Cross-Dressing Albums Top the Year's Local Releases
BY MELISSA MAERZ
Q: How do you find an insecure indie rocker in a crowd?
A: She's the one making jokes about how to find an insecure indie rocker in a crowd.
I know, bad joke, but you rely upon cheap tactics when you can no longer distinguish between once-divergent musical genres. What do you do, for instance, if you cannot tell the difference between a Grandaddy fan and your average Widespread Panic concertgoer? In 2001 both groups were suddenly wearing puffy, old-school baseball caps, both sported gnarly ZZ Top beards, and both reveled in more extended guitar-jam wank 'n' roll than that dude on the Freedom Rock infomercial.
Last September at a First Avenue Built to Spill concert, a glance at the audience suggested that the Furthur festival tour bus had missed its stop. "I bet they're all hoping the band will play 'Free Bird'!" a friend remarked sarcastically to me. Twenty minutes later, lead singer Doug Martsch (defying all possible categorization by sporting a headband) sang, "If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?" to a crowd swaying with their cigarette lighters all aglow.
At which point I realized: 1. I can no longer define irony. 2. Maybe genre splicing is a good thing! After all, these past 12 months in the local-music scene have shown an impressive amount of crossover. This was the year that Andrew Broder added some turntables to an innovative pop song and called it hip hop. This was the year that Alan Sparhawk alternated effortlessly between slowcore hooks (Low) and John Lee Hooker (Black-Eyed Snakes). This was the year that the New York Times christened Happy Apple "one of the best new jazz groups who know a rock audience is waiting for them." So perhaps this is the year I'll resolve to stop assigning fixed genres completely and instead come up with catchy hybridized titles unique to every local CD that comes my way!
To be honest, though, it's more likely that this will be the year I give moral support to people who, like myself, cannot keep their New Year's resolutions. Go ahead: Take a drag off that cigarette, cut up your gym membership, and indulge in these addictive local CDs.
1. BLACK-EYED SNAKES
It's the Black-Eyed Snakes
Mmm, the velvety swelter of both pre- and postcoital blues explosions! On Saturday night, Alan Sparhawk and his fellow Duluthians play a flushed stomp-and-grind gutter-throat yowl and bust-yer-harmonica honkytonk, sputtering in your ear and teasing down your zipper before you even notice a draft. On Sunday morning, they're the low moan of a ghost train rattling inside a guitar, glum vocals sticking in your throat while you curse Saturday night. If I play this album any more frequently, my CD player is gonna start smokin' Marlboros.
2. WORK OF SAWS
Motivation and Watertower Grammar
Thick Furniture Records
Sometimes music is all about antici...
pation. And when your expectations are thwarted--right when you're starting to dig a melody, it stops--the results are far more exhilarating than being able to sing the same predictable chorus five times in a single song. Motivation and Watertower Grammar comprises 44 clever, Robert Pollard-like jingles: ragtime oompah, eerie indie schlock, earnest folk pleas. All of which deliver instant gratification in about three minutes or less. Brock Davis sings incredibly poetic phrases that don't make logical sense. But when Davis coos, "Love is something small," I understand exactly what he means.
3. HAPPY APPLE
Please Refrain From Fronting
Happy Apple Music
This jazz trio is so expressive, they could (to borrow a phrase from my boyfriend) put the art funk back in Art Garfunkel. The saxophone, electric bass, and drums come together to produce a thematically playful but structurally serious work: As saxophonist Michael Lewis honks and hums Ornette Coleman-style narratives, drummer Dave King employs walkie-talkies and children's toys as essential tools of his famously flashy percussion. The music swings, sweat-drenched, between loud and soft, between unison playing and asymmetrical passages, and between your confused and blissful left and right ears--and after all that, Happy Apple has the gall to make it sound easy. As LL Cool J says: Frontin'? That means I'm chillin'!
4. THE FOG
Busy is the new lazy. Listen to the Fog's master multitasker Andrew Broder--who simultaneously plays his guitar, sings like Thom Yorke, manipulates his turntable-cum-fascist-killing machine, and is rumored to be able to remove his pants during the process without missing a beat--and you'll declare that ADD is not a disease but a sign of musical prowess. (Which, I suppose, could be Eminem's excuse if he ever got caught snorting Ritalin.) The one thing Broder doesn't necessarily do on this album is keep a certain steady rhythm: He seems far more interested in exploring the nuances, textures, and motion of rotating vinyl--a project that makes this record a legitimate example of experimental hip pop.
5. KID DAKOTA
Negative Kid Records
Some people say that the world has lost its sympathy for self-destructive individuals. Then why are there still so many Kid Dakota fans out there listening to this EP? They contemplate Darren Jackson's stark guitar chord changes, sing along to his songs about battling heroin addiction, listen to Christopher McGuire batter the life out of his drum set, and feel good about feeling bad. And when they look at the cover of this EP--which sports a particularly gruesome photo of Jackson with a bloody face like a steamrolled pepperoni pizza--they don't wonder what happened to him on this particular endeavor. They know: He became a rock star.