On the opening night of Noise Pop '97 four teen-age girls from planet Alternia -- identified by their exposed bellybuttons and reflective frippery -- wandered to the door that leads to the backstage area at Bimbo's. Temporarily unstaffed by bouncers, the door offered the girls a straight shot to, like, you know, where all the band members hang. Their leader, a thin one in perky pigtails, approached the opening, flirted with the idea of stepping through the celebrity portal -- and then suddenly turned around. As she led her friends across the floor I could almost hear the synapses firing: "I coulda gone backstage. Wait, who's backstage? Whatever. Let's get some sodas."
Somehow indie rock -- let's call it Noise Pop, for solidarity's sake -- has reversed the traditional rock 'n' roll relationship between band and audience. In other words, screw screwing the singer; just hand over the songs. ("Here we are now, entertain us.") For better or worse -- and there are arguments on either side -- we've killed the video stars.
Maybe that's why audiences are so damn unresponsive at shows like these. Or maybe it's festival virgins trying to figure out what the hell "Noise Pop" means. I too am still not quite sure, but it wears a short-sleeved work shirt, carries a rolled-up copy of Snackcake under its arm, and sounds a hell of a lot like HYsker DY or Squirrel Bait. Sonically, it's a prolix clause, but there's an essential difference: HYsker DY pioneered a sound, Squirrel Bait aped it shamelessly but had more fun in the process.
Local post-punk trio Peppercorn sounded like they were aiming for the former but looked about as miserable as Bob Mould in a room full of A&R guys. Still, all the components were there. Tortured vocals? Check. Crushing guitar with lotsa melody? Check. Split-second punctuation between parts to prove they're tight as hell? Check. Drummer Kurt Hobson is a one-man locomotive, and plenty fun to watch, but the short set never mustered aplomb.
Stepping away from the Grant Hart/Bob Mould juggernaut, Spoon were on to something unique, if not memorable. The Austin, Texas, trio began with an almost surfy instrumental, led by Britt Daniel's tricked-out amp and reverb-laden acoustic guitar. With nary a pause, Spoon went into a modish number, Daniel smacking gum between lyrics. And damn if that acoustic didn't sound like an electric axe, feedback squawks and all. For its first spate of singles, Spoon attracted Pixies comparisons, but without female bassist Andy Maguire's Kim Deal-isms, those comparisons faded like third-generation xeroxes. At Bimbo's, drummer Jim Eno displayed a fine sense of rhythm, and catchy choruses like "Waiting for the kid to come out" (from their recent Soft Effects EP) gave the tepid audience the sense that the lyrics were really good, but Spoon couldn't use the disguise to their own end. Welcome to Dullsville.
Bay Area club perennials Engine 88 began their set with "Firefly," which boasts perhaps the catchiest vocal melody on their 1995 Clean Your Room disc. Although the sing-along chorus demands most of the attention, it's one of the couplet verses that wins the Bob Dylan award for compelling, image-heavy lyrical nonsense: "I've never seen a firefly fly around a light/ She keeps a .45 for the middle of the night." This in the middle of a boy-girl reunion tale.
Lead singer Tom Barnes, who sings something like a cross between Kurt Cobain and that loser from Counting Crows, has plenty of charisma: He's the kind of guy who sings a lyric about something "around her neck" and grips his own throat. (Apparently there is a connection to the loser, as Barnes played with a pre-MTV Crow.) The rest of the band is equally kinetic, and they act not only like they discovered the power of the occasional fat metal riff, melodic but harsh rhythm sections, and psychosexual themes, but like they were picked by the creator (Mould) to spread the good word.
Engine 88 is far more entertaining live than on record, particularly their new platter, Snowman. In person, the band provides ample visual cues. You know when they hit the perfect riff; you can see bassist Eric Knight when he catches a surprisingly good groove. Unfortunately, the songs lose distinction on record and the band has trouble making their personalities stick to the CD's aluminum plating. Which is to say they sound like HYsker DY, but they're actually Squirrel Bait.
The four shaved-skull members of Knapsack looked like they came out on the wrong end of a razor fight. This was the same day that scientists cloned a sheep on the other side of the Atlantic, and a newly arrived table guest posited that they'd nefariously replicated Ed Kowalczyk from Live as well.
Nope, these vocals were pure whine and torture. Knapsack freely admit they're not breaking any new sonic ground, which I suppose makes them the Strawberry Alarm Clock of alternative rock. As one friend said, "As Bush is to Nirvana, Knapsack is to Superchunk."
The same witty tablemate made the most deft observation of the night: Archers of Loaf put the "college" back in "college rock." Like HYsker DY, Archers would be rolling in royalties if they took out patents on the sound they've cooked out of three LPs since 1993's Icky Mettle.
Archers began with "Vocal Shrapnel," a song off their slow-impact All the Nations Airports LP. Like so many Archers songs, it might be lyrically empty, but most of the words at least sound smart, and it's got a great sing-along line: "Overrated, she's not faking/ Idiots collect to run a losing place." Eric Johnson's guitar notes rang like pulses of Morse code against Eric Bachmann's fucked-up guitar chords. Bassist Matt Gentling, who has the rare gift of being able to move like a sloshed whirling dervish and still pound his instrument, wasted no time getting into his shtick.
That led to "The Lowest Part Is Free," one of Archers' damnations of the record industry, performed complete with its segue into "Freezing Point" from the Vs. the Greatest of All Time EP. For the first time the crowd responded immediately, howling between songs and shouting out titles. Archers are a fan's band, partly evidenced by the fact that the quartet tours more than the average H.O.R.D.E. group, yet still can sell out a show at Bimbo's four months after a gig at the Great American.
The vicious snarl (note: Bachmann smoked at least half a pack of Marlboro Lights before taking the stage) of "Audiowhore" prompted the indie equivalent of pogoing to the oldies. But, oddly enough, it was the frail whistle on "Rental Sting" and the epic "Distance Comes in Droves" from Airports that showed what the Archers became over the past four years. Both songs ebb and flow with an acute sense of dynamics, lyrical clarity, and actual beauty. Most critics panned the new record within weeks, but that's only because hopes were so high. (Option sarcastically dubbed Archers "the Great White Hope" last fall.) But at Bimbo's Archers pulled off an old-school rock 'n' roll trick, demanding their audience re-evaluate a good record that almost slipped through the cracks -- or into the used bin. Despite itself, indie rock is still searching for an idol. Teen-agers might not want to fuck Bachmann, but at least he has a brain.