Please explain: how is that speakerbox supposed to look like an E?
Maybe the weirdest thing about the existence of This is Next, Vice and MTV2’s new Best Buy-targeted mainstream-indie comp, is that it isn’t really all that weird at all. As Pitchfork has pointed out, the compilation aims to be a sort of Now! That’s What I Call Music for indie-rock, and most of the compilers’ choices are appropriately obvious. Vice and MTV2 used the most nebulous definition of indie that you could possibly imagine. Indie here doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with actual independent record labels, so we get major-label stuff from Sonic Youth and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as well as Vice beneficiaries Bloc Party, who, to be fair, fit as neatly into this album’s structure as any of the other bands. (Refreshingly, Vice opts not to exploit synergistic opportunities to shoehorn in any of its other acts; we won’t find any Black Lips or Boredoms or Run the Road album-tracks here.) Most of the other acts come pilfered from bigger indies: Spoon from Merge, the Shins from Sub Pop, Ted Leo from Touch & Go. And while it’s a bit tough to see what might unite the Hold Steady with Of Montreal or Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, it’s basically true that all of them occupy places in some loosely defined indie-rock continuum. The compilation’s press release mentions the Garden State soundtrack as a precedent, and the comparison totally holds water; the Garden State soundtrack might’ve featured a decidedly non-indie Coldplay song, but then This Is Next could absorb Coldplay into its fabric just as easily. Probably with good reason, Vice and MTV2 mostly pull from the subsections of indie that share as little obvious lineage as possible with punk and postpunk. Even prog is in short supply; there’s no Muse or TV on the Radio here; either one might make cultural sense, but neither one would work aesthetically. Pulled from the contexts of their respective albums, Sonic Youth’s “Do You Believe in Rapture?” and the Hold Steady’s “Chips Ahoy!” are both a whole lot more MOR and palatable than those bands’ respective bodies of work might suggest. The only band that’s allowed to work up anything resembling a threatening clangor is Deerhoof, whose inclusion is pretty hard to figure out, even if their song here, “The Perfect Me,” is accessible as fuck by their standards. The album isn’t targeted toward people who consider clangor to be a virtue; it’s a Whitman’s Sampler of blog-friendly pop-rock. The cover includes the term “indie’s biggest hits,” but it offers no indication of what that might mean. The packaging, in fact, looks like someone spent five minutes with some instant album-cover Quark template, and the liner notes don’t have any rapturous accounts of touring in busted-down vans and sleeping on strangers’ floors. Instead, we get the pictures of the bands’ albums and a quick note that maybe we should check those bands out. Plenty of people, after all, don’t have an hour to parse Pitchfork every morning, and so this approach makes a certain sense. It’s a quick, clean overview of what I guess we’ll be calling indie from now on.
And here’s another surprise about the album: it mostly hits its marks. The whole thing makes for a remarkably pleasant listen. It moves easily between subgenres and covers a whole lot of ground without venturing too far outside of a fairly strict set of aesthetic guidelines. And honestly, the logic that applies to the Now! compilations works just as well with indie albums. Now! works on the idea that plenty of mainstream pop albums surround their few singles with a whole lot of padded-out filler, and plenty of indie-rock albums do the same thing. I’d rather hear “Phantom Limb” in between Sonic Youth and Spoon than on the actual Shins album. One particularly yawnsome Bright Eyes/Cat Power/Neko Case troika at the center of the album almost derails the momentum by sounding like stuff you’d hear in a dentist’s waiting room, but even that part isn’t without its charms. And This Is Next even unearths a couple of minor gems. I remember listening to that last Clap Your Hands album a couple of times, but I somehow totally missed out on “Satan Said Dance,” a nicely fuzzed-out, skronkified take on disco-punk from a band that could always stand to pay a little more attention to rhythm. And I’d avoided ever hearing the Cold War Kids before listening to this album, mostly because a lot of the critics I know tend to fly into apoplectic rages at the merest mention of the band. But if “Hang Me Up to Dry,” is any indication (which, who knows, maybe it is), this band is a whole lot punchier than most of their contemporaries; their drums have some actual swing to them. I don’t feel particularly compelled to further investigate either band, not while I still haven’t heard the new Chingo Bling album or anything, but I could see how these songs might give someone cause to pay a little more attention to this whole indie thing. Indie, of course, has long prided itself on being ethically above this sort of nakedly cynical marketing ploy, but it’s hard to stay huffy about that stuff when this music routinely finds its way onto TV commercials. If anything, it’s almost a welcome reminder that the moral high ground no longer exists. The only substantive difference between M. Ward and James Blunt is that one is a lot richer than the other.
It’s tempting to posit the release of This is Now as this generation’s moment of reckoning, a rough equivalent to the time that Janis Joplin song showed up in an actual Mercedes Benz commercial. It wouldn’t really be true, though; This Is Next has precedents. In 1999, K-Tel, the company that first made its name releasing an endless series of proto-Now! hits comps, tried to relaunch itself by releasing the hilariously titled Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution, a pretty good survey of what passed for emo back then. Nowcore! was surprisingly catholic in its selections; obvious names like the Promise Ring and Braid were there, but so were the Dismemberment Plan and Unwound and even Modest Mouse, a band who would’ve fit pretty well on This is Next. And way before even that, MTV had a similar short-lived racket going. In 1991, the network released a couple of companion compilations to its 120 Minutes show, even more hilariously titled Never Mind the Mainstream. Those albums provide a fascinating time-capsule glimpse of pre-Nirvana alt-rock: the Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold,” the Church’s “Under the Milky Way Tonight,” World Party’s “Put the Message in the Box.” If I saw this CD in a dollar bin somewhere, I’d snap it up with no hesitation, and it’s sort of fun imagining future-kids doing the same thing with This Is Next sixteen years from now. One band even shows up on both compilations: Sonic Youth, who I suppose are cursed with always being next. I wonder how many volumes of This Is Next will hit shelves before, say, Lightning Bolt sneak their way on.
Voice review: Matt Ashare on Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution