Next Big Thing: Looking for That Song 


LAST WEDNESDAY AND THURSDAY, TWO OF THE BEST UNDISCOVERED bands of the new rock crop, Hot Hot Heat and the Walkmen, played two sold-out nights at the Troubadour in the midst of a 15-date tour. Of course, this being Los Angeles, calling the groups "undiscovered" isn't entirely accurate. On Thursday, Warner Bros. Records had requisitioned several dozen tickets, and a number of its employees were in attendance, including A&R chief Perry Watts-Russell, "creative czar" Jeff Ayeroff and publicity-shy chairman Tom Whalley. Hot Hot Heat are Warner Bros.' latest signing, and the Walkmen had been taking meetings all week with various major labels.

The evening was yet another indicator that we've entered a new era of smart and quirky guitar music made by white people. Creative, sincerely felt rock has fallen considerably from the perch it occupied in the early '90s. Back then it was dubbed alternative rock, and for a while, it seemed as if it would never fall from the charts. It did, of course, replaced by Ricky Martin, Britney Spears and an endless succession of nu-metal mooks. But there's an excited buzz in the industry right now. Sure, declining sales have everyone fearing for their jobs, but so-called "good music" (think the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes) is back. Spin's editor in chief, Alan Light, quit to seek a backer for a proposed magazine actually titled Good Music.

What Tom Whalley and company were looking for at the Troubadour, however, was not quirks or smarts, but That Song, an anthem so good it will instantly be inscribed in the hearts and minds of the young — a song like Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" that blossoming teenagers just know about. That Song is inevitable, the pop-music equivalent of boys knowing they can singe insects by focusing the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass. None of the bands in the new rock resurgence have released That Song. Yet.

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The Walkmen opened up. Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser stalked the stage in faded black jeans and a tweed sport coat, looking like a midcareer novelist. His bandmates were similarly dressed, in conservative sweaters and wool pants. The band's songs are oddly structured — fast then slow, tenuous then propulsive, filled with abstract ropes of sound. They recall the work of U2 right down to Leithauser's full-bodied and, yes, Bonoesque voice. But as he began singing the group's signature tune, "We've Been Had," Leithauser sounded more like an A&R exec passing judgment: "I'm a modern guy/I don't care much for the go-go/Or the retro image I see so often/Telling me to keep trying/ Maybe you'll get here, someday/Keep up the work kid/Okay, I close the book on them right there."

The song might be about the experience three-fifths of the group had in the late '90s, when they were part of a notorious DreamWorks flop, Jonathan Fire*Eater. (Their one album is a bargain-bin classic, and, perhaps to scare off hubristic A&R professionals, the helpful parenthetical "formerly Jonathan Fire*Eater" was included in ads for the show.) As a gauge of just how much the climate has changed since then, "We've Been Had" is being featured in current TV ads for Saturn. Still, it's clearly not That Song.

Around 11 p.m., Hot Hot Heat took the stage. There are some parallels between this group (a bunch of young kids from the isolated Pacific NW town of Victoria, British Columbia) and Nirvana (a bunch of young kids from the isolated Pacific NW town of Aberdeen, Washington). Where Nirvana resuscitated unfashionable influences such as Black Sabbath, Hot Hot Heat resuscitate unfashionable influences such as the Cure and XTC. Both emerged with addictively catchy songs, and both had their recording contracts with Sub Pop bought out by major labels. There seemed to be a lot of teenagers in the audience for a Thursday night, and as Hot Hot Heat began their set, it became apparent they probably weren't there for the tweedy guy named Hamilton.

"Talk to me, dance with me here in the spotlight," sang front man Steve Bays. He wore extraordinarily tight blue jeans, a gray-and-black ringer T-shirt, and had his hair styled in an eccentric and well-cultivated variation on the Jewfro. A girl in a black miniskirt, fat pink new-wave belt and yellow shirt jumped onstage and began to dance. The song was stripped of layers until only drums, voice and the occasional keyboard belch remained. "You are my only girl, but you are not my owner," sang Bays. Four more girls leapt onstage, shimmying.

"This goes out to everyone with the balls to get onstage in the last five minutes," said Bays just before breaking into the group's current single, "Bandages." "This is our last song."

Five audience members joined the group. Then 10. Then 20. As Bays moved into the final verse, the 450-capacity crowd appeared to have emptied out considerably. Fifty members of the audience danced onstage. "Don't worry now/Don't worry now/Don't worry 'cause it's all under control," went Bays, his bandmates eclipsed from view by the audience's spontaneous response. Maybe it wasn't That Song, but for one brief moment it didn't matter. "Don't worry now/Don't worry now/Don't worry cuz it will all turn around, around, around, around, around . . ."

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