In Nick Hornby's High Fidelity--one of several indie-rock novels to flesh out the dubious literary genre last year--the protagonist, a record-store owner, asserts that a person isn't much better than his record collection. "A while back...Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like," he notes.
The same could be said for indie-rock bands: when the collectors turned into musicians, they copied the sounds of their favorite obscurities, and then other bands copied them, and then major labels threw money at second- and third-generation copies, and a vicious cycle of unoriginality spun quickly out of control. Now the indie-rock bands that stand out do so for managing to extract a new twist on the obvious.
One of the latest bands to emerge from this culture is Chicago's own Number One Cup, whose models are indie titans Superchunk and Pavement; on the band's 1995 debut, Possum Trot Plan, the gem "Divebomb" is mired in a loose stew of lo-fi muck and half-baked songs. All of which makes the new Wrecked by Lions (both albums are on the small Rhode Island label Flydaddy) a rather dramatic turnaround. Number One Cup's lyrics still fall squarely in Pavement's obscurantist tradition, but it's hard to fault a couplet like "You swing like Roger Maris / And you dress like Paris." The tunes still sound like the carefully arranged detritus of the band's contemporary heroes, but the playing has a new snappiness, the angular, intersecting guitar parts sound fresh, and the melodies sink into memory quickly and effectively--all the more impressive considering that they're relatively complex and quirky.
The addition between albums of bassist John Przyborowski, who played with Number One Cup guitarist and vocalist Seth Cohen in a previous band, Eliot, has clearly bolstered the sound. Wrecked by Lions, produced by Brad Wood, also succeeds in part because it's the product of a tight working band: fresh from a European tour opening for English stars Reef, on which Cohen says Number One Cup met with "indifferent to mildly enthusiastic" audiences, the band will kick off its own U.S. tour in mid-April, with a local date to be announced this week.
Dave Trumfio, who produced Number One Cup's Possum Trot Plan (as well as records by indie standouts like Butterglory, Holiday, and Barbara Manning), makes up half of the Pulsars, another Chicago band heavily influenced by its record collection. Though they're not technically an independent band--last year they signed a multimillion-dollar deal with Herb Alpert's Geffen-affiliated label, Almo--the Pulsars retain some of the misfit appeal and engage in the intellectual pillaging that characterize much indie rock. In fact, on their full-length debut, Pulsars, Dave and his brother Harry come off as so obsessed with cataloging their musical precedents--mostly 80s mainstream new-wave bands--as to be dull.
Several other bands have revisited new wave of late, among them Weezer, Weezer side project the Rentals, and Imperial Teen. But the Pulsars approach the era with plodding reverence--and leave little to the imagination lyrically or musically. The album's filled with perfect bubblegum hooks, but both Dave's dispassionate vocals and the arrangements are disappointingly pedestrian. Grafted onto the standard rock equipage are archaic synth squiggles, electronic drums, and florid horn charts (Herb himself even toots a few on "Submission Song"). And while the Pulsars' nervous melodies recall Bill Goffrier's Big Dipper days, the instrumentation more frequently references New Order, the Cure, and, I dunno, Oingo Boingo. The band, which rocks somewhat more convincingly live, plays Lounge Ax on Saturday.
Spinanes singer, songwriter, and guitarist Rebecca Gates arrived in Chicago a couple weeks ago for an extended breather from the Portland scene. With the Spinanes' original other half, drummer Scott Plouf, firmly entrenched behind the kit for Built to Spill, Gates is in the process of putting together a new band, which she says may include some Chicagoans. Meanwhile, she's working days at a small public relations firm, writing new material, and preparing a track for a Half Japanese tribute album. She plans to stay at least through May.
During a recent Lounge Ax performance by Six Finger Satellite and Arcwelder, a tipsy Jon Spencer found himself on the wrong end of Gregg "George" Foreman's arm. Witnesses say some good-natured mutual ribbing turned violent when a gentle slap from Spencer startled the Delta 72 singer, who responded with a solid blow to the diminutive Spencer's face. The dueling front men were quickly separated, and by the evening's end apologies had been made.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Number One Cup photo by Brad Miller.