Trapped by Tropes: Spoon, The New Pornographers, Alt-J, Charly Bliss

New albums by four indie-rock bands recycle and repurpose decades-old sounds, sometimes striking out and sometimes succeeding.

Forget authenticity, anti-commercialism and the like — above all, indie-rock as a genre fascinates for how performers quiver beneath the anxiety of influence, nervously seesawing between referents. One new sound can stay in the culture forever if acolytes repeat it, pay tribute to it, revive it when it falls out of fashion, or reverse it while acknowledging the original’s primacy. In 2017 it often takes effort to distinguish between novel forms and received ones, alternative forms and normative ones. The four bands reviewed below walk these tightropes with varying degrees of grace.

Spoon: Hot Thoughts

Spoon: Hot Thoughts (Matador)

I’d say this clinches it, but they clinched it a decade ago: Britt Daniel and company only know how to make one album, which they’ve done about a half dozen times over a now storied career. It’s a pretty good one, though, and it keeps getting more fanciful within established strictures. That four to five men should for years take such professional delight in tweaking such an oddly staid model of lightweight guitar-rock, rather like a cat batting around a ball of yarn, is an amusement in itself.

If ever a band were trapped by formula, Spoon is it, but that misses the point somehow. Formula is their subject, their muse. That jerky, tensile style of guitar/piano jitter rattles around in their bones, as inextricable from the band dynamic as Daniel’s raw bleat. Musical strategies that with other bands might indicate attempts to break the mold have long since become integrated into said formula; Spoon’s mild spareness accommodates any range of sly sound effects and compositional experiments. Recent Spoon albums have abounded with more good and bad sonic ideas than most bands manage to pack in, and this installment is no different — the long synth intro with gradual guitar fade-in on “WhisperI’lllistentohearit,” the shakers/rainstick on “Pink Up,” the keyboard belches augmenting or replacing the guitar parts — and yet none violates the boundaries of the compressed, muscular template they invented around the turn of the millennium. The title track’s confluence of ominous electronic ostinato, heavy guitar crunch, and plinky cowbellesque percussion produces quite the slinky stunner, while “Shotgun” lopes purposefully along, its interlocking rhythm guitar parts barking at each other. Much of the rest remains beige, clunky, and male, which isn’t a bad thing — imagine those adjectives in their friendliest incarnations.

The brand of quirk-rock available here isn’t quiet, but it is slight; the album might not fit into casual contexts. Spoon’s jarring, stop-and-go motion demands the listener pause and contemplate the album as a self-conscious aesthetic object. The preponderance of these objects in indie-rock is at once its most pressing limitation and its great gift to the world.

The New Pornographers - White Out Conditions

The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (Concord)

Self-consciousness usually compounds formal dilemmas rather than solves them, but every album don’t work out that way. Sometimes it’s fun to watch musicians puzzle their way out of a tight box, as with the New Pornographers, the infamous, long-running, ever-shifting aggregate of Canadian singer-songwriters who here defeat indie-rock’s self-referential impotence with, er, a beguiling concept album about self-referential impotence. It rocks, too!

Dominated by mainstay A.C. Newman and essential covocalists Neko Case and Katherine Calder, this is their best project in a decade or more because ordinary rules regarding the linear motion of time don’t apply: like many bands acutely conscious of their predecessors, they frolic in the wreckage that litters posthistorical space. Furthermore, they’ve written a bunch of songs about being an indie band struggling to survive in some dystopian confluence of straitened material circumstance and the aforementioned abstract posthistorical space .”I only play for money honey,” begins the first song, and by the end their “blues from the last world/news from the future” has been “consigned to the dustbins.” They dodge their chronic scatteredness, adopting a consistent sound that, puzzlingly, recalls Broken Bells, testing the preciousness of their guitar-based songwriting against integrated electronics that function as jabs in the ribs. Their smooth mesh of acoustic and electric guitars readily admits alternately whizzy, spattery, and serene synthesizer parts, caught up in crafted, high-flying soar. Propelled through the air from beginning to end, the album deploys its riffage with such streamlined efficiency it takes several listens to notice the spiraling melody adorned with synth staccato in “Whiteout Conditions,” the raw guitar blasts dotting the steady bassline in “Darling Shade,” the way the chorus in “Colosseums” swells up anthemically only to clamp down on itself hard, all achieving grace and ease that belies the frustrations expressed in song.

The depth of their defeatism reveals the limits of their musical world; the collapse of their own particular tradition doesn’t mean the collapse of all music. It’s hard to fault said defeatism as a critic who has made criticisms of indie-rock similar to those the band repeats and turns on itself. No collapse of tradition prevents genre obsessives from assembling records into elegant, hummable, distinct pop shapes. Come for the hooks and stay for a scary, inchoate sense of political urgency.

Alt-J: Relaxer

Alt-J: Relaxer (Infectious/Atlantic)

Caring about indie consensus in 2017 means pondering bands who mistake eccentricity for notability and consider divergence from received form reasonable evidence for talent. After two passable albums on which they defined their own amateurish, electronic, mechanized, folkish sound, the English experimental rockers here tweak that sound several steps over the edge in accordance with the above two misconceptions, and the whimsy is just too much to bear.

There’s no denying their originality — no other band assembles slithering acoustic guitar strings and antiseptic keyboard hum into such hushed, mesmerizing, immaculately interlocking clockwork ticky-tock. They demonstrate excellently how admirable attempts to create new sonic templates often produce labored ones. Theoretically, the organic and electronic elements would click into a striking musical contraption, a hissing, chirping metal machine cobbled together from moving parts, spinning reassuringly around the coffee table; indeed, “Matilda” and “Fitzpleasure” from their first album exemplify this ideal. There’s a calming quality to it, as the charm of the mechanical elements overlaps with the relaxed, brushed folk guitar. To accentuate the prettiness on the current album, they slow down the tempos, sing more breathily, foreground the painstakingly strummed or plucked acoustic riffs, and generally dilute each element until they attenuate the wires running through the machine, and the whole thing unravels into a pile of gears,poles,snapped strings, and smaller contraptions themselves unraveling. The record that emerges from the mess, at once wispy, whispery, and robotic, struggles to associate attenuated sound with attenuated emotion. The one upbeat exception sticks out awkwardly: “Hit Me Like That Snare,” as crazed a sex-rocker as you’re likely to hear this year. Its tinny guitar chug comes as a relief.

Given music this tightly sprung, make sure not to hit the quick release. Provided the parts haven’t rusted over, I await the day they reassemble their gadgetry.

Charly Bliss: Guppy

Charly Bliss: Guppy (Barsuk)

The question’s been asked a billion times: given a billion practically identical young punkish bands, why the hell does this one sound so special? There’s often no answer; hear enough such bands and ask the question often enough, and a healthy respect for the gods of arbitrariness emerges. That Charly Bliss’s brand of power punk should delight so makes no sense, and delights for that too.

Despite their sunny cheer, the pop-punk tag sits uneasily on them. The tempos are too frantic, the rumbling guitar roar too distorted, the mix too dirty. This is more like Grimes singing for Roomrunner — scrawny messy energetic whomp meets Eva Hendricks, whose squeaky, sugary scream abrades at this moment in history like no electric guitar will. Positing a dialectic between girly vocalist and tough band would be too facile, reliant on a spuriously gendered equivalence between guitar noise and macho defiance. It’s the musical juxtaposition that thrills, as Hendricks and the electric riffage press similar buttons in the mind’s ear. As for the guitars, she and Spencer Fox rip out harsh, fuzzy, clanky power chords as if throwing a smokescreen in front of the frenetic pounding beat hot on their tails. Sweet melodies shake out the dirt from their hair before turning back on themselves in perfect feelgood resolution (“Black Hole”); others get halfway there and rub their dissonance in your face (“Westermarck”). Stylistically and technologically, the album could easily have come out in the ‘90s, but I like them better in our modern age — you can hear how much they adore a form passed down and refined through history. That’s their secret.

I hope they don’t maintain such ebullient crunch forever — it would wear thin — but for at least the length of an album, it galvanizes. Here’s another riddle: do the songs themselves express joy, or were they just so happy to have written these songs that the joy springs from the performance?

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