An Alternative Universe

Why should indie-rock bands go pop when webzines everywhere think they’re so cool?

This ought to be indie-rock's moment. Downloading hurts indies as much as majors—given Web demographics, maybe more. But the decisive drags on CD profits—bootlegging, overhead, and debt service—touch the indies hardly at all, and the club circuit remains healthy while arena-rock chokes on its own extortions. With teenpop cycling down, the farm-system model has staged a comeback—the Strokes and the White Stripes and Dashboard Confessional aren't as mega as Spinhopes, but they're hot enough to convince corporate capitalists that similar bands might be worth exploiting. Structurally, the scene should be poised for takeover. But it isn't, and it doesn't want to be.

Indieland still generates buzz bands, and most of them ain't bad. Casting about for a turkey to embody my unease with the former Alternia, now a half virtual domain that includes both Web and clubs, I found it hard to hate, for instance, two candidates from Toronto. They were overrated, not awful, and the overraters were too out of it to get mad at. At metacritic.com, which assigns numerical ratings to reviews compiled from a list of 50 or so periodicals long on webzines (the obvious rock mags, but only two local weeklies and no dailies or hip-hop press), Manitoba's Up in Flamesand Broken Social Scene's You Forgot It in Peoplecurrently rank 13th and 14th in a 2003 "metascore" rundown. A typical admirer describes the mildly pretty laptop eclectica of Up in Flames as "some of the most euphoric, mind-blowingly beautiful music we have heard in years"; even more absurdly, You Forgot It in People, a comfortable melange of well-loved feedback and occasional tune by a coterie of Toronto alt luminaries who'd better be nice to their bass player, is invariably categorized as "pop," as in "song after song of endlessly replayable, perfect pop." What do we learn from such raves about albums content to explore indie's romance of the enigmatic? That what was once alternative rock is now an alternate universe—a universe where no one listens to Mozart or Miles and any aesthete who dabbles in song form challenges Lennon-McCartney. Poised for takeover? What's to take over? Indie stars are already masters of all they survey.

As ever, this narrowness of purview is half willed and half imposed. Our old pal alt snobbery, which sucks, meets our new enemy friendly fascism, which sucks worse—sucks as bad as boho exclusionists always think the prevailing culture sucks, so bad that it may be unfair to expect the virtuous to want in. But alt snobbery predates the war on democracy and the writhings of the RIAA. Indieland broke off relations with the actually existing pop world years ago, reconceiving it as an evil empire so despicable that its inner workings could safely be reduced to the gross clichés that alt folk favor. Really, what level of understanding can we expect of a review that climaxes: "The album's a real winner, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that these guys are definitely the genuine article"? How seriously can we take an aesthetic arbiter whose idea of strong prose is, "In trading the adolescent kick of Secaucus for ripened resignation, meticulous refinement for crippling maturation, they have realized their magnum opus"?

Jersey's Wrens: We're from Manhattan; they're from Secaucus.
Photograph by Charles Bissell
Jersey's Wrens: We're from Manhattan; they're from Secaucus.

The funny thing is, though, that in Indieland almost as much as in actually existing pop, bright music happens to dull people. The writing I've singled out is abysmal; the albums the writing singles out are beacons. Say hi to Nos. 8 and 7 on the Metacritic scorecard: the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow and the Wrens' The Meadowlands. Faster and clearer than last year's paisley-fringed Oh, Inverted World, Chutes Too Narrow advances the Shins well beyond the dreamy indistinctness that has replaced lo-fi as Indieland's distancing strategy of choice. Put over by James Mercer's melodic acuity, the Albuquerque/Portland-based quartet are on their way to widespread culthood. But The Meadowlandshas a richer story.

The Wrens are four lifelong friends from South Jersey who a decade ago relocated in, hint hint, Secaucus, and that they only cross the Hudson for their day jobs reflects poorly on NYC boho exclusionism. Unlike the Shins and Broken Social Scene, the Wrens aren't indie on principle—all well into their thirties, they came up when indie was the road to alternative and maybe, shudder, making it. Though they love Pistols and Pixies, though their angular guitars have a Pavement-y bent, their songforms are soaked in classic rock. I'm embarrassed I missed 1996's 54-minute, 19-track Secaucuswhen it came out. The sonic turf is far broader than most indie bands ever dare, and there's a relationship sequence in the middle that lays on the hurt—"I've Made Enough Friends," killer.

Secaucus got buried when Grass Records was sold to the bizzer who would soon discover Creed. In 1998 followed the hard-hitting Abbott 1135EP, and four years of living-room agony later came The Meadowlands. Thirteen tracks in 56 minutes this time, it's altogether more pained and whispery, downhearted despite healing rave-ups, garlanding blown chances romantic and professional over guitar dirt strewn by landscape artists who don't mow the lawn. For the Shins, just now discovering how good they can be, maturity demands a firmer purchase on form and meaning. For the Wrens, pondering how far talent and dedication have gotten them, growing older brings with it the temptation of hermeticism. Only what a denouement—then they can't help buoying, pacing, shaping, and articulating their obscurities till they mean all over again. The Meadowlandsis a real winner and a magnum opus. It's the Wrens' way of convincing us they're too good for actually existing pop.

Unfortunately, chances are they're right.

 
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