Indie Rock’s Peter Pan Complex (A Protest): Pop music will always fetishize broad emotions, petulant attitudes and tight-bodied adolescent sex. It’s in the music’s DNA. That’s why we like it. If you’ve enjoyed the indie-rock boom of the early 21st century, however, notice that many of the scene’s biggest artists have gone a step further: They’re playing with a sensibility that is downright Peter Pan–ish. They consist of melancholy potential theater majors (Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, Polyphonic Spree), twee pop refugees (Postal Service, the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie) and folk-derived, quasi-psychedelic hippies (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Animal Collective).
These artists don’t just embrace the trappings of youth, they tap into a naive state of consciousness. The Decemberists create scenarios built for gothic storybooks (think Edward Gorey). Animal Collective’s song “Sweet Road” both mimics the sensory euphoria of psychedelic drugs and made an excellent soundtrack to a commercial for Crayola crayons. One of my favorite Sufjan Stevens songs, “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” — a ballad about the child murderer — is effective because of the childlike wonder in the singer’s voice, the way he channels the innocence of Gacy’s victims and their inability to conceive of the dark fate that awaits.
I’m loath to admit it because I like this music, but the constant invocation of youth smacks of escapism. I don’t, however, blame the artists. They’re merely crafting the fantasy worlds they desire. What I’m concerned about is why audiences are lapping up all this diversionary entertainment. Isn’t art supposed to confront the shit that’s gone wrong, like the countless war dead in the Middle East? Or America’s transformation into a heedless bully? Or the obscene displays of wealth on Wall Street? Or the impending threat of global environmental disaster? I mean, Jesus, aren’t there musicians out there who can depict reality as well as Al Gore?
I think the reason audiences are choosing escapism is pretty clear: Who wouldn’t want to distance oneself from the current state of the world? Is this what America felt like in the ’70s — like Nixon, disco and Three-Mile Island all rolled up into a bludgeon shaped like Dick Cheney’s head?
Thankfully, a new wave of emerging artists is creating music that is rooted in our small, dark, quotidian existence. Their music is imaginative, but rather than singing about Jesus and salvation, pretty psychedelic colors and Victorian cutouts, they’re exploring more earthly matters: day jobs, cigarettes, blowjobs, alcohol, and various and sundry mortal sins (especially the enjoyable ones). None of these artists is going to hasten George Bush’s exit from office. As Live Earth so amply proved earlier this month, pop culture cannot, in fact, change the world. But it can help reconcile us with the muck of the world.
Deerhunter, Cryptograms (Kranky): I’m unimpressed by the music of indie rock’s latest experimental “it” band — a Pitchfork fave whose sound is best described as “garage rock gone experimental.” Looping numbers like “Hazel St.” unwind into pure ambient music like “Tape Hiss Orchid”; Krautrock rhythms (“Cryptograms”) alternate with straight-ahead pop songs such as “Strange Lights.” What’s endlessly intriguing about this Atlanta, Georgia, band is the vision of singer Bradford Cox, an emaciated-looking 6-foot-4 front man who often takes the stage wearing a dress and covered in fake blood. Things tend to unravel from there. For one thing, he certainly enjoys his blowjobs. A few months back, he reportedly received an apocryphal hummer live onstage at a Brooklyn venue, the Silent Barn. (It was supposedly well documented by theblogs, but after seeing the photos, I don’t buy it.) Another recent N.Y. show ended with a 20-minute monologue about his childhood and his psyche — he compared it to a “big, gaping vag” — that was equal parts Iggy Pop–style transgression and Oprah-style confessional.
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The latter performance was also eerily real. Cox, who suffers from a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, says he was abused as a child, that his parents often made him wear women’s clothing, and that he is a 25-year-old virgin. When he sings lyrics like “What direction we should choose/We’re lost and still confused,” his front man–as–lost soul pose seems less like a shtick than a posture custom made for our confused age. Deerhunter regularly blog about their own poop at http://deerhuntertheband.blogspot.com.
The Horrors, Strange House (Stolen Transmissions): It’s easy to dismiss this U.K. five-piece for their gothic-chic fashion sense, as well as their association with celebrity blogger Sarah “Ultragrrrl” Lewitinn. (Their album is one of the first releases on her Universal-funded imprint.) And the Horrors are a lot like the Strokes in that they synthesize influences with real gravitas, and sugarcoat them to create music that is essentially about style. Where the Strokes drew from downtown NYC (Ramones, Television, the Velvet Underground), the Horrors borrow from the goth-rock canon (the Gun Club, Bauhaus, the Cramps). In terms of sonic potency, however, there’s no good reason why Deerhunter has more street cred. The Horrors openly acknowledge their debt to the past by opening their new album with a cover of Screaming Lord Sutch’s “Jack the Ripper.” More important, their execution is flawless. Singer Faris Badwan and organist Spider Webb (a.k.a. Rhys Webb) are standouts who sound legitimately unhinged as performers, whereas Deerhunter’s Cox just seems unhinged as a person.
Pissed Jeans, Hope for Men, (Sub Pop): “The first rule of Pissed Jeans is, you do not talk about Pissed Jeans.” Matt Korvette, lead singer of this Allentown, Pennsylvania, band, works as a claims adjuster by day. By night, he sings in this band, which I take to be his own personal Fight Club — a wreck room for his masculine id. Their music — insane, uncontrolled, ugly — hearkens back to the glory days of the late-1980s punk rock subgenre known as “pigfuck,” once practiced by bands like Jesus Lizard and Big Black, and praised as a formative influence on Nirvana. (The ugliness was also the element most excised from the limp, post-grunge music of Nickelback and Creed.) Pissed Jeans brings pigfuck roaring back — with one small difference. Where Jesus Lizard and co. seemed genuinely misanthropic, Pissed Jeans tempers its anger with irony. The cover of Hope for Men features two shirtless office-worker types caught in an embrace, a nod to the fact that pigfuck always seemed like a parodic outgrowth of poet Robert Bly’s “men’s movement” (picture men hugging each other and bro’ing down — only in the woods rather than in a dimly lit bar). The key to understanding Pissed Jeans is that they aren’t so much about male rage as they are about male feelings. It’s a novel thematic twist on an old musical idea. Pissed Jeans Aug. 26 at the Fuck Yeah Fest at the Echo.
Fucked Up: When I saw this band perform a few weeks ago, lead singer Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham jokingly stuck a drumstick between his buttocks. Yet this Toronto band has gone to great lengths to seem mysterious, creating a purposefully twisted discography — much of it vinyl only — in which they name-drop Opus Dei, outsider artist Henry Darger and his hermaphroditic Vivian Girls, Nazis, the pre-Christian Book of Enoch, France’s Situationist International, and Spanish Civil War–era anarchists. Guys, we get it, you’re a cultish clique of angry young people — and you’re goofy postmodernists, to boot. I’m not so impressed by the esoterica — their connection to the material seems calculated rather than passionate — but I love Fucked Up’s music, which is built on the foundation of “harder, faster” hardcore from the early ’80s (think Black Flag, Minor Threat, D.O.A., Cro-Mags). It’s captivating the way they take the energy of traditional two-minute hardcore songs; add flourishes like violin codas, drum solos and long passages of whistling; mix in touches of psychedelia and Krautrock; then end up with five-to-10-minute hardcore drones. The 2006 full-length debut, Hidden World, repeats a lot of ideas contained on their vinyl releases, but that doesn’t lessen its impact. Fucked Up just completed their first full U.S. tour.