The current climate of indie rock is a bit like a California city during the post Gold Rush 1850s: The gypsy spirit has soured; once-prosperous storefronts are now abandoned; and the only visible citizens are weary patrons of nostalgia, all of whom are ready and willing to spin a yarn about how "things used to be better." The few short years when the mention of bands like Guided by Voices and Superchunk elicited gleaming eyes and camaraderie of spirit are no more. Grizzled former Hsker D front man Bob Mould prefaced his recent tour with the declaration that it would be his last with a band. Rumors abound that Pavement will soon be putting out its last album, but the news seems to dishearten only a select few. More often the reaction is, "They're still together? Man, I thought they broke up a long time ago!"
Built To Spill, Keep It Like a Secret (Warner Bros.)
Sebadoh, The Sebadoh (Sub Pop)
The notion that indie rock is obsolete is hardly a new one—countless waves of would-be conquerors have attempted to proclaim rock (in its varying forms) dead. In the early '90s, grunge sent over a hearse for hairspray-and-lip-gloss metal groups. Three years later, mainstream critics and fashion-industry mo-guls gleefully declared "the Seattle scene" defunct, while they welcomed electronic music with fat wallets and Cheshire grins. Headlines, of course, rarely function as a reality check for the underground. By the time USA Today says a specific band or style is pass鬠it's probably been common knowledge for at least three years in independent circles.
The rub of rock—independent or otherwise—is that its ambition isn't necessarily chained to moral codes, but is instead tied to reigning emotional checkpoints. When fans wanted to hear art-house angst, American Music Club was there. Sick and tired of working for the Man? Sonic Youth had the perfect, distortion-marinated "Fuck you" in the form of 1990's "Kool Thing." But something's happened in the indie world these last few years. The deconstruction movement has been deconstructed to ground zero. A slew of new indie bands cited either Pavement or K Records as influences, which meant thousands of faceless singer-guitarists sounded like piss-poor Steve Malkmuses.
Independent labels flourish when they provide the variety craved by restless music fans—especially college-aged dreamers and their vast escapist fantasies. But when Pavement becomes the norm every maverick with a gee-tar strives to emulate, the indie climate wallows in the same sickening homogeneity rampant on commercial radio (which no longer even has a programming format called " alternative rock," thankyouverymuch).
Two seminal indie bands, Built to Spill and Sebadoh (both of them now linked to major labels), are releasing new albums under these hazardous working conditions, and the outcome will certainly influence indie rock's future—should there be one.
Built to Spill's epic music is primarily art, and that art is only half-satire—the rest is purifying in its quest for newness. Driven by Doug Martsch's intense chord progressions and septum-scaling vocals, the Boise trio retains the '60s- and '70s-style pop legacy without aping its masters. On a track from the band's majestic new record, Keep It Like a Secret (due February 23 on Warner Bros.), Martsch cheekily declares, "You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind/you were right when you said we're all just bricks in the wall."
The compact, tuneful tracks on Keep It Like a Secret swerve through the most inventive hooks this side of rock radio, but the cathartic bent notes and experimental edges imply that Built to Spill named its album carefully: Martsch's high-brow lyrics and jams musicologists would die for provide even the catchiest tracks with a built-in anti-MTV device. Yet Built to Spill could very well be the indie cult favorite to not just survive its genre's sluggish years, but to thrive—one of the few bands whose records people will keep near their turntables 10 years from now.
The odds aren't so favorable for Sebadoh, which spends the majority of its nearly eponymous latest release (due February 23) preaching to the converted. As with 1996's poorly received Harmacy, The Sebadoh finds the 10-year-old noise poppers relying on the interplay between the softly spoken side of singer-guitarist Lou Barlow and the bratty child within bassist Jason Loewenstein. It makes for a messy meal—the tracks are either catchy melodies flattened by Loewenstein's cloying vocal tantrums, or they're slicked-up ballads sung in Barlow's increasingly lifeless, Gary Numanesque manner.
Two Barlow-penned songs, "Weird" and "Flame," sound like a rehash of " Rebound," the punchy opening track on 1994's Bakesale, while "Sorry" is a repeat of Harmacy's "Ocean," complete with tiresome mountain metaphors. Save for the Folk Implosionlike electro-leanings on " It's All You," The Sebadoh strives for disappointing mediocrity—and wins.