New York

Live: Annie and the Indie-Pop Problem


Annie + Talkdemonic
Mercury Lounge
March 20, 2001

The opening parts of Simon ReynoldsRip It Up and Start Again make for a great read: PiL, the Contortions, Pere Ubu, all those bands that are more fun to think about than they are to actually listen to. But for me, at least, the book really came alive in its second half, when this great weird phalanx of rouged-up kids bought synths and came up from the underground to conquer the British charts, absolutely dominating pop music for a couple of years before inevitably falling apart. It’s fun reading about Echo and the Bunnymen presenting themselves as a real-rock alternative to the synthpop hordes before presenting themselves as a synthpop alternative to U2 once synthpop basically died away, reading about all these furious battles between the kids who loved rap and disco and electro and Burundi drumming and Brian Eno and all kinds of nonrock shit and the kids who loved blues progressions and the Doors. No points for guessing who won that battle; indie-rock circa 2006 is a big growling pile of leftover flannel and Modest Mouse yelps and guitar-fuzz and Sudge-Fan sad-little boy Broadway hymns, and I’m not even particularly mad at it; I’ve never really known it to be anything else. But every once in a while, something gloriously tacky (M.I.A., the DFA) will shine through all the murk and become a cool name to drop for a few minutes before the indie-rock world figures out that it has no idea what to do with this stuff and reverts back to status quo, and we’ll get a quick little glimpse at what an opportunity we missed when we decided that the Shins were good enough.

So here’s Annie, a Norwegian disco-pop singer who really doesn’t have a single goddam thing to do with indie-rock. She’s got some great songs, and she’s got the New Pop inheritor Richard X, a producer who’s managed to make some enormous synthpop hits in England over the last couple of years, in her corner, which is enough to (reportedly) make her a huge star in Norway and a minor one in England. But her glassy, swoony, sophisticated steez isn’t going to work in the US mainstream, where we like our pop stars to look and act as much like cartoon characters as possible; witness the Tori Alamaze story. So she’s trying her hand at our underground, playing about one million SXSW shows last weekend, popping up in New York constantly, and generally surfing the rapturous press she’s deservedly received. But barring some total paradigm-shift, she’s just going to get stuck at dank little rock-spots like the Mercury Lounge, trying to navigate an indie-rock infrastructure that has no idea what to do with her and playing shows to a small but amped core. She will never be a star in America, either in the mainstream or the underground.

I didn’t see openers Paolo Nutini or Shy Child last night, though judging by the mp3s on their website, I really fucked up missing Shy Child, who sound a lot like Supersystem. I did, however, catch Talkdemonic, a folky-Slavic-Radiohead instrumental duo. They made for a perfectly acceptable indie-rock opening act, thick and pretty, alternately discordant and melodic. I liked them, but it’s hard to imagine a band less suited to open for Annie. Maybe they got booked on this bill because of the laptop that handled all the bits that weren’t drums or violin, but it’s a lot more likely that they got booked because the Mercury Lounge is an indie-rock venue that books indie-rock shows and nothing else. When the soundman piped in the Postal Service album between bands, it felt like a cluelessly adorable attempt to make the place synthpop-friendly.

At this point, Annie should be no stranger to this setup, considering the half-dozen New York shows she’s played in the past month. (“It’s been a while since we’ve been here,” she said at one point; as compared to what?) I’m not entirely certain she should be playing live at all, partly because her onstage presence doesn’t reflect much of the liquid self-assurance she has on record and partly because it’s weirdly troubling to see her beg the sound guy for vocals in the monitor when she should be far above petty concerns like that. Maybe she should do like the Gorillaz and let a hologram do all the work. But I’d still never seen her live, since that’s usually Riff Raff’s beat, and the songs sounded pretty amazing played loud, picking up a hazy, swirling momentum. She came with a totally necessary keyboard player and a completely superfluous dreadlocked multi-instrumentalist, who justified his existence by murdering the nasty cowbell breaks on “The Wedding” but otherwise just took up space. When the beat kicked in on “Come Together,” probably her warmest song, Annie threw peace signs, and the track’s laser-bursts and house pianos sounded pretty incredible. Even better, she did nine songs and disappeared, keeping everyone hungry. It made sense; we really don’t deserve her.

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