The year is 2010, and indie rock has successfully infiltrated our commercials, our romantic comedies, and now our rap music. Jay-Z reps hard for Grizzly Bear, Kanye has effectively “gone emo,” and, well, the less said about Kid Cudi the better. But while I’m all for rappers broadening their musical horizons, many of the new purveyors of “alternative rap” view indie rock in terms of market-demographics, not artistic exploration. Perhaps the most flagrant perpetrator is Atlanta’s Bobby Ray Simmons, a.k.a. BoB. On his debut album, The Adventures of Bobby Ray, he not only samples Vampire Weekend in shameless fashion, but also celebrates a reactionary attitude toward hip-hop by assuming that the use of real instruments and emotional songwriting will somehow lend him instant credibility with the hipster set. But as you may or may not be shocked to learn, using electric guitars and non-sexist lyrics do not instantly make you the Roots.
After the opener, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” which sounds vaguely like every Fray song ever written, Simmons lays his claim for commercial success with “Nothin’ On You.” The song recently hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and with good reason. It smartly follows the Drake-formula of marrying simple, yet catchy, rhyme patterns in verses with high-flying R&B choruses. Unfortunately, things go downhill fairly quickly with the bland “Airplanes,” which drags its feet through some sub-Incubus grade hippie poetry as the narrator makes wishes on airplanes in the sky like they were “shooting stars.” But nothing on the album induces serious cringes until the one-two punch of “The Kids” and “Magic.” The former is a loose cover of Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” about how we’re all “trapped inside the Matrix” or something. And as for the latter? I only have three words for you: “featuring Rivers Cuomo.”
Implementing the sounds of unlikely genres into hip-hop has been a fruitful practice ever since A Tribe Called Quest first started sampling old jazz records. But there’s something disingenuous about the rise of so-called indie-rappers. After all, the definition of indie music has morphed from “music recorded on independent labels” (which this certainly isn’t) to the coldly capitalist definition of “music that is just outside of mainstream tastes enough to appeal to a large number of young hip people.” That’s what BoB seems to aiming for, but with the exception of “Nothin’ On You,” The Adventures of Bobby Ray is too drab for pop aficionados and too insincere for his coveted demographic.
In their 12-year career, Manchester’s Doves have an impeccable record. They’ve released four albums of mildly melancholy pop wrapped in a vortex of swirling guitars, majestic orchestration, and propulsive rhythms. Each record—from their 2000 debut, Lost Souls, to last year’s Kingdom of Rust—was an endless succession of peaks, one climatic apex after another.
So while a greatest hits collection may seem a little premature, there’s no denying the appeal of this three-disc set (one CD of the hits, another CD of B-sides and rarities and a DVD video collection). From the shuffling beat and sparkling guitar line of “There Goes the Fear” to the submerged atmospherics of “Snowden” to the lovelorn refute of “Words,” the trio transcends their Brit-pop brethren (Coldplay, Oasis, Blur—you name it) on every level. The Doves balance turbulance with delicacy, gloom with bright melodies, and fetching hooks with a penchant for venturing into the unknown. Even The Places Between’s second disc of leftovers shows many sparks of brilliance. On “Push Me On,” the band digs into a fuzzy trench only to emerge with its pop tendrils still untangled. The one new song in the set, new single “Andalucia,” seems a little rote by Doves standards, but would still be a highlight in any other band’s repertoire. As The Places clearly reveals, this is a band that regularly soars above their contemporaries, reaching heights that we are fortunate enough to behold.
By all accounts Tim Presley hasn’t “lived it.” His resume is somewhat scant; playing session man for Mark E. Smith and sixth man for the Strange Boys doesn’t really equate to the dug-up mood surfaced on his debut as White Fence. Granted this is a one-man show, recorded in basements and bedrooms, caked in fuzz and crackle befitting the gods of lo-fi in their sheltered dissonance. It is difficult to believe Presley has experienced the life that the reclusive, baking-in-dementia bohos (think Skip Spence, Syd, JT IV) went through day after day. Hell, I doubt Presley has even come close to the working-class grind a guy like Robert Pollard witnessed for 30-odd years. With this self-titled album, though, the legitimacy of how he arrived at such a heady confluence of influences is not in question. It’s apparent Presley has a priceless record collection, or an iPod full of acid-archived classics, for his songwriting, while not as developed as this facade would have you believe, is quite effective, especially when masked in the flavors of lost ’60s psychedelia and blown-out set-pieces that sound as if they’ve been labored over for the course of a cigarette.
The question that needs addressing is exactly how Presley would come across if the buzz of nostalgia was turned to zero and he was forced to prove himself as original. He’s likely up to the task, as there are plenty of great ideas floating around here. Giving Presley the benefit of the doubt, his debut is flush with amazingly precise echoes of those halcyon visions from the past. “I’ll Follow You,” romping lightly on toy pianos and warped, searing guitar leads, is striking in its ephemeral daydream, as is “Sara Snow,” which cribs bluntly from Relics-era Floyd. Then again a band like Marmoset has been doing this for over a decade, so there’s that. And with some miscues trying to ape the most sinister and caustic of Messthetics singles (see “Baxter Corner” to be appalled), the record still comes off as homage, albeit an homage to the greats of lonesome dark-wand psych. It must be said, though, that even though it becomes a search to find Presley’s singular, defining voice, no record of this ilk (the kind that revels in black lights, sensi smoke and paisley) has charmed me more this season.
Kevin J. Elliott
StreetLab themselves are forgettable. A New York duo with an appropriately grimy logo, they crank out rough-edged electroclash that goes nicely with mini-bar raiding and subwoofer bragging rights, but that’s it. Simple four-to-the-floor drum machine sets, throbbing, half-circle-round-the-DJ hooks—it’s the kind of stuff that makes a music journalist cringe, a stagnant, uninspired glop of safeness.
But then there are the features. Wisely StreetLab loads up their debut album, Auto Spkr, with no fewer than 11 guest spots, and while they don’t always slay, they at least make everything off-beat enough to keep your interest. “We call this the New York sound. What? We call this the New York sound,” recites Mesh (in his best James Murphy impression) on “Nysound.” It walks the line: dumb enough for the club-cruising delinquents and straight-up likable enough for brainy beat snobs.
Auto Spkr clocks in at a sizable hour-long running time and encompasses 14 tracks, so you do get a significant amount of music for your 10 bucks. But it still seems like a record for DJs and house parties only. Nothing on it demands attention, though it satisfactorily fades into the dancefloors and disco balls of the world. There’s a place for that of course, but it’s probably not on your stereo.
Even if you haven’t gotten your hands on one of the handful of singles Wounded Lion has released over the past few years, the band’s self-titled debut LP gives you a chance to quickly catch up with the Los Angeles–based band. But while a couple of Wounded Lion’s tracks have previously appeared on those records—including both sides of the sextet’s excellent “Carol Cloud” 7-inch—the album still has a cohesive feel and a focused approach to the group’s brand of slightly off-kilter pop rock.
These songs are sneakily simplistic, relying upon jagged guitar riffs and minimal lyrics using mantra-like repetition rather than overly dynamic melodies as hooks. The sum is greater than its proverbial parts, and while many of the tracks might not be “catchy” in the traditional sense, they still end up stuck in your head. In the Red devotees might note that the band eschews the heavy garage sounds typical of the label’s bands, but there’s more than a hint of that old-time rock weirdness, especially on pop ballad “Crunchy Stars.” The band also embraces its inner nerd from time to time, especially on “Dagoba System,” which comes off as a spastic and hyper Star Wars reimagining of Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco.”
If the band rarely deviates from its up-tempo formula, they stick to the program because it works. Wounded Lion comes off as punk ripened in the California sun, and it makes for a rewarding and refreshing listen.