I went on vacation three weeks ago. It was a spontaneous trip. My best friend, Kevin, was about to head off to England for a year, so on a Friday morning I decided to hop a plane to Southern California, take the following week off and go climb a mountain with him. I've done this kind of thing before, the spontaneous vacation thing. It involves packing quickly, often inadequately; driving yourself mad trying to tie up all the loose ends; and, as far as music is concerned, grabbing whatever CDs are on your desk without giving it much thought.
That's how Kevin and I ended up motoring up the I-15 through Barstow, California, toward the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, listening to records by the Killers and Scissor Sisters, two bands that I had thus far tried to avoid, because the Killers and Scissor Sisters are fashion bands, and I generally hate fashion bands. But the last few weeks of listening to these records -- as well as attending Franz Ferdinand's recent show in San Francisco and devouring my review copy of the latest from Interpol, whose suit-wearing tendencies helped kick off this whole nouveau fashion-rock thing -- have got me reconsidering my attitude.
Music that you listen to on a road trip tends to leave a lasting impression. Inevitably, after about two hours of driving, when it's pitch black outside and you've run out of things to say, you and your buddy just sit there, listening, staring into the night. It was under these circumstances that we put on the latest from Las Vegas's hot-rock phenoms, the Killers. The first five songs on Hot Fuss -- especially "Jenny Was a Friend of Mine" and the ubiquitous single "Somebody Told Me" -- are clean, catchy new-wave bliss, the keyboards shrieking out amid charging guitars and pogoing bass lines, all of it arranged around driving choruses; the Killers may be ripping off the Cure, Blondie and half a dozen other '80s hit-makers, but when their shtick works, it works. When it doesn't -- and it definitely doesn't on the entire second half of the record -- it sounds like paint-by-numbers pop pabulum designed by the A&R division of NASA.
The Killers appear with the Pixies and the Thrills
Reliant Arena, One Reliant Park
Sunday, October 17; for more information, call 832-667-1400
Then there are the Scissor Sisters from New York. Here's an act that's so self-consciously gay/cool it makes Avril Lavigne look legitimately punk. Featuring band members with names like Jake Shears, Ana Matronic and Babydaddy, the Scissor Sisters look like they raided Hedwig's closet and play disco-tinged rock inspired by the likes of Elton John, the Bee Gees and David Bowie. Like the Killers, everything about the band seems calculated to the point of being offensive, which doesn't mean the songs suck -- far from it, in fact. Tunes like "Take Your Mama" and "Laura" are irresistible. It's just that enjoying them leaves me with the same bad taste in my mouth as eating an entire bowl of brownie mix.
Still, as we drove, Kevin and I found ourselves bouncing and grooving, nodding our heads and singing along, both on the way up the mountain and three days later when we drove the six hours back home. The experience raised a question for me about what's going on with alternative music: What's it going to mean to the current alt-rock moment to have such obviously calculating groups crash the party? The Killers and Scissor Sisters are among the handful of "it" bands defining the sound of 2004; the third new act in this trio of cool is Franz Ferdinand, and it was with the above question in mind that I attended that band's show at the Concourse Pavilion at S.F. Design Center.
If there was any doubt that Franz Ferdinand is the reigning champ of fashionable, hook-heavy dance rock, it was laid to rest at that show. The Concourse is airplane-hangar huge, and it was nearly packed to the gills with 16- to 24-year-olds dressed to the nines. Guys with two-hours-to-get-it-this-messy hair, wearing tight jeans and tighter T-shirts, mingled with attractive girls with hoop earrings dangling from their ears and hot-pink blouses hanging off one shoulder, Molly Ringwald-style. It was Sixteen Candles all over again.
When Franz Ferdinand took the stage -- with three of its four members wearing shirts and ties -- the crowd was pretty drunk (okay, I was pretty drunk) and followed the band through every rhythmic twist and turn. The air was filled with beach balls and the sounds of screaming fans, with dirty guitars and Alex Kapranos's sneering vocals, with hand-claps and the occasional keyboard, and lots of urgent, careening drumming. The songs flew by, the band having sped them all up, intentionally perhaps, or merely as an unconscious response to the giddy, impatient energy of the venue, which, when FF played its ubiquitous single "Take Me Out," exploded like a henhouse full of chickens into which someone had dropped a fox.
It was a great show.
Driving home in a friend's car after the gig, it seemed all too appropriate to put on the new Interpol record, Antics, just released. Interpol is like the older brother to the three above bands, the one who tipped his siblings off to "cool music"; it's the band that, two years ago, reintroduced the moody, melancholic post-punk sound of the early '80s to today's modern rock radio. If the Strokes are Pearl Jam, Interpol is Nirvana, the band that crystallized not just the sound of a genre, but also the tone -- in this case, detached, deliberate and dapper. Antics is the follow-up to Interpol's love letter to urban ennui, 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights, and it's one of the most anticipated albums this year.
Would you believe that it's pretty damn good?
Like Bright Lights, the record begins in a languid stupor, with the floating high notes of a Hammond B-3, the distant thumps of a simple drumbeat and vocalist-guitarist Paul Banks announcing to his crush, "We ain't going to the town / We're going to the city." What follows on the next nine tracks is cleverly cosmopolitan, polished and regal, yet filthy, the soundtrack to illicit love affairs that take place between midnight and sunrise. Shimmering, icy guitars once again color the record, dancing and chiming throughout Banks's verses then bursting like flashbulbs during his choruses. Unlike the Strokes, whose sophomore effort sounded like a collection of outtakes from their debut, Interpol has matured on Antics, if ever so slightly. It's mainly in the arrangements, in the way a song like "Narc" seductively wiggles through escalating verses, through offbeat guitars and fluttering drums, its momentum building like sex, steady and sweet at first, but ultimately devolving into an urgent chorus: "You should be in my space / You should be in my life."
Indeed, an amazing album -- but probably one of the last of its kind. Why? Well, here's my theory: Back in 2000, the Strokes and the White Stripes broke into the mainstream and changed the face of alternative rock. At that time, popular music was defined by plasticity. You had the overproduced bubblegum pop divas like Britney and Christina, the overproduced emo-grunge of bands like Creed and Live, the overproduced rap-rock of bands like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock. People were hankering for something "real," and the dirty guitars and sullen stares of the Strokes and the White Stripes were just the ticket. Finally, music could be "authentic" again.
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Thus began the age of retro-rock, the sound of which is created by any band that steals from groups that existed BN, or before Nirvana. In addition to the Strokes and the White Stripes, acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the French Kicks, the Walkmen, the Vines, the Datsuns, the Libertines and dozens more roamed the Earth. Each had its sound, more or less, but all of them -- with their shaggy hair, rumpled jeans and coy, pasty-faced visages -- could be placed under that one giant umbrella.
Now, the upside of this trend is that, by and large, it produced some great music. Fashionistas or no, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are one fierce trio, and I'll concede the same for Interpol, Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters and, to a lesser extent, the Killers. But, merely as a matter of timing, Interpol's Antics is the beginning of the end, for it arrives when these bands are truly starting to become caricatures of themselves, plastic and prefabricated, offering no new outlook on the world beyond catchy narratives about hitting the club and tying one off -- oh, yeah, one of the defining characteristics of cheesy retro-rock is lyrics about going places, hitting the town, etc. I'm not saying that every good band must be tortured and overwrought, but when a band's thoughts are trained strictly to making it big, its music tends to lack a certain pathos.Which is why I'd say that Franz Ferdinand isn't a good band. It's a band that knows how to pretend it's a good band, as are the Killers. They've both seen what works; both know which haircuts to get, which neckties to wear, which lyrics to write. And while these groups may end up making some snappy, sultry dance rock, it is, at the end of the day, disposable snappy, sultry dance rock, and no less contrived than music made by the boy bands and rap-rock stars whom the retro-rock movement established all its credibility for having upended.
Interpol's snooty fashion sense was once upon a time excusable because it was an anomaly. Now that it's the norm -- now that the band is in essence competing with other bands that ripped it off -- it's going to get old quick. So here's what I'm willing to bet: Despite its brilliance, Antics will be forever remembered as the album that marked the time when retro-rock jumped the shark, going from early-'00s movement to late-'00s embarrassment. It's only going to get worse from here. We can expect a Creed-like version of the Strokes to show up on MTV any day now. I can expect my 15-year-old sister to ask for a set of hoop earrings and some leg warmers for Christmas.
Oh, well. At least Kevin and I got in one good road trip with the stuff before it rotted like old fruit.