivate a 21st-century incarnation of his '80s touring pals Sonic Youth. Gira's main concern of the moment, though, is "to expand the label without going broke"; fostering a "hot" avant rock scene means comparatively little. "I've always been pretty repulsed by that type of thing," says Gira. "It's just a sleazier and glitzier version of high school."

Like Gira, Def Jux founder El-P is wary of is-this-it?-style hype, but that hasn't stopped him from acting as a big brother to a small but growing roster of up-and-coming rappers. Having been hipped to the pitfalls of the biz as a member of Queens trio Company Flow, El-P mentored, produced, and shared an apartment with the members of Cannibal Ox, whose The Cold Vein finished 15th in this year's Pazz & Jop poll. The label's other big 2001 release—the warm, brainy Labor Days, which shared none of the dark, dusky, and Gira-esque sonics of The Cold Vein—was recorded by Aesop Rock, an über-loquacious whiteboy El-P picked up after one release on the tiny Mush label.

Considering alt-rap's traditional knee-jerk disdain for anything more popular than hemorrhoids, El-P's outlook is refreshingly bullshit-free. "Our crew is like, 'We totally love anything good.' If it's commercial music and it's good, we love it," he says. "I probably inadvertently birthed a shitload of people who took that high-end philosophy of thinking they were smarter than commercial hip-hop, [but] I've never felt that way." El-P is currently putting the final touches on his own full-length, due in May, as well as an Aesop Rock EP, a second Def Jux compilation, and records by other rappers in his stable, including Murs, RJD2, and Mr. Lif. The only promises he makes is to keep Def Jux artist-friendly and unpredictable. "I'm basically trying to keep confusing people as to exactly what my label is doing," says El-P. "The shit that we're going to be releasing is going to vary a lot."

Cannibal Ox perform Tuesday at the Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 219-3006.

Aesop Rock performs April 11 at Queens College, 65-30 Kissena Boulevard, Queens, 718-997-3986.

March 11-12
Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, 533-2111

You will know them by their guitars, their wall-o'-noise atmospherics, their whisper-screamy vocals, and their swipes from the Who and Afghan Whigs and Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth, which is not to mention their longass name signifying equal parts smartass indie irony and punk detachment. You will also know them by their fans wearing those stupid black frame glasses, but don't call 'em "emo" 'cause they're so not. (Hoard)

March 14-15
Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, 533-2111

This tour pairs like-minded indie titans: Between their deft, inventive drummers and lead boys obsessed with—and exceptionally adept at—finding the intersection between everyday melancholy and beauty, both DP and DCFC have forged visions musical as well as personal, working from the inside out—not the other way around. (Catucci)

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