Music: Indie Idicator

A look at this year's upcoming fresh batch of new Indie music

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Beachwood Sparks



There was a promise made a little over a year ago. With the downturn in sales and expectations of Alternative Rock and the purchase of Polygram by the Seagram's/Universal monolith, indie labels were supposed to be getting back to the vanguard of music as art, and big labels were going to go back to shoving disposable bands down the throats of target demographics. Well, at least you can count on the big companies to keep their end of the bargain (see: Total Request Live and Rolling Stone's reader's poll).

Bands that had no business dealing with companies that wanted "hits" have been set free or cut loose over the past couple years. The Smithereens, Girls Against Boys, The Ass Ponys, Mudhoney, Spoon, Rocket from the Crypt, Jimmy Eat World and literally countless others all ended up back in the market and/or working with smaller companies.

Little labels were supposed to grab up these bands and make them big fish in the small pond. Last year indies didn't do much with their opportunities. Call it a revamping or whatever, but it's time to put up or shut up.

January 18
There are great opening lines and then there are great opening lines. Joe Pernice (ex-Scud Mountain Boys, Pernice Brothers) has a new sad Pop side project, Chappaquidick Skyline. The opening line of their self-titled record is simply, "I hate my life."

That kind of broken spirit and raw pain permeates the record, as Pernice picks at his wounds over and over, dressing them in lo-fidelity, home-recorded Pop. He comes off as a stalker on the delicate Country number, "The Two of You Sleep," where he watches the object of his unrequited love slumber in the arms of someone else. New Order's "Leave Me Alone" is treated with reverence even as Pernice's rasp gives it new life.

CityBeat grade: A.

January 25
Sin Ropas's Three Cherries is a side project of Tim Hurley from Red Red Meat, Danni Iosello of Pure, and Noel Kupersmith of Brokeback. It's a murky, semi-lo-fi affair, reminiscent of the Latin Playboys minus the Latin rhythms (the Indie Playboys?). Three Cherries' songs aren't too substantial, but the razored guitars and Hurley's lackadaisical singing are the kind of bluesy, world-weary elements that give it some heft.

CityBeat Grade: B.

February 22
Hey, look another brilliant Yo La Tengo record! Ho-hum. And The Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is the quietest record yet from Hoboken, N.J.'s Beach Boys and Velvet Underground worshippers. Three years since their last new one, the hushed tones and slow-burning tempos come as a bit surprising, but no less engaging than the fuzzed out chug-chug guitars that have permeated their previous nine long players. Ira Kaplan's soft voice, always hovering around the pitch, has never meshed better with the warbly guitars and droning organs. It's as if the band is practicing in the living room, and they don't want to wake the baby napping in the back bedroom. Dazzling and tranquil, even the heavier songs don't catch fire too brightly — and that's to their benefit.

CityBeat grade: A.

Atlanta's Seely was once the only American band on England's Too Pure imprint. If that doesn't mean anything to you, Seely might not either. A Synth Pop album with its heart in whacked-out beats and samples, Winter Birds is just the kind of low-key, melancholy set that the dark days before spring deserves. The sweet boy/girl intertwined vocals of Steven Satterfield and Lori Scacco don't overshadow the complex arrangements and spooky vibe. The instrumental "Sapelo Sound" is what a DJ Shadow remix might sound like if he didn't love Hip Hop and used more guitar samples from My Bloody Valentine.

CityBeat grade: B.

It's not all about Indie "Rock" though. To balance it out, ingest as much of Kid Koala's Carpal Tunnel Syndrome as you can. Hand-scratched and assembled — without sequencer and computer assistance — this record shows off the skills that had him paying his bills by opening for the Beastie Boys on their last U.S. tour. A mélange of Hip Hop beats, gotta-be-uncleared-samples and instructional record snippets, Canada's best turntablist's debut album bounces and skitters, falling over itself as melodies go whipping by. It's ill. Not as symphonic or ambitious as DJ Shadow's Endtroducing but certainly comparable.

CityBeat grade: A.

March 7
One newish label showing promise is Chicago-based Sugar Free. It delivered the best indie record of 1999, Wheat's Hope and Adams. The first record from the company this year is Baby's First Beats from Minneapolis one-man-band, The Busy Signals. The blips and loops of samples, turntable work, dreamy Pop passages, psychedelic melodies, warbly vocals, tinny guitars, Hip Hop inspired beats all come from Hamilton's hand. It's impressive, though tempered by self-indulgent moments when you wish someone had been there to tell him when his ideas weren't so brilliant or to keep him on track. Hamilton knows his way around a hook, but sometimes settles for close enough. Hamilton builds his tracks simply, primarily with a straightforward guitar line, some keyboards and jazzy break beats without forcing the samples into a position that's too prominent or kitschy. Light Funk for Pop people.

CityBeat Grade: B.

Dropped by V2, Howe Gelb and the constantly metamorphosing lineup that is Giant Sand have ended up on Thrill Jockey, delivering yet more Post-Punk Country Rock with Chore of Enchantment. Slightly noirish — think Leonard Cohen on peyote — Gelb's songs sputter and stutter, but there's enough melody there to keep things focused. Some songs even hit the bar boogie beat for something just shy of drunk 'n funky.

CityBeat grade: B.

The third album from Trembling Blue Stars, Broken By Whispers, is more shiny, downtrodden Pop from Bob Wratten (Northern Picture Library, The Field Mice). It's gorgeous and sad. Like Pernice, Wratten seems obsessed with where he's gone wrong and how many times he's done so. However, Wratten also seems intrigued by the notion of fixing his mistakes. With his English accent coloring his words, Wratten wraps himself in bright instrumentation and the kind of mopey Pop that can only come from the U.K. It's also gorgeous, fluffy and timeless. Not timeless in a Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper's way, but in the sense that it doesn't sound like any particular year.

CityBeat grade: B.

Instrumental Indie Rock is usually just as bad as Jazz Fusion or New Age, but Australia's Dirty Three create records of lyrical beauty without words. The group's fifth record, Whatever You Love, You Are, is more of the same from the band. That means it's damn good. The music speaks with long, drawn-out notes from Warren Ellis: violin and the stuttering heartbeat of Jim White's drums, punctuated with the simplest of jazzy chords from Mick Turner. You wouldn't want all of your records to be this sketched (rather than filled in), but the feelings and hints of emotions should be enough to guide you through the night.

CityBeat grade: B.

March 21
You heard it here first: The Flying Burrito Brothers are the Big Star of the '00s. Gram Parsons is the next logical wide-scale touchstone in Indie Pop, now that Alex Chilton has fallen from favor. Beachwood Sparks picks up the melodies, instrumentation, mother-of-pearl buttons, tasseled sleeves, and mutton chops of California Country Rock and adds their own Indie Rock lineage to the songwriting. The Los Angeles band's self-titled debut is a marvel of retro-Byrdsian harmonies, slide guitar runs and floating organ vamps. This is the kind of record your dad used to annoy you with when he'd had a couple of beers watching football. But it's not backwards thinking — Sparks drummer Aaron Sperske was a Pernice Brother and is in the brilliant Lilys. While it could benefit from more guitar texture, a bit thicker reverb, and even though it settles into one mood for too long ... Man, it's pretty. It's the sound of the West Coast sun soaking into the Southern countryside.

CityBeat grade: A.

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