The broken social scene of indie rock Sunday
Don't make Gollum come over here. Is 2010 the year that Treasure Island's indie rock programming skews "precious, precious," playing to our staider, more subdued selves, in search of sure things and still uncertain that we've recovered from that doozy of a Great Recession hangover?
How else would Ms. Indieface Snap-Judgement — always a tough critic — size up a day crowned by the excellent, seldom-seen, but never-too-outta-hand Belle and Sebastian? A day studded with such dutiful students of well-behaved melodicism as She and Him (whose "Home," off Volume 2 [Merge], is either ironic or one of the most overly-sugared numbers this year) and the National, deep-throating dryly and eloquently about masculine banalities via Matt Berninger's well-used baritone?
Down, girl — no blubbering, land-lubber. Listen to the still-raging, feisty Superchunk, navigating its own frothing white-water distortion. Behold a different breed of rock-out madness in the crowd-control maestros of Monotonix and the passionate school-band kids of Ra Ra Riot. You know there's no way to dismiss Treasure Island's rock seafarers as simply too-cute weak geeks and stubborn post-punk freaks.
Nay, matey, if anything unites the washed and unwashed swept ashore Sunday at Treasure Island fest, it's the conceit that indie is completely fractured in 2010: a broken social scene, for sure, encapsulated by no one sound. This year's rock labels skew toward the other coast — more Matador/4AD and Merge than Sub Pop — and the bands trend older rather than younger, tending toward the proven rather than the unknown. A few common themes thread through disparate bands' songs in ways that might amuse followers of the collective unconscious — whether it's the ghosts that float through Belle and Sebastian and the National's latest discs, or the way Superchunk hollers, "I stopped swimming/ Learned to surf" on, of course, "Learned to Surf," while Surfer Blood, natch, warbles, "If you move out west, you better learn how to surf" in "Floating Vibe."
Catholic tastes, classical gases come out to play, although nothing is ever clear-cut. In fact, Belle and Sebastian appear to be making moves toward Saturday's electronics with Write About Love (Matador), as subtle synthesizers shimmer along the surfaces of "I Didn't See It Coming," and guest vocalist Norah Jones slathers buttery soul over the mannered Dusty-goes-to-Memphis-Sunday-service of "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John." Picture B&S dragging itself — via Northern soul and brassy, oh-so-forward grooves — into, gulp, the 1970s and even '80s. Not that Stuart Murdoch is going easily into middle age: tracks such as "Calculating Bimbo" hinge on barbed jabs. Are B&S feeling sinister and bitter to be woken from a twee dream, one that the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the Crystal Stilts seemed to be taking for their own last year?
There's no need to retreat to precious twee when bands like the National are brooding so prettily and anthemically. On High Violet (4AD), the blandly, grandiosely monikered combo sounds like 'burb-bound Ian Curtises wandering betwixt the sadlands of Bruce Springsteen and the cushy enclaves of Coldplay. Ms. Snap wonders how the group can reproduce the recording's plush, simultaneously warm and coolly detached production in concert. It's as much a character as any of the dour, pathetic, and somewhat mean-spirited men populating High Violet.
Better still are groups like Broken Social Scene, which keep you guessing while lobbing one wobbly, janky curveball after another on Forgiveness Rock Record (Arts and Crafts), dipping toes into puddles of foghorn-like electronics ("World Sick"), toying with dynamic highs and lows while embracing the rock-out ("Meet Me in the Basement") and the close-up ("Sentimental X's"). You forgot that indie rock could still do it, but songs like "Forced to Love" and "Sweetest Kill" jolt you out of cozy complacency.
TREASURE ISLAND MUSIC FESTIVAL
Sat/16, noon–11 p.m.; Sun/17, noon–10:30 p.m.;
Treasure Island, SF