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February 7, 2003

Indie Rock 101: A pair of "The" bands (re)defined

I had an argument with a friend of mine the other day over whether there were objective standards for popular music. (Must music reviews start with an anecdote? Hint: the horse doesn't ask for permission.) During the course of the discussion I was forced to reflect on how my descent into indie rock had compromised my position. I used to trot out these lines about "interesting chords" and "novel progressions," but at some point it became clear that I'd have to either seize on new criteria or just admit that half the bands I liked were, in fact, sucky. Plus, it was obvious that my criteria were totally gerrymandered around preventing Rush and Dream Theater from being called "good." I still want to say that some bands are just better than others, and that it's even possible to say, for example, "Radiohead is better than Destroyer, though I like Destroyer better;" then it is the reviewer's job is to tell the reader why she should like a band, why it's actually good, for objective reasons. No, my friend said, the reviewer's job to tell his audience what a band sounds like, on the basis of which the reader can make a good guess as to whether or not she'll like the band.

I had all this in mind when I was listening to the latest delivery from The Sea and Cake, One Bedroom, and the debut album from the Libertines, Up the Bracket. What do these two records have in common? Well, they're both albums with music on them. They could also both fairly be called "indie rock," in the sense that you could probably say the words "indie rock" around the time you say the names of these bands, and not get beat up, though that might be more related to the fact that the kids you hang out with are real weenies. Anyway, after that the similarity ends. The Sea and Cake are what the kids call "post rock," which means that it isn't really rock at all, but some weird, mellow, intellectual amalgam of every kind of music ever played in the last 40 years.

The Libertines is a British band which, you and your friends are going to call "garage rock" because that's a phrase that a lot of people you know are throwing around now with some aplomb, and you and your friends are not of the discerning type. I bought the Libertines album because I was impressed when I saw them open up for the Strokes (they're "garage rock," too) in Leeds, England last year. Of course, when I say "saw them" I mean I looked at a fogged-up window, behind which they were presumably playing live, since I could hear them while standing on a roof just across from the venue, the Leeds University refectory in 30-degree weather." But that's really beside the point. What's important is that the Libertines sound like the Strokes mixed with the Clash, the Kinks, and many other British bands from the last 35 years which you can have fun identifying. Of course, some of you may bridle at my likening them to the Strokes since this infamous New York band does not exactly have what you might call an "original sound." But that too is beside the point. You want to know what they sound like, right?

The album is terrifically catchy, despite being a little dirtier and rawer than, say, the Strokes record. In fact, the production is very clean, but the playing and the singing has a live feel, complete with notes not-quite hit (both vocal and guitar), impromptu shouts, and out-of-breath gasps (well, ok, most of these are faked). I would list the highlights but really, nearly every song is catchy (in just the same way), and no song really stands above the rest, with the possible exception of the pseudo-lo-fi acoustic number "Radio America." OK, the frenetic, punky "Horror Show" is also a real winner (don't listen to the lyrics). And the best song is the bouncy, melodic, almost-melancholic "Time for Heroes," built around a memorable, if familiar, major-minor progression. The record suffers from being irredeemably British: harmonies worthy of the pub which are goofy as often as they're effective--that silly, high-tuned snare drum and the painfully stupid sing-along chorus of "The Boy Looked at Johnny" ("Everybody go 'la de di, la de di...'"). You'll probably be too busy singing along (in front of your dorm room mirror, playing air guitar) to notice.

I bought The Sea and Cake record because I'm a fan of the band and have all of their albums. So there may be some bias here. But hey, remember that bias is a double-edged sword! (Right?) One Bedroom opens with "Four Corners," which itself begins with a twoand a half minute instrumental section. The bass and guitar play repeating, interlocking hypnotic figures, while McEntire does some fills on the kit and a synth line floats in and out. At the two-minute mark, the bass switches to the main figure, and the guitar catches on 30 seconds later. Finally, Sam Prekop's breathy falsetto enters with a simple but gorgeously melancholic air, which repeats until the song fades back into the original figure. Sadly, this is probably the high point of the album--which is not to say the record is disappointing exactly, just that it never quite gets this melodic again, except perhaps during the almost-a-dance-beat-weird-is-that-a-dance-beat? driven "Shoulder Length," and on the final track, a cover of David Bowie's "Sound and Vision." But we are not going to say that "Sound and Vision" is the best song, because it would be truly sad if the best song were a cover. The almost-catchy "Mr. F" is another highlight, especially the last two minutes of it, in which Prekop and Archer Prewitt sing rounds over a repeating, double-noted bass line. The rest of One Bedroom follows the course set by Prekop's 1999 solo album with mellow, Brazilian pop-influenced numbers, albeit this time with a lot of interesting electronic flourishes. (The penultimate track, "Try Nothing," is the most overtly reminiscent of that record). In fact, this album continues The Sea and Cake's trend away from more melodic songs to mellow, diaphanous numbers--most notable for their interesting, if melodically muted, chords, the consummate musicianship and tightness of the band, the increasing role of electronic instruments, and the ever more unique sound, which the band has forged. This record might easily be dismissed, then, as background music. That wouldn't be fair, however. One Bedroom has plenty of great music, but it shows its charms more coyly than, say, a garage rock record. If I have a complaint, it's that Prekop's range as a singer has grown ever more restricted over the years and, in fact, it sounds just plain off-key on a few tracks ("Le Baron," "Hotel Tell," and "Shoulder Length"). I'm holding out hope that I just don't understand.

Well now, it's decision time: which record are you going to check out? (I realize that you are not in any way faced with choice.) One of these records--I won't say which--is catchier and more melodic than the other; the second is the better album. Oh that's right, you don't believe in that garbage.