The toxicity of indie rock hypedom is so extreme that sometimes I feel like turning my back on the whole furshlugginer mess: the uncomfortable clubs with wretched acoustics, the zines brimming with smug orthodoxies, the “buzz” around gimmicky bands-of-the-moment.
There was a time when the whole thing almost seemed tenable: ‘80s bands like The Replacements and Husker Du, actually got writers worked up, and with their prompting, a lot of us got worked up, too. The story is well known: genuinely independent labels thrived, the majors took note, and eventually figured how to plunder and thereby slew the underground. By the time Nirvana came around, the cycle was all but over: The Replacements had splintered, Sonic Youth were twittering in the Gilded Cage of Geffen, even The Butthole Surfers had swallowed the Big Carrot.
The period dominated by Nirvana was strange: bands were either desperately vying for the Big Deal or desperately defining themselves as alternatives to Alternative. Some were even doing both at the same time. A label like Matador epitomized this tension: commercially ambitious in the extreme yet its main product seemed to be anti-commercialness itself. The Matador boybands, especially, preached non-virtuosic singing and playing, eschewed overtly emotional content.
The détente worked as long as bands like Nirvana, Green Day, and Jane’s Addiction sold millions of units. But in the last few years indie rock has reverted to its original underground status, at least in economic terms. My friend Fred recently informed me how a major-label band we both knew had sold an anemic 8,000 copies after being hailed as heroes in the music press. And to me at least, the ironic pose of bands like Pavement and Beck seems increasingly purposeless: If there’s no Alternative, what then does it mean to be anti-Alternative?
Where this leaves us today is without any kind of national rock underground, and a shrinking, stridently Balkanized press. And that reminds me: what exactly happened to the music press? Have a hell of a lot of mags disappeared, or do I just not get around much anymore? The folks I consort with read Wire, Mojo, maybe Ugly Things, Big Takeover, the occasional Black to Comm, and that’s it! And I can’t even stand Wire anymore than overeducated white hipster dudes clinging to a quaint notion of “experimentalism.” OK, I’m ranting. But the shrinkage is real, and I must ask:
HAS CREATIVE, GUITAR-BASED MUSIC BECOME A MERE RELIC?
Answer: Of course not, you nutball.
It’s thriving (as it always has) at the local level. This fact comes home to me every time I visit the folks in Claremont, CA, and tune in KSPC, still a hotbed of free-form 7” savagery.
It happened again during the past month as I ventured out into the dives of North Williamsburg and found a handful of bands who, in following their own chosen muse, were proving that it was still possible to define yourself by what you
The back room of Pete’s Candy was packed, all eyes focused upon the lone figure on stage, singer/songwriter Anna Padgett. Her look (spectacles, Bardot hairdo) and persona put me in mind of those slightly befuddled early-‘60s ingénues (Tuesday Weld, Sheree North) who nonetheless always seemed a good deal smarter than the films they sleepwalked through. Singing in a near-monotone that was at turns nakedly honest and quite funny, Anna seemed continually surprised at her own wry observations, bemused at her own biography. The closest analogue to her singing style is Maureen Tucker: a flat, non-affected approach that puts content before style. Syd Barrett also came to mind, as a songwriter who invented forms to fit his consciousness, rather than vice versa. And something about her fondness for minor chords and chromatic chord progressions made me think of Arthur Lee. But these influences (if they are even influences) are incidental. Padgett’s songs make their own world, and that world is not quite like any other.
My favorites were “Anna Pope Sampler,” which found lyrics from 19th-century(?) samplers: “Of female arts in usefulness / The needle far exceeds the rest / Make use this hour while in thy power / The next may not be thine…;” and “Currency,” whose refrain (“and while it might not be money it certainly is currency / my mama raised me wrong what can I say?”) came out of nowhere to bop along in an XTC-like groove.
About halfway through the set, she was joined by a clutch of musicians (including Miggy [once of Idea] and Carla [of Ida and K]), who together made a joyful noise that rocked but somehow never diminished their musical intimacy.
Anna is one half of The Naysayer (the other half is Cynthia Nelson, also of Retsin and Ruby Falls), whose debut CD, Deathwhisker, was recently released by Carrot Top records. Tara Jane O’Neil (Retsin, Ruby Falls), Tara Key (Antietam), and Ida Pearle (Ida) also helped out, and indie legend Sue Garner provided the record’s charming design. It can be found in some local stores and through www.carrot.com.
Like The Naysayer, Pinataland creates a world, and that world has little or nothing to do with Indie Rock or Whatever Rock (those ancient women gathering fuel in vacant lots). Which makes me all the more partial to it. “Frontman” chores are handled by two snappy young fellows, Doug Stone and Dave Wechsler, who take turns singing (although Doug seems to have penned the majority of songs). Doug plays acoustic guitar, favors stories from odd, neglected corners of history, and possesses a high, keening tenor. Dave plays accordion and croons songs of bittersweet romance. With these two chanteurs, plus Meredith Yayanos on violin, Dave Dorbin on tuba, and Bill Gerstel on drums (this trio can play, folks), Pinataland lays down a world-weary groove that would not have been out of place in a Berlin cabaret circa 1932.
I caught Pinataland during their Wednesday night March residency at Pete’s, and what charmed me more than anything else was the band’s emphasis on telling a story; listening to them was not unlike settling down with a cup of tea and an obscure, yellowed paperback fortuitously reclaimed from under the sofa. Some highlights from their picaresque potpourri: a lament by a British soldier in Kitchener’s army, alone and pining in the Sudan in the 1890s; a hymn to Nazi military might, set to the tune of a tin-pan-alley ditty; the cruel electrocution of an elephant during Coney Island’s early days; a paean to flier Mathias Rust, who crossed the Iron Curtain into Moscow during the Cold War (“Hey flyboy, give it that old college try, boy…”).
While Doug tends to make himself a transparent observer of historical ephemera, Dave is clearly the tragic persona at the center of his own songs. At one point he dramatically declaimed, “Wide open is my heart,” and I actually believed him. The differential in emotional temperatures between these two somehow makes the whole thing work; that, plus the strikingly melodic tuba, the Hungarian-folk-inflected violin, and the circus/vaudeville approach to drums.
It was nice to see those midnight cowboys finally wreak havoc on the Charleston after several false starts and the untimely cancellation of their last gig (due to the death of the club owner’s mom). American Ambulance takes the country-hippie aesthetic of Gram Parsons and leavens it with a big ol’ dose of street-smart rock (as in Stooges, Heartbreakers, et al.). Singer/songwriter Pete Cenedella (also of the Highwaters) looks appropriately thin and haunted (a bit like a duded-up Jimmy Rodgers) as he launches into tales of broken dreams and lost innocence whilst furiously banging on his acoustic guitar. Guitarist Scott Aldrich rips off a nonstop commentary of nifty fills that call up a pantheon of peerless pickers: Clarence White, Dave Davies, Wayne Kramer, Tom Verlaine. Bassist Tim Reedy (also of The Moths) and drummer Joe Dessereau (Pete’s mate in the Highwaters) provide a fierce groove.
Hearing the twang in Pete’s vocals, I initially thought, Uh-oh, here’s another Look-Ma-Ain’t-We-Down-Home-(Even-Though-We-Grew-Up-On-Long-Island)? Band, but I soon realized that AA were a horse of a very different color. They reminded me more than anything of the home-grown products that have, at least since 1965, taken their main inspiration from the Stones re-rendering of American blues, country, and R&B bands like the Standells, the Chocolate Watchband, the Flamin’ Groovies and brought it back into the garage.
AA’s smarts became especially apparent with two songs. “Play that Country Music, White Boy” was Pete’s hilarious way of taking the authenticity issue out into the open, in hopes that it might dry up like a raisin in the sun. “Roll, Crash, & Burn” exploded out of the middle of the set with a raw power that made me rack my brain: I’ve heard this song before; what is it? MC5? Television?? An original, I later found out.
American Ambulance’s forthcoming CD, Sweetness and Dark, can be ordered via their website: email@example.com.
And a final toast to all music-makers like these three, who dwell cheerfully in the houses of obscurity throughout our great land:
Rock is dead. Long live rock.
DANN BAKER is freelance editor, writer, and musician living in Brooklyn. His musical projects have included Love Camp 7 and the late, lamented (?) Admiral Porkbrain, a Beefheart cover band.