By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
The Monolith employs the four universal truths of indie-pop. No. 1: The Beatles did it all; accept this; celebrate and reference them. No. 2: A well-placed synthesizer will always make a rock song better. No. 3: Boy/girl harmonies make your band sound like it is always having fun, which, in turn, will make the listener think he is having fun. No. 4: Campy drawings of birds and maps are always a better choice for album covers than some cheesy shot of a band's members trying to look cool. Acknowledging and utilizing these truths, the Monolith created one of the catchiest indie-pop records to come out of San Francisco in 2004, Here Comes the Monolith. Singers Bill Rousseau and Dahlia Ramirez, as well as Daniel Rogge (the three of them share guitar, bass, and keyboard duties), started the band in 2001, acquiring drummer Alex DeCarville after finishing their full-length debut. Monolith, recorded at John Vanderslice's local indie haven Tiny Telephone, is packed with nods to the quirkiest elements of the past four decades of pop music: floating vocal harmonies, noisy electric guitars, and Cars-style synth lines. The record covers a grand range of tempos, styles, and emotions. On songs like the opener, "43," the Monolith is all upbeat '70s rock. Elsewhere, as on "Heart Like a Diamond," the band spruces up Sgt. Peppers' '60s psychedelia with a dash of Elton John's lounge tinkling. And on "Never Mind What You Heard," the Monolith pays homage to Simon & Garfunkel's introspective folk. Regardless of the style employed, these musicians always seem to find the perfect melody and arrangement. It's no surprise that everybody loves them.
Rogue Wave began as a side project for Zach Schwartz, who'd grown tired of playing second fiddle, er, songwriter in S.F. indie rock outfit Desoto Reds. When he got axed from his Internet job, he flew off to New York to record a few solo numbers with a nascent producer pal, Bill Racine. The sessions went so well that Schwartz taped enough tracks for a full album, and then added keyboards and drums to them when he returned home. In 2003, he self-released the whole thing as Out of the Shadows, rechristening himself Zach Rogue in the process. Soon enough, he'd formed himself a full band, featuring bassist Sonya Westcott from Venus Bleeding, keyboardist/guitarist Gram Lebron of Schrasj, and drummer Pat Spurgeon of Lessick. The latter two musicians had approached Rogue about being in the band after falling in love with Shadows. Listening to the album (which was remastered and reissued by Sub Pop this July), it's easy to see what the pair were excited about. The disc is full of effervescent pop, rife with elegantly strummed guitars, hooky electric leads, and buzzy organ parts. Rogue seems to be channeling the emotive acoustic numbers of the Kinks, along with the delicate balladry of the Beatles and even a bit of the late-night evocations of Swell. There are also some nice lyrics, as Rogue details a father-son drama in which a recently divorced dad has brought home "13 redheads, a blonde, brunette, and a sheep." And over the past year, the live version of the band has toughened up the tunes, giving them some new arrangements and a high-octane energy. The current version of Rogue Wave is far from a solo vanity project; it's a group to be reckoned with.
It's likely no one imagined the Clash would ever sound as slick as the band did on Combat Rock, considering its anarchic punk beginnings. The same may be said of Communiqué and its precursor band, hardcore punk outfit American Steel. But this is 2004, and the times they have a-changed. Instead of offering roughshod vocals and howling noise, Communiqué utilizes thick synthesizer parts, multipart harmonies, and thorny guitar hooks. The Oakland quintet -- singer/guitarist Rory Henderson, guitarist Ryan Massey, bassist John Peck, drummer Jamie Kissinger, and keyboardist Cory Gowan -- formed in 2002, following the dissolution of American Steel. Since then, the combo has released an EP, Honeymoon, and a full-length, Poison Arrow, on Lookout! Records; toured the United States and the U.K.; performed at Live 105's BFD concert, as one of only three local bands featured; and been courted by Geffen Records bigwigs. Listening to Poison Arrows, it's easy to see what all the fuss is about. Henderson is a charismatic singer with a syrupy, sexy tone, the kind that makes young girls (and boys?) drool on their black ruffled shirts. His lyrics focus on all the things kids want to hear about: sex, drugs, suicidal impulses, dark curses. And the rest of the musicians construct their parts so cohesively that the tunes' catchiness is inevitable. Sure, there are plenty of retro touchstones -- the Smiths' mirthful misery, the Cure's harsh jangle, OMD's synth wiggles, Phil Spector's orchestral harmonics -- but the whole package sounds fresh and burly, like an old linebacker with a new pair of cleats and some kick-ass uppers. Communiqué surpasses the new wave (pun intended) of '80s-minded rock groups by being old, new, borrowed, and kinda blue.
Over the past 10 years, Deerhoof -- now comprised of Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dieterich, Chris Cohen, and Greg Saunier, all of whom play multiple instruments -- has been consistent only in its unpredictability. The San Francisco quartet's music is an aural (de)construction site, a runaway roller coaster of sound plowing through cotton candy and sharp nails, a head-spinning concoction of dada nonsense and shards of noise. When it comes to Deerhoof's clamor, only these things are for certain: Matsuzaki will alternate singing in a sweet falsetto tone and a harsh yelp; the lyrics will be impenetrable, whether they're in Japanese, English, or Spanish; the guitars, keyboards, and drums will sound like a torn-apart Dali painting that's been haphazardly put back together. If that description implies difficult listening, be assured that the group's sixth LP, Milkman, is its most accessible to date. Nominated for a California Music Award, the disc was called a "perfect album" by Spin; it also rose to No. 2 on both the CMJ Radio Chart and Rolling Stone's College Radio Chart. Altcountry icons Wilco recently chose Deerhoof to open part of an upcoming tour, Sonic Youth and Pavement's Steve Malkmus are huge fans, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening selected the group to perform at last year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Maybe the latter designation makes the most sense, as Milkmanis a concept album inspired by the cartoony artwork of Ken Kagami. Apparently, the milkman is a masked goon who likes being stabbed with fruit and luring children into his dreamland. A less talented band couldn't get away with a theme as ridiculous as that; with Deerhoof, though, the nonsensical makes sense.