The snorification of indie rock

"When did indie rock get so boring?" That was the question posed by my fellow showgoer at Noise Pop's opening-night bash once

Tapes 'n' Tapes launched into their set. And I hate to say it, but he was right. Here we were at Mezzanine's free celebration for the festival's 15th anniversary, a party crammed with goodies from gratis ice cream and T-shirts to David Cross' Tenderloin junkie jokes, and the Minneapolis act given top billing slowly drained the room of revelers. This was our chance to sample indie rock's riches — but as my friend pointed out, if Tapes 'n' Tapes are the cream, this new crop is curdling.

OK, so it's not fair to reduce the entire genre of indie rock to snark-chum because of one underwhelming headliner at Noise Pop, but Tapes 'n' Tapes are symptomatic of a larger problem. From Tapes to the Spinto Band to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, there isn't enough fury or ecstatic emotion in the hyped indie class' outbursts, no butane in those bellies. In place of gutsy songwriting is a benign Axis of (Evil) Indie Influences — David Byrne, Gordon Gano, and, now more often, Bruce Springsteen — fueling a disturbingly dull trend of uniform mid-tempo crapola. It's the equivalent of those liberal "debates" where arguments are really just excuses to agree to agree and agree some more. Where's the dissension in the ranks? Where are the new originals (Sufjan Stevens, Pink Mountaintops, Modest Mouse) when you crave them?

The truth is that rock — be it indie, punk, garage, or whatever modifier you hang on the guitar-centric sound — are all variations on the same simple theme. No matter how much you fiddle with technology, you're not reinventing the reel-to-reel here. Nonetheless, there are still indie rockers who strike nerves that jolt raw reactions. Take TV on the Radio. They fuse barbershop harmonies with icy atmospherics, and all frontman Tunde Adebimpe has to do is croon and you're absorbed in the subtle hells behind that falsetto. The Shins, meanwhile, are helping Sub Pop hit its next Nirvana not by ratcheting up the kitschy yelps, but rather by luxuriating in the softer side of pop hooks that find ebullience in uncertainties.

But looking at indie rock through the general survey of Letterman guests and festival faves, it's lost a quest for rebellion and a sonic anti-establishmentarian stand. The outsiders are being ushered before TV cameras and across blogger America, and along the way they've dropped the torch tossed out by another Noise Pop headliner, Sebadoh — who back in the day demanded "Gimme Indie Rock," and laid down the terms a little something like: Breaking down the barriers like Sonic Youth/ They got what they wanted/ Maybe I can get what I want too ... Time to knock the hard rock on its side/ Time to knock the shit right up a storm.

The night of Noise Pop's Mezzanine extravaganza, the only outfit knocking "the shit right up a storm," was the one taking cues from genres older than Sebadoh. Openers Extra Action Marching Band commanded the crowd, butting vaudeville kicks into campy vogueing, jutting out pelvises and platinum wigs, while trombones and drums and horns and megaphones locked down the escape from their anthems. The stand they took was one of complete cacophony, but no matter how many times you've seen Extra Action, they're a lot of things, but never boring. Which is a lot more than you could say for Tapes 'n' Tapes and their vanilla ilk.

 
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