OK, local indie-rock fans, I’ve got good news and bad news for you. First, the good news: Built To Spill and Metric are both coming to Nashville this fall. And the bad news? The two bands are playing on the same night — at separate venues.
According to a press release sent the Scene’s way, on Sept. 14 Doug Martsch & Co. will showcase their seminal-but-timeless, bearded brand of pop hook- and guitargasm-replete quirk-core at Exit/In. Meanwhile, across town, Emily Haines & Co. will (according to Pollstar) wow a crowd of (hopefully) dancing local social scenesters, transforming The Ryman into a Brooklyn loft party gone South with their sleek, synth-heavy, infectious, neo-New Wave and post-punk pastiche.
Now, I hate to add any unwanted stress and tough choices to your already troubled and unnavigable lives, but I’m afraid this dual announcement likely leaves many of you with a tough decision to make: Which show will you attend? And how does that choice define you as a music fan, and as a person?
On paper, these are two very different bands we’re talking about. Two bands that, when evaluated in the context of one another, represent diametrically opposed ends of the big aesthetic tent that is indie rock, the genre and cultural institution. Think in terms of K Records vs. DFA Records. Dressed up vs. dressed down. Guitar solos vs. synth patches. College radio broadcasts vs. art-school iPod playlists. The drop-out line vs. the dorm room. Pot vs. Pills. Being a nerd in the ‘90s vs. being hip in the Aughts. Nodding your head vs. shuffling your feet.
Built To Spill is comprised of unkempt dudes who looked middle-aged even when they were in their 20s — guys from Idaho who still look like they sell weed to support their ice-fishing habits. Their music is organic, good-natured, guitar heavy, meticulously composed, intricately layered but open to indulgent interpretation onstage. Distinguished by its blemishes and cockeyed pop sensibility, it comes fully loaded with infectious melodies and affably high-pitched vocals that give way to long, drawn-out jams. The sonic end product sounds something like Brian Wilson worshiping at the alter of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. It’s pop music for patient people. You can’t really dance to it:
Along with fellow left-of-dial '90s flag-bearers like Pavement, Guided by Voices, Modest Mouse, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, et al., at day’s end, Built To Spill is an archetypical example of the loose musical execution and slacker chic that defined indie rock’s golden era — you know, the one in which indie-rock bands put out records on major labels and turned a profit in the process.
Metric, on the other hand, is a band you can (and should) dance to — a band that, along with contemporaries like Crystal Castles, Ratatat, LCD Soundsystem and others, was emblematic of a paradigm shift in the culture of independent music. At the turn of the century, the genre made an aesthetic about-face toward textured retro-‘80s fetishization. Out-of-tune guitars gave way to synthesizers, unprocessed drums gave way to gated disco beats and the charm of dry, lo-fi, haphazard recordings gave way to lush, spacious sound collages cribbed from Brian Eno and Hugh Padgham’s studio notes. Often, as in the case of Metric, bands intensified these smooth sounds with their own melodic intuition, dueling Andy Gill-inspired angular riffs and some punky attitude. Even Modest Mouse managed to score a Top 40 hit with a (great) song that set an uncharacteristically upbeat sing-along sentiment to a four-on-the-floor disco tempo.
Basically indie rock went from slumming it in the ‘90s to embracing and aspiring to the clean, focused sheen found on Robert Palmer and Peter Gabriel records, while at the same time gunning for Gang of Four comparisons. Post-punk and New Wave faves like The Pet Shop Boys, The Cure and The Chameleons rivaled REM, The Wipers, Husker Du or Fugazi as prevalent influences. The quantized quarter-note kick came to match the alternately tuned power chord as an indie rocker’s rallying call. In 2004, it wasn’t all that uncommon to hear a band described as “sounding like a cross between Joy Division and New Order.” (I really did hear that one more times than I care to recall.)
At the same time, Pacific Northwestern and Midwestern cities like Seattle, Portland, Chicago and Louisville — hubs that produced and hosted bands like Built To Spill and many of their contemporaries — were increasingly outpaced by fashionably fast-paced locales like London, LA, Montreal, Toronto and Brooklyn (nee New York City) in producing internationally known indie ensembles. Metric marked its territory in all of those cities, at various points calling each one home.
Naturally, independent music became more fashion-oriented. Not in a vapid way. But in way that assimilated cosmopolitan, DIY street styles into the fashion world and into that conversation. Admittedly, I don’t know dick about fashion. Right now I’m unironically wearing an baggy black T-shirt with a neon smiley face stenciled on it. I’d say that every morning I amaze myself simply by successfully dressing myself in colors that match … if only I could successfully do that every morning.
Problem is, no fashion sense is still a fashion sense. Try as I might to hide it, the way I dress (or under-dress) gives strangers context clues as to my disposition. I dressed this way as kid, long before I was a music fan with even a mere smidgen of pop-cultural awareness. So did I subconsciously cultivate a proclivity for similarly slackerly dressed bands like Built To Spill and Sebadoh? Probably.
I never did read fashion magazines growing up. But if I had, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have spotted Lou Barlow, Stephen Malkmus or Kim Deal frequenting their pages. Just a guess. Metric singer Emily Haines, however, is an influential fashion luminary. Accordingly, magazines like Interview and Elle cover her band. She talks about the intersection of fashion and indie rock more intelligently than I can. See for yourself:
Of course, like I said, indie rock is a big tent — and one that got exponentially bigger with the proliferation of bands, labels and sub-sects. In between your Built To Spills and your Metrics you have factions of perennial punks, garage revivalists, noise rockers and heartland-rock interpreters like The Hold Steady that would probably throw a sampler into a shower if they came across one.
So indie rock is not an absolute idiom. But when all is said done, the differences between artists are really only so great. Musically, both Built To Spill and Metric have their roots in pop influences and the ability to infect the ears with catchy hooks. The two bands also share another thing in common: an audience. I mean, shit, I like both bands. Don’t you? I’ll probably go see Built To spill. But probably just for generational reasons, or because I’ll have an easier time dressing appropriately for the occasion.
Also, BTS hasn’t hit Nashville in almost six years. (Metric played Cannery last year.) I remember because I attended the band's 2006 City Hall gig just days after moving to Nashville. And, ironically enough, following the show, I even managed to nab myself a mention in The Spin:
Sunday night, as not more than five minutes after the group climbed City Hall’s stage, we witnessed a fist-pumping fan take out a friend’s $4 draft beer. Luckily, the two made up quickly with promises of a replacement drink. ...
I was the victim in that little accident.