As if you had a choice
Snow Patrol + OK Go
Theater at Madison Square Garden
March 27, 2007
We’ve been mired in an exceedingly bizarre period for commercial rock music for more than fifteen years now. Decadent glamor, once rock’s stock-in-trade, became deeply unfashionable during the ascetic grunge years, and nothing has really come along to replace it since. And so now the only people who capable of selling large quantities of rock records are pre-grunge holdouts like U2, self-aware self-parodists like Fall Out Boy, and turgid, scowling bores like Daughtry and Nickelback. And then there are the soundtrack content-providers, the wave of anonymous purveyors of swooning, sighing nice-guy gloop that rose up in the wake of Coldplay. These guys might’ve been the ones James Murphy was talking about when he ranted to me about bands accepting mediocrity and placidly shrugging their way into middling placeholder status. Snow Patrol is a textbook example, a Glasgow-based band who started out gigging around with twee indie-pop fixtures like Belle and Sebastian before moving on to writing sweet, crashing MOR guitar-pop lighter-wavers and gradually blowing the fuck up in America after the soundtrack coordinators at Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill simultaneously picked “Chasing Cars” for prime montage placement in their respective season finales. In a lot of ways, Snow Patrol is a very utilitarian band, content to fade into the background and make sweeping, dramatic noises to accompany sweeping, dramatic slow-motion crane-shots. Nobody argues about who their favorite member of Snow Patrol is; the band is pretty much just made up of charmingly self-effacing frontman Gary Lightbody and a bunch of guys in black shirts who stand off to the side of the stage. And yet this band is big enough to fill up the Theater at Madison Square Garden two nights running, a development that I wouldn’t exactly say is good for pop music. But complicating matters is the fact that I really like Snow Patrol. Their grandly nonsensical tearjerker power-ballad “Run” is maybe my favorite rock single of the past couple of years, and they have a slick way of making their epic swells sound weirdly human and vulnerable. Lightbody can’t quite hit the high notes he strives for, and so he lets his voice quiver and crack and whimper, so it feels like he’s getting trampled under the band’s epic glissandos rather than triumphantly riding their crests. Snow Patrol manages the neat trick of sounding simultaneously big and small, overwhelming and approachable. Maybe they’re not doing pop music any favors, but I’m pulling for them anyway.
And so I was among the charmed thousands at MSG last night, waving my cellphone and singing along horribly just like every other jerk there. Lightbody seems to perfectly understand all the particulars of his band’s appeal perfectly, and so he kept breaking the momentum between songs to keep the neurotic stage patter coming. Per Jason Lee in Almost Famous, there’s no “guitarist with the mystique” in Snow Patrol; there’s just four musicians hiding in the shadows and letting Lightbody hold everyone’s attention all night. Lightbody is Irish, but he’s a student of the Hugh Grant school of nervous comedic chatter, keenly aware that anyone with an accent can get away with all manner of theatrical modesty over here. And maybe the modesty wasn’t even false; maybe he’s seriously genuinely touched that a big room full of drunk office slaves would be so amped to shout along with “Chasing Cars”; it doesn’t particularly matter. Either way, there’s nothing elitist about Lightbody’s cheap-seats humility. He might’ve dropped Sufjan Stevens’ name in a recent lyric, but he knows he doesn’t have a thing to do with indie-pop anymore. He’s a total pro, and so is the lighting director who used a wall of color-changing lights behind them to create the abstract patterns that undulated gorgeously behind Lightbody. The band makes a few nods toward the smaller clubs of their past; maybe they learned the post-krautrock pulse of “Shut Your Eyes” from Stereolab, for instance. But they’re now in the business of huge, weeping post-Coldplay power-ballads, and they pull those off more consistently than even Coldplay does anymore. With a huge soundsystem behind them, their towering hooks pick up even more steam; after an hour and a half, I was just about flattened.
For people in commercial rock bands, grateful humility is a difficult thing to project. If they don’t allow themselves to appear confident enough, they’ll disappear completely. But if they let themselves appear too confident, they’ll come off like a bunch of smarmy dicks. Snow Patrol might’ve managed to walk the razor-thin line all evening long, but openers OK Go were another story. If Snow Patrol owe their fame to Grey’s Anatomy, OK Go owe whatever fame they might have to their two clumsily charming and incongruous music videos in which the members of the band all struggle through goofy choreographed dances. I really like those videos; they turn their major-label power-pop journeyman subjects into sympathetic underdogs, frantically throwing themselves into something they must know they won’t be particularly good at. Onstage, though, the band radiates an unearned swagger, the exact opposite of those videos’ goofy charms. They stand stock-still, blank-facedly yelping out their endlessly benign sub-Fountains of Wayne bash-pop and rocking embarrassingly outdated hipster-uniforms like they were extras in Swingers or some shit. They further dilute their already deeply unconvincing noisy/shreddy guitar solos with plinky pianos and halfassed ahh-ahh backup harmonies, and between songs they make fun of defenseless targets like the two people who fell down the venue’s stairs at the previous night’s shows. OK Go became vaguely famous by (inadvertently?) creating an underdog persona for themselves, and now they’re walking around like they’re hot shit; there’s nothing quite so galling as a band who does that. Snow Patrol could go on to sell a bazillion more records, and I don’t think they’d turn into douchebags. They’re the Melinda Doolittles of this rock shit, and that might even be a compliment.