Music for the Masses

Fist-raising rockers tune out the majors and band with independent record labels instead

In our high-stakes political situation, how can conscious rock musicians make their voices heard? With slogan-filled lyrics and blood-pumping backbeats? Choruses engineered to induce the maximum amount of fist raising? Sure, all that might grab attention, maybe even move some units. But will it really change anything?

"I don't think pop songs change people's minds," says Kele Okereke, frontman for the up-and-coming British post-punk group Bloc Party, who will be playing the Knitting Factory on September 30. "I think there are better ways to communicate." Indeed, it isn't Okereke's paranoid, Thom Yorke–inspired lyrics that make Bloc Party remarkable. As a mixed-race band playing the kind of fashionably un-funky (yet catchy) fop-pop currently epitomized by Franz Ferdinand, they expose hipster-rock's lily-white definition of cool just by existing. And by signing with the independent label Dim Mak rather than a big company, Bloc Party refuse to play the money-over-integrity game. "It's not healthy to sign with a major; it's like signing your own death warrant," Okereke says.

For musicians seeking to make a tangible difference in the world, rejecting the Big Four's dangling carrots is downright essential. With the major label octopuses tangled up in mega-conglomerates tied to every sort of corporate evil known to man, choosing to opt in or out is much more than just an economic decision. Ian Ilavsky, co-owner of the Canadian indie powerhouse Constellation Records, says, "If what you want to do is just have a good time for a couple years, then go ahead, sign to a major, but at least acknowledge that there is really nothing political about your approach to cultural production and you are signing off on what are increasingly becoming some pretty dire moral and ethical consequences that should interest all of us as citizens of the world." (Constellation flagship band Godspeed You! Black Emperor included a diagram mapping the connections between the majors and weapons-manufacturing companies in the artwork for their 2002 album Yanqui U.X.O.) "There are a hundred and one rationalizations that people can offer for fucking shit up from the inside, and of course that's true to a certain extent, but by and large it's complete co-optation." Labels like Constellation, locally oriented businesses with no corporate associations, offer artists a chance to walk the walk, whether or not they talk the talk. Justin Small, of Constellation instrumental sound sculptors Do Make Say Think, who headline the Bowery Ballroom on September 24, says, "Do Makes don't really wear our politics on our sleeves. But the beautiful thing about having a relationship with Constellation is they afford us the opportunity to take it to another level politically."

This might involve stepping out of the musical sphere completely. Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic has become increasingly involved in Washington State politics over the last 10 years, and recently published his Of Grunge and Government: Let's Fix This Broken Democracy! (125 pp., $9.95), through Akashic. Luring readers in with an introductory section devoted to memories of his rock and roll years, Novoselic quickly switches into activist mode, explaining his faith in the American governmental system and his ideas for its reinvigoration through electoral reform. Those searching for juicy Kurt Cobain gossip will be disappointed, but Novoselic just might turn some fans into activists. "People look for meaning in popular music," he writes. "Once music becomes predictable, and a formula to sustain the establishment, people become cynical, stop buying the music, and tune out. . . . People also look for meaning in democracy. Once democracy becomes predictable, and a formula to sustain the establishment, people become cynical, stop voting, and tune out. It is now time for a new wave in civic consciousness in our nation." Will rock stars lead the way to change? Probably not. But they can do more than stand back and provide the soundtrack.


OLD 97'S
September 23
Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, 212.307.7171

The exuberant Texas band returns after three years, with assets intact: sounds built on strong pop hooks that also acknowledge, regularly, their roots in twang; lyrics that marry pop wit and sharp, knowing observation out of country; and a live performance style that both rocks and gets their stories told. They never fell prey to all that attention they got, so they're back kickin', more seasoned, and ready to take on the "new kids." MAZOR


MADLIB+PEANUT BUTTER WOLF
September 24
Southpaw, 125 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, 718.230.0236

These are the DJ sets to check out if the typical ones leave you cold. Madlib and Wolf both are masters of many styles: jazz that pops along with propulsive swing, vintage funk from bands that never toured outside of their town, smoked-out reggae classics. And hip-hop, loads of hip-hop. Archivist DJs aren't typically any fun, but they break the mold. CARAMANICA


'THE ONION PRESENTS URGH! THE WAR TO END ALL WARS'
September 24-25
Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 212.219.3132

A tribute to the documentary of the same name—which recorded new wave and punk greats like Pere Ubu, the Police, and the Go-Go's in 1981—these two nights feature 14 not-quite luminaries like spike-sassers the Rogers Sisters, the arena indie Pilot to Gunner, and the electronica-damaging Dalek. CATUCCI


RJD2
October 2
Northsix, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 718.599.5103

RJD2 got all meta on his recent tour, taking a break to introduce one of the artists he sampled on his new album, Since We Last Spoke, and then re-emerging dressed up as an old guitar-man. Get it? He don't need no damn samples. Take that, Josh Davis! RJ's songcraft has improved with each release—it's a wonder we don't hear him in every car commercial on television—as has his live show. CARAMANICA


WILCO
October 5-6
Radio City, 1260 Sixth Avenue, 212.247.4777

Not the most intimate room in the world for a band that's as meticulous about small, subtle gestures as about over-the-top moments. But go anyway, if only to enjoy Jeff Tweedy's rendition of a wayward Americana star in a most wayward America, with bonus Neil Young–inspired guitarismo. And stay for the remarkable Nels Cline, easily the most overqualified rhythm guitarist in all rockdom. GEHR


THE FUGS
October 7
Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 212.219.3132

The post-Reagan Fugs cultivate a more flowery rock poetry than the horny hippies of the '60s, and there will be hypersensitive moments. But Ed Sanders brings off such prolonged meditations as "Dreams of Sexual Perfection," "Refuse to Be Burnt Out," and "Advice From the Fugs." Plus they got Tuli Kupferberg, compelled to rewrite his late great masterpiece "Septuagenarian in Love" when he turned 80. CHRISTGAU


MOUNTAIN GOATS+JOHN VANDERSLICE
October 8
Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard Street, 212.219.3132

The indie-rock subculture has probably produced a thousand dudes who strum acoustics and plumb obscure publications for narratives, but the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle has become an unlikely success story by prettying up his folkie-isms while keeping his oddball Middle American fantasies intact. The less eccentric, more ambitious Vanderslice balances an ear-grating whine with all the prettiness a sloppy DIY guy can muster. HOARD


ROKIA TRAORE
October 16
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, 212.247.7800

Pushing a follow-up album she was canny enough to wait and do right, this Malian diplomat's daughter is no Oumou Sangare—too sweet, too mild. But her musicality is ingrained, her band knows its beats, and when she lifts her lithe legs in storklike dance moves, her penchant for propriety becomes not undetectable, but, better still, irrelevant. CHRISTGAU


CRAMPS+GORE GORE GIRLS
October 18
Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, 212.307.7171

Two decades after they began, the Cramps' retro cartoonishness is as "outrageous" as the average burlesque show, but with their propulsive surf-punk intact and their voodoo shtick as good a calling card as the amph-ph-phetamine hooks of the Strokescetera crowd. The B-movie shtick of Detroit's Gore Gore Girls makes for retro-punk that's tighter and less shticky. HOARD


AL GREEN
October 21-23
Apollo Theater, 253 West 125th Street, 212.531.5300; Westbury Music Fair, 960 Brush Hollow Road, Westbury, New York, 516.334.0800; Beacon Theater, 2124 Broadway, 212.496.7070

Who now believes that Otis Redding, cut down in his raw prime, matched Green's subtlety—or his power? And quiet as it's kept, Marvin Gaye had trouble duplicating his studio virtuosity onstage. Only Aretha Franklin is in Green's class as a pop vocalist of the rock era, and though he's 58, he hasn't lost much voice. Don't wait till he does. CHRISTGAU


LYLE LOVETT+JOHN HIATT+GUY CLARK+JOE ELY
October 22
Beacon Theater, 2124 Broadway, 212.496.7070

Guys who sing stories and don't have three names? Well, a lot of singer-songwriters have stories, and some, like most of these gents, have songs that go big-time in Nashville, but not many have songs that last, or new things to say that just keep coming. With Clark's craft, Lovett's wit, and the barely suppressed rock and roll hearts of Ely and Hiatt, this should be a varied and memorable night. MAZOR


JUNIOR BOYS+MOUSE ON MARS
October 23
Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey Street, 212.533.2111

I know Matthew Dear has started singing and stuff, but Junior Boys bring the sensitive singer-songwriter stylee to indietronica way better on Last Exit, their debut album. Their texture owes a debt to grime and Kompakt. With Mouse on Mars, the German ambient poppers who think harder but, recently at least, rock softer. CARAMANICA


MARCEL KHALIFE
November 13
Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street, 212.840.2824

Khalife is the gray eminence among the generation of singers that emerged following Lebanon's civil war. An ambitious composer, he has written anArabic musical version of A Midsummer's Night's Dream. Khalife's Al Mayadine Ensemble will accompany the oud virtuoso at this show featuring material from his latest album, Caress. GEHR


MAGNETIC FIELDS
November 18
Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, Seventh Avenue and 57th Street, 212.247.7800

The new Fields album asked you to accept a less insulated Stephin Merritt, who had established himself as a Major Artist a few years back—though he toned famously insincere role-playing, his deadpan voice and pre-rock pop now range from catchy and clever to something like shtick. Live, thankfully, he can plumb a catalog up there with with that of any other Major Artist in indie rock. HOARD

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