The trouble with most indie rock is that it tries too hard to be indie, bending over backward to be stylish. Too often, things like melody, hooks and instrumental polish are jettisoned in favor of needless inscrutability, overweening cuteness and amateruish playing.
Not so with Troubled Hubble, a superintelligent quartet that gets indie pop-rock exactly right. Their new album, Making Beds in a Burning House, is as instantly appealing as it is enduringly pleasurable -- the old critical cliché "rewards repeated listens" doesn't apply here, as the rewards start piling up the first time you play it. The rhythm section of the Lanthrum brothers -- bassist Andrew and hyperpunchy drummer Nate -- is one of the tightest and most exciting going today, while the twin guitar attack of Josh Miller and singer Chris Otepka dishes out elaborate but catchy musical hooks that often win the band's music favorable comparisons to groups like the Dismemberment Plan, whose guitarist Jason Caddell helped produce Making Beds.
Otepka's smart lyrics are delivered in a voice that recalls both Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay and Michael Stipe of R.E.M., and actually those two bands also make for pretty solid comparisons to Troubled Hubble. Otepka, who calls his band's music "upbeat songs about miserable situations," has those singers' wry wit and slightly nasal delivery, and his band's stream-of- conscious diatribe "Ear Nose and Throat" is strongly reminiscent of R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." Elsewhere, the majestic outro to the oddly titled "The Do That Build the House" brings to mind such early '80s new-wave bands as Ultravox and Icicle Works.
Quite a mixed bag of stuff, to be sure, but Troubled Hubble always puts its own spin on things, and you have so much fun just listening to the music that it's quite easy to miss Otepka's little songwriting gems -- lines like "It's hopeful to know that you're there for me / as a friend with benefits or a friend in need" and "Burn the prairie, build the church / God will love, your hard work / The deer that flees, in fear of the crane / Destruction is beautiful when it's done in His name." And, and this is big, they know how to build up to a crescendo very well. Not bad for a bunch of guys who are still in their mid-twenties.
"We've never really had an easy time defining our sound," says Otepka into his phone from a tour stop in Detroit. "To be blunt, we just say it's rock. If people want comparisons, we really have trouble making them. We like all music, we love to play, and what I write is just what comes out. We don't try to fit in with any kind of style -- how it comes out is how it comes out."
Otepka says the resemblances to R.E.M. and Clem Snide are mere coincidences. "Our drummer was a huge R.E.M. fan, but none of us really listen to them anymore. As for Clem Snide, you know, I had never really heard Clem Snide until people started comparing us and then I listened to 'em and I was like, 'Whoa!' There's definitely a lot of similarity."
Evidently Clem Snide's manager Dan Efram thought so too, because he liked them so much he signed them to his Tractor Beam Management roster along with Robert Schneider/Marbles/Apples in Stereo. "What I liked about Troubled Hubble was how inclusive and energetic they are live," he says. "They are not an aloof band." Efram was also astounded at the band's staggering work ethic. "Before they signed with me, they did 450 shows in three years," he says. "They would tour for four months straight -- and I'm not talking about doing one leg and then going home for a few days and doing another. I'm talking four months on the road, and 90 shows in that time." (And they also recorded and self-released four albums and the college radio hit single "I Love My Canoe" prior to Making Beds.)
"It's a labor of love," Otepka says. "We actually love playing, and after doing this for almost six years, we've made a good amount of friends in the majority of the places we've been. So while we're working hard and touring and getting ourselves out there, we're also kinda traveling around and seeing friends. So yeah, touring's a double-edged sword. It will really wear on your body and your mind, but at the same time you're doing a lot for yourself to pursue this crazy passion."
Along with accessible music and an earnest demeanor, there's nothing like a strong work ethic to get you on the shit-list at Pitchfork, and it was utterly predictable that Making Beds would get a lukewarm (or worse) review on the confoundingly influential Web site. (They got a 6.8 and were branded as "90s nerd-pop.") "We're never very concerned with fitting in with any style or genre, and sometimes I think that kind of marks us as a little bit of outcasts with our peers," Otepka says. "We're not scared to jump around and have fun and sing songs that actually mean something. Not to judge people or anything like that..."
But judge Pitchfork he will. "It's astonishing to go around the country and find out how many people read that," he says. "Every couple of months I'll read their news section, and that's kind of interesting because they seem to be covering a lot that other people aren't. But then when you read the stories, even their news articles have this pompous pretension to them that makes them really unpleasant reads."
It's likely that Otepka would enjoy reading reviews of his band's increasingly legendary live shows more. Billboard cited them as one of the five best live acts at this year's South By Southwest, and reports from other cities have gushed about a tambourine and shaker funk breakdown that's been capping off the band's recent sets. Should be a good show, and expect a few employees of the Johnson Space Center -- curious about the band who named themselves after one of their greatest fiascoes-- to be in attendance. "We do always draw NASA employees out to our shows in Florida, Alabama and D.C.," Otepka has said. "No lie!"
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