Under the Shinfluence

Washington City Paper | December 2, 2005
Indie historians, direct your attention to 2002. That was the year the Shins managed to get one of their songs into a McDonald’s commercial without becoming uncool. Or at least not unspeakably uncool—no more so than Low was after it did that Christmas ad for the Gap.

The Shins song was the ridiculously catchy 2001 single “New Slang,” which happened to have a much slier video than any tune used in a Mickey D’s ad really deserves: scene after scene of the band members re-creating canonical alternative-rock album covers—the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Slint’s Spiderland, and so on. The visual checklist of hipster images counterbalanced the nauseatingly domestic scene of a dad and his newborn in the McDonald’s spot, sure, but it also acknowledged a shared musical memory. We grew up with the same bands you did, it said to aging music fans. We love them just as much as you do. We are, just like you, straight-up indie-rock dudes.

The don’t-go-to-shows-anymore types paid attention. So did the Portland, Ore., quartet’s Seattle-based label, Sub Pop. The company, long associated with the grunge scene, was in need of a new signature sound. Here was something it hadn’t really tried before, and it even came with a viable post-Nirvana business model: Forget converting the metal kids and getting in bed with the majors; just sell to people who’ve always loved Sub Pop—those who came of musical age in the late ’80s and early ’90s swinging their long hair to Mudhoney but now have, like, some grown-up shit to deal with. Give them slightly left-of-center tunes to comfort them after a long day at the graphic-design firm, pick up a few new fans through the occasional McDonald’s ad, Gilmore Girls episode, or Zach Braff movie, and be done with it.

Oakland, Calif.’s, Rogue Wave is a perfect example of the new Sub Pop signee. Its music is mellow, catchy, and rooted in indie-rock tradition. It’s not as blue-collar brutal as, say, Tad or Soundgarden, but it’s not wholly without aggression or grandiosity, either. Like head Shin James Mercer, Rogue Wave lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Zach Rogue has a predilection for vaguely psychedelic pop and eager-to-please melodies. On the new Descended Like Vultures, his musical referents include the lo-fi folk of Sub Pop labelmate Iron and Wine (“Are You on My Side”), the melancholic rock of Elliott Smith or Mark Kozelek (“Temporary”), and the sort of spirit-of-’67 pop Guided by Voices recorded by the truckload back in the day (“10:1”). Rogue’s lyrics are indecipherable amid all the effects and filters, but the nervous energy of his delivery comes through.

Rogue Wave’s debut LP, last year’s Out of the Shadow, was essentially a solo outing for Rogue—and a decent, if unexciting, batch of Shins-y indie rock. Having a full band at his disposal for Vultures has helped Rogue come a bit more into his own, mostly by experimenting with song dynamics. The best example is the album’s marvelous second track, “Publish My Love.” It starts with a big drum sound and a series of anthemic build-ups, but actually dials it down for the chorus. By going soft and intimate when we expect him to go hard and epic, Rogue gives the all-but-meaningless line “You could never publish my love” some surprising emotional oomph. Plus, he gets to save all the really epic stuff for the album-opening “Bird on a Wire,” a song that does as much as any with the soft-loud stylings of early-’90s indie.

Similar compositional tricks are pulled off all over Vultures. “You” starts with four-and-a-half minutes of subdued, hypnotic pop. The dreaminess is interrupted by a brief dissonant climax, before Rogue returns and gently repeats, “One day I/One day I found you.” On “California,” Rogue does a good job of staying just this side of O.C.-soundtrack acoustic pop, thanks in part to a stuttering little guitar breakdown between verses. It’s easy to imagine one of that show’s moody cutie-pies curling up and listening to lines such as “Screw California/And friends that are never there”—though it seems less likely that they’d be into this one: “From hearts of the modern/Children of Cicero.” But the cynical and obtuse nature of the lyrics goes a long way toward preventing the song from being overly saccharine or self-pitying.

None of which means that Rogue Wave is offering anything you’ve never heard before. But its songs are so hook-laden and cozy-sounding that it seems as if Rogue Wave is just reminding the listener of bands from the past rather than biting their style. “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done,” Rogue sings on “Salesman at the Day of the Parade,” but he doesn’t mean it—at least not about his music, which is well-executed, elegant, and, above all, unashamed of the past. For straight-up indie-rock dudes, it’ll do nicely until that next Shins release.

It’s a little harder to pardon the plagiarism of Wolf Parade. The hyped-to-all-get-out Victoria, B.C.–by–way–of–Montreal band was discovered by Isaac Brock, Modest Mouse frontman, sometime A&R man for Sub Pop, and all-around straight-up indie-rock dude. (Never mind that his group is on a major label; it’s the thought that counts.) Surely he noticed the many stylistic similarities between his own band and the Canadian rockers. The cynic might suggest that he was merely trying to elevate the status of his own band as a musical progenitor—or that Sub Pop will stoop to anything when it comes to giving its new demographic familiar sounds.

Apologies to the Queen Mary, Wolf Parade’s debut long-player, opens with the extremely Mousy “You Are a Runner and I Am My Father’s Son.” The anxious vocals and herky-jerky composition beg comparisons to the work of the more famous Issaquah, Wash., outfit. The lack of hooks or energy ensures that it will come up wanting. The Spartan arrangement makes vocalist/keyboardist Spencer Krug’s yelping all the more irritating.

Very few other indie-rock records released this year received the publicity build-up Queen Mary did. Right now, the smart money has Wolf Parade eventually signing to Glacial Pace, Brock’s vanity label for Epic. And the mythologizing has already begun: The band’s very first gig, as everybody now knows, was opening for future critic’s darlings the Arcade Fire. It all might be tolerable if Wolf Parade actually had the songs to back up the hype.

Not all of the tracks on Queen Mary are grating Modest Mouse clones. “The Modern World,” for example, features the vocals of guitarist Dan Boeckner, who shares singing chores with Krug and sounds a lot more like Ian McCulloch than Isaac Brock. It’s a shame that his more pleasant voice utters such trite, Bunnymen-musty phrases as “Modern world, I’m not pleased to meet you/You just bring me down.” The best song here, “Shine a Light,” is a melodic, uplifting number offering the most convincing evidence that Wolf Parade may eventually find its own style—most likely one built around Hadji Bakara’s retrofuturistic synthesizer embellishments.

But then again, the icy keyboards, angular guitars, and affected vocals of “Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts” and “Grounds for Divorce” are all too reminiscent of such inexplicably popular retrofuturistic revival acts as Interpol and Franz Ferdinand. So much for sticking with classic indie and not trying to top the charts.

On Modest Mouse’s most recent LP, Brock sang something that might be relevant: “Well, a fake Jamaican took every last dime with a scam/It was worth it just to learn some sleight of hand.” But hey, let’s give his protégés the last word: Toward the end of Queen Mary, Krug sings, “You’ll believe in anything.” That means you, dear listener.

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