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New Dogs + Old Tricks

June 1, 2009

Everything old is new again in the perpetual post-modern age we live in. From homage to pop-culture archaeology to outright plagiarism, there seems to be an ever dwindling gene-pool of new ideas in art. Popular (not limited to top-40 “pop”) music seems to especially have become a stagnant, inbred shadow of it’s former glory. Rock’n’roll has been feeding off its own bloated corpse for so long, bands are deriving sounds from derivative sounds which were derived from sounds perhaps not entirely original to begin with.

Take a band like White Lies. Perhaps the young band which has best approximated an 80s post-punk/new wave record since young bands started reviving the sound ten or twelve years ago. Early-comers to the game Interpol, Editors, Bloc Party, Stellastar* and The Killers all borrowed the smooth and fuzzy synth sounds of the new romantics, the heavily chorused/flanged/delayed guitar of new wavers and, for street cred, some rote stark nihilism borrowed from Joy Division to go along with their haircuts. But they also seemed to borrow equally from more recent alt-rock and indie sounds from both sides of the Atlantic to create a not quite carbon copy. Now you hear bands influenced by Bloc Party and The Killers popping up and the slippery slope of diminishing returns has lead to a sludge pile of uninspired inspiration. White Lies has almost escaped this fate by cutting out the middle man and pillaging from the source material. Japan, Ruran Duran, The Cure, a little of the de rigueur Joy Division and a lot of Modern English are all flavours which mingle on their debut album. So much so, there is scarcely an original note to be distinguished on the whole perfectly executed disc. If you didn’t know better, you could believe this was a lost Modern English album from their high period. It’s highly enjoyable for someone (like myself) who wishes there were more Modern English albums, but it’s also infused with a sense of redundancy. And this seemed to be the state of modern pop/rock/indie music in 2008.

2009, however, has been quietly suggesting just because music is being rebuilt from the rusted chassis of a tired old car, that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fresh new ride with really comfortable seats, an engine that purrs and can take you exciting places. Here’s four new releases that travel down routes pioneered by others, but are still managing to carve their own path.

Japandroids‘ debut EP is called Post-Nothing and a more perfectly cheeky title couldn’t bestowed. What I hear is the fuzzy emo-pop of mid-period Husker Du, the edgy noise-pop of early My Bloody Valentine, the ramshackle mess of Replacements on a drunk night, and a hint of every hook-charged American art-rock band in the last 15 years from Pavement to Archers of Loaf to Les Savy Fav. But it’s not simply “90s indie redux”, it suprasses that. It’s post-nothing and post-everything. And the secret to their being able to pull from so many sources andmaintain a unique artistic spirit is probably their ability to fucking rock. They’re an ecstatic young indie rock band sounding like an ecstatic young indie rock band and not what some producer thinks audiences want from a young indie rock band. Welcome to our garage, get down with it or fuck off.

On the not quite other end of the spectrum is Akron/Family with their fourth (widely distributed) long-player, Set ’em Wild, Set ’em Free. This vaguely rag-tag collective has been mining the sounds of the early 70s for a while now and with their latest, seem to have hit the mother-lode. There might not be an original tone on the album, but A/F have never been simply tribute artists to a time shrouded in mysterious nostalgia. Set ’em Wild continues to echo the past (Floyd, Crimson, CSNY, Sly Stone) while retaining its own musical identity. And that’s what the Family’s strength has always been. They really sound like they’re from that era but they’re a band trying their best to separate themselves from the Jefferson Airplanes, Doors and Gentle Giants, not ride on their coat-tails. And in doing so, have separated themselves from anything else going on now as well—even within the neo-folk rock scene they helped popularize.

In the 90’s Slumberland were the apex of the American shoegaze/dreampop scene. What Sub>Pop did for grunge, Slumberland did, on a smaller scale, for kinder, gentler indie-rockers. None of their artists ever achieved Nirvana, but a lot of their bands proved to be nearly as influential. Especially now with the shoegaze revivalists. One of the best of this crop of new dreamers have even ended up on the label (which thankfully stayed in business after the 90s dreampop bubble, er, popped). The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, sound much as their name would have you believe. They sound like maudlin, fuzzed-out, jangly, twee-British, indie-poppers from the last days of the 80s. They’re not British, but they do such a good job capturing the spirit of that time you might forget you’re not hearing MBV covers of Housemartins songs. One could even believe this was a Mighty Lemondrops / Velocity Girl side-project Slumberland had been sitting on for 20 years. It’s actually that good.

And if that wasn’t enough to put Slumberland back on the map, they had to go an put out Crystal Stilts debut. Lots of bands get saddled with comparisons to Velvet Underground and Jesus and Mary Chain but few can ride under the weight of them. Fewer still can shake off those comparisons and go their own way. The comparisons are, frankly, unavoidable. The lack-luster vocals are so bathed in reverb, the guitars so sloppy and simple and the rhythms so primal you couldn’t claim there wasn’t a debt to be paid to VU and JAMC. But unlike many bands who also attract these comparisons, Crystal Stilts’ songwriters have their own voice. They may have adopted a set of textures to wrap their production in, but the songs themselves reveal a unique expression at the root, not just a plagiarism of style without substance. At times the result doesn’t sound unalike Magnetic Fields’ Distortion but lacks the Achilles heel of ironic hommage that hampers that album. This is the real emotional trash, this is.

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